Young Catherine stood on the ship’s bow as it sailed into Ellis Island. She was a teenager. Her hair was tied behind her head. She had a slender neck. Young face.
The passengers on the boat were excited. All 1,139 of them. They were speaking in strange tongues. Irish, Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Scandinavians, Norwegians, Swedish, Jewish, Polish, French.
The shoreline came into view. Catherine had never seen so many buildings. There weren’t buildings like this in Deutschland.
She leaned onto the stanchions. Her fiancé, Jakob, the carpenter, stood beside her and kissed her cheek.
“Ist es das?” said Catherine.
Jakob nodded. “Das ist Amerika.”
“Wow,” said the teenage girl.
The journey had taken seven days. They had been canned oysters within the hull of the ship. After seven days, everyone smelled like body odor and puke.
Catherine’s parents had been upset at their decision to leave the old country. Leave Deutshcland? Why? Get married in a foreign nation? Huh? They were just teenagers. Had they lost their minds? Were they completely verrückt?
Nevertheless, youth is a potent hallucinogenic. And this was a New World.
It was a trip of many firsts for her. For starters: Catherine had never been on a boat. Tickets on this ship cost five years’ carpenter’s wages.
Also, Catherine had never gone to the bathroom overboard before. Which was fun. Men went over the portside. Women went starboard.
The ship eased into Ellis Island, all misery instantly vanished. This was a fresh start. A new life. A new culture.
Everything happened so quickly. Catherine and her beaux went to the registration room, along with a few thousand other hopefuls. They waited for nine hours.
A doctor gave her a complete physical exam as she waited in line. They were all herded into cattle chutes. She and her fiancé were asked a series of quasi-trick questions by clerks.
In the lobby, she watched families reunite. She saw people weep and kiss and wail. She saw aliens become American. She saw outlaws become in-laws.
And suddenly, just like that, it was over. She was American.
Within hours, she and Jakob were standing in a train depot. Life was about to change forever. The train would whisk them away to heaven knew where.
Jakob and his brother would part ways. Jakob’s brother would travel dead west. Jakob and Catherine would go south.
The depot was a madhouse. Iron locomotives shot in and out of the New Jersey trainshed like hellish creatures from Armageddon.
Catherine was sick with worry. This was all so overwhelming. So frightening. So enveloping. What would become of her? What were they doing?
On the train platform, they saw something unusual. Everyone was gathered in a mass. Hordes were standing around a priest.
The old clergyman was talking loudly, reciting from an open book. He was speaking Latin. A young immigrant couple, Italian maybe, stood before the holy man, locking hands.
They were getting married. The bride wore a makeshift veil. The groom wore a flower on his rumpled lapel.
“Eine Hochzeit!” Catherine exclaimed. A wedding.
Standing behind the bride and groom were dozens of immigrant lovers, all waiting to be married. A man was selling American marriage licenses for $1. Another man was carrying a squeezebox, playing ceremonial music for 25 cents a pop.
Young Jakob turned to face his fiancé. There was enthusiasm in his eyes.
“Heirate mich, Katherine?” he said. Marry me.
“Ya,” she said through her tears.
They waited their turn. The elderly priest wed them. Right there on the depot platform. The whole ceremony took a few minutes, tops.
The others in the train depot cheered and screamed for the young newlywed couples. Young Jakob kissed his bride. They signed the certificate.
Catherine could have no idea how difficult her life would become in the following years. She would bear Jakob’s children. They would build a cabin. She would watch her husband die from fever before she was 28.
She would encounter drought, famine, and wars.
But for now, their little train was heading southward, accompanied only by a gilded sundown.
“Gott bless Amerika,” said Catherine Dietrich.
And this afternoon, while touring Ellis Island National Monument, her descendant said the same thing.
David from Florida - February 11, 2023 6:38 am
Thank you Catherine.
🇿🇦🇿🇦Norma Den - February 11, 2023 6:52 am
Peggy C - February 11, 2023 7:04 am
Sean, so well done!
Sandra Cockrell - February 11, 2023 7:07 am
Please tell us more, much more, of Catherines’s story.
Perri Williamson - February 11, 2023 7:15 am
God bless America. Land that I love.
Jo Terry - February 11, 2023 9:39 am
Wow. Wow. One of your best, Sean. One of your best.
