I have just finished reading a 523-page tome, fresh off the presses, titled, The Johann Dietrich Hollrah Family – 700 Years of Hollrah Family History. The title character, Johann Dietrich Hollrah, was my great-grandfather. He was born at Hahlen, in the Kingdom of Hanover (now Germany), on September 30, 1824, and emigrated to the United States with his father, also named Johann Dietrich, in the winter of 1834. They arrived at the Port of New Orleans on December 30, 1834, traveled from New Orleans to St. Louis by riverboat, crossed the Missouri River into St. Charles County, purchased a tract of wooded land, and set about clearing the land for agricultural purposes. The hard-bound book, researched and written by my cousin, Dr. Robert M. Sandfort, over a period of more than three decades, measures 8½ in. by 11 in. and is nearly 1½ in. thick.
The region of Germany where the Hollrah family lived and prospered for well over seven centuries was under nearly constant religious turmoil beginning in 1532 when the Protestant Reformation began to spread across Germany, reaching northwestern Germany when the principality of Muenster converted to Lutheranism. Between the years 1532 and the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, the principality of Osnabruck, immediately to the south of the Rolfes-Hollrah and the Berens-Hollrah farms, near Menslage, vacillated between Protestantism and Catholicism. During that 116-year period, the principality was governed by five Protestant and four Catholic administrations. However, beginning around 1690, the church at Menslage affiliated with the Lutheran Church and remains so to this day.
The level of bitterness that divided Catholics and Protestants was such that a public opinion poll taken in Germany during the 1960s found that the German people considered the Thirty Years War to be their country’s “greatest disaster” of all time… greater even than World War II and the Holocaust.
The history tells of a long running dispute between the two Hollrah families which demonstrates, if nothing else, the stubbornness that is often ascribed to people of German descent. At some point during the latter half of the 17th century a dispute erupted between the Berens-Hollrah and the Rolfes-Hollrah families over three tracts of land on the dividing line between the two farms. The three tracts were referred to as the kleine Maersch (small marsh), the hinterster Wald (backmost forest), and the Olden Hagen (old enclosure), all of which were jointly owned by the two farms since the farms were divided, most likely in the 1300s, long before Columbus sailed for America. And since ownership could not be legally determined, the dispute raged on for some 300 years, during which time the two Hollrah families alternated control of the three parcels for periods of 12 years.
During the 18th century the situation was exacerbated by the religious tensions that existed between the Lutheran principality of Muenster and the Roman Catholic principality of Osnabruck… the dividing line for which ran squarely through the two Hollrah farms.
Finally, in 1730, a commission was established for the purposes of studying the matter and suggesting a final solution. Unfortunately, the members of the commission were so bitterly divided that the commission members representing Roman Catholic Osnabruck drew a map in which the proposed boundary line passed through the farm buildings of Berens-Hollrah. The suggested property description instructed: “… proceed in the side door of the Muenster side of the (Hollrah) house. From there, through the hallway and then in front of the door alongside the Roeleff-Hollrah farm place and house.”
The 300-year dispute was eventually resolved. Under that agreement, Rolfes-Hollrah was given sole ownership of the marshlands and Berens-Hollrah the remaining two parcels.
But the most captivating event of the Hollrah family history occurred in the mid-18th century. As the historical record tells us, when Rudolph Heinrich Hollrah and Helena Bruencke married on November 27, 1748, they signed a contract in which they promised to educate their children at the St. Vitus Catholic school in nearby Loeningen, and to raise them in the Catholic faith. This in spite of the fact that they were both Lutherans.
Rudolph Heinrich died in 1759 at the age of 57. He was survived by his wife, Helena, and six children, the eldest being 10-year old Johann Hermann who, as the eldest son, was the hereditary heir to the family farm. But since Johann Hermann was far too young to take control of a large farm and his mother was unable to do so, it became advantageous for her to remarry.
On June 12, 1762, Helena married Hermann Heinrich Barklage, a tenant farmer in nearby Hahlen. However, as was the custom in Germany. when a female heir or widow was left in control of a major farm, the man she later married changed his surname to that of his wife. Accordingly, Hermann Heinrich Barklage paid the required Auffahrt (entry onto the farm) assessment, moved onto the Rolfes-Hollrah farm, and became Hermann Heinrich (Barklage) Hollrah. He became the provisional “owner” of the Rolfes-Hollrah farm until such time as the hereditary heir, 13-year-old Johann Hermann, came of age.
However, following her first husband’s death in 1759, Helena no longer felt committed to their pledge to raise their children in the Catholic faith. Needless to say, the priest at the St. Vitus Catholic church in Loeningen, Pastor Vagedes, was not pleased. He quickly enlisted the assistance of a local magistrate, Judge Nehem.
