The first branch of my family to migrate from Europe to the United States was named Vollkommer, a variant of the German word for perfect or complete. From a genealogical standpoint, the Vollkommers have indeed proven to be the - well - almost perfect ancestors. Among all my immigrant forebears, the Vollkommers have left the longest trail marked by a tantalizingly extensive, albeit frustratingly incomplete, documentary record.
The patriarch of this migration was Sigismund Vollkommer, aged 49, my mother’s maternal great-great-grandfather, who arrived in New York August 25, 1836 by way of Hamburg or Bremen on the ship Preciosa, accompanied by six members of his family. These included Margarethe, his wife, whose maiden name was Becht or Pecht, and whose age is mistakenly given as 59, (she was at least five years younger); their sons Andreas, 25, Joseph, 18, Peter 15; Andreas’ wife, also Margarethe, 24, and their one year old infant, Adam. Only Sigismund’s occupation is listed as ‘farmer;’ and the family’s point of origin, Bavaria.1
The tracks I have followed most closely on this side of the Atlantic belong to the son named Joseph, the line from which my mother’s family traces direct descent. But it is through Sigismund and his immediate forebears that I have been able to form something of a composite view of what life was like for folk like the Vollkommers in old Germany. Members of this family made their home for at least two centuries tucked away in a quiet corner of Unterfrancken - Lower Franconia - having spent the last seventy-five years prior to emigration in the hamlet of Bruenn.2
Typically, ships sailing to New York in 1836 landed at wharfs along the East River at the lower end of Manhattan Island. There was as yet no central point of processing and embarkation for arriving immigrants as there would be in later years, initially at Castle Garden on the Battery, Manhattan’s southern tip, and after the early 1890s on Ellis Island, a station exclusively for immigrants located in the midst of New York Harbor.3 In 1836, customs and city officials, including physicians, boarded each arriving vessel at dockside, inspected the cargo, both human and material, and later recorded passenger manifests, like that on which the names of the Vollkommer family appear, in the city’s public archives.
In those days, the neighborhood preferred by German-speaking newcomers was directly linked to the wharfs on the lower east side, roughly eighteen square blocks bordered by 14th Street to the north, the Bowery on the west, Division Street to the south, and, of course, the river along its eastern edge. This configuration comprising four city wards was soon styled Kleindeutschland - or Little Germany.4 There is some documentation to suggest that the Vollkommers initially lived in this neighborhood, several of them only briefly, and others, perhaps, for a longer duration. There will be more to say about Kleindeutschland and the Vollkommer residency there, but first this attempt to set the epoch and the place by sketching what it was like to find oneself in this mythic land of promise thousands of miles from one’s homeland, just three and a half decades into the nineteenth century.
The United States in 1836 still had one leg in the Age of Jackson, and was just laying to rest the last great icons of its revolutionary past, in a year that saw the passing of Aaron Burr, James Madison, and Betsy Ross. The railroads and steamships, destined to accelerate the pace of national life, and to revolutionize the landscapes and sea lanes of transportation, were as yet little more than technological novelties. Rooted in two centuries of British colonial culture literary America had finally arrived as Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper rose in these years to their apex of popularity both at home and abroad. Walt Whitman was at the threshold of manhood on Long Island, likewise Henry Thoreau in Concord, Mass., where his mentor and neighbor the great sage Ralph Waldo Emerson reigned as celebrant of the unique American Traits.
1836 saw the Alamo fall, and frontier legend Davy Crockett with it, and, soon thereafter, Texas would hoist the Lone Star over its short lived independence. Of the other territories west of the Mississippi that foreign powers had already ceded to the new republic, only a few had by then attained statehood. The county was young and raw, the vast stretches of Indian lands, forest and plains, already mapped for conquest from sea to shining sea. And the great symbol of this manifest expansion, given voice simply, reverentially, by evocation of a single word, America, meant ruin to native populations pushed ever westward, and renewal to the transatlantic multitudes disembarking in the east whose destiny it was to replace them.
