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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 1986.


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 crossing.

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 up.

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.

Family Roots: 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 opened.

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 died.

Land, 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.

Some Facts:

  • 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 farmers.
  • 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 arrival.

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 have loaders.”

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.

Family tree’s many branches

Here are 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 have farmed.
  • 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 in Bismarck.
  • Doris Minnick, a housekeeper, lives in Tuscon, Ariz.
  • Glenn Ray Schmidt of Wichita, Kan., is a railroad conductor for the Santa Fe Railroad.
  • 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 Vietnam.

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 the stories.

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 it.

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