Roosa genealogy: legends and facts

Over the centuries, the history of the Roosa family has been intertwined with legends and theories. This article argues why Gijsbert Goertsen and his descendants are probably not related to Jutte van Heukelum, Jutte van Culemborg and Arnt van Rosendaell. And why the traditional Roosa legend should get a little credit (although it’s wise to be careful).


Herwijnen in 1632

The Roosa family is a well-researched family, both in the Netherlands and the United States. Many articles and webpages have been devoted to the story of Gijsbert Goertsen and his descendants. And it’s interesting to see how a strong genealogical tradition is running through this family.

The ‘Family Tree’ of the Herwijnen farmer Engel van Zee (1775-1868) was the first to cross the ocean and inspire many 20th-century researchers. But Engel’s stories were second-hand stories, very shortened, incomplete and sometimes wrongly summarized versions of the stories captured in a much bigger work: the genealogical manuscript and the letters of Arien van Rijckhuijsen (1671-1750) and his son Gijsbert van Rijckhuijsen (1707-1772).[1]

Since the connection with the Van Rijckhuijsen manuscripts was rediscovered, genealogical researchers consulted this extremely rich source regularly. No wonder, because by using it they could not only attach a name and a birthdate to several 17th and 18th-century ancestors, but also a background and a story.

Traditional and modern Roosa origin legends

The most popular of Van Rijckhuijsen’s stories turned out to be the first and most ancient, the Roosa origin legend. It’s the illustrious tale of the very first Roosa ancestor, who (for faith’s sake) fled the distant Spain to settle in the Dutch village of Herwijnen, on the banks of the river Waal. There (as tradition has it) he became the family’s founding father. The story is mentioned in Engel van Zee’s ‘Family Tree’ (1844). But Engel’s great-grandfather Arien van Rijckhuijsen was, as far as I know, the first to write it down, about 1730:

The aforementioned Aeldert Roosa, or his ancestors, because of the religous persecution fled from a city called Roosa (or, as others have it, Rosas, Roses or Rose etc.), located in the kingdom of Spain, in the eastern part of the north of the region (or province) Ampurdam. I found in the old documents that they have been people of wealth, the oldest family I know of, according to what old people say.[2]

These few sentences in the Van Rijckhuijsen manuscript became the source of much speculation and mythologization. They provided the background for the remarkable story of the settler Alert Heymens Roosa (who left Herwijnen in 1660 and crossed the ocean to build a new life in ‘New Netherland’). On several genealogical internet forums the Spanish connection moreover led to a lot of speculation about a possible Jewish origin for the Roosa family, though that debate remained undecided. In short, the Roosa origin legend crossed the world and led to a lot of discussion and further mythologization.

In the meantime, professional researchers steered away from the traditional Roosa legend and referred all Spanish and Jewish connections to the realm of fairy tales. They pointed out that the 16th-century Roosa family seemed quite settled in Herwijnen. The names of the first generation Roosa’s sounded as Dutch as you can have it, and they seemed to have inherited a considerable amount of land in Herwijnen and other places in the district of Tielerwaard, a clear sign that earlier generations also lived in this region. That sounded very convincing. But on this solid foundation recently a somewhat shaky construction has been built. And as a result, a new legend is circulating the internet.

Its roots can be traced back to Engel Roza’s very informative book De Roosa’s van Herwijnen (2004) and his article ‘De Herwijnse Ro(o)sa’s en de herkomst van hun familienaam’ (2007).[3] In these publications, the author suggested that Gijsbert Goertsen (the Roosa’s first known ancestor) could have been the son of Goert Reijersen, in which case it became possible to trace the ancestry back through Jutte van Heukelum and Jutte van Culemborg to a certain joffer Arnt van Rosendaell. And because the name Rosendaell looks a bit like Roosa, he suggested the Roosa name might originate from there. This theory was presented very thoughtfully and carefully, while the author provided his readers with lots of new information.

But although Engel Roza emphasized in his publications that it was only a theory, not sufficiently proven, many a genealogist took the hypothetis for a fact, and embraced Goert Reijersen and Jutte van Heukelum as Gijsbert Goertsen’s parents and the name Roosa as a variation of Rosendaell. It all sounded like stuff to build a new legend on, circling around the romantic theme of the ‘noble ancestor’.

