Family Origins

This was written as an attachment to a brief history compiled by two cousins.
Its particular editorial style reflects their particular interests.
For a different readership the etymological material might be less detailed.



For the Middenway and Venteman tribes

A speculative note on the German/Dutch connection
with an aftershock


People have lived in the hilly country between Borgholzhausen and Bohmte in north-western Germany since before the dawn of recorded history, the same sorts of people as in Britain - New Stone Age people, Stonehenge people, Pelasgian/ Minoan/ Mediterranean fugitives from the Dorian Greeks...

Around 2100 years ago, different people began to arrive, possibly the last of the Celts (although they might have arrived earlier), possibly the first of the Germans (perhaps the Friesians), but who knows?

The Saxons began to arrive in about 350 AD, either driving out whoever might have been hanging around, or else simply absorbing them.

But later, Franks, different Germans from the south, ran the place, ultimately as a collection of feudal dependencies: that started with Carolus Magnus (Carl der Grosse, Charlemagne), the first Holy Roman (i.e. Catholic) Emperor, 1200 years ago.


Borgholzhausen, the home of the earliest Middeweg so far identified, one Johan, is in the north of the Rheinland-Westfalen region in northwest Germany. When he left for good in the 1790s, it was a village; now it is a small town, in a strategic pass through the Teutoburgerwald, a beautiful, hilly State Forest Park.

The 70Km-long range of chalk/ limestone/ dolomite hills (to 300m) and its companion range the Wiehengebirge 20Km to the north are part of the last belt of high ground before the North German Lowlands, the 200Km-wide marshy plain that extends from the Netherlands and Denmark along the Baltic to Sankt Petersburg (once Petrograd, then Leningrad).

Some 30Km north of Borgholzhausen, on the plain at the foot of the Wiehengebirge in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), lies Bohmte, where his wife Maria Koks was born.


Little Bohmte has a remarkable place in history. One afternoon in the middle of 9 AD, the Roman general Varus led three very tired legions along the northern edge of the Wiehengebirge, virtually over where Bohmte now stands, not realising that the former Roman auxiliary Arminius (the German princeling Hermann) had staged the perfect ambush ten kilometres to the west in a swampy defile at the foot of the Kalkrieser Berg (on the face of it, Chalk-Giant Hill, calling to mind various sites in England).

Thirty thousand Roman heavy infantry were killed, a handful of Germans. The Romans had at last met their match: that battle marked the absolute end of Roman expansion to the north.


The similar dialects generally spoken in Borgholzhausen and Bohmte two hundred-odd years ago counted as Plattdeutsch or Low German, the (s)language of the northern plain, as different from the Hochdeutsch or High German of Hannover, 100Km away, as the dialect of rural Yorkshire from that of the dons of Oxford. There would have been slight differences between them, the first likely posher than the second. The country people there, especially the oldest and the least educated, still speak Platt today, but in the era of Eurovision, Madonna and the Big Mac it can sound self-consciously old-fashioned.



Borgholzhausen (spelt Bergholtshausen in the church register in Utrecht, where they married):

Borg is not current in Hochdeutsch, but geborgen means hidden away securely, and the town is partly enclosed by steep hills. It could be Berg (mountain, hill). Or Burg (fortified town with a castle), but it was too small, and one would expect the element at the end of the name, like, say, Oldenburg. Or some other Platt word, similar to nederlands berk (birch, pron. bairk).

Holz (timber or forest, pron. holts).

In Hochdeutsch Birkenholz means birch timber or birch forest, but in spoken nederlands this becomes berkenholz or berkholz. Birch-trees have been there since the end of the last Ice Age, although oak, ash, beech and pine-trees have spread in or been introduced as valuable commercial timber.

But Bergholz means either ligniform asbestos or petrified wood. Is either likely to have been abundant enough to suggest the name? Either is just possible under the conditions necessary for the formation of the substantial coal deposits in the region, although improbable, given that both are rare and that the predominant surface features are calcareous (sedimentary, partly metamorphosed remains of ancient sea-shells).

Borgholz (if abbreviated conveniently from Geborgenholz) would thus mean a securely hidden-away forest, or (if not) a birch forest, or (perhaps less likely), birch-timber or (least likely) asbestos or petrified wood.

In nederlands, een huis sounds like Hochdeutsch ein Haus as pronounced by a Platt-speaker, or house pronounced by a Canadian. The nederlands plural is huizen, sounding the same as in Platt Hausen. The (Etwas)-hausen form is very common, (Something)-houses or (Something)-settlement, implying a settlement where people lived in houses, a village rather than a town, and certainly unwalled at the time it was named.

