What’s in a name?

Val’s always poking fun of some of the names of my German ancestors. She’s pretty sure there’s a Friedrich Heinrich Johann Jakob Jingleheimerschmidt in my tree somewhere. I thought I’d share some of the gems I’ve uncovered from her side:

  • [singlepic id=31 w=320 h=240 float=right]Minerva Belle Tobey
  • Charity Mack
  • Mindwell Mack (there were actually a few Mindwells)
  • Mercy Mack
  • Resolved Mack
  • Jerusha Spicer
  • Keziah Latham Spicer
  • Experience Geer
  • Patience Button (may or may not have been passed to subsequent generations)
  • Jemima Parke
  • Zilpha Meech

Bill & Pat’s Excellent Adventure

[singlepic id=19 w=320 h=240 float=left]Here’s another picture from the archives.  I’m guessing this picture was taken sometime in the ’50s.  From left, my grandmother, Alice “Pat” (Waege) Rathkamp, unknown friend, and my grandfather, Bill Rathkamp.  The tavern most likely was somewhere on the north or west side of Milwaukee.

Seeing a picture of my grandfather in a bar is akin to seeing a taxi in New York.  But seeing “Granny Pat” sitting on a bar stool is a little strange.  Must have been a special occasion.

My grandmother reminds me of Lucille Ball in this picture.

Mr. Rath, Meet Ms. Kamp…the origins of the Rathkamp Surname

My blogging software has a feature that shows me search strings people use to find my website.  Some of the search terms are pretty entertaining.  Like last week when somebody somehow found me by searching “pic of an old German family having a fight”.   Other times, I can see Google doing its job by pointing to my site as people are searching for specific information related to some of my more “obscure” distant ancestors.

One common search string has to do with the origins of my last name, Rathkamp.  I too have always wondered about the meaning of my surname, but didn’t actually find out until about a year ago.  I always had hopes that maybe Rathkamp meant “noble Viking warrior”  or “wise Saxon tribal chief”.    It turns out the origin of the Rathkamp name is a little less dramatic.  So for the 373 Rathkamps living in the U.S., I’m here to enlighten you.

I’m not fluent in German, but I’ll do my best to describe some different naming conventions and will try to correlate these to names to my own family tree.  Some German surnames were derived from jobs or professions such as Schneider (tailor), Bauer (farmer), or Zimmerman (carpenter).  Others were derived from a physical trait of the original bearer such as Tonne (big belly), Rothaar (red hair).  Other names were patronymic, meaning they were passed from a father to a son such as Leitzke or Niesl.  In both of these cases the “ke” and “l” at the end of each forms the diminutive of Leitz or Nies (a derivitive of Dionysus).  There are also examples such as Wadenstorfer or Neuberg which both probably refer to a home town.

In the cases of Waege and Rathkamp, each of these refer to physical characteristics of the land my ancestors either owned or lived on.  Waege or Wege refers to a “way” or a “walk” or “path”.

Rathkamp is formed by two different words:  rath and kamp.  Neither word is very easy to find in a German to English translator, so I’m guessing they’re both old German.   Kamp is derived from the Latin word Campus.  Traditionally, it referred to the strip of land around the walls of a city or castle.  Over time I think it morphed into meaning any type of field.  The closest comparison I can make in English for Rath is to “root or pull out”, in this case specifically trees or bushes.

So the moment you’ve been waiting for… Rathkamp refers to a field that originally was populated by trees or bushes.

So much for Vikings or Saxon kings.

He Left the Horse Out in the Yard

[singlepic id=16 w=320 h=240 float=right]Hearing about the current shortage of the H1N1 flu vaccine, I’m reminded of the fact that this is not by any stretch the first nor the most severe flu epidemic in our country’s history.  My great grandfather, Fredrich Walz was one of the many victims of the Spanish Influenza in 1918.  In an earlier post, I mentioned how the Walz family came to America in 1905 from Russia.  They settled in Freeman, SD where Fredrich was a horse breeder.

As I was preparing for this post I went to the website of the Freeman Courier where the headline ironically reads, “Fighting the Flu”.  My grandmother, Emma (Walz) Niesl was only 5 years old when her father died.  I have a filmed interview of her conducted by my aunt Sandie (Niesl) Patten.  In this interview, my grandmother talks about her memories of her father’s untimely death.  Tragically, her mother Sophia (Bischke) Walz also passed away at an early age.  My grandmother lost both parents by the age of 13, but was taken in by family members in Milwaukee.

The Ida Brockhaus Time Machine

I have a lot of family history pictures that originally belonged to my great aunt Grace (Waege) Larson.  Just the other day I realized that out of all these pictures, the pictures I have of my Great Grandmother Ida (Brockhaus) Waege are the only pictures I own that do a really nice job of spanning an ancestor’s entire lifetime.

