My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) & Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875)

Copyright Loretta Willems, Jan 21, 2003
Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) & Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875)

An Invitation to a Willems Reunion 1980[1]
 “Dear Relatives,
       Our great-grandfather, Gerhard Willems, was born in Holland (or Prussia) on Oct. 3, 1820.  He was married to Katharina Rempel in 1841.  They spent some years farming in Russia.  Great-grandmother died in Russia in 1875 at the age of 52.” 

Willems Gen.  I. II. III.

“Gerhard and his family moved to Minnesota in 1875; however, his wife Katarina died just shortly before they left for America.  Gerhard moved from Minnesota to Canada.  After he died he was put into a grave and it was covered with boards.  In the Spring when some of the sons came from Minnesota his body was viewed and then buried.”
            Gerhard Willems (1820) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875) are my paternal great-great-grandparents.  They were completely unknown to me till my mother sent me a mimeographed invitation to a 1980 Willems Family Reunion to be held at Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Saskatchewan.  The people invited were the descendants of Gerhard and Katharina, and the invitation listed twelve children born to Katharina and Gerhard with birth and death dates for most of them.  It noted that some of the information might need correcting and invited people to bring pictures and other information they might have about the family.

              I was not able to attend the reunion and learned nothing further about Gerhard and Katharina and their children until a 1994 visit to my Aunt Mary (Willems) Davis in Dinuba, California.  I had just finished my doctoral dissertation and was finally turning in earnest to writing about the story of my Willems grandparents and their family. I told Mary about my project, and we talked about her parents and what she knew about their families.  She said she had something I might want, then searched in her papers and took out a mimeographed sheet of data that was given to her by one of her cousins.  This document, Willems Gen. I. II. III,  gives the same names and dates as those on the 1980 Willems Reunion Invitation but with some additional dates and information about locations of births and deaths.  It was probably put together and distributed after the pooling of information at the Reunion.

            Two years later, in the winter of 1996, I was able to return to Dinuba, this time for six weeks, two of which I spent with my cousin Joanne who lived in Fresno.  I slept on her couch and each weekday morning drove with her to the high school where she was teaching.  She got out of the car, and I continued on to the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Fresno Pacific University (my family was MB).  The rest of the day was spent immersed in the Center’s resources.  Kevin Enns-Rempel, the archivist, introduced me to the archives and other primary and secondary sources.  He also entered the information on Willems Gen. I. II. III into a computer data base, the Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry, referred to as “GRANDMA.”  That information brought up an ancestry chart that gave exact dates for Gerhard’s birth and marriage to Katharina Rempel as well as information for Katharina’s parents.

            GRANDMA was just getting started when that first genealogical chart was printed.  In the years that followed, much more data was gathered and entered.  In April 2006, I was able to attend a genealogical workshop at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, which also has a Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.  The workshop was conducted by Tim Janzen, a physician who is also deeply involved in the GRANDMA project.  After the main program, Tim met with us individually.  When I gave him my Willems-Rempel material, he said that he was corresponding with a relative of mine, Gerhard Willems (b. 1955), a great- grandson of the Gerhard (1844-1916)[2] who stayed in the Crimea when the rest of the family emigrated to North America.  This living Gerhard Willems was born in Kazakhstan but moved with his family to Germany in 1988, just after the fall of the Iron Curtin. Gerhard (1844-1916), the son who stayed in Russia, died during the terrible years of the Russian Revolution, but his descendants were not wiped out.  They not only endured they were able to preserve important family records that is now in GRANDMA.  In those records were the names and dates of birth four children who were not on the list that I’d received from my family. 

            Gerhard and Katharina had a total of 16 children, and we know all their names and dates of birth.  We also know the date of death of all but one of them. 

Migration:  From the North Sea to the Black Sea

            Katharina Rempel Willems, was born March 3, 1823 in the Mennonite colony of Molotshna, which was located about 200 miles northeast of the Crimean peninsula where it juts into the Black Sea.  That land is now part of Ukraine, but when the Mennonites came there it was ruled by Russia and known to them as South Russia. 

            Her husband,  Gerhard Willems, grew up in the Molotschna colony, but he was not born there.  He was born November 11, 1820, in the Mennonite village of Neundorf in the delta of the Vistula River not far from where it empties into the North Sea, a land that was then part of Prussia, but is now Poland.  In 1822, Gerhard’s parents, Gerhard Heinrich Willems (1792-1837) and his wife, Judith Berg (1797-1826), embarked with their two children on the long, arduous trek that took them from Prussia to the village of Lichtenau in the Molotschna college.