Arguments against the modern legend

The suggested reconstruction of Gijsbert Goertsen’s ancestry is, however, highly unlikely. I touched briefly on the subject in my book De hoeve en het hart (The Homestead and the Heart), and as a result got a lot of questions: ‘Did you know that Gijsbert Goertsen’s father was Goert Reijersen’ or ‘Why do you think Gijsbert Goertsen’s father was not Goert Reijersen?’

Now, my book is about the Roosa’s indeed, but it’s not a genealogical study. You could call it an example of microhistory: it describes the mentality and culture of farmers in the Dutch province of Guelders in the early modern period (1600-1750). So in that book there was only room in the footnotes to explain a few things – that’s why I thought it would probably be best to clarify the matter in a seperate article.

Below, I’ll list the arguments which led me to the conclusion that Gijsbert Goertsen was not born in Herwijnen and wasn’t the son of Goert Reijersen and Jutte van Heukelum.

Argument 1: Surnames didn’t spontaneously change

Let’s start with the names. In 16th century Herwijnen, many people (like Gijsbert Goertsen) had no surname. Those names developed in most families only in the course of the 17th century. A few prominent families, however, did have older surnames, probably because their ancestors were notable people who played an important part in the local or regional government. Such families were the Herwijnen families De Rouw, Spiegell and Sterck (not counting noble families like Van Haeften, Van Herwijnen and others).

Now, Goert Reijersen was a member of the Sterck family. It would have been very unlikely for his son or grandson to ditch the old and renowned name of Sterck in favor of the still unknown name of Roosa. I’ve read through all the regional archives of the 16th and early 17th century, and I couldn’t find an example of such a change. Many families were, admittedly, in the middle of the process of adopting a surname, and such names weren’t fixed at the time, but it’s a different story with real surnames, in use for generations.

Of course, it happened sometimes that a son took the name of his mother (especially when his maternal grandfather had no male heir). Using the name of a grandmother, however, was much more unusual – and a leap of five or six generations was never the case. Moreover, I really can’t believe that whoever descended from the old and noble Roosendaell-family, would adopt this name only to change it to the totally new and unrecognizeable ‘Roosa’.

Argument 2: First names and patronymics changed with the language

With first names and patronymics it’s a different story. Several authors have pointed out that Gijsbert Goertsen and his sons Alart, Heijmen and Abraham seem to have ‘really Dutch names’. But the problem is: many German and English soldiers or immigrants who married a Dutch woman in a Dutch town also seem to have ‘really Dutch names’.

Jurrien Michielsen originated from Germany (where he probably was called Jürgen Michaels), Joris Bateris must have been called George in his English hometown and Dirck Jansen, Thomas Backer and Jan Jansen Clerck

[Derrick or Thierry Johnson, Thomas the Baker and John Johnson the Clerk] originated from England as well.[4]

So first names and patronymics always tended to be translated, and that’s why the argument about ‘Dutch names’ isn’t valid.

Argument 3: Gijsbert Goertsen was not born in Herwijnen

Engel Roza missed one important document in the impressive collection of archivalia he based his theory on. I’m talking about the declaration of reputation, issued by three elderly inhabitants of Herwijnen on behalf of Gijsbert Goertsen’s descendants in 1633. After finding and reading this document, I was convinced that Gijsbert Goertsen did not originate from Herwijnen and that he therefore couldn’t be the son of Goert Reijersen.

In the document in question, Wouter Otten (76 years of age) and Cornelis Jan Herberens (66 years of age), inhabitants of Herwijnen, declared by their oath as municipal officers, on behalf of Abraham Gijsbertsen and the other children and heirs of Gijsbert Goertsen [the name is spelled Goortsen here]

‘…that during more than forty years they’ve known the aforementioned Gijsbert Goortsen as one of their fellow neighbours, and they’ve associated with him on many occasions, and therefore they know perfectly well that he [Gijsbert] was an honourable and a loyal man during the course of his life, sincere and honest in his comportment, who behaved himself in his trade so [well] that no one ever heard that he -knowingly and willingly- caused harm to anybody, or treated anybody unjustly; let alone that he should have committed fraud or should have left some repaid bonds uncashed, to the disadvantage of his debtors.’[5]

As Wouter Otten and Cornelis Jan Herberens themselves were born in Herwijnen, this must mean that Gijsbert Goertsen was not born there. Wouter and Cornelis have known him for over forty years – but not his whole life (he was born about 1545-1555, married (shortly) before 1579 and died somewhere between 1619 and 1630).

