Diary of Susannah Woychik, 1868 1 - The Plan for Emigration
The Diary of Susannah Woychik
Sunday, March 8, 1868
Lepszy wrobel w garsci niz golab na dachu
It’s better to have a sparrow in your hand, than a pigeon on the roof
Such an exciting time. Mama has given me a diary and suggested that I write up everything about our trip, so I will start right now. We’re moving to America. I can't believe it. Of course, it’s not just us, but half of the village are going.
Pa has said that the diary should mostly facts and impressions of our journey – not gossip and stories about my friends. He wants it to be something we can send back to my Aunt Susannah (for whom I was named) as she hopes to be going to America in a year or two as well.
It all started about ten years ago, in 1858, when the Bautch brothers and two of their sisters and their husbands left from our village, Poppeleau, (see map above) and the neighbouring town, Schalkowitz, and emigrated to the States. They had intended going to Texas, where they heard that land was free. But somehow things got mixed up and they ended up in Wisconsin and are now settled in a township called Arcadia. They have pretty much created the town, and have invited us from our part of Silesia to come there too. They said it is a very good place to go. Then three year ago, Pa’s nephew Zeman Woychik and his wife Katrina and their children, Hedwig, Joseph and Michael, also emigrated to Arcadia and they are very encouraging for us to go too. His brother Louis, who is 20, is coming on our same ship.
Our little village, Poppelau is on the edge of the Oder Valley. 2 1/2 miles to the southwest is the great Oder River, which regularly floods in the spring and yet is too unruly for navigation south of Breslau, which is the only major city in all of Silesia. To cross the Oder in the vicinity of Poppelau the only way is by ferry, unless one goes 12 miles downstream to the town of Brieg, or 13 miles upstream to Oppein. Oppein is the headquarters of the district administration to which Poppelau belongs and on letters one writes Poppelau kreise Oppein, Oberseliesien. Soon our address will be Arcadia, Trempealeau, Wisconsin, USA.
We speak Polish as you would expect, but have very few words of English. We are Roman Catholics and our contacts in Wisconsin say that there is a Polish community there, where we will be able to have the sermons at Mass in our native tongue. Also, they have a school where the children speak Polish. It should not be much different from being at home, although I expect we will have to learn the language at some time.
Our dialect which is called Silesian Polish has changed and includes many Germanic words, such as the words for newspaper and potatoes. That is because our area of Silesia was annexed to Prussia in 1742 and has been under the control of the Germans since then. Many of the Germans in the area, especially the wealthy landowners and the government officials, are Lutheran. But we still consider ourselves to be Polish and Catholic and proud of both. Here, even the clergy are German, so we will be pleased to be living in an area where we are not seen to be inferior.
Our town is small, and consists of a single row of large houses on either side of the road, and it has but one store and one restaurant. Each day the people go out from the town to work in their fields. My father is a farmer, and he will be doing that again in Wisconsin.
Prussian rule has brought much hardship to the Polish peasants of Upper Silesia. We are not even allowed to gather wood from the state forests, which now belonged to the Prussian emperor. The province, in short, was treated as a colony of Prussia to be ruled and exploited for the benefit of the Prussian empire, to increase Prussian wealth, and to provide soldiers for the Prussian army. Sometimes whole towns fled to the hills to camp out there to escape having their young men recruited for the army, which demands three years’ service from each teen-aged boy, once he has finished school. The use of Polish in the schools has gradually been suppressed.
The Prussian landowners in Silesia actually want to get rid of us and favor the emigration of the Polish population to other areas of Germany, or to America. We are going, not to please them, but because of their desire to use our young men for Prussian militarism, and also the attraction of free land available after the Homestead Act of 1861, passed while Abraham Lincoln was president. We have been told that in most states which do not have a large population already, land is given away to anyone who lives on it, builds a house, raises a crop and manages to keep it going for five years. And it is quite a bit chunk of land too, 140 acres.
