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Etymology of Casselman as a Surname

By Bill Casselman

My Lutheran Kasselmanns fled religious persecution by Roman Catholic powers in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Hesse, a grand duchy and later a German state. Many Kasselmans walked overland from Germany through the Netherlands, and then took passage by boat to reach London at the dawn of the eighteenth century. Along one of the sootier stretches of the River Thames was an unsavoury embankment slum for German refugees and poor settlers called Germantown. Our genealogists believe that my Lutheran Kasselmann ancestors lived in vile poverty there eking out a fragile subsistence while pondering how best to improve their earthly fortunes. Apparently the only salvation was that virtual enslavement known as the indenture, a contract by which the hapless signer was bound in service to a master for a period of seven years in the colonies of Great Britain. Although the indenture began as a legal covenant obligating an apprentice to work for his master, it was soon abused as a typically polite British way to countenance what amounted to slavery. The indentured servant worked for no actual payment. Although I have not to hand the original Kasselmann indenture, many examples of such documents survive from the time. Here is a revealing extract from an indenture of 1693:

"This Indenture Witnesseth that Isaac Ferdinando son of Isaac Ferdinando late of London, Merchant, dead, doth put himself apprentice to George Gilbert Citizen and BLACKSMITH of London, to learn his Art: and with him (after the manner of an Apprentice) to serve from the day of (Illegible assumed 3rd November 1693) unto the full term of (illegible) years, from thence next following, to be fully compleat and ended. During which the said Apprentice his said Master faithfully shall serve, his Secrets keep, his lawful Commandments everywhere gladly do. He shall do no damage to his said Master, nor see to be done to others, but that he to his power shall let or forthwith give warning to his said Master of the same. He shall not waste the Goods of his said Master, nor lend them unlawfully to any. He shall not commit fornication, nor contract Matrimony within the said Term. He shall not play at Cards, Dice, Tables, or any other unlawful Games, whereby his said Master may have any loss. With his own Goods or others, during the said Term, without licence of his said Master he shall neither buy nor sell. He shall not haunt Taverns, or Play-Houses, nor absent himself from his said Master's service day nor night unlawfully. But in all things as a faithful Apprentice he shall behave himself towards his said Master, and all his, during the said Term. And the said Master his Apprentice in the same Art which he useth, by the best means that he can, shall teach and instruct, or cause to be taught and instructed, finding unto his said Apprentice, meat, drink, apparel, Lodging, and all other necessities, according to the custom of the City of London, during the said Term. And to the true performance of all and every said Covenants and Agreements, either of the said parties bindeth himself unto the other by these presents. In witness whereof the parties abovenamed to these indentures interchangeably have put their Hands and Seals, The third day of November in the fifth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord and Lady, King William and Queen Mary, of England, &c. Anno Dom. 1693".
Signed with the mark of Isaac Ferdinando and a counter signature by James Oliver, the Notary.

Whew! In other words, an indentured servant might well have to seek leave from his master to fart! The reader will observe not a word concerning payment for the lowly apprentice and that, because there was none. Not a farthing, sir. You did the work; you were fed, clothed, and sheltered. You ought to grateful for that, you lowly varlet! Because British common law established a man free at 21, most indentures of British young males were signed so that their seven years' apprenticeship was completed upon the apprentice's arrival at the age of majority. But grown men in hard circumstance (i.e. The Kasselmanns, "bunch of smelly Krauts!" as Basil Fawlty might yell) were often forced to indenture themselves as well as their children.

To afford passage to the New World, the Kasselmänner signed indentures to work with the British Navy, an organization not renowned then or now for clemency or humanity. By 1712 my ancestors lived in the small towns of Schoharie and Stone Arabia in the Mohawk Valley, west of the Hudson River in present-day New York State. Earlier they had begun their adventure in America by caulking ships in a British Navy yard on the Hudson River.

The impertinent and unsympathetic reader may admonish me by stating that the Casselmans did earn their passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, indeed, to the blissful haven of oakum and tar buckets and seven years on your knees in front of a kindly Naval overseer.

The legal documents obligating an apprentice to work for a master for a given period of time, known as indentures, were required to be filed with the Customs Officers in the ports at which the apprentice was enrolled. Records of these early indentures may be found amongst customs records in CUST classes at the Public Record Office of England. The names of the ships sailing for the colonies were recorded and so were the legal instruments pertaining to ships' passengers. Therefore it is at the British P.R.O. that questing Casselmans should track these vestiges of our indentured family history.

During the eighteenth century most Kasselmanns changed the spelling of their surname to Casselman. But some had used that spelling even in sixteenth-century Germany, for we have recorded dated instances of such a spelling in Europe.

During the War of American Independence, Casselmans for the most part remained loyal to that most taxing of monarchs, King George III of England, their loyalty buoyed up by the offer of free land along the St. Lawrence River, to which haven they removed themselves with due alacrity as the New York air grew thick with musket shot. There is a thick strand of peasant practicality in Casselman genes. May it never dwindle! I almost hear an ancestor on the verge of war saying, "So we can stay here and be shot. Or, there is free land in the Ottawa Valley." After the utterance of such a sentence, I cannot imagine a New York village with any Casselmans, and I am proud of such an imagining too, let me add.

These land grants for United Empire Loyalists were generous: 500 acres of fertile loam along the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River to each male immigrant who had attained the age of twenty-one. But some Casselmans remained in America and fought the British, enough of them to make a character named Suffrenus Casselman one of the villains in Walter Edmond's 1936 novel Drums along the Mohawk . And Sophrenus was a real given name in the Casselman family's early American history. One of my relatives was a Cephrenus Casselman.

As to the origin of my last name in its original German form, Kasselmann is a locative surname that means simply in German einer aus Kassel, that is, the founding ancestor was a person from the city of Kassel in Hesse. Logic dictates that one would not receive the surname Kasselmann while living in Kassel. There would be too many Kasselmans. The surname would arise after people had moved from Kassel to some community where at first they would be the only people from Kassel. And indeed our family seems to have been first dubbed Kasselman in a little German town in Hesse named Einsiedler.

Kassel was the site of a Roman fortification on the outer marches of the empire and takes its name from castellum , Latin for 'small military encampment.' In later Latin castellum referred to a more substantial stronghold, a fortified camp. The same Latin word gives rise to words in English and French like castle, château, and chatelaine. Castellum in form and origin is a diminutive of castrum (plural castra ), the prime word for Roman fortress or military encampment. Castra became an operative suffix in some British place names, locations that began as encampments for imperial legions during the Roman occupation of Britain, places like Chester, Doncaster, Manchester, and home of that pungent sauce, Worcestershire.

Although my ancestors were Lutherans, when Casselman is a Jewish surname, it is likely to be an anglicizing of Kesselman in which the surname derives from the Hebrew male first name Yekutiel (sometimes Yekusiel), which had a pet form "Kessel" or "Kesseleh." The Elizabethan transliteration of Yekutiel that appears in the King James version of First Chronicles is Jekuthiel, a son of the scribe Ezra. In Hebrew Yekutiel means 'fear of God.'

Casselman can also be an Englishing of the German occupational surname Kesselmann ultimately from German Kessel 'kettle,' 'pot,' 'boiler,' thus pointing to an ancestor who made pots and pans, a boilermaker, a coppersmith. But the more common form of this occupational name was Kessler.

excerpted from Bill Casselman's autobiography

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