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Roloffs in South Dakota



1883 - 1900
South Dakota Album

South Dakota Prairie



The Dakota Territory adventures of the Roloff Family have been a subject of my interest for many years. Grandma Bertha Heinrich Ziemer's genealogy revealed that our Great Great Grandfather Carl Roloff had led the family - along with his Osterwein neighbors, the Gergollas - from East Prussia to Chicago and then on to the Great Northern Plains of the Dakotas. Beyond that, it was as if a chapter had been torn from the Family History and lost forever. Carl Roloff died there, we understood, and the surviving members of the family came back to Chicago, leaving Grandma Bertha with nothing but dreadful ideas about the lonesome prairie, blinding blizzards and hungry wolves at the door. After Grandma was gone, it seemed hopeless to find any facts about the family's experiences. Many attempts to find evidence ended in disappointment - Federal Census Records for the Territory weren't available in federal archives; nor were vital statistics kept for that period, even after South Dakota's statehood. Descendants of the family in the Chicago area - those who could be located - were unable to add any information.

But computer searches and increased availability of records on line changed everything. I was able to find the families in an 1885 Territorial Census (with the name spelled Roloph!) That information gave a surprising picture of the pioneers in those early years, filling in blanks with previously unknown family members. Not long after, I was able to access the Bureau of Land Management records on line. This data base finally provided the exact location of the property they settled in 1883, and I was able to send to the federal archives for detailed information: copies of the first papers signed by Carl Roloff, a record of the improvements made on the property, crops planted, etc. Around that same time I exchanged information with Donna Hanousa Bergman, a member of the Archer/Gergolla Family, who visited the area and shared more about the immigrants' lives on the Prairie. I could barely wait for my own chance to see the place for myself.

Thomas en route Thomas en route In 2005 our son Thomas - armed with maps, satellite photos and a GPS unit - took a long detour from his motorcycle trip in Montana to investigate the area. He was able to find the original Carl Roloff farm and take a few pictures. While stopped along the narrow road, he met a local farmer named Gerald Mullaney, who offered his assistance in the search for our history.

In 2006 I finally made the trip myself, my wife Dawn and I arriving on a cold, blustery day in October. I had previously called Gerald Mullaney and arranged to meet him at his farm when we arrived in Hand County. Our friend was willing to guide us to the key locations in the area.
Most of the property consisted of 160-acre quarter-sections, which were either claimed by a homestead pre-emption or paid for with cash. Of course all of the property was sold to new owners long ago, but some of the land is still held by families whose forebears were neighbors of the Roloffs and Gergollas in the 1880's. In many cases the farm houses and barns are in ruins, with the fields leased out to other farmers, or allowed to return to native prairie for grazing.
       CLICK on the thumbnail at right for 2005 Land Ownership in Park Township; CLICK to enlarge.

Albert Roloff, Carl's son, had been the first in the country, arriving in 1880 to scout ahead for the rest. In April of 1883, he filed the first claim by our family, the NE quarter of Section 12. Albert also took possession of a large irregular-shaped parcel right at the Hand County line in Section 2. By 1888 he claimed to have built a house and barn, and had 40 acres of prairie sod broken and sown for wheat, oats, and potatoes. Below, right, are some views of Albert's first homestead claim (Section 12.)
Albert Roloff Homestead

Highlighted names indicate property ownership 1883-1890.

In 2006 part of the land was under cultivation, but the only other evidence of settlement was a collapsed barn and rubble from the foundations of older structures.

Albert Roloff Homestead

Carl Roloff, the father, had only just arrived in the U.S. port of New York with his wife, his youngest daughter and son, (along with our great grandmother Theresa) on April 4, 1883. In Chicago in May he filed his first citizenship papers. By June 7 he was settling on his new property in the Dakota Territory. That same month he filed the paperwork for a pre-emption purchase, eventually paying $200 (at the going rate of $1.25/acre) for his claim on a quarter of Section 24.
Carl Roloff's Declaration
of Intent to become a citizen
Carl Roloff's Proof
of Settlement on his Claim
Roloff Family
1885 Territorial Census
Gergolla Family
1885 Territorial Census

Click on the Thumbnails above to view the documents; click to enlarge.

Shade trees with an orchard beyond.

The well-house now holds an electric well pump.
Carl Roloff dug a well in the 1880's, which may have been in use with the windmill.

This old stone foundation could mark the footprint of Carl Roloff's original farmhouse, which was 14' x 18'.

