SENN AND FESSMAN FAMILIES
Paper read by Joseph D.
Senn at the First Annual Reunion of the Senn-Fessman families
at the home of S. Gee in the Town of Verona, Oneida County, N.Y., on May 30th,
At the foot of the Alps, along the banks of the Rhine, under sunny skies, lie the vine clad hills of Alsace. The inhabitants are of German blood and many years ago this territory comprised one of the numerous principalities of Germany. Its soil is, all things considered, the most productive in the world. It is commonly known as the garden spot of Europe. Lying as it does between Germany and France it has always been coveted and often fiercely fought for by these rival nations. Most of the battles between France and Germany have been fought on this soil and one of the grim jokes current in Alsace is that the extreme productiveness of its soil is due to the amount of blood with which it has been drenched. About two hundred years ago Alsace was ceded to France and remained a French Province until 1870 when at the end of the Franco-Prussian War it was wrested from France and against the wishes of its people became a part of the German Empire.
During the period of the French rule the people of Alsace, in spite of the traditional hatred between the Germans and the French, gradually became greatly attached to France and latterly were said to be more radically anti-German in their sympathies than the French themselves.
Never was the magnanimity of the French Nation more graciously displayed than in its treatment of the Alsatians. They were never treated as conquered subjects, but rather as specially favored children. No attempt was made to coerce them into the use of the French language and they were allowed to retain their own institutions of learning and religion, both greatly at variance with those of France. Nothing was exacted from them except their fair proportion of the taxes for the support of the nation and army. This was gladly and freely furnished by the Alsatians and the French greatly appreciated the brave and sturdy stock which they were always able to draw from the Province. Through the dark days of the Bourbon rule, in the darker days of the French Revolution, during the brilliant career of Napoleon and the splendor of the Empire, continuing on through the Restoration until the end of the last war with Germany, the Alsatians steadfastly remained loyal, true and favored children of the French Nation. In every one of the many wars waged by France the sons of Alsace fought side by side with those of France and performed many signal deeds of valor on many fields of battle. Two of Napoleon’s staff were Alsatians as was a large proportion of the Imperial Guard. On the plains of Austerlitz, on the retreat from Moscow, and when the sun of the Austerlitz went down forever at Waterloo; at the siege and capture of Sebastopol, at Sedan and at Metz many thousands of Alsatians attested with their lives their devotion to their good and indulgent foster mother, the French Nation. With reluctance and bitterness and yielding to a force which they were unable to resist, they were compelled to sever this relation and submit themselves to the harsh rule and extreme exactions of their German conquerors. With deep sorrow, humiliated and helpless, France consented to the separation, but she only awaits her opportunity. In a public square in Paris is a beautiful and costly statue. It is the figure of a weeping maiden, representing Alsace. This figure is continually draped in mourning and will so remain until Alsace is again restored to France.
At the time of the American Revolution France had not yet begun to decline. It was the foremost nation in the world in matters of education, civilization, and general progress. The sublime courage of the American colonies in their seemingly hopeless struggle against the giant power of Great Britain had enlisted the sympathies of many high-minded Frenchmen conspicuous among who was the young Marquis LaFayette, who raised an army and came to America and rendered distinguished services to the American cause. Among the soldiers who enlisted under him were many Alsatians. One of them, George Senn, served with the French forces operating with the Americans against the British, until the close of the war. But when his comrades returned to France, he remained with the idea of seeking his fortune in this country.
It would be more flattering to family pride to assume that he had come here entirely on account of his sympathies with the Americans ,but due regard to the truth compels the admission that love of adventure and a vague idea that a fortune could be made, had much to do with his decision to come to this country. Concerning his career in this country after the war little is definitely known. He was in Philadelphia for a time and then went South, having last been heard from in South Carolina. His letters to the people at home were at first regular, but they gradually became irregular and less frequent until finally they ceased altogether. After this his family lost all trace of him.
But this was in the time when fabulous and marvelous stories were being told of great fortunes to be made in the New World, and hence extravagant stories reached his family concerning the marvelous wealth which he was supposed to have accumulated. Whether these stories were the product of the optimistic vagaries of the day, sincerely told and naturally enlarged, or whether they were the inventions of some practical joker, we may never know and can only surmise. At any rate the belief that he had a fortune was to a certain extent shared by his children and handed down to his grandchildren.
