Where Witt-Claes Janßen comes from is not clear. He seems to arrive in the area north of Esens in East Frisia somewhat before the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Families in this corner of Ostfriesland don’t typically give sons the common names Claes and Jan before this era. After the Thirty Years’ war, when many foreign soldiers came through Ostfriesland with the Mansfeld occupation (1622-24), the names Claes and Jan find more frequent use, side by side with more traditional East Frisian names like Haio and Borchert and Tjerck.
Claes marries into a wealthy and well-connected family. He marries the youngest daughter of the deceased Tiarck Bremers.
Tiarck Bremers had inherited his family’s farm in East Frisia, which had been owned by people named Bremers since before local property records began. Then Tiarck married a woman with property of her own nearby. Sadly, she died. After he arranged for her property to pass into the hands of their eldesta toddler at the timeTiarck went on to marry again. His new wife, Tette Gathen, brought a large dowry with her. We don’t know where Tette came from, or her money, though there are hints that she was from Osteel, about 25 miles west of Esens. But Tiarck Bremer by now had accumulated a respectable nest egg.
When Tiarck Bremers died, in 1624, he left his ancestral farm to the eldest son of this second marriage, named Gathe. Gathe represented the fifth recorded Bremers generation to own this piece of land. Tiarck’s wife Tette, Gathe’s mother, was still alive and well; she survives another 32 years into this story, presumably living on the same farm.
Gathe had two younger brothers, and a sister: Tiade. Tiade Bremers married Claes Janssen, probably around 1628, and so this stranger from out of nowhere enters the family story.
* * *
Claes, it appears, had been married before, to a woman named Falde, possibly from Osteel, from at least ca. 1610ca. 1619.
The oldest church register in Esens, where parishioners came to worship from this whole area in Ostfriesland, starts in 1629. Local property transfer records going back to 1556 also fill in some details about family connections. But neither history has any notes about Claes’ earlier wife or other children, or about when she died or when Claes and Tiade were married.
The record book at the Esens church includes an entry on 27 July 1632, for the first communion of “Ancke Claessen, Claes Johanssen Tochter.” The church book calls the father “Tiade Bremers Claes Johanssen”: Claes is identified through his new wife, who grew up here and belongs to a well-known family. But Ancke for her first communion must have been at least 13 years old (and in Esens, first communions often came later), so Tiade Bremers probably is not her mother.
Ancke appears to have had an older sister, Hilke. In 1630 Hilke Claassen marries Peke Ayken, whose father’s farm Claes has been looking after. When Hilke dies in 1675, the record shows she is 65 years old.
If Hilke was born in 1610, and if Ancke was born around 1619, then Claes Johanssen, to be a father by 1610, would have been born around 1590 or before, and his first marriage would have lasted until at least about 1619.
We see hints that Claes’s first wife was name Falde. Hilke (whose mother was this first wife) has a daughter named Falde, following the local tradition of naming children in order after the mother’s and father’s parents. Claes’s first daughter with his second wife is named Falde; naming tradition is that the first child with a second spouse is named after the deceased first spouse.
* * *
In 1613, Claes borrowed money from Albert von Line, probably while both were living in the Esens area.
On 11 March 1647, in the book of Kontraktenprotokolle in the Staatsarchiv Aurich (Rep 234 Nr. 102), Clas Jansen and his (by then) wife Tiade appear in court; they have lost a case, so they have to pay back a debt, with interest, to the heirs of Albert von Line. The debt apparently dates from 1613; Claes and Tiade offer their farm in Ostbenseher ancestral manoras surety against their payment. It is not clear what the nature of the debt was, but since Albert von Line, originally from Bremen, appears to have lived in Esens, we might guess that by 1613, Claes is also living in the Esens area.
* * *
In 1618 and 1622, Claes is fined for fighting with his neighbors; he is described as living in Groß-Holum.
To this day, in the Staatsarchiv Aurich, we can read the Brücheregister from the Esens district, the catalog of fines imposed for petty misdemeanors: These crimes really did go down on your permanent record. In Rep 4 B Vc Nr. 22, we find fines for the years 1618 and 1622, and the “matrimonial penalty” charges for 1679-1691 (more on this later).
In 1618 we find the case of Schwittert Alrichs contra Claus Janssen, also filed as Claus Janssen zur Holum contra Schwittert Alrichs:
vermuge Balbier Hinrich Schloffs register, ein Stich in den linken Arm, drei gliedt tieff, ein gliedt lang in Dode Heren hauß gehaltenes Kindelesbier gestochen . . . bricht 84 Arensgulden, dem beleidigten auch so viell,
darentgegen des Schwittert Alrichs zu große Holum Claus Janssen vermuge Mr. Johan Krauß register einen stich in der brust bei der halsrucken 5 gliedt tief, danach er bescheinet zu dem blutells ins angesicht in obgedachten Kindelbier zugefüget, so bricht er dem Gnädigen Herren 216 Ahrensgulden, dem beleidigten auch so viell.
Some context: Kindelbier is the beer that a father offers after his child has been baptized; the surgical measurement for wounds was the Glied, or “limb.” (This may have been a shortening of “Fingerglied,” which makes more sense: the length of a finger joint, a knuckle.)
According to the register of surgeon Hinrich Schloffs, [Claes] inflicted a stab in [Schwittert’s] left arm, three Glied deep, one Glied long, in the house of Dode Heren when he offered Kindelbier . . . He has to pay a fine to His Grace of 84 Arensgulden, the same amount to the injured.
And likewise Schwittert Alrichs of Groß Holum according to the register of Mr. Johan Krauß has given Claus Janssen a stab in the breast by the neck 5 Glied deep, and he testified to a bruise in the face, during the same Kindelbier, so he has to pay a fine to His Grace of 216 Arensgulden, and the same amount to the injured.
Dode Heren does not show up in the Weinkaufsprotokolle register of land ownership in the area, but Schwittert Alrichs owned a farm of both old land and new (reclaimed) land adjacent to the village of Grootholum (Groß Holum), farm *C35* in the register. He inherited it from his father (after a long line of ancestors) in 1615; when he dies in 1637, he has 7 children, young enough to need guardians. (One of the guardians, it turns out, is Haye Bremers, who shows up elsewhere in our story, since Clas Janssen eventually marries into the Bremers family and takes over the farm. All this activity is from a fairly small geographical area, with a small social register.) We might picture Schwittert as being a fairly young man in 1618.
