Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “holtorf”

Six generations of Holfords

The backbone of this blog is my Holford ancestry, back to northern Germany (Denmark) in the late 1700s. The stories, however, are not just of the Holfords but the various individuals who have married into the line and the families from which they have originated. The stories of my ancestors is a story of northern Europe and the chart below gives a broad overview of their origins in Denmark, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden and Belgium. All the lines lead to Australia, which is, of course, not in northern Europe at all.

And yet, nowadays I live with my wife and kids in Sweden, but Maria and I met in England, married in Sweden and have lived many years in Australia as well as Sweden. I think we see ourselves as more Australian than Swedish, although our children are, like me, perhaps just a little confused about their identity. We are what we are, and perhaps my obsessing about family history is an attempt to define where I have come from in an effort to know a little more of who I am.

Two hundred years of Holfords and their wives' families.

Two hundred years of Holfords and their wives’ families.


Imagining stories for Claus and Jürgen

I wondered in my last entry if Claus (aged 32) and Jürgen Holtorf (age 8) may have sailed together from Hamburg to New York in April 1852. Further research shows that the ship they sailed on, the Rhein, arrived in New York on April 29, meaning it took a mere 28 days to complete the journey. So it was not wrecked, a possibility that I raised in the last blog. And despite what I have read in other places, which suggests that the journey usually took at least 40 days, this trip was a quick one.

However, the mystery deepens when scanning through the passenger list of arrivals on the Rhein in New York on that date. Claus has disappeared and only Jürgen remains. However, this time Jürgen’s age is listed, but as 32. I have already mentioned that if indeed these were our Holtorfs, then Jürgen would have been around 8 years of age, and Claus would be 32.

What happened to Claus? Did he die on the voyage? Or was it really young Jürgen who died and then Claus took his name? And what could possibly have prompted Claus to do such a thing?

The “Rhein” was a 450 gross ton, three masted barque, built in 1848. She was constructed of wood, and carried 20-1st class and 200-steerage passengers. She sailed between Hamburg and New York for the Hamburg America Line from 1849 to 1858 when she was sold. [Merchant Fleets by Duncan Haws, vol.4, Hamburg America Line]


The Rhein, 1848 Source: Arnold Kludas and Herbert Bischoff, Die Schiffe der Hamburg – Amerika Linie, Bd. 1: 1847-1906 (Herford: Koehler, 1979), p. 21.

Why did people die on voyages between Europe and the USA? The following description is of three common diseases and comes from the Mecklenburg Vorpommern GenWebsite:

Three diseases in particular were rampant on ships: cholera, typhus, and smallpox. Cholera, an infection of the stomach and intestines, was a particular problem. Once cholera struck a ship’s passengers, it spread quickly. Noone knew what to do for the problem. One recommended treatment was to administer a dose of Epsom salts and castor oil in combination, rub the patient’s face with vinegar, and then give the patient 35 drops of laudanum, a highly addictive opiate. If there was no ship’s doctor, and there usually wasn’t, the captain had the medicine chest. The medicine chest often contained remedies such as balsam, drops of various kinds, cream of tartar, peppermint, powdered rhubarb, or pills advertised on the waterfront as useful for curing a number of ailments. Any of those treatments might be tried.

Outbreaks of smallpox were less common but more feared. The disease was often accommpanied by pneumonia, encephalitis, blood poisoning or some other ailment, and the mortality rate was high. The worst killer of all on sailing ships was typhus, a liceborne disease that afflicts the victim’s skin and brain, causing dizziness, headaches, and pain throughout the body, together with bloodshot eyes, a dark red rash and a dull stare.

Typhus was common in the crowded conditions and was known by the nickname of “ship fever.” It is a wonder that as many passengers survived the voyage as did. Those that did not were buried at sea. 

What became of the Holtorfs of Bramstedt?

Claus Holtorf had 10 children, 6 with his first wife, Margarethe and 4 with his second, Elsabe. Two of Elsabe’s boys did not survive past childhood. What I know of the others comes from two death notices, the first when Claus died in 1874, and the second after Johann’s death in 1898. But there are questions which remain unanswered.

Claus’s death notice (1874) indicates that the two girls, Anna and Minna, both married, were living in Hamburg. They were no longer young women: Anna was 57 and Minna 49 by that year. Johann’s death notice in 1898 shows that by then both of them were living in England, by which time they were respectively 81 and 73. What prompted the two of them to move to England later in life I can only guess at. I am not even sure that they lived in England at that time, but they appear to have been there in any case when their younger brother died in 1898. I suppose it is possible they were just visiting. Whether their respective husbands were still alive then or not I don’t know either, nor if they had any children. But it seems most likely that Anna and Minna, natives of Holstein, Denmark (Germany) died in Victorian England.

Hans, Margarethe’s second son was married with four children in 1874. They lived near Weddelbrook, just to the west of Bramstedt. Johann was in Australia and Andreas had migrated to America. Of Elsabe’ two surviving sons one, Jakob, was in Australia, though he lived in Sydney whereas Johann lived with his family in Goulburn. All but two of the children are therefore accounted for on the 1874 death notice, but neither Claus, Margarethe’s first born, nor Jürgen, Elsabe’s last born, are mentioned. What happened to them is a mystery. It might be assumed that both had died, but I have nothing to confirm that. By 1874 they had both disappeared. What could have happened to them?

