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Because of a shortage of early records, researching a family line can be a tasking experience. But, what if your ancestors were in the habit of changing surnames with each generation?

Genealogists researching Dutch family lines often run into such difficulties arising from the old Dutch custom of Patronymics. Simply put, Patronymics is a system used to surname children, giving them their fathers first name, followed by a suffix(i.e. s, se, sen for boys, sd and sdr for girls), as their last name. As an example:

Begin with Matthys Jansen Van Keulen. His father was Jan, hence the surname Jansen. His sons were:

1. Jan Matthysen

2. Matthys Matthysen

sen suffix…Matthysen = Son of Matthys

Often girls also had suffixes added to their fathers name, commonly x or dr

Mathys daughter Annatje would then be Annetje Matthysdr(Matthysdochter)

In 1674, New Netherland was ceded to the British by treaty, and renamed New York. The British recordkeepers quickly became frustrated by the practice of patronymics and the difficulties it created for the government. Consequently, the practice was discouraged and the Dutch under British rule were encouraged to settle into true surnames that could be passed generation to generation. Even then it took several generations to get surnames ‘set in stone’, so to speak. During this period, name variations were common. In my line, a surname that began as Van Keulen became Van Keuren and Van Kuren, down to the one I use - Van Curen.

The absolute end of the practice of Dutch Patronymics in Europe came in 1811, during the Napoleonic era, as everyone were required to select and register a family name.

Another form of surname that emerged from the old Dutch naming system was the Location/Occupation portion of their name. Followed by a prefix (i.e. Van, or De) this would identify where he was from, or what he did for a living. Matthys Jansen Van Keulen, translated, means: Matthys, Jan’s son, of Cologne.

The name could also have a ‘de’ followed by an occupational reference, i.e. Petrus Jakobsen the blacksmith could be Petrus Jakobsen de Smit. His heirs may have carried the deSmit as their surname, or just Smit/Smith. Many families settled on the last patronymic of their line, and from them come surnames such as Matthyssen, Jansen, Johnson, Dirksen, etc.

Further complicating researchers is the fact that one individual might be found in different records, using different names. Take hypothetical Petrus Jakobsen, the blacksmith from Cologne: He could be found in one record as Petrus Jakobsen deSmit, in another as Petrus Jakobsen Van Ceulen, or simply Petrus Jakobsen.

Spellings were also subject to change. Petrus could be Pieter, or Peter, and Jakobsen could become Jacobsen, or Jacobs. In researching my family, many who were born and baptised Van Keuren, lived and died as Van Curens. I’ve spent countless hours chasing dead ends, when all that was required was a minor spelling change to get results.

Finally, Old Dutch naming customs provide a clue as to their ancestors. Under Patronymics, the two eldest sons were normally named after the grandfathers, paternal grandfather first, unless the maternal one had some distinctive social quality. The two eldest daughters were named for their grandmothers, same basic rule. When a child died, generally they gave the next child of the same sex that name, to honor the deceased child. It was common to see Dutch families with 'repeating' child names. One noted esception encountered to the normal naming patterns of the early Dutch: In a case where an individual outside the family had done something outstanding that benefitted the family(i.e. saved a life, helped financially in needy times, etc.), a child might be named to honor that person. Example: Sylvester Van Keuren had a son named Jasper Writer Van Keuren. For years this name perplexed family researchers, as neither Jasper, nor Writer appeared anywhere in the family line. Then an article was discovered talking about a close friend of the family...Dr. Jasper Writer.

Another naming practice "of Honor", involves giving a girl a feminized male name. Example: A father named Garret might name his daughter Garretje, for himself, or Pieterje, to honor his brother Pieter. It was somewhat rare for a father to name a son after himself, but where such did occur, it was never the first born sons. Before he could name a son after himself, he would have to honor both grandparents. If he were lucky enough to have 4 or more sons, he might name one after himself.