A FAMILY MEMOIR OF PIONEERING ON THE AMERICAN PRAIRIE
1838, Westerende, Ostfriesland, Hannover, Germany
She was like one of the sparks flying upwards from the bonfire, weightless, rising into the night sky, mesmerized by the sound of strings and drums, by the beating of clogs on bare earth. Strands of hair had escaped from under her mop cap, competing with the flaring brilliance of the firelight. Around her other girls danced with their young men. Older men lounged against walls or on benches, mugs in hand, talking of the affairs of the day, of Victoria who had inherited Hannover and, thus, Ostfriesland. Salic law, everyone was saying, made her rule illegal. A woman emperor? Impossible. “It can’t last,” they agreed. “The Hannoverians will choose a new king.”
So I imagine that May Day of 1838 in the village of Westerende, west of Aurich, on the edge of the North Sea. The beer flowed, the music worked its magic around the village May Pole—a tall Birch profusely and profanely decorated with green branches and paper flowers. On Sunday the people would trail soberly into church. But on this one night of the year they whirled and stomped and celebrated the coming of spring and the renewed fertility of earth and its creatures. Urges suppressed for 364 days surfaced. There was a reason that the mid-wife had to rush from house to house in February.
Ickka Eilerts would be seventeen in a month, and it’s likely she could cavort with the best of them. Her nubile and muscular flesh sat comfortably on a straight back and long, strong legs capable of carrying her through the entire night of festivities. Hair with red highlights, parchment white skin, and blue eyes contrasted with the deep blues and dark browns of the surrounding night, creating a portrait worthy of a Flemish painter—a van Dyck or Rubens.
Was boat captain Jann Gerdes Buss of Ludwigsdorf, a hamlet a bit more than a mile away, one of her partners that May Day? It’s possible. In fact he may have spent quite a bit of time in Westerende given the proximity of the village’s moorings—a widened place on the big canal connecting Aurich with the port of Emden—to his home. Plus, he probably had relatives among Ickka’s neighbors.
Even so, to expect marriage between someone like Jann and a girl like Ickka would have been a stretch.
Jann, while still a working man, owned his own boat plus several parcels of land. He had excellent prospects, and at twenty-six was very likely more than a bit full of himself having never known want or hardship, having been the youngest child in a prosperous, loving home and probably denied very little. In short he was a real marital catch, turning the heads of village girls and their mothers as he sailed Ostfriesland’s canal highways.
In sharp contrast, Ickka’s father was firmly settled near the bottom of the Friesen social structure, a place of no particular expectations but at the same time of no shame. It was a status he shared with the majority of Ostfriesens. “That which doesn’t kill you, strengthens you,” might have been his motto. Gerd Eilerts was a survivor from a long line of survivors.
Family histories refer to Gerd as a warfman and a colonist. To be a warfman meant to own a small holding (probably an acre or less) and a house. As a colonist, he hired out to earn a living, probably doing a bit of farming, peat cutting, land draining—all the hard, physical labor of the time and place. In a good year he would earn enough to feed and clothe his family. In a bad year?
No matter. In a Europe with still a decade or more to go before the dragging skirts of feudalism would disappear, Gerd Eilerts would have considered himself a free man, not a serf or peasant. He was not bound to someone else’s land but owned his own. In principle, he lived where he wanted, moved where he would, and had a say in local matters. The hard reality, though, was that a man’s economic situation governed what he could and could not do. Overpopulation, land scarcity and a subsistence economy imposed its own reality, dividing the people into classes which for the most part kept those at the bottom locked in a cycle of near penury. While they could move about physically, seeking work where they could find it, there was barely more hope for them of social mobility than there was for a serf in the Rhineland who was permanently tied to his master’s land and service.
In the months after that May Day, Jann left no record of having Ickka on his mind. He definitely did have other concerns.
All was not well at home. His parents were both in their sixties, and his mother was declining. As the youngest of Gerd Berens Hinrichs Buss and Elsche Catharina Janssen Flesner’s five children, Jann was the last at home, but all of his siblings lived within an hour’s walk of Ludwigsdorf. Both daughters had been given their dowries and dwelled with their in-laws. Hinrichs, the oldest son, had his own farm near Ihlowerfehn with a wife who’d borne him nine children. Weert had recently moved with his new wife, Ahrendji, to a small farm.
