Sunday, September 4, 2011

An American Tale: From Immigrants to American Icon

American history is full of interesting characters, many of them immigrants who came to America from Norwegian farms or German industrial cities. America has always been nervous of immigrants, and cherished its natives as long as those native Americans weren't Native Americans. Yet it is from the immigrant that the native (as opposed to Native) Americans are born. And the stories of immigrant families become icons of America can be fascinating and unexpected.

The Wasems were a tough Lutheran family from Darmstadt, Germany, who homesteaded in Marshalltown and Ft. Dodge, Iowa during the late 19th Century and many of whom ultimately retired to Long Beach, California.

The Wasems claim to have originated with nobility from Cologne. I somewhat doubt that claim since there is no evidence. But they clearly were connected with the nobility in the Mainz area. The earliest Wasem remembered is a Jakob Wasem who was an assessor for the local lord (who would have ultimately served under the Archbishop of Mainz) in Dorrebach. I saw what was supposed to be his house. A beautiful three story stone building, supposedly the original. Problem is, there is no evidence for his existence from what I see or his connection with the later Wasems.

By the time the Wasems are verifiable (late 17th/early 18th century) they are splitting their time between the same town as Jakob Wasem (Dorrebach) and a hilltop farm called Autishof which they apparently bought from the local Lord. For a couple of generations both Dorrebach and Autishof appear in the records, then only Autishof. They must have lost their connection with Dorrebach, but then they apparently got asked to also help out in the town of Ingelheim and the general area (Ober-Ignelheim).

The earliest ancestor from which clear lines of descent can be traced was Johann Heinrich Wasem (there are several variations on the spelling of Wasem) born June 28th 1682 in Hessen Darmstat. This is probably the earliest traceable record of the family since this was probably about when they converted to Lutheranism--and it is thanks to the excellent records kept by the Lutheran church that the family can be traced back that far. The conversion of big chunks of Germany did not happen easily or peacefully. It took the bloody and quite complicated Thirty Years' War (1618 to 1648) to firmly establish Lutheranism in Germany. This war began as a German civil war between Protestants and Catholics. Ultimately it became a power struggle between the Hapsburg family and its rivals that blurred the religious boundaries, but it was devastating to Germany with as much as 20 percent of Germany's population killed by war, disease and famine. In many ways Germany didn't recover until the lead up to World War I.

Johann Heinrich Wasem married Maria Margaretha, also born in Hesse Darmstadt. From them came many long lines of descent where most of the men were named Johann Something, and most of the women had either Maria or Margaretha as part of their names and they all lived in Hessen Darmstat in places called Ober Ingelheim, Autishof, Dorrebach and Nieder-Ingelheim. Darmstadt is in the very heart of Germany, a little south of Frankfurt and Mainz. Darmstadt was where Goethe was active during his early career and is where the Merck family started dabbling in the chemical industry.

My own great-great grandfather, Adam Wasem, was born 12 Nov 1799 in Autishof, and died at the age of about 80 in Ft. Dodge, IA. The Wasem families were large and the men often had more than one wife during their lifetimes (presumably due at least in part to a high rate of women dying in childbirth), so the exact relationships are sometimes fuzzy. But Adam married at least twice. Adam's family was part of a wave of German migrations to America. Many German immigrants huddled together among other German speakers forming German enclaves in America that were eyed with suspicion by "native" Americans. Davenport, Iowa, where my father was born, was one such enclave of German settlement (close to 50% of the population?), but so were other parts of Iowa. About half of German immigrants to the US in the 19th century settled in the Midwest, predominantly in rural and semi-rural areas.

Adam Wasem became police commissioner and burgomeister in Bingen (part of Ober-Ingelheim I believe, and located right where the Rhine turns North). While he was at his peak of influence, two of his sons, John and Jacob (yep...another Jacob) joined in the revolution of 1848, centered at Frankfurt. Well, in the end they moved to America. I suspect it got too politically difficult for the family as Otto von Bismark crushed the revolution. So it may well be we wound up in America thanks to Bismark! Jacob Wasem, the rebel of 1848, wandered from New York to Ohio to Missouri, becoming a hatter. Not sure if that means what it sounds like or more of a furrier. I'd like to envision him as a mountain man getting furs to make into hats. Either way, he disappeared in Missouri, never to be heard from again.

The Wasems became farmers in Ft. Dodge, IA. It was there that they struck it rich, finding gypsum on their farm. Seven Wasem brothers were founders and owners of The Wasem Plaster Company in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The brothers listed are John, Otto, Charles, Adam, Henry, William and Walter. The officers of the company were: Adam F. Wasem, President, William A. Wasem, Vice President, Otto E. Wasem, treasurer and general manager, Henry M. Wasem, Secretary, and John M. Wasem, Plant Superintendent. The Directors were Adam F., Ella E., Otto E., Henry M., and William A. Wasem. Signers of the articles of incorporation were Otto E., John H. Etta A., Ella A. Bertha I., Mary A., Adam F. William A., Henry M., Walter M., Carrie E., Lena M, and Charles A. Wasem. These Wasems were all descendants of the Adam Wasem born in 1799 who led the way, and his second wife, Maria Hirshman. My mother met Ella and Lena Wasem after they had retired comfortably together in a rather avant-garde home in Long Beach, CA., presumably living off the profits of selling the Wasem Plaster Company. Ella died in 1966, and Lena lived to be around 90, dying in 1982.

The Iowa Plaster Barons were all children of Adam E. Wasem, son of Adam Wasem. Among Adam Wasem's many children there were also a Mary Wasem and a Carolina or Caroline Wasem. And with these two sisters or half-sisters we reach an interesting genealogical link.

Mary Wasem was born 09 November 1842 in Ober Ingelhlem, Hesse, Darmstadt, before her family moved to Iowa, and died 31 March 1922 in Long Beach, Los Angeles Co, California. In between she lived in Iowa where she met and married Martin Kunkel, another tough German (of Catholic descent, I have discovered) who homesteaded in Davenport, Iowa. Mary Wasem and Martin Kunkel are my great-grandparents on my father's side. My brother is named Martin after Mary's husband. Martin Kunkel came to America in 1857. He enlisted on the Union side as a musician in the Civil War, in the 45th Illinois Co, on 09 October 1861, and was discharged 24 July 1862. His citizenship papers were issued on 24 May 1866 by Judge J. Scott Richman, in District Court of Scott Co, Iowa. There is a long-established Kunkel sporting goods store in Davenport, Iowa that was founded by Martin Kunkel and his brother Balthazar. That store closed during the long Bush recession.

Mary Wasem's sister or half-sister (we're not quite sure which), Caroline Wasem, married Conrad Laufersweiler, and their daughter, Mary Genevive Laufersweiler, married a Norwegian immigrant named August Halvorsen Hilton. August was born was born on Hilton farm, at Kløfta, just outside Oslo, and settled in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, where he met Caroline's daughter. The son of Mary Genevive and August was Conrad Hilton, founder of the Hilton Hotel Chain. August Hilton would have been an even tougher Lutheran than the Wasems, coming not from the wine country of Germany, but from more austere Scandinavia.

Both the Hiltons and Wasems lived interesting, tough, successful lives spanning an ocean and touching on many parts of America itself. Iowa in particular, felt the shaping hands of Hiltons, Wasems and Kunkels, who farmed, built and fought for their new home. Other, even more intrepid Wasems, settled in Brazil.

It is from these pioneering, entrepreneurial, immigrant families that America produces Paris Hilton, a native-born American. What a long, strange trip we travel on. Would Adam Wasem and August Hilton be proud of where their hard work led?

(image from

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