Adventures in America

Pieter Zee was an adventurer and pioneer. In many ways, the story of Peter Zee is the story of America itself. He left his native Holland in 1906, becoming the first Zee to emigrate abroad, and starting a wave of emigration that would see his wife’s entire family move to the US, as well as his cousin Paul Zee and his family.

A lightening strike and life changes

Pieter was born in 1881, and grew up in the village of Twisk, Noord Holland, where the Zee family had lived since 1834. Pieter had one older brother, Klaas Zee. On April 25th, 1900, Klaas married Trijntje Wijdenes, in Nibbixwoud, near Twisk. Trijntje became pregnant with their first child shortly afterwards.

Thunderstorms are not uncommon in the warm Dutch summers, but the night of August 20th that year saw an intense wave of unsettled weather cross the country. Heavy lightning strikes started fires that burned farmhouses across the country. Klaas Zee was up early, as was the norm for the farming family, and at 5am that Monday was struck by a bolt of lightning. He died instantly, at the age of just 23. They had been married just four months.

For Pieter, losing his brother at such a young age compounded the loss of his mother Geertje when he had been 14. Now, it was just he and his father. As a result, in December 1900, Pieter was discharged from his obligation for military service, because he was now the only son.

Pieter Zee’s military record, 1901.

From Holland to Canada …

In 1906, aged 24, Pieter was ready for adventure. His father Pieter had since remarried. Advertisements in Holland attracting young farmers to Canada were common, and promised a new life. Pieter signed up, and his destination was Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Manitoba calls. The best farmland in the world, the advertisement says.

Pieter first made his way to Liverpool, to board the SS Laurentian on April 3rd, 1906. He had $100 in cash. On board the Laurentian was another young Dutchman, Cornelis (Cees) Molenaar. Their meeting would prove fateful.

The voyage was likely not the most comfortable. The Laurentian was originally named the Polynesian, and had a bad reputation, as she was said to “roll on wet grass” and was called “Rolling Poly”. There were two accomodation options: first class, with for 36 passengers, or third – for 1,000. With a speed of 13 knots, the voyage was completed in 10 days, and Pieter arrived in Halifax on April 13th.

Change of plans: United States instead

Piet’s friend on board the Laurentian, Cees Molenaar, had already been in the US, and sold him on the idea of giving that a go instead. He and his brother John had travelled to Oregon a few years earlier, John was still there, and things looked promising. And so, on Jun 26th, 1906, Pieter Zee finds himself at the border crossing at St. Albans, Vermont, with a new destination: Ontario, Oregon.

Immigration form for Pieter Zee, June 26 1906

Go West

If, like Piet and Cees, you find yourself in St. Albans, Vermont, and want to get to Ontario, Oregon, how do you make that happen? Even today, it’s a hefty journey – a 39 hour car drive, or a tiresome series of flights via New York and San Francisco.

In 1906, with two years still to run before the Ford Model T would start being produced, and the Wright brothers still trying to persuade the government that their flying machine actually worked, there was only one option: the Railroad. The route west from St. Albans would have taken Piet and Cees via Chicago, and onto the Chicago-Portland special on the Union Pacific railroad.

The Chicago Portland special, photgraphed in August 1906.
1900 railroad map showing the final run into Ontario, Oregon on the Union Pacific. [>]


And so, in 1906, Pieter arrived in Ontario, Oregon. It wasn’t long before he found his own piece of land, at Westfall – 50 miles west.

Westfall is a tiny, remote town, with all the trappings of the “Old West”: a saloon, marshalls, shootouts, horses, and cowboys. This picture taken around 1910, when the population of Westfall was exactly 140 people (including Pieter Zee), shows the Hart Saloon. A gunfight here in 1912 was the talk of the town.

