Friday, June 26, 2009

Great-Great-Great Gramps

I started reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States again and it prompted me to do a little research on the reasons why my family left Germany one hundred fifty years ago.

Young Ernest Gottfied in the Midst of Revolution and Civil War

All I know about Ernest Gottfied Schmieding, my great-great-great grampa, are basics: when and where he was born, married and died. Also, that his maternal grandfather was a paper-maker and his paternal grandfather was a merchant. The rest is historical conjecture. He was born in Herne, Germany in the year 1836. Herne is in the Westphalia (roughly translates to Western Plains) region of Northwest Germany, around the same latitude as London, and fairly close to the Netherlands. Herne is on Emscher, a tributary of the Rhein, in the Ruhr Area, which is now the fourth largest urban area in Europe, after London, Moscow and Paris. It has been called an industrial complex. This is what it looks like today:

The Ruhr, at the time of Ernest's birth, was afire in the the Industrial Revolution, with mines and factories sprouting everywhere, mainly coal and steel. Before the Industrial Revolution, people had been farmers for at least eight hundred years. A horse market fair had been established in the 15th century there, and today it has grown into a full-blown carnival fest called Cranger Kirmes, the second biggest fair in Germany after Oktoberfest. Last year, in 2008, 4.7 million people attended the 110,000 square metre fairgrounds, earning it the nickname of "most crowded fair in the world".

Some Pagan Musings

The Pagan Saxons were the ethnic natives of Westphalia, who fought the invading Franks and also the conversion to Christianity. After a hundred years of attempted conversion, they were finally and brutally converted by Charlemagne in the 8th century, who destroyed Irminsul, their giant pillar or world tree, sacred to either Ziu (Tyr) or Wodan (Odin). Bees, whose honey was made into mead, were also sacred in the Irminsul symbol, representing the tree stumps where they made their wild hives.

After a reign of nearly a thousand years, The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation declined and finally dissolved in the Napoleonic Wars thirty years before Ernest's birth. Napoleon raged across Europe and set his youngest brother Jérôme-Napoléon Bonaparte as puppet King of Westphalia. When Napoleon was defeated by the Prussians and the British, the Congress of Vienna established the German Confederacy, which was a conglomeration of 39 states and 4 city states, the most powerful of which were under the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. Others were under the jurisdiction of the Kings of Denmark, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Bavaria, and Saxony along with other lesser German Dukes.


Herne was under Prussian rule in the Province of Westphalia when Ernest was born. The people were poor, oppressed and censored. The Industrial Revolution made working conditions terrible. Cholera outbreaks and famine were spreading. When Ernest was twelve years old, in 1848, revolution broke out like fire across all of Europe.

The people of Germany demanded freedom of the press, free elections, a constitution of basic rights, the right to assemble, the right to arm themselves and trial by jury. In February, 1848, news of French Revolutionary victories spread to Germany. In March, the city dwellers demonstrated and the peasants rose against their still feudal states. What came to be called the March Revolution began. In Berlin alone, hundreds of demonstrators were shot. Within months, however, work was begun in Frankfurt on establishing general elections and the drafting of a constitution. The Verfassung des Deutschen Reiches (Constitution of the German Empire) was passed about a year later. However, within a few years, the rights were being undermined and revolutionaries were executed or imprisoned for lengthy terms. Unification was imminent and tensions between the Austrian Empire and the Prussians were rising. In 1866, when Ernest was 30, civil war broke out. The Prussians were at an economic and military advantage, with extensive railroad systems, needle guns and fast loading rifles. Prussian rule was inevitable.

Staten Island

Ernest fled to the United States, reached Staten Island and married nineteen-year-old New-York-born native Anna Ophelia Greene. Hopefully, Ernest didn't have any illusions about the United States. Maybe he wasn't aware that the States were still in the aftermath of American Civil War that ended the year before. True, slavery had been abolished, but working conditions were not a whole lot better. You would work 18-hour-days and get paid maybe $3 a week. They probably lived in overcrowded tenement housing, some of which still had no indoor plumbing and no windows, just a pump and an outhouse for over a hundred people to share. Thousands died from unsanitary conditions.

Ernest and Anna Ophelia started to have children. Workers were granted an eight-hour day after a three month strike of 100,000 in New York. But the rich got richer, Rockefeller founded Standard Oil and became America's first billionaire, and the poor were being laid off, evicted or killed in heaps of trash and sewer by the hundreds and thousands. In 1873 the country slumped into a depression. The following year in New York City workers assembled in protest and police responded with brutality. Women and children were stampeded by fleeing protesters. Bystanders were clubbed. Thousands more went on railroad strikes. Police again attacked, shooting and bludgeoning protesters in the skulls.

Ernest and Ophelia left the country for Ontario, Canada for at least ten years to escape the slums and sweatshops of New York, but eventually came back to settle in the United States in the Shelby Township on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The biggest industry in Shelby was metal. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and working conditions in the iron mines and factories were still unsanitary and inhumane. Ernest and Anna had six kids to feed.

But in 1871, three years after the birth of their first child Charles Thomas, my great-great-grampa, Germany was united under Wilhem I, Emperor of the Prussian Second Reich.

Even though times were tough in the States, Ernest had escaped and spared his grandchildren the horrors of the Third Reich to come decades later.

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