German Names in Genealogy

A crucial factor in finding our ancestor’s records is knowing the correct name to use for our searches. However, even if we search the correct source, we may not find them because we do not recognize the name.

As we work backward when searching American records, we may find a document that should belong to our ancestor but has a slightly different name – either surname, given name or both. We need to be patient when we encounter these variations. Look for other details in the document to confirm this belongs to our ancestor and save the name for future reference. I have found that passenger lists and naturalization papers indicate the name closest to the original German name.

Also, do not be confused by the myth that immigration officials changed the names. They did not change any immigrant’s name at arrival. If you found your family changed their name, the immigrants probably modified their name after arrival due to problems with pronunciation and spelling of their names in their daily life.

Here are some tips to help sort through the variations we find in the records.

Surname variations in American Records

Phonetic Spelling – Most of the surname spelling variations occurred as clerks wrote the name as it sounded in English. The clerk did not speak German, and many immigrants had heavy accents. Also, they may have been illiterate or changed to minimize future problems. Simple examples of this substitution are:

  • Miller for Müller
  • Wineberg for Weinberg.

English Translation – During World War I, many Germans anglicized their names by substituting the English translation such as :

  • Kieffer to Pine
  • Feuerstein to Firestone
  • Fassbinder to Cooper
  • Schwaiger to Shepherd
  • Zimmermann to Carpenter

Since many immigrants could not read or write, phonetic spellings of names are very common. This practice is one explanation of the name change.

Names with Umlauts – If the German surname contains an AE, OE, or UE, it will have an umlaut over these letters in its German spelling. Including the name with the umlaut in your search criteria will help find your records in German databases.

My biological father’s surname may have been changed using both types of variations and includes an umlaut. German records list the family name as Wüertemberger. However, it was altered on Colonial and early American records to Whittinghill. One cousin pointed out that “berg” in German translates to mountain or hill. Therefore, when we say the name Wüertemhill with a heavy German accent, it sounds similar to Whittinghill.

Other practices that may confuse:

One situation causing name confusion in American records was the practice by the German immigrants of using both an anglicized name and their German name. The immigrants listed an anglicized name on civil records such as census and land records. However, they continued to use their German name within the German community. For example, their German name may be found in church records, German-language newspapers, and rosters of clubs and fraternal groups.

Another confusing situation found among immigrants occurs when different branches adopt different spellings for the surname. For example, among my Wuertemberger family in America, multiple branches have adopted similar but different surnames such as Whittinghill, Wurtenberger, Whittenberg, Wattenbarger.

German Given Names

I have also found that given names can cause confusing search results. In Germany, children were given multiple names at baptism – usually two but as many as four. The first name is a spiritual name, such as a favorite saint’s name, although biblical names were preferred among protestants after the reformation. Also, some families would repeat the first name for multiple children. The second or middle name was the name that was generally used to call or identify the person. The middle name was usually determined using various patterns each family had used to name their children after specific family members. If the child received more than two names, the additional names were of the parents or other relatives. Often the child dropped these additional names as they matured.

In American records, our ancestor may have used their middle name, and this practice initially confused me on a few occasions. However, in German documents, we will probably find them in records with two names, with the middle name being the name we are accustomed to seeing.

Below is a sample of a pattern German families used for naming their children:

          Sons                                                            Daughters

1st son after the father’s father
2nd son after the mother’s father
3rd son after the father
4th son after the father’s father’s father
5th son after the mother’s father’s father
6th son after the father’s mother’s father
7th son after the mother’s mother’s father
1st daughter after the mother’s mother
2nd daughter after the father’s mother
3rd daughter after the mother
4th daughter after the father’s father’s mother
5th daughter after the mother’s father’s mother
6th daughter after the father’s mother’s mother
7th daughter after the mother’s mother’s mother

If an infant died, many parents would name the next child born of the same gender with the name of the child who died. However, seeing two children with the same name does not always mean the elder child died. So always look for a death record.  

Another practice that may confuse us when searching church or civil records is the language used in creating the record. Changing borders has caused our German ancestors’ civil records to be created using German, French, and Polish, depending on location. As the various provinces and principalities fell under the rule of different countries, the language used in records could change. Church records may be in one of these three languages but I usually find Latin. Below are a few examples of how language changes the spelling of given names:

GermanLatinFrenchPolish
AlbrechtAdalbertusAdalbertWojciech
ElisabethElisabethaIsabelleElżbieta
FranzFranciscusFrançoisFranciszek
GeorgGeorgiusGeorgesJerzy
Johann (Hans)JoannesJeanJan
KatharineCatherinaCatherineKatarzyna
LorenzLaurentiusLaurentWawrzyniec
LudwigLudovicusLouisLudwik

The last example of name variation I have seen in my research is the use of nicknames such as Anny for Anna or Anne. For Barbara, I have seen Barbel, Bäbi, and Barbola.

Be flexible with the spelling of the surnames and given names – you will probably find multiple spellings. I save all of the variations and refer to my list as I research.

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