For a few more months lucky Jann could always plead the demands of business to duck helping his father. He could stroll whistling to his boat’s moorings and sail away, leaving his parents and his problems behind. In September 1838, though, with Elsche Catharina terminally ill the situation came to a head.
Perhaps as part of a deal to secure their own care, the old folks turned over their house and about three acres to Jann and Weert. A month later, Mother Elsche Catharina died, and Weert and Ahrendji returned to the family home. Presumably, the idea was that Ahrendji would care for both her father-in-law and the household.
This arrangement lasted no more than three months. Immediately after the Christmas season of 1838, Jann bought Weert’s share of their final bit of patrimony. Weert and a pregnant Ahrendji immediately moved out of the ancestral home, returning to their own little farm, leaving Jann the sole owner of a comfortable and relatively new house and its acreage in addition to his boat and other holdings. He also had the sole care of his father.
Now, someone had to build the fires and keep them burning. There were meals to prepare, water to carry, linen to wash and dry, rooms to be cleaned, and a myriad of other essential daily chores.
How to manage when Jann’s primary source of income kept him moving around the country, often away from home for days at a time?
His obvious solution was to marry. Yet, Jann still showed no signs of proposing. At least not to Ickka.
Possibly he expected his sister, Gesche, who lived almost next door, to step in and manage the household. And he may have had good reason to think she would. Gesche (who would eventually come to America with Jann) had lived at home and cared for their parents and her brothers until she was twenty-six. Then she accepted the offer of a 34-year-old from nearby Ihlowerfehn. Gerd Franken.
Theirs was an uneven situation—a match between an old maid with a good dowry and a poor boy. Gerd Franken was a day laborer who barely earned enough to feed his elderly parents (both in their seventies). How would he ever support an expanding family? But he was available, and Gesche faced the fast-arriving day when her brothers would bring home wives who would supplant her position of authority in the Buss home. For his part, Gerd needed a caregiver. And, there was Gesche’s dowry to consider.
They married and, once the ceremony was over, the newlyweds and the older Frankens settled in Ludwigsdorf, likely into a house the bride’s father provided as part of her dowry. Likely, too, Gerd Franken was kept employed by one or the other of the Buss males.
Thus, Gesche was nearby and beholden to her family. But in this New Year’s season she had her own troubles—had just buried her father-in-law, was encumbered with a grieving mother-in-law, had a husband, a toddler, and a nursing infant, and was endlessly busy feeding and clothing all of her charges on the poor wages her husband earned.
It takes no imagination to hear what she would’ve had to say to her baby brother if he’d solicited her unpaid help. A disbelieving, “You want what … ? Are you out of your pea-sized, spoiled little mind!” Or words or looks to that effect. His elder sister with a large family of her own would’ve given him even shorter shift.
It’s probable, therefore, that Jann ended up hiring a village woman to make meals and clean for his father. And, there—one way or the other—he was. Paying for work that a wife, if he only had one, would do for the price of her food. Plus, a wife could be expected to do so much more. That’s if all he wanted was the usual combination of household drudge, breeding machine, and farm worker. If so, he could’ve married immediately and saved himself fourteen months of coping. No. Jann seems to have been looking for something more.
We know he was uncomfortably situated between social classes, a not uncommon place to be when societal mores are in flux. And, Jann clearly had expectations. How not? He had spent a lifetime traveling—first with his father, then on his own. He’d met and done business with men from the world over, giving him knowledge and a touch of sophistication foreign to the average prosperous village lad. Yet, his book learning was rudimentary; his language skills undeveloped—he spoke the Plattdeutsch of his people. His Hochdeutsch (spoken by the church and business communities) would have been accented. His French, the lingua franca of the upper classes, was probably at a survival level as was his English. And the biggest impediments to his upward social mobility? He had no inherited status and worked with his hands.
Even considering these negatives, Jann would’ve passed many pleasant and educational hours dealing with prosperous merchants of Emden and Aurich. He’d likely been inside their homes and exposed to the comforts and luxuries of the well-to-do. More relevant, he’d met their daughters. Had he dined and danced with these fashionably dressed young ladies with their perfumes from Paris and their fabrics from the Orient? Had he formed an attachment to one of them or to the dowry one of them would bring? Did he see himself married to a woman of accomplishment, happy presiding over a table set with linen and silver?