Letter 4

Letters From America

Date (sent): 22 January 1868
Writer: Jan Hendrik te Selle, Hanna Berendina Onnink
Place: Holland, Wisconsin
Addressee: Friends, parents, brothers, and sisters
Address (sent to): Fökkink farm, Winterswijk, NL
Date (received): 11 February 1869


Jan Hendrik te Selle wrote this first letter in early 1868, about three years after arriving from the Netherlands. He says, "it has been a long time since we have written," implying that there may have been other letters from America, which were not preserved.

Jan Hendrik is thinking about making a move further west, where "the land is better and cheaper." He is reluctant, however, because "in those areas are still savages."

Jan Hendrik covers many topics in this letter, including the following:

  • ownership, rental, and cost of various farm parcels
  • abundant, fertile, free land out west available under the Homestead Act
  • weather report and crop prices
  • a request to brother Derk Willem to send a spinning wheel from Holland
  • the livestock report, including the loss of a valuable horse and cow
  • a discussion about local property taxes and the local church
  • a hint of homesickness, saying "the more letters the better."

January 22, 1868

Very dear friends, parents, brothers and sisters with your wives and children, etc.,

At this time I take up the pen to write a few letters to you. It has been a long time since we have written. Up to now we are all in good health, our household and all the relatives. Drikka[1. Drikka: Hendrika, an unknown person…] has been with us for half the time until now. A week ago she left and went to a daughter of Heurneman’s at the Wooldsche school[2. Wooldsche school = Elementary school in the hamlet Het Woold (See map of Winterswijk, Holland)] who wanted her real bad.

We have now less land than we had. We had rented some extra 15 “schepelzaad”[3. Schepelzaad: “Schepel” (a bushel) is:
a. An old measure of volume, originally one quarter hectoliter and therefore it differed per region; on introducing the metric system it was fixed on a standard of 10 liters.
b. An old land measure; in the Dutch provinces of Drenthe and Gelderland also called “schepelgezaai” and “schepelzaad” (a bushel’s sowing) indicating the area of land that can be sown with one bushel of rye; e.g. the Gelderland schepel equals 1450 m², whereas the Drenthe schepel measures 833 m².
c. Therefore, Jan Hendrik rented 15 times 1450 m² = 21,750 m² = 5.37 acres. 1 American acre = 4050 m²]. But that land was sold and its owner went to a new region where the land was better and cheaper. But in those areas are still savages, otherwise we would also like to go there and sell our land here. We can get three hundred dollars more than when we bought it. The land is now twice as expensive as when we first came here. It costs now 50 dollars per acre, whereas in those days it was 25 to 30 dollars. At that time the wheat cost two dollars and today only one, and therefore the buying is getting more difficult, otherwise we would like you to get here as well, but at this time you would be ill-advised to do so. But I think that in due time we will also go to a new region if only brother Harmen Jan would sell his land. He has (already) sold 30 acres and has got 70 left. But we will first investigate the land there.

The land out there is still to be had for free, but people have to stay on it for 5 years before they are allowed to sell. The reason for that is to attract people to the area, so that the entire country will be populated. The land that is already populated there costs 5 dollars per acre. It is prairieland which can be ploughed right away. That ground must first be broken up with 4 horses or 4 oxen. The soil is said to be like your peat: black tough soil way down below where the lumps are turfed out. And once it has been broken, it is much less compact than the clay here, which is so dry and hard this year that many people here do their farming with 3 horses.

There has been very little rain this year. It is dry all the time. At times the sky looked like it was going to rain, but it was driven away in no time. The water is low, but the crops are reasonably good. We have a hundred and twenty-eight bushels of wheat, 90 bushels of peas, 15 bushels of oats. We have not yet harvested the buckwheat. However, we do have no less than a hundred bushel Turkish wheat (people here say “corn”) which is fed to the pigs and the cattle. The white climbing beans are expensive, they cost 5 dollars. The peas are 2 dollars per bushel. The rye is also more expensive than the wheat and the cattle is also cheaper than last year. It is a difference of one fourth. W. Wassink is working Korschot’s land which we have rented for him. I was at Korschot’s place when we received the letter. From it I gathered that Willem wanted to come on what he had written to Oonk.

Then I said to him, “you can now reserve it for him; he refers to it, because you have written so”. “Yes”, said mother Berendina[4. Mrs. Hanna Berendina te Selle-Onnink, wife of Jan Hendrik te Selle. “Berendienemoeije” means, in fact, in the dialect of Winterswijk: “Aunt Berendiena”…..] “he will have, otherwise he would not have written that.” Afterwards there came more people who wanted to have it. In spring we thought we had also got a big farm.

