“Our” Black Sheep: Samuel Martini DE MEURS (ca. 1680 – 1711)

Sara Magdalena, my husband’s 6th great-grandmother, was not the daughter of Andreas OELOFSE, the husband of her mother Sara JANSZ, but a man whose name was given as “unknown” on the child’s May 1709 baptism record. However, as detailed in a previous post, the child was listed as Sara MEURS in her mother’s 1713 estate inventory. Only one person in the available online records carries that name: Samuel Martini DE MEURS. I agree with other researchers who are reasonably certain that he was Sara Magdalena’s father.

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. “J. Martin Harvey” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1745 – 1865. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-8a80-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

No known image of DE MEURS exists, but he may well have looked like the man in the above drawing, enjoying his pipe at the end of a day of conducting business. “A Dutchman without a pipe is a national impossibility. If a Dutchman were deprived of his pipe and tobacco, he would not even enter Paradise with a glad heart.”

My speculation that Sara Magdalena’s un-named father was a person of importance proved to be correct. In April 1707, DE MEURS was appointed to the post of landdrost, or chief magistrate, of the District of Stellenbosch and Drakenstein. He was effectively the chief legal officer of the district as well as the appointed representative of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) Council of Policy which governed the colony.

On the face of it, his previous occupation would not have qualified him to serve as landdrost. In his VOC employment document, he’s listed as a bosschieter, or ship’s gunner, who arrived at the Cape on 26 Jul 1706. His final destination is shown as Batavia (present-day Jakarta), but the record does not indicate why he remained at the Cape. Although we are not concerned here with his term as landdrost, it does appear from various Council of Policy records that he executed his duties conscientiously.

How DE MEURS would have come to know Sara JANSZ is not as puzzling. Five years before OELOFSE married Sara in 1690, he had purchased a farm near Stellenbosch. Although founded in 1679, at the time DE MEURS was resident there Stellenbosch was still a small village, as can be seen in the drawing below made in 1710; in that year, the muster roll for the town and the surrounding district lists 113 free men. It seems likely that everyone who lived in the area would have known everyone else.

1710 Drawing of Stellenbosch by E. van Stade. Source: Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, 4.TOPO 15.88

In the absence of a definite death date for Sara’s husband, it is difficult to determine whether he was still alive during her relationship with DE MEURS. However, according to well-respected South African researcher Mansell UPHAM, Sara was “censured by the Stellenbosch Church Council for giving birth to an illegitimate daughter…possibly either fathered or adopted by Stellenbosch Landdrost Samuel Martini de Meurs …”. It is not clear from this quote whether DE MEURS was cited by name in the censure document; I hope to determine this once the church archive is open again.

This is the first reference I’ve seen to the possibility that DE MEURS adopted the child and may be based solely on Sara JANSZ’s estate inventory. Certainly, the will drawn up by DE MEURS and his wife Aletta BECK less than a month after their 29 Dec 1709 marriage does not support such a relationship. In that document, he stated that he had no living antecedents or descendants and named his wife as the sole inheritor of his estate. It seems unlikely that DE MEURS would have adopted Sara Magdalena and then left her out of his will. If he had made some other provision for her, it would have made sense to include this fact in the will to invalidate any future claim she might bring against his estate.

The will indicates that DE MEURS was ill in bed although his wife was healthy and both were “in full command of their senses.” He was only 30 years old at the time, but his illness must have become a serious one. Records show that he was absent from the post of landdrost starting in March 1710 during which time the senior heemraad (councilman) acted as head of the council, and the secretary collected the revenue and conducted the correspondence. No replacement was named to his post, so it seems likely that he and his wife continued to live in the drostdy, or government office and residence.

It was there on the night of 17 Dec 1710 that DE MEURS sent his slave out to the courtyard to fetch a smoldering coal with which to light his pipe. A strong south-easterly wind blew sparks onto the thatched roof of the residence. From there, the fire spread quickly and destroyed all but two or three of the houses, including all of the VOC’s properties and the church, which was situated next to the drostdy.

Although one history of Stellenbosch blames the fire on “the heedlessness of a slave,” the Council of Policy held his master DE MEURS responsible and relieved him of his duties. He died a month later on 19 Jan 1711.

Legend blames the disastrous 1871 fire in Chicago on a cow who kicked over a lantern in the barn. However, DE MEURS is the first human I’ve found in anyone’s tree who was responsible for burning down a whole town!

This act leads me to dub Samuel Martini DE MEURS as the “black sheep” of the family.

Research Notes

The quote about “A Dutchman without a pipe …” appears on most sites about clay pipes. Only https://www.ramshornstudio.com/pipes3.htm gives the single name Schotel as the source of the quote. There is a family of painters in Dordrecht with that surname. However, an historian and biographer named Gilles Denijs Jacob SCHOTEL seems more likely to be the source.