Dolores - February 11, 2023 10:11 am
It is in the roots, not the branches, that a tree’s greatest strength lies.
Pubert Earle Bozemann - February 11, 2023 10:27 am
Pone, you been on a roll lately. Another good ‘urn. Was that your grandmother? BTW, I screwed up the other day on yore Marigold story – except this time it was a cat and not a dog. On YouTube. Pinky the Cat. Pet of the week. It’ll make you’re eyes water…
Robert - February 11, 2023 10:49 am
No matter what people say it is still the best country on earth. God still blesses America
Xan - February 11, 2023 11:23 am
That’s surprised and moved me. Was she Mother Mary’s mama?
Jan Shirley - February 11, 2023 11:52 am
Wow, Sean. Beautiful.
Mary Bales - February 11, 2023 11:58 am
Beautiful story! I’m so glad you shared it with us.
Elgin Carver - February 11, 2023 12:03 pm
Clearly one of your better articles.
Carla Walrath - February 11, 2023 12:12 pm
Sean. Mercy! So Catherine is your father’s grandmother? Great grandmother? I had family immigrate from Germany sometime back then as well. We owe so very much to those brave youngsters who believed and followed their American dream! They are part of the reason this country has a national celebration of Thanksgiving!
I love how you tell a story!
stephenpe - February 11, 2023 12:20 pm
The melting pot. We all came from somewhere. Tell us more, Sean.
Joan S Moore - February 11, 2023 12:23 pm
And God Bless The new generation of the Dietrich family and his bride!
Trent - February 11, 2023 12:38 pm
Goosebump ending Mr. Harvey, nicely played!
Nancy Wright - February 11, 2023 12:44 pm
Wow! Thanks Sean!!❤️
Oliver Rhett Talbert - February 11, 2023 12:45 pm
Great story!! May New York be redeemed in your heart.
Te - February 11, 2023 12:59 pm
That is an awesome to know, where you began in this nation, your roots. We all of us (well, the majority of us) fervently agree, in the midst of this war (which we don’t talk about here), God bless America! There are so many paths to being an American, not all of them chosen. Almost all of them humble, hard-working, hopeful, unrelenting people who saw this nation as a hope, a security, a “better” – because of one thing: our Constitution. It provided opportunity, represented freedom, and spoke, in all languages, peace. For that moment alone, it was worth going to New York.
Linda Hubbard - February 11, 2023 1:14 pm
Debbie - February 11, 2023 1:02 pm
Thank you for this story of what it was like to come through. Much more detailed than I have read before. My Sicilian grandparents came through Ellis Island. Such bravery that I do not know I would have had at such a young age.
Sondra - February 11, 2023 1:15 pm
Wow!! Thank you!! Amazing!!
Paul Cooper - February 11, 2023 1:22 pm
After a quick internet search, it appears the surname Dietrich remains the same in English as in German. Lucky you! My surname Cooper was anglicized from the German Kufer with an umlaut on the u. My middle name — my mother’s maiden name — is Silas, anglicized from the Swedish Seijdlitz.
John - February 11, 2023 6:19 pm
We have been anglicized and not all the same way. I guess it depends on the census taker or registrar at the government office. We’re Icenhower but there are so many variations Eisenhower (probably the most famous), Isenhower, Eisenhauer (original German), Icenhour and on and on.
I hope that there is another man in Sean’s direct family or then the name falls off the list. My grandson is the only son of an only son of an only son. Large families are not the norm anymore.
Tracy - February 11, 2023 1:37 pm
Very moving, tears flowing down my cheeks as I picture you standing there saying God Bless America. Funny how I feel like I know you.
Julie Hall - February 11, 2023 1:43 pm
I am crying. Thank you for this beautiful story of bravery!!
Juliana Dykhuizen - February 11, 2023 1:45 pm
I came on a boat in 1962 and arrived on Ellis Island .And Yes, felt like cows going thru all those cages and interrogated,checked out . It took my oceanliner ten days , we had bedrooms with toilets inside,no bissiness overboard stuff. What year was this you are telling about ,must have been much earlier ,mid 1800 ? but then it would have taken them much longer than seven days to get to America. And New York didn’t have all those skyscrapers until 1890- 1930 .
mccutchen52 - February 11, 2023 1:54 pm
That was one of your “great” stories. They are all memorable but this one is great.
