September 2009
revised March 2010
revised September 2011

I have a family note, presumed to have been written in England, which says at the top: "Children of John Cordes, who came from Germany". The note lists three children: Eliza, Mary, and Henry, together with their spouses and children -- more on the name "Mary" later.

During the past few years, working with a Cordes cousin in England, I've been able to establish that this John Cordes died in Stepney, London in 1850. During the course of this research some indications have appeared suggesting that John may actually have been born in London, in contradiction to the family note. It makes me wonder if his parents might have been the ones to have emigrated from Germany. Unfortunately I have no idea from where in Germany they may have come.

That early John Cordes, who was a 'leather draper' by occupation, married in London, then lived in Sheffield for a time before returning to London (probably before 1840) and dying there in 1850. He had at least three children: Eliza Catherine, who married Stephen Fellows; Ann, who married (1) Peter Slinn and (2) Joseph Lockhart; and Henry, my great-grandfather. It appears that the Mary referred to in the family note should be identified with Ann, who married (1) Peter Slinn and (2) Joseph Lockhart. Henry married (1) 1845 Sophia Millard in Ipswich and (2) 1859 to Jane Olive Burberry of Reigate. Henry and Jane were my great-grandparents.

It tends to surprise me, whenever I do a search, how many Cordeses there were in early England (even in the early 1700s). I have the impression that the family may have gone from Spain or southern France to Germany at some stage. I know the name Cordes is not at all uncommon in northern Germany, probably especially in the Hanover area.

There is a town in southern France called Cordes-sur-Ciel. Quoting from the Wiki article:

The fortified town was built in 1222 by the Count of Toulouse, a Cathar heretic, and is now a popular tourist spot. Until recently the town's name was Cordes, a word thought to come from the Indo-European root "corte" meaning "rocky heights."

I have often wondered if the Cordes family were religious refugees of some sort, and given the Cathar / Albigensi "massacres" which took place in those areas back around the 13th century or so it seems quite possible. It would not have been uncommon for a family in a new land to take, or be given, a name involving the place from which they came.

A cousin in England (not directly on the Cordes side) recently asked me about the etymology of the Cordes name. This is basically what I wrote to him; I will excise some irrelevant bits. Here was the question:

Do you know the etymology of your name? Looks sort of Portuguese to my untutored eye, perhaps via the Spanish Netherlands?

My response:

In my youth the family story was that our name somehow related to the Basque region (a pretty weird idea, but that's what was said), or, somewhat less specifically, to the border country between France and Spain, in the Pyrenees. I don't know where these ideas came from. Conceivably someone indicated the possibility to my family, based on the sound of the name, and what is perhaps the most common mis-pronunciation, something like Cordeeze. By the way, we pronounce it like Cor-dess, with a very slight emphasis on the first syllable. We sometimes tell people that our name rhymes with stewardess.

An odd thing about the Spanish "story" I've just mentioned is that my family was in possession of the note which says that the earliest known Cordes in our family tree was "John Cordes, who came from Germany". The period would be ca 1800, but apparently the note was long forgotten in my family.

I don't think I ever saw that note till I found it in a box after my parents had died. So from that point on I had a major readjustment to cope with! I wasn't doing active genealogy in those days, except for a bit on my Nova Scotia (Moser) roots.

This early John Cordes has been a major brick-wall for me. I have managed to find out when (and where) the three children in the Cordes family note were born: Eliza in London (1810), Ann in Sheffield (1817), and my g-grandfather Henry in Sheffield (1820-1821). I recently obtained the death certificate of John Cordes - he died in Stepney (East End London) in 1850, with a stated age of 75 years.

There is a town in southern France called Cordes, it was founded ca 1220 and was heavily involved in the Cathar religious movement (related to the Albigensian Crusade). I have a vague, unsupported feeling that the Cordes people might have been religious refugees, finding their way to northern Germany at some stage. There are many Cordeses in Germany, and a surprising number found there way to England, even starting in the 1700s. Searching on the name in Ancestry turns up many candidates with the name.

I have collected other material over the years with various speculations on the Cordes name -- at least I think of them as speculations. However, this has grown overly long already so I had best stop here.

and here was his reply (with minor editing)

Very interesting indeed. Your French Cordes theory sounds very plausible. i guess there was a Cathar diaspora after the Albigensian crusade. There was also a Huguenot diaspora (forget when but 17th-18th century rings a bell) much of it to Great Britain and Protestant Germany (not sure about the Netherlands). Some of the Grimm "German" folk tales are actually French, via an old Huguenot lady!

