Words To Remember

"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dutch Family Names

Family names were the exception and not the rule among early Dutch colonists in the New World. The majority of people in the Netherlands used only a last name that was based on the father's name.  

That name was formed by adding to the child's Christian name that of the father, with the affix ~sen, or son.  All those names would end with ~sen; for example, Jan Jacobsen (meaning Jan, son of Jacob), or Pieter Jansen (Pieter, son of Jan), and the like. In correct usage in writing and in formal writing, the affix was often shortened to ~se or ~z, and always in the case of females to ~s.

This custom produced among the male descendants of the same progenitor a great diversity of surnames. Thus Pieter, Willem, and Hendrick--being sons of Jan Jacobsen--would be known as Pieter Jansen, Willem Jansen, etc., while their children would be named respectively, Pietersen, Willemsen, and Hendricksen. These names in turn each gave rise to other varieties in the next generation.

On the other hand, the use of the patronymic caused a frequent recurrence of the same name where no family connection whatever existed. This inconvenience--particularly the misfortune of confounding persons of similar name--was partially averted by the practice in vogue in the Netherlands, and kept up by colonists, of distinguishing persons by their birthplace and not by their residence; for example, Jan Jacobsen van Amsterdam, that is, Jan Jacobsen from Amsterdam. The exception to this might be the case of when the birthplace and residence were the same place.

This valued link connecting the colonist with his former home, it was in many cases directly to his interest to preserve. In Holland as in other countries, then, the name of the place used most often became the permanent family name. The place name, however, that sometimes resulted from adopting it created problems after a few generations. The names of two or more brothers--born in different places but who derived their respective surnames from those birth places--would eventually produce a surname that obscured its origin.

In many cases, the ~van has been dropped; and often the name so changed as to disguise its origin, as those of Oblinus and Kortright. The first of these, derived from Houplines after emigration, probably in conformity to English utterance, became Oblinus, and was then written van Oblinus. The Kortrights at first also used the ~van, thus van Kortright.

Many of the original Dutch settlers in this country were destitute of family or surnames, while others who had them frequently neglected to use them and instead adopted their patronymic.

It  was probably to correct this evil and to preserve the identity of families that the Dutch inhabitants, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, dropped this custom.  They either resumed their proper surname or adopted one or else they retained the patronymic then in use by the family as a permanent name for themselves and their offspring.

At the risk of further confusion, in a recent research project, it was learned that a married couple continued to use different names: the woman used her maiden name which was recorded in her childrens' baptismal records, while her husband--known by yet another name--used his patronymic.  Of their children, the daughters used their mother's maiden name as their surname, while the sons used either their father's patronymic or an adopted surname.  The result was five different names in the same family!

"The subject of Dutch family names is a curious one," says James Riker--himself a well-versed Dutch historian, and "should be first well studied by those who undertake to compile Dutch genealogy."

--Based on the two books written by James Riker (1822-1889):

Revised history of Harlem (City of New York): its origin and early annals. Prefaced by home scenes in the fatherlands; or notices of its founders before emigration. Also, sketches of numerous families, and the recovered history of the land-titles. [New York: New Harlem Pub. Co., 1904, pp. 74-75.]

The annals of Newtown, in Queens county, New-York : containing its history from its first settlement, together with many interesting facts concerning the adjacent towns ; also, a particular account of numerous Long island families now spread over this and various other states of the union. [New York: D. Fanshaw, 1852. p. 265.]

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