Monday, May 29, 2017

Sail Away from Le Havre

At the Port of Le Havre


















Our ancestors' trip to America. I imagined it many times and read good articles to help get a picture of what these very brave people had to deal with as they left their homes, made their way to the Port of Le Havre, and sailed away.  I often tried to imagine what they were thinking as the ship left the harbor with the ocean in front of them.

To help me along my sister translated an 1844 article about leaving the Port of Le Havre on a trip to Caen in 1844.  The author, J. Morlent, was not traveling very far.  Once the boat left harbor, he would be sailing along the coast of France. The length of the journey makes no difference.  The experience of our ancestors would have been just as Morlent described it.  What he described was each thrilling movement of the ship as it left the harbor.

The captain did not just put the ship into reverse, swing around and sail away.  Pulling away from the place where the ship was moored was complicated and could be dangerous.  Obviously I am a landlubber and clueless about the very beginning of a sea journey; most likely so were many of the 1844 passengers.  Therefore I give you the rather flowery words of Monsieur Morlent and, in boldface, my less flowery interpretation of what he is describing.


Monsieur Morlent: "A few minutes ago, it lay stranded lifelessly on its bed of mud, our lovely steamer, awaiting the tide that would softly lift its graceful bow, and the tide come to reclaim it where it had left it and deliver it to its frolic without danger.  See the meekness with which it acquiesces to the movement that the tide dictates, as it awakes and takes life, as life returns to it; a slight shifting of balance, already it no longer clings to the ground : one could say that it is in a hurry to distance itself from the damp walls that mask its flanks and hide its slender shape and its stylish carriage."   
Interpretation: When the tide is right for departure, the ship is already moving slightly on the waves - the first time people who had always  lived on land became aware of the need to develop sea legs.  It is coming out of the walled dock that has held it steady up to now.)

Monsieur Morlent"Already the three strokes of the bell have sounded. The steam escapes with a sharp whistle from the long, metal tube that surrounds it and, noisily, the steam spreads in a white-ish cloud and redescends in a pinkish color on the forward and back parts of the boat, according to the direction of the wind which should shorten or lengthen our water excursion. The dockside is filled with a triple row of the curious who come to cheer our departure: there, is said a last goodbye; there, the hands of friends grip each other … but the speedy propulsion blades of Le Calvados are in motion. They have moved our sailing ship and the words “good trip,” “write to me,” intersect and lose themselves in the air in the middle of the commotion. Already the absence has begun. Words are powerless to make understood the last declarations of friendship, of affection or of politeness. It is the gesture that replaces the word while, quickly disappearing, the merciless engine takes the ship which turns and swims in the foam, leaving behind on the waters its plumes of mist."
Interpretation: The many people on the shore shout their farewells and good wishes, which at first can reach all ears on the ship but which become more faint until the sound is gone.)

Monsieur MorlentThe steamer moves proudly in front of a flotilla of little unmoored boats, vigilant sentinels of the waterway, who never fail at their assignment; it is in these small boats, of such miserable appearance, that our intrepid pilots hurry to rush into the middle of tempests, to take it can be said, by the hand, the big ship in peril, and to guide it to harbor, across the dangers that bristle at the entrance; how many pay with their life for this generous recklessness.  At the foot of these walls, beaten by the surf, lies a bank of pebbles called the southern shingle-bank. It is a deadly danger to ships who miss the entry to the harbor and then are broken by the tempest in several hours and scattered on this beach, famous, each year, for more than one shipwreck. It is the despair of the sailor who, escaping the dangers of a long sea voyage, is cruelly run aground only several feet from the object of his efforts.
Interpretation: Leaving the safe harbor, the ship encounters the sailors who mann the small, battered boats at the risk of the dangerous waves, trying to prevent the impressive large sailing ship from running aground and breaking into pieces because the ship's pilot misjudged the entry to the harbor.

