By Zach Worthington

My family emigrated from Germany to the United States for religious freedom.

That’s according to my mother, who, as the youngest child in her family took it upon herself to keep detailed records of the family’s ancestral tree.

Photo by Alanna Johnson

My family is mostly German; my mother’s side is 100 percent German while my father’s side is a mix of German, English and Irish.

According to my maternal grandmother, Bernice Zacher, her great-grandfather, Johann Silbernagel, born in 1860, was a German farmer who was relocated to Odessa, Russia, to farm.  The Silbernagel family practiced Catholicism and were proud of their religious beliefs, but the Russian empire was not tolerant of religious freedom. When Johann was 28, he and his wife, Margaretha Kuntz, decided to immigrate to the United States so that they could practice Catholicism freely without interference.

Bernice’s mother, Melonia Silbernagel, was born in 1888, three months before immigrating to the United States.  Bernice’s father, John Werlinger, was born in the United States.

Making the journey to the new world was an extremely courageous decision by Johann and Margaretha.  The Silbernagels ended up being settled in North Dakota, where they farmed in the towns of Hague and Napoleon.  The experience was grueling. New lives had to be started completely from scratch: Houses built and land plowed, planted and farmed.  Winters were fraught with danger. During one of the family’s first winters, one of the Silbernagel children slipped out into the wilderness and never returned.

Family size is important

My ancestors favored big families. My grandmother’s grandparents — Melonia and John Silbernagel — had 16 children of their own. My grandmother had had 40 cousins. She and her husband, William Zacher, ended up having six children of their own.

William Zacher’s parents were Elizabeth Schmaltz (s one of nine siblings) and Peter Zacher (who was one of 12).  The couple had eight kids of their own including my grandfather, who was born in 1929 and had the distinction of being the first person in his family to attend college.

On my mother’s side, there is clearly a huge generational tradition of German and Catholic heritage that I wasn’t fully aware of. My mother’s ancestors have lived in the United States for 128 years.  I am proud to be the continuation of those tough-minded and brave German immigrants who picked up and left their homeland in hope of a better life for their children.