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Frisian Islands Ancestors

Copyright ©2016 by Linda Taylor


Our Hinrichsen, Hansen and Knüttel ancestors were from the North Frisian Island of Föhr. The Frisian Islands are a chain of low-lying islands located in the North Sea along the coasts of Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. The islands were named after a Germanic people who migrated to the area in prehistoric times. The West Frisian Islands belong to the Netherlands; the East Frisian Islands belong to Germany; and the North Frisian Islands are divided between Germany and Denmark. The inhabitants of the islands have their own language, Frisian, which is a branch of the Germanic languages and is similar to Old English. Föhr is the second largest of the North Frisian Islands, covering approximately thirty square miles. It measures eight miles east to west and five miles north to south. Föhr is known as “Die Grüne Insel,” or the green island. The island has three parishes: St. Nikolai, St. Johannis and St. Laurentii. Prior to 1864, the inhabitants of Föhr were subjects of either the Duke of Schleswig or the King of Denmark (these positions were usually held by the same person), depending on which end of the island they lived. The parish of St. Nikolai and part of St. Johannis belonged to the dukedom of Schleswig, while the rest of St. Johannis and St. Laurentii was a royal enclave belonging to the kingdom of Denmark. Despite frequent disputes with Prussia (Germany), Denmark maintained control of the North Frisian Islands and Schleswig until the 1864 war between Denmark and Prussia. Today, Föhr and most of the other North Frisian Islands belong to Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. The other North Frisian Islands are Sylt, Amrum, Nordstrand, Pellworm, Helgoland, Rømø, Fanø and Manø.

Patronyms and Naming Customs

The Frisians, along with the Welsh, Scotch, Irish, Danish, Swedish and Norwegians, used the patronymic naming system. In this system, surnames were derived from the father’s given name. For example, if Jürgen Peters had a son named Knut, Knut’s full name would be Knut Jürgens rather than Knut Peters. In the same fashion, Knut Jürgens’ son Erik would be Erik Knuten. Likewise, if Erik Knuten had a son named Nickels, Nickels’ full name would be Nickels Eriken. It is easy to see how this system made it very difficult to trace a person’s ancestry. Following is another example of the patronymic system.

Father: Ketel Jorgens
Sons: Jorgen Ketels, Brar Ketels, Knut Ketels, Roerd Ketels, Oluf Ketels; daughter’s last name also Ketels
Grandsons’ last names: Jorgens, Braren, Knudten, Roerden, Olufs

Most Frisians used the patronymic system until the late 1700’s when the government required them to stop. The system is still used in Iceland. A system also existed for giving children their first names. The following rules were commonly used for naming children. First, no child would be named after a living father or mother. However, a son was always named after a father who had died prior to the birth or christening, and a daughter was always named after a mother who had died before the baptism. The first-born son was named after his paternal grandfather and the second son was named after the maternal grandfather. The first-born daughter was named after her maternal grandmother and the second daughter was named after the paternal grandmother. Great-grandparents were next in line for naming consideration. In the event of a child’s death, the next child born received the name of the deceased.

Frisian Women’s Dress

The North Frisian women’s native dress consists of three basic features. The first feature, the “pei” (pronounced “pie”), consists of an ankle-length dress and a lightweight piece of fabric which is draped across the shoulders. The second basic feature is the “sliawen,” or sleeves, which are made of a different, softer material. The final characteristic is the “braanjnöösduk,” or headpiece, which is neither a hat, nor a cap, nor a turban. Variations of the dress depend on the occasion. The “beeder daaiks,” or “better daily,” is worn Monday through Saturday after a day’s work or on visits and includes a “halsnöösduk” in addition to the three basic characteristics. According to The Frisian Roundtable, the halsnöösduk is a four-and-a-half by five-and-a-half-foot piece of light-weight fabric. “The diagonal corners are placed one upon another changing its shape to a triangular one. This is applied around the lower part of the neck styling the upper part of the back with one angle. The remaining two ends serve to form a crossing in front and are tied together in the back at the midriff.” Two filigree buttons are added to each side of the halsnöösduk crossing for the “Sondaais” (Sundays) dress. For very special occasions, or “Huuchhaaiden,” a silver filigree breastplate replaces the halsnöösduk. The breastplate is comprised of a variety of silver objects and includes up to twelve filigree buttons along the lower, semi-circular edge. Three filigree shapes usually found on the breastplate are the Christian cross, representing faith; an anchor, representing hope; and a heart, representing love. A black silk apron is added to the costume for confirmations and betrothals, and a white apron is worn at weddings and christenings.