I favour Settlement in a wood in a secure place, rather than Settlement in a birch-wood. The answer might be found through the appropriate set of records in the Bundesrepublikarchiv in Koblenz. The name must be many centuries old (the village lay in a strategically important pass through the hills) and drift in speech-forms is inexorable over time, so uncertainty rules, OK?


Bohmte? (Spelt Boomte in Utrecht). Tree-(something): (be)bohmte, (treed - i.e. set among trees), most likely.

In nederlands boom (sounding bohm, as in Platt), in Hochdeutsch Baum (sounding bowm, c.f. down). The ground was not marshy: the village was naturally built on rather higher dry ground, but with the ground-water assured in those parts. Although the low ground then consisted largely of heavy water-logged clay which horse- or ox-drawn hook-ploughs could not break, the soil on higher ground has always tended to be lighter, loamy, well-drained and fertile, and there would originally have been a forest covering the site. These days the fields all around are drained by a lattice of canals.


Plattdeutsch, like English off the beaten track, came in many forms shading almost imperceptibly from one to another across the land. One cannot say 'across the country', for Germany consisted of over 300 relatively independent kingdoms, principalities, duchies and what-have-you. Platt extends well beyond today's German borders. Duits (Dutch for German, but once also meaning Dutch) and Deutsch are essentially the same word. Whether the Dutch like it or not, the language nederlands (Lowland) or Dutch is but one codified form of Plattdeutsch.


Neither Johan Middeweg nor Maria Koks was 'German', although they might have thought of themselves in those terms if pushed - a sense of German-ness was developing rapidly among the educated, cultivated classes at the time, but the odds are decidedly against their having been well educated, the well-off generally stay put, and it's evident our two weren't impressed enough with being 'German' to hang about. The villages may have been personal territory of two different minor princelings, dukelings or squires (thirty kilometres is a long way on foot across marshy ground). They may have been in Hanoverian land, nominal subjects of HM GIIIR of Great Britain etc. The (Count-) Archbishop of Osnabrück had by then lost control. Neither Bohmte nor Borgholzhausen was big enough to be a Freistadt, a walled city under the control of its merchants.

Many words are shared among Plattdeutsch, nederlands, dansk, Friesisch, the dialects of the English fens and Lallans and the Doric (the two codified forms of Lowland Scots, predominantly Anglo-Norse languages having very little in common with Gaelic). Danish merchant seamen never have much trouble talking to Dutch-Friesian, German, or German-Friesian seamen, or with seamen out of ports from Yarmouth to Grimsby to Newcastle to Aberdeen.

Conversely, many words across these languages/dialects sound and look the same while having nothing to do with one another. Our Midden- is emphatically not a Scots midden (a cess-pit, from the Danish mødding, from møgdynge - møg is muck or dung, dynge is heap).



There are two elements. The first appears as Midde-, Middel-, or Midden-, the second as -weg or -way, and there has been speculation about -vecht or -vegt.


In Hochdeutsch, the adverb mitten means (in, to the middle of), the adjective mittel means middle. I think we can rule out the noun Mittel, meaning means (i.e. wherewithal) and the nominal suffix -mittel with the same meaning (e.g. Lebensmittel=life-means=food).

In Plattdeutsch, essentially a spoken rather than written language, one may consider midden and middel. But one may also allow for what many call 'laziness', the process of simplification by which, for example, caught ends up today sounding caut, the kh 'Scots throat-clearing' sound having long faded away. In the same way, both midden and middel can end up sounding midde, especially in front of the strong consonant v.

In modern nederlands, a developed Amsterdam plattduits first codified between two and three centuries ago, one sees middel always pronounced as it sounds, and midden, almost always sounds midde. The meanings are the same as in German, the t sound 'relaxed' to d.


The second element -weg translates nicely as -way. But is also can mean path, road, lane, street etc., suggesting a nice, straightforward solution to the question of the etymology of the family name. It was pronounced vekh in the Hochdeutsch of 1900, vek in the Hochdeutsch of 1950, increasingly in recent years as vezh (zh=s in measure).

Who's to say exactly what it sounded like in Borgholzhausen in 1780? I'll hazard a guess: much as it did in 1900, but a little fiercer, much as it does in Utrecht today. In nederlands it is pronounced vekh, with the same kh we've lost from caught, like ch in Lallans (Scots) loch.

But some have suggested it might really be Middevecht. There is a town in Niedersachsen named Vechta (40 Km north of Bohmte), a German river of the same name and another, Vechte, and a Dutch river Vecht.

In nederlands, een vecht is a waterway (I don't know of Vegt, Vegta or Vegte place-name, but all are plausible archaic spellings, g for ch). In each case, the spoken word approximates to fecht(a) (the ch, by assimilation from the t, a lighter, more breathy analogue of that kh), and not at all to be confused with the spoken word weg in either nederlands or Hochdeutsch (c.f. vekh/vek with fecht, as different to Dutch or German ears as bag/back and packed).

