The Promise: One Family’s Odyssey
7 Ancestors Came Here in 1886; Family Tree now 1,000 Across USA
Kalette, Denise. "The Promise: One Family's Odyssey." USA Today, 3 July
NEW YORK—The day the new Statue of Liberty was unveiled before
a million spectators 100 years ago, a family of seven boarded the
steamer Trave in Bremen, Germany, bound for the lifted lamp.
For nine days, Johann and Maria Ellwein and their five children
huddled in steerage with 602 other, often-seasick passengers.
On Nov. 6, 1886, a rainy, mild Saturday, about 54 degrees, the
ship steamed into New York harbor, and the Ellweins became part
of the biggest immigration movement in USA history. Theirs is the
story of the settlement of this country.
Today the Ellwein family has grown to 1,000 USA descendants. They
live in nearly every state, and work in hundreds of professions,
from teaching to the ministry to law.
This weekend’s Liberty celebration is a centennial for Ellwein
descendants, too. It is “more special, knowing we are a part
of that,” says grocer Bob Pidde of Freeman, S.D., great-great-grandson
of Johan Ellwein. “I’ve always felt close to our land
here. This is home.”
The family journey actually began years before the stormy 1886 ocean
In 1804, Matthaus Ellwein, lured by the promise of farmland and
independence, left Hemmingen, Germany and traveled 1,700 miles to
Russia, settling near the Black Sea. But in 1886, faced with mandatory
service in the Russian Army and a loss of German traditions, the
family joined the torrent of immigrants here.
On that November arrival day in New York, the harbor was full of
ships: 52 huge steamers and 42 square-rigged sailboats had been
cleared through customs. Ten more incoming steamers and barks were
lined up at Castle Garden immigrant station, an old fort that preceeded
Ellis Island’s gateway. Up to 5,000 people came each day –
totaling 30 million from 1880 to 1930.
In the center of the stone fort was a desk for questioning, says
Paul Casale, National Park Service ranger. Outside were “riffraff
hanging around the Battery – people waiting to steal their
bags, money-changers who short-changed them.”
The Ellweins were lucky: All gained entry. Some immigrants, suffering
cholera or heart diseases were rejected and families were split
Once in the city, the family encountered a noisy world of trains
that screeched along on elevated tracks, organ grinders, pushcarts
and horse-driven carriages. Teddy Roosevelt had just lost the election
for mayor of New York.
Signs offered bewildering choices in a new language: rooms for
$2, gambling houses off Broadway.
The next day, the temperature plunged to 36 degrees, and the season’s
first snow fell. The Ellweins boarded a train for the Dakota Territory,
where neighbors from Russia had already settled.
Chris and Jacobina Walz, shown here in an old family photograph
They stayed with Maria’s family, where their
oldest daughter, Jacobina, 16, fell in love with her cousin, Chris
Walz. They married three months after her arrival. They filed a
homestead claim, built a sod house in what is today Freeman, S.D.
and had 13 children. The house still stands, though weeds grow knee-high
in front and sparrows flit through the empty rooms.
“That house always seemed so big,” says Jacobina’s
granddaughter, Delores Pidde, 59, as she stood inside for the first
time in decades.
Jacobina, who never learned English, “used to read the Bible
every night,” aloud in German, recalls her grandson, John
Galster, 69, of Sioux Falls, S.D.
The 13 children were raised strictly – few dances, no lipstick,
a high premium on achievement.
Two months after Jacobina’s marriage, her younger sister
Elizabeth died. In that long winter, blizzards left 15-foot snowdrifts
and it was so cold outside that the house filled when the door was
That spring, Johann and Marian led their three other children 400
miles north to a homestead on the bank of the Missouri River in
North Dakota. Jacobina rarely saw them again.
They settled near the town of Mannhaven, a bit of fertile prairie
without roads or stores or schools. With rock and felled trees,
the settlers slowly built a thriving town.
But life was no easier in the north. Neighbor John Kruckenburg
later recalled for oral historians five years of crop failure when
“many a child didn’t have shoes on his or her feet all
winter long.” Another neighbor tied old grain sacks around
his feet for shoes. In 1889, a village teacher lost her way in a
blizzard; her legs were amputated.
Smallpox, scarlet fever and tonsilitis outbreaks killed children.
Sod roofs were a fire hazzrd. Many were chunks of soil with prairie
grass still growing from them. Some crawled with snakes.
In 1914, a railroad line built along the Missouri River bypassed
the Ellwein’s town of Mannhaven. Without it, the town slowly
liberty lured German/Russians
From 1885 to 1900, there was a steady
flow of German/Russian immigrants to the USA. They came
for the same reasons their forefathers had moved to Russia
100 years before: land and Independence.
Although most were born in Russia, they identified with
Germany, spoke German, and named towns in Russia and the
USA after original ones in Germany.
- The largest concentration was
in North Dakota, where 70,000 lived by 1920. Other big
settlements: Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas.
- Unlike Europeans who came alone,
then sent money for relatives’ journeys, they usually
traveled in family groups.
- During the steamer crossings,
many infants died. Mothers often carried them for days,
trying to avoid burial at sea, painful to land tied people.
- In pioneering days, most were
- TO alleviate frontier lonliness,
families would build their houses at the edge of their
homesteads, so their neighbors would not be so far away.
