Radio Interview on KSER 90.7 Everett
A Conversation with
Q. In your debut novel, THE LAST OF THE BLACKSMITHS, you bring to life the story of a young man in the 19th Century who dares to follow his dreams of freedom and prosperity and travels from Bavarian Germany to Cleveland, Ohio to become a blacksmith. What inspired you to write this story?
A. The idea for the book came from the discovery of old letters. Generations of my German side of the family had been corresponding for 160 years when old letters from Cleveland turned up in my relatives’ attic in Freinsheim, Germany. The earliest letter was written in 1841 announcing a family member’s safe arrival in Cleveland, Ohio. Who wrote these letters? So many generations had passed, we did not know.
Q. Were you ever able to solve the mystery?
A. Well, the letters were indecipherable. Not only were they written in German, they were written in an old German script – sometimes called gothic, or blackletter, from Latinate languages (and standardized as Sütterlin around 1911).
In their correspondences, German American immigrants often complained of letters not arriving to them – perhaps due to the “alternate” Sütterlin alphabet – the “e” looks like an “n,” and the “s” looks like an “f”, unless the “s” ends the word, then it looks like a “d” and so on. American mail carriers would have had a hard time reading addresses.
My cousin from Freinsheim came to Seattle with the letters in hand. She had taught herself to read the old script, and during her visit, we worked together translating them.
Q. So, who were these people in your letters?
A. Using my father’s family tree, we figured out the first letter was written by my great-great-great-great grandfather, Heinrich Handrich. The rest were written by his son-in-law, John Rapparlie, wagon-maker and blacksmith in Cleveland during the 1840s and 1850s. Rapparlie describes his wagon business – the custom of each wagon being built from start to finish by one man. In that era, everything was reliant on the craftsman’s skill and his good reputation.
Artisan skills – blacksmithing, carpentry, wagon-making — had levels of training: apprentice (3-5 years), journeyman (who journeyed from town to town to ply their trade), and eventually, master craftsman.
These letters changed our understanding. We had always thought my great-great grandfather had come alone at age 15 to Cleveland to apprentice as a blacksmith – but he was actually following his mother’s side of the family, the Handrichs.
Q. Do you think your family’s immigration experience was typical for that time period?
A. Yes, definitely. They’re an excellent example of chain migration. One family would leave, then write letters home talking of life in America: no kings or taxes, empty land to settle. Other families would soon follow. A large percentage of emigrants from my ancestral village of Freinsheim went in the 1850s to the Cleveland-Parma-Akron area. One letter describes barn dances in Ohio rural countryside for Freinsheim villagers to see each other again.
While doing my research, I discovered an important clue for searching ancestors; in census records, I would look at nearby pages. Often neighbors were related, and I’d find a married aunt, future spouse or other relation.
Q. After reading your book, I was eager to learn more about German American immigrants. Can you offer any tips on where readers could find out more information?
The Tenement Museum in New York City is a fantastic place to learn about immigrant history and tour tenement buildings from 19th century (not just German).
The “alphabet streets” around Tompkins square in Manhattan used to be called “Kleindeutschland.” In 1855, 154,000 Germans lived there, a greater population at the time than the city of Hamburg. Adding up the Germans in the New York Metropolis, the population would have made it the fourth largest city in the U.S.
The earliest wave of Kleindeutschland emigrants were from the southern and western regions of Germany (Baden, Wurttemberg, land along the Rhine, such as the Bavarian Palatinate). Over a million people immigrated between 1850 and 1860. The later waves, post-Civil War, were predominantly from the north, especially from Prussian ruled lands.
Many German immigrants who arrived in Kleindeutschland in NYC stopped to see relatives and friends from their old villages, then moved on — especially once the canals and railroads were in place — establishing farms and communities in midwestern states like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri.
Q. Was it difficult researching German ancestry?
A. Yes! Part of it has to do with that troublesome handwriting, so I started searching for variant spellings. Another challenge had to do with 20th century events that led people with German ancestry to try to hide their heritage. My relatives, the Hoppensacks, changed their last name to Hoppe. During the outcry over Germany’s involvement in WWI, many states in the U.S. even outlawed the German language – both teaching and speaking it in public. Over 50 million Americans claim German ancestry, but it’s only in recent years that people feel more open about exploring their German heritage.