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European Migration to La Crosse: The Risks of the Journey

> Locations:
La Crosse Public Library
Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse
> Citations: 
Carr, Reverend Spencer. A Brief Sketch of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Showing the Location of the Place, Its Surrounding Scenery, Commercial Advantages, Early History, and the Social, Moral, Literary, and Religious Character of the Inhabitants; and Various Other Interesting Items. La Crosse: La Crosse Democrat Printer, 1854. Murphy Library Digital Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Gundersen, Adolf. 1894 April 16-1894 September 8. Gundersen Family Translated Letters-First Installment, April 16, 1894-December 17, 1939. Translated by Christine H. Midelfort. MISC MSS 285. La Crosse Public Library, La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Huebsch, Frank. 1855 December 20. Frank Huebsch Letter, 1855 December 20. MISC MSS 041. La Crosse Public Library, La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Rentz, Michael. “An Emigrant’s Voyage” Translated Transcript Concerning the Emigration of Michael Rentz, undated. MISC MSS 163. La Crosse Public Library, La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Taylor, S.W. 1852 March 1. S.W. Taylor Letter, 1852 March 1. MISC MSS 044. La Crosse Public Library, La Crosse, Wisconsin.


Collection Summary

This collection tells the stories of individual European immigrants who came to La Crosse during a time known as the settlement migration era (1850-1890). It features five immigrants who made the brave journey to America and eventually La Crosse. For each immigrant, there were different stages of the journey. First, they had to make the tough decision to leave their familiar homeland, next, survive the hard ship ride across the Atlantic Ocean, and last, settle down in a new area that offered possibilities of a better life. Each of these phases had certain risks and not every experience was the same, so each source in this collection provides unique perspectives.

The people in this collection lived during a time when Europe was dealing with some problems that caused people to set sail for America. People who had already left and settled in America (including in Wisconsin) oftentimes encouraged family, friends, and neighbors to come over too. This collection is about people who left their homes, and others who encouraged family, friends, and former neighbors to come to Wisconsin.

Take Note: This collection was created for the FFA. It is made up of a variety of sources, and each source comes with its own citation!

Collection Description

This collection contains: 1) three letters; 2) the Gundersen Family Book of Letters; and 3) a published registry of La Crosse from 1854. The single letters and the book of letters are all kept at the La Crosse Public Library Archives in La Crosse. Each source at the La Crosse Public Library Archives is in its own individual folder with the call numbers provided to you. The registry, however, is part of Murphy Library’s Digital Collections and is accessible at all times, but you may need to ask a librarian or your teacher for a password. You can find the online registry by searching the name “Spencer Carr” in the database. Everything is typed, translated, and easy to read. Lucky you!



Frank Huebsch’s Letter
Frank Huebsch was a German immigrant who came to La Crosse in July of 1855. His very interesting four-page letter is to his parents and family back in Europe to tell them where he is, what he is doing, and about his journey. In it he encourages them to come over and join him, but he also honestly tells them about how hard the journey was. He describes the conditions on the ship and details of La Crosse and his job. He signs his letter as “Franz,” which means that he probably changed his name to Frank when he came to America. He also calls La Crosse “Prari [sic] La Crosse,” which was the town’s name back then. Frank’s letter is fun to read, and you will learn a lot about him! Can you guess what his job was in La Crosse?

S.W. Taylor’s Letter
S.W. Taylor might have been an Italian immigrant. His two-page letter is from 1852 and is written to a person he calls H.H. Taylor. The purpose of the letter is to persuade H.H. Taylor to come to La Crosse as soon as possible. In it he describes the work and land that is available as well as his own plans for success. As you read note the sense of urgency. This is because many people were already arriving and taking land. This letter might be a little confusing at first because S.W. only includes nicknames and abbreviations for people’s names. Similarly, he says the name of a city without the state or country. For example, he mentions the city of Genoa, which is an Italian port city. This probably means that S.W.’s homeland was Italy. Read this letter to understand the urgency felt by many migrants. Do you think you would have been persuaded to come to La Crosse by S.W. Taylor?

