Understanding German names in genealogy: they’re not the same as English names

If you have any ethnic German ancestors, you may wonder why so many of them are named Johann or Johanna. Or perhaps you have a pair of records that you’re convinced are for the same person, except that one is for Johann Peter Wagner, the other Hanes Peter Wagner.

Ethnic Germans had different cultural conventions for naming than the naming traditions we mostly follow in the U.S. today. I’ll highlight some of the common ethnic German naming conventions that can be confusing today.

  1. People were typically known by their middle name, not their first name.
  2. The names Johann and Johanna had multiple forms used interchangeably in documents.
  3. The letters “in” might be added to the end of women’s surnames.
  4. If a child died, parents might give a newborn the same name.

First, in German tradition, people were typically called by their second name, called a rufnamen or common name. Their first name was typically a saint’s name and was rarely used outside ecclesiastical records.

Johann Peter Wagner, for example, would have been called Peter, not Johann, in eighteenth century Baden-Württemberg or Pennsylvania. Johann Sebastian Bach would’ve been called Sebastian.

It’s not a hard-fast rule, though. For the most common names, such as Johann, Johanna & Maria, you can safely bet the middle name is the important one. For rarer names, such Philip Daniel or Ernst Bernhard, the rufnamen may have been the first name. If you’re lucky, the rufnamen will actually be underlined in the original text.

Things also get confusing in the U.S. As families anglicized, you’ll encounter a generation where the first name became the rufnamen, and that kid baptized Johannes Peter was actually called John not Peter.

Second: Johanna and Johann. These were the two most common saint’s names, and because they’re so common, they ended up with multiple forms.

Johanna and Anna, for example, are interchangeable. If you see two records that seem perfect matches except that one says Johanna, the other Anna, don’t worry about it. They’re the same name.

The same goes for the many variants of Johann, including Johannes, Hanes, & Hans.

Put all of this together, and you can understand how a child born in 1874 to German immigrants and baptized Johann Peter Wagner ended up with the name Honus Wagner on his plaque at baseball’s hall of fame.

Third, when you’re looking at ethnic German parish records, you may see a woman whose surname ends with the letters “in” such as Wagnerin or Muellerin. The “in” is a grammatical construct, it’s actually not part of her surname. Skip the “in” and just record Wagner or Mueller.

Finally, you may encounter baptismal records for more than one child with the same name. For example, in my tree, I have two Johann Jacob Schlauches born to Ernst Bernhard Schlauch and A. Elizabeth Frick, one in 1715, the other in 1717. This means that the child born in 1715 died before the birth of the second, and they were re-using the name. This practice was very common, even though it might seem tasteless today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *