Friday, August 6, 2010

Family Roots in Prairie Soil

After spending several days at the North American Prairie Conference, I started to journal early yesterday morning about everything I'd learned, sort of a way to encapsulate all of the varied information I'd been hearing. Suddenly I had one of those "aha!" moments - although not necessarily a pleasant one: I realized that my immigrant ancestors had been among those who broke Iowa's prairie for agriculture.

So yesterday, instead of coming home right after the conference, I took a side trip to Pella, Iowa, to learn a little bit more about this nexus of time, place and individuals in my family history. Here is what I learned....

Koonraad DeJong was the next to youngest child in a large family in Holland. He was born in 1802 and, because of the death of his fiancee when he was young, didn't marry until he was 38.

According to a family history written in 1934, Koonraad was "fiery" with an idealistic temperament, advanced views and a keen mind. He was "firm in his convictions," a large, heavily built man with a magnetic personality and a fearless and outspoken manner.

He was reportedly educated for the ministry but wasn't ordained "because he was out of sympathy with the reactionary element of the Dutch Reformed Church". (A little research leads me to understand that the king was liberalizing the state church in Holland, which those of a more Calvinistic bent deplored.) Koonraad became a lay minister and reformer, leading eventually to his imprisonment for holding secret religious meetings. He was ransomed after 6 weeks, but after that he became set upon emigrating to America.

Koonraad and his wife Wilhelmina, with their 3 young children, joined in a large group of Dutch settlers under the leadership of Dominie Henry Peter Scholte, many of whom were emigrating because of their desire to worship freely in the manner they deemed appropriate. They left Schoonhoven, Holland, on April 7, 1847, sailing from Rotterdam to the U.S. on the Nagasaki, one of four ships used to transport the group of about 800 settlers.

During the oceanic voyage, all 4 ships hit a huge storm. None of the ships were lost, but apparently a few lives were. Koonraad and Wilhelmina's one year old daughter Tryntje died on the voyage; their son Pieter was born on the same voyage. Gerrit, their second son and my ancestor, was 4, and made the voyage safely. According to the ship's manifest, Koonraad and Wilhelmina and their children traveled steerage. "Religious work and political controversy," listed by the author of the aforementioned family record as Koenraad's work in Holland, evidently didn't pay enough for more commodious quarters.

The Nagasaki landed in Baltimore on June 10, 1847. It took several weeks for all 4 ships to reach Baltimore. Once Scholte's entire group had all gathered in Baltimore, they traveled by rail to Columbia, Pennsylvania and then by canal boats on to Pittsburg. From Pittsburg they traveled on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to either Keokuk, Iowa (family archive) or St. Louis (accounts of Scholte's group's travel in other records). Again they regrouped, then traveled over the unbroken prairies by covered wagon to the site they called Pella, meaning "city of refuge."

Once they reached Pella, Koonraad and Wilhelmina had 6 more children.

The family history states that, around 1858, Koonraad and his younger brother Adrian purchased a farm together near Pella. They supposedly built homes for their families side by side, but the farm was lost "several years" later. I didn't have time to search the land records to find out exactly where this was, so there's more research to do at a later time.

Koonraad died suddenly at age 63 years, 10 months. He is buried in the rich prairie soil of Iowa.

I was able to locate the cemetery where he and Wilhelmina are buried: Graceland Cemetery, north of Pella. It's not a very big cemetery, so I was successful (at least partially) in locating their graves. Unfortunately but not unusually, there has been vandalism over the years at the cemetery. I did not find Wilhelmina's gravestone, but I did find Koonraad's. It was broken off and leaning against a nearby marker for someone else.

Seeing Koonraad's broken marker and being unable to find Wilhelmina's, I was left feeling a little unsettled, but I'm still very glad that I found their final resting place. Maybe we can get a group together and put up a set of new markers for them someday.

Several years after Koonraad's death, several of his children, including son Gerrit, joined the group settling Orange City, Iowa. So there's another Iowa community to explore for the next chapter in the story.

Did Koonraad actually break out any prairie? I have no idea. He was old for a settler - 45 when he first arrived in Pella - but his occupation was listed as farmer and he had a large family to provide for, so I have to assume that he did. Maybe that's why I feel so drawn to the idea of prairie restoration. The sins of the fathers...?

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