Page Four
The Vollkommers

previous page. . .

     Of course, my findings here are based on the assumption that among Sigismund’s siblings and other male Vollkommer relations, only he and his family made the temporary move to Gueckelhirn.30 Indeed the evidence points to that conclusion, and, to date at least, I have found no indication to the contrary. That leaves the mystery of the two Georges, for which several explanations present themselves. While I feel certain of my memory that the first Georgius, born in 1808 in Bruenn, was indeed Sigismund’s son, I have no physical documentation to prove this beyond the notation in my notebook.31 We can therefore assume that this son died in early childhood, or that I am wrong in this recollection and he was not the son of Sigismund and Margarethe. There is no record of his death in the Pfarrweisach registry, however, which in itself also proves nothing. The second Georg, 1811, was indeed born in Gueckelhirn, and this would seem to place him in Sigismund’s brood. But this relationship can only be substantiated through the examination of the second Georg’s birth record, which I either somehow overlooked in the Wuerzburg archive, or it was simply not there.

     What of the other family lines of Vollkommers descended from Joseph and Anna Maria, who married in Bruenn in 1754? Based on my field notes, there are three branches about which I can provide some limited detail and leads, the first being that of Joseph and Anna Maria’s youngest son, Veit (1759), already referred to several times in this narrative:
     My theory is that Veit left Bruenn sometime around 1836 when the Vollkommer property, and its dwelling, house #8, was sold. He settled in Unterpreppach, a slightly larger village several kilometers to the south of Ebern, where, according to the family tradition of his descendants, Veit purchased a considerable landholding, most of which would eventually be sold off by succeeding generations as house lots. It was from Unterpreppach that Veit’s grandson Andreas (1829) migrated to Williamsburg in the 1840s. This Andreas then married a German-speaking woman from a “foreign” land, Wurttemberg, who gave birth to several children on Brooklyn soil, including Georg, the name that most frequently repeats itself in the family genealogy.
     This Georg was the great grandfather of Gerhard (Gerd) Vollkommer, originally of Unterpreppach, and currently residing in Ebern. Gerd himself might have been born an American had Andreas’ wife, also according to family lore, not found the climate of Brooklyn unsatisfactory. Sometime around 1859, this branch of the Vollkommer family returned to Unterpreppach, where Andreas built a small memorial chapel in thanksgiving for their safe re-crossing of the Atlantic, which still stands today at the entrance to the village. Gerd’s mother, and his sister Jutta, with her family and with whom I’ve spent some delightful evenings, continue in Unterpreppach village today, as do Gerd and Jutta’s other three sisters and their families.
     Sigismund was the oldest son of Veit’s brother Andreas (1755) and Barbara Mueller, and Sigismund had other siblings who appear to have survived and produced families of their own (see list page 29). Of the fates of his sisters, I have nothing definitive to add. But I did unearth certain details about his brothers Georg (1796) and Karl Joseph (1802). The genealogy of Georg’s (1796) descendants is outlined fairly extensively in the Bruenn History.32 It is through him that the Vollkommer name continued in Bruenn until 1957, when the last male of the paternal line, Johann, died. This Johann’s daughter, Marie Vollkommer, married Michael Hild, and the Doppelhausnummer - the double house number - 4/5 remains in the possession of a Hild descendant to this day. It is this property that is associated since1754 with Joseph, the original Vollkommer in Bruenn, acquired, I suspect, through his marriage to Anna Maria Mueller.
     Subsequently, Veit (1855), perhaps in a similar fashion through marriage, acquired house #8. How Sigismund, who was after all his nephew, not his son, came to later inherit half this property is anyone’s guess. What the proprietary links of other family relations were to these properties, in terms of their inheritance shares, the record at hand does not provide us. One imagines, however, that all the heirs, old and young, male and female, married and unmarried, were entitled to care and shelter in their lifetimes, and that most shared a piece of the action when the properties came to pass from one generation to the next.

