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Pioneer Life in Minnesota

Roehl Family

Pioneer Life in Minnesota

The Trip to America

By the 1850s, the Röhl family would have heard from friends and neighbors about the “glorious opportunities” for farming in the New World. Faced with perpetual political and economic chaos, stories of cheap farmland and an opportunity to live in a society free of religious controls, class restrictions, and constant warfare must have provided a strong incentive to abandon their homeland. Still, making the decision to leave everything and everyone they had ever known must have been very difficult, since there would be no option for turning back.

In preparation for the trip to America, the family would have certainly sold almost all of their possessions to raise enough money to pay for travel. It is possible that some members of the family even signed contracts that required them to work for a period of time at a job in America in return for their passage. When the Röhl family boarded the ship Metropolis in the port of Le Havre, France, it is likely that they would have already traveled for several weeks on some combination of horse-drawn vehicles, riverboats, and trains from their home in Bohemia.

Sailing Ship Metropolis
As large as the Metropolis must have seemed to the Röhls at first sight, the facilities in the hold would have been rather meager for a crew and 50 passengers with all their possessions. This is an historic drawing of the Sailing Ship Metropolis with full sails unfurled 3-1. The trip from Le Havre to New York City would have taken about six weeks. Fig 3-2 is an image3-2 of that portion of the ship’s manifest listing most of the members of the Rohl family (Joseph, aged 42, was listed later in the manifest with a surname of Rolh)

Members of the Rohl family listed on the manifest included:
  • Joseph-Age 42, Catherine-Age 47, Wilhelm-Age 23, Joseph-Age 21, Sebastian-Age 16, Adam-Age 13, Catherine-Age 11, Johann-Age 8, Fredrich-Age 6 Months, Fredrich-Age Not Readable

Rohl family listed on the manifest
Rohl Family Members After Arrival

Interestingly, the Röhl family seemed to disappear after their arrival in New York City. Not one member of the family was listed six years later in the 1860 census! Many Bohemian immigrants during this period chose to cluster around Buffalo, New York (working mainly in the breweries) and around Pittsburgh and Allentown, Pennsylvania (working in the steel mills and glass factories). But the greatest concentration of Bohemians, by far, was in the Upper Midwest, where farmland and timber were cheap and available. The destination for some of the very early Bohemians had been northeast Iowa, where they lived for several years. When it became obvious that there was not enough farmland available to accommodate later immigrants, they began to look for another homestead site. In the spring of 1855, a large group of immigrants assembled at New Vienna, Iowa and then traveled on foot or by ox cart to home sites in Cottonwood Township, on the bluffs overlooking the Cottonwood River in south-central Minnesota. These first home sites in Cottonwood and Sigel Townships became the nucleus of the German-Bohemian community that would over the following years spread southwest through the rest of Brown County and into the neighboring counties.

Only three members of the Röhl family have been subsequently identified in official records:
  • Wilhelm owned property and farmed in Minnesota in the 1860s. His life and the lives of his ancestors will be the subject of the following pages.
  • Sebastian was not recorded on any census until 1910. Then 72 years old, he was living with two widowed daughters in Canton, Ohio (33-year-old Emma Miller and 38-year-old Clara Beresford). Both daughters indicate that Sebastian’s wife (their mother) had been born in New York.
  • Joseph may have married his wife, Barbara, in 1862 and initially worked as a machinist in New York City, later moving to Chicago to work in a mill. This individual’s birth date (Dec 1833) and immigration date (1854) are correct, but his surname varied from census to census (Rohl in 1870, Ruhl in 1880, Ruehl in 1900, and Rehl in 1910)

The Minnesota Roehl Farm and Family

In the summer of 1851, several bands of Dakota Indians ceded the southern portion of the Minnesota Territory to the US government through the “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” and the “Treaty of Mendota” in return for just over $3 Million in cash and annuities. These treaties resulted in the relocation of about 7000 Dakota to two reservations located on the northern banks of the Minnesota River. These actions opened up large sections of land for farming and development.

