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The Enigma of German Names


German naming peculiarities present some challenges for the genealogist.  Firstly, in some cases, females had a different spelling of their surnames than males.  The addition of an 'n' or 'in' to nouns in the German language indicates the feminine.  For example, the female form of student is  studentin.   Some surnames are made feminine in the same manner.  For example my g-g-g-grandmother Elizabeth Seelin is the daughter of Hans Seel, my g-g-grandmother Margaretha Nevern is the daughter of Hans Never, and Maria Ohlemacherinn is the daughter of Johann Ohlemacher.  It appears from  later records that this practice was eventually abandoned.   

This convention also applied to some given names with variations.  Thus Philipp/Philippina,
Wilhelm/Wilhelmina, Friederich/Frederika, and Christian/Christiana.  

Germans seem to have had a fondness for multiple given names probably to honor parents, grandparents, godparents, or other relatives. However, it appears that Germans did not go by their first given name, but instead went by the second or third name. Thus, my great grandfather’s full name was Andreas Ernst Joachim Heinrich Bade but he was known as Ernst.  My great grandmother Maria Sophia Anna Lange used the name Sophie. And great grandfather Georg Philipp Friedrich Fuchs went by Fred G.

The same surname may be spelled differently, even in the same record.  The vowel combination 'oe' is also spelled with an umlauted ö.  Thus Schoenborn = Schönborn, and Koelling = Kölling.  The vowel combination 'ue' is also spelled with an umlauted ü as in Mueller = Müller.

Sometimes these names can be helpful since we find that many given names are used over and over for many generations and that provides us with clues when looking for other members of the family. Unfortunately, I’ve found that just about everyone else in the parish was using the same names as well - perhaps because they were all related. 

Multiple given names can also be a hindrance when trying to reconcile records between here to the old country since we tend to use only two given names in the States. Sometimes they even gave more than one child the same name except for one of their three or four middle names.  Thus, Simon Arens had three sons:  Johann, Johann Heinrich, and Johann Christoph who went by the names Johann, Heinrich and Christoph respectively.

In addition, on their arrival in the United States, immigrants often anglicized the spelling of their names or used nicknames, and thus Ernst became Ernest, Joachim, Jochin and Johann became John, Heinrich became Henry, Friedrich became Frederick or Fred, Wilhelm became William, Wilhelmina became Minnie, Mina or Mena, and Dorothea and Dorette became Dora.  To make matters worse, many immigrants completely changed the spelling of their surnames in an attempt to be more ‘American’. Thus Arens became Arns, and Fuchs became Fox. 

You may have heard the old story about a German immigrant who was nervous about giving wrong answers to questions posed to him while passing through Ellis Island for fear that they may send him back home. Someone aboard the ship suggested that he just answer ‘I forget’ to anything asked of him. On arriving at Ellis Island an official asked him his name and he said (in German of course) "Ich vergesse". From then on he became known as Ike Fergusson!