Anna Maria Catharina Haarmeyer - Portrait of a Pioneer

Author:  Marlene Sprute

Translation and editing: Edwin, Sr. Margie, Gerry Schroering

On 9 June 1835 a family of seven embarked from the village of Alfhausen, belonging to the Kingdom of Hanover, for a new life in North America. This date appears in penciled-notes by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Mähler in the Parish Church's baptismal register. Even if there had been some immigration previously, this was one of the first Alfhausen families to reach such a decision. No one knew how many other families from Alfhausen would follow.

What may have influenced such a decision and why did this family decide to leave?

The life of Catharina Schröring touches on a lot of background issues, in connections with which many found themselves forced to leave their ancestral homeland. At the same time, it portrays the life of a most exceptional, strong and admirable woman.

Haarmeyer House near the Church in Alfhausen

Catharina was born in 1791, the eighth of twelve children of the merchant family Haarmeyer in Alfhausen, in one of the small houses located in the immediate vicinity of the Church. Today, it has been restored and shows the original inscription listing her parents and the year 1787.

This group of homeowners had a special status among the residents of the village. In Alfhausen, we find these houses small, congested and crowded close together without courtyard and garden, as in several other villages in the surrounding area. They were created out of stores that were built long ago by the most aristocratic families of the village under cover of the fortified Church.

In days of old, it was ultimately almost impossible to lease or buy a house or land in a village like Alfhausen, because large plots were under noble or ecclesiastical feudal ownership during the time of serfdom, and dismemberment of lands were generally not allowed.

In contrast, most of the free land for Kötter [cotters or cottage dwellers] was so small that all of it was needed for necessary support. After several generations all potential living area was filled to the last corner. It was best to be left a little side business or handicrafts to operate outside agriculture, but there was already enough work to be done by the family members. In addition to this, the residents of the villages, the registered farmstead class, possessed shared rights to the forests, pastures, meadows and the common market. Many had little interest in splitting their shares.

In general, for those who were not landowners, heirs, or their spouses, had the same fate as an unmarried maid or servant, or after marriage, the Heuerlingsleben [hired-labor life], associated to a farmstead. The small tenant homesteads with their very small plots to plough belonged to the farmsteads, which were owned by the farm operator, but of course in reality by the Grundherrschaft [manorial system]. Most farms had 1-4 Heuerhäuser [tenant cottages] and interestingly the Heuerleute [tenant farmers] were free, not living in serfdom. Newcomers from outside had ultimately little chance to settle in the village unless they had lots of money, which, at the time, was very scarce and sought after accordingly.

TüötteThe Haarmeyer family was originally from Recke, about 30 kilometers from Alfhausen. It was not the best of farmland there, so the villagers, as a sideline, learned the craft of making linen. Soon after the end of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), benefiting from an economic boom in the Netherlands, men from several families in the region of Mettingen, Hopsten and Recke started as traveling salesmen with baskets on their backs with locally produced linen, of which they organized and distributed amongst themselves.

The spatial proximity to the Netherlands allowed for a convenient expansion, and finally the complex system called "Tüötten" [itinerant salesmen] with its own trade routes in the northwestern region and beyond soon emerged. Therefore, the idea of actively looking out to a foreign land was done out of economic necessity, and this was not new to the Tüötten Haarmeyer family.

The decline of the Tüötten system began at the beginning of the 19th Century, with the changing political conditions of the Napoleonic period, and with the rapid progress in mechanizing the textile industry in England. However, with the introduction of "free trade" initiated by the French, there opened a possibility for the Tüötten to really establish themselves as both traders and merchants in the villages. Conditions for this meant a house, no matter how small. In this regard, a small house, centrally located across from the churchyard, provided the Haarmeyers the opportunities within the village to find work trading in linen, establishing for them an independent mode of existence.

In the Bishopric of Osnabrück, during the last quarter of the 18th Century, there was a modest economic recovery. In Alfhausen there was a particularly active production of the so-called Löwendlinens [Lion Linens], which was a coarse linen canvas. Between 1774-1804 there was a system of standards established, from which the linen was tested, measured, and fitted with a seal of approval and sold. The merchants Hermann Heinrich and his brother Johann Gerhard Haarmeyer remained well known in the linen industry in Alfhausen. Hermann Heinrich's marriage to an Alfhausen woman, Anna Maria Revermann, shows that he wanted to permanently settle there. His brother affirms these facts even though there are no marriage or christening records remaining. Maybe he had planned to return to his home in Recke as an aged warrior, such as was customary of the Tüötten, but he died already in his 59th year in Alfhausen.

