Handwritten letter from European immigrants in Chicago (1855)
Handwritten letter from European immigrants in Chicago (1855)
"Like lost children, we are dispersed across the world and we hope to see each other again in the future."
Handwritten letter from European immigrants living in Chicago, United States. 4 pages, in German and French. 21.2 cm x 27.5 cm. Chicago, June 7, 1855. Good condition. Single piece.
May 18, 2021. They say that life will never be the same again, that one day we will leave our homes, but nothing will be the same. There are still many unanswered questions, but it is undeniable, a new world lurks behind the door, and our hopes depend on our resilience and ability to strengthen our bonds, after all, isolated or not, bonding is intrinsically human.
In the difficult days of today, we have much to learn from the setbacks that our ancestors faced. We will not be the generation that will witness the end times, we are not that unique. Illnesses are part of our history, both medical and social, and, somehow, all these hardships built our society.
However, in a world in growing evolution, this is the first time that all of us, inhabitants of Planet Earth in the year 2020, are faced with a situation like this. We live firsthand what we previously only knew through historical books and films.
Still, something distinguishes us from our ancestors. This break in everyday life shows us the need to do something that we insistently postponed: connecting with the people who really matter to us.
In 1855, a German woman, who had lived in the New World for years, wrote this impressive letter to her family, who still resided in Europe, telling about the difficulties she was going through in the United States, and the relatives she lost to Cholera, a disease which nowadays has a lethality rate of 1% with proper treatment.
The fear of loss is a vivid image for us. But in her profound words of pain, the woman, whose fate we will never know, seemed much more stunned by an illness other than the disease itself. The anger was real and tangible, sad and hard, however, more painful it seemed to be not knowing the situation of their relatives. In her letter, she asks:
"If you receive this letter, please respond as soon as possible, we are painfully awaiting a response and news."
The distance and the consequent lack of knowledge were a source of anguish that was difficult to assuage. We live in a pandemic and face a disease we know little about, like cholera a few centuries ago. Even so, we have an opportunity that would be worth gold for the lady who wrote to her brothers: we can talk to our relatives, inform us about their health, and, above all, tell them as many times as necessary that they are loved.
We are socially isolated, but we are not alone. Obviously, each of us must remain at home, but all the technology that surrounds us allows immediate communication with people in any corner of the world. Let there be no mistake, technology is not connection, but technology is a tool that we can use in our favor, as a bridge to establish bonds, resume contacts and express how important some people are in our lives.
Tomorrow is uncertain, it's true, the world will never be the same, today is our only conviction, we must not miss this opportunity. Right now, who do you want to share the miracle of now with?
Translation from German and French to English
Chicago, June 7th, 1855
Beloved brother, sister-in-law and all your children.
Already apart for more than 8 years, and we have heard very little from each other. I want to know now if I address you a letter, I will receive a reply back. I am the only sister here in this faraway world, and I would like to hear something from my other brothers and sisters and their children. Like lost children, we are scattered across the world and we hope to see each other again in the future. With tearful eyes, I must let you know, that our sister Madeleine died almost a year ago. On July 15th, 1854, she died of cholera and our smallest child (now 2 years old) was very sick at first for 15 days. She was saddened and was afraid she would die. On her last night, she watched over our child and no one heard anything until the morning at 8 am she started to complain about pains so severe that we could not bear to watch. The following day, at eight o'clock she passed away and left us. Our child remained sick until winter and we asked ourselves how is that he is still alive, but now, God be grace, he is awake and cheerful. The children we now have are two boys, before them we had a boy and a girl, but both died of cholera before the age of 5.
Disease is rampant here and this is what we like least about this place. However, this year, we have not yet been afflicted. We do not yet regret that we are here, because we can save ourselves a good fortune. Now the value of our fortune is perhaps 15/16 thousand francs, but we don't have any money. Everything is in commercial real estate. I would have liked that all my brothers and sisters had come with us to America. But now if you are married, it is more difficult to start off because everything is so expensive. 100 pounds of flour costs 50 Francs, fresh meat 8/10 Francs, a sack of potatoes 4 Francs, and everything else is priced that way. This is why everyone here, and especially those who haven't learned a trade, have a very hard life their first few years. For example, people who arrived in the fall were forced to beg for alms in the winter. Spring is the best time. It may be possible that, God willing we make enough, and we can leave America, we can live a quiet life in Europe. My sister Therese wrote us twice that she also wanted to come to America with (undecipherable text/ name) and we answered, but so far we haven't heard anything. Is she alive or not? She wrote to us that dear sister Merigen is dead, and I would like to know if sister Marie is still alive and if she is not yet married and also sister Marguerite and my three brothers and sisters in law with their children. Also, write to us about what your son Peter is doing and his wife and children and daughter Catherine and anything you know to write about. So, if you receive this letter, answer me well and write as quickly as possible, because we are painfully waiting for your reply and we want to hear a bit more news from my brothers, sisters, and their children.
Write your letter as well as the others because we do not know how to read French letters.
It is all that I can write to you and I wish that my letter will find you as healthy as it has left us.
A thousand greetings from my husband Nicholas Thein, and I.
Dear brother and sister-in-law and Pierre Klein, his wife Catherine Klein, and everyone else is in our thoughts. We are and remain your faithful sister Anne Thein and brother-in-law Nicolas Thein.
Here is the address:
Mr. Nicolas Thein
Illinois, North America
When I discovered this letter, something about it touched me. It wasn't written by - or for - a great historical personality but that's one of the beauties of autograph documents: content that is exciting, or that teaches us something new, created by an anonymous citizen, can be more impactful - and even more interesting in a way. historical point of view - than a letter from the French Emperor Napoleon commenting on a common fact that we already know. This letter makes us feel "in the skin" of European immigrants who dreamed of making a fortune in America. And the wonderful image that welcomes us stimulates our imagination even more.