Famous Families

The Van Salee Family

America's Van Salees 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. America's Van Salees 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 at auction.

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.

America's Van Salees 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 as well.

America's Van Salees 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.

America's Van Salees 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 diaspora.

discussions | blurred racial lines | audio stories | june's family tree | bi-racial portraits | how to search family trees | readings | reactions

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS