The Hungerjahre

By examining old German and American church books, immigration records, city directories, census reports, cemetery records, and a limited variety of other sources; I have been able to piece together a general picture of how and when the Ecker brothers of my family and their (only) living sister emigrated from Unterreichenbach in Germany, to Newark, New Jersey in the mid-1800s. There remain a number of holes in the record. A big one is, "why did the siblings leave their home in Germany?"  I have always assumed that the usual reasons were operative: religious or civil freedom, avoidance of military conscription, freedom to marry, or economic need.   I recently was able to translate a portion of a history of Unterreichenbach prepared by Gerhard Schwarz that I collected at my visit in 2008.   I did not have to understand much German to understand that the years just before my GG-Grandfather Abraham William and his siblings came to America were a time of catastrophe in Unterreichenbach.   The relevant portion was titled, "Hungerjahre."   I present here the text in its original German, together with my amateur attempt at translation.  To summarize, the years between 1846 in 1851 were years of crop failure and hunger.   As if this were not enough, in the year of 1851 there was a flood of historic proportion.  Things would never be the same for the Eckers– their family name disappears from the church records of Unterreichenbach.


The article attributes the years of hunger to a potato blight. I am unaware of how much cultivation of potatoes was possible in the steep valley of the Reichenbach, but the shortage of food included a shortage of grain.  Certainly grains were a major foodstuff in Unterreichenbach: the Eckers were, after all, millers!   Ironically, some relief grain was purchased from America.  The flood of 1851 must certainly have been an additional catastrophe for a family whose home and business was immediately on the banks of the river. Today there is an additional gristmill further up the valley of the Reichenbach still in operation! I am unaware of how long it has been there, or when the Ecker's mill on the banks of the Nagold ceased to function as a place where grain was ground to flour.

It is not clear that the Ecker brothers were trained as millers. Their father Jacob began his adult life as a miller in Unterreichenbach, but later records describe him as a shopkeeper. He suffered an early death at the age of 37 perhaps of tuberculosis.  Perhaps he was unable to perform hard physical work.  There were Ecker uncles and cousins also living in the village (a few of whom also emigrated to America) and who may have run the mill.  One of these was an older brother of Abraham William's father who would have been the normal heir of the family occupation.  Whether there were still Eckers grinding grain in Unterreichenbach at the end of the 19th century is not known to me. The oldest Ecker I know told me a story that in the early 1900s, his mother received a letter from Germany informing her that she had inherited a "windmill" in Germany. The family declined their inheritance. At the time of my own visit to Unterreichenbach I learned that it was a mill of a different sort that must have been offered!  (The mill exists to this day but is not used to grind flour.  I will persent its history elsewhere.)

Although we know to the day in 1854 when Great-Great-Grandfather Abraham Wilhelm Ecker came to America, we currently lack any specific information about the immigration of his three brothers and sister. These were the only surviving children of Jacob and Rosina Ecker.   Abraham Wilhelm arrived in the company of another 14-year-old Ecker girl who must have been a cousin, but there were no other Eckers on that ship, the Union.  The older siblings must have come earlier.  William's sister Catharina was married in America in 1853 and his brother Friedrich in 1854. Brother Jacob had his first child in America in April of 1852 and unless he was married in Germany, would have arrived in 1851 or earlier. [See the table of available dates.]

My current hypothesis is that the years of hunger and the flood dislodged the Eckers from their German home. There may or may not have been a relative here earlier. The evidence supports that the older siblings came first, set up their homes, and brought over younger family members at a later time.  No other Eckers have been found by me in Newark.  I would love to know where others from the family settled.