Coming to America: Part I The Decision to Go

 

Jacob and Elisabeth Fast and their youngest daughter Katharina, about 1890, in Nebraska.

One hundred fifty years ago this summer, my great-great-grandparents, Jacob and Elisabeth Fast, left their village of Lichtfelde in the Russian Empire (now Hrushivka in occupied Ukraine) to board a train to Hamburg, Germany. In Hamburg they boarded the S.S. Teutonia, along with a thousand other emigrants, to sail to New York City. By October 1874, they had arrived on the American frontier near Henderson, Nebraska, where they quickly settled into railroad immigrant sheds for the winter.

Jacob and Elisabeth were 43 and 42 years old. They were poor and tired and with seven children in tow, including my 16-year-old great-grandfather David. Although they lived in a farming community, they owned only a small farm plot. Jacob was a carpenter, who made furniture and wooden water buckets, shovels, and spoons. Elisabeth was a domestic servant.

After spending their first four years of married life in a rented cottage, Jacob had borrowed 200 rubles to build a house. For the next 18 years, he was only able to pay the interest on that loan. Decades later, their son David recalled gathering Russian thistles and tumbleweeds to feed the livestock. He remembered how sad he was when his father was forced to trade two beautiful foals for twelve bushels of rye. Despite back-breaking manual labor, they were only barely able to survive. For poor farmers, the promise of cheap land in a bountiful New World was a powerful attraction.

But Jacob and Elisabeth did not emigrate alone. They were Mennonites; and in 1870, the Russian emperor Aleksandr II had canceled their “eternal” exemption from military service, along with the right to educate their children in German. As a result, 15,000 Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to the United States and Canada over the next decade in search of religious freedom.

Jacob and Elisabeth were members of the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, and the church had decided that it was the Christian duty of all members to leave Russia for the New World. The church even collected a loan fund so that all of its 1,500 members would be able to leave.

Jacob Fast’s signature for the 125-ruble loan that he received from his church’s loan fund.

In 1874, Jacob and Elisabeth sold their house, little farm, livestock, and farm equipment to repay their debts. But they had no money left for traveling expenses, so they borrowed 125 rubles from their church’s fund to finance their trip. Because 1,500 church members were traveling together, the church had rented five trains to carry them to the Russian border, through Germany, to the port of Hamburg.

At the train station, they bid their earthly farewells to his parents Gerhard and Elisabeth Fast, who were in their 80s. Gerhard and Elisabeth each handed a letter of remembrance to their son Jacob to guide him and his family as they would establish their lives in the New World.

Published in Immigration
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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Steve Fast: Jacob and Elisabeth were members of the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, and the church had decided that it was the Christian duty of all members to leave Russia for the New World.

    Mostly in the southeast part of the state, it looks like. No wonder I had no idea. 

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    What a great post, Steve! I look forward to reading the later parts!

    • #2
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Steve Fast: (now Hrushivka in occupied Ukraine)

    Google Maps shows several Hrushivka’s in Ukraine.  I’m going to guess that your family came from the one in Mykolaiv Oblast.  Did I guess right?

    I hope you don’t mind my asking. When people mention places I like to look them up. 

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Steve Fast: (now Hrushivka in occupied Ukraine)

    Google Maps shows several Hrushivka’s in Ukraine. I’m going to guess that your family came from the one in Mykolaiv Oblast. Did I guess right?

    I hope you don’t mind my asking. When people mention places I like to look them up.

    I’m glad there will at least be a Part 2, by the way.  

    • #4
  5. Steve Fast Member
    Steve Fast
    @SteveFast

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Steve Fast: (now Hrushivka in occupied Ukraine)

    Google Maps shows several Hrushivka’s in Ukraine. I’m going to guess that your family came from the one in Mykolaiv Oblast. Did I guess right?

    I hope you don’t mind my asking. When people mention places I like to look them up.

    Good guess, but it’s the one in Zaporiz’ka Oblast.

    • #5
  6. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    Henderson is still a Mennonite community. My great, great grandparents settled a little west of there a couple of years later. They moved from western New York, his family had lived in America for well over two centuries by that point. One of their sons, my great grandfather, married a local Mennonite girl and homesteaded 150 miles to the Northwest.

    • #6
  7. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Wonderful story, thanks, Steve.