German migrant ship 1852

German migrant ship 1852

While trolling the Hamburg passenger records I found an entry for two Holtorfs who were accommodated in the same cabin on a ship, the Rhein, sailing out of Hamburg for New York, in 1852. The two were a Claus and a Jürgen. Could they be the same Claus and Jürgen as those from our Holtorf family in Bramstedt? Annoyingly the ages of the two are not listed in the passenger manifest, so they cannot be matched up by age. Nor is their relationship recorded, which could have also given some clues. Furthermore, their place of birth is recorded as Hohn, Holstein, which doesn’t fit. Hohn is a town some 50 km north of Bramstedt, but is not in Holstein, but Schleswig. This got me wondering. Was the lack of details, along with one slightly misleading fact, an indication that something was amiss? I suppose there could be another two brothers called Claus and Jürgen Holtorf travelling to New York in 1852. But it is certainly an odd coincidence. But how could I put the few facts that I had before me together?

One possible explanation for the few facts that I have available is that Claus, the first born son of the Holtorf family, married, and moved to Hohn during his adult life, where he lived with his wife. If his stepmother Elsabe had died at or soon after Jürgen’s birth, it is quite possible that Claus and his wife “adopted” little Jürgen. Claus was 24 when Jürgen was born, so was old enough to be his father. Supposing Claus’s wife had died sometime after that, Claus would have been left with a young “son” and a heavy heart. The thought of starting a new life may have been very attractive, especially in view of the sadness associated with his native land, not to mention the political instability and economic uncertainty which affected so many. Claus and Jürgen may have travelled together, as father and son, to the New World.

It is hard to know what to make of the fact that in 1874, when Claus was 54 and Jürgen was 30, neither appear on their father’s death notice. Clearly their whereabouts was unknown for those who penned the notice, indicating that they had lost touch. Both may have been dead. Did the sailing ship Rhein even make it to America? I have been unable to find a record of their arrival in New York, and ship wrecks were not unknown in those uncertain days. If they did arrive for some reason they may have chosen not to maintain contact, unlike the rest of the family. Perhaps there was a rift in the family that had contributed to Claus leaving with Jürgen, or maybe Claus simply stopped writing after the two arrived in America. Some people are just not good at keeping in touch.

Whatever the truth, it would seem that only one of the 10 Holtorf children, namely Hans, remained in Germany to carry on the family name. Two of the ten probably died in England, two others in Australia, one definitely in America, though there may have been three there if Claus and Jürgen did indeed make that journey. The other two died in childhood. Hans, the one who remained around Bramstedt, in 1851 married a girl called Catharrina Behnk and together they had four children. Any contemporary Holtorfs related to us must surely be the descendants of Hans and Catharrina.


DSC_3924Bramstedt in 1850 was a rural centre of some 3000 people. The town had been prominent in the region for centuries for two reasons: it was an important stopover on an old cattle route for traders driving their herds from the Jutland peninsula south to continental Europe, and it was also an important resting place on an ancient monks route used by Christian pilgrims making their way from Glückstadt on the Elbe in the west to Puttgarden on the Baltic Sea in the east. Although the spring with healing properties (Gesundbrunnen) had been known since the 1600s Bramstedt did not gain fame as a health spa until the late 1800s and into the 1900s, long after Johan Holtorf had left. The name Bad Bramstedt (bad is a German word that in this context means spa) only came into use in the first decade of the twentieth century, and was given to the town to distinguish it from the nearby town of Barmstedt, because mail so often ended up in the wrong place!

There are two landmarks of present day Bramstedt representing these aspects of the town, the economic and the spiritual. They are the so called Roland statue, and the Church of Mary Magdalene. The Roland statue is one of many similar statues in Germany, and it is a symbol of fairness in trading. There have been a succession of statues standing DSC_3942on the same spot in the middle of Bramstedt for many centuries, but the one that is there now is, I believe, the same one that Johann would have seen every time he walked down the main street of his home town. It was erected in 1827, the year before Johann was born, replacing an older structure that had fallen down in 1814. The other landmark, the Church of Mary Magdalene (Maria Magdalenen Kirche) dates back to the 1200s. Johann’s father, Claus Holtorf, married twice in the church, the first time to Margarethe Köhnke, Johann’s mother, in 1817, and the second time to Elsabe Lentfer in 1837, two years after his first wife died. Johann was probably baptised in the church too, though I have not seen any document testifying to this.