Peggy Howell - February 11, 2023 1:58 pm
Connie - February 11, 2023 2:05 pm
Wow. Just that. ❤️
Philip S. Coe - February 11, 2023 2:07 pm
Really powerful. Thank you.
Linda Lewis - February 11, 2023 2:18 pm
Oh, what a beautiful story. I think we have forgotten all that our immigrant forebears had to endure to lay the groundwork for the beautiful lives we now lead. I know you and your wife are enjoying your trip. Please keep us up to date.
Peggy M. Windham - February 11, 2023 2:19 pm
No words!! Just chill bumps! 💙❤️
Mimi Love - February 11, 2023 2:24 pm
I’m with Sandra Cochrell. Tell us more of Catherine’s story. Tell us about her becoming Americanized, her struggles and success as she became the Dietrich matriarch. I have a strong feeling that her life story is worthy of a book. I’m already hooked on knowing more about her. Mimi
Susan Marler - February 11, 2023 3:00 pm
Wow, just wow. What a thrill of a lifetime for you, beautifully told. Thank you!
Steve Scott - February 11, 2023 3:08 pm
Judy Mcgowen - February 11, 2023 3:11 pm
Excellent article and very touching. Happy tears 🥲
Phyllis Ratliff - February 11, 2023 3:18 pm
Beautiful story of your great great grandparents! God bless the Dietrich family.
Suellen - February 11, 2023 3:21 pm
That was wonderful beyond words! I’m still crying it was so moving!
Shaw Gookin - February 11, 2023 3:30 pm
Great story! What year was this?
Gigi22 - February 11, 2023 3:38 pm
Wow—love this! My husband’s grandparents immigrated from Italy in the late 1920’s and came through Ellis Island. Love hearing about your family history beginning there♥️ Hope we hear more!
Debbie g - February 11, 2023 3:39 pm
This reminds me of my great grandparents. They came from Norway as immigrants. I always wonder if they went through the same thing and how they felt when they came to Ellis Island.
Patricia Gibson - February 11, 2023 3:44 pm
I haven’t made it to Ellis Islabd yet but it is on my bucket list!
Rosemarie Gibson - February 11, 2023 3:48 pm
God Bless America! Indeed!!!
Judy Sorenson Wilson - February 11, 2023 4:05 pm
It was very moving when I visited Ellis Island and saw where my 9-year old Daddy entered the US. He ended up in a Birmingham suburb. An American teacher changed the spelling of our last name for three of theses kids.
Glen Pringle - February 11, 2023 4:09 pm
My paternal grandparents had a similar experience traveling from Ireland. I actually had their names put on a plaque there years ago when they were raising money to work on Lady Liberty. Looking forward to hearing you at the AGP dinner.
kingswaydaughter - February 11, 2023 4:16 pm
It’s no different today – the same great hope still lies in the hearts of many.
rdo333 - February 11, 2023 4:23 pm
Joanne Lay - February 11, 2023 4:27 pm
David Britnell - February 11, 2023 4:44 pm
Sean, you really know how to make an old man cry. This was beautiful beyond description! Thank you. God please bless America again and again.
virginia westlake - February 11, 2023 4:58 pm
One of the best! Tears falling!
Cindy Carrington - February 11, 2023 5:07 pm
Sean, once again you made my husband and I cry! She was your grandmother?
Stacey Wallace - February 11, 2023 5:15 pm
May God bless America. Sean, I am so glad that your brave ancestors came to America. Catherine and Jakob would be so proud of you. Love to you, Jamie, Marigold, Otis Campbell, and Thelma Lou.
Ingrid B Whigham - February 11, 2023 5:16 pm
Thank you for sharing your wonderful story, Sean. There are so many stories; we Americans are indebted to our immigrant forebearers.
Gayle Wilson - February 11, 2023 5:25 pm
Sean, they are all worthy. Each and every one of your stories. Even the funny ones and the ones where you make a point to some holier than thou person, but your points make us laugh. But, this one. This one is at the top. God bless you and Jamie as you enjoy New York and happy anniversary.
pat - February 11, 2023 5:30 pm
sjhl7 - February 11, 2023 6:12 pm
What a precious story! Unique to your ancestors, yet the same story for so many families! We need to hear this story over and over again to make us appreciate our history and work hard to keep our country as our ancestors created it to be! Free, for the people and worshiping the one, true God who created us each and every one.
