In June, Mathias Brimeyer and his family, early pioneers in Dubuque, were the topic of this column. This month, another pioneer — a young teenage girl didn’t want to come to America — takes center stage.
Maria Elizabeth Korte, known as Eliza, spent her childhood in Lower Saxony, in what is now the second-largest state in Germany. In 1836, however, Lower Saxony was part of the Kingdom of Hanover.
Eliza’s mother, Anna Marie, had died. Her father, Jurgen, had come from a rich family, but the money was gone. Now the family was in dire straits.
Jurgen made the decision to send 16-year-old Eliza, the oldest of his six children, and her 14-year-old brother Heinrich to America. He promised to follow later with the rest of the children.
In October 1836, the Korte family made the 80-mile trip from their home in Hanover to Bremen, a major port city in northern Germany. Eliza and Heinrich waved to their father and siblings from the deck of a ship called Pennykin as it embarked on its Atlantic ocean voyage, bound for New Orleans.
“All I could think of was no one would be there to meet us,” she wrote in her journal. “I wouldn’t know one soul. We didn’t know English or French and how would tomorrow end? I prayed. God alone can judge. Only God can make sense of this.”
Eliza found work as a laundress with a family in New Orleans, earning 25 cents per day. Heinrich worked in the stables for room and board.
Eliza and Heinrich (who was calling himself Henry) moved to St. Louis in 1842, when they were 22 and 20 years old, respectively.
While Eliza’s father and siblings had not come to America, her father had arranged for her to meet a young man from their town, Johann Rolwes, who was making the trip. Twenty-two years old by this time, Eliza was well aware that this was a “marriage match” made by her father.
She was excited to meet this “landsman” – someone from her neck of the woods. She wrote to her father, “I look forward to meeting Herr Rolwes, not only because of the arrangement, but because he will be the first landsman I meet who has talked to you and (my sisters).”
In September 1846, Eliza and Johann married. They lost their first-born son to a cholera epidemic that swept through St. Louis in 1848.
Eliza discovered that Henry had been caught in some shady dealings involving card games and rum runners. She and Johann advised Henry that he needed to leave the area for a while.
By 1852, Eliza and her husband had a daughter, Wilhelmina, and a son, John. Eliza’s father had sent her two younger sisters to live with her. The family had moved to Quincy, Ill. But they didn’t stay long.
“We’re on our way to the new state of Iowa,” Eliza wrote to her father in 1854. “We sound like gypsies because we’re on the move again. We’ve saved enough to buy land in Iowa.”
Sailing up the Mississippi River on a boat called War Eagle, Eliza and her family disembarked at Dunleith on the Illinois side of the river (now East Dubuque).
“The last afternoon ferry had left, so we had to spend another night aboard,” Eliza wrote to her father. “I couldn’t sleep and went up on deck before dawn. We watched the first light of day outline the limestone bluff on the Iowa side. Soon we could make out the outlines of St. Raphael’s Church, houses and shops.”
Sherrill, Balltown, New Vienna and Waupeton became the stomping grounds for the Rolwes family. Some of the first friends they met were Ludwig and Dorothea Sigwarth, who had won 80 acres of land in a New York lottery, although Ludwig told them the land was worthless because it was all timberland and only accessible by water.
Ludwig warned Johann that the area was nothing but wilderness with not enough space to plant a potato patch, but the family was determined. Even a run-in with a bear didn’t deter Johann from continuing to work the land, but it did give him a story that he told over and over to the children in the family.
Eliza lived in the family cabin in Waupeton until her death in 1907. Johann had died in 1897. They had raised five girls and a boy. During her years in the cabin, Eliza told her stories to her granddaughter, Elizabeth Link Leitgen.
The Rolwes sisters all lived within walking distance of each other and visited each other. John inherited the family homestead. Eliza’s wayward brother Henry was never heard from again after he left St. Louis.
Jurgen Korte never did come to America. But in spite of his shortcomings, he had given northeast Iowa a gift — a family with a pioneer spirit that never wavered, and whose descendants continue to live and work where their ancestors put down roots over 170 years ago.
Special thanks to Tom Sigwarth (Ludwig and Dorothea’s great-great-grandson), of Platteville, Wis., for sharing the journey of Eliza Korte Rolwes through his stories and the book “Eliza: An Iowa Pioneer” written and illustrated by Frances Bries Wojnar, Eliza’s great-granddaughter.