Mennonites and Amish in the Atlantic Passage

Posted by Daniel Mast on

by Ervin Beck

Genealogies often preserve narratives of family history and legends not to be found elsewhere in print.  The compilation presented here is of first immigrant ancestors’ stories of the Atlantic crossing—most of the accounts originating in oral tradition. The 52 short narratives in this article have been gleaned from 45 different genealogies in the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College. Hundreds more probably can be found and deserve attention.  

Most of the persons cited in this article are Swiss-Alsatian Mennonites or Amish. However, it is often very difficult to know a person’s religious affiliation. But the stories do come from family genealogies in print that are claimed and used by people from those two groups, hence “origin” stories serving all descendants, Anabaptist included.
It is difficult to separate stories of the crossing from stories that precede boarding the ship, or from accounts of what followed the arrival in North American ports.  A similarly interesting compilation of pre- and post-immigrant stories could be made. 

Crossing stories can be found in other publications, too—one good example is in Unser Leit . . . The Story of the Amish by Leroy Beachy (2015). 

Of course, I am partial to the story of my own immigrant ancestors, John and Christian Beck, included here.

On Leaving

The selections begin with a song sung in Hesse, presumably by young members of the Daniel Bender family and other would-be immigrants:  (Beachy, 14—see List of Sources at the end of this article)


Nun ist die Zeit und Stunde da

Dass wir fahren nach Amerika.

Der wagen steh schon vor der Tür,      

mit Weib und Kindern fahren wir

Und wenn wir sind in Baltimor,

Dann heben wir die Hünd’ empor        

Und rufen laut Viktoria

Jetz sind war in Amerika.


Now have come the time and hour 

to travel to America.  

The wagon by the door now stands.

With wife and children we will go.

And when we come to Baltimore

we’ll hold our hands upraised

and shout a word of victory:

“Now we’re in America!”


The Jacob P. Habegger family—parents, two married brothers, wives, children—decided to go to America to avoid conscription. The money they received from selling their farm and possessions was all gold.  “We sewed the money into muslin cloth belts . . . and strapped our money belts around our naked bodies, father, Solomon, and I, each having one. Those belts were kept on our bodies the whole way.” (Habegger, 16)

In 1854, Mary Graber Miller “was sitting on the baggage by the wharf, playing with her young son. One of the men who lurked, trying to steal luggage, began to play with Joseph, the baby. When Joseph refused to go to the man, he tried to tear him from Mary’s arms. If he succeeded, he knew [our] Grandma would follow him to get her baby back, and his friends could steal her chests and trunks. Grandma saw the other man watching her and she knew what was going on, so she started to kick her tormentor with her wooden shoes.” He left her alone.  (Krabill, 20)

Before Johannes Gungerich departed ca1840, “A Protestant pastor came on board the ship and gave the people a good exhortation about how they should not be afraid and should put their trust in God.” (Selders, 47)


Of the narratives read for this article, voyages lasted from a minimum of 44 days to a maximum of 280 days. Usually voyages in the 18th century were longer, and more difficult, than those in the 19th century. Very few crossings were as pleasant as the one reported by the family of Jacob P. Habegger in 1876: “On this journey were six Mennonite families, a few newly married couples, and a few other young people (a total of 70 persons). We were a bunch of young, lively folks, most of us keeping well the entire journey.” They played games on deck, sang, and pulled pranks. “The sailors liked us. When they wanted to pull up the sails, they called for the Swiss boys. We enjoyed helping them. The higher class people liked to hear us sing . . . They called us up to the upper deck to sing for them. We sang our Swiss folk songs and, of course, some yodels. They were delighted to hear us, and we were happy to sing for them. They treated us with bottles of beer.” (Habegger, 18) 

