You Got the Wrong Guy!
(Regarding the Other Claes de Wit)

A study in Sagen


Outside of the Esens area, there is another, significant mention of a Klaas De Witt that deserves to be included here. Claes Janßen, later known as Witt-Claess, whose children in North America went by the family name De Witt, appears to have been in Groß-Holum and Lütke Holum (or Ostbense), just north of Esens, from at least 1618 onward, and possibly as early as 1613 (or before). In 1618, at any rate, and again in 1622, he is fined for fighting; in 1626 he enters into a contract for farming in Groß-Holum.

But Claes and Jan are both common names in Germanic areas (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Frisia, Flanders). So are Claessen and Janßen—the patronymics that indicate who someone’s father was. In fact, in East Frisia before 1600, it’s a little unusual to see so few Jans and Claeses, and Janßens and Claessens.

So it comes as no surprise that there may have been other Claes Janßens in the area. There are a few. One, however, achieved notoriety that eclipsed any minor local reputation that Witt-Claes Janßen zu Esens may have had. True: Witt-Claes is, ultimately, the ancestor of more than one United States President. But for aiding the people among whom he lived, a different Klaas De Witt became more lastingly famous in Ostfriesland.

The story goes like this: Toward the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), an army of stormtroopers under the mercenary command of Count (Graf) Ernst von Mansfeld took up residence in Ostfriesland for about two years, from 1622-24. Mansfeld and his mercenaries switched allegiance according to convenience and whoever would pay the most. In East Frisia—where they were not fighting anyone, just waiting for the next employment opportunity—they pillaged and ransacked farms and villages, killing at random, inflicting huge suffering on a people who had remained independent and largely peaceful for the past thousand years or more.

Nobody invited Mansfeld, and nobody could make him leave. In church books from that time, many baptisms are recorded as “Soldaten Kind”: the mother had been raped by a soldier. Whole villages were burned down at the whim of a commanding officer, if they would not pay the tribute he demanded. The Mansfelders terrorized the populace and demolished the local farm economy, destroying the means of production—including killing the farmers themselves—and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down, from cows to horses to cheese to carts to firewood to food. There was no respite.

This is good context to understand when studying anything that happened in the area for at least the next couple of decades. The memory of those years did not burn away quickly; nor did the after-effects of losing a huge chunk of the population as well as houses and fields.

Dark times call for heroes, and into those shoes steps one Klaas De Witt, in a little town called Siegelsum, south of Marienhafe, north and west of Aurich.

Again I will emphasize: The documentary evidence makes this guy out to be someone different from the Witt-Claes Janßen who was the progenitor of a long line of DeWitts in North America. When all the following happened, Witt-Claes was already firmly established in the Esens area, some distance away.

But it’s still a good story, so onward:

In Siegelsum, at the time of the Thirty Years’ War, on a large farmstead, lived a guy named Klaas De Witt. He was a friend of beautiful horses. Once he had a magnificent steed, who obeyed him at his word. He was trained to get down on his knees, when Klaas told him to.

But at this time the Mansfelders were in the land, who seized farmers’ cattle and demanded tribute, both in money and possessions. The village of Siegelsum was told that on a certain day, they had to pay a large sum, and when they couldn’t do this, up came a group of soldiers, to take by force whatever was still available.

So, while everyone in the town cowered, Klaas De Witt swung onto his horse and rode toward the Mansfelders. By Vehnhusen (a town near a marsh) he met them, and suddenly right in front of them the snow-white horse fell to his knees in front of them, and Klaas De Witt begged in heart-stirring words for the soldiers to spare the little village. The kneeling animal made such an impression on the soldiers that they turned around and promised to leave Siegelsum alone.

There are multiple versions of this story, which has been retold over the years, but most of them agree on those points.

It’s worth noting that the town of Siegelsum lost about half its houses during the Mansfelder years, and the church was mostly destroyed; the organ was damaged so badly that the choir had to sing without accompaniment. So the story may be a bit of an exaggeration, or the Mansfelders may have felt that by destroying only half the village, they were doing everyone a favor.