I can't find any likely connection: von Vechta might make sense for the estate-title of a minor squire, or van den middel vecht=from the middle canal as a residential tag for horny-handed Wim, but neither would be likely to drift to Middeweg - it's 'too far' linguistically.

(Note: van is pronounced like von, i.e. fon - and van Gogh is fon Khoakh).


In short, there seem to be several plausible readings of the 'original' spelling, the original sound and the original meaning of the name Middenway.




Sounding 1

Sounding 2

Sounding 3

Sounding 4









Middle way*






Way* to the middle





* For way, read road, path, track etc.

But which name makes most sense?

Middenweg >is a common street sign in the Netherlands.

It shows traffic the way to the centre of the town, exactly corresponding with
City (Town) Centre > in English.

One would not expect to see a sign Middelweg > for one doesn't need a sign to identify the middle one of several roads in plain view.

But in 1780, as now, spoken middel weg was useful: 'Wim der Forstersjongmann? Turn left here, 3 clicks down to the river, and over the dyke take den middel weg. Look out for a dirty great pile of logs on the left. You can't miss it.'


I guess the original, 'Wim', in 1400(?), was a Middelweg:

'Willem' van (von) de(n) middel weg - Bill of the middle path,

rather than a Middenweg:

'Willem' van de(n) middenweg - Bill of the path-to-the-middle.


But why the different spellings in different records?

I think Wim's name changed as follows:



van de(n) middel Weg

of the middle path/road, later pronounced



(van den) Middeweg

(implying the same thing), and written with or without the l

Johan may not have been a great speller: he had probably learnt reading and writing to primary level, a fairly general policy in those parts at the time.

So far we're still in Borgholzhausen. But Johan seems to have eloped (or at least travelled) with Maria to the old Catholic city of Utrecht.

Perhaps they were escaping from relatively joyless hyper-Calvinism, imposed by order of tight-lipped Prussian overlords at about that time, to the rather less buttoned-up Evangelical Lutheran minority in Utrecht.

Or it may have been that after 1763, following the harrowing Seven Years' War, and with George III on the English throne (a man who actually preferred London to Hannover, unlike his German-only father and grandfather), the English influence in northwest Germany was so reduced by the power of the increasingly antagonistic Junkers from increasingly dominant Prussia, that life was simply becoming too difficult.

Or maybe they eloped because they wanted to get away from hostile families. Or maybe they just had itchy feet. Whatever the reason for their 'escape', it is evidently as members of that Evangelical Lutheran community that they married.

And so in time Johan went off, cap in hand, to register the birth of their children.



A: If a Low German says Middelweg to any Dutch, only the final consonant may perhaps sound a trifle odd (if (s)he uses a plosive k in place of the expected fricative kh).



middle road


B: If a Low German says Middeweg to an unimaginative but educated Dutch, whether 18th-century clerk or 20th-century journalist, the Dutch will 'hear' the silent n.



road to the centre


C: But if the 18th-century clerk isn't a full bottle on spelling, at a time when spelling was still a fairly arbitrary business and extensive schooling still a rarity, this uneducated Dutch, not knowing any better, may well write





D: On the other hand, an imaginative and educated Dutch clerk may well say to himself, 'Middeweg? Well, Middenweg, of course. But what a silly name! Ach! Surely it can't be! Domkop kraut! Doesn't even know his own verdoemte naam! Must be Middelweg! At least that makes decent sense!' So...



back where we started.


To put this in a modern-day Australian context, in the Adelaide phone-book one sees:






there aren't any mounts








And so where does that whirligig leave us? Take your pick.

And the change to Middenway? All it took was a monoglot clerk of the court in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1836.


Koks in Hochdeutsch means coke. It's cokes (2 syllables) in modern nederlands, anywhere in between in Platt. There were a lot of small coal mines nearby. Maybe Maria Koks, Frau Middeweg, had an ancestor who produced and sold coke. Why, in 18th century Niedersachsen? For making steel at a guess, depending on which process they used, and they turned out rather a lot of it, considering the industrial revolution hadn't reached there yet. Much less likely: Koks from Kok (Platt and nederlands c.f. Koch in Hochdeutsch)=Cook. But Cooks? Surely not!



Still used in nederlands. Sounds fenteman or fentiman, means hawker. Not the bloke with the birds. The one in the signs ...

Hawkers and Canvassers Need Not Call

... in other words, a travelling salesman with a little cart, or a big Rucksack, or a donkey, loaded to the gills with pots and pans, beads, lace, needles and threads, knives, all the sorts of towny stuff that villagers need and can't make for themselves.

