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Emigrants unprepared for conditions in ships

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

In your imagination, go back to 1845. The German immigrants will be crossing the Guadalupe River into what would become the settlement of New Braunfels. The date is March 21st and in 1845, it was Good Friday. As we know, Good Friday is not often on that date, but New Braunfels celebrates Founder’s Day on March 21, 1845. When you go into the Sophienburg Museum, the first display you see is dedicated to the brigs that brought the immigrants from Germany.

Since it is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, picture in your mind what the following famous ships looked like and you can get a mental picture of a brig: How about the “Sea Hawk” from the movie “Pirate of the Mediterranean”? Do you remember the “Jolly Roger”, a pirate ship of “Capt. Hook”? And then the “Covenant” from the story “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

A brig is a small sailing ship with two masts. A brigantine is the same kind of ship but has a different arrangement of sails. Even now, every ship has a brig which is a prison cell where prisoners are kept until the ship reaches shore. By the 19th century, most ships were made of pine and were standard cargo ships. (They are also called barks, barkentines, clippers, named according to size and shape, number of masts, and how the sail was rigged.)

Then there were schooners which were fast, small ships used often from Galveston to Indianola. Do you remember the “We’re Here” schooner made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s “Captain’s Courageous”?

The German immigrants had the idea, as promoted by writers and especially the Adelsverein, that the two month trip, was to take them to a new exciting country where all their problems would be left behind. The romance of traveling was exciting and since most of the immigrants came from the interior of Germany, few had even seen the ocean nor a sailing vessel. They had already traveled many miles to get to Bremen or Antwerp to get on the brig to travel thousands of miles to their new Heimat (homeland). They must have had a rather “child-like” anticipation of something new and adventurous. On the other hand, it must have been a bittersweet experience, leaving your home to which you would never return and saying goodbye to friends and relatives.

Around 60 ships were leased by the Adelsverein and eventually made over 100 trips. The time taken to get from Germany to Galveston was roughly around 58 to 146 days depending on the weather, especially wind. Most of the vessels were cargo ships, well built and heavy, but slow. Group transport at the time made it profitable to convert cargo ships into emigrant ships.

The ships were divided into three sections: The bottom or the “hold” carried water, provisions, and the baggage of the immigrants. The middle section, steerage, had a hallway through the middle from one end to the other, and contained cubicles 8 x 8 stacked one on another. These cubicles were arranged with upper and lower berths with ladders to get up and down. They contained the large trunks of the family and had only a rough sailcloth straw mattress.

In a few of the ships, the steerage had portholes, but in most, the only light and air that reached these cabins was from the stairway leading to the upper deck. No running water, no buckets for “conveniences”, no lamps except whale oil lanterns, no washing facilities for body or clothes. Slop jars served as toilets, the contents of which had to be carried to the upper deck each morning and dumped into the sea. An average of 150 persons were in steerage.

The upper deck was separated from steerage by a hatch. During stormy days, the hatch had to be kept closed. Imagine the seasickness, heat, and close quarters. Many died and were buried at sea. The number has not been determined.

The first emigrants traveled to Bremen, sailed north on the Weser River to Bracke. Here they embarked on the brigs tied to the docks. Then they sailed to Bremerhaven, and out into the North Sea. The rough English Channel brought on seasickness. Eventually the drinking water took on a bad taste and smell. The food consisted of salted beef, pork, peas, beans, barley, rice, potatoes, sauerkraut, and cabbage. There was much rejoicing when they finally reached Galveston and then Indianola.

As difficult as the trip was, “All for Texas and Texas forever” says it all. Victor Bracht, 1848.

A painting of the brig, Herschel. This ship’s first trip left Bremen on Sept. 23, 1844. The next trip left August 14, 1845. Artist unknown.

A copy of a certificate for the Hans Heinrich Wallhöfer family of six, stating that they could leave Brennen on Sept. 15, 1845 and arrive in Galveston.