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Surname Marselis: The Legend of Gabriel

Privacy Level: Public (Green)
Date: 1650 [unknown]
Location: New Netherlandsmap
Surnames/tags: Marselis Merselis
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SURNAME MARSELIS: The Legend of Gabriel

By J. Miller, Feb. 2021

Much confusion has arisen regarding the surname Marselis among Dutch descendants of that name and cognate variants (Merselis, etc.). This has been due to:

(a) Erroneous attribution of parentage for Marselis immigrants to Gabriel Marselis, a prosperous Dutch merchant and sire of nobility -- suggesting they are all one family which they are not; and
(b) The fact that among the Dutch, Marselis was not originally a surname but a first/given name, later adopted as a surname by immigrants to America.[1]

Parentage: This misunderstanding seems to have originated from the Cyclopedia of New Jersey Biography (1916) in an entry for Edo Merselis (1847-1908), of Paterson.[2] No sources are cited for his ancestry (or for anything else throughout). But they allude to "several traditions regarding the racial origin of this family" and assert that the "first Van Marselis of the Netherlands to whom the American branch can trace its ancestry" was "Gabriel Van Marselis".

Gabriel Marcelis (c. 1575 - 1643, not Van, see below) was a Dutch merchant who "founded one of Europe's largest banking businesses" which "has been compared to that of the Rothschild House 200 years later."[3] He and his sons acquired large land holdings in Denmark and Norway -- united as the kingdom of Denmark-Norway, 1524-1815. His son Peter (1600-1672) was envoy to Russia from the kingdom and postmaster general and received a title of nobility from the Danish crown.[3][4][5] As major financiers, "the Marselis family was the most important Dutch creditor of Denmark-Norway" during the seventeenth century.[6]

Gabriel Marselis himself was not called Van Marselis. It was only when his sons were enrolled in the Danish nobility that the family adopted "Van", as a token of aristocracy, like the German "Von",[7] whereas among the Dutch it was in common usage for place of origin.

The Cyclopedia claims that Peter Marselis, son of Gabriel, was the Pieter who immigrated with his family to New Amsterdam in 1661 and "was the progenitor of the American branch of the Van Marselis family", ancestor of Edo. Elsewhere and since, Gabriel has also been ascribed as father to Marselis Janse van Bommel and Hendrick Marselis. This is clearly incorrect in all cases. The mistake has been (mostly) purged from their WikiTree profiles, but it remains rife in internet family trees, probably beyond hope of eradication.

It is, let us be frank, quite absurd to suppose that a nobleman from one of Europe's richest families might abandon all that to take up farming in the wilderness of soon-to-be New Jersey. Cyclopedia says the immigrant Pieter must have been "possessed of goodly means" since the "ships register shows that he paid two hundred thirty-two florins passage money." But the register in question did not record money paid but money owed, by those who booked the voyage on credit from the West India Company.[8] Pieter was not impoverished, he brought two servants with him, but he was by no means a Patroon.

In any case there is no evidence for a connection to the noble Marselises. It is notable that the Cyclopedia makes reference to "several traditions" regarding Marselis origins, no doubt family traditions current among the New Jersey Merselises. Not the first or last family to cherish fanciful accounts of aristocratic roots. Family historians of other, unrelated Marselis lines have apparently taken note and jumped to hasty conclusions.

Usage of the Name: Among the immigrants profiled on WikiTree, Marselis in one case originated as the immigrant's given name, in another as his patronymic, in a third it is not clear.

Marselis Janse (or Jansen) van Bommel of Beverwyck: Marselis was his own given name. He generally signed himself as Marselis Jansen, with variant spellings. Jansen indicates that his father was Jan. One of his sons was recorded as Marselisen at his marriage, using Marselis as a patronymic. But thereafter the family consistently adopted Marselis as an English-style surname.

Pieter Marselis of Bergen, New Jersey: Marselis was his father's given name. Cyclopedia says that Riker records him as Pieter Marcelisen.[9] Also, Pieter is listed as a baptismal sponsor under "Merselisen" and "Merselise", indicating a patronymic, as well as Mercelis, according to his profile. He was never Van Marselis. There was no place called Marselis which he could have been "From". Again, the New Jersey descendants adopted the surname Merselis. Gabriel has been removed as Pieter's parent on WikiTree, but references remain in the profile text.

Hendrick Marselis of Staten Island and Beverwyck: The original form of his name is not established. He could have also been Marselisen.

Sources

  1. Regarding Dutch naming conventions, see James N. Churchyard, "Introduction to Dutch Names", AmericanAncestors.org.
  2. American Historical Society*, Cyclopedia of New Jersey Biography (Newark, NJ: Memorial History Company, 1916 ) v. 2, pp. 244ff Archive.org. *Not the American Historical Association. The AHS, which appears to no longer exist, was apparently dedicated principally to publishing histories of American states.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Terje Bratberg, "Marselis", Dec. 2020, Great Norwegian Encyclopedia.
  4. "Gabriel Marselis DY", Feb. 2009, Great Norwegian Enclyclopedia.
  5. "Gabriel Marselis Sr., Wikipedia.
  6. Christiaan Jan van Bochove, "The Economic consequences of the Dutch: Economic integration around the North Sea, 1500-1800" (PhD Dissertation, Utrecht University: 2008), p. 115, Pdf.
  7. Hans Kroll, "De familie Marcelis in relatie tot Heemstede (+ Elswout)", Jan. 2012, Librariana
  8. The only extant list of passengers arriving in New Amsterdam is an account book kept by the West India Company, proprietors of New Netherlands, listing those who owed reimbursement to the Company for their passage from Netherlands. See transcriptions in Michael Tepper, New World Immigrants: A Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists and Associated Data from Periodical Literature (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co.: 1979 ) v. 1, p. 182 (Entry for Pieter Marselis, Ancestry.com), and Rosalie Fellows Bailey, "Emigrants to New Netherland: Account Book 1654 to 1664", New York Genealogical and Biographical Record (New York, NY : New York Genealogical and Biographical Society) v. 94, no. 4 (Oct. 1963), pp. 193ff, NewYorkFamilyHistory.org. The original ledger is in the NY State Archives.
  9. Referring presumably to James Riker's unpublished pamphlet “List of Emigrants to New Netherland 1654 to 1664", a transcription of the account book referenced above. James Riker Papers, Archives and Manuscripts (b.5f.12), New York Public Library.




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