Tom Ross: Family history uncovers surprises

Tom Ross
Tom Ross

— Retired high school librarian Jayne Hill captivated a small but privileged audience at the Tread of Pioneers Museum on Friday with the story of her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents Grietje Reyniers and Anthony Jansen Van Salee Harleem. She was the first prostitute in Manhattan, and he was a pirate.

“They got married on the ship coming to America, and she told him, ‘You know what I do for a living. Don’t think I’ll change my profession just because we’re married,’” Hill said.

I know — yo-ho-hos and hos, it sounds more like Halloween costumes than ancestors. But Hill wasn’t kidding. She told her audience at the first lecture of the summer in the museum’s brown bag lunch series that one never knows what one will uncover when one’s hobby is genealogy.

Hill gave a detailed presentation on how to effectively research ancestors and gather oral histories. Not only has she researched her own, but she’s also interviewed many Routt County residents.

“That’s how I’ve come to understand the history of our area. It was a lot more fun 15 or 20 years ago (when there were people who could tell of pioneer days), but I still get stories that are amazing.”

More about becoming a genealogist later, right now you want to know more about Grietje (you can call her Gertie) and Anthony’s stories.

Anthony was studying in the late 1620s to take over the family business by helping his father raid merchant ships off the coast of Gibraltar and taking the loot to Morocco.

When things began to go bad, his father gave each of his two sons a treasure chest and packed them off for Holland. Anthony quickly rerouted to the American colonies.

It was aboard ship in 1629 that he met a fascinating young woman who already was established in her field. Soon, they fell in love and were married before they made landfall (Think Richard Gere and Julia Roberts).

Hill said Friday that she has seen written evidence that young Mr. Harleem was the namesake of Harlem and used some of his pirate’s plunder to finance the construction of one of the first homes on Wall Street (location, location, location!).

She has seen similar evidence that Gertie was the first prostitute in Manhattan back in the days when only 300 people or so lived in the Big Apple.

“Researching your family history is like an adventure when you first start in,” Hill said. “I’ve found it gives me a whole different sense of who I am. It establishes your identity. Suddenly you’re looking at someone who lived in 1775 and had a place in American history, and boy that locks you in.”

Pursuing genealogy begins as a curiosity and quickly progresses to an interesting hobby, before becoming a fascination and ultimately an obsession, she said.

People who research their family history by interviewing relatives should be prepared for a range of emotions, Hill cautioned.

“It gives the elderly in your family a sense of value,” she said. “Sometimes they will laugh, and some memories will make them cry. You need to be prepared to be very casual about that and to tell them it’s OK to cry.”

To bring her subjects out, Hill asks them questions such as, “What was your most memorable Christmas gift?” or “Did your parents give you an allowance? How did you learn to handle money?”

From there, the information often begins to flow freely. Other times, people never break out of their shell. But making the effort and following through with a notebook on each the four lines of one’s own family history is worth the effort, Hill said.

Hill comes from a long line of religious farmers. But there were despots, victims and scalawags along the way, including a man who traded in Native American slaves in the Caribbean. Another ancestor was killed by an American Indian, and his wife was taken captive for a year. And there was a single father who farmed his five children out to relatives and then went off to Oklahoma to start a pool hall. The family never heard from him again.

There also were town founders, a governor and a member of a presidential cabinet among her ancestors.

Hill recommends that anyone interested in pursuing their family history begin at the library, where a genealogy club meets regularly.

“The best friend you have is the Bud Werner Memorial Library,” she said. “They can do so much for you in terms of genealogy.”

Hill can’t promise everyone they’ll uncover a pirate betrothed to a prostitute in their family tree, but she’s confident that researching family histories will always be a rewarding process.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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