The Van Pletsen Saga
Translated by Blane van Pletzen-Rands
Click here for extended Genealogy
by her son, Roon Lewald
When my mother completed her hand-written chronicle of her Van Pletsen ancestors in 1974, a typed manuscript produced by an admiring relative was photocopied many times and found its way to numerous members of her tribe throughout South Africa. As far as I am aware, the Afrikaans-language manuscript remains the only known history of the Van Pletsens (or Van Pletzens with a “z”), and graphically portrays a typically huge clan of Afrikaner (Boer) descendants of mingled Dutch, German and French Huguenot settlers.
I was nevertheless astounded when, during a random web session in 2008, I stumbled on a faithful copy of the “Van Pletsen Saga” in both the original Afrikaans AND an English translation in this very same blog. From Bonn in Germany, where I have lived since emigrating in 1971, I immediately contacted the responsible blogger in New York. I was delighted to find out that editor The Rev. Br. Blane van Pletzen-Rands BSG is indeed a remote relative as well as a fellow expatriate, with a similarly nostalgic attachment to the positive aspects of Afrikaner traditions and the expressive Afrikaans language with its fine literature. Like many Americans, post-colonial South Africans – especially those who have joined a swelling diaspora in Europe, both Americas and Australasia in recent years – are deeply interested in their ancestral origins. Since Blane came upon a copy of the Saga during a visit to relatives in South Africa, he has therefore made it a centrepiece of his blog. The many comments it has attracted show that it has become a watering hole for virtually migrating Van Pletsens and other South Africans.
The “Saga” is told in the breezy, anecdotal style of the old relatives from whom my mother gleaned her material. She sifted this oral history as well as she could, knowing full well that her people “yarn so well and so enjoyably that when their facts start getting scarce, they think nothing of adding on a fib or two.” The chronicle offers vivid glimpses of an archetypal tribe of Boer farmers in the rural outback of long-bygone days. It contains entertainingly droll anecdotes which conjure up a time many Afrikaners nostalgically idealize as an age of pastoral innocence, long before their existential fear of the overwhelming African majority made them clutch at the false salvation gospel of Apartheid.
Historical Afrikaner politics (the two main issues being the historic confrontation between Boers and Britons and the old Afrikaner obsession with white ethnic supremacy) surface only indirectly. These themes form the unspoken context of, for instance, one bushy-bearded old militia commander’s punitive campaigns against troublesome Basotho tribesmen in the old Boer republic of the Orange Free State. An old aunt evokes the unabashed racism of her generation in a passing reference to the days when her district was “cleaned of the kaffirs”, i.e. when Boer commandos forcibly dispossessed local Africans of their land. The Saga also evokes the obduracy of diehard Cape Afrikaner supporters of the two Boer republics in the north, with Van Pletsens to the fore in several incidents of resistance by Boer subjects of the Crown to the British Empire’s war against their fighting kinsmen in the Transvaal and Orange Free State.
By far the most engaging figure presented by the “Saga” is the enormous Van Pletsen clan’s common progenitor, Carl Johannes von Plessen (later renamed “Van Pletsen”). Born in Eastern Prussia in 1795, he arrived in Table Bay as a shipboard stowaway in 1820 after serving as a mercenary under Napoleon. From his sturdy loins sprang nine sons – a relatively small family by the standards of those times. The names of Carl Johannes and his equally lusty sons have been handed down to male Van Plets/zens in every generation since then.
Roon Lewald Bonn, July 2011
The Van Pletsen Saga
Here follows The Van Pletsen Saga , which I have promised to write down before I become senile and can’t remember anything. I cannot guarantee that all the facts, dates, etc., are accurate, because what I am writing is based on hearsay on what father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, and old aunts and uncles have told me!
According to my uncle Sauer van Pletsen (who had journalistic leanings and allowed a few books to see the light of day), one, Carl Johannes von Plessen, born 1795 in East Prussia, ran into difficulty with the authorities and left that land and established himself in Brabant, Belgium. (Grandfather’s sister, Aunt Mart Vorster, liked to boast that we Van Pletsens were originally Von Plessens and, therefore, belonged to the German aristocracy and then my father’s brother, prank-loving Uncle Kootjie, always deflated her with these words: “Oh come on, Auntie Mart. The old rascal was probably a horse thief. That’s why he had to get out of East Prussia!”)
