Posts Tagged ‘A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through The Seasons’

Two Virtual Programs This Week

May 26, 2021

No matter where you live, you’re invited!

If you missed my launch party for The Weaver’s Revenge, you have a second chance to see the program. Books & Company in Oconomowoc, WI, is hosting an author visit on Thursday, May 27, at 7 PM Central. Participation is free but registration is required. You can register online here.

Then on Sunday, May 30, at 10 AM Central, something different! The Free Congregation of Sauk County, WI, is hosting my presentation about A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through the Seasons. This program is free and does not require preregistration. To learn how to tune in, click here.

I’d love to see you at either—or both!

The Ones Left Behind

September 23, 2015

Scott and I recently spent two weeks in Norway (lucky us!) and I thought a lot about the conditions that prompted so many people to leave in the 1800s.

I also thought a lot about the people who did not emigrate—from Norway and elsewhere. How wrenching it must have been for parents or grandparents to watch their loved ones leave home for a distant continent.

The Emigrants by S. V. Helander (1839–1901): a young farmer bids a sober farewell to friends and relatives. (Swedish)

In The Emigrants, a young farmer says farewell to friends and relatives.  (painting by Swedish artist S. V. Helander.)

We heard a story of several men who left a rural Norwegian village, bound for America. Several years later, one returned to recruit more settlers. About two hundred people chose to follow him—leaving eight residents behind.

The youngest son's farewell - 1867

The Youngest Son’s Farewell. (Painting by Norwegian artist Adolf Tideland, 1867.)

Eight people left from a village of over two hundred! I imagine that most were elderly, too frail to face the arduous journey. How quiet and empty the days must have seemed.

One of the letter collections I mined while working on A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through the Seasons involved an extended German family, the Frank-Kerlers. Siblings began immigrating in 1848, settling in  Wisconsin and Michigan with the expectation that their parents, John and Auguste, would follow.

The absent children (and their own growing families) were never far from the parents’ minds. Plans to follow their children were thwarted in 1851, and again in 1852. That year John wrote, “Today is the 5th of July, a sorrowful day for us as you began you fateful trip…”

The Emigrants' Farewell

Abschied Der Auswanderer/The Emigrants’ Farewell (painting by L. Bokelmann,1883)

In February of 1853 their mother, Auguste Frank, provided a clear picture of her ambivalent feelings about the journey when she wrote, “You have no idea how often I long for you, but then comes the fear of the big trip. But if our dear God and Father wills it, it will be done and I must submit.”

In October of that year Henry Frank wrote to his parents, “So this longed-for joy of having my old parents around me to the end of their days will finally be fulfilled!” Despite delays and setbacks, plans to reunite the family continued.

Then in 1854 Mathilde, the only child remaining in Germany, got engaged—ending not only her own plans to leave Germany, but her parents’ as well. John broke the news in a letter:  “My dear sons and daughters, the thought will hardly become words, the words do not want to enter the pen…and yet the hard—I believe it is harder for me than for you–words must be spoken.  We are not coming.”

Auguste echoed, “You realize we cannot keep our promise and come now, for we must use our savings to prepare a dowry for Mathilde, our last child.”

Auguste was likely not comforted when one of the American children responded, “You have given up the decision to come to us.  …I must cry, always cry, when I think of it.”

When Auguste died in 1861, one of her children wrote, “…My grief is boundless that she never saw any of her children in America again.”

(All excerpts from German-American Pioneers in Wisconsin and Michigan:  The Frank-Kerler Letters, 1849-1864, collected by Dr. Louis F. Frank, Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1971)

immigrants leaving Ireland

Immigrants leaving Ireland.  In the British Isles, as elsewhere in the 19th century, most of those left behind never saw their loved ones again.  (Artist unknown.)

For many on either side of the Atlantic, only correspondence and a strong religious faith provided comfort. An 1854 letter from three Wisconsin settlers to loved ones in Norway ends with these words: “Live well and if we are not fortunate enough to see one another more in this world may we all meet and go forward with gladness in the next.”  (Gunleik Asmundson Bondal Collection, State Historical Society of WI)


The Lonely Old People, (Adolph Tidemand,1849. Norsk Folkmuseum)


Immigrants And The Erie Canal

August 5, 2015

When thinking about the journey undertaken by 19th-century European immigrants, my mind instinctively conjures pictures of life aboard ships crossing the Atlantic. But when travelers bound for the Upper Midwest reached North America, their journey was far from over. Many traveled to Albany and boarded a boat headed west on the Erie Canal.

Erie Canal Packet Boats -- from: American Traveller, Boston, May 30, 1828

(1828 advertisement)

The canal, which was completed in 1825, linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie. Although originally intended to haul goods and freight, immigrants soon discovered that traveling west was faster and cheaper on the canal than by carriage.