The Brücheregister lists Claus Janssen as “zur Holum”; it makes sense to believe that in 1618 he was living there.
Dode Heren probably lived in the same clump of homes; he may have had a house but no farm. (Claes Janßen at this time is also probably a common farm worker, without a plot to call his own yet.) Dode and his wife were probably more than a little dismayed at having to clean up from their guests’ behavior at the Kindelbier.
Probably also during the Kindelbierthe record is not clearin the same register of fines we find:
Tiarck Alrichs contra Claus Janssen
Claus Janssen zur Großen Holum, das er vermuge M.Heinrich Schoffs register mit einem steinernen Kopken Tyarck Alrichs eine Wunde unter das Auge ein gliedt lang ohne ... geworffen, so bricht er dem GH 12 (Arensgulden).
Tiarck Alrichs v. Claus Janssen
Claus Janssen of Groß Holum, that he according to the records of Heinrich Schoffs [by throwing] a stone pot [gave] Tyarck Alrichs a wound under the eye one Glied long, so he has to pay a fine to His Grace of 12 Arensgulden.
It seems fair to guess that Tiarch Alrichs might have been the brother of Schwittert.
It appears that the feud between Claes Janßen and Schwittert Alrichs did not start at the Kindelbier for Dode Heren’s newborn. A second trial, after the Kindelbier, reveals more details of the Kindelbier brawl but also mentions that the two have quarreled previously and have been given instructions to get along more peaceably:
Claweß Janßen contra Schwittert Alrichs
Schwittert Alrichs, das er mit ein füriäger außgefordert, item auf ein andermahl ihn vor einen starken schelm in Dudde Heren Kindelbier gescholten und mit einem bloßen meßer getanzet, noch das Beklagter Claweß Janßen sohn auff gemeinen Wege zurr erden geschlagen, bricht er d.GH 132, dem beleidigten auf halb so viel,
noch das Schwittert Alrichs der zwischen ihm und Clauß Janßen vor dem Herren Ambtmann d. 8.July 1617 gesagte Schulung eingebrochen, so soll er deshalber bey d.GH bezahlen 30 Goldthaler (200 Arensgulden).
darentgegen, das Clauß Janßen Schwittert Alrichs in Dudde Heren Kindelbier hönischer Weise vom bleicher tanz vorgeworffen, bricht er d.GH 64, dem beleidigten auch so viell.
Claweß Janßen v. Schwittert Alrichs
Schwittert Alrichs, that he with a musket has challenged [Claes], and at another time has called him a rogue, during Dudde Heren’s Kindelbier, and with a bare knife has pierced [Claes], and that the defendant has thrown down the son of Claweß Janßen onto the ground on a public pathway, he pays a fine to His Grace of 132 (Arensgulden), to the offended party half that amount,
and furthermore that Schwittert Alrichs has broken the instruction [Schulung, likely the result of a mandatory conciliation session between the two parties and a mediator] of 8 July 1617 given before the Honorable Amtman [for behavior] between him and Clauß Janßen, so he shall pay His Grace 30 Goldthaler (200 Arensgulden).
And likewise, that during Dudde Heren’s Kindelbier, Clauß Janßen has derisively accused Schwittert Alrichs of a pale dance [the meaning is unclear], so he shall pay His Grace 64 [Arensgulden], the offended party also the same amount.
Note the reference to a son: We already know about Hilke Claesen, born ca. 1610, and we guess that Anneke Claessen is born ca. 1619, but in addition, Claes Janßen already has at least one son by 1618. Is this an infant, a toddler, a teenager?
In Part II of the second trial, we get more details on the altercation with Tiarck Alrichs:
Tyarck Alrichs contra Clauß Janßen
Clauß Janßen, das er Tiarck Alrichs zween mahlen vor den Kopf geschlagen , das er zur erden gestürzet, ihn vor einen jungen hahn, seinen Vatter für einen alten Esel gescholten, bricht d.GH 76, dem gehönigten auch so viell,
was übrige iniurien, als nicht der gebührenwiesen, sindt partheien vice versa absolvieret und wirdt zwischen diesen drey pathen eine Schulung bei Strafe Landesverweisung gesezet.
Tyarck Alrichs v. Clauß Janßen
Clauß Janßen, that he has hit Tiarck Alrichs twice on the head, so that he fell on the ground, that he called him a young cock, and his father an old donkey, so he has to pay His Grace 76 [Arensgulden], and the insulted party also the same amount,
and with regard to further injuries, that have not been charged yet, the parties are absolved vice versa, and the three parties are remanded to a further Schulung under threat of expulsion.
Clauß Janßen appears more frequently in the 1618 book of fines than anyone else in the district.
Note that according to the old system, His Grace is the one who makes out like a bandit. Claes pays Schwittert 148 Arensgulden and Tyark 76, and Schwittert pays 282 Arensgulden to Claes. Among these three parties, Claes comes out ahead by 58 Arensgulden and Tyark gets 76 of his brother’s Arensgulden, but otherwise it’s a wash. But for this beer-soaked baptismal brawl, His Grace’s take is a princely 548 Arensgulden from Schwittert and 236 Arensgulden from Claes.
Tiarck Aldrichs is able to give as good as he gets. In 1622, he is fined 24 Arensgulden for fighting with Gathe, the son of Tiarck Bremers:
Gathe Tiarck Bremers contra Tiarck Aldrichs
Tiarck Aldrichs zu Grote holum, das er Gathen Tiarcks ein wunde in den arm 1 1/2 gliedt diep gestoßen, bricht dem GH 24, dem beleidigten auch so viell.
Tiarck Aldrichs of Grote Holum, that he inflicted a wound on Gathe’s arm 1 1/2 Glied deep . . .
Also in 1622, in the same register of fines, we find Clas Jansen again, this time described as living in Lütke Holum nearby:
Focko Ulfers contra Claweß Janßen
Clauß Janßen zu Lütke Holum, das er Focke Ulfers ein bluetsell auf den rüggen 1 1/2 glied lang, ein gliedt weit mit ein geschwulst an den halß mit ein springstock zugefüget, bricht d.GH 36, dem beleidigten auch so viell.
