ROSSMANN LETTERS TO GERMANY IN 1866
BY JIM HANSEN
Knowing the Rossmann family, makes this story more interesting to me, but, if we think about it, most of our families had similar experiences. I grew up on a farm about a mile from Wilbert Rossmann. He and his wife, Claire, helped me to be accepted into the United States Army Security Agency, when they were interviewed by the FBI. Lawrence Rossmann was Vice-President of the Walnut Telephone Company and voted to hire me when I applied for the general manager position. Lawrence’s father, Henry Rossmann, one of the original Walnut Telephone Company board members, served more years than any other director. I also knew Rondo Rossmann as a friend. The family made a marked impression on my life.
In 1866, Christian, father of Henry, left Germany for America, as two of his brothers Peter and Heinrich and one sister had done. The whole family intended to emigrate, but due to the poor health of their mother, several members remained in the “Old Country”. About four weeks after leaving their family behind, Christian wrote the following letter:
“Davenport, May 15, 1866
Dear Father, Sisters, and Brothers: You have waited a long time for a description of the trip across the ocean. To put you to rest I take my pen in hand and write a description. First of all, I think of the last hours that we were all together before saying goodbye and embarking to this foreign land. But it made me feel good to come to America and see my brother Heinrich. And so I left with God’s help and was not afraid on this big trip.
Dear brother, after I took leave from you, I went to my quarters and they gave me a mattress and eating dishes. In the evening we received our ship tickets and tickets for the good and documents to claim our baggage. On the next morning, April 21, we started the trip by going to the embarkation point. There we had to show our baptismal certificates which was adequate for the Schleswig Holstein people. But the people from other lands also had to have a passport.
At 9 o’clock we left the city of Hamburg with music. Many people were standing on the banks to wave goodbye to their friends. At 10 o’clock we came to our ship, the “Borussia.” A smaller boat took us to it. At 10:30 we stepped onto the Borussia. We showed our tickets and were assigned our sleeping quarters. Dirck and Peter Bojens are in my cabin.
At 2 o’clock we got rice soup and at 6 o’clock we got tea and white bread. Then we slept until 5 a.m. At 6 a.m. we left harbor and at 9 a.m. we could no longer see land. At 11 a.m. we saw the island Helgoland and at 2 p.m. we had to show our tickets one more time.
On Sunday we danced. On Monday the sea sickness started, but the dancing was not forgotten. On the 24th the Borussia started to dance and everyone, including the dance master, was seasick.
On the 25th in the afternoon, a small boy was born next to our cabin. They are nice people but the lady was very ill before. The 25th was a fasting day. We were only served lentils. They were OK for us, but a very good meal for the Prussians.
On the 28th we could see a large iceberg in the distance and everyone was afraid. On the 30th there was a very dense fog. So, it was necessary to post two watchmen and every short period of time our steamer would give a loud signal.
On the first of May someone broke his leg. On May 2-4 we had large winds and waves. A large wave came over the deck but few saw it because they were all seasick. I was lucky, nothing was wrong with me. Dirck and Peter Bojens have been seasick for 3 days and on the 5th someone suffered a burn, but is now better. On the 6th we anchored in a harbor. In the same harbor there were two English ships where plague has broken out. One had 200 dead, the other 90 dead. We heard it had been anchored there for four weeks. Two physicians came on board and we were all examined. We came to a mid deck and the entire ship was fumigated. After an hour or so, we entered the harbor. It was good to see the hills and green landscape. In Fockbek you can’t imagine the views in America.
At 6 o’clock we came to Hoboken, just ahead of New York. In the evening we were in a great packing house and danced until 2 a.m. We always had enough music.
The other morning our baggage was delivered and it was inspected by customs. They did not find anything in ours. Afterwards, we were shipped to Cape Selgarten. [Ed. Note: This must be Castle Garden.] We all had to go there. In the middle there was a man who registered us individually. Each agent asked our name, and destination. We obtained a slip to change our money and went to another agent to pay for our trip. I paid $18.60. I wanted to leave this same evening but it was too late and hard to stay. It happened that an old lady died and she was immediately put into a coffin. That night I stayed in Cape Selgarten.
The other morning I had to pay $5 for the luggage to be shipped. But the baggage was shipped to the train station at no charge. At noon we went to a guesthouse and ate for 50¢. They were nice people. The man was from Holstein and the woman from Schleswigerin. At 8 o’clock we started on the train. We saw water and mountains. The next morning we came into Hudson.
