It was an overcast day as typical of Rotterdam in the fall. Philip Jacob Bretz stood on the dock with dozens of other migrants, their belongings all scattered about them, ready to board the Solomon Saltus for the six week sail to New York City. They had work ahead. Hard work. Jacob looked down at their immigration papers he would show to the Americans: the new state on the American frontier of Indiana; this is where he and his family would go. They would commission a wagon, they had heard, and after crossing some mountains almost like the Alps, they would get on a boat and sail down the Ohio River to the Indiana. There they would build their house, plant fields, begin their new lives. Jacob looked at the papers, his wife Charlotte holding their newborn Catherina, and his other 5 children aged 3 – 19, as well as his mother Catherine who at 68 felt too old for the journey but Jacob had convinced to come and help his wife raise their children in a foreign land.
It was these circumstances that brought my family to America 183 years ago. They planted their roots in the hills of southern Indiana in a house which I now know as rotting timbers in the woods overgrown with weeds and vines, its cellar merely a half caved in sandstone square that is barely distinguishable from a sinkhole. There is rusted out farm equipment which has sat so long that it is now sunken into the ground that Jacob would have used to plow his fields to feed his family. My son and I have walked about this hundred year old ruins fascinated about how they must have lived in those Indiana frontier days in the mid-1800s.
I wonder what Jacob would have thought, that his great great great great great grandchild Jacob, named for him, would be coming back to the country he left 183 years later. Through his sweat, he built a home, hewed down a forest and planted fields, orchards, built corrals to raise animals all to make his fledgling family survive. I wonder what Jacob would have thought on that rainy day in Rotterdam in 1840 that he would succeed in all of this. That he would break his family from the oppression of the Dukedom of Hessia in a brand new land, and that generations later some of his family would return.
It is with this anticipation that we now go back. The commotion, the stress of moving a family of four and a dog to Europe looms large. But as I pack the boxes, finalize visa details, sit on hold on the phone with the airline about the details of shipping our dog, I cannot help but compare this to what must have been going through Jacob’s head as he stood in the port of Rotterdam: how would he secure a wagon to take him to the center of this country? Was it dangerous there? There were reports of native tribes that still harassed immigrants in the western parts of the country. Where would he secure the materials to build his new home, and who would he find to help him build and would he have enough money to pay them? Where would he find medicine and materials to care for his infant baby and aging mother?
As I consider these things I find peace and comfort that this journey, though it has its unknowns is but a glimmer of what Jacob endured. It is an adventure that although temporary, will see us back to the land that he left hundreds of years ago. Jacob likely knew that he would never be back there, but perhaps he would be proud that these generations later he had built a family that endured long, suffered much, but loved and stuck together so well that it afforded a great great great great grandchild the opportunity to venture back across the ocean to the country from which he left.