Within the diaries of both Martin Weitz and The Stille/Krulle Family, we see firsthand accounts of the kinds of hardships faced by German immigrants coming to America in the early to mid-1800s. From dysentery and smallpox to factory shutdowns and deaths, it is certainly true that tragedies abounded in these early years. That being said, I am glad to admit that this is not the full story of these travelers. Sad as these events may be, they are but mere footnotes in the otherwise uplifting tales of these German immigrants fighting their way toward earned citizenship. Through hard work and some admittedly very powerful ethnic enclaves, we watch as these migrants overcome glaring language barriers and employment shortages to gain a genuine foothold in Antebellum America.
The first and most impactful of these stories has to be the one told from the perspective of Martin Weitz. Deciding to leave his homeland of Schotten and move to America, Weitz hopes to earn enough money to send food and clothes to his family back home. Upon first arriving in America, however, Weitz is shocked to see just how different the country was from what he had been lead to expect. Recounting his first few days in New York City, he describes it as an unbelievably cutthroat place, one where grifters and immigrants alike look to swindle “green-looking” migrants like himself at every turn. Money is tight in these days, and America is exceedingly expensive. As we see throughout these first journal entries, work was incredibly sparse during this time. Deciding to take up odd jobs as a factory worker and wood-chopper, Weitz finally finds financial security in the form of a loom-working job in Cincinnati.
As we see throughout these entries, however, even when times are good, Weitz feels incredibly guilty about leaving his family behind. This sentiment can be poignantly seen through his repeated writings of ‘I have not forsaken you’ in his letters back home. On top of this, we also see as Weitz struggle with his desire to travel and his desire to develop economic security through marriage, eventually choosing the latter in the form of a girl named Phillipina. Lastly, and most surprisingly, throughout these entries we see Weitz opine on the ongoing conflicts between slave-owners and abolitionists leading up to the Civil War. While generally quite ambivalent about American culture/politics, Weitz does make note that he and many of his community members feel very strongly about the institution of slavery, vehemently opposing it.
In the next story, we follow the Stille and Krulle family as they chronicle their story of chain migration across America. Deciding to leave their home province of Westphalia due to economic troubles, members of these families seek to re-establish themselves overseas. While most were eventually successful in this endeavor, (Wilhelm and Wilhelmina Krumme were able to find jobs as tavern workers, and Wilhelm Stille as a miller and merchant), others were much less so. Quickly after arriving in America, nephew Rudolph contracts dysentery and eventually succumbs to the disease. Wilhelmina herself also dies several years later, leaving Wilhelm Krumme to marry another woman. It is not all sad, however, as Wilhelm Stille soon meets a Swiss woman of his own and begins a family with her. They, along with the rest of the surviving family, end up thriving in the following years, due in large part to the strong (German) community ties that exist within this part of the West.
Another interesting dynamic present throughout these letters is the fact that many in the family writing them change their minds repeatedly over whether or not America is a good place to be. While in the beginning, these letters are almost all positive, claiming America to be a propitious place, one where all sorts of family members could find work, as the years go on, this feeling changes. Part of this change has to do with the admittedly high charge placed on family travel to America during this time, as well as the increase in prices noted throughout the letters. For the family that does come, however (save for Rudy), they are almost all met with good fortune. Ernst Stille’s niece Friederike, for example, does very well for themselves in the new world.