Possibly it was the big fire of 1755, which claimed several adjoining houses in the village, which made sure that a new residential house could be built on the grounds. Perhaps it was the merchant family with the now four oldest children living in an old storage building nearby, but a new improved status of the family led to an advantage. Hermann Heinrich Haarmeyer was, next to the bailiff Schwicker and the publican Ferdinand Feltmann, a member of the new French-patterned municipal administration.

Inscription of the house of 1787However, Hermann Heinrich had succeeded, in spite of all adversity, to settle in Alfhausen. Two of his sons were later successful business men in the next generation, and one son married to a farm heiress in the village, and for that he had to change his own name to the name of the farm: Vennedunker. Only two children did not survive the critical years of early childhood. There are many indications that Catharina has brought from her family of origin the idea to win over, not only by inherited rights but through commitment and dedication, her position in life.

Just a few steps from Catharina's birthplace, near the base of the church spire, was the sexton's office. Gerhard Joseph Batsche had taken over the office from his father, of which was customary, and thus in turn had obtained his position by having married the daughter of the previous Sexton, Zumdiek. It would not be surprising if he too came from a family of sextons from one of the neighboring villages. So, as here, the usual way in virtually all areas of career opportunities was a firmly established tradition over generations.

Such precious embroidered caps were worn in Alfhausen during Catharina's timeSexton Batche was married only four years when his young wife died. Exactly one year before, the young couple had already lost a three-month-old son. The second son died two months after his mother, not even half-a-year old. Only one daughter from of this relationship remained alive. However, she died at age twelve.

About six weeks after the death of the little boy, Sexton Batsche married Catharina Haarmeyer in her 20th year. Perhaps Catharina had already supported the family in the difficult weeks with the sick woman, her baby, and a three-year-old girl in the house. Without a housewife, mother, or the services of the Church, all would be gone, because the parents of the Sexton were no longer alive. For us today, the ubiquitous experience of death in those times is difficult to understand. The inescapable presence of death with each pregnancy for any young woman, along with the high probability of death for each child, Catharina had experienced both, in her family of origin, in her neighborhood and in her own life.  

A comfortable and abundant life would not have been what the Sexton offered, but at least there was a good roof over their heads. A new house for the sexton's home and office was built in 1787, in the same year the new Haarmeyer house was also built. The Sexton had three hectares of land available in the village for his own operation. In addition, he received income from levies from the villagers. He relied on larger farms in the parish for a fee from each of one bushel of rye or oats and four sheaves. From a number of other farmsteads, he was entitled by historical law to a certain number of eggs or half a pig's head. His service at baptisms, funerals and weddings brought some degree of earnings. However, the custom to rely on the sexton and his wife as godparents and witnesses had been abandoned by this time.

Painting by Franz HeckerThe absence of standing as godfather had arisen because the authorities had complained repeatedly about wasteful and extravagant celebrations by the rural population. Moreover, for many of the population such costs for weddings or common baptisms were simply unaffordable. Still, receiving additional income for fees in christenings or wedding dinners would not have been refused by Catharina. Today, it may not be easy for us to understand how important such little earnings in those times must have been, but the descriptions from records of the period show how impressive their importance was.

In Alfhausen and other rural communities it fell to the sexton to assist the schoolmaster in his task to teach well over one hundred children. Catharina was born into a family that used goose quill pen and paper regularly, and presumably had a somewhat higher level of education than many others in the village. It would not be surprising if she had had an interest in teaching, its capabilities and commitment, especially since the issue of school seems to have had a special meaning later in her family.

Interesting for sure, was her work in the Church. The young Pastor Dr. Joseph Mähler was very dedicated in his activities, including duties in the care and management of his parish as well as his excellent upkeep and repair of Church property. It was noted by a writer at the time: "Active support was given by the pastor through his curates and of the Sexton G. J. Batsche, who in 1824 paid out of the Church fund an amount of a Reich's thaler [silver dollar coin] and seven shillings for the alcove of the statue of Mary," which was perhaps a more extensive restoration work. This monetary amount equals about what a farmer would receive for the sale of a calf. In all this the Sexton and Catharina received their share.