We skirt the northern pier, the favorite strolling area of foreigners, maintained with a care that resembles flirtation, and visited every day by a large portion of the population of Le Havre, of which it is the meeting place at the time of high tide. A belt of granite surrounds it, a small beacon ends it, and its straight platform often has difficulty containing the crowd that jostles together to participate in the impressive spectacle of the entrance or the exit of ships, whether the sky is clear and the breeze light or whether the wind blows violently and the gray and tempestuous waves darken the strange panorama.
Interpretation: Every day, especially at high tide, crowds of people who are from both Le Havre or foreign places stroll in a special area and watch with fascination as arriving or departing ships move toward or away from the granite wall of the harbor regardless of the weather.  The strolling area is protected by a "belt" of granite with a beacon at its end.

Monsieur Morlent: "But this lovely and strong belt of granite is often powerless to protect it from the shock of ships that are abruptly pushed by the swell. One of the first days of February, last year, the American ship The Emperor, upon entering into the harbor, hit it so violently that it overturned three foundation sections of the wall cap and shook the others at a height of over eighteen feet. The stem of the ship was almost crushed. When one has seen the piers of Le Havre, built in blocks of the granite of Cherbourg, linked together by iron bolts and encased in cement, which has the hardness of rock, one is struck with amazement that the motion of the sea can succeed in overturning these constructions that appear to be resistant over centuries."
Interpretation: Granite walls as high as 18 feet are no match for the power of the water that smashes into the Le Havre harbor.

Monsieur MorlentWe have passed the pier and already the city escapes us. On a long line, that appears winding from the south to the north, are displayed in the foreground the floating warships that protect the shoreline, the ovens that forge cannon balls, a gunpowder factory, and the shipbuilding yards, above which are displayed the frames of these beautiful ships of commerce.
Interpretation: Morlent paints an excellent word picture of harbor as a ship moves away and passengers can see the last views of the city of Le Havre.  For some, that view can be their last look at the European continent.

What courage our ancestors had. I wonder how many of them, looking at the scenes Morlent describes above, wondered if they had been a little mad when they signed the contract that took them away from solid, steady earth and positioned their feet on these precarious, unmanageable waves.


Sources:

Illustration from L'histoire des Antilles et de l'Afrique

Seconde édition.- Le Havre : J. Morlent, 1844. 76 pages. 2 f. de pl. ; 16 cm. (Translation to English by Marilyn Gosz, 2012) http://www.californieenfrancais.blogspot.com/p/marithe-comme-cest-terrible-pour-tous.html)

Monday, April 03, 2017

Does Anyone Have a Map?

https://timeslipsblog.com/













I used to think that people were exaggerating when they talked about having an epiphany.  But I think I had one a couple of weeks ago, and it had to do with my some 30 years of pursuing my own genealogical history with a blindness to one of the most important things any ancestor hunter should include in the story of their ancestors.  But first let me tell you a little about the inspiration for my novel, HOUSE OF JOHANN and how it fits into my "epiphany."

Years ago when I was in my early 20s, my grandmother told the story of her own grandmother, Magdalena Rauls, who was said to have been French, to have run away with a young man, a sailor from Germany instead of marrying the man her father had chosen for her.  I was fascinated.  I thought that young Magdalena had crossed the border from France into Germany, probably experiencing many hardships on the difficult journey, in order to join her true love, the sailor.

After a few years of genealogical searching and locating many ancestors on both sides of the family, I discovered that Magdalena was as German as her true love, a young farmer.    I was disappointed with the false family story Grandma told. But eventually I realized that I had somewhat misinterpreted Grandma's words.  She didn't say that young Magdalena had run away from France; she merely said she was French.  It was probable that sometime in the 17th or 18th century one of her ancestors and his family did come from the French area close to the German border and settled in the area around Saarburg in the Germanic part of the Rhineland.  Oberzerf is quite close to the French border.  The Rauls probably became well known for having French roots.  (
I also figured out the "sailor" part, once more it was my romantic misinterpretation).  The story once again had the power to fascinate me.  

Since I had alway wanted to write a historical novel, I started to think about chosing this branch of my family tree with daring Magdalena and her father and siblings as the main characters. The HOUSE OF JOHANN, published in January of this year, was the result of what I had originally regarded as a false family story. 

While I was working on my novel, I was asked to give a talk to the German Interest Group in Janesville Wisconsin about my research so 
I told them the story of my French/France mistake as a warning to be aware of the geography of your ancestors' homeland.  I called the talk “The View from My Ancestors’ Windows.”  My point: that stories of our ancestors’ lives, whether biography or fiction, should focus on the culture of the time and the place, including what any of the listeners might see or hear if given the chance to gaze out of an open window in an ancestor's house.  