In Brabant, he became a mercenary, and as such fought under Napoleon. After the battle of Waterloo, he and a certain Havenga (surely an ancestor of Klasie Havenga) arrived here [South Africa] in 1820 as stowaways on a ship. It appears that he ended up in Graaff Reinet and married an Anna Susanna Sauer (born 1805) whose father, Johan Nicholas Sauer, had come from Cologne in Germany to be a school teacher in Graaf Reinet. His wife was Susanna Maryna Mulder.
This Johan Nicholas Sauer was the forefather of former Minister Paul Sauer.Carl Johannes von Plessen was 25 years old when he arrived in South Africa in 1820, and lived to 93. When my grandfather, Carl Johannes van Pletsen, was born in 1857, the above-mentioned Carl was a man of 62, and when he passed away in 1888, Carl Johannes van Pletsen was already a man of 32. He therefore knew his grandfather well, but apparently did not pay much attention to the old man’s ancestry. Pity! What he did remember and repeatedly told our children was the fact that his grandfather came from Brabant, Belgium, and that he had fought under Napoleon and that he “married a woman whose maiden name was Sauer, and who always said, “What is this ‘von’ nonsense? It’s mos ‘van!’” and so the name became Van Pletzen.
To my eternal shame and regret, I was not interested enough at that time to ask grandfather if he could still speak German and when the “Plessen” became “Pletzen” –and now it’s too late for tears.
In my view, the alteration of the “ss” to “tz” is very understandable. The “ss” is written in German as β and to the uneducated at the time, it must have appeared completely strange, and the “tz” was the most obvious solution. (Helen’s son Roon reports that his mother’s own German had become rusty by the time she wrote her Saga. In fact, he points out, the double “ss” after a short vowel in the middle of a word, as in “Plessen”, would never have been spelled with a “β”, so her ingenious explanation cannot be accurate.] Over time, the pronunciation of the name changed to Pletzen. For some, this was still not phonetical enough, and became Pletsen.
We Afrikaners have never had much respect for either the spelling or the pronunciation of a foreign name. Think of the De Raans (du Rand), Lospers (Laubscher), Lawwerskaiings (Labuschagne), Du Toois (Du Toit), and Senekals (Seneschal).
Here follow a few of the yarns that Grandpa told us children many times. I quote, “Yes, he and another little fool by the name of Havenga crept away on a ship without paying. They hid in a large vat and when they later emerged, they were almost dead from hunger and the lice had almost eaten them up.” Then Grandfather shook as he laughed over the predicament that the two had found themselves in.
Further: “He said that Napoleon wasn’t afraid of anything. One day he was sitting in front of his tent writing reports when a shell burst so near him that dirt and rocks rained down over his table, and Napoleon jumped up and gave vent to the most tremendous curses!” Here Grandfather always used his fist to show just how potent the curses were.
And then: “This Napoleon was as brave as a lion. He was a short, pudgy fellow with a pot belly, you know, child, but he had a soft little heart. When a battle was over, he always walked around among the dead with his right hand tucked in before his chest and his left hand behind his back, and then he would weep like a child.”
(A little over-the-top I find, but with the many retellings the van Pletsens naturally added their own bit of embroidery.) “And child, there was a man who knew how to drill soldiers. At night, they had to nestle together like spoons when they slept in the field, and at midnight an officer would come and yell “TURN!”, and then the whole bunch rolled over and spooned in the other direction.” (Grandfather always ended this unbelievable and unlikely story with the words: “Yes, child, if we had had such generals the Boer War would have ended differently!”) Poor man! He must have been very small when his grandfather told him this story, and of course only a garbled version of the anecdote sank in, but we children always firmly believed the tale.
When I later heard of Napoleon and his conquests, I sometimes laughed whenever I mentally pictured the soldiers nestling like spoons. Even so, it wouldn’t have been such a bad idea during the return march from Moscow! But to get back to Carl Johannes von Plessen. He and Anna Susanna lived in Graaff Reinet where her father was deputy sheriff as well as teacher, and I quote Grandfather again: “She was in bed with a baby when the thatched roof of the house caught fire. They couldn’t carry her out through the door because it was already burning, so they carried her, the bed, and the child out the window.”
The house and everything in it burned up and poor Carl Johannes is said to have stood there in his nightshirt, surely wet from perspiration after struggling to get Anna Susanna out through the window. Then one of his neighbors gave him a jacket. I can still hear my mother ending the story in a shocked whisper with the words, “And child, he first cut off all the buttons!” (Also understandable. It was around 1832, when buttons were luxury items in South Africa.)