Johann’s father, Claus, was a shoemaker as well as being a timber warden on one of the estates around Bramstedt. Market days were presumably an important part of the week for Claus Holtorf for this reason. However, the family probably didn’t move to Bramstedt until around the time Johann’s mother Margarethe died, when he DSC_3943was just 7 years old. By then his oldest sister Anna was 18 and she would likely have taken on a great deal of the mothering duties in the family. Johann had two older sisters, Anna and Minna, and two older brothers, Claus and Hans. He also had a brother who was two years younger, Andreas. Johann and Andreas were both born in the little village of Bimöhlen, a few kilometres to the west of Bramstead. Anna, the first born, had also been born there but after her birth the family moved to another small village, a little further away, called Großenaspe. Johann and Andreas were born after they moved back to Bimöhlen sometime around 1827, and so their earliest years were lived there in the countryside. Bramstead probably seemed like a very big city to the little boys when they moved there around 1835.

A river flows through the centre of Bramstedt and it would have been very familiar to the Holtorf children. It also became the scene of a family tragedy when Johann was a teenager. The river arises in the gentle hills of central Holstein and flows west through first Bimöhlen and then Bramstedt and onward toward the North Sea. However, the River Bram, or Bramau as it is called in German, never reaches that sea, but joins a larger waterway, the Stör River, which eventually empties into the Elbe, just north of Glückstadt. The Elbe is a huge waterway flowing north-west from Hamburg. Years later Johann would sail down this huge river and out into the North Sea on the first leg of his voyage to Australia.

When Johann was 9 his father remarried, this time to Elsabe Lentfer, who became Johann’s stepmother. Over the ensuing 7 years Elsabe had four sons, Johann’s half-brothers, though the second died shortly after birth. Elsabe’s first son Hinrich also died in childhood. In 1845 when Johann was 17 his little step-brother Hinrich drowned, quite possibly in the Bram River. He was only seven years old. Claus and Elsabe must have been heartbroken, not to mention the rest of the family, to lose the little boy so tragically.

Johann was 28 years old when he left Bramstedt in 1856 and sailed to Australia. What he did in his early adult life I don’t know. His father was a shoemaker, and a timber warden. It would be normal for a son to follow his father’s trade, but Johann had two older brothers and it is not certain that they would all have become shoemakers. More likely is that he worked in the forest and as an agricultural labourer. Probably on market days he helped with the sale of the family products. After he had moved to Australia Johann was a travelling salesman – a “hawker” as the family records put it (interestingly, the word hawker has its origins in Low German, the language that Johann spoke). Perhaps he learned that trade shouting out his father’s wares on the streets of nineteenth century Bramstedt.


Groß Aspe or Großenaspe?

Johan Holtorf, who renamed himself John Holdorf when he migrated to Australia in the middle of the nineteenth century, was born in 1828 in Bimöhlen, Holstein, in northern Germany. At the time of his birth, however, Holstein was under the control of Denmark. His oldest sister Anna, the first born of the family, was born in Bramstedt in 1817. Between Anna and Johan there were three other siblings, Claus (1820), Hans (1822) and Wilhelmina (1825). According to notes from my father’s files each of these three was born in Groß Aspe. I searched for Groß Aspe on Google maps and found a town with that name some 100km from Bramstedt west across the Elbe, as I mentioned in my the last blog. Why, I wondered, would Claus and Margarethe have moved there? Or more specifically, did they move there? The other day as I was poring over the map of Holstein I noticed that just a few kilometres away from Bimöhlen is another town with the very similar name of Großenaspe, and it occurred to me that this might be the place to which the Holtorf family moved after Anna was born and not the distant Groß Aspe, given its proximity to Bramstedt. För many of the years between 1817 and 1828 the Holtorf family lived in Großenaspe, bit before Johann’s birth they moved to Bimöhlen. The sixth child in the family, Andreas, was born in 1832, presumably also in Bimöhlen. Their mother Margarethe, died in 1835. Claus, their father, remarried in 1837, in Bramstedt, to Elsabe Lentfer, with whom he had four more children, though only two of them survived into adulthood. Claus, it would seem, was born in Bramstedt, though his father was born in Bimöhlen. Margarethe was born in Wiemersdorf. Going back through the generations prior to Claus, his father Detlef (Dirk Holtorf) was born in Bimöhlen in 1764, his grandfather Dirk Holtorp, was born in 1723 and his great grandfather Dirk Holtorp, was born in Kampen in 1688. I found Kampen too on Google maps, a tiny spot some 10km south of Bramstedt. For hundreds of years then the Holtorf’s had lived in and around Bramstedt. But in the middle of the nineteenth century they began to depart. Johann went to Australia, Andreas to America. The two sisters appear to have ended up in England, but of the two brothers who remained in Germany only one, Hans, had any children. Of Elsabe’s four children, two died in childhood, one died before he was thirty, apparently childless and one migrated to Sydney. So of Claus Holtorf’s ten children, only Hans remained to have children in Germany. Johann went to Australia and became the father of the Holdorf, later Holford, clan. Claus Holtorf’s last son, Jakob Holtorf, also migrated to Sydney, but what became of him and his ancestors is unknown to me. So in Australia now there are possibly Holfords, Holdorfs (since at least one of Johan’s sons kept the Holdorf name) and Holtorfs, all ancestors of Claus Holtorf of Bramstedt in Holstein, northern Germany.

The red pin marks Groß Aspe

The red pin marks Groß Aspe

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