Monday, November 11, 2013

(ROBERTS) Coming to America

In the 1840s, about 100,000 German emigrants arrived in America each year. In 1848, “when it seemed that Germany might be at last a place worth living in,” that number was cut in half. But hopes were dashed, and emigration swelled. Throughout the 1850s, more than 250,000 Germans arrived annually on US shores.1 “By 1900, almost one third of people born in Mecklenburg lived outside of the state.”2 “These emigrants were the best of their race – the adventurous, the independent, the men who might have made Germany a free and civilized county. They brought to the United States a contribution on inestimable value, but they were lost to Germany.”3

Among the waves of immigrants came several of my ancestors, including Johann Friederich Heinrich Gronow, his wife, Johannah Maria (Fischer) Gronow, and some of their children. But why emigrate?

Lübz is situated on the river Elde.

Johann was born in Lübz, Mecklenberg-Schwerin, Germany. Lübz is a beautiful little town along the river Elde, about 60 miles south of the Baltic Sea and 100 miles northwest of Berlin. Like most of historic Germany, however, the area was riddled with problems.

Johann Gronow was christened at this Lutheran Church in Lübz. 

Johann was born April 13, 1810. This was the age of Napoleon.

“From 1806 to 1813, the country suffered great hardship and destruction during the period which came to be known to all Mecklenburgers as the "Franzosentid" (period of French occupation). Robbery and pillage became commonplace.”4 “French troops took horses, food, and whatever other supplies they needed without any compensation to the people. Throughout the next few years, peasants were periodically forced to take in troops and provide for them. The French government levied heavy taxes on the people to support the continual warfare and drafted young men into the French army. Prices on common goods increased enormously. Although Napoleon did bring some progressive changes with him, in the end, the main effect was repression and suffering.”5

Mecklenburg-Schwerin had been “forced to join”6 the Confederation of the Rhine, which was a military alliance “for mutual defense and [to] supply France with large numbers of military personnel.”7 After Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, a campaign from which fewer than 5% of Mecklenburg’s soldiers returned,8 Mecklenburg-Schwerin was the first member-state to renounce the alliance with Napoleon, and in the War of German Liberation (1813-1815) fought against Napoleon9 until his final defeat in 1815.10

After a decade of war, peace must have been a welcome change. Unfortunately, peace also brought an economic depression.

In 1815, the duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin joined the German Confederation and became a grand duchy. (A grand duke ranks one step under a king.) It was about the size of the US state of Connecticut.11 “All power was placed in the hands of the Duke, nobles, and upper classes. The lower classes had no voice. Land was held under a Feudal system.”12 Absolute rule continued until well into the 20th century.

Inherited Serfdom was the Mecklenburg way of life. Peasants were dependent on the nobles. Peasants and their property could be bought and sold and they could not acquire additional land. Taxes were typically increased every few years. The police force and the church were controlled by the nobility. “The servant of a noble landowner was not even permitted to marry unless his master gave him permission.”13 “Practices such as having to ask for permission from the Grand Duke to get married, or having to apply for permission to emigrate,” continued until after World War I.14 Serfdom was technically abolished around 1820, but in fact continued for at least two dozen years. “Mecklenburg was known for being perhaps the most backwards of the German states.”15

The Gronows lived on this street, Plauer Strasse.
Johann apparently did not work the land. He lived in the small town of Lübz, which had a population of less than 2,000,16 and was either a stonemason or a ropemaker. His life was of course affected by the social rigidity of Mecklenburg. At some point, he met Johannah Fischer; her father was from Güstrow, about 25 miles north of Lübz. Presumably, they had to seek permission to marry and were forced to wait on a noble’s timeframe, as restrictions on marriages were not removed until 1867.17 Like most Germans of the time, they had a loving, monogamous relationship for quite some time before they wed. When they married at the church in Lübz on November 16, 1836, they were already the parents of two boys, ages 3 years and 5 weeks.

Johann and Johannah married in the Lutheran Church at Lübz,
pictured here in 2008 (with me!)
Johan and Johannah's marriage record. "Gronow" and "Fischer" are underlined.
From microfilm #0069316, page 384, at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This house, on Plauer Strasse, was inhabited in 2008 by K.
Gronow. Johann and Johannah might have lived here.
After their marriage, Johann and Johannah lived together in Lübz from 1836-1849. During that time, they had 6 more children. Sadly, two of those children, aged almost-5 and almost-2, died in September 1842.

The political situation in Mecklenburg-Schwerin remained mostly the same until 1848. In February, Parisians revolted and the king abdicated. The revolutionary fervor swept across Europe, including the “March Revolution” in Germany. The demands of the people included “arming of the people, freedom of the press, trial by jury and creation of a German parliament.”18 The people wanted a unified Germany. Initially, rulers were fearful of being overthrown and gave in to some of the demands. A National Assembly convened and spent the summer drafting “Basic Rights for the German People,” which were declared in December 1848 and included equal legal rights for all citizens.19 In April 1849, the Assembly offered all of Germany to the king of Prussia. He, however, “would not ‘pick up a Crown from the gutter,’” and refused.20 “Thus, all the deliberation of the Frankfurt Assembly resulted in nothing. Germany remained fragmented after 1848, and the small rulers of the various small German states came back to power.”21 With no leader for a unified Germany, the movement failed. The Assembly disbanded and “the revolution of 1848/49 was over. The achievements of March 1848 were repealed in all states.”22 The aristocrats who had been so willing to make concessions a year before now swept them away; the “Basic Rights” were abolished, and life in Germany became even more repressive.

Against this backdrop, in 1849, Johann and Johannah Gronow left for America. They settled in Frankfort, Illinois, where they had four more children. Here, John and Hannah enjoyed the rights and freedoms denied to them in Mecklenburg.

Line of descent from Johann, who was the great-grandfather of John Curtis Roberts. 

Johann Friederich Heinrich GRONOW (1810 - 1897)
is your 3rd great grandfather
son of Johann Friederich Heinrich GRONOW
daughter of Henry Carl Gronow
son of Aurelia Charlotte Gronow

1 - The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of German History Since 1815, by Alan John Percivale Taylor, p. 94.
3 - The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of German History Since 1815, by Alan John Percivale Taylor, p. 94. He is British, by the way. I am not sure that a German historian would agree that all the best Germans left. J
4 - “Mecklenburg Since the Middle Ages,” by Carol Gohsman Bowen
6 - “Mecklenburg Since the Middle Ages,” by Carol Gohsman Bowen
8 -  “Mecklenburg Since the Middle Ages,” by Carol Gohsman Bowen
11-13 - “Mecklenburg Since the Middle Ages,” by Carol Gohsman Bowen
20 - The Course of German History: A Survey of the Development of German History Since 1815, by Alan John Percivale Taylor, p. 93