     On April 20, 1823, Sigismund’s youngest sibling, Karl Joseph (1802)33 married Josepha Hofgesang from the neighboring village of Leutzendorf. In the diocesan archives at Wuerzburg, I recorded the names of nine children born to this couple between 1824 and 1841; judging from the church registry, and other death records at the archive, it appears that the majority of these offspring did not survive infancy or childhood. Some, however, did. The Vollkommers who later resided in Pfarrweisach and Lohr, where both male lines have only died out within the last generation, were undoubtedly derived from this and other lines not fully identified. That the extended Vollkommer family maintained close contact with its various offshoots, so long as the family members’ dispersion was limited to the surrounding villages, seems clear from one anecdote told to me by Doktor Berninger, the M.D. and local historian whom I interviewed in 1999. According to his first hand knowledge, the Vollkommers from Bruenn, after hearing mass each Sunday at Sankt Kilian’s in Pfarrweisach, routinely spent the rest of the day in the company of their relations who had settled in the parish village.
     My acquisition of the Pfarrweisach church registry data in November 2002 provides entries for certain Vollkommer births, marriages and deaths that I cannot account for comparatively with data gathered from my other principal source of information, the diocesan and state archives. While Joseph of 1754 fame was clearly the first Vollkommer whose name is mentioned in the Sankt Kilian records at Pfarrweisach, who knows if other members of this clan subsequently migrated to this parish from Autenhausen, or from other villages at present unknown to us. Moreover, not all of their vital statistics would have been recorded at Pfarrweisach’s church, since they might have been affiliated with other parishes. From a strictly genealogical perspective, there remain more loose ends in tracing and interpolating the begets and begats of the many bearers of the Vollkommer name in Old Germany than this survey can hope to satisfy.34 But the question of central significance to this narrative can be forestalled no longer. What light, if any, can I shed on Sigismund’s decision at the age of forty-nine to uproot his family in 1836 and leave Bruenn for America? Precious little, is the disappointing answer.

     In reviewing the contemporary scholarship on migration history, and in particular that literature concerned with the Atlantic migration from German-speaking lands throughout much of the nineteenth century, it seems clear that one must seek beyond the general conditions that underlie such massive population transfers - the sweeping historical forces of economics, politics and religion - and attempt to identify motives and circumstances that were specific to individuals who chose the path of emigration. A point to emphasize here is that for every individual in a given family and in a given set of circumstances who chose to emigrate, many others in their immediate circle of relations or associates chose to remain at home. We can therefore assume that Sigismund and his family had their own reasons for sailing to New York, whatever the general nature of the situation with which they were confronted in their native village.
     The life of toil facing peasants with small holding like the Vollkommers did not return prosperity commensurate with the investment of their labors. And even for those who, in relative terms, did prosper, the avenues of social mobility remained blocked by a re-establishment of the aristocratic order after the defeat of Napoleon. At its extremes, the life cycle of the peasant farmers alternated between fat times in good years, and lean in the worst. Occasionally disaster struck, as in 1815 when crop failures in and around Ebern were total, the result of excessive rains.35 Sigismund was 28 that year, and already married for almost a decade. He had gone to the baronial estate in Gueckelhirn because the option was available to him, but also perhaps because he could not earn his livelihood in Bruenn. Either he did not as yet possess sufficient acreage to support a family, or the burdens that wartime appropriations placed on the village-based agriculture generally imposed downward limits on the size of the population Bruenn could support.
     Sigismund did return to Bruenn sometime before 1820, and we can assume, in part from the parish birth registry, that he stayed there for another sixteen years. When, at age 49, he decided to emigrate there was no war pushing him across the Atlantic. Certainly religion was not a factor; the sectarian religious wars (until the contemporary period, at least, with Ireland and the Balkans) had long been settled throughout Europe. And besides, the Vollkommers, and the Muellers before them, were practicing Catholics living side beside with their Protestant neighbors for more than two centuries in a region that seems to have sat out the worst of the personal upheavals derived from the Reformation.
     By the early decades of the 1800s, rapid population growth confronting major shifts in the global economy and its labor markets was indeed a spur to migration throughout Europe.36 But poverty per se was not a motive for most emigrants leaving Germany for America; indentured servitude and contract labor had been abolished in post-colonial America, thus subsidized migration had become an option only in certain exceptional cases. Determined individuals of both sexes might scrape together the cost of passage, but the poor, in general, could not afford the journey. Sometime after the French War, the peasants had come into possession of their land, presumably through mortgage or purchase from the landlords, who, in any event, had already in the early decades of the nineteenth century begun to take their fees in cash, not in kind. And, besides, Sigismund Vollkommer was not poor; he sold the half-share of his property in Bruenn for 4,000 gulden.
     The Bruenn History states that: Das Anwesen Nr. 8 war bis 1836 im Besitz der Familie Sigmund Vollkommer, die 1807 und 1836 durch Heiraten beurkundet ist und vervandt mit den Vollkommer aus Hs. Nr. 4 u. 5 war. Sigmund Vollkommer vanderte 1836 nach Amerika aus. Er hatte sein Anwesen um 4.000 Gulden verkauft an. [Property no. 8 was until 1836 in the possession of the family of Sigmund (sic) Vollkommer, recorded through marriage in 1807 and 1836, and related to the Vollkommers in house number 4/5. Sigmund Vollkommer emigrated to America in 1836. He had sold his property for 4,000 gulden.]