Focko Ulfers v. Claweß Janßen
Clauß Janßen of Lütke Holum, that he with his jumping-stick [used for hopping over narrow irrigation ditches] inflicted a bruise on Focke Ulfers’ back 1 1/2 Glied long, one Glied wide, with a swelling on the neck . . .
Claes later did move to the Lütke Holum area, but the next set of records indicates that in 1622, he was still living in Groß Holum. Ulfert is a common enough name in the area; any son of someone named Ulfert would be Ulfers. Focko Ulfers could have been the son of Ulfert Eden, who farmed in Lütke Holum (Herd C1 in the Seriem Vogtei), but it seems more likely he was the son of Ulfert Focken, who farmed several fields arrayed around the center of Groß Holum (Herd C27).
Click on the map above for a larger image that gives an idea of how farms were arrayed around the several homes that make up Groß Holum. Detailed records are available in the Weinkaufprotokolle that show which farmer had each of the numbered fields. Typically a single farmer might run a farm that included several fields interleaved with those of other farmers. The fields to the west of the road, including the town center, had existed for as long as anyone could remember. The fields east of the road had been added when a marsh was drained progressively over a period of many decades; the farmers of Groß Holum probably did a lot of the work of draining the marsh, and they added the new fields to their farms, adding to the checkerboard pattern of which farmer used which field.
* * *
In 1622, a census of the land and livestock in the Esens district (Land- und Beestschatz im Amt Esens, Rep 4 B IV n 259 p. 35) listed “Claeß Janßen auf Aytke Peken land 4 Pferde, 20 Kühe, 2 Fohlen, 5 Schweine”: Claeß Janßen, on the land of Aytke Peken, had 4 horses, 20 cows, 2 foals, 5 pigs.
For comparison, in 1570 the same farm was supporting 12 cows, 7 two-year-old steers, 11 one-year-old steers, 6 swine, 4 horses, and 6 sheep.
Aytke Peken lived on a 75-acre farm in Grootholum (or, in German, Großholum). We learn about it from the Weinkaufsprotokolle record of land ownership in the area. The ownership of the farm goes back to (in 1556) Galtit zu Holum, or Galtit of Holum. By the flood of 1570, his son Peke Galtes has the farm; in 1597 Peke dies and leaves a son and four daughters. The son, Aitke Peken, gets the farm. In the 1617 Deichregister, Aytke Peken is taxed for maintenance of the local dikes. In 1650, an interesting entry notes: “Aytke Peken Herd, 60 1/2 Dt, wurde schon vor der Mansfelder Zeit auf Peke Aytken von den Vormündern vwk; wie teuer, wisse er nicht.”: The farm of Aytke Peken, 60 1/2 Diemat in size, was earlier, before the 1622-24 Mansfelder occupation, passed to the guardians of Peke Aytken [the son of Aytke Peken]; how much the tax was, he [Aytke] doesn’t know.
So in 1622, around the start of the Mansfeld occupation, Claes Janssen apparently is maintaining a farm on the land of Aytke Peken, and sometime before the Mansfeld years (when many farmers were brutally murdered, farmhouses and villages burned, and the population terrorized), Aytke Peken dies, leaving the farm to his son Peke Aytken, who is young enough to require guardians to look after his affairs.
On 13 February 1626, Clas Johanßen records a contract with the legal guardians of Peke Aitken (Kontraktenprotokolle Esens 1648, Rep 234 Nr. 102). The guardians are the farm’s neighbors, Mamme Eden and Tatke Garmers. (They may very well have had family ties to Peke too, since the community was close-knit. In 1637, Mamme Eden was the one who reported that Tatke Garmers had died.) Clas Jansen had invested 1,100 Thaler on this farm (perhaps partly from the money he had borrowed in 1613 from Albert von Line?), and the contract said that unless the money was paid back, Clas could continue living on the farm.
Note that the record does not indicate whether Peke Aitken’s mother was still alive. She may well have been. It would be typical in the area for the farm to pass to the younger generation, in order to avoid paying a second land-transfer tax (one to transfer to the surviving mother, then another later to transfer to the son), and it was common for a minor child to be assigned a guardian upon the death of a parent, even if the other parent still survived, in order to ensure that the surviving parent did not squander the child’s birthright. It is also possible that Peke’s mother had died before his father.
At any rate, Peke appears to have been 10 years old, too young to run the farm on his own, so, under the watchful eye of neighbors Clas was allowed to continue the farming operation, until such time as Peke’s family could pay back the money Clas had invested in the farm.
As Kay Blaas notes, Peke, or his mother, may well have had reason to want Claes off the farm. We know from court records that he could be violent when drunk, and in 1667 the memoir of Ulrich von Werdum (see below) describes him in unattractive terms. On the other hand, Claes appears to have been capable: He was approved by the guardians to run the farm; he was later appointed to the dike commission by Graf Ulrich; he was charming enough, or resourceful enough, to win the hand of Tiade Bremers, from a rich neighboring farm, in marriage.
When Peke turned 18, in June 1630, he married Claes Janssen’s daughter Hilke. Their first son is named Claas (the record is difficult to read and has sometimes been interpreted as Staas, but Claas makes the most sense).
* * *
In 1627 Claes Janßen was involved in a liason with his deceased wife’s half-sister’s daughterwho was probably the woman who became his second wife.
Along with marriages, births, deaths, contracts, sentences and fines imposed for petty misdemeanors, we also have records from the 1600s of “Delicta carnis,” a delicate way to describe the situation that arises when a child is born from some liaison outside the bounds of a regular marriage. In Rep. 135 Nr. 62a, we find “matrimonial penalty” charges for 1678-1723, although it turns out that this sheaf of notes includes other years too. It can be described as haphazardly organized.
Sex outside of marriage could have serious consequences in the 1600s, including excommunication or expulsion. As in the present day, various accommodations were available that let miscreants minimize scandal and remain accepted members of the community. One possibility included paying a fine for the irregularity, then going on with life.
