David Fabricius of Esens: 1589

Fabricius map

In 1589 David Fabricius (1564-1617), from Esens, drew a map of Ostfriesland. His plot of the area around Esens is accurate even as measured against modern maps. Once he gets far from his hometown, though, his accuracy degrades considerably.

Note that this map appears to be hand drawn, where others are printed. In many spots erasures and changes can be seen. The copy pictured here (from the NYPL) is a facsimile, not an original.


Click on the image above for an expanded version in a new window, or click here for a really really big version.

Note that Fabricius spells his hometown “Esentz.” (In the Latin inscription on the map, though, he uses the modern spelling, Esens.) The native language of the area would have been Frisian. By the late 1500s, the official language was probably Old Low German; the distinction between the two may have been minimal. The inscription at the top of the map looks more Dutch than anything else, and in fact Ostfriesland was also well within the Dutch sphere of influence.

Fabricius shows a small islet off the coast at Bense. For the next few hundred years, this islet appears regularly on maps. (It no longer exists.)

Fabricius also uses the name “Seerim” for the area that on other maps, to this day, is called “Seriem.” Frisian and English are close relatives, and in English the word “rim” has persisted to the present, where it has more or less dropped from use in German and Dutch. Seriem is nothing more than the edge of the sea.

Fabricius spells Holum “Holem.” Since he’s from Esens, it seems fair to trust him on nearby place names. “Holum” means a small raised area that stays dry in a flood—it can be an islet off the coast or in a river too. In English we have almost completely dropped the word “holm,” which means the same thing, but you’ll still find it in place names. (Stockholm comes to mind, though that’s Swedish.) In this case, the description has become the name for a village.

The words holum, warf and terp all refer to spots that are raised to stay dry in floods—characteristic of this area, where the land lies low and dikes are vulnerable. The Frisians settled all along the flat North Sea coast, from Denmark down to a little north of Amsterdam in Holland, so they became experts at surviving high water. Their language and landscape reflect their expertise. A warf can be a natural hillock, but more typically it’s manmade.

Wanna know more? Try this: In Frisian, the word for milk is “meluk”; for holm they say “holum”; warm is “warum.” You can see they’re the same word, in English or Frisian—the Frisians just add a little extra oomph between the L (or R) and the final consonant. The word for this adding of a vowel to help you bridge from one consonant to the next is epenthesis—in this case, epenthesis after a liquid (L or R). It’s characteristic of the Frisian adaptation of certain Germanic root words. English does the same thing (think of the word bottle), but under different circumstances.

Glad you asked?

Don’t miss the sea monster, bigger than a ship. One wants to be careful when swimming in the sea near the coast of Ostfriesland.

Holmergast map

By the time Fabricius gets down to the southern part of the map, his geographical accuracy gets a bit dodgy, but he clearly knows the names of many towns and villages, and their rough relation to each other. If you compare this to a modern map, though, you’ll see his geography is much more vague here, where in the area around Esens it’s almost identical to a modern map.

Here’s an interesting flub: Fabricius writes “holmergast” for the town named Holtgast. He doesn’t spell everything quite the way we do now, but most of the differences are understandable: Deteren on his map is Detern today; Velde is Velde; apen is Apen; Stickhúsen is Stickhausen; Filsúm is Filsum; Rowde is Rhaude; Langholt is Langholt. Kellinghoust becomes Collinghorst. You can see that, even with minor spelling differences, the place names have stayed the same, and sounded the same, for the past 400 years. Why, then, does he have Holmergast instead of Holtgast?

One explanation might be that where he (or someone else) had jotted down the correct name for the place—Holtgast—he misread the handwriting when he transcribed it onto the map. One shorthand abbreviation for a word ending with -m (Holum, for example) was a short line, like a hyphen—or the crossbar of a t—over the last letter of the word. So the scribbled scribal abbreviation for Holum might look a lot like Holt, and the scribbled word Holt might be mistaken for Holum.

This is of particular interest because for many years Americans have been telling each other that a particular fellow—Tjerck Claessen DeWitt, the ancestor of most American DeWitts—came from a town named Grootholt. Where do they get this notion? They get it from an old marriage register, listing people married in New Amsterdam and where they were from. The handwriting in the book we have today clearly says “Grootholt.” But that handwriting is a transcription of a lost original. The original record was written in 1656; the copy we have was made around 1682.

How did Holt get written as Holmer here? Could the same error have been made in reverse when the marriage record was transcribed? Further investigation might shed more light. (We have handwriting samples from the fellow who wrote the original marriage record, for example.)

Briefly, the reason we believe today that Tjerck Claessen DeWitt came from Holum (Grootholum then, in Frisian; Großholum today, in German) is that his sister said she was from “Esens in Embderlant” when she was married in 1664 (also part of the transcribed record). Tjerck inherited land from his father at “Ooster Bemis in Oost Vrieslant,” which sounds like Ostbense in Ostfriesland. Holum, Esens and Ostbense are a few miles from each other. No place named Grootholt has been found that matches the rest of the story as well.

For further discussion of the family, see my excerpts from the record of baptisms in early Manhattan, as well as my genealogy home page. (You can also have a look at my trip to Ostfriesland and the discussion of ancestry there, if you haven’t already. That set of pages includes a list of links to other informative sites.)

A more thorough, unified discussion of the entire case will be made somewhere else, some other day.

Map facsimile accompanied Heft 8 of Nordseeküste, 1963, a publication of the Küstenmuseum Juist in Juist, Germany.

Fabricius Intro . . . Fabricius Titles & Notes . . . More Fabricius Details

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