It was a 200 acre plot and we wanted to rent it. The man who lived there had also rented it. He was a Zeelander[5. Zeelander: Somebody from the Dutch province of Zeeland], who wanted to buy some land in Michigan near his relatives. The Bloemers heard this and Uncle came to tell us about it and he advised us to make inquiries. It belongs to an Englishman and he is a nice person to have for a landlord.

So we went there and he promised that if the man left, the place would be ours all for the third[6. “all for the third”: meaning they had to pay in terms of a third of the proceeds of the land] of everything and I had to bring him this, but he wanted to pay for bringing it to him and he also paid for everything I improved. I was very pleased with this. And the man went on a trip to Michigan, but found the land too expensive there, so he stayed on the farm. Hence we could not get it and so we stayed where we were. I had rather have something bigger and sell ours or rent it out.

I have yet another request to you Derk Willem from the widow Roerdink of the Veenderhuisken who lives quite close to us. She would like to have a spinning wheel from Holland. Would you be so kind as to send her one through some person. This person can get the money for the wheel and the freight from me or from her; and for all your trouble have those who will bring it here pay you. It should be a single wheel, without this arm, but with two manuals and four spools. Nothing but wool is spun here in this country.

We have 4 sheep, one Maycalf and a 2-yearling calf, two cows, two 4½ year-old oxen, one horse, two hogs. We butchered three hogs, two old ones and a piglet[7. Meipogge: piglet born in the month of May], and also one sheep. We kept it all for ourselves, so we and the children have a joint each. So you can imagine that we do not lack for food.

However, as for the cattle we have had a lot of hard luck: during the haying-time our horse died or rather was trampled by cattle. This horse turned one at Easter. I had the horse in Sikkink’s pasture, since he had more pasture than I. And I rented him the horse to pasture. The horse was with the cattle all the time, but the cattle got annoyed with him. But it had a meek nature and yet it was swift to run and I thought it could look after himself. Here the animals are outside day and night. Eventually he had not been seen for two days. Sikkink then went to look for the horse and found him dead. His neighbours came to tell me that my horse was dead and I felt very sad about it, because it was such a beautiful horse that everyone who saw him and did not know, would say to Sikkink: “What a beautiful horse you have got there.” And now in the fall our best cow died. So we suffered a hundred dollar loss. The cow had bloated so much that its tongue hung from its mouth as she fell and died. Our neighbour came to tell me about it. The cow was on the road behind his barn, where she had been taken to pasture. And only half an hour before Drikke had milked her and had not noticed anything wrong. But we must eat anyway. It will just take one more year to get out of debt and to get the land free and all paid for. This fall I earned 35 dollars in two days with my oxen (in a period of 10½ days).

The eight of us had taken a job of filling a hole in the road for 280 dollars. We read in the paper here that in Kotten south of Winterswijk an epileptic five-year-old child had fallen into the fire because of which the entire house burnt down. Whether it is true or not, it is your own fault you will say, but I wish we could get together for a chat twice, 3 or 4 times a year. I would prefer that to writing.

This winter the weather is mild. There has been no keen frost and there is very little snow, so that we often have to use the wagons. Otherwise we would ride in the sleigh, which is much pleasanter and much easier as well, as the sleigh can slide with a heavier load. Butter is now 25 cents. Three weeks ago it was 35 cents. A dozen eggs costs 20 cents, bacon is eleven cents, ham is 18 cents a pound. Two thousand pounds (called a ton here) of hay are 14 dollars, potatoes 75 cents a bushel, rye 90 cents a bushel, buckwheat 1 dollar twenty cents a bushel. But buck­wheat is the worst here. If it is good it is a boom, otherwise it is worth nothing. It stands in full bloom in the worst heat. If it can stand that, it is a boom. If not, it is not worth anything. We have some buckwheat that is good and we had two acres of it worth nothing. It was not even worth the labour. We had 8 bushels of seed. Had it turned out right, we would have had buckwheat.

We have to come up with 60 dollars tax. Four dollars and 91 cents land tax and two dollars 45 cents for cattle and agricultural implements.­ That money is used for schoolmasters, bridges, etc. around here. We live close to the school and three quarters of an hour away from the church, where we have a good preacher. We also have church on Tuesday and Thursday and once a week cathechism for the young ones. Four times a week this preacher makes house calls home by home for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Our congregation consists of 46 households. And we must support the preacher ourselves, as he is under contract for $ 600. For this we pay 4 dollars. I do not know what to write any further, but I do hope you will not do as I did and wait so long to write back. The more letters the better. I had rather receive a letter than write one. I send our hearty greetings to one and all of you and please give my regards to Jonker and Einink.

J.H. te Selle H.B. Onnink