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Drost, Richter, Scholte and Schulte

Early Dutch surname Schouten has regional Lowland equivalents

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill Genealogy

North Americans wondering about their roots and identity frequently overlook the keyword that has identified them for a lifetime: their surname. If their surname is Schout(en), they can be fairly certain that their name has been used by their ancestors for hundreds of years already. The source of the surname, the office of ‘schout’ in the Dutch government was replaced in the late eighteenth century by ‘openbare aanklagers.’ While the given name Schoute has fallen into disuse its Frisian cousin Schelte 1) still survives to this day.

The office of ‘schout’ in the western part of the Netherlands had its equivalents elsewhere, known as ‘Drost,’ ‘Richter,’ ‘Scholte’ or ‘Schulte’ and its much earlier predecessors ‘Baljuw,’ ‘Drossaard,’ ‘Schenk’ and ‘Meier.’ The responsibilities associated with these offices evolved through the centuries and were not necessarily the same in every jurisdiction. It is tempting to call a Schout the public prosecutor of early times but that underrates the medieval role in society of such an official. Today’s public prosecutor does not chair a court, act as a police chief or run the affairs of his village or town, but a Schout, depending on the timeframe in which he served, did.

As observed already, the exact nature of the office of Schout varied from place to place and gradually changed over the course of time. In general, a Schout was appointed by the medieval lord (heer) of a domain (heerlijkheid) and acted on behalf of his employer in the local day-to-day administration of the domain, especially in the administration of justice. A Schout held three main functions: administration, law enforcement and criminal prosecution.

A Schout was responsible for many local administrative matters in the town or heerlijkheid. He presided over the meetings with his schepenen (representatives from the burgers who held local voting rights). Together, they made up what would be called a"town council" today. The Schout ensured that decrees were published and when needed represented his town or heerlijkheid in business matters beyond his own jurisdiction. In these functions, the Schout’s office resembled somewhat that of a modern-day mayor.

The phrase 'schout en schepenen' appears in many legal documents from before the Napoleonic period, including the civil registration of marriages. Depending on the context and in what capacity they were acting, this phrase could mean "the sheriff and magistrates".

Additionally, the Schout was responsible for public order and policing. He investigated crimes, apprehended criminals and presented criminals to the court of magistrates (the schepenen) for trial. The Schout and his men checked the inns and bars, carried out conscription orders, saw to it that taxes were paid and enforced the law. After a criminal verdict had been pronounced, the Schout also carried out the sentence, be it capital, corporal or some other no-nonsence punishment, which could also involve banishment.

Lastly, a Schout prosecuted suspected criminals and presided over the sessions of the magistrates when they heard court cases. The Schout was not a judge, but directed the court proceedings, somewhat like a prosecutor.

It is obvious that a Schout held a key position in his jurisdiction… The West India Company brought the office of Schout to New Netherland…

A number of family historians have tried to describe the office of Schout in English and looked for an English equivalent but likely did not consider the general history and regional nuances. To call a Schout Sheriff falls short of the mark just as it is not helpful to call a Baljuw a Bailiff. While the origin of these offices is rather obscure, it may well lay in the German expression of Schuld heissen or debt collector on behalf of medieval lords….

The number of surnames in the Schouten, Drost and Schulte range that were researched for this survey totaled over 100.

The above is a much digested version of the original article. Copies of the original, fully illustrated article, which is the fourth in a series, can be ordered by contacting the Windmill Herald / the Windmill Post office, see also contact information.