Probably the most recently published version of this story comes from a book called Das Land um den Störtebekerturm, by Rudolf Folkerts and Jakob Raveling, published in 1977 by Druck und Verlag H. Soltau GmbH, Am Markt 21, 2980 Norden, Germany. The book is subtitled Geschichtliches und Bilder aus Marienhafe und dem Nordbrokmerland, and it is a wonderful collection (in German) of images and stories from Marienhafe and the area around it, showing something of history and daily life in the area: the canals, the farms, the villages, the little boats that ply the local waters.

(Störtebekerturm refers to the church tower in Marienhafe, which—legend has it—was a favored hiding place of the pirate Klaas Störtebeker when he was being hunted by the Hanseatic League, back around the year 1400. Störtebeker is to this day a bit of a local hero; the coast road that parallels the dike from Neßmersiel to Dornum is named for him. His story is also as exciting as you might guess, but it’s best saved for a different place.)

The Folkerts-Raveling version of the Klaas De Witt story is not attributed to a specific source, though the book does have a decent bibliography of further reading in the back:

Schon im 13. Jahrhundert hatte Siegelsum eine eigene Kirche. Der Unterhalt belastete die kleine Gemeinde aber wohl sehr. Auch der Pastor musste hier ein guter Bauer sein, wenn er über die Runden kommen wollte. Wenn dann, wie es 1623 durch die Mansfelder geschah, ihm noch zwei Milchkühe entführt wurden, ging es sicherlich auch im Pastorenhaushalt sehr ärmlich zu.

Die Mansfelder verlangten natürlich auch von Siegelsum ihren Tribut. Als die Siegelsumer nicht zahlen konnten, sollte der Ort gebrandschatzt werden. Dem Kommando der Mansfelder ritt der Siegelsumer Hofbesitzer Klaas de Witt auf einem Schimmel entgegen, dem er das Kunststück beigebracht hatte, auf Befehl niederzuknien. Davon waren der Anführer des Kommandos und seine Begleiter so gerührt, dass sie den herzbewegenden Worten von Klaas de Witt Gehör schenkten und dem Ort einen großen Teil der Schuldlast erließen. Dennoch finden wir im Verzeichnis des Amtes Aurich, dass nach dem Abzug der Mansfelder in Siegelsum acht Häuser niedergebrannt waren und zehn leer standen.

Der Kirche ging es nach der Mansfelder Zeit nicht sehr gut. Die kleine Orgel war "ganz zunichte gemacht" worden, der Schulmeister und Organist musste seiner Gemeinde vorsingen. Die Schäden an der Kirche selbst konnten wohl nicht dauerhaft behoben werden, so daß das Gebäude knapp zweihundert Jahre später, 1819, abgerissen werden musste.

As early as the 13th century, Siegelsum had its own church. Maintaining it put a strain on this tiny village. Here, even the pastor had to be a good farmer, if he wanted to make ends meet. If two of his cows were stolen, as happened in 1623 when the Mansfeld troops were in town, his home became very poor indeed.

The Mansfeld troops exacted their toll on Siegelsum. They threatened to burn the village down if Siegelsum didn't pay its tribute. The lead group of Mansfelders rode out to the house of a Siegelsum farmer named Klaas de Witt. He had a white horse, and he had taught it a trick, to kneel on command. At this the commandant of the troops was so impressed that he listened to the heart-stirring words of Mr. De Witt and lifted from the town most of the heavy burden of provisioning the troops.

We do find, however, that eight houses were burned down after the Mansfeld troops left, and ten were empty. The church, going back that far, was in sorry shape too. The little organ was completely destroyed, so the schoolmaster and organist had to sing to the congregation instead. Probably the damage could never really be fully repaired, which is why, 200 years later, the building was demolished.

The next most recent version of the story, also from recent years, is in Volume III of Ostfriesland: im Schutze des Deiches, published in 1969 by B. Davids Buchdruckerei, in Emden. Volumes I-IV of this series (later many more volumes were added) are part of a rich collection of local history books from Ostfriesland that also includes the Weinkaufsprotokolle transcriptions of Heyko Heyken.

Volume III is broken into three parts: The Plant World of the East Frisian Peninsula; The Wildlife of Ostfriesland; East Frisian Animal Husbandry. The third section, written by Johanna Köppe, is what it sounds like: a nicely organized discussion of what animals are used on farms in East Frisia and how they fit into the local economy and customs. (Horse lovers will already know the gorgeous black horses that have been known as Ostfriesens for decades if not centuries.)

