Asser Levy in New Amsterdam

Leading up to Thanksgiving, a post on Twitter reminded me of Steve Brodner’s 2013 piece on Asser Levy (?-1680). 

Asser Levy is the first documented Jew in North America, and his been called the Founding Father of American Jewry. He might have been one of the Jewish refugees from the Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil. He does not appear in surviving records of the Jewish congregation there, but the timing is right. He was in New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1654, when Peter Stuyvesant, the governor, opposed the settlement of Jews from Recife. Stuyvesant was eventually defeated by an appeal to the directors of the Dutch West India Company, Then, over the years, Levy routinely challenged policies that put Jews on a lower legal footing than gentiles.

I got interested in the Asser Levy story maybe a decade ago when I was looking at the idea my ancestor John Moses (c1616-1693) was Jewish. I’m skeptical but if he was Jewish he’d be the earliest known Jew in British North America. He was in Maine by 1638 as an apprentice to George Cleeve and Richard Tucker, of Casco Bay. His antecedents are unknown. I believe he entered Cleeve’s service about 1636 when Cleeve was in England on business. Some researchers believe Aaron Moses was a Sephardic Jew, originally from Amsterdam, but there is no evidence except what can be guessed from his name and the fact he named his son Aaron. The yDNA of his male-line descendants does not support a Jewish origin.

I was also interested in Asser Levy because–supposedly, according to Geni, who knows how reliable anything there is–I have Dutch ancestors who came to New York from Recife. Margrietje (Meyerinck) Wiltsie (1635-1704). Her mother’s mother is said to have been a native Brazilian woman.

Still another reason for my interest in Asser Levy is an idea among some of my relatives that the Howerys were originally Jewish. I thought for a time that if John Moses was Jewish that might account for the story. Another connection I once thought might contribute to that idea is a connection to Solomon Israel (c1710-1795), of Wilkes County, North Carolina. His grandson married Nancy Alloway, a 2nd great aunt of Grandma Bertha (Alloway) Howery. That wouldn’t give the Howerys a direct Jewish descent but might have been enough, I thought, to account for the vague idea of a Jewish connection.

Now, I attribute the “tradition” to a poorly understood British Israelitism, popularized by Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. I don’t doubt that there was also some influence from the brief popularity of Ray Banks’ theory that part of yDNA Haplogroup G2a (to which the Howerys belong) was spread through Europe by Radhanites (Jewish merchants).

Back to Asser Levy. Normally on Geni there would be one profile per person, and where there is a reasonable doubt or dispute about a person’s ancestry we deal with it by accepting only the proved information. That is, we don’t link the profile to any parents but instead describe the pros and cons in the notes for the profile. That’s not what we see there now (2019), nine years after I started work on his profile.

Because of the vanity of a particular curator we were pushed into a situation where Geni has two versions of Asser Levy. This curator needed to have a duplicate to serve as his ancestor’s brother. We were not able to resolve the dispute because he was not willing to consider the other, conflicting theories about Asser Levys’ origin and ancestry. He promised to work further, but never did.

Now, years later, both profiles are in the charge of a curator who recently argued aggressively that genealogical forgery and invention are not something to be concerned about or even necessarily corrected. Pam is not likely to fix it. And anyway, she’s more interested in Southerners gutting each other with hunting knives. Very colorful.

I’ve been wondering lately if I ought to pick up this project again. I’m still thinking but on the whole I think it’s probably a good lesson about the limits of collaborative genealogy.

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Wikipedia

Sometimes people cite Wikipedia for things that are false, and they get offended if you question them. Other times, people go around the Internet chiding everyone who cites Wikipedia for anything.

Honestly, it makes me think people in general don’t understand either Wikipedia or citations.

Really, there are times and then there are times. If you understand what citations are and what Wikipedia is, you should be able to figure out when to cite and when not to cite. And I’m going to leave it there.

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Updated Nov. 28, 2021.

Swedish Heraldic Society

I’m a sometime member of the Swedish Heraldic Society (Svenska Heraldiska Föreningen). I sort of rolled into it, from years ago when Magnus Bäckmark included my grandfather Harry Swanstrom’s coat of arms in his armorial roll at Gröna stubben. Probably about 1998, or a bit earlier. At this point I feel like I’ve known Magnus most of my adult life. I’m hoping to meet him some day.