On pages 63-68 of the 1678-1723 record, we find an entry from 1627, made by Commissioner Johannes John:
Clauß Janßen zu Holum, daß Er seiner verstorbenen Frawen Halbschwester Tochter beschlaffen, soll U.g. Herrn zur Bruche geben 50 Goldgulden
Clauß Janßen of Holum, [because] he slept with his deceased wife’s half-sister’s daughter, shall pay His Grace 50 gold guilders.
The standard delicta carnis fine at the time, according to Wiard Hinrichs, was 5 or 10 or 15 guilders for adultery alone; here the fine is higher because the transgression was with a relative, so Claes had to get a special dispensation when he wanted to marry the woman. (Kay Blaas observes that the act may have taken place during the period of mourning.)
If the unnamed woman involved was Tiade Bremers, the daughter of Tiarck Bremers, who became Claes Janßen’s second wife, then that means that Tiade’s mother, Tette Gathen, was the half-sister of Claes’ first wife. In other words, Tiade’s aunt (or half-aunt) was Claes’s first wife.
A family in Osteel, about 25 miles west of Groß Holum, meets this description. (See further notes on the pages on this site for Tiade Bremers and her mother’s family.) Could Claes Janßen have come from the Osteel area? If he did, was he born there, or had he moved there from somewhere else? The documentary record is enticing but elusive, suggestive but not enough to draw a firm conclusion. If Tette Gathen, married to Tjark Haiken Bremer and living on the family farmstead, was the half-sister of Claes’s first wife, Falde, it helps explain why Claes and Falde might have come to the Groß Holum/Lütke Holum area to seek their fortune.
From the timing, it makes sense that the child born from this 1627 relationship was Tjerck Claessen, who moved to North America and was known there as Tjerck Claessen De Witt.
* * *
Later documents, looking back, suggest that Claes and Tiade baptized a son, Tjarck, named for Tiade’s father, in 1628, and a daughter, Falde, named probably for the first wife of Claes, during a gap in the Esens baptism list in 1630. When Falde Claassen dies in 1663, the church says she was 33 years old. (Falde is also sometimes called Pelde in modern printed sources, depending on who’s reading the old handwriting.)
It makes sense to think that Claes and Tiade were living on the Peke Aitken farm in Groß Holum when they baptized Tjarck and possibly Falde. Tiade had grown up on her family’s farm in Lütke Holum nearby (called Kleinholum on maps today), and eventually the couple and their children moved there to stay. But when Tiade’s father died in 1628, the farm initially passed to her brother Gathe, who in the same year married Gretke Borchardts, the widow of Johan Hartz. He later moved with her to a more lucrative position at nearby Grashaus Margens (see Kontraktenprotokolle 15 March 1630), making it possible for Claes and Tiade to take over the ancestral farm.
(1630 is also when Claes’s daughter Hilke marries Peke Aytken, who has come of age on the farm where Claes has been working. It makes sense to think that Claes worked on both farms as he made the transition from one to the other.)
Tjerck Claessen in North America, when he got married, declared that he was from Groot Hol[um] in [Em]derland. (The original record is lost, but that continues to be the best interpretation of the transcript that survives.) From the timing, it seems likely that he was born there, although his family later moved to Lütke Holum. It may well be that he continued to grow up in Groot Holum, even after his mother and father moved back to her family’s farm. As was the custom elsewhere in Europe and North America, in the Harlingerland it was common for parents to farm out their children to the homes of near relatives for raising. It was not unusual for a child to be raised by an uncle or a cousin. Since Claes’s daughter Hilke, who was Tjerck’s half-sister, continued to live at Groot Holum and raise a family there with Peke Aitken, it may be that they were also entrusted with raising Tjerck. It is worth noting that Tjerck, when he raised a family of his own, named one of his sons Peeck.
The church records in Esens don’t catch up with Claes Johanßen until 15 January 1632, when he and Tiade Bremers baptize probably their third child, a daughter named Tette. (Confusion over handwriting makes her show up in some places as Bette.) For a godmother at this baptism, Claeß and Tiade invite Grethe (Borchardts), the wife of Tiade’s older brother Gathe, the one who had inherited the Bremers farm.
* * *
The record book at the Esens church includes an entry on 27 July 1632, for the first communion of “Ancke Claessen, Claes Johanssen Tochter.” The church book calls the father “Tiade Bremers Claes Johanssen”: Claes is identified through his new wife, who grew up here and belongs to a well-known family. By now the family has probably moved from the Peke Aytken farm in Groß-Holum to the Bremer farm nearby in Lütke Holum.
* * *
Outside of the church record books, a local nobleman’s family memoir also describes Claess Janßen by name and reputation, with regard to his appointment to an important post in 1632. We can guess that, now that he has his own farm (or his wife’s), his reputation is evolving. Probably joining the Bremer family helped with all kinds of connections to the local powers that be. Also, Claes is not a young man anymore: He is probably in his 40s, and may be too busy feeding his family to drink and fight as he used to.
Still, his former reputation apparently had not been completely forgotten.
Ulrich von Werdum, born in 1632, wrote in Latin an account of his family’s history in Werdum, where they were minor gentry. (See a few excerpts here.) Ulrich names some local farmers who had been thorns in his father’s side: Tjarck Tydken, Foltje Remmers, Oltmann Hertkens, and “uno tribus his nequiore, Nicolao Johannis, quem album vulgo nuncupabant” (one even more worthless than these three, Niclaus Johans, who commonly was nicknamed white). Nicolaus Johannis in Latin, nicknamed “white,” in Frisian is Witt Claes Johanssen. (This is from Page 76 of the 1976 edition; see notes below for bibliographic information.)
Ulrich’s father was annoyed by a special invitation Claeß got on March 25, 1632.
The maintenance of the North Sea Dike, by the 1600s, was of paramount importance in the area, dwarfing any other local political issues. The wall that kept the sea out made farming possible. Ulrich’s father took pride in his knowledge of the dike system and in his care and maintenance of the parts of the dike entrusted to him.
Harlingerland, where Werdum and Esens and Grootholum and Kleinholum and Ostbense are located, had only lately (1625) been absorbed into the County of East Frisia, whose Count, Graf Ulrich II, was based in Aurich, just south of Harlingerland. The Count decided to shake up the old system of dike maintenance, possibly wanting to impress upon the locals that he was in charge now.