In the years 1812, 1814, and 1818 Catharina brought three girls into the world. In 1821 Catharina bore a son, Mathias Friederich. The godfather was a schoolteacher, Ludimagister Münnich. This was the first own child that she lost, who had lived only one year. A little daughter, who was only to live for half-a-year, followed the next year. Finally, a sixth child together with Sexton Batsche survived, which was a girl. However, misfortune stayed with the family.

On 10th of June 1826, Gerhard Joseph Batsche died at the age of 42 of pneumonia. After 15 years as a sexton's wife, Catharina, at age 35, reached a turning point. She not only lost her husband and the father of her children, but with him their livelihood, their house, and their place in the community. Batche's 18-year-old daughter from his first marriage no longer lived or worked with the family. Presumably Catharina's eldest, who was just about 14 years old, was in employment outside the home and also for the 12 year old or even for the 8 year old, this is not excluded, but not very likely. Her youngest child, a one-year-old girl, would be safe with her.

The wife of a master craftsman after death of her husband had not only her choice of the personal property in the workshop and the common house, but she had the best chance for a suitable marriage, and the title and status of the husband that could pass. Even a farmer's wife, in servitude under the law, could choose the option to remarry, thereby preserving her living environment. Both could, if the work situation allowed, remain a widow and/or live with their family alone, staying in their home and keeping their work and social place. These choices were certainly not for Catharina. A social decline, a transition to the population of the poor and needy, would have been probable without the family Haarmeyer in the background, which was able to help her and provide shelter.

Heuerhaus in Alfhausen painted by Elisabeth Sprute, née SchröringSince the middle of the previous century the number of poor families increased markedly in Alfhausen, and there was a public demand for public relief assistance. In 1831 there were 178 needy families in the parish of Alfhausen that were assisted with public funds to provide bread grain until the next harvest. This amounted to 40% all households! In addition to the positive aid to alleviate hunger, there were several other measures to alleviate the worst hardships. Nevertheless, many people were living below the poverty line. Many distressing accounts of witnesses during this time are preserved. The communities were considering hiring armed guards to keep vagabonds out of the villages. The plight of children during this time presents a very dark chapter of life at that time. The population increased from 2149 in 1772 to 2602 in 1821, and 2839 in 1833. The gap between the economic conditions of the haves and have-nots increased from year to year.

The Heuerleute represented the largest group of rural people without property. Since a long time it was no more possible to provide for the ever increasing number of families in the village settlement area with a repeated division of the shares needed of the common facilities. A dismemberment of the Courts, or changing the inheritance laws, as practiced in other regions of Germany, were initiated to prevent economic collapse, unthinkable in the Bishopric of Osnabrück and not allowed up to 1874.

Starting with the period after the 30 Years War the Heuerleute lived modestly, paid their rents, and assisted in farm work. However, the possibility to ever again generate ownership and independence was not positive. There was an increasing deterioration of the situation with social, economic, infrastructural and political pressures, simultaneously with the growing overpopulation, particularly from the Heuerlingstand [tenant farmer class]. This resulted in a larger growing gap between the haves and have-nots. .

Etching: Going to HollandFriederich Schröring was the second born son, and was not entitled to inherit as against the first son of the Schröring Farm, which was a Halberbenhof [farm with partial rights to the commons]. He married Elisabeth, a daughter from the Wübbolding Farm, one of the oldest farms in Alfhausen–its location and name itself indicates a Saxon origin. She as well was not entitled to inheritance. After their marriage they moved to a Heuerhaus [tenant farmhouse] owned by the Wübbolding Farm. With this they changed their social class, Heuerleute in the first generation. The couple seemed to have striven for recognition as Markkötter [smaller parcel than a Halberbenhof] in the community. Indeed, with Friederich and Elisabeth having possession and dwelling on the property all their life, they had promising grounds to believe they had reached their goal, but not really. This is interesting, because it illustrates, once more, the futility of trying to change a predetermined position in society. However, in the given circumstance, there may have been a certain reluctance, modestly speaking, considering the intellectual legacy of this generation.