            Katharina’s parents, Peter Bernhard Rempel (1792-1837) and Katharina Berchen (1780-1831), made that same trek from Prussia to South Russia with four children in 1817.  I know those dates because of a book, Mennonite Migration to Russia: 1788-1828,[3] compiled by another descendant of the Mennonites who migrated from Prussia to South Russia, Peter Borosovitch Rempel.  This Peter Rempel, a descendant of Mennonites who stayed in Russia, received degrees in archaeology and history at Moscow State University and the Institute of Archaeology of the USSR Academy of Sciences.  He used that training to pursue inquiry into the fate of his maternal grandfather, Peter Petrovich Rempel (1885-1944) who was arrested by Soviet authorities on charges of espionage in 1938 and never heard from again.   Rempel’s book contains information taken from three categories of documents:

1)      Lists of passports and immigration visas issued by the Russian General Consulate in the city of Danzig (1819-1928);
2)      Lists of Mennonite parties receiving travel and food money upon entering New Russia at Grodno (1803-1810);
3)      Reports on the economic status of each Mennonite household, its possessions, as well as the grants and privileges issued (1795-1828).

                The entries for Peter Rempel and Gerhard Willems/Willms give more information than just the dates of migration.  They also give 1) the location of where they settled; 2) information about the size of each household; and 3) information about the financial situation of each family.  I will take the Rempel information first:

The Rempel Family

--”Peter Rempel, whose family consists of 6 males and 2 females.  Settled in Russia in the year 1817.  Settled in Lichtfelde, Molotschna.  They had no cash.  They brought possessions valued at 205 rubles 50 kopeks, 1 wagon, 2 horses, 1 head of cattle; wagon, horse or head of cattle cost 170 rubles.  The local administration suggested providing financial aid for the purchase of 1 head of cattle at a sum of 55 rubles, and also for building a house and establishing the household at a sum of 589 rubles” (p. 107).

Peter Rempel (1792-1837) and his family entered Russia in 1817.  That was the year immigration into Russia resumed after being suspended in 1812 as a result of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the upheavals that ensued.  If his birth date in GRANDMA is correct, he was 25 when he migrated to Russia. 

Unfortunately, “Peter Rempel” is the only name given.  The entry simply states that the family consisted of 6 males and 2 females.  The GRANDMA entry for Peter gives the names of four children born to him and Katharina before the 1817 date, all of them boys.  In addition, the entry for Katharina notes a previous marriage that produced a son born in 1801.  With Peter, that makes six males.  One of the females would have been Katharina.  The second female remains unknown.  A widowed mother was my first guess, but Peter’s mother died in Prussia in 1818, and I have no information at all about Katharina’s mother.

Katharina Berchen Rempel (1780-1831) was 12 years older than Peter Rempel.  That age difference was not unusual among Mennonites. Marriages between young men and older widows seem to have been fairly common:

“All adult, baptized Mennonites were married and as the death rate was quite high a man or woman might expect to be married more than once in his or her lifetime.  Remarriage usually occurred soon after the death of a spouse, and the children of earlier marriages became part of the new household or were divided among other relatives.  Sometimes a young man married a middle-aged woman with a family, sometimes a middle-aged man married a young girl who had not only her husband’s children to raise, but also her own” (Urry, 61).

Financial situation:  The entry says that Peter Rempel had no cash when the family entered Russia.  All they had was a wagon, two horses and a cow.  If they did receive the 644 rubles in financial aid suggested by the local administration, it must have been very welcome. 

 The family seems not to have been among the very poorest of the settlers, however.  According to a chart of the 460 Mennonite families who migrated to Russia between 1815 and 1825, having no cash was not unusual.  Almost 70% had less than 100 rubles, and beginning amount is 0.  In terms of possessions, the 205 ruble valuation of Peter Rempel’s property was close to average:  Only 42% had more property than the Rempel family when they arrived in Russia—10% entered with nothing.

The Willems Family

--“Gerhard Willems, Mennonite from Neuendorf with his wife Judith Berg*, daughter Judith 4 (b. ca. 1819), son Gerhard 1½ (b. ca. 1821).  Passport fr. Danzig issued on June 19, 1822, Nr. 40” (p. 184).

--“Gerhard Willms, whose family consists of 2 males and 2 females.  On the move to Russia brought 500 rubles cash, possessions valued at 500 rubles, horses valued at 320 rubles.  Settled in Lichtenau, Molotschna.  Began receiving financial aid in 1823” (p. 192).

