Anthony and Abraham van Salee were the ancestors of the Vanderbilts, the
Whitneys, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Humphrey Bogart.
They were among the earliest arrivals to 17th century New Amsterdam. In a
number of documents dating back to this period, they are both described as
"mulatto". From what scholars have been able to piece together about their
background, they appear to have been the sons of a Dutch seafarer by the name
of Jan Jansen who had "turned Turk" and become an admiral in the Moroccan navy.
With the Port of Salee as the base from which it harried European shipping, references to the fleet he commanded are salted away in the old English sea shanties that are still sung about the Salee Rovers. The mother of his two sons was probably a concubine he had while trading in
this part of the world before his conversion to Islam.
As a result of the anti-social behaviour of his white wife, Anthony van Salee
was induced to leave the city precincts of lower Manhattan and move across the
river, thus becoming the first settler of Brooklyn. Since Coney Island abutted
his property, it was, until sometime in the last century, also referred to as
"Turk's Island"; the word, "Turk", being a designation of his which the records
used interchangeably with, "mulatto". According to the documentation that
people like Professor Leo Hershkowitz of Queens University have sifted through,
it would seem that Anthony van Salee never converted to Christianity. His
Koran, in fact, was in a descendant's possession until about fifty years ago
when, ignorant of its relevance to his family's history, he offered it for sale
The Van Salee history also includes a more contemporary black collateral branch
in the U.S. Anthony's brother Abraham fathered an illegitimate son with an
unknown black woman. The son became the progenitor of this side of the family.
Although having to face constraints that their "white" cousins could at best
only imagine, two of these van Salees nevertheless left their mark in the
annals of African American history.
Dr. John van Salee De Grasse, born in 1825, was the first of his race to be
formally educated as a doctor. A member of the Medical Society of
Massachusetts, he also served as surgeon to the celebrated 54th Regiment during
the Civil War. His sister, Serena, married George Downing who was not only an
enormously successful black restauranteur both in New York City and in Newport,
RI, but a man who used his wealth and connections with the East Coast's most
powerful white families to effect social change for his people. Because of his
organization and his own contribution to the purchase of Truro Park in Newport,
one of the streets bordering it still bears his name. Interestingly enough,
this genealogy was done as part of an ongoing study of the Ramopo in Tappan,
NY, one of those red, white and black groups sociologists and ethnographers are
now working on and which in academese are referred to as "tri racial isolates".
It is because of what advantages their Indian heritage (no matter how
discernably negroid they were) legally and officially provided them that the
opportunity for "passing" in these groups was not only a more ambiguous
political or moral decision but, comparatively, a more easily documentable one
Considering how important a role John Hammond of Columbia Records
played in the establishment of the black music industry, it would certainly
be worth exploring the possible influence his van Salee ancestry might have
had on his career. Back then, there would have been no option possible for
publicly declaring himself black according to the "one drop" racial code
that was the law in most states until the Johnson administration. With a
Vanderbilt for a mother, his iconographical value to the white majority
was so important that had he dared to tamper with it, the KKK or some
such group would most probably have made him pay the ultimate price for
having desecrated his and the prestige of his relatives who had, after all,
fairly well succeeded in making themselves the equivalent of this country's
royal family. Hammond died a few years ago but since his son, following
in his father's footsteps, has become a recognized exponent of R&B his
could prove to be a very important interview for us.
Jackie Kennedy Onassis
Either Professor Hershkowitz, or Tim Beard, former head of the Genealogical
Department of the New York Public Library related this incident regarding van
Salee genealogy. At the time the Kennedy administration began implementing its
civil rights agenda, the New York Genealogical and Historical Society
approached Mrs. Kennedy hoping to discuss the opportunity her African ancestry,
through the Van Salees, could have in possibly assisting her husband to
realize his social goals regarding race relations. Mrs. Kennedy insisted on
referring to the van Salees as 'Jewish,' and the New York Genealogical Society
did not push the subject further.
Humphry Bogart and Ruth Gordon in a scene from the 1927 film "Saturday's Children." He is a Van Salee descendent and she is a Pendarvis descendent. A few years later, another descendant attempted to pass off the racial description of the van Salles in the official records as nothing more than malicious humor.
Researched and Written by Mario de Valdes y Cocom, an historian of the African