WHY THE WESTHUES FAMILY IMMIGRATED

Kenneth Westhues

Address at the centennial celebration of the Westhues family in America, Central Methodist College, Fayette, Missouri, 1992. Chapter 4 in K. Westhues, ed., Where We Belong: Historical Essays for the Family of Olive Conran and John Westhues, Glasgow, Mo., privately published, 1997. Published on the web in 2003 in the Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage. Click here for J. Y. Miller's account of Wilhelm and Theresa's love, and here for his webpage on Westhues genealogy.

The main event this afternoon is introducing the members of the eight branches of the Westhues family in America, so that the older generation can renew acquaintance and the younger generation can identify the people they've heard Mom or Dad talk about. But before those introductions, I've been asked to say a word about the trunk from which these eight branches sprouted, the people who started the Westhues family on this continent. I mean Wilhelm and Theresa Westhues, the couple who packed their four trunks in Germany one hundred years ago, bundled up their six children, traveled by train to Bremen, embarked there for the 10-day Atlantic voyage on the S. S. Kaiser Wilhelm II, transferred in New York to a Wabash train for three more days journey deep into the interior of this continent, arriving at last in their new hometown.

Wilhelm and Theresa were not early settlers. The United States had already celebrated its centennial by the time they arrived, and the population of Missouri (which in 1820 had been just 20,000 people of European descent) had reached almost 3 million by 1890. The town of Glasgow was already well-established, having been founded in 1836 by old American settlers from Virginia and Kentucky, who brought with them the culture and the plantation economy of the South. This college where we have gathered was already 40 years old by the time Wilhelm and Theresa arrived. The Civil War, in which this Protestant and English-origin region of Little Dixie had sided with the South, had ended 30 years before.

How then did it happen that Wilhelm and Theresa, our grandparents or great- or great-great-grandparents, moved to join the American nation a century ago? Missouri, let it be said, was a famous place in Münsterland, Westphalia, the region of Germany near Holland where they lived. Half a century earlier, when Missouri was being opened for settlement, thousands of Westphalians had moved to the counties west and south of St. Louis—Washington, Warren, Osage, Gasconade, Franklin, and Perry Counties. Their reason for coming was aptly summarized by a German official at the time (1852):

The prosperity is ever more in decline. A considerable emigration to America has taken place. This was not rooted in any political motives, but simply the increasingly obvious realization that spinning and weaving are heading inevitably toward ruin.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, growing flax and processing it into linen was a mainstay of the Münsterland economy. By 1850, that industry had all but collapsed. Mechanized production of linen in Great Britain was driving the German home-weavers out of the international market, and so was the ever-growing popularity of cotton, as an alternative to linen. Times were tough in Münsterland. In the mid-1850s, Missouri looked like the promised land to any landless peasant willing to work. One transplanted German who had moved here described it this way:

America is indeed a splendid land. Here a person can still acquire something. In Germany, I didn't have as much property as I could hold in my hand, and dared not hope, no matter how hard I worked and saved, ever to acquire any property. What you see here belongs to me. I have had to work terribly hard, but I have something to show for it. Here I have eaten more pork in one year than I have seen in Germany my whole life.

By the 1860s and 1870s, almost everybody in Münsterland had some friend or relative in Missouri. In addition, after the Civil War, a couple of dozen German families from west of St. Louis pulled up stakes again and moved farther up the Missouri River to the Chariton River bottoms, the swampy floodplain west and northwest of Glasgow that had not been cleared in the initial settlement by the Virginians and Kentuckians. Many of you here have ancestors from those families: the Flaspohlers, Haskamps, Holtwicks, Schaefers, Westhoffs, Aholts, Himmelbergs, Sellmeyers and Bruckses, among others. These were the families that established the German rural community near Glasgow, and helped found all three of the local Catholic parishes, St. Mary's, All Saints in West Glasgow, and Immaculate Conception in Aholt.

But these families were still writing to the relatives and friends in Westphalia they had left a few decades earlier, and that is how Wilhelm and Theresa Westhues came to hear about this town of Glasgow, Missouri. At the invitation of friends, the John Stockman family moved to Glasgow from Münsterland in 1868. At the urging of the Stockmans, the Joseph Fuemmeler family came in 1875. The Fuemmelers had been friends of the Ben Pfortman family in Münsterland, and so persuaded them to come over in 1885. Ben Pfortman then wrote about the good prospects here to his cousin, Theresa Dilkaute Peters.

This Theresa Peters was not the one who married Wilhelm Westhues. She was her mother, by that time a widow with five unmarried sons at home, along with the daughter who had married into the Westhues family. In 1888, the elder Theresa Peters moved with her sons to a farm north of Glasgow, on the edge of the bottoms. She wrote beckoning letters to her daughter.

Now the man whom the daughter, the younger Theresa, had married was not in all respects a prize catch. Wilhelm Westhues was not a firstborn son, and thus did not stand to inherit land of his own. He was hardworking, frugal and responsible, but in Münsterland at that time, it was only the eldest son who inherited the farm. No matter how hard they worked, Wilhelm and Theresa had no prospect of ever owning their own farm there.

Why then did Wilhelm and Theresa come to America? For a combination of reasons: to be reunited with her mother; to find a place where not only they but their children could have farms of their own; and also to escape German militarism, of which Wilhelm had unhappy memories from his years as a conscript in the army.

They arrived in 1892—with twelve-year-old Theodore helping take care of the little ones, with the younger Wilhelm (William G.), with eight-year-old Joseph (who would later become a priest), with six-year-old Theresa (who would die young), with four-year-old Henry and baby Ben. They travelled in steerage, poor German peasants that they were. All the money they had totalled $1500—this according to Uncle Fritz's wonderful memoir that Sister Mary included in her genealogy book five years ago. With that money, and with loans from Theresa's mother and the bank, they bought the house and farm, which had at that time just 37 acres, where Father Jack presided at Mass for us this morning. There they had four more children: Mary, John, Anna, and Fritz.

Eight of Wilhelm and Theresa's children—all except Joseph and Theresa—got married and had large families. Now is a good time to have a look at the families they produced.

Endnote: The general argument here has been drawn from Walter D. Kamphoefner, The Westfalians: from Germany to Missouri (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987; quotation taken from p. 69). Information on German settlement in and around Glasgow, Missouri, taken from K. Westhues, I See the Cross: Centennial History of St. Mary's Parish (Glasgow, Mo.: St. Mary's Parish, 1966).


The family of Wilhelm and Theresa Westhues in 1896, shown in front of their home near Glasgow, Missouri, which they had purchased on their arrival in America in 1892. From left: Joseph, William, Theodore, Wilhelm (father), Theresa, Theresa (mother) holding baby John, Mary, Henry, and Ben. This was later the home of Fritz and Eulalia Westhues (Fritz was one of two children born later, the other was Anna). As of 2006, the home belongs to Anthony (great-grandson of Wilhelm and Theresa) and Pat Westhues.