Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Getting to Know Great-Grandpa

Kornelis Bolhuis of
Winsum, Groningen, Netherlands

When I first started gathering information on my great-grandmother Bolhuis’ family, I knew little of her father, but I do know that everyone has a past and every grandparent was once a little boy or little girl. My first mental image of Kornelis Bolhuis was that of grandfather. I have a photograph of this bearded man. 
I knew that he died shortly before his 90th birthday in the town of Stedum, also in the Groningen province. I knew that in his capacity as father, he encouraged his children to seek a new life in America. But I knew nothing of his childhood and the only one I knew who might have known anything was his daughter, my great-grandmother, who passed away when I was very young. I never heard any stories, his story was never told.
But over the past several years, I have been able to gather some vital statistics that when pieced together, help me create his story. And here it is:

Kornelis was born on August 17, 1859 in the town of Winsum, Groningen, a northern province of the Netherlands. He was the third child and only son of Johannes Kornelis Bolhuis and his wife Aaltje Egberts DeVries. In July 1866, just about a month before young Kornelis’ seventh birthday, members of his family took sick and in the span of less than ten days, he lost his entire family.

His father was the first to succumb and died on the 15th of July. His oldest sister died the next day and the second sister died the day after that. Perhaps it was first thought that the mother Aaltje would rally around, or she began to get sick later, but on the 23rd of that month, she also died. Both sets of Kornelis’ grandparents had already died before Kornelis was even born.

He had a couple of aunts on his father’s side and an aunt and uncle on his mother’s side. He was probably raised by one or the other. He may have even been staying with one of these relatives when his family first took sick. When doing an internet search about sickness or plagues in the year 1866, I discovered that there were several epidemics of cholera worldwide and 1866 was one of those years. In order for Kornelis not to have taken ill, he probably did not drink from the same well that his family did.

Steven Johnson wrote The Ghost Map which discusses the cholera epidemic in London in 1855. In the book, the author tells the story of how one man started to figure things out which eventually led to the discovery of the bacteria itself. Before then, people thought it was something in the air. This man, Dr. John Snow, asked questions in the neighborhood as to who drank from which well and noted that often the children were sent to fetch water from the wells and mapped out which wells were making people sick. Perhaps fetching water from the well was normally a job for young Kornelis, but on that day in July he was staying with cousins and so avoided getting sick. One hundred plus years later, those who know exactly just how fate intervened are now long gone. Kornelis left many descendants including myself, curious enough to look at some vital statistics and do a little research to tease out more of a story in order to learn more about an ancestor from long ago. 

Photo courtesy Crystal Sponeybarger

The lights of our ancestors have not so much been dowsed, as gathered into the sun. -Rumi


  1. Dear Dawn,

    I was on the internet looking for my ancestors and found your blog with this picture and my breath stopped shortly. This bearded man is the grandfather of my grandmother! This afternoon I had a conversation with my grandmother about her special relationship with her ​​grandfather. My grandmother was the daughter of Johannes Filippus Smedes and Aaltje Bolhuis (the only daughter who remained in the Netherlands). Johannes and Aaltje had five children: Jack, Filippus, Kornelis, Jan Gerrit and Cornelia Maike (my grandmother). Cornelia married Willem Vink and they had a son, Harmannus Johannes Filippus (my father). He married Elizabeth de Jonge and they have two daughters: me (Joyce Esther) and my three years younger sister (Frances Ellen).
    I tried to find out what my grandmother knows about her overseas relatives, but she couldn't tell me anything. She vaguely remembers that some of them must have visited the Netherland once, but she can't remember when exactly and who they were. My guess is that they were the relatives you write about in your blog.
    If you like we can exchange e-mailaddresses so we can try to find out more about our common relatives.
    KInd regards, Joyce Vink (Groningen, the Netherlands).

  2. Ah-ha! A cousin! I'm so glad you found me! You can email me at daylight398 at gmail dot com. I think it's on this blog somewhere, too!

    I can't wait to exchange more info with you. I did not know any more about the one daughter who stayed. Someone from the Netherlands had shared this photo with me and I have several more to share...

  3. You can also send me a message by clicking contact me on my profile...

  4. I was sent to your page from a Dutch Genealogy page. It turns out that my gr gr gr grandfather, his wife, and two of his kids died in the same epidemic. They all died in a two week period. My gr gr grandfather married a year earlier and lived in a different part of town. Getting married probably saved his life... and mine! I really enjoyed looking at your page. 7/8 of my ancestry is Dutch, so we probably have a common thread somewhere! There are some Bolhuis' that connect with my van Heukelem/Heukelum line... also from Groningen!

    1. I am so glad you were directed here! How interesting that you discovered that this epidemic took the lives of some relatives of your great-great grandfather and thankfully he was spared so that you could find this years later :)

      The Bolhuises are a fairly large clan, maybe we'll find a connection one of these days. We can still be "honorary Dutch" cousins till then!

      I never heard back from the woman Joyce Vink who has a comment on here also. We were truly cousins but somehow we have not made any further contact. I tried to touch base but had no response. Too bad, as it sounded like she would have been able to share more information on Kornelis from her grandmother.

      Good luck in your future genealogical ventures!