But why James Venteman, married in England? James is English enough. What about Venteman? To vent is an obsolete form of to vend, to sell (c.f. vendor). One might hunt for venter, as well as ventman, venteman and venterman, but they all sound wrong, and I can find no record of them in these parts. Why go for an unlikely English solution when there's a much more likely Dutch one to hand? But even that might be jumping to conclusions ...

Nederlands vente-man is evidently part-Romance, part-Germanic, rather than purely Germanic, hence nominally Flemish, from the Frankish south (rather than the Saxon or Friesian north), where French and Low German meet in the northern and north-eastern French provinces of Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne, Picardie and Pas-de-Calais, and in Belgium and Luxembourg and the southern Dutch provinces, Limburg and Noord Brabant.

In French, from Latin, vendre is to sell, and in Dutch, from Platt, -man is -man, so salesman. In French un placier is a door-to-door salesman, un vendeur is a salesman. In Hochdeutsch ein Hausierer is a house-to-house salesman, a salesman is ein Verkäufer, literally but quaintly an unbuyer). As you go north and east in the Netherlands, een venteman or een venter may be known as een verkooper, the same word, obviously, as Verkäufer. It follows 'Henk' Venteman was neither French nor German, and perhaps not 'Dutch' Dutch.


One might guess (James's xG grandfather) Henk der venteman, Harry the hawker, pushed his barrow through nameless parts of those soggily ambiguous Low Countries. When? Late Middle Ages, say around 1400 when surnames were starting to settle?

If so, when did The Man arrive in England? Who knows? Maybe earlier, as a mercenary soldier or in the wool trade. Maybe later, for the name is straight Flemish, and in an earlier England might have relaxed conformably to Vendeman or Venderman (c.f. vent > vend, mittel > middel). Who knows?

Why leave the Low Countries? Many who've left reckon it's a good idea on account of the climate. Why else? Lot of Flemings in the phone-book. Wool merchant? Flemish mercenary soldier? Calais deckhand who jumped ship in Dover? Or a groom or something with Willem van Oranje? Who knows?

Or maybe, despite all the above, the name is just an unusual Anglo-Norman survival. Who knows?

Does it matter?

Not really. Certainty about any aspect of our remote ancestry doesn't greatly alter who we are or what we think.

And there's that other side to it. If you allow an average of 25 years per generation, around 1400 each of us can claim around two million male ancestors, maybe half the number of chaps in the whole of north-western Europe at that time. Henk der venteman could be 20G-grandfather to just about anybody.

My cousin Mick Jagger and I...




If your name or your E-mail address is at all unusual, you shouldn't be surprised (as I was) when a thorough Internet search tracks you down.

In a village near Ely, not far from Cambridge, lives one Roger Fentiman, who has been identifying as many of his namesakes, irrespective of the exact spelling, as far back as he can. He found my E-mail address recently, came to the obvious (correct) conclusion and contacted me.

Roger has traced Venteman ancestors as far back as the 17th century - and possible leads back to the 14th century. He writes:

'Our common ancestors are John Ventiman (1643 in Arlesey, Bedfordshire [also near Cambridge] - 11 Mar 1710 in Cranfield, Bedfordshire), and his wife Elizabeth ? (buried 5 Oct 1722 in Cranfield). John is my 6G grandfather, and yours too I think. His father was John Fentiman, married Ellen SMITH (28 Oct 1640 in Arlesey) - as far back as I have been able to go with confidence so far.

'Your line descends from their son Benjamin Ventiman, 1688-1771; my line from their son John Ventiman 1674-1725. On the way to me, the spelling is variously recorded as Ventiman, Ventman, Ventimon, Fenterman and Fentiman; to you as Ventiman, Bentman, Ventomine, Ventmore/Ventimore and Venteman. Fortunately enough evidence survives to demonstrate that the different spellings are actually all one family (and often all one person!).

'Of the 40+ spellings I have seen in documents, only a few survive today: Fentiman (commonest), Fenteman, Fentimen, Fenterman, Fenttiman, Benttiman and Venteman. The Essex Bentermans may also link, but I haven't proved it yet.

'The Yorkshire Fentiman/Fenteman family dating back to the 1300's is as far as I can tell the only other using this name group in the world (although an exception is the American Kansas and Nebraska Bentemans who seem to hail from Heiden, Germany in the late 19th century). There may yet be a link between the Yorkshire and Bedfordshire families, but I have to consider that unproven for now.

'You have now collected a large number (several thousand) of relatives, living and dead, on at least four continents...'

It's worth repeating that both Fentiman and Venteman sound Fenteman in Dutch.