Most records are of a crossing-from-hell kind, as found in the diary of Hans Jacob Kauffman on the Charming Nancy in 1750: “The 28th of June, while in Rotterdam getting ready to start, my Zernbli died and was buried in Rotterdam. The 29th we got under sail and enjoyed only 1.5 days of favorable wind. The seventh day of July, early in the morning died Hans Zimmerman’s son-in-law. We landed in [Plymouth] England on the 8th of July, remaining 9 days  in port, during which five children died. Went under sail the 13th of July. The 21st of July, my own Lizbetli died. Several days before, Michael’s Georgli had died. On the 29th of July, three children died. On the first of August, my Hansli died, and Tuesday previous, five children died. On the 3rd of August, contrary winds beset the vessel. From the 1st to the 7th of the month, three more children died. On the 8th of August, Shambien’s (?) Lizzie died, and on the 19th Christian Burgli’s child died. Passed a ship on the 21st.  A favorable wind sprang up. On the 28th, Hans Gasi’s (?) wife died. Passed a ship on the 13th of September. Landed in Philadelphia on the 18th, and my wife and I left the ship on the 19th.  A child was born to us on the 20th—died—wife recovered.  A voyage of 83 days.” (A. Garber, 12, Beiler,  B-1) The Amish immigrants on the Charming Nancy formed the first Amish congregation in America.  
In 1833, the ship carrying the Jacob Kinsinger and Valentine Tice families went off course to the far north:  “They were on the sea three months and were north so far as to see icebergs.” During the 14-week trip, a baby boy was born to each family. Kinsinger’s wife died and was buried at sea “so the Tice mother nursed both boys.”  (Kinsinger, 3)
In 1838, the boat that the Christian Reeser family were on veered to the far south:  “Bad weather pushed their small boat headed for Canada as far south as the equator.  The boat once stayed still for 12 days in hot weather.  When the water supply disappeared, most people on the boat prayed for a miracle. That day it rained so much they had enough water for the remaining voyage. They landed in New Orleans 69 days after leaving France.” (Cosco, 6)
According to Johann Schwarzwalder: A woman was about to give birth on a ship when a storm came through.  The storm pushed her out the porthole and she fell into the ocean “because she was in the rear of the ship and could not be brought forward.” (Reiff, 2)

About 1750, a wealthy member of the Eichar [von Eichstadt] family disposed ”of his property, and with a considerable sum of money, he embarked with his little family for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When the ship arrived in America, the captain of the vessel reported that [Eichar] and his wife had both died en route, and been buried at sea; that he found no money among his effects; and that the two little children, a boy and a girl, were destitute . . . It was always suspected that the captain had poisoned his passengers and then robbed them.  Kind Quakers took charge of the little orphans and gave them a good plain education. (Hamilton, 17) Schwartz (3) mistakenly names the couple Jacob J. and Elizabeth P. Schwartz Eicher. 

Hunger, Thirst, Disease

Lack of food is often cited in crossing reports, the worst perhaps being the story in the Christian Martin book of a crossing in 1731: “In the last eight weeks, they were without bread. Both food and water became very scarce.  So great was their hunger that they scoured the ship for all manner of vermin. A rat was rated at 18 pence and a mouse at 6 pence. Seven persons died of starvation in one night. Of the 150 who had embarked at Rotterdam, fully one hundred had died, and some more soon after landing.” (Martin 3) John George Jungman, who apparently crossed on the same voyage, said that, upon landing, “I could not stand erect or walk, but almost crawled on hands and knees.” (Beiler, 3)

According to J. Ross Baughman, it was not unusual for the fresh water to run out, because of an unexpectedly long voyage or because of leaky casks. Depending on what had been stored in the casks on the previous trip, water might also become putrid. Under those circumstances, passengers drank olive oil, vinegar, and other liquids. The mice, too, became desperate, and were known to gnaw off the stopper corks on the vinegar bottles, lower their tails in and then lick off the liquid. At night, terrified passengers woke up to feel the mice licking the sweat off their own arms and faces. (Baughman, 24)
In 1658, William van Rasenberg observed that “100 souls required at least a hogshead or two of French wine and one of brandy, and a tub of prunes had also to be furnished for the refreshment of, and comfort of, the sick of the scurvy.” (Fields, xxv)
In 1838, Andreas and Christian Diener reported that “one man who was taking more than his share [of water] would not listen to the captain, so he was hit over the head and his pitcher broken.” (Diener, 15)
Nicklaus and Anna Barbara Nussbaum, being poor, took only non-perishable food with them. “Their diet, therefore, was chiefly rice and more rice.” They ate so much that Niklaus lost his taste for it. “There were some wealthy people on board the ship, and their food was of the best of the day.” (Nussbaum, 14)
About 1849, Andrew and Lydia Kuepfer were so poor “they could not buy any bread on the ship. Soft, moist black rye bread was all they had to eat. If a chunk of this rye bread was taken in the palm of the hand, pressed together and thrown against the wall, it would stick.” (Kuepfer, 6)
The Selders family remembers that, by contract, most captains collected pay half way into the trip, “whereupon food rations were immediately reduced to near starvation levels for the balance of the journey, thus enhancing profits.” (Selders, 44)
On Christopher Sauer’s voyage to America in 1724, many people got sick from eating (salted) meat that was in barrels for 6-7 years. Many people got lice and stank.  Others got smallpox or dysentery and were thrown overboard when they died. (Ruth, 21)