Michael Rentz’s Letter
Michael Rentz was a Norwegian immigrant who left his homeland in Esofea, Norway in April of 1868. He eventually settled in Vernon County, Wisconsin. In his letter he describes his experience on the ship while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He gives many details of storms, damage, layovers, sickness, and more. His ship sailed to a port in Quebec, which was not very common. Many immigrants sailed to New York. His letter explains how Quebec created difficulties for him. Be aware! Rentz uses some strange and outdated word choices. For example, he talks about “unwelcome guests,” which he calls “gray-backs.” He was probably talking about rats, mice, or body louse, all of which would have been common on the old and cramped ships. Read this letter to find out more about what it was like being on the old ships that crossed the Atlantic! Would you have done it?


Adolf Gundersen Book of Letters

The Gundersen Family Book of Letters is a book of correspondence with dates that range from April 16, 1894 to December 17, 1939. The book contains typed and translated letters with pictures of the originals so you can see what Norwegian writing looks like! It includes five letters written by Adolf himself, but the majority are from his friends and colleagues. For this collection you can focus on just the five letters written by Adolf. They are from April 16, 1894 to September 8, 1894. These letters appear first in the book.

Adolf Gundersen was a Norwegian immigrant doctor who moved to La Crosse in 1891 to begin a practice with his friend, Christian Christensen. He eventually helped to establish the present-day Gundersen Health System! His letters are written to his brother, Gunnar, who was back in Norway. He talks about life in La Crosse, the weather, and his medical work. Some letters have missing parts, and some of the medical words can look scary, but these letters are very interesting! Read them to learn more about this famous man. He was a funny guy!


1854 Registry of La Crosse

Spencer Carr was a Baptist church Reverend who in 1854 wrote a detailed description of the area. He did this to persuade migrants to come west and settle in La Crosse. His registry – a registry is a book – begins with a story-like essay written by Carr, and is followed by a list of every single person who lived in La Crosse in 1854! It includes everyone’s name, religion, occupation, and birthplace. If you look through this registry you will be able to picture what La Crosse was like over one hundred years ago!

Reverend Carr’s registry explains almost everything you might want to know about the area, including the landscape and opportunities (such as farming and trading along the Mississippi). As you look though his essay and registry see if you can find any familiar incentives to come to La Crosse?


Reviewed by: Lindsey Ward

St. Elias Church 716 Copeland Avenue, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

> Location: Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin La Crosse
> Oral histories referenced in this collection:

Addis, Elaine. Interview by Rick Brown. July 24, 2002. Audio Recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Asfoor, James R. Interview by Rick Brown. July 19, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Buschmann, Helen (Markos). Interview by Rick Brown. July 17, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Ferris, Louis. Interview by Rick Brown. February 4, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Harris, Lucy (Joseph). Interview by Rick Brown. August 8, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Markos, Richard E. Interview by Rick Brown. February 6, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Monsoor, Elaine. Interview by Rick Brown. March 19, 2002. Audio recording. Syrian Oral History Collection. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Oral History Program. Housed at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Collection Summary

This collection is the stories of children of immigrants from Greater Syria. The stories of these individuals didn’t end at a certain point. Their stories are intertwined with the larger La Crosse community to the extent that, even now, it’s not difficult to see their stories still alive. These individuals try to remember their experiences in the La Crosse community and those of their parents and grandparents as well. Religion, and especially church, plays an important role in these Syrian/Lebanese peoples’ lives. Many of the individuals speak about their past experiences in relation to their religion, Orthodoxy (Melkites) or Roman Catholicism (Maronites). They speak a lot about which churches they are associated with. As one listens to this collection, they will notice the different sects and how they relate to each church. The families that arrive are quick to assimilate as they join organizations and become heavily involved with many of the local churches in the city. In an environment where these immigrant families were not in their own community, the church was a way for them to build a community within an already existing community. Schools like St. James still teach the youth as they did almost a hundred years ago. Schools and churches aren’t the only things still standing, many of the interviewees still have shops and businesses open in the community. Richard Markos, one of the children whose families immigrated to La Crosse, owns the Markos Clothing Store on Pearl St. in downtown La Crosse!