In discussing animal husbandry in the area, Dr. Köppe (from Norden) includes a historical look at farming and the role of animals in local history. On Page 222 of the volume, she writes:

Zu der Freude an der Bewegung tritt die Aufmerksamkeit, Figuren zu erlernen und Hindernisse zu taxieren. Dank ihrer Gelehrsamkeit retteten sie einstmals sogar ein Dorf vor Unheil. Es ist die Sage von dem Schimmel Schneewittchen überliefert, der von seinem Herrn abgerichtet war, auf den Vorderbeinen zu knieen. Als die Mansfelder sich 1623, von Greetsiel kommend, Siegelsum in böser Absicht näherten, ritt Klaas de Witt ihnen auf diesem Pferd entgegen und bat den Anführer des Plünderungskommandos um Schonung. Dabei kniete Schneewittchen vor dem Hauptmann nieder. Der war so verwundert und gerührt, daß er Milde walten ließ. Die Vorliebe für Schimmel ist in dieser Gegend bis auf den heutigen Tag spürbar.

[Speaking of Ostfrisian horses, and training them:] To learn the joy of movement takes attention, to learn figures and how to size up obstacles. Thanks to their learning, they even once saved a village from harm. It is the legend handed down of the snow-white horse, who was trained by his master to kneel on his front legs. When the Mansfelders in 1623 rode up to Siegelsum with malicious intent, coming from Greetsiel, Klaas de Witt rode to meet them on that horse and asked the leader of the plundering band for mercy. This snow-white horse knelt before the Mansfelder captain. He was so surprised and touched that he was lenient. The preference for white horses can be seen in this area up to the present day.

Most helpfully, Dr. Köppe includes a citation showing at least one location where she found this story: Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten. Neu gesammelt von Wilhelmine Siefkes. 2., erw. Aufl. Aurich 1968, S. 202/203 (Frisian Legends and Mythical Stories. Newly collected by Wilhelmine Siefkes. Aurich 1968, pp. 202-203)

Both in Dr. Köppe’s text and in her footnote, the term Sage comes up. In English, it can be translated as legend, but it might be more descriptive to say folklore. The Sage is longer than a “saying” in English (though it can be used to explain the source of a saying like “A stitch in time saves nine”), shorter than a “saga” in the Scandinavian sense of a national story of epic length.

Legends originally in Latin were stories of saints’ lives (the literal meaning is a story that must be read), but in modern usage the word carries a connotation of an old wives’ tale, a story that tells well but may not have much truth in it. Undoubtedly this matches some Sagen exactly. But the Sagen also include stories that have at least a germ of truth or more. They are short stories, often with specific names and places in them, generally free-standing, stories of yesteryear, handed down over time, as lessons or to describe a character or just for entertainment.

Stories of Robin Hood or King Arthur’s knights could be classed as Sagen, as is the story of how the rich and unpious folk in Bense were punished with a flood by God; they had decorated all their homes with gold and finery, but not the church, and so they lost all their farms and fields, and their houses are underwater today. The flood is a true story; one can still find ruins of dwellings in the marshes outside the North Sea Dike. But the Sage developed as a cautionary tale to hand down to future generations.

Collections of such Sagen are a staple of local historical literature. Read with an understanding that they may not be 100% accurate, they contribute a strong dose of personality to a cultural history of a place.

In Ostfriesische Sagen (1963 edition, Verlag Ostfriesische Landschaft, Aurich; Satz und Druck: C.L. Mettcker & Söhne, Wittmund-Jever), we find on p. 209 a description of Siegelsum:

Auf der Meede standen einst große Ziegeleien, in denen wurden die Steine gebrannt, die man zum Bau der Kirchen in Marienhafe und anderen Dörfern des Broekmerlandes brauchte. Zu dem Zweck wurden weite Strecken des Kleilandes abgegraben. Als dann ein Ort entstand, nannte man ihn Siegelsum.

On the mead once stood large brickworks, where the stones were fired, the ones needed for the construction of churches in Marienhafe and other villages of Broekmerland. For the purpose of widening the streets the clay soil was dug up. For this a place was made, called Siegelsum.

