Monday, April 23, 2012

The Perils of Marrying a German-speaking Immigrant

Francis A. Hoffmann (1822-1903), was born in Herford, Kreis Minden, Westphalia, and fled the Prussian draft in 1840. He settled in Illinois where he was a teacher and Lutheran minister. In 1851 he moved to Chicago and became an attorney and banker on behalf of German immigrants. A fervent opponent of slavery, he helped found the Illinois Republican Party in 1854, and was elected Lieutenant Governor of Illinois during the Civil War. He was also a consul to the Kingdom of Hanover and a land commissioner for a railroad company. But in 1875 he retired to a farm along the Rock River in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, and devoted his time to writing articles on farming and horticulture for the German language press under the pen name Hans Buschbauer. In an article* written by his granddaughter, Minna Frances Hoffman Nehrling (married to Werner F. Nehrling, son of Henry Nehrling, author of Nordamerikanische Vogelwelt), we are treated to this intriguing anecdote:

My grandfather, Francis A. Hoffmann, wooed my grandmother, Cynthia Gilbert, while he was a young Lutheran minister stationed in De Kalb County, Illinois. . . . As soon as they were married, grandfather spoke nothing but German to grandmother, who was of pure British antecedents. After about six weeks of this, she did what many young wives do, namely, went home to her mother. She, being a very sensible woman and the mother of fourteen children, made her go back to her Francis when she found that otherwise he was good to her. And she proved an apt pupil, for when they went to Europe fifteen years later, someone told her: "I can tell from what part of Germany your husband comes, but your German is so free from accent, that I can't determine what province you hail from." Needless to say, this pleased her greatly and was quite a feather in her cap."

*"Memoirs of 'Riverside Farm,'" Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 4, June 1930, pp. 356-364.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Mysterious Country of “Biron”

Researching 1860 U.S. Census data for Middleton, Wisconsin, I came across a place I had never heard of. A number of residents with German-sounding names are listed as being born in “Biron.” Where could this country have been? Further research and other clues revealed the place of birth as Bavaria. But why “Biron?” Most likely, when the census taker asked the settler where s/he was born, the answer was “Bayern” which an English speaker could easily sound out as “Biron.” There are many spelling mistakes and other recording errors in the censuses, but Bavaria seems to have been an especially difficult case for the census takers. For example, a significant number of Bavarian immigrants lived in the rural community of Bristol, Dane County, Wisconsin, but only very few people from Bavaria show up in the 1860 census. Instead we find many families from mysterious places called Biron, Biren, Brian, or Bryn—sometimes helpfully amended as Germany/Brian or Germany/Bryn.

Monday, April 16, 2012

History in the Landscape: Settlers from Mecklenburg in the Town of Middleton, Wisconsin

The Max Kade Institute is collaborating with Pope Farm Conservancy in Middleton, Wisconsin, on researching the history of immigration and settlement in the Town of Middleton, particularly the experience of settlers from the small German state of Mecklenburg.

Pope Farm Conservancy , a beautiful hundred-acre public park west of Middleton, features educational trails that interpret the site’s history and unique physical and cultural geography. One important group of visitors are fourth-grade students who study Wisconsin.

Recently, the footprint of a settler’s cabin was identified on Conservancy land that once belonged to Fritz Elver, a farmer from Mecklenburg. After 1867 the cabin was inhabited by another Mecklenburg immigrant family: Joachim Goth, along with his wife, son, and mother, and—over the years—nine more children. Joachim worked as a day laborer on the Elver farm. Following the typical chain migration pattern, Joachim had followed his uncle J├╝rgen Goth (immigrated in 1854) and his brother Carl (1857). Today, descendants of the Goth family and other Mecklenburgers still live in the area. One of them, Carl Goth’s granddaughter Mae Goth Hartwig provided us with invaluable information about her family, family documents such as original letters, and stories of what life was like in this German-American community.

Under the guidance of Mel Pope, three signs now have been posted where the cabin once stood. They inform visitors about the immigrant family that once lived there and the history of German immigration to the area in general. But this is only the beginning. As we continue to research the history of settlers from Mecklenburg in the Town of Middleton, we will also develop educational materials and post resources on the MKI Web site. And we invite you all to come and visit Pope Farm Conservancy and experience German-American history in the rural landscape!