Q. I’m researching in records from Germany and Luxembourg, and I keep coming across “house names.” What are they and how do they factor into my research?
A. Genealogists often take for granted that men’s surnames are fixed, but you’ve found an exception. A house name, or Hofname (German for farm name), resulted from named parcels of land. When a new family moved onto the farm, they would adopt the parcel name as a surname.
This happened most often when a farm owner’s daughter inherited the land, and her husband took on the farm name. Children born prior to the inheritance were baptized under the father’s original surname, then changed their names later; those born afterward used the farm name from birth.
Author Kenneth L. Smith notes that farm names were common in the border area between Lower Saxony and North Rhine Westphalia. Larry O. Jensen of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library says Hofnamen occasionally were found in other German areas.
Church records may list both the old and new surnames, separated by German words such as oder (or) or genannt (called as), the Latin vulgo (commonly known as) or simply alias. Smith’s German Church Books: Beyond the Basics (Picton Press) explains how to use church records to quell farm-name confusion: Cross-reference confirmations showing children’s new surnames with their baptisms under the old ones. Burial records often list both surnames, along with those variations on “also known as.”
If you seek information on a particular farm name’s origin, you might need a local expert. Many German communities have Web sites and e-mail addresses. Search Google <www.google.com> for the town name, or try using the name plus .de (Germany’s .com equivalent) as the address. For example, to find a site for Udenhain, located in Hesse, type in <www.udenhain.de>.
From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine