Friday, September 7, 2012

The Immigration Story that Wasn't!

When I first started down this path to genealogy obsession, I asked my parents to tell me what they knew about our ancestors' immigration stories.  Mom didn't know much of anything about her side's journey, but Dad knew the exact story of our Kerkhoff family's immigration.  Here's what he told me:

Anthony Kerkhoff left Haselünne at age 17, walked through Holland alone, and got on a boat to NYC.  From there, he jumped on a train and went to Texas to fulfill his dream of becoming a cowboy.  That didn't work out so well for the German teenager, so he got back on the train and traveled back to NYC and worked "high steel."  He sent as much money as possible back to his parents in order to put his baby brother, George, through school.  At some point, he moved to Cincinnati and finally sent for his parents and brothers to come here, too.

Anthony immediately loved the US, so he wanted to "Americanize" his family ASAP.  With that in mind, he rented an apartment for them in the Irish section of Cincinnati (no, I have no idea how this would "Americanize" them).  The family arrived in Cincinnati, moved into their new apartment, and the baby brother was immediately beaten up by some Irish kid because George was wearing lederhosen (and really, who could've blamed the Irish kid?)  Anthony and his father, Casper, got into a huge fight that night, and the family moved to the German section of Cincinnati the next day.

WOW!  I felt very blessed that these details survived.  Not many people have such a detailed account of their ancestors' immigration story.

One little problem.  NONE of it was true!  OK, maybe some of it was.  Perhaps Anthony really did go to Texas at some point to become a cowboy.  I can't prove that one way or another, but you know I'd love to find some evidence of Anthony at a rodeo. :)  Dad didn't lie or even stretch the truth to me.  He simply told me what Grandpa told him.  And Grandpa just repeated what he had been told.

Imagine my shock when I discovered immigration information on my Kerkhoffs.  The REAL immigration info.  I was sitting on the floor of the genealogy department at the Cincinnati Public Library, and trying to find any of my ancestors in the "Germans to America" series of books.  And boy, did I find them!

Anthony didn't walk across Holland alone at age 17.  He came to the US with his parents and brothers when he was 14 years old!  Their ship, "The Adler," pulled into Castle Garden, NYC, on October 28, 1864.  There were no detours to Texas or NYC.  The family immediately settled in Cincinnati (they're in the 1865 Cincinnati City Directory).  I still remember the phone call that I had to make to Dad to tell him there was no "Irish kid beating up German lederhosen wearing kid" story (around the time of this discovery, I had also found out that my northwestern Germans would NEVER have worn lederhosen--LOL!).

So how on earth did this erroneously detailed story come to be?

Here's what I think happened:  I know that a few years after Anthony died, his baby brother George moved in with the family.  Grandpa Joe would've been 11 or 12 and the only small child at home (his sister Inez would've been about 17 or 18).  I'm sure Grandpa pestered his Uncle George to tell him stories of his dad.  Tell him stories of their town in Germany.  Tell him stories of how they came to America.  I'm also guessing that during much of the story telling, Uncle George may have been enjoying a beer or two. :)  So Uncle George told Grandpa stories.  A lot of stories.  And perhaps one story ran into another in Grandpa's young mind.  Also, Uncle George was only 6 years old when they left Haselünne, so I've got to wonder how much he actually remembered from living there.  Uncle John was 12, so maybe he remembered more.  However, throw some beer and/or Korn into the mix, and there's no telling what you'll get.  Actually, we do know what you'll get--The story of an Irish kid beating the hell out of some German lederhosen wearing kid who's new to America.  The level of falsehood is fabulous, isn't it? :)

I also wonder if the story of Grandpa Joe's maternal grandpa's immigration may have gotten mixed into the Kerkhoff immigration one.  Joseph Vodde (Grandpa's mom's dad) emigrated from Dinklage, Germany in the late 1840's.  As far as I know, he came here alone.  Maybe he was the one who trudged through Holland.  And maybe Uncle George was beaten up by some Irish kid.  Not for wearing lederhosen, but maybe because he would've had wooden shoes on.  And maybe the beating took place in NYC when they first got off the boat and not in Cincinnati.  Who knows?

But what this "story" also tells me is that my Kerkhoff family was and is full of characters.  It takes quite a personality to come up with these details.  How did lederhosen ever weave itself into the tale of a northwestern German family's journey to America??!!!

I can just imagine Uncle George and Uncle John telling their nephew all about his daddy and their eldest brother.  And maybe, just maybe, the telling became "bigger" as the years went by.  And who could blame them? :)

     Uncle John Kerkhoff

     Uncle George Kerkhoff


  1. I ran into your blog via Geneabloggers. You mention that the Kerkhoff name originates in Germany and I'm sure that is correct. However, it sounds very, very Dutch. Our archives show many Kerkhoffs. Also, Haselünne is situated very close to the Dutch/German border. Could it be that there is some Dutch connection somewhere?

  2. Hi Peter

    The spelling of "Kerkhoff" is the Dutch spelling, but as far as I've been able to trace my Kerkhoffs, they're German. Casper's father, Heinrich Kerkhoff, was born in Münster in 1750 (according to Catholic church records). But that's as far back as I've been able to go with the name. I'm sure there's a Dutch connection somewhere in the line! :)

  3. Marti, thanks for your reaction. Background of my question is that I also have a blog with many genealogical subjects. One of my posts shows a survey of foreign genealogical blogs/sites showing Dutch origin surnames. The URL is The idea is to try and establish contacts between people who have an interest in the same surname. There are numerous cases in The Netherlands where people emigrated centuries ago without leaving a trace in Dutch archives. With my blog I try to bring Dutch and foreign (mainly US/CAN) genealogists together.
    Therefore, I like to have your permission to show your site in my a.m. blog.
    Obviously I will mention that sofar there is no proven Dutch connection.
    Looking forward to yr reply!

  4. Peter, I would love it if you would mention my blog. I hope to someday be able to trace my Kerkhoffs further back than 1750. Since Haselünne is so close to the Dutch border, I'm sure there's a connection somehow!


  5. I added your blog to my list, please see the earlier mentioned URL. If you want me to change/add anything, please let me know. Thanks for your permission!