Monday, March 5, 2012

Solving a Puzzle–Who is M. M. Colbiørnsen?

Sometimes in genealogy we work long and hard to find someone we’re looking for.  These are often called “brick walls”.  People who we just can’t seem to locate.  Other times we have the inverse problem.  Seeing a person and having no idea who they are.  Well, when you find out who they are (or even if you think you have) it’s just as exhilarating as breaking through a brick wall.  I managed to solve just such a puzzle in my own family that dates back to my very beginnings last summer.  My mystery woman was named Mary Colbiørnsen.

1841-Fisher St 45 (Medium)Mary Colbiørnsen first showed up in the household of my 4th great grandmother, Amey McNobney in the first St Croix census of 1841.  She was listed as a girl of 14.  The household was rather large, 6 males and 11 females, including a few with different last names. Some related, some not. This wasn’t completely odd since it was a fairly common practice to have unrelated people living in a household.  Often these people were boarders or servants.  So, it didn’t strike me as that unusual at the time.

As I continued my research, I found that Mary (Maria, Mette, M. M., Maria M., Mary M.) Colbiørnsen kept showing up.  First in Amey’s household, and then after Amey’s death, in Mary Johanna (MJ) van Beverhoudt’s household.  MJ was Amey’s granddaughter, the sister of my 2nd great grandfather, Claudius van Beverhoudt.  In 1890, widower Claudius van Beverhoudt’s household included his sisters MJ and Grace, his 18 year-old niece Eva Pentheny (whose parents had died in 1873), and a 64 year-old M. M. Colbiørnsen, listed as a pensioner. (There was also an Alice Hull listed as cousin – I have to figure out who she is, but that’s for another day).  In 1901, Mary M. Colbiørnsen and Grace van Beverhoudt shared a home owned by MJ van Beverhoudt at 28 King Cross St in Christiansted.  MJ was living with Eva Pentheny’s new family, the Colbeth family, in Frederiksted at the time. Apparently, Maria Colbiørnsen was a close family friend (or child of a friend) who simply lived with the van Beverhoudts for her whole life.

After I exhausted the census records for the van Beverhoudt family, I turned my attention to other records.  I found a head tax record for Amey McNobney dated 26 Nov 1800 where she indicates slaves owned by her and her daughter, Maria Magdalena.  Since Maria Magdalena’s initials are M. M., I had hoped I found the Colbiørnsen woman.  Unfortunately this woman was far too old to by my mystery woman.  I wasn’t even sure she was a van Beverhoudt. I then found a baptismal record showing that Maria Magdalena was baptized 3 March 1793 and was the daughter of Johannes van Beverhoudt.  At least I identified one of my Marias.  No progress on the Colbiørnsens though.

Recently I have been going through a rather extensive collection at NARA, the St Croix Matriculs.  These are property tax records that, among other things, identify home ownership for nearly every year from 1749-1924.  I have photographed and examined over 10,000 images from 1803-1901.  The collection is about 60 rolls of microfilm, so it’s a rather large collection.  According to the Matriculs, my family owned 45 Fisher St for the whole period 1803-1901, first by Johannes van Beverhoudt, then Amey McNobney, then MJ van Beverhoudt, and finally, jointly, by MJ van Beverhoudt and M. Colbiørnsen.  OK, this is really not looking like a family friend.  Family friends don’t typically inherit property.

After seeing this in the Matriculs, I decided I had to find out who Maria Colbiørnsen was. I went to  a wonderful website resource, This site is maintained by Dr. Svend Holsoe, a professional archivist and genealogist who has been studying the Virgin Islands families for years.  He maintains fully sourced genealogical compilations of many dozens of families from the 1600s through the early to mid 1800s.  His site consists of separate files by surname.  I have used the van Beverhoudt document extensively to guide my research.  So, I looked at the Colbiørnsen document.  It includes this entry:

Edward Colbiørnsen was married to Maria Magdalena. [1]

Child of Edward and Maria Magdalena Colbiønsen:
1. i. Maria Magdalena Colbiønsen, b. 3 March 1826
1. Maria Magdalena Colbiørnsen was born on 3 March 1826 and was baptized in the Christiansted Lutheran Mission Church on 18 June 1826.[2] She was listed as a mustice. [3]

[1] Christiansted Lutheran Mission Church, Church Book, 1818-1846, ff. 154-155, Baptism no. 165.
[2] Christiansted Lutheran Mission Church, Church Book, 1818-1846, ff. 154-155, Baptism no. 165.
[3] Christiansted Lutheran Mission Church, Church Book, 1818-1846, ff. 154-155, Baptism no. 165.

Well, my mystery woman is Maria M. Colbiønsen, born about 1827.  Looks about right. Her mother was named Maria Magdalena. Amey McNobney had a daughter named Maria Magdalena.  The 1841 census doesn’t show either an Edward Colbiønsen or an older Maria Magdalena Colbiønsen, but does show a 14 year old M. M. Colbiønsen living in Amey McNobney’s house.

From all this, I reach a tentative conclusion that M. M. Colbiønsen was Amey’s granddaughter, MJ’s paternal 1st cousin. It also suggests what happened to Maria Magdalena van Beverhoudt.  She and Edward Colbiønsen must have died before 1841 leaving M. M. as an orphan.  That’s why they aren’t in the census.

Now, I say that this is a tentative conclusion.  While it matches the available information, I’d like at least some real connection between the Colbiønsen family and the van Beverhoudts.  Judging from the cited information by Dr. Holsoe, the baptismal record only indicates the mother as Maria Magdalena, without a surname.  No other record is likely to exist.  So, how can I strengthen my conclusion?  One idea is to look at the actual registry entry from the Christiansted Lutheran Mission Church (which I have not yet examined).  I’m hoping that the witnesses are listed.  If my conclusion is correct, I suspect that one of the witnesses will be Amey McNobney.  I’ll be sure to let you know what I find out.

Now, who is this Alice Hull?


  1. Perusing through the book, "Through the Sands of Time" by Judah M. Cohen, I see that a massive hurricane (probably a category 4 or 5) hit the island of St. Thomas (and most likely St. Croix as well) on August 2nd, 1837. The hurricane hit the island with such force that houses are deroofed, trees defoliated, and ships sunk in the harbor. The hurricane of 1837 was so destructive that it took on a legendary significance among the islanders. 1837 was a bad year for hurricanes in general. In fact, another hurricane from that deadly year, was so bad, it actually has its own Wikipedia page! Maybe Mary Magdalena Colbiønsen's parents died in that storm and she somehow miraculously survived.

  2. Interestingly enough, I just went to NARA College Park two weeks ago and happened to look through the St Croix Avis newspaper for 1837. There were several issues discussing the hurricane in St Thomas. There was news and notices of collections being taken up on St Croix to help the homeless. It wiped out many homes and caused several deaths. However, it completely missed St Croix. There was no damage to speak of. There were no hurricanes that damaged St Croix that year. Odd that of all the years to look at I randomly read through 1837!

    Thanks for the suggestion though!!