Ostfriesland 1998

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Inspiration: A search for family roots

My mother was born a DeWitt. The family has always considered itself Dutch.

My mother's Aunt Mary, after considerable genealogical research, traced the family to Tjerck Claeszen de With, who immigrated to Manhattan in the 1600s, married Barber Andrieszen (elsewhere listed as the daughter of Andries Luycazsen and Jannetje Sebyns(en), of Amsterdam; their family name is apparently unknown) and moved up to the area around Kingston, New York.

Tjerck (more frequently called Tjerck Claessen DeWitt in genealogical records) raised a large family, which stayed in the area for many generations. (My grandfather DeWitt was born in Oradell, New Jersey; his father was born not far from Kingston.) I've assembled some of my genealogy, including more about DeWitts, on my home site, where you can check out my family tree index for genealogical info, and my page on Tjerck for specifics on him.

My mother has been doing a lot of research too, shoring up her aunt's findings with further research, documenting connections, and adding information in directions Aunt Mary didn't research.

There has been a rumor in the family for years that we were somehow related to Jan and Cornelius DeWitt, brothers who were lynched in Amsterdam in the 17th century. (The Alexandre Dumas novel The Black Tulip describes their unpleasant fate in its first chapters.) An old wax seal was supposed to tie us to those DeWitts.

The name DeWitt is as common in the Netherlands as Smith is in English countries. We might be from a completely different branch of the family. (The connection to Jan and Cornelius, on further inspection, looks suspicious, but that's a different story--and nothing has been determined for sure.)

I was planning to travel overseas in late summer 1998 anyhow, and I said to Mom, "If you'll tell me where Tjerck came from, I'll go there and see what information I can find about his family." Maybe we'd find out we were connected with Jan and Cornelius. Maybe we wouldn't.

Well, here's the problem: Tjerck's geographical origin is a little hard to trace. In the Manhattan Dutch Reformed Church's "Trouw Boeck," or wedding registry (see links below), he is listed as being "van Grootholt in Zúnderlant." There's nowhere today (or just about nowhere) called Grootholt. That's no big surprise--lots of little towns vanish over time. But there's also no clear sign of where Zúnderlant was.

Now we had a whole different quest: Where did we come from? Never mind who our relations were; first we'd have to find out where Tjerck got on the boat, and where he grew up (to find any meaningful records linking him to further family).

As far as I can find, nobody has traced the ancestry of Tjerck Claessen DeWitt beyond the shores of North America. Other DeWitts in America have done a fair amount of speculation on the topic (see links page), but no firm conclusions have been reached. After considerable reading and thinking, I decided to try a spot in northern Germany and see what I could come up with. There were a number of promising leads in Ostfriesland (East Frisia), and I wanted to run them to ground before I tried somewhere else.

The end of the story so far is that the story's not over yet. I did find some tantalizing bits of evidence, but there still are no conclusions.

Why I picked Ostfriesland:

    1) Tjerck had what seems to have been a sister in North America (he witnessed the baptisms of some of her kids, and there are other suggestions that they were brother and sister). In her official records, she said she was from Esens. Esens is in Ostfriesland.

    2) Tjerck inherited land in a place called "Oosterbemis." Not far from Esens in Ostfriesland is a place called Ostbense. On old maps this is marked "Oosterbeus." Same place?

    3) There's a place near Esens and Ostbense called Großholum. Could this be a modern name for Grootholt?

    4) Ostfriesland was settled and administered by the Dutch in the 1600s, so it would make sense that a person with a Dutch family name might come from there.

There are arguments for other places too (particularly down by Essen, also in Germany), but I liked the feel of the clues up by Ostfriesland, so off I went.

Much of my research was done on the Web, or can be duplicated on the Web. There are Web-based resources for information on both DeWitts and Ostfriesland. I have added links to a few of these resources to this site (see links page), and I hope to add more links over time.

What I learned:

I did learn while I was in Esens that Tjerck and Claessen are both typical names from the area, to this day--not just Frisian names, or even East Frisian names, but popular names right there in the Esens area. I also saw some interesting genealogical papers in the Esens church and a nearby museum, but more on those later.

I also learned that Großholum seems to have been the name for that place as long as there have been maps (or in fact church records). The Dutch called it Grootholum; there's a Kleineholum nearby. But it was never a -holt. (Holt means wood or forest, and since much of the area in the 1600s was covered in water or had recently been, it's unlikely there was much woodland around--right then, right there. There are other contenders.) For a peek at some ancient maps of the area, have a look at my maps collection.

What's in this site:

Here, then, are some of the photos I took while I was over there, plus a discussion of what I saw and learned, and some links to other useful information. If you're looking for information on where Tjerck Claessen DeWitt came from, I hope you find this useful in some way. There's always more to put here, so let me know if there's something in particular you're looking for, and I'll try to help.

  1. Esens
  2. Ostbense
  3. Leer
  4. Tjerck's marriage record (photographs by Mary Sarah DeWitt Bradley)
  5. What I Found
  6. Some other links
  7. Where I flew in from (the first part of my trip)

Enjoy what's here, and come back later for more.

--Doug Bradley (mrjumbo@aol.com)

From my apartment window after I got home again.

I can't believe I got through that whole trip and came home without a single picture of a windmill.

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