12 November 2001

What's in a Name?

What does "Fiegenbaum" mean?

There are no documents, engraved stone tablets or ageless folk tales to explain the meaning of the name Fiegenbaum. The origins undoubtedly reside in the day to day affairs of the family members, friends and neighbors of the people who eventually accepted this identity. It is easy to believe that everyone in this close community knew who and what was meant when someone said, "Fiegenbaum sent his linen to Tecklenburg yesterday." Explaining the obvious was not a task many would have felt compelled to do. Even fewer would have left a record of their efforts.

What may have been obvious in that former time is not so clear to us now. A look backwards does not answer many questions. The best that can be done is to record faithfully the known facts and to advance a few restrained suppositions. As one member of the family wrote: "We have no definitive interpretation, but I think we can live with it."

Members of our family are currently found on three continents, in Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Brazil and the United States. Those researchers most familiar with the family history have noted that all of us can trace our ancestry back to the village of Ladbergen, an ancient settlement on the heath in the present state of North Rhine-Westphalia in the Federal Republic of Germany. It follows that anyone hoping to uncover clues to the meaning of the family name must also return to this area of Europe.

The early Fiegenbaums were never a prominent family or substantial landowners in Ladbergen. Anyone in our family hoping for noble lineage, with castles and a coat of arms, will have to look to their in-laws for that sort of glory. Where one finds early written evidence of the family is in the mundane records of everyday life: births, deaths and marriages, and the occasional tax bill. Surviving church archives for Ladbergen date back to 1707, when the Count of Tecklenburg, in serious financial straits, sold his domain to the King Friedrich I of Prussia. Most earlier village documents were destroyed during the Thirty Years' War, which raged across northern Europe from 1618 to 1648. A few documents from other sources in Tecklenburg and Westphalia exist to help round out the picture.

The early written record in Germany shows a variety of spellings for the family name:

1543 Tigge Viegenboem
1577 Viegen Hermann
1580 Vigenboem
1643 Viegenbom
c. 1700 Vi(e)genboom
1727 Fiegenboom
c. 1740 Viggenbaum
c. 1755 Fiegenbohm
c. 1780 Figenbaum
1800-1815   Fiegenbaum

By the 1830s and 1840s, when members of the family where beginning to emigrate to the New World, the spelling had by and large settled into the current form: Fiegenbaum. Even then, however, there were instances in Missouri where some creative speller wrote the name as Fügenbaum or Figenbaum. This practice is not unknown even in the 21st century.

These variations in orthography are not surprising, coming as they do from eras when literacy was a rare accomplishment. Moreover, Low German (Plattdeutsch or plattdütschk), common to the north of the country, was never standardized and differs from district to district. Local dialects can vary considerably over rather small distances even today. The effects can be quite noticeable in a time when words were often spelled phonetically. In addition, spelling was influenced by the transformation of the language itself over the course of time. Martin Luther based his widely read translation of the Bible on the East Middle German dialects and this type of German grew gradually into modern Standard German (Hochsprache). It is the official written and spoken language for the entire nation. Today, Low German, in its written form, is limited to books of jokes, stories and local historical accounts. As a spoken language, however, it is still common among friends, neighbors, and co-workers; it is what you hear when people who know each other are at their ease. And of course, it is present in many of the place names and family names of Ladbergen.


In 1941, Dr. Gustav Korspeter, Director of the Oberschule in Tecklenburg and Chairman of the Münsterland Historical Society, was the first to attempt an evaluation of the Fiegenbaum name on the basis of the linguistic evidence. He noted the close correlation of the syllable viege and fiege in the various forms of the surname (the transposition of "f" for "v" is common in the historical development of some German words) with the Middle High German word veigen in one of the last verses of the Nibelungenlied, dating from about AD 1000-1100. The word in the ancient poem means "doomed to death."

This sense of the word was still present in the Tecklenburg District even in the 1930s, when it was not uncommon to hear some aged pastors employ the following Low German phrase when speaking of the approach of death:

De Fiege steiht vör em. Death stands before him.

Dr. Korspeter posited that this image of a solitary, ephemeral existence on the frontier between life and death was an accurate, if slightly poetic, description of the conditions confronted by early members of the Fiegenbaum family in Ladbergen.

