One Trunk

Elijah opened his eyes to a sea of bodies, crammed shoulder to jowl at the foot of his berth: Papa, Hans and Elizabeth, the children, behind them others he didn’t recognize. His lovely Mary held his hand, ever the vigilant nurse, her great belly nudged against his arm. The fetid smell of urine and vomit mixed with the aroma of onions and old tallow permeated the bowels of the ship. He opened his mouth to ask once more if they would take him on deck, then clamped his hand tight against his lips, choking down another wave of nausea. He locked eyes with Mary, willing her to hear his silent plea: Please, just let me feel the night, breathe in the salty breeze; I only need air—see, even the candle gutters in this fusty underworld.

“Look, darling. Broth. Come, you can manage a sip, can you not?” Her voice, like a snowflake floating in the sunshine, coaxed him back from the brink, charged him to answer.

“No. I—” His elbow jabbed her stomach as he lurched toward the bucket and the baby within kicked, reminding him of everything he would miss. I must tell Mary what she’s to do after I die, he thought.

“The baby…” His words were choked, a hoarse whisper. “Hans will take—” He’d begged his brother, before they’d left Germany, to take the child as his own if he should not make it.

Mary bent her face to his, straining to hear his words, her green eyes filled with sadness. She knew. He could taste her grief, her fear, and he reached for her hand, held it tight as if she alone could guide him to the other world. Can you smell it, Mary? Like a cold winter’s morning: sweet, sharp. The ship around him faded, replaced by the hills and brooks of his precious Schwarzwald. Home.

A tear touched his skin, hot with pain, and for a moment he thought of returning to the stale cabin where his family stood, hunched over him. But America was not his dream; it was Papa’s, and Hans Martin’s. Even his Mary fancied the promise of fortune. Their dream…

The air, Mary, feel it? I can breathe.

Elijah Weddle, like many who voyaged to America, died at sea.

In an ironic twist of fate, though, he died within miles of his journey’s end, near the inlet that would take him to the Port of Philadelphia.

Or so the legend goes.

As is common of travelers in the mid-1700s, records are scarce. Sea Captains were not required to keep passenger manifests; rather, they recorded the cargo being transported for their wealthier patrons. So while Elijah’s father, Johann Michael Weddle, can be found on the passenger list of the Francis & Mary, arriving in Philadelphia from Germany in September of 1742, no mention is made of his sons, Elijah and Hans Martin, or any other members of his party. Nor is there an official record of Elijah’s death. All we have is a story…

And yet, Elijah’s life must be more than this sad, undocumented whisper of his death.

So I find myself wondering about Elijah. What kind of man was he? Was his laugh contagious or controlled? Was he tall, like me, or more like my grandfather, his great-great-great-grandson?

My imagined version of his last moments is, likely, close to true. Sea voyages could be brutal. But, everyone knew that, so what would make him, and his family, leave their home and brave the dangers of months at sea—trapped below decks, crammed together like so many cattle, sometimes with as many as 400 passengers stuffed in the hold? Subjected to sickness, poor food, tainted water, primitive living conditions? Spending a year’s wage, or more, securing passage for just one? They knew the trials that awaited them, and if they didn’t, countrymen like Gottlieb Mittelberger were there to share their personal accounts of the perils that faced them.

So what happened?

Life in Sinsheim, a small province in southern Germany just north of the Black Forest, had been ravaged by wars and poverty and persecution for centuries. Elijah, and his father, and his father’s father’s father had endured hardship there, generation after generation. And yet, they sold all their belongings, save what could be fit into a trunk, and left behind all that was familiar for an unknown and uncertain future?

I have trouble fathoming that decision. I mean, look around you—the computers, the TVs, shelves of photos, movies, knick-knacks; closets of winter clothes, summer clothes, clothes that don’t fit (but will soon, we say, just five more pounds); what would you put into your one trunk if you were to leave everything behind? How would the 59” x 20” x 20” microcosm of your life look? One trunk—to hold the tools of your trade, a kettle for your meals, blankets, food, your Family Bible. Could you reduce your life, and the life of your family, to one trunk?

What happened in Germany eludes me still. There was the Thirty Years War, but it was a hundred years too early. The Seven Years’ War? Twenty-five years too late. We do have a few facts, though:

  • Elijah and his family were not poor. At least, not poor in the indentured-servant definition. Many people indentured themselves to pay for travel, but that doesn’t appear to be the case for these early Weddle immigrants—Hans Martin and Johann are both accounted for in early census records, which at the time, only referenced heads of households, all other members and servants rendered simply as tally-marks.
  • Johann, Elijah, and Hans Martin, with their families in tow, most likely left England in the early summer of 1742. Based on other firsthand accounts, they would have left even earlier from their home in Germany, possibly early spring.
  • The Weddle family Bible was, indeed, one of the items in the Weddle trunk but was lost in the early 1900s when it was loaned out and never returned.

There is some controversy surrounding the paternity of Benjamin, the baby that Mary carried in my imaged tale. In Hans Martin’s will, he leaves Benjamin, his “beloved son five shillings, Virginia currency.” However, the book Floyd County: A History of Its People and Places, by Dr. Amos D. Wood, lists Elijah as Ben’s father. To me, it makes perfect sense that Hans Martin took him as his own—a favor to his dying brother.

One thing is for certain. Benjamin led a prolific and exciting life.

But that’s a tale for another day.

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