updated 4 November 2016
Hendrik Potgieter was born in Graaff-Reinet in 1792 to a trekboer family. Apparently a quiet, but egocentric and individualistic person he became relatively prosperous in the eastern Cape colony. Motivated, however, by the Slagtersnek Rebellion against British rule in 1815 and the ongoing loss of Dutch lives and property during the frontier wars he assembled a small group of families and in 1835 personally led them out of the Cape to establish themselves in the interior. Joined by others once they were beyond the colonial boundary at Thaba Nchu, Potgieter was elected military commander of the enlarged party.
Roused by the murder of a family in the group by an Ndebele patrol and a subsequent and more serious attack on his laager at Vegkop in October 1836, Potgieter led a punitive attack against Mzilikazi, routing the chief's followers, sacking the headquarters at Mosega and making off with thousands of head of cattle. In November that year, aided by Piet Uys, Potgieter forced Mzilikazi to flee into what is today Zimbabwe.
Although this victory left the Voortrekkers in control of the Highveld, they disagreed among themselves as to how best to secure their future. Potgieter was a powerful leader and he and his faction left Potchefstroom, the capital at the time, to settle further north at Ohrigstad in 1845. A further division then occurred, explained by Herman Giliomee in The Afrikaners: Biography of a People as a clash in principle between those who saw survival in permanent cattle-keeping and those – like Potgieter and his group – who favoured a life of nomadic raiding (of wildlife, cattle and people) with the assistance of African allies. Together with the appearance of very deep political schisms, Potgieter's unprovoked attack on the Langa, a Transvaal Ndebele group, the Voortrekkers reached the brink of civil war.
Representing the two major divisions were Potgieter, with his headquarters in the Soutpansberg, and Andries Pretorius in the Magaliesberg. Potgieter was extremely displeased when Pretorius negotiated independence for the Transvaal at the Sand River Convention of 1852, even though liberty from British rule had also been Potgieter's goal. The two leaders made their peace in Rustenburg in March 1852 but neither lived long thereafter and Potgieter died in December 1852. Potgieter remains a controversial figure; he had a difficult personality and was both autocratic and ruthless to followers as well as to those he regarded as enemies, particularly the African communities in the Transvaal. There is no doubt, however, that he put his stamp on the historical and political evolution of the North West.