Jim's Electronic Home


The first Germans from the Eifel arrived in the virgin Illinois country of what is now known as Johnsburg, McHenry, and Volo on August 2, 1841. They were Nicholaus Frett, Nicholaus Adams, Jacob Schmitt and John Baptist Mueller. In order to capture the feeling of what it was like for those pioneers, it is only fitting to reprint a copy of a letter sent by Nicholaus Frett in 1841 to a friend back in the Eifel. It was translated as follows:

"We left our wives and children in the city of Chicago, and we three, (Frett, Adams and Schmitt), went into the country to look for an opportunity, and we found it thirty English miles from the city of Chicago near the village of McHenry, where there is an English free school and a house of correction.''

"The village is only three miles distant from us. There I bought land of 160 acres, which according to German measure makes 200 morgen, at $2.50 per acre, in German money, 6 marks. The land lies in a good situation and also is a beautiful area.''

"Also, we have very fine meadow land upon which the grass is so high it reaches above my head. This will perhaps seem unbelievable to you, but it is true. I would not have believed it myself had I not seen it. The forest is composed of many trees and hazel bushes like none such as found in Germany and they grow in great masses. Also, in the woods, the wild lemons, (plums), grow in abundance. When we bought the land we hardly knew what to say as we glimpsed the splendid fruit and high grass."

"Nicholaus Adams from Hirten also has as much land as we. Jacob Schmitt of Muenck has sixty acres. We three took ours altogether in one piece. We also bought two oxen that are as heavy as the largest one to be found in Germany. Also, a double span wagon and a cook machine, (cook stove), which is artfully constructed. One can cook on four fires at once and at the same time have an oven baking."

"We also bought two cows and a plow, besides household gear which one needs to farm. The oxen cost forty dollars, and wagon thirty-three dollars, the stove twenty-two dollars with the utensils included, the plow seven dollars, and the two cows twenty-four dollars. When we get things somewhat arranged, we can keep a hundred head of stock at our own place."

"Here it is not like in Germany that one must support the cattle with his labor; here the cattle support themselves. They run out day and night, cows, hogs, oxen, horses, etc. Cows come home evening and morning by themselves. Feed is absolutely free. One can make as much hay as he wants and where he wishes without paying for it. Here one knows nothing about taxes. One does not need to worry about beggars as they do in Germany. Here a man works for himself. Here one is equal to the other. Here no one must take his hat off to another. We no longer yearn for Germany. Every day we thank the dear Lord that He has brought us, so to speak, out of slavery and into paradise. This also I wish from my heart for my dear friends, sisters and brothers, who continue to live in Germany as if under lions and dragons, fearing every moment to be devoured by them."

"Costuming in America is similar to the best people in Germany. It is particularly handsome in the case of men. One cannot distinguish the farmer from the gentleman, they all stand on the same plane. If a women should cross the street without a hat she would be laughed at. In New York, I bought my wife and daughter, Maria, a new mantie, (coat) , of American cut."

"Board is also cheep in America. The common men lives better than the highest in Germany. One cannot describe how good it is in America and the many remarkable things to be found here. If one should write about them, they would sound too unbelievable.'

I am sure the eloquent words of Nicholaus Frett had a great influence on those oppressed and discontented people remaining in the Eifel , for in 1843 another group left the Eifel for America. Many of them came to the McHenry area. Among this group were Anne Oehmen Wirtz, age 32 years, and now married to Michael Winkels, age 34 years, her son Theodore Wirtz, age 7 years, and son Nicholaus Winkels, age 1 year. They, along with 155 other passengers and a crew of 22, (not including officers), arrived at New York's harbor on July 11, 1843 aboard the American selling ship Rhone from Havre, France. One of the crew deserted in France and one of the passengers was not aboard when the ship docked in New York. From a copy of the ship's manifest, or passenger list, as submitted by the Rhone's captain, John Johnston, Jr., to the Collector of Customs, thirty-four passengers were from the Eifel area, (shown as Prussia on the manifest), and the remainder from Baden, Bavaria, Wurttemberg , Hessen, Switzerland, and several from France. The passengers ranged in age from infants to a man 73 years of age.

Those passengers from the Eifel had to take an overland eastward route from their homesites to Koblenz, following the Mosel River. At Koblenz, the Mosel joins the mighty Rhine River. There they boarded river boats which took them to Rotterdam. It is not known by what means they were transported from Rotterdam to Havre. However, in early June, 1843, they boarded the Rhone in Havre, France and set forth on perhaps what was the greatest adventure in their I lives. Crossing the ocean to reach the Port of New York required 38 days.

A moment will be taken here to offer the reader some technical data regarding the vessel Rhone. If, from this information, one can conceive a mental picture of the Rhone, it will assist in imagining the ordeal of the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The Rhone, built in New York in 1831, was a three masted sailing ship with two decks. She was 127 feet and 11 inches in length, 28 feet and 5 inches in breadth, 14 feet and 2 1/2 inches in depth, and weighed 471 tons. The emigres must have been extremely elated upon landing on the shore of America after enduring the privations and hardships of such a long, hazardous voyage in such a small ship. A story has been passed down through generations that within sight of land a sudden and severe storm developed and drove the ship off course and, consequently, delayed its scheduled arrival . The passengers believed they were doomed. One of the men made a vow that,if they survived the storm, one of his first acts would be to build a chapel in thankfulness to God for being spared. He kept his vow and built a chapel out of logs in 1843. That chapel was later rebuilt and still stands today on Chapel Hill Road in McHenry.

What could have been the thoughts of Michael and Anna Winkels with their two small children, on that day they left the ship and had to begin life anew in a strange and foreign land? They, and all of the others, must have been stout-hearted and intrepid people. There they were, probably without money to spare, in a strange city, and with about another 800 miles of overland travel ahead of them before they reached their destination. And, when they got there, no means of housing would be available to shelter them; they would have to build their own before winter set in. In any case, the Winkels and the other members of their party made it to the then small village of Chicago in covered wagons drawn by oxen. From there, they followed the old Indian trail to the banks of the Fox River.

As the Fox flowed south from what is now the Wisconsin border, it formed a chain of beautiful lakes, most of which lie what is now Lake County, Illinois. From these lakes, the river continued in a southwesterly direction. It was in this general vicinity that the German emigrants originally settled. They named their little community Johnsburg. The community maintained their old country traditions and language for many years to come.

Living conditions in those early years were harsh, but as Nicholaus Frett mentioned in his letter, with their new found freedom it was still better than in Europe. Transportation was by oxen, horses, or on foot. Clothing was handmade, either from homespun fabric or from animal skins. Their original homes were constructed of logs with everyone assisting in the project. The only illumination was the glow from candles or the Fireplace. Lighting was not an absolute requirement, however, because everyone was so exhausted from dawn to dusk toil that they retired to bed very early. In later years, kerosene came into general use for lamps. Heat was provided from the Fireplace, For which wood was the only fuel. Cooking was done in large metal pots over the open fireplace. The only way a Fire could be kindled was by use of a flint stone or From the friction of rubbing two sticks together. At that time, matches had not yet been invented.

The laundering of clothes was performed on a scrubbing board and floors were scrubbed with a heavy bristled brush on a person's hands and knees. There was no packaged soap or detergent soap powder as we know it now. All soap for cleaning was made with lye from wood ashes. Baths were taken sparingly, perhaps once a week on Saturday in a large washtub or, in warm weather, in nearby lakes or streams. There was no indoor plumbing. They had to use rainwater or carry in water from the lakes or streams. As time passed, windmills and hand pumps provided water from wells dug by hand. Nevertheless, despite all of the privations, there was plenty of food. Food that was produced through farming was preserved as well as that which grew in the wild. In addition, there was plenty of fish and game to be harvested. On the other hand, medical care and facilities were virtually non-existent. The pioneers had to depend upon home remedies and their trust in God.

Michael and Anna Winkels most certainly experienced all of these conditions as they started a new life on their land in the vicinity of Fox Lake. They apparently resided at that location for about two years. They then moved to land at Lily Lake near Volo. After about five years they moved again to a farm on Ringwood Road, a short distance north of McHenry. Why the Winkels made these moves is unknown. One can only conjecture that perhaps larger or better farmland was the reason.

An examination of the 1850 and 1860 United States census records revealed that the family was living in McHenry County by 1850. This would indicate that they must have moved to the Ringwood farm in 1849. Also, Anna had given birth to four more children since coming to America and by 1860 Theodore was no longer residing with them.

Another interesting feature of the census is the erroneous spelling of names. In the 1850 census the family name was spelled "Wengels" and Theodore was listed as ``Peter''. In the 1860 census the family name was again misspelled as "Winkle'. These errors were probably due to the inability to communicate precisely due to language and pronunciation difficulties. In addition, proper spelling was not considered to be of prime importance to most people in those days.

