Saturday, October 1, 2016

Surnames - Why Your Ancestors' Names Were Not What You Think They Should Be

I got to thinking about surnames and how many of the surnames of my ancestors did not follow the rule of children taking their father's last name and daughters changing theirs to their husband's last name when they get married. Because they didn't follow this rule, both of my grandmothers had last names other than what they would have been had their ancestors strictly followed this rule. Here is a list of the surnames that did not follow this rule and an explanation of how this happened.

It wasn't changed at Ellis Island - My great-grandfather, Carl Müller, and his brothers and sisters were all born with the surname of Müller. Previous family histories said that it was changed to Miller at Ellis Island or that he gave them the wrong name because he was hiding from the German military. While he may or may not have been hiding from the military, we know that his name change was not because of this and it certainly wasn't changed at Ellis Island.

First, he didn't immigrate through Ellis Island. This was before they used Ellis Island to process immigrants. Prior to to 1900s most people didn't care about how to spell their name. As long as the pronunciation was right, it didn't matter how it was spelled. I think my great-grandfather either just started spelling his name this way because it's the pronunciation people used or else changed it to better blend in with other Americans. Carl Müller sounds pretty German while Charles Miller definitely sounds more American. At least one of his brothers started spelling his last name as Muller (no umlaut over the u) and his descendants to this day still do. In addition, while his middle name was Christian, in his life in America, he was known as Charles E. Miller. It's just a theory, but I believe this was simply because when he told people his name was "Charles C. Miller" in what was likely a German accent, the "s" at the end of Charles blended in with the same sound at the beginning of the letter "c" so Charles C. Miller sounded an awful lot like Charles E. Miller.

Non-paternal events - My great-grandfather, Thomas Doran, was born to a single mother and he was given her last name as his surname. She was born Nancy Doran and her son was born Thomas Doran. We do not know what his father's name was. If he was given his father's name, then his daughter, my grandmother, Julia Doran Miller, would have been born with that same surname. So, since one theory I have is that Thomas' father's last name was