The elder son of the Schrörings, Johann Bernard, as was the custom, continued to live the life of his father, as Wübbolding's Heuer [tenant]. In the population register of 1840 he is once mentioned as Markkötter Schröring, not as a Heuerling [tenant worker]. In 1850 the Wübbolding farming family sold the Vollerbenhof [farm with full rights to the commons] and emigrated to America, and Johann Bernhard moved his entire family, including his four daughters, to another Heuerstelle [tenant farmhouse] in the village of Priggenhagen near Alfhausen. It seems he had given up any plans for social climbing. At least in this time, the farm classes in the villages, because of the haves and have-nots, had already lost its importance. The Markkötter were as poor as the Heuerleute. Like many of his class Johann Bernard Schröring died in Priggenhagen of tuberculosis at age 52.

For the second son, Heinrich, the life of earning a living on a small farm was not preset as was for his brother. Perhaps he wanted to be free and independent as he was. Although his earnings would not be as lucrative as in the years and decades earlier, he could hike in the summer months to Holland to earn money by mowing grass, cutting peat and other seasonal work. Aspiring migrant workers could go even further to Denmark, Sweden, West Prussia, even to Poland and Russia. Herein was the only chance to make some money, although the conditions were more than hard. In these groups of seasonal workers, Heinrich most probably heard stories about the great opportunities in the New World, and these seeds fell on fertile ground.

Just how and where did Heinrich Schröring and the at least seven year older Sexton-widow Catharina meet? This was really not an ideal match for the foundation of a Heuerling family. Maybe their bold aspirations were something to find together? Catharina and Heinrich were married in November 1827 in Alfhausen.

In the first years the young couple probably lived with Heinrich's parents and brother, who still remained unmarried at that time, in the small Heuerhaus. The first addition in the family home was a girl born in 1829, but who died after only a few months. Adding to this, Heinrich’s mother, Maria Elisabeth, née Wübbolding, died in May 1833; and the date of the father's death remains unknown. In 1830 Friederich Wilhelm was born, in 1833 Johann Bernhard, and then in 1834 Johann Heinrich Bernhard came into the world. At this time Catherine was already 43 years old, with a high risk for pregnancy by modern standards. In January 1833 Heinrich’s older brother Johann Bernhard, the son entitled to inheritance, had married and soon the first daughter was born. They all lived together and things were tight in the Heuerhaus, as overcrowded as almost everywhere else in the village and as in the entire surrounding region.

On the 19th of June 1835 the Schröring family left Alfhausen to imigrate to America. Although previously some young men from the region had made the jump over the "big pond," there was only one family group that in 1832 first emigrated from Alfhausen. There are no reports that any families had left in 1833, but according to Church records, two families left Alfhausen during the summer of 1834. In the following year 1835 there is a notation that the Schröring family was the first family of that year departing the village and in August 1835 two other families left together. The number of migrating individuals was significantly higher. There were 36 unmarried men and five single women who should have emigrated in 1835, but the figures are not reliable and consistent.

At this point, it raises again the question of why, that is, what might have influenced the family to make that decision. There are many aspects that bear on the question, but in the final analysis, what follows is a very typical, important and very understandable reason: there were already people waiting on the other side of the ocean.

The very first family that emigrated from Alfhausen in 1832 were the Wichmanns with three sons and an adolescent daughter, and who were acquainted with the Schrörings. Mattias Wichmann was a cousin, whose mother was related to Catharina's mother. Also, the Wichmanns lived in the middle of the village Alfhausen in close proximity to the Schrörings, possibly even in another Heuerhaus of the Wübbolding Farm. Maybe Heinrich and Mattias were friends together on trips to Holland for seasonal work?

Bernhardine Wilhelmine Elisabeth and Catharina Wilhelmina Batsche, two of the daughters of Catharina's first marriage, were to emigrate with them. Her two other daughters, Anna Maria Sophia Theresia, age 23, and Anna Maria Helena, age 17, did not accompany Catharina. Their fate is not recorded in the Church records in Alfhausen. Who knows, maybe they married under a different name, and even eventually arrived in America?

When the family left Germany Catharina was slightly over 44 years of age; her husband was 36; the older daughter was 20; the younger 10; the eldest son Friederich was almost 5; the young Bernhard 3; and Heinrich, the youngest, was under 1 year of age.

