Peter and Anna Maria Zehler

Their Journey to America

Peter and Anna Maria

Peter and Anna Maria Zehler

Peter and Anna Maria Zehler came to America in 1856, along with nine of their children.  Four older children had already emigrated to America; John left in 1847, Peter in 1852 and Anna and Michael in 1855.  Both John and Michael left Prussia to avoid obligatory military service at age 18.  From these facts and other information, it appears that Peter and Anna Maria had planned on leave in 1855, but were delayed until 1856.

In addition to avoiding military service, improved economic opportunities was another major reason for undertaking the long, hard journey to America:  At this time, the growing population of the German states and the lack of new farm land made it difficult to find viable farms for the families many sons.  America offered great promise of providing such opportunities. Finally, the records suggest that the Zehler family left Prussia under unusual circumstances resulting from the departure of their son Michael to avoid military service.  This would have upset the Prussian authorities and forced the family to take drastic measures.  The truth of what happened is unknown, however a plausible possibility can be found in the available evidence.  This is presented in A Family Mystery.

Beginning the Journey

By the middle of the 1800s, travel from Europe to America had become a well organized business.  The increasing tide of emigration from Europe to the New World gave rise to a shipping industry geared to the passenger trade.  Several companies maintained fleets of sailing ships which unloaded their cargo in a European port, then reloaded both goods and passengers bound for America.  Ships sailed to various ports in North and South America, but by far the largest number landed in New York City, which became the hub of American immigration.

Another source of help for the trip would be Peter and Anna Maria's children who preceded them to America.  They certainly supplied information on how to prepare for their trip and how to avoid pitfalls along the way.  In addition, they may well have bought tickets for the voyage.  Often the first members of a family would save to help bring the rest of the family to America.  By the time his parents arrived, John had been in America ten years, plenty of time to save.  Census data suggests he worked as a farm laborer.  With no evidence that he purchased land or other property, it's reasonable to assume he was saving for the day his family could come.  Tickets purchased by family were then delivered in Europe by a shipping agent.

When the day finally came for Peter and family to make their journey, they needed to travel from their home in the Saar, some 350 hundred miles to an ocean port, sail across the Atlantic and then travel several hundred miles inland to reach their new home.  They sailed from the port of La Havre, a major port on the coast of France.  By the mid 1800s, railroads were spreading across both Europe and America, providing a relatively rapid and convenient means of transportation for our ancestors.  So, it seems likely that Peter, Anna Maria and family took advantage of the rail system for part of their journey.  It is also likely, they were assisted by a shipping agent in arranging their transportation.

After packing what they could carry with them Peter and family probably boarded a train at Saarbrücken, some 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) from Nuhweiler.  The railroad took them from Saarbrücken to Paris, where they would continue their trip by boat down the Seine to the port of La Havre, about 100 miles.  It was there that they boarded the sailing ship Fairfield for the long ocean voyage.  Sailing schedules were not exact, so they would spend a few days in Le Havre before boarding ship.  This time would be spent purchasing supplies, food and other items for the voyage.  In the 1850's food was often the responsibility of passengers, while the shipping company only supplied water and cooking facilities.  I assume Peter and Anna Maria were warned to avoid the hustlers who prowled La Havre and other ports, trying to cheat the many travelers who passed their way.

The Ocean Voyage

After a brief stay in La Havre, our ancestors boarded the ship Fairfield for the trip to America.  Generally, all but the wealthiest passengers traveled in steerage, the deck or decks between the cargo hold and the main deck.  Accommodations in steerage were primitive to say the least.  The ship's sides were lined with wooden bunks, about six feet long and two or three high, for sleeping.  Each bunk would hold several adults, or more children.  The space between bunks was crowded with baggage, supplies, cooking facilities and, less likely, tables.  Toilet facilities, usually too few, were placed along the sides, between bunks.  Finally, there were generally no special accommodations for female passengers.  Everyone was mixed together.

Now, imagine our ancestors joining the 300 or so passengers of the Fairfield and starting their voyage to America.  After finally leaving port they would crowd the main deck for a last glimpse of Europe as they set off on their new adventure.  Soon, ocean waves bring on an initial bout of seasickness.  Ahead lay a month or more on the high seas.  Passengers were allowed up on deck, but only in good weather, otherwise they were confined to the crowded conditions of steerage.  Even in the best conditions this would be a difficult trip and often seasickness and lack of sanitary conditions made the trip a horrible experience.

The New York Times published a daily column announcing the arrival of ships.  An entry in the Marine Intelligence for May 5, 1856, read as follows:

Saturday May 3, 1856

Ship Fairfield, Hathaway, Havre March 20, with mdse and 301 passengers to G. Bulkley.  Had 3 births and 4 deaths.  Experienced heavy weather, lost spars, sails and bulwarks, and shipped a heavy sea, which injured 3 men badly.  April 17, lat. 42 50, lon. 41 50, saw ship Boomerang of Liverpool abandoned; could not board her, the sea being so rough.  She had lost her fore and mainmast by the deck, the mizzenmast standing, rudder gone, had cotton in the poop; her decks were dry and the hatches on.  Had apparently little or no water in her.

From the entry, we know that our ancestors spend 43 days crossing from Le Havre and the trip was apparently as rough one.  It was certainly a happy day when they finally reached New York.

The Final Leg

Upon arrival, the Fairfield would drop anchor off Staten Island where it waited in quarantine for at least a day while doctors checked on the health of passengers.  After passing quarantine, the Fairfield would proceed to lower Manhattan and dock at Castle Garden, the immigration center for New York City.  Castle Garden was opened in August 1855 as a reception center for the growing number of immigrants to the U.S.  Previously, ships docked at company wharfs along the Hudson and passengers disembarked without formal processing.  Thus Castle Garden was a welcome change; the new arrivals were processed by government officials and various immigrant organizations were allowed to assist passengers in locating accommodations, transportation and other needs.  Castle Island continued to serve immigrants until 1890.  In 1892, Ellis Island opened as the main entry way to America, a position it held until 1954.

Certainly, our ancestors must have welcomed the chance to stand on solid ground after weeks aboard a crowded sailing ship.  They were likely met by one or more of their sons.  We can imagine John, or Peter traveling to New York City to meet the Fairfield.  They would arrange for temporary lodging while the family rested from their trip; they would surely need some time before they could continue their journey.  And they would arrange transportation for the remainder of the journey.

The final stages of Peter and Anna Maria's journey would take them up the Hudson River by steam boat to Albany, where they would transfer to train for the trip to Western New York.  In 1856 a steamer took less than a day to travel from New York to Albany and the train ride would take another day to reach a convenient station near their destination.  The growing system of tracks which soon became the New York Central Railroad passed through Batavia, and that town would seem the likely destination.  The final miles by cart or wagon would take our ancestors to Sheldon, in Wyoming county, New York.  They had arrived in their new home.

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