The Westfall Saloon, c. 1910 (quite possibly with Pieter Zee in picture, but we don’t know)

Earl Smith describes the place, and how the story starts [>]: It was a typical saloon of the Old West – quite a large building with a back door and front batwing doors. On a raised platform in an alcove stood a piano that I don’t suppose had been tuned in ten years. There was a pool table, barroom chairs, a couple of card tables, and a big potbellied stove. A long bar extended nearly the full length of the building, with a large mirror and ornate back bar. May 10, 1912 was a day of sunshine, quiet, and peace. There was nobody in town to speak of, for nearly everyone was busy at the ranches.

Ben Corbett resigned as Marshall the previous month. Ace Carey wanted the job. The mayor was out of town, but the town council, after much badgering by Carey, gave him the job. Ace Carey was a troublemaker, and had previously killed two men. The appointment was not going to last. When the mayor came back, he immediately removed Carey as Marshal and appointed Jasper Westfall to the position. 40 year old Jasper was a relative of the City’s founder and was known as a fair minded sober man.

The loss of his star made Ace mad, and the more he thought about it, the madder he became. As a climax he teamed up with Arthur Ricketts and got roaring drunk. They had been out of town earlier in the day, but some time around three or four o’clock they came back. At Hart’s saloon they had a couple of drinks, then stepped out on the porch, and Ace began shooting into the ceiling.

Jasper’s house was perhaps half a block from the saloon, and someone told him Ace was shooting up the town. He buckled on a police-positive six-shooter and went to the front of the saloon where Ace and Arthur were still standing. Jasper remonstrated with Ace, telling him to go home and quiet down and forget it. There was some more talk, and Ace asked, “Who’s going to make me?” Jasper replied, “I am. You’re under arrest right now,” and he pulled his gun. Ace took a step backward and fired three shots from an automatic. His gun had been in his hand, under his bib overalls, and he never raised his arm, but shot from breast level. One shot missed, one hit Jasper in the arm, and one penetrated his abdomen; the third one was the cause of his death. He lived about two hours, his last words being, “Earl, will you get me a drink?”

Ace was put in jail, and perhaps was one of its last occupants. The town of Westfall went into decline. This 1912 Gunfight was the last incident of its kind at Westfall, for within a year the town had all but disappeared. Westfall became nearly deserted, which it remains to this day.

Westfall in 1912 [>]

The Zee Ranch at Westfall

Pieter Zee’s place was a little out of town, sited in an oval shaped valley on Bully Creek. The land he owned totalled 160 acres.

The Zee Ranch at Westfall, on Bully Creek [>]
Title document for the Pieter Zee ranch [>]

In early 1909, Pieter went back to Holland. After three years in Oregon, he wanted a wife, and a family. His cousin Paul Zee was married to a lady named Johanna de Graaff, and her younger sister Gezina was a match for Pieter. She had lived with them for several years in Amsterdam.

Pieter and Gezina arrived in the US on March 23rd, 1909, and were married two days later, in Chicago. From there, they continued on to Westfall, and a year later, their first son Gerald P. Zee was born. Henry J. Zee followed two years later.

Raising two small children on a farm in the Wild West cannot have been an easy task. By 1914 they were ready for change, which might have been accelerated by the fact that the government wanted to flood his valley to create a reservoir:

At the time, his cousin Paul Zee and Gezina’s sister Johanna were living in Sheldon, Iowa, and so they moved ‘back east’ to be close to their extended family.

The Ranch at Westfall still exists today, and is owned by the Jordan family. The Zee homestead was incorporated into the house that stands there today. A newspaper article from some years ago tells more about the beauty of Westfall. “It was still the hunting grounds of the Paiute, Bannock and Shoshone Indians”, says Nelora Jordan, whose husband’s family has lived in the area for more than 100 years. “Cottonwood, willow and alder trees lined the creeks, sagebrush covered the flats and rolling hills, and junipers dotted the rocky bluffs that surrounded the valley.” “It is rather sad,” Mrs. Jordan writes in her history of the area, “to come upon the tumble-down buildings, cellars and corrals that were once the dreams of the future for these hardy people.” [>]

To Iowa, and Grand Rapids

In 1920, Pieter made a trip to Holland, Belgium, and France. The main reason for the trip was to visit his father who was nearing the end of his life, and was not well.

