Family Surnames

The four significant surnames in the Bylsma family tree derive from the four grandparents. Surnames were not commonly used in Fryslân until very recently. For most people, names were composed of a given name and a patronymic, which referred to the name of the person's father. Until 1811, our direct paternal ancestor was called Meindert Cornelis, or Meindert, son of Cornelis. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Netherlands was under the occupation of the French Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1811, Napoleon imposed a law whereby everyone was obliged to choose a family name. Notwithstanding a great deal of opposition in Fryslân, most Frisians eventually went through the exercise and chose surnames which they registered with municipal officials. Sometimes the source of the choice of surname is obvious but in many cases it remained quite obscure. With one exception, it appears that the names chosen by the ancestors of our four grandparents appeared for the first time in 1811; the only exception derived from non-Frisian origins. Who were our four significant ancestors in 1811?


Meindert Cornelis, our Bijlsma ancestor, was born in the seaport city of Lemmer in southern Fryslân on March 3, 1754. His parents were Cornelis Allerts and Antje Meinderts; they had been married in the northern city of Dokkum in 1753. His father had enjoyed the privileges of citizenship of that city. His father's profession, like that of his grandfather, was as butcher. The family does not appear to have remained long in Lemmer. By the early 1760's, they were living in the city of Workum, where his mother made profession of faith in 1762.

In 1780, Meindert Cornelis had moved again to the city of Makkum; in that year , he married Maaike Botes in Makkum; she appears to have been born in the northern Frisian village of Sint Anna Parochie and was living in Franeker at the time of marriage. Ten children were born to the couple between 1781 and 1800, of whom only 4 appear to have survived to adulthood: Baukje born in 1781, Antje, born in 1789, Bote, born in 1791, and our ancestor, Cornelis, born in 1797. His wife died in 1800 in Makkum. It is likely that Meindert Cornelis continued in the family tradition as butcher; however, at his son's marriage, his profession was determined to be that of 'beardshaver or barber';  at the birth of his youngest sons, his occupation is identified as wigmaker (‘paruike maker’).

In 1811, in response to the Napoleonic decree, Meindert Cornelis chose the family name of Bijlsma to honour the family profession of butcher. The word ‘bijl’ translates as axe which was a common work tool used by butchers and carpenters in this era. He also passed this name on to the two surviving children who were still living at home at that time: Bote and Cornelis, born in 1791 and 1797. It is unclear why Meindert Cornelis did not declare two surviving older daughters when he chose the family surname in 1811. His eldest daughter, Baukjen, born in 1781, was married and living in Midlum near Harlingen at the time; another daughter, Antje, had just recently been married in Workum.

He was later living common law in Makkum with a much younger woman, Jeltje Pieters Hemstra, who had been born in about 1780. Three children, two named Pieter and another unknown child, were the product of this union which was never formalized in marriage.

Meindert Cornelis Bijlsma died in Makkum on October 18, 1817. The death certificate gives his age at death as 57; however, he would actually have been 63 years of age at the time of death since he was born in 1754. It appears likely that Meindert Cornelis misrepresented his age to his partner Jeltje, given the great difference in age. He likely shaved 6 years off his age to not appear too old for Jeltje! At the time of death, four children are declared, his two surviving sons with Maaike as well as the two children with Jeltje.

It is from his youngest surviving son, Cornelis Meinderts Bijlsma, that the family name was passed on the later generations. He apprenticed as blacksmith and started the family tradition in this trade which lasted at least four generations until the middle of the 20th century. Much of the information about his father Meindert Cornelis and his ancestry can be gleaned from the marriage certificate in 1823 between him and his bride Fijtje Gabes Kuindersma in the 'grietenij' of Baarderadeel.


Tjebbe Watzes, our Dijkstra ancestor, was born in 1762 in the ‘grietenij’ of Doniawerstal, specifically in a neighbourhood called Scharren, which was part of the rural village of Nijega (currently called Ouwsternijega) to the south of Joure;  this would be in the area where the village of Scharsterbrug is now located. His father appears to have been a well-off farmer there; previously, he was listed on tax registers in 1749 as a prosperous groatsmaker (miller) in Heerenveen.

He may have been a labourer in Scharren in 1787 when he married Baukje Sjoerds in Joure on March 3, 1787. Since both were Mennonites, they were married in that church in Joure; however because marriages in the Mennonite church were not regarded as legal at this time, a second marriage also took place in the Hervormde church in Ouwsterhaule. On September 1, 1787, both he and his wife received adult baptism in the Mennonite church in Joure.

