Vol. 1, No. 2 1977 FRT
Were we to ask our readers, particularly those from the island Feer, to submit names for this column, the name Lucky Matthias would undoubtedly be on top of the list. Matthias Petersen, Olersem/Feer, was one of the most, if not the most, successful whalers of old-time primitive whaling. His fame extended to all harbors in Europe, which took part in this industry, and beyond. Here his fame was probably only of short duration. On faded leaves in archives we might find his name among those of other whalers. Had Matthias been equally successful in hunting two-legged terrestrial mammals in a military conflict, instead of marine mammals, his name undoubtedly would have been written in many prominent places.
When the writer of this article visited the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, he expected to find a section dedicated to the 200 year history of whaling. He was disappointed when, instead, he was confronted with a magnificent display of models of warships, admirable indeed for its workmanship and beauty. In a less conspicuous corner he did find a selection of small pictures of the whaling period. Perhaps he was in the wrong place - yes, perhaps.
Matthias entered this world during the most inspiring and cheerful holiday season, Christmas. The day of birth was Dec. 24, 1632, the day of Baptism Dec. 27, on which day he was given the name Matz (not Matthias) and the second name Peters, being the son of Peter Johnen (1595-1643). The whole town and neighboring ones, we are sure, joined them in their happiness. Soon, however, their joy faded away, the harsh reality of life being with them at all times. Crops were inadequate, fire wood was scarce, goods were not readily available even if money was there, taxes were too high. Yet they managed accepting the hardship and struggles of life. An old saying "kommer wennet" (i.e. you get used to hardship and adversities) has always given them strength. They really considered themselves fortunate, knowing that in far away lands (Central Europe, mainly Germany) town after town was reduced to rubble and ashes. A war was in progress and there was no end in sight. -- If only the 140 year old dike would hold!! But it did not. In 1634 the dikes broke and the low lying lands were again covered by the salty waters of the North Sea, rendering the soil useless for years to come. Bad as it was, it could have been worse. Such was the consolation on Feer, Sal and Oomram when news arrived that Old Nordstrand was torn apart with the loss of from 7000-8000 people and many more heads of cattle and sheep. Their sympathy now was with those who had suffered most. -- The tide in question, the reader might recall, was the one mentioned in the first two Roundtable issues under the heading: "Frisians in Early New York." There we stated that survivors of this tide had been accepted by Jonas Bronck as passengers on the "Brand van Trogen" with destination New Amsterdam.
For those of us who have at one time or another experienced a smattering of the simple life of bygone days, it is an easy matter to picture the life of children of the 1630s. Perhaps the youngsters of those days were more content than many others have been since. We are convinced, therefore, that Matz, his two older brothers, Jens (1627-1697), Peter (1629-1678), and his younger brother John (or Jon) (1641-1691), and two younger sisters Thur and Jong Thur, had a good and exciting early youth, without the goodies and extravagances of much later years. It was a different matter for the mature youth. For them there had been for decades an atmosphere of despair. Since a few years now there appeared a ray of hope on a dark horizon. With the accidental discovery of excellent fishing grounds up north an industry had been started in Holland which was to spread to numerous harbor towns. Hopes had become a reality and chances for employment had appeared. Matz was one of many who at the then mature age of 11 or 12, was willing and anxious to face the challenges of the outside world. The whaling period had begun, and with it the Third Golden Age of the North Frisian. It turned out to the "golden" because of the efforts of one man: Richardus Petri. This young pastor of the St. Laurentii church on Feer had a knowledge of navigation. In this he gave courses to the seafaring men. With this knowledge in their possession the road to higher positions was open. Matz became a Commander in his early twenties. (The title Commander was given to the master of a ship destined for northern waters as distinguished from a Captain for the "seven seas.")
In 1677 he donated jointly with his brother John (also a commander) two beautiful chandeliers to the St. Laurentii church. We like to feel that this was done in gratitude to Richardus Petri, who had baptized and confirmed the two brothers, had taught them navigation and been, undoubtedly, an inspiration to them. Perhaps the visibly aging and failing pastor had been the reason for making the donation at that time, for the good pastor died in 1678.
The success of Matz Peters was not due to just "luck" but more so to his skill as a seaman and navigator and his knowledge of northern waters. He changed his name to Matthias Petersen and was known as the "Lucky Matthias." His luck ran out in 1702 when French pirates captured him and confiscated his ship. Due to his wealth, a by-product of his success, he was able to buy his freedom for 8000 dollars.
On two other ships, owned by him, were three of his sons. One of them, Matthias by name, Commander of one ship, was taken by French pirates with his ship to St. Malo and was never heard from. On the other ship his two sons, Ocke (also called Otto), the commander, and Johann lost their lives during a battle with pirates.
The total number of whales caught by Lucky Matthias during his life time came to 373. Such a number is being reached by modern whalers with their grenade pointed harpoon guns within a few weeks. We must leave it to the readers to judge whether or not the whaling of our ancestors can be compared with the mass slaughter of contemporary methods.
Like most of our ancestors Matthias Petersen retained the name he had taken on while in foreign lands. His children therefore were given the name Matthiessen. It became their family name long before the patronymical system (named after the fathers first name) was discontinued.
Peter Matthiessen, 1677-1752, son of Lucky Matthias, was lunfööghels (administrator) of the Eastern Harde which included the island Sal as well as the eastern part of Feer. In addition he was Counsellor of Justice in Wik (Wyk auf Föhr).
His son Marcus succeeded him as lunfööghels on Feer, whereas Matthias, another son, followed him on Sal.
A third son, Peter, became a Secretary at the Danish Embassy in Paris and in Stockholm. In 1771 he was appointed First Mayor of Copenhagen. In 1775 he became one of the Directors at the Royal Institute of Commerce and Shipping in Altona, and served there as a counsellor of Justice.
A son of the latter Peter, whose name was also Peter, 1767-1830, was a public official and a counsellor in Tonders.
It appears that a Danish architect (as stated in a write-up mailed us) is a descendant of this man, or of Marcus. This architect was a Trustee of the National Audobon Society, and his son is a recipient of our bulletin.