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ON THE SCENE: What’s in a name?

Family traces Wikoff name to early Wyckoffs

October 20, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Our family, by that I mean our larger family, has been spelling our family name Wyckoff since the arrival of our common ancestor Pieter Claeson Wyckoff.

There are variations on the spelling, Wikoff being one of 59 at last count. Why so many variations? In our case because my grandfather's good friend was Godfrey Dewey who convinced him he should use the simplified spelling method advocated by his dad Melvil, such as Adirondak Loj instead of Adirondack Lodge.

Some of the variations were established by government agencies when they had too many Wyckoffs in a village with the same and first and last name. Pieter Claeson Wyckoff had six sons: Nicholas, Cornelius, Hendrick, Garret, Marten and Jan. As it was custom to name one's oldest son after oneself, you can imagine that that a community with several Wyckoffs all with similar first and last names could give the courts, tax collectors and post office fits. Alternatives were created to help delineate one Wyckoff from another; thus, spellings such as Wycoff, Wieckoff, Wykof, Wycuff, and so on.

Article Photos

The Wyckoffs at Sunnyside
(Photo provided)

Pieter arrived in America in 1637 as a 12-year-old indentured servant to the Rensselaers, the Patroon of a large land holding across the Hudson River from Fort Orange, present-day Albany. The assumption is that Pieter was an orphan. Possibly his parents died in the plague, though there were certainly many alternatives to an early death back in the mid-17th century.

After the required seven years of labor to pay off his travel, Pieter did well marrying into the prominent Van Ness family of Fort Orange (Albany). Eventually, he and his wife Grietje moved downriver to Nieuw Amersfoort (the now Flatlands section of Brooklyn), having been hired to manage Pieter Stuyvesant's farm and cattle; an opportunity quite possible through his wife's family connections backed by a good recommendation from the Rensselaers.

We in our family take pride in that no matter how one spells our name we are all related, and the chances are if you meet a Wyckoff in your travels they will roll out Pieter's story of coming over, marrying well, and having a successful career as a farmer and local official in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn.

This past Saturday, Oct. 14, I attended the annual meeting of Wyckoffs held at Washington Irving's Sunnyside homestead in Tarrytown.

There I learned that there is no Y in the Dutch language, and it was noted in Pieter's signature there was a dot over the what appears to be a "y." Barbara Wyckoff Siris, the family treasurer, pointed out that his signature could be read as Wijkoff, which would be appropriate in the Dutch language with the ij pronounced like the Y in Wyck. In other words, for nearly 400 years, we've been spelling his and our family name incorrectly.

Indeed, a quick Google search of Wijkoff found no such names in the United States, but when one searches the name in Holland, they pop up as does Wyckoff, Wikoff, and a few other variants. What appears likely is that when the English took over Nieuw Amsterdam, renaming it New York in 1664, the officials had trouble reading or making sense of Pieter's handwriting. They didn't have Wijk as a common spelling of anything. Thus, they entered Wyckoff in their ledgers. Pieter probably just shrugged his shoulders as fighting the bureaucrats of city hall then as now is often a fruitless effort.

As if learning the family has spelled the last name incorrectly for nearly four centuries wasn't enough, we learned the time-honored story that Wyckoff stands for "town center" and was created to meet the English requirement that all residents of the newly named New York have a consistent family name may also be false.

Pieter came to America from Nordan, East Friesland, at that time a northeastern province of the Netherlands; the border has since shifted so it's now part of Germany. The family discovered over there not only a different way to spell the name but that there once was a Wijkoff Manor House (16th century, 10 years ago destroyed by fire) and a village center by the same name.

It seems that Pieter brought the name with him as a way of indicating where he was from and used it as the family named so required by the English.

A fair number of Wyckoffs at the reunion have had their DNA tested, as have I. We learned that we all have a high percentage of Swedish blood, which reinforces the belief that our family came to Friesland from Sweden. We also seem to have a small amount of Italian blood. How that got there, we wonder. One of those Viking voyages to the Mediterranean?

"Genealogy makes history come alive," said Steve Ballentine (a Wyckoff via his mother's side). "I like learning about the real-life aspect of where we come from and tying that into the history, and I like coming to these events to connect with my extended family. I encourage us all to get our DNA tested to help prove, or not, family records. Plus it helps us find more cousins through others that have a shared DNA."

From Pollyann Wyckoff Wartun, a member of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, I learned that our ancestor Pieter was a New York delegate at the 1664 convention, the first gathering to discuss the formation of an overarching representative government for all the colonies.

One member of our clan didn't even know he was a Wyckoff until an test demonstrated that he was. It was a surprise, as his family hailed from Texas and assumed they were of Mexican heritage. As he has a swarthy complexion, he was shocked to learn that his strongest trait was Swedish followed by a bit of English and the latter may having to do with his darker skin coloring than anything else.

"I learned through an DNA test that my closest relative is Bobbie E. Wykoff, along with a whole lot of other Wyckoffs," said Christopher Salazar. "We came from Texas. I learned my grandfather's side they all turned out the be Scandinavians, and that I didn't have any Mexican heritage at all! That was a big surprise. Another was that all the men were from 6 foot 2 inches to 7 foot 2 inches tall while I'm 5 foot 6 inches, even all my girl cousins are taller than me. My grandfather even had blue eyes."

My takeaway: I encourage you to dig into your family histories, have your DNA tested and be prepared for some adventures back in time. My family, of course, includes more than the Wyckoffs. Here I am connected with the Alfords, Prestons, Patnodes and Searses to name a few, and then on my mother's side there are the Gestenbergers, Gerstenbergs and Schwietzers.

There is a lot of Teutonic blood with some interesting seasonings thrown in.



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