Baukje Sjoerds was the daughter of a prosperous farmer in the village of Broek near Joure; her father, Sjoerd Siebes, had died previous to their marriage and his farm was jointly owned by his three children Baukje and her siblings Siebe and Durk. Tjebbe Watzes Dijkstra became a tenant farmer on his deceased father in law’s farm and paid rent to his wife and her brothers. They had four children: Tetje (or Fettje), born in 1790, Watze born in 1793 and Jeltje born in 1796, as well as an unknown fourth child. Baukje Sjoerds died in Broek on December 26, 1801.

Tjebbe Watzes Dijkstra was re-married on April 11, 1802, in Joure, with Jitske Fokkes; this marriage was also before the Mennonite church in Joure followed by a marriage in the Hervormde Church in Ouwsterhaule. She was not of Mennonite ancestry and came from a family resident in Sneek; she had also previously been married but appears to have been divorced. From this second marriage, four children were born: Hinke, born in 1803, Hette, born in 1805, Fokke, born in 1809, and Hylke, born in 1812.

In 1811, he chose the name Dijkstra as family name when everyone was obliged to choose a surname; the name derives from dijk (dyke) indicating that his farm was located on a dyke. It is possible that the name already existed prior to this date; it is significant that Tjebbe's siblings also chose this name at the same time. He appears to have prospered as a farmer. On August 2, 1812, he lent a considerable amount of money to his brother-in-law, the butcher in Joure, Yede Fokkes Yedema, the brother of his wife Jitske Fokkes. On May 31, 1813, he bought a farm building and land in Broek. By 1818, he had become the owner of his farm; his daughter Jeltje later claimed that he bought the farm, which had belonged to his first wife, with a keg of beer but the circumstances are unclear. He died in Haskerland on March 31, 1820, at the relatively young age of 58.

It is unclear who operated the farms immediately after their father’s death. The oldest son from the first marriage, Watze, avoided the draft under Napoleon by paying Jan Barts Boelens, a carpenter's apprentice from Sneek, to replace him in 1813. Watze died soon after this in 1814. The oldest daughter, Fettje, had married Jan Ages Bouma in 1814, but no children were born to this couple. They operated a farm in Broek, which was part of the property which had been owned by Tjebbe Watzes. The second daughter from the first marriage, Jeltje, had married Jacob Hepkema in 1817 and was now living in Dijken. Jacob Hepkema was the richest farmer in the ‘grietenij’ of Doniawerstal and also acted on behalf of the ‘grietman’ (mayor) of the ‘grietenij’.

By 1822, it is clear that there were a number of major unresolved problems regarding division of the property following death. The parties involved in the issues were the widow, Jitske Fokkes, and the ward , Jan Jans Rinke, ("voogd") of her four minor children on the one hand, and the two older daughters from the first marriage, Fettje and Jeltje, and their husbands on the other hand. In this resolution of these problems, the interests of the minor children was also represented by Jitske Fokke's three brothers in law: Jan Watzes Dijkstra, brother of her husband and Sijtze Geeukes van der Veen and Sjouke Eesges Boonstra, both married to sisters of her husband, as well as by her own brother, Yede Fokkes Yedema and further male relatives. It should be mentioned that women were considered as less than fully responsible for themselves; all of the women involved were supported ('gesterkt') by their male relatives!

There are three notarized documents prepared between May 13, 1822, and March 1, 1824, which resolved the issues concerning Tjebbe Watzes's legacy. Initially, it appears that Jitske Fokkes was living in the town on Joure and not on the farm in Broek. Among the facts clarified by the documents are the following: the first marriage with Baukje Sjoerds was under the regime of separation of assets and joint responsibility for debts which signified that her daughters inherited her property but were partly responsible for the joint debts; in addition, Tjebbe Watzes had signed a will in 1804, which was found in his possessions following his death; this will left his possessions upon his death to his second wife, Jitske Fokkes, including responsibility for the part belonging to his elder children; the older daughters were obliged to pay a sum of money to their stepmother as part of the disposition; in addition, a significant amount of the property held by Tjebbe Watzes was given to his widow and the younger children; some of the property was sold such that the older sisters were able to pay their stepmother the amount owing; prior to his death, Tjebbe Watzes appears to have owned approximately 12 lots in the area of Broek; in terms of the final division of property, the older sisters received properties of a value of more than 19 'floreen', while Jitkse Fokkes and the four younger children received properties worth more than 23 'floreen'.

As a result of the decisions, all of the children excluding Jeltje were likely able to establish themselves as farmers on parts of the properties left by their father in Broek. Jeltje lived on the rented property of her husband in Dijken and likely rented out her part. It was noted in the diary of Jeltje's grandson that a property in Broek was still being rented to descendents of the Dijkstra family by 1890. The younger sister Hinke and her husband and another younger son, Fokke, operated their own farms. Tjebbe Watze’s widow, Jitske Fokkes died on January 15, 1850, in Broek, aged 80. Hette died soon afterwards on June 8, 1851, and his widow continued to operate his farm.