Among these grandchildren were three young men, Martin Senn, Jacob Senn and Frederick Senn. They were the sons of George Senn, a saddler by trade, a man of iron will, of strict morality, highly religious, a Calvinist by profession and a zealous defender of his faith. While he was a strict, and in some respects, a harsh disciplinarian, he was, nevertheless, in the highest degree devoted to his family and labored earnestly and hard for their welfare. In the year 1830 he was a man of advanced age. He had lived through the reigns of several kings and had seen the rise and fall of several political dynasties, including that of Napoleon and the Empire. He had become a man of hard common sense and had long since outgrown and disclaimed the delusion about his father’s fortune, a delusion, by the way, which never lasted any of the Senns who entertained it, beyond the period of youthful adolescence.
In addition to the three sons named, and with whom this history has chiefly to do, George Senn had other sons and daughters comprising a large family; Frederick the youngest being 20 years of age and Jacob being a few years older. Martin, still older brother, had already gone to America after having served a regular term in the French army. At this time 2/5 of all able bodied Frenchmen were required to serve in the army and they were drawn by lot. Jacob had drawn a blank and Frederick had not yet been required to draw. The two latter were still in the age of romance and fond delusion. They wanted to go to America and seek for traces of their grandfather. They doubtless had other reasons but this was one of them. They earnestly urged their father to advance to them a portion of their patrimony so as to enable them to undertake this journey. Their father was very reluctant to do so but still he could see that his farm was too small to furnish employment for all his sons and after much debating and hesitation he consented. To go upon such an undertaking was no small matter and it required resolution as well as money. After all arrangements had been made and their aged parents bowed with grief at the prospect of their departure they suddenly decided not to go and so announced to their father, an announcement that greatly pleased their parents and it is said that for several days the old farmer went about with such buoyant, sprightly steps that it seemed as if he had grown young again. But after a time the spirit of unrest again seized upon the young men and this time their determination could not be shaken. On a bright spring day they sailed from the port of Havre and after a stormy voyage, lasting 73 days, they reached the city of Philadelphia. Here they made inquiries of persons they had known or been referred to in the old country concerning their grandfather. They could only learn that he had gone south, some said to South Carolina, but nothing more definite could be learned and they soon realized the utter hopelessness of pursuing the inquiry.
They then decided to journey to the Town of Verona in the County of Oneida and State of New York where several of their relatives and many of their countrymen had already gone and found a home. They made most of their journey on foot. Their money, which was in coin, they carried in round hollow belts securely strapped about their bodies. After a few days’ journey, during which they several times narrowly escaped being robbed, they reached the agriculture districts of Pennsylvania in the midst of the grain harvest. Here they easily secured employment at good wages and good board in return for hard work. The rapid strenuous work and long hours seriously told upon their power of endurance, being in strong contrast to the slow and steady gait to which they had been accustomed on their Alsatian farm.
In the place of the simple diet to which they had been accustomed, there was everything that could tempt the palate. In the place of their mildly stimulating and invigorating Rhine wine they were furnished with a jug of whiskey to which all were told to help themselves. The result was that many laborers suffered sunstroke and others were carried from the field from exhaustion and from other causes which may be guessed. Neither of the two brothers suffered from this cause, for while they had been brought up in the belief that wine was one of God’s best gifts to his children, they had nevertheless been instructed in lessons of temperance and they wisely abstained from the fiery beverage which was offered them by the Pennsylvania farmers and so it came about that before the end of the harvest their employers saw that they made up in reliability what they lacked in swiftness.
After the harvest they resumed their journey, traveling on foot by day and stopping at wayside taverns at night. They used to give their money to landlords for safe keeping. One morning when they called for their money the landlord, a tough looking citizen, looked at them blankly saying that they had not left any money with him. At first they thought he was joking but soon the landlord became angry and threatened them with arrest if they did not instantly settle their bills and leave his house. They were in a strange land far from home and with no other money. Realizing their desperate plight they began by coaxing and ended up with threats. The perspiration of despair began to break from them and when they were almost frenzied with anger and fear the landlord gave them their money and said he had done this to teach them never again to be so foolish as to give their money to entire strangers. After this they wore their belts about them in bed.