Accounts of the 1710 fire differ, making it difficult to ascertain where DE MEURS and his wife were living at the time. One even makes it sound like the landdrost himself, who had been unable to fulfill his duties for many months, was out in the courtyard in a gale trying to light his pipe. The Stellenbosch University Theology Faculty site states that the drostdy “…apparently was quite large, because Van der Stel and his entourage often lodged here.” http://www.sun.ac.za/english/faculty/theology/Pages/About.aspx  Based on this and other accounts, it seems logical to assume that DE MEURS and his wife were living in the drostdy at the time of the fire.

Next Steps

1) Search for a title deed for the farm said to have been purchased from freed slave Evert of Guinea by Andreas OELOFSE in 1685. It is variously cited as Weltevreden or Welgelegen. The 1709 inventory for the OELOFSE estate does not give the farm’s name, but lists it as a piece of land with a building in the Bottelary Hills, which are just outside Stellenbosch.

2) Once the Stellenbosch Church Archive has re-opened, obtain a copy of the document censuring Sara JANSZ as immoral for having an illegitimate child.


Posted in BECK, JANSZ, MEURS/DE MEURS, OELOFSE, UPHAM | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Paintings from WWI: Clues to V. R. QUESNELL’s Last Days

The July 1st centenary of the First Battle of the Somme in WWI prompted me to re-visit the research I’ve done on my husband’s uncle, Victor Robert QUESNELL, who died in France shortly before the end of the war. My first post in early 2012 was about Victor, but I had failed to order his service record so, all this time later, I still didn’t know how and where he had died. A request for his record may take weeks to process, and I was anxious to find out what I could before that.

Since I last looked, Ancestry.com had added two databases that included Victor. Both of them indicated that, rather than dying in action, he had died on 23 Oct 1918 of wounds received in battle. According to the excellent site “The Long Long Trail,” the South African Brigade by this time had been folded into the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division. As part of the Fourth Army, this division fought from 17-20 Oct 1918 in the Battle of the Selle.

Victor was buried in the Roisel Communal Cemetery Extension, which according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ” …was developed in October and November, 1918, by the 41st, 48th, 53rd and 58th Casualty Clearing Stations…” As a wounded soldier, he would likely have passed through one of those clearing stations.

A search on <world war one 41st casualty clearing station> took me directly to the painting shown below by war artist J. Hodgson Lobley which is held by the Imperial War Museums. I realized that any of the men depicted could have been Victor as a wounded soldier waiting to be moved to a hospital. Or he might already have died sometime between being tended to first at a Regimental Aid Post and then at an Advanced Dressing Station, both closer to the front line.

LOBLEY - 41st CCS - Le Cateau - IWM.org.uk - crop

“Reception of the Wounded at the 41st Casualty Clearing Station, Le Cateau, during the British Advance in October 1918” by J. Hodgson Lobley. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3800)

A follow-up search on the town of <roisel> gave a most surprising result: a watercolor of a hospital tent by John Singer Sargent, an artist better known for his portraits of wealthy society people. The label on the painting, also at the Imperial War Museums site, explains his presence at Roisel. “Late in September 1918, while gathering material for [his oil painting] ‘Gassed’ near Peronne, Sargent was struck down with influenza and taken to a hospital near Roisel. Here, he spent a week in a hospital bed next to the war-wounded, which inspired this work.”

SARGENT John Singer - Hospital Tent - crop

“The Interior of a Hospital Tent” by John Singer Sargent. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1611)

I would like to think that Victor spent his last hours in such clean and comfortable surroundings, but paintings by Lobley and others lead me to believe that this is a tent for wounded officers, not enlisted men. Showing red rather than olive drab blankets on some beds would appear to be artistic license on the part of Sargent. However, a quick online search shows that red blankets are used in some modern hospitals, either for patients in critical condition who should be rushed directly to emergency surgery or for those who qualify for VIP treatment. One can imagine one or both of these criteria at play in the British Army of the time.

When writing about deceased family members, a family historian tries to convey the atmosphere of their lives, usually by detailed descriptions based on research into the period. In the absence of a photo of Victor, these paintings may come as close as possible to picturing this young man who died too soon.

Continue reading

Posted in LOBLEY, QUESNELL, SARGENT | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cemetery Discoveries: H. WÜRGES and H.A. & E.M. QUESNELL

Every genealogist should have a plaque prominently displayed on her desk: “Keep searching — you can never have too many documents!” A recent finding illustrates the thinking behind this admonition.

In an earlier post, I published a photo of the QUESNELL family gravestone in Maitland, a suburb of Cape Town. The stone listed four members of the family: Alice WÜRGES, my husband’s paternal grandmother, her sons Victor Robert and Richard John, and a daughter Esmé Doris. (Victor died during World War I and is buried in France, but his family obviously wanted to honor his memory.)

