Letters From Germany
When you’ve been researching your family ancestry for many years, the big discoveries don’t seem to come quite so fast as you continue the search. But recently I experienced one of the “golden events” that was, to me, monumental.
Shortly after our visit to Germany a few years ago, we learned about some letters written by my great-grandfather Johann Schwans (1848-1936) to Eilert Eilers in Bokel (now called Vreschen-Bokel.) The letters spanned the years 1881-1919 and had only recently been donated to a museum in Cloppenburg.
Jens Delger, a great friend and genealogist who grew up in the parish of Apen (of which Vreschen-Bokel is part), was able to obtain a copy of the letters and papers. Recently, Jens and his wife Jane visited us and brought the papers. What a treasure!
Jens was able to read the handwriting and, with Jane’s assistance, translated the letters for me. Can I say it was thrilling to know the content and see a copy of my great-grandfather’s writing? Truly a “golden event!”
A little background: Johann Schwaans/John Schwans came to the USA in 1881 and lived for about three years in Grundy County, Iowa. He had owned a piece of land in Vreschen Bokel, Germany and leased it an Eilert Eilers. We have not discovered a relationship between the two families. John homesteaded in Aurora County, Dakota Territory, near White Lake. He lived there until the late 1880s and then moved to rural Bridgewater, South Dakota.
The content of the letters revealed some of the day-to-day events of his life:
- In 1881 John bought three cows and 10 pigs and will rent machinery. He also plans to buy horses.
- In 1883 John went to the White Lake area of Dakota territory to look at available land and commented “it looks like Ostfriesland.” Probably he meant the land was very flat.
- In 1883 John wrote to Eilert Eilers to send money (probably rent money) because he needs it to buy machinery to plow
- In 1883 John mentions owning some land in Grundy County, Iowa. (I intend to research land records at the courthouse to see if I can identify the land.)
- in 1884/85 John mentions losing 55 chickens in the winter but no cattle were lost
- in 1885 he comments he is glad not to have to borrow money from a bank in Dakota Territory. (I think he did not personally like the banker.)
- John Schwans sold the land in Germany in 1885 to Eilert Eilers.
Included in the packet of papers is a form showing that John Schwans’ step-daughter gave up her inheritance rights to the farm in Germany. She passed these “rights” to John Schwans.
Most of the content of the letters is business related. We surmised that Eilert Eilers bought the land and paid for it over a period of years, similar to buying land on a contract.
John doesn’t say anything about his family except in one letter he states the weights of his children:
Lena weights a 150 pounds, Fred 125 pounds, and John 105 pounds. Did he do this to show his children were strong and healthy?
He also states there are wonderful opportunities in American if a person is willing to “work hard.”
One letter written in 1890 includes more details and we think was written by Johanna (Schwans) Huisman since she states how many children her two sisters, Anna (Schwans) Gossel and Lena (Schwans) Snyder have. She says she has three girls, the oldest six and the youngest six months. By the process of elimination based on census records, we’ve identified the writer as Johanna.
There was a bit more material on the Schwans family in the letters but that is a topic for another post!