At this point, the oldest sister Fettje died in Broek on December 26, 1851, aged 61. She and her husband had remained childless. In her will, which had been drawn up in 1842, she left her property including her share in the family farm to her husband, Jan Ages Bouma, her surviving full sister, Jeltje, and her husband Jacob Hepkema. Fettje's husband died within a year of his wife. This led to another major family legal confrontation. The widow of Hette, Maaike Annes Walma, initiated a legal action to contest Fettje's will which had left only small amounts of money to the children of Hette and Maaike. The surviving half sister and brothers joined in the legal action which claimed that Fettje was not of sound mind when she made her will. It appears from the documents that Jacob Hepkema was making the decisions fully for his wife Jeltje, on whose behalf he is acting ('voogd'). It is likely that the differences between 1822 and 1824 had not been forgotten. It also appears likely that Jacob Hepkema, as a significant citizen of the 'grietenij' of Doniawerstal, may have been able to convince his sister in law, Fettje, to make the will in the manner that she did.

After a significant legal battle, a settlement was finally reached whereby Jeltje and Jacob Hepkema would pay a total of 3000 guilders to the four half siblings’ families. The family of Fettje's husband appears to have dropped any claim against the property. Apparently, peace was never really restored with the youngest brother, Hylke, who continued to insult his brother in law, Jacob Hepkema. According to the Hepkema family diary, Hylke declared: "When Jacob Hepkes dies, I will wear a red scarf", that is, he would celebrate. Hylke apparently never farmed in Broek; he was a farmer in Wijckel who lost his farm in a fire and his numerous children apparently also did not prosper.

However, as a result of the settlement, Jacob Hepkema and his wife Jeltje were obliged to sell part of their holdings to make the agreed-upon payments to their half-siblings. Our forefather Fokke Tjebbes Dijkstra continued to operate the farm until his death in 1860 and his farm was then taken over first by his oldest son Klaas and later by his second son Tjebbe. This farm was located at 5 It Sud in Broek; the family finally lost the farm in the 1880's during poor economic times. The original farm building burned to the ground in 1943.

The Hepkema family became even more prominent over the years. Jeltje's second son Tjebbe owned a number of properties in Oudeschoot, which he was obliged to sell in January, 1863, following the death of his wife. Following this, Jacob Hepkema obtained legal authorization to have Tjebbe committed to a mental hospital in Franeker in September, 1863. Jeltje raised her three grandsons, the sons of Tjebbe, including Jacob Tjebbes Hepkema, who became owner and editor of the former well-known Heerenveen newspaper, the Nieuwsblad van Friesland, or commonly referred to as De Hepkema.

 Jacob Tjebbes Hepkema wrote a family diary which details the Hepkema family's attitudes towards the Dijkstra family; he also kept copies of all the legal transactions involved in the disputes described above.


Berend Harmens, our Berger ancestor, was unique among the four ancestors involved with choosing surnames for two reasons: he was not born in Fryslân and the surname had already existed for a couple of generations.

The Berger family origins lie in the neighbouring province of Overijssel. What characterizes this family primarily is the occupation of peat digging for fuel. Large sectors of the south and east of Fryslân had huge deposits of peat resulting from millenia of swamp growth which decomposed and sank to the bottom; this area of the province was called the ‘veen’ district (Dutch word for peat). After the development of dykes and polders (dry land behind the dykes), these areas were much less susceptible to flooding and could be opened for peat extraction.

Peat was extracted by various means and allowed to dry in the form of bricks; these bricks were then used as fuel for heating and cooking. The Dutch term for these bricks was ‘turf’, which will be used in this text. Until about 1760, turf extraction took place in a quite primitive fashion in Fryslân; the most easily accessible turf was removed and then the land was abandoned.

Meanwhile in the north of Overijssel, in a similar ‘veen’ district, and primarily around the city of Giethoorn, turf-extraction had been developed to a much more intensive level. By the 1750's, peat was becoming scarcer there and people involved in the business began to look for new areas to develop. They found readily accessible supplies in the neighbouring province of Fryslân and began to import the ‘Gieterse’ method there. A series of natural setbacks in the 'veen' region in Fryslân also made possible the emigration of workers from Giethoorn: a number of disastrous floods occurred during the mid to latter part of the 18th century; in addition , cattle diseases led to decimation of cattle herds. As a result, many farmsteads were abandoned and could be cheaply acquired by the Giethoorn veen bosses.

By the late 1760’s, various family names which crop up in the Berger family tree were already in Fryslan in the 'veen' districts: Schokker, Cloo, Kelderhuis and Berger. The first areas in which they settled were the municipalities of Haskerland (villages of Oudehaske and Nijehaske) and Schoterland (villages of St. Johannesga, Rohel and Rottum).

