Who are the Frisians?
In the United States, the terms “Frisian” and “Friesland” are almost entirely unknown, except to those of Frisian ancestry. Although many thousands of Frisian immigrants settled in the United States, their neighbors have considered them to be Germans or Dutch, and being quiet, reticent, and often clannish folk, most Frisians have not talked openly (except among themselves) about their heritage or the land of their origin.
Even some fairly comprehensive histories of Germany fail to mention the Frisians. The reason is that Frisia was a small area isolated on the coast of the North Sea. It was never powerful and never a conqueror, although often oppressed. They were often unknown to the world, overlooked by historians, and many times forgotten by their American descendants.
In the nineteenth century, Ostfriesland was a poor and overpopulated land. As families grew, it was almost impossible for a farmer to acquire enough additional land to employ his sons. Therefore, the sons of such a family were forced to become day laborers or “colonists,” who were settlers on land newly reclaimed from the North Sea or on moorland from which the usual layer of peat had to be removed.
Word of the attractions of the United States soon spread throughout Ostfriesland. Making a decision to emigrate was never easy. Abandoning the known, no matter how unsatisfactory, for the unknown. The fact that the early East Frisian (Ostfriesland) emigrants were willing to make such a decision speaks volumes about the depths of their despair and the intensity of their desire to create a better life and future for their families.
And so, despite their doubts and fears, East Frisians began to resolve that we will go to a new land. (We Will go to a New Land by Robert Behrens)
FRONT PAGE NEWS
Imagine the year is 1850, and you are sailing on the Atlantic’s big dancing waves to the promised land in a sailboat. The following two-part letter could have been written by any immigrant. Read now the personal account of Frisian, Hinrich H. Franzen.
ON THE OCEAN 75 DAYS
Date at Golden. Jan. 11, 1920
Seventy years ago today the parents and grandparents of our townsman, Harm H. Franzen, then one year and seven months old, landed in New Orleans, having emigrated from Ost Friesland, Germany. Their joy ride over the dancing waves of the Atlantic, their speed record across, and the arrival in New Orleans are described in a letter which the father of the writer of these lines wrote and sent back to home folks in Germany as soon as he set foot on the shores of America. Later in some mysterious way, this letter came back to this country, and the writer obtained it from Mr. J. J. Emminga for publication in the New Era. Originally, it was written in the German language of course, and on account of the lines being faded and torn, it was a bit difficult to study and translate it so that none of the original meaning might be changed or lost.
The letter reads as follows:
New Orleans, Jan. 11, 1850
Dear brother-in-law and wife and all friends and acquaintances:
To begin with let this letter bring you most cordial greetings from us all. Perhaps you have been expecting a letter from us for a long time, but on account of the long voyage we were unable to write to you sooner. We were long in making the trip across and suffered many hardships. Not an hour later than the time when I mailed my first lines to you, the sea sickness laid its hold on me. One after another of our party became subject to it, with the exception of father and John (Flesner, Sr.) We suffered from headaches, dizziness, and serious nausea. Those eating most, suffered most. Later father became ill, too, but his sea sickness was of a different form, consisting of constipation and dizziness, but without nausea. But John remained almost free from it all. The other passengers suffered, too, almost without an exception.
We had not even recovered from our sea sickness when a storm arose. This was on November 4th at 3 a.m., when we had just reached the coast of England. The storm blew in direct opposition to our course, and we drifted back into the North Sea. (The reader will bear in mind that the author of this letter was not traveling on a giant ocean liner of from 500-900 feet in length with several steam turbines of 20,000 horse power each to plow her unerringly through the towering waves, but it was just an old–fashioned sailboat, which the wind and the waves aimlessly tossed about at times—writer’s note).
This storm took three days to spend its force. After that we enjoyed six days of fair weather with a calm sea. Then another storm of three days duration caught us and again the wind blew against our course. Thus we drifted hither and thither in the North Sea until November 16th, when a strong breeze, favorable to our course, filled our sails and drove us into the English Channel. But we had not proceeded very far when the wind turned against us another time and, instead of sailing through the channel in two days, we spent four in doing so. We now reached the Spanish Sea (Bay of Biscay) and all went well for awhile. In four hours, we sailed a distance of 9 German nautical miles (about 10 miles). But our progress was soon hampered again. After two days of favorable weather, the waves went wild again. It was now the 23rd of November. As usual, the storm lasted three days. It was followed by a sudden stillness. After a few hours, we noticed thousands of fish leaping out of the water, cut half circles in the air and disappear beneath the water’s surface again. We were told by the ship’s crew that this queer fish maneuver meant another storm. After two days it came. Fortunately, it lasted only a few hours…to be continued
ON THE OCEAN 75 DAYS
But to our great disappointment, a dead calm now followed. We were on high seas, but our ship lay as quiet as though at anchor. Not until the 15th of December did a favorable breeze bring us any nearer to our destination. We were all utterly discouraged. But now we had at least one thing in our favor, and that was fair and balmy weather. During the first days of December, it was so warm that our summer clothes felt quite uncomfortable. In the forenoon of the 21st day of December, a thunderstorm passed over us, and then a strong breeze sprung up which to our great joy carried us westward for 10 days. The 29th of December brought us within sight of the Island of Haiti, and the 30th we reached Cuba. But now another quiet period set in which lasted until January 5th, 1850, when a fresh breeze carried us forward past C. San Antonio, the extreme west end of Cuba. At last we neared our landing place, New Orleans. On the 10th of January, we were met by a steamer which towed us into port.
During this entire voyage, taking up 2 and 1/2 months of time, we saw no living being besides those on board, except sea mews, a few whales, and thousands upon thousands of flying fish, about the size of a herring, the latter being very numerous along the shores of Cuba.
We docked at New Orleans at 2 p.m., January 11, 1850. Our joy was indescribable. We had enough to eat while on board ship, but we were heartily tired of ship life and the food we received there. Amid shouting, cheers, and laughter we went ashore.
Even though our voyage was long and tiresome, still we all were thankful for being in the best of health since the beginning of December, when we recovered from the sea sickness, and we sincerely hope that you, too, are all well. We are not a little surprised at the well-being and courage of our aged mother. She is stronger now than she was at home.
Herewith I shall close, because the fleas are making too much use of their chance to get a “square meal” while I sit still. These “bloodhounds” did the most of all to take the pleasure out of our trip. Remember us to all friends and acquaintances, and by all means to my father and mother, brother and sister. You will not be able to write to us, not knowing our whereabouts. We may write again after 9 or 10 weeks, for we have yet 1200 or 1400 miles to go.
With best wishes I am and remain,
Your true friend, brother-in-law, brother and son,
(signed) Hinrich H. Franzen and his mother-in-law.
A further look into the Franzen family in two weeks: Hinrich’s son, Harm H. Franzen (the small child in this letter) recounts early Golden, Illinois history in A Window to the Past, part 3.
Note: Images from my 2005 and 2010 trips to Ostfriesland, Germany can be found here under Travel