10 August 2021

Cultural Identity and Paul Busti

Armand Duplantis won gold for Sweden (pole vault) in Tokyo
Photo by Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports
So here we are at the end of another Olympics filled with nationalism, but also of global connection. Media continues to push a jingoistic line highlighting the number of medals won and limited, pre-hyped, market-worthy competitions. And yet, we have been able to celebrate the brilliance of Eliud Kipchoge, the incredibleness of Marcell Jacobs and the Italian relay team, the power of Elaine Thompson, the coolness of Yuto Horigome, and the magnificent putting of Aditi Ashok.  We saw Rai Benjamin and Karsten Warholm in a race like no other that I have seen in the Olympics (since Munich -- 400m men's hurdles).  We were still able to root for Team USA.  The jump-off between Laura Kraut, Jessica Springsteen, and McClain Ward and Henrik von Eckermann, Malin Bayard-Johnsson, and Peder Fredricson was sensational.  Less than a second and a half difference gave a well-deserved gold to Sweden and a shining silver to the Americans in the equestrian team jumping event. It was enjoyable to root for everyone: riders and horses.
The value, as well as the misuse, of national identity and nationalism is not a new topic and another Olympiad has not changed the discussion.

Swedish American Identity:  New Sweden, John Hanson and the Vikings 

It is likely that our ancestors did not see themselves as particularly Swedish until they arrived in America.  Prior to emigration, they likely identified most with their parish or perhaps as Smålanders.  The development of the Swedish American identity has been written about at length.1   Their use of origin stories to counteract anti-immigrant American nativism was important.  

Swedish-Americans came to identify themselves with a tiny colonial settlement along the Delaware River that briefly existed  from 1638 to 1655.  The interest in New Sweden was a reaction to the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), Colonial Dames, and the Mayflower Society.  There was a temporal and cultural disconnect between New Sweden and the Swedish emigrants who began arriving after 1840. It appears that Gustaf Unonius first learned about these colonial Swedes in America from Dr. J. C. Clay,2  an Episcopalian minister,  and that Unonius had not known of their existence while studying at university in Uppsala.  It is almost certain that none of our Jamestown ancestors knew about these colonial Swedes (or Finns).  But in 1926, at the height of Swedish-American influence in American culture, the cornerstone for an American Swedish Historical Museum was laid with the Prince of Sweden in attendance to celebrate this colonial connection to Swedish Philadelphia.

John Hanson bust.
Part of that Swedish American affinity for New Sweden was an interest in John Hanson (1721-1783), a figure in the early history of the United States after the American Revolution.  John Hanson served as the first President of Congress under the Articles of Confederation of the United States. In 1876, a descendant published a family history connecting him to a Hanson family among the original settlers of New Sweden.  More than a hundred years later, that claim was learned to be false and the statue made to commemorate John Hanson's Swedishness was removed from Philadelphia's Gloria Dei church and relocated to Port Tobacco, Maryland.3 

The story of New Sweden was surpassed by the lore of the Vikings.  Swedish Americans connected to the Vikings and their pre-Columbus trailblazing of North America.  Vikings are everywhere in Swedish Americanism.4   Swedes still celebrate their Viking-ness: “I’m a Swedish Viking,” proclaimed gold medal winner Daniel Stahl in Tokyo (discus).  But our understanding of Viking bloodlines and the DNA of modern Sweden is not so certain or clear.  Few of us of American Swedish ancestry are culturally tied to a Viking past, except perhaps from reading Prince Valiant or Hägar the Horrible.  The Danes and Norwegians are more clearly connected historically to Viking history and possibly to Viking DNA (if in any way it is distinct).  As a Dane told me at a party in Aarhus once, "you are a bonde, I am a Viking."  I took that as a compliment.  I am happy about my Swedish peasant ancestors – I embrace them and their emigration.  And really, don't the Viking myths of National Socialism look a bit ugly in modern Sweden?

This last week I looked through an edition of Olai Magni gentium septentrionaliu[m] historiae breviarium by Olaus Magnus.  That particular volume had been printed in 1652 in Holland and is in the special collections of the Kislak Center at the library of the University of Pennsylvania.   This book by Magnus was a singular reference about Scandinavia in European universities for a couple of centuries. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy.  So, why was I looking at a book written in the 16th century,
who was Olaus Magnus,5  and what does it have to do with national identity or Jamestown Swedes?    

