Dutch Naming Systems in Early America

Among the NGSQ Archives are countless articles on sound genealogical research methodology. Some of those articles are so well-written and useful that they have become must-use resources for genealogists ever since. One such timeless contribution comes from NGS Hall-of-Famer Rosalie Fellows Bailey (elected in 2010). In 1953, she published the two-part article, “Dutch Systems in Family Naming: New York and New Jersey.”[1]

While this work may be particularly helpful for researchers of New York and New Jersey, every researcher of the Dutch in early America and their descendants throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest will find this resource a critical tool in solving their Dutch problems. Those with non-Dutch ancestors who lived in New Netherland, New York, and New Jersey may also make discoveries here by understanding how the Dutch recorded both first and last names, sometimes well into the 18th century.

Revisiting this topic is particularly timely for NGS members as the 2018 NGS Conference will be held in May in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the destination region of one of the Dutch migrations to the Midwest. The conference features eight separate lectures on various aspects of Dutch and Dutch-American research. You can find them in the Conference Registration Brochure online by searching “dutch.”

Readers who take the time to read Bailey’s original twenty pages will find themselves rewarded with more than mere tidbits about strange and befuddling practices. Dutch naming systems are so important, in fact, that gaining a thorough understanding of them gives researchers the most effective tools they can possibly have to answer longstanding questions and identify new avenues of research. The summary below is merely an appetizer, whereas Bailey’s article provides real meat and a deeper value.

I. The Patronymic

A patronymic is a name that identifies and uses the subject’s father’s given name, the primary naming system among the Dutch in early America. Most of Europe had adopted surnames by the 17th century, but it’s the same system that led, for example, to the English surnames Johnson or Richardson. Those names were originally derived from the patronymic that meant son of John or son of Richard. Rather than the suffix -son, the Dutch suffix of the same meaning can be -szen, -sen, -se, or –z. The feminine version can be -se, –sd, –sdr, –sen, or the full suffix sdochter (“daughter of”).

As illustrated in Table 1, “Johnson Family of Western Long Island,” (all tables referenced are in the original article) Jan Barentz van Driest, immigrant from Zutphen, Gelderland, to Gravesend, Long Island, was the father of Barent Jansen. Barent Jansen was the father of Jan Barentse Jansen. By the time he wrote his will in 1757, Jan Barentse Jansen’s name had evolved into the anglicized surname John Johnson. John Johnson’s son, Barent Johnson, had several sons including Revolutionary War Major General Jeremiah Johnson, whose name entirely obscures his Dutch ancestry. A second table, “Ryerson—Ryers—Martense—Adriance,” illustrates the spelling variations of patronymics as well as their evolution into various surnames.

II. Place-Origin Surname

The place-origin surname, usually prefixed with van (or from) but sometimes with de (or the), was also a popular way for the early Dutch-American to identify himself and to establish a surname. Those places of origin could be of several types: 1) nationality; 2) town or village; 3) small local district; 4) named farm-estate for which the subject is owner, leaseholder, or tenant; 5) named farm-estate for which the subject is a hired farmhand, unrelated to the family in the main dwelling; 6) named field; 7) named small farm occupied by a peasant (or boer), often a subdivision of a named farm-estate; 8) a named house with a sign; or 9) a local habitat. Table 5, “Van Woert—Rutgers—Rutsen,” illustrates the evolution of one place-origin name, van Woert (from the village of Schoonrewoerd), to three distinct surname lines.

III. The Occupational Surname

Dutch-American surnames derived from this category are those such as Bleecker (bleacher of cloth), Schenck (filler, butler, cupbearer), Koylert/Cuyler (archer), Blauvelt (blue field, referring to a flax farmer), or Clark (clerk). These names are sometimes used intermittently with patronymics and developing surnames.

IV. Personal-Characteristic Surname

While this type of surname is particularly common among the English, it is less so for the Dutch. Examples include Vroom/Vroman (pious or wise man), Stille (silent), Krom (bent, crooked, cripple), Krankheyt/Cronkhite (sickness, invalid), de Groot (the big man), de Lange (the tall man), de Witt (the white man), or de Wint (wind, fuss, braggart). The use of the Dutch de (or the) reminds us that not all surnames with de are of French origin.