Pieter Zee in 1920, picture taken for his passport to visit Holland. The newspaper report is from the Alton Democrat.


Pieter had three children. Gerald Pieter Zee, was born in Westfall. At the age of 18 and recorded on the 1930 census, Peter’s occupation is ‘drugstore clerk’. A few years later he started a 44 year working carreer at West Side Beer Distributors in Grand Rapids, Kent, Michigan. [>]

Gerald P. Zee, School yearbook 1930 (South High School, Grand Rapids) [>]

Henry J. Zee was also born in Westfall.

Clarence Paul Zee worked with his father as a gardener, then at the Alcoa plant in Bergen, NJ. He married Elizabeth Nesnadny around 1940. He died in Shasta, California in 1996.

Clarence P. Zee, 1931 (Top, Center) [>]

Ancestral Line



Pieter Zee
* 01-Sep-1881 Twisk [Pieter Zee & Geertje Zijp]
+ 20-Aug-1966 San Gabriel, CA       
x Gesina de Graaff 25-Mar-1909 Chicago
* 18-Jun-1887 [Hendrik Jacob de Graaff & Antje Prins]
+ 26-Apr-1971 Los Angeles

1 Gerald Peter    07-Dec-1910 Westfall, Oregon  x Ruth Conyer 
2 Henry Jacob     28-Dec-1912 Westfall, Oregon
3 Clarence Paul   23-Nov-1914 Sheldon, Iowa     x Elizabeth Nesnadny

Gerald Peter Zee
* 07-Dec-1910 Westfall, Oregon [Pieter Zee & Gezina de Graaff]
+ 31-Jul-2000 Grand Rapids, Michigan
x (1) Ruth Conyer 1932 Indiana
* 16-Jan-1907 Michigan [Milton Conyer & Hattie Chamberlain]
+ 02-Mar-1973 Grand Rapids, MI

1 Larry x Nancy
  Children: Josh, Jessica

x (2) Pauline

Henry Jacob Zee
* 28-Dec-1912 Westfall, Oregon [Pieter Zee & Gezina de Graaff]
+ 19-Oct-1986 Los Angeles, CA

No children.

Clarence Paul Zee
* 23-Nov-1914 Sheldon, Iowa [Pieter Zee & Gezina de Graaff]
+ 30-Nov-1996 Shasta, CA
x Elizabeth Nesnadny c. 1940, New Jersey
* ~1916            [Matis Nesnadny & Mary Kratky]
+ ~1989

~ Jeffrey P. Zee 1947 ? x Isabel
~ Gary Peter Zee 1951 ?



Peter Zee

03-Jun-1896 Peters mother Geertje dies, aged 42. Peter is 15. [>]

29-Oct-1899 Pieter Zee, his father, marries Antje Timmerman [>] From 1900-1906 Pieter is living in Twisk, with father, step mother Antje, step-sister Dieuwertje Glas. [>]

25-Apr-1900 Peters brother Klaas gets married in Nibbixwoud. Klaas died 4 months later, on August 20th, 1900, in Opperdoes, at the age of 23. [>]

20-Aug-1900 Klaas Zee is struck by lightning, at 5am on the morning of August 20th, 1900, and dies.

1900 Twisk population register [>]. Pieter Zee listed with note “Afgeschreven wegens vertrek naar buitenland … 9e volkstelling (1909)] … Twisk 1900-1909. 

