Nobody would mistake the municipality of Savsjo for the borough of the Bronx.
Savsjo, surrounded by dense forests in southern Sweden between Stockholm and Malmo, has about 5,000 inhabitants (about one-tenth as many as the Co-op City section of the borough alone, but about 10 times as many as the number of Bronxites who claim Swedish heritage). Its medieval churches date to the 12th century (the oldest existing house in the Bronx was built in 1748). Savsjo’s best-known sports team plays handball, not baseball.
And yet the two localities share one largely forgotten favorite son, whose Swedish heritage has only recently been confirmed: Jonas Bronck. Bronck was born in 1600 just outside Savsjo (pronounced SEV-sho) in the hamlet of Komstad. He emigrated to Denmark, where he became a mariner, and then to the Netherlands, where he married a local woman. In 1639, after the local economy was roiled by a boom-and-bust mania for tulip bulbs, the couple sailed on the Fire of Troy for New Amsterdam.
The Broncks built a stone house they named Emmaus (after a site where Jesus appeared after his resurrection) at what would become East 132nd Street and Lincoln Avenue, on a bluff overlooking what would become a 680-acre farm flanked by the Harlem River, the Bronx Kill, which separates the borough from Randalls Island, and the Aquahung, which later became known as Bronck’s River.
The 375th anniversary of Bronck’s arrival and settlement as the first European in the Bronx will be celebrated this weekend in Savsjo by his descendants and dignitaries from both countries. (This year is also the centennial of Bronx County, New York State’s youngest.) “The invisible hand of the Almighty Father,” Bronck wrote to a friend in Amsterdam, “surely guided me to this beautiful country, a land covered with virgin forest and unlimited opportunities. It is a veritable paradise and needs but the industrious hand of man to make it the finest and most beautiful region in all the world.”
Bronck died childless at age 43 of unknown causes. His widow remarried and moved to what would be called upstate New York. Several descendants of his nephew or cousin Pieter, whose stone house in Coxsackie is now the headquarters of the Greene County Historical Society, plan to attend the commemoration.
“We have always been very proud of the fact that you do not go to Bronx but to the Bronx, meaning to visit that family or what remains of it,” said Audrey Bronk of Pinehurst, N.C., whose husband, Charles, 85, born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, a former salesman for a plumbing and heating company, is a 10th-generation descendant of Pieter. (The name, which gained an X from the Dutch, lost a C in English.)
The celebration was largely conceived by Brian G. Andersson, a Bronxite of Swedish ancestry. He is the former commissioner of records for New York City and a founding director of the Jonas Bronck Center in Savsjo, which is hosting the commemoration.
“The story behind Jonas Bronck will serve as a model and be the power behind Jonas Bronck Center’s goal — to make the cultural and historical treasure in Smaland and Savsjo, the focal point of tourism in this part of Sweden,” said Curt Wrigfors, the chairman of the center, which is also conducting historical and genealogical research. The center, a former hotel, also houses a Vietnamese restaurant and a tattoo parlor.
Until recently, when it has begun a modest rebound, the Bronx has been famous for the Yankees, the zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, but also disparaged for the Bronx cheer and Ogden Nash’s ultimate contumely (later retracted) “The Bronx? No thonx,” and mocked at home as a national symbol of urban blight (Howard Cosell: “The Bronx is burning;” Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities”).
So New Yorkers may be surprised that Jonas Bronck himself has been claimed as a native of Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and the Frisian and Faroe Islands. His Swedish roots were established only in the last few decades by Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian, and further authenticated by an Irish historian and Mr. Andersson.