The Gieterse method involved extraction of a peat slurry from underwater, allowing it to dry in one compact mass, cutting it into bricks and allowing it to dry further and then assembling it for shipment in large tents. There was considerable work specialization involved as the operations became larger. By the late 18th and early 19th century, many ‘rijke veenbaazen’ (rich veen bosses) had a large number of employees working for them, who lived in quite poor conditions, being obliged to buy from their stores. The turf was shipped via canals to cities in Fryslân and across the Zuider Zee into the cities of Holland. In Leeuwarden, the Friese Museum is located on a street is called the Turfmarkt; in other words where the turfs were unloaded from barges and sold.

People in Overijssel traditionally spoke a dialect of Dutch. The Gietersen brought their dialect to Fryslan. Many continued to speak this dialect for generations. Frisians often referred to the language spoken by the Gietersen as ‘krom’ or crooked, which also reflected their attitude toward the newcomers! Many people with family backgrounds from Overijssel continued to speak ‘krom’ for generations. On the other hand, most of the people in the Berger family tree intermarried at a quite early stage with Frisians and appear to have adopted the Frisian language quite early.

Our ancestor, Berend Harmens, was born in 1770 in Steenwijk in Overijssel, the eldest son of Harmen Berends Platte and Klaasje Harmens Zwier, who had been married the previous year. His grandfather had already used the surname of Berger, while his father seems to have the name Platte until 1772 and, after this date, Berger. Harmen Berends Platte/Berger, who had been born in 1737 in Giethoorn, came as a pioneer to Oudehaske in Fryslân in 1769 to work in the peat industry. Harmen continued in this business on various lots in Oudehaske until his death in about 1785, leaving behind him three children, two of whom had been born in Fryslan.

His eldest son, Berend Harmens continued in the peat-digging industry with his widowed mother until she remarried in 1788. It is likely that after that date he worked as a labourer in this industry. By 1801, he was running his own peat digging business in St. Johannesga. From this date on, there are various property transactions recorded whereby he was buying land for peat-digging and assuming mortgages for this purpose.

In 1805, at age 35, he married in St. Johannesga with Geertjen Jans de Glee, whose father was also of origin from Giethoorn and whose mother was descended from wealthy Frisian farmers in St. Johannesga. The couple had eight children, including our forefather, Gerrit Berger, born in 1814.

In 1811, he made the decision to choose Berger as family surname;  however, in his case, the name had been in the family for at least 3 generations. The origins of the name remain unclear; 'berg' means hill or mountain in Dutch but it is uncertain if this has any significance. He also assumed this name for the two first sons who had been born by this point. Only one other family head chose Berger as surname in 1811, a cousin who had also immigrated from Giethoorn. He continued in the family business of peat digging in the villages of St. Johannesga and nearby Rottum.

In 1825, a major disaster struck him as well as large areas of the Netherlands. A major flood occurred during a winter storm in February, 1825, which led to the total destruction of his piled up peat ("turf") which was stored in a large tent. As a consequence, he was totally ruined and he was reduced to working as a labourer in the industry. It likely also had the effect of leading to his early death in November of that year, at an age of 55.

His children appeared to have struggled during succeeding years. The occupation of some was as labourer. His son and our forefather, Gerrit Berger, appears to have been a farm labourer in various parts of Fryslân during his lifetime; his children were born in various localities;  however, he did become a farmer during part of the 1850's. The family's lack of prosperity was in large part due to the aftermath, in the area, of the disastrous flood of 1825.

Van der Meer

Less is known about the ancestor who chose this surname in comparison with the other three. Jan Ages was born in Harich in the 'grietenij' of Gaasterland in 1768. His father, Age Johannes, was a farmer in this village. In 1797, he married with Jantjen Willems Beuckens in Sondel; she was the daughter of a farmer in this village. Seven children were born to this couple, including our direct ancester, Age Jans van der Meer.

After marriage, the family initially lived in Sondel where the first children were born. However, by 1811, the family was living in Wijckel. It is possible that the family was living adjacent to the Slotermeer (lake) which borders the village of Wijckel. This appears the likely explanation for the choice of surname in 1811 ('meer' means lake in Dutch).  What is curious is that Jan's widowed mother chose the family name of Hinkes for the family in 1811, while her two sons chose the name van der Meer, while her surviving daughter chose the name Aagsma.

It appears likely that the family were farm labourers. By 1814, when their youngest child was born, they were living in the nearby town of Sloten. At the time of death in 1827, Jan Ages van der Meer was living somewhere in Gaasterland. Their children lived in various locations in south-west Fryslân, including the 'grietenij's' of Gaasterland, Lemsterland and Hemelumer Oldefert.  Our direct ancestor, the oldest child, Age Jans van der Meer who had been born in Sondel in 1798, eventually lived and died in Wijckel in 1874, which is where our grandmother Reinschje van der Meer also originated from.

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