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[*] posted on 8-6-2016 at 09:56 PM
Pastor John Kilian's Ben Nevis Diary

Complimentary reading is Two Routes to Liverpool by George Nielsen found in the Wends Blog.

Pastor John Kilian's Shipboard Diary
Joseph Wilson

First presented at a meeting of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, August, 1982, in Serbin, Texas, and printed in the Newsletter of the German Texan Heritage Society, v. 5, no. 2 (Sumner, 1983), pp. 101-104. The current version was slightly expanded and amended and published in the Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, v. 15 (1985), pp. 150-155; it was reprinted in A Collection of Histories of St Paul Lutheran Church, Serbin, Texas in commemoration of the congregations 150th anniversary in 2003.

The Wendish-Germans of Serbin and the surrounding area of east-central Texas are unique in a number of ways.(1) In Germany they were an originally Slavic group which was encircled by Germans in the Middle Ages. In the ensuing centuries, they had undergone a natural process of integration into the majority, as any minority group ultimately must. Thus, the Wends who emigrated to Texas in the mid-19th century were already greatly Germanized; most were bilingual, and of course German was considered the more “official" language, while Wendish -although loved by many - was of little practical usage. In Texas they continued this process, intermingling with the state's strong German element. Gradually, as had been happening in Germany, more and more of them gave up Wendish altogether and became indistinguishable from the other Germans. In this century they clung tenaciously to their Germanness, even through the two dreadful wars. Only after the group had completed the transition from Wendish to German in Texas did they begin to acquire English. In the first half of this century, all aspects of life were dominated by German, but many still could speak Wendish, so, as English finally began to come in, many people were fluently trilingual in these three quite different languages. I know of no other immigrant group trilingual in such different languages or which made a similar two-step integration into the American mainstream (Wendish to German to English).

Another unique feature of this group is the way they came to Texas. Being conservative “old Lutherans," they had been resisting the efforts of their governments (Prussia and Saxony) to merge the various Protestant factions into one united church. Then, in 1854, nearly 600 of them formed a combined church-congregation and emigration-society, called Pastor John (Johann/Jan) Kilian to be their leader, and came to Texas on one ship (the Ben Nevis). In Texas, they bought a league of land in what is now Lee County, between Giddings and La Grange, and continued their church-centered life together in their community, which they later called Serbin (“Wend-Land").

The final unusual aspect concerns their voyage on the Ben Nevis, which was sadly unique in its tragic-ness. While any crossing of the Atlantic was arduous at the time, that of the Wends took three months (from Hamburg ultimately to Galveston) and claimed over 70 lives, mostly because of a cholera epidemic.

It is this tragic voyage that concerns us here. Little is known about it; the primary source of information is a memoire (usually referred to as “Ein Brief”) written in his later years by Johann Teinert, who was a child at the time of the crossing.(2)

In the early 1950s, Anne Blasig, a daughter of Pastor Hermann Schmidt of Serbin, wrote the first widely-known book on the Texas Wends,(3) and donated a few documents, evidently from the pastoral archives, to the Dolph Brisco Center for American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where they still are preserved (as the “Blasig Papers"). Chief among them are the passenger list of the Ben Nevis, Teinert's memoire, and a passengers' contract for Pastor Kilian's family.

While Blasig cites the passengers' contract and gives a picture of it, she mistakenly thinks it covers the passage for the entire group. But more critically, apparently neither she nor anyone else has realized the importance of the “scribbling” on the back of the one-page contract: it is a precious fragment of a shipboard diary kept by Pastor Kilian. Not only does it add details to what little we know about the voyage, it is the only description at all that we have which was actually written during the voyage.(4)

The diary fragment is written in German, in the normal old German handwriting. The writing, is unmistakably that of Kilian himself. He kept his records and correspondence, which were predominantly in German (although some were in Wendish), in a beautiful script, conscious of their importance for posterity. The diary fragment was not written so carefully, evidently being meant only for his own reading; naturally, also, the conditions on the ship hardly encouraged neat writing. At first glance, the writing seems largely illegible, but with careful study it becomes very clear, with scarcely any problems of interpretation remaining. Names and dates are written in “Latin” script, very similar to English handwriting; this mingling of the two scripts, with Latin letters for special words, was very common, and it was Kilian's general practice.

The fragment covers just six days, from October 22 through October 27, 1854 (Sunday through Friday). The Wends had assembled in Hamburg in early September, and it was there that Kilian began the official records of his newly-formed congregation. They then crossed to Liverpool, where they boarded the Ben Nevis and unfortunately also got into the cholera epidemic. On Sept. 26th they sailed, but the disease was so bad on the ship that they stopped at Queenstown, Ireland, and went into quarantine aboard another ship, while the Ben Nevis was cleaned and fumigated. Finally, on October 23, they actually sailed out into the open sea. It is at this point that the diary fragment begins:
- vor der Abfahrt Sonntags Mittags ¼ 1 starb Magdalena Noack, Ehefrau.
- Am 23 October Montag fuhren wir von Queenstown ab.
- In der Nacht vom 23/24 October starb Tschornaks Kind. Wind stark.
- Am 24 October ungünstiger Wind, Nachmittags wurde er günstig;.in der Nacht fiel im Zwischendeck alles durcheinander, Seekrankheit im höchsten Grade beim Knistern der Scliffswände.
- Am 25 October Mittwoch sehr günstiger Wind, in 1 Stunde wurden 2 deutsche Meilen gefahren, es wurden zwei Schiffe gesehen.
- Am 26 October der Wind noch sehr günstig, bei mir Ende der Seekrankheit.
- Am 27 October früh 6 Uhr hat die Frau Symank einen Knaben geboren, Seekrankheit liess nach, der Wind stark, aber conträr, so dass man kreuzen musste. Meine Frau brach noch, war aber den ganzen Tag auf dem Verdeck, am 26sten October nur kurz auf dem Verdeck gewesen.
- Am 27 October gegen Abend waren 10 engl.Meilen von Portugal in der Richtung nach Madeira hin. Die Reise geht Südlich.