Gerhard Willems/Willms (1792-1837): Fortunately, there is a passport application for Gerhard and his family as well as a settlement record.  The passport application not only states the village in Prussia, Neuendorf, where the family resided, it gives his wife’s first and maiden names, Judith Berg, as well as the names and ages of his daughter, Judith age 4[4], and son Gerhard 1 ½ .  

Financial situation:  The Willems family seems financially much better situated than the Rempels.  They had 500 rubles in cash, an amount far above the average settler—only 18% of the settlers had more money than Gerhard when they arrived. With horses valued at 320 rubles, and other possessions valued at 500 rubles, Gerhard and his family seem to have been among the more prosperous settlers even though the entry also states that Gerhard began receiving financial aid in 1823.  Supplementary information in the book states that church elders “agreed that the amount needed for any family was 878 rubles and 40 kopeks.  Well-to-do families were to settle at their own expense, and those families with some money and property were to be given 500 rubles each.  Evidently, Gerhard and his family were not considered “well-to-do” even though only 36% of the settlers had more money and possessions when they arrived.

The Molochna: the Early Years

“Mennonite identity was based not only on faith, but also on membership in a colony, a district, and the village where individuals were born, brought up, or resided.” [5]

                There is more than one Peter Rempel listed in the immigration records, and there is more than one Gerhard Willems.  One of the important factors in delimiting identify is the name of the village where each settled—Lichtfelde for Peter Rempel, and Lichtenau for Gerhard Willems.    Lichtfelde, where the Rempels  settled, was one of the first three villages established after immigration resumed after the war with Napoleon.  It was on the Jushanlee, the southernmost tributary of the Molotschna River in the Mennonite colony.  Lichtenau, where the Willems family settled, was one of the original ten villages established in 1804, all of them on the Molotchna River.

The Willems Family

By the end of 1823 when the Willems family arrived, there were 37 villages and hamlets in the Molotschna Colony.  That number would eventually reach 60.  Evidently the colony had reached about half its full development when the Willems family received land. 

Gerhard (G.) Willems, born 11 November 1820 in Neuendorf, Prussia, was just a toddler when his family migrated to South Russia.   He had an older sister, Judith, born “about 1817,” and was just six, two months shy of his seventh birthday, when his mother died September 12, 1826.  That death may have been related to the birth of the third child listed on the Family Group Sheet, Heinrich, born “about 1826” (death date unknown).

            Life was short in the early years of the colony.   Judith Berg Willems was the first of Gerhard and Katharina’s parents to die. Death came September 12, 1826, just four years after the family left their home in the Vistula River delta.  Her death came just after a period of hardship in the colony.  Severe winter storms during the winter of 1824-25 resulted in heavy livestock losses that were then followed by locust attacks in 1825[6].

            Early remarriage was expected when children were involved and Gerhard and Judith soon had a step-mother.  On 30 January 1827, just four months after the death of Judith, Gerhard H. married Anna Wiebe (b. abt 1800).  They had five children, the first of whom was a son named Heinrich born about 1827.  The names of children who died were commonly given to the next child of the same sex,  which would indicate that the Heinrich born to Judith in 1826 did not live long.  Heinrich (b. 1827) was followed by four sisters, Anna (b. 11 Dec 1827), Maria (b. abt 1830), Katharina (b. abt 1831) and Justina (b. abt  1834).  Gerhard Heinrich Willems left a young family when he died. 

Gerhard, the son, who emigrated to North America, was sixteen when his father died.  As the oldest son he would have carried heavy responsibility for the support of the family.

The Great Drought of 1832-34

“On Saturday, 1 September 1832, a light rain spattered the dusty fields of the Molochna River Basin, then quickly blew away west.  It would hardly be an event worth noting were it not that no precipitation fell again for seven long months,  and it was twenty months before the spring rains of 1834 released Molotschna settlers from the grips of drought and hunger.  Following hard on the heels of the cholera epidemic of 1830 and 1832, the Great Drought of 1832-4 left a permanent mark on Molotschna society” (87).[7]

In 1837, three years after the Great Drought of 1832-34, Gerhard H. Willems and Peter Rempel both died (Peter Rempel on October 31, exact date for Gerhard unknown.) Two men were only 45 years old when they died.  Gerhard Willems lived in South Russia about fourteen years before his death; Peter Rempel lived there twenty years before he died. 

The Rempel Family

Katharina B. Rempel, born 3 March 1823 in the village of Lichtfeld, Molotschna colony, was also very young, not quite eight years old, when her mother, Katharina Berchen Rempel died on February 16, 1831, the year a cholera epidemic swept through the region.  She was 50 when she died.  The birth year for Katharina Berchen, the mother, is recorded as 2 May 1780, which indicates that she was 43 when her last child, daughter Katharina, my great-great grandmother was born.  