I was looking at the book not because of its historical significance or its connection to Swedish identity – I was examining it to see if it had been owned by Paul Busti.

Italian American Identity: Christophorus Columbus and Paolo Busti

Columbus statue formerly in Marconi Plaza, Philadelphia.
Source: WHYY.
Italian Americans, like their Swedish American counterparts, have connected their identity to important historical figures as part of their argumentation that they belong in America.  Both arguments seem a bit pathetic in our era, but the references were important in their time.  These posturings become an issue when the contemporary perspective on an historical figure changes. This has happened with Italian Americans and their association with Christopher Columbus.  Even though there has always been controversy about his origin in Genoa (there is still active debate in Spain), Columbus has become Italian in America. What if DNA testing indicated that Christopher Columbus was actually Portuguese?  What if documents turned up that demonstrated that Columbus had been born in Barcelona?  What impact would all of this have on Columbus day parades?  Would there now be peace between Italian Americans of South Philadelphia and Native American protestors in October?  Don't worry, it is unlikely that what we know about Columbus will change substantially. And it is also unlikely that the pitiful display in Philadelphia that happened last year will be the last.

So, what about Paul Busti?  Cultural associations in Buffalo and Batavia have used Paolo Busti as an Italian cultural reference.6   As an historical figure, Paul Busti,7 who was the Agent General (Chief Operations Officer) of the Holland Land Company from 1799-1824, had one of the most significant roles in the development of western New York and western Pennsylvania. But there is a hitch:  Paul Busti's origins had not been documented. 

There is no proof of Busti's origin aside from his own declaration that he was born in Lombardy included in his petition to become a citizen of the United States in 1804.  All later details are derived from a history of the Holland Land Company written by Orsamus Turner in 1849.  Why is it important where Paul Busti was born or who his parents were?  See the notes about John Hanson, above.  Also, Italy, Lombardy and Milan had a complicated history during the century of Busti's birth.  During Paul Busti's childhood, Milan and Lombardy were under the rule of the Hapsburgs with their capital in Vienna.  Were Busti's parents Italian?  Could his family have been Austrian or Albanian or Hungarian and living in Milan? Plausible alternatives shake the cultural connection sought by Italian Americans.

I have been working on the documentation of Paul Busti because I was fact-checking a footnote in the history of early Swedish settlers in the Jamestown area that I am writing.8  The more I researched the career of Paul Busti in America, the less confidence I had in what had been written about him. I began collaborating with Norman Carlson (Fenton History Center) who has been researching the historiography of the Town of  Busti and Paul Busti for more than a decade. Together, we have started working through the chaff. 

Here is what we have learned so far:  Paul Busti was better educated, better read and culturally more elite than any of the depictions to date. Busti conducted business in French, Dutch and English and was literate in Italian and Latin and likely also knew Greek and German.  Busti was well regarded by his contemporaries and by his employees. Busti has been considered to have been a "competent" administrator, but a full review of his performance as Director of the Holland Land Company is in order because much of the historical research accomplished a hundred years ago may be quite biased (anti-immigrant/anti-Italian). Busti's accounting methods may have had an impact on the development of the savings bank industry in America.  Busti navigated the vagaries of politics in New York and employed both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as legal representatives. Necessary legal clarifications brought cases to the United States Supreme Court under his authority. Finally, making all of this research very difficult, Paul Busti, as well as his successor, John J. Vanderkemp, eschewed notoriety.  Their operation of the Holland Land Company was intended to run under the radar, or, as my Grandmother would have said, "they chested their cards."   But a contemporary example of just how well-known Paul Busti was is found in a letter from François Adriaan Van der Kemp to his friend John Adams.  Van der Kemp, who had known Adams in Holland, noted that his son had gotten a job working as the assistant to Busti – there was no need for the Dutch émigré to explain to the former President who Paul Busti was.9  

Where was Paul Busti born?  The short biography in Turner (1849) noted that Paul Busti was born in Milan on 17 October 1749.  Recent speculation questioned if Busti might have come from the small city of Busto Arsizio in Lombardy,10 suggesting that he was from the region of Milan rather than the city. But new documentation suggests that Paul/Paulus/Paolo Busti was born in the city of Milan.  