    To know so much detail about one’s ancestors is a blessing. I’m particularly envious because my own great-grandmother was a Fast, first name Josephine, and I know very little about her history.*

     

    *Just a family legend passed by word of mouth that some earlier Fast was a German noble named Faust, who had to leave the country for America and change his name to escape persecution. Something about falling in love and marrying a peasant. And a much more reliable fact: “Dodie” remembered having to traipse through the snow to go to the outhouse in winter. 

    • #7
  8. Blondie Thatcher
    Blondie
    @Blondie

    I love reading these personal histories. Look forward to the rest of the story. My ancestors were just boring ol’ English folk. On all sides. Not a “strange” name among them. 

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I love these kinds of stories, Steve. I know very little about my ancestors, except my grandmother came from Russia. I can’t wait for the next part!

    • #9
  10. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Steve Fast: In 1874, Jacob and Elisabeth sold their house, little farm, livestock, and farm equipment to repay their debts. But they had no money left for traveling expenses, so they borrowed 125 rubles from their church’s fund to finance their trip. Because 1,500 church members were traveling together, the church had rented five trains to carry them to the Russian border, through Germany, to the port of Hamburg.

    I have to admit that I was a little confused, since I thought at this point in the story that they were leaving Nebraska. I understood going farther into the paragraph.

    • #10
  11. She Member
    She
    @She

    Wonderful start to the series, @stevefast.  I look forward to the next installment.

    In a post here many years ago, I linked to a New York Times study about family histories and “the stories that bind us.”  At the time, it wasn’t behind the paywall, but now it seems to be. There’s a publicly available summary of the study here.

    The conclusion  (which I quoted in my post) was as follows:

    The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

    We are the stories we leave behind.  Here’s to Jacob and Elisabeth Fast, and the hope that many more generations will tell theirs. 

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Steve Fast: Jacob and Elisabeth were members of the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, and the church had decided that it was the Christian duty of all members to leave Russia for the New World.

    Mostly in the southeast part of the state, it looks like. No wonder I had no idea.

    I see that some settled in Wausa, which was not so far from where we lived in the late 50s and early 60s.  Maybe my high school played them in basketball; I’d have to look it up.  Seems to me I have the season schedule somewhere.  (My mother saved a box of my things from those days.)  

    That got me to looking at the funeral home obituary page for the region to see who died since I last looked, several months ago.  There were several people from Wausa, and several surnames I recognized, but nobody I went to school with or knew of.  When I see a Czech name there is usually a connection with Verdigre, where I was attending high school when JFK was assassinated, and French or Indian names usually have some connection with the Santee Sioux reservation, where funeral ceremonies are usually presided over by the kid who sat next to me in study hall at Center High School on the edge of the rez.  I wouldn’t know how to recognize Alexanderwohl Mennonite names other than I presume they are mostly German.  In North Dakota I went to school with German-Russian kids whose families had come from Russian-ruled Ukraine (Odesa Oblast for some of them) but I never heard of any Mennonites among them.  

    • #12
  13. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Steve Fast: Jacob and Elisabeth were members of the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, and the church had decided that it was the Christian duty of all members to leave Russia for the New World.

    Mostly in the southeast part of the state, it looks like. No wonder I had no idea.

    I see that some settled in Wausa, which was not so far from where we lived in the late 50s and early 60s. Maybe my high school played them in basketball; I’d have to look it up. Seems to me I have the season schedule somewhere. (My mother saved a box of my things from those days.)

    I was well-rewarded for reading this article, which answers a number of questions about Steve’s ancestors, and gives a lot of interesting history:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexanderwohl_Mennonite_Church

    • #13
  14. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Beautiful! Keep them coming!

    • #14
  15. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Steve Fast: They were Mennonites; and in 1870, the Russian emperor Aleksandr II had canceled their “eternal” exemption from military service, along with the right to educate their children in German.

    Why did he do that? He did free the serfs from tyranny after all. 

    • #15
  16. Steve Fast Member
    Steve Fast
    @SteveFast

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    To know so much detail about one’s ancestors is a blessing. I’m particularly envious because my own great-grandmother was a Fast, first name Josephine, and I know very little about her history.*

    My “genealogy” aunt did a lot of research. I started in 8th grade, with her help. I’ve been researching family history since then and intensively for the last 15 years. My aunt is 99 and has retired from research, so she passed all her information to me.

