German Genealogy Tip #1: There are Usually Multiple People with the Same Name in the Same Town

One of the first lessons I had to learn when researching German genealogy is that German names are repeated very often. There is usually more than one person with the same name, of approximately the same age, in the same area. Sometimes they are even born in the same year, making it potentially difficult to tell them apart in historical records.

This is not because Germans were unimaginative or boring people who couldn’t think of names other than Johann and Anna. It was because babies, in old Germany, were named after their baptism sponsor(s). Baptism sponsors in those days were not just an honored family friend or a favorite relative. The position of baptism sponsor carried weight and responsibility. Baptism sponsors were responsible for the spiritual well-being, and sometimes even the physical well-being, of the child who was christened after them. The reason that Germans rarely seemed to get creative with baby names was because names were repeating due to the baptism sponsor system.

Thus, Germans tended to stick to a small selection of names, and the more local you get, the smaller the selection of names becomes. A village might seem to be populated entirely by boys named Johannes, Conrad, and Heinrich, and girls named Anna Martha, Anna Catharina, and Martha Elisabeth.

In fact, early on in my German family history research, I had a fourth great grandfather and his brother (my fourth great granduncle) who both married women named Martha Elisabeth Lindemann (and both Marthas were close in age). This caused some confusion at first, as I initially thought perhaps one woman had been married to both men at different times. I would soon find out that there were two Martha Elisabeth Lindemanns in the village of Machtlos, Germany. And though this village only had a population of about 200, my family tree would grow to encompass eight Martha Elisabeth née Lindemanns from Machtlos (born in 1753, 1815, 1820, 1833, 1837, 1839, 1852, and 1880), and I have only yet explored a fraction of the church records for this village. I will likely find several more.

Here in America, when I speak to my Schmidt relatives about our ancestors, I often have to spend several minutes explaining, when I speak of a relative named Henry John Schmidt. The problem is that in the small, German-American farming town of West Bend, Iowa, not much bigger than Machtlos, Germany, there were three Henry John Schmidts, all related to each other, who lived near one another, and who were all alive at the same time. The oldest Henry, of course, served as the baptism sponsor of the two younger Henrys.

When it comes to German villages, be wary about merging records even for two people with the same name, the same hometown, and the same age. You have to pay very close attention to the birth dates (i.e. day and month) and the parents’ names. You must even tread carefully in German church records when equating two people with the same names and the same parents, because sometimes parents gave two of their children the same exact name. The best key to distinguishing individuals with confidence is the exact birth date.

3 thoughts on “German Genealogy Tip #1: There are Usually Multiple People with the Same Name in the Same Town

  1. franz

    This is a very good write-up!
    About this: “sometimes parents gave two of their children the same exact name.” — that is possible but only imaginable when the first child died. Usually, living children will have at least one different name in amongst all the christian names. There may be “Anna Elisabeth Martha Josefine Maria Clara Müller” and “Martha Anna Wilhelmine Elisabeth Maria Müller”. In a case like that, look out for the names that are different. Often these will not be the first name, but often (not always, though) these are the names that the children were called by.

    Reply
    1. Josiah Schmidt Post author

      Yes, out of the thousands of German records I have looked at, I have only seen two families that gave two of their living children the exact same name. In one case, a man had a son with a first wife, and then about 20 years later, he remarried to a younger woman who bore him another son with the same name as the earlier son. Other than these couple of instances, most siblings with the same name are necronyms.

      Reply
  2. Sherlock

    That is an informative and useful article and helped me better understand and link ancestors. Thank YOU!

    I found a family with 2 living boys with the same name. It can happen. You have to double check all records to ensure they are really the same parents and not parents with the same names, also.

    To make things more confusing, this family’s mother was recorded as two different first names. After matching dates, children, spouse, etc, I was able to merge the mother with two different names. No, the father did not marry twice as shown by the mother’s names on records with the same spouse, children, dates, and locations.

    The duplicated naming probably happened because back then, the Church mandated names be of saints and that is limited.

    Reply

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