Traditionally each “interested party” protected by the dike had been assigned a section to keep up. Now Graf Ulrich proposed to create a common fund from which a dike committee would make appropriations for repairs wherever the dike needed it. No longer would Ulrich von Werdum’s father be personally responsible for a well-kept section of dike. Instead he would be told to contribute to a fund run by someone else.
Ulrich von Werdum’s father opposed this, not least because Count Ulrich II in Aurich had made a point of ignoring the local nobles and using ordinary farmers to form his dike committee. “You should collect four of the oldest inhabitants of the area,” Ulrich von Werdum writes, “such as have knowledge of the dike system, have them come to the Count’s court and wait on his instruction. This guy [the Count] didn’t think that among his subjects, the nobles and clergy should have the first placebut instead he took only four farmers: Tiarck Tydken, Foltje Remmers, Oltmann Hertkens, a known godless man, and when it came time to bicker and quarrel and stir up trouble, that one, with the above-mentioned Claes, was the ringleader.”
Ulrich’s original was written in 1667 and published in Aurich in 1976. It was later (1983) translated into German. Wiard Hinrichs, a local historian who has connected many of the dots in this whole family history, is the one who spotted the passage in the Latin original.
And so, in 1632, after Claes and Tiade baptize their third child at the church in Esens, before they celebrate his daughter Ancke’s first communion, Witt-Claeß takes a trip down to Aurich, at the bidding of Graf Ulrich II, together with three other local farmers, to consult on how to maintain the dikes.
This adds to the intrigue over who Witt-Claes was. He appears to be a newcomer to the area. Why would the Count call on him? Was he a dike specialist from somewhere else? Why was Witt-Claess singled out?
On 23 February 1635, Claes signs a petition as a representative of the Bense Vogtei, together with Haye Rentz of Werdum Vogtei, Hilrich Upkens of Holtriem Vogtei (who signs with a mark, since he can’t sign his name), Galtett Focken of Westeraccum Vogtei, Oltman Hertkens of Seriem Vogtei, and Tiark Siebels of Stedesdorf Vogtei (who also “signs” with his mark). Three years after Claes is appointed to the dike commission, he is still working for it, along with Oltman Hertkens.
(In 1679 Claes’ daughter Tiade marries Oltmann Hertkens in Werdum. Probably that is the son of the Oltmann with whom Claes works as a dike commissioner. In 1699 Claes’ son Jan mentions Tiade in his will as “myn Suster Tialie Heerekeus,” leaving her children all his property “in Hollandt,” suggesting that Jan preserved property in Europe long after he had moved to North America. Another reading would be that Jan by these words was relinquishing any putative interest in the old family estate. From other records it appears that the title to the family farm and other property remained under a cloud of contention well into later generations.)
The gist of the petition, which describes a meeting of the dike representatives, is that in this area, it will be necessary to reinforce the North Sea dikes with wood, which is expensive, or to give up the dikes. There is not enough earth either inland or offshore of the dikes to continue adding earth to reinforce them. (The 1670 Regesmort survey maps of the area clearly show “borrow pits” all along the inland side of the dike, where mud was dug up to build the dike. Later dike builders recognized this as a critical weakness in a dike system, and made greater efforts not to leave these hollows on the dry side of a levee. The Regesmort maps also make note of areas where the dike is reinforced with wood.)
The dike wardens observe that in recent years, storms on the North Sea have been getting worse, and the gaps between the shelter islands have been getting bigger while the islands have been shrinking, leaving less protection for the coastline. (This matches modern understanding of the 1600s mini-climate shift, which caused upheavals in Europe and the rest of the world; for a longer discussion see Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century .) In October 1634, for example, as many as 15,000 people died in North Frisian flooding known as the Burchardi Flood or the second Grote Mandrenke.
The dike wardens refer to their 1632 appointment to study dike issues, and they acknowledge the high cost of undertaking some of these repairs, especially after the economic hardship of the recent Mansfelder occupation and more recent local flooding. They describe some of the repair activities they have undertaken and their actions to enforce dike obligations since their appointment, but they seek financial support for making the more expensive repairs that the dikes very much need.
* * *
One more question, while we ponder the curiosities in the record of Witt-Claess Johanssen:
Why was he named Witt-Claess?
We may never know the answer to this, and it may have been something as mundane as an early shock of white hair that set him apart from his neighbors. But he is called Witt-Claess repeatedly, to the point where his nickname is noted even in Latin.
Only the Latin account 35 years later lets us confirm that Witt here meant “white,” as it does in Dutch. Otherwise, in the mix of high and low languages in the area, it could have meant “wise” or “wide” or “wheat.”
Claeß’s children in North America call themselves DeWitt (or de Wit, or de With, again depending on who is doing the writing, in keeping with the loose spelling of the times). Later records in East Frisia also pick up the family name De Witt.
But Claess himself never appears to be called De Witt while he is alive. In the Netherlands in those years, the rich and powerful De Witt family was known well, and no doubt the name was recognized in Ostfriesland too. But when “Witt” or “Witte” is used with Claess Johanssen’s name, he is not called De Witt. Instead it is almost always “Witt Claess” or “Witte Claß”: White Claes.
* * *
After the episode with the dikes, Tiade and Witt-Claess baptize another five children in Esens. By now he is starting to be called Witt-Claess in various written records, instead of being known as Tiade Bremer’s husband Claaß. Two years after her eighth and last child, Tiade dies, perhaps pregnant again, on 21 March 1647.
Tiade’s death record in the Esens church register says, “Diversis calamitatibus certatim et simul obruta apoplexia correpta intra bihorium obiit.” In English: “Beset by various calamities, and at the same time overcome by a sudden seizure, she died within two hours.”
On 11 March 1647, Claes Jansen and his wife had to offer their farm in Ostbense as surety in the legal case they lost over money that he owed to Albert von Line from a 1613 debt. The couple had already had to borrow 350 Taler against the farm in 1638. This was the farm her grandparents and great-grandparents had owned; it was their livelihood. They did not lose the farm, but to have it suddenly placed under the burden of this crushing debt625 Talermust have counted as one of the various calamities that beset Tiade ten days later.