Young Katharina (1823-1875), the daughter, had many siblings.  She was the seventh of the children who were born to her parents, all but one of them growing into adulthood.  In addition, she had half-brothers and sisters.  Her mother had a son, Abraham (b. 1801)[8] from a previous marriage to Jacob Wall who died in 1812. Katharina acquired another half-brother and a half-sister when her father re-married after the death of his first wife, Katharina’s mother.

Peter Rempel was 41 when his wife died, and like Gerhard G. Willems, married just a few months after the death of Katharina, his children’s mother.  On 29 September 1831, he married Margaretha Sawatzky (1808-1893).  They had two children, Anna (b. 18 Dec 1833) and Cornelius (b. 12 Dec 1836), before Peter Rempel’s death in October, 1837.  Katharina was fourteen when her father died.

Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) & Katharina B. Rempel (1823-1875)

Gerhard was 20 and Katharina 17 when they married March 8, 1841.  I know very little about their life together.  One of the things I do know is that they had a lot of children.  According to his obituary, Gerhard “produced 16 children, seven of whom have preceded him to eternity.”  Nine of those children were boys, seven of them girls.  Their first child, a boy they named Gerhard (b. 21 Oct  1842-d. 2 Mar 1843), died when he was 5 ½ months old.   When the next child, a boy, was born, he, too, was given the name Gerhard (b. 17 Jan 1844-d. 4 Apr 1916).  The next child, a girl they named Anna (b. 8 Aug 1845-d. 17 Feb 1932) survived.  She was followed by another girl, Katharina (b. 28 Oct-d. 7 Feb 1847).  She did not survive.  However, that death was followed by the birth of seven children who did survive into adult life:

 Peter (b. 9 Jan 1848-d. 31 Dec 1887); Heinrich (b. 17 Oct 1849-d. 1 Jun 1928); Johann (b. 25 Apr 1851-d. 20 Jan       1905); Bernhard (b. 10 Apr 1853-d. 12 Mar 1912); Cornelius (my great-grandfather, b. 5 Feb 1855-d. 9 Aug             1902); Katharina (b. 7 Oct 1856;-d. 1890); Abraham (b. 17 Nov 1858--d.13 Nov 1945).

 The next death did not come till sometime in early 1862, when a daughter named Elizabeth (b. 6 March 1860) died.  Her name was given to the next child, a girl, born that same year: Elizabeth (b. 31 March 1862-d. 9 August 1927).  The next baby, Jakob (b. 15 March 1864), evidently did not survive.  No death date is given for him, and he is not mentioned in the list of children who migrated to North America with their father, Gerhard.  The last two children are known to have survived: Maria (b. 6 Aug 1866-d. 3 July 1895); and Margaretha (b. 17 Sep 1869-d. 1917).


The GRANDMA notes for Gerhard (b. 1844) state that records written by him that are in the possession of his great-grandson, Gerhard (b. 1955), give Lichtenau (his father’s home village) as his place of birth.  Busau (Crimea) church records, however, state that he was born in Brodsky, a large Mennonite estate near the town of Melitopol, about twenty miles south of Lichtenau.   If Gerhard was indeed born in Brodsky, the family must have later returned to Gerhard’s home village since Molotshna school records[9] for 1857-58 list the names of the five oldest of Gerhard and Katharina’s surviving children—Gerhard 13, Anna 11, Peter 9, Heinrich 8 and Johann 6—among the children attending the Lichtenau school for those years. 

The family did not stay in the Molotschna, however.  Sometime after 1858, most likely in the early 1860s, they relocated to the Crimean Pennisula.  This peninsula is southwest of the Molotschna, a journey by wagon of about 200 miles from the village of Lichtenau.

Mennonite Historical Atlas: The Crimea

“During the Crimean War (1853-56) The Mennonites helped their fatherland by taking care of Russian wounded soldiers and by providing transport wagons and drivers, even within the battle zones of the Crimea.  Through this experience the Mennonites became aware of the mild climate and relatively fertile soil of the peninsula, certainly preferring it to the distant cold stretches of Siberia.  With the need for more land, particularly by Molotschna residents, the Crimea became a desirable option.  In 1862 four Mennonite villages were established, one of which was Karassan.  Throughout the years additional settlements were founded, mainly along major railways and roads and therefore scattered across the whole peninsula, some on purchased, others on leased land.  There were also a considerable number of private estates …”
“In the 1870s Mennonites from the Crimea also emigrated to America, sometimes whole villages or church groups moving as a block…
”The land, by and large, was fertile, but in some areas water was scarce, or where present, brackish.  Agriculture flourished in most regions, common commodities produced being grain, cattle, fruit and grapes.”