My Portuguese suggestion was simply because d and t are interchangable (as in butter versus budder), so you might orignally have been Cortes. There was a large Sephardic immigration from Spain/Portugal to the Netherlands during the sixteenth century persecution (I may have an ancestor via that route!).

and a bit more from a later message:

The free Netherlands invented religious tolerance, resulting in a signficant migration of Sephardim from Iberia. I'm guessing late 1500s but my (Ashkenazi) friend who would be able to confirm died a couple of years back!

In March of 2008 I received an email message from a Robert Cordes in Rancho Palos Verdes, California who had apparently seen a post of mine on GenForum. His note was quite interesting and I sent him an extensive reply. Robert and I have had an interesting and prolific exchange of emails over the past two years. I will include the text of his initial message:

I am very interested in your posting on genforum.

I have traced my father's origins back to 17th century Hanover (Tarmstedt) at which point the name was changed from Cors to Cordes. My grandfather said that in spite of the fact that they were German Lutherans they were French and descended from Huguenots. I have never been able to make this connection though I have found that both Cordes and Cors were among Huguenots who emigrated from France in the 16th century.

There is a Cordes in southern France (known as Cordes-sur-Ciel since the 1970's or 1980's when it became a tourist attraction, and there is also a short book on Cordes written by Camus). I visited this village in 1969 with my father and there is apparently no connection between the village and the family name. Cordes and Cors, however can be found in genealogical and heraldry sites in France and are shown mainly as originating in the Gévaudan, du Vellay and Vivarais areas or the modern day departments of Aveyron, Lozère and Ardèche. I also know that there were several Cordes's who emigrated from Mazamet to Charleston S.C. in 1685. Cordes is a well-known name in the Huguenot Society of South Carolina. There are Cordes's on Mormon genealogical sites in Spain, Mexico and Peru in the late 16th century. I also was acquainted with a Cordes brother and sister from Switzerland whose grandfather was teaching the girl of the trades Huguenots were allowed to pursue.

I do not know why our name was changed from Cors to Cordes but I have read that refugees changed their names for safety's sake. I don't know if there is any relation between Cors and Cordes in general. The Germans who researched my family in the Lutheran churches maintain that Cors is a north German rendering of Cordes and that Cordes is not a French name. I do not believe, however, that they know anything about genealogical history or the Huguenots.

This is what I know, which leads nowhere so far since I cannot find any record of a Cordes born in France dying in Germany. I would be interested in any information you have about the Cordes name and would like to know why you believe that the origins are in southern France or Spain.

It is completely new to me to see the name Cors mentioned. I have not even attempted to trace my family back beyond England, since I have too little to go on.

At the urging of Robert Cordes I have had DNA testing done with FamilyTree DNA. Ironically it turns out that Robert and I do not match, even at the 12-marker level (not even close!). I intend to put some of my DNA results online at some stage, once I figure out how. For now I will just say that my haplogroup is R1b1b2a1a. For some information about this see the Wiki article Haplogroup R (Y-DNA).

Robert Cordes has started a Surname Project at FamilyTree DNA called Cordesfamily, with Project Surnames: Cohrs, Cordes, Cordesman, Cords, Cors, Kordes, Kors.
    The statement of the Project Background is:

"The Cordes surname in the United States and other English speaking countries can be traced back most often to Northern Germany, especially the former Kingdom of Hanover. German genealogists generally agree that they believe the name is of German origin, meaning 'Conrad's son.' However, many of us have family stories handed down to us which tell of earlier origins in France and Spain. Since the name is fairly uncommon, those of us with the surname Cordes often consider ourselves all somehow related. We hope that DNA testing can shed some light on Cordes origins and relationships."

Robert has also written a very interesting summary, from his point of view, of the history of the Cordes name. Robert's treatment of the origins of various branches of Cordes families is much more broadly based than my simple discussion above. Robert's article can be read in the Background section of the FT-DNA Project: Cordes - Background.

Further Reading:

  • Surname: Cordes
       From the Internet Surname Database—not necessarily very reliable as a source for the origins of my own family name.
  • Cordes Name Meaning and History
       Indicates that Cordes is a variant spelling of the German Kordes. Also lists top places of origin for Cordes emigrants to the United States.
  • Cordes-name
      Eric van de Velde writes about the occurrence of the Cordes and Kordes names in the Netherlands. An extract: "Here in the Netherlands we have (de) Cordes from France and Cordes (Kordes) from Germany and they are not related. De Cordes probably came from a place "Cordes" in France, while in German it comes from the the first name Coert, Cort, which became a last name like Johnson or Jones probably come from John."