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Article by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

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Los Angeles Times Syndicate, 1989

Myra Vanderpool Gormley is a certified genealogist, syndicated columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and has written more than a thousand articles on the subject of genealogy. She is editor of RootsWeb Review.


Surname origins of our German ancestors

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

Occupational names are more common among our German ancestors than in our other families. Probably the German respect for work accounts for this, and 700 to 800 years ago when the name-giving period occurred, vast numbers of our German progenitors took surnames from their jobs.

However, these occupationally derived surnames do not necessarily indicate the kind of work our immigrant German ancestors were involved in. In other words, your Schmidt ancestor may have been a carpenter, not a smith, and more likely your Kauffman was no longer a tradesman by the time he arrived in this country. However, surnames can be clues to our ancestors' long-ago occupations.

Among the occupational names of early Pennsylvania Germans, where so many of our ancestral lines converge, are: Zimmermann (carpenter), Ziegler (maker of user of brick and tile), Schneider (tailor), Schumacher (shoemaker), Spengler (tinsmith, tinker), Wagner, (wagonmaker), Weber (weaver), Bauer (farmer), Fischer (fisherman), Gerber (worker with leather), Jager (hunter), Metzger (butcher), Muller (miller), Schreiner (cabinetmaker), Kramer (shopkeeper or peddler), and Schultz (overseer or sheriff).

Occupational names became extremely common because every village had certain trades and crafts from which people took their surnames. However, people of different villages who had the same surname are not necessarily related to each other. Keep in mind that surnames were adopted, for the most part, in what is now Germany as early as 1400, and have undergone profuse spelling changes, especially in American records.

Three suffixes which usually indicate a German name is an occupational one are: -er, -hauer, and -macher. The -er suffix, meaning "one who," is found in names such as Fisher (one who fishes); -hauer (meaning hewer or cutter) as in Baumhauer (a tree chopper) and -macher as in Korbmacher (basket-maker) or Schumacher (one who makes shoes).

Occupational-derived surnames which were transported to this country by our German ancestors include: baker (Becker), miner (Bergman), forester (Forester), carrier/carter (Furman/Fuhrmann), tanner (Garber/Gerber), grave-digger (Graver/Graber), potter (Heffner/Hafner), herdsman (Hirt), barrel-maker or cooper (Keefer/Kufer), piper or fife-player (Pfeiffer/Piper), plow-maker (Pflegar/Pfluger), sailor (Schiffmann/Shipman), locksmith (Schlosser), lacemaker (Shnur/Schnurmacher), cabinet-maker or joiner (Shriner/Schreiner), stone-hewer or stone-cutter (Stinehower/Steinhauer), fowler or bird-catcher (Vogler/Vogeler), banker or money-lender (Wexler/Wechsler), innkeeper (Wert/Wirt/Wurth), gate- or door-keeper (Forner/Pfortner), and wheelmaker (Rademaker/Rademacher).

You will find many German surnames prefixed by von, zu or am. These prefixes do not necessarily indicate a noble origin. While it is true that many of the nobility, especially in southern Germany, were known by their chief estate or castle, your Karl von Bremen could have been a Karl Muller who moved from Bremen to another locale and became known as Karl Muller von Bremen. Later he may have shortened it to Karl von Bremen, and finally to just Karl Bremer. Since many German towns and villages have names ending in - heim (home) and -dorf (village) some of your family's surnames may have these suffixes also. They provide a nebulous clue to the ancestral village.

In areas of northern Germany, the family surname may have been taken from the name of the farm, and the surname changed whenever the farm changed ownership. Also, a family of a different surname might have purchased the farm and then changed their surname to the name or the farm, or a man may have taken the surname of the daughter or widow who inherited that property.

For further understanding of our German names read Dr. Arta F. Johnson's monograph, "The Origins, Development & Meanings of German Names." Copies were available from the author ($6.95 ppd.), 153 Aldrich Road, Columbus, Ohio 43214.
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