America is known as a country made up of immigrants, and many of us are the descendants of those immigrants. One question many of us ask today is - where did our ancestors immigrate from?
This is the continuing story of the Essenburg family who immigrated from a small village in the province of Gelderland, the Netherlands, to America in 1868. A few of the family members also immigrated from nearby towns like Harderwijk, a very old city founded on the sea coast of the Zuiderzee, which was a walled city established in 1231.
A genealogy and history of the Essenburg family was published in 1980 as a 660-page book titled A Castle in the Trees, co-authored by my brother, Richard W. Essenburg and Dr. G.J. Westerink, an ancestor from the Netherlands. A copy of this book can be found in the reference room of the Herrick Public Library in Holland and also the Gary Byker Memorial Library in Hudsonville. For this story, I will be using some of the information from the family histories that are recorded in this book.
Another question many of us ask is why they would leave these old established towns in the Netherlands to settle in the primitive forests of Michigan?
By the 1850’s, 27% of the population in these areas were living on government assistance. Unemployment was at an all-time high. When a new house was to be built, there were 20 unemployed carpenters bidding against each other for the work. Many young couples found themselves living in dire poverty, unable to find work to support their families. Some folks had already left for America and many others were discussing immigration as well.
The story begins with the first recorded Essenburg family member – Jacob Janse, born 11/9/1736. This would be generation I, and his son Jan Jacobs Essenburg would be generation II. But I would like to focus on generation III, which begins with the family of my great-great-grandfather Jan Jansen Essenburg, who was born in 1806 in Harderwijk, the Netherlands. He and his wife had a family of 10 children. They, and eight of their children, many of whom were living on the grounds of the Essenburg Castle (see Part I of this story), immigrated to the United States in the late 1860’s. They came by 6 different trips over a period of 5 years.
The transportation across the Atlantic Ocean was better than that experienced by immigrants even twenty years earlier. The ships were now powered by steam instead of sails and wind. The voyage now took only 16 days. There were still three classes of travel on a ship – the first-class and second-class cabins, and then the steerage area located below the deck.
Ship owners could make a lot of money by crowding passengers into this area at prices that were reduced from first class tickets. What passengers did not know was that sometimes the living conditions down there were terrible. Often ships that could accommodate 100 passengers in cabins would have five times that amount or up to 500 people below deck.
The area was often poorly ventilated. Passengers would build large bunks to sleep on or many would sleep on the floor. There were toilet rooms with no privacy. Often buckets were used as toilets which were emptied overboard. Water was scarce and food was of poor quality.
Immigrants who were used to high standards of cleanliness were packed in with others who smelled like their wells must have run dry long before they boarded the ship! And then there was the problem of getting seasick. About all the people could do was eat, sleep and talk about better days ahead. For some, it was a blessing to travel in groups of family, friends, and neighbors on this journey.
From Grand Haven they took a boat to Holland. The VanHeuvelens then rented a log cabin located 1.5 miles west of Borculo, on Port Sheldon Road, in 1867. A son was born the next year in their one-room cabin, which had 2 doors and 2 windows (their son, Bernard VanHeuvelen, later became a minister in the Reformed Church of America, serving congregations in the Dakotas).
That year they received some bad news that the farm and its log cabin had been sold and they would no longer have a place to live. They did not know where to go.
The family that bought the property was the Berend Kuyers family. Being concerned that the young family renting the cabin would be homeless, they came up with this solution: divide the cabin in half with a heavy curtain, so both families could live in the cabin until a new home could be found for the Van Heuvelens. Soon Gerrit VanHeuvelen found 20 acres of heavily wooded property located nearby, which he purchased and then built a log cabin of his own. He lived in this log cabin until 1882 when he replaced it with a wood frame home.
In 1889 he sold this farm and moved to a larger farm in Thule, South Dakota, near the North Dakota border, probably because of the cheaper land there. One big advantage of this prairie land was that it did not have to be cleared of all of the trees, like in Michigan; the disadvantage was that there was very little lumber to build houses and other buildings. The people in the community were actually worshiping in a sod church!
Later that year in 1868 the parents, Jan Jansen and his wife and three more children (Teunis, Jannes, and Jacob) settled in the city of Holland. They were living there during the great fire of October 9, 1871.
By this time, the city of Holland had grown from 40 persons in 1847 to 2,400 residents in 1871. The entire towns’ buildings were almost all built of wood. Weather conditions on this date were extremely dry. Some fires had already started Sunday afternoon, October 8, but were thought to be extinguished. Early Monday morning, from 1:00am to 3:00am, two-thirds of the city was reduced to ashes. The entire business district, comprised of 75 shops and offices, was destroyed. Five of the cities’ 7 churches were also destroyed. And 200 of the 300 homes were destroyed by the fire. Most of the buildings were not insured.
The Essenburg family oral history also includes the story of their fighting the fires on that early Monday morning. A few days later, one of the family members bought a now vacant lot, covered in ashes. At the same time of the Holland fire, the city of Chicago also burned, incurring 200 million dollars in damages and the loss of 250 lives.
Back to the story of the Essenburgs as they immigrated to America. The 5th child of Jan Jansen Essenburg, Jan, left in 1873. The 6th child, Lubbertje, married to Reint Franken, left in 1884, and they eventually settled in Holton Township, near Fremont, MI.
The 4th group to immigrate to Michigan, in 1869, included my great-grandfather Gerrit Essenburg, his wife and 2 children, of which the oldest son Roelof was my grandfather. They settled in Allegan County in a village called Oakland, which is near Drenthe. My grandfather Roelof was 2 years old at the time and he grew up on a 40-acre farm, eventually with 8 younger siblings.
When my grandfather finished the fourth reader at school, he was ready to be hired out, at the age of 14, to work on a farm nearby on a one-year contract. He worked on a couple of different farms for the next four years until he was 18 and was able to work for himself.
At the age of 18 in 1885, my grandfather heard they were hiring young men to work at the Moeke sawmill located in Borculo, MI, which had been in operation since 1883.
Two of my grandfather’s brothers moved to Borculo to get a job at the sawmill there as well: John (b. 1868) and Gerrit (b. 1878). John continued working there until the mill closed in 1905 and moved to Zeeland. At that time, he and his family moved up North and settled on a farm in Atwood, MI. Gerrit married Katie Steigenga (1881 – 1873) and settled on a farm in Borculo. They had 11 children: Dina (Geurink), Jacob, Ella (VandenBosch), Gerrit, Maria (Elenbaas), Roelof, Emma (Driesenga), Grace (Vollink), Herman, John, and Jessie (Mast).