Riis: A Short Name with a Long History

13 Oct


Our Riis lineage begins on the Danish island of Bornholm.

In tracing our Riis genealogy, it’s important to understand that “Riis” was not a surname for most of our family’s history but a clan designation. Danes used a patronymic naming system until relatively recently, genealogically speaking). In a patronymic system an individual is identified by his father’s name. For example, Lars, the son of Neils would be called Lars Neilsen, while Lars Nielsen’s son Ole would be Ole Larsen, and so on (yes, Danes had daughters, too: Lars’ daughter Karen would be Karen Larsdatter). You can see already, I’m sure, the difficulty in tracing a Danish family’s genealogy from generation to generation when the family’s name keeps changing. But sorting out all those Jens Hansens and Hans Jensens, even on a small, sparsely-populated island, can be confusing even to their contemporaries, so individuals were also identified by a larger family or clan name, often derived from the family’s ancestral home.

Risgård can be seen on this map from 1921. Note also the tiny village of Risby at top center; literally: "Riis village"

Risegård can be seen on this map from 1921. Note also the location designated “Risby” at top center; “Risby” translates literally as “Ris Village.” Old records show Risby as the location of several farms owned by people named Riis.

The ancestral home of the Riis clan was the farm Risegård (“Ris [a sort of thorny flowering bramble] Farm”); pronounced REES-e-gaw) in the village of Klemensker, a short distance inland from the northwestern coast of Bornholm. Risegård still exists today as a working wheat farm; my brother Jim and I visited there in 2002. There are Riises (then spelled “Ris”; the second “i” was added sometime before the 1600s) appearing in Bornholm historical records as far back as the mid-1300s. Unfortunately, tracing a direct line to these earliest Riises is all but impossible. The church at Klemensker burned in the 1700s, taking centuries of birth, marriage and death records with it. The church was rebuilt, but those valuable records are lost forever.

We can actually see the Riis surname coming into it’s contemporary usage during the lifetime of my great-great-grandfather. At the time of his birth in 1840 he is entered into the church record simply as “Hans Thomias Jensen.” At the time of his marriage to Christine Andersen (AKA Christine Andersdatter AKA Christine Dam) in 1869 he is shown as “Hans Thomias Jensen (Riis).” In all subsequent records he appears as “Hans Thomias Jensen Riis.”

Our direct Riis lineage can be traced to Hans Jensen Riis’ grandfather, Hans Larsen (1758-1838), a soldier and farmer from Klemensker (have you deduced that the ancestor in between had to have been named Jens Hansen? If so, good job!). We can tell from Hans Larsen‘s name that his father’s name was Lars, but that’s as far as we can go back… for now. I’m always hoping and searching for some clue that can lead us further back.

Jim and I at Risegård, July 2002

Jim and me at Risegård, Klemensker, Denmark, July 2002


Posted by on October 13, 2013 in Surnames


2 responses to “Riis: A Short Name with a Long History

  1. Sharon Buxton-Bregola

    January 20, 2018 at 10:37 am

    This was rather interesting and the fact that the original church burned down in the 1700 with all records lost, explains why I am having some trouble tracing back my lineage through my great-grandmother, who was also born in Klemensker in 1853. I just recently visited Bornholm and Klemensker in May of 2017. The existing church is beautiful, but I digress. Would you happen to know when the stopped using Patronymics on Bornholm. I was told, by some of the Bornholm natives, it was way after the rest of Denmark stopped but couldn’t pinpoint an approximate time frame. Thanks for sharing your findings and I wish you the best.

    Sharon Buxton-Bregola Jan 20 2018

    • Our Union Page

      January 20, 2018 at 12:14 pm

      I can only hazard a pretty good guess. My great-great grandfather was baptized Hans Jensen in 1841. When he married in 1869 his name was recorded as Hans Jensen (Riis). A few years later he appears as Hans Jensen Riis; all of his children, born in the 1870s, were baptized with the surname Riis. It appears that the patronymic tradition was breaking up on Bornholm in the 1860s and gone by the 1870s.


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