One of the reasons we prioritized German-American church records in Part 2 of this series was that church records may have been the one place where our German immigrant’s name would have been recorded accurately by a German speaker (i.e. their minister). Most of the time, however, our Germans needed to be understood by English speakers, and so their names were frequently recorded inaccurately. In Part 3 we will try some tricks to learn to listen like a German and hone in on our German’s correct surname. After all how much easier will it be to find our ancestors back in Europe if we can spell their names correctly!
What was their name?
An advantage of having a German in your family tree is that their surname can be unique in American records (e.g. Schlag), so it may be easier to find them in online searches. Of course, if their name was common, such as Schmidt, Schneider, or Müller, you won’t struggle as much to find them in records due to misspelling. Instead, your challenge will be distinguishing your Johann Schmidt from the others. But if their surname was less common and harder to pronounce for English speakers (e.g. Röckemann), the challenge will be to identify the many ways it was spelled in order to find all available American records and hopefully hone in on the correct spelling to follow the paper trail back to Germany.
Was their surname a translation?
German-speaking immigrants coming to the U.S. would face difficulty in making themselves understood to English-speaking ears. Many simply translated their surname. Schmidt to Smith, Müller to Miller, Fuchs to Fox are more obvious examples. But when searching for your ancestor’s actual German surname, also think about less obvious examples like Schwarz to Black, Schneider to Taylor, or Zimmerman to Carpenter. In Season 6, Episode 2 of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” actor Eric Stonestreet discovered that his Austrian paternal grandfather’s surname was Steingassner or in English, Stonestreet. If Eric looked for Stonestreet in Austrian records, he wouldn’t find his ancestor.
As with researching any surname in indexed online records, you will want to use wildcards in search boxes. Here is a blogpost on using wildcards: Use A Genealogy Wildcard Search For Better Ancestor Search Results, and another on successfully searching census records: Back to the Basics with U.S. Census Records. Non-English speaking immigrants could have had their surname’s first letter recorded incorrectly on censuses. I have seen Lasser for Sasse, and Fondow for van den Doel (see Figure 5). Using just Sas* or Vand*d*, would not have found these ancestors. If you have an interesting example, please share it in the comment section at the end of this post.
When I cannot find a German on a census, I include trying a wildcard for the first letter of their surname with all my other wildcard searches. If wildcards don’t work, I try entering everything (e.g. age, place birth, gender, first name, locality, occupation) but their surname for each member of the family, and sometimes that works.
Interested in learning more about German surnames? Try this wonderful more in-depth article: Types of German Surname Changes in America by Jürgen Eichhoff. Or this well-done article by FamilyTree Magazine: Understanding German Language and Surnames. And don’t forget this FamilySearch article: Germany Personal Names. Pennsylvania Dutch surnames may have more dramatic surname changes than later German immigrant waves, possibly because they had more time for spelling standardization.
Trust German-language sources more
One of the best genealogy tips, in general, is to hold all information loosely until you have enough sources to be sure. This is especially helpful with determining a name originating in a non-English speaking land. Don’t be fixated on a record or online family tree that gives your German’s surname as the final word. Be flexible and open to it being originally different in Germany than it evolved to be in the U.S.
Christine Röckemann from Part 2 was called Christina Reckermann (Figure 2 above) in online family trees and in several American records. Searches in German records yielded no correct matches for “Christina Reckermann.” However, when her German-American church records were found (see Part 2 of this series, Figure 7), it was clear from these records, which had been dictated from one German speaker to another, that her surname was likely Röckemann. How did Röckemann get to Reckermann? Let’s try listening to how Röckemann sounds in German.
Let Google Translate pronounce your ancestor’s surname like a German
If you know the spelling of your ancestor’s surname, one good trick for finding it in American records is to think about the ways it may have sounded to American ears. Try letting Google Translate pronounce their surname like a German, and then you will have an idea of what record takers heard.
Type in your German’s name while selecting German for “Detect Language.” Hit the speak button (red arrow), and listen to a German speaker pronounce your ancestor’s name. Just remember that Google Translate uses one dialect of German, so if your ancestor spoke a different one, their name could have sounded a little different. Try the Röckemann example: Google Translate: Röckemann. It sounds to an English speaker a lot like Reckermann, doesn’t it?
An alternative to Google Translate is Forvo.com. Google Translate uses computer-generated, AI (artificial intelligence) pronunciations. Forvo.com is crowd-sourced, and so you can have your word pronounced by actual German speakers. If your word is not there, you can request a German speaker to pronounce it for you. Here is a blog post on using Forvo: Forvo For Genealogy.
Use German-surname distribution websites to identify surname variations
Another tip to find the possible versions of your ancestor’s name is the website Geogen (stoepel.net). Use the prompt, “name>” in the upper left. It will show you a heat map of where a surname exists today in Germany, which can be a great clue for your German’s locality if the surname was not common. Try entering Röckemann (Figure 4) for a good example of demonstrating this, as the Röckemann heat map shows exactly where Christine was from, near Minden in North-Rhine Westphalia.
But equally as important as the heat map, geogen.stoepel.net will show German spelling variations for that surname (see the lower right corner). This will be more useful than the versions found in American records. Clicking on the Röckemann variations in the lower right and showed even more variations (see Figure 5), which I can use to search for records in America and Germany.
Another great website that maps German surnames besides geogen.stoepel.net, is Namensverbreitungskarte from the German genealogy mega site: CompGen or GenWiki (a site we will discuss more in Part 5). This name distribution map (or Namensverbreitungskarte) page was found on: https://wiki-de.genealogy.net/Namensverbreitungskarte. This site lets you see either an 1890 heat map for your surname and one from the year 1996.
Surname distribution websites (not all include maps) to try:
– Austria: https://namenskarten.lima-city.at
– Netherlands: https://www.cbgfamilienamen.nl/nfb/
– Switzerland: https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/famn/?lg=e
– France: https://www.filae.com/nom-de-famille/
– Former German Empire, now in Poland: http://www.kartenmeister.com/preview/databaseuwe.asp (use the search by family name if you do not know the village).
Confusing spelling and pronunciation differences
Be aware that umlauted letters in German surnames, ä, ö, ü, are regularly spelled as ae, oe, ue in English language databases. You may need to use Roeckemann, Reckermann, or Rockemann in America, but be sure to use Röckemann in German databases.
Some other common letters that were regularly confused with each other were V/F, D/T, G/K, and B/P. Here is a Dutch (a German dialect) example illustrating how the V/F sound spoken by a Dutch speaker was confusing for English-speaking ears. In searching the 1870 marriage records in Keokuk, Iowa for Jennie Vandendoel (van den Doel), the following indexed record was found:
Was this Jennie? The husband listed and her first name were correct, but “Fondow,” seemed way off for Vandendoel. But was it? Try that Google translate trick by selecting Dutch in the Detect Language box, write in “van den Doel,” and click the speak button, here: Google Translate: van den Doel. Sure enough, it sounds like Fondow, in part because of how much the Germanic V/F sounds interchangeable to English-speaking ears. Try this trick with all your non-English speaking ancestors.
Learning to think a bit about what the record taker would have heard from your German, will help you understand what was written down. After all, a little bit of walking in your ancestor’s shoes is what the research process is all about. In the next post, we will tackle reading old German handwriting.
(1 )FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MN9L-4Z7: accessed 5 May 2021) > United States Census, 1870 > Wisconsin > La Crosse > La Crosse, ward 2 > image 35 of 38.
(2) Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/5801571/christina-schlag-obit/: accessed 6 Jul 2016) > St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri > 20 Jan 1919 > page 12 > Schlag Obituary.