Tellingly, no Weinkauf tax is paid in 1647. The Weinkauf feea kind of property transfer taxwould have been paid if the property had transferred to a new owner.
The last owner of the farm, according to the Weinkauf record, was Tiade Bremer’s brother Gathe, who paid the Weinkauf on it in 1624, when their father Tiarck died. Gathe moved into Esens at some point and passed the property to Tiade and Claas, probably using the cover of war or the Mansfeld occupation to dodge paying the Weinkauf.
But the absence of a tax when Tiade dies means that Tiade Bremers has not been the owner of the property, even though it came from her family and not from her husband’s heritage.
Women do own farms and pay the Weinkauf for them in this era in East Frisia. Just a few years later, Tiade’s own daughter, Feldeand not her husbandbecomes the family farm’s owner. But in Tiade’s case, her husband had title to the farm, although he was not a Bremer. The next Weinkauf, revealing the next property transfer, is not paid until Witt-Claß dies.
How and when and why did the Bremer family farm get transferred from the hands of Gate, Tiade’s eldest brother, to Witt-Claß? Knowing this might help us understand more about who Claeß was.
* * *
Kay Blaas has helpfully sent a list of a few entries from the Kontraktenprotokolle (registry of recorded contracts) from the Kanzleigericht Esens that included Claß Johanßen’s name as various peopleClaes includedborrowed money over the years.
When a person borrowed money, particularly if they staked their property as surety against the loan, the contract would be signed by both parties as well as by witnesses in court.
16 November 1639
Aytcke Focken [probably related to Aytke Peeken] borrows money from xxx
Witnesses: Claeß Johanßen, . . .
11 February 1642
Hillrich Remmers (Werdum) is indebted to Meppe Hehren (Werdum)
Witnesses: Claß Johanßen, Remmer Foltis, Friedrich Lüers
Hillrich Remmers is indebted to Ewe Hayungs
Witnesses: Claß Johanßen, Remmer Foltis, Friedrich Lüers
26 January 1647
Remmer Hayinngs zu Werdum wohnhaft mit Hausfrau Edel is indebted to Dietrich Hennigs, Hennig Rocks nachgelassener Sohn [identity uncertain]
Witnesses Clas Jansen, Crin Broders, Haye Willms (Westeraccum??)
8 May 1647
Focke Willen indebted (to whom?)
Witnesses: Haye Galtis, Sibolt Aylts, Tyada Borgers, Folckert Weyerts, Clas Jansen, Triene Frerichs, Johan Frerichs, Caspar Wagners
17 December 1650
“Ich Claß Johanßen zu Osterbense wohnhafft uhrkunde und bekenne hiermit und in Kraft dieses Contractus antechretici, für mich meinen erben und erfolgeren, und sonsten jedermänniglich, daß ich auf mein bittliches und inständiges ansuchen . . .” 500 Thaler from Henr. Bonenkamp
11 December his signature; witnesses: Ipe Martens, Wichman Schlecht
20 December 1651
Claeß Johanßen is indebted to Tiarck Rickleffs (150 Thaler)
Witnesses Onno Gruben, Harck Eimersen, Yb Tiarcks, Wilcke Dinklag
In 1647, Claes and Tiade lost a court case and ended up in debt for 625 Thaler to Albert von Line. In 1650-51, Claes borrowed a total of 650 Thaler.
* * *
We can guess that Claes farms the property for the next several years, together with his many growing children, plus maybe a few in-laws. There is no sign that he marries again. We can guess that his mother-in-law, Tette Gathen, is still living on the family homestead.
Falde, the eldest daughter, marries Peter Janssen, son of Jan Lübbers, in August 1655. Tette Gathen, her grandmother, is around to see that. But in May 1656 the matriarch dies, too soon to be at the baptism of the new couple’s first childwhat would have been Tiade’s first grandchildwhen little Jan Peters is ushered into the church on 14 November 1656.
Meanwhile, TjerckClaess and Tiade’s eldest son, who might normally have been expected to inherit the family farmhas lit out for North America, probably with his second sister Tette, five years his junior. When do they go? Why do they go? After 1647, there is no record of Tjerck in the Esens area. He is in New Amsterdam by February 1656, about 28 years old, being fined for leading Lutheran services, fighting, and killing a goat, and a few months later he’s married, but how long had he been there before his name turned up in official records? He apparently never comes home.
Why did the eldest leave behind his birthright? Falde’s marriage to Peter Janssen could have been part of the chain of events that triggered Tjerck’s departure. Or he could have been in North America before then.
By 1659, although he has lost his wife and mother-in-law, Witt Claess still has five of his children by him in Ostfriesland to help at running the farmmostly adults now, ranging from 14 to about 29 years old. Some of their mother’s brothers may still be around too. Some of the older children, and some of their uncles, may well have moved to nearby Esens, or to other farms nearby.
By 1659, in Aurich, old Graf Ulrich who organized the dike commission back in the 1630s, then got farmers started cultivating public fens a few years later, has been gone for a little over 10 years, replaced by his son Enno Louis, a bright kid with a French education, raised to the post by the Holy Roman Emperor down in Austria. The war years are mostly over, though living by the sea means always keeping a lookout. You never know what the next tide will bring.
By 1659, Claeß’s eldest daughter and her husband have three grandkids running around the place, and Witt Claess probably knows from letters that his eldest son, Tjerck, has started a family in North America too, and has two little ones of his own.
And late that year, on 10 November 1659 when Claess closes his eyes for the last time, it is Witt-Claß and Tiade’s eldest daughter, Falde Claessen, and not Tjerck Claessen, who pays the Weinkauf on the family farm in East Frisia, which means that it now officially belongs to her. Falde has taken charge of the estate.
* * *
In 1661, we first see official confirmation that Tette Claessen, the second sister in the family, is in North America with Tjerck. She may have been there all along. Tette and her husband Jan Albertsen, from Steenwyck, are planning a voyage from New Amsterdam to Europe for a visit.
Tette appears in almost no official records in North America. But, unobtrusive as she was, she was to play a key role in the family’s history, and our knowledge of it.
