A Case of Patronymics and Variations
This blog post is for my mother who has been suffering a twinge of inferiority complex since the discovery of my father's illustrious Nantucket Island origins.
We are all familiar with family stories, supposedly connecting us to famous people, which turn out to be false. But sometimes a connection can be discredited as improbable and turn out to be true. Such is the case with my Cronkhite ancestors. When Walter Cronkite rose to broadcast fame, some of my relatives wondered if we might be related to him through our New York Cronkhite ancestors who migrated to Michigan in the late 1830s. My Great-Great-Aunt Blanche (pictured right, holding her granddaughter Karen) was skeptical, and so a possible connection was never pursued until now.
Researching the Cronkhite family is fraught with problems. First of all, the Cronkhites are attributed to an early Dutch family in New Amsterdam, founded by Herck Syboutszen when he married Wyntje Quick on November 16, 1642 in New Amsterdam's Dutch Reformed Church. "Wait a minute. Syboutszen?" you ask. "I thought we were discussing Cronkhites." Yes. Like the Scandinavians, the Dutch practiced patronymic naming, so that a son's surname was his father's Christian name with the suffix "se" added, although one may also come across "sen" or "szen." This may have worked well in a rural community, or while the person was alive and everyone knew to whom a name belonged.
However, this patronymic system was confusing to English officials when they took over New Amsterdam in the 1660s and they soon outlawed the practice, requiring Dutch residents to assume surnames in the English style. How were these new surnames derived? Cliff Lamere suggests these Dutch colonists were inspired by anything from their village of origin in the old country to the elements of nature around them. According to Ancestry.com, Cronkhite is the anglicization of the Dutch krankheid which means "weakness" and may have started out as a nickname. Just exactly who was the first "Krankheid" is anyone's guess. In fact, the Cronkhites don't seem to have consistently used the English surname until after 1700. So, more than 350 years later it takes a great deal of skill and tenacity to decipher the relationships indicated in those early colonial records.
But it doesn't get better after surnames were established because siblings and cousins may have chosen different surnames or alternative spellings of the same name. Combine this with record keepers' penchant for creative spelling and the options are seemingly endless. Here's the short list of names I've compiled so far which must be explored for possible relatives:
Many, if not most, of these names are not legitimate variations, but misspellings generated by either old handwritten records recorded by people who didn't know how to spell the name or digital records created by computers attempting to decipher the old handwriting on these documents. The three names requiring the most serious consideration are Cronk, Cronkite, and Cronkhite.
To return to the burning question of the day. Is my family related to Walter Cronkite? The answer is probably. The circumstantial evidence certainly supports it. While I've been unable to find any readily accessible genealogy produced by known relatives of Walter Cronkite, his grandson suggests that he believed his family to be descended from Herck Syboutzsen and Wyntje Quick. I've established a direct pedigree for my branch of the family also going back to Herck and Wyntje. Aunt Blanche dismissed a possible relationship entirely based on spelling of the name. But as I've already discussed, spelling is meaningless when it comes to the Cronkhite/Cronkite name. And in fact, three generations back from Walter, his branch of the family did use the spelling "Cronkhite." In fact there seems to be no consistency in spelling among any branches of the family until the twentieth century, by which time different branches standardized with different variations.
In addition, the Dutch practiced one other naming convention I haven't mentioned yet, which can be very helpful to genealogists. Frequently the first two sons and first two daughters in any generation were named after their grandparents. This provides another point of context in situations where surnames are particularly problematic as with the Cronkhites/Cronkites. On the one hand it creates even more confusion with a profusion of cousins with the same name. But it also creates naming patterns which are useful for tracing possible relationships..
My great-great-grandmother was Lydia Cronkhite Fox, the daughter of Henry W. Cronkhite and Deborah Morse who moved to Michigan from Jefferson County, New York about 1837. Henry's father was also named Henry, but the senior Henry's father was Jacob (who fought and died as a Tory on August 16, 1777 at the Battle of Bennington), Jacob's father was Samuel and his grandfather Sybout. Sybout's father was Theunis, the son of Herck Syboutszen.
What I believe to be Walter Cronkite's line follows a considerably different path. Cronkite's father was also named Walter. His grandfather was Frederick, the patriarch who moved his family from Wyoming County, New York to Missouri. Frederick's father was Spencer, Spencer's father was Tunis, and Tunis' father was Jacob. Are the names starting to look familiar now? At this point I reached a stalemate until I started looking more closely at the Cronkhites in Hoosick, New York from where Jacob moved to Wyoming County. I believe his father to be Aury, son of Hendrick (who may have been a Patriot soldier) and who was also in turn son of another Hendrick. The senior Hendrick was the son of Theunis, the son of Herck Syboutszen. My readers would be too confused if I attempted to discuss sibling names–every generation of the Cronkhites/Cronkites appears to have been prolific–and the name repetition which helped me identify these people along with some educated guesses which appear to be supported by the documents so far.
My initial investigation suggests that Walter Cronkite and my mother are eighth cousins, based on Theunis Herricksen or Herx (or should it be Herckszen? There's nothing consistent about how names are spelled in this period) and Sophia Wiltse, my 8th great-grandparents. However more work needs to be done to confirm the relationship. And if new information discredits my current belief, I'm open to changing my mind.
Cronkite, Walter IV and Maurice Isserman. Cronkite's War: His World War II Letters Home. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2013.
History of Wyoming County, N. Y., with Illustrations, Biographical Sketches, and Portraits of Some Pioneers and Prominent Residents. New York: F. W. Beers & Co., 1880.
Lamere, Cliff. Patronymics, Surnames, and Dutch Naming of Children. February 22, 2003.
Western Michigan Genealogical Society Member's Genealogy: Cronkheyt