Last summer, we traveled to San Diego to meet cousin Jonas Hildebrand from Sweden, and spend a few days getting know him and Hanna. He gave us a bottle of his homemade aquavit, with his coat of arms on it. It turns out he’s also a member of the Swedish Heraldic Society, and I’d never noticed.

The other day I was thinking it should be about time to renew my own membership. Poking around their website I came across a re-formatted page for the arms of members. I found my own listing, then also the listing for Cousin Jonas, and then, and then, and then.

  • Arms of Members“,  Svenska Heraldiska Föreningen. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2019.

Adoption

Adoption plays an often quirky role in genealogy. First, there’s the problem that people often disagree about how to handle adoptive lines when a biological line is also known. And second, there is the problem that modern adoption is a formal, legal procedure, while historic adoption was often informal and can be indistinguishable or almost indistinguishable from fosterage. 

To the early Greeks and Romans, the goal of adoption was to perpetuate the family based on the male line of descent and to ensure the continuation of the family’s religious practices. Thus, the adopter originally had to be a male without a legitimate son. Adoption also served the purpose of cementing political alliances between families and continuing political dynasties. Later Roman emperors, however, did permit adoption by women to “console them for the loss of children” [citations omitted]. 

Roman adoption practices never took hold in England. Statute law first introduced adoption to England in 1926. English concerns with the integrity of blood lines and the desire to ensure that property was inherited by legitimate biological descendants meant that there was no adoption law to be received in postrevolutionary America. In the United States, adoption laws developed in response to the needs of dependent children, not infrequently poor, orphaned, or handicapped. Statutory schemes regulating adoption were first enacted by the states after the middle of the nineteenth century, the earliest probably being in Massachusetts in 1851“[citations omitted].

What this means in practice is that we’ve had only a relatively few generations to think about adoption. Not enough time to reach a cultural consensus. At bottom is a very basic understanding about what we mean by genealogy and family history. Is it an essentialist world where there is a biological absolute, maybe with a cultural overlay? Or is family history entirely cultural, where perhaps it would never be possible to make a rule about which facts best present the history of different families?

It bothers me to see the DNA commercial where the guy turns in his Lederhosen for a kilt. It implies culture is biological. You might have grown up in the German part of town, speaking both English and German, eating German foods, and thinking of yourself as German-American, but if you don’t meet some minimum threshold of German biology, it doesn’t count. Adopted? No one cares. It’s not who you are.

That seems far too harsh to me. But if I twist the question just a bit, and ask about a White family that believes they’re Indian–is that different? I think it is, for reasons I’ve talked about in other posts, but my own answer can’t settle the question for everyone. The examples of White Indians and Ethnic Imposters leaves us wondering how far we can go and be within the “acceptable limits” of “family history”. And our answer there has implications for how we handle adoption in genealogy.

And finally, the unanswerable fact that we cannot bring some kind of scientific precision to these questions shows without doubt that we’re dealing with concepts constructed by culture.

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Blizzard of ’49

From time to time Mom mentions a memorable blizzard sometime during her childhood. Her parents took in the Dack family. Ray and Marjorie Dack, with sons Bud and Douglas, were a local family who lived north of the Swanstroms. They were stranded on the highway and couldn’t get home. For a week, the two families ate and slept in shifts. Grandpa had to tie a rope to himself when he went out to feed the cattle, so he could find his way back to the house.

I’ve been curious to find when it was, and tonight I came across it by accident, while listening to a YouTube piece from Wyoming PBS about the Lincoln Highway. It was January 2-5, 1949. Mom would have been 12.

Then, as if that wasn’t a jackpot sufficient for one day, I came across another video about wildlife migrations around Pinedale, Wyoming, where the Swanstroms lived and near where the Luces lived in Big Piney.

I’m pretty sure the word Wyoming is etched on my forehead right now. I attribute it to getting a Wyoming cowboy sticker from Mom last week and putting on my laptop yesterday. 

Now I want to find something about the Blizzard of ’63, the big one I remember from my childhood; and the Blizzard of ’82, when Missey and I were stranded in Denver and coulnd’t get home to Salt Lake City; and maybe the Blizzard of 1887 that changed Wyoming forever.

Revised to add names of the Dack family.

