My Travel To America
By Jesse Grimm
My family has always been farmers. No matter the time period we as Werners have always made a living by growing and selling crops. However, around 1880 times began to change for me and my family. It was around this time that my mother was becoming extremely ill and my father began to suffer from old age. So, the weight fell on my brother Jakob and I to provide for our family. Around March of 1886 we began to experience a drought in Hamburg and we could no longer make a living. It was around that same time that my friend Finn told my brother and I about the land opportunities near a placed called Ellis Island. The promise of land screamed better economic opportunities as well as a higher standard of living. I was ready to pack up and move to America, but my mother was too ill to travel and my father would never make it with his health issues as well. My brother and I discussed the issue and we determined that he should stay with our parents while I traveled to America. It was settled that once there I would get a steady job and send word for Jakob to join me when the time was right. I left from the Bremerhaven port in Germany, where my friend Emery Jagger had left from a couple years prior. All I had with me was a jacket, an extra shirt, and some money. I had a couple things, yet I never felt so empty inside. How could I begin a life without my family? I pondered this for a while, and as Germany turned into a small speck, I closed my eyes and dreamed of reaching the new world.
The place I left to journey to America.
The Statue of Liberty
The first symbol of freedom I saw entering the free world.
My new life began here.
The journey was long to Ellis Island, but as soon as I saw the symbol of freedom standing tall with her torch beaming I knew the journey was worth it. The Statue of Liberty, towering over me like a building, and inviting me into a new life. And not just any life, but a free one.
The health officers began to board our ship like the plague as soon as we arrived in the harbor. Luckily, our shipped passed the first health inspection and the officers proceeded to check the health of the first and second class passengers. I on the other hand, being a third class passenger, waited for days until I was taken on a smaller ferry boat to Ellis Island for further inspection. As we ventured through the waters I could feel freedom at my fingertips, but yet it felt so far away. After we reached Ellis Island, the officers ordered us to walk down the gangplank receive an identity tag. Like soldiers getting ready for war, we marched towards a red building and entered something called the baggage room where we left our bags until inspection was done. On to the next battle station, we marched upstairs to the registry room where inspections were taken place. As I proceeded the staircase, I saw the most largest room I have ever seen in my whole life ( I later found out that this room was nicknamed the Great Hall). Here, the officers decided whether I could enter the country or if I needed further inspection. They performed something called the 6 second physical in which a uniformed doctor would look for signs of infection or contagious disease. Thankfully, I passed my physical with flying colors and proceeded to the next station. At the next station, each immigrant was required to speak with a uniformed inspector and answer twenty-nine questions. Even though I was sweating through my clothes because I was so nervous, I passed this test as well. At this station I was also told it would be advantageous to change my name. The officers told me it would increase my chances of getting a job, and it would help me blend in. So, I chose the name Jesse Grimm. After the medical and legal inspections, I was then ushered to the top of another staircase off of the Great Hall. Here, I had to decide whether I would be traveling to the north, west, or south. I decided upon the south, and proceeded down the right side of the staircase. At the bottom of the stairs there was a post office, a social worker, and a place to exchange money. I found after exchanging my money that I had all of three dollars to my name. But I knew there was no going back now.
First Native Encounter
I walked out of the red, brick building and entered into America for the first time. I breathed the air and tasted something I had never encountered before; I breathed in opportunity. The places I could go were endless, and I soon remembered the promise of land that my friend back in Germany shared with me. I knew I needed to travel to a farm state, and noticed that a steam train near by was headed towards Illinois. I noticed a young man walking near me so I asked him if he knew when the train was leaving or how much it costed. He must have noticed my accent for like a mother would treat her child, he quickly began screaming hateful remarks towards me claiming that I as an immigrant take jobs from native born workers.He told me he would never answer any of my questions because if he did, I would only proceeded to push down his wages.The confrontation ended by him telling me to return to my home country. I then thought to myself, “is this how all natives act in America?” and if my prior statement was correct “why am I here?”. Then I remembered that I had more to think about than just myself; I had to think about my family too. So, with my head down trying to hide my face, my culture, and my story from those around me, I proceeded to the train. All in all, I found out that the trip would cost me approximately .50 cents. This seemed excessive to me but I figured it was a small price to pay for freedom. The whole trip I thought about my family, and what they would have done had they been here with me. I had a long time to think about this since the trip took about 16 hours, and when I arrived in Chicago, IL it was already the next day.
Travel in Chicago
By the time I got off the train, I was no longer just starving for a better life, but I was literally starving. I saw some men eating food on the side of the road, and I approached them for I knew no other way of getting food. They noticed I was nervously creeping towards them, and one of the men asked me if I was new to the city. I nodded my head in reply, and continued to nod my head as he proceeded to ask me if I had just traveled from Ellis Island. He invited me to eat some of his food, for he said he was once an immigrant too. Another man asked me where I was headed, and I told him I was heading south to farm. At this, my ears began to ring with laughter as everyone’s throats began to rattle around me. Why were they laughing? My thoughts were soon interrupted by one of the men who stopped giggling long enough to muffle a statement, “Are you crazy? Haven’t you heard there ain’t no more jobs in farming? Them machines done taken over man’s work.““What do you mean?”, I asked. They responded by saying that thousands of farmers across the country were losing their jobs due to modern machinery which can do the work easier and cheaper than three men. They said I had no chance getting a job in the farming industry unless I magically changed into a machine. Had I not been sitting down, this would have knocked me off my feet. All I had dreamed of doing once I arrived to America was gone in an instant. How would I make my living? I believe the men around me began to sense my fear (either that or they pitied me) for they invited me to stay with them for the night. I accepted immediately, and followed them towards their home. As we walked, I saw something extraordinary. Buildings that seemed to reach far into the heavens entered my line of sight. They were the largest buildings I had ever seen, and appeared to be connecting our world to the world above. I had never seen a place more beautiful, and yet, so ugly. For example, the tenement which these men resided in was extremely crowded and unsanitary. About ten men lived in the small space, and it was hard for me to move around. We all slept on the floor, and dreamed at night about what everyone dreamed of yet no one could achieve; we dreamed of the American Dream.
I awoke to the sound of a man coughing around me. I was later informed that he was infected by a disease called whooping cough which he received through a mixture of inadequate water supplies, lack of garbage, and poor sewer systems. This was this first encounter I made with the ugliness of America, and it was definitely not the last. After being woken by the infected man, I thanked the men for giving me a place to stay and went out in search for a job. I felt like a lost puppy wandering the street in search for a bone, but there was one difference; I had more at stake than simply a bone. I needed to find a job to provide for my family back home, and it had to be sooner rather than later if I hoped to stay alive. I went in and out of factories for hours praying that just one would offer me a job. Defeated,I sat down on a pile of trash outside one of the factories. That is when he approached me, a man named Bennett, otherwise known as a Boss. It seemed as if he was the answers to my prayers for he offered me a job, food, fuel and housing and all he expected in return was my vote. Apparently he was a powerful political party leader in the town of Chicago, but that did not matter to me. All that mattered was that for the first time, I finally felt at home.
A streetcar pulled up next to us and Bennett told me to get in. I had never seen something so incredible in my entire life.It was as if we were on skates, gliding through the city. However,for a reason unclear to me at the time, it felt like the ice below us was slowly breaking. We drove and glided through Chicago for about five minutes until suddenly the car came to a halt. Bennett told me that the men inside could tell me where to sleep, and that I would start my job immediately the next day at the McCormick Harvesting Factory. With that, he practically shoved me out of the car and I was on my way inside. I opened the big, brick door and a man named Brayden Monteforte greeted me at the door. I could hear his irish accent, but he seemed to be trying to mask it from me. He walked me upstairs and showed me where I would be staying. The crowded tenement I stayed in previously seemed like a palace compared to this one. In that one small room there must have been at least fifteen men, who all looked as if they wanted to be anywhere else. “It’s not the best, but we make it work.We have to if we want to stay alive”, said Brayden. He then told me that tomorrow I would be working beside him in the McCormick Factory, and that we would be up very early.I nodded, and proceeded to find a spot in the corner to sleep. Brayden woke me up the next day before the sun had even begun to pierce the sky with its radiant beams. We ate bread for breakfast, and walked about twenty minutes to the factory.
Working in the Factory
I was not welcomed with open arms at the McCormick Harvesting Factory. Everyone seemed to be focused on their work, and I soon realized I needed to do the same. I was in charge of packaging bags, placing them on a belt, and checking to make sure they were labeled correctly. I have never worked so hard in my life as I did that day. I did not leave the factory until 8 at night, which meant that I performed over 10 hours of labor for very little pay. I continued working at the factory for a couple months, and made about 1.50$ per day and worked a little over 60 hours over a 6 day period. I was always starving, always tired, and continued to make little profit. Not to mention at least once a week someone around me would be attacked by the factory machines since there were few safety precautions. And once these people were injured, they were useless to our employers. Absolutely no financial safety nets were in place in case of injury or death. In addition to the lack of safety precautions and poor sanitation in the workplace, fires were a constant threat. I read multiple articles in the newspaper of factories burning to the ground, and how the employees had no choice but to jump to death or to burn to death.After a couple months of this torment, I decided something needed to be changed. I had heard from a few of my fellow employees that there was something called a labor union forming. They were pushing for an 8 hour workday, better pay, increased safety in the workplace, as well as ending child labor. There was one formed nearby called the Knights of Labor, and was headed by Terence V. Powderly and had approximately 700,000 members. I was determined to join this union in order to fight for my rights as a worker. I was tired of living like a slave in a place full of freedom.
Joining a Union
After a while of searching, I found out that the Knights of Labor met every late Monday night in an underground pub. I attended the weekly meetings all while maintaining my job at the factory. I began to take a leading position in the labor union, and suggested that we try a form of collective bargaining. We created a list of our demands which included things such as an eight hour work day and better pay, and tried to negotiate as a group with the head of the McCormick factory. The man responded by firing all of us who were employed in his factory, and swore that we would never find anyone who would meet our demands. He thought he had taken all the fight out of us, but little did he know that he had added ammunition to our fight.
Trouble in Haymarket
We decided that there was nothing left to do but strike back. For weeks we planned our actions strategically, and on Tuesday May 4th, 1884 we took our fight to Haymarket Square. It began as a peaceful riot for an eight hour work day as well as in reaction to the killing of several workers the previous day by police. Then it happened. A boom rung through my ears like a firework exploding across the sky. I remember the screams of horror arising around me and they still haunt me to this day. Someone from our union had thrown a bomb at the police, and in an instant, everything we had worked so peacefully for exploded before us.
Eight of us were caught that day, I being one of them. We were charged for conspiracy by Illinois governor Richard J, Oglesby and seven of us were sentenced to death while the other was sentenced to a term of 15 years in prison. Do not ask my why I was convicted, for I served no part in making or throwing the bomb. I believe the police targeted me because I was a leader of the union, and they were threatened by the power our union held. Never the less, it was worth it. For after the strike on Haymarket, people began rioting across the country, and it seemed as if change would finally come.
needed to share my story before my execution date on November 11, 1887. For they may have silenced me, but you my friends can never be silenced. I decided to share my story in order to spark a fire in those who still remain in the work force. I believe that there is power in numbers, and us as the workers need to use that power to better our lives. For what is the use living in a free world when you can not truly be free? Remember that actions speak louder than words, and that change is never achieved without action.