The GRANDMA entry for Gerhard (1820 1900) states that he was a member of the Karrassan, Crimea Mennonite church and was living there in 1861.  The obituary for Gerhard and Katharina’s daughter Elisabeth, who was born 31 March 1862, also states that she was born in the Crimea[10].   Gerhard & Katharina and their family must have been among the first settlers to Crimea, living on the peninsula at least thirteen years before the family emigrated to North America the summer of 1875.  Katharina Rempel Willems, however, was not with her family when they embarked on the journey.  She died May 11, 1875.  Eleven of her children did make the trip to North America and spent the rest of their lives in that land far from their birth.  Ten of the children, the youngest ten, accompanied their father.  The oldest daughter, Anna, who was married to Johann Siemens, migrated with her husband and children in 1889, joining her father and younger siblings in Mountain Lake, Minnesota.

The eldest son, Gerhard (1844-1916), stayed in the Crimea.  Married to Maria Kaethler 10 January 1871 in Karrassan, he worked as a blacksmith in Keneges, Crimea from 1871 until February 1873.  On 25 February 1874, he moved with his wife and two young children to Alexanderfeld (Kutyuki), which was also on the Crimean peninsula.  He seems to have stayed in Kutyuki until his death in 1916 during World War I.  He and Maria had a total of nine children between 1871 and 1885.  Five of those children lived to marry and have children of their own, the other four died in childhood.[11]



Primary Sources

GAMEO: Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.

GRANDMA:  Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry. (Online subscriptions available through the California Mennonite Historical Society website.)

 Lichtenau School Records: 1857-58 are from the Peter J. Braun Mennonite Archive File Number 1841 (Mennonite Heritage Centre microfilm #502).

Mennonite Historical Atlas.  William Schroeder and Helmut Hueber.  Winnipeg, Canada: Springfield Publishers, 1990.

Mennonite Migration to Russia: 1788-1828, compiled by Peter Borosovitch Rempel.  Edited by Alfred H. Redekopp & Richard D. Thiessen.  Winnipeg, Manitoba: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 2000:

Secondary Sources

John R. Staples.  Cross-Cultural Encounters on the Ukrainian Steppe: Settling the Molochna Basin, 1783-1861.  University of Toronto Press, 2003.

James Urry.  None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889.  Canada: Hyperion Press Ltd., 1989.

[1] Sent out by the Reunion Committee: Sam Willems, Waldheim, Sask.; Wes Willems, Saskatoon, Sask.; Elmer Andres, Hepburn, Sask.; Herman Berg, Hepburn, Sask.
[2] This Gerhard’s son Peter (1877-1942) was born in Kutyki, Crimea, but died in Spasskoyi, Kazakstan.  His son, Gerhard (1908-1997), was born in Yalantusch, Crimea, married 1940 in Crimea, had children in Kazakhstan and died in Germany (GRANDMA).  

[3] Edited by Alfred H. Redekopp & Richard D. Thiessen, (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society), 2000.
[4] The GRANDMA entry for Gerhard Willems (1792-1837) states that a note in the 1835 census in which he is listed, as well as the age of his wife, Judith, “seem to indicate that the first child, Judith, was born to a previous wife.”
[5]James Urry, None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889 (Canada: Hyperion Press, Ltd., 1989), p. 57-8.
[6] Urry, p. 85.
[7] John R. Staples, Cross-Cultural Encounters on the Ukrainian Steppe: Settling the Molochna Basin, 1783-1861.

[8] GRANDMA entry for Abraham J. Wall notes that the 1835 Molotschna Census lists him in Lichtfelde at the home of his step-father.  He was married and had four children by that time born between 1827 and 1833.  That must have been a full house.
[9] Lichtenau School Records: 1857-58 are from the Peter J. Braun Mennonite Archive File Number 1841 (Mennonite Heritage Centre microfilm #502.
[10] Zionsbote (7 Sep 1927), written by her husband, Johann Quiring. 
[11] One child, Anna (b. 1880), died in infancy.  In 1889, three children died within three weeks of each other: on 22 January 1889, twelve year old Gerhard (b. 1876); on 29 January, the second Anna (b. 1882); and finally, on 14 February 1989, eleven year old Johann (b. 11 Nov 1877), the twin brother of Peter, the grandfather of Gerhard (b. 1955), who also has a twin brother  (Peter).