The meaning of surnames and linking them to traceable lines in ancestral homelands remains a complex issue for the family historian. Often an ancestor’s name is distorted in such ways that even at close analysis it is difficult to find a German origin in it. For instance, in eastern Pennsylvania, early-day officials who were Scotch-Irish translated German names ending in –bach to –baugh. Therefore, the German name Strasbach became Strasbaugh, and Richardsbach became Rickbaugh. How can a researcher know that behind such names are people of German origin?

The author Clifford Neal Smith gives some suggestions of what to look for when tracing German immigrants in the United States. “Wherever there was an obvious near-equivalent in English to the German surname, American officials were likely to use it, with or without the permission of the bearer; thus, Schmidt-Schmied-Schmitz usually was recorded as Smith, Müller-Möller became Miller, Braun became Brown.” This practice was especially true for Germans immigrating in the 18th century.

If a name was translatable, sooner or later family members would use such terms as Carpenter for Zimmermann, Taylor for Schneider, etc. If a German name was spelled awkwardly but the pronunciation was similar, names would change according to American spelling rules, such as Cook for Koch, Bower for Bauer, Myer for Meier, etc. Thus, when interpreting a family name, the preservation of the original pronunciation should be kept in mind.

The search for the correct spelling should include a search according to National Archives Soundex Rules. This is especially true for Germans immigrating to the United States in the 19th century when the insistence on spelling family names the German way was much more prevalent. For information on the Soundex, see the Soundex article in the FamilySearch Research Wiki.

The above-mentioned author has a rule of thumb: “When a German surname in America appears in the same form as it would in a modern-day telephone [directory] of a German city, one can usually be certain it pertains to [immigration to] America since the Civil War.” Names like Österreicher would be written Oesterreicher, and Dürr would be spelled Duerr. Ancestors from Southern Germany (Württemberg, Pfalz) came before immigrants from Saxony and Westphalia. The latter groups arrived in the 19th century, thus their plentiful names follow different patterns.

To learn more, see Clifford Neal Smith’s article “Language and Onomastics” in Encyclopedia of German-American Genealogical Research, by Clifford Neal Smith and Anna Piszczan-Czaja Smith.

Good luck with your German surnames.

Comments (16)

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  1. This is in response to the post of Gwynne Geyer. She asks, Could the name Davis be an American form or a German name? I wondered that, too. I have many ancestors in the 1800s with different English-sounding surnames in the DC area. Many attended German Evangelical churches in which the sermon was in German. They all trace their lineage back to one couple whose name was DAVIS. The Davises were born, ca 1790s, in Charles Co., MD perhaps they were Germans who had migrated down from the Pennsylvania Dutch area?

    Joe Collins 16 November 2011
    12:53 am
  2. where did German names with ius or us come--is that a Latin influence

    Edward Feuerstein 04 October 2011
    10:50 am
  3. my family ancestor has a maiden name of Davis. It says that her parents were born in German and she was born here but I cant find her parents. Could the name Davis be an American form of a German name? Could they have shortened their name to Davis from a German name?

    gwynne geyer 06 July 2011
    5:36 pm
  4. Some where between 1800 and 1920 my last name went from Thorp tp Tharp. I have been trying to find out why this happen.

    Bob Tharp Sr 21 May 2011
    4:45 am
  5. My ancestors name was Cyprian Richards of Cattaraugus county, New York, born in Austria 1791. How do I find his original German name?

    hbsh12 13 May 2011
    12:49 pm
  6. Richard Tiffany, supposedly from Germany. Havent been able to locate any Tiffanys. His name shows up on his marriage date in the 1700s, Coukd this be a misspelling?

    Dorothy B. Call 28 April 2011
    3:46 pm
  7. My family surname has been spelled Eisterhold, Eisterholz and Eisterholt in America. I cannot find that name on any German documents. Also, there seems to be cencus records that say the family is from Germany, others from Prussia. I am curious if the name Eisterhold/t/z could be Eisterhues in Germany. I see a name like that coming from the same area that our family is supposed to come from (Preussen, Germany). Anyone know about this name?

    Linda Eisterhold 26 March 2011
    1:05 pm
  8. I am looking for Eisterhold name in Germany and cannot find that name. In America it has been spelled Eisterhold, Eisterholz, Eisterholt. I did find the name Eisterhues in Germany. Does anyone know about this name?

    Linda Eisterhold 26 March 2011
    1:00 pm
  9. Hi, I'm looking for descendents of Oscar Perryman or from the 1800's a V.P. I'm assuming that his name was Victor or Vencent or something that started with a V. He was a Sliver Smith, I'm assuming as I have candle holders dated 1900. I'm looking for anyone who can tell me anything about the Perryman family. My father was Durwood Preston Perryman. My grandmother was Willa Villa Williams and Oscar's wife. Thanks, Samantha

    Samantha Sherline 22 March 2011
    7:06 pm
  10. I would like to know the German name for Dimit. I have only one source saying the surname of Dimit is German. This was from a marriage record.

    Gerald Dimit 14 March 2011
    12:04 pm
  11. So how would you think the name Utegg would be spelled in Germany? Ive seen Utech,Uttech and several others and have lost the battle in finding my great grandfathers line because I dont have any family that remembers anything. I thought I had found someone and after a year found out it couldnt possibly be the right line. Does anyone have another idea?

    Mabel Ellen Creamer 09 March 2011
    7:18 pm
  12. just looking at the new foremat. and it looks like it will be a good addition to the records

    Darlene Bowen 03 March 2011
    6:17 am
  13. The name Wohleben still exists in Germany. In the states it is quite rare, however, there are some 75 variations of the name. On one of the Wills I discovered, the surname was spelled SEVEN different ways through-out the document. The name means, to live well and is translated Welliver, however, most spellings are phonetic, such as. Wolleben or Wollever.

    Ralph Welliver 02 March 2011
    1:13 pm
  14. The German and Swiss surnames Liebenstein, Lybenstein, Lowenstein and Louvenstein became American surnames Livingston, Levingston and sometimes Leviston in 18th Century Pennsylvania. Using YDNA tests, we have found that five major Livingston families came from Duhren, Baden, Germany, because two of these families had a paper trail back to their immigrant. There are 5-6 interesting misspellings of the surname in the immigration records between 1725 and 1760. But 19th century immigrants of the same name kept the Liebenstein spelling.

    Janet Seegmiller 26 February 2011
    10:05 pm
  15. Dont forget the Given Names. Grandpas given name Ludwig became Luis, Louis and Lewis. His Year of Birth, 1841 often became 1847, because figure 1 in German handwriting can look like figure 7 for English speaking people.

    Gundula Baumann 23 February 2011
    2:20 pm
  16. As you say, the ones who came later seem to have stayed closer to the original German spelling. Especially the earlier ones such as the Pennsylvania Dutch (who are Germans) tend to have quite altered spellings. One family who left Germany surnamed Röhrig became Rerig, Rerich, Rarick, Rarich, Rairigh, etc. The Barrick family was originally Berg Staubach became Stobaugh. There was even a time period when folks thought it would be cool to use the Latin version of their surname...so you have folks changing their name from Schneider to Sartorius, for example. Also, in some parts of Germany, the family surname changed if they took over a farm and the surname associated with that farm.

    Nancy Lincoln 23 February 2011
    9:03 am

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