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It’s amazing what you find when [singlepic id=1 w=320 h=240 float=right] really look closely at a census sheet. The genealogy software I use is Family Tree Maker which is owned and developed by Ancestry.com.   One of the nice things about this software is the “shaking leaf” it shows on a family member when it thinks it has information you’d be interested in.  My grandfather, George Niesl had one of these shaking leafs tonight and even though I was pretty confident there was nothing new that I’d find, I clicked on the link anyway.   FTM then took me to its search window where there was a link to view the 1920 census.  Again, I was pretty sure I already had this record, but I clicked on it again.

It took 2 seconds to notice that my great grand aunt, Johanna (Rathkamp) Wetenkamp and her daughter Dorothy lived next door to my grandfather and his family on 20th and Vliet in Milwaukee.  How many times had I looked at this record before?

Note also my grandfather is listed as “daughter”.  Guess George wasn’t a masculine enough name.

The interactive map below shows what 20th and Vliet looks like today.

View Larger Map

When the Levee Breaks

My friend Herr Wessels from Bassum, Germany has been a great source of information over the last couple months.  He’s also taken the time to teach me a lot about the region, naming practices, and has given me a glimpse into the society my ancestors lived.[singlepic id=4 w=320 h=240 float=left]

Originally, his thought was that my GG Grandfather, Friedrich Rathkamp was born in Neubruchhausen, but after some more digging, he really hit a home run.  It turns out Friedrich’s birth name was Hinrich Friedrich Rathkamp, who was born in the very small town of Oeftinghausen, about 25 miles south of Bremen.  Herr Wessels has sent me pages of the local history book which show my ancestors have lived in this town since before 1600.

It’s pretty amazing to have this flood of information all at once, especially since I was stuck at their emigration for years.  All of a sudden I know exactly where they came from, and I also have a slew of other ancestors to process.

I took German for a couple years in high school.  It’s pretty obvious I should have paid more attention, because I have to read through his emails and documents a few times before I get a good feel for what they say.  There are a lot of documents he’s forwarded, and I’m always afraid I’ll miss an important detail.

Showing that the human element of genealogy always trumps names and dates, Herr Wessels actually met Walter Rathkamp in Oeftinghausen.  From what I can tell, Walter is my third cousin.  The picture below is taken from Walter’s front yard, and shows the Rathkamp farm and blacksmith shop.

Having a Hard Time Getting into These Genes

For Christmas two years ago, my wife bought me a test kit from the Genographic Project, sponsored by National Geographic.  The purpose of the project is to track the migratory history of humans through the study of genetic data.  After I received the kit, I quickly (and nervously) followed the instructions, scraping the insides of my cheeks, placing the specimen into the supplied test tube, being careful not to get any foreign matter into the specimen.  The last thing I wanted was to get the test results back and learn that I had descended from a long line of Golden Retrievers.

At least once a day I’d log on to the Genographic website which tracked the progress of my test.  Looking back on it, I honestly don’t know what type of results I was expecting.  I knew that all of my known ancestors were Germanic, but I also knew that mankind has a very transient history.  When the results were finally posted, I was shocked to learn that my deep ancestors originated in Siberia 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.  This genectic mutation also contains the people who migrated over Beringia, the land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska.  These people eventually became the native peoples of North and South America.



I think I sat reading and re-reading this information for a half hour.  How could this be?  What about my blue eyes and the blond hair I had as a kid?  No matter what scenario I used, I couldn’t make this information work.  I don’t think I completely dismissed the information, but the possibility of a “bad” test result seemed pretty real at that point.  Maybe I did get some dog hair into the sample.

Recently, I found Dr. David Faux’s website which I think states a very solid case for the possible genetic link between the Viking era Norse and the Central Asians which could include such groups as the Scythians, the Huns, and the Mongols.  At 42 pages, there’s a lot of information supporting his theory.

Obviously I’m not a geneticist, a linguist, an archaeologist, or even a historian, but Dr. Faux’s theory at least helps me connect some dots.  If true, the story of the migration of my ancestors becomes absolutely fascinating.

Rathkamp Wappen


This is WAY cool!  Today I was sending emails back and forth to my friend Ernst-Dieter in Bassum.  Ernst-Dieter sent this picture of the house built by Johann Heinrich Rathkamp in Neubruchhausen in 1822.

I’m still not sure what my connection is to Johann Heinrich.  It’s possible he’s my GGG Grandfather, but I have to wait until Ernst-Dieter has a chance to view the church records.

Either way, this picture is significant for a couple reasons.  The first is the brick work on the house.  The Rathkamps of Neubruchhausen were known as Master Masons and then later as architects.  I’m no mason, but the craftsmanship does look very impressive.

The second, and more obvious, is the Rathkamp Wappen or family crest.

The shield is divided into three sections.  The upper left shows what appears to be a pick axe and possibly a shovel laid over a pyramid shape.  The lower left, a wagon wheel.  On the right is a tree, possibly behind a brick wall.

It’s going to take a little bit of digging before I can figure out what it all means.  I have some ideas, but it’s too early to tell for sure.  This also brings up the question as to the significance of the crest itself.  How long was it in the family?  Was it passed on from generation to generation?  What is the significance of the helmet?

For every stone turned over, 100 more questions present themselves.