For purposes of comparison, following is how the official census records read:

1850 Census 1860 Census
Name Age Origin Name Age Origin
Michael Wengels 42 Prussia Michael Winkle 52 Prussia
Hannah " 40 Hannah " 50
Peter " 14 Nicholas " 18
Nicholas " 8 Adam " 13
Adam " 3 Jacob " 12
Jacob " 2 Frank " 10
Frances 1 John 8

Realizing that they were growing older and their children were raised, Michael and Anna Winkels retired from active farming to take residence in Johnsburg. It was there on December 12, 1891, that Michael Winkels passed away at the age of 83 after being ill for only a few days. He was considered to be a kindly, honest man as well as a good farmer. Anna apparently lived in Johnsburg for another year and then moved to McHenry to live with her son, Nicholaus. She resided with him until her death on February 7, 1902. She had been ill for some time with what was the diagnosed as dropsy. Those that knew "Grandma Winkels" say that she had red hair. This genetic trait periodically appears in her descendants. Just north of McHenry in St. Mary's Cemetery the Winkels family burial plot can be found. It is located close to the front of the cemetery at the northern end. The tombstones are very old and mark the final resting place of two stalwart pioneers, Michael and Anna Winkels. Also interred in the family plot are two of their sons, Nicholaus and John, and some grandchildren.

Except for Nicholaus, not too much is accurately known about the rest of the Winkels children. Even with Nicholaus there are some conflictions with dates. For example, his obituary in the McHenry Plaindealer states he was born in Koblenz Germany in 1839 and his grave marker indicates he was born on December 23, 1840. However, neither are correct for in my possession I have a copy of his birth certificate which clearly states he was born on December 19, 1841 in Kirchweiler.

Nicholaus apparently remained with his family on the farm until his marriage to Maria Frei of Mequon Station, Wisconsin. The marriage was performed there on June 12, 1873. Six children were born of this marriage, two of whom died in infancy, His wife died December 21, 1888 at the age of only 33 years, and he apparently never remarried.

On the evening of November 8, 1911, Jacob Worts and two men helping him were bringing in a load of household goods, (Jacob had rented the First Floor of Nicholaus' house), when they discovered his body at the Foot of the stairway leading to the second floor. He had apparently Fallen down the staircase earlier in the day. A coroner's jury concluded that he had broken his neck in the fall. One of his children, Theodore, who died December 18, 1964 at the age of 87, rests in the family plot with the other Family members.

Information regarding the rest of Nicholaus' brothers was difficult to assimilate. Early records kept at St. John the Baptist Church in Johnsburg state that on September 18, 1861 John A. Winkels was the godfather for John A. Wirtz, my grandfather, who was baptized on that day. Since my grandfather's middle name was Adam, it must be assumed that John A. Winkels was one and the same as the 13 year old Adam Winkels listed in the 1860 census and not the 8 year old John Winkels. Further confusion exists in the fact that while John was listed as 8 years of age in 1860, his headstone in St.Mary's Cemetery is inscribed with a birth date of June 16 1855,which mean he was only 5 years of age in 1860. He died October 27, 1888.

In 1902, Anna Winkels' obituary reflected some interesting information. It stated that she was survived by four sons: Nicholaus of McHenry, John A. of Canby, Minnesota, Jacob of Iowa, and Frank of Johnsburg, Minnesota. This means that sometime prior to 1902 three of the brothers moved out of state. No mention was made of Theodore Wirtz in the obituary.

The obituary of Theodore Wirtz in 1927 mentioned he was survived by two half-brothers, Jacob and Frank, living in Iowa. This indicates that between 1902 and 1927 John A. Winkels died and Frank had moved to Iowa.

Further information gathered from St. John the Baptist Church shows how the Winkels and Theodore Wirtz's family maintained close ties. In 1866, Jacob Winkels was godfather for Jacob Wirtz. In 1871, Adam Winkels was godfather to Maria Wirtz, daughter of Theodore and Katherina. The Winkels were having children too. On January 27, 1871, Adam Winkels and his wife, the former Mary Berlinger, had a son and named him Jacob. November 27, 1871 brought a daughter, Christine, to Jacob Winkels and his wife Maria, Nee Blick, and Adam was the godfather. Another son was born to Adam and Nary on August 5, 1873 and named Theodore. Theodore Wirtz was his godfather. A daughter, Anna, was born on January 4, 1874 to Jacob and Maria with Anna, Jacob's mother, as godmother. On April 5, 1875 Nicholaus and his wife became the parents of a girl and named her Anna. Anna, Nicholaus' mother was again the godmother. Maria Winkels became the godmother to Helena Wirtz, a daughter born to Theodore and Katherine on February 26, 1877. A son was born to Nicholaus and Maria on July 8, 1877. He was also named Theodore and his godfather of course was Theodore Wirtz.

This is all the information I was able to gather regarding the Winkels. I do not know the whereabouts of any of the subsequent generations of Winkels, but it is my sincere wish that if any of this material should fall into their hands, they will find it interesting and useful."