The very last country we’re visiting as part of our Rome to Rotterdam pilgrimage is the Netherlands. We’re making lots of good Anabaptist connections here. This, of course, was the home of Menno Simons, whose words that inspired one of my favorite songs “True Evangelical Faith.”
Dutch Anabaptism differed quite a bit from our own varieties of Swiss-German Anabaptism. If the Swiss Germans were quite rural, the Dutch Mennonites were urban and sophisticated. Visiting Doopsgezinde Amsterdam (Singel Mennonite Church) gave us a good taste of this. It took a warren of hallways to get to because the sanctuary is set back from the building’s façade. That’s because the Amsterdam authorities in the early 1600s made them keep a low profile and worship as a “hidden church.” But the sanctuary itself is absolutely beautiful. The worship was elegant and dignified. And the parishioners were urbane. This is in keeping with their history, which boasts significant artistic creativity, scientific achievement, and political engagement. When we visited the Marithuis art museum in The Hague that very afternoon to see “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” and Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson,” we noted that Rembrandt was a kind of honorary Mennonite, having lots of associations and friendships with Mennonites in Amsterdam.
The very last site we visited as part of our pilgrimage was the port of Rotterdam, where our ancestors departed from to migrate to America. We felt a bit like country bumpkins as we wandered the streets of this very cosmopolitan city trying to figure out public transportation. I imagine it was much the same for my farmer-ancestors from Hesse, who had sailed down the Rhine to Rotterdam and then wandered the city before they boarded ships to America at the port.
To be honest, it was a very difficult last day for our group. We were nervous if one or more of us would test positive for Covid the next morning. One of our computers died. We learned that a waterbus that we were depending on to get us from a windmill site to a Rotterdam harbor tour was out of service, making it very difficult to get around. And it was terribly rainy and cold. We were soaked and shivering as we navigated ferries and trains and buses.
At 4:30, just before we were set to end our pilgrimage’s grand finale—a harbor tour around the port itself—we got an email saying that our flight the next afternoon was canceled and that we had been rebooked for just fifteen hours later. It turns out that Schiphol Airport was in meltdown—not enough airport staff, the Pentecost holiday, and bad weather were causing more than fifty cancellations a day. Passengers were getting unruly, and Amsterdam police were in the airport to keep public order. For us, this meant that our scheduled Covid tests would not work anymore, and that we needed to find a different lab on very short notice. Unfortunately, we didn’t have our passports with us—and so couldn’t get tested before most labs closed at 5 p.m.
We found shelter on the front stoop of a building at the port, where I searched for Covid testing centers on my phone as I talked with an unhelpful rep from Icelandair on the phone. I finally found a possible testing site and began typing the personal information of all six of us with an index finger that wouldn’t stop shaking because of the frigid temperatures. After doing it twice because the site could not process the transaction, it finally worked. Unfortunately, by that point, we had missed the harbor tour. After a moment all together as a family at the harbor recognizing our ancestor’s departure, we high-tailed it to a testing center back in Amsterdam. We made it in time, and found out thirty minutes later that we had all tested negative!
Of course, our disappointment and stress does not compare to what Jakob Beiler, Hannes Muller, and Jacob Swartzendruber and dozens of our other ancestors (including so many women who are barely mentioned in the sources) experienced on their journey to America. I’m typing this after a pretty decent chicken dinner (with chocolate ice cream for dessert) on our voyage on United Airlines. The kids are watching movies. Our cabin is air conditioned. The stewards are smiling. Just an hour in, we’ve already passed by England, and the screen in front of me says that we are flying at 579 miles per hour, even with a headwind, at an altitude of 39,000 feet. My ancestors would be astonished to know that we’ll land in Chicago in just five more hours.
In contrast, our ancestors took sea, not air, voyages that took weeks, sometimes months in terribly difficult conditions. Even before the main voyage, they had to raft north on the Rhine River to Rotterdam, a journey that could take up to six weeks—all before they set sail for America.
In the summer of 1737, Jakob Beiler left from Rotterdam on the Charming Nancy, a ship piloted by Captain Charles Stedman of London. This third ship to carry Amish-Mennonite immigrants stopped last at Plymouth, England, in August to re-provision for its trip across the Atlantic. Their destination: Philadelphia. These German Amish undoubtedly chose this ship and destination because word had reached them of “Penn’s Woods,” a colony founded by William Penn that featured religious freedom. They could even own land.
