Updated: Nov 11, 2021
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A history of family and the city.
He was my fifth great-grandfather, my father’s father plus five. A man of mystery whose origin story many of us have tried to puzzle out over the centuries. Let’s call him Original Isaac, a butcher by trade whose first mention, as far as anyone can tell, comes in 1720, when he was listed as having a stall in New York's Old Slip Market. A dozen years pass before we see him again, on the occasion of his wedding to Elizabeth Deveaux on August 12, 1732. We don’t know when he was born, or where, or where he grew up. Maybe France. Maybe Holland. Maybe here. We're not even sure when or where he died. We do know that Isaac and Elizabeth had five sons. Fortunately, there is a trove of information about them, and their descendants, and Elizabeth’s ancestors—all of whose stories help tell the history of New York, its businesses, politics, wars, plagues, neighborhoods, culture, crimes, and more. One of them even grew up to become mayor. Like most Americans, I am a descendant of immigrants. My father's ancestors arrived in the 1600s, and were among the first Europeans to settle in Harlem. They were Huguenots fleeing religious persecution, and their story includes a murder in a French graveyard. My maternal grandparents came in 1920, driven by the grinding poverty of their Southern Italian mountain town to cross the sea in steerage. I am eternally grateful that in each case my relatives were allowed in (though my Grandma Defino did fib a bit at Ellis Island; more on that later). I’m glad that my nieces, nephews, and younger cousins are showing an interest in our family history. My nephew Sean and his wife, Melissa (who is also a descendant of Huguenots), even named their son Isaac. That was just the inspiration I needed to get this blog going.
I’m a magazine editor and writer turned investigator—in fact, I am now employed by the city my ancestors on both sides helped build. And I work near the tip of Lower Manhattan, where so many of these tales take place. Our stories—your family's, and mine—are the stories of New York, of America. Now that I’ve made this public declaration, I have no excuse not to dive down through the centuries and, with luck, come back with a few pearls.
Varians at Sea Where's your family from? Do you have any genealogy anecdotes or research tips to share? Any insights about Original Isaac? Feel free to comment below. (Your email address will not be visible.)
Images sources (from left): New York Public Library; New York City Hall Portrait Collection (Edward Ludlow Mooney, artist); Great-Aunt Nanette aerial shot, June 2017.