-- Neil Uptegrove

       In his second communication, Stackhouse quotes a letter written by one Col. Henry W. Shoemaker (who claims to be an op den Graeff descendent) as stating: "As far as our family tradition is concerned, and it has often appeared in print, the Op den Graeffs and Van Bebbers were Spanish or Portuguese Jews established in Holland since the days of the Spanish occupation."

       At the outset there is an ambiguity here. Did the writer mean (a) that the family moved from Spain or Portugal to Holland during the time of the Spanish occupation, or (b) after the Spanish occupation had come to an end? Actually, it makes very little difference, because there are problems with the statement in either case.

       In the case of (a), the thought that any Jew would move from Spain or Portugal to the Lowlands makes absolutely no sense. And this may require some explanation.

       The problem that Roman Catholic Europe had with the Jews was not "racial", "social" or economic. It was purely a matter of heresy.

       For centuries the Church had had problems with "Heretics," who stepped outside of the limits of "official" Church doctrine. And of course, the Jews who denied the divinity of Jesus and his messiahship were only too well qualified for this category.

       Toward the end of the 12th Century, the Church became increasingly aware of heresy as a serious and rapidly growing concern. Certainly the miserable affair of the Cathars [1] had much to do with their mounting alarm. Deciding that a more active stance in eliminating all heresies must be taken, the Church began taking a series of steps that by the middle of the 13th Century became the Inquisition.

       The function of this new instrument was to actively seek out and identity heretics of all types. Any miscreant who refused to yield to the persuasive efforts of a committee of Church fathers and return to Catholic orthodoxy was summarily dealt with in manners both unpleasant and permanent [2].

       The Inquisition was, of course, operative throughout the entire Roman Catholic world, which meant essentially all of Europe. But nowhere was the program met with the burning ardor (pun intended) that it found in Spain. Actually, long before Pope Innocent IV issued his bull, "Ad Extirpanda" in 1252, which put the finishing touches on the Inquisition as we know it, the Spanish were already listening at keyholes and peeking through shuttered windows, searching for any sort of heresy.

       At this point they had two primary targets: Catholics who denied any part of established doctrine or tried to add any of their own thinking to it; and Jews, of which Spain had several large communities.

       The Jews had a choice of two alternatives: (1) stand fast and be burned at stake for their Jewish beliefs: or (2) at least nominally convert to Catholicism, be baptized, and live out their lives being as Catholic as possible. The idea of escaping to a place of safety was simply out of the question. Even the lowlands, where implementation of the Inquisition had traditionally been somewhat lax before the Spanish occupation, was still Catholic territory and thus fugitives were still within reach of the Church.

       The whole business of Spanish occupation of the Lowlands actually started when Philip "the Bold" of Burgundy married Margaret of Flanders. It would seem that Margaret possessed one feature that made her absolutely irresistible — a lot of very valuable real estate. With her hand in marriage went, among other things, all of the Lowlands plus various bits of what we now call Belgium.

       The Lowlands remained part of the Burgundian holdings until a number of generations later when Philip "The Handsome" (1478-1506) of Burgundy married the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel (of Columbus fame), "Juana the Mad" (well, nobody's perfect.)[3]

       When Isabel died in 1504, Juana and Philip inherited her share of the Spanish "empire," to which the Burgundian Lowlands were now added hardly more than a decade before the Reformation erupted. So now, in addition to unconverted Jews and free-thinking Catholics, the Inquisition had a new and rapidly growing brand of heretics to deal with — the Protestants.

       The Reformation was obviously an idea whose time had come. It spread like wildfire across Northwest Germany and the Lowlands. As early as 1524 Dutch Protestants were being burned.

       While Juana's mental capacities left her a few shillings short of a pound, her reproductive system was unimpaired. In 1500 she gave birth to Philip's son, Charles. And while Charles did not inherit his mother's insanity, he was what would now call "intellectually challenged." Halting in speech and slow of thought, he compensated for these deficiencies with dogged determination and unshakable opinion to the point of obsession. He was raised in the fanatically Catholic atmosphere of the Spanish court and he absorbed all of their unquenchable religious zeal. He cranked up the activities of the Inquisition a few notches throughout all of the Spanish holdings (which now included Portugal) and, as Holy Roman Emperor, tried to do the same across the Empire.

       Charles' successor was his son, Philip II, who was even more a fanatic than his father when it came to trying to stamp out the Protestant movement. In Germany, where Philip had control that was dubious at best, Protestantism was growing at a rapid rate. But it was also growing apace in the Lowlands, where he supposedly had full control. In spite of the best efforts of both secular and clerical powers, secret conclaves of Protestants flourished. Philip blamed this fact on what he believed was a deplorable laxity on the part of the local authorities, and so in 1567 he sent the implacable Duke of Alba to "straighten things out."

