The Wild West of Yester-Year

They Tamed the Land: Immigrant Pioneers
By Rachel Kovaciny

Today, I’m going to tell you the story of some immigrant pioneers. Very ordinary pioneers, very ordinary immigrants. These were common people whose story is reflected by the millions of others who came to America from Europe and helped settle the West. They endured hardships, lost family members, found love, created new homes for themselves, and built this nation in the process. In 1857, Christiaan and Janna Renskers sailed to America from Holland with their seven children. A tailor by trade, Christiaan sought a new life in America for his family. When cholera broke out on board their ship, they lost a son and a daughter, whom they buried at sea. They pressed onward, settling in rural Wisconsin with their surviving five children. 

When their son Bill was nineteen, he and two siblings moved to Minnesota. Bill worked for anyone who would hire him: farmers, the railroad, a doctor, even a circus! He preferred doing carpentry. Eventually, Bill married a Dutch girl named Hattie, and they had three sons while living in Minnesota. When the government enacted the Homestead Act for Dakota Territory in 1886, Bill decided it was time to move farther west. He left his wife and three children at home in Minnesota in March of 1866 and filed on a claim in what would eventually be North Dakota. Bill built a sod house on the land he’d claimed fourteen miles east of the Missouri River, part of a new settlement consisting mostly of Hollanders known simply as the “Holland Settlement.” There were also Russian, Irish, Swedish, and Scotch settlements in the area. People tended to band together with others of similar heritage. The Holland Settlement had eight or ten families already living there when Bill Renskers arrived; it was located in what now is Emmons County, North Dakota.

Finally, Bill Renskers had his little sod house ready, so he sent for his family. Hattie, their three sons, and Grandma Mina (Hattie’s mother) all travelled from Minnesota by immigrant car on the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. This railroad took them to Ipswitch, where Bill was waiting for his family in a covered wagon drawn by two horses. Ninety miles lay between Ipswitch and the little sod house Bill had built. It would take them close to a week to reach their new home. On the third day of the trip, Hattie gave birth to Willemina “Minnie” Renskers. Minnie was the first girl born to the families of the Holland Settlement. She was also my great-grandmother.

I’ve been fascinated by the lives of pioneers and immigrants since I was a small child. Books like Caddie Woodlawn and Little House on the Prairie have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I think one reason for that fascination is I know my own ancestors lived that life. My forebears came here from Holland and Germany in the mid-1800s. They settled, relocated, settled again, pushing farther and farther west. Along with countless others, they helped establish churches, schools, and towns. Together, they tamed a wild land with their own hands.