It was well past midnight before the three families had fully gathered. The room was lit only by the fireplace and the “Betty Lamps” burning rendered tallow from the hogs slaughtered in the family’s most recent Schlachtfest.
While the brothers’ farmsteads neighbored one another, they were proceeding cautiously. They traversed in small groups. Concealing themselves from the moon-lit pastures in woolen, hooded cloaks.
All meeting in the senior brother’s home.
The brothers were traditionally given the same first name of Johannes. Only their middle names separated their identities. John, was senior, followed by George, and then Jacob. The fate of three other siblings born in Wurttemberg, Matthaus, Barbara, and Friedrich, remains a mystery.
These three families, nine total members comprising this known Stierle tribe (John, his wife Rosena, and their son George; John’s brother George, his wife Barbara, and their two sons George II and Frederich; and brother Jacob, and his wife Walburga) now amassed under one roof to begin exploring their options.
The muffled voices masked the intrigue and suspense of the radical action they ultimately adopted. The stakes were high if their venture failed.
The country had been enveloped in political and religious turmoil for a decade now. And the 1848 revolution had came and went without significant effect. Except that the losers in this revolt to achieve national unification of the loose confederation of German states with more liberal governing principles were now subjected to harassment, exile, imprisonment, or execution.
The country was also in the midst of transforming from a primary agrarian economy to one of urban industrialization and wealth shifted from the country to the city. The Stierle brothers were on a trajectory to ultimate destitution, or worse, a more pressing fate of forced military conscription.
So, on this night in 1852, like millions of Germans before them, they gave in to their compulsion to flee.
Under the cover of darkness, the three families abandoned their ancestral homes and crossed the border. They secured safe passage, but it would take them six weeks to traverse the Atlantic in a sailing ship.
And they were subject to the common deprivations of the age.
They bunked in the steerage area, below decks, which were overcrowded, dark and dank, lacking sanitation, and infested with rats and insects. The perfect breeding grounds for various communicable diseases.
They drank water kept “pure” with vinegar. And dined on brined beef and “ship biscuits.”
Some of the ads for passenger ships in this time period promised a weekly ration of five pounds of oatmeal, two and half pounds of biscuits, a pound of flour, two pounds of rice, one pound of pork, one-half pound of sugar, one-half pound of molasses, and 2 ounces of tea.
Although it was very questionable as to if these promises were honored.
Any cooking was relegated to a single kitchen that the passengers essentially had to fight for. And the freshness and quality of the provided food was in constant deterioration once the ship left port.
A trip of this nature was not just fraught with storms, malnutrition and disease, but also with a tedious boredom. And it was particularly hard for John and his wife Rosena to contain their precocious three-year-old son, George.
The story told is that George, while rambunctiously running about on the upper deck, fell to what would have been his ultimate demise, but for a passenger on the lower deck who caught him. John was my Great, Great, Great, Grandfather. And George, obviously my Great, Great Grandfather. If George had suffered such a premature death, I’d not be writing this tale of immigration.
The value of an English pound in 1850 was approximately $4.35, and fare to cross the Atlantic at that time was 3£ (pounds) or $13.05 per person. Transport for the clan of nine would have totaled 27£ or $117.45. A handsome sum in that time. A sum that represented over half of the three family’s combined life savings.
On their arrival in Philadelphia, the brothers had less than $100 between them.
They stayed in Pennsylvania for a time, moved on to Ohio, and later would settle in Indiana. John’s brother George and his family then moved on to Nebraska.
And so begins the legacy of the travel for this family. The search to find “home.”
Whatever that means . . .
Photo: This is my G, G, G Grandfather John and his wife Rosena. Photo courtesy of my cousin Rhonda Stearley Hebert, who shared this with me from her genealogical research.
Stearley: The family name has undergone some revisions over the centuries. Finally, to “Americanize” it, as people in this country had a rough time pronouncing “Stierle.” It traces back to various formations of Stierlen to Stierlin to Stierle while in Germany. And to Stearley or Stearly when the family arrived in America.
Sources: Besides the links below, sources include genealogical research and stories passed from generation to generation, with a dash of creative writing. My apologies for any hyperbole. 🙂