Our new findings indicate that Paolo Busti was the oldest son of Giulio Cesare Busti, founder of the bank Monte Busti.  So far, no baptismal record for Paolo Busti has been located.  However, documents still in the hands of two descendants of different siblings confirm that Paolo Busti was the brother of Giuseppa Pizzagalli born Busti (1747-1803)  and Cristoforo Busti (1768-1843), government official, banker and baron. The Busti family intermarried with the other banking families in Milan and had a presence in major European capitals.  Giulio Cesare Busti on at least one occasion loaned one million florins to Empress Maria Theresa.  So, Paolo Busti wasn't just from Milan, he was from a powerful family with connections to the Hapsburgs and Napoleon Bonaparte. The family rented a box at La Scala11 since the inauguration of this most storied Opera theater.  More importantly to Italian Americans, the Busti were an illustrious family made noble not by their birth, but by their work as members of the vanguard of the banking industry in Europe.

The box at La Scala rented by the Busti family.
There is still much more research needed about the Busti family and their circumstances in Milan.  And there is important research (not yet started) that will be necessary to understand the career of Paul Busti in Holland.  In Amsterdam, Paul Busti distinguished himself in business, married a woman from society's highest ranks,12 and was even nominated to the citizens council of Amsterdam during the revolutionary days of the Batavian Republic.  

All in all, Paul Busti is a wonderful historical figure for Italian Americans.  And, Paolo Busti is now vetted, he is confirmed to be of both Italian origin and birth.  

So what value is this national pride today?  At the bottom of my blog is an excerpt from a routine by George Carlin.  Carlin quotes Proverbs and asks us to reflect on pride in the accident of our origins and heritage.   For so many of us Swedish Americans, our Scandinavian pride rings a bit hollow.  Pride needs to be earned and better understanding our history can be part of that effort.

These Olympics have been special because we frequently witnessed camaraderie among competitors.  Perhaps this was because athletes were stripped of their rooting sections and entourages by COVID 19 restrictions.  In the absence of a choir, their athleticism seemed at times just a little bit purer. But, maybe it was also because Olympic athletes are increasingly professional and they have mutual respect earned from longer careers competing together.  The arrogance of nationalism is far from quelled in the Olympics, but it did not overwhelm the spectacle and perhaps it might just be that much better next time in Paris.

We can hope that our cultural identities as Swedish Americans, Italian Americans, et al., will be on the same path.  And perhaps our national pride as well earned rather than just birthright.


  1. See the writings of Dag Blanck as an entry into this subject.  For example, "History and Ethnicity: The Case of Swedish Americans" SAHQ, vol 46, no 1 (January 1995), 58-74. Digital edition: https://collections.carli.illinois.edu/digital/collection/npu_sahq/id/4287/rec/1.  His latest book (2021) edited with  Adam Hjorthen is Swedish-American Borderlands: New Histories of Transatlantic Relations. 

  2.  Gustaf Unonius, Vol 2 (1862), p 121, 236.

  3. George A. Hanson. Old Kent: The Eastern Shore of Maryland ; Notes Illustrative of the Most Ancient Records of Kent County, Maryland. Baltimore: Des Forges, 1876. The reexamination of this genealogy was made by George Ely Russell, The American Genealogist, 63:211-213 (1988).  See also Kim-Eric Williams. "Ninety Years of Growth and Challenge, The Swedish Colonial Society, 1919-2009," The Swedish Colonial Society website (https://colonialswedes.net/AboutSCS/ninety_years.html accessed 2021.08.10); and Elisabeth Thorsell, Släkthistoriskt Forum. Swedish Genealogical Association, Apr 2000. 

  4. Oddly, even Augustana College has the Viking as its mascot, although their origins connect with the Swedish-American Lutheran Church, the Reformation and the legacy of the Christianization of the Nordic tribes.  But a guy with a collar and a frock would likely not be very inspiring on the sidelines of a college football game.

  5. Wikipedia and encyclopedia enthusiasts will find the man (Archbishop of Uppsala, 1490-1557) who was part of the last Roman influence in Sweden before the Reformation under King Gustav Vasa.

  6. The Paolo Busti Cultural Foundation of Batavia gives scholarships to Italian-American university students.

  7. Here I am splitting hairs.  As an historical figure, I use the name that Busti signed during most of his career in Amsterdam and all of his career in America:  Paul Busti.  As an Italian American icon I use Paolo Busti, his documented name in Italy.  In some records in Amsterdam he used the Latin form, Paulus Busti.
    Signature of Paul Busti, letter to Club of Six dated 5 March 1797 Philadelphia.
    Inventaris van het Archief van de Holland Land Company,  Stadsarchief Amsterdam

    's Gravenhaagsche Courant, 30 Aug 1824, p 1. This death notice published in the
     Hague, Netherlands refers to him by his name in Latin: Paulus Busti
  8. The Town of Busti, named posthumously for Paul Busti, is located in Chautauqua County on the southern border.  The Town of Busti was a preferred farming district for Swedish immigrants in our region. It is located just across the state line from Sugar Grove Township, Warren County, Pennsylvania, that was the location of the first settlement of Swedes in the Jamestown area. The village of Busti is located near the center of the Town of Busti, midway between Sugar Grove and Jamestown.

