Friday, May 1, 2015

A satisfying visit to the birthplace of my Esveldt and Munnik ancestors

Windmills in Amsterdam (photo by Lucy Spadoni, May 2015)
Today I had the unbelievable opportunity to visit the small cities in Holland where my great grandfather Jan Pieter Esveldt and great grandmother Hendrina Munnik grew up.
While my genealogy hobby has focused almost exclusively on my father’s side of the family for the past five years, that doesn’t mean I have forgotten my mother’s family. I grew up next to my grandfather John Wagoner and grandmother Jeannette Esveldt, who had a strong influence on my life. Both were teachers, and so were my mom and her sister. I believe my love and skills for that profession, along with a passion and respect for the written word, came from them.

By a huge stroke of Gods grace, I received a personal tour of the cities of Uithoorn, where my Esveldt ancestors hailed, and Mijdrecht, birthplace of both Hendrina Munnik and Neeltje Blom, Jan Pieter’s mother.
Jan Pieter Esveldt
The chance visit came about when Lucy and I decided to spend a few days here in Amsterdam before heading home from Italy. Lucy’s great grandfather Nathan Bonnist was born in Amsterdam, and she is still in contact with his brother Abraham
s two grandchildren, Eduard and Else.
These three buildings may be the last old buildings that remain in Uithoorn from the time that Jan Pieter Esveldt lived there.

After hearing of my family connection to Holland, Eduard volunteered to take Lucy and me on a personal tour of Uithoorn and Mijdrecht, which are located about 15 miles south of Amsterdam. He drove us in his car on a scenic route along the Amstel River, and as we drove first into Uithoorn and then five minutes further into Mijdrecht, we realized what a golden opportunity had fallen into our laps. These are not cities on the beaten tourist track, and while we conceivably could have reached them by bus along a main highway, it would have taken much longer, and we would not known exactly where to find the historical centers of the towns. More importantly, we would not have had a bi-lingual native of Amsterdam to help us interpret the scenery and historical significance of the places we were visiting.

The view of this old farmhouse shows how the river level is actually from 2 to 4 meters higher than the surrounding land.
The area between Amsterdam and Uithoorn consists of breathtakingly beautiful lush green pasture lands. Cows, sheep and goats graze in this unbelievably flat land, most of which is below the level of the Amstel River, which is kept in check by levies that have been expertly constructed over the centuries. Most of the rich farm fields have been converted from marshlands by first channeling the rivers and then using windmills to pump water from the lower fields into the river. If water is needed for the fields, it is a simple matter to let it flow back downhill from the river.

Dutch Reformed Church in Mijdrecht.
Unfortunately, Eduard told us, we have come too late to see what the little cities looked like when Jan Pieter and Hendrina grew up. Modern shopping centers and buildings that house light industries have replaced most of the historical homes and stores. However, knowing the area as he does, Eduard was able to take us to some of the neighborhoods where older buildings still exist, and we were still able to leave with a reasonable idea of what the old country must have been like. It’s strangely significant to gaze at buildings that you know your ancestors must have seen 150 years ago.

The few historic buildings in Uithoorn are on the right. Travel on the Amstel River is still quite active.
The area in old Uithoorn where we walked around is right on the river, and I believe it quite likely that Jan Pieter often boarded a boat there in his travels to Amsterdam. He is said to have owned a blacksmith business that made iron parts for Amsterdam’s huge fleet of ships. In those days, river travel would have been the most direct and efficient way for him to commute.

Eduard Bonnist and Lucy Bonnist Spadoni in Mijdrecht.
Mijdrecht had even fewer historical buildings than Uithoorn. Lucy and I walked around what is probably the oldest structure in town, the Reformed Church, which dates from the 1500s, although it was a Catholic Church when first built. We also looked in the small cemetery next to the church, but all the headstones were of relatively recent origin. Likely the ancient graves had to be removed to make way for newer arrivals.
These old houses in Edam show what houses of wealthy
 people would have looked like in Jan Pieter's time.
However, homes in Uithoorn would have been simpler.

While it’s amazing what a person can discover about one’s ancestors by researching online and viewing photos and videos, there is still nothing that can match the emotional satisfaction of a personal visit to the historic towns from where they came. Today I was fortunate enough to feel that thrill.

From this unique view in the canals of Amsterdam, one can see seven bridges in a row from one location.


  1. What a wonderful experience! So happy for both of you! Say hi to any Van Zyls or Browers you meet - could be relatives of Dirk's.


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