Wednesday, December 12, 2012


The first written record concerning my mother’s father’s side of our family, in 1556 in Europe—probably 99 years before a descendant came to North America—is from a tax they paid for a dike protecting farmland in the area from the storm floods of the North Sea.

Gates like these were set into dikes to allow inland streams to flow out, during calm weather. When storm floods threatened, the gates were shut.

The record shows that we owned (under the name “Bremer”) 80 Diemat: about 112 acres, or 45 hectares.

We paid 60 Taler in tax. A Reichstaler back then was a gold coin. In 1573, a milk cow cost 16 Taler. The “Taler” (pronounced “taller”) is the basis for the original U.S. “Dollar.”

* * *
The next written record we have of our family is of our farm’s losses in the big All Saints Flood of November 1, 1570, which drenched farmland for hundreds of miles around:

  • 2 one-year-old steers
  • 1 sheep
  • 8 hogs

  • 20 cows
  • 4 pair oxen
  • 3 pair two-year-old steers
  • 13 one-year-old steers
  • 5 horses
  • 2 foals
  • 2 hogs
  • 7 sheep

On our farm, no homes were washed away (“wechgedreven”) or people drowned (“verdrenckt”). Some farms nearby did worse, some better. Up and down the North Sea Coast, the flood inundated hundreds of miles of coastline. Probably 20,000 people drowned in this single event.

The dike had to be rebuilt, and many sections were rebuilt several hundred feet back from where the old dike had been, so roads and farmland were lost. Because of the sandy soil in that area, a lot of the new dike was rebuilt with wood reinforcements, a very expensive dike-building method.

We continued paying dike taxes for several generations on that farm.

This is the signature of the father of my ancestor who came to New Amsterdam around 1655. It says “Clas Janßen wegen Benser Vogedei”: Clas Janßen, representing the Benser district. Clas was on the local dike committee, and the document, from February 23, 1635, details deterioration in the dikes protecting local farms, and the repairs needed.

Clas appears to have been intelligent, stubborn, and passionate: His name shows up more often than it probably should have in the records of people fined for fighting, and a local nobleman mentioned him by name, in Latin, in a memoir for Clas’s role in usurping the nobleman’s father’s role in dike maintenance.

* * *

Another huge flood came less than 100 years later, in February 1651. The seas pounded hard enough to split one coastal island in two, and to sink half of another.

A few years later, my ancestors left for the New World, where they could stop worrying about flooded farmland and start thinking instead about when the Indians were going to attack. Two brothers and two sisters moved to Wiltwyck—where Kingston, New York, is today—and three sisters stayed home. One of the sisters who stayed home kept the farm and left it to her son. To this day, Google Earth shows a farmhouse still standing right where an old map shows the family’s house and barn were in 1670.

My ancestor who came to North America, the son of the dike keeper, followed in his father’s footsteps. He was fined for fighting, and for a quarrel he had with a carpenter and his wife (he didn’t exactly call her a witch, but he observed when she was swimming that were she not a witch, she surely would have drowned*); he was fined by the Dutch for keeping company with Lutherans and beaten by the British for refusing to observe Christmas according to their calendar. He also went on to serve on the local council for many years; he read and wrote, raised a large family and was involved in all kinds of commerce, from horse trading to part ownership of a few boats on the Hudson.

But when I read about a storm and a flood in modern times, my mind goes back to the Old World floods before the North Sea dikes were strong enough to hold them out, and my Bremer ancestors who struggled against the rising waters, in times when a big storm hitting the coast could mean thousands of human lives lost, and countless animals.

My mother and my brother standing on the modern North Sea Dike, in the Netherlands, near a statue commemorating the workers who built it.

*In the end, the court was not able to come to a conclusive determination on whether the carpenter’s wife was or was not a witch, but the members of the court encouraged the local populace to strive to get along anyhow.