And on p. 195 we find Wilhelmine Siefkes’ version of the Klaas De Witt story:

In Siegelsum wohnte zur Zeit des Dreißigjährigen Krieges auf einem großen Bauernplatz Klaas de Witt. Er war ein Freund von schönen Pferden. Einmal hatte er einen prächtigen Schimmel, der ihm aufs Wort gehorchte. Er kniete sogar nieder, wenn sein Herr es ihm befahl.

Nun aber waren die Mansfelder im Lande, die trieben den Leuten das Vieh weg und verlangten Abgaben an Geld und Gut. Das Dorf Siegelsum sollte bis zu einem gewissen Tage eine große Summe bezahlen, und als die Leute dazu nicht in der Lage waren, zog ein Kommando Soldaten heran, um mit Gewalt zu nehmen, was noch zu haben war.

Da schwang sich Klaas de Witt auf seinen Schimmel und ritt den Mansfeldern entgegen. Bei Vehnhusen traf er auf sie, und plötzlich sank das schneeweiße Pferd vor ihnen in die Knie, und Klaas de Witt bat in herzbewegenden Worten, sie möchten das Dorf doch verschonen. Das kniende Tier mache solchen Eindruck auf die Soldaten, daß sie umkehrten und die Bewohner Siegelsums künftig in Ruhe ließen.

(This German text is translated above as the first English retelling of the story on this page.)

Siefkes’ book is not presented as an academic study, but she still carefully provides her sources, for anyone who wishes to read further:

Arends, Fridrich: Erdbeschreibung des Fürstenhums Ostfriesland und des Harlingerlandes. Emden 1824 (Fr.A., E.) Seite 129

Weichelt, Dr. H[ermann].: Hannoversche Geschichten und Sagen. Lenz-Leipzig (Wei.) III Seite 74

Dr. Weichelt calls the story “Klaas de Witt auf Siegelsum in Ostfriesland” and credits it as “Sage von Fr. v. Harslo”; it is his story #227, from his Zwölftes Buch [12th book], which is in Volume III of his collection. The first edition of his collection had three volumes; his 1895 edition added a fourth. For more information, see

The Weichelt story is not quite but almost a word-for-word reprinting of the 1824 version collected by Fridrich Arends (below).

Dr. Phil. Hermann Weichelt: Hannoversche Geschichten und Sagen, Vol III p. 74:

227. Klaas de Witt auf Siegelsum in Ostfriesland. Eine Sage.

Zur Zeit des dreißigjährigen Krieges war Klaas de Witt Besitzer eines adligen Gutes in Siegelsum. Er hatte ein schneeweißes Pferd so abgerichtet, daß es auf Befehl niederkniete. Einst als die Gemeinde die ihr von den Mansfeldern auferlegte Brandschatzung zur bestimmten Zeit nicht bezahlte, rückte ein Commando zur Execution heran, de Witt ritt ihm aus seinem Schneewittchen entgegen, bei Vehnhusen traf er aus dasselbe; der Gaul siel dem Anführer zu Füßen. Die Truppen wurden gerührt bei dem unerwarteten Fußfall, die Beredtsamkeit des Ritters stimmte sie noch milder, sie zogen augenblicklich zurück und erließen sogar der Gemeinde einen Theil der Contribution.
Fr. von Harslo.

At the time of the Thirty Years War the farmer Klaas de Witt was owner of a noble property in Siegelsum. He had a snow-white horse trained so that it knelt down on command. Once when the village had not paid the duty imposed by the Mansfelders at the appointed time, a band of soldiers were advancing to enforce the tax; de Witt rode toward them on his snow-white horse, and in Vehnhusen he met them; the horse fell at the feet of the leader. The troops were stirred by the unexpected prostration, and they agreed the eloquence of the rider was even more pleasant, so they retreated instantly and even returned to the community a part of the contribution.

It is worth noting that by the time we get to the 1824 version of the story told by Fridrich Arends in Erdbeschreibung des Fürstenhums Ostfriesland und des Harlingerlandes, we are looking at a text that was written at a time 200 years after the events in question. Its accuracy might be compared to the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River.