Joy Jacobs - February 11, 2023 6:21 pm
So many great stories.
This is the story of my great great grandmother, Sofie Amberger. She had a hard life but her son William Henkel became the US Marshal of the Southern District of New York. Quite an achievement for the son of an immigrant teen.
Sophie was born 21 February 1837 in Germany. Her mother died 6 October 1847.
Her father remarried 4 January 1849 and in July 1851 He, his new wife and 1 infant emigrated to New York and settled in New Jersey. Unknown why he left his 2 living daughters behind.
13 February 1854 Sophie (17) and her sister Elise (9) immigrated to New York. I cannot find any record of who accompanied them or whether they ended up in New Jersey.
Around 1858 she married Henry Henkel and on 14 Dec 1859 her first child William Henkel was born. They had 2 more children, Henry Jr. Henkel 1861-1915 and Eliza Henkel Henkel born about 1866 and died 27 October 1872 about age 6. According to 1900 Census Sofie had 5 children, but only 2 living.
Meanwhile Sophie’s sister Elisa (1844-1937) married in1868 in New York to George Hildebrand (1839-1918) and they had 1 child, Mary.
Henry Henkel (husband of Sofie) died 1 Sept 1874. According to family tradition and William Henkel’s obit he went to work to support his widowed mother at age 9 but perhaps his age was more like 14 or 15. 😁
5 January 1878 Sophie married Konrad Kruck who died 21 Nov.1882.
She died December 1, 1911
Bubba Stubbs - February 11, 2023 6:25 pm
An amazing story to which so many of us descendants of the late 19th-early 20th century immigrants can relate! Thanks for sharing such a heart-warming story Sean.
Patricia Jones - February 11, 2023 6:36 pm
Oh Sean I recently toured Ellis Island with my son and his girlfriend. My son moved to NYC 19 years ago at the age of 19. He moved there to attend acting school. He had some success with his acting career but soon learned to make it in NYC you have to have steady work. NYC is just like the song if you make it there you can make it anywhere. He is now very successful working with businesses with a mobile phone company.
We recently found out that we are connected to Scottish Irish and Jewish people who came to America through Ellis Island. This made our visit very personal. I cried more than once listening to the recordings of those that passed through with their hearts and minds filled with hopes and dreams. It is a place that all Americans need to visit.
atricia Taylor - February 11, 2023 6:53 pm
Thank you for sharing this story to give us a peek into how things were for many of our own ancestors. I had a DNA done thru 23 and Me and I am English, Irish, and other nationalities. I’m sure my ancesteors as well as many others went through this same hardship to come to America. I’ve met some of my cousins from doing the DNA. What a blessing that our ancestors came here and that is why we are here in America. Our country is not perfect, but it is still the best one to me! Thank you God for America! Thank you Sean…you always give such an honest and wonderful perspective on things and people you write about!
Anne Arthur - February 11, 2023 7:13 pm
Of course, your family name gives it away, my German friend. Lovely story, which was shared by many of my family members who arrived here in the late 1800 and early 1900. I am the late comer, but here we are.
Linda Moon - February 11, 2023 7:25 pm
I’ll never forget my ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty. Wow. But soon I read about Catherine Dietrich, and Wow again. Please write a book about her, Sean Dietrich!
Judy 🌻 - February 11, 2023 7:30 pm
Oh, man! I didn’t see that coming! When I read the last lines….I had chill bumps. This is an amazing story – to be able to tie that part of your history to Ellis Island and stand there to remember. Love this!
pattymack43 - February 11, 2023 8:04 pm
The real Americans!! They worked hard!! They honored Old Glory!! They loved God and America!! May our Lord bless them all and their decendants! Thank you for telling this particular story. Blessings!!
Gary Paquin - February 11, 2023 9:12 pm
As we struggle to fill badly needed jobs in our country, it’s a wonder why there is such an anti-immigration sentiment. This story is a wonderful testimony to the sacrifices immigrants – past and present – have made to this great American experiment.