- TO make money, many of the early
settlers sold cartloads of buffalo bones, which were shipped
to Michigan, distilled into carbon
black and used in the manufacture of sugar.
- A famous German/Russian descendant:
band leader Lawrence Welk.
Today the grass grows higher than Armand Bauer’s
car – he’s the great-grandson of Johann Ellwein –
on the deserted route settlers took to town. Three miles away, parishioners
still use tiny St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, where Maria and
Johann prayed and sang. They are buried in the church cemetery.
On a shelf near the altar are hymnals in German, inscribed with
the date, 1887.
Back down in Freeman, Jacobina battled the same enemies
here parents fought: fire, drought, and frontier lonliness.
Indians befriended many settlers, but they were widely
feared. Custer had been killed only ten years before the family’s
Electricity didn’t come to the farms until the
1950’s. Jacobina’s house was heated with cowchips and
corncobs, lit with kerosene. “They cooled butter and cream
in the artesian well over there,” pointed out Delores Pidde.
For half-a-century there was no indoor plumbing.
During the Depression, Galster helped build the road
to Wolf Creek, shoveling “all the gravel by hand, they didn’t
Everyone worked. Earnhardt Knittelm 80, of Tacoma, Wash., who married
Jacobina’s daughter, Hulda, 56 years ago, watched his fiancé
“helping to pitch bundles for the threshing machines...working
on the farm as any man would work.”
In the Dakotas, the Depression years were the “dirty 30s”
because of dust storms. “The wind blew so hard my father put
a handkerchief over his mouth to go to the barn. You couldn’t
see the sun because of the dust,” says hairdresser Lorraine
Westover, 66, of Norwich, N.Y., a granddaughter of Jacobina. “I
remember my mother laying wet clothes so dust couldn’t get
in, but it would seep in, you could taste it.”
That decade, the grasshoppers came, squeezing through nearly-sealed
windows and filling mailboxes. They chewed through sweaty pitchfork
handles and leather straps and ruined crops. Cows sold for under
$19 when the Depression began. Eggs went for six cents a dozen.
But the family didn’t feel deprived. Evenings, they listened
to the radio – they like Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside
chats,” said Westover. “He had a voice that compelled
you to listen. Charisma ... It was never publicized that he was
in a wheelchair and couldn’t walk.”
In 1942, Jacobina died of cancer in the sod house. “I remember
the day she died, the whole family was there,” says Pidde.
In the 1940s, while many of the children moved away, and had children
of their own, the economy improved. Families built barns and windmills
while government teams stretched the network of roads. The fledgling
air network expanded, and the Navy tested warplanes.
Rene Knittel, Jacobina’s grandson, was in Newton, Kan., when
the war broke out. “We just came home from church, we were
eating dinner, around 12 o’clock , and the news came over
the radio that Pearl Harbor was bombed. We just looked at each other.
We didn’t know where Hawaii was. I was only 11 years old,”
said Knittel, 54, an Air Force civilian employee in Tacoma.
tree’s many branches
some descendents of Johann and Maria Ellwein, who journeyed
her from Russia in 1886 to homestead in the Dakotas:
- Jeff Ellwein farms
in Mercer County, N.D. where five generation of Ellweins
- Allen Galster is
a surgeon in San Jose, Calif.
- Donald Gastler,
Monroe, Mich. is a Ford Motor Co. Machinist.
- Stan Westover is
director of the Port of Long Beach, Calif.
- Cherle Joy is a
corporate travel manager in New York City.
- Debra Bauer is
a Minneapolis, Minn. nurse.
- Sydney Bauer is
a pharmacist in Fargo, N.D.
- Laura Jund, a former
teacher lives in Zeeland, N.D.
- Bruce Levi is an
attourney with the North Dakotalegislature
- Doris Minnick,
a housekeeper, lives in Tuscon, Ariz.
- Glenn Ray Schmidt
of Wichita, Kan., is a railroad conductor for the Santa
- Burton Schmidt
is a retired homemaker in Newton, Kan.
- Carrie Sue Emerson
is a lawyer in Wichita, Kan.
- Tracy Budd works
for a bank in Colorado Springs, Colo.
When the wars came, Ellweins joined. In the Navy, Galster fought
in the Phillipines and the Battle of Midway. Westover’s husband
was a soldier. A family member’s foster child was killed in
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Ellwein, Walz, and Bauer children
joined the migration from farms to cities, from the Dakotas to the
sunbelt and eastern states.
Armand Bauer, a soil scientist with a doctorate lives in Bismarck,
but one of three children has moved to Minnesota, and his son, Andrew,
19, plans to follow.
Bauer tells the kids of hardship stories that make teen-agers roll
their eyes: As an eight-year old farm boy, “It was my job
to break down the coal in the coal bin,” and it took a whole
summer to earn $2 to buy a jacket. His son, Andrew, has heard all
Andrew, a state champion junior tennis player, with a 3.8 grade-point-average
at North Dakota State University, “plans to be a corporate
lawyer.” He has not endured hardship and feels, “lucky
... I live a pretty comfortable life.”
Has the family found success? “Yes,” says Armand Bauer,
“If success is contentment, then, yes, you can say we made