Already by 1543, the Fiegenbaum farmstead had been identified in documents as Vigenboem. It was located at what was, until 1980, Hölter 11. Hölter is one of the Bauerschaften comprising Ladbergen [Bauerschaft(en) may be roughly translated as township(s)]. Before 1960, there were 3 such townships - Hölter, Wester and Overbeck - representing the very oldest agricultural settlements in the area, older than the village itself. Hölter forms the southeastern portion of Ladbergen, and Hof 11 (Hof = farmstead) in turn lies near the southeastern extreme of the township.

Beyond this outpost of cultivation, to the south, east and west, lay wilderness. Indeed, a survey in 1848 classified 63% of Ladbergen's land as woods or uncultivated wilds. Auf dem Schlade and Kattenvenner Swamp were low, wet areas that resisted large scale cultivation until extensive drainage operations in the 20th century. Kattmanns Kamp, a wooded hunting preserve of the Baron von Beverfoerde up until the middle of the 18th century, was known to harbor wolves who often marauded livestock, especially in winter. And, Vorbleck was a large, partly damp area extending into neighboring Ostbreven to the south. It was covered with stunted pines, juniper bushes and heather. Farmers used some of the vegetation as bedding in their stalls, and in portions of Vorbleck dug peat for their fires.

Predominately all this infertile land served as common pasture for the sheep and cattle of the citizens of Hölter, Wester and neighboring townships to the east. It also served as a haven for a less than desirable segment of society. Thieves, smugglers, and a transient, landless population frequently made their homes in the overlooked corners of these rough regions.

Between 1842 and 1844, Vorbleck and much of the other commons in the southern townships were divided up and sold to Ladbergen's existing landowners. This privatization of community property was a serious blow to the economic vitality of the tenant farmer class in the area. This group, with little or no land of their own, depended on access to these grazing rights to round out their subsistence agriculture.

By and large, these wild lands continued to be used for private pasture until late in the 19th century when the use of fertilizers made cultivation of some parcels practicable. However, large areas first came under the plow only during World War I with the use of steam-powered equipment and labor from French POWs. Even then, the productivity of the land was not good. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that significant improvements were made. The history of this area is one of Ladbergen's recurring battle to drain these lands and improve the agricultural value of the community.

For the Fiegenbaums, struggling to make a living on the thin, sandy soil of the heath, in an area with a high water table, and subject to the predations of wild animals and the free-ranging livestock of their neighbors, there may well have been times when the image of standing before Death's door, as Dr. Korspeter has suggested, may not have seemed too fanciful. The use of the old German word fiege to describe their condition, their farm and themselves may have seemed altogether fitting.


The German word Baum (or Boem, in its earlier form) does not require the extensive linguistic investigation demanded by the first syllable of the family name. It is a simple, common, everyday word: tree; pole, or beam; boom (in the nautical sense). To discover its significance for the picture painted by the name Fiegenbaum, it is once again necessary to return to the settlement patterns of Ladbergen and to apply some imagination. Researchers in Germany have suggested that there may be two possible reasons why the family came to be identified with a tree that held particular significance for the community.

Baum as barricade

In early times, many of the fields and meadows of Ladbergen, indeed of the entire Münsterland region of northwestern Westphalia, were surrounded by hedgerows, which also commonly lined both sides of country roads. After 1707, when Grafschaft Tecklenburg became a district of the Kingdom of Prussia, the construction and maintenance of hedgerows became mandatory. Royal inspectors could threaten negligent farmers with corporeal punishment. Extensive land reorganization throughout Germany following WW II, particularly the consolidation of numerous, non-contiguous parcels of farmland, spelled doom for most hedgerows. Those which remain today are protected by law.

In damp areas, particularly in the southeastern portion of Ladbergen, where the Fiegenbaum farmstead was located, farmers would dig ditches about 2-3 feet deep around their fields. The soil excavated from the ditches was built up into low earthen walls parallel to the ditches. In this manner, two functions were served. The farmers were able to drain their fields to some extent and thereby improve production. The combination of the small moat and wall also provided some protection to the tilled fields from wild animals and the free-ranging livestock grazing on the commons land.

Example of a Schlagbaum, a bar weighted at one end which acts to stop traffic along a road.

source: John Paget, Hungary and Transylvania; With Remarks on Their Condition, Social, Political, and Economical, 2 volumes (London: John Murray, 1839); volume 1, page 317.

Although this image is of a Schlagbaum in the town of Waitzen, Hungary, it would have looked right at home on the Heide (heath) near the Fiegenbaum farmstead in Ladbergen.