While coming up the Mississippi River from New Orleans in 1841, Christian and Catherine Garber were detained on account of boat trouble, and while waiting for repairs, the parents both contracted the yellow fever.  They both died from it and were buried somewhere along the banks of the Mississippi. The exact spot is not known.  (Wurmnest, i)

Storms, Mutiny, Pirates

During the crossing by Peter Graber in 1854, one storm tore the sails and damaged the mast. The captain ordered everyone on deck, expecting the ship to sink. He did, however, order a sailor to go up and attempt to fix the mast. “The sailor refused, as everything was coated with ice, and he was afraid. The captain took out his gun and told him to go or he would shoot him. . .” The people watched the man go up, attempt to fix the mast, slip, and fall, dying “by Peter’s side.” Everyone expected to die. “Peter wrapped himself in a featherbed, lay down and covered his head, so he would not have to see it happen.  However, the captain got out his gun and ordered another sailor to go up, and this one was successful in repairing the mast.” (Krabill, 20)

On the voyage of Ulrich and Anna (Brechbill) Engel, ca1750, when three vessels—two cargo, one passenger—sailed together, a violent storm hit and one of the cargo ships began to sink. “In an effort to save the ships, the vessels were lightened.” When people saw their things being thrown into the sea, they jumped in to save their things. “But as they climbed aboard, the ship’s crews cut off their hands and those thus injured fell back and perished.” The Engels’ things were thrown over, but they did not jump in to save them. (Fulk, 2)
John W. Ruth in 1852 was on a ship when “mutiny broke out among the sailors” after a long time of unfavorable weather.” They “threatened to set the ship afire and escape in the small boats.” However, the majority of passengers obeyed the captain and soon regained control, thus placing the mutineers in irons for the remaining journey. (Hock, [6])
On John Bean’s passage in 1742, “suspicion grew      . . . that the issuing of short rations was not because of low supplies, but just a diabolical method of undermining the vitality of those peace-loving emigrants in order to secure their possessions when they ultimately succumbed to starvation and disease—that the captain could land them in short time if he so desired, but was deliberately keeping the vessel at sea.  On the 82nd day, the passengers captured the crew and captain, to find plenty of provisions. They told the captain to land the ship in 48 hours or die. He landed 24 hours later, and the passengers were so happy they forgave the captain.” (Biehn, 32-33)

Cathrina (Hirtzler) Buchele in 1750 returned to Europe to claim her dowry. Her ship was attacked by pirates. Cathrina died and her daughter disappeared.  Son Johann Michael, 11 years old, was kept captive for two years before he jumped off the ship at night in Philadelphia harbor and went to Germantown. (Beeghly, x)


Many stories are told of young men escaping conscription by stowing away on boats bound for America. In 1818, John Neff, the youngest brother of Michael, was escaping conscription. “It is said that he stowed away on board ship in a barrel or bag of dried apples or potatoes.” (English and Remington, 7)

In 1767 in Rotterdam, Melchior Plank and his wife went to see some friends off to America. “The captain of the vessel invited him and his wife to come on board and remain overnight with their friends, as the ship would not sail until the next day. The invitation was accepted, but during the night, the ship sailed and on the morrow they ascertained that they were kidnapped. (Plank, 6)
Johannes Gungerich was on a ship in 1840 when a ship’s agent and policeman, ensuring that all had paid for their passage, “announced that ‘whoever doesn’t have a good passport should line up in front of the policeman’ . . . There were several young men together who said that ‘the first one to give money to the policeman will be beaten up and they would throw the policeman into the ocean.’ When the policeman heard this they left us and went back.” (Selders, 44-45)
Ben Amstutz was a practical joker. During his 1871 crossing, one day the family was given special permission to go to the upper deck. Ben found a hiding place behind a chimney and soon fell asleep. The family thought that Ben must have fallen overboard.  While mother and family wept and mourned, Ben nonchalantly appeared. (Gerber, 7)
Magdalena Farmwald reported that in 1847 “after being on the ocean for so long, many of the passengers were discouraged. They complained to the captain, so he said, ‘You will see ground tomorrow.’  The next day, when the people reminded him of this, he opened a trunk and showed them some dirt (ground) inside of it.” (Farmwald and Miller, v)
In 1854, the family of Daniel and Mary Graber did not plan to take their hired man Sepp  [Joseph Mies/Mysse] along. “When Sepp saw the wagons start, he put all of his clothes into a big sack, slung it over his shoulder, and followed them on foot. He walked all the way across France to LeHavre and was there by the baggage when Daniel and his family arrived by coach.” Sepp would not go home, so the family took him to America. “Each person had been provided with a three-bushel sack full of buns for the journey . . . They had to share with Sepp, and he clung to his buns all the way over. He sat by his sack, put his handkerchief on his lap, and using his pocket knife to cut small pieces off the buns, he nibbled at them all the way across the water.” (Krabill, 19)

The ship’s list on which “Sepp” (Joseph Mies/Mysse) appears with the Daniel Graber family on the 1854 ship Challenge. Credit: Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897. Microfilm Publication M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 138; List Number: 399s. NAI: 6256867. Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Record Group 36. National Archives at Washington, D.C.

