This is the first of a series of 12 articles about emigrants from the Frisian municipality of Dantumadeel, who settled in Pella, Iowa. This article was written by Kor Postma and translated by Thys de Jong.
Life in the Netherlands
Pieter Oebeles Viersen was born on January 23, 1813 at Sijbrandahuis. He was the son of Oebele Ypes Viersen and Froukje Piers de Groot. He married on May 24, 1838 in the municipality of Dantumadeel with Tjitske Johannes Wouda, daughter of Johannes Sybes Wouda and Maaike Pieters Wiersma. Tjitske was born on April 14, 1818 at Lichtaard (municipality of Ferwerderadeel).
When they crossed the ocean they had 4 children: Oebele born March 6, 1839, Maaike born May 20, 1841 – both at Sijbrandahuis (Dantumadeel) -, Froukje born September 21, 1843 and little Johannes born February 22, 1846 both at Driesum (Dantumadeel). They left the harbour of Amsterdam on April 3, 1847 and arrived in Baltimore on June 12, 1847. The captain of the ship Pieter Floria also known as Pieter Floris was J. A. Begeman-Sietzes.
Terrible things happened aboard: disease, cold and homesickness were members of the company. Little Johannes died on the way to the “promised land” on May 25, 1847 from croup. He was buried at sea and with him many others.
Settling in Iowa
The young family settled at Pella, but soon Pieter invested in land and moved a few kilometers northwest of Pella where he lived another 40 years,
In Pella Tjitske gave birth to 2 more children: Johanna on July 21, 1848 and Anna on September 6, 1850. All went well till suddenly on June 3, 1851 Tjitske died at Pella.
Letters to the home country
Yes, much longed for parents. brothers, sisters and all of you asked us about religious services, and we are not pleased with that because H. P. Scholte is not a pastor; however 6 elders were chosen and preach in turn and among them is H. P. Scholte. But I do not feel that this is enough. [The next sentence is obscure, but I think it means that there was much discussion about this among the people both old and young and that 6 young men have been brought by the mighty hand of God to study for the ministry].
It’s said that among the van Raalte group there is more flowering [that is that they fared better economically], but we also hear the opposite. I really don’t know but leave it to the wise counsel of God. [This is a reference to Rev. A. C. van Raalte the founder of Holland, Michigan.] The news from van Raalte states that the land is better there, but according to good Americans who have been there this is not true. They say that the land there is all forest and sand, but when it has been made ready for cultivation. I think it could well be good land. Here the soil is black clay. There’s not much chance to sell our produce here, but we do not suffer want. A river is being made navigable and should reach us in 3 or 4 years and people say that then our produce will have more value.
About our climate: the summers are warmer than yours, especially in July and August, and the winters colder. When it freezes here the wind is from the north.
We hear many rumors of war [1848 in Dutch is known as Revolution Year] and that many young people are in military service. Some Dutch people still arrive here but many Americans and the settlements here grow. In 1844 there were no people here but wild ones [Native Americans] but now there is much population. We now live among Americans and like that better than among the Dutch; our children already speak many words with them. People enjoy good health here. The Americans first held religious services with the afgescheidene [seceded]; then amongst themselves first in one house and then in another, and all who like may go. The Americans build many block houses and they are very good; the Dutch build their houses from planks and they are also very good. There are brick makers here and the bricks cost 1 guildre per 100. The fields are protected by fences and that works very well. We see a lot of wild animals here; wolves are no problem, but snakes are dangerous. We hear of rattlesnakes whose bite usually means death. A Dutch lady was bitten by one, but she was healed. In my travels in America I did not see land as good as here because there are many mountains and valleys but also much flat land. Here everything is black clay but throughout America there is much red soil.
We received your letter of November 28, 1848, and yes, it’s sad to hear the news that our mother in Lichtaard died. O, that our Lord receives her soul in heaven is our wish. [Maaike Pieters Wiersma died on August 21, 1848 at the age of 76]. Tjitske [Pieter’s first wife] had already expected that from the first letter.
We received your letter in good health and we are all still healthy by God’s blessing, and wish the same for you. You asked if we’ve lost much money, but that is not so because we at first, along with H. Y. Viersen, bought land from H. P. Scholte and we divided that, we 1/3rd and H.Y. Viersen 2/3rds. Half a year later we sold that again with profit for 2 horses, a cow, two calves, two plows. much wheat and oats, and other things. You asked where we sell our goods; a lot is done through trading and as payment for labour, which is how we get our work done. But the way things are now we can not sell much for cash [because] we’d have to travel 30 to 40 hours. We have cows [obscure phrase omitted]; some have no horns while others are not much different than in Friesland. We plow with 2 horses a hand width deep and that gives good produce but I have found the deeper the better, folks here keep the fields clean (weeded) with the plow. I myself like being here and would not trade with a great lord in Friesland because here we can do what we want, and we work for ourselves ,and there are no taxes. Tjitske would rather live in Friesland.
The overland journey here is difficult. First we went from Baltimore by train and then in a trekschip [a ship pulled by horse along a waterway; then again by rail followed by another trekschip; and than with a steamboat to Keokuk folowed by 40 hours on wagons. The fuel we burn here is wood and coal. Yes, noble friends we did get rid of some money. [This is a Dutch understatement for “it cost a lot of money”.]
H. P. Scholte delayed us from reaching our chosen destination and we had to live off our money till we reached it in September 1847. The time for sowing was past, so we sold our land again, and when we did so H. P. Scholte thought to get more money from us. When we sold we had to pay H. P. Scholte another 134 guildres, more than we had known. I think that H. P. Scholte thought that he could sell us more land, but we saw that he dealt dishonestly with us and looked for other land which we were lucky to find and we are happy with that. We could sell it again but so many people are coming to this state that in 2 or 3 years it will be worth 2 or 3 times what it is now. Yes, noble firends we have no money but we suffer no want; we invested in land and what is needed to farm it.
As far as religion and education: it is not grounded in truth here, because they say “just believe” but believe without explanation of what is in their hearts. H. P. Scholte says that he likes people to experience things for themselves, but he speaks of great things and with education it is the same. [I have a sneaking suspicion that Pieter meant something in the last sentence that I am unable to grasp].
We have many wolves here but they do not bother people if they have dogs. Our dog caught a wolf, and I have the pelt in the house. Geert Alberts Dijkstra would like to know who Meindert married. [Geert was born August 16, 1817 in Oudwoude, Kollumerland. He married on March 7, 1853 in Pella Geertje Buwalda. The Meindert referred to is probably his younger brother.] Geert does not live with us but has the best earnings: 15 gulden in a weekend. Sjoed Aukes Sipma from Bornwert [Westdongeradeel] would like to know if his letter from September 1848 arrived, a letter of six “mountains” [pages?] long. [Sjoerd was married with Jansje de Vries, both are buried in Iowa–Sjoerd in 1896 in Orange City, Jansje before 1857 when Sjoerd remarried with Boukje Boonstra]. Yes, noble friends I can understand your sorrow [at being so far from Pieter] and from our side we share that; but I would not like to return [to live] but to be with you again is my great longing. It will be as the Lord wills and we live, but the costs to go to you are too heavy for us; it would cost 2 or 3 hundred guildres but our desire [to do so] is great. Yes, noble friends, I cannot write much of what is between God and my soul, but the Lord is with us of that I am convinced. [The next phrase I cannot translate, but seems to mean that God has not left him alone].
I greet you all and wish that you may receive this letter in good health, we are all healthy. And if there are those who would like to come over let them come on their own and not trusting in others.