Dutch New York - New Amsterdam - had been a polyglot community from its origins in 1624. Isaac Jogues, the Jesuit missionary, passing through en route to France in the early 1640s, heard 18 distinct languages spoken there in what was the most remote outpost of the Dutch trading empire. Thus New York was long a crossroads of population diversity by the time the Vollkommers arrived in 1836, but the city life, once confined to Manhattan’s lower quarters, was already over-spilling its boundaries, and beginning its rapid up-town march, absorbing the little hamlets, like Greenwich Village and, ultimately, Harlem, that had sprung up bordering the farming estates of the original Anglo-Dutch poltroons. The grids of future city blocks were fast being laid across this vanishing pastoral scene. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Atlantic shipping, once more safe for travel, was soon clogged by migratory traffic, as tens of thousands, and, soon, millions, from Ireland and the German-speaking lands found with the restoration of peace in Europe their opportunity to depart the old world for the new.
Clusters of the quaint, tidy town houses of the Knickerbocker era, as well as the streamlined elegance of structures that typified Georgian and Federal architecture, stood in abundance throughout the city. But this new New York in its totality was a maelstrom of expansion and development, and the neighborhood, in which the Vollkommer clan found itself across the gang plank of the Preciosa, while undeniably dynamic, was considerably less cozy than that occupied by New York’s established artisans and gentility. Indeed the wards of Kleindeutschland and its surrounding blocks would evolve into a prototype for New York’s immigrant precincts, ultimately de-historicized by the innovations of fin de siècle photography in the iconized imagery of the so-called Lower East Side.5
That Lower East Side was an immigrant New York of teeming streets and pushcarts, lined with dusty brick tenements more or less uniform in layout and construction; fifty years earlier, Kleindeutschland was a hodgepodge of proto-urban chaos, abattoirs and manufactories, sail lofts and rope walks, wooden multiple dwellings, shanties, shops, and sheds in profusion of every shape and combination. There were no bridges then to Brooklyn, only ferries. And most typical of the visual references for these earlier times are the contemporary sketches that depict the Five Points, located just south of the German wards, the city’s notorious den of the thieves and cutthroats (or in Whitman’s more democratic formulation, “not paupers and criminals, but the Republic’s most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men who will work.”
To give a broader flavor of the city’s cultural and commercial life in these times, I insert here a sampler of observations by a New York denizen who left us an eyewitness account, his unsigned Memoir of an Octogenarian, 1818-1866:
*In 1832, there was a single florist in New York, located on Broadway, near 23rd. St. “The custom of funeral wreaths, flowers in churches at Easter, bouquets at dinners, weddings, or balls, and boutonnieres was unknown.”
*That same year occurred “the first election of the Mayor by popular vote,” in which the pool of enfranchised voters - all male and all propertied - nonetheless remained quite small in relation to the adult population at large.
*The Whig party celebrated its election to the Common Council with a banquet at Castle Garden, and an address by “Daniel Webster from a window of Mrs. Edgar’s house in Greenwich Street.”
*John J. Boyd, assistant alderman of the First Ward, introduced... a resolution... requiring houses of prostitution to be licensed and maintained under surveillance. The community... were… wholly unprepared for… an acknowledgment of the existence of these houses...”
*“...one theatrical characteristic of this period... consisted in the dramatization of Scott’s and Cooper’s novels.”
*1835 “saw the printing of newspapers by steam for the first time... the Sun being the first...”
*“Up to this period there were no real estate brokers... the business being confined to... auctioneers.”
*The “Five Points Riot” took place on June 22, 1835, when a crowd of “native citizens” attacked a meeting of Irish who were set to organize a self-defense unit, and later broke up a tavern, the Green Dragon, in the Bowery.
*“The attention of real estate speculators having become directed from Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place to Brooklyn, especially the waterfront farms at Gowanus and Red Hook - land which could have been bought for one hundred dollars per acre a very few years previous - were sold for five and six hundred dollars.”
*December 16th, 1835, a great fire destroyed twenty blocks of wooden buildings bounded by South Street, Coenties Slip, Broad and Wall streets. “The fire raged for two nights, not ceasing till the third day. It was reported to have been seen in New Haven and Philadelphia.”