Rules of Genealogy

James Tanner often writes about the Rules of Genealogy. These aren’t rules in the sense that you must follow them. They’re common sense parameters for doing genealogy. Natural laws rather than rules of the game, if you will.

  • Rule One: When the baby was born, the mother was there.
  • Rule Two: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive.
  • Rule Three: Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.
  • Rule Four: There are always more records.
  • Rule Five: You cannot get blood out of a turnip. 
  • Rule Six: Records move. 
  • Rule Seven: Water and genealogical information flow downhill
  • Rule Eight: Everything in genealogy is connected (butterfly)
  • Rule Nine: There are patterns everywhere
  • Rule Ten: Read the fine print
  • Rule Eleven: Even a perfect fit can be wrong
  • Rule Twelve: The end is always there

The video version explains each point.

My favorite is the first one: when the baby was born the mother was there. The first time I read that, I got a rush. Such an easy way to phrase something so obvious, yet so widely overlooked by genealogy newbies.

Racialists

Racialist arguments are tricky. Like most cons, there are underlying bits of accuracy, even though they’re strung together with fuzzy thinking.

One of the shibboleths of modern racial paganism is a general confusion among categories of identity. One that particularly stands out for me is the way some of the them extrapolate from tribe to race and nation.

Saying, “There really was a Proto-Indo-European culture” hides several problems. Yes, there was a PIE culture. That’s not really in dispute. But we don’t have physical remains. We can’t. By definition. Scholars have not yet reached general agreement about who the PIEs were. Maybe a group in modern Turkey; maybe a group in modern Russia.

Along the same lines it’s not possible to assign yDNA haplogroups to particular ethnicities, whether ancient or modern. New mutations in the y chromosome would have appeared in men who lived in heterogeneous cultures. Within relatively few generations the male line descendants of a man with a new mutation would almost certainly be spread among different groups.

Then too, it’s not possible to use “Proto-Indo-European” as a proxy for “Indo-European.” The first is a hypothetical ancient culture that spoke the ancestral language from which the Indo-European languages descend. The second are the speakers of a group of modern, related languages.

No doubt there are cultural and genetic continuities. Many modern speakers of Indo-European languages will have connections to the original Proto-Indo-Europeans to a greater or lesser degree. That’s not the piece that’s in dispute. But those connections are many thousands of years old, funneled through extensive cultural and genetic mixing.

Nevertheless, it’s sloppy thinking to suppose you can grab some random white guy with European ancestry, and find an essential Indo-European racial identity. It doesn’t work that way.

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Updated to add link.

Concept of Facts

The genealogist’s stock-in-trade is the idea that the facts of the past can be (partially) recovered through research.

We stumble when those facts turn out to be slipperier than we thought they would be. As our research takes us further back in time, there is more chance of stumbling. Unless we have specialized knowledge about period and place we can make mistakes easily. There is a risk that our basic assumptions are wrong.

One of the most interesting assumptions, I think, is that the truth consists of facts. Genealogists who try to work with medieval genealogies often crash and burn on this one.

The concept of ‘the fact’ first appears in Renaissance Latin, but the word only entered common usage in the 1660s. The Royal Society, founded in November 1660, was dedicated to experimental knowledge and declared that it would concern itself with ‘facts not explanations.’ ‘Facts’ became part of a modern vocabulary for discussing knowledge — also including theories, hypotheses, evidence and experiments — which emerged in the 17th century. All these words existed before, but with different meanings: ‘experiment,’ for example, simply meant ‘experience.’

There’s a whole thing going on here that has disappeared from the modern world. Our ancestors understood the idea of facts. They just didn’t rank them as highly as we do. Ancient authority ranked higher.

For example, the ancients thought lions were afraid of roosters. See, for example, Lucretius, The Nature of Things 4.710 (1st century BCE). Because an ancient authority said it, it was truer than any fact. No experiment could prove it wrong, because the weight of authority was greater than the weight of facts.

In the same way, ancient genealogies often also rely on authority. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (855) says Scef, the ancestor of the English kings, was a son of Noah, born in the Ark. The AS Chronicle is an authority, so it is true whether or not it is factual.

This is an astounding idea to us moderns. We wouldn’t even think to think of it for ourselves. I can remember learning this in Historiography 501, or whatever it was called. I sat there thinking, “Bastards have buried the lead.” They should have taught us this in Western Civ.

