Family History

[This is a letter written by Frederick Hermann Schroeder, translated from the German by Constance R. Ballantine (a granddaughter of his) in 1959, and retyped by Nadja Zalokar Golding in March 1999 from a copy typed by Charles S. Ballantine in 1970 from a copy typed by John P. Ballantine in 1959.]

Mendota, Dec. 2nd, 1869

Dear Uncle,

I received your and Amalie’s letters the day before yesterday. As I read the first, I was sorry that my father was dead; as I read the second, I was sorry he had lived so long. We are all sinners.

I could not understand why I got no answer from you to my letter from England. That and something else that happened at the same time drove me almost to despair. [He had proposed to an English girl and been refused. C.R.B.] In the whole world there was no one who loved me. There was no war in the world where I could seek death. Civilized men seemed to me like snakes, hyenas, leopards, and tigers.

I wished myself back in the wilderness of Australia, where one didn’t see a white man oftener than once in four to eight weeks, and didn’t see a stranger once a year. The four years that I was there seemed no longer than four months, so I forgot what year it was. There every stranger was treated like the closest friend. It was a great joy to see a fellow man even if he was a life convict. There I could leave my money in a ruined hut without lock or bolt, while I traveled many miles away and was gone even for months. There I had my happiest time. I imagine your Hermann there again.

What drove me away? Is the usual question. I was earning an excellent little $1000 a year; I was free as a bird; I felt like a king when I sat on my horse, and often thought of that little song you all know, “With My Bow and Arrow,” which I often sang loudly to myself. But nature has decreed that man shall not live alone.

I had almost $3000 saved, which I couldn’t use there, – and when I first arrived there I had to work fearfully hard in the glowing heat for six shillings a week. I was only a boy, sick from the change of diet, and almost despaired of being able to keep it up. I could not speak a word of English. Then I wept bitterly, and wished that I might only have the strength to work like the others. My wish was granted. I grew three inches in one year and gained fifty pounds. Instead of doing only half as much as an ordinary workman, I found it not unpleasant to do two and a half times as much. Then I felt rich. At least I knew that as long as my strength held out I would never need to starve. Everything that I earned I saved in case of illness or for my old age. I did not think about a wife.

When I had saved £80, with which I meant to buy 80 acres of land, the gold rush began. Everyone ran away from South Australia, even such a rich gentleman as I thought myself. Against my will, this fever carried me along, and if I ever regret anything, it is that I left South Australia. But I would never have been satisfied if I had not seen the gold fields.

I lost everything that I had earned in two and a half years’ hard work. £7 was held by Pieper, another German, who died, and it was not worth while afterward to try to collect it. From Adelaide to Melbourne, about three days’ journey, took us about 30 days. All the masts were lost from the ship; we went so far south that we almost froze; and when at last a favorable wind came, we were starved.

I stayed in the gold fields long enough to find out that it was nothing but a lottery. I at least did not want to gamble with my health, and the little case of gold fever that I had was quite cured, which was worth more than £80.

I joined the mounted police, which is a sort of cavalry who hunt robbers and guard gold. It was found necessary to set up a station at the mouth of the Darling River, six hundred miles from Melbourne. The officer was allowed to pick seven men from among a thousand, and I was one of the seven. Our territory was two hundred miles around our hut. I was indispensable to the officer, for I was the only one who understood bush life. The others were green Englishmen.

I wasn’t afraid to ride the wildest horses. I had to break them first. The Murray River is a very rapid stream which we often had to swim, – and here I must wonder at Providence, which three times save me in an incomprehensible manner. To wit: I could not swim; I trusted myself entirely to my horse, which always brought me through with great difficulty. I turned all my genius to learn to swim, and as soon as I was master of swimming, then the horses sank under me. That wild life is the most sincere, which pleased me very much.

The last thing in Australia was that I traveled on foot 110 miles through rain and mud, with only 1 lb. of bread and 50 pounds of baggage. At night, the water ran under me. This I did mostly from pride, because I did not want to beg. My money was all in Melbourne in the bank.

I had not the slightest intention of leaving Australia. When I reached Melbourne I saw an acquaintance who wanted to go to England, and begged me to come with him. He thought it would cost only £30. That woke my love of home, and before I had spoken three words I said that if he went I would go too, and we took ship at once.

When we got to England I could not get a passport, and the questions the officers put to me awakened in me again the old feelings I had when I left home, and how glad I was when I saw the white coast of England. I had again just recovered from the hateful seasickness. The anxiety that I had experienced in Bremen and Bremerhafen, always thinking that I would be taken back again, was brought back to mind. “Hold on,” I thought, “you are being too reckless. Now you are still free. One step further and who knows what may happen? A letter goes over in thirty-six hours.” I would wait for an answer.

