Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dateline Govert, South Dakota: Truth in Storytelling (Part 2)

Meet Peter Vogt, storyteller extraordinaire. He was a good ol' storyteller and his story of being born at sea was recorded thereafter as one of the family truths. But it wasn't true.

First, let's establish Peter Vogt's connection to Govert, South Dakota. Peter Vogt was Emma Vogt's father. Emma married Govert Van der Boom, one of the founders of Govert, South Dakota. Peter Vogt's other children also found their way to Govert township. Daughter Lydia married Walter Gee and together Lydia and Walter bought land and raised their two sons in Govert. Peter's son Theodore homesteaded in Govert. Son Ernest worked on the various family land holdings in Govert. That little crossroads town of Govert, South Dakota, in southeastern Harding County was something of a family affair for the Vogts.

Peter Vogt, himself, farmed in Minnesota, and Minnesota is where he raised Emma, Lydia, Theodore, and Ernest. When his children were young, Peter must have entertained them with stories. Once upon a time ... everyone had a story to tell. No radio, no TV, no computer, what was a family to do to fill an evening in front of the fireplace or beside the coal stove? If you couldn't wind a tale out of elves and jujuberry trees, you could tell the stories of what you knew best ... stories of family, stories of your own experiences. How did storyteller extraordinaire Peter Vogt respond to the plea of one of his children: "Tell me a story, Papa"? Maybe the plea was: "Papa, tell me the story again, the one of how you came to America." Here is a photograph of Peter Vogt and his wife Mathilda Tobolt about the time Peter created a new story about his birth.

Peter Vogt was born at sea. Or was he? A regional history book from Minnesota says he most certainly was born at sea. The records of the Lutheran Church in Mecklenburg say most certainly not. Ditto the manifest for the sailing ship Genesee in 1855. The earlier US census records support the German birthright. When did it change and why?

Of Peter's two daughters, Emma was practical and discerning. Lydia, who was younger, was more impulsive. Emma was born in 1885, Lydia in 1887. Then Theodore was born in 1889. Sometime between the 1895 Minnesota Census and the 1900 US Federal Census, Peter's birthplace changed from Germany to a dramatic birth at sea. The story changed about the time Theodore would have reached the age of 7, and was old enough to plead, "Papa tell me the story of how you came to America!"

Census records through the years show that no-nonsense Emma knew better than to accept her father's birth at sea. Lydia and Theodore left home before 1920 and their census records for that year show they were drawn in hook, line, and sinker. After Theodore died in 1923 at the age of 34, his father, Peter, abandoned the story of being born at sea and once again began telling the census taker that he was born in Germany. Could it possibly be that the story was created and perpetuated for Theodore? Theodore's death created great sorrow in the family, enough for Peter to relinquish a much loved tradition. And still, even after Peter re-claimed Germany as his birthplace, the story of Peter being born at sea was lovingly preserved by Theodore's descendants.

It was a great story, too, with the drama of a big storm and the ship repeatedly approaching the American shore and being washed back to sea. Not all the "facts" survived the years, but the story must have gone something like this.

"A long time ago ... 45 years past ... my father, my mother, and my sister, Marie, boarded a big ship to come to America. The trip from Alt Buckow, the village where they lived, to Hamburg, where they found the ship, had been long, slow and bumpy. They were tired and nervous, but they were excited, too. Marie was only two years old and I was already in my mother's belly. My father was a cooper. He made barrels. He made good barrels, but the times were bad in Mecklenburg. Everyone was poor. Father was certain that if he could find a piece of land to farm he could support two children. If you owned land, you were somebody. But there was no land to be had in Mecklenburg. Poor people talk and poor people dream. In Mecklenburg, the poor people were talking and dreaming about America.

"And that's why your grandfather, your grandmother, and your Aunt Marie were in Hamburg. They were on their way to America. Hamburg was a big city, and people were scurrying everywhere, carrying trunks and boxes with rope tied around them. Alt Buckow was small and quiet and familiar. All they saw now was unfamiliar and uncertain, but there was no turning back. The ship was called the Genesee. She was a sailing ship and she had 3 masts. Father and Mother wondered how they would ever be able to stay on that ship for weeks squeezed in with all the other people crowding around them on the pier.

