My Great Great Grandmother’s Immigration Story
If, like me, you have European ancestry and live in the United States, then you have immigration stories in your family history. Discovering some of those stories has brought me closer to my family, and also given me a path to empathy with people who are experiencing their own immigration stories right now.
Here is the story of Maria Johanette Dielmann:
Once upon a time (in the early 1880s), there was a family composed of a couple with seven children ranging in age from an infant to older teens. The five oldest were girls and the two youngest were boys. The family lived in a small village named Mensfelden near the town of Wiesbaden in the rural Rhineland region of what would later become Germany. This family was fiercely religious and were part of a Lutheran church that was different from the church in their town. They would walk an hour to the neighboring town to worship, and they were shunned by many of their neighbors for their different beliefs. The father had debts, and in addition to farming a piece of land too small to support his family, he traveled to sell Bibles to try to make ends meet. The debts grew, and with nine mouths to feed, there were hard discussions to make.
The mother’s older brothers had emigrated to Louisiana in America many years ago, and they would write to her and urge her to come. After the US Civil War, her brothers had built a business selling candy, wine, beer, and fireworks. The father had family in Brooklyn, who told them about how there were many Germans in New York, and jobs were available for those willing to work. The couple made the decision to send the oldest girl, who was by then 23 and unmarried, along with a younger sister, who was just 16, to Brooklyn, where work could be found as maids in rich people’s houses.
Those young women worked in America and saved every penny to send the money back to the family in Germany. After three years, the family had enough money to pay off their debts and pay for passage on a ship bound for New York. As the family prepared for the journey, the father became sick. He was retaining water, and had trouble breathing. He was diagnosed with “dropsy,” which we now know as congestive heart failure. He died, even as his family was finishing selling most of their belongings to embark for America. He was just 56 years old.