After I had waited three weeks in vain, I left orders to forward [a letter?] to New York. On Christmas, 1855, at 8:00 a.m., I climbed out of the warm railroad coach into [three undecipherable words] in Chicago, and there raged a frightful snowstorm. I hadn’t counted on that, — as cold as in Germany! I had seen no snow in seven years, and had quite forgotten what it felt like. I ran as fast as I could to the hotel, which was about a mile away, and arrived quite out of breath.

My first question was about the train to St. Louis. The violence with which I asked surprised the man. “What do you want in St. Louis in such a hurry?” “I don’t want to freeze to death here!” At that he laughed and said, “The Mississippi freezes over every year at St. Louis.” [I have been informed that this often happened before the bridges were built at St. Louis C.R.B.] Good God! The Mississippi! The greatest river in the world! It is a year of Jubilee when the Elbe freezes over so that it can be crossed on foot!

If I did not want to freeze, I would have to go to the slave country, where I might die miserably of yellow fever. There I was stuck and I made the best of it.

The first five to seven years in America I lived the most pitiful slave’s life. Don’t anyone think that this is the promised land! Republican government is the worst that was ever invented. Freedom is only freedom to cheat. I would never have stayed in America if I hadn’t got married. The soil of Illinois is the richest and most fertile that can be imagined; the climate is the most hateful, — the heat as great as in Australia, the cold as in Germany, and it changes in half an hour.

I bought 100 acres of land thirty-five miles northwest of Chicago. The land was broken and had two houses on it. The first harvest was a complete failure. Because I could not pay a $36 debt, I had to sell my seed wheat to pay it, and later borrow at a high interest.

I married the first fall, and my parents-in-law were deeply in debt, so that if I had not furnished security for them, they would have been turned out. They had paid down only $1000 and had a $2800 mortgage. I could not see how they were going to make out. Money was at 36 percent interest. But under the law a man had two years’ grace before he could be dispossessed, and with my security they were saved. I also benefited; I resolved never again to underwrite a debt for another.

My wedding feast was held on cornbread. [Because they were so busy with wedding preparations, my grandmother’s family forgot to send to town for white flour, so had only cornmeal on hand. She used to make cornbread on their wedding anniversary, as a family joke. C.R.B.] We lived on it the whole winter. It froze day and night beside the stove. It was a terrible winter, my worst in America. Also I got the relapsing fever, or ague, one day in bed, the next in the field. Then I longed for Australia, but it was impossible to sell.

Anyone who understands farming will know what it is for one man to do all the work on a hundred acres of land by himself. My wife could not help me; she was sick. I have mowed exactly as much as three green Germans in the same time, so that everyone wondered how it was possible. My wife says the people in Germany think that here we dance on roses. I should also say that she does all her housework alone, and to look after three children takes work. Maids are not to be had without more trouble finding them than they are worth. Strangers can do nothing with children, especially when they are sick.

Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America, said, “Every day spend one cent less than you earn, then you won’t suffer want and hunger, and your creditors won’t bother you.” I say he was right. Now, Amalie, I will tell you, if you don’t know yet, why things have gone so badly with you. You depended too much on Father. If you had thought things out for yourself, as you have had to do since, then when your Uncle Zabel gave you $12, you would have found a way to help yourself out of poverty.

It made me shudder to hear how Father had had to spend his last days. For forty-eight hours revenge and love fought in me. Love won; I forgive you from my heart that you turned Father away, because you have confessed it to me and have repented. I forgive you as you will forgive your sister Ulrike. You say I am to tell my wife that you lover her as a sister. Has she deserved to be treated like Ulrike?

You ask me if I know where it says that in the Bible; that I don’t know. I have not read the Bible since I have been out of school, and I don’t go to church, because I am a heathen. Take two verses from the Bible and throw the rest away, — it will only make you muddleheaded. The one is “do right and fear no one,” the other is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

One more thing, Amalie, tell your Karl that he should not spend hard0-earned money on a tombstone. That is idle show, unless he writes on it how Father was treated by his children, so that living fathers can take warning from it. Then it might do some good.

You beg me to lend Karl money; – don’t you know that would ruin him forever? None of my children need expect that. I will treat him according to the Biblical command you mentioned: I will give him and all of you the same help I got from Father. Do you know that Father told me through Daeger in Bremerhafen, that, ask for what I would, “You will always get the same answer, ‘No.’” If Daeger still lives, he will remember that. That message was a proof of his love for me, which I always doubted before. I was the disgrace of the whole family. I was the hardhearted one who did not weep when Mother died. I must admit it; I could not weep, because I was glad that she had been released from her suffering.