On 3 March 1855, Congress enacted a law providing “bounty land” to certain officers and soldiers “who have been engaged in the Military Service of the United States.”3-3 One such individual was John Williams, who had been a seaman on the US Navy ship “Potomac” in 1830. One of the US Navy’s responsibilities after 1823 had been to enforce the “Monroe Doctrine”, i.e., protect American commercial interests abroad. Toward that end, the Potomac, captained by John Downes, was dispatched from an East Coast port to Qualla Battoo, Samatra after the merchant ship “Friendship” was captured there by pirates. The Potomac steamed south, around the tip of South America and then west to Samatra, braving two major typhoons. Once the Potomac reached Qualla Battoo, the settlement was destroyed and the surviving members of the Friendship crew were rescued. For his military service, Williams was given 160 acres of land located on the southeast quarter of Section 12, Township 109, Range 31 West (Warrant #91617). At some time (likely late in 1860) Williams assigned that warrant to Wilhelm Rohl for some unspecified payment. Subsequently, Wilhelm Rohl sold the southern half of that property (80 acres) to Conrad Ebert on 28 Jan 1861 for the sum of $200.

Brown County, Minnesota
This is a current map of Brown County, Minnesota. The City of New ulm is in the upper right corner of the map. The location of the Roehl farm is shown by the lower arrow, pointing to Section 12, Township 109 (Sigel Township). The farm was located about 5 miles southwest of New Ulm, on the dividing line between Sigel and Cottonwood Townships. In 1859-61 the local residents had constructed a simple log structure, St. Joseph’s Church, on the location noted by the upper arrow, – the first Catholic Church in Brown County. The church is now gone, but the attached cemetery remains (44.269º North, 94.453º West). Also, note that the Cottonwood River snakes its way across the center of the map, flowing toward the Minnesota River near New Ulm.William Roehl married Gertrude Schwicker3-4 about the time he acquired the farm (1860-61). William and Gertrude subsequently had four children: John William (born 28 Apr 1862), Sussanna (born 1863), Anton Manderfeld (born 25 Apr 1864), and another child (born Aug 1866)

Life in Early Minnesota

Dakota Indians
While the cheap farmland in Minnesota was a great attraction for young German-Bohemian immigrants, life for these families was certainly not easy. In 1857 and 1864, the Rocky Mountain locusts invaded from the north and west, devouring the wheat just before it was ready to pick. This was a continuing problem until 1877, when the locusts were successfully eliminated. At the peak of the locust problem in the 1870s, a bounty of $2.50 was offered for each bushel of “dead grasshoppers”, or 50 cents per gallon of their eggs.

A much more serious issue for the settlers in the vicinity of New Ulm was fear of being attacked by groups of Indians from the reservation, located just across the Minnesota River. The relationship between the displaced Dakota Indians and the White settlers was stressful, at best. The Indians were forced to live on the reservations and adapt their lifestyle to whatever the US Government dictated. Traders would often extend credit to the Indians and then later demand inflated payments.

There was constant pressure for the Indians to give up portions of their reservation for use as farmland. In the summer of 1862, the US Government resources were stretched to provide support to the Union Army in its battle with the Confederates. In August the monthly annuity payment to the Dakota Indians was delayed and rumors spread that if the payment was ever to be made, it would not be in gold, as was customary. The Dakota made plans to ask the government to make future annuity payments directly to the Indians, rather than channeling the awards through unscrupulous traders. Hearing of these plans, the traders announced they would no longer extend credit to the Indians, despite widespread hunger and starvation on the reservations.

The Dakota (Sioux) Uprising

On 17 Aug 1862, councils were held within the Dakota Nation and, despite deep divisions on the course of action, war was declared against the US Government. Confrontations began in earnest on the next day. Because most of the US military was engaged in fighting the Civil War and not available to protect the civilian population, Sheriff Roos immediately issued an order to place the local militia under arms to protect the city of New Ulm, which was then home to about 1200 residents. By noon on the 19th, only 42 men had been found who were appropriately armed. Among them was William Roehl, who served as a sergeant in the “Citizen Army” from 19 Aug until 25 Aug under Capt. Louis Buggert3-6, and Joseph Schnoberich, William’s closest neighbor. Settlers, armed only with knives and pitchforks, served as a second line of defense behind the militia. In the following days, this group would improvise “cannon-like” structures from stovepipes and then strike anvils to create a sound that the Dakota believed to be cannon fire.

