Sixteen years ago, Mike Dirksen, long-time Angwin resident, began exploring his family's early American origins. Mike is a retired schoolteacher and principal, computer whiz, airplane pilot. His father was a highly regarded school administrator. His grandfather was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. His great grandfather, Abraham, was one of the Mennonites from the Ukraine who immigrated to America. Abraham was one of the founders in 1877 of a Mennonite community called Brotherfield (Bruderfeld) in South Dakota.
Mike became curious
about the genealogy of the Dirksen family and his research became a serious hobby. He created a website: Dakota Dirksens (www.dakotadirksens.com
) which has become a go-to source for anyone whose Mennonite ancestors settled in the Dakotas.
After following his own family ancestry, Mike turned his attention to the whole Brotherfield community. In the process, he learned much more about the people who tilled the virgin prairie, endured blizzards and swarms of crop-eating locust, celebrated weddings and kept their dead in frozen barns until the ground thawed sufficiently to bury them.
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They were farmers looking for the cheap land America promised. Crowded into the hold of the S. S. Vaderland with its total of 800 immigrants, they arrived in Philadelphia on July 28, 1876. The next morning found them boarding an "Immigrant Train" to South Dakota. They rode to where the rails ended, in the Dakota Indian Territory. (This was only a few days after the Lakotas had wiped out Custer's army in the Black Hills).
Over the next few years, 33 immigrant families carved out farms in Brotherfield. Their Dutch Mennonite names included Dirksen, Buller, Reiswig, Ewert, Falk, Guenther, Heinrichs, Isaac, Loewen, Neufeld, Peters, Richert, Schmidt, Schafer, Toews, Unruh, Voth, Wall and Wedel.
Some of these names appear in the Angwin Telephone Book.
Bound by commonalities modern society has almost forgotten, their Mennonite community was shattered when, in l885, a Seventh-day Adventist German-speaking evangelist, Louis R. Conradi, came to preach his faith in the "Present Truth". Fully half were converted to Adventism. Both faiths shared deep common roots, but the fracturing of the tightly bound community was a traumatic event.
* * *
Mike's ancestors cast their lot with the Adventists. His grandfather would become a dedicated minister, building or rebuilding 25 churches all over the Midwest. He spoke Plauttdietsch (Low German) language while reaching out to the thousands of Germans flooding Middle America.
The Brotherfield Adventist component migrated northward and founded New Home, ND. Over time, some of their descendents drifted westward to Shafter, California, creating the German SDA church there. Dirksen has discovered the first church membership book, 1915, with names of all the founders. To a genealogist, finding this tattered book is like tapping into the mother lode. It is priceless.
The list includes the names of several Angwin families, who share the same journey as the Dirksens - from the Netherlands, to Russia, to Dakota Territory, to California. Stop one of these old-timers in the College Market and ask him to say something in German. And yes, he will.
* * *
Because of the division of Brotherfield into both Mennonite and Adventist components, Mike turned to history sources in both churches. Steadily he has built a collection of sources, documents and immigrant pioneer photographs, pertinent to the genealogy of many Russian Mennonite immigrants and early German-speaking Adventists in North and South Dakota.
Mike's Dakota Dirksens website draws almost 1,000 visitors a month. His knowledge of this unique once-upon-a time community has helped amateur genealogists around the world to weave the tapestry of their ancestral story.
A few days ago, Mike reports, he found a satellite image of his great grandfather's farm in the Mennonite community in Russia. These breakthrough discoveries are what keep him in a state of high excitement.
Although the Brotherfield community has disappeared from South Dakota, the immigrant families who settled there in the dim past are a present reality for Mike. Their courage and endurance have given him a new and deeper appreciation of those who survived hard times and whose descendants have carried the family name to many American places.
Even to Angwin, up here on Howell Mountain.