Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fearless Females: What happened to Dena?

Lisa Alzo at The Accidental Genealogist launched a series of 31 blogging prompts for celebrating and honoring the "fearless females" in our family trees in March, 2010. This year the series is being revisited in honor of National Women’s History Month and the purpose is to focus on the women in our lives and to make sure their stories are told.

Today’s prompt is from March 11: Did you have any female ancestors who died young or from tragic or unexpected circumstances?  Describe and how did this affect the family?

I actually have two females that fit into this category so today I will highlight the first and the second will come later.

I’ve written quite a bit about my 2nd great grandmother, Rebecca Steen Schwartz, and her daughter (my great grandmother), Bertha Schwartz Gunzendorfer.  Rebecca had many siblings but one of them has been a mystery to me that I would love to know more about.  But her life was too short and, thus, there are very few records.

Dena Steen was born in 1866 in California and was the youngest child of Joseph Steen and Hannah Plotzky.  While this date does make sense, a few details confuse me.  I found a reference to the birth of a daughter to Joseph and Hannah on 10 Feb 1864 in the Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 26, Number 4027, 17 Feb 1864.  While this could be Dena, I’m not certain that it is because when Dena died in 1894, she was 28 years old and this date of birth would have made her 30 years old.  Did Joseph and Hannah, perhaps, have a child in 1864 who died in infancy?  Or at least before 1870 when the next census was enumerated?  Joseph died 27 Jul 1866 so no matter when Dena was born, Hannah was left alone with some very young children.

I first found Dena, enumerated as Dinah, in the 1870 census in San Francisco.  She was 4 years old (so the 1866 date works) and was living with Hannah and her siblings – Solomon (really Samuel), Meyer, Lillie, and Julius. 

I next found Dena, enumerated as Lennie, in Oakland in the 1880 census.  She was living at 628 17th Street with Hannah, Samuel, and Lillie.  Julius was no longer with the family due to his death in 1876.

Next we find Dena in the 1883 U.S. City Directory in San Francisco.  She was living at 506 Hyde Street with Hannah and Samuel and was working as a saleslady with Martin J. Aguirre.  The only reference I find to Martin Aguirre is a confectioner at 429 Kearny, about 1 mile from Dena’s home on Hyde Street.  This Martin was born in 1856 – could Martin and Dena have been linked romantically or was she merely working there? 

The next reference I have for Dena is on 9 Sep 1894 when my great grandparents, Abraham Gunzendorfer and Bertha Schwartz, were married.  This reference to the wedding was noted in the San Francisco Chronicle, 17 Sep 1894, page 5:

The bridal procession was headed by the small niece and nephew of the bride, the former bearing the ring upon a pillow of white satin.  The ceremony was performed by the Rev. Dr. Nieto of San Francisco.  Following the ceremony a wedding collation was served on the lawn, which had been canopied for the occasion.  The bride, a stately and handsome brunette, appeared lovely in a court gown of white faille silk and ornaments of diamonds, gifts from the groom.  The bridesmaids were the Misses Dena, Bella and Jennie Steen, and the groomsmen were Charles Berg, Meyer Steen and A. Gunzendorfer of San Francisco.

What a happy occasion that must have been!

And less than a month later, Dena’s life ended suddenly.  This from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, 3 Oct 1894.

Dena Steen 1866 – Oct 2, 1894

Mis [sic] Dena Steen died suddenly in San Francisco Tuesday morning.  The news of her untimely taking off was a shock to her friends in this city.  She was recently here, and was one of the bridesmaids at the marriage of her niece, Miss Bertha Schwartz, to A.B. Gunzendorfer.  Miss Steen was born in Santa Cruz and spent her childhood here.  Her home latterly has been in San Francisco.  She was a young lady of pleasant disposition, and she endeared herself to all who had the pleasure of meeting her.  In consequence of her death, the reception to Mr. and Mrs. Gunzendorfer at the residence of Miss Steen’s sister, Mrs. L. Schwartz, which was to have taken place this afternoon, has been indefinitely postponed.

And this from the San Francisco Chronicle, 3 Oct 1894, page 10.

STEEN – In this city, October 2, Dena, beloved daughter of Mrs. Hannah Steen and sister of Mrs. R. Schwartz of Santa Cruz, Samuel and Meyer A. Steen and Mrs. G. Samuels of Oakland, a native of San Francisco, aged 28 years.

Friends and acquaintances are respectfully invited to attend the funeral this day (Wednesday) at 1:30 o’clock from her late residence 407 Eddy Street.  Interment, Hills of Eternity Cemetery, by 3:30 o’clock train from Third and Townsend streets.

And that’s it – Dena’s short life was over.  What caused her sudden death?  Was she in some sort of accident?  Was she ill?  Did she commit suicide?  Of course I’d like nothing more than a copy of her death certificate but since she died in San Francisco prior to the earthquake in 1906, the record was almost certainly destroyed.  So now what?  If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

Steen Dena

Dena is buried with her mother, Hannah, in Hills of Eternity in Colma, California.  And next to them (to the right in the picture below) is her brother, Julius.

Steen Hills of Eternity

Dena, you have not been forgotten!


  1. Certainly a mystery. Is it possible that her parents' obits mention her death? I have seen that before. I'm assuming that you found no other articles in the newspaper about her which makes me think that it was health related rather than an accident. Did the cemetery have any information?

  2. All I could think of would be to inquire with Hills of Eternity Cemetery (or whoever has taken over the records for them). If you know the mortuary who took care of things or her place of worship, those could be other avenues. You might want to read newspaper articles from around her date of death for any disasters/accidents in her neighborhood (I'd search by the street names of her address and place of work). You might also want to read obituaries of others who died around the same time for signs of an epidemic of some sort. In any case, I sympathize with you as the 1906 earthquake wiped out many of my family's records as well.

  3. I hadn't even thought about contacting the cemetery directly - thanks to both of you for the suggestion!