What I Learned

So what did I learn from all this traipsing around in East Frisia?

What I learned will be down at the bottom, more or less. But first, how I got there.


I didn't learn much the first day. The first day I got the lay of the land, found a bookstore with a Frisian dictionary (people there speak German, but Frisian is a different language, and many of the older folks at least still speak it--if you say "Moin" to someone, they'll smile back and answer "Moin"), arranged a hotel room and went to collect my rental car.

I stayed at a place called Wieting's Hotel and Restaurant, which I'll happily recommend to anyone passing through Esens. (Am Markt 7, 26247 Esens, Ostfriesland, Germany; 0-49-71/45-68, or /13-11 or /13-12; they spoke good enough English for me to get a room and have a little conversation.) Parking in the back was free, though it was a little tight getting my car in and out.

Got up the next day and went to church. The church was empty, so I tried the church offices, which were in an adjacent building. Not a lot of English to be had here, but once I had communicated, somehow, what I wanted, they understood and sat me right down.

In New York City, to see the ancient records from the earliest settlers, we had to make a special appointment and reassure everyone that we knew we couldn't take pictures with a flash, and finally we were allowed into the room with the book itself (with a very nice woman helping us), but we weren't allowed to be alone with it for any length of time.

In Esens, they opened up a metal cabinet filled with old books and slapped one right down in front of me, no questions asked. Well, actually, there were two women in there with me the whole time, carrying on a conversation in German. They rolled their eyes when they understood what I wanted. Are you sure? was what they seemed to be saying. Yes, yes, ja, ja, I know it will be hard to read. Yes, I know it will be--whoa, this stuff is sure hard to read!

The baptismal registry in Esens goes back to 1629. That's almost far enough back to be useful to us, but not quite. (There has been a church on that site since around the first millennium; the current church was built in 1854.) Tjerck was married in 1656, so he couldn't have been born much after 1636. I did the obvious: I started with the first page of the 1629 registry, and worked through.

Well, sort of. This is all written in very old German--or Dutch, or Frisian--manuscript, and the lettering system has changed significantly since then. (Funny thing is, the American records from almost the same period are eminently legible to this day.) It really was difficult to make out what a lot of letters were. Never mind words. There were a few different hands at work here, and some were more legible than others. So I surveyed the situation. I gave it my most earnest effort, but I had to admit, I wasn't getting very far.

I took my fill of the baptismal registry, thanked them very much ("vieldank"), and decided to try some other leads in the short time I had.

Taking a Hike

I decided next to explore the area. Before I left, I wanted to see Großholum and Ostbense, both candidates for ancestral roosts. Neither was terribly far away--a few miles separate everything here. Since it was a nice day, I decided to try walking over to Großholum.

As I headed out of town, I saw a picturesque, old-fashioned windmill. You see a lot of modern windmills in this area, generating electricity and doing other things, but not so many of the older, classic ones.

As I walked by the windmill, I saw a sign on it announcing that it was a museum.

A regional museum, advertising exciting displays of regional history and culture.

Hey, I'm interested in that! I thought. That's what I'm here for--local history. And culture.

So for a nominal fee I invited myself into the museum. Already in the first room I found useful stuff. They have a set of big three-dimensional maps hanging on the wall, showing you what parts of the area were underwater during different centuries. So I was able to see that a lot of the land north of Esens (my target zone) had been mighty wet before the dikes were built.

I rambled on a little through the museum. Finally I had a question for someone--I forget what I wanted to ask, but I buttonholed a guy, who then led me to another guy and said, approximately, "Here--he speaks better English than I do."

Guy No. 2 turned out to be Wolfgang Timm, the director of the Heimatmuseum and a wonderful fellow, who had more answers than I had time to spend there, in the end.

For one thing, as we started talking about maps, he said they were just in the middle of taking down a display of old maps of the area, and he was able to show me several still hanging there. One in particular was intriguing: It showed plots of land neatly marked and numbered, all over the area. I asked what it was. He said it came from an old tax census, counting who had how much land so it could be determined who owed how much money. So for each plot, we could ascertain an owner? Well, yes. But to do that, you'd need the index. Hmmm. Well, where might the index be?

This got us a little further into the conversation. He actually had several indexes, for different maps. But to make good use of the index, you need to have a hunch where the parcel is you're looking for. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of parcels all over East Frisia, and different ones were mapped at different times, for different reasons. Okay. So I'll need to come back with better information about where old Tjerck had inherited his plot. (He sent a brother-in-law back home with power of attorney to dispose of some land near Esens.)

But in the meantime, Wolfgang had some other useful books: A transliteration into modern handwriting of the same books I'd been looking at earlier that morning. Well, well, well.

