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The Phoenix-disaster

The Phoenix-disaster, November 21, 1847

Text: Bep Godthelp-Boeijink, Winterswijk – Henk te Kulve, Winterswijk
Translation: Wietske Veenhuis, Edinburgh

Due to the bad economic conditions throughout Europe, thousands of Dutch immigrated to America in the 19th century.
In August 1847, 84 citizens from Winterswijk, including 48 children, said their goodbyes to family, friends and acquaintances and visited their churches, schools and the cemeteries for the last time.
On 6th November 1847, after a journey of 7600 km full of hardship, they were only a mere 6 kilometres from their final destination. But suddenly there was a loud explosion on the ship when one of the kettles caught fire. 166 Emigrants, including 86 children, perished in the fire and the freezing water of the Michigan Lake. Only (ten) citizens from Winterswijk survived the disaster. Let’s we forget.

In the 19th century thousands of citizens of Winterswijk left for America, especially in the years between 1841 and 1847. In 1846, 32% of Dutch emigrants were from Winterswijk. In 1847, 357 citizens, including the later victims of the Phoenix, left.
Why did they leave home, family and friends for an unseen future?
Some people already had family across the ocean and were inspired by the enthusiastic letters and calls to come to America. Others had friends just across the border in Germany who had emigrated.

Life in Winterswijk in those years was hard. There wasn’t much work and the harvests had recently failed. The government raised high taxes causing food prices, like bread, meat, but also beer, wine and gin, to drastically go up. Also other taxes were repeatedly increased, such as tax on property, the so-called verponding. Some of the emigrants were from separated Christian Churches. A few ministers, Rev. Brummelkamp and Rev. Van Raalte, were very much loved in this group. They wrote a brochure in 1846: ‘Land Relocation, or why do we promote the Land Move to North America and not to Java?’
This writing was widely read and made a great impression. These reverends set up the Christian Association for Land Relocation and funds were formed, allowing the poor to leave for the Promised Land.

The many farmers from Winterswijk heard that in America after five years work you could own your own farm (Homestead Act – after 1862).
Due to emigration, the countryside was partially depopulated in Winterswijk.
Large groups of Winterswijkers said goodbye to their relatives who remained, knowing that they would probably never see each other again. The emigrants visited their neighbours, friends and acquaintances before they left and would go and see familiar places, such as the school, the church and the cemetery where relatives were buried. They sold the belongings they did not needed anymore or could bring along. They bought a lot of food for the long journey and the necessary tools for their future stay.

After the difficult farewell, the emigrants left with all their belongings on a horse drawn cart to Arnhem and then by boat to Rotterdam, where they bought a ticket for the crossing.

The voyage across the ocean was not without danger: fog, storm, fire and fights due to lack of privacy could make the trip more difficult. Many accidents happened and ships perished at sea. Contagious diseases, bad food and spoiled water caused people to die on board. Their problems were not over yet on arrival in New York. In the overcrowded city they had to deal with scammers who offered accommodation and transportation at ridiculous prices.

Of course there were thieves, around so that some emigrants were left penniless within a couple of days. Work was hardly available for the Dutch farmers, wage workers and weavers, so it took a long time to finally reach the intended final goal of Clymer, N.V., Michigan, Wisconsin or Iowa. The long trip to Buffalo over land, sometimes plagued by heat or batters, but also by snow, hail and ice proved to be another challenge. In Buffalo, they boarded a ship for the last part of the trip: across Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

In November 1847, 84 emigrants from Winterswijk traveled on board the two-year-old steamship Phoenix to their final destination Sheboygan in Wisconsin. The ship had a heavy load and there were probably too many passengers. Most travelers tried to sleep a little, despite bad weather, storm and high waves. The captain had retired in his cabin because of a painful leg. A few more hours to go and they would be at their destination.

After a while some passengers heard strange noises and smelled a strange smell coming from the boiler room and warned the crew. The crew told them to mind their own business and don’t interfere. 
Suddenly an explosion was heard in the engine room, after which a fire broke out. The passengers panicked and ran to the lifeboats. However, there were not enough and the ship sank fast. People jumped into the freezing waters and drowned by the suction of the sinking ship. A girl quickly ran back inside to take clothes for her baby sister and burned. Another child screamed, “Oh mother, help me!”

Among the casualties were 15 crew members and 163 passengers, including 74 citizens from Winterswijk. A disaster had taken place, in sight of the port!

Later, when trying to investigate the cause of the sinking of the Phoenix, eyewitnesses reported that some crew members were drunk the evening of the accident, others said that passengers had been careless with their cooking appliances. Months later, Winterswijk received a message of this terrible accident. During the church services in Winterswijk money was collected for the survivors, a total of 70 guilders and 35 cent.

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