Carl Roloff's original stable was 18' x 20'.

The existing buildings are presently abandoned.

After 2 years, Carl claimed to have 70 acres planted in wheat, oats, flax, and corn.

Friend and neighbor Gerald Mullaney escorted us around the area. He owns a farm in Howell Township to the south, and works some of the land close to our ancestors' old holdings.

Property once belonging to Wilhelmine, Daniel Gergolla's daughter, who married the Englishman John Archer.
Archer bought 160 acres of Section 24 off the corner of Carl Roloff's land, and another quarter of section 25 adjoining; that parcel was still in John Archer's name in 1930.

Cattle graze on land once cultivated by Gottfried Gergolla, who married Carl Roloff's daughter Emilie.

Daniel Gergolla, the father of Gottfried, Minnie, and the younger Adolph, bought the land along the creek

The Howell Cemetery was a great find. No doubt the cemetery was laid out at the same town as the boom town of Howell, after 1883 - but the tiny graveyard outlasted the town itself - there is virtually no other sign of Howell left today. Gerald Mullaney took us there, right over in Howell Township, not far from his farm.
Click HERE for a link to an online Howell Cemetery resource page.

We very quickly found the Archer Family monument, with smaller "head-" and "footstone" slabs around it, marking 2 graves.

Gottliebe Gergolla (1824 - 1895) was the wife of Daniel, mother of Gottfried, Adolph, and Minnie Schuster Archer.

The Archers lost their 9-year old daughter Victoria in 1898.

The Archer monument probably had an ornament on top similar to that on this neighboring stone marking graves of Anna Schuster and her husband. Could this couple have been former in-laws to Minnie Archer from her earlier marriage? (Schuster was her name on the ship's passenger list, and the surname of her son Albert.)

St Michael's Lutheran Church was started in March of 1883 in Orient, just a few miles from the Roloff/Gergolla farms. The Rev. Franz Matter originally held German services in his home for a small congregation that had come up from Iowa with him. St. Michael's The frame church was built in 1887. It would have been a convenient place for the immigrant Roloffs and Gergollas to worship.

St. Michael's Cemetery In 1945, the church was moved to a new location, where it stood until relatively recently. The congregation having been absorbed into the Orient Lutheran church, St. Michael's was abandoned and the building sold. Gerald Mullaney showed us where a neighboring farmer had carted it off to use as a storage building (without the steeple.) The church cemetery, however, is still in use back at the original location southwest of Orient. We drove over there to seek family members, but if they are there, no stones mark their graves.

Miller Courthouse ca.1925 The Hand County Courthouse at the County Seat of Miller, SD was another source of information. We found the lady in the records division very friendly and helpful. I was able to confirm much of the research done to that point, and also add some detail from the written records of Howell Cemetery.

More photos and useful genealogical data about the area are available at the Hand County web page.

RR @ Redfield Redfield, South Dakota (Spink County) was the last stop for our families on the Chicago and Northwestern railroad line from Chicago. This is probably where the Roloffs and Gergollas arrived in 1883, and also their point of departure when returning to Chicago. Redfield Depot It was not a long wagon ride, about 20 miles from the railroad depot in Redfield to the farms of Park Township in Hand County (a couple of miles shorter than the trip south to Miller.) They may have made the trip regularly for supplies and a market. According to Grandma Bertha, Carl Roloff died in Redfield in 1890. Did he happen to fall ill while in town, or was he brought here to a doctor, or to the hospital, where he died? We may never know. His name doesn't appear in the records of the Spink County Cemetery, either, so for now, at least, Carl Roloff's final resting place remains unknown.

Mitchell Corn Palace
And lastly, no trip to South Dakota would be complete without a visit to the Corn Palace in Mitchell.


From Various Online Collections


Promotion for Howell Train at Redfield Redfield Railroad Depot Breaking sod on the Prairie
Sod House Threshing Crew Cutting Flax Harvesting wheat
Child's Funeral Gas Engine Plow Steam Plow Miller Courthouse ca. 1925


Many thanks to all those who contributed to the research:
  • Gerald Mullaney, Landowner of Hand County, SD
  • Hand County Courthouse
  • Donna Hanusa Bergman, descendant of John Archer and of the Hanusas, author of much family research.
  • Ellen Hanusa Wonderlin, author of "Cross-Country Connection" a Hanusa Family History.
  • Carolyn S. Rosemore, author of the Hand County Genealogy Resource Page

  • Click HERE to view a chart of Carl Roloff's descendants.