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March 30, 2012

Understanding Patronymics in the New World


by Lorine McGinnis Schulze 

 Author Note: A longer version of this article was originally published on my website at

The Dutch were much slower than the English in adopting surnames as we know them. The most common Dutch naming custom was that of patronymics, or identification of an individual based on the father's name.

For example, Jan Albertszen is named after his father, Albert.   His patronymic Albertszen is formed from his father's first name. Albertszen means son of a man named Albert. The patronymic was formed by adding -se, -sen, or -szen

Daughters would very often have the ending -x or -dr. added. For example, Geesjie Barentsdr. (Barentsdochter) is named after her father Barent.

An individual could also be known by his place of origin. For example, Cornelis Antoniszen Van Slyke, my 9th great- grandfather, was known in some records as 'van Breuckelen', meaning 'from Breuckelen' (Breuckelen being a town in the Netherlands).   
The place-origin name could be a nationality, as in the case of Albert Andriessen from Norway and my 9th great-grandpa, originator of the Bradt and Vanderzee families - he is entered in many records as Albert Andriessen de Noorman, meaning the Norseman.

In New Netherland (present day New York state) patronymics ended theoretically in 1687 under the new English rule. The English found the Dutch system of patronymics confusing and ordered that every family choose a surname, but not everyone followed the new guidelines. The English wanted one family to have one common surname, but the Dutch decided that each individual should establish his own. Thus members of one family often ended up with more than one surname in use.

We often see naming differences over the generations: Albert's sons and daughters took the surname BRADT except for his son Storm, born on the Atlantic Ocean during the family's sailing to the New World. Storm adopted the surname Van Der Zee (from the sea) and this is the name his descendants carry. 

An individual might be known by a personal characteristic: e.g. Vrooman means a pious or wise man;Krom means bent or crippled; De Witt means the white one. The most fascinating one I've seen is that of Pieter Adrianszen (Peter, s/o Adrian) who was given the nickname of Soo Gemackelyck (so easy-going) but was also known as Pieter Van Waggelen/Van Woggelum - his children adopted the surnames Mackelyck and Woglom

Sometimes an occupation became the surname. Smit=Smith; Schenck= cupbearer, Metsalaer= mason. An individual might be known by many different 'surnames' and entered in official records under these different names, making research difficult unless you're aware of the names in use. For example, my ancestor Cornelis Antoniszen Van Slyke mentioned above, was known and written of under the following names:

  • Cornelis Antoniszen
  • Cornelis Teuniszen (Teunis being the diminuitive of Antony)
  • Cornelis Antoniszen/Teuniszen van Breuckelen
  • Cornelis Antoniszen/Teuniszen Van Slicht (this is how he signed his name and might have been a hereditary family name based on an old place of origin)
  • Broer Cornelis (name given him by Mohawks)
Remember that there were tremendous variations in spelling of these names, and changes from Dutch to to English record keeping in the New World affected the spelling even more. If you are searching for an ancestor in early New Netherland you will need to keep this in mind and note variations carefully for they can be clues to further research.


Peter said...

Lorine, this is a very useful post for people interested in Dutch naming practices!
May I add a little nuance to your statement that the Dutch were slower than the English in this respect? Dutch surnames became mandatory in 1811 when the French, occupying Holland, imposed the Code Civil (civil law) upon the Dutch. However, many Dutchmen did have a surname long before. The other day I happened to write a blog post ( in which a list of 57 (sur)names is shown. Many names belong to people born well before 1811. Their families go back even further. This list shows only a few patronymics.
But I agree, English rule was much earlier than the "Dutch" one. Still, many Johnsons survived English law...

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Peter, thanks for adding the note about mandatory surnames and that indeed many Dutch had established surnames long before 1667

I did have those facts in a second article published on my website but neglected to add them to this one!

Glad you reminded me and our readers.

I have Dutch ancestors who had established surnames before it was law, and as well they used a patronymic at times.

One of the articles I had published in NYGBR contains info on an individual who had TWO patronymics - one from his father and one from his grandfather. FUN!!

it's really a fun and challenging time period to search in!