       Alba was a man who would warm the cockles of Adolph Hitler's heart. From the very outset he set about a program of death that knew no limits. During his six-year tenure more than 100,000 Lowlanders were executed. Entire villages were depopulated, and a good part of the Dutch leadership was eliminated. In spite of the incredibly harsh measures of Alba, Protestantism only kept growing, but went deeper under ground. And Alba's methods had one more result that certainly neither he nor King Philip expected. They added highly combustible fuel to the already existent fires of rebellion against the Spanish occupation.

       Finally, in 1573 Alba was recalled and replaced by somewhat more moderate governors. But it was too little and too late. By now any thought of compromise or reconciliation was out of the question. In 1579 the war for freedom from both Spanish domination and the Roman Catholic Church broke out. Under the brilliant leadership of William "the Silent," and after several years of bitter fighting, the northern provinces forced the Spanish and the Roman Catholic power out in 1581.

       Back to our original problem: For anyone trying to escape religious persecution in Spain by fleeing to the Lowlands during either the Burgundian or Spanish occupation would be jumping from a very hot frying pan into a fire that was at least as hot. And should one try this very dubious adventure, one would have to travel across many miles of hostile Catholic lands in deep secrecy as a fugitive.

       To seek refuge in the Lowlands after the foreign occupation was ended (i.e. after about 1581) might make better sense, but there is quite good evidence that our family was already in residence in either the German Rheinland or Holland as early as about 1490, the birth year of Abraham op den Graeff: (one of the very early Protestant leaders, and very probably the grandfather of Herman op den Graeff (1585-1642), the grandfather of the first German emigrants to America).

       Indications are that this Abraham op den Graeff, along with his wife and at least one son, joined the clandestine Protestant commune at Zwammerdam, adjacent to Kleve, from which they had to flee in 1561 as the Spanish authorities began to close in. The family split, with his wife and son(s) finally arriving at Dusseldorf, a somewhat safer climate. Abraham made his way to Antwerp where he went into hiding for a time, and then finally joined his family in Dusseldorf where he died shortly after.

       While nothing seems to be known of Abraham's offspring, a grandson, "our Herman," was born in Aldekerk (Altekirche) in 1585. And the rest, as they say, is history.

       One more point: If one were escaping to the Lowlands from Spain/Portugal to avoid the clutches of the Inquisition, one would be very well advised to maintain the lowest possible profile. "Don't make waves" should be the watch-word. Becoming an activist in the Protestant cause would hardly fill this bill.

       Taken all in all, a Spanish/Portuguese origin for the family seems most unlikely especially since there is absolutely no evidence to support it.

       As for the family originally being Jewish, this is, of course, possible. But there seems to be no evidence whatever to support it except for that reference in 1933 by Henry Shoemaker regarding his "family tradition," which, he claims, "has often appeared in print."

       It seems most unlikely that with all of the exhaustive research that has been done into our family history by highly competent investigators during the past half-century, none has come across any hint or clue in this direction.

       It is certainly true that during this general period, many Jews converted to Catholicism as a means for getting the Inquisition off their necks.[4] (It is equally true that many refused to betray their Jewish heritage and suffered the bitter consequences.) But it seems very unlikely that, after dumping their Jewish birthright for the sake of personal safety, they would then proceed to put themselves in terrible jeopardy by embracing Protestantism.

       Until some sort of significant evidence comes along, I don't believe that the whole idea deserves much credence.


       There has been some noise of late about a supposed connection of the family with the de la Marck family, the hereditary Dukes of Kleve (Cleves). This story has it that Herman op den Graeff (1585-1642) was actually the natural son of John William de La Marck, the last Duke of Kleve and an unknown woman of presumably dubious rank. Unable to use his true family name, Herman took (or was given) the surname "op den Graeff," meaning, this author claims, "Of the count", which the author sees as a conscious clue to Herman's true origin.

       The great advantage of this Theory is that it provides an awesome array of ancestors of noble and royal rank for almost unlimited bragging rights.

       But there are some real problems with it:

       For example, this Theory leans heavily upon the similarity of sound between "Graff" (count) and "graeff" (graves, embankments or earthworks - note plural forms).

       Also, there is something of a mistranslation of that simple little preposition, "Op." This theory has it meaning "of", as if it were synonymous with "von," "van" or "de", so that the name would be Herman of the Count, but the usage of "op" in this instance probably means "above" or "over", with the connotation of "away from" mixed in.

       "Den", of course is the definite article showing the correct grammatical agreement with the noun, the dative plural.

       Thus probably the best translation of the name would be something like "up away from the embankments or earthworks."