Many North Frisians made their living at sea and many sea captains came from Isle Föhr. Beginning in the early 1600’s, whaling companies from Holland recruited seamen from Isle Föhr to serve on their ships. The seamen from Föhr started out in lower-paying positions because of their limited schooling. After a few years, the pastor of St. Laurentii, an expert in navigation, began teaching navigational skills to the sailors during the winter months. As a result, these men soon became officers and were highly sought after by companies in England, Denmark, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Spain. By the middle of the eighteenth century, approximately eighty-five percent of the male population were seamen. Whaling was not the only occupation available to the sailors, however. Many who preferred a warmer climate than the Arctic became merchant marines. In the early 1800’s, interest in whaling declined and the people turned to farming. Factors which contributed to this change included long months spent away from home, a decrease in profits, and wars in which the seamen from Föhr were forced to serve on Danish ships. Seafaring was once again popular in the mid 1800’s; by 1848 up to two thirds of the male population were seamen. Emigration from Föhr also began around this time. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 caused many seamen to leave the island. Others departed when Schleswig-Holstein was incorporated into Prussia and military conscription was instituted. Still others left because of new regulations governing seamen’s exams. Farming was not always a feasible vocation on the islands. Occasional massive tides left the soil too salty for cultivation for years at a time. Today, comprehensive land reclamation projects have increased the productivity of farms. Rye, oats and potatoes are the main crops grown in the Frisian Islands. Other profitable occupations are fishing and raising cattle and sheep.

Frisian Influence on the United States

Most people are unaware of the contributions Frisians have made in the history of the United States. This is because Friesland is not now a sovereign state and records concerning Frisian-American connections are commingled with those of the Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. For instance, the first state in Europe to recognize the independence of the United States was Friesland. Similar to the Frisian countries, America took on the role of accepting and protecting people, “mainly from Northern Europe, who went westward to escape oppression and search for political, religious and economic freedom.” It is also believed that the pilgrims did not sail directly to America but went first to Holland and Friesland to learn more about the types of laws they wanted to enact in their new country. According to The Frisian Roundtable, parts of the 1787 U.S. Constitution are based on the Frisian principles of federalism and decentralization of political power. In addition, the Frisian flag, the oldest national flag in the world, was the basis for the U.S. flag. According to The Frisian Roundtable, “the Americans took the colors and the stripes from the Frisian flag, but instead of the seven red hearts (or water-lily leaves), which in the Frisian flag represent the seven Frisian sea-countries,” they used thirteen stars to represent the first thirteen states. Moreover, Frisian emigrants played a prominent role in the early history of the United States. The Bronx, or Bronx County, New York, was named after Jonas Bronck, a Frisian who sailed to the New World in 1634 with survivors of a massive flood, and who established the first permanent settlement in New York. One of the earliest printers in America was Reynier Jansen, a Frisian. Peter Stuyvesant, a West Frisian, was Governor of New Amsterdam. Arfst Fruedden, a North Frisian, and Everet Dirkson, an East Frisian, were U.S. Senators.


The Atlantic Bridge to Germany
Frisian Islands,” Collier’s Encyclopedia
Frisian Islands,” Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia
The Frisian Roundtable, Autumn, 1975
The Frisian Roundtable, Spring, 1976
The Frisian Roundtable, Summer, 1976
The Frisian Roundtable, Volume 1, #2, 1977
The Frisian Roundtable, Volume 2, #1, 1978
The Frisian Roundtable, Volume 5, #1, 1981
The Frisian Roundtable, Volume 6, #1, 1982
The Frisian Roundtable, Volume 6, #8, 1982
The Nissen Ancestors from Föhr