V. The Order of Names

When two or more of the name components covered above are used together, they usually follow a particular order: 1) social status; 2), the first name; 3), the patronymic; 4) the surname, if any; 5) place of origin or residence; and 6) any term used to indicate occupation. The name Teunis Tomassen van Naarden metzlaer, for example, uses the second, third, fifth, and sixth elements in order.

Titles that refer to social status are rarely used, but are significant when they are. Those titles may include Joncker (member of the nobility); de Heer, dr Hr, or dhr (official such as magistrate); Sieur, Sinjeur, or Sr (man of standing); Dne, Dom, D., etc. (Domine or Reverend); Dr (doctor of law); Mr (master, such as of a guild or of an occupation); Juffrouw or Joffr (important married woman); or the very rare Mevrouw (very important woman).

VI. Last Names of Married Women

Under the Dutch naming system, women did not change their name at marriage, a particularly useful fact for researchers. Table 8, “Family of the Thrice-Married Maritie Damen,” illustrates how a woman’s identity can prove complex family relationships. Maritie Damen married three times and had children by each of her first two husbands, but her third husband’s children were not hers. None of the children have surviving baptism records, a key source for Dutch research, but because Maritie’s name remained unchanged, she is easily found in various records of the City and County of Albany. Her name, in combination with other names and stated relationships, firmly identifies her husbands and children.

This method of identification is especially useful when a husband had a common name. There were, for example, eleven different Claes Janszens who were contemporaries; their wives’ names delineate them. It’s also useful when a man went by various name types over time. Teunis Tomassen van Naarden (patronymic and place-origin), Teunis Tomassen Quick (patronymic and personal-characteristic), Theunis Thoomas (patronymic), and Teunis Thomaszen metzlaer (patronymic and occupation [mason]) are proven to refer to the same man by finding these variations in combination with his wife, Belitje Jacobs.

A woman’s name was determined in much the same way a man’s name was. If her family had a surname or the name of their place of origin, she may use that. In the generation in which a surname was being established, her last name might switch back and forth between patronymic and surname as her brothers’ probably did. Patronymics were most common, which could refer to a woman’s stepfather as well as her father.

In the earliest Dutch period, however, a woman sometimes used her husband’s first name as her last, particularly when her father was not known in America. Table 9, “Susanna Dircx’ Relatives,” illustrates this with two examples. Albert Andriesz’ wife was Annitje Alberts in her mother’s 1642 will. And Jan Jansen Bratt’s wife was called Maritie Jans in their joint 1673 will, but signed her name Maritie Dirck (after her first husband, Dirck Dircksz Mayer).

Though it was not the custom in America, some Dutch immigrants used their mother’s name, especially if she had an established surname while the father did not. The immigrant Schuyler brothers were born in Amsterdam to Pieter Tjerks and Geertruyt Philips van Schuylder.

Only after English influence began to overcome Dutch naming customs, well into the 18th century, did women begin taking their husband’s surnames.

VII. Godparents or Sponsors

Records of the Dutch Reformed churches in America are critical research tools in Dutch-American research. Not only are women’s maiden names recorded continuously there, but godparents are also named. The Dutch practice of having close relatives serve as godparents means that these records can reveal a more extended family. Table 10, “Godparents of Anthony Rutgers’ Children,” illustrates the names and relationships of each godparent for each of Anthony’s fifteen children. All of them are relatives, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, half-siblings, and one grandmother’s second husband.

It’s also useful to know that, although not absolute, the Dutch had a tendency to have godparents chosen alternately from each side of the family for each successive child’s baptism. Once this pattern is established in a given family, any disruption to the pattern serves as a clue to a possible missing child in that family group.

