The Pilgrimage to Westphalia, MI

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It was only 38 days ago that the sailing vessel, the LEONTINE, with Captain Johansen and 135 German passengers aboard embarked from the busy port of Bremen, Germany. The LEONTINE arrived on the 5th day of October in 1836 bringing Father Anton KOPP, a pioneer priest, and the Eberhard PLATTE family into the port of New York.

After a long overland journey by way of the Erie Canal, Father KOPP and the PLATTE family arrived in Detroit, MI on October 25th, where it is presumed they met their fellow countrymen. Acting upon the advice of Father Martin Kundig of St. Mary's Parish in Detroit, Father Anton KOPP and Eberhard PLATTE set out on foot for the newly established land office in the town of Ionia, MI which lay in the Grand River Valley.

It was now October 28th. The men had left Detroit by way of the Old Chicago Road ( Michigan -- U.S. 12) as far as what is now Upsilanti, MI. At this point they left the Chicago Road for Dexter Trail -- pasing through Ann Arbor, Dexter, Chelsea, Stockbridge, Mason, present day Lansing, and then Dewitt. From this point the Dexter Trail ran northwesterly through the townships of Riley, Bengal and Dallas, and finally west into Ionia County; first to Lyons and then Ionia, where the Dexter Trail ended. The two men arrived in Ionia on the 4th of November. On the 10th they made their land purchase -- 560 acres at approximately $1.00 per acre. They located in Section 5, Town 6 North, Range 4 West in Clinton County.

In the meantime the five men, namely, Anton CORDES, Joseph PLATTE, John HANSES, Willaim TILLMANN and John SALTER were apparently waiting in Lyons. They had also made their way along the Dexter Trail from Detroit. (The women and children had remained in Detroit -- delalying their arrival here until the following spring.) When Father KOPP and Eberhard PLATTE joined the men in Lyons, They hired William Hunt, a trapper and trading post operator, to guide the settlers to their land-holdings in Clinton County. (Eberhard remained in Lyons until 1843). The first pioneers named the new settlement Westphalia in memory of their German homeland. Father KOPP immediagely returned to Detroit where he was appointed the first pastor of Westphalia by Bishop Rese on November 19, 1836. And thus began the first permanent German Catholic settlement in Central Michigan. The men remained in the wilderness settlement and began at once to clear the land. Their work paved the way for more than 300 emigrant families who were to follow them in the succeeding years -- until 1923 -- the year the last emigrant family arrived in Westphalia.

The pioneer families emigrated from almost every state of present day West Germany. The Founding Fathers were natives of the Sauerland area of the State of Westphalia, Germany. Soon after their coming, more of their German friends and neighbors joined them. Less than two years later, the first emigrants from the State of Hessen arrived. Eleven families were welcomed to the growing settlement in the following year, so that by 1840, the Township of Westphalia numbered 82 men, women and children.

The pioneer settlement was a success. And apparently that news reached the very shores of Europe, for it was in 1842 that 23 families -- the first from the Eifel area of the Rhineland -- arrived in Westphalia. Of these 23 families many had left their homeland as a group, sailing on the LOUIS PHILIPPE. Perhaps they too had read the letters written by Johann FUCHS (Fox), the Father of Emigration from the Eifel, with his glowing accounts of America: Eine Arbeitsame Hand ist ein Reichtum in Amerika. (An industrious hand means riches in America).

The settlement received many early pioneers from Bavaria and the Saarland. Many from the French region of Alsace-Lorraine had emigrated before 1836, but they had settled in the Detroit area before coming to Westphalia. The Potato Famine of 1845 - 46 in Ireland brought many early arrivals here.

The flow of immigrants continues. The people came from Baden-Wuerttembert; from the land of the Mosel River area and from the valley of the Ahr. Some of our first settlers were natives of Poland; other of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

The immigrants were not Europe's destitute, nor were they her landed gentry. They were the skilled middle-class who had acquired a trade. Most of them had property which they sold to pay for their passage and their first land-holdings in America. Using their native skills and crafts, they transformed a wilderness into a thriving, self-sustaining permanent settlement.

Most of the immigrants were farmers. Several were teachers. There were others who were the blacksmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, wagonmakers and shoemakers. A few were master-tradesmen, such as the musicians, painters, gilders, house-builders and barn-builders.

The years went on and more came: the wheelwrights, coopers, tailors and weavers, millers and tinsmiths. They filled the Township of Westphalia and flowed over into the neighboring townships of Dallas, Riley, Ionia, Eagle and Portland.

The first wave of emigrants in the years 1836-1860, did not leave their homeland because of religious persecution. This is an erroroneous assumption held by some. To understand why they left in such great numbers, one must examine the political and economic climate in Europe, especially Germany, in the years preceding the 1830's.

Followong the overthrow of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in June of 1815, the peace and order that had been longed for, was replaced by a feeling of uncertainty and great unrest. After the great powers of Europe met at the Congress of Vienna to rearrange the map of Europe, or more realistically, to gratify their hunger for spoils, the citizens of the German Palatinate and parts of the Rhineland--the home of many of our ancestors--became Prussians. They struggled within a political system that was almost feudal in design. Their taxes were high, but their wages were low. The years of poor harvests and the decline of the iron industy, especially in the State of Westphalia, caused great hardships. These poor economic conditions induced many to seek a better life in the New World.

During the years of the American Civil War, 1861-1965, and of the German Wars in 1864 and 1866, the emigration slowed down somewhat. Between 1871 and 1885, the flow of new arrivals rose again. Many men who left Germany had already fought in one or two of the Prussian Wars and preferred the life in America rather than three more years in the Emperor's army. The religious persecution during these years also gave an impetus to the emigration.

It was in the year 1871 that the Germans saw the advent of the Kulturkampf or the Struggle for Civilization initiated by Bismarck. It was a time of anticlericalism in Germany; a time when many Catholics fled their country for the religious freedom of America. Many of the Westphalia settlers who came in the years 1871-1885 were the victims of this persecution.

The majority of the early pioneers arrived in family groups -- young parents with their first children. Some settled here as young single people, finding employment in the sawmills of Lyons or in the city of Detroit, where the work was abundant and wages were good. Many of the first men worked along the Erie Canal. With these earnings they were able to buy their first farms in the Westphalia settlement.

In 1821, the Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi Indian Chiefs ceded all their lands south of the north bank of the Grand River to the United States Government. This land was then surveyed and land offices were established in preparation for the homesteaders. (The land office in Ionia opened in September 20, 1836 on Main Street, According to John Schenck, historian, "the rush for land was remarkable...sometimes a wait of several weeks was necessary before the applicant could make an enty. It turned the backwoods settlement into a stirring, bustling village...."), an other important event occurred in 1833. The Diocese of Detroit was created and Father Friedrich Rese, a native of Hanover, Germany -- a man who encouraged many Germans to settle in the Detroit area --was appointed the first Bishop. Finally, it is now known that Anton CORDES and Joseph PLATTE, two of the Founding Fathers of Westphalia, had emigrated from Heiden, Germany at least six months before the August emigration of Father KOPP and his followers. These two men had worked with the surveyors and had acquired considerable knowledge about the land in the Grand River Valley, especially Clinton county. They were aware that this newly surveyed land had been rejected by the speculators, who considered the land worthless --too swampy and too heavily forested. However, the German forefathers knew that a land that could support such a growth of maple, beech, oak and black walnut trees had to be fertile soil. And they were correct.

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