By Alexa Horn

My great-great-great-grandfather branded his free-roaming livestock with the monogram “JL.” While Johann Leitow marked his cattle, the United States marked him with the name “John Leitem.”

Johann Leitow cattle brand

Johann Leitow’s cattle brand, bearing his initials, “JL.” Photo by Berny Leitow

The land office had misspelled his last name as “Leitem” on his homesteading papers. They later corrected it in their cursive, nearly unreadable script. The mistake most likely came about because Johann only spoke German, according to my grandmother.

Although the homestead offices corrected his last name, his first name remained on the books as John. I don’t know if losing his original name bothered him, or if it made him feel like he could fit in better with his new home in the United States. Maybe a little of both. Today, refugees and immigrants often Americanize their names, and I imagine it can feel a little like losing oneself.

Some things never change. Even today, people stumble over the name. They usually say “Lee-tow” when it should be “Lie-toe.” It’s like an echo of the miscommunications that happened with many of our ancestors when they came to the United States. As people were shuffled about unceremoniously, things were bound to be lost in the translation.

Johann Leitow was born in Malvin, Pommerania, Germany in either 1836 or 1838. He traveled to the United States by boat with his wife, Albertine. They boarded the SS Baltimore, probably riding in steerage.

Johann and Albertine Leitow

Johann and Albertine Leitow

In 1868 they came to Wisconsin and made their way to Nebraska in a covered wagon pulled by oxen. He was one of the first settlers in the Neligh Township area, 5 miles southwest of Bancroft, Nebraska.

In order to homestead, settlers had a certain length of time to make improvements to the land, a process called “proving up.” Johann borrowed money to get his farm started.

Although he didn’t have a lot of money or farm tools to work with, he increased his real estate through “diligence, perseverance and saving habits,” as his obituary put it.  Their small sod home, built into the slope of the ground eventually made way for their first real house that their six children would live in.

What the Leitows experienced years ago reverberates today. One of Johann and Albertine’s children, Gustav, farmed the same land. My grandma read that Gustav had joined a radical group that demanded fair crop prices. Low corn prices today worry my grandparents.

Unfortunately, we can only know so much about our roots. No matter how well we keep our records, we always lose something.

My grandparents have letters that would reveal more about my ancestors’ lives than government paperwork ever could. They are written in German, though, which my family no longer speaks. Until we find a way to translate them, the stories are lost to my family.

Yet at the same time as these letters are lost, my grandma and I are texting each other about Johann and his family.

text conversation with my grandmother

I asked a question; she answered with what information she knew. It’s our version of letter correspondence, and she saved our conversation, sending it by email to some of my family members as a way to catalogue the history she shared with me.

She mentioned her plans to make a more complete family history at some point. And during the process of working on this project, my aunt put an ad on Facebook asking for a German translator for the letters.

So much of our lives are digital now, and I hope that our history turns out to be accessible for our descendents when they want to learn about us.

It’s a shame, but even when the facts are available, we don’t always take advantage of it. My grandparents still have the land that my great-great-great-grandparents worked on years ago. It wasn’t until recently that I learned we homesteaded there.

They still have some of the square-headed nails used to hold the buildings together. My grandpa can point out where the sod house used to be on their farm property. The 40-foot well that Johann dug by hand continues to hold its ground on my grandparents’ farm.

I may not know everything about my family history, but I can touch these artifacts and know at least something about where my family came from. I’m lucky, because that’s more than some people know.