Our 1811 Ancestors and Literacy

The obligation to choose family surnames in 1811 was of significant historical importance in Fryslan. Contrary to most other Dutch provinces, common folk in Fryslan very seldom had surnames. It was more likely that people of higher social standing would have surnames: aristocrats, ministers, local and provincial politicians and office-holders, as well as people of a certain social status living in the cities. Common folk who arrogated to themselves the right to have surnames were regarded as pretentious and were likely to be taken down a notch or two.

In the Bylsma family tree, there is a significant branch which originated in the neighbouring province of Overijssel. When they immigrated to Fryslan in the latter half of the 18th century to exploit the peat resources in the grietenij's of Haskerland, Schoterland and Aengwirden, they followed the practice in their native province of already having surnames. However, when living in Fryslan, it is often noted that their surnames were often not inscribed in church records when baptisms and marriages were registered during the period before 1811.

The Frisian archives (Tresoar) has placed online all records regarding the choice of surnames during the last months of 1811; this also includes scans of the actual documents. As a result, it is possible to view the actual signatures on the records as inscribed by our ancestors as well as to do some interesting analyses.

A total of 35 family names have been analyzed where one would have expected to find records in the Tresoar database. However, it has been possible to find only 27 records. Why the discrepancy? There was significant resistance in Fryslan to the Napoleonic imposition to choose surnames. Eight of our ancestors either refused or neglected to perform their civic duties in 1811. However, even this group did go along with the exercise because subsequently they did use surnames when registering significant events such as births, marriages and deaths with municipal authorities.

What can be discovered regarding the 27 ancestors who did participate? In the great majority of cases, the male head of the family chose a name for himself as well as his children and possibly grand-children. If deceased, the responsibility fell to his widow; for 4 of the 27, the widow assumed this role. For young children whose father had died, the responsibility fell to the child's guardian; only one case applies (Beernt Jans Sietsma).

For the families who had migrated from Overijssel, in most of the cases the choice of family name was simple; the name brought with them from the neighbouring province was retained. In a couple of cases, that of the Cloo and Berger families, other name variants had existed (such as Kloot or Platte). However the following Overijssel origin families retained existing surnames: Bos, de Glee, Kelderhuis, Krikke, Pijlman, Schokker.

For families of native Frisian origin in the Bylsma family tree, there were a couple of family lines where surnames had been used sporadically.  The Sevensma family name had existed back to about 1700, when chosen by a minister related to the family; another family relation with this surname was mayor of the city of Sloten in the 18th century. In the case of the Beuckens name, it was chosen by a family who had not used this name previously; this name was chosen because the family occupied a farm which had previously been owned by an aristocratic family with that name. A similar process happened with the Sjaardema family name: this family occupied a farm which had been owned for centuries by the illustrious Sjaarda aristocratic family, originally from Franeker.

However, for the great majority of Frisian origin family lines, the surnames chosen in 1811 had not been used prior to that date. This observation applies to 24 of the 35 surnames being studied.

There are also some interesting anecdotes concerning certain families. In the case of our van der Meer ancestors, both a mother and her three children chose different family names; the mother who was widowed at this time, Trui Jans Ploegstra, chose the surname Hinkes for her family as well as her three children and grandchildren. However, two of her sons, including our ancestor, Jan Ages van der Meer, chose van der Meer as surname; a daughter Lolkjen, chose the surname Aagsma; of these three surnames only the van der Meer surname survived.

In another case, concerning our Frankema ancestors, a mother and son chose different names. The mother, who was widowed, Sibbeltje Foppes Hornstra, chose the name Hornstra for herself as well as all her children and grandchildren. However, her eldest son, Minne Frankes Frankema chose the name Frankema for himself and his family. The name Frankema was retained for Minne's descendents; however, all of his siblings used the name Hornstra as chosen by their mother.

In the case of the Beukens (Beuckens) family name, the second wife who was widowed in 1811, Wiepkjen Freerks Steiginga, named all of her own children when she chose Beukens as family name. She neglected or forgot to name a daughter from the first marriage, Jantjen Willems, who is our ancestor; however, Jantjen also used the Beuckens family name subsequently!

Another interesting question is to determine whether our ancestors 200 years ago were literate. Literacy was fairly advanced in the Netherlands at that time compared with most other European countries, with some level of compulsory education in most towns and villages. However, literacy was far from universal and it is noted that a significant number of people who went through the exercise of choosing surnames in 1811 were unable to sign their names. Also, males were more likely to be able to read and write as compared with females.

Concerning the 27 ancestors who participated in the 1811 exercise, an astounding 24 (89%) were able to sign their names. This included almost all the males (22 of 23 or 96%); the proportion was lower for females (2 of 4 or 50%). This is all the more remarkable given the low socio-economic status of most of our ancestors: farm labourers, peat diggers, farmers and tradesmen.

The attached spreadsheet provides a breakdown of the 35 family names involved; it includes hyperlinks to the actual scans at Tresoar, where the signatures of our ancestors can be viewed:  spreadsheet link.

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