Imagine, you’re waiting on the crowded dock, pictured above. It’s a day in late Aug or early Sept in the year 1849, the year the Meyer family emigrated to the United States. Now imagine, in addition to yourself,you must also keep track of your spouse, 6 children (ages 1-10) and all your worldly possessions. A mix of exhaustion, excitement and fear run through your mind. Have you made the right decision? Is this move really going to be better for you and your family? Will you and the family even survive trip? Never mind, it’s too late now to turn back.
Perhaps Margaret, the eldest child, is holding her, year old brother, George, while her mother tries to keep track of the four others and her father their possessions. They don’t dare lose sight of them now, for any moment they will hear the announcement they can finally go abroad.
Are John, Catherine and Anna, the three middle children, getting antsy. They’ve been waiting for days to board the ship and are tired of having to stay so close to their parents. Maybe little Maria, age 3 is crying, in need of a nap and frightened of the throngs of people around them.
For the past few years the family watched as others left their beloved Alsace. They’d read the letters of those who’d gone ahead and listened to the various agents who came to their village touting of the riches to be found in America. But it wasn’t until this year, when agents from Lewis County, New York came talking up the county where the farmland was fertile and plenty, they paid much attention. To Johann and Marguerite a place with plenty of land for their own and eventually their children sounded to good to pass up.
Life in Alsace has been getting harder and harder with each passing year. Years of frequent wars, harsh winters and epidemics make leaving look better and better. Jobs are scarce and prices keep getting higher and higher, as a growing population struggles to survive. And the prior year brought both war and famine to their area. What will the future bring if they stay? Will their children have any hope for a good future? And so after much discussion and debate Johann and Marguerite made the difficult decision to emigrate.
First they had to pay off any debts and taxes they owed and obtain passports confirming their identity. Plus they had to have enough cash to buy their passage, sustain their journey and allow them enough to start over in the U.S. In the last year Johann has set about taking care of his obligations and selling off all of his holdings to enable him to sail for America. Now everything is done, it is time to leave.
Because of the cotton trade, departing cotton ships leaving the port of Le Harve, France are always looking for paying passengers. It is their best choice. Plus the route is shorter taking only 20-30 days.
The best crossing times are between April to September. But this last spring Le Harve had a cholera epidemic. Mayors of the village were asked to stop issuing them, making it harder to leave. Now in August, they have obtained the necessary documents. If they wait any longer they will have to risk a harder crossing or wait until next spring.They sell off the last of their possessions deemed unnecessary for their voyage.
To get to Le Harve they first have to cross France. Like most emigrants from Alsace they probably used empty cotton carts leaving Strasbourg. I can imagine Johann loading the cart with their trunks and boxes while Marguerite added their linens and bedding. In addition to the clothing, tools and utensils they will need once they reach America they are expected to provide their own bedding and provisions on the ship.
The time for final good-byes has come. The family stands outside their home and takes one last look. When the wheels of the wagon begin to rock they turn their heads and with heavy hearts they begin the first leg of their journey, the trek across France. Quite likely, when they reach Paris they stop for a day or two to take advantage of what the capital has to offer and perhaps replenish their provisions.
Finally they reach the port of Le Harve to wait with thousands of others. Johann still needs to book their passage. A colony of innkeepers and shopkeepers lined the port. Was the family well enough off to stay in an inn or did they make do camping on the dock in a shack or make shift tent? Sometimes it was necessary to wait weeks before as ship was ready to set sail.
Once on board they would have to camp out in a crowded steerage area. There was no lighting and it also was not dry. Water seeped in through the ventilation holes. Like most passengers they were probably seasick the first few days. If it was stormy it wasn’t possible to go up on deck for fresh air. There was only one toilet per 100 people. Diseases spread easily. They had to cook their own meals in crowded conditions.
What an exciting day it must have been, after weeks in the cramped dark steerage quarters of the ship with only endless ocean for scenery, when someone announced they could finally see land on the horizon. What was to come was still unknown for now they were thankful they’d survived the crossing.