Search for ancestors: ‘By pure coincidence I discovered the cause of death’

During his volunteer work for the Drenthe Archives, reading and writing down names from documents from the Society of Benevolence, Theo Zelders suddenly came across the obituary of his ancestor.

“By sheer coincidence – it’s almost impossible – I just got to see that one page from Doctor Schunlau’s report,” says Zelders. “It said that ‘the teacher Was’, my great-great-grandfather, had died.”

As an Amsterdam foundling, Daniel Was is accepted into the Society of Benevolence. He then becomes a teacher. In the latest episode of the podcast Poor family, rich history his story is central.

The Society of Benevolence was founded in 1818 to give poor people a chance to escape their poor existence. Men, women, orphans, families with children and veterans were sent from all over the country to the Colonies in Frederiksoord and Veenhuizen, among others.

By working in the fields, it was thought that the poor could be educated to become useful and industrious citizens. The extensive and detailed archive of the Society of Benevolence is kept in the Drenthe Archives.

Daniel Was, an orphan from Amsterdam, arrives in Drenthe by deck barge across the IJsselmeer. There he receives education from Master Uhl. He was impressed by the bright foundling and offered him a job as the master’s assistant teacher. Ultimately, Daniel Was grew up to become a teacher, with an annual salary of no less than 200 guilders.

Daniel meets his wife in the colonies of the Society of Benevolence, and the couple has three children. At one point, the new teacher had to take strict action against a number of boys who threw stones against the school building. Much to Theo Zelders’ delight: “I really enjoy reading those kinds of stories.”

The special story of Daniel Was is a wonderful addition to Theo Zelders’ family history. Two uncles had already sorted out an entire family tree, everything was on paper. Zelders therefore decided to take the next step. “Just give me that whole trade and I’ll put it in the computer.”

Not only did he enrich the family tree with biographical information, he also updated a family legend. According to tradition, Daniel Was froze to death during a walk from Assen back to Veenhuizen. But Zelders discovered during his archive research that this was incorrect: his ancestor appeared to have died of an illness. “I can’t figure out exactly what it was, but I have a feeling it was typhoid.”

Podcast Poor family, rich history
Age Bakker, Mirjam Leloux and Theo Zelders are three of the thousands of researchers who went looking for their family and discovered that their ancestors were in the Society of Benevolence. They found out who they were, what they did and why they ended up there. In the new podcast series Poor family, rich history of the Drents Archief and RTV Drenthe, the listener is taken into their research.

Every episode of Poor family, rich history also has an afterthought, the so-called B-part. In these extra episodes, writer Wil Schackmann explains the episode. He knows everything about the Society of Benevolence and helped hundreds of researchers in the search for their ancestors. He also gives tips for people who want to start a family investigation in the Society of Benevolence.