Seeking ancestors some times feels like a “Search and Rescue” mission. In the daily conduct of my busy life it became very easy to get up every day and go to work and blindly move through life at a blinding speed. Our children grow to adulthood in the wink of an eye. Our forefathers become forgotten. True, we routinely fire off fireworks on July 4 to remember the Revolution. We eat turkey or ham at Thanksgiving to remember the Pilgrims and we become solemn twice a year on Memorial and Veterans Day. My search for ancestors resurrected souls that were there as Pilgrims, as soldiers in the Civil War of England and America, preachers in the Reformation and patriots and loyalists in the Revolutionary War. I had heard of Bacon’s Rebellion but never knew my great grandparents were involved.
When you live in the Northwoods as I do, Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, NY seems far removed from anything I might know. And it is. When you grow up believing you are German and Irish you tend to forget that grandparents multiply exponentially as you go back in time. Somebody in that tree is bound to surface from a remote place I never dreamed possible. Discovering those ancient faces and the story of their lives becomes increasingly important to me as I grow older and wiser. My ancestors left a legacy and I find it fits like a fine cloak, envelops me in a comfortable manner and brings a sense of dignity and order in my own simple life, surrounded by the modern conveniences of technology and comforts of fine chocolate and Cheetos.
I want to take this opportunity to share some of the ‘out takes’ from my research. My search for our forefathers provided some ‘Aha!’ moments. Historical documents are abundant online. With patience and persistence one can uncover a variety of documents, citations, blogs, list serve items, and short stories. I can search the archives of various ‘libraries’ around the world. Google, Inc. and a variety of universities allow electronic access to a number of literary journals, age old manuscripts, newspaper articles and historical narratives.
I find some of the most entertaining collections are the 500 page manuscripts that were written prior to 1900 and encapsulate a 250 year history of an East Coast Family that played a prominent role in a major American event. The masterpiece may be titled something like this: The Incredible Rise of the Widget Family of Charlottesville and The Dark Days in the Aftermath of the Glorious War, With a Preface by the Reverend Doctor James Algorithm Northway, III. There was a cookie cutter approach used in the publication of these manuscripts that bears worship. It is a bit like sitting in front of a weekend marathon of HGTV property rehab shows. Everything is scripted from Chapter I through 15. You get a welcome to America through the eyes of Captain John Smith, followed by two hundred years of history in one hundred pages before the author thrusts you into the middle of the appropriate county or village. The first relative you meet is always the Immigrant ancestor and he is always a he, and he is always the first pioneer to settle in the particular God forsaken, but abundantly blessed property on Earth. His wife is either forgotten or the daughter of a wealthy Essex squire. Her identity is enveloped solely in the fact that she came into the marriage with a fine dowry hidden in her corset.
The Native Americans in these early accounts are always evil, vile, heathen savages looking for the first opportunity to kill, rape, scalp and mutilate the God Fearing Christian pioneers. It is clear that the pioneer is heroic and hard working and the father of many children. The father always marries Elizabeth. But Elizabeth never has a last name other than her husband’s surname. If she has a maiden name it is known only because her family was wealthier, and more prominent in the community than the husband. The husband usually has three wives in his lifetime. This is largely due to the fact that death by birth was all too common. If a woman had to deliver ten children in her lifetime she was destined to give out before her husband. The only way a woman could beat those odds was by marrying elderly men, killing them off via death by seduction, and moving on to the next senior citizen. One finds several examples of this practice in our tree. Such women are entertaining and generally wealthy at the end of their mourning period.
There is a tendency in these 500 page manuscripts to identify every marriage within each generation and every child born to every couple. The author will begin with Roy Allen, b. Aug.9 1703 m. Elizabeth ( ?) b. (?) d. 1728. They know she died in 1728 because that is when the last child David (b. June 7, 1728) was born. You can pretty much bet that Elizabeth up and died within the week and dad (Roy Allen) will be married within the year. In one case, an ancestor told each of his three high school sweethearts that he intended to marry them all and he did. After giving birth to multiple children, the first wife passed and he was on to the second woman and eventually the third of his sweethearts. Ironically, when he married each of them, they were widows with the benefit of their deceased husbands efforts.
Perhaps the single most intriguing find for me was discovering that I have Dutch ancestors (von Couwenhovens) and that they played a significant role in the founding of New Amsterdam on Manhattan and Long Island in present day New York City. As I traced the family line of Jane Stilley and her grand parents, I did not expect to find ancestors from Holland or Sweden. I found both. When Anders Olofsson Stille married Annetje Pietersd von Couwenhoven somewhere around 1675 it brought together two of the founding families in the European colonies of New Sweden and New Amsterdam. It was tantamount to finding and arranged marriage of Henrietta of France with Charles I of England. You will discover what I mean should you read those chapters of this family history.
Once I recovered from the evidence that indicated I was descended from these characters I had the difficult task of learning to decipher Swedish and Dutch naming practice and policies.
Tools and Skills Needed to Find Ancestors
Let’s use Wolphert Gerritse von Couwenhoven as an example. Wolphert exemplifies many of the issues one faces when uncovering our predecessors. Those who study the documents related to his life find that his names (first, middle and last) are spelled in a multitude of ways. The matter of chasing down a name becomes more challenging when Wolphert may also be found spelled as Wolfert, Wolpert, Wulphert, Wulpert, Wulffer, etc.
Being American born and trained to recognize a middle name when I see one I immediately assumed his middle name was Gerritse. But I quickly learned to ignore my training. There are Dutch rules that must be followed when naming a child. Failure to follow the rules leads to a loss of wooden shoes and silver skates for a minimum of five years.
Gerritse is Wolphert’s ‘last name’. It is also found spelled in various ways: Gerretsz, Garretsen, Gerritsz and Geritsz to name a few variations. Having studied the “Dutch rules” over the period of four Tylenol I realized “my” Wolfert’s father’s first name must be Gerrit.The patronymic rules for formulating Dutch names in the 1600’s can be understood with a little bit of effort. A child would have a first name identifying their individuality. In this case: Wolpert. The last name identified his or her father. Thus Wolfert Gerrisz von Couwenhoven’s father’s name was probably Gerritt. The Dutch rules require identifying Wolpurt’s gender by attaching -se, -sz, -sen, or –szen to the father’s first name. So Wolphert Gerritse von Couwenhoven is Wolphert, Gerrit’s son. Daughters would very often have the ending -x or –dr or dochter added. This understanding of Dutch rules allowed me to locate Gerrit’s father as Gerrit was named Gerrit Jansz von Couwenhoven. Gerrit’s father was a guy named Jan. And so it goes.
The last bit of detective work relates to what appears to be a last name of von Couwenhoven. Various European cultures will include in their name the identity of their home town, castle, country, etc. English royalty could be identified as Baron Butler of Orman. In the case of Wolphert he is of Couwenhoven, a bowery to the north of Amersfoort, Netherlands. Ancestors prior to his birth would have had a diferent ‘surname’ had they been born of a different bowery, manor or village. Our great grandfather, Peter Smith (b. 1663) styled himself ‘Peter Smith of Yecomico’ in order to set himself apart from others of like name.
When names appear in records they some times conflict with what I think I know about the “rules” and cause me to doubt both the records and my own reasoning. And that all adds up to an intellectual exercise that can end in exasperation and a good Scotch. Fortunately, I am not the first to find Wolfert, or however he spelled it, in our lineage. Others have compiled a remarkable history detailing some of his family’s adventures and business enterprise. And by the way that ‘last name’ Couwenhoven has so many variations of spelling it drove people crazy three hundred years ago. Second generation ‘Americans’ changed their last name to Conover. And even then they began toying with the spelling of that!
As an example of name confusion as found in the historical documents I researched: The Calendar of Historical Manuscripts in back to back entries identified him as Wolfert Gerrittz on January 21, 1647. On March 11, 1647 Gerrit Wolfertsen van Couwenhoven appeared in court. Same man or different? The manner in which clerks recorded names as they gathered data and recorded information frequently determined a person’s name at that moment in history. The name could change the next time that clerk or any other clerk created a record. This was especially true as immigrants passed through the portals of immigration stations in places like Ellis Island. But then I remembered the Dutch rules! Perhaps my Wolfert Gerrettse had a son Gerrit Wolfertsen (Gerrit, Wolfert’s son). I checked the records and behold they were father and son. Two different men, father in court in January and the son in March. Bingo! My brain is working and this exercise is helping me keep my synapses firing.
Identifying the location of an ancestor’s home can also lead to problems created over time by various ownerships, wars, changes in boundary lines, change in government and ruling class language and missing deeds. Again Wolfert offers an excellent example. Documents reveal his family lived on the Koelhorst Road which ran along the east bank of the Eern River to the town of Eembrugge from Amersfoort. (2) Digging further I found references to Couwenhoven, Ceulhorst, Hoogland and Utrecht. Which of these is a village? A crossroads? A plantation? Estate? A great pub? A province or marshland? All of these locations are found when one enters the name in Google Maps. Just as an understanding of villages, townships, counties, parishes and states aids one in understanding American locations, it would be equally helpful if I understood the Dutch language and geography.Time is spent tracking down the geographical terms and eventually I find an ancient map showing Cowwenhoven northwest of Amersfoort.
Tracking down relatives as they move about the world requires a lot of detective work and the help of distant cousins who happen to be in search of similar connections. A common name like Smith or Davis leads to confusion. In my research related to William Davis, I have been able to pinpoint his will, his offspring, their spouses and children in Hyde County, NC. But locating William’s father requires someone with the patience of Columbo. I have had to sort through a number of deeds, wills and history. I have found men in five counties at that time with a pedigree that might fit the role of William’s father. A large county like Albemarle County, NC, which covered half the state in 1664 was carved into precincts as the population grew and then Albemarle disappeared from the map. Precincts became counties and the counties changed names. For example Berkeley County became Perquimans County and an uproar reversed the name to Berkeley and a backlash forced it back to Perquimans. A plantation may stay put on the face of the earth, but mankind has no problem moving the boundaries, changing the name or the rules that define location.
As for Wolfert and his descendants: Stay tuned for information leading to one of the first Microbrewerys in America, a trip down Flatbush Avenue in 1630, the kidnapping of an entire Stilley family, the decimation of a Davis family in DeKalb County, Illinois during the Black Hawk War of 1832 and a southern plantation turned into one of the first black freedmen communities on the Eastern shore of North Carolina.
Footnote on Wolfert and Neeltje van Couwenhoven (1579-1663)
The van Couwenhovens supervised the first Dutch colony bouwerie (farm) and purchased the first lands from the local tribe, thus making their way into the American history books. The preceding article provided insight into the ups and downs of researching these characters hidden in our past. My thanks to David Kipp Conover and Willem Van Kouwenhoven for compiling so many deeds, wills and records in their quest to uncover these ancient faces and branches of a Tree of Life.