Monday, December 07, 2015

The Short Life and Tragic Death of Maria "Maggie" HOEKSTRA (1878 - 1890)

It was a typical evening; nothing out of the ordinary. Twelve-year-old Maria Hoekstra was heading home with her father and two neighbor boys from a visit to a family friend. Likely it was chilly that evening of December 7, 1890 as they made their way toward their home on Thirteenth Street near Market (now Central). Their route took them where the Chicago and West Michigan Railroad tracks crossed Tenth Street between Fish and Land Streets (now Columbia and Lincoln) on what was then the eastern edge of Holland, Michigan, just a couple blocks east of Hope College. In their way was a parked train. Not to be deterred, 15-year-old Jerry Dykstra and 22-year-old Peter Van Dyk jumped over the couplings between two freight cars. What happened next is unclear. One version says Maria's father was helping her over the couplings. A more detailed account said she was attempting to scramble over by herself. But then, the train started to move....

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Historical map of Chicago and West Michigan Railroad crossing at Tenth Street, Holland, Michigan. Digital image from page 41 of Standard atlas of Ottawa County, Michigan...., compiled and published by George A. Ogle & Co., 1897. Loutit Library Local History Resources. http://www.loutitlibrary.org/local-history-resources : 2015.
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Modern map of Amtrak Railroad crossing at Tenth Street, Holland, Michigan. Digital image. Google Maps. http://maps.google.com : 2015.

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She had to have been brave; perhaps a bit of a tomboy. Skirts wouldn't have held her back. Can't you see her trying to keep up with the two older boys? She had to have had spunk, that girl. Yet her short life and tragic death were not given much note in the Family Record book of my maternal great-grandparents, John and Lillian Hoekstra. On page 94, in the section titled "Husband's Uncles and Aunts - Paternal," John had written just a few lines regarding his paternal aunt, who died two years before he was born:

Full name: Maggie Hoekstra
Place and date of birth: Holland Mich. about 1877
Language: Dutch
Date and cause of death: Accidental death when 13 years old.
Where buried: Pilgrim Cemetery, Holland Mich

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Hoekstra, John Martin and Lillian Fern (Strong). Family Record Book, Chicago: S. B. Shaw, 1902. Privately held by Miriam Robbins, Spokane, Washington. c. 2000.

Like much of the information in this book, the details of Maria's life are a bit off from the facts, mainly because it was written down from memories and oral history, rather from researching records. But I immediately recognized an untold story. What was the accident that killed young Maggie/Maria? Could I find more? How? It's difficult enough to locate records and stories of ancestors that lived long lives; unfolding the details of a short life would be even more challenging.

1852 painting of the Arnold Böninger. Palmer List of Merchant Vessels. http://www.geocities.org/mppraetorius/com-ar.htm : 2003.

On a late spring day in 1867, a weary middle-aged man boarded the Prussian sailing ship Arnold Böninger in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Accompanying him was Geertruida, his 15-year-old daughter, the only survivor of three sets of twins that Jan Martens Hoekstra and Pieterke VanTil had borne. Pieterke herself had died only two years earlier; this move to America was Jan's chance for a new life. He and Geertruida had made their way south from their home in Ulrum in the northern province of Groningen. Their destination was Holland, Ottawa County, Michigan, a city of Dutch expatriates seeking religious freedom and a better economy who had settled the area under the leadership of Pastor Albertus C. Van Raalte of the Christian Seceded Church, of which Jan was a member. After arriving in New York City on June 11th, the Hoekstras made their way to Holland, where Jan found work as a servant.

Only eleven days earlier, the British steamship Iowa had arrived in New York City from Glasgow carrying another widowed Dutch immigrant, 35-year-old Grietje (Jonker) Dekker, her twelve-year-old daughter, Cathrena, and nine-year-old son, Freek. Like Jan, Grietje had known her share of sorrow. Within five years she had buried her husband, a son, and her parents. Her orphaned younger brothers, Willem and Henderikus, ages 25 and 15 respectively, were traveling along and looking forward to a new beginning as well. Grietje also became a servant and her brothers found jobs as carpenters in nearby Spring Lake Township.

By late October, Jan and Grietje were married. Neither the short four months between immigration and marriage nor the twelve-year age difference between the couple were surprising; Grietje's home town in the Netherlands was Kloosterburen, situated a mere seven-kilometer (4.3-mile) walk northeast of Ulrum. It was very likely the Hoekstra, Jonker, and Dekker families knew each other prior to immigration. Even if they hadn't, Holland was a small town. Jan and Grietje may have worked in the same household and likely attended services together, probably at the Ninth Street Holland Christian Reformed Church. Besides, marriage in those days was as much about necessity and survival as about love.

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Michigan. Ottawa County. Birth Records. 1878. Digital image. FamilySearch.org, "Michigan Births, 1867-1902." http://www.familysearch.org : 2014.
Maria's birth is record 190; the 10th entry on these pages.

Jan and Grietje added more children to their blended family. Their first child was my great-great-grandfather, Martin, born in 1868. Then came the first Maria, born in 1870, who died shortly before her third birthday from liver cancer. Fonytje ("Finnie") was born in 1874, and the second Maria, the subject of this story, was born 4 April 1878. In addition, the Family Record book states that two sets of twins were born to Jan and Grietje and died in infancy. In those days, families generally had children every two years, a natural cycle of pregnancy, nursing (which usually suppresses conception), and weaning; it's possible those sets of twins were born in the years 1872 and 1876. A burial of 10 September 1874 for "a child of Jan Hoekstra" has been found in the Pilgrim Home Cemetery records; whether that is one of the twins born c. 1872 or a possible twin of Finnie is up for speculation. Perhaps it is a different family altogether. Although Michigan kept birth and death records beginning in 1867, until 1897 (deaths) and 1902 (births) they were done annually census-style, and thus many individuals were missed. Regardless, we know from the 1880 Federal Census that only three children survived the very dangerous years of infant and early childhood mortality: Martin, Finnie, and (the second) Maria.

