Have you ever been talked into playing a game you didn't know the rules of? While others are scheming for the win around you, you helplessly try and keep up, getting either bored (if you don't care) or frustrated (if you do care) as the game progresses.

Such is the case with researching Westfalen records without learning the "rules" of playing the research game for that area. Westfalen, once a Prussian state, marches to the beat of its own drum as far as both naming customs and inheritance patterns. Understanding these nuances will make for a much easier research experience.

Rule #1: Which child inherits the land?
Westfalen is worlds different in this custom from the rest of Germany: Instead of inheritance passing on to the oldest son of a family, it is always passed on to the youngest child in the family (male or female). This fact may not seem a big deal if you are only planning to peruse the vital records (as opposed to land records), but in fact, knowing this helps the researcher muddle through the oft-times confusing naming patterns of the area. Which brings us to...

Rule #2: Acquiring a Surname in Westfalen: The importance of one's farm or Hof
In western society, a surname passes from father to son, down through the generations. However, in this particular area of Germany, the farm (Hof) a person lived on was more important than the name their own father had passed on to them! I came upon this phenomenon with many of my ancestors. An ancestor who was named Joseph Schütte was later listed as Joseph Hilverding in his son's baptism record, and finally as Joseph Stallhans in his daughter's marriage record. In one record, I found the poor man listed as Francisco Casper Joseph Schütte or Hilverding now Stallhans (English translation added—see Rule #3). When you take into account that there was no set spelling to these names--you can imagine the confusion of trying to find a man who has 3 different last names spelled in various ways throughout the years!

Once learned, however, the naming pattern becomes easy to follow. Those who did not inherit their family farm (remember, only the baby of the family gets to inherit!), were forced to search for greener pastures elsewhere. This meant finding a husband or wife who did inherit the family farm. Once married to the inheritor, both men and women took on the new spouse's surname. A period of transition then followed where both last names were listed for an individual, until finally the new last name had been fully and solely attached.

In the case of the ancestor above, Joseph Schütte did not get lucky enough to be the youngest in his family's large brood of children, and thus went in search of a wife. Either due to his father marrying an heir to the Hilverding farm, or Joseph working on the Hilverding farm, he acquired the "aka Hilverding" surname. By age 32 he had met and married a young heiress in a neighboring hamlet named Anna Catherina Röper called Stallhans. You see, Anna was the youngest surviving member of the Röper family who had inherited Stallhans farm. As such, she inherited both the estate AND the surname. Her brother (who she must have been close to as he is a witness to her marriage, multiple children she had, and her death) is listed as Casper Theordore Röper called Stallhans up until Anna inherits the farm. In later records, he is then listed as Casper Röper called Burik.

Understanding the farm name is important in searching out records. All of Joseph and Anna's children are listed in indexes under the surname Stallhans, even though most of them carry the Schütte surname throughout their lives. Anna Catherine Röper was actually listed in her death record as Anna Stallhans, thus finally being fully known as her farm name. How would that record ever be connected to her if attention had not been paid to the Hof she had inherited?

Rule #3 Pay close attention to the German or Latin words used in records!
During my first round with German records, I came across the Hof naming pattern often, but didn't fully understand it. I sought out help from those who spoke German (not from the area), who also didn't fully understand it. It is a system unique to this area, and thus must be learned about from others who have experience researching there. There are numerous German or Latin words used in-between surnames that can give you clues as to what is going on.

Words used to denote the new farm surname are often:
modo; alias; nunc; sive; dicto (Latin)
genannt; colon (German)

Noticing the slight differences in the meanings of these words can help you understand who is inheriting what surname from whom. For example:

In the years after Joseph and Anna's marriage, many children were born. For the first two children, the Latin records list the parents as:
Josepi Hilverding nunc Stallhand or Joseph Hilverding now Stallhans
Anna Catherina Röper dicto Stallhand or Anna Catherine Röper called Stallhans

Noting the slight difference in meaning between the words nunc and dicto helped me figure out that Anna had the original Stallhans farm name, while Joseph had only recently acquired it.

The most important of these words to understand for this region is colon. This word is often interpreted to mean someone who belonged to a colony, or was a hired hand on the farm. Such is not the case in Westfalen. Joseph Schütte colon Stallhans does not mean that he worked on the Stallhans farm--it means he owned the Stallhans farm, despite his ancestry not carrying one drop of Stallhans blood. This is how the naming system worked, and is still even practiced in parts of this area today.

Rule #4 Why are so many parents not married?
Around the early 1800's, I began to notice that some of my ancestors were being listed as illegitimate in their birth records. My immigrant ancestor, Franz Kemper was one of those labeled as such in his birth record. Luckily, his father stepped forward and claimed him, thus not ending the pedigree. In such cases as those of children born to unwed parents, the child takes on the mother's surname, not the father's (though I found Franz listed later in life under his father's surname Cussmann as well, the majority of his life he carried the surnames of his mother--Ebbert or her farm name Kemper).

Illegitimacy, though common, was slightly like a scarlet letter one carried around the rest of his/her life. The word illegitimate was noted in various ways in every vital record of the individual throughout their lives. Certain privileges were taken from those who held illegitimate status--such as voting or owning land. So why, knowing all this, would so many parents of this time period never marry? The answer is that new laws were created that consistantly raised the price of marriage. Many families could simply not afford it. In some areas, one was not allowed to marry until acquiring status in his profession in a guild, which didn't usually happen until a man's 30's. Knowing such circumstances gives the researcher insight as to why so many Germans immigrated to America. It was much to my delight to see ancestors with such restricted societal status in Germany, have themselves listed as "Burgers" in the German obituary notices listed in their American communities. Such would not have been the case had they stayed in Germany.

Though there are many other "rules" to researching in Westfalen, these are 4 of the major ones I have encountered in my own work. Even after reading articles on the subject, I was not able to pick up the distinct patterns of my ancestor's towns until I had taken the time to search their records. Over time, patterns can be seen that may be unique to your area. (For example, the patterns I have seen in Robringhausen are slightly different then the patterns I have found in Westenholz, only 20 miles north of it.)

Hopefully, blogging such information will help others out there be more successful "playing" the research "game". If you have any feedback, or further insight on this subject, please leave a comment!

Much of the information above was acquired from German Research classes I have attended, my own experience, and the following article (which I highly recommend to those serious about researching in this area of Germany):

Dr. Roger P. Minert's article Surname Changes in Northwestern Germany, found in the German Genealogical Digest Spring 2000 (Vol. 16, No. 1). Copy found at FHL, SLC, but copies of this Digest may be available in other libraries as well.

Article originally published 1 April 2011 on bethgenealogy.blogspot.com
2/18/2015 12:35:58 pm

My Ancestors are from the town of Schweicheln near Herford in Westphalen. My ancestors were Colons up until one generation when they became Heuerlings. In that area of Westphalen, it was the custom to have the oldest son inherit the farm (not the youngest child).

9/19/2017 03:33:31 pm

Update from the author: Another Latin word related to this naming system is "cond." short for "conditio" meaning "Also known as; occupation or station in life."


Leave a Reply.