Collection Description

The collection includes 7 CDs that detail the lives of both the immigrants and their children. On these CDs are two important pieces of information. First and foremost, the CDs contain the actual interview of the Syrian/Lebanese child of the immigrant but they also contain an index so one can see what is being talked about. The interviews are conducted by Rick Brown and the interviewees are 1st generation, US-born, family members, meaning they are not the immigrants themselves, rather they are the children of immigrants. Each child, who at the time of the recording is an adult, is attempting to use his/her memory to talk about people and events. This is something that is both exciting and concerning. Something that this collection offers that many others do not, is an actual voice behind the information. At the same time, however, the individuals can have a hard time remembering some things which can sometimes leave holes in the narrative. There has been much criticism over the authenticity of these kinds of sources, “At the core of criticisms of oral history in the early 1970s was the assertion that memory was distorted by physical deterioration and nostalgia in old age, by the personal bias of both interviewer and interviewee, and by the influence of collective and retrospective.”

Each interview is approximately one hour long, but with each question, one can hear the sadness, the appreciation, the happiness, and the laughter of each answer given by the interviewees. They talk extensively about church and religion and the roles that both played in the lives of the community members. The church seemed to be the best form of community-building that the Syrian/Lebanese had, and many of them will affirm this. As one listens to all of the interviews, it’s noticeable that they mention each other a lot. Richard Markos, another child of an immigrant represented in this collection, even appears in an interview with Helen Markos. This shows you how close-knit the community was.


Richard Markos

Richard Markos’ paternal grandparents came from Syria and his maternal grandparents came from Lebanon. He explains what churches meant to the community and how Syrian/Lebanese immigrants were quick to assimilate into the community because of the church. Richard talks about how influential churches were, specifically St. Elias. He explains that the churches and priests not only offered religious services, but also a Syrian school, as he referred to it. Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Family history, emigration 00:00:47.397
2. Arne, Syria 00:02:30.054
3. Zaleh, Lebanon 00:02:43.979
4. Father’s family occupation, peddler 00:03:29.684
5. Settlement, La Crosse 00:05:07.626
6. Father’s store, wholesale and retail 00:06:40.111
7. Real estate, downtown ownership 00:07:44.883
8. Mill street, history 00:10:44.730
9. Syrian Diaspora 00:11:39.047
10. Syrian federation 00:12:19.906
11. Childhood 00:13:10.856
12. Syrian perceptions 00:15:00.138
13. St. Elias Orthodox Church 00:16:39.432
14. Arabic language 00:19:00.113
15. Syrian culture, assimilation 00:20:34.791
16. Sahrah, social gathering 00:23:07.745
17. Race riot, 1902 00:24:49.984


Elaine Monsoor

Elaine Monsoor’s family came from Blat and Ibbil, Syria and she, like many of the other people in this collection, went to school at the St. James School. Elaine’s interview is especially great because she also knows a lot about about Our Lady of Lourdes church because her family lived right next door. She talks about how the priest at this church not only gave mass to the Catholic community, but also to other denominations. So, the church wasn’t only important in the Syrian community, but it seems that other communities also revolved around the church. Interestingly, she remembers both attending, and helping to eventually tear down the building. Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Personal history 00:00:18.085
2. Monsoor name 00:00:50.302
3. Copeland Avenue 00:04:45.663
4. Lumber mills 00:07:36.263
5. Copeland Avenue 00:09:14.326
6. Syrian community in La Crosse, 1930s 00:10:27.589
7. Education 00:17:58.242
8. Marriage 00:31:22.517
9. Our Lady of Lourdes 00:39:39.630


Helen (Markos) Buschmann

Helen Buschmann’s parents came from Syria and have an interesting immigration story. Their route to the United States had them stop in South America, and in the process of moving from South America to the United States, Helen’s father was forced to change his name from Shaheen to Charles. Helen also speaks about her experience with religion and church, specifically with St. Elias Church. She explains the cultural norms of church going and what activities, outside of religion, St. Elias offered the community, like writing and reading Arabic. These activities were offered because they helped to keep the Syrian/Lebanese culture alive. Also, many people needed Arabic and English lessons because they had difficulties with the languages. Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Personal history 00:00:33.459
2. Markos surname 00:05:05.985
3. Immigration 00:06:32.752
4. Coming to La Crosse 00:10:24.566
5. Peddling 00:11:03.034
6. Siblings 00:13:18.997
7. Religion 00:20:07.476
8. Marriage 00:21:39.066
9. Property 00:23:53.141
10. St. Elias church 00:26:30.835
11. South side of La Crosse 00:34:24.021
12. St. Elias 00:37:54.136
13. Interfaith marriage 00:48:40.596


