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Our Heritge


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The recorded past is available for us to discover. We can define our personal heritage at almost any time convenient for us. However, the recent past and the present are not as easy to discover.

Have you ever wondered why your grandparents treasured a faded photograph, a worn Bible; or why holidays spent with your mother's family were different from those occasions spent with your father's side? Remembering and preserving these memories, customs and traditions all establish a family heritage. Many families have already done the research to preserve their family story. Many do not know how to begin or else believe it is too late to study their past.

Your unique family heritage is what genealogists call "clues to the past." Properly collected and pieced together, these clues can unlock the most interesting adventure you will ever experience. These clues learned from other family members can teach you the story of your origin. Unless we have been especially wise or fortunate, many of our older relatives will have left us before we have gleaned their knowledge of our family's past. And worse, they may have left us with few clues as to their origins.

Who were those people who gave you your family name? Why were some of us given baptismal and confirmation names? Where did names come from? In what part of the world did your namesakes settle? How long did they stay? Where did they go, those who left for other lands? What were they like when they were here? Why did they leave their homeland?

For most of us, the questions we have about our past never get beyond the level of idle curiosity. Not because we are not interested, but where does one begin to look? What documents should one seek? Have spelling changes that ocurred in a name since its origin been brought on by time, by migration, by ignorance or by political expediency?

Few of us have the time or money or skills we believe are needed to trace our family trees. We put it off "until later." So our good intentions often fail to bear fruit - fruit which would be of interest not only to us but to our descendants. Information collected might also be of interest to many others of the same or related surname elsewhere in the world. But the longer we put it off, the more difficult the tracing becomes.

As you read on, allow your memory to recall and associate anything you may have heard a relative say - even the most offhand fragment of information may be found later to fit into the puzzle of reconstructed origins. For beyond a certain point our origins are all shrouded in mystery.

In order to understand both the origins of and any changes which may have occurred in our family name, we must remember that an individual family is always part of a larger group - a tribe, a clan, a people. For most individuals, the most likely place to begin our understanding is in the histories of tribes and the people who preceded us.

  • Ethnic Origin: Danes, Norwegians and Swedes
  • When: 1870-1900
  • Number : c.1 1/2 mil.
  • Motive : poverty and shortage of farmland

Between 1820 and 1986 the US Immigration Service records the entry into the US of almost 52 million people, the greatest numbers from the United Kingdom and Germany. By 1865 immi-gration from those countries had lessened and the greatest numbers in the second half of the 19th century were from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia.

By the turn of the century, conditions endured by passengers on many incoming vessels had improved very little since 1820 when Congress first began attempting to regulate such matters. Most traveled "steerage", literally the lowest decks of a vessel above the actual bilges. The accommo-dations were minimal at best, degrading at worst. In 1908 special agents of the Immigration Commission traveled as passengers to observe firsthand the conditions immigrants and other steerage passengers were subjected to by often uncaring if not downright unscrupulous masters and crews of these ships: hunger, lack of privacy, and generally uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions. Old-type steerage was one of those horrors that have been so often described. Sleeping quarters were large compartments accommodating as many as 300 or more people each. The berths were in two tiers and consisted of an iron framework containing a mattress, a pillow or more often a life preserver as a substitute, and a blanket. The berth, 6 feet long and 2 feet wide, had to accommodate the traveler and all his luggage for a voyage of 7 to 17 days. No place was provided to store or clean eating utensils, which most passengers had to provide for themselves, and food was often sold to the passengers by the steward for his own profit.

Although laws required that washrooms and lavatories be kept in a clean and serviceable condition throughout the voyage, such laws were generally indifferently observed. The wash basins were far too few for the number of people and the rooms in which they were placed were so small as to admit only by crowding as many people as there were basins. The only water available for general washing was cold salt water with one warm water faucet for personal hygiene and cleaning eating utensils. At mealtimes, groups were fed from tin trays, and the food was usually spoiled by being poorly prepared. Bread, potatoes and meat, sometimes old leavings from the first and second class might provide a fair meal, but the preparation and manner of serving the food were unsatisfactory and insufficient.

Not all immigrants were welcome. Several states passed laws prohibiting the importation of any infant, lunatic, deaf, dumb, aged or infirm person who was likely to require support from any county. Penalties were high. Any judge in the state could require bond of $50 for each person brought.