"They were on the sea for days and weeks and more days. They brought their own food but sometimes they were hungry. And sick? The ocean is not so quiet, you know, and we weren't seafaring people. Many people emptied their stomachs in a bucket or over the side of the ship. The trip was very difficult for your grandfather and your poor grandmother with me still in her belly. Your Aunt Marie clung to Mother's skirts or played with the other small children. Their only choice now was to go forward.

"As the ship approached the coast of America, a great storm arose, washing the ship back to sea. The ship was tossed to and fro by the enormous waves and the frightful wind. The waves towered as high as a building in the city and washed over the deck, nearly sinking the ship. Time after time the ship neared the shore, but always the ship was forced back to the deep waters of the sea. Whether the Vogts of Alt Buckow would live in America or die at sea, after suffering through weeks of hunger and seasickness, would be decided by this one storm. While this great storm raged, my mother's time came. My birth could not be delayed, and I was born there at sea on the sailing ship Genesee during this great storm. The day was 17 September 1854. On that day, if not for the raging storm, I would have been born in America."

That is a great story, isn't it? Peter was born 17 September 1854. That's the truth. But the Genesee docked in New York on 25 August 1855. Among those disembarking from the Genesee in August 1855 were Peter's father, his mother, his two-year-old sister, Marie, and a near one-year-old Peter.

I don't think my Great-grandfather Peter intended to forever change history. I don't think he was the least bit concerned about being found-out. Peter probably never anticipated that he would one day have a great-granddaughter who would want to know more about him. And he certainly never anticipated that I would find on microfilm the words written in the baptismal register, or that I would find his arrival in America on what would one day be called the Internet.

Peter must have thought this the best joke in the world, perpetuating the story of his birth at sea through the years, even to promoting, or at least accepting, the solemnization of the fiction in a regional history book. In this way, the story Peter told ... well, his fable ... tells me about Peter himself. I have a deeper affection for this Peter than the Peter who was merely a line entry on the microfilm of a church baptismal register. Look at the picture of Peter again. Look into his eyes. Look at the slight smile half-hidden behind his mustache. Now you know, too.

I hold this story dear simply because Peter Vogt told the story. Truth in Storytelling does not require we forfeit any of the stories that become part of our family narrative. The truth, the fiction, the stories that fall somewhere between truth and fiction ... all the stories are important and all become family history. We should preserve ... and honor ... these stories for what they are. The important thing is to distinguish, in the telling of the story, between what is true and what is not. In the case of Peter Vogt, the story should be prefaced with "your Great-great-great-grandfather Peter Vogt was a good ol' storyteller, and this time he told a whopper." Being born at sea is a good story, but being born in Mecklenburg and coming to America as an infant is a good story, too ... a better story, because it is true.

Do Theodore's grandchildren and great-grandchildren prefer the story Theodore loved so much? Will his descendants through the years continue the fiction as truth? Will they disregard the evidence? Perhaps they will. The truth may rest in the eye of the beholder.

Can a family fable become the family's truth? Peter Vogt tells us it can. Let's go one step further. Can the truth become a lie? That, too, can happen. Stay tuned, and next Thursday I will tell you how the truth became a lie for another epic storyteller whose audience would not believe him.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Joanne Becker who interviewed Theodore Vogt's daughter, Elinor Vogt Grantz, 21 May 2008 in Jackson, Minnesota, and to Fritz Kruse who discovered the Vogt ship manifest. Photograph of Peter and Mathilda Tobolt Vogt used with permission of Linda Van der Boom Lavagnino.]


  1. Sweetheart,
    Another wonderful blog entry! You tell us the story of Peter's story, and include in it your version of how Peter might have actually told the story...storytelling within storytelling. Very entertaining and creative! You say Peter was a "storyteller extraordinaire." Well, I think you can claim that title as least the title "blogger extraordinaire"!

  2. Thank you for this, Kathleen! I do not have a lot of knowledge of my family's history; Theodore is my great-grandfather (Elinor was my grandmother). To find out the story changed after my great-grandfather died at such a young age, says a lot. It seems that grieving causes reality to change. I am happy for this added part to my family's narrative. The story continues on....... Susan Grantz



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