Hungarian Schlagbaum

The effect was enhanced when the mounds were planted with trees and bushes. These hedgerows were typically made up of what was called Koppstuken or stubs. Oak and willow trees were planted at regular intervals and the branches were trimmed to keep the trees low and to promote bushy growth. The ground in between was planted with other vegetation - birch, cherry, alder, ash, juniper and broom bushes. The woody material that was harvested on a regular basis from the hedgerows fueled the open hearth fires that heated the homes of Ladbergen and where meals were cooked. It was also used as wattle in the timber framed homes so typical of the area. The constant pruning created a thick tangle of young growth that formed a highly effective fence (hedgerows in Normandy were a serious obstacle to the advance of Allied troops in WW II until tanks, fitted with specially designed equipment, were able to cut their way through these cultivated obstacles).

The effectiveness of this barrier would have been seriously impaired by any breaks in the vegetation. Gates would have been functional when foot paths cut through the hedgerows. On roads, a sort of toll bar or turnstile would typically have been constructed. A stout pile was driven into the ground and a tree trunk was fixed to it about 3-6 feet above the root end. A large portion of the root ball was left intact to serve as a counterweight, thereby allowing the trunk to be raised and lowered with relative ease.

It is supposed that at one time such a Schlagbaum or toll bar existed near the Fiegenbaum farmstead. Located as it was on the edge of the wild common area, this would have been a logical place to install the community's first line of defense. Over the course of time, the family living and working near this landmark began to share its identity.

an eching of two oak trees standing close together in a open field
illustration by Otto Winkelstäter

Baum as sentinel

The image of a tree as a landmark for an agricultural community should not come as any surprise. Why the community at large should associate a particular family with such a symbol is a matter of speculation.

The possibility that there may have been one or more noteworthy trees on the Fiegenbaum farmstead is hinted at in the following description of property recorded in a mortgage book, now in the state archives in Münster, Germany:

Leibzucht vor dem alten Baum
  Heuerhaus vor dem neuen Baum

Retirement house before the old tree
  Tenant house before the new tree

Remarkable trees in the dooryard might be important for those who live under their protection, but that would not explain their significance for the whole village, unless the Fiegenbaum Hof and its trees could contribute to identifying the town as well. By virtue of its location on the boundary between cultivation and wilderness, safety and danger, productivity and chaos, the farmstead and trees could serve that purpose for the village of Ladbergen.

That symbolism could be embraced by the larger world as well. Ladbergen sits on the border of the former Bishopric of Münster and the old Grafschaft Tecklenburg. Any of the many territorial disputes between these two feudal powers invariably involved the small village as well. These disputes and attendant challenges from nearby settlements to the right of pasturage on the common areas in the southern part of the village were finally settled in the early 19th century. The new frontier was surveyed and marked by boundary stones. It is not such a far stretch of the imagination to believe that until that time many an aggrieved party referred to an outstanding natural feature, like a remarkable tree, to describe what rightfully belonged to them.


Dr. Günther Fiegenbaum, Hermanda (Lagemann) Fiegenbaum and Lieselotte (Freese) Fiegenbaum have been very generous in sharing their research on the Fiegenbaum family name. For this essay, I have done my best to synthesize their explanations. Where my ability with the German language or my comprehension has failed them, I apologize.

For the history of Ladbergen, I have relied heavily on Friedrich Saatkamp, Ladbergen: Out of the History and the Present of the 1000-year Westphalian Village, English translation by Dean R. Hoge (New Knoxville, OH: New Knoxville Historical Society, 1985). This is a translated and revised version of Friedrich Saatkamp, Ladbergen: Aus Geschichte und Gegenwart des 1000-jährigen westfälischen Dorfes. 2. Auflage (Ladbergen (Westfalen): Heimatverein Ladbergen, 1975).

The image of the toll bar or Schlagbaum in the town of Waitzen, Hungary, has been copied from John Paget, Hungary and Transylvania; With Remarks on Their Condition, Social, Political, and Economical, 2 volumes (London: John Murray, 1839); volume 1, page 317.

The illustration of a group of oak trees in the Tecklenburg landscape is by Otto Winkelstäter, and is borrowed from Gustav Korspeter, Kreis Tecklenburg. 6. Bänchen des Kreis- und Stadthandbücher des Westfälischen Heimatsbundes (Münster: Regensberg, 1949), page 16.