We had some bad luck here because one of the locomotives jumped off the track. It was a real jolt and everyone woke up out of their sleep. Pretty soon another locomotive came and we continued our trip. At about 8 a.m. we arrived in Albany where we stayed until 2 p.m. We continued to Chippewa where we stopped for lunch which cost 50¢.
The next day we came to Detroit. From there we went by steamer to Chicago. Claus Sievers was left behind to catch another train. The next day we arrived in Chicago. Upon fetching our luggage we went to another train station. There were many people there who spoke German. They said we were too late to catch our train and that we would have to spend the night. We didn’t believe their story because they were swindlers. We took matters into our own hands and engaged a car for $2.50 to take us to another station.
There we inquired about the schedule and learned that in a short time a train would be leaving for Davenport. We paid $1.50 to ship our bags to Davenport. Our train left at 5:30 p.m. and I arrived at my hotel in Davenport at 8 a.m. the next morning.
Heinrich was at the hotel one week ago. He knows where the other three are. I went with Heinrich and his employer to Milan, Illinois which is one hour from Davenport. I stayed there at noon to eat and I met lots of people I knew. In the afternoon came a man from Tetenhusen, Carsten Rolfs. He earns $2.50 per day and must pay $3.50 for room and board each week. In the evening we all went to Davenport where we found Peter.
He expected us 14 days later but was glad that we made it safely. Heinrich and Peter are doing very well.
Heinrich Schmidt came with his farmer. Heinrich was living in Nebraska and thought we should move there. They receive $30-$35 per month.
Sunday evening we went to a dance that was much better than the ones in Fockbek. Monday morning we went to the train station to claim my luggage. When I returned to the hotel Heinrich was there. He didn’t recognize me but I recognized him right away. He and his wife had come to town to sell their butter. When Heinrich heard I was here he came to fetch me in his carriage.
Jacob Hoffling who arrived one week before me had found no work yet. He would like a job in a blacksmith shop. He went with us to Heinrich’s. Heinrich said his corn is growing well. He has a nice house, 2 barns, 6 pigs and they have two sows ready to farrow. He has 2 cows from which he receives 12 pounds of butter per week. He also has two horses, one 6 years and one 12.
It is good to see Heinrich. He wants me to rest from this long trip. After my rest he will try to get a job with an English speaking employer.
We live here far away from you with new hope and new strengths. We hope that we can have a reunion with our entire family. We all greet you. Best wishes to our relatives and friends back home from we three Americans. Please write soon.
Christian, Peter, and Heinrich Rossmann”
Again in August, another letter was written to their family.
“Davenport, August 27, 1866
Dear Family, You have probably already heard about our lucky trip. I wanted to write you some time ago but I had hoped to receive a return letter from you first. I received your letter on the 26th which I read with great pleasure. I am glad to hear that you are all well and happy and that our father has recovered from his illness. We wish you good health from now on. I am sure that you are anxious to hear from us what it is like in this foreign land.
I have grabbed my pen so that I can report to you. First of all, thank God we are all safe and healthy and able to get along in this climate. Some days are very, very hot. And one hears that in some years it gets so hot that people are unable to work, get sunstroke and fall over and die. The heat abates and changes a lot when we have westerly winds. It is usually cold air when it comes. There must be some icebergs around.
Adolf thought that I should write if Heinrich got a job with a carpenter. But I did write when he was with Johan Engling from Niedenhofer. I am with his father-in-law whom I have known for 6 months.
We obtain washing and repair of our clothes as part of our salary. First of all we had hoped to obtain an English employer in order to hear the language. Heinrich Vohs knew of no such positions but it so happened that we came close together when we gained employment by Germans who we like very much. We both have good positions. The eating and drinking is good! As it was not in Germany. Each morning we get cakes, fine white bread with cheese. At 9 a.m. there is another breakfast with bread. At noon there is a very nice noon meal and in the afternoon they bring us coffee and bread again. In the evening there is pork, roast, bread, milk, bacon, and meat. The eating and drinking is very good. We could not wish it any better. Zweibak and cakes we can bake ourselves; there are hearths which we can use for baking. On Sunday we get fine cakes and coffee. It seems that one is more important here than in Germany. It doesn’t matter if one is a visitor or not. You are always invited first to the table and addressed in a friendly way.
