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  Generational Family Name Changes
  in 18th Century Germany

 by Ron Ricklefs

  For many of you who have studied ancestral lines in Germany, especially in the northwest, Schleswig-Holstein and Ostfriesland, the usage of patronymics may have been an obstacle. Defined, as simply, "Usage of a name derived from that of the father or paternal ancestor" is, indeed, an understatement. What we often find in actual usage is a constant generational change of family name, often rule-bound but, never-the-less confusing to our Western Civilization mindset.

  Some examples will help to clarify.

        Lars Eliasen names his son
    Jens Larsen, who then names his son
 Christian Jensen.

  The surname of the child is derived from the given name of the father. Literally translated, Jens is the son (sen) of Lars, therefore Larsen; Christian is the son (sen) of Jens, therefore, Jensen.

  In the genitive case, which shows possession or to whom something (or someone) belongs, a similar format is used. From my own family tree we find;

             Peter Jensen, names his son
        Ricklef Peters, who names his son
    Harm Ricklefs, who then names his son
Johann Harms

  This possessive format suggests Johann belongs to Harm or Harm's Johann, (possibly used to differentiate from Karl's Johann who lived down the road.) The naming was transposed and the apostrophe dropped, hence, Johann Harms. The addition of an "s, n, or sen" to a given name to derive a next generation family name is quite common within the patronymic scheme. Another example of this basic "rule-bound" concept is the reverse, wherein the son's given name is derived from the father's surname, by dropping the "s", but maintaining the surname, such as in:

 Peter Ricklefs, names his son
    Ricklef Ricklefs

or in using both rules at the same time:

 Danklef Ricklefs, names his son
    Ricklef Danklefs

  Most areas of Germany (as well as the Scandinavian countries) used patronymics in one or another form until the Middle Ages, but usage in Schleswig-Holstein and Ostfriesland (Neidersachsen) continued into the mid 1800's. Decrees in 1771, 1812 and 1822 in both areas were marginally successful in having heads of households determine and declare a family surname that was to be used henceforth for all children. The Kaiser's decree on August 18, 1811 reads, in part,

"...all subjects not having a permanent surname are required to establish one and to furnish this information to the Civil Registry Official. Subjects are allowed to use any name except names of cities and places. Permanent surnames are to be passed on to all of the children and the descendants."

Due in part to the low level of communication available to the agrarian society and lack of desire for change, examples of patronymic naming can be found well into the 1860's.

  The family source and relationship material available from most of the Ortsippenbuch publications (check for availability in the IGS Library) contain many instances of repetitive generational name changes. These town listings, although alphabetical on surname, also provide a relational reference by number. This numbering system may require "following the numbers back" to determine parentage of the named individual as well as noting the surname of the children specified. Given names, for example - Peter, Jen, Harm, Hay, Ufke and Ricklef - all could have originated from typical sources, such as geographic locations, physical features, christening names or occupations, then later be subjected to change by patronymics. With a continuing influx of new given names, it is possible that after five generations one could conceivably find five different family names.

In your German and Scandinavian research keep in mind the possibility of patronymics as you search for parentage. Be imaginative when sourcing next generation naming; look for possessive suffix markers, such as "s, n, en, sen" added (or removed) from a given or family name. You might also find a common family name in a second generation search. Look for a rule-bound system at work, such as:
Ede Peters --- Peter Eden --- hence to Ede Peters.

  Although the additional effort that is sometimes required in working with patronymics which can slow your progress, the satisfaction of solving yet another genealogical puzzle can be very rewarding. The third characteristic of the genealogist, tenacity, will in the long term, win out.

This article appeared in German-American Genealogy, Fall 1997
Reprinted with permission


Contact: Updated to 10 April 2007
Copyright © 1998-2007 Ron Ricklefs All Rights Reserved