     Sigmund and Sigismund seem to have been alternative designations for the same name. As for the marriage records, we know that 1807 refers to Sigismund and Margarethe Becht; it is possible that the1836 marriage record refers to their son Andreas, who accompanied the migration with his wife and year old infant.
     The Vollkommers were by no means the only family to leave the area around Ebern for the U.S. in this period. We know from a passage in what is called the GrebCronik, housed in the Ebern city archives, that emigration to America was well known to the region. The Greb Cronik was begun in 1844 by Johann Georg Greb, a teacher and church organist residing in Ebern.

     By and by, so many from Germany and Europe, as well as from our own region, had already emigrated to the United Stated on the sparsely inhabited continent of North America, to find a better homeland there, deluding themselves with fantasies of the freer, pleasure-seeking, and dutyless life they would lead in that place; favorable written accounts of these emigration experiences circulated widely here in Ebern, and spread false expectations among those who heard them, especially the more rootless single folk. The onset of migration here began in 1837. As a reference, I list here in chronological order every individual who left Ebern for America between 1837 and 1855, with all relations nonetheless bunched together, and thus preserve them for posterity.
     Herr Greb expresses what was the party line on the question of emigration by officialdom throughout Germany, who seemed to treat this phenomenon of gathering forces beyond their control almost in personal terms, as an act of communal or cultural rejection. In fact, it was necessity for some, and for others, merely a choice, one which Sigismund made, whatever his other more immediate or specific reasons, because he perhaps believed he could put his talents and capital to better use in the growing economy of the new world than in the old, where, presumably, his chances were less opportune.
     There is a decidedly religious tone to Greb’s discontented claim that emigrants in general were chasing after false idols rather than accepting their god-given lot at home in the proper spirit of obedience and resignation. This is not to suggest that the land of opportunity wasn’t oversold to many who imagined their lives would somehow be magically transformed without the commitment to hard work that did eventually offer material rewards and social mobility, if not always to the pioneer emigrants themselves, often to the generations who followed them.
     But Greb also sheds light on the existence of what migration historians have come to call “chain migration,” a kind of communications network that linked earlier waves of emigrants to their communities and relations back home, facilitating the transfers of others at a later time, typically to the same area of settlement. In the manner that we can suggest from the facts in our possession that Sigismund’s decision to migrate was unprovoked by compelling necessity, we can also speculate that he and his family provided one of if not the earliest link in the migratory chain that would eventually carry so many Vollkommers from Bruenn and its surroundings to the New York area. There is indeed no evidence as yet to the contrary, and moreover, the dates bracketing Greb’s migratory flow from Ebern and vicinity place Sigismund’s departure a year before the curve. Unfortunately, this segment of the chronicle that I came across in the Ebern city archives was not accompanied by the stated list of emigrants.