       Another point against this Kleve connection: It is quite certain that a protestant activist named Abraham op den Graeff fled from the commune at Zwammerdam in 1561 to avoid capture by the Spanish, showing that this family name was in use well before the supposed father of Herman was born (1562).

       There are a number of other problems with this Kleve theory, but I think these two should be enough to discredit it.


       In his transmission of January 5, Paul Redden mentions Herman's mother's maiden name being "Aldekirk," suggesting that this term meant "of the old church," indicating that she was Catholic. Actually, Aldekirk is the Dutch form of Altekirche (German). It is not a surname, but rather a town quite near Krefeld and said to be Herman's birthplace in 1585.

       He also mentions the tradition that for a time Herman housed four elderly nuns, as if that indicated some sort of close tie of someone to the Catholic church.

       As the Protestant movement spread, nunneries were being closed in its wake. That left the tough question: What do you do with the nuns who now were homeless? Martin Luther did his bit by marrying one, who subsequently bore him a swarm of children. For the younger nuns, snaring a husband would solve the problem. But for the elderly nuns, the only alternative was to be taken in by charitable Protestant families. Certainly, the fact that a family provided a home for a few ancient nuns said nothing about that family's religious leanings.

       There is still some debate about whether the family was Dutch or German. While there is no really solid evidence either way, there are some clues that all seem to add up in the same direction: (1) The form of the name in which we first encounter it regarding Abraham's departure from the protestant commune Zwammerdam in 1561 is definitely German; (2) the texts on the much-discussed commemorative stained glass windows are in German; (3) Although Herman's wife, Grietjen Pletjes, had a name that was Dutch in form, she was born in Kempen (1588), which is in Germany, and her mother's maiden name was Göbels, which is German; (4) The location adjacent to Philadelphia where The op den Graeff's and their fellow immigrants settled was known as Germantown, not Dutch or Holland Town. We have no idea of where the family originated in the distant past, but certainly by the time of the Reformation, they considered themselves German.

       A trivial point: Throughout the "Kleve Theory," the author repeatedly referred to Herman as the "morganatic" child of the Count of Kleve and some unknown woman, as if the term were synonymous with "natural child," illegitimate child or (to be blunt) bastard. No such thing. "Morganatic" refers to a marriage that was perfectly legal and binding, but in which by prenuptual agreement neither the wife nor any children of the marriage could inherit the lands, goods, title or wealth of the husband. But there would be no reason why children of such a marriage could not use the family name. [5]

End Notes

[1] The "Cathars" as they called themselves (from the Greek "Katharoi" meaning "The Pure Ones") were a heretical sect that grew unobtrusively largely in Italy and Southern France during the 12th century. By the beginning of the 13th century they were becoming a significant bloc. Among many other deviations from orthodox Catholicism, they vigorously denied the authority of the Pope. Pope Innocent III at first recognized the scope of the problem and used all of his persuasive powers to bring the Cathars back into the fold, but to no avail. Finally, in 1208, the Pope abandoned the use of logic and called for a crusade to put an end to this heresy. The papal army mounted a full-scale attack against the Cathar strongholds in southern France, slaughtering at least 20,000 men, women and children. The Pope was deeply shocked by this outcome and recognized that had this heresy been nipped in the bud, thousands of lives could have been spared.

[2] Heresy was, as defined by Pope Innocent III, treason against God, and thus earned the death penalty. Burning at the stake was the generally used technique, although beheading and drowning were also popular in some quarters. An interesting sidelight: Since canon Law prohibited any member of the clergy from administering the death penalty (lest they become "stained with blood"), this end of things was turned over to secular officials. Thus the clergy was free to inflict appallingly painful tortures on a suspect for hours or days on end, but could not finally "pull the trigger" for fear of getting blood on their hands.

[3] Juana's "eccentricities" became obvious in early youth, but seemed to have no impact on her marriageability. It is amazing how much can be overlooked when the dowry is big enough. Probably her most famous "departure from normalcy" was her refusal to have her husband's body buried, but simply had his corpse packed along wherever she went. (At least this way she knew just where he was and what he was doing, which was certainly not the case when he was living.)

[4] The feelings against Jews at this point in history lay in the fact that, since they did not believe in the divinity of Christ and thus rejected "His Church", they were guilty of heresy. If a Jew converted to Catholicism and submitted to baptism, the heat was off. One of the most celebrated of these sword-point conversions was that of one Abraham Salamon (sic) who dropped his classically Jewish name to adopt the surname of Nostradamus. He was the grandfather of the farmous Michel de Nostradamus, physician and seer. It is important to note that his Jewish background in no way impeded his acceptance at the very highest levels of society.

[5] This obviously has nothing to do with the op den Graeff saga. I mention it here only as an example of the many difficulties one finds in this "Theory."


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