Argument 4: Gijsbert’s possessions were either newly bought or inherited from his wife’s family

Gijsbert Goertsen owned a considerable amount of land in Herwijnen. The names of the former owners of his different plots of land however suggest that he was probably a newcomer in the village.

  1. After Gijsbert Goertsen married Marije Alarts, they lived in the house that used to be the house of Marije’s parents Alart Dircxsen and Ariken N. So, Marije was born in Herwijnen, we know about her parents, her brothers and sister, we know where her family lived. And we know that Gijsbert Goertsen inherited the house and some plots of land from his parents-in-law.
  2. It looks like Gijsbert Goertsen, unlike his wife, didn’t have an inheritance of his own. No mention of any brothers of sisters to join him in bussiness, no traceable relation to the former owners of his land.
  3. Instead of that, Gijsbert managed to buy a lot of land on his own. The diffent plots of land he acquired throughout his lifetime cover together an area of about 20 ‘morgen’ (about 17 hectare or 42 acres) in the ‘Wayense weerd’, the western part of Herwijnen between the dyke and the river Waal. It suggests (again) that Gijsbert Goertsen, unlike his wife, didn’t have ancestors in the area.
  4. Gijsbert Goertsen most certainly didn’t own the house and homestead which used to be Goert Reijersen’s. Goert Reijersen’s house and the surrounding land were in the last quarter of the sixteenth century owned bij Gerit Hughen and his son Huijgh Geritsen.

The Roosa legend: conclusion

This brings us back to the traditional Roosa legend. Is there some grain of truth in it? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’ll give you my personal thoughts on the subject.

  1. Gijsbert Goertsen was not born in Herwijnen. This opens the possibility that he might have come from abroad, like so many people in this period of history. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, many Dutch villages and towns were flooded by (religious and economic) refugees, and Herwijnen was no exception.
  2. Arien van Rijckhuijsen’s work is a rather reliable source. I dare say so, after having read not only the ‘family tree manuscript’ (of which Arien was the original author), but also the complete correspondence of Arien and Gijsbert van Rijckhuijsen (329 letters, including a few letters of other family members). It struck me how much effort Arien in many cases took to check his facts: often he went out of his way to find more than one source for a certain fact. His wording of the Roosa legend suggests that the story was told to him by several older family members, so the ‘Spanish origin’ was common knowledge in the family and wasn’t being doubted.[6] Therefore, I tend to give some credit to this family tradition (I know of several Herwijnen families that (only by means of oral tradition) were able to identify their place of origin, even after a few centuries).
  3. The problem is, however, that the story contains far too much specific details to be authentic (oral tradition tends to loose all specifics). Maybe Arien van Rijckhuijsen did what many people have done in such cases: fill in the gaps of the story with concrete details. He may, for example, have found some information on the maps of Catalonia. One nearly can hear him think: ‘A city called Roosa… that must be Rosas or Roses, in the northeast of Spain, in the district of Empordà.’ Which doesn’t make the legend any more reliable and leads me to think: maybe the Roosa family invented their own tradition, maybe they made up a story about their fictional descent of fictional faith heroes, to confirm their own Protestant identity.
  4. On the other hand: if we’re dealing with an invented tradition here, then why exactly thís story? If the members of the Roosa family were Dutch natives, everybody would know where they came from, and they wouldn’t need a legendary refugee’s story to integrate and settle in their new village. Moreover, why Spain, of all places? Spain was the country of the enemy at the time (Eighty Years’ War) and surely they could have chosen better, nicer, more Protestant places to attach a religious-refugee-story to.

Maybe Gijsbert Goertsen or his parents came from abroad, but not from Spain. Maybe they fled Spain, but not for religious causes. Maybe they were religious refugees indeed, but not Protestants (as their descendants assumed). That’s the way it works with oral tradition: there may be a grain of truth in the story, but it’s very likely some false elements also have slipped in. So my conclusion is: we really don’t know. But the traditional Roosa legend is an old story, even older than the Van Rijckhuijsen manuscript. It deserves some respect.