     One final mystery concerning Sigismund’s departure eludes solution: by what route did the Vollkommer party of seven individuals make their way from Lower Franconia to a port city on the Atlantic? Further complicating this question is the fact that, while we know the party arrived in New York on the Preciosa, it isn’t clear whether their ship sailed from Hamburg, where its master was licensed, or from Bremen, as one of our documents suggests? In either case, there were alternative routes available to the travelers, one, striking due north overland by coach or wagon to a river port along the Elbe that would have taken them directly to Hamburg, or the more likely, yet circuitous river journey beginning on the Main from nearby Bamberg, twenty kilometers south, connecting ultimately with the Weser River or the Elbe by the major river roads of western Germany. And we also do not know the bureaucratic tasks that preceded their exit, what forms of releases they required from their local parish or township, or from their sovereign, who was by then the king of Bavaria. We can assume they settled these matters correctly, paid their Abzug - their exit tax - then turned their backs on Bruenn and departed their homeland forever.

     Given the time of year, it is probable that their Atlantic crossing was relatively calm and uneventful, lasting anywhere from four to six weeks depending on fortune and good winds. But it should by no means be imagined, in the era before more reliable and rapid clipper ships and steam powered vessels, that any voyage across the northern Atlantic was an easy one. In colonial times, mortality rates among the passengers - especially infants and the infirm - was so high that emigrant ships were known as floating coffins. By 1836, these crossing were subject to tighter regulation, and conditions had steadily improved, but quarters remained cramped and overcrowded, and ships were often ill-provisioned. And, of course, a storm at sea could wreck havoc under the best of circumstances. A family like the Vollkommers with available means might have discovered before departure that the more they depended on their own stores for personal comfort and nutrition during the crossing, the better off they would be.
     We know from the passenger manifest of the ship Preciosa that Sigismund and his family arrived safely and entered the New York City of 1836 that I have sketched above. As also noted, times were hard in the young republic, money tight, and prices for the necessaries of life in an upward spiral. It would seem reasonable to assume that the Vollkommer clan would have wanted to depart New York, if it were in their power to do so, to settle in a rural area where they could purchase land and live the agricultural life to which they were bred over many generations. It is possible that their funds were only sufficient to cover expenses for their initial journey, but fell short of allowing them to escape the city and continue onward.
     We do know that the family took up residence somewhere in Kleindeutschland, affiliating itself with the first German-language parish in New York created in 1833 just three years before they arrived by “a wealthy Austrian priest named Johann Stephen Raffeiner... [who] used his own money to lease a church in the Thirteenth Ward and laid the basis for the formation of the Saint Nicholas Kirche on Second Street.”37 The only documentation we have of the Vollkommers belonging to this parish are two marriage records recovered from Most Holy Redeemer Church, a veritable cathedral which still stands on E. Third Street, between Avenues A and B, and where the records of the defunct Saint Nicholas Kirche continue to be housed.
     These records state that Joseph Vollkommer, son of Marg. Beeht (sic) and Simonis (sic) Vollkommer, married Margarita Yaeger (sic) on May 16, 1841, and that Peter Vollkommer of the same parents married Josephine Schurck ten days later on May 25, 1841.38 Both marriages took place at Saint Nicholas’ on E. Second Street. Some months before, in 1840, a dispute with his parishioners had led Father Raffeiner to “abandon the parish,”39 and on October 10, 1841 his new church, Most Holy Trinity, was dedicated across the river in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.40 It is apparent that many, if not all, the Vollkommer clan sided with Father Raffeiner, and soon accompanied his move to Williamsburg, where, on January 1, 1842, a baby named Margaret, born to Joseph and Margarita Jaeger Vollkommer, is the first child listed in the Most Holy Trinity baptismal index under the letter ‘V’.41 The second listing for a Vollkommer child was Mary Margaret, father George, baptized September 24, 1847 and a month later, Joseph, father Peter, baptized August 25, 1847. Between 1841 and 1875, this baptismal registry lists the names of forty children named Vollkommer.42