    J.W. Otley. A new county map of the state of Pennsylvania and adjoining states showing the route of the central & other railroads &c. &c. 1852. Image courtesy of the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library digital collection.
    I am native to Chautauqua County, but by coincidence, I live near Philadelphia where the Holland Land Company's American headquarters were located.  So, I have been able to conveniently visit Busti's farm, ask about his headstone, and look at his estate probate.

  9. “To John Adams from François Adriaan Van der Kemp, 15 October 1804,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5055

  10. Mario Colombo. "Paolo Busti: colonist of the state of New York " Almanacco della Famiglia Bustocca d'el anno 2020, Associazione culturale in Busto Arsizio, 2020, p 127.

  11. Le Storie dei palchi della Scala, 1778-1920. Ufficio Ricerca Fondi Musicali. (http://www.urfm.braidense.it/palchi/cronstoria_query.php?Settore=destro&Ordine=3&Palco=12&Palcord=12&Rigapalc=12 accessed 2021.08.10)

  12. Mme Elizabeth Busti, Saint-Mémin Collection of Portraits,
     Group 36, 1801–1807. Collection of the National Gallery of Art.

    John May, Sr. (1694 Kent, England -1779 Amsterdam).
    Image courtesy of National Maritime Museum, Greenwich,
    London,  object identification PAD2852
  13. Elizabeth Busti née May. Born February 1759 in Amsterdam, daughter of John May Jr. and Marthe Naudin.  She was christened 11 Feb 1759 in the Engelse Episcopaals Kerk (English Episcopal Church) in Amsterdam.  She (age 35) married Paul Busti (age 46) on 14 Feb 1794 in the same church. Neither appear to have been married previously.  The couple had no children and likely emigrated to the United States about 1797. Elizabeth Busti died 3 Feb 1822 in Philadelphia and was buried in Christ Church Burial Ground.  Her husband was buried beside her two years later. There are no headstones – which is common in this burial ground (Benjamin Franklin is also buried in this cemetery).

    Her father and grandfather (John May, Sr., see illustration) were provisioners to the Dutch navy, ship builders and contractors. Her uncle, William May, likely influenced the transformative naval design and structural advances introduced by Sir Robert Seppings to the British fleet.

    Her oldest sister, Martha (1754-1821) was married to Isaäk ten Cate, one of the investors of the Holland Land Company. 

    Her younger sister, Frances, was married to Rev. Daniël Delprat, chaplain to the Royal court.  Their son, John Charles Delprat (1789-1856) moved to Philadelphia at age 12 and lived with Elizabeth and Paul Busti. His brother, Felix Albert Theodore Delprat, was the Dutch Minister of War, and his brother, Isaac Paul Delprat, was a member of the Dutch parliament. J.C. Delprat was named in the will of Paul Busti.

    Mayville, the county seat of Chautauqua County, is named in her honor.  An account that Mayville was named for her child has been debunked.  See Franciska K. Safran, William Peacock, Holland Land Company Subagent in Chautauqua County, New York. Fredonia, N.Y.: Thesis, 1983, p 24-25.

    This is the full text (with original spelling retained) of the letter from Busti authorizing the naming of Mayville:
    Madam Busti has willingly accepted the token you have given her of your remembrance in using her maidename for the Town on the Chautauque. She ought to visit the spot that will eternise her name, but there is no probability of my being able to persuade her to meet the inconveniences of a voyage through the wilderness of the South Genesee. I will have hard work to drag her above Cazenovia. However as curiosity has very strong powers upon the fair sex I believe that the Falls of Niagara will probably attract her.
    Source: Busti, Paul. Letter to Joseph Ellicott. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 3 June 1805. Buffalo History Museum, Holland Land Company collection, Mss. B00-20, vol 2, p 34.  Thanks very much to Cynthia Van Ness, Director of Library & Archives at the Buffalo History Museum, for the full citation and images of the original letter in their collection.

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