This past summer, I took a road trip north to the Great Plains and back in time. Around the year 1906, my maternal gggrandfather, Jake Wilkens, moved his family from a farm in Illinois to western North Dakota. Here he and his sons homesteaded on the Little Missouri River.
Jake was a first generation American. His parents had immigrated to this country from Germany in the late 1800’s. Jake’s wife Dorothea was actually born in Prussia and came to America as a child with her mother.
Out of all of my family, the Wilkens branch is the only one that didn’t arrive prior to the American Revolution. It is also the only branch with European origins outside of Great Britain. For some reason, this has always made it seem foreign to me. I’ve never felt like I could connect with this branch as much as the others. Part of the reason for this trip was to find a connection.
Life on the Plains would not be easy for Jake and his family. In fact, on his first visit to the homestead site, he and his son would barely escape an ice jam on the Little Missouri. Basically an ice jam occurs when a river freezes and the ice backs up. As it begins to free itself, it lets loose with tremendous force and flattens anything in its path. One of Jake’s sons would learn this lesson first hand in the 1940’s when a jam took away his house and everything else he owned.
Reaching the homestead today is almost as daunting a task as it must have been 100 years ago. Our caravan had to drive for about two hours down dirt roads (never passing another vehicle) to get to the Double X Ranch. What was once the Wilkens homestead is now part of the Double X. Once reaching the ranch, we went even further off road and drove parallel to the river and up a steep incline to the top of a nearby butte.
Reaching the summit gave us a great view of the entire homestead. The homestead is located in a curve of the Little Missouri River near Alpha, North Dakota. Tall buttes jut out of the landscape and force the river to turn. Over time this curve has carved a small valley out of the flat, barren plain.
Although not much has changed in terms of the landscape in the past 100 years, looking down on the Little Missouri, I couldn’t find one single sign that Jake and his family had lived and died here. There wasn’t evidence of the fields they plowed or the homes they built, but somehow I could sense their presence. I instinctively knew why they fell in love with this site and chose to make their home here – far way from anything civilized. It was the same thing that pushed all my other ancestors – freedom, the promise of wide open spaces, and nothing but the wind whispering in your ear.
-cover photo by author