Susan - February 11, 2023 10:03 pm
I wondered where your story was heading and then BAM! Eine gute Geschickte. I have goosebumps. My ancestors could have been on the same ship from Germany. Danke Gott, and thank you, Sean, for sharing.
Chasity Davis Ritter - February 11, 2023 11:07 pm
And cue the waterworks you got me again!!! How neat is that? Thanks for sharing it with us.
Joy Dollar - February 11, 2023 11:33 pm
Dear Sean, thank you for such a beautiful testimony of the still, pure joy of being or becoming a part of this awesome land!!! Thank you, too, for the story of your May years before grandparents journey and history. I know my ancestors came over from England, Ireland, Scotland and France, but I don’t have an actual story. What a treasure!
Have a blessed week!
MAM - February 12, 2023 1:33 am
Ok, I was getting ready to leave the house, and boom, tears! Wiping them now. That was beautiful, and I’m sure many of all of our ancestors did the same thing. Except I know my dad’s family landed in Texas in the late 1800s, not NYC, and settled there. They came from Poland.
Randall Kemp - February 12, 2023 1:51 am
Thank you for that story. It makes me feel much better about my problems this year, which are small in comparison to your ancestors problems. And it tells me how lucky I am to be born an American, by which I mean being born in a first world country in modern times
Gigi - February 12, 2023 2:26 am
Wow ! You got me Sean, and now I’m all “misty eyed”. What a wonderful story ! I can only imagine the emotion and pride you felt when visiting Ellis Island and reflecting on the lives of Catherine & Jakob. I agree with the others, we’d love to hear more about them.
I’ve always loved studying my family history, and I had my DNA done. Now I’m working on my husband’s genealogy. It’s amazing, & so interesting what you can discover. Enjoy your time with Jamie celebrating your anniversary in the Big Apple.
Shirley Jones - February 12, 2023 3:27 am
Daniel Roy Dietrich - February 12, 2023 3:58 am
Dietrich Cabin was built in 1859 by Jacob and Catherine Dietrich. It was originally located southwest of present-day Princeton. One hundred years later, it was moved to City Park near 5th and Main streets in Ottawa, Kansas. The cabin tells the story of the Dietrich family and hundreds of other early settlers who came to Franklin County. (My family, is it yours too, Sean?)
Lila - February 12, 2023 4:04 am
One of your best!
Ginny - February 12, 2023 10:51 am
Just as described by my mother-in-law who fled the Russian pograms & the Bolsheviks! Your moving story had me hooked all the way ending with wanting more! But, visiting Ellis Island is awe inspiring particularly, apparently, to a wordsmith! Thank you again!
Lori M. Ladd - February 12, 2023 9:09 pm
My 10th great grandmother came to the new world as a 12 year old aboard the Mayflower. Within the first year both her parents and aunt and uncle died, leaving her alone. She was raised in the community and eventually married another pilgrim. They had a big family and their descendants number in the tens of thousands-against all odds. God bless America indeed!
davidpbfeder - February 13, 2023 6:45 am
Robert Chiles - February 13, 2023 3:39 pm
Back in the day when people were welcomed to this country
Amanda ALLEN - February 13, 2023 3:47 pm
This one brought tears of surprise and joy to my eyes!
Sue Ellen - February 19, 2023 4:59 am
johnallenberry - February 21, 2023 5:23 pm
God Bless America, and God Bless Sean of the South. I’m sure glad those two kids came over.
George Robert Leach - February 23, 2023 4:27 am
That’s how you got here! Aren’t we lucky.
dorinda hickey - February 24, 2023 2:35 pm
Love your stuff. Keep up the good work. Also, please tell me how this woman was related to you. Neat story.
Ann Hunter - March 24, 2023 4:08 pm
An amazing story. I loved that about your ancestors.
DiAn Kempf Jones - March 24, 2023 6:54 pm
Wow! Great story Sean! As always, thank you for doing this sweet research AND for sharing this background with all of us!! We need to hear these stories, especially now as we all move beyond Covid, political divisions, etc.
We are all very blessed to be in this time place, and age!
Now you are going to break into new territory via your fun Opry appearance! Looking Forward to all that’s coming next!!
Take care, Sean and Jamie.🥰❤️