*“Such the enterprise of New York that it was observed this year, on the anniversary of the great fire of 1835, that the whole burned district had been rebuilt...”
*1837 “opened with unfavorable business conditions, money being very scarce and tight. High prices for the necessaries of life prevailed; flour was $12 to $15 per barrel... and a head of cabbage was two and six pence (31.25 cents).”
*“It was about this period that the German families had so increased... that their custom of dressing a Christmas Tree was observed... I have a vivid remembrance of my going over to Brooklyn of a very stormy and wet night to witness the novelty.”
*The use of gas from public works was now prevalent in public buildings, and, at least, the better homes, replacing the old “instruments of illumination.. oil lamps and spermaceti or tallow candles.”
*In 1839, “iceboxes or refrigerators were for the first time introduced in the markets.”
*At the end of August 1839, the slave ship Amistad was captured near Montauk Point.
*In December of that year, “the daguerreotype was first introduced in New York, exciting great interest and wonder.”
*“January 31, 1840, a party of roughs on the East Side entered private houses and a German restaurant, 101 Elizabeth Street, where they broke tables, etc. and were fired upon by the keeper and his friends, killing one and wounding four others; the excitement consequent upon which led to a repetition of rioting for several subsequent nights.”
*In 1840, New York City’s population was put at 312,000.6
On one Saturday night in 1841, our man-about-town promenades along the Bowery, “by way of a novel amusement... up the street, past pungent odors, past fruit stalls and stands of the roastchestnut men, past shining shows of cutlery and spreads of trichinosial bologna carved to slabs of mottled salmon pink, past drinking shops innumerable, Cheap Johns and policy shops, pawnbrokers and cigar shops, displays of Bowery millinery and faded dry goods,” until he comes to a Cheap John of “unusual glare and pretension.”
“Walk in gentlemen,” invites the barker as he cried his wares, “stockings made in England for the Emperor of Siam, and stolen from his caravan at great risk.” At which point our Beau Brummell observes “some Germans coming in... badgered in bad German by the salesman, and roundly abused in English, of which they knew scarce anything.”
Later, “coming down the Bowery, which had become a very Babel, we went into the Atlantic Garden, a vast beerhall, crowded... though it was yet early, with a company of all ages and both sexes. Some had made family parties and were enjoying meals of that sort that only German digestion can assimilate. Few Americans were in the company, which was nearly pure German. There were dense clouds of tobacco smoke, and hurry of waiters, and banging of glasses, and calling for beer, but no rowdyism; rarely are there rows at the German places of resort, so they are less interesting than they might be to the student of humanity.”
We can read in this commentary some of the notions a Jacksonian-era New Yorker of our observer’s middling social position entertained regarding Germans, hardly the most degrading epithets of ethnic prejudice one can imagine to be sure. Nowhere near as harsh as those hurled at the slum dwelling Irish, who were not only viewed en mass as dirty and ill-mannered, but as minions of the Church of Rome. One could not exercise that native anti-papist bias so easily toward the typical German immigrant whose mere appearance was no key to his religion, since Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Free Thinkers were all part of the migratory mix from German-speaking lands. And the fact that Germans were not prone to disturbing the peace seemed to count in their favor, even if it made them less amusing as subjects to the student of humanity. Clearly the German diet was repellent to a native American of discerning palate, and indeed trichinosial bologna carved to slabs of mottled salmon pink has an indisputably unappetizing ring to it. But it is just as likely that Sigismund Vollkommer and his family, and perhaps a less finicky Yankee or Irish working man or woman on the same jaunt through the Bowery - the heart of Kleindeutschland - would have feasted on such common fare without the slightest fear of indigestion.