There is a question of whether Heinrich will return to his carpenter. He says it is much easier than his present job. During the summer he gets a good salary. I spoke recently with Brandt from Nubbel and he told me that for $2 he must give $4 for subsistence (food and living) to the Inn. Heinrick Peter from Budelsdorf told me that he had 8 days without work. As far as the farming is concerned it is like in our place. There is plowed land and grass land. Since the land is somewhat hilly, they farm small grain.
Corn, wheat, potatoes, and onions are all grown. The corn and potatoes are planted in straight lines. It doesn’t get moldy because it gets plowed up.
The other corn is all harvested by machine. Nearly every farmer has one. There are 6 people who bind the corn. But everyone obtains his own bindings. One stands on the machine and cuts the grain. The binding is a little fastener that we have. The best binders always have a little time to rest before the machine comes back. The salary for the harvesting was $3-$4 per day. Last year it was $5.00. Many people who plant onions and potatoes also try to make money by harvesting this way. Otherwise people from the city come to work. It rained a lot during the harvest. Let me tell you it was not very easy to do. Everything is done in a big way. Thrashing is done by machine. The son of my farmer has one. The pay for thrashing is by the bushel. Each grain has a different cost and it is possible to make $20-$30 per day. However, we must lead four horses and the farmer must also furnish four horses.
The hay is mostly burned here by the American farmers. The Germans keep it for fertilizer. As soon as the land has been harvested it is plowed and readied for the next year. It is good land. In most places the good soil is 2-3 feet deep before one gets down to the lime. Weeds grow here in certain places more than Germany. The reason is that they have used the land for 20 years without fertilizer; always using it for grain. The remaining land is used to graze cattle. There are no walls between fields, only board fences. Each farmer lives on his own land but his money bags are always empty because the work is expensive.
Last Sunday we went to a theater in Davenport. It lasted from 8 p.m. to Midnight including 2 hours of dancing. The whole thing cost $.35. Davenport is practically like a German city. We are only about 2 hours from there. Recently there have been several balls which we did not attend. Next Sunday we want to go to Rochinlane (probably Rock Island) with Max Dierks and his brother-in-law. This place is across the Mississippi which is as wide as the Eider.
What does Hans Jurgen do? Has he written? Furthermore, I have taken care of the letters from von Bock. It was necessary through H. V. to visit them and we will go there very soon. I give you greetings from Schneider from Erfde to his in-laws who I happened to meet at the place where I work. I should write him soon. Also, Adolf you should know him. Otherwise you can send a greeting with C. Schmidt. But, he told me that everything is going quite well.
Today I went hunting with my farmer and we shot a few pheasants which are as large as a tame hen. Otherwise there is not much wild game. The rabbits are only half the size of those in Germany. There are larks, nightingales and other singing birds, but they are not around very much. Horses and cows are just like home. There are many, many donkeys.
I could write to you in more detail but the time is short because I have to leave and go drink beer. The farmers give away a keg of beer by the 1/4 liter which the farmer’s wife prepares. We are in a happy, cozy place. There are nice gardens with attractive houses. Sometimes in the evening we sing songs.
Dear brother, I read in your letter that you have a lawsuit with a man named Risch. I think it is a bad thing.
As for the politics and the leadership it is rather unusual. Here in America everything is quiet. The soldiers have many privileges. There are many in Davenport and they can’t wait to get rid of their money. There are many young boys with them. But why was there war? Perhaps one reads in the newspapers that they were mistreated, more now than before. Here in America people are not afraid of the Presidents. And, here anyone can become anything because our President was a tailor by profession. And, the one prior to him was a dealer in wood. [Ed. Note: Andrew Johnson had been a tailor apprentice at age 14. Abraham Lincoln was nicknamed “The Rail-splitter.”]
As far as H. Vos is concerned, he is quite well and happy. He is now with the onions which are not quite as expensive as last year. They are 20¢ but were 50¢-60¢. He will make a lot of money.
Chris wants some clothing sent to him. Linen shirts are not used here. Flannel shirts and blue undershirts are worn with longer trousers and boots.
I hope my letter finds you in good health. Greetings to all from we three Americans.
Goodbye, don’t forget to write.”
[The letters were translated from Low German to High German to English.]