Happy German-American Heritage Month! In honor of Oktober, I will be posting a German genealogy tip on this blog every day for the entire month. If you have any German ancestors in your family tree, stay tuned for these helpful hacks.
Today’s German genealogy tip is: remember that Germans often went by their middle name.
If you find a baptism record for a Johann Peter Schultz in Germany and you want to locate documentation of them after they immigrated to America, it is more likely that they went by “Peter” than by “Johann” or “John”.
Why is this? Because in pre-20th century Germany, a small handful of names was often used for first names. An entire village might be populated by boys with the first names of Johann, Dietrich, and Georg, and by girls with the first names of Anna, Martha, and Catharina. The middle names were often where the variety came in. Perhaps even a single family might have children with names like: Johann Peter, Johann Karl, Johann Heinrich, Johann Zacharias, Johann Balthasar, etc. The only way to tell them apart, therefore, is if they used their middle names.
Thus, it was popular for Germans, when Anglicizing their names, to switch their “first” name and “middle” name, and make their original “middle” name the one that they preferred to be known by. Even if a German-American was born in America, their German church might have recorded their name as “Anna Margaretha Moeller”. But you will find that many or all of the English-language documents refer to her as “Margaret Anna Moeller,” or just “Margaret Moeller”.
There is no single, “right” order of names in this case. Do you record the person in your family tree as “Anna Margaretha” or as “Margaret Anna”? It’s up to you. Both are equally valid, and the person to whom the name belonged wouldn’t have seen any meaningful difference between the two forms.