Ernestine H. Miller Steinway Oaks (sometimes Oakes)

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Ernestine H. Miller (b January 12, 1842 in Paris, France; d August 26, 1924, Richfield Springs, New York) married William’s older brother Henry Steinway, Jr. Their short marriage produced three daughters who, following Henry’s death, became the center of a court dispute between Ernestine and William over their custody and support. After prevailing in the court case, Ernestine lived for many years in Germany but later returned to the Albany area with her third daughter. William remained in contact with Ernestine throughout his life, in some cases because of additional disputes and in some cases over family matters and concern for the children.

Born the daughter of a tailor, Ernestine H. Miller married Henry Steinway, Jr., on May 6, 1860. Three daughters were born to the marriage: Lilian (b 1860-12-26), Anna (b 1861-01-21), and Clarissa.(Diary,1864-03-26) Henry was not well, and by 1863, he was showing signs of serious illness, a development of great concern to William. (Diary, 1863-04-01) Despite efforts to treat Henry’s condition, including a six-month stay in Cuba in 1863-1864, Henry died on March 11, 1865.(2) In his will he appointed his brothers William and Charles as guardians for his children and trustees and executors of his estate. Charles died very shortly after Henry, leaving William as named guardian of Henry’s children.(1) 

Within a few months of Henry’s death, Ernestine began a romantic relationship with a coachman, Charles J. Oaks, whom she married on October 30, 1865.(Diary, 1865-11-28)  Her behavior met with William’s disapproval and prompted him to attempt to remove the children from her care. In late 1865, while she was in Germany with the three girls, William arranged to have the children placed in the care of Attorney-General Koch, of the Duchy of Brunswick, where they remained until Ernestine filed suit in the United States in 1868. On December 14, 1865, Koch wrote a detailed letter to William, describing his meeting with Ernestine as he outlined William’s instructions and proposing that the children live with him and his wife in their house.(4)

During the court case, Ernestine claimed that William had denied her funds from her share of Henry Jr.’s estate and had deliberately misrepresented the value of the estate so as to leave her financially dependent. After she traveled to Germany with the children, her financial position became so difficult that she had no alternative but to allow William’s choice of a guardian of the three girls, C. Koch, to take over their care.(6) In a “card” published by The New York Times, William’s lawyers argued about the terms by which Henry Jr.’s estate was valued and asserted that no misrepresentation of value had occurred.(1) Members of William’s family testified in court about Ernestine’s relationship with Charles Oaks, a servant on Staten Island, very shortly after Henry Jr.’s death and about the fine care that Koch was providing the children.(8)(9) Judge Gilbert of the NY Supreme Court rendered a decision in favor of Ernestine.  He concluded that NY state law provided for custody by the mother in the event of death of the father unless the mother had agreed in writing to relinquish such custody, which Ernestine had not done.(5) The court’s decree stated that “the petitioner Ernestine H. Oaks is entitled to the custody of her infant children Lilian Steinway, Anne Steinway, and Clarissa Steinway.” William, who was in Germany at the time of the court proceedings, was ordered to “deliver” the children.(7)  William learned of Judge Gilbert’s decision and noted in the diary that he felt “awful over it.”(Diary, 1868-08-12)  The children were returned to Ernestine shortly thereafter.(Diary, 1868-09-03)

Ernestine and the children lived in New York for some time, and William had further legal dealings with her, including the settlement of his father’s will in 1871.(Diary, 1871-02-13) In 1873, William noted in the diary that Ernestine was returning to Germany.(Diary,1873-03-01) William remained in touch with her over further financial matters. In 1883, Ernestine wrote to William to inform him of the engagement of her daughters Lilian and Anna.(Diary, 1883-04-24, 1883-07-24) Ernestine and Clarissa returned to make their residence in the Albany area; William twice noted visiting them there.(Diary, 1888-02-29, 1891-04-09) In 1890, Ernestine informed William that Lilian and Anna had contracted typhoid fever, and a week later that they were slightly better.(Diary 1890-09-03, 1890-09-12) Ernestine died on August 24, 1924, by which time she was again widowed.(3)



1.“Card to the Public—Mr. Henry Steinway,” The New York Times, June 30, 1868, p. 2.

2. “Died,” The New York Times, March 12, 1865, p. 5.

3.“Died,” The New York Times, August 29, 1924, p. 11.

4.C. Koch Letter to William Steinway, December 14, 1865. Steinway & Sons Collection,LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, Fiorello H. LaGuadia Community College/CUNY, Long Island City, Queens.

5.“Law Reports: Court Calendars for Wednesday, Decisions. United States—Supreme Court—Brooklyn—Special Term,” The New York Times, July 29, 1868, p. 2.

6.“Law Reports: Court Calendars for Wednesday, United States District Court—Southern District: Supreme Court--Special Term—Brooklyn,” The New York Times, June 24, 1868, p. 2.

7.“Law Reports: Supreme Court—Brooklyn, Aug. 13,” The New York Times, August 14, 1868, p. 3.

8.“Law Reports: United States District Court. Court of Appeals. Supreme Court—Special Term—Brooklyn,” The New York Times, July 11, 1868, p. 2.

9.“Law Reports: United States District Court—Supreme Court—Special Term, Supreme Court: Supreme Court—Special Term—Brooklyn,” The New York Times, June 27, 1868, p. 2.