Years later, I came across a quote that epitomizes this approach to knowledge. It’s from Umberto Eco’s novel Baudolino. (Some of you remember and loved Name of the Rose.)

The bishop is talking to an imaginative monk. He says:

I have heard you invent many stories that the emperor has believed. So then, if you have no other news of that realm [Prester John], invent some. Mind you, I am not asking you to bear witness to what you believe false, which would be a sin, but to testify falsely to what you believe true–which is a virtuous act because it compensates for the lack of proof of something that certainly exists or happened.

This was the world of our ancestors. Not secret, underground transmission of exotic facts.

More Information

  • Emily Winkler, “Was There History in the Middle Ages?”, St Edmund Hall, YouTube (Apr. 6, 2017).

Lost Alphabet Letters

In the modern Western world we use the Roman alphabet with 26 letters. Usually. The Swedes actually have 29 letters. What’s surprising to some folks is that we might have had more letters ourselves. Who thinks about what might have been? Except when you see an extract from an olde manuscript and spot a letter or two you’ve seen before but don’t know to pronounce.

Here’s a list of the lost letters. I particularly grieve losing eth and thorn

You know the alphabet. It’s one of the first things you’re taught in school. But did you know that they’re not teaching you all of the alphabet? There are quite a few letters we tossed aside as our language grew, and you probably never even knew they existed.

Funny side story here. My grandfather, just to be a bit ornery sometimes, kept up the idea that Swanstrom is spelled Swanström. (“Fine. As Americans we’ll change the v to a w but we’re keeping the ö.“) Didn’t bother him a bit when people laughed uncertainly but didn’t change it. After all, how could anyone change it when there is no key for it on American typewriters? The point, I think, was not to insist on it but to say it just often enough so that everyone knows you haven’t abandoned your rights.

When I got to college, I took Swedish 101. One of the first things we learned was that the Swedish alphabet has three extra letters — å, ä, and ö. They are really, truly separate letters, not just ordinary letters tarted up the way Germans do. That ö is an /øː/ not an “o with two dots” or an “o umlaut“.

I promptly swapped out the o in Swanstrom for an ö, joining my mother and grandfather in the family tradition of fancy spelling.

Now here’s the point of this little story. I have many friends who do numerology. I dabble in it myself. Modern numerology–and it is very modern, no earlier than the 1920s, I don’t think–operates by reducing each letter of the alphabet to a numeric value, then adds the numeric value of all the letters in a word or name to come up with a number. And that number has a meaning.

As a quick example, let’s do cat. C (3rd letter)=3, A (1st letter)=1, T (20th letter, 2+0)=2. So cat would be 3+1+20=24, and 2+4=6. Then, the number 6 has a particular meaning in numerology. “The number 6 is the number of domestic happiness, harmony and stability“. That’s one interpretation, anyway.

So, if the Swedes have extra letters then ö is the 29th letter, different from o the 15th letter. Swanstrom spelled Swanström will end up with a different number. My numerology chums are dubious. They’re uncomfortable. They won’t come out and say it, but they seem to be operating in a world where the American way is the right way and everyone else is wrong or misguided. I’m not getting a coherent analysis from any of them. The best argument I’ve heard so far is that I’m an American, so I can’t have Swedish letters in my name. “Those two dots over the o are just decorative.

But, luck of the draw. The ö is the 29th letter of the Swedish alphabet, so 2+9=11. In the reductionist methodology of numerology, this means is that changing my o to an ö, doesn’t change the final outcome.

Why and how that works is one of the mysteries of math. I didn’t get far enough to understand it, but it does give me a reason to think about those other letters and how they might change the numerology of a name, and those 12 letters we’ve lost and what impact they might have had on modern numerology. If only we knew the order in which they would have appeared in our alphabet.

Fighting Snails

If you’ve ever wondered why so many medieval manuscripts have drawings of knights fighting snails. 

I won’t give it away. And the comments are as good as the video. Here’s a sample:

  • The answer is simple, in medieval times giant snails were a real menace but thankfully the brave Knights of Europe wiped them all out for us.
  • Knights were the athletes superstars of the time. Monks were the academics. Maybe the nerds were mocking the jocks?
  • There is an explenation: The knights were french