The California Genealogical Society and Library‘s poster shown below emphasizes the fact that most of the vital information genealogists search for is not available online, Ancestry.com and similar sites with their billions of records notwithstanding.
As a lover of books and libraries, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment on the poster and can name many instances of discovery when a book containing a vital piece of information seemed to jump off the shelf while I was browsing.
However, my current search for the parents of Hendrik Nicolaas MINNAAR, my husband’s great-grandfather, would be virtually impossible without the Internet, an indispensable finding aid for locating books, documents and their repositories, especially when they’re situated in a distant country like South Africa.
In the original post about Hendrik, we looked at two documents that showed different birthplaces; his 1882 marriage license shows his birthplace as the town of Potchefstroom in the province of Transvaal, while his 1903 Death Notice indicates he was born in the province of Natal. It might seem logical to discount the latter document, whose information was provided by his widow, while Hendrik himself probably applied for the marriage license. However, both possible birthplaces figure prominently in the history of the Boers after many of them left the Cape Colony during the Great Trek of the 1830s – 1840s. Given Hendrik’s estimated birth date of 1857, his parents might have been part of this move into the interior of the country, either as heads of a family or as children accompanying their parents.
Most accounts of the Great Trek spotlight the leaders of the various groups and where they settled. However, in searching for details of this event, I found a reference in an online forum to Voortrekkerstamouers: 1835 – 1845, a book by J. C. Visagie. It appears to be the most inclusive list so far published of those who were roughly equivalent to American pioneers. Before the Internet, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to locate this book in an American library, since it was published in South Africa in the Afrikaans language. Using WorldCat.org, I quickly located it online at a nearby university and ordered it, again online, from my local library via inter-library loan.
The book lists nine persons with the surname MINNAAR, along with their wives, information about where they came from, the year and leader of the group they trekked with, and where they settled. Given their ages, seven of the men or their wives appeared unlikely to be the parents of Hendrik, although he might have been the grandson of one of the older couples. The names and other details of minor and unmarried children who accompanied their parents are not listed.
However, one Voortrekker stood out as a good candidate: Philippus Andries MINNAAR. His wife had died in Natal in early 1844; he re-married later that year to Helena Dorothea STEYN. Although her birth date is not given, she might have been young enough to give birth thirteen years later.
I once again studied the family group sheet for Hendrik and his wife, Engela Aletta Jacobmina STEINHOBEL, knowing that Afrikaners of the period usually followed standard naming conventions for their children. The first son was named after the paternal grandfather, the second one after the maternal grandfather. Hendrik and Engela’s second son, Steinhobel Franz Frederik, was definitely named after his maternal grandfather, whose name is known from previous research. Although the oldest son had been given an English name, Philip Andrew, it seems likely that he would have been named after his paternal grandfather, providing a possible link to Philippus Andries as Hendrik’s father and a new clue to be researched.
According to the book, Philippus Andries’s lineage is unknown, putting a question mark over his father as a potential source of Hendrik’s name, so I turned to the maternal side and searched online for Helena Dorothea STEYN. She and Philippus are included in several trees, both at MyHeritage.com and geni.com. Specific dates for both of their births and baptisms and for their marriage indicate that there are sources, probably church records, that may well provide further clues. Fathers’ names are commonly found in baptism records, although none of the online trees identify Philippus Andries’s father.
One additional clue did emerge, however. Only two children, Petronella Helena (b. ca. 1845) and Johannes Christoffel (b. ca. 1848) are listed; presumably there were others, since their mother was only 17 years old when she married their father. The oldest son was named after his maternal grandfather. If Hendrik was part of this family, he might have been a second son and might have been named after his paternal grandfather, reversing the usual naming convention. Alternatively, he might have been a later son and named after Helena Dorothea’s brother, Hendrik Nicolaas STEYN (b. 1832).
Finding these few clues with the Internet as a finding aid made a laborious process easier, but the most important clue was still found in a book from a library. The next step will be to verify the clues using South African church records. The records are most likely to be stored on microfilm in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the world’s largest repository of genealogical records. Each microfilm will have to be searched page by page, as if I were looking at the original records, a process familiar to all seasoned family history researchers. Although none of us would want to turn the clock back twenty years and do research without the benefit of the Internet, we can’t ever forget where we must look for the majority of genealogical nuggets.
“Boer” is the Dutch word for “farmer.” Historically, Boers were farmers of Dutch, French, and/or German descent who lived in the Cape Colony, first moving away to the eastern frontier of the colony. After the emancipation of slaves, they pushed farther into the interior in the Great Trek, and later they trekked to the Transvaal. (After the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, some of them trekked yet again to the American Southwest, Argentina, and East Africa.) The MINNAAR family could well have traveled from Natal to the Transvaal, and this would account for the confusion about the birthplace of Hendrik Nicolaas MINNAAR. “Afrikaner” is the term used today for those whose main language is Afrikaans, many of whose forebears were Boers.
The Afrikaans word “stamouer” is often translated as “progenitor,” but this Latinate term does not convey the full weight or import of the word as used by an Afrikaner. “Stam” is literally “stem” or “trunk” but can also mean “tribe” or “clan,” while “ouer” means “parent.” The word, in both its pronunciation and symbolic meaning, has a solidity that is lacking in the English equivalent.
Helena Dorothea STEYN’s lineage is given in the Visagie book as “a1b1c1d11e4f1g1” to indicate the seven generations of male ancestors who preceded her. “a1” is the first ancestor in the country, with each subsequent letter indicating the next generation. Within each generation, the number after the letter denotes the chronological order of the ancestor within the birth family. Once one knows the system, it provides a straightforward way to identify relationships by comparing lineages. However, confusion can arise in cases where a person has been omitted from the birth family or discovered after researchers started applying the classification to later persons, thereby throwing off the numbering system.
1) According to online trees, Philippus Andries MINNAAR and Helena Dorothea STEYN were married in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, and it is possible that Hendrik Nicolaas was born there. Order the Dutch Reformed Church baptism records, both for 1841 – 1856 (FHL #1562818) and for 1857 – 1883 (FHL # 1562819).
2) Order the Potchefstroom, Transvaal, Dutch Reformed Church baptism records 1842 – 1887 (FHL #1439118).
3) Order the 1904 probate records for Helena Dorothea from ancestor.co.za. Although only living children are listed as part of the probate, there is a slight chance that Hendrik’s name or that of his children might be mentioned as part of any bequests.
4) Contact a second cousin found on geni.com to trade information.
5) Search for Rudolph Johannes MINNAAR, who is listed in the Visagie book and who is likely the brother of Philippus Andries.