What’s in a name?
Surely an identity: a way for the laundry to return your shirts; the pizza parlor to fill your order; an efficient inventory system for people—Bueller, Bueller… A surname identifies your tribe and, if you’re like me, is a source of pride. Sometimes, families change their name, the British Royals one of the most notable to do so. At the outbreak of WWI, they quietly replaced the German-sounding, Hannover with the very proper British, Windsor. But Royals are so important they don’t even need a last name like Cher, Charo and Bono.
Stage and screen manufactured glamorous names: Kappelhoff became Day; Sherer became Hudson; Morrison became Wayne. Prisons take your name and give you a number, the ultimate humiliation.
On the other hand, a spouse who shares not only your life, but your name is the ultimate validation. In 2003, on our fifth anniversary, my spouse Jim legally changed his name to #Arkenberg. So now, we’re both Arkenbergs as is our pooch, Sadie.
With the world’s population mushrooming to more than seven billion, we feel less connected. A popular theory suggests that merely six degrees separate us from every other human being. And if the six-degree theory links every human on the planet from Chicago to Shanghai to Chennai, how about family? Certainly the degree of separation among our own tribe must be considerably less. But how many of us know our roots? How many of us care?
I hypothesize that everyone with my surname is related in some fashion whether by blood, marriage or adoption. I’m pretty fortunate that my name is Arkenberg. If it were Smith, Jones, Anderson, Patel or Lee the search for relatives may not be as easy.
I started dabbling in family genealogy about six years ago. Between writing sessions, internet searches provided therapy like sudoku or crossword puzzles. Piecing together our family history was challenging and fun. The Internet made the search painless. My cousin, Jerry needed the patience of a saint and tenacity of a Rottweiler to assemble a genealogy in the pre-Google era.
With a little digging (actually a lot of digging), one search led to another and so on and so on. Anyone who’s dabbled in genealogy knows the addiction that I’m talking about. Without leaving the comfort of my own kitchen and coffee cup, I traced back five generations to my Great, Great, Great Grandfather and Grandmother. Bernard and Mary Arkenberg were born in or near, #Damme, #Germany in the late 1700’s. Their son, my Great, Great Grandfather, Ferdinand Heinrich Arkenberg was born in Damme in 1822 or 1823. The family migrated to Ohio in 1831 with several other residents from Damme. One of the other families, that of Johann Surmann and his wife, Catherine had a daughter, Elizabeth who married Ferdinand. Their oldest child, Joseph Ferdinand was my Great Grandfather….
I was curious to see my roots. Over the long Ascension Thursday holiday, Jim and I packed up Sadie and headed out in the car for the 250-mile drive from Brussels to the land of our ancestors.
Several years before my family hunt began in earnest, I located a place called, #Arkenberg on the Weser River near Liebenau between Bremen and Hannover. Our friend, Chevie, snapped a photo of the town’s sign several years ago. Other than today’s chic children baptized as Madison, Brooklyn or Memphis et alia, who has a full-fledged, GPS-recognized town with their name? (Washington doesn’t count. Why? My blog, my rules!)
After fulfilling a pilgrim’s need to visit our namesake town, (really more a hamlet. No, actually one street and lots of farmland), all genealogical signposts pointed to #Damme, forty-eight or so miles to the west.
The road between #Arkenberg and Damme took us over the rolling landscape of Lower Saxony. This was the landscape that Arkenbergs have traversed for centuries whether by horse, donkey cart, Volkswagen or Audi.
An added treat of a May road trip were the fields of canola that wove a tapestry of gold under and azure blue sky.
Today, Damme is a well-manicured little town of 16,500 residents and the economic center of an affluent area that boasts 40,000 inhabitants. The area, according to one local, raises the most pigs and chickens in all of Europe. From all of the Schwein this and Schwein that, plus Hahnchen on the menus, I didn’t doubt her claim. Grimme, a leading manufacture of farm machinery, employs 4,500 in its factory.
But what of the Arkenbergs who never left? Would mention of our name be met with rolled eyes and sneers or positive tales and grins? Our suspense was satisfied when the owner of the lovely hotel at which we stayed, Hotel Tepe, pulled up our reservation. Her eyes widened. “You’re an Arkenberg,” she said. A broad smile swept across her face. “They’re Arkenbergs,” she repeated louder to her mother and co-owner of the 4-Star property. “The Arkenbergs are all such nice people. One of my girlfriends married an Arkenberg.” Although Jim, Sadie and I didn’t get the keys to Damme, we weren’t run out of town under threat of tar and feather either.
Where to begin? Saint Viktor’s Church is often mentioned in genealogy searches connected to Arkenberg marriages and christenings. The current church dates from 1904, but a stone tower of the centuries-old church still stands (on the left in the picture below). How many of my ancestors stood on that very spot?
In addition to Damme, other towns mentioned in Arkenberg genealogy include, Osterfeine, Ruschendorf and Vechta.
Turns out, the Arkenbergs who remained did very well for themselves. Theodore Arkenberg owns and operates a large factory in Damme. Another Arkenberg family has one of the finest homes in Osterfeine, a neat little town 5 kilometers from Damme. We got the same reaction in there as we got at the hotel in Damme. A nice woman tidying up the lovely Friedhof (cemetery) beamed a smile when we told her we were Arkenbergs. “We’ve got five Arkenberg homes in town. All really nice people.” We found the Arkenberg burial plot although Jim and I don’t know how we’re related to that branch of the family.
Perhaps those Arkenbergs who sailed from Bremen to Baltimore two hundred years ago to make their fortunes in America did a big favor to those left behind, giving them room to grow and prosper.
Am I satisfied with my search? While Jim, Sadie and I didn’t meet any full-fledged German Arkenbergs, we got to spend time in the land of my forefathers, seeing, breathing and listening to the world from which I came. Yes, that was worth it. In addition I got to spend time with the most important branch in my family tree—Jim & Sadie—-my personal Arkenberg family.
(The Bells of Saint Viktor’s, Damme, Germany)
Will I continue my search? Cousin Jerry has traced the family tree back to the fourteenth century. But while I’m tempted to peek at his work, wouldn’t that be a bit like flipping to the page with the crossword answers? Curiosity presses you to look, but you hate yourself when you do….. Besides, I have hordes of Irish and Polish relatives yet to discover…..