The original text, in somewhat broken Fraktur, can be found in libraries, or a facsimile edition can be ordered on demand; the following text comes from the Ulan Press edition, which is a photoreproduction of the New York Public Library copy numbered 588553B, dated 1951, from the Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. This reproduction was printed on December 31, 2013, but identical copies can be printed on demand when ordered. The text is on the page numbered 129 in the original edition.

Zur Zeit des 30jährigen Kriege war ein Klaas de Witt Besitzer des Guts; die Einwohner erzahlen noch eine artige Anekdote von diesem Herrn. Er hatte ein schneeweißes Pferd so abgerichtet, das es auf Befehl niederkniete; einst als die Commune die ihr von den Mansfeldern auferlegte Brandschatzung zur bestimmten Zeit nicht bezahlt, rückte ein Commando zur Execution heran, de Witt ritt ihr auf seinem schneeweißen Pferde entgegen, bei Vehnhusen traf er aus dasselbe; der Gaul siel dem Anführer zu Füßen. Die Truppen wurden gerührt bei dem unerwarteten Anblick, die Beredsamkeit des Ritters stimmte sie noch milder, sie zogen augenblicklich zurück, e[r]ließen sogar der Gemeine einen Theil der Contribution.

At the time of the Thirty Years’ War a Klaas de Witt was owner of some property; the inhabitants still tell a similar anecdote about this gentleman. He had a snow-white horse trained so that it knelt down on command; once when the community had not paid the duty imposed by the Mansfeld pillagers at the appointed time, a band of soldiers were advancing to enforce the tax; de Witt rode to meet them on his snow-white horse, and in Vehnhusen he met them; the horse fell at the feet of the leader. The troops were stirred by the unexpected sight, and they agreed the eloquence of the rider was even more pleasant, so they retreated instantly, even returned to the congregation a part of the contribution.

The lead character is always Klaas, never Claes or Claus or Nicolas or anything else. From that and some other details that are repeated in multiple versions, down to certain phrases (or whole sentences), it appears that each author had read at least some of the previous texts.

Nor does Klaas ever have a patronymic, or any other family: We don’t know who his father was, or his wife or children. It is at least interesting, though, that from the very earliest version of this story, the name has a distinctly Dutch ring to it, in a Frisian-German environment.

Without knowing more, I might hazard a guess that the original versions of this story were in Dutch. The Dutch had a presence in this part of the East Frisian peninsula for many years at this point in history, and it would be perfectly sensible for a Dutch-Frisian chronicler to keep track of various episodes of the Mansfelder occupation. Such an account, written in Dutch, could well have been the source for the earliest German-language historian to transcribe the account.

At the time of the Mansfelder occupation, in the early 1600s, spelling of names across this entire region was arbitrary and inconsistent; the same person’s name might be spelled a half-dozen different ways in different records, depending on who was listening and who was writing. So the simple fact that the name in printed sources remains the same from 1824 to the 1970s does not necessarily reflect how the person himself might have spelled his name or what language he spoke at home.

The trope of an animal that saves a city is hardly original here; in Esens, for example, a similar story is told about a circus bear that saved the city. Without knowing more about sources, it is hard to determine how much of this fable is based on an actual event (though it has the scent of a story taken from real life), and how many of the details—the rider’s name, the color of the horse, the location of the incident—are accurate. It must be taken at face value, with the understanding that it may never be corroborated.

The story is a good one, and it gets more elaborate as the original episode recedes further back in time. This is not the Claes Johanßen I have been hunting for, but it’s delightful to see the wiles of the local Ostfrieslanders as they endured and occasionally resisted the relentless plunder of the Mansfelders.


Heyko Heyken, Die Weinkaufsprotokolle des Amtes Esens, Upstalsboom-Gesellschaft, Aurich [Germany], 1998.

Interpretation, insight, and translation come courtesy of Kay L. Blass (klblaas at, who further acknowledges the interpretation and insight of Wiard Hinrichs.

For some further notes and records about Tiarck, see Ruth Menssen’s excellent and comprehensive site at

More valuable information on Ostfriesland, Harlingerland, and the Esens area in this period (including some church and tax records) can also be found at

Last Modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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