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Michigan. Ottawa County. 1880 U.S. census, population schedule. Digital image. Ancestry.com. http://www.ancestry.com : 2007.
The Hoekstra family is enumerated on lines 16-20.

Typical of many of my Frisian-Dutch immigrant family members, Maria was known by several names. She is recorded as Maria (misspelled "Maia") in the county birth record. But we know from a later newspaper account that she generally went by "Maitje," which to the ears of English speakers probably sounded a lot like "Maggie." While the official recorders of that time were probably familiar with Dutch names, they may not have been as familiar with Frisian spellings and name variations. These English, Dutch, and Frisian variations and spellings create challenges when attempting to locate individuals in official records. For instance, I have yet to find this family enumerated on the 1884 Michigan State Census, even after scrolling image by image through the online pages at Seeking Michigan.

With these difficulties, could I find the complete story of Maria? I was able to locate her record in the Return of Deaths for Ottawa County that gave me an important detail: the cause of death was a railroad accident.


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Michigan. Ottawa County. Death Records. 1890. FamilySearch.org, "Michigan Deaths, 1867-1897." http://www.familysearch.org : 2015.
Maggie's entry is record 275; the 11th entry on each page. The date of death is incorrect; according to a newspaper article published on 13 December 1890, she died on the 7th (not the 17th) of December.

In 2006, I created a memorial page for Maria at Find A Grave, after discovering her burial while searching for other family members in the Pilgrim Home Cemetery tombstone transcriptions on microfilm. In 2013, a Find A Grave volunteer kindly took this photograph for me of the tombstone Maria shares with her mother (the birth and death years are off):

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Grave of Maria Hoekstra, Block M, Lot 35, Pilgrim Home Cemetery, Holland, Ottawa County, Michigan. Digital photograph by Find A Grave volunteer "Scout" and privately held by Miriam Robbins, Spokane, Washington. 2013.

But what was the story? Attempting to locate online newspapers or city directories for further information on the family proved futile. However, one day in April, a Find A Grave volunteer contacted me and informed me that the Saline Observer from Saline, Washtenaw County, Michigan, had an online article about the accident:

“State News Condensed,” Saline (Michigan) Observer, 18 December 1890, p. 8, col. 2; digital image, CMU Online Digital Object Repository (http://condor.cmich.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/salineobs : 2015), MDNP-Washtenaw-Saline Observer.

When I posted my find on Facebook, an Ottawa County genealogy friend of mine volunteered to look in the Holland City News archives at the Herrick District Library in Holland. She hit pay dirt:



“A Tragic Death,” Holland (Michigan) City News, 13 December 1890, p. 4.

So now I have the rest of the story. Ironically, in 2000, my family took Amtrak from Spokane, Washington back to Grand Rapids, Michigan. We would have crossed the very site of Maria's tragic death, shown here in Google Maps Street View:

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Amtrak Railroad crossing at Tenth Street, Holland, Michigan. Digital image. Google Maps Street View. http://maps.google.com : 2015.
View looking west on Tenth Street.

What remains to finish my research and honor the life of young Maria? I hope to access the original inquest report and perhaps discover church records for this one whose life was cut much too short. Someday, I'd like to visit Holland again, find the home (or site) where the Hoekstra family lived, visit this railroad crossing, and lay a flower at Maria's grave.

(Coincidentally, today marks 125 years since Maria's death. I did not even realize this until I opened the draft, written months ago, to add citations and put in the finishing touches. She has been "haunting" me to tell her story all year. I hope she rests in peace.)

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I could not have fleshed out the skeleton of Maria's story without help from a number of people. First of all, thanks to Find A Grave photo volunteers "genealogymaster1" and "Scout" for taking photos of Maria's grave. Secondly, to Find A Grave contributer Pat Harney, who discovered the Saline Observer article, and took the time to contact me. Huge thanks is due to genealogy Facebook friend, Mary Raper, who went to the Herrick District Library and found the detailed article in the Holland City News and verified the publication date, which clarified Maria's death and burial dates (there were conflicting dates in various records). Finally, I thank my cousin Michelle "Missy" (Hovenkamp) Alkema, who is a descendant of Finnie Hoekstra VanTil, sister of my Martin and of Maria. Missy researched and provided evidence of Grietje's immigration on the ship Iowa through a very incorrect passsenger list and a number of vital and immigration records in online Dutch collections. It is so fun to have a co-researcher on our mutual Hoekstra line!

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2 comments:

Anna Matthews said...

Although the story is sad, this is a wonderful post. I love it when a story is shared that might otherwise have been lost, since Maria had no direct descendants. Also, the collaboration is wonderful from Find A Grave, to your genealogy friend to a cousin/fellow researcher and, of course, your own research. Knowing you have crossed over that spot gave me chills, and the way you told the story made it an excellent read.

Miriam J. Robbins said...

Thank you, Anna. I really felt her "calling" me to tell her story. There are a few other ancestors who have been whispering in my ear as well. It's time for me to get back to writing my ancestor stories (AnceStories) again.