Posts Tagged ‘immigrant experience’

Immigrant Children

September 16, 2015

Immigrating as an adult in the 19th century would have been challenging enough. Can you imagine what the trip might have been like for a young child?

Kathleen Ernst Collection

(Kathleen Ernst Collection)

Or for a parent needing to keep a toddler safe—or an infant relatively clean and comfortable—during the journey?

(Kathleen Ernst Collection)

(Kathleen Ernst Collection)

While collecting accounts for A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through The Seasons, my primary focus was the New World experience. I wasn’t able to use most of the travel accounts I found—but they’re part of the big picture.

The upheaval of leaving one’s home and everything familiar must have been enormous to a child.

Exhibit, Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum

Norwegian children preparing to immigrate.  (Exhibit, Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum)

Ingeborg Holdahl (Alvstad) was four when she left Valdres, Norway with her parents and five siblings. “My mother was not well and could not cope with all of us all the time,” she wrote later.  Their ship began leaking so badly that all on board might have drowned had not a Portuguese cattle ship come to their aid. “I was let down in a basket [to the life boat] all by myself. There had to be haste and no attempt was made to keep members of a family together.”

Once safe on the Portuguese ship, “What a hubbub on board. No one having any definite place to go. Parents hunting for their children and children trying to find their parents. …I remember being jostled around in a dense crowd of people almost smothering me…  Finally someone picked me up and set me on a long table where I sat, tired and not daring to move. It seemed an endless time of waiting until my father came and found me.”

By 1899, when these women and children from eastern Europe immigrated, they at least had a faster journey than those traveling decades earlier.

LC - [Group of emigrants (women and children) from eastern Europe on deck of the S.S. Amsterdam] Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952, photographer Created / Published [1899]

(Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress)

In big families, older children were expected to help tend younger ones. Given the perils inherent in the journey, those eight- and ten- and twelve-year-olds shouldered a lot of responsibility. This Polish mother of nine clearly relied on her oldest girls.

Polish Mother and 9 children. NPS - Ellis Island

(National Park Service, Ellis Island National Monument)

Three of these Dutch girls are holding younger siblings.

Dutch Familys - Version 2

(Interesting that the parents are dressed in current fashion, and the children in traditional attire.)

Still, children are resilient. Perhaps many of those old enough to keep themselves safe enjoyed the adventure.

(National Park Service, Ellis Island National Monument.)

And parents needed only to glance at their children to remember why they left everything familiar behind: to create a better life for future generations.

Why A Settler’s Year?

July 5, 2015

As the launch date for  A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through The Seasons approaches, I’ve been thinking about the journey I’ve taken with this book.  Why did I spend two years living with this project, and why was I confident that readers would care?

A Settler's Year

My interest in the topic goes back to 1981, when I first toured the fledgling historic site called Old World Wisconsin.

Schottler Farm, Old World Wisconsin, 1981

The Schottler Farm was raw in 1981—no gardens, no fences, no summer kitchen.

I was so captivated by the stories, the setting, and the museum’s mission that the following spring I packed up, moved to Wisconsin, and went to work as an interpreter in the museum’s German area.

KE-BraidOWW400w-enhanced - Version 2

That’s me in the Schottler doorway, 1982.

After two years on-site I moved behind the scenes, and was hired as curator of interpretation and collections. For the next decade I worked closely with Marty Perkins. You can read more about Marty here.

Kathleen Ernst & Marty Perkins

On one of my visits after I’d left the site, Marty told me he’d been working with a photographer named Loyd Heath, and showed me some of Loyd’s incredible photographs. “You’d love Loyd,” Marty told me. “He’s a great guy.”

LoydHeathAtOWW

Loyd in action.

The last time I saw Marty, he told me about a book proposal he was developing for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press about pioneer life in Wisconsin, featuring Loyd’s photographs. Marty was happy to be working on a topic so near to his heart, and delighted that the book would bring Loyd’s work to a bigger audience.

Marty died suddenly two weeks later.

Some months after that, my friend Kathy Borkowski, publisher at the WHSP, asked me if I’d like to pick up the project. “I couldn’t possibly,” I said. “Just think about it,” she said. We went through that routine several times over the next month or so.

Finally I sat down with Kathy and Kate, the senior editor. “I can’t write the book Marty would have written,” I said. “Nobody can do that.” They said they understood. I talked with Marty’s wife about it. She said she and the kids understood, too.

One of the many articles Marty wrote for the Old World Wisconsin Foundation's newsletter.

One of the many articles Marty wrote for the Old World Wisconsin Foundation’s newsletter. (April-May, 2006 issue)

Finally I realized how much I did want to pick up the project. It was something I could do in honor of my former friend and colleague.

Marty Perkins 2012

Marty doing what he loved: giving a tour at Old World Wisconsin.

In addition, there are few topics I feel as passionate about as the lives of early immigrants. I’ve spent the last three decades thinking about them, interpreting them, writing about them, creating museum events and television programs and poems and books about them. The immigrant experience is, at its essence, about people searching for a new home, in a new place. That journey has meaning for almost all of us—whether in our own lives, or in our ancestors’ lives.

LC - [Four immigrants and their belongings, on a dock, looking out over the water; view from behind] Created / Published c1912 Oct. 30.

Immigrants, c. 1912.  (Library of Congress)

And as frosting on the cake, I was delighted with the opportunity to work on such a visual book. Loyd takes gorgeous photographs, and the WHSP produces gorgeous books.

WHSP catalog

I’ll always wish I could have read the book that Marty would have written, but I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved. Reading the immigrants’ accounts, and pairing their stories with Loyd’s photographs, was a healing, rewarding, and often moving experience.

I hope that you, too, are moved as you experience A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through The Seasons.