1901 Pieter Zee enrollment, military, living in Twisk, registers in Nibbixwoud where father Pieter Zee is living. “Only son” and therefore freed from military duty requirement. Decision 15-Dec-1900. No further comments. [>]

13-Apr-1906 Pieter Zee arrives Halifax, Canada on SS Laurentian. [>] Ship: LAURENTIAN Shipping Line: Allan Line Steamship Co. Port of Departure: Liverpool, England Date of Departure: 1906-04-03 Port of Arrival: Halifax, N.S. Date of Arrival: 1906-04-13 [>] N.A.T.C. Bonus allowed. Profession: Farmer. $100 in cash. The bonus indicates that the North Atlantic Trading Company would receive a bonus for the immigrant, who were responsible for advertising and recruiting agricultural workers in Europe to move to Canada. Destination: Winnipeg. Also on board, Cornelis Molenaar, 26, from Holland, gardener, with $200 in cash, dest Winnipeg.

26-Jun-1906 Pieter enters the US at St. Albans, Vermont, traveling with Cornelis Molenaar, and they will stay with friend John Molenaar. Cornelis listed as being in Ontario, Oregon for 2 yrs 11 mo 1903-1905. For both Peter and Cornelis, last residence is listed as Winnipeg, Manitoba. Cees Molenaar first travelled to the US in 1903 w brother Jan in 1903, to their cousin in Ontario, Oregon. P. Tensen [>]

28-Apr-1909 Dieuwertje Glas, his step-sister, moves from the home in Twisk (Nr. 26) to Berkhout, after she married Andries Willemszoon Spaander on 23-Apr-1909. [>]

15-Jun-1909 Antje Timmerman dies, his fathers second wife (and mother of Dieuwertje Glas) [>]

1910 US Census. Peter Zee & Gesina, Westfall, Oregon. Fred Kingsbury, hired man. Farm Laborer, aged 35.

12-Sep-1918 WWI Draft registration card, Peter Zee, Alton, IO. Age 37, Occuption: Livery [>]

03-Apr-1920 Peter Zee applies for passport in Orange City, Iowa. Born 01-Sep-1881. Blond hair, blue eyes, 5'8. Father Peter Zee living in Wijdenes. Emigrated to the US on March 25th, 1906, sailing from Amsterdam. Westfall, Oregon from 1906-1914, and Alton, Iowa from 1914-1920. Became US Citizen on Sep 11, 1913 in Vale, Oregon. Stays outside US: Visited in Holland in 1909 for a period of 3 months. Occupation: Livery. Planning a 6 month trip outside US, Netherlands to visit father and mother, Belgium and France for ’touring’. Planning to leave via Hoboken on Holland America Line. Primary reason for the trip is that his father is sick and would like to see him before he passes away. [>]

Clarence Paul Zee

~1940 Clarence Paul Zee, aged 25, DOB 23-Nov-1915, living 16 Helen St., Little Ferry, Bergen, NJ. Wife Elizabeth. Working Aluminum company of Edgewater. WWII Draft Cards [>]

~1940 Clarence marries Elizabeth Nesnadny, b. ~1916 New York, daughter of Matis Nesnadny & Mary (emigrated from Austria). Dept. store salesgirl. [>]

04-Feb-1952 NESNADNY Of 122 Williams Avenue. South Hackrnpack, on Saturday, February 2nd. 1952. Mary. Beloved wife of the late Matis and devoted mother of Rose, Elizabeth Zee and John. Sister of Kitie Kraiovic and Teresa Kretky. [>] 

26-Feb-1962 BAUMSTEIGER Rose of 20 Spring Garden Lane on Friday, February 23. 1962, Beloved mother of Ronald E. Sister of Elizabeth Zee and John Nesnadny. [>] [John Nesnady poss b. 1927]


Join the discussion One Comment

  • Jen says:

    Clarence Zee (Jerry” Zee, not to be confused with older brother ‘Gerald’), is my grandfather. He & Elizabeth’s daughter, Judith Ann, was my mom. She passed in 2017.
    I’ve been reading so much about the Zee family thanks to you.


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