It was not an easy decision for my parents. There are five children, of which I am the eldest. If we stay here, Pa, who owns a small farm would not be able to offer any sort of farm work other than labouring for my brothers. War is certainly likely to happen here soon. Pa certainly does not want my brothers John and Thomas to be called up.
Pa borrowed a book which was written by one of those people who had emigrated a few years ago. It mentions all sorts of pitfall and things to be wary of. It tells what to take with you, and when it is best to go. And although my parents argued about it long into the night for many weeks we have now decided. We with Uncle Simon Woychik and his family, will be going to America, along with the Skroches, the Sygullas, the Gamroths, the Gemazas, the Kukas, Robert Sylla, and our cousins Louis and Peter Woychik and his family. There will be 34 of us from our village on the same ship.
I know a few of the children who will be going – but most of the girls are either older, like Sophie Sygulla or younger, like my cousin, Julia Woychik and Mary Skroch. But as Moma says, I will not have time to play while we are on the journey. I have to help her look after my brothers. She says it is very important for us to learn as much English as we can, and the long time en route will be a very good time for us to have lessons. I have an English-Polish dictionary, and intend to quiz my brothers each day.
I have finished with my schooling, which was all in German rather than Polish, so I know both languages well. I was told that I was quite clever for a girl. I asked Pa is I could read that book which he obtained about what to look forward to. At first he thought it was none of my business, but then knowing that I have a better chance of understanding than the others, he let me. Also his education was not very thorough and he knows that I can read better than either he or my mother.
The book is called The Emigrant’s Handbook and Guide to Wisconsin, by Samuel Freeman, printed in 1851. Mr. Freeman talks about why he chose to emigrate and all the problems he had. We shall be going from Hamburg to New York, and then on a train to Chicago, and then to La Cross, Wisconsin. From there, the trains don’t go, so we shall have to go by steamer up the Mississippi River to Trempealeau and then by cart the rest of the way. The voyage should take about three weeks. We could have gone by sailing boat, but that would have taken at least six weeks, and although it would be much cheaper, we were advised against it.
In his book, Mr Freeman spends a long time talking about the constitution of the United Sates and how it works. Mostly I skipped over that bit. But then he talks about the rights of citizens. If we go there but do not become naturalized, we will have virtually no rights at all. We will not be able to own land, and the other children couldn’t attend school.
Then he goes on to talk about Wisconsin. It is about 415 miles from east to west and 449 miles from north to south, and is considered quite a big state. Pa showed me a map and pointed out the area where we will be going. I asked him how that compared in size to Silesia and he said he thought Wisconsin was bigger. There are no mountains, but that are hills leading down to rivers, lakes and waterfalls, which are sufficient for creating water power. There is one big lake – Lake Superior, on the north, not near where we are going and many small and very beautiful lakes. The great Mississippi River forms the western boundary. Steamboats travel on the Mississippi. It is not all that far from where we shall be living.
Then the book talks about farming as that is what Pa does, and will do, he was most interested in that. It says that most farms are owned by the farmers, but that salaries paid for those who work on farms is vastly higher than those in Europe.
Mr. Freeman talks a lot about buying land. The smallest parcel of land one can buy is 40 acres. He says it costs 5 shillings sterling per acre (he is an Englishman and writing in terms of English money). Then there were all sorts of advertisement for land agents and such. All in all, rather a boring book.
Here is one of the advertisements that we found for our ship.
“The passengers from the day of embarkation to the day of disembarkation at the port of destination receive free board on the scale usual on seagoing ships. This consists of sustaining and nutritious food such as salt beef, fat pork, herrings, peas, beans, pearl barley, oats, rice, sauerkraut, butter, plums, pastries, pudding, etc. All in sufficient quantity and of the best quality. Coffee is served in the mornings and in the evenings, tea and ship’s bread with butter. In accordance with the decree of the local authority, the ships are provisioned for 30 days so that the passengers will not lack for anything on the longest voyage.”
It makes is all sound very pleasant, but I’m sure it will not all be as good as they let on. Pa says there is another book being passed around amongst the families that was more practical. I hope he will manage to get that one for me to read.