We see in 1661 that she is in New Amsterdam, and married, and planning to visit the old homestead, only because Tjerck Claessen writes up a power of attorney to give to Jan Albertsen van Steenwyck, and in it, Jan is called Tjerck’s brother-in-law. Tette’s name does not come up at all. (It seldom does.) The document gives Jan authority to collect rent from another brother-in-law of Tierck’s, “Peter Jansz,” when Jan is in “Oosterbemus in Oost Vrieslant” later that year. We know Peter Janssen as Pelde Claessen’s husband.
The land is described in the power of attorney as having been inherited by Tierck from his late father. So Tjerck in North America is drawing up papers on the premise that he has inherited the property that had belonged to his mother’s family, and then to his father Witt-Claess. Tjerck expects to collect rent from the property.
In the eyes of the law in East Frisia, since Falde had paid the property transfer fee on the family farmthe Weinkaufwhen her father died, she was now the owner of record, regardless of whatever understanding the family had in private.
* * *
As late as 22 August 1661, we find Jan signing documents in North America, still planning his trip to Holland “this year.” On this trip, Jan carried papers to allow him to collect debts and transact other business for various North American acquaintances. No doubt Jan and Tette were going to visit his family in the Netherlands as well as hers in Ostfriesland.
When they sailed, they may have brought with them children born in North America, or they could have left their children at home rather than subjecting them to a sea voyage. Probably she had her youngest daughter, still nursing, in her arms.
No doubt there were some interesting conversations at Tette’s homecoming in Ostbense. There was rent and ownership to discuss, and babies and husbands to introduce, and stories to tell, developments from both sides of the Atlantic.
* * *
And then in late 1662, after a yearlong home visit, Jan and Tette returned from Europe to North America, with the infant she had carried in her arms on the voyage a year ago, who now was old enough to walk and talk. A fast ship could make the journey in 30 days, but that was unusual. Probably they had a 45-day crossing, depending on weather and what stops they made along the way. On 14 November 1662, the ship de Vos arrived in Nieuw Amsterdam, carrying among its passengers “Jan Albantsen,” from Steenwyck, with wife and child 2 1/4 years of age.
But those weren’t the only family names on the passenger list. The manifest also records “Ammereus Claesen,” maiden, and “Jan Claesen,” laborer. Ammereus is probably a misreading for Ammerens, the name used by the sister who was called Rinelt at her baptism. Later on, in many records, she is known as Emmerentje. Now four of Witt-Claeß’s children were in North America, leaving only their three sisters Falde, Gretke, and Tiade in Ostfriesland.
What made them all move?
* * *
Jan Albertsen and Tette must have been excited to show Jan Claesen and Amerens the way to Wildwyck, the latest Dutch settlement, halfway up the Hudson River from Manhattan to Beverwyck, where Tette and Tjerck both had started raising families, among the few dozen houses built behind the high palisade that had been erected to protect the new community. Wildwyck, with fields of hops and a brewery, was named for the area’s original inhabitants, called “Wilden” (savages) by the Dutch.
From the record of property acquisition and transfer in North America, it appears that the Claeßen siblings came over with a bankroll to help them invest early in successful enterprises. On the whole, the family enjoyed great success, though hard work and tragedy were no strangers. In the 1650s, when he arrived in New Amsterdam, Tjerck quickly acquired property in Beverwyck, leased it, and exchanged it for other property. By the time he died in 1700, he owned a mill, interests in two river ships, various houses, and tracts of farmland and woodland all over the area.
But when he first moved from Beverwyck to Wildwyck, he lived in town, with all the other new settlers, where the local council admonished the residents to make sure the gate was shut and secured every night, after the farmers had returned from their fields. Tette and Jan Albertsen lived in a little house nearby. The council required everyone in a wooden house to own a fire ladder and to keep their chimneys clean.
* * *
On 4 May 1663, in Ostfriesland, Falde Claßen died, at age 33, according to the church records in Esens. A Weinkauf record with the same date shows her land, the Bremer family estate, passing to her six-year-old son Johan Petersthe son of Peter Janspreserving the Bremer line of ownership. (By 18 July of that year, the boy’s father Peter Janssen is trying to switch the property into his own name. By 1684, Peter Janß will be calling himself “Peter Witten.”) No record I know of describes the cause of Falde’s death. It could have been any number of things.
A letter, in those days, would have had to travel from East Frisia to New Amsterdam by ship, taking 30 to 45 days or more.
By 7 June 1663, word of Falde’s death probably had not reached the village of Wildwyck. On that day, a market day, with the palisade gate open to allow farmers and merchants to come and go, the local Esopus tribe staged a surprise attack on the village, setting afire anything that would burn, killing many of the Europeans who had moved there, and kidnapping others, including one of Tjerck’s daughters, named Taatje. The little girl was rescued later, alive and well.
But at the same time, in the same attack, Jan Albertsen van Steenwyck, the village shoemaker, was killed, as was his pregnant wife, standing in their front yard, and at least one of their children, a little girl. (More than one of their children survived. I continue to hunt for names.) Tette Claeßen had been baptized in Esens in 1633. She was barely 30 years old.
For Rinelt and Jan, Tette’s younger sister and brother, who had sat through the ocean passage just a few months before with Tette and Jan and their baby daughter, this must have been a bracing introduction to North America.
* * *
And it is from the administration of the estate of Jan Albertsen van Steenwyck and his wife, Tette Claßen from Ostfriesland, that we get perhaps the most clear, consistent documentary picture confirming that this set of individuals constitutes a single, complete family. Other records show various parts of the same picture, one by one, until the set of connections is complete, but here we see all the names we need laid out clearly, in a single comprehensive flow.
On November 20, 1663, Tjerck Claesen de Wit deposits with the local court in Wildwyck an inventory of the estate “left by his brother in law Jan Albertse Van Steenwyck.” Tjerck requests a guardian for “the minor children.”
On January 29, 1664, Tjerck confirms “that he is joint heir” of the estate, as would be expected of a brother of one of the deceased.
