Knickerbocker Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Knickerbocker Surname Meaning

Knickerbocker, originally Knickerbacker, was a surname that dated back to an early Dutch settler in New York in the 1680’s. 

“The name is unique.  It seems safe to assert that there has never been but one family of that name.  It is evident that it was constructed out of a combination of a family name and an individual peculiarity.  There has never been offered a rational solution for its meaning.”

Knickerbocker was later popularized by Washington Irving when he published his satirical A History of New York in 1809 under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker.  The name then became a term for Manhattan’s aristocracy during the 19th century.

Knickerbocker had also by the late 1850’s come to denote a type of loose breeches gathered below the knee, evidently because of the resemblance of the garment to the breeches worn by the Dutchmen in Cruikshank’s illustrations to Irving’s book.

Knickerbocker Surname Resources on The Internet

Knickerbocker Surname Ancestry

  • from Holland
  • to America (New York)

The Knickerbocker name originated with a Dutchman, but did not exist in Holland.  Indeed the first bearer of the name was recorded in New York in 1680 as Harmen Jansen van Bommel, Bommel being the Dutch town in North Brabant from whence he came.

America.  There is a real and a fictional development of the Knickerbocker name in New York.

New York.   Harmen Jansen’s last name began to change when a clerk near Albany in upstate New York, for whatever reason (perhaps as a nickname), wrote Harmen’s last name as Kinne Ker Backer.  Over time this became Knickerbacker and appears to have superseded the van Bommel name by 1690.

Most of the Knickerbockers today have descent from Harmen’s second son Lawrence, born in 1681, because he had many sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons. Two of his sons – Cornelius and Benjamin – settled at Pine Plains in Dutchess county and many Knickerbockers were to be found there.

A more notable line was that from Harmen’s eldest son Johannes who was born in 1679.  He had received a land grant of some 50 acres on the south side of Schaghticoke Creek in Rensselaer county.  This Schaghticoke estate was later held:

  • by his son Johannes, a colonel in the Continental army during the Revolutionary War.  Johannes it was who built the still-standing Schaghticoke Mansion in 1780.
  • and by his great grandson Herman, a lawyer and a US Congressman from 1809 to 1811.

Herman Knickerbacker was a famous gentleman of the old school who – because of his courtly and lavish hospitality – was called “the Prince of Schaghticoke.”

Fact met fiction when a young Washington Irving met Herman and then would describe himself as Herman’s cousin Diedrich Knickerbocker.  He penned his 1809 satirical A History of New York under this name.  Because of the book Diedrich Knickerbocker became a much-loved character and legend in New York.  Then came The Knickerbocker, a magazine of New York City which ran from 1833 to 1865 and was the most influential literary publication of its time.

As a result the Knickerbocker name came to represent the old Dutch families of New York and, in addition, the elite 19th century families of New York as well.

Elsewhere.  New York accounted for 75% of all the Knickerbockers in America in 1840, but that share was down to 35% by 1920.  The Knickerbocker name had spread.  Among those who headed West were:

  • Herman’s son David Buel who joined the church after leaving Schaghticoke in the 1850’s and was appointed the Episcopal Bishop for Indiana in 1883.  His cousin Richard had departed for Wayne county, Michigan a decade or so earlier.  
  • Walter Knickerbocker who left Dutchess county, New York for Genesee county, Michigan in the 1840’s.  His son John was a prominent watch-maker and jeweler at Flint and later at Caro.    
  • and Reuben Knickerbocker, whose family was originally from Dutchess county, left for Louisiana in the 1860’s and later settled in the area of Dallas, Texas.  Reuben’s grandson Hubert, born there, was known as “Red” because of the color of his hair.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1931 and was an American journalist in Europe during the later buildup-to-war. 

Outside of New York, Knickerbockers are mainly to be found in Michigan, California and Texas today.

Knickerbocker Names

  • Harmen Jansen Knickerbacker who came to New York in the 1670’s was the forebear of the Knickerbockers in America. 
  • Herman Knickerbocker, a US Congressman in the early 1800’s, was a courtly person who was dubbed “the Prince of Schaghticoke.” 
  • Diedrich Knickerbocker was the pen-name used by Washington Irving when he published his satirical A History of New York in 1809. 
  • Suzy Knickerbocker was the pen-name used by Aileen Mehle, a society columnist syndicated to a hundred newspapers all over America.

Knickerbocker Numbers Today

  • 1,800 in America (most numerous in New York)

Knickerbocker and Like Surnames

These are Dutch-originated names, Dutch surnames that found their way in the 17th century to New York and to South Africa.  Here are some of the Dutch surnames that you can check out.

BeekmanHendricksKnickerbockerVan Buren

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Written by Colin Shelley

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