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Understanding Dutch surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestor in the records.
Before record keeping began, most people had only one name such as John. As the population increased it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Maurik. At first, "surnames" applied only to one person, not to the whole family. After a few generations these names became hereditary and were passed on from generation to generation.
Surnames developed from four major sources:
- Patronymic, based on a parent’s name, such as Aarjen Hendrickszoon (son of Hendrick).
- Occupational, based on the person’s trade, such as Bernardus Schoenmaker (shoemaker).
- Descriptive or nickname, based on a unique quality of the person, such as Gerrit Zwarthooft (black head).
- Geographical, based on a person’s residence, such as Johannes van der Velde (from the field).
Surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy land owners. Later the custom was followed by merchants and townspeople and eventually by the rural population. This process took two or three centuries. For the most part the practice was well established in the Netherlands by the 1700s.
In the provinces of Friesland and Groningen and in part of the Betuwe region of Gelderland it was customary to take a mother’s surname or a mother’s mother’s surname instead of a father’s. Foreign surnames were often translated. Most ministers had their surnames Latinized.
Patronymics. The use of patronymic names was prevalent in the provinces of Drenthe, Friesland, Gelderland, Groningen, and Overijssel before 1811. It was also common in the other provinces, especially before 1700. Patronymic names changed with each generation. For example, Jan Pieters was the son of a man named Pieter. If Jan had a son Cornelis, the son was known as Cornelis Jans (son of Jan). The use of patronymics continued until decrees were passed that required persons to adopt permanent hereditary family names. People were often reluctant to comply, so several decrees were needed. These decrees were passed in 1811, 1813, and again in 1825.
This requirement produced the name adoption registers [naamsaannemingregisters] that cover the time period of 1811 to 1813 and 1825 to 1826. Many of the records no longer exist. A listing of those that do is found in the journal Gens Nostra volume 28 (1973), pages 346 to 347, and volume 29 (1974), page 76 (FHL book 949.2 D25g).
The name adoption registers contain the name of the family head (usually the father); his or her village of residence; the new surname that his or her descendants would be known by; and children’s names, ages, and residences (if different from parent’s). Sometimes the registers contain the person’s age and grandchildren’s names and ages. Occasionally, birth dates and places of all these people are recorded.
The original records are at the state or municipal archives. Some are on film at the Family History Library. In addition, many of the records have been published. Check the catalog under:
NETHERLANDS, [PROVINCE] – NAMES, PERSONAL
NETHERLANDS, [PROVINCE], [TOWN] – NAMES, PERSONAL
Jewish Naming Customs. Before the 1800s the use of a family name by Jews was left to the discretion of the individual. Jews in the Netherlands followed the custom of using only a given name and the name of the father, such as Isaac, son of Abraham. Most Jews did not adopt hereditary family names until required to do so by law. In 1808 Napoleon issued a decree for all the Jews of his empire, including the province of Limburg, to adopt surnames. Compulsory surname laws were enacted in the other provinces in 1811, 1813, and again in 1825. The records resulting from these decrees are called name adoption registers. The Jewish surnames from these registers have been extracted and published in:
Nederlands Joods Familiearchief (Dutch Jewish Family Archive). 3 vol. Amsterdam: Scheltema en Holkema, 1967. (FHL book 949.2 D4nj.)
See also the discussion of name adoption registers above.
Dutch given names are usually derived from Biblical names such as Abraham, the names of saints such as Maria (Mary), or Old Dutch names such as Gerhard.
In the Netherlands a particular naming pattern was very common until about 1950. The following pattern may be helpful in researching family groups and determining the parents of the mother and father:
- The first male child was named for the father’s father.
- The second boy was named for the mother’s father.
- The first female child was named for the mother’s mother.
- The second girl was named for the father’s mother.
Additional children were often named for the parent’s brothers and sisters and for the parents themselves.
There were regional differences to this pattern, such as naming the oldest boy after the mother’s father and the oldest girl after the father’s mother or naming the oldest boy after the maternal grandfather.
If an older child died young, the parents frequently reused the deceased child’s name on the next born child of the same gender.
Names in Foreign Languages
Genealogical records of the Netherlands may be in various languages: Dutch, Latin, or French. Your ancestor’s name could be in Latin in his or her birth record, in French in his or her marriage record, and in Dutch in his or her death record. Given names are often very different when translated into different languages, as the following names show:
Given names are translated into 23 different European languages, including English, in this book:
Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Sownik Imion (Dictionary of Names). Wroclaw: Ossoliski, 1975. (FHL book Ref 940 D4si; film 1181578 item 2; fiche 6000839.)
Variations on Given Names
Many given names have variants and dialectical forms. Maria, for example, can appear as Marie, Marretje, Mieke, Mietje, Merchje, Maek, or even Rita and Rieke. Many books are available that give variant forms of given names. There are also many books that discuss Dutch names and their meanings. Some indicate the cities or regions where some surnames are most common. One such source is:
Schaar, J. van der. Woordenboek van Voornamen: Inventarisatie van de Doop– en Roepnamen met hun Etymologie (Dictionary of Dutch Given Names: Inventory of Baptismal Names and Nicknames with Their Etymology). Utrecht: Het Spectrum, 1970. (FHL book 949.2 D4s.)
Additional books are listed in the Place search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
NETHERLANDS – NAMES, PERSONAL
NETHERLANDS, [PROVINCE] – NAMES, PERSONAL
The way a name was written in the civil registration records is how it came to be spelled, even though first written incorrectly. A mistake in the civil registration records can be corrected by a judgment from the district court. Name changes are only allowed by the king or queen.