Such attitudes toward outsiders as those expressed here are not surprising. What is more difficult to explain is why the Vollkommers decided to abandon Germany in the first place, and why - given the rural nature of their lives in Franconia - they chose to remain in a congested urban setting so seemingly antithetical to their habitual way of life? After all, Sigismund was a Bauer, which, when referring to someone from Franconia in 1836, would more properly be translated, not as farmer, but as peasant, which is to say, not only a countryman, but one whose background is linked to a semi-emancipated status of land holding within the socio-economic framework of feudalism. This was, in fact, the estate into which Sigismund was born in 1787.7
Alas, neither of these questions will receive satisfactory treatment here. There is some detail at hand, buttressed by research and the occasional leap of informed imagination, that allows us to picture the Vollkommer world in the diminutive and rustic community of Bruenn; as to why this family, after generations of working the land, rather than move west to continue farming, suddenly embraced life in New York, the fastest growing city in the world, the record is virtually silent.
The name Bruenn, referring to a specific Rodungsinseln, or clearing, in the vicinity of what would later become the missionary parish of Pfarrweisach, first appears in the historical record during Carolingian times, circa 800 AD, as a “gift” to the crown from the imperial abbey at Fulda.8 By the thirteenth century, this corner of Franconia had been incorporated within the ecclesiastical Duchy of Wuerzburg, and Brun - das Dorf bei dem brunn, the village-by-the-spring, appears periodically thereafter in the ducal chronicles, now carved into separate properties and estates, and traded back and forth over the centuries among the imperial knights who, with the Prince Bishop of Wuerzburg, were hereditary proprietors of the land.
Typical of the division of 26 estates and properties in Bruenn among the nobility is the following census for the year 1576:
Prince and Lord of Wuerzburg, Bishop Julius Echter: seven properties.
Wilhelm von Lichtenstein zu Schaumberg-Gereuth: six.
The Duke of Saxony: one.
Wolf Marschalk zu Ebnet: four.
Achatius von Giech: three.
Wilhelm von Lichtenstein zu Billmuthhausen: two.
H.W. von Laineck zu Goldkronach: one.
Bastian von Stein: two.
These were the landlords; it was the Bauren, like the Vollkommers, who actually lived on and worked the land, and each year delivered roughly thirty percent of their product, in-kind, as rents, taxes and feudal dues to their aristocratic masters. Bauren in Bruenn were peasants, but they were not semi-enslaved, like the serfs in Russia or in eastern German lands. They represented at least semi-free labor, and were generally a self-sufficient economic entity with rights as well as obligations based on highly codified laws, traditions, and customs. While peasants held no title to the land they worked, these small to medium sized holdings could be passed on to, even divided among, their heirs. They owned their houses, livestock, tools, implements, and other household goods, and these too were inheritable according to the laws of the region. Most significantly, Bauren had mobility, and could travel and move from town to town more or less without restraint, or at least after providing a perfunctory explanation to a local authority if their move was considered permanent.
The full emancipation of the peasantry throughout most of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany), as the constellation of German-speaking city states, petty kingdoms, and the more substantial principalities - along with Austria-Hungary - were collectively known, occurred unevenly and over many centuries. Each of these territorial entities, large or small, was ruled more or less independently subject to the variables of size, power, and wealth in an ever shifting complex of local and European alliances. The peasantry had actually risen throughout Germany in 1525 when their most independent-minded elements apparently mistook the Reformation of Martin Luther for a social revolution. Luther soon dashed their hopes, rallying the Protestant nobility to join with their Catholic peers to ruthlessly crush the rebellion. Several castles and manor houses, like those belonging to the barons Rothenhan and Lichtenstein, in the vicinity of Bruenn were sacked and plundered by the local peasants, but the chronicles do not report if any residents of Bruenn were involved in the insurrection. And, again, none of Bruenn’s inhabitants were numbered among the eleven unfortunates, the “peasant leaders,” publicly hanged in Ebern, the nearby shire town, after the aristocratic order was restored.
After the Peasants War, the toilers and the underclasses were put back in their places, and, nonetheless, over the next century experienced times that were relatively peaceful and prosperous. That period of relative tranquility ended precipitously with the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618. And it is with the opening of this tragic chapter of German history, that, at least tangentially, an American descendant of the Vollkommers encounters the first records of his own roots in Frankenland. It was through the Muellers, a family into which a Vollkommer would eventually marry, and which was represented in Bruenn by at least one head of family bearing the Mueller name between the years 1621 and 1838.