REISCH EMIGRATION FROM PRUSSIA

 

If there ever was a Hell on Earth it was the Rheinland region of Germany during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Beginning with the Thirty-Years War in 1616, and until the Seven Years War ended in 1763, constant conflict devastated this region. Particularly devastating was the French invasion in 1689 during which, ordered by the War Minister to “burn the Palatinate,” French forces totally destroyed all crops, orchards, homes and livestock. As a result of these wars and religious persecution of non-Catholics, Germans began immigrating to America in large numbers. Three thousand Germans from the Rheinland immigrated in 1710. By 1775 over one hundred thousand Germans had arrived in America. Our Reisch ancestors were among them and this is their story. 

The ancestors that immigrated to America were Johannes Petter Reusch and his family. He was born on 18 Dec 1707 in the village of Liebenscheid, which was located in the area called the Westerwald in what was then known as the Kingdom of Prussia. The political borders have changed since then so Liebenscheid is now located in the northeastern part of the German state of the Rheinland-Palatinate. The Westerwald is situated between the Rhein River to the west, Lahn River to the east and Sieg River to the north. The countryside consisted of forested, eroded hills of volcanic material that in some places contained mineral deposits. 

Peter’s parents were Johann Gerlach Reusch and Anna Elisabeth Höchst, and he had five siblings, one of whom was a twin brother who died in 1710. He later moved to nearby Biersdorf, and on 20 Dec 1741 married Elisabetha Sander who was born in nearby Daaden. Life was very difficult in the early part of the 18th Century. Previously there had been frequent, devastating wars in Europe, some lasting for decades, which had laid waste to the Rheinland, and the winter of 1708-9 had been the coldest in over a century, when birds froze in mid-flight. 

Peter was probably an iron ore miner in Biersdorf. A war between King Frederick of Prussia and QueenMaria Theresa of Austria had started in 1740, lasted until 1748, and was freshin Peter’s memory. It had drained resources from all over Prussia, so food had been short and hours in the mine had been long, not to mention very dangerous. 

Word had been circulating that the Quaker Englishman William Penn was encouraging people to come to America to a place called Penn’s Woods where there was religious freedom, cheap land and low taxes (by European standards). Some families from the Westerwald had already emigrated and had written to relatives saying that life there was hard but better than back in Prussia. Peter was fed up with simply eking out a living and of the constant wars and was considering emigrating, but the local ruler, the Elector of Trier, refused to allow people to leave, especially those with needed skills, and iron ore was needed for war. 

Around the time daughter Maria was born 29 March 1751 there were rumors that a group from Dillenberg lead by Johann Egidius Hecker, a German Reform preacher, was going to leave for America. Even though Peter knew the trip would be long, arduous, dangerous and expensive he decided he would leave too, permission or not. Peter was an Evangelical living in a region (the Westerwald) which was mostly Catholic. So both economic and religious reasons may have provided the motivation to leave – one never knew when a new Elector would be less tolerant of non-Catholics, another war was inevitable and working in the mines was the pits! 

Since Peter knew he would not receive permission to leave he needed to disguise his intentions. Daughter Maria’s birth provided a cover story. Elisabeth would visit relatives to get help caring for the children while Peter would stay behind, continuing to work to allay suspicion and quietly sell what little property they had to friends and relatives. Elizabeth and children probably went north to nearby Betzdorf on the Sieg River (about 5 miles distant). Peter left late one night to meet her where they joined Hecker’s group and learned that others from the surrounding area were also leaving (Weber, Walter, Jung, Schaaf, Gonderman, Röhling, and Flick were a few surnames). The group then traveled by boat down the Sieg to the Rhein, then down the Rhein to the port of Rotterdam in The Netherlands. 

When he emigrated from Biersdorf in April of 1751 his family consisted of wife Elisabeth, children Johann Christoph born 1742 (9 yrs), Johann Gerlach born 1748 (3 yrs) and Maria (less than 1 month). Two others, Elizabeth and Johannes Gerlach, had previously died. The travelers probably carried some food with them on their river trip since to purchase food along the way would be expensive – everyone wanted to profit from travelers. They would have taken bread, dried fish, potatoes, cabbage (probably as sauerkraut) and cheese. They would, in any event, need to buy a lot more food for the Atlantic voyage, which could take several months. The ship would first go to Cowes England to pick up provisions, then, when winds were favorable, sail for America. 

Travel from Europe to America in 1751 was not at all pleasant as related by Gottlieb Mittelberger who wrote a book about his passage because he was outraged by the treatment of the passengers. The following are several excerpts:

“The journey from Germany to Pennsylvania is 1700 French miles and you pass 36 customs houses going down the Rhein. It takes 6 weeks to go down the Rhein alone. Sickness on board the vessels is horrible and a terrible stench is present all the time. People vomit continually and suffer from dysentery, headache, scurvy, cancer and mouth rot. Lice are so thick they can be scraped off. If a woman should die in childbirth the dead mother and living child are both thrown into the sea. (Thirty-two children died on his trip.) The passengers get warm food only 3 times a week. The food is dirty, the water is black and full of worms and the biscuits are full of red worms and spiders’ nests. Only those who can pay their passage are allowed off the ship – the others are sold into bondage. Some die on the ship waiting for someone to buy them.” 

In spite of the hardships, thousands came each year to Pennsylvania. In 1751 nearly 4000 made the voyage. Peter and family arrived in Philadelphia on the ship Neptune on the 23rd of September along with 149 other passengers. Peter wrote his name in the court house records as Johannes Petter Reusch. The passengers were met by earlier German immigrants living in nearby Germantown who provided food and shelter. If they weren’t farmers the immigrants might decide to stay in Philadelphia or Germantown. Others would join groups headed for other parts of Pennsylvania – some north, some west, some south. Pastor Hecker and the Flicks headed north to Bucks County. Peter headed west for Lancaster County, which borders the Susquehanna River and was the frontier at that time.

Life on the American frontier also had risks. A history of the Hill Lutheran Church records that, “The country at large was yet in its most primitive form. Only a few courageous pioneers had ventured to erect their rude log-cabin homes in this wilderness. These homes were still surrounded by roving bands of Indians who were always treacherous and in times of special hostility, as during the French and Indian War period (1754-60), became cruelly murderous against these first settlers when they massacred scores of them along the southern slopes of the Blue Mountains.” 

There was also the risk of crop failure as reflected in the introduction to a petition, signed by 38 petitioners, found in the Lancaster County Pennsylvania tax records. The petitioners were begging to be excused from taxes for that year.