An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 23, 2003 - Issue 94
Reminiscences of a Pioneer
Reminiscences of a Pioneer Missionary By Rev. Chrysostom Verwyst
Wisconsin Historical Society Founded 1849
The State Historical Society of Wisconsin
Separate No. 173 - From the Proceedings of the Society for 1916
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)
was born November 23, 1841 in the land of windmills, dikes, and wooden
shoes, in Uden, a town of North Brabant, Holland. My parents migrated
to the United States in 1848, and of my life in Holland I remember almost
occasion of our removal to the United States was as follows: Rev. Theodore
Van den Broek [Note: Rev. Theodore J. Van de Broek, after officiating
for the whites at Green Bay from 1834 to 1837, established in the latter
year his mission for the Menominee at Little Chute on Fox River. The Indians
built a wigwam for him and then a log church twenty-two by thirty feet,
roofed with bark. Later the church was covered with boards, and about
1844 a schoolhouse was built. After the removal of the Menominee to their
reservation in Shawano County, the mission buildings were used by the
whites. See letters of the Father Van den Broek in Wisconsin Historical
Collections, XIV, 192, 196-205.], a Dominican priest, had come from Holland
to this country in 1832 and had resided for a time in a house of his order,
St. Rose, near Springfield, Washington County, Kentucky. In 1834 he removed
to Green Bay where a brother Dominican, Father Mazzuchelli [Note: For
a sketch of Father Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli see ibid., 155-61. His Memoir
(Chicago, 1915) has been translated and published in book form.], had
been working among the whites and the Indians. Thereafter the two Fathers
labored along the shores of Green Bay, sometimes separately, sometimes
together. Father Van den Broek was stationed at Little Chute and along
the upper Fox River until his death at Little Chute in 1851. In 1847 he
returned to Holland on some family mission, and his description of the
cheap and good lands to be had in Wisconsin induced many of the people
of North Brabant, among them my father, to migrate thither. Accompanied
by Father Van den Broek and by Father Goddard, a Franciscan, they set
sail in three ships [Note: The three ships were named, respectively, Mary
Magdalena, Liberia, and American.], two of which landed at New York and
the third at Boston.
the latter ship my father had embarked. We were fifty-five days on the
ocean but the voyage was a prosperous one and none of the passengers died
at sea. On reaching America Father Van den Broek returned to the scene
of his labors at Little Chute, while Father Goddard went with a number
of his countrymen to Hollandtown, Brown County. This settlement was originally
called "Franciscus Bush" [Note: The settlement is still known
as Franciscus Bosch.] in honor of the patron saint of the church.
On the arrival of our ship at Boston most of our fellow passengers went
immediately to the West, but our family and another by the name of Verkampen
were obliged, through lack of means to travel farther, to stay in Boston.
It was in the month of May and we therefore made our living at first by
going into the woods, to Dorchester and other places near Roxbury, and
picking blueberries, blackberries, and huckleberries, and cutting watercress.
after our arrival a laughable adventure happened to our neighbor, Verkampen.
Rooms had been engaged for the two families together, the Verkampens occupying
those in front of the building and our family those in the rear. One night
the owner came with a German boy who acted as interpreter and told Verkampen
we would have to vacate the premises immediately. When Verkampen at length
comprehended the demand thus made upon him he seized an ax and made for
the proprietor with the intention of scaring him away. The latter promptly
beat a hasty retreat, but shortly afterwards Verkampen was arrested and
lodged in jail. His poor wife was disconsolate. "Scarcely in America
and my man in jail," she lamented. Verkampen, however, urged her
not to feel worried. He was getting plenty to eat, more than he had ever
enjoyed in Holland, and was living, he wrote, "like a prince in a
A few days after his arrest many of the townsmen celebrated the Fourth of July by imbibing too freely of liquor, and as a result were landed in jail. Verkampen, who had a bottomless stomach, ate not only his own rations but also those of the drunken fellows incarcerated with him. For the first time in all his life, probably, he enjoyed a full meal. A day or two after the Fourth the prisoners were brought to trial. Verkampen, who was defended by a German lawyer, was dismissed since it was shown that the owner of the building had had no right to attempt to eject us in the middle of the night and that Verkampen had intended only to scare him away and not to kill him.
soon removed to East Boston where my Father and my oldest brother engaged
in the cooper trade. About the year 1850 we moved to Roxbury where they
obtained employment in a rope factory. I have omitted to mention, I find,
that prior to 1850 Father and my two brothers, Martin and John, went to
Vermont to work on a railroad, and there John died. Thereupon my Father
and my brother Martin returned to Boston or East Boston. We two boys --
both of us still alive (1916)--attended the German Catholic school in
in the early spring of 1855, our family migrated to Wisconsin. We left
Boston in pleasant spring weather but when the train reached Rutland,
Vermont, the same evening it was snowing and when we arrived at Albany
it was raining. In the depot at Albany there was posted in a conspicuous
place a large placard warning travelers against "thieves, pickpockets,
and confidence men." The notice appeared somewhat strange to us but
to our cost we found out that it was not uncalled for. Father engaged
a man to convey our baggage to another depot, paying him in advance. When
we arrived at the depot he refused to surrender our belongings unless
we again paid him. In vain Father protested. Finally, he appealed to a
policeman, and that worthy representative of law and order declared that
Father had had no right to prepay the baggage man; so he was compelled
to pay the bill a second time.
Albany we went by way of Niagara Falls, where we passed over into Canada,
to Detroit. The train moved very slowly, and it took us many days -- how
many I do not now remember -- to reach Chicago. That city left a decidedly
dismal impression on my boyish mind. It certainly did not look neat and
clean like Boston. From Chicago we took a steamboat, which brought us
to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Here mother and we two boys tarried for over
a week while Father and my oldest brother started out in quest of land.
Finally, they returned and we hired a conveyance to bring us and our baggage
to Fond du Lac. On the way a man ran against our wagon; the two drivers
became very angry, each blaming the other for the collision, and nearly
came to blows. We dined at Green Bush [Note: Greenbush is a town in western
Sheboygan County. The first cabin was built there in 1844; the village
platted in 1848, and became a station on the plank road between Sheboygan
and Fond du Lac.] and arrived late that evening at Fond du Lac.
The next morning we took a small steamer on Lake Winnebago, which brought
us to Menasha. From there we took a wagon and through mud, stones, and
deep holes on the road we finally came to Hollandtown in Brown County.
Father bought sixty acres of land from a man named Stephen Fink, and we started to erect a cabin of unhewn logs, the neighbors helping at the raising. The house had no floor but there was a wretched wooden chimney, which at times smoked fearfully. I cold weather the occupants would be too warm in front while their backs were almost freezing. Luckily for us we carried a floor about with us in the shape of wooden shoes made of poplar. My brother, Cornelius, and myself worked hard all winter with Father cutting down hardwood and other trees and chopping them into logs about sixteen feet long. We tacked a piece of old cloth to our wooden shoes and tied strings together around our legs below the knees to prevent the snow from falling into our shoes. In this way we kept our feet dry and warm, better in fact, than we could have done with leather boots.
In the spring father would split fence rails, at which work we boys faithfully assisted him. After the clearing had been fenced, having neither horses nor oxen to plow the ground, we made potato hills and planted corn and potatoes, doing the work with heavy grub hoes. There was a clearing of about seven acres when we bought the land of which one-half was meadowland. We had to work like beavers all the year round and our only leisure was on Sunday afternoons, when we were allowed to visit the neighbor boys. At the end of four years of such toil we had thirty acres cleared, on which we raised wheat, rye, barley, potatoes, beans, and other vegetables.
In Hollandtown, where a stately brick church now stands, prior to 1855 a small church had been built. A priest used to visit our settlement about once a month, the good man being obliged to walk all the way from Little Chute, a distance of about fifteen miles, over most horrible roads. Every Sunday we had religious services. As the church had neither steeple nor bell the blowing of a horn announced the time for religious services. An old man named Van der Hey used to give out the prayers and read a short sermon. The men and boys sat on one side of the church and the women and girls on the other. The women used to wear those queer Holland-fashioned dresses and some had gold earnings. Nearly all of them came to church in their wooden shoes. A man named Verhulst was doorkeeper and woe to the luckless canine that happened to get into the church. Verhulst would grab him in his giant hands and drag him out of the church, the poor dog howling loudly. Once outdoors Verhulst would swing the dog in a circle and hit him against the church, the animal meanwhile is howling for mercy. When finally released the unfortunate dog would take care to avoid the vicinity of the church in future. Of course such proceedings did not serve to increase the gravity and attentive devotion of the youngsters.
Whenever the Father came from Little Chute there was always a great rush to get to him first to make one's confession. I think if any of our non-Catholic people had been present on such an occasion and had seen how we fairly raced to get to the priest first, they would have concluded that confession after all is not so difficult an ordeal as some of those outside the church have imagined it to be.
I will now give the names of some of the people I recall who were at Hollandtown and its vicinity in the period from 1855 to 1860: Van den Berg, Verkuilen, Kobussen, Verhulst, Van den Loop, Ballard, Beach, Fink, Eittings, Verkamp, Van der Jagt, Loftus, Curtin, Malloy, Glachine, Sievers, Kersten, Rolf, Kordsmeier, de Bruin, School, Hoevenaar, Tillemans, Van Aerts, Hintermeister; besides these there were many others whose names I cannot now remember.
My countrymen used to have an occasional jollification. There was, for instance, the carnival entertainment just before Lenten fast. After mass was over they would betake themselves to the home of Mr. Van den Berg. The house was a large building for those primitive days, and there they would dance -- the younger generation, of course -- all day till sundown, when all would go home. Night dancing was never carried on, and I believe the present generation religiously follows this custom of their grandparents; that is, they dance only during the day, and every decent woman and girl is supposed to be at home before dark.