© Enny de Bruijn

August 31, 2019.

More about the Roosa family and the Van Rijckhuijsen manuscripts in my book De hoeve en het hart. Een boerenfamilie in de Gouden Eeuw.

[1] Enny de Bruijn, ‘Genealogie in Herwijnen. De geschiedenis van een handschrift’, in: Gens Nostra 53 (1998), 23-44; cf. Gijsbert van Rijckhuijsen, Copye-brieven over de Geslachtsregisters van Gijsbert Ariensz. van Rijckhuijsen (manuscript, 7 volumes), Erfgoed Leiden en omstreken, Bibl. LB 7000-04; Engel van Zee, Geslagt-Boom (manuscript), Herwijnen 1844, private collection.

[2] GvR Ia, 52: ‘De voorn[oemde] Aeldert Roosa, of zijne voorouderen, zijn om de vervolginge over de religie gevlugt, uijt een stadt Roosa geheeten (of zo anderen willen Rosas, Roses of Rose etc.) gelegen in ’t koningrijk Spangien, in ’t oosterdeel van ’t noorden des landschaps (of in de provintie) Ampurdam. Ik vinde in d’oude papieren, dat het zijn geweest luijden van vermogen, en het outste geslacht dat bij mijn bekent is, volgens het seggen van oude luijden.’

[3] Engel Roza De Ro(o)sa’s van Herwijnen. z.p., 2004; Engel Roza, ‘De Herwijnse Ro(o)sa’s en de herkomst van hun familienaam’, in: Gens nostra 62 (2007), 1-34.

[4] Examples from the marriage books of Herwijnen and Zaltbommel; the example of Dirck Jansen: Nederlandse familienamenbank, Van Brummelen documentatie.

[5] Regionaal Archief Rivierenland, ORA Bank van Tuil, 2248/10, 10-11-1633: ‘…dat sij den voors. Gijsbert Goortsen als hunnen mede nabuer geweest sijnde over de veertich jaeren gekent ende veeltijts met den seluen geconverseert hebben, ende dat henluijden midts dien seer wel bewust ende kennelick is dat de selue alle dagen sijns levens geweest is een eerlick vroom man in sijnen handel ende wandel sinceer ende oprecht, ende hem in sijne coopmanschap soo gecomporteert hebbende datmen tot egeender tijt van hem heeft verstaen of hooren seggen dat hij willens of wetens ijmants vercort of ongelijck gedaen heeft, veel weijniger dat hij eenige betaelde of afgereeckende obligatien tot nadeel van sijne debiteuren ondergehalden ende ongecasseert soude hebben gelaeten.’ (The third witness, Boudewijn van de Velde, lived in the neighbouring village of Hellouw since 1602, although he was not born there. He declared to have known Gijsbert Goortsen ‘lange jaeren’ [long years, many yaers] and characterized him as a very loyal, sincere and honest man).

[6] Let me correct here a small mistake on the otherwise very informative website ‘Some Herwijnen Residents’. The authors write: ‘The most often repeated is the legend as to the forefathers of Geurt Aldertsz Rosa is that they fled from the town Rosa located in the Kingdom of Spain in the eastern part of the north of the province of Catalonia, Ampurdium. The 18th century antiquarian, Gijsbert Ariens Rijckhuijsen, himself a Rosa descendant, may have been the first to put this in writing and has often been quoted. What is often left out is that he himself did not seem take much stock in the story, saying also that the name may originally have been Roos, a Dutch name known in the area.’ Although one of my own early articles is presented here as the source, the concluding sentence is certainly not mine. Gijsbert thought for one moment the name of the Roosa family could originally have been Roos (not a name known in the area, by the way). But his father Arien, the real author of the manuscript, corrected him on this subject – and after that, Gijsbert seems to have returned to Roosa. Both Arien en Gijsbert believed that the story of the Spanish origin was true. Gijsbert only asked himself if there might have been various spellings of the name, and if the name might have its origins somewhere up a female line.

Illustration: Herwijnen on a map from 1632 (source: Gelders Archief, Hof van Gelre en Zutphen 0124/5130-60).