They moved to Burghersdorp where both of them taught. Anna Susanna’s terrifying experience in the burning house in Graaff Reinet apparently did not dampen her enthusiasm for procreation, since she redoubled her efforts and managed to bring nine sturdy male heirs into the world. Even in those days of fecundity, it must have caused quite a stir because Andries Stockenstroom (at that time, lieutenant governor in the Eastern Province) presented her with two farms (9000 Morgen), meaning 1000 Morgen for each son. The farms, “Luipaardsvlei” and “Jachtpoort”, lay in the district of Burghersdorp.
The Names of Anna Susanna’s Nine Sons:
1. Carl Jacobus — born 10 January 1832. Established himself in Jamestown.
2. Johannes Francois — born 17 August 1835. My great-grandfather. Established himself in Rouxville.
3. Diederik Johannes — Established himself in Burghersdorp.
4. Jan Jacobus — Established himself in Burghersdorp.
5. Nicolaas Johannes — Established himself in Burghersdorp.
6. Petrus Nicolaas — Established himself in Dordrecht.
7. Everhardus Georg Frederik — Established himself in Rouxville.
8. Stephanus Albertus — Established himself in Rouxville.
9. Jacobus Francois — Established himself in Rouxville.
Anybody who is a Van Pletsen, Van Pletzen or van Pletzen is descended from these nine sons. If one bumps into a Van Pletsen, he’s always from Jamestown, Barkly East, Burghersdorp or the part of the world around Dordrecht in the Free State, or Rouxville, Zastron or Wepener.
Family names that always crop up somewhere are Carl Johannes, Johannes Francois, Stephanus, Nicolaas, and Diederik. In a nutshell, the names of Anna Susanna’s nine male heirs!
Old Carl Johannes and his wife later trekked to Rouxville. There he died and is buried on a farm by the name of “Droogfontein”, while Anna Susanna is buried at “Knoffelspruit”.
The oldest son of Carl Johannes (the one we always spoke of as “the old immigrant”) was Carl Jacobus — born 10 Jan 1832. Married Martha Christina Smith of the farm “Wingerd” in Aliwal North.
1. Susanna Lucya — born 1857
2. Carl Jacobus — born 1859
3. Petrus Nicolaas — born 1861
4. Jan Jacobus — born 1863
5. Anna Susanna — born 1865
6. Martha Christina
7. Erasmus Jacobus
8. Alida Hendrina Margaretha
9. Diederik Johannes — born 1874
10. Stephanus Albertus — born 1876
The second son of “the old immigrant” was Johannes Francois — born 17 August 1835. Married Susanna Lucya Smith, also from the farm “Wingerd” in Aliwal North, and a sister of Carl Jacobus’ wife. He was my great-grandfather.
A portrait of this ancestor hung in my grandfather’s farmhouse at “Cloverley” in Barkly East and there was also one in the passage of his brother Stephanus’ farmhouse at “Workshop” in Wepener.
We always spoke of this bearded, stern-looking old person as the “ou gang Van Pletsen” (i.e. “the old Van Pletzen of the passage”.) (Helen’s son Roon remembers this long passageway as a gloomy, tunnel-like walkway connecting two parts of the farmhouse. It containing a dusty bookshelf crammed with long-forgotten Victorian novels, miscellaneous farmyard implements and ancient, hand-tinted portraits of glowering ancestors, of whom “old passageway Van Pletzen” was the fiercest-looking.) My sister, Dulcie Kroon, of Memel, Orange Free State, also possesses a portrait of him, also interesting because it is of a younger and friendlier man.
My deceased brother Carl’s son Johannes Francois (“Nacht Wacht”, Kokstad) possesses the funeral mourners’ list of the old forefather. Very interesting. A beautiful quill and ink drawing of the coffin lid with the names of the mourners and then, in beautiful “copperplate” handwriting, the names of the pallbearers – all incredibly misspelled.
In every generation, two brothers married two sisters. At that time there weren’t as many choices as one has today.
The names of Johannes Francois and Susanna Lucya’s nine children:
1. Carl Johannes, my grandfather, born 22 Feb 1857, died 15 Oct 1938. Married to Frederika Petronella Magdalena Henning, of the farm “Lusthof”, Rouxville.
2. Petrus Nicolaas, Married to Alida Henning, of the farm “Modderpoort”, Jamestown. (This is Ras van Pletsen’s father. He was killed by lightning and Ras grew up at “Workshop” with his Uncle Faan and Aunt Nonnie.)
3. Jan Jacobus, Married Elizabeth Brümmer (commited suicide).
4.Johannes Francois, Married ? Henning, of the farm “Lusthof”, Rouxville. A sister of my grandmother, Frederika.
5. Anna Susanna, Married Phillipus Roux of Zastron.
6. Martha Magdalena Maria, married Oelof Abraham Servaas Vorster of Barkly East. (These were the grandparents of the artist, Anna Vorster.)
