When Willem and Sygje arrived in Pella that fall of 1847, it must have been a shock. There were few houses available and winter was coming. I have no idea where they lived that first year, but I am making a guess that it was hardly the clean dry surroundings they were used to. There is a wonderful book called Iowa Letters: Dutch Immigrants on the American Frontier by Johan Stellingwerff. It’s a slow read (not a cover to cover thriller) but it is translations of letters from immigrants to their families in Holland and from those families to the immigrants. It was amazing to read about the variety of experiences different people within the same group had, and to also to find out that not everyone stayed. The letters help you grasp the enormity of the struggles, the political and religious problems within the community, and the simple joy of a letter from home. I loved reading the parts about day-to-day life and the things that the immigrants asked their families to send or bring with them when they came.
No doubt those early years were a struggle for Willem and Sygje as they broke the land and built a home. I’m not sure where the young couple stood in the religious politics that played out in the community. They were married by Henry P Scholte, Justice of the Peace, and I also noticed that the first four of their children were all baptized on the same day, 26 March 1859, two months before youngest son Jan is born. I found no baptism record for Jan in the First Reformed Church of Pella. This does not seem to indicate regular church attendance.
Willem and Sygje appear on the 1850 census with daughter Jantje.1 The cool thing about the 1850 census in Pella is that all the Dutch women used their maiden names. When I first saw this record I thought Willem and Sygje were not married and just living together. Later I learned that the Dutch women had always used their maiden names on their government records in the Netherlands and they did so here on that first census. Willem is a laborer on this census as are Pieter and Peter. This meant they did not own a farm, as owners in this location are listed as farmers. Older brother Pieter and his family are next door to Willem and Sygje and they appear on the bottom of the previous page.
1. 1850 U.S. census, Marion County, Iowa population schedule, Lake Prairie, p. 289, dwelling 141, family 146, Willem Burggraaf; digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 9 Jul 2009); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M432, roll 187.