The middle of the 19th century was a time of political unrest in Europe, and many thousands of young people and entire families left to seek better futures in the land of opportunity, the United States. A flood of immigrants, especially Germans and Irish, settled in the greater Cincinnati area during this time.
The Prussians overran Germany and forced every unmarried young man between the ages of 21 and 25 to serve in the Prussian army as it swept into France and continued its goal of conquering all of Europe. When Josef Vater turned 21, he had just dislocated his shoulder and been given a three-month deferment. He took advantage of this postponement to book passage on the freighter Wieland from the port of Bremen, Germany. The ship's register listed him as 26 instead of 21; we can only surmise he lied about his age to avoid being questioned about leaving the country while of draft age. His profession was listed as wagon maker and his destination was Ohio.
He traveled by train from New York Harbor to Cincinnati and arrived with just $5 in his pocket. As was the custom at that time, large landowners met the trains and offered jobs to the immigrants. Josef went home with one and worked for him for several years as he saved money and learned to speak English.
Four years after arriving, he sent word back to his family in Berlin that he would pay for the transportation of any brother or sister who wanted to join him in America. His sister Margaret, who was only 17, accepted the offer and came here to live.
During the Prussian oppression of Germany, Ireland was in the depths of its deepest famine and depression. The history books refer to it as "the potato famine of the 1840s and '50s." There had been severe drought for many years and crops, especially potatoes – their main food and export crop – had failed. Thousands of young people left the country in search of a better life in America:
Julia Corbett was one of them. She and her three sisters, all in their late teens and early 20s, came to the states together. They, too, lived with and worked for people here while saving their money and learning the ways of their new homeland. Language was not a problem, since they already spoke English.
Julia and Josef worked for the same family. They eventually married and bought a farm of their own in northern Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati. They had 10 children and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary three years before Julia died in 1917. The road running past their farm is still known as Vater Road.
In this mechanized world, where remote controls simplify life, we often lose sight of the struggles and hardships our ancestors endured to settle in this land of promise.
Elizabeth Vater Florence
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.