Understanding Given (First) Names and Surnames in Historical Records

The surname of my father, Mebruer, appeared in historical records and church records many different ways, such as Mehlbreuer, Mebrauer, Mebreuer, but these translations and sometimes document transcript errors, do not mean these surnames are not the same.  In fact, as you will learn, surnames were seldom maintained centuries ago, and even given first names were not always retained.  My great X 6 grandfather, Joannes Petrus Mehlbreuer, his first name is sometimes Joannes, sometimes Petrus, and sometimes Petri depending on where you’re looking, but both middle names are the same as Peter.  This fluctuation in the first name suggests he may have had a brother named Joannes, and therefore he sometimes used his middle name.  Petrus is the Dutch form of the name commonly used in Germany, whereas Petri is the alternate form more often used in Finland. Many of the given names in the kingdoms of Germany were derived from German, Dutch, or Latin languages.

The name “John” was particularly common throughout the many kingdoms and principalities. In the German language this name is written as Johann, but was also common in Germany in its Latin form, Joannes, sometimes also spelled Johannes. Other shortened unisex variations for this name were used, including the name Jois and Joes. It was very common for parents to name several of their children the same first name as the child’s father, mother, aunt, uncle or grandparent, and on top of that they would name several of the children the exact same first name to make sure that at least one child would survive to adulthood with that name. Despite high mortality rates centuries ago, if all of those children happened to survive, most would then go by their second name or their baptismal name to differentiate them from their siblings.

Translating or even following surnames through historical records can be quite the debacle. Any surname could have multiple spellings, all the while those with varying spellings could be from the same bloodline or even be the same person. These alternate spellings often occurred for various reasons from preferential spellings to mistranslations. Surnames before the 1800’s were not viewed the same way we view them now. Today, surnames tell us who may be related to who and are passed on to spouse through marriage and children at birth. Beyond indicating the ancestral homeland of the paternal bloodline, they hold little other meaning in our society.

Prior to the 1800’s, surnames were far more interesting and far more telling of historical importance. They told stories, described individuals, and told people what region you were from, or what trade, occupation or family business you or your father practiced. For instance, the name Schumacher is derived from “shoe” and “maker,” indicating that your ancestor who first took on that surname was likely a cobbler.

The surnames that end in “son” and “sen” are all derived from the relation of father and son through their given names, this practice is called patronymic naming. As an example, the surname Peterson, literally means “son of Peter,” the name Hansen, literally means “son of Han,” the name Patterson literally means “son of Patrick,” and the name Anderson means “son of Andre.” There are other variations on this practice, such as the name O’Reily or O’Brien, these derive from “of Reilly” and “of Brien,” meaning that person is the offspring of that particular father. The letter “s” or letters “es” at the end of a given or first name were also possessive indication for “the child of.”  The letters “en” following a surname can also indicate the surname changed along with the proceeding generation and refers to the younger generation.  For example, a father may call himself Wilhelm Lars and give his son the same first name, but his son will go by the name Wilhelm Larsen, indicating to others that he is Wilhelm the younger.

Surnames can also tell a story or describe the first person who started using it. Such things as the color of their hair, their eyes, their height, or even skin color were used to form surnames. Surnames were also derived from locations where families lived and if the family moved to another location they would change their last name to match their new province, township, or village. Not only did they change their names if they moved, they also changed them if the predominant language in the region was different. This practice was continued when many emigrated from their home countries and came to the United States. Altering their last names from the old Germanic, Dutch, or Latin versions and choosing instead more English versions so that they could blend in with those already living in the region.

In some cases men would take on the maiden name of their spouse if she inherited land, a business, or some other estate from her father. This practice would strengthen the man’s claim to his wife’s inheritance and since women at that time were not considered capable of dealing in land ownership or business, it was customary for the husband of the eldest daughter to take over his father-in-law’s affairs if the deceased father-in-law did not have any sons. Sometimes her husband would take her maiden name and cease using his own surname or he would retain his surname and add in her maiden name, with the word “genannt” appearing in between the two last names. An example would be Ivan Borgmeyer genannt Stroud. The word “genannt” means “called,” which tells people that even though this person may have been born a Borgmeyer, he is also legally entitled to the estate or business of the Stroud family.

The practice of changing surnames in the German kingdoms and imperial principalities continued well into the 1800’s when most of them began to issue decrees requiring the practice to stop. While it took another couple generations for it to end, it finally fell out of common practice before the turn of the century.

Given first names were also often changed for various reasons. Locations and religions played heavily into the giving of first names and how many of them were given at birth or christening. Germany was not always one single country, instead it was many kingdoms, territories and imperial principalities divided up, and the states in the west were not the same heritage as those in the east. Religion played a major role in the conflicts between these different states, particularly between those that were Catholic and those that were Protestant. Prominent kingdoms that would later arise at the dawn of the 19th century in Germany included the Kingdom of Hanover, the Kingdom of Saxony, the Kingdom of Hessen, the Kingdom of Prussia, the Kingdom of Westfalen, and the list goes on and on. Though some of these kingdoms were short-lived, others such as the Prussian Kingdom rose to take over most of what is now Germany.

The surname Mehlbreuer is the most Germanic form of the surname, where as Mebreuer is the more Latin form often used by those of the Catholic religion. It is highly likely that most versions of this name originated as Mehlbreuer, but the more Latin version was favored as the Catholic Church still held sway in the German kingdoms and principalities in direct opposition to the rise of Protestant churches; both of which replaced the old Germanic folk religions of that time. Other versions of this surname existed, but were less common. These include Melbreuer and Mebrauer, but in the historical records they occur few and far between and may simply be mistranslated spellings. Regardless of the spelling, the origin of the name remains the same. “Mehl” is the German word for malt or flour, and the German word “breuer” literally means brewer.

Therefore, the origin of the German name Mehlbreuer has an occupational link. The ancestor that first took on this surname was likely in the fermentation business, perhaps making various types of fermented drinks from dried grains, but may also have been using dried fruits which were becoming popular in Germany at the time, drinks such as wine and brandy, and a drink called kirschwasser which was particularly popular and was made from cherries.

Much of what we know about ancestry dating back before the 1800’s was retained in Catholic and Protestant church record books and civil registers, where births, baptisms, and marriages were recorded. Dates of death are often unknown for this reason, as recording deaths was not as common and would remain so until the 1800’s in Germany and the early 1900’s in the United States. The records for birth, baptism (christening), and marriages, were usually not very detailed. In most cases we are given dates for all types of records, the name of the child and at least one parent with the location if it was a baptismal record, and the names of parents and the church if it was a marriage record.

If you are just beginning to research your own family history, I believe this advice will serve you well as you navigate the difficult, mind-bending, exhaustive work of tracing your ancestry through generations, spanning both centuries of time and geographical distances.

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