 Monument to Those Killed In the Dakota Uprising (Located West of New Ulm, MN)
On 19 Aug, the Dakotas debated whether to attack the city of New Ulm or Fort Ridgley (roughly 30 miles northwest of New Ulm). In the end, roughly 100 warriors fired upon New Ulm. Sixteen settlers were killed that day in and around New Ulm. On 20 Aug, 400 warriors under the leadership of Chief Little Arrow attacked Fort Ridgley, but the fort was successfully defended. Fearing a second attack on New Ulm, State Supreme Court Judge Charles Eugene Flandran, a former Indian agent, assembled additional volunteers at St. Peter and hastened to support New Ulm3-7. On 23 Aug, about 650 Dakota attacked New Ulm for a second time. The Indians attacked from the West, riding their ponies from side to side as they approached the village, a technique that made them a more difficult target for the settlers. This unfamiliar tactic unnerved the soldiers on the outer fringe of the village and they quickly retreated to the fortification in the center of town. “Desperate hand-to-hand fighting” finally routed the Indians.

During the “Second Battle of New Ulm”, 34 settlers were killed and 60 were wounded. More than 190 houses in the city were burned. William Roehl almost certainly saw action in this battle. Faced with only about 25 houses to shelter the local residents after the battle, Colonel Flandreau decided to evacuate the town. On 25 Aug, nearly 2000 New Ulm refugees (mainly women, children, and wounded) boarded 153 wagons or set off on foot for Mankato, some 30 miles to the southeast. It was many weeks before the refugees could face their devastated town and begin the task of rebuilding. Monument to Those Killed In the Dakota Uprising (Located West of New Ulm, MN)

Opinions and Footnotes

  • It is likely that the Röhl family lived in New York for some period of time after their arrival in America, perhaps to fulfill any contracts of employment associated with their passage. As noted above, Sebastian’s wife was born in New York state and it is likely that Joseph and his family initially lived in New York City. After a few years, the boys struck out on their own – Wilhelm to Minnesota, Joseph to Illinois, and Sebastian possibly to Ohio.

  • When the Sioux Uprising began on 17 Aug 1862, John Roehl was less than 4 months old. With renegade Indians roaming the countryside and randomly killing settlers without provocation, Gertrude Roehl must have felt very vulnerable when William was drafted into the militia, leaving her to protect the baby. It is likely that she joined with neighbors’ wives for safety. Once the Uprising quieted, the residents of nearby New Ulm faced months and years of rebuilding. Two years after the Sioux Uprising, the locusts returned to destroy the farmers’ crops. By that time, William and Gertrude had three small children who for several weeks could not go outside their cabin to play without being covered by hungry grasshoppers. The settlers indeed had to be of hardy stock!


  • 3-1 Metropolis drawing is from the San Francisco Public Library web site http://sflib1.sfpl.org:82/search/d?SEARCH=Ships+M
  • 3-2 Ship manifest obtained from web site www.ancestry.com
  • 3-3 Information from a letter by Frank Cowan, Secretary to President Andrew Johnson, and recorded in the Brown County Minnesota Court House on 22 July 1871.
  • 3-4 Anthony Roehl’s wedding record in 1887 at St. Francis Catholic Church in Quincy, Adams County, Illinois indicates that his mother’s maiden name was “Mary Catherine Schwicker”. In reality, the name he provided was a combination of his step mother’s first names (Mary Catherine) and his real mother’s maiden name. His death certificate in 1948 indicates that his mother’s maiden name was “Gertrude Swickert”. The 1860 census lists two Schwicker families and no Swickert families in the United States.
  • 3-5 Picture obtained at: www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/history/oldmankato/1852-1900/siouxuprising.html
  • 3-6 3-6 Dalby, John, Civil War Veterans, Orem, UT, Ancestry, Inc. 1999, accessed from www.ancestry.com
  • 3-7 3-7 Minnesota, A State Guide, Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, Hastings House, New York.