Despite the allure, it was a daunting journey to actually get to Pennsylvania, and the Charming Nancy became a lot less charming in open waters. Hans Jacob Kauffman, another passenger, counted twenty-four deaths during the voyage of 83 days. If the experience was anything like other immigrant journeys, they were crammed in like sardines and subjected to terrible stench, dysentery, scurvy, filthy food, lice, severe storms, and a lack of drinking water. Here’s an entry from Kauffman’s diary:
“The 28th of June while in Rotterdam getting ready to start, my Zernbi died and was buried in Rotterdam. The 29th we got under sail and enjoyed only 1½ days of favorable wind. The 7th day of July, early in the morning, died Hans Zimmerman’s son-in-law. We landed in England the 8th day of July remaining 9 days in port during which 5 children died. Went under sail the 17th of July. The 21st of July my own Lisbetli died. Several days before Michael’s Georgli had died. On the 29th of July, three children died. On the first of August my Hansli died and Tuesday previous 5 children died. On the 3rd of August contrary winds beset the vessel from the first to the 7th of the month three more children died. On the 8th of August Shambien’s Lizzie died and on the 9th died Hans Zimmerman’s Jacobi. On the 19th Christian Burgli’s child died. Passed a ship on the 21st. A favorable wind sprang up. On the 28th Hans Gasi’s wife died. Passed a ship 13th of September. Landed in Philadelphia on the 18th and my wife and I left the ship on the 19th. A child was born to us on the 20 – died – wife recovered. A voyage of 83 days.”
In total, says historian Marcus Yoder, twenty-six people from the eleven Amish families on board, died during the voyage. Twenty-four of them were children. Of the broader context, Yoder writes, “From the period 1700-1750 it is estimated that 50 percent of children under seven years old died on the immigration journey and for those families with babies under one-year-old, the life expectancy was only 10 percent.”
The overcrowded conditions bred unfortunate social behaviors. Cheating, cursing, stealing, and bitter arguments, even between parents and children—and husbands and wives—became commonplace. But they persevered, and upon landing on October 8, 1737, the Amish-Mennonites on board became the contingent large enough to form a church.
After disembarking, they walked from the port area to the Philadelphia courthouse. There they appeared before the honorable James Logan, Esq. to offer allegiance to the British crown. This declaration to both the British king and the “proprietor of the province” had been mandated in 1727 for all foreign immigrants, in part because so many Germans were arriving. Even though these Amish migrants from Germany did not give an oath, which would have been verboten in their faith, declaring allegiance to any state structure would have been uncomfortable for these Anabaptists.
There were dozens of other ancestral voyages too. In 1749, Hannes Muller took a boat, The Phoenix, piloted by Master John Mason, from Rotterdam to Philadelphia.
And in May 1833, Jacob Swartzendruber and family left Mengeringhausen. I’ve already described the departing scene as the townspeople wished them “an obliging farewell and a happy journey” under the crooked steeple of the Lutheran church. That may be the steeple that Daniel Gingerich, Jacob’s stepson and fellow passenger, was thinking of when he wrote that the cliffs of England passing on the right side of the ship were probably “4-6 times as high as a high church steeple.”
Daniel’s fascinating diary also mentions exotic fish and the problem of seasickness. He describes how the ship lost its anchor after colliding with another boat, how passengers tied themselves down with a rope during a storm, and what a voyage funeral was like. He wrote that “the captain made a nice speech so solemn that many cried. He said man offended God so often with his deeds that we would all be lost if God would punish us at once as we have deserved, but the gracious God preserved everything through his mercy.” The brick-weighted corpse of the man, who died of an illness, was then dropped into the sea.
After nearly two months, however, Daniel got annoyed by the captain. He wrote, “We are also out of the gulf stream according to the . . . captain, but the captain does not always tell the truth.” Still, on day 54, the Swartzendruber family awoke with American soil on the right and the left. The final words of Daniel Gingerich’s diary read like this: “There was great rejoicing that [they] once more saw land.”