“Brick wall” is the genealogy term for a seemingly insurmountable research problem. With diligence and tenacity, most brick walls eventually come tumbling down. Until they do, the researcher usually doesn’t have any idea what’s on the other side.
However, the brick wall for one of my husband’s maternal lines is unlike any other I’ve encountered. I already know what’s on the other side! If I were to stand on this wall, I could gaze all the way back to the Cape of Good Hope in 1688 and the arrival of the French Huguenot MESNARD family (later known by the Dutch spelling MINNAAR). But that long view doesn’t help at all because I have yet to find the ladder that would enable me to climb down the far side of the wall and follow the trail back to the original family.
How can I be sure that this is the correct ancestor family and not another one with the same surname? Transcribed passenger lists show that just one French family by that name arrived at the Cape. By 1691, eleven-year-old Philippe was the only surviving family member, making him the ancestor of every South African who bears the MINNAAR surname.
Hendrik Nicolaas MINNAAR, my husband’s great-grandfather (born ca. 1857), is one of Philippe’s descendants. Between the arrival of the man I think of as the “Adam” of the MINNAAR family in South Africa and the birth of Hendrik lies a stretch of nearly 170 years of undiscovered family history, probably five or six generations. However, even identifying the one generation before Hendrik is proving to be a challenge.
In South African research, the Death Notice filed at the time of probate contains the richest source of family information. On Hendrik’s 1904 Death Notice, filed nearly a year after his death, his parents are listed as deceased with no names given. His wife, Engela Aletta STEINHOBEL, provided the information; either she didn’t know the names of his parents or the clerk did not ask for them when he learned they were no longer living. Hendrik’s birthplace is listed as the province of Natal.
However, at the time of his marriage on 28 Aug 1882, Hendrik listed his birthplace as the town of Potchefstroom in the South African Republic, a province commonly known as the Transvaal. Unlike marriage records for the same period in many parts of the United States, parents’ names were not required on the marriage registration.
During this period, the two fathers often signed the register as witnesses to their children’s marriage. However, the only two witnesses who signed the register for this marriage were the parents of the bride, Frans Frederick and Aletta STEINHOBEL. Perhaps Hendrik’s parents had already died — or perhaps they were still alive and living in Natal, some distance from Potchefstroom. It’s likely that Hendrik gave the correct place of birth at the time of his marriage, but I can’t rule out the possibility that he was born in Natal.
So I’m left with Hendrik, his estimated birth year of 1857 and two possible birthplaces, one a town and the other an entire province. The optimist in me believes that if I could just identify Hendrik’s father, I might be able to hitch a ride on another researcher’s coattails since many of the early Cape settler families have been well documented. I could also work forward from Philippe and his sons — a daunting task even if I lived in South Africa with easier access to records. I’ll reserve this method until I’ve exhausted all other avenues.
In the meantime, I’ll follow recommended genealogical practice and continue to search for Hendrik’s father. And, who knows, perhaps another of Philippe’s descendants is also searching and will see this blog. Even if he or she has no additional information, we can exchange notes on the view from the top of the brick wall.
A number of online sites list the Huguenots who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in the late 17th and early 18th centuries after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Dutch East India Company kept excellent records; therefore, the sources for passenger lists generally agree on the names of the Huguenots who arrived.
Hendrik’s birthplace as written on his Death Notice appears to be the province of Natal, although the entry looks like “Nalat.” As can be seen elsewhere on this document, the clerk is cavalier about the crossing of the letter T. Sometimes, the cross looks like an afterthought, as in the name STEINHOBEL, where the H is given the honor of the cross mark. At other times, as in the age of the deceased (forty-six) and his occupation (carpenter), the cross is truncated to a mere point floating somewhere to the east of its rightful position. As for the final letter of the place name, if the clerk was writing quickly, as appears to be the case, he might have transposed the letters T and L. In any event, I can find no other place with a name that would fit the alternate spelling. Natal was also one of the places where the Boers who trekked out of the Cape in the first half of the 19th century came to settle.
1) Look for the christening of Hendrik Nicolaas MINNAAR in Potchefstroom. The Family History Library catalog lists microfilm #1439118 for “Potchefstroom Christenings 1842 – 1987” (with some missing years) from the church records of the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk van Afrika. Before ordering this film, I must verify that I didn’t search it during my last trip to Salt Lake City.
2) Look for the marriage of Hendrik’s parents. The Family History Library also has microfilm #1492538 for NHK Potchefstroom “Marriages 1838 – 1937.” If Hendrik was born in Potchefstroom, it is likely that his parents married there also. Civil Marriage Registers for Potchefstroom for the years 1838 – 1852 are found on films #1367182 and #1295378. Should I order all of these films at once? It will cost more to do so, but will reduce the number of 35-mile round trips I have to make to the Family History Center.
3) Send queries to various online message boards.
4) Send an e-mail to the owner of Thomas MINNAAR’s Family Tree on Ancestry.com. This tree may have been uploaded recently or I may not have checked Ancestry.com when I was doing the initial research on Hendrik MINNAAR. Although members of Thomas’s direct line appear to have stayed in the Cape, his information may help me to narrow my search.
5) Contact the Huguenot Memorial Museum in Franschoek, Western Cape, South Africa. On its site, MINNAAR is among the names for which the museum will undertake genealogical research.