The burial place of Joseph Robert QUESNELL, the head of the family, remained unknown. However, the recently obtained Record of Burials maintained by the Maitland Cemetery shows that he was indeed buried with the rest of his family, although his name and death date, 14 Jan 1965, have never been added to the gravestone.

QUESNELL Burial Record - Maitland Cemetery Plot12951 - Maitland, South Africa - Photo by A. Clarkson

QUESNELL Record of Burials – Maitland Cemetery Plot 12951 – Maitland, South Africa – Photo by A. Clarkson

This document may not be complete; it does not list either Esmé Doris or an unnamed infant daughter who died shortly after birth in 1914, both of whose death certificates give Maitland Cemetery as the intended burial place.

However, much to my surprise, the plot does contain the graves of three other relatives.

1) Herman WÜRGES (d. 27 Jan 1920) — Alice’s father. All I had known was his name and that his wife Sarah Maria (surname unknown) was a widow when she died 13 Sep 1920 in Port Nolloth. I assumed that her husband had also died there, but I had been unable to find him in either civil records or church burial records. Now armed with his burial date and place, I was able to find his death certificate (with the surname spelled and indexed as Wurgiss) in the “Cape Province, Civil Deaths, 1895-1972” database at FamilySearch. It states that after more than five months of illness, he died of “a cancer in [the] neck and exhaustion” at Old Somerset Hospital. Why he died so far from where he and his wife lived is a matter for speculation. His occupation was “boatman” so perhaps he had been on a ship docked in Cape Town when he fell ill. Perhaps his cancer was of a type or severity that required treatment in a larger hospital than the one in Port Nolloth. Sarah died only seven months after her husband; perhaps she had been too ill to care for him so their only child, Alice, had taken him into her home. Both Herman and Sarah were only 58 years old when they died.

2) Harriet Annie QUESNELL (d. 26 Dec 1931) — Joseph Robert’s sister. Although her death certificate states that she is married, her residence address is that of her brother, 171 Buitengracht Street, Cape Town. Her first marriage was to John HAMER; I’ve been unable to find out whether they had any children and whether he died or their marriage ended in divorce. At the time of her death, her surname was MCLUCKIE. Her death certificate was signed by A. MCLUCKIE, presumably her husband, who gives the same address.

3) Elizabeth Mary QUESNELL (d. 12 Sep 1937) — Joseph Robert’s sister. Elizabeth was the widow of William JANSEN, a seaman from Finland who had died in 1915 in Port Nolloth. Her Death Notice shows only three of her six children as still living: Edgar Ernest (b. 1895), Edith Gladys (b. 1898), and Arthur Alexander (b. ?). She has a separate headstone.

From now on, my research will always include cemetery burial records. These unassuming little cards can not only save time searching for a death date with which to browse un-indexed South African death certificates and probate records, but can lead to unexpected information. I’m already considering what might be found in mortuary records, another under-used resource.

Research Notes

After the death of Alice WÜRGES, Joseph Robert QUESNELL married Charlotte Louisa VAN REENEN 27 Jan 1942. She died 12 Mar 1962. According to a transcription on the now-defunct site Ancestry24, she was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Observatory, a suburb of Cape Town. Unfortunately, although Ancestry24 was purchased by Ancestry.com, many of their databases have yet to be made available on the latter’s site. The cemetery has been replaced by a shopping mall, but I have read that the gravestones were photographed by the National Heritage Council before that event.

The database “South Africa, Cape Province, Civil Deaths, 1895-1972” on FamilySearch is not yet complete; the last records are from 1954, and the database has not been updated in the past year. It is only partially indexed.

Next Steps

1) Two positions, A and C, are noted on the Record of Burials, but a photo shows the plot with three grave sites bordered by a common concrete curb. Contact the cemetery office to find out where B is located in relation to A and C and who is buried in position B.

2) Six burials — eight including the unrecorded children — would have necessitated multiple burials in each grave. This also seems likely from the notations of depth ranging from 5 to 8 ft. for all but the grave of Herman WÜRGES. Contact the cemetery for clarification.

3) Since Joseph Robert QUESNELL and his only surviving son, my husband’s father, had been estranged for some years, there is a question about who arranged for the burial. “H & Pitt” is listed as “undertaker” for the burial; an online search suggests that this is Human & Pitt Funeral Services with several locations in the Western Cape. Contact the location in Cape Town to get a copy of the pertinent record.

4) Check the availability of the National Heritage Council photographs of the gravestones from St. Peter’s Cemetery, Observatory; the location of the cemetery records, and the current location of the remains that were removed.



Posted in HAMER, JANSEN, MCLUCKIE, QUESNELL, WÜRGES | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments