East Friesen Migration to Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois is home to many different ethnic groups, but few people know of the importance of the East Friesens or even who they are. East Friesens, or Ostfriesens, are a Germanic people akin to the Angles and Saxons. Ostfriesland is located in northwestern Germany on the North Sea coast. Most of these northern Germans immigrated to America in the mid to late nineteenth century because of a lack of good land. They brought their culture with them and faced several problems along the way.
The first Ostfriesens that immigrated to the Midwest settled in Stephenson and Ogle counties in Illinois. Arend J. Arends came with his family and four others in 1847 to the area just north of the city of Oregon in Ogle County. They started the Ostfriesen settlement in Illinois. More Ostfriesens followed, looking for cheap land, settling between Oregon and Byron in the area that is now known as German Valley.
Indeed, the land was cheap. Arends bought eighty acres for only $1.25 per acre. As more Ostfriesens came to German Valley, they wrote back to Germany, telling of a beautiful land full of opportunities. In these letters "it was pointed out that the little people, the craftsmen and wage earners, would have the opportunity in America to work their way up and become land owners," according to one historian. Many Ostfriesens in Germany were poverty stricken and without land because of overcrowding and unemployment. Gottfried Duden's book, Report of a Journey to the Western States of North America, describes his life on a farm in Missouri. However, he neglected to mention the hardships of life on the frontier, while only emphasizing the rich soil and bountiful crops of the land. Many Germans read his book about this "Promised Land" and were greatly enthused.
While some were trying to leave over-populated Germany, others wished to escape military conscription. Still others, affected by the thinking of the Enlightenment, wished to pursue happiness and success in this land of paradise.
Several obstacles had to be overcome before an Ostfriesen could sail to America. First of all, law required all emigrants to hold an exit visa before leaving the country. Most families who were seeking to leave were poor and could not purchase passage for the whole family. They often sent a son to America to start a farm or business, and in the following years he sent back money to pay for their passage as well. Other families sold all their land and possessions, only saving what they could carry in their baggage. One of the biggest obstacles was saying good-bye to friends and family whom they would never see again. One problem Ostfriesens from the countryside faced was that of being swindled. Outrageous prices were sometimes charged, and criminals often sold fake boarding passes to non-existent ships.
Sailing on a ship to America was dirty and crowded. According to Maldwyn A. Jones, "The result, as a witness commented, was 'that men, women and children [lay] in one promiscuous heap,' stretching the whole length of the ship." In the 1860s a law was passed requiring separate compartments for men and women. Seasickness, heightened by storms and waves, accompanied the whole voyage.
Ships arrived at either New York or New Orleans. From New York a train was taken via Chicago to reach the final destination. From New Orleans immigrants took a riverboat upstream and a wagon to their final destination. Upon reaching America, the language barrier instantly sprang up. Many Ostfriesens were not fluent in English. When they reached German Valley or other
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Ostfriesen settlements they were immediately greeted by others who spoke German and helped them learn local customs. Work was easy to find. Men were hired as hands and women as maids. After a short time, they had enough money to buy several acres and some livestock or to open their own shops.
Ostfriesens influenced the area they settled in many different ways, the foremost of which is religion. In the German Valley area, most were of the Reformed faith, but Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists also came to the area. They had strong faith in God, resulting in lower crime rates and divorce rates. They also believed in community support, but this led to suspicion and neglect of outsiders. Coming from Friesland (Land of the Free) Ostfriesens placed a high value on their freedom in running their own lives. Robert W. Frizzell wrote that, "they are not easily ordered into things they do not wish to do." Children were taught in church schools and public schools and only those wanting to be a minister went any farther than high school.
In 1851 the Ostfriesens brought their religion to German Valley, creating the Silver Creek Reformed Church. This church changed denomination from Dutch Reformed Church to the True Holland Reformed Church in America, which later became the Christian Reformed Church in America. After several families settled the area, they started worrying that no church services were being held. With the help of a Bible salesman, Jan Van der Las, they were able to organize a church. At first, only laymen and traveling ministers preached because of the shortage of pastors on the frontier. Other Reformed churches were built in Forreston, Oregon, and the Ridott Township. All these churches remain active today along with a Baptist church and a Presbyterian church in Baileyville and Forreston, respectively.
Many Ostfriesens in Illinois were discriminated against, especially during World War I, because of their German heritage. Anti-Germans threw buckets of paint on their doors and law officials overreacted, afraid that the settlers might be anti-American. That was not the case at all. Many young Ostfriesen boys fought for America in the war. The same ones who left Germany out of fear of conscription were drafted into the American military, and they served faithfully.
Schooling was considered important up to eighth grade, unless a young man wanted to go into ministry. Then he finished high school and attended a church-supported college. Other young men and women were expected to help on the farm. It was considered a waste of time to learn information that was never used when they could be working a plow or cooking lunch. Parents were also afraid that if their children attended public high schools, they would be more likely to marry outsiders, non-Friesens.
This group of immigrants may not be the largest or best known, but its members contributed very much to the development of northern Illinois. Ostfriesens brought with them a faith that still exists and in which they strongly believe today. Many people in Ogle and Stephenson Counties are descendants today. Ostfriesen influence will continue to be seen, whether or not they are remembered by the public.—[From Robert H. Behrens, We Will Go to a New Land; Robert W. Frizzell, "Reticent Germans: The East Frisians of Illinois", Illinois Historical Journal, (1992); Maldwyn A. Jones, Destination America; George Schnuker, The East Friesens in America.]
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