Thursday, March 08, 2012

march is women's history month — my great-great grandmother mariette

The Smithsonian is featuring photos of some very cool ladies on its flickr site in honor of Women's History Month. They have inspired me to feature some great women from my own family history this month. First up is my great-great grandmother, Mariette Nichols.


Mariette Nichols lived from 1847 to 1930. What a life. A young woman during the Civil War, middle-aged in the Gay '90s, a grandma during the First World War, and old lady during the Roaring '20s. The character that Maggie Smith plays on Downtown Abbey is just about the same era, if you need some pop culture context.

Mariette Nichols2

Mariette, like many other young ladies of her age, was lucky enough to travel to the continent with her older sister and her family, post- Civil War, c. 1870. On her travels she met a (quite) older man, Gysbert van Steenwyk, and the two became engaged. They were married in Berne, Switzerland. Despite the great difference in their ages (Gysbert was in his upper 50s, Mariette in her late 20s), they were definitely a love match, and had three children, Walter, Ella May, and Gysbert, Jr.

Mariette's family was from Danbury, Connecticut. Gysbert had come to the United States in 1848 from the Netherlands to learn to speak English and stayed. He was soon made a commissioner of immigration for the states of New York and Wisconsin. He later became a bank comptroller for Wisconsin, and eventually opened a bank in La Crosse, Wisconsin. They lived in La Crosse after they married, and Mariette stayed there until she died in 1930, 28 years after Gysbert's death in 1902.

Although Gysbert was quite successful and they seemed to have had a good life together, they also knew tragedy. They lost their youngest son, Walter, to pneumonia, at the age of eight. The romanticized family tale is that he died making "angels in the snow," but it is clear that his death left his parents heartbroken. My family never throws anything away, which is a boon for a family genealogist, and I found this poignant news clipping:

Uncle Walter-obit

Walter's parents definitely doted on him, as there is also an adorable baby picture, another where he is sporting a Little Lord Fauntleroy-type get-up, and a formal portrait probably taken not too long before his death. A posthumous painting was made based on this picture, which we had in our living room while I was growing up. There is also this amazing ambrotype. He looks about three or four, so it was probably taken c. 1883 or 1884.


My grandmother Mariette was named after her grandmother Mariette. It's through Mariette Nichols that my family can trace its line back through the Revolution, Colonies, Salem Witch Trials and beyond. I think the family love and interest in genealogy may have started with Mariette, who was a member of the D.A.R. I'm also lucky enough to have a Civil War-era family photo album which belonged to her. I intended this post to focus solely on Mariette, but it really is impossible to write about a woman without also writing about the people she loved. I'm very grateful to have such a strong and fascinating woman in my family tree.
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