The year was 1710. The entire population of the 12 American colonies (no Georgia yet) was 331,000, not much larger than today’s St. Louis. Benjamin Franklin was four years old and probably already thinking about kites and farting. And my family was coming to America (cue Neil Diamond).
On Saturday, June 14, 1710, the ship Fame (cue David Bowie) arrived in New York. Among the passengers were 36-year-old Johann Martin Seubert, his wife Anna, and their two young children. Johann and Anna are my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents.
Johann was born around 1674 in Mannheim (Germany), which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He grew up to become a husbandman and vinedresser… in other words, he was a farmer and he cultivated vines. He married Anna in 1704, and she immediately started popping out children like a Play-Doh Fun Factory.
Johann and Anna were German Palatines, people who lived in the Middle Rhine region that was repeatedly invaded by French troops at the time. A string of brutal winters and poor harvests made living conditions even worse. When birds freeze in mid-air (no, really), you know it’s harsh. These multiple hardships caused devastation and famine, forcing some 13,000 Palatines to migrate to England in the spring of 1709. For Johann and his family, this meant a grueling trip of several hundred miles that likely took them along the Rhine River to the Dutch city of Rotterdam, and then across the English Channel to London.
Once in England, Johann’s family and the other Palatines were given army tents in the fields of Camberwell and Blackheath, two districts of London. This became their home until England figured out what to do with them. Starvation, disease, and overcrowding led to the death of more than 1,000 Palatines there.
As expected, the discussion became political. Some British citizens wanted the immigrants to stay and work the fields, while others wanted the nomads to be shipped across the Atlantic to the colonies. Most of the Catholic immigrants were quickly sent back across the English Channel, primarily out of concern for how their presence might impact the Church of England (hello, intolerance). Some families were sent to other parts of England or Ireland, North Carolina, or the West Indies. A quarter of the immigrants, including Johann and his family, were sent to New York.
England sent 10 ships with 3,000 Palatines total to the colonies. My research shows that Fame was the third ship to depart, leaving London in January 1710. Along with my ancestors, Fame’s passenger list also included the first American generation of a future “king.” Johannes Valentin Bressler and his wife Anna boarded the ship with their five offspring. 225 years later, their great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. His name? Elvis Presley.
Fame’s cross-Atlantic journey took around six months, landing in New York on June 14, 1710. As you can imagine, life on these 10 ships was torturous; 480 passengers died en route. Also, one of the ships wrecked near the coast of Rhode Island. Once in New York, the surviving passengers were quarantined for five months on Nutten Island, now known as Governors Island. Here, 250 more people perished from ship fever (epidemic typhus). Of the 3,000 initial passengers on these ships, almost one fourth of them never got the chance to start life in the colonies. The promise of a new life in a new land was never guaranteed.
Many of the immigrants, including Johann and his family, settled in eastern New York State near the Hudson River. Once there, they were required to work off their passage. These German Palatines are said to have had a close relationship with the Iroquois, as the two groups traded knowledge and often assisted each other. Johann passed away in 1739 and was survived by several children, including the next direct ancestor on my family tree, 23-year-old Jerg. Jerg appears to have spent his entire life in the Schenectady region of New York.
Jerg’s son, Jacob, fought in the Revolutionary War with the Guilderland Soldiers in the 3rd Regiment of the Albany County Militia. He was only 14 when war broke out in 1775. It’s amazing that less than 70 years after Johann arrived in the primitive colonies, his grandson was fighting for their independence from the crown.
(Side note: Jacob’s last name in Revolutionary War records is often listed as Syber. Somewhere in the annals of time, the surnames Seubert, Siebert, Seibert, and Syber all gave way to Siver, which is now the permanent name of choice on my mom’s side of the family.)
On this branch of my family tree, I’m a member of the 10th generation living in America. In biblical terms, Johann begat Jerg, who begat Jacob, who begat Peter, who begat James, who begat Allen, who begat Otis, who begat my grandpa Floyd, who begat my mom, and now here I am!
As I’ve pointed out before, a person’s existence truly depends on fate. For Elvis Presley and me, it depended not only on fate, but also on Fame.