     The point is emblematic of how widely the Vollkommers, in their many permutations, were dispersed for several generations throughout the Williamsburg neighborhood. The village of Williamsburg (spelled Williamsburgh at the time) was incorporated in 1664, a quiet, rural river-setting, inhabited principally by descendants of the early Dutch and English colonial stock... and by more slaves per capita than anywhere else in the New York region. Throughout the early nineteenth century, Williamsburg was a playground for elites, a place of many resorts, and one in five of the wealthiest New Yorkers made their homes there. Then, propelled by the new waves of arriving Irish and German immigrants, the village grew rapidly, evolving into an independent township in 1827 with a population of 1000, and swelling to more than 40,000 in 1855, when it was absorbed into the city of Brooklyn. Until 1903, with the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge, the neighborhood had been served by private ferries, which carried farm produce and other commodities to the markets of Manhattan. Given its proximity to the nation’s major seaport and the new dynamic inland waterway, the Erie Canal, Williamsburg rapidly developed into an “ideal incubator” for manufacturing and business.43
     Religious scruples, and not business opportunity, per se, seem to have drawn the earliest Vollkommers to Williamsburg, where, in the manner of countless migrants throughout the ages, they adapted to conditions as they found them to earn their daily bread. There is an 1847 edition of the Williamsburgh Directory, Register and Yearly Advertiser brought out by local printer/entrepreneur “containing the usual arrangement of names, occupations and residences.”44 It is through this and subsequent editions of this and other directories that we learn that the Vollkommer men did indeed enter the economy in so-called entry level positions. Sigismund’s son Joseph (1817), milkman, is initially listed as residing on Ewen Street, just around the corner from Most Holy Trinity. In this listing, we find as well his brother, Peter, also a milkman, living on nearby North 7th Street. In the 1849 directory, we learn that Joseph has become a grocer, and in the 1851/52 directory, the name George Vollkommer, laborer, appears for the first time, also on Ewen Street.45
     The directory, incidentally, also provides the following account of the extraordinarily rapid expansion of the Catholic German-speaking community in Williamsburg, through the following historical blurb on the Most Holy Trinity parish:
     “The church was built in Montrose Avenue, near Ewen Street, for the German Catholics in the ‘Dutch Village’ of whom there is a large population and was organized in July 1841. The number of communicants was about 200 which number has grown to 6,000 [1852]. The Sunday morning congregations which meet for two services every Sunday and each average about 900. 250 were baptized the past year and 54 married.”
     It seems fairly obvious to suggest that the occupations chosen by the Vollkommers in Williamsburg were those to which their prior lives in Germany had, to some degree, prepared them. From agricultural producers, they became distributors of agricultural commodities. One who produced garden vegetables and cow’s milk for personal consumption - or even cash - in the old country would certainly have a leg up on bringing these products to the marketplace in their new land. And while these Vollkommers may no longer have had an actual hand in the growing end of things, they were surrounded by a productive farming community, predominated by truck gardens and, presumably, husbandry on the scale typical of semi-rural households or garden farms. A self-employed milkman might have visited a number of such homesteads, collecting the surplus raw milk from those who kept small herds, then made the rounds to his own customers. Or he may have simply been an employee of a larger firm.

Page   One   Two   Three   Five   Notes   Memoir