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An Immigrant Story

In the year 1889 my grandmother immigrated to the United States, the land whose streets were reportedly paved with gold. Her father was the son of a retail merchant in Strasborg in Alsace Lorraine (My Grandmother was named Sophia Dentzer, born of Christian Dentzer and Sophia Meder). Her uncle was the Burger Meister, or Mayor, of the town. At the time my grandmother's parents decided that the place to make a good life for their family was in America, along with his wife and two children they left Strasborg for Le Havre by train and then set sail for the land of opportunity.

When my grandmother was born in 1883 in Alsace Lorraine, it was under the German flag having just recently been won back from the French. This newly arrived family in America, therefore, having a German background, headed for the German settlement around 86th Street in uptown New York City, known as Yorkville.

My Grandmother told of the miseries on the steamer and especially for the immigrants in steerage; of the voyage seeming to last forever; and their arrival at Castle Gardens (later Ellis Island, now Liberty Island) in New York Harbor where the immigrants were herded like cattle.

Grandma was six years old when she reached this county and her brother Charles was four. With the help of some of the earlier arrivals from Germany they settled into a small cold water flat in a tenement house.

Within a relatively short time, another child was born called Caroline. The father worked long and arduous hours in a bakery to make barely enough money to keep his family alive. Two years after he arrived in this county he was dead from typhus. It killed him within a few days. The German Church helped to bury him. The wife was left with 3 young children, no training and could not speak English. She was able to find work as a house worker doing wash, scrubbing floors, etc. She was forced to leave the children alone during the day. She arrived home from a hard day of washing one day and found her little flat completely flooded and the children sitting out on the fire escape where it was at least high and dry. They had turned on the water in the washtubs and were unable to turn it off and when things flooded the children just took to higher ground. In those cold water flats there were, of course, no bathtubs, and the washtubs were used not only for scrubbing clothes, but also for taking baths.

Less than a year after the father died, it was discovered that the mother was suffering with an advanced case of "consumption or tuberculosis. She lasted only a short time and died on June 24, 1893 leaving three orphans. At this time the Church stepped in and contacted the family in Alsace. The Uncle sent his sister to America to bring back the three children to the old country to be brought up there.

Right about this time the church and its affiliates decided to start an orphan home for children. The church convinced the Aunt from Europe that the three children stood a much better chance in America than going back to the old country. The Aunt after much deliberation decided to leave the children in America, knowing how hard it would be for unwanted orphans back in the old country. However, she said they could stay only if it was promised that they would never be separated from each other.

The three children, my grandmother aged 9 at the time, her brother Charles aged 7, and her sister Caroline, aged about 2 years, became the nucleus around which the orphan home known as the "Ottilie Orphan Home" was built. It still stands and operates in Jamaica, Long Island, N.Y. It was essentially a German organization and the children were taught German and also went to a nearby public school. My Grandmother attended school until she reached the fourth grade and was then put to work in the Home taking care of other children and being personal maid to the superintendent's wife.

It was a severe life in the Home but probably no worse than the lives of most immigrant children of the era. Luxuries were unheard of but on the other hand they were not mistreated. There were a lot of unwanted children in the Home, besides poor orphans, but as Grandma told the story, the discipline and treatment were so good that she could not remember hearing of any of those children going bad.

As you might expect, the inevitable happened. A woman came to the Home to adopt a child and she would have none other than the cute little blond girl known as Caroline, my Grandmother's sister. Promises are made to be broken and despite my Grandmother's weeping and wailing, the little girl was given out for adoption. Grandma never saw her again but she did hear that she died at the age of 18. There was a small life insurance policy on her and Grandmother was beneficiary. The woman who had adopted Caroline predeceased her by a relatively few short months.

Her brother Charles remained in the home until the age of 14 when he was given out as an apprentice to a baker. The conditions under which these apprentices worked were appalling. They worked in the basements, which were often flooded, and were cold in winter, and hot in summer. They slept and ate right in the basement where they worked long hard hours all night long. They were not paid because they were learning a trade. In fact they were considered lucky to find someone to teach them a trade and not have to pay for this learning.

At the age at 18 her brother Charles contracted "Consumption" and died. This left Grandma alone in America. There was nowhere else to turn for a girl with no training and little schooling except to be a housemaid so she just continued to work as hired help at the Orphan Home. At the age of 16 she was finally put on the payroll and received the magnificent sum of 50 cents a week. When she was paid they would ask her, "Are you sure you earned this?"

Now it so happened that there was a Ladies Auxiliary attached to the Home. My Great grandmother on my father's side belonged to this organization and often attended meetings at the Home. Her son, George, (my Grandfather) would accompany her on these visits. He would spend the time while waiting for his mother, cutting the hair of the children.

My Great grandmother, named Sophia Martin, was born in Hamburg, Germany, and immigrated to this country in 1840 where all four of her children were born. She and her husband, Henry Martin, established a cutlery store in Brooklyn, in the section called Williamsburg, which is now part of Bedford Styvesant area.

Now the romance starts - Grandpa was 34 years old at the time of his visits to the Home and he lost no time noticing the very pretty girl of 20 (Grandma). Now Grandpa wasn't very sure about courting this girl because he couldn't imagine what a young thing like her could see in an old man like him. She in turn also noticed him and couldn't for the life of her believe that a man of the world like him could see anything in her. However, true love came through and after about two years of courtship they decided to get married. But at this time Grandma became very sick and the diagnosis was tuberculosis. The Doctors recommended a sea voyage and with the 50-cent pieces she had saved over the years she was able to take a voyage back to Alsace where she expected to die, however, her uncle was still living and he took her to specialists who found she had stomach ulcers and not T.B. After about a year she was cured and returned to the United States. Grandpa, never expecting to see her alive again, met her at the docks in New York with great joy. They were married in 1908.

Great grandmother was a widow and too old to run the cutlery business any longer so she sold it to her son. Grandma and Grandpa ran the business in to a very flourishing establishment in the Williamsburg area where all their four daughters were born and raised.

The business itself was on the street level and consisted of a retail store and a small manufacturing plant and repair shop in the rear. There were two stories above this store and as the money came in my Grandfather converted that area into what today would be called "duplex apartment". It was quite customary in the early part of the century for people to live right in the same building where their bread was earned.

This Williamsburg area even in the year around 1910 - 1920 was even then a slum area. My own mother can remember the pushcart vendors down the block, the old pickle barrels, the herring barrels, the Jewish delicatessens, the Italian and the Chinese eating-places. She can remember her mother watching out the front window and seeing the ambulances carrying away the children from the tenements during the polio epidemics - some never to return and some returning as cripples.

Grandpa died at the age of 34 after a very short illness, which at the time they were not able to diagnose. He left Grandma with four young children, but with sufficient funds so she was not forced to go out to work.

Grandma never regretted the choice that was made for her to stay in America. As she was often heard to say, it was a hard life but always a good life. After Grandpa died and her children were beginning to grow up she decided to move to New Jersey where she felt they would have a better chance for a good life than in the run-down urban area of Brooklyn. She died at the age of 78 after a full and happy life.

It seems that my father's side of the family was American. The closest connection to another country is England, in the early to middle 1600's. Here is a link to my Francis ancestors.

I've been doing some transcription work, on civil records, for some selected towns in Bas-Rhin, France. This includes birth, death, and marrage records for the towns of Waldhambach, Mackweiler, Butten, and Assweiler..

I recently obtained some documents that belonged to my 4th Great Grandfather, Benajah WILLIAMS. You can find copies of those documents here.

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