Week 15:  How Do You Spell That?

Some records have Anglicized my 8th great-grandfather’s name as “Richard John Workman.” That was never his name, so far as I know..

I have Dutch ancestors who lived in New Amsterdam in the 17th century.

That is all.  That is my essay for this week.

Me, walking away while whistling

What? You want to know more?  Glad you asked.

Here are a few of the names from my family tree who lived in New Amsterdam in the 17th century. 

Jan Jantze Woertman             

Marrietje Teunis Denyse                   

Teunice Nyssen

Femmetje Seals                      

Anna Maria Andriessen                     

Tryntye Wybrantz

Pieter Claesen Wyckoff         

Grietje Cornelis VanNess                  

Sara Pieterse Montfoort

Williamtje Jansen Schenck    

Marie Catherine Deveaux Jung         

Simon Janz van Arsdalen

Gertie VanDerVliet               

Pieterje Claessen Vanschouwen

Mayke Gybertse Gerrets Maycke Hendricks vanderBurchgraeff (swear to God!)

I haven’t included all the various spellings of these names. If you just insert random capitalizations, spaces, and combinations of consonants, you’ll get an idea of how these names have appeared over the years.  Now just imagine how people of varying degrees of literacy spelled names that in many cases they were hearing but not seeing in writing.  Then imagine how genealogists over the years have “corrected” the spelling to accord with what they thought was right. 


I have a friend who was born and raised in Amsterdam, so I consulted with her about what spellings were “right” – or at least consistent with the way Dutch names were generally constructed and spelled.  She was able to help me a little, but I still have A LOT of questions.

I have learned about the Dutch patronymic naming system (that’s when the children’s names take a variation of  their father’s name as a surname).  Here’s an example. 

  • My 10th great-grandfather’s name was Pieter Claessen (his father’s name was Claes).
  • Pieter’s son as Cornelius Pieterse. 
  • Cornelius’s son was Simon Cornelise.  And so forth. 

This system can be very useful when you’re trying to connect generations in a family tree.  The son’s patronymic provides a pretty solid clue about his father’s first name.

But then I had to learn about how the English required the residents of New Amsterdam to adopt permanent surnames when they took over the colony in 1660.  My Dutch ancestors gradually adopted random surnames – which sometimes were just the Anglicized spelling of their most recent Dutch surname, but also sometimes were nearby geographic features.  The men mentioned in the bullet points above adopted the surname Wijkhoff (later modified to Wycoff), which was passed down through the generations.  Nobody has been able to figure out where they got the name Wijkhoff (or Wycoff). 

Researchers sometimes “back-correct” the surnames by adding Wyckoff to people who lived before the surname change occurred.  For example, Pieter Claessen is often identified on people’s trees with the surname Wyckoff for events that happened before the family adopted the Wyckoff surname – his birth in 1620, his 1636 arrival in New Amsterdam, and the birth of 11 of his 16 children.

And everyone spells everything differently.   There’s a whole field of study in genealogy dedicated to understanding Dutch surnames and tracking their various spellings over the centuries. 

How do you spell that?  Heck if I know.

Author: iseekdeadpeopleblog

I am a retired high school history and government teacher. I've been doing genealogy research since I retired in 2012. I define what I do as "constructing a plausible narrative about the past." I don't claim to know everything about the ancestors whose stories I tell, but I try to imagine myself in their lives. I sometimes call it "creative non-fiction." I try to differentiate between what I know for sure and what I "think" I know.

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