The two men, convinced that the Hollrah children were attending the Lutheran school in Menslage, threatened to impose heavy fines on their mother if they were absent from classes in the Catholic school, even for a few days. In fact, when Helena Hollrah married Hermann Heinrich Barklage in June 1762, the newly married couple, under some duress, signed a new agreement to educate their children as Roman Catholics, even though both parents were Lutherans.
During the last half of 1762 and the first half of 1763, Judge Nehem increased the fines, and when the Hollrahs still refused to relent, the authorities sent a detachment of troops to the farm where they confiscated farm equipment, household furniture, livestock, and anything else of value. The confiscated items were then sold to satisfy the unpaid fines.
But things became even more complicated when Helena’s eldest son, Johann Hermann reached age 14 on June 2, 1763. On that occasion he announced his intention to convert to the Lutheran religion. And since he was the designated Anerbe (hereditary heir to the Rolfes-Hollrah farm), his decision angered the local authorities in Loeningen and Muenster, causing them to impose even heavier fines, along with threats to imprison the parents if they continued to disobey the government edicts.
To understand the passions aroused by this disagreement, it is important to understand that the Rolfes-Hollrah and Berens-Hollrah farms were located in the Catholic-controlled Bishopric of Muenster, which was under the ultimate control of the Elector of Cologne, while the ultimate “owners” of the Hollrah farms, since 1319, were the nuns of the Boerstel Convent, which was situated in the Protestant-controlled Bishopric of Osnabruck. The Bishopric of Osnabruck, in turn, was ruled by the Elector of Braunschweig-Lueneburg (Hanover). At that time in history, Hanover was ruled by England, which had been Protestant since the reign of Henry VIII.
The Abbess at the Boerstel Convent eventually took the Hollrah farm dispute to authorities in Osnabruck and Hanover who expressed little objection to the actions taken by Pastor Vagedes , and Judge Nehem in Loeningen. They did not object to efforts to force the younger Hollrah children to be educated at the St. Vitus Catholic School; however, under provisions of the Treaty of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War, they agreed that the eldest son, Johann Hermann, having attained his 14th birthday, had the right to choose between Catholicism and Lutheranism.
As time passed, word of the religious persecution of the Hollrah family spread across Germany. And on December 15, 1763, the Hanover Privy Councillor to George III of England wrote a lengthy letter to the Muenster government objecting to the treatment of the Hollrah family and reminding them that Protestants throughout the Empire would be paying close attention to their predicament. His letter also served as a reminder that His Royal Highness, King George III, the King of Hanover and of England, would also be fully aware of their actions.
But the local authorities in Loeningen were undeterred. On December 30, 1766, a letter from the Muenster high court containing six final decrees… one of which threatened the Hollrah parents with imprisonment… was sent to the Hollrah farm where it was read to them on January 10, 1767. And when the Hollrahs refused to comply with the decree, the husband and wife were imprisoned in the Loeningen jail for eight days, where they were fed only bread and water.
But this harsh treatment did not have its desired effect; the Hollrah parents continued to refuse to educate their children at the St. Vitus Catholic school and to indoctrinate them in the Catholic faith. As a result, when the Hollrah parents attempted to return to the Rolfes-Hollrah farm, they were again taken into custody by local authorities. On that occasion, thoe mother was taken to the Cloppenberg jail, where she was held for a period of six months, while the father/stepfather, Hermann Heinrich, was incarcerated at the “Zuchthaus,” the penitentiary at Muenster, where he was held under conditions of hard labor. Clearly, these people took their religion very seriously.
Six months later, on October 20, 1767, the Hanover Privy Councillor wrote to the Abbess of the Boerstel Convent. In his letter he explained that he had presented all the details of the Hollrah family’s religious persecution to His Majesty King George III for a decision. This letter was followed on November 13, 1767, by a letter from the Privy Councillor to the Elector of Cologne. In this six-page letter the Privy Councillor concluded by saying, “His Royal Majesty of Great Britain, our All Merciful Lord, who at the very least will allow the same rights to his Catholic subjects as to the Protestant ones has directed us to order this treatment to cease and to remedy these complaints…”
It is well that King George III took the time in 1767 to sort out the religious persecution of the Hollrah family in his native Kingdom of Hanover. Less than nine years later, on July 4, 1776, he had much larger problems to solve.
Paul R. Hollrah is a retired government relations executive and a two-time member of the U.S. Electoral College. He currently lives and writes among the hills and lakes of northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country.