Most of us when working out our genealogies in Germany are accustomed to the fact that a surname stays with us generation after generation. We have come to focus our attention in the church records for all the Müllers, Maiers, or whatever our family name may be in the parish of our ancestors. But be aware that there are some exceptions to the rule in various areas of Germany that may make research much more difficult than simply searching for the surname that we have always expected.
In certain areas of Germany, such as Westfalen, Hannover, Lippe-Detmold, Oldenburg and Schlesien, for example, you quite likely may find this to be the case. This has to do with estate farms of the regions. The German word for this is Hof and refers to a large farm or estate farm. The family surname then may be derived from the name of the family living on a certain farm. This is a very old system which may date back before the time of Charlemagne.
There are four classifications in the Hof system. These are:
- Vollerbe, which is the highest level and is able to have all the rights and privileges.
- Halberbe, which is smaller than the Vollerbe and was required to pay half the duties of that of the Vollerbe.
- Erbkӧtter, the son of a Vollerbe, who has no inheritance and received only a small piece of land.
- Markkӧtter, is a Hof that was small and the owner would have another occupation in order to support himself and family.
These types of Hofs were all passed down through the family. And the owner of the Hof used a particular name which was used also by the youngest son or daughter who inherited the Hof. Those children of the Hof owner who received no inheritance may then later acquire through marriage a Hof, take on the name of that Hof, and no longer use the name associated with the Hof of the father. If a daughter inherited a Hof, her husband would take on her surname. Sometimes you will find the names in the records identified by the terms “alias”, “vel”, “modo”, “gen.” or “dit”. These refer to the second name that a person may have acquired.
Often the names in a given area were common, and a place name was then also associated with the surname, such as Schulte zu Ardey and Schulte zu Dellwig.
A detailed article entitled Surname Changes in Northwestern Germany by Dr. Roger P. Minert, Ph.D, AG, can be found in the Spring 2000 edition of the German Genealogical Digest. This article goes into great detail of this naming practice. This periodical can be found at the Family History Library and may be very helpful in gaining a better understanding of the naming practices in these regions of Germany.