7. Susanna Lucya, married Thomas Theron of Cedarville (twin sister of Martha. Another propensity of the Van Pletsens.)
8. Stephanus Jacobus, married Jacoba Katarina Maria Swart (Nonnie) of “Workshop”, Wepener. (Dina, Kokie, Stefaans and Erica’s grandparents.)
9. Alida Hendrina Margaretha, married Jacobus Smith of Wepener.
The “passage Van Pletsen’s” second wife was Frederika Petronella Magadelena Kotze. Her four children:
1) Susanna Jacoba, married to Gert Venter.
2) Jan Nicolaas, married to Johanna van Biljon.
3) Frederika Petronella Magdalena, married to Gert van Biljon.
4) Everhardus Georg, married to Alida Hendrina Margaretha van Pletsen, gebore 29 September 1900. (Granddaughter of the “immigrant’s” oldest son, Carl Jacobus. Her father was Jan Jacobus, born 1863).
The aforementioned Alida Jendrina van Pletsen (Tant Alie) was always interested in the Van Pletsen family tree, and when I visited her she had much to tell about all she had heard from her father. According to Tant Alie, the “old emigrant” was one Carl Jacobus von Plettscher, born 1795 in “Wurtburg near Berlin.” This doesn’t sound very believable to me. The name “Jacobus” is not German, and there isn’t such a place near Berlin – or anywhere else in Germany. Wartburg, yes, and Würzburg, which is not near Berlin. Personally, I have more confidence in Oom Jan Sauer’s experience. He spent weeks sniffing around the Cape Town archives, while Tant Alie’s facts rely on hearsay – and one knows how such stories, in the retelling, become embellished and truncated. I am reminded of Oupa’s retelling of Napoleon’s “spoon-nestling” soldiers!
I quote Tant Allie: “Carl Jacobus von Plettscher fought as a volunteer under Napoleon. (I find it difficult to believe that a German aristocrat would willingly relocate to France to fight under the hated Napoleon. Oom Jan Sauer’s story that he came from Brabant, where he perhaps lived for years, and hired on as a mercenary seems more probable.) Further: “He and his mother’s brother, a certain Bender, were both bodyguards of Napoleon, and here I have a champagne flask that he and Napoleon drank out of in Waterloo where they sat together on a large rock.” (I ask you – with tears in my eyes – can you imagine that Napoleon had either the time or the desire to sit on a rock and share a flask with his bodyguards? With no glasses nogal? I don’t.)
She tells more: “After Waterloo he became a sailor and he and Bender arrived as such in South Africa on the same ship as the family Sauer. He later married a Sauer girl.” Again I choose to believe Oupa’s story: that the “ou emigrant” and young Havenga arrived as stowaways; he knew his grandfather well, and the old man no doubt told this story to him many times. When Tant Alie was born in 1900, the “ou emigrant” was already dead twelve years.
She told me that Johannes Francois van Pletsen (the “passage” Van Pletsen and the second son of the “old emigrant”) was a very rich man who owned 20,000 Morgen – enough to give each of his six sons a large farm. Johannes Francois (No. 4) (Oom Hans) inherited Kalkfontein in Rouxville. Jan Nicolaas (Oom Jan) inherited Knoffelspruit in Rouxville.
The above-mentioned Jan is said to have gambled the farm away. Other farms that he owned were Hoekfontein, Tierhoek, Wonderwater, Klaarwater and Vinkelfontein. Tant Allie told me that “Barkly East’s world had just been cleaned of the kaffirs [sic]. . .” when old Johannes Francois (“passage” Van Pletsen) bought a 4,300-Morgen property for his eldest son Carl Johannes (my grandfather). I was born on the farm Cloverley in 1904 when my father was 24 years old. I know he spent his early childhood there, but I’m not certain whether he was born there in 1880.
The house, which still stands today, was built by my grandfather. Cloverley is one of many English farm names in Barkly East and it was chosen by an English land surveyor who knew and admired English literature. The Boers paid scant attention to the poetry of names. Cloverley was commonly referred to as Klavervlei and names taken from Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur” were mangled too. I think of “Kammalot” (Camelot) en “Laaines” (Lyonesse).
Names of Carl Johannes – (Oldest son of Johannes Francois, the “passage” Van Pletsen), and Frederika Petronella Magdalene Henning’s children:
- Frederika Petronella Magdalena (Frikkie) married to Nicolaas van Zyl (Cedarville Oos Griekwaland).