The trip through Diepholz, Bassum, and Bremen to the port of Bremerhaven was over 150 kilometers, presumably taking Napoleon's newly completed (1834) military road. The route to the ship was organized with assistance of agents who accompanied them to the port.

The cost of the trip was not small, and the poor in the earliest years could not afford it. Many worked out the cost and saved for a long time. The few belongings that could be taken were transported by wagon. Children were required to be driven safely, but otherwise walking in stages to the port covered the distance. On arrival at the port there was much waiting; and because transportation was by sailing ships, which was dependent on weather, summer was the preferred time of travel.

To date, neither the name of the ship nor a departure or arrival entry can be found and are presumably lost, as has sometimes occurred. In those years records were not efficiently kept, as they were at later times.

The conditions on the sailing ships must have been catastrophic. From letters, we know of the anxiety of passengers during storms, of the huge waves washing over the decks and flooding the steerage, with all the trunks and beds standing under water.

Grandpa Fred Schroering"Most passengers lay on their knees and prayed," wrote one emigrant. The supply of food and water was provided, but had to be supplemented by the passengers. It is uncertain how long the journey took, maybe two or even three months. On bad days due to weather, the passengers were forced to remain in the dark and overcrowded steerage.

The hygienic conditions were completely inadequate, because the ships were built for the transport of goods and not equipped to carry passengers. Passengers suffered from seasickness. Foul odors and vermin made life difficult. Typhoid, cholera, smallpox and other infectious diseases were rife. Many people, especially children, died on board. The youngest son of the Schrörings, Johann Heinrich Bernhard, died, if not on the voyage itself, probably immediately thereafter. Of the 10 children that Catherine had borne, the fourth died with him.

At that time, most German travelers arrived in America at the port of Baltimore. Ships from Bremerhaven also docked in New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans. From Baltimore it is probable that the family would have traveled by land to Cincinnati. It is also possible that they could have arrived in New Orleans. In America there is an oral tradition that they would have arrived by raft on the Ohio River.

It is likely that their relatives, and a circle of friends from the Plattdeutsch [a dialect of German spoken in NW Germany] homeland, were there to meet them. Perhaps even accommodations and possible job opportunities were provided?

A new wealth did not fall into the lap of the family without four years of work. Probably together with other families from the old country, they could buy their first two parcels of land. The property was located 140 miles southwest of Cincinnati. Because it was undeveloped, hilly, and rocky, its value as farmland was questionable.

How disappointing it was that after all the struggles and hardships that the family had experienced before and during their long journey, and thinking that their hardships were over, to find that they were beginning, once again, another tough livelihood.

The family must have worked immensely to clear the land for cultivation. At first the men worked sections of a few weeks to make the most necessary preparations of the land for settlement. The men had to cut a deep notch completely around the trunk a few feet from its base; and after a few years when the tree had died, it then could be removed. Some trees were felled from a foot off the base and one then plowed first round their stumps. Some of the logs were used as timber, out of which a farmhouse and barn were built of hand-hewn beams. It was the custom of the time to combine the house and barn in the same building with one large general storage area, perhaps a reminder of such halls in the Old World.

Life in the new community for a long time continued to reflect the German culture and way of life. In fact, until the beginning of World War I, the community spoke Plattdeutsch. Children were taught in German at the schools, and for the some who were taught at home. There were German newspapers. Gravestones were inscribed in German, along with porcelain pictures of the deceased.

The Schrörings were committed, as was the community. The dialect spoken by the German settlers in the region varied, depending upon their origin from northern or southern Germany, sometimes so very different that they may not have even understood each other. The neighborhood around the Schrörings spoke a dialect of Plattdeutsch known as the "Celestine Dutch."

Both Schröring sons married women from the Old Country. Friederich married Gesina Stümpel from Bakum at Vechta and Bernard wedded Catharine Gramman, born in the parish Alfhausen. Friederich and Gesina stayed on the farm.

Bernard moved to Louisville, Kentucky on the other side of the Ohio River. Catharina died in 1859 at the age of 69. She lived for over 24 years in America. Heinrich died 10 years later. Both are buried in the cemetery in Jasper, Indiana.