Human Nature

Young John Beck in 1832 wanted to take his dog to America, but the captain of the Fredonia forbade it. John was told to drown the dog. She disappeared from sight. Unknown to Christian, his father, the son had gotten the dog onboard and hidden it in their room. All went well until a litter of pups born aboard ship could be kept hidden no longer. When one ran across the floor when the captain was in the room, the sky looked dark. He asked, “Have you any more?  Bring em out.” The boys brought out the five dogs and with sinking hearts expected them to be thrown overboard. The captain looked at them, petted them, saying, “I’d like this one.” Reaching into his pocket, he handed John a silver dollar and a daguerreotype of himself . . . when the father heard about this, he took the dollar and the picture from the boy. It was wrong to have the picture, according to Amish beliefs. The old dog later followed them all the way to German Township, Fulton County, Ohio. (Selders, 169-70)

Carl and Christina Miller sailed in 1852 with their two small sons. “She hung diapers on masts to dry and sailors slashed them off so she had scarcely enough.” (Miller and Yoder, 9)
The boat on which Peter Reist sailed in 1724 sprung a leak, so the passengers were called on to give up some of their clothing to caulk the ship. On reaching America, they had hardly any clothing left. Peter “was a man of commanding presence, and . . . on shipboard he was frequently called on to settle disputes between his fellow passengers.” (Spicer, 2)
The wife of Christopher Royer in 1748 became greatly distressed and troubled during the first part of their voyage. She said, “In America, all is wild, and there are no churches nor preachers,’ but the captain of the ship assured her that there was no need of troubling herself, that there were churches everywhere in America, which afterward proved to be true. . . After receiving this assurance, she became more calm, apparently, but there must have been deep-seated anxiety in her mind, for some time later she became sick and died.” (Gift, 125)
In 1871, Johann Amstutz insisted that Dan go to America with the family to the point that he almost pushed Dan in the boat and locked the door.  Reluctantly, Dan replied, “If I can find a girl who looks as nice in her work clothes as in her Sunday clothes, I will go.” (Amstutz, 11)
People asked the Peter Bauer family in 1889, “Aren’t you afraid the boat might sink?” But [Ernestine Bauer] said, “Oh, no. Minister Reeb is with us. I know, for his sake, God will not let anything happen to us.” (Bauer, 2)
Magdalena and Christina Bauman were sent to America because their parents did not want them to marry the Smith sons. Later, the Smiths went to America and married the Bauman daughters. (Bender, 4)
Daniel Bender was a cooper, so he earned lots of money in 1852 on the 44-day passage from Bremerhaven to Baltimore. Bender “worked over large hogsheads, as they were emptied of provisions, into smaller tubs, which were sold on landing.” (Beachy, 14)
Jost Blickensderfer, 18, would not accompany his brother Jacob B. to America in 1753 “until he was promised a rifle.” (Blickensderfer, 12)

The captain of the ship fell in love with Mary Reeser in 1838-39. At the same time, tailor Herr Paul Deutsch was making plans to court the “beautiful and accomplished seamstress.” But the captain already promised they would get married if Mary waited for him to go to France and return. With the captain gone, Paul made himself very desirable and convinced Mary to marry him. Her brothers told her not to marry Paul because he was a Catholic and probably just wanted Mary to sew for him. She married him and was unhappy. When the captain returned and heard about the wedding, he threatened to kill Paul, but did not because Paul and Mary hid. (Cosco, 7-10)

Indentured Servants and Redemptioners

Immigrants without money could arrange contracts for indentured servitude in America before leaving Europe. If they had no such contracts, they were “sold” as redemptioners upon arrival in America. Many such stories are told in genealogies, including both the abuse of the system and the redeeming of indentured persons by concerned Mennonite and Amish friends and relatives.

Jacob Beidler in 1708 was a “redemptioner” and therefore sold by the ship master to a family who paid for Jacob’s passage. (Fretz, 2)
When Amish bishop Benedict Miller heard from Peter Kinsinger about Wilhelm Bender who was bound as a redemptioner, he “took steps to have him redeemed and brought to Somerset County,” personally by horse.  (Swartzentruber, 1)
While living in Philadelphia in the 1730s, John Rohrer heard that a ship had landed. So he went to greet the passengers, only to find his father and two or three brothers. John released them from their indentured servitude. (Neal, 27)
The father of Catherine Wise was tricked out of his money by the ship captain, who disappeared.  Their money gone, they were sold as bond servants to pay for their passage. The parents and children were sold separately, with Catherine remaining in Philadelphia while everyone else was sent to Ohio and then Indiana.  Christian Nussbaum came over from Switzerland in 1822. In America, he met Catherine, paid off the bond, and married her. (Brown, 2)
Some immigrants were even threatened to become slaves. Daniel Borneman in 1721 was on a ship whose captain wanted “to land them at Jamestown, Virginia . . . At that time, the right to sell as slaves, both black and white, existed in the province of Virginia, of which the passengers were aware.” They refused to let the captain change plans, so the captain steered toward the bay, so that land was seen by evening, but by morning they would be at sea again. He again renewed his efforts to land them in Virginia. “The passengers were insistent he leave them in Philadelphia. He ran the vessel on a shoal and made it spring a leak and sank the boat. He and his crew intended to become pirates on American waters.”  While the passengers were getting rescued, the captain and pilot “took the long boat and ran out to sea . . . and when all was quiet [they] returned and set the vessel on fire and burned it.” (Borneman, 6)

In the experience of George Selders in 1734, “A river ship stopped at the schoolhouse and persuaded the scholars to come aboard, which they did with childish delight. While all were on board, the ship set sail down the Rhine. Two boys jumped off. One swam to shore.  The other perished in the water. They were then shipped to America and sold to pay the cost of ocean passage and profit. . . . Selders was about 10 years old when he was brought to this country and was sold.” (Selders, 118)


There is a story in the oral history of the Beachy family that says young Peter Beachy walked off the gangplank of our immigrant ancestors’ ship of passage and fell into the water of the Philadelphia harbor. He was rescued by the crew. (Miller 236) A similar story is told about Peter Schmucker, who was “quickly rescued by his parents.” (Schmucker, 17)

George Eberhart (Frey) landed in Fort Halifax in 1750. The commander of the fort had him arrested.  Because he had no passport, the commander accused him of running away from a master to whom he was indentured. Because he did not speak English, he could not understand why he was being detained. When it was translated, he kept shouting, “Ich bin frei! Ich bin frei!”  They thought he meant his name was Frey, “and as there was nothing against him, they let him go, but he was called George Frey from that day.” (Eberhart, 32)
John, the six-year-old son of Nicholas and Mary Engle, became ill a few days before they reached Philadelphia in 1895. John died in the hotel on the first night they landed, in Mary’s arms. The family was going to Gap, Pennsylvania, but was not sure how far that was, so they left the body with a porter, who had offered to bury the boy. “Nicholas paid for it and they left, never knowing where John was buried.” (Rank,  1-2)
In 1854 when the family of Daniel Graber arrived, “Everyone’s belongings were thrown out and scattered to make it easier for thieves to steal them and to make it harder for owners to get organized and leave the city. . .  My people finally got their possessions gathered together at one place, and the women sat on them to keep them from being stolen while the men went to find lodging.” (Krabill, 20)
George Ringleman, who immigrated in the 1860s, met on board an old woman. “After they landed, he felt duty bound to help her with her luggage. She gave him a featherbed to carry. He often told how embarrassed he was carrying the featherbed, walking the streets of New York City.” (Ruth, 2)
The family of Elizabeth Meyer arrived in New York on July 4, 1872. The voyage was difficult, with lots of stormy weather and seasickness. On their first night in America, “while they were trying to get some sleep in a hotel, they were alarmed at the noise and shooting taking place. Elizabeth met a man who could speak German and told him they had come to this country to get away from the war. Now it seemed they had it here, too. He smiled and told her it was a national birthday they were celebrating.” (Yoder, 6) Most accounts of immigrants landing in America on the Fourth of July are to be met with skepticism, as legends, not history. However, the Meyers did officially arrive in New York on July 5, 1872.  So if they spent the previous night on the boat, they indeed did land in the New World on July 4. If families arrived in the daytime of July 4, according to legends, they thought the fireworks were intended to welcome them to the New World.

Jacob, Simon, and Michael Garber emigrated from the Palatinate, landing in Philadelphia on Sept. 15, 1753. “It was a singular and remarkable honor that came to our progenitors . . . . for the pledge of allegiance was administered to them by the renowned Benjamin Franklin, Esquire.” (Garber 10)

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Sources Cited

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