The Dutch Outback. Land Of The Independent: The Province Of Groningen

Groningen is the most northeastern province of the Netherlands. It is bordered by three little uninhabited islands and the Wadden Sea in the North, by the province of Drenthe in the South, Friesland in the West and Germany in the East. It is a relatively small province with only around 570,000 inhabitants, one third of which lives in the province capital of Groningen city. Although small, it has a very varied landscape. It hosts new reclaimed land in the North, a huge earth gas reserve –almost exhausted now– in the West, hills, little rivers and forests in the East and large marshes in the South.

Stadt And Lande
Groningen has long been seen as the Dutch Outback since for centuries it was one of the most inhospitable areas of the Lowlands. Large parts of the area would flood at high tide and fall dry at low tide.

Understandably, earliest settlement of the province was only possible by building small artificial hills to stay dry during high tide. These hills are called wierden, and still many towns in Groningen and Friesland have names ending in  –werd, –ward, –uert or –uard like Jukwerd, Laskward, Usquert and Aduard.

That living in this area wasn't without risk proved the massive St. Lucia flood of 1287 which caused at least 50,000 deaths: one tenth of the total population of the Netherlands at that time. It created the Wadden Sea –the sea between the northern coast and the northern islands– and the Zuiderzee cutting the kingdom of Friesland in two. The western part of Friesland was immediately conquered by Floris V of Holland.

During the 15th century the kingdom of Friesland lost much of its power over eastern Friesland to the Saxon city of Groningen, especially after the city got staple rights. This meant that all products that passed through the city had to be sold there first. In addition to these staple rights, Groningen imposed that only beer brewed in the city could be sold in the whole province. This obviously led to great dissatisfaction under the other towns in the province also known as the Ommelanden (surrounding land).

The city lost its position as a free powerful city after the Reductie van Groningen (reduction of Groningen) in 1594. Due to this treaty Groningen lost part of its power –although it kept most of its exclusive rights– and was put under the sovereignty of the new Dutch Republic. In the process Catholicism was prohibited in the province and most Catholics fled to the Southern Netherlands. So, if you find an ancestor with a surname from Groningen in the South, it's a good hint at his or her faith.

After the treaty, the Saxon Groningen and the Frisian Ommelanden were made part of one and the same province, much to the dislike of the mostly Frisian inhabitants of the Ommelanden. The new province got the name of Stadt en Lande (city and surroundings) and kept its uncomfortable position until the Napoleonic times.

After the fall of Napoleon in 1814, the borders of the current provinces of Friesland and Groningen were defined. The city of Groningen lost most of its power in the process. It managed to retain some influence over the direct surroundings such as the peat colonies (read our article on the peat industry for more information), but lost these privileges also in the 1980s.

The Groningen Language
Although Standard Dutch is the official language in Groningen, most people speak Gronings in informal settings. Gronings is a Low Saxon dialect related to dialects spoken in Germany. Gronings differs significantly from other Low Saxon dialects because of the huge influence of Frisian both on pronunciation and vocabulary. To get an idea of this dialect and how it differs from other Dutch dialects visit the dialect map of the Meertens Institute, were you can hear samples of many Dutch dialects.

Folklore And Traditions
Groningen has a typical mix of local festivities inspired by ancient Frisian traditions, Catholic feasts, and historic events. Remarkable are midwinterhoornblazen (the blowing of the midwinter horn) in Westerwolde at St. Thomas (21th of December) to chase away bad spirits for the new year, and Bommen Berend (28th of August), when the Groningers celebrate their triumph over Bernhard Von Galen bishop of Münster in 1672, with horse races, fireworks and a big fair.

In contrast to many other Dutch rural areas, Groningen does not have a typical costume. The reason for this is that the ladies of the city used to follow the European fashion from quite early on. They did give it however their own regional touch, especially in the headdress. The popular silver or golden cap brooches got so big here that they ended up as a kind of helmet covered by a lace coif. These costumes are not worn anymore in daily life, although you can see them on folkloric events and festivities.

From Backward To Trendy
Officially Groningen has been part of the Netherlands since the 16th century, but neither the Groningers themselves nor the rest of the Dutch felt they really belonged together. Groningers always saw themselves as free people of an independent city and did not care all that much about the official governors from Holland. Hollanders saw Groningen as some backward peasant colony that you would certainly not visit for fun.

Some say that World War II changed mutual feelings when forced to fight a common enemy together. It is more likely though that it was a gradual process that started with better roads and transportation such a trains at the beginning of the 20th century. Transportation opened up the North and attracted more people from outside Groningen.

Today Groningers are still seen as one of a kind, characterized by their closed and phlegmatic nature. The city of Groningen is popular for its cultural features like a large university (dating back to 1614) and an ultra modern museum of contemporary art built in 1994, the Groninger Museum.

Ancestors From Groningen
If you do not know where your ancestors came from and your surname ends in –ga, Groningen (or Friesland) would be a good guess for most surnames of this type originated in this region. You can also have a look at this quite large list of Groningen surnames with ongoing genealogical research.

Another good way to find out if your ancestors came from Groningen (or from any other part of the Netherlands for that matter) is to visit the surname database of the Meertens Institute. Besides a hint on the meaning of your surname it gives you an overview of its occurrence in all Dutch provinces, thus giving you an idea of its origin.