A Farm Name As Surname

Inspired by a family tree I recently completed for a client, I'd like to share with you a special kind of surname you may come across and that is both a blessing and a curse: surnames based on farm names. If you have been researching your roots for some time, then you may be familiar with the shift from "fixed surnames" to "patronymics", usually as you step back from the 1800s into the 1700s. All of a sudden —it seems— your ancestors shift surnames with each generation.

In the Netherlands, after 1811, all Dutch adopted a fixed surname, as imposed by Napoleon in that year. Before that, many people were named after their father. And so Pieter, son of Willem was called Pieter Willems and Jan, son of Pieter Jan Pieters, etcetera. A bit confusing when first researching such patronymics, but once you get the hang of it they are pretty straightforward and often a great tool when doing research in a time when records are less informative.

However, in certain parts of the Netherlands, especially in what is now called Twente and the Achterhoek (the easternmost parts of the provinces of Overijssel and Gelderland), people preferred farm names over patronymics. This means that people were not named after their father, but after the farm they were somehow associated with. "Somehow associated with" sounds a bit vague, and that is exactly what it is. People adopted the name of the farm they were born at, worked at, married into, owned, used to own, founded, or whatever other plausible association you can think of. Moreover, people used to change surnames upon a change of farm and so changed surnames several times during their lifetime.

To clarify this, a little example. Let's say you have an ancestor Hendrik who was born on a farm called "Boerhoeve". At his birth, he will be registered as Hendrik Boerhoeve. Little Hendrik grows up and gets his first job as a farm hand at the "Dennenhoeve". He meets a nice girl called Greetje and they marry. On the marriage record he is registered as Hendrik Dennenhoeve. Greetje was the daughter of a wealthy farmer without sons that owned the "Eikenhoeve". Hendrik and Greetje move in with Greetje's parents. When their first child is born, Hendrik is registered on the birth record as Hendrik Eikenhoeve and their son as Jan Eikenhoeve. Greetje's parents die and Hendrik inherits the farm. However, he decides to sell it and found his own farm which he calls "Hendrikshoeve". By the time their son Jan gets married Hendrik is registered on the marriage record as Hendrik Hendrikshoeve. Hendrik becomes a wealthy man and when Napoleon summons him to choose a fixed surname he boldly decides to call himself  "Rijkman" (lit. "rich man"). When Hendrik dies, he is registered on his death record as Hendrik Rijkman. All his descendants will be called Rijkman from this point on. However, if they wish to trace their roots back they will have to search for the names Boerhoeve, Dennenhoeve, Eikenhoeve and Hendrikshoeve as well. To add to the confusion, not all people called after these farms are necessarily related, the only thing they obviously share is that at some point in time they were associated with those farms in one way or another.

Though farm names may seem a pain at first glance (and they are!) they also provide invaluable information about the whereabouts of these ancestors. Before the 1850s, addresses were not –or only sporadically– kept in the Netherlands. Unless your ancestors had property to sell or inherit, or they show up in one of the early censuses, it is unlikely that you will be able to pinpoint exactly where they lived. With farm names, however, you can. Most farms in the Twente and Achterhoek areas can be found on old maps. Furthermore, as most farms were leased, some lease contracts survived and can still be found in the notarial archives. And if you get really lucky, there may be pictures of the farm, or it might even still be standing where it stood 300 years ago!