The following is a close English translation:
- Before departure, Sunday, 12:15pm, Mrs. Magdalena Noack died.(5)
- On October 23, Monday, we departed from Queenstown.
- In the night of October 23, Tschornak's child died.(6) Wind strong.
- On October 24, unfavorable wind; in the afternoon it became favorable. At night, in the hold,(7) everything fell topsy-turvy; seasickness in the highest degree, while the hull-walls creak.
- On October 25, Wednesday, very favorable wind; in an hour we traveled two German miles.(8) Two ships were seen.
- On October 26, the wind still very favorable; with me, end of the seasickness.
- On October 27, at 6 o'clock in the morning, Mrs. Symank gave birth to a boy.(9) Seasickness let up; the wind strong, but contrary, so that we had to sail a zig-zag course. My wife was still vomiting, but was on deck all day (on October 26, she had been only briefly on deck).
- On October 27, towards evening, [we] were 10 English miles from Portugal in the direction towards Madeira. We are headed south.

This diary fragment, giving a vivid, first-hand account of the first days on the open sea, and written by the leader of the group, himself, is a precious gem. Immediately, of course, we wonder: is this a portion of a larger diary? Apparently, unfortunately, it is not. The originals of the older Serbin records are now archived at Concordia Historical Institute, and there is no diary among them. While Blasig cites a Kilian diary in her bibliography, she otherwise mentions it only in one vague reference (p. 13), and it is not clear whether there really was or is such a diary, or if Blasig is referring to other diary-like papers. Furthermore, if Kilian had been keeping a regular diary, he would not have used the back of his passengers' contract for these entries.

For all its brevity, the diary fragment has a definite beginning and end. The first lines deal with the departure into the open sea and probably were inspired by it - by the feeling that they were finally getting started. After descriptions of the first chaotic week at sea, the fragment ends: "We are headed south.” The lower half of the page is blank, so we must presume that as they left the Portuguese coast and entered the main body of the Atlantic, the diary was discontinued.

This brief shipboard diary fragment gives a vivid picture of the distressful circumstances of the crossing: births and deaths; being at the mercy of the shifting winds; the storms; the seasickness, whose suffering even Kilian and his wife shared; the frightening creaking of the hull at night, while all were sick and everything and everybody was falling topsy-turvy. We learn that the date of sailing was October 23(10) and that the route went south along the coast of Portugal towards Madeira. In spite of the awful problems, we feel Kilian's - optimism, especially in the last words: "We are headed south." Finally, we can note here again, as we see throughout the Kilian papers, that Kilian loved the German language as he did the Wendish, and even preferred to keep his most personal notes, such as in this fragment, in German.

End Notes:
1. On the Wends in Texas and in general, see especially George R. Nielsen, In Search of a Home: the Wends (Sorbs) on the Australian and Texas Frontier (Birmingham Slavonic Monographs No. 1; Birmingham, England, 1977); Paul Kretzmann, "'The Early History of the Wendie Lutheran Colony," Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, 3 (1930), pp. 47-53; Arthur C. Repp, "St. Paul's and St. Peter's Lutheran Churches, Serbin, Texas, 1855-1905," Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, 15 (1942), pp. 35-46, 115-123, and continuing in later issues.
2. See "Ein Brief Vater John Teinerts,"Texas Distriktsbote, 14 (Aug., 1929). A few letters from Kilian give brief descriptions of the voyage, e.g., as quoted in "Das Lutherthum in Texas," Der Lutheraner, March 13, 1855, pp. l17f. [A later note: an extensive diary of the crossing by passenger August Haak was discovered after the publication of this article; it was published in the Journal of the German-Texan Heritage Society, v. 13(1991), pp. 116-122].
3. Anne Blasig, The Wends of Texas (San Antonio, 1954).
4. It was not until 1989 that the Haak Diary became known to Dr. Wilson. ed.
5. Mrs. (Johann) Noack's was the 54th death (it is numbered 53 in Kilian's death records, but the latter do not include infant deaths, which were entered in the baptismal records).
6. Agnes, 1½ year-old daughter of Johann Tschornak.
7. Nearly all the passengers were quartered in the hold, between decks (Kilian's family had a 2nd class cabin). It was important to try to spend as much time on deck as possible, in the fresh air; cf. Nielsen, p. 66.
8. The German mile equaled approximately .5 English miles.
9. Peter, son of Andreas Symank; according to Kilian's baptismal records, the only one of the six children born on the water to survive.
10. The date of sailing is usually given as Oct. 22, evidently basing on Pastor Hermann Kilian's sketch as reprinted in Kurzgefasster Auszug aus der Geschichte der ev. luth. St. Pauls-Gemeinde U.A.C zu Serbin, Lee County, Texas (Giddings, 1929). October 23 is corroborated by a note by Pastor John Kilian in the death records. Nielsen (p. 70) gives the correct date, apparently based on a Kilian letter.

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