My German Immigrant Ancestor: Part One
By Ruth Emmel
In order to find your German ancestor you need to know two things: 1) his name and 2) his religion.
German Names: Genealogists locate information about their ancestors by searching for their names. It isn’t easy to locate a German ancestor because it is not just the issue of various spellings but also other problems.
First Names (Taufnamen)
The French started the tradition of giving children multiple names at birth during the sixteenth century. They spread their system to all of Germany during the time they occupied parts of it in the seventeenth century. Often the second name is the name of the infant’s baptismal sponsor. At this time the majority of male infants were named Johann. Girls were named Anna or Maria. If a child died at birth the name was used again for the next child of the same sex.
By the time the nineteenth century came more names were added. Some infants were given as many as four names. An example is one of my German ancestors was named Johannes Albert Wilhelm. He went by the name of Wilhelm. This followed the tradition when three names were given to the infant that the last of the three names was the one used. As time went on the practice of naming children for their baptismal sponsor changed. They now started to name their children after men who were prominent in the community, political leaders, or after German nobility.
This causes a problem in filing and indexing official records. Another German ancestor was given the name Ludwig Wilhelm. In Germany he went by the name Wilhelm as was the tradition. When he came to the United States he became William Louis. I did not know he was Ludwig Wilhelm until after his death when I started to look at the old German records. When looking for records such as deeds and other legal papers you need to look under both first and middle names. You also need to look for both the German name and the anglicized name.
Johann, Johan, and Johannes all translate to John in English and we consider them the same name. In German there is a difference. Johann and Johan are always used with a second name, but Johannes stands alone. It never has a second name. However, notice that my ancestor Johannes Albert Wilhelm seems to be an exception to the rule. First he was never called Johannes and went by the name of Wilhelm his entire life. When you are looking at German church baptismal records you will notice that all the boys in the family are given the first name Johann, and they use their second names as they go through life. It is important to know this as you are looking for siblings of your male ancestor, Johann.
Handwriting both here in the United States and in Germany may be an issue. Back in the early 19th century and before all records were hand written. Just as today some pastors had better handwriting than others.
Family Names (Surnames)
Surnames can be even more confusing for the genealogist because many German surnames can have various spellings. Before the nineteenth century German surnames were not standardized. Germans who came to the United States communicated their names verbally and they were then written phonetically. Sometimes the spellings aren’t even logical. Sometimes there are even variants in the German church records. For instance another ancestor’s surname was Freitag. This may have been recorded on his baptismal record and on his marriage record the minister wrote Freytag. Another example is the surname Emmel. On some records it is Eṁel. This is the Roman way of doubling something.
Sometimes the D and T are interchanged. In German the D is pronounced like our T. Therefore a change in the spelling occurs. Other reversals are B and P, V and F, and C, G, and K.
The umlaut, two dots above the vowels ä, ö, ü, lengthens the sound of the vowel. When we write it in English we add an e to the vowel. Therefore ä become ae, ö becomes oe, and ü becomes ue. Therefore the name Prätorious becomes Praetorious, Stöppler becomes Stoeppler, and Wüst becomes Wuest.
Some of the beginnings of German names start with Sch: Schwartz, Schmidt, Schneider, Scharff, Schulz: Kn; Knorr, Pf: Pfeil, and Neu, Neumann.
Many of our names have suffixes such as berg, burg, bruck, mann, furt, stein, thal. These have meanings such as mountain, castle, bridge, man, ford, stone, and valley.
When German settlers came to the United States they settled in areas where there were other Germans. Thus the German family name kept its German character as long as they stayed within those German speaking areas. When either they or their descendants moved to more English speaking areas many of their German surnames were either translated or changed a great deal.
All these issues are encountered by genealogists doing German research. At times it can be a brick wall and hopefully knowing something about German naming will help to overcome it. Hopefully your German immigrant kept his German surname. The majority of them did. You can make some assumptions about the name because there are certain ways German names are spelled.
Religion of Your Ancestor
The religion your ancestor was in the United States may not be the religion he was in Germany. From time to time various religious groups immigrated. As early as the late 1600s the Mennonites settled in Germantown. This was the start of other groups coming to Pennsylvania during the 1700s.
The Lutheran Church was strong in the northern states of Germany while the southern states, such as Bavaria were Catholic. The Reformed Church was predominately in the Palatinate. Catholic records go back to 1563 and are written in Latin. Lutheran and Reformed Church records go back to 1550 and are written in German. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 stipulated that there would be only three religious organizations in Germany. Some of the German churches that organized in the United States were Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed, the same three as in Germany.
Any sects that developed were outlawed. It is understandable why they left Germany and came to the United States. They hoped to be able to practice their religion here. Up until the time of Napoleon the Lutheran and Reformed Churches were separate. In 1806 in the Palatinate, in 1807 in other southern states, and in 1817 in Prussia, they were decreed to be one church, the Protestant Evangelical Christian Church. In this merger an interesting thing happened. It was ordered by the government that it was up to the minister if he wanted to follow the Reformed Doctrine or the Lutheran Doctrine. A minister and his congregation may have been using the Reformed Doctrine in their services and a new minister came to the church who was trained in the Lutheran Doctrine. Of course the members of that church were not happy and in the 1800s ministers throughout Prussia rebelled against this. Finally the church was split into two bodies again. Since so many German people came to the United States it was difficult for the American church bodies to provide pastors for them. Some of the churches contacted their counterparts in Germany and asked if they could send pastors to the United States. Many German pastors came to the United States, especially to the Middle West and plains states.
That is why when you are looking at the church records it will say a person to be either Katholisch or Evangelisch. If you are looking at earlier records you will see the two denominations, Reformierte and Lutherische, written in this way. The Lutherans of this time are often referred to as the Old Lutherans.
German Genealogical Research by George Schweitzer, 1995.
A Genealogical Handbook of German Research: Volume 1 by Larry Jensen, 1980.
Finding Your German Ancestors: A Practical Guide for Genealogists by John T. Humphrey, 2009.
German Family Research Made Simple by J. Konrad, 1997
The German Research Companion by Shirley Riemer, Roger Minert and Jennifer Anderson, 2010.