On April 7 (old style) or 17 (new style), 1665, Tjerck and his fellow estate administrators give power of attorney to Marten Hofman to collect debts for the estate in his travels around the Dutch colony, referring in particular to anyone he might meet in “the Manhattans” who owes money to the estate. Marten Hoffman is well known from other records as the husband of Emmerentje De Witt, the one baptized in Esens as Rinelt; the record here empowers him as a co-heir of the estate.
On March 3, 1666, the estate administrators try to file papers to close the estate, but it turns out that their accounting doesn’t match the amount of money present, so the court tells them to get the numbers straight and return with corrected statements. On March 13, 1666, the estate’s executors are back in court. Here we find Tjerck Claesen De Witt again defined as heir (and administrator), and Marten Hofman listed as “heir, he being the husband and guardian of Amarens Claesen De Wit, sister of the aforesaid deceased Ida Claesen De Wit.”
It is not clear how Tette Claesen becomes Ida Claesen, but she is called by that name consistently in the administration of the estate (written Jda in the original handwriting). The documents take pains to mark all the Claesen de Wit progeny as siblings, giving them all the same consistent patronymic and family name. Tette is the only sister not listed as an heir of the estate, which means she must be Jda, the one who has died.
The 1666 administration documents indicate that the ample estate (1,921 guilders up front, plus some other assets) will be split evenly between the “line” of Jan Albertsen and the “line” of Ida Claessen de Wit, “wife of the aforesaid Jan Albertsen van Steenwyck, deceased.” Each side of the family will get 960 guilders. Because of some adjustments for prior obligations, the Claesen side of the estate ends up actually getting 1,068 guilders and change.
On April 12, 1666, Tjerck is again in court, this time to confirm that the family still in Europe will get their even share of the estate of the sister who was lost. If our list of family members is complete, the 1,068-guilder total should be divided six ways: Tjerck, Amarens/Rinolt, and Jan in North America; and Gretke, Tiade, and the children of Falde in Ostfriesland. Sure enough, Tjerck says that the estate owes 178 guilders each to “the children of Faelde Claesen de Wit . . . to Grietje Claesen de Wit . . . and to Tjaetje Claesen de Wit . . . from the estate left to the line of Ida Claesen de Wit.” This matches exactly the set of family members we expect to see still in Europe, and the amount tells us that the number of heirs is as expected. Tjerck promises to distribute the proceeds in April 1667, together with 10% interest.
All of the known surviving children of Witt-Claess and Tiade are specifically named in the above estate paperwork, with the exception of Jan Claessen De Witt. From other documents, we know that he was present in Wildwyck and lived (unmarried) to a ripe age. (His 1699 will specifically leaves his European property to “De kinderen van myn Suster Tialie Heerekeus,” which would be the youngest sister in the family, Tiadaor Tjaetjewho married Oltmann Hertkens in 1679 and continued to live in Werdum, in Ostfriesland, not far from the old Bremer farm in Ostbense.) Jan appears to have traveled back and forth to Amsterdam, perhaps living there at times. He may have been absent from Wildwyck for the administration of his sister’s estate. More remains to be discovered.
From this set of records it seems safe to identify the three siblings calling themselves De Witt in WildwyckTjerck, Emmerentje, and Janconclusively as the children of Witt-Claess Janssen and Tiade Bremers, of Klein-Holum, Ostfriesland, near Esens, and as siblings of Falde, Gretke, and Tiade Claesen, who remained in Harlingerland. The names match, as do the descriptions and locations, on both sides of the Atlantic. No known children of Witt-Claes Janßen and Tiade Bremers are missing from this list, and no extra heirs to the estate are named, beyond the children we already expect to see.
This definitively confirms that Tjerck Claessen De Witt and Emmerentje Claessen De Witt, and their descendants, can trace their family history and their name from North America to the old Haye Bremer farm near Klein-Holum, in East Frisia.
* * *
The oldest church records in Esens (where records would have been kept from all of this area in Ostfriesland) start in 1629. Before that, no church records are available.
The Weinkaufprotokolle itself has an intriguing history, best covered in a separate article.
At this period in local history, it is unusual for a family name to be entered in the records. Most people were identified by their given name plus their patronymic: Tiarck Haigen[son], or Tiarck, the son of Hayo. It is noteworthy that for several decades of successive generations of this family, the records identify them as Bremer or Bremers.
As Claeß baptizes children in Esens, the church record calls him variously “Claas Janßen,” “Claaß Janßen,” “Claes Janßen,” “Claaß Janßen,” “Claß Janßen,” “Claes Janßen.” The spelling of names at the time was not intended to be consistent or fixed; a name was written down according to how the writer heard it. Church and civil records in Ostfriesland might be kept by someone whose native language was German or Dutch or Frisian. Church and civil officals were educated, but this did not make them all linguists.
Claß is never Claus, but he is frequently Claas or Claes. The -s- at the end of his name is frequently doubled, whether with two single -s- characters or with the German ß double-s.
Jan and Johan (and Johann) were likely considered to be identical and interchangeable. The local custom for identifying a person’s father was to use the genitive form of the father’s name: Johans. In other places, the word “son” would be attached to the patronymic: Johanssen, or Johansson, or Janßen. Again, these are likely all considered equally accurate and correct, and all will appear interchangeably in official records, depending largely on the custom of the person with the pen in hand.
Very typically in this day and place, no family name is recorded for an individual. A person will be identified only by his given name and his father’s name, or patronymic: The daughter of Peter Jans might be Anna Peters or Anna Petersen, but she would not be Anna Jans. Peter Jans’s sisters and brothers could be Gretke Jans and Claas Jans; their father was Jan. But their father would not be Jan Jans, unless his father also was Jan. Typically he might be Jan Clasßen, or Jan Peters, or Jan Albertsen. Claß and Peterson and Alberts and Hinrichs are not family names here. They indicate only the name of the father of the person who is being discussed. “Bremers” is a distinct exception to this rule, as it appears across at least five generations of family history, as a family name, in addition to the expected patronymic.
There are also very traditional patterns for naming the first two sons and the first two daughters for their four grandparents. These patterns can be useful, especially when looking at a whole generation of grandchildren, for deducing names of grandparents. The traditional naming guidelines were applied very frequently, but exceptions also exist for many reasons. So names of the first four children can be considered useful hints or supportive evidence, but not proof by themselves of the names of previous generations.