The middle 19th century was marked by political, economic, and social revolution throughout Europe. Prussia was starting to become the mighty German Empire. But in the Kashubians’ remote corner of Prussia, little if anything had changed. Agriculture and fishing remained the primary business, and both were increasingly controlled by Germans. Those Kashubian minor nobility who had become Polonized over the years had retained their status by shifting their loyalty to their new Prussian masters. Although the Prussians had abolished serfdom, Kashubian peasants were still at a tremendous economic disadvantage. Prussian policy was to drive or buy the Kashubians out, to make room for German settlers. Kashubians who had lost their farms had the option of working on the large estates, but this employment was seasonal. The menfolk often had to find work elsewhere in the rapidly industrializing Prussian state and send remittances home.
Life was grim even for those “lucky” Kashubians who were still able to eke out an existence on their family farms. As Carl Tighe movingly describes:
“…their assets were non-existent or too small for them to think of trekking westwards to look for factory work; they were too poor to pay cash for their land, and too impoverished for any bank to risk giving them a loan. Their diet consisted mainly of potatoes, turnips, cabbage, beetroot, millet, buckwheat and rye, supplemented by wild fruit in the autumn and by concentrated hedge and verge scavenging to find edible grasses, wild cabbage, cress, linden leaves, horseradish, bitter-vetch, water lily, mushrooms, wild sorrel, nettles, comfrey, mallow and goose grass. They rarely ate meat, and rather than consume butter, milk, meat, poultry and eggs, preferred to send any such produce to market. Many of these people lived without the agent of money, and survived by bartering what excess produce they had.”
Nor did the future look any more appealing. As their German neighbors increased in numbers and in influence, the Kashubians’ hopes of supporting their traditionally large families got worse. Not surprisingly, many left the old country entirely. In some cases husbands emigrated in advance of their wives and/or families, hoping to earn enough money to reunite the family in North America. In other cases, the entire family left at the same time. Unfortunately, they left almost no record of their hopes and dreams, Yet, we can safely assume based on the experiences of other, later, Polish immigrants to the United States that they had every expectation of bettering their financial status in the New World and returning to the Old Country.
The voyage across the sea was uncomfortable and dangerous; passage in the cargo holds of a sailing ship was all most emigrants could afford. If possible, the Kaszubians emigrated in groups with others they knew from the old country. In 1859, Franciszek and Anna (Kajzer) Pelowski left Kaszubia with their infant son Alex, sailing from Hamburg on July 9 aboard the Donau. At least the Pelowskis had plenty of fellow Kashubians to keep them company; the Donau’s manifest also lists the families of Peter Kaldunski, Martin Reszka, Jacob Rolbiecki, and Frank Wejer, all of whom would eventually settle in Pine Creek, Wisconsin. The Donau arrived in New York seven weeks later, on August 25.
Death aboard ship was not unheard of, nor was birth aboard ship rare: sadly, Alex Pelowski died at sea, but baby Jacob was born at sea July 12, 1859. The 1860 US Census found the Pelowskis (as well as the Jacob Rolbieckis) in Dubuque, Iowa; the 1870 US census found the Pelowskis on their farm in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. On June 3, 1867, Martin and Magdalena (Stoltman) Bambenek of Widno sailed from Bremen on the Barbarossa with their eight children, ranging in age from eighteen years to six weeks. The Bambeneks arrived in Quebec City on July 25, and reached Winona in time for the 1870 US Census. Sometimes they emigrated in large numbers, as did August Byzewski, who joined his brother in Winona in 1878 along with his wife Julia and their two children. Sometimes, they traveled alone, as did the fifteen year old orphan Franciszka Julianna Nygowska, a native of Kościerzyna, sailed unaccompanied from Bremen in 1887 to join her brother Walenty Negowski, who had emigrated to Winona four years earlier.