    Interesting that you have a Fast ancestor.

    • #16
  17. Steve Fast Member
    Steve Fast
    @SteveFast

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Steve Fast: They were Mennonites; and in 1870, the Russian emperor Aleksandr II had canceled their “eternal” exemption from military service, along with the right to educate their children in German.

    Why did he do that? He did free the serfs from tyranny after all.

    When Russia lost the Crimean War in 1856, it set off a series of changes in Russian society. Emperor Aleksandr II was determined to reform Russia so that it would not be defeated again on its home territory.

    The main reform was conceptual. Russia had not been a nation but had been a collection of estates or groups that owed allegiance to the emperor. Each one had its rights and responsibilities defined by law and custom. This included various types of nobles, merchants, serfs, Jews, Poles, etc. The goal was to forge a Russian national identity instead of a collection of groups owing allegiance to an autocrat.

    The Mennonites negotiated a deal (a privilegium) in 1786 when they began to arrive in Russia that exempted them from military service, allowed them to staff their own local government, and to conduct education in German. It was supposed to be eternal, but in reality lasted less than a century. Mennonites learned the hard lesson that one autocrat does not feel bound by a previous autocrat.

    The serfs were freed in 1861 and thus that estate was substantially reformed. In 1870, the emperor revoked the military exemption of all estates, which included the nobles, Jews, and Mennonites and other foreign settlers. The Mennonites spent three years 1870-1873 trying unsuccessfully to get this change reversed. In 1873 they decided to move en masse to North America. When the Russian government found out that all 45,000 were planning to emigrate, they partially relented and allowed Mennonite young men to serve in a forestry corps instead of the military. But about 1/3 (15,000) left anyway, which thankfully included all my ancestors.

    • #17
  18. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Substitute Norka for Lichtfelde on that end and Prague for Henderson on this end and I could piece together a very similar story. 

    Nice post.

    • #18
  19. Brian J Bergs Coolidge
    Brian J Bergs
    @BrianBergs

    Reading immigrant stories is fascinating, thank you for posting.  The stories are many and complicated and weave into the American character.  Half of my family roots are in colonial New England and the middle Atlantic states.  Another quarter comes from the Rheinland near the Dutch border in the late 1850’s/early 1860’s.  Another quarter arrived in the 1870’s from the Germans who lived in modern day Poland (before my remaining cousins were ethnically cleansed from those areas post 1945).   The key is they all wanted to be free and the Germans wanted most of all to be loyal Americans.

    • #19
  20. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    philo (View Comment):

    Substitute Norka for Lichtfelde on that end and Prague for Henderson on this end and I could piece together a very similar story.

    Nice post.

    “Prague” pronounced with a long “a”? 

    • #20
  21. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):

    philo (View Comment):

    Substitute Norka for Lichtfelde on that end and Prague for Henderson on this end and I could piece together a very similar story.

    Nice post.

    “Prague” pronounced with a long “a”?

    Is there any other way?

    • #21
  22. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    philo (View Comment):

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):

    philo (View Comment):

    Substitute Norka for Lichtfelde on that end and Prague for Henderson on this end and I could piece together a very similar story.

    Nice post.

    “Prague” pronounced with a long “a”?

    Is there any other way?

    Never mind  the “a”.  What about the “g”?

    • #22
  23. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    philo (View Comment):

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):

    philo (View Comment):

    Substitute Norka for Lichtfelde on that end and Prague for Henderson on this end and I could piece together a very similar story.

    Nice post.

    “Prague” pronounced with a long “a”?

    Is there any other way?

    Not around here.

    • #23
  24. Steve Fast Member
    Steve Fast
    @SteveFast

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Steve Fast: In 1874, Jacob and Elisabeth sold their house, little farm, livestock, and farm equipment to repay their debts. But they had no money left for traveling expenses, so they borrowed 125 rubles from their church’s fund to finance their trip. Because 1,500 church members were traveling together, the church had rented five trains to carry them to the Russian border, through Germany, to the port of Hamburg.

    I have to admit that I was a little confused, since I thought at this point in the story that they were leaving Nebraska. I understood going farther into the paragraph.

    Thanks – that’s a helpful critique on my writing.

    • #24
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