German · Methodology · Surname Changes

German Surname Changes

Some historic regions in northwest Germany have a custom of surname changes. If you research in the historical regions of Hanover, Westphalia, Oldenburg, or Lippe it will be helpful to be aware of this custom. Farms of a certain status carried a surname and people who managed those farms used that surname. The right to manage these farms was passed to the next generation. In cases where a woman was in line to inherit, her husband would need to change his surname to hers.

I had the wonderful opportunity to talk with Ursula C. Krause on her German Genealogy Girl’s Podcast recently. This was the main topic of conversation. You won’t want to miss hearing this if you do research in Northwest Germany.

My Höddinghaus Family came from Delbrück, which is in the modern German state North Rhine-Westphalia. The Höddinghaus Farm has been in the family since at least 1446. I visited that farm in 2016 and it was such a treat. Here are two photographs of the farm that were taken by family members there.

Hoedinghaus Farm

This is the old farm house where the family believes by great great grandmother, Angela (Höddinghaus) (Steren) Heinecke was born.

Höddinghaus Stable

This entrance to the stable remains in use today. The writing above the door dates from 1748.


This is Angela Höddinghaus with her second husband, Christian Heinecke, and their daughter, Mary Theresa, circa 1881–1883. The photograph was taken in Quincy, Adams County, Illinois. Incidentally, I descend from Angela’s first marriage to Clemen Steren.

The podcast explains the main ideas behind the surname change custom on northwest Germany. Sometimes name changes will be hinted at in church records where you will see a man listed with two surnames, possibly with one of these words between them:

  • genannt
  • alias
  • conditio
  • modo
  • natus
  • nunc
  • vulgo

Some of these areas use the practice of ultimogeniture, where the youngest inherits the farm. While this might be different from the way we think, it makes sense. If a man had ten children, for example, he would not want to pass the farm to his oldest son as that son came of age. The father would lose his ability to support younger members of his family. When the youngest son comes of age, the father would be ready to retire, in theory. He would have no more children to support.

Some of the terms that I talk about in the podcast might be easier to see in writing. There are a few others included here, too.

  • Bardenhauer – a quarter-sized farm (also called Viertelmeier, Viertelmeyer)
  • Colon – the farmer on a full-sized farm (i.e., a Vollerbe, Vollmeier, Vollmeyer)
  • Erbkötter – a cottager with inheritable rights (also called Kötter)
  • Freikauf – a payment made to the Gutsherr when a person is marrying onto a farm under control of a different Gutsherr.
  • Gutsherr (or Grundherr) – a local noble or other owner of the land on which a farm existed. The Gutsherr was subject to the Landesherr.
  • Gütergemeinschaft – conjugal fund established by the farmer upon his/her marriage.
  • Halberbe, Halbmeier, Halbmeyer – a half-sized farm
  • Heuerling – literally, a hireling. One with no land rights who leased house and land from a larger farm in exchange for labor. Labor was performed by both husband and wife and possibly the children. Heuerleute were people of the Heuerling They had no inheritable rights to pass on to their children.
  • Hof – a farm or estate that must be passed to the heir in totality (impartible inheritance). Plural form is Höfe.
  • impartible inheritance – system of inheritance where an individual’s land holdings must be passed to one heir.
  • Landesherr – the ruler of the overall principality or duchy.
  • Leibzucht –the portion of the farm where the retired farmer lived after the next generation took over. The retired farmer was a Leibzuchter.
  • Mahljahre contract – specified how long a newly married couple would run the farm before the heir took over. These were created in situations where the heir was the offspring from a prior marriage.
  • Mark – common lands in or near a village
  • Markkötter – a cottager whose land was carved out from the common lands (Mark). These types of farms were established later in time than the Voll- and Halbmeyer
  • primogeniture – inheritance practice where the oldest inherits the estate
  • Stand – one’s occupation and position in the social hierarchy.
  • Sterbegeld – literally “death money.” Money paid to the Gutsherr upon the death of the farm “owner.”
  • ultimogeniture – inheritance practice where the youngest inherits the estate
  • Viertelmeier, Viertelmeyer – a farm that is a quarter of the size of a full-size farm
  • Vollerbe, Vollmeier, Vollmeyer – a full-size farm
  • Weinkauf – a fee paid to the Gutsherr by the spouse marrying on to a farm
  • Winnkötter – similar to a Markkötter who paid annual dues to the church
  • Zulägerer – a one-eighth-sized farm (also called Achtelmeier, Achtelmeyer)

Further reading

There is little literature in the English language about German surname changes. One of the best articles I read, by Roger Minert, appeared in the now defunct German Genealogical Digest. Other resources include:

Blum, Jerome. The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978. While it does not address surname changes, this book gives great social context to rural life and peasantry in Europe. It contains an extensive bibliography.

Henning, Friedrich-Wilhelm. Bauernwirtschaft und Bauerneinkommen im Fürstentum Paderborn im 18. Jahrhundert. Berlin: Duncker & Humboldt, 1970.

Haines, Rosalie Horstman, Ph.D., “The Youngest Sons: Ultimogeniture and Family Structure Among German Farmers in Eastern Westphalia, 1680-1980.” Dissertation. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Bryn Mawr College, 1990. Though the focus of this dissertation is ultimogeniture, it overlaps in time period and geography of the areas where surname changes took place. It directly discusses the inheritance practices used. Copies may be ordered at

Minert, Roger P. Gerhard Henrich Meinert: His Ancestors and His Descendants. Woods Cross, Utah: GRT Publications, c2000.

Minert, Roger P. “Surname Changes in Northwestern Germany.” German Genealogical Digest 16 (Spring 2000): 6-17.

Robisheaux, Thomas. Rural Society and the Search for Order in Early Modern Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. The geographic focus of this book is in southwestern Germany. However, it aids the researcher in understanding issues of inheritance and lord-peasant relationships in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Smith, Kenneth L. German Church Books-Beyond the Basics. Rockport, Maine: Picton Press. 1999. Smith discusses surname changes of males and suggests a methodology for tracing the members of families impacted by farm naming practices.

Thörner, Udo. Venne in America. Osnabrück: Arbeitskreis Familienforschung Osnabrück. 2008. This social history contains a good historical background of the nineteenth century farm life in a region impacted by surname changes.

I hope you have found this helpful for your research. Happy Hunting!

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