One night they slept in a village where there was only one tavern. There was only one bedroom and in this there were a large number of beds. They occupied a bed together, and the other beds were occupied by the roughest appearing lot of men they had ever seen. In the morning Jacob found that his belt had been worn through and his money was all in the bed. To pick it up in the presence of those forbidding strangers seemed a dangerous thing, for in those days coin was scarce to this country. But they were not assaulted or robbed. They had always looked with disfavor upon the American paper currency, which did not seem like money, but now they saw its advantage and at the first opportunity had their coin changed into paper money.
They stopped at Geneva for a time and worked at their saddler trade and finally reached Verona with more money than they had when they left Philadelphia. They made a journey to Peterboro, going one day and returning the next, and there they met the great abolitionist and philanthropist, Gerrit Smith, and purchased their land of him.
On this land, on which we are now assembled, they settled, first living in a log house which was after a time replaced by a frame dwelling. Jacob was married to Margaretha Schneider and Frederick to Mary Fessman, and for a time the families lived together in one house and worked the farm in common. Afterwards it was decided to divide the farm and the house as well. The farm was cut into two halves and a partition was built through the center of the house at right angles with the highway upon which the house fronted. This so remained until after the decease of Frederick Senn when the premises were sold to George Senn, a son of Jacob Senn, and the original farm with other parcels which had been purchased by both parties, was again united.
Martin Senn also purchased land in the Town of Verona and erected a log house which he occupied as long as he remained on the farm. He was married soon after settling here to AnnaFessman,a sister of Mary Fessman. All three Senn brothers who came here lived to ripe old age and left numerous descendants. They were men of character, and if any of us are lacking in that regard it cannot be attributed to our ancestry.
The Senns and the Fessmans were so interwoven in marriage that a history of the one is incomplete without a history of the other.
In the Village of Geithertheim near the historic
city of Strassburg in Alsace there lived about seventy years ago a cabinet
maker, Michael Fessman, who was noted far and wide for his peculiar sense of
humor and for his skillful workmanship. He was also the village undertaker
and thought it great fun to put one of the children to bed in one of the coffins
which he had made. If he had a fault it was that he sometimes carried
a joke too far. In his country he was considered to be well to do. In
addition to his cabinet business, which was considered lucrative, he had a
small farm and a very valuable vineyard. An idea of the value of lands
in Alsace may be derived from the fact that he sold his land, being about 17
acres, for 35000 francs or about $7500.
He had no delusions about ancestors, but from what I can learn he was deluded in the belief that he could do better financially in this country than in his own. At any rate he was taken with the American fever, sold all his belongings and brought his family to this Country.
From New York they made the journey up the Hudson River as far as Albany and thence by packet boat to New London in the Town of Verona. There he and his family consisting of his wife and five children were installed in the tavern, which I believe was then owned by L.D. Smith, and boarded there while he negotiated for the purchase of land. This was consummated in a short time, he buying a farm and paying in gold and silver coin which he carried in a ponderous bag. While staying at the tavern their meals were served in their rooms. On a Sunday afternoon the landlord came to their room with smiling face and carrying a large pan of sweet corn with a plate of nice sweet butter, saying he had brought them something good. Grandfather Fessman was not quite sure whether the landlord’s intentions were really benevolent or whether he thought that he and his family, being foreigners, should be fed on hogs feed, which he considered the corn to be. At any rate he did not want the hogs feed and accordingly he set one of the girls out of the window and had her carry the corn to the pigs. The butter was retained.
After purchasing a farm he also purchased farming implements, horses, cows, and all the necessary equipments of a farm. If the farm was less fertile than the one he had left in the old country it was certainly many times larger and he no doubt felt himself a considerable land proprietor. Among other things, he bought a fine pair of spirited colts, and he was very proud of their speed, especially their running qualities. This was in the days of horseback riding. When he had been in this country about three months, after he had filed the necessary declaration of intention, preliminary to naturalization, which was necessary to enable him to hold the land,he was visited at his farm by Martin Ullrich, an Alsatian who had been in the country for a few years. Ullrich was, like him, a man very fond of a joke, especially the practical kind. Ullrich was on horseback and, he too, had a colt of which he was very proud. The consequence was that each claimed to have the better colt and a race was decided upon to see which could first reach a given point. Away they went at a breakneck rate and with the recklessness characteristic of both riders. Grandfather Fessman rode his horse close to a rock which was at the side of the road. Suddenly his colt shied and he, being a large portly man, was thrown from his horse, his neck broken and he died almost instantly. His wife was left with five small children, a widow in a strange land. She is the only grandparent I have ever personally known. She has long since gone to her eternal rest, but looking back over a long lapse of years, I will say that I am proud of her.
