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.