Opening of the Erie Canal, in 1825  / [drawing by] A.R.W. ; [engraved by] Swinton So. -- From an unidentified history text, p. 167 ; approx. 1890?

(Drawing by A.R.W., c. 1890.)

Many Europeans, and Yankees leaving New England, boarded packet boats.

The Packet Boat -- from: Marco Paul's Travels on the Erie Canal / Jacob Abbott (Harper & Brothers, 1852) p. 44

(Marco Paul’s Travels on the Erie Canal, 1852.)

Deck space was limited, so passengers often passed time on the roof when the weather was fair. They had to duck, or even flatten themselves on the planks, when passing under low bridges.

Bridge [with packet boat] / by W. Roberts (from:  Marco Paul's voyages & travels, Erie Canal / by Jacob Abbott. -- Harper & Brothers (New York), c1852. -- p.71)

(Marco Paul’s Travels on the Erie Canal, 1852.)

Some accounts of travel on the Erie Canal are idyllic, with passengers noting pleasant scenery and conversation. Those with extra cash might pay the ship’s cook to prepare their meals. Some men chose to walk along the towpath between one stop and the next, which gave them time for some extra sight-seeing or shopping.

IMG_0055 - Version 2

(Sunday on the Canal, Paul Frenzeny, colorized version of woodcut printed in Harper’s Weekly, 1873; Erie Canal Museum)

But poor immigrants most likely found themselves on crowded boats, in conditions no better than the worst steerage on ocean vessels. Frederika Bremer, a Swedish travel writer, spoke to two young Norwegian immigrants who “complained of uncleanliness and the want of comfort in the canal-boats.”


(source unknown)

Poor immigrants ate cold food they brought on board, or cooked on deck. “Try to find a clean boat that is not too crowded,” Karl Brünhuber advised his brother. (Exhibit, Erie Canal Museum) As many as one hundred people might travel on a packet boat.

IMG_0025 - Version 2

Exhibit, Erie Canal Museum.

Immigrants hauling bulky tools of their trade or other large cargo chose work boats, which were slower but less expensive.

Lumber Boats on the Erie Canal -- from: Forest Preservation in the State of New York / by Cuyler Reynolds.  In: The New England Magazine (Boston : Warren F. Kellogg), New series, vol. XIX, no. 2, Oct. 1898

(“Forest Preservation in the State of New York,” by Cuyler Reynolds; The New England Magazine, Oct. 1898)

“America letters” advised prospective immigrants to plan carefully. “When these sharpers say that it is much cheaper to ride on the canal from Albany to Buffalo, they are perfectly right; but that the freight for goods on these canal boats is shamelessly high—of that they say not a word.” (“Letters and Diary of John Fr. Diederichs, 1848,” WI Magazine of History, March 1924.)

Grain-Boat on the Erie Canal -- from: America Illustrated / edited by J. David Williams. (Boston :  DeWolfe, Fisk & Co., c1883) -- p. 88

(America Illustrated,  c. 1883)

Passengers paid by the mile. When they reached the end of the line, those headed to Wisconsin and beyond paused once again to arrange passage on a steamship that would take them through Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and finally Lake Michigan and on to Green Bay, Milwaukee, Kenosha, or another port.


Many of the immigrants discussed in A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through The Seasons traveled on the Erie Canal.  You can learn more about this part of their journey at the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York.

Erie Canal Museum

In downtown Syracuse, a statue of a mule and his young tender gazes across Erie Boulevard to the Erie Canal Museum.

The museum preserves the only remaining weigh lock building in the US.


A weigh lock checked the freight load a boat carried. The captain was charged accordingly. (Erie Canal Museum)

Today visitors can step aboard a line boat (work boat) in what was once the lock.

IMG_0063 - Version 2

Erie Canal Museum

Notice how narrow the boats were. Passengers had to walk on the roof to get from bow to stern.

IMG_0040 - Version 2

Bunks like these were lowered after the evening meal. Curtains separated the women’s quarters from the men’s. Often the floor was packed with sleepers as well.


Travelers weren’t permitted in the crew quarters at the back of the ship.

And inside the formal museum, exhibits tell the story of the Erie Canal—how it was built, who built it, how it changed over the years.


Model Packet Boat.

You can also learn more at the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, and The Erie Canal website.

The Erie Canal was a commercial success, allowing merchants to get their goods to growing Euro-Yankee settlements west of the seaboard, and farmers to send their produce to market.

But perhaps even more dramatic was how the US population spread after the canal’s completion, when thousands of immigrants boarded canal boats, headed for their new homes.