Sunday, March 1, 2020

Ancestors in 2020 ~ February: August Leisten

For my February ancestor, I've decided to combine the topics of Far Away and Prosperity and write about my three times great grandfather August Leisten.

August Leisten (Lehsten) was born on July 14, 1838, in Mistorf which was located in the Duchy of Mecklenberg-Schwerin, which would later be part of Germany.    His parents were Frederick Leisten and Sophia Kroger.  August, his parents, and siblings are the ancestors of mine that emigrated from the most distant location to America. 

Leslie Albrecht Huber has an informative website Understanding Your Ancestors which provides an overview of Mecklenberg's history.  It includes links to helpful resources for additional research for those looking to research their roots from Mecklenberg.  Another helpful website is the GenWebsite by Carol Gohsman Bowen.

The Grand Duchy of Mecklenberg-Schwerin was a territory in what would later become northern Germany.  At the time of August's birth, it was ruled by Paul Friedrich.  It was one of the poorest provinces, mostly due to poor land configuration and bad governance.

August's parents Frederich and Sophia were both born prior to 1820, meaning that they were born into a feudal society.  Around the time of their birth in 1805, Napolean passed through leaving much destruction and despair.  From 1806 -1813, Mecklenberg was under French occupation and was part of the Confederation of the Rhine.  During this time period, Mecklenberg villages suffered robbery and plundering by the French army.   The troops acquired their horses, food, and supplies.  The villagers were forced to house the troops and were subject to high taxes; it was a time of repression and great suffering.

In 1820 serfdom was annulled with the belief it would lead to tremendous progress and an improvement to the quality of living.   It had the opposite effect, conditions worsened for the majority of the population.   Former peasants could not make it on their own and often had to sell their land, which was purchased by nobles and landowners making their estates larger and more powerful.    The now landless peasants had to go back to work for the landlord as wage laborers, but the estates no longer had obligations to take care of their workers by ensuring housing and basic necessities leading to increased homelessness and poverty.  The majority of Mecklenbergers lived in the worst living conditions in all of Western Europe, similar to Eastern Europe.  They had nothing - little freedoms, few possessions, no land, farms or homes.  Many people moved from place to place with little hope for a profitable future.

It was a hard, physically demanding life.  Both men and women put in long days for little gain.  During harvest time it was typical to work between 17-18 hours in the field.  Women worked in the fields but were also responsible for cleaning stables, milking the cows, caring for the livestock, tending the garden, taking care of the children, preparing meals, doing laundry and mending clothes.

The time period between 1850-1890 saw an enormous exodus leaving Mecklenberg.  Over 150,000 Mecklenbergers left their home country and migrated overseas.  Migration peaked between 1850-1860 when 3% of the population boarded ships to America.  The region was overpopulated, there was a lack of suitable jobs, housing and there was devastating indifference from the rulers related to basic rights.  The worst was linking the right to marry with the right to domicile. An individual could not get permission to marry until they had established legitimate domicile.  This could take years, especially since there were housing shortages and renting was forbidden.  After 1830, all German states forced marriage restrictions as a way to decrease the poor population; they remained in place until 1919.  These repressive laws made life unbearable.

The marriage restrictions did not decrease the population, in fact, illegitimate birth rates grew in proportion to the severity of the marriage restrictions.   In 1850, 20.9% of the births were out of wedlock.  Pre-marital relations were widespread and were often looked at as pre-marital births verse illegitimate.  Many individuals began starting families once parents had given permission to marry even if there hadn't been formal permission from the state.

August Leisten was born after his parents married on January 7, 1831.   They did have one child before marriage, Elisabeth Sophia Christina, born on November 23, 1828.  She died before her first birthday on June 28, 1829.   August's brother Charles was born exactly a month after their wedding.  Their wedding and all of their children, including August, were baptized in the parish of Hohen Mortif in the local church.

August and his siblings were not likely to have much of a childhood by the age of seven most boys were hired out to take care of geese, pigs and pull weeds.  His sisters would have been hired out to look after children as their mothers were busy tending to their many duties.  By the age of ten, August, would have been put to work helping with the harvest while his sisters might have been sent away to begin working as small maids.

The ultimate goal of every peasant and farmer was to one day live and cultivate his own piece of land.  It became clear that this dream was not going to be fulfilled in their homeland.  America was calling and it promised a golden future.  In 1855, August's brother Charles emigrated to the United States as part of the first stage of migrators to leave Mecklenberg.  In the year previous over 8750 individuals left the state.  The rest of the family would follow Charles to America in 1857. 

The trip to America started with securing the passage to get there.   Families would need to have 50 taler in cash as well as 30-50 taler per person for the fare.  Their journey would begin by selling all of their belongings to help pay for the passage and then they would board a train from Schwerin to Hagenan where they would take a train to Berlin and then to Hamburg.  From there they would secure their tickets on a boat to America. 

The Lehsten family boarded the Doctor Barth which was a three-mast vessel called a bark.  It departed for New York on April 16, 1857.  The voyage was the most difficult part of the migration.  They were on the steerage deck which was the makeshift space between the upper deck and the cargo hold.  It typically was only five and a half feet in height. The steerage accommodations came with limited ventilation and light.  It was cramped, dark and dirty.  Each person had about six feet by two-foot space to themselves.  One half of the steerage deck was free space for eating and moving about.  The other half contained bunks stacked on top of each other.  The smells were horrendous as a result of poor ventilation and the combination of urine, vomit, rotting garbage, water-soaked bedding, and clothing as well as the rancid smells of unwashed passengers.    The Lehstens were lucky, their trip only lasted 37 days as it landed in NYC on May 22, 1857.

Once in New York, they headed to Rochester where Charles had been living since his emigration.  Here they established residency and lived out the rest of their lives.

August married his wife, Louise Eicas Stiegmann on Oct 29, 1868.  Louise was also born in Mecklenberg but her family did not migrate until 1867.  August and Louise had seven children.  Their firstborn was my 2nd great grandmother,  Wilhelmina Ruth Leisten.  She was born on April 21, 1869, in Penfield, NY.

As with most immigrants, the ultimate success story was to move to America and become prosperous.  Mecklenbergers wanted to own land and feel a sense of control over their lives.   August found this golden dream and died having found prosperity. 

In the 1880 Non-Population Schedule census outlines the specifics of August's farm.   August owned his farm mortgage-free.  It included 24 acres of tilled land with 10 permanent pastures and orchards.  It had 15 acres of woodland and one acre classified as an "old field."  The farm's estimated value was $1900 with about $100 in farm machinery and  $300 in livestock.   He owned two horses, three milk cows, two calves, two pigs, sixteen chickens.  He grew corn, oats, rye, wheat, potatoes, and apples.  His farm was self-sufficient and provided what he needed for his family. 

August died on November 12, 1922.  He and his wife are buried in the Smith Cemetery in Penfield.  He was a member of the Bethlehem Luthern Church in Webster, NY.

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