VIII. First Name of Children

With rare exceptions, Dutch children were named after relatives. In particular, the first two boys and first two girls were generally named after their grandparents. Other practices were more tendencies than customs, including 1) naming the first child for a paternal grandparent; 2) naming the first child (if a boy) of a woman’s second marriage for her first husband; 3) alternating each child’s name to be taken from one side of the family and then the other; 4) giving the name of a child who died to the next child born of that gender. The last practice tended to take precedence over naming a child for a grandparent. Table 11, “Rutgers—Family Group,” illustrates these patterns perfectly.

Customs such as these are powerful research tools. In the absence of church records, for example, the names of children in a man’s will could reveal the names of the testator’s parents and inlaws. In some instances, certain first names appear regularly in particular families. Seeing them appear in other families may suggest a previously unknown intermarriage between the two families.

IX. The Diminutive

Diminutive names include both shortened names and terms of endearment. Examples of abbreviation include Thys for Matthys, Claes for Nicolaes, Jaap for Jacob, and Bartel, Mees, or Meus for Bartelmeus. Diminutives were extensively used for girls’ names, both in abbreviation and in endearment. Similar to the -ie and -y suffix in English (e.g. Jenny or Susie) is the Dutch -tje or -je. Maritje is an endearing version of Maria, as is Giertje for Geertruy. Female names that are both abbreviated and endearing include Grietje for Margriet and Tryntje for Catrina.

X. Dutch-English Equivalents of First Names

Lists have been compiled of English equivalents of Dutch names, but Bailey warns researchers to use those lists with caution. In actual practice, the rendering of a Dutch person’s name was the result of a number of variables, including phonetic spelling, varying pronunciation in Dutch, English, and French, and the skills of the clerk. In one example, the name Neeltje Swem appears on the 1703 Staten Island census as Elener Swan. Neeltje is the feminine form of Cornelius, so one might expect it to appear in English as Cornelia. But Neeltje looks and sounds more like Nellie, the English diminutive of Eleanor. So Elener was recorded for Neeltje.

XI. Translation of the Foreign Name: Dutch, English, French

Dutch magistrates and clerks in New Netherland generally attempted to render foreign names into Dutch. Charles Bridges, for example, was an Englishman in New Netherland, where his name was generally recorded as Carel van Brugge or Verbruggen. Even after the English took over New Netherland in 1664, the Dutch Reformed churches continued this practice in their record-keeping. In a 1673 baptism, the father Willem Kerck was actually Englishman William Churchill.

The same is true for French names. Nicholas Dupue’s wife is recorded in Dutch church records of New York City as Catharina Reynards, Catalina Duvois, Catharina de Vos, and Catharina Reynardt. These variations represent no conflict in identifying her as one woman. Reynard and Vos are the same, as they are the French and Dutch words for fox.

Names were also translated from Dutch to English: Kuyper became Cooper; van Langevelt became Longfield; and Thomas Laurenszen Popinga dropped his original surname, changed his patronymic to his surname, and became Thomas Lawrence.

XII. Alteration of the Foreign Name: Dutch, English, French

When a name couldn’t be effectively translated, phonetic spelling came into play. Thus the French girl Adrienne Cuvellier was called Ariaentje Cuvilje in Dutch records. George Woolsey was referred to as Jarge Woltzen. These were close approximations in pronunciation, producing names that did not exist in Dutch, a hint to their non-Dutch origins. Other phonetic spellings produced actual Dutch names that sounded the same, perhaps obscuring a non-Dutch origin. The English Cole sounds precisely the same as the Dutch Cool. The same is true for the English Lake and the Dutch Leek. These are just a few of the examples of alterations given.

If your research includes Dutch ancestry in America in the 17th- and 18th-centuries, you’ll want to print out Bailey’s two-part article, read it, and keep it handy as a constant guide. When you get stuck, pull it out again, and re-read it. The threads of Dutch-American research are found in their naming customs, and you’ll almost certainly find a new thread to pursue.

[1] Rosalie Fellows Bailey, “Dutch Systems in Family Naming: New York and New Jersey,” Part I, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 41 (March 1953), 1–11; and Part II, 41 (December 1953), 109–118); also, “Dutch Systems in Family Naming: Corrections to Part I,” 41 (September 1953), 98; PDFs, NGSQ Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngsq_archives : 23 Jan. 2018).

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