Choosing surnames in the Old Country and beyond #poland #usa #unitedkingdom #lithuania

Jill Whitehead

When I receive emails from apparent DNA matches (many too distant to match), correspondents often say they cannot find common surnames in my family tree. This is usually because the match goes back beyond surnames, to when our ancestors used patronymics e.g. Samuel son of Jacob (which became Jacobs). Where my ancestors came from on the borders of NE Poland/the Kovno area of Lithuania/ East Prussia and the Grodno area of Belarus, surnames did not come into being until about the 1820s and 1830s, unless you were from a rabbinical family. In fact often the surnames adopted were fluid and changed on both marriage and migration (and the spelling was fluid too), and often brothers could hold different surnames to each other. Confusingly you could also adopt the same surname but not be related (as has been shown by some family DNA testing) and this was common in areas where geographical features were adopted as surnames. 

In my family, my great great grandfather Mordecai adopted the surname Serwianski after lake Serwy near Sejny where he lived in Suwalki gubernia. To date I have found all Serwianski descendants are related to each other, whether in the UK or US. When they came to UK in c 1875 they changed their name to Servian and another branch that came in early 20th century changed their name to Server. Branches that went direct to USA called themselves Serviansky and Sirvan.My great grand uncle Baruch Serwianski/Barnet Servian changed his name in Liverpool to Silverman in 1879 on the birth of his first child. This may have been due to wars in E. Europe in Serbia, then known as Servia, although he made mirrors which involved silvering (hence the name Silverman) and his father Mordecai had been a silversmith. When Barnet migrated to Chicago in 1904, he changed his name from Silverman to Maxwell which was his patronymic, Maxwell being the anglicisation of the name Mordecai, his father. 

There are plenty of other examples, but many people do not realise that surnames in East Europe are comparatively modern, and when they were adopted they could be based on the patronymic (like Maxwell), geographical features (like lake Serwy), occupations (like silversmith), personal characteristics, migration place names within Eastern Europe (e.g. it is believed that my Brin/Brown ancestors came from Brunn/Brno in the Czech lands), and so on.

Jill Whitehead, Surrey, UK

Serwianski/Servian (Liverpool) from Sejny, Suwalki gubernia NE Poland 
Ceglarski/Abrahams (Manchester) from Suwalki town, NE Poland
Grymblat/Lewis (Manchester) from Suwalki town, NE Poland 
Brin/Brown (Edinburgh) from Vishtinetz, Suwalki gubernia now Vistytis, Lithuania
Rubenstein/Berenstein (Edinburgh) from Vishtinetz, Suwalki gubernia now Vistytis, Lithuania
Guttenberg/Graham (Sheffield) from Rajgrod, Lomza gubernia NE Poland
Plottnovsky/Platnowski/Jacobs (Hull) from Raczki, Suwalki gubernia NE Poland