Reading Someone Else’s Diary…From 1874

Okay, let’s get one thing straight: my curiosity about the first wave of Mennonite immigrants from South Russia to Canada is entirely selfish. I’m interested because these are the people I come from. For better or worse, those are just the facts. I’ve been particularly interested in the “boat” part, because that was a strong part of the vague narrative of my childhood, of “where we came from” — it was “off the boat”. Okay, well what boat?

The Austrian. According to Grandma Online, 12 of my ancestors immigrated here via the Austrian, in 1874, having landed in Quebec City. Well… that’s the first bunch of Mennos to get to Southeastern Manitoba. And the list is pretty K-G heavy.

In related news…I finally finished reading Harvey Plett’s book Seeking To Be Faithful. Yes, I blogged about it before I had finished reading it. I mean, the early years of the Kleine Gemeinde is something I’ve never studied, but it’s become interesting to me as I’ve learned my ancestors had a fair bit to do with it (and, I’m narcissistic). And yet I still have not read Delbert Plett’s 6-volume collection of books on the history of the Kleine Gemeinde, nor have I yet read Royden Loewen’s Blumenort: A Mennonite Community in Transition (though I have it sitting here beside me) which also tells of the KG’s early years here. While I’m looking forward to reading them, I haven’t yet managed to do it quite yet because, well, that’s a lot of reading and LIFE happens and blah blah blah all those excuses. Enter Harvey Plett’s book, which is 100 easily managed pages, written “for those who know little about the EMC” (so says the introduction). For someone who grew up surrounded by EMC-ness, I wasn’t actually raised in the EMC (gasp! I know) and know very little about its history. I feel pretty ignorant to be super-from-here and yet not know much, but whatever, onward and upward, right? This book was meant for folks like me I guess.

So, I had a surprise at the end of this book. I had expected to see a bunch of photos from Abundant Springs in the 90’s and have it left at that. But no. There are a tonne of amazing Easter Eggs that take up the final 30-ish pages. Notably, THIS:

This photo shows up better in the feature photo…

It’s the diary of someone on that very same journey, translated into English. I found this diary THRILLING. They went to Odessa… to Krakau… they vomited during storms on seas… crossed the Prussian border… crossed the Austrian border… and took a bit of time to tour around Berlin! (I’m trying to imagine my conservative KG ancestors touring around Berlin in 1874.) In Berlin someone tried to scam them but I guess they didn’t fall for it. A guy named “Spiro” was the one they were waiting for, he led them to the Hamburg train station… from Hamburg, they took a steamship to England. Arrived in Hull, took the train (described as a “fiery iron horse”) to Liverpool.

And then it happened: “After we had eaten breakfast the next morning, June 30, we went to the great harbour, where we embarked upon the Austrian, in order to continue our journey across the immense ocean…”

Ahhhhhh! When I read this it kinda sunk in, that my ancestors were on this journey with this unknown diarist. Perhaps this unknown diarist is one of my ancestors! (After all, there were 12 of them on this journey.)

Another thought…Andrew and I have been to Liverpool: I’d spent that time thinking about The Beatles. It was fun, but I wish I’d known then that 12 of my great-great-grandparents and great-great-great-grandparents had arrived at that train station and stood on those docks in 1874.

As described in Katarina: A Mennonite Girl From Russia, nearly all the passengers on the Austrian were seasick. (Earlier in the diary, it is mentioned there was much vomiting already on the Gesson from Nikopol to Odessa, which was a ship that I figure must have just been on a river. It would appear that Mennonites are not a seafaring people.) “Thanks be to God, the wind subsided on the fourth day,” writes the diarist. Also of note (to me, at least), the writer did not care for the interpreter who was on board: “Only the interpreter was unworthy of commendation.” I found this hilarious.

The writer goes on to describe the moment Newfoundland was sighted from the ship…stopping Halifax…and en route to Quebec City, two children died, with the devastating note: “Their bodies were committed to the depth of the sea without the presence of the parents.” Why? Had they also passed away in the midst of the journey?

They explored Quebec City and found it very beautiful. They then took the train to Toronto. The Canadian Mennonites advised them to avoid the Dawson Trail, and instead get to Manitoba through Minnesota.

Here’s something fascinating: “On Thursday, the 23rd of July we proceeded over a waterfall against the current.”

That was the locks! They were on their way across Lake Superior to Deluth.

Then the train to Moorhead…where they boarded the steamship International and headed north on the Red River to Winnipeg where William Hespeler greeted them at last.