When my daughter Ava was a few months old, my uncle presented us with a piece of paper that traced her lineage back 12 generations through the direct paternal line. I followed the names and hometowns backwards from New York City, where Ava was born, to Toronto, where my family lives, to the small towns in Ontario and upstate New York where Jeremiahs, Jacobs and Abrahams had lived and died over four centuries. Finally the list ended, or rather began, in New Amsterdam, where our ur-ancestor came ashore in the 1620s. My uncle gave the year of his birth, in the Netherlands as 1607, 400 years before Ava’s birth in 2007. His name was Abraham Pieterszen.
In July of this year, The New York Times ran an elaborate feature story celebrating Abraham the miller, whose descendents took on the surname Van Dusen. Here was The Paper of Record validating our direct ancestor, the forebear of two presidents – Martin van Buren and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and the patriarch to one of the original New York dynasties. It felt, briefly, like getting an invitation to Hyannis Port for a Kennedy family reunion. I received congratulatory emails from friends: "I didn’t know you descended from such prominent stock," wrote one. Another announced, "I can’t believe how important you are."
Upon reflection, I’m not.
Genealogy is seductive, so much so that, as Jack Hitt noted in his 2005 essay Harper’s magazine, "Mighty White of You," it seems to be one of the few uses for the internet that can compete with porn. Hitt concluded that distant genealogy was a "delusional fiction" for those anxious to claim descent from "prominent stock." Go far enough back and we’re all related, which means that those relationships don’t really matter.
Still, the fiction persists. Both sides of my family have been locked in a love affair with genealogy for years. My mother has even written a book, forthcoming from a small Canadian publisher, about an infanticide in her family in Lancashire, England, in the 19th century.
Abraham Pieterszen seems an ideal ancestor to claim as one’s own (as luck would have it, the Lancastrian baby murderer was a step relative). He was one of the "Twelve Men" assembled by New Amsterdam’s Director General William Kieft to recommend a response to an Indian attack, Thus, Abraham was part of one of the first public councils in the New World. He was a genuine father of American democracy.
Abraham’s sudden prominence is a convenient means for me to claim, in jest at least, that my daughter and son are New York royalty, genuine Knickerbockers. But by latching my family to the quintessentially American story of a young Dutchman arriving on a verdant island in the New World in the first quarter of the 17th Century, I blot out all of the other arrivals in the family since then. My wife’s paternal grandfather came from Aleppo in Syria by boat and entered America through Ellis Island in the early 20th Century. I myself drove from Toronto to New York in July 2001 to attend graduate school. In truth, Ava’s ancestors have never stopped arriving in New York.
Nor are we related to Abraham in a way that’s much more meaningful, genetically, than the roughly 8 percent of Asian men who are descended to Genghis Khan, as a 2003 study determined through Y-chromosomal lineage. As Alex Shoumatoff noted in his seminal 1985 essay on genealogy, The Mountain of Names, the genetic connection between two individuals who share one great, great, great grandparent in common is virtually non existent. Abraham has, by the count of several experts, 200,000 descendants over 15 generations scattered throughout the Americas. Just as not every male in the house of Temujin was a great warrior king, not all of Abraham’s progeny could be pioneering democrats.
So why claim descent from Abraham as opposed to one of the 4,096 direct ancestors – assuming that no two direct ancestors were related, a common genealogical pitfall called pedigree collapse – 12 generations earlier? The obvious answer is that my family shares his name, which is derived from the family’s ancestral home of Duersen in northern Brabant. And my children look like they should be Van Dusens, with peachy-pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, though these features likely come from their Northern English and Scottish heritage.
There are other motives at work, some unconscious. Not that it’s ever come up, but is it easier after Sept. 11 for my children to be descended from a 17th Century Dutchman than, say, a 20th Century Syrian? Given the choice to explain your heritage to an enquiring customs officer, what would you say?
In America, where we’re from takes on an outsize importance. For proof, look no further than the ongoing discussion about Barack Obama’s place of birth. We ask politely of each other, "What sort of name is that?" To answer, "American" (or in my case, "Canadian") is to be willfully obtuse.
My answer is that the name is Dutch, but I am not and neither are my children. And we are not from "prominent stock." It gives me the strange feeling of being exposed on the mountain of names, without a line to hold onto. But at least the answer is true.