- Johannes Francois (Frans) (Born 11 Augustue 1880) – Married to Dina Johanna Crouse (Gebore 21 November 1877) (Graaff Reinet).
- Carl Johannes married to Maria Magdalena Crouse (Sister to Dina Johanna) (Graaff Reinet).
- Anna Susanna (Sannie) married to Jan van Zyl (Brother to Nicolaas) (Cedarville).
- Jacobus (Koot) married to Molly Botha (Barkly Oos).
- Petrus (Piet) married to Lottie Pietersen (Barkly Oos).
- Jan Sauer married to Rachel Toerin (Riversdal).
- Nicolaas (Klaas) married to Marie Jacobs; Chrisie Hertzog; Ann Stander.
- Stephanus (Faan) married to Ada Gordon (Kaapstad).
Names of Stephanus Jacobus (son of “passage” Van Pletsen) and Jacoba Katarina Maria (Nonnie) Swart’s children:
- Johannes Francois (Cois) married to Frederika Petronella van Pletsen (Frikkie) (daughter of Johannes Francois (Frans) – Born 1880 and great-granddaughter of Johannes Francois – Born 1835).
- Stephanus married to Lily Loteryman.
Names of Johannes Francois (Frans) – born 1880 – and Dina Johanna Crouse’s children:
- * Helena Susara (Helen) married to Otto Albrecht Lewald (Berlin, Germany). * Born 8 June 1904.
- * Frederika Petronella Magdalene (Frikkie) married to Johannes Francois (Cois) van Pletsen (Grandson of Johannes Francois “passage” van Pletsen). * Born 18 October 1905.
- Carl Johannes married to Joan Kumm, Kokstad.
- Dina Johanna (Dulcie) married to Gerrit Kroon (Memel, O.V.S.)
- Reinet Seneschal (René) married to Malcolm Fisher Vincent (Durban).
Names of Carl Johannes and Maria Magdelena Crouse’s children:
- Carl Johannes.
- Heloise Helena
- Jurgen Crouse married to Jeanette Theresia (Tikkie) Smit (Harrismith, O.F.S.)
- Frederika (Erika) married to Wilhelm Dreyer (Cape Town).
- Yvonne married to Marthinus Johannes van der Westhuizen (Pretoria).
Names of Helena Susara and Albrecht Lewald’s children:
- Deanne Seneschal married to Horst Raszat (Heidelberg, Germany).
- Theo Roon married to Lynn Joanne Kock (Klerksdorp).
Names of Frederika Petronella Magdalena and Johannes Francois van Pletsen’s children:
- Dina Johanna.
- Stephanus married to Gretchen Strauss (Wepener).
- Jacoba (Kokie) married to Herman Thörmahlen (Strand).
- Erika Ronel married to Piet Heymans.
Names of Carl Johannes and Joan Kumm’s children:
- Nina married to Johan du Rand.
- Johannes Francois married to Myrna Rock.
Names of Dina Johanna (Dulcie) en Gerrit Kroon’s children:
- Gerrit van Pletsen Kroon married to Jeanette de Villiers.
- Johannes Francois married to Frederika van Schalkwyk (Vlooitjie).
- Cornelis (Corrie).
Names of Reinet Seneschal and Malcolm Vincent’s children:
- Linda Jean married to Rodney Penpreaph.
- Helen Bell.
Names of Jurgen Crouse van Pletsen and Jeanette Theresia Smit’s children:
- Jeanette Theresia
- Carl Johannes (Johan).
- Engela Rietta.
- Heloise Erika Yvonne.
- Jurgen Smit.
Name of Frederika (Erika) van Pletsen and Wilhelm Dreyer’s child:
Names of Yvonne van Pletsen and Martin van der Westhuizen’s children:
- Mattheus Jacobus.
Enjoy the read, descendants! I hope your minds are not going around the bend with all the Johannes’ Francois’ and Carl Johanesses! Pretoria, Tvl.
Helen Lewald. (nee Van Pletsen) January 1974
Please allow me, on behalf of the “Clan”, to thank Helen for the “Van Pletsen Saga.” It’s an interesting narrative and a priceless collection that, had she not committed it to paper now, would have been nearly impossible to recreate. Thank you, niece, for your beautiful gift to us.
Jurgen van Pletsen
 Paul Sauer was the South African Minister of Lands at the time of the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960. After an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Hendrik Vorwoerd, he was made acting Prime Minister until he suggested a “new book” for South Africa with regard to its Apartheid policies, after which he was expelled from government. According to SAHistory.org.za, he was “the only Minister who showed any misgivings regarding government policy.”