Margretha Wolff’s origin—solved!

My longest-enduring genealogical brick wall has finally been broken through, thanks to the generous help of Serena Stuettgen, Museum Curator at the Luxembourg American Cultural Society and Center, and Jean Ensch, expert on Luxembourger emigration to the United States.

My grandfather’s great-grandmother Margretha Wolff (see this earlier post for a summary of details prior to breaking through the brick wall) was born in Luxembourg 190 years ago, and the link back to her birth country has been lost for at least the last 113 years, when she died in 1910. The last time her birth country was correctly recorded was on the 1880 US census. From 1885 onwards, her family seems to have forgotten where she was born and assumed it was Germany, presumably because she spoke German as her native language.

Margretha (Wolff) Gores was born Marguerite1Modern Luxembourg is an impressively polyglottal nation—most residents speak at least four languages: Luxembourgish, French, German, and English. Historically, the small size of the nation, combined with its strategic location between Germany, France, and Belgium (and previously, the Netherlands, Prussia, and the Holy Roman Empire), its frequent invasions by foreign armies, and the frequent annexing of portions of its territory by foreign powers resulted in a populace that was comfortable speaking languages besides their national language. Official records of Luxembourg in the 19th century were typically written in Luxembourgish, German, French, or Latin. Depending on the language being used to record a particular document, the author would sometimes translate personal names to the language being written. A man born as Willem might be referred to as Willem, William, Wilhelm, or even Guillermo. Thus it should not come as a surprise that the woman known as Margretha (and in later life as Maggie, Marg, and Margret) has her first official mention in Luxembourg records as “Marguerite”. Wolff on August 7, 1833, in the town of Beaufort, Luxembourg. Her father was Nicolas Wolff and her mother was Rosalie (“Rosa”) Leteson.

Marguerite Wolff’s 1833 birth record. The record is dated 8 August 1833, but it states that she was born the previous day.

Beaufort is a small town in eastern Luxembourg perhaps best known today for its renaissance castle and the scenic ruins of a medieval castle. The medieval ruins would have also have played a central role in the identity of Beaufort in the 1830s, not least of which was because they became a quarry for building stone after being abandoned in the late 1700s. Below is an illustration of the medieval castle ruins as they appeared within a year of when Marguerite was born.

Illustration of Beaufort Castle by Frantz Clément, published in 1834. Note the clothing styles worn by villagers, and the backpack used by the woman on the right to transport heavy loads.

Marguerite’s father Nicolas was a 49-year-old man at the time of Marguerite’s birth. He had been born in Wallendorf on 12 September 1783, when Wallendorf was still part of the Duchy of Luxembourg. Nicolas was a widower who had been previously married to Maria Catharina Thoma in 1809. Nicolas and Maria had eight children together, four of whom died as infants. Nicolas was 48 years old when his wife Maria died in Beaufort, Luxembourg, on 1 June 1832, leaving Nicolas with Antoin (aged 20), Margaretha2It was not at all uncommon for Luxembourg parents to give the same Borname (given name) to more than one living child in the family. These children were usually given these Bornamen in honor of a deceased ancestor, but they were referred to on a daily basis by their middle names. In nearly all cases, only the formal given name was listed on official documents, so we may never know the actual name that such a double-named child was referred to. (aged 15), Willem (aged 9), and Michel (aged 4). Understandably, Nicolas was quickly remarried. His second marriage occurred just six months and a day after the death of his first wife.

Marriage record of Nicolas Wolff and Rosa Leteson, 1832.

Marguerite’s mother Rosa was a 41-year-old woman at the time of Marguerite’s birth. She had been born in Bruxelles on 2 April 1792, when Bruxelles was part of the Duchy of Brabant, which was part of the Austrian Netherlands. When Rosa was just two years old, the Austrian Netherlands were occupied by Revolutionary France in 1794 and formally annexed by France in 1795 until the collapse of the First French Empire in 1815. Rosalie’s mother, Johanna Zinder, died in Bruxelles when Rosalie was only three years old. Rosalie’s father, Hubert Joseph Leteson, was shot to death in the “Oberweid affair” according to the marriage record, an event that must have been so well-known to the citizens of Beaufort in 1832 as to need no further explanation. Depending on whether the “Oberweid affair” was part of the French annexation of Luxembourg or the later Napoleonic Wars, Rosa was either left as an orphaned infant or as an orphaned child.

I know almost nothing about the first decade of Marguerite’s life (1833–1843), so I’ll jump to the first hints I’ve got about her childhood, which date to 1843 and involve her half-brother.

The eldest surviving child of father Nicolas’ first marriage—Antoin/Anthon Wolff, born 12 July 1812—somehow ended up in Bascharage in the far southwest of Luxembourg (admittedly, only about 30 miles southwest of Beaufort), where he married a woman named Anne Herschen on 25 August 1840. Anne gave birth to a baby boy named Charles Wolff on 16 March 1841, just 6 months and 22 days after their wedding.

