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Place Identifiers As Surnames

An excerpt from Names, Names, & More Names: Locating Your Dutch Ancestors in Colonial America," by Arthur C.M. Kelly

New settlers in America were often identified not only by a patronymic signifying the father but also by a phrase telling something about the place of origin. The Dutch term "van" or the German term "von" were used at the beginning of the phrase. Sometimes in Dutch phraseology, "de," "der," or "ter" was inserted, meaning "of" or "of the"—Van der Water meaning of the water. In the French language prefixes "de," "des," "du," or "le" meant of. (The word to which the prefix is attached should show whether the name could be Dutch or French.). Not only do we have Van and Van Der but we also come across Van Den and then what seems like a contraction of Van Der, namely, Ver as in Verplanck. Less often we come across Uyt Den and Uyt Der for out of. These also become contracted to become Ten and Ter as in Ten Broeck and Terbush (at/near the brook or bush).

In a short article titled "Surnames" appearing in the NEHG Register, July 1849, we are told by B. H. Dixon that "A common prefix to Dutch family names is the word 'de', which is here generally supposed to mean 'of', and to denote a French extraction. This is, however, incorrect, it being in the former language the article 'the', as, for example, de Wit, the White; de Bruyn, the Brown; de Kock, the Cook; de Jong, the Young; de Koster, the Sexton; de Vries, the Friesian; de Waal, the Walloon, etc, synonymous with our English names White, Brown, Cook, Young, etc.

"It is also prefixed in its different genders and cases as `t Hooft (het Hoofd), the Head; in't Veld (in het Veld), in the Field; der Kinderen, of the Children; van der Hegge, of the Hedge; van den Berg, of the Hill; uit den Boogaard, out or from the Orchard; equivalent to our Head, Field, etc.

"'Te', 'ten', and 'ter' meaning 'at' or 'to', are also often used as, te Water, at the Water; ten Heugel, at the Hill; ter Winkel, at the Shop.

"The Dutch preposition 'van' before family names answers to the French "de", "of" and was in early times seldom borne but by nobles, being placed before the names of their castles or estates.

"In later days, however, when family names came more generally into use, many added to their Christian names their places of birth or residence, which were retained as family names; as van Gent, of Ghent; van Bern, of Bern; van den Haag, of the Hague; van Cleef, of Cleves; van Buren, of Buren. This latter is derived from the village of Buren, in Gelderland. It was formerly a domain of the Princess of Orange-Nassau, and many of them bore the title of Counts of Buren. Our Ex-President's family is, however, in no wise related to them; his name probably originated from his ancestor having hailed from that town."

A further discussion of Van and Von used as predicates is found in an article written by Susanna Matthes for the NYGandB Record in Oct 1893. The following is extracted from that article:

"It is a common mistake of Americans to think that the 'van' before a Dutch name signifies nobility. In the Low Countries, that is, in the kingdoms of the Netherlands and of Belgium, 'van' has no particular meaning. Names with 'van' are to be read on shops as well as on the doors of the most aristocratic mansions. The humblest persons have it as well as the most refined. On the other hand, a great number of the oldest families are without it. In Germany, 'von' means noble, and all persons belonging to the nobility have 'von' before their family names, without any exception. Persons who do not belong to the nobility cannot put 'von' before their names, as they have no right to do so, and would be found out directly if they assumed it, and make themselves ridiculous. But in case of a man being knighted for some reason or other, he has the right to put 'von' before his family name.

"Among the family names in America, the bearers of which came over from the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, many terminate in 'us.' At that time the only means of correspondence between scientific persons from different countries was in Latin, which became so much the fashion that many people Latinized their names. Families with names such as Stratenus, Mollerus, and Cramerus inform us that the ancestors of these families must have been prominent, educated men.

These would be called people of good family or old family. We may find a person as Hugo DeGroot becoming Hugo Grotius only to revert back again to the DeGroot surname.

"The provinces of the Netherlands are extremely small but each continues to keep its own distinct character. The Province of Friesland has a different language so that other Dutchman have a difficult time in understanding them. Family names in Friesland generally terminate in 'a' as in Van Cysingha, Kingma, Camminga, Van Heemstra, and Postma. Their Christian names are also peculiar and don't lend themselves to easy translation. Men named Sjoust, Jouwert, and Skato and women named Wietkske, Vrouwke, and Tcota are not unusual.

"There are many family names in the Netherlands that belong to individuals far apart in the social scale of life. Van Buren is a very common name in Holland, but there was a family van Buren, now extinct, who were of such high and ancient blood that the late Queen Sophia, when traveling incognito, did so under the name of Countess van Buren. No one is allowed to make any alteration in the family name by adding, deleting, or changing a single letter, or assuming or dropping the predicate 'van'. A special license must be obtained to do so. There can scarcely be a mistake about a name in Holland, whereas the descendants of the Dutch in America may have taken 'van' or dropped it, and may have changed several letters in their names so as to make them unrecognizable to the Dutch ear."

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