I answered questions after my talk.  One of those surprised me; I had not really thought about it before, but I certainly should have. Someone asked where the farmhouse and village that belonged to my Rauls ancestors was located in relationship to more well-known places or states in today's Germany.  A lot of those German ancestor hunters only knew the area of their own ancestors and didn't know where the Rhineland was.  It was an oversight on my part not to explain the full geography of the area of my ancestors while I was giving my talk. I should have realized, that even though Germany is only about the size of Montana, very few people in the USA, even those who study their German ancestry, are familiar with the total map of Germanic kingdoms, empires, states administered by a Prince Archbishops of the Catholic Church, free cities, etc.  I include myself in this lack of knowledge. 
 I know the location and history of my ancestral villages in the southern half of today's Rhineland Pfalz next to the French border, and of other ancestors who came from eastern Bavaria almost on the border with today's Czech Republic.  I can picture their location without having to refer to the map of Germany. However, without a map before me, I would have to guess at the location of most of the other states.  

If this is the case for searchers specifically studying their German roots, imagine the confusion of the average non-genealogist without any interest in their ancestors. Yet I forgot all about location again in January when HOUSE OF JOHANN was published.  The epiphany hit me when a fellow genealogist noted my lack of a specific description or map of the geographic location of the villages where Magdalena Rauls, her parents, and her brothers and sisters lived in the 1830s and 1840s.  Very carefully, I had described superstitions that hung over a new mother who, for a week or two (depending on local belief), could poison a loaf of bread if she cut it, or draw bugs to the water she drew from the well. But never did I mentioned that the little villages of Oberzerf and Irsch were not too far from both the French and Luxembourg borders and shared many of the same customs.  How could I have forgotten to tell the readers something so basic?  I'll never forget the real estate credo again.  It's location, location, location!


Why does location make so much difference? Because so many
people and a lot of travel brochures photograph scenes in Germany with white buildings, red tile roofs, and colorful window boxes filled with flowers.  Local people usually wear traditional Lederhosen or Dirndls to serve huge mugs of beer. There are mountains in the distance, a bit of snow at their peaks. These are charming pictures but they mostly relate to the area of Bavaria around Munich or the villages and countryside of Austria which borders Bavaria. 

As I have said, my 2nd great-grandmother Magdalena lived in what is today the German State of Rheinland Pfalz at the western edge of Germany, very close to Luxembourg and France. In 1827 when she was born, she was considered a Prussian citizen, just like a child born on the same day and year in the city of Berlin, far to the northeast. And in 1783 when her father was born, he was a subject of the Prince Archbishop of Trier but soon to become a French citizen and live under Napoleon's rule for almost 20 years.  It would be hard to see any real difference among the population in his German village from their French or Luxembourg neighbors. Their dress was similar, the shape of their combined house and barn buildings were alike  The houses of the well-to-do citizens in the larger city of Trier nearby had the look of the houses of upper middle classes of France at the time of Napoleon and after.  The picture of this part of Germany would show people drinking wine from wine glasses as they sit admiring the vines loaded with bunches of grapes on the hills along rivers like the Rhine, the Saar, and the Mosel (Moselle when it crosses the border into France).

What picture should come to my mind with the German state of Sachsen?  Well, I will have to look that up, but if your ancestors come from this northern German state, you probably know. But if you write a family history about one or more ancestors for Sachsen, don't forget to tell your readers just where in today's Germany that place is located and help create as clear a picture in their minds with your description as the one you always carry around yourself.  A word map can often be just as meaningful as the cartographic kind.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Blog That Grew a Book


THE BOOK

What would it be like to spend typical days, from morning to night, with German ancestors who lived in the mid 1800s?  How did they think and act, these people from whom we descended, and what would it be like to listen in on their conversations and even their thoughts and dreams long before they came to America?  

That's what I wondered almost from the first moment I found genealogical and cultural history sources in Germany.  Writing House of Johann brought my ancestors and their neighbors alive for me, and I hope for everyone who reads their story. 