Your letter caused me grief enough. Why didn’t they write again to Eckstad, Fritz Eckstad in Chicago? That was not an obscure decision; I should think it was clear enough, if even Father understood it. Why could not a single word come through to me? That and other things that happened to me proved to me it was not to be. [It seems that he is referring her to some judicial decision, perhaps exonerating him for whatever piece of “juvenile delinquency” forced him to leave home. C.R.B.]

It must have about the time that Father made you write to Tangermünde, that I was at my highest point in Chicago. I remember one evening when I went for a walk by the lake, feeling very important. I counted fifty ships. My thoughts flew to Germany. I considered that it would be an easy thing to make $100,000, with which I would seek out my bother, who was ashamed to call me brother. The last glance he threw me was still before my eyes. Oh, if I had known that he was already long dead! It was a bad thought of mine.

I got my punishment: I lost everything I had and more. I worshipped money as a god; it was my only goal to make money; and that was my first reverse. When I had to work hard, I always felt that what I had was solid. Although I did not always earn much, still it seemed as though I had formerly been going backward.

I would never have overcome this misfortune if a friend had not stood by me. But the friend could not have helped me if I had not had courage. The following lines from Schiller gave me courage:

I never saw a man end happily upon whom the gods with full hands bestowed their gifts. Therefore, if you would ward off sorrow, pray to the Invisible that they for your happiness lend you pain; and if the gods will not promise this, take a friend’s advice and call misfortune upon yourself.

It is these lines, too, that move me to call Theodor here. For a drunkard is a misery. I drink nothing but water, tea, and coffee. No beer or brandy touch my lips. My wife has an excessive aversion to a drunkard. In this little place, where half the voters vote to outlaw beer, brandy, and the rest, the whole local politics turn on it.

Therefore, if Theodor cannot give his word of honor not to touch a drop, then I advise him not to leave Germany. I will not compel him, it must be his own free will. If he has given me his word I think he can keep it, if the blood of our father flows in his veins. If the desire should come on him on the ship, I advise him to stick his head overboard and think of me, — that I pray his thirst shall be quenched in the sea. I know several respectable people that have been drunkards half their lives and then changed themselves around, and are now people of importance. But they don’t touch a drop under any circumstances.

Here I have a green Irishman, who first arrived early in the year. He gets $40 a month and has no heavy work. He saves almost all of it. I have taken him on as a companion to a young German, whom I like very much. When I came to Mendota he was an apprentice and worked on my house. I saw that he had ability, and made him foreman on the building of my elevator. He has one of the cleverest heads you could ever find.

My elevator was hardly completed when a Mr. Dole came, a millionaire, who had advanced me money to build it, and wanted to see it. He had had one burn down in Princeton. Mine was built on a completely new plan of my own. He was surprised at the workable and practical arrangement, and he ordered a set of drawings for a larger one from me. This copy is built according to my own design. It cost $25,000, mine cost $10,000. This apprentice was foreman on both jobs. I paid him $3.00 a day, Mr. Dole, $4.50. Since the second of November, he has been my companion. He does not drink a drop of beer or brandy. I wish that Theodor may take this to heart.

Why shouldn’t I help my brother? The worst thing is the envy of relatives. However, I cannot believe that Theodor will envy me anything, because I have never done him any harm.

A good friend is worth more than money in this country. I always have at least one that is faithful. It is true cleverness to be able to tell a friend from an enemy. Also I am not out of the woods here; there are still nine business men here in town who are all in agreement together. They have a capital of $200,000. For three years I fought them; one year I went into partnership with them. I withdrew with little gain, because all our trade was lost through the most shameless profit. Now they have joined together to break me. However, the little proverb tells me, “Courage, do right and fear no one.” So I will not fear even them.

Dear Uncle, enclosed you will find the $50 which is coming to him. Do not forget the magistrate. Write me, whoever wants to come, and I will take care of the passage money.

And, Amalie, to you I say, see Bertha and Ulrike, and lay your three hands together and make peace, like three queens. Each one hold on to what she has, and end the war that kindled by the division of Mother’s linen.

And, Theodor, I hope, will take my advice; then he will never be in want.

This, from internal evidence in the German original, was only a first draft. I have smoothed out in translation a break in the German text, without, I hope, in any way changing the meaning. C.R.B.

[The author of the above letter, Frederick Hermann Schroeder, was born (about 1833) and raised in Tangermünde, and left home in 1849. His father came originally from Hunger and settled in Tangermünde. C.S.B.]