Serena van der Woodsen - the teenage socialite from New York's 'Upper East Side' - is one of the lead characters from the television series Gossip Girl. In many ways, Serena personifies the ‘NYC dream’: young, wealthy and fashionable. Serena’s surname suggests that her family are of Dutch extraction. Her family supposedly own a New York-based haulage firm that dates back generations, with her father’s side of the family having arrived in America from the Netherlands in the 19th century. Thus, the choice of surname for the ‘Serena’ character was no mere coincidence. Many Dutch migrants made their way to the New World and the Dutch legacies in New York are well established. Moreover, several Caribbean islands are Dutch-speaking, such as Curacao, Aruba and Sint Maarten. In 1664 New York was taken by the English and renamed in honour of the Duke of York (who would go on to become England’s last Catholic King, James II). Prior to this, New York was known as New Amsterdam and was an integral part of the Dutch overseas empire. As a result, many places in New York have names which date back to the Dutch era. Harlem, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan - all these names are a living legacy of New York’s ‘Dutch’ past.
NYC is well-known for its array of elite, wealthy families with Dutch surnames, a context into which the producers of Gossip Girl undoubtedly tapped when they created the ‘Serena’ character. There have been American Presidents of Dutch lineage, including Martin Van Buren, Warren Harding and both of the Roosevelt’s. Each of these Presidents can trace ancestry back to Dutch migrants who landed in the New World in previous centuries. Whatever the backstory to the Serena Van Der Woodsen character, her inclusion highlights the occasionally overlooked contribution that Dutch settlers made to the development of America and her history.
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Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
Co-Editor of Versus History