With the courage of a Spartan she undertook the task of caring for her property and bringing up her family. Before she had time to recover from the shock of her husband’s death, her fortitude was put to a new trial. A neighbor, whose farm adjoined hers in the rear claimed that the fence, which was a stone wall, was not on the line and that a strip about a rod in width occupied by her belonged to him. From the character of the neighbor in question it is but just to believe that he was sincere in his contention. But that his method of asserting his claim was harsh and arbitrary under the circumstances cannot be denied.
The first knowledge that she had that he really intended to enforce his claim was when he set a force of men at work moving the fence. What would most any widow, even of American birth, have done? In 19 cases out of 20 they would have yielded. But this widow was not constructed upon that plan. Unable to state her case to a lawyer in person she did so through a local justice of the peace, who could speak both German and English, an injunction was obtained, and after a time the matter was tried in the Courts and decided in her favor. Most anyone in her place would have said that it would be cheaper to submit than to fight. She reasoned that if she gave this strip, her neighbor would take another. After this litigation this same neighbor was always courteous and obliging. He was an honest man, but perhaps too exacting.
Grandmother Fessman’s children were the following: Catherine Fessman, afterwards and at present Catherine Walter; Anna Fessman, afterwards Anna Senn; Christian Fessman, late of Rome, N.Y.; Mary Fessman, later Mary Senn; and Philip Fessman. All except Catherine have joined the silent majority. She is the oldest of them all and has survived by more than a score of years the allotted three score and ten.
Time will not permit me to particularize any further. Most of the descendants of both of the ancestors named have had good health and few of them after reaching maturity have died a natural death at an early age. It is through no feeling of partiality that I mention them instead of others. It is because I knew more about them than the others.
One of them was the companion of my childhood. Born in the City of New York he was brought here in childhood to restore his health. The country air seemed to revive him. By some attraction neither of us could explain we were drawn together. We often quarreled, but the quarrel never lasted. Together we built castles in the air and planned the future. If I am a judge of men, there was never a nobler one than Christian W.Henches. When he grew to manhood his business demanded his return to the City. He had long had a foreboding that he had inherited from his father, who died young, a sickly constitution and predisposition to a short life. His forebodings were only too true and altogether too soon his noble life was brought to a close. He has joined the long procession which all ‘the youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes in the full strength of years; matron and maid; the bowed with age and the infant in the smiles of beauty and its innocent age cut off” must join at last.
The other was one who to me and to many others had been a mighty tower of strength. None could make so clear to me my most flagrant faults and none so ready to suggest ways and means out of a difficulty. I know scores of whom he has helped by his advice and otherwise, making their difficulties his own. Almost daily I meet some new person who tells of some pleasure or profit he has derived from association with Samuel G. Senn. I would never have believed it possible for any human being to transact so much business of his own and still find so much time to take a friendly interest in that of others. He had faults, many of them, but in the light of his virtues they disappear like the dew before the morning sun. He had known the bitterness of failure, and what it means to see your fondest hopes turn to ashes. But by hard exertion and a genius all his own he had wrested that which men call success from the unwilling hand of adversity. But an over-strenuous business life had sapped his nerve force and left him an easy victim to disease. Life had just begun to look bright to him when his physician pronounced the hard verdict that he must die. The companion who had shared his joys and hardships and never wavered in her loyality heard the inexpressible agony of that verdict. Stunned by the blow, her wonted smile extinguished forever, she soon followed him. They had prominent traits in common but their devotion to each other was the most prominent one. Together they had climbed the steep incline of life. Near together they fell by the wayside. “After life’s fitful fever”, at the foot of life’s hill, on the breast of the common mother, they are sleeping together in peace.
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