It's in the Record

I was able to make much better headway leafing through these books than I had at the church. Wolfgang said some old guy had come in and made this a project for himself. Even in Germany there aren't many people who still can read the old scripts--you can buy a book and learn how to do it, particularly with a little practice, but nobody takes the time anymore. (A lot of old knowledge is being lost this way, even if we're preserving the books it's in.) Actually, this old guy's handwriting wasn't always crystal clear. But it was a lot better than the original record.

I started at the beginning and worked my way up to about 1636. Meanwhile I did a lot of chatting with Wolfgang about the area and its history, of which he had extensive knowledge. He was able to tell me, for example, that the reason the church is so big was that it was a traditional refuge for all the farmers in the area when floods swept over the fields. Frisia is dotted with spots that are a little higher than the low, flat farms, and Esens is one of these natural rises.

So, it turns out, is Großholum.

Remember, as I was going through this book, I was unable to look for DeWitts. The people living in this area did not record family names until the French changed their ways in 1813. The best I could hope for, if I didn't find Tjerck, was to find other Claessens and hope I could construct a family history from that.

I knew Tjerck had a sister named Emmerentje and another named Taatje. He evidently had a brother named Jan. Many genealogical records speculate, with no evidence listed in support, that his grandfather's name was Jan. That would make his father's name Claes Jansen. Oh, and another thing: Spelling is pretty casual in all these names, so a close match is often an exact match. Even "Dirck" could be the same as Tjerck--maybe.

So I needed anyone who was a child of someone named Claes, and I was looking for children named Tjerck or Dirk or Jan or Emmerentje or Taatje, all of which could suggest familial relations (most kids were named after relatives according to specific customs).

Going through the list of baptisms, then, I noted these:

    January 15, 1632: Bette, daughter of Claas Janssen
    April 3, 1632: Dirk, son of Claass Strick(ssen?)
    July 15, 1632: Claas, son of Johan Claessen
    July 7, 1633: Tette, daughter of Claass Janss(en)
    August 4, 1633: Gertru(y)d, daughter of Jacob Dirks(en)
    December 6, 1633: Dirk, son of Johan Albers(sen)
    February 26, 1634: Trincke, daughter of Claas Stricks(sen)
    July 22, 1634: Gretke, daughter of Johan Claassen
    September 1, 1634: Claes, son of Wilke Briskwanen(?)
    November 15, 1635: 1 Daughter, to Marten Claussen, Westerb(ense?) parish
    December 11, 1635: Gretke, daughter of Claes Janssen
    February 16, 1636: Berent, daughter of Johan Claassen

Along the way I noticed a few things. (For one thing, there were a number of kids baptized as "Soldaten Kind"--a soldier's child. Hmmm. No father known. Does that say something about the times?) A few people were tagged specifically as being from Großholum or Osterbense. I noted the dates they were mentioned, so I could go back and examine the original the next morning, to see if I could discern older variant spellings. (I didn't end up getting anything conclusive from this. The old manuscript is too obscure, and it actually uses a shorthand to express the ending -um.)

Also I noticed, as you might expect in a small village, the same names coming up again and again. I saw a kind of family record developing, of Claassens (children of Claas Janssen) and of Johansens (children of Johan Claassen). I kinda favored the children of Claas Janssen as possible siblings of Tjerck: Tjerck too is a Claassen, and his third boy was named Jan. Could Tette, listed here, be the Taatje who shows up in North America?

There's another family of Claassens forming here too--the children of Claas Stricksen. But Stricksen doesn't come up anywhere among Tjerck's descendants, so I'm inclined to rule out that set of Claassens.

And it crossed my mind that Johan Claassen could even be an elder brother of Tjerck's, having kids already. But that's a reach.

Not enough to substantiate anything. But enough to be interesting.

I had learned a lot (actually, I had leafed through a lot of the map indexes too, though I didn't find anything useful), but I hadn't eaten, and it was getting late, and I had never made it to Großholum and Ostbense. Rather than miss those sites, I decided to move on. I felt I had found a friend in Wolfgang, and I could come back the next day to inspect the books further.

As it happens, I never was able to do that. But that's a story for a different time.

There's more work to be done in East Frisia, before I can feel our connection to the place has been either verified or disproved. I'd like to get more specifics about the land Tjerck inherited there, and what became of it after he sent his brother-in-law back to "Oosterbemus in Oost Vriesland" in 1661. I'd also like to carry more specifics about Tjerck's brother and sisters in North America, birthdates and children's names and so forth. All of this can help find traces.

The one thing everyone uniformly agreed on was that they had no idea why anyone from there would ever say they were from Zúnderlant. Nobody could say where that was.

And the best thing I learned while I was there was that the people of Esens are wonderful hosts to a wandering American. I very much enjoyed my time traipsing around the coastland, and I look forward to returning when I'm better armed with information to help me find what I'm after.

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