The port of New York was the major port of entry for immi-grants. And until the end of the 19th century, Philadelphia was second largest port of immigration, followed by Balti-more, New Orleans, Boston, Charleston, SC. A few immi-grants came through other ports - even into Sandusky, OH. Between 1870 and 1930 San Francisco was the principal west coast port of entry.


Historically, names have served as a fingerprint of life, perhaps a basic clue to one's personality. Knowledge of naming practices in our ancestral country of origin can help us trace our families back to a village or a place, tell us their occupation, or it can give us an idea about what our ancestors looked like. The story of surnames dates back thousands of years.

The first known people to acquire surnames were the Chinese. They generally have three names. The surname is placed first, then comes the generation name. The given name is last. In early times, Romans had only one name. Later, they changed to three names. As the Roman Empire began to decline, single names again became customary.

During the Middle Ages, people were referred to by a single given name. Then it became popular to add another name. Certain distinct traits were used as part of this practice, such as place of birth, occupation or by the use of the father's name.

It is difficult to pinpoint whether these second names evolved into fixed hereditary surnames. The modern hereditary use of surnames originated among Venetian aristocracy in Italy about the 10th or 11th century. Crusaders took note of this practice and spread its use throughout Europe. The Scandinavian countries, bound by their custom of using the father's name as a second name, didn't begin using family surnames until the 19th century. In nearly every case, surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy landowners, then the practice trickled down to merchants and commoners.

Family names have come down to us in various ways. They may have grown out of a person's surroundings or job, or the name of an ancestor. Most surnames evolved from four general sources:

OCCUPATION: The local house builder, food preparer, grain grinder and suit maker would be named respectively: John Carpenter, John Cook, John Miller and John Taylor. The person who made barrels was called Cooper. The blacksmith was Smith. Every village had its share of families with these names and they weren't necessarily related to people with the same names in the next village.

LOCATION: If John lived over the hill, he became known as John Overhill; if he lived near a stream he was John Brook. Locational surnames ended with -hill, -ford, -wood, -brook, -well, etc. Less known were -ton, -ham, -stead (meaning farm), -don (meaning hill), -bury (a fortification), etc.

PATRONYMIC (father's name): Many of these surnames can be recognized by the termination "son." Some endings used by various countries to indicate "son" are: Armenians -ian; Danes and Norwegians -sen; Finns -nen; Greeks -poulos; Spaniards -ez; Swedes -son; and Poles -wiecz.

CHARACTERISTICS: An unusually small person might be labeled Small, Short, Little or Lytle. A large man might be labeled Longfellow, Large, Long. People having characteristics of a certain animal would be given the animal's name. Examples: a sly person might be named Fox; a good swimmer, Fish; a quiet man, Dove, etc.

Many historians believe that surnames derived from places (locational) were the first to become hereditary. Surnames evolving from nicknames or descriptive traits (character-istic) are also of early origin. Surnames taken from occupations came later, and those of patronymic origin were the last to become hereditary. Even though patronymic names have been in use a long time, they would change with every generation. William's son John became known as John Williamson, while his son would be William Johnson.

Surnames that are the most fun, the most surprising and sometimes even embarrassing are the characteristic names. You cannot always take at face value what names seem to mean, because of changes in word meanings over the centuries. Language changes, carelessness and a high degree of illiteracy (sometimes a man did not know how to spell his name) compounded the number of ways a name might be spelled. Often a town clerk spelled the name the way it sounded to him.


Since the 10th century, Norwegians have traditionally taken a name associated with the family farm. Swedish surnames are of a more recent origin and are generally patronymic. As a matter of interest, there were so many "son" names in Sweden, the government asked for new family names and approved 56,000 new names, making record-keeping a bit easier in Sweden. Some interesting surnames of Norwegian or Swedish origin: Utter (otter), Seaberg (sea, mountain), Hallberg (boulder, mountain).


Although your last name offers you the most substantial clue to your family history, first and middle names can also be valuable in tracing your family tree. First names are called "given" or "Christian" names, because early Christians changed their pagan first names to Christian names at baptism.

Middle names weren't used until the 15th century as a status symbol by German nobility. Many years passed before this practice became widespread, and in the US it didn't become popular until after the Revolutionary War, when the fashion was to use the mother's maiden name.

"We are the children of many sires, and every drop of blood in us in its turn betrays its ancestor."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

June Pelo

(excerpts from Freas Family book)

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