Introduction to Coming to Amerika

I have now finished the manuscript for Examining Lives and am set to send it to the publisher.  So now my focus has turned to my next book Coming to Amerika, the draft of whose introduction is below.


We are, as John F. Kennedy once famously wrote, a nation of immigrants.  Driven by poor harvests, famine, warfare, religious persecution, political and economic oppression, we came to the United States attracted by the opportunity for a freer life and greater economic security.  The story, of course, is more complex than this.  There are those of us who were brutally brought here as slaves and found no freedom or opportunity.  And, there were those already here who lost much in people, property and their ways of life as a result of contact with immigrants.

These are the sweeping generalizations of standard history books.  Beneath them, however, lies what I call history at the “ground level”— the unique stories of the individuals who lived the events so briefly described in the books.  Coming to Amerika is one such unique story.  It follows the fortunes of members of the Lodholz and Reb families as they journey and settle in the United States.  The story is also unique, however, from much of the literature on immigration in its breath and depth.  It is based on family letters and documents spanning over 100 years, from 1850 to 1950.  It provides a richness of detail about their lives through the lens of a wide variety of family members, each with his or her own quirks and personality.

Coming to Amerika is divided into two parts.  Part One: The First Generation focuses on the Lodholz family, their journey to the United States, their settlement in Terryville, Connecticut and their eventual move to the prairies of the Kansas Territory.  One member, however, stayed behind to work in the factories of Terryville.  The contrast between urban and rural life in the late 19th century is dramatic.  The one daughter in the Lodholz family married Henry Reb and Part Two: The Second Generation focuses on them and their many children from the 1890’s, through the Great Depression and up until 1950, when the family farm was finally divided.

It is difficult to convey from our present perspective how important letters were to our ancestors.  Often separated by many long miles of difficult to traverse terrain, relatives and friends found in letters an emotional attachment to loved ones as well as information about their health, joys and sorrows; hard times and bountiful harvests; the quick strike of death and the newborn child.

This family seemingly threw nothing out.  Letters were saved to be savored on multiple readings.  Even receipts for the sale of eggs and small drawings by children were placed safely away. In preparing to write Coming to Amerika, I found myself submerged in their world.  I hope that you can take yourself back almost two centuries now and find pleasure in submerging yourself in their world too.  It reads I hope like a good epistolary novel.



The letters and documents in Part One:  The First Generation were written in Old German.  I have generally kept to the translators’ wording while formatting the material into more coherent paragraphs.  Paper was valuable and postage cost money so the letters were often crammed with writing.

The letters and documents in Part Two: The Second Generation were written in English.  In transcribing these, I have kept the spelling of the writers and provided the modern correction only when it is not obvious what the word signified.  Keeping the original spelling allows the reader to catch the accent of the letter writer.  The letters contain run-on sentences and paragraphs, often skipping abruptly to new topics, one indication that the letters were often written in several sessions.  In this case I have divided sentences, inserted punctuation and created paragraphs in order to make the text easier to follow.

In both parts I have added contextual information about events mentioned and unfamiliar terms and items.  This information is hardly meant to be exhaustive and leaves the reader to explore further if curious about it.

The letters are of course arranged chronologically, but they are not consecutive, that is, there was obviously more correspondence than was actually saved.  The sequence of letters, however, provide a consistent story of interwoven lives.




Emails are not Letters

As a means of communication, letters offer so much more than emails.  Letters, whether typed or, even better, handwritten, take time and thought; emails rarely do.  Perhaps because they are usually longer, letters better convey the personality and emotions of the sender; emails rely on the hardly personal emojis.  Letters are physical objects that can be kept and read again by the recipient or later, historians; emails are generally transient and whether researchers studying our era in the future will be able to access and read them is an open question.

I have felt all this keenly as I have read through family letters that my brother and I have inherited from our father’s family.  We all keep items that are precious to us— pictures of loved ones, mementoes of trips, dried corsages from proms and weddings.  This family kept letters and what letters they are, full of life, sickness and death; hard grueling farm work and delight in taking photographs; bitter cold and sweltering heat on the plains of Kansas.  They show care for each other in so many ways, expressed succinctly in the way they, both male and female, closed their letters:  Love to All from All.

My favorite letter, which I share here, reads like a short Annie Proulx story.  The writer is my great-uncle John, who has just recovered from a serious railroad accident that shattered bone in his hip and put him in the hospital for a long stretch of time.  With the money he got as a settlement from the railroad, he purchase land to farm in Missouri and wrote to his financé the following:


Henry Co. Mo. [Missouri]

On the place & in my log

Cabin door Nov. 25th 96

at 1 o’clock & no dinner & eat

breakfast at 5 this morning &

have walked & walked till I

am all tired out.


My Dear Lula. 

I hardly expect you will get this letter before I come but ‘twill do no harm for it seems like 3 month’s scince [since] I bid you good bye for a few days.  I have run around & worked untill I am nearly sick & is raining this afternoon but I will have to go 7 or 8 miles to catch the Clinton Stage in the morning & as I have to stop in K.C. [Kansas City] & then again in Atchison it will take untill Sat anyway & maybe more for me to get home.  You have no Idea how it looks in here in this cabin.  Will try & tell you when I get there & all the trips I have had & the roads.  I am glad indeed to hear you are well & as I expect to see you in a very few days I’ll close with Truest Love to you my own my Darling.  I am as ever Your Truly John

A love letter for the ages.