“I wasn’t the one who discovered Bronck was Swedish, but I certainly made the fact known to the general public.”
Since this article was first published, in late summer 2007, Commissioner Andersson has left his commission in New York City
For the Swedish-American community in New York, he’s a beacon: Always a delight to talk to, knowledgeable about history, genealogy, and politics, and loads of fun. Furthermore, Commissioner Brian Andersson works for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is friends with Rudy Giuliani, and whenever Hillary Clinton sees him she pokes him in the side for a friendly chat and some questions regarding genealogy (hers is mainly Scottish, English, and Irish, by the way). One can certainly mingle with worse than that!
Andersson has also spent much time and effort in educating the general public about the New York borough in which he was born and bred: The Bronx. You see, just as Andersson has a Swedish connection – so has The Bronx.
“I was born and raised in The Bronx,” Andersson says. “And my neighborhood was predominantly Irish-American. One day my teacher remarked that my last name, Anderson, wasn’t an Irish name. Suddenly my Bronx Irish Catholic credentials were being questioned and I was devastated!”
Andersson’s parents were of the generation that wasn’t too interested in the old country. After all, their parents had left all that behind to come to the New World to become good American citizens. Those were not the days of taking pride in one’s heritage; the main thing was to fit into the new society. However, all but one of Andersson’s grandparents were Irish, so the one who wasn’t – his father’s father Henry J. Anderson – suddenly piqued his interest. Being an historically inclined and inquisitive young man, Andersson began what he now refers to as his “detective work.”
“My paternal grandfather was the only grandparent I hadn’t known, as he had died four years before I was born. All I could wrench out of my father was that he was born in Copenhagen and came here as a kid.”
Born in Denmark to parents with Swedish surnames, Andersson kept on hunting for information about his father’s father and his background wherever he could find it in libraries and historical societies, by attending lectures and questioning personalities. One day he overheard a librarian mention that a distinguished historian had stumbled upon facts showing that Jonas Bronck, for whom The Bronx is named, was not Danish or Dutch as had always been believed, but Swedish. Since he had just discovered he was partly Swedish himself, Andersson jumped for joy and contacted the historian.
“I wasn’t the one who discovered Bronck was Swedish, but I certainly made the fact known to the general public,” says Andersson.
Jonas Bronck was born in Komstad, a village outside Sävsjö in Småland around the year 1600. With his Dutch wife Teuntje Joeaens he emigrated to the U.S. and bought a piece of land across the Harlem River from the village Harlem in 1639. His farm, Bronck’s Land, was situated south of today’s 150th Street in The Bronx. Jonas Bronck didn’t live long on his farm (he died in 1643), but the river which runs through the area around where his farm was, was already referred to as Bronck’s River, by and by shortened to Bronx River. The borough was later named after the river – thus The Bronx.
“Sadly, Jonas Bronck didn’t have any children,” Andersson continues. “So there are no direct ascendants of his.”
Meanwhile Andersson kept up his genealogy studies, and made progress in tracking his own family to the south of Sweden. When his grandmother died, he found old Nordstjernan clippings among her belongings. The immensely popular TV-series “Roots” was shown on TV and propelled Andersson to keep at his genealogical research. Simultaneously, he also stumbled upon a career. In the late 1980’s, he got engaged in Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral campaign (Giuliani lost narrowly to Democrat David Dinkins in 1989, but won on his second try in 1994).
“I had watched Giuliani for a long time,” Andersson continues. “He was bold. I felt he was the right man at the right time. He prosecuted mob bosses and corrupt politicians. Remember what New York looked like in those days? There were 2,200 murders a year; Rudy cleaned it all up. Today we have an average of 600 murders a year.”
Eventually Andersson decided to work for the government, and today he is Commissioner at the Department of Records and Information Services. He is married with three children. Are his children interested in their Swedish heritage?
“Well, I don’t know. I am not good with languages, for example, so I can’t pass that on. But I had this Swedish course software on one day just to hear the language, and my daughter Emma asked to borrow it – so who knows? It was my name that led me to Sweden. It’s a bit unique – to be of Swedish heritage in The Bronx – so I have taken to using the original spelling of my name, Andersson. I keep in touch with several relatives in Sweden and many of them have visited us here in New York.”
Commissioner Brian Andersson sets the record straight: It’s called The Bronx because of Jonas Bronck and he was Swedish. Andersson himself claims he can only say two words in Swedish “hej” and “då” but it matters little: He’s done more for the Swedish-American community than most. “If they need me, I’m there,” he says.
Brian Andersson, photographed by Nikolaj Alsterdal