THE REYST SURNAME

When I first starting researching my father’s family I hit a blank wall.  I had even tried searching the name in the Dutch online database, Genlias, without success. Then through searches on Google and Ancestry, I verified my suspicion that our family surname had been changed to Reyst once my great-grandfather and his family arrived in the United States.

Our real Dutch family surname is Reijst, and generations before my great-grandfather it was Rijst.  A quick study of the Dutch alphabet revealed that although “y” does exist in the Dutch language it is seldom used as a vowel, and was not even used in older records. Instead the digraph (a pair of characters written to represent one sound) “ij” is considered a single letter in the Dutch language and represents the sixth vowel.  Often writers failed to dot the i and j, so written in cursive it looked like a “y”.  This explains why on the Obdam manifest, the surname appears to be Reyst, whereas the first US Census record of 1900 that my great-grandfather participated in lists his surname as Reijst.  Between 1890 and 1900, my great-grandfather used both variations of the surname, but thereafter the family’s surname was identified as Reyst.

So why the change in spelling?  It likely has a lot to do with where my great-grandparents chose to settle down once arriving in the United States.  Many Dutch immigrants settled in Michigan from 1840 to 1900, especially on the western side of the state around Grand Rapids.  Many of the Dutch Protestant families continued to cling to their native traditions, and most surnames found in city directories of these western Michigan towns and cities resemble those in their native provinces of the Netherlands.  Most familiar is Frederik Meijer, the founder of the grocery business that has now grown into a major superstore chain that still bears his name.  But my great-grandfather, Johannes Reijst, decided to migrate to the growing metropolis of Detroit, Michigan, which was quickly becoming an important emerging industrial center of the Midwest.  Detroit was growing from an influx of people from various origins and cultures, from southern United States and both Eastern and Western European countries, and economic opportunities were likely greater for those who assimilated into this new culture.  So either by design or by accident due to misinterpretation, the “ij” in Johannes’ surname was replaced with a “y”.  The family even took this assimilation into American culture a step further by converting their given names to more familiar Americanized names.  So Johannes became known as John and Helena as Lena; even the family given name of Cornelis, now would be written as Cornelius.

The Reyst (or Reijst or Rijst) surname probably dates back to no later than 1811.  Prior to 1811 very few Dutch families had surnames, except nobility.  But in 1811 under Napoleonic rule of the Netherlands, all families were required to register and choose a surname.  Among the rural population of the Netherlands the use of patronymics was common practice before 1811 to identify an individual, with the oldest form using the possessive of the father’s name along with the word for son or daughter. Other forms used a person’s occupation, place of residence, or personal characteristic. So many patronymics became permanent surnames, like Jansen (son of Jan), Visser (the fisherman), Van Dijk (one living along the dike), and Reus (nickname for big man).  So what does the name Rijst or Reijst represent?  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any citation that gives the meaning of either of these spellings.  But I have found out that the Dutch word “rijst” means rice (as a noun) or to lift, mount or heave (as a verb).  So it is possible that the chosen surname may have referred to being someone who does manual labor as I don’t think it referred to growing or processing of rice.  Also the Dutch word for the Rhine River is “rijn”, so maybe the surname has some connection to living along the Rhine.

Today in the United States individuals with the surname of Reyst are mostly located throughout Michigan.  However, you will also find some possible relatives in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

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HOMELAND TROUBLES

I have always been curious about the Netherlands since 6th grade European geography when we had to do in-depth reports on several European countries.  Fascinated by the landscape and culture of my great-grandparents, I was thrilled to at least have an opportunity to visit Amsterdam during the summer between my junior and senior years of college. So what enticed my great-grandparents, both young couples, to leave their homeland and come to the United States? 

Two important factors that likely influenced their decision to leave the Netherlands were the poor economy and changes occurring in the Dutch Protestant church.  Johannes and Helena left their hometown of Zevenbergen, a rural town located in Noord-Brabant, not far from Rotterdam.  Various historical records indicate that the wealth of the major Dutch cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam in particular, was not extended to most of the rural areas.  Unemployment was high and probably affected my great-grandfathers’ ability to find work that would support a young and growing family as neither were landowners. Also the rural areas of the Netherlands were still recovering from the effects of the potato famine that struck their homeland in 1845-1846.  In the mid-1800s, the potato was a staple food of the rural Dutch cuisine. 1845 yield of potatoes in the Netherlands was down almost 75%, and consequently, dramatically affected both fertility and natality for the next several decades.  This is evident in my great-grandfather’s, Johannes’, family history that has revealed a high infant mortality rate among his siblings.

Also during the nineteenth century, religious dissent was occurring among the protestant Dutch in the Netherlands.  A division was being drawn in the Reformed Church between the more conservative Calvinists and the increasingly liberal State Church.  It is not known on which side of this division that my great-grandparents stood.  From a religious standpoint most outsiders would probably describe the Dutch protestants as generally very conservative.  But within the confines of the Dutch Reformed Church, there has been a long history of theological squabbling – drawing lines between being ultra-conservative, and quasi-conservative.  This division was apparent even here in Michigan, when the early settlements on the western part of the state split along religious differences in the mid-1800s.  The result was two separate denominations, the RCA (the more liberal faction) and the CRC (the Christian Reformed Church – the more conservative faction).

But even those that emigrated before my great-grandparents did in 1890, economic opportunity tended to out way religious reasons for making the move to the United States.  So I believe that hopes for a better financial future was most likely the primary motive to leave their homeland. 

So how would my great-grandparents have found out about these chances for better financial stability?  One way would have probably been via printed news.  Another way would likely have been discussions among the men of the church about what they were hearing of these new opportunities on the other side of the ocean.  But even more significant would have been letters they possibly received from family members who had already made that venture.