MY BLOG

When I began to write these blog posts, it was with the intention of organizing my research on the life lived by German families in the 1800s and write the House of Johann. There were two good reasons to take the extra step of creating a blog:

1) To make it easier to find the details that often got lost in my rather poor filing system as I started the novel about the life of my peasant farmer ancestors who lived in the villages of Oberzerf and Irsch in Kreis Saarburg in the Rhineland.

2) To share my knowledge of Kreis Saarburg farming culture and about the historical period peasant farmers lived in. I knew how much trouble and how many years it had taken me to learn German and then collect difficult-to-find information. Others might not be able to find this information, especially those things written in German (most of them), nor would they have the opportunity to make several European trips. I didn't want what I had worked hard to find to be lost to anyone with a desire to learn the same thing.

I had begun my research with the idea of looking for novels, memoirs, or biographies in English.  When I came up blank, I resigned myself to the idea of finding literature written in German, even though the amount of German I was learning was pretty limited. Surprise! Searching in bookstores in Germany turned up very little. It was not the language. Peasant farmers or craftsmen just weren't important enough to be written about,  Although Germany lost thousands of these people to immigration from ports like Le Havre in France in the 1800s and although one in four people in the U.S. have some German blood, no one ever thought them important enough to write about. They themselves were working for a better life.  There was no time to both bring in the flax crop and then write a memoir before bedtime.

It was the locally published village histories that had the kind of facts I was looking for.  And it was the people in those villages who had bought a copy who were willing to loan them to me or knew where I could buy them.  Eventually I had a faily good pile of books and a description of the Rhineland culture and customs of the 1800s.

After 11 years of research, much of which I have shared on this blog, I have just published my novel, HOUSE OF JOHANN on January 16 of this year.   The picture above is a copy of the book cover as it appears on Amazon.   Here is a short description from the back cover:


 SYNOPSIS

The year is 1827. Johann Rauls, a land-owning farmer lives with his family in the small village of Oberzerf in Germany’s Rhineland. Johann and his wife Maria are preparing for their best Christmas in several years. Even in an age of frequent childhood deaths, all of their six children are healthy, happy, and awaiting an exciting Christmas season which will be followed in three or four weeks by the birth of a new brother or sister. There is much to look forward to and be grateful for.

No one is prepared for a threatening event on the eve of Christmas. It pushes away all thoughts of the holiday celebration, and serves as a precursor to another tragedy that will bring a long period of grief and regret to all of their lives. This carefully researched historical novel of an actual Rhineland family imparts both their times of happiness and pain as almost 20 years pass. It also paints a picture of the class to which they belong, the peasant farmers who carried much of the weight of supporting their homeland on their shoulders, but whose absorbing life stories with their importance to history are almost never told.


If you have enjoyed my blog posts, I think you will enjoy the story of the early years of the Johann Rauls family in the novel "HOUSE OF JOHANN." If you choose to read this book, it may help you understand just how human and interesting the people on your own family group sheets probably are and how much uncertainty and struggle was contained in their everyday lives.

SOURCES:  For any readers whose ancestors came from the area near France, Luxembourg, or Germany near the Saar and Mosel (Moselle in France) and are interested in some of the locally published resources I used, this is the list.  Some may be out of print but still available at local tourist offices in the larger cities or in the possession of the mayor in the villages.  However, they will be in German:

*Croon, Maria.  DIE DORFSTRASSE; EINE BUNTE HEIMATCHRONIK, 2 vols., .Saarbrücker Druckerei und Verlag, 1990.
*SAARBURG; GESCHICHTE EINER STADT,  Stadt Saarburg, 5510 Saarburg, 1991.
*Mayer, Ewald.  IRSCH/SAAR; Geschichte eines Dorfes, Gemeinde Irsch, 2002
*Hammächer, Claus et al.  SERRIG; LANDSCHAFT GESCHICHTE UND GESCHICHTEN, Gemeinde Serrig und der Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Landesgeschichte und Volkskunde des Trierer Raumes, 2002

Many of the peasant farmers of the villages of Oberzerf and Irsch in Kreis Saarburg emigrated through the Port of Le Havre in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, including two of my ancestors.  They settled in  the village of St. John, Calumet County Wisconsin.