Anne Herschen died on 5 September 1843, leaving Antoin a widower at age 31, and leaving her 2-year-old son Charles without a mother. By the time of the December 1843 Luxembourg census, we find Antoin living on his own in the town of Bascharage, without his son:

1843 Luxembourg census for Antoin Wolff

It appears that Marguerite’s family moved from Beaufort to Linger (a small town about two miles west of Bascharage) in order to take care of Antoin’s son Charles. On the 1843 census of Linger, we find 59-year-old Nicolas, 50-year-old Rosa, and 9-year-old Marguerite living in Linger along with the 2-year-old Charles:

1843 Luxembourg census for Nicolas Wolff and family

Nicolas’s profession is listed as “Cantonnier.” According to Jean Ensch, “cantonnier” can be translated as “maintainer of roads,” but it seems to have been a broad term which encompassed everything from road worker to road mender to [railroad] tracklayer to street sweeper. Given that Nicolas Wolff was a recently arrived, older man who had been a non-specialized day laborer in Beaufort, it seems most likely that he was working as a municipal street sweeper in Linger. The French artist Paul Gavarni (1804–1866) illustrated what such a street-sweeping cantonnier looked like around 1848–1852:

Le Cantonnier, ca. 1848–1852, Paul Gavarni

Antoin remarried on 11 October 1844 in Bascharage. His new wife was Anne Arrend. By the time of the 1846 Luxembourg census, taken on 9 October 1846 in Bascharage, Antoin has been reunited with his son and is living with his new wife Anne. His profession is listed as “journaleur”, a Luxembourgish word meaning “journalist”:

1846 Luxembourg census for Antoin Wolff and family

On 22 August 1845, Marguerite’s mother Rosa Leteson died in the town of Linger. Her death certificate is shown below, but I haven’t been able to decipher all of the handwritten portions. I suspect Rosa died as a result of the European Potato Failure of 1845–1846.

Rosa Leteson’s 1845 death certificate

By the time of the 1846 Luxembourg census, the 63-year-old Nicolas has left Bascharage and is once again living in Beaufort, but without his 13-year-old daughter Marguerite. Nicolas is living with his eldest daughter from his first marriage, Marguerite Wolff, her husband Peter/Pierre Regenwetter, their 2-year-old daughter Maria, their 1-year-old daughter Agnés, and their 16-year-old male domestic servant Georges Eiffes. A second family consisting of 63-year-old Nicolas Well and 79-year-old Marguerithe Pelzer were also living in the same house. Nicolaus Wolff was listed as the head of the household. Interestingly, his birthdate was recorded as three years before his actual birth, so he was either self-reporting as 66 years old, or the informant guessed his birth year incorrectly.

1846 Luxembourg census for Nicolas Wolff and extended family

It is puzzling that despite there appearing to be enough room in the household for Nicolas’ 13-year-old daughter Marguerite, she is not listed as living with her father and her half-sister’s family. Was she living and working as a domestic servant in another family’s home? Did her father decide she was old enough to look after herself, so she set out on her own somewhere to make her own way in life? Was she away visiting as-yet undiscovered family members? I have not been able to find a record of her living with any known family members or living anywhere in Beaufort, Linger, or Bascharage.

Marguerite Wollf was also absent on the 1847 census:

1847 Luxembourg census for Nicolas Wolff and extended family

…and the 1849 census:

1849 Luxembourg census for Nicolas Wolff and extended family

By the time of the 1852 census, Nicolas Wolff is living on his own, but his daughter Marguerite is still not with him:

1852 Luxembourg census for Nicolas Wolff

At the time of the 1855 census, Nicolas Wolff is still living on his own, and his daughter Marguerite is still not with him:

1855 Luxembourg census for Nicolas Wolff

It was only by the time of the 1858 Luxembourg census, enumerated on 3 December 1858, that Margaretha Wolff had returned to Beaufort and was living with her father and her half-sister’s family. Margaretha was now 25 years old, and her father was 75 years old (although claiming to be 78).

1858 Luxembourg census for Peter Regenwetter and extended family

Thus Marguerite’s whereabouts are unknown for the period from 1846 (when she was 13 years old) until 1858 (when she was 25 years old).

Marguerite Wolff married Franz Gores on 14 July 1859 in New Trier, Minnesota, so the 1858 census discovery narrows the date of her emigration to sometime in the seven months between 3 December 1858 and 14 July 1859. My working hypothesis is that she migrated at some point in Spring 1859.

These new findings represent an important and tremendously satisfying breakthrough that finally ties Margaretha Wolff to her country of birth, Luxembourg. There are still so many questions to answer:

  • Is there any evidence of the first decade of Marguerite’s life (1833–1843)?
  • Where was Marguerite Wolff from 1846 to 1858?
  • Why did she choose to emigrate to the U.S.?
  • When did she emigrate to the U.S.?
  • Who did she emigrate with?
  • What was the Oberweid affair and when did it occur? Was it really Oberweid (175 miles to the east, in Thuringia), or was this perhaps in Oberweis (just 10 miles northeast of Beaufort)?

4 thoughts on “Margretha Wolff’s origin—solved!

  1. Michael, your posts are always fascinating and a pleasure to read. Congratulations on this latest break through!

    I recently discovered details regarding my 4th-great-grandfather George Dill. Initially, I only knew that his daughter, my 3rdGGrandmother Eliza Dill, was born in Orange County, NY, in about 1804, but I was able to deduce which Dill family there was hers (with help from a descendant of one of her brothers).

    For a long while, I was theorizing her father George was a descendant of Caleb Dill who immigrated to Minisink, NY, from County Donegal, Ireland, about 1720. He had MANY descendants in Orange County!

    But the great discovery was that THIS George Dill (there were several) had been conscripted as a Hessian soldier and sent to America in 1776. He later deserted and joined the American patriots. Amazing.

    • You can’t beat the feeling of getting to the bottom of a decades-long mystery and discovering that the true story is even better than you had hoped for! Congratulations!

  2. Congratulations Michael. What a relief you must eel.
    You have the patience of Job and are the most tenacious reseacher I know!

    • Thanks, Linda. It’s amazing that she’s eluded me for four decades, but that makes the breakthrough all the more satisfying. And I’ve got a special place in my heart for Luxembourg, so it’s even sweeter.

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