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“Sunday, October 15, we went to church. The wind was then blowing wildly, but this became worse further along in the day. When we got out of church, we saw smoke in the distance, because the prairie was on fire.”

It is November, 1871, and Harmen Jan te Selle, an immigrant homesteader from Lancaster County, Nebraska, is writing home, to the old country from a sod house amid grasslands his family could not have imagined, a roiling sea of grass he was trying to call home.

“When we got out of church,” he writes, “we saw the fire,” the kind of fire that “can burn for miles away.”

And then the story:

“Nikolaas Vandervelde saw that the fire was not far from his house. He was in church with his wife and two children. Three children were at home; a girl of 11 or 12 years, one of 8 and the other of 5 or 6. So he ran as quickly as he could to reach home, but what did he see? His house lay entirely in ashes.”

It was a holocaust. Things burned for miles around. “High standing grain and 4 pigs were all burned, but not the worst,” he writes. “He saw in the distance something white lying on the ground, thinking it was a calf. But when he got closer, he saw it was his oldest girl lying burned on the ground, and upon investigation, the other two were in the house, entirely burned. Thus, a tragic situation for that man.”

As near as I can tell by old maps and surveys, this picture is the 80 acres Nikolaas Vandervelde long ago called his own, where he put up his soddie or where, with neighbors, he nailed together a one-room frame palace. Somewhere here, he and his wife and six children wanted to put down roots, following the way west to opportunity.

A line of cottonwoods lines the draw, trees that would not have been there. And raging prairie fires are long gone. Here in Lancaster County, where once three girls died in a holocaust of flame, a repetition of that tragedy is unlikely.

Vandervelde’s land is off the beaten path. There’s no historical marker, no sign, no notice of that horrifying long-ago moment in community history, the day in 1871, when an immigrant farmer and his wife, strangers in a strange land, walked out of church and into their own kind of hell. There weren’t any cemeteries. Who knows where the girls are buried?

I stopped in town at the church that grew out of the immigrant settlement all around, a handsome building in a small town that, like many Great Plains hamlets, looked to need some support to be able to hang on.

But the church looks to be doing well. Not long ago, they celebrated their centennial, but no one remembered the prairie fire that killed three young women 150 years ago. There was no church back then. When the Vanderveldes walked out of church that morning, church was a neighbor’s sod house.

For years, people couldn’t–and wouldn’t–forget the prairie fire that consumed so much all around and killed three Vandervelde girls, a story told in whispers from one generation to another until, I suppose, it simply was forgotten. Like so many others, Vandervelde sold that 80 to neighbors and left, living up to his name’s meaning–vandevelde: “from the fields.”

I thought I’d go find the land where those the girls died in that hellish prairie fire. The story stuck with me with such tenacity I figured I owed that much at least–I needed to pay my respects.

A friend of mine who’s Cherokee insists that if you sit somewhere close to where such things happened–things like death in a prairie fire on a clear Sabbath morning–if you sit and look and listen long enough, you’ll hear the voices in the wind.

There was a time I thought that was silly.

Things couldn’t be more different out there on the prairie when I tried to find his land. It was cold and snowy, dreary and January gray. There’s a tree line, behind it a corn field. The sea of grass in Lancaster County is no longer. The Vanderveldes and the homestead community that once existed is long gone. What you see in that shot above is nothing close to what the man saw that day coming out of a sod house church.

But still, today, even in the January cold, if you wait and listen, it’s like my friend says–you may just hear voices in the wind.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

4 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Your writing often reminds me of my rabbi friend, who has this deep Jewish sense of memory, remembering, and remembering those who have died. He visits cemeteries to remember the did, and he visits forgotten cemeteries to remember the forgotten dead. He goes to Belarussia and Poland to remember the dead who are meant to be forgotten. And the memory of them is in the landscape where they died. He’s a rabbi, so he doesn’t listen for them in the wind, but prays over the soil itself.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    Lovely. Haunting. As always, James Schaap evokes the stories and spirits of the prairie. Many thanks.

  • Henry Ottens says:

    Thanks, Jim, for resurrecting stories that need remembering.

  • Helen P says:

    This is beautiful. I have really appreciated the stories of the brave people who went west to begin new lives…and you tell the story so hauntingly.

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