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Genealogy: Naming patterns are clues to ancestors

By DONNA MURRAY ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2001


Many immigrant ethnic groups observed naming traditions, but Germans elevated the custom of naming their offspring after ancestors to something of an art form. Gain an understanding of their various naming patterns and you'll find priceless clues to help you tie the generations together.

Many immigrant ethnic groups observed naming traditions, but Germans elevated the custom of naming their offspring after ancestors to something of an art form. Gain an understanding of their various naming patterns and you'll find priceless clues to help you tie the generations together.

The way Germans viewed given names depends upon what region in Germany they were from, said Hans Schrader. The Long Island resident is president of the German Genealogy Group based in New York.

In certain areas, people were more likely to be called by their second name than their first. Johannes, Anna and Maria are often little more than prefixes to the given name that follows.

Sometimes the first name was the baptismal name. Johannes Jacob, for example, would be called Jacob.

In parts of the north, however, a patronymic naming method held sway, Schrader said in an e-mail interview. "A person was known by his first name, with his middle name being the name of his father.

My grandfather and his eight siblings all had the same middle name. Gerhardt for the boys. Gerhardine for the girls. Gerhardt was my great-grandfather's first name."

Whatever their preference, Germans continued the practice after arriving in this country, although not all customs were strictly observed. At least three different patterns existed in the 1700s and 1800s, all based on birth order. You'll find examples at www.pbs.org/kbyu/ancestors/records/vital/extra5.html.

Some families added their own twist. Males often carried a middle initial that matched the first initial of the mother's maiden name. No actual middle name was given. Just an initial. If Mrs. Miller's maiden name was Schneider, her son's name might be John S. Miller.

Surnames are another matter. Not only did the Germans lop off parts of their surnames -- Snidemueller became Mueller, which became Miller -- they sometimes Anglicized them completely. Schneider changed to Taylor, Zimmerman to Carpenter and Bruner to Springer. Keep an open mind!

Other names that are vital to your research are the names of people living nearby and those who signed official documents such as wills and marriage licenses. Most Germans lived near each other in the homeland. They came together, and they stayed together for anywhere from one to three generations.

They also worshiped together. Church records make a great resource. Lutheran, Reformed and Catholic records are predominant. Parish records often include data such as a child's date of birth, baptismal date and parents' names. Godparents may also be named. (The Mormon Church has an extensive collection of German church records.)

Similar records may be found in Germany, Schrader said. Records there are organized on a historical regional basis with regional archives.

The prospect of booking a flight to Germany may hold great appeal, but, before you buy that ticket, be sure you know exactly where in Germany your ancestors lived, otherwise you're playing a guessing game. To be successful, you must first identify your family's original immigrant and then pinpoint the ancestral location.

Then you'd be wise to bone up on history and geography and determine what records you might actually be able to get. Do this by visiting a Mormon Family History Center, local library or by logging onto www.cyndislist.com, www.

rootsweb.com or www.family search.org.

The first wave of German immigrants to this country settled in Germantown, Pa., and nearby areas of Maryland in the late 1600s. Some settled in eastern cities, including New York, which had two colonial German-language churches, Schrader said. Most were from southwestern Germany, especially the Palatinate. By the late 1700s, many began moving south and west in search of cheaper land. One migration path followed what is now Interstate 81 in Virginia

Need more help digging up your German roots? Check out the German Genealogy Group (www.

germangenealogygroup.com) or Palatines to America (http://

palam.org.)

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