Lucy (Joseph) Harris

Lucy Harris’ parents came from Lebanon, most specifically an area outside of Beirut, the current capital. She speaks specifically of her time at the St. James School and church, and she shares which churches the community liked the most. Her father would always go to St. James, so that’s the only church that she really knows about. She also talks about the difficulties that the immigrant community had to face, like prejudice. She bravely recalls the name calling and racism that she had to endure from other kids, some even going so far as saying “go back to where you come from.” Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Parents 00:00:31.506
2. Syrian neighborhoods 00:14:06.692
3. Childhood 00:16:18.934
4. Syrian cooking 00:23:00.665
5. Arabic 00:23:46.235
6. Prejudice 00:23:53.592
7. Our Lady of Lourdes 00:25:15.263
8. Dating 00:29:47.709
9. Parents 00:31:26.738
10. Working 00:31:41.921
11. Marriage 00:33:52.926
12. Opinions, Syrian community 00:48:10.775


Louis Ferris

Louis Ferris’ family also came from Syria but his interview is special in the sense that it has the most information. Among also being a child of a Syrian/Lebanese immigrant, he is also a WWII veteran of the United States. He’s able to talk on how interfaith marriages played a role in the community and how the different sects and religions interacted with each other. Louis speaks about how he wasn’t personally invested in the church, but that he helped out a lot, especially by providing the church with donations and food during big events. Even though Louis wasn’t directly involved in the church, he still felt a commitment to the greater community through it. Louis actually has two interviews and the index for interview one is listed below:

1. Personal history 00:00:28.878
2. Monsoor surname 00:02:27.051
3. Technology 00:07:20.239
4. Arabic 00:08:16.120
5. Marriage 00:11:53.107
6. Religion 00:16:41.025
7. Parents’ employment 00:21:40.953


James Asfoor

James Asfoor’s parents came from Syria and his father, like many other immigrants, was a peddler. He speaks of Our Lady of Lourdes, a church that was so poor that it eventually closed, leading many people to St. Elias. He explains that a lot of Syrian/Lebanese children were forced to attend St. James because St. Elias and Our Lady of Lourdes didn’t have official schools attached to them. James provides good information about what education meant to the Lebanese/Syrian community. Many people chose their church based on the activities that the church offered to the community, and since education was so valued, St. James was a practical choice for many. Below is a full index of the interview:

1. Personal history 00:00:19.108
2. Syrian neighborhoods 00:06:26.182
3. Syrian and Irish conflict 00:07:11.893
4. Our Lady of Lourdes 00:10:04.716
5. St. Elias orthodox church 00:11:27.856
6. Gender roles 00:15:44.643
7. Syrian immigration 00:21:45.476
8. Religion 00:22:26.525
9. Marriage 00:35:33.584


Elaine Addis

Elaine Addis’ parents immigrated to the US from Greater Syria, but she actually identifies as Lebanese. They came from a village known as Rashaya al Fakkar and became heavily involved in the church. She talks a lot about Our Lady of Lourdes because her family was one of the first in the area and Addis’ dad actually was the one to help find a priest for Our Lady of Lourdes. She speaks about how the different religious sects related to each church because she also later attended St. Elias Church. An interesting part of her interview is that she can actually recall Elaine Monsoor helping to tear down Our Lady of Lourdes! Below is an index of interview one:

1. Syrian vs. Lebanese nationality 00:00:30
2. Addis surname 00:03:20
3. Parents’ immigration 00:03:50
4. Attraction to La Crosse, job opportunities 00:09:00
5. Establishing property and rental spaces 00:16:50
6. Gender roles 00:19:00
7. Syrian and Lebanese community leadership 00:26:15
8. Our Lady of Lourdes Church 00:26:50
9. Roman Catholic conversion from Maronite 00:30:30
10. Our Lady of Lourdes church structure 00:34:30
11. Father Salomone, Our Lady of Lourdes 00:38:25
12. St. James schooling, 1930s 00:42:25
13. Ethnic prejudice, 1930s 00:48:45


Reviewed by: Aaron Bhatoya