The Voortrekker Cornelius Engelbrecht who settled at Rietfontein in 1843

by Willie Meyer – from his book “Magaliesberg Kaleidoscope”

Longevity is a trademark of the Engelbrecht family of Rietfontein. People who would be regarded by other families as elderly are still youngsters in Engelbrecht terms. At least, that is the impression one gets if one looks at the Engelbrecht family tree.

The first Engelbrecht to farm in the Moot was Cornelius Johannes Engelbrecht who was 20 years old when he settled on the farm Rietfontein in 1843. He was a Voortrekker and according to family lore he paid just more than half a crown for the farm of 8 000 morgen (just more than 6 800 hectares). If the date is correct, it means that the farm is even older than Grootplaats, De Rust, the farm the Voortrekker leader, Andries Pretorius, established in 1848. The Engelbrechts have been here for more than 20 years before General Hendrik Schoeman settled along the Crocodile River in 1868.

Cornelius Engelbrecht was 92 years old when he died in 1915. His son, Johannes Cornelius, was 84 when he died at Rietfontein in 1952, and his son, Oom Witneusie, 86, when he died. Oom Jan Engelbrecht, the last patriarch of Rietfontein and in earlier years a well-known butcher in the area, was 90 when he died in March 2010. The eldest of the next generation is Ouboet Neels, who is still farming on Rietfontein.

Many sombre and many happy scenes unfolded over the years on Rietfontein, but this is not the Rietfontein that inspired the Afrikaans poet ID du Plessis to write about “Rietfontein se leidam, waar die reiers staan en droom”. Rietfontein got its name from the thick stands of reed and the fountain with the seven “eyes” which made Rietfontein such an excellent irrigation farm and in earlier years supplied most of the area with water.

The name “Engelbrecht”, according to the website, is the Dutch form of the Old German personal name Engelbert or Ingelbert, a combination of the name Engel, a German folk hero, and “behrt” meaning “clever” or “famous”. It was a popular name in Europe during the Middle Ages because it was the name of one of Charlemagne’s sons-in-law. According to DF du T Malherbe[1] the first Engelbrecht to arrive in South Africa was Jan Engelbrecht from Zaandam in the Netherlands who arrived in 1717.

The original homestead of the Voortrekker Cornelius Engelbrecht does not exist anymore and at the beginning of the 21st century only ruins were left of the second homestead. Neels occupied the home in which they grew up, while the house of Oupa Witneusie was still standing but now belonged to other people. That is the so-called double house of which one part was built from stone or bricks and the other part of corrugated iron. No records of the building exist, but it is accepted that the first part was built during the latter part of the 19th century and the corrugated iron part added around 1900.

Joos, the second son in the present generation of Engelbrecht brothers, remembers well how they visited Oupa Witneusie and how they enjoyed the thick slices of bread, freshly baked in the outdoor oven (which was still standing), covered with generous amounts of fresh farm butter.

In those years Oom Blinde Jannie, Joos’s uncle, lived with his parents in the double house. He was born blind and later contracted polio but was fairly independent and attended Kameeldrift School on his own.

In later years he went to Pretoria by bus every day to go to work or do business. In his old age he lived with his sister, Aunt Bettie van der Merwe, who was a few years his senior, and her son, Pieter.

Aunt Bettie attended the one-man school of Mr Slade in Rietfontein but the school was closed down in 1937 and all the children had to travel by bus to Kameeldrift. There were eight children – three sons and five daughters – but after the death of Oom Jan, Oom Blinde Jannie was the only surviving male of that generation. Apart from Aunt Bettie, two sisters were still alive at that stage.

During the Anglo Boer War one of the homesteads on Rietfontein, most probably the double house, was occupied by the British forces as headquarters during the Battle of Silkaatsnek. Little is known about this occupation and probably the only record that exists is a photograph in Jack Seale’s collection of British soldiers on the veranda of the house.

Tangible evidence of the long association of the Engelbrechts with Rietfontein is the family graveyard. The graveyard where all the Engelbrechts who lived on Rietfontein, their wives, husbands and children, as well as their Christianised servants, were buried has been well kept through the years. There are many graves with old tombstones dating from the middle and late nineteenth century, but also many graves without headstones.

It was the custom at the time that when a patriarch dies, the farm was divided amongst his children. The result was that the eight thousand morgen Rietfontein was divided into progressively smaller sections.

After so many generations and subdivisions a relatively small portion of Rietfontein is still in the possession of the Engelbrechts, but the fifth generation descendants of the Voortrekker Cornelius Engelbrecht, all of them male, still live on smallholdings in Rietfontein. They are Neels, the eldest, Joost and Johnny and like their ancestors they are all keen horse people. All of them have married children and grandchildren and in at least one instance, that of Joost’s granddaughter, Jennifer, who was born in England, the seeds have been blown across the sea.

As long as the Engelbrechts have been established at Rietfontein, there were signs of human or even pre-human activity long, possibly thousands or even a millions of years before the Mzilikazi or the Po inhabited the area before them. On a shale outcrop near one of the fountains there are clear signs of stone implements having been fashioned – probably from the early Stone Age. A rocky outcrop close to water in a valley teeming with game must have been an ideal spot for the early hunter gatherers. A number of such workshops have been found at various places in the Moot, but many have been destroyed by development before they could be properly researched.

 A copy of the book by Willie Meyer is available at the Kormorant office.

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