Our people also had a guild, that is, a certain kind of society at the head of which were a king and a queen for the year. On an appointed day all the members would meet at the chosen rendezvous to shoot down the wooden bird, made every tough material, placed at the top of a high pole like a flagstaff. Sometimes it took much shooting to bring down the last piece of the wooden bird, whereupon the lucky marksman would be proclaimed king, with the privilege of choosing a queen and getting a large silver heart made which he was to wear during the year as a token of his royal dignity. Of course innocent day dancing and other jollification were indulged in by the younger generation on this great day.
Occasionally we heard of a fight, or of some poor fellow becoming tipsy, but nothing more serious than that occurred. There was universal good will among all and towards all. Our neighbors lived the simple life of hardworking, religious, God-fearing people. From time to time they gathered on Sunday afternoon at the house of some neighbor, where the men played cards and took an occasional drink from a jug of liquor; the women, meantime, sipped their tea or coffee and chatted over household affairs and current news; while the boys found amusement in innocent games. Such entertainments fostered friendly neighborly feelings and promoted good will in the community. Indeed, in the four years I spent on the farm from 1855--60 I do not recall a single instance of a man or woman being arrested for disorderly conduct.
At house raisings and marriage feasts there would be some liquor consumed and all kinds of fun indulged in, but all with a neighborly feeling and not for the mere indulgence of drinking. When I recall my boyhood days in Wisconsin sixty or more years ago, I feel a certain regret that they are gone, never to return. It seems to me that people are now becoming too civilized, and their life is too artificial and filled with too much sham.
In those days bears, deer, raccoons, and wild pigeons abounded. In some years pigeons could be seen on the ground and in the air by millions, but alas! Man's greed has exterminated these wild pigeons. Year by year they become scarcer until now I believe there is not a single one in the whole length and breadth of the United States We have exterminated the pigeon as we have exterminated the buffalo, and as we are fast exterminating the deer, elk, whitefish, and lake trout. The white man's philosophy seems to be summed up in Mark Twain's observation when told that we should provide for posterity: "Provide for posterity! Do something for posterity! What has posterity done for us?" In those days bears were plentiful and occasionally they paid unwelcome visits to the farmers' cornfields and pigpens. They were fond of pork and would often catch a squealing pig and make away with him to the woods to enjoy a hearty meal.
One day -- it was on a Sunday and the people had all gone to church -- a big bear invaded the precincts of Mrs. Van der Heide of Hollandtown. Hearing the squeals of one of her pigs, Mrs. Van der Heide rushed out of the house and saw a bear trying to carry one of them away. The animal was attempting to pull the struggling porker over a rail fence. In this he failed, however, for Mrs. Van der Heide, forgetting all fear, grabbed the hind feet of the pig and pulled with might and main while the bear, growling fiercely on the other side of the fence, did likewise. It was a pitched battle between the undaunted woman and the bear for the ownership of the pig, but at length the woman won. She told her little boy to take a stick and hit the bear on his hind legs. The bear growled fiercely but had to give up. Mrs. Van der Heide save pig, but the animal had to be butchered as it was so badly lacerated by the teeth of the bear. Everyone wondered at the courage of the woman and that the bear did not attack her. Let her name be immortalized in the annals of Wisconsin!
Occasionally an Indian would pay us a visit, although I never saw one in the village itself. The neighbors advised us not to give them anything when they came to beg for something to eat, for if we once gave them food they would come again and again. I considered their well-meant advice heartless. Mother, too, pitied the poor people when they would come asking for something to eat. I remember perfectly one occasion when she gave a hungry Indian a whole loaf of bread. He asked for a knife and cut off a slice two or more inches thick to eat immediately.
One time the Father in Little Chute had several guests at table, among them an Indian. When the meat was passed to the latter he emptied the whole dish into his bag thinking that it now belonged to him. The other guests were not particularly pleased with the procedure, but the thing was done, and they had to make out their dinner as best they could.
Another time mother had made some homemade beer, which consisted of hops, water, and molasses boiled in the wash boiler. This time the brew proved to be a failure. We had some neighbors as guests on Sunday afternoon, and some of this homemade product was served them, but very little of it was drunk for it was fearfully bitter. An Indian happened to come along, and mother offered him some of it, but after taking some of it in his mouth he spat it out. Mother afterwards threw away the remainder of the beer. Next day I was working, planting or hoeing potatoes near a creek that ran through our land. Suddenly I heard mother screaming at the top of her voice, I ran up to the house to see what was the matter. On reaching it I found four Indians on horseback who said they had come to drink beer of which their comrade -- the Indian of yesterday -- had told them. We explained to them that we had thrown it all away because it was not good. Father, who was working near by for a neighbor, hearing mother's loud call came running with pitchfork intent on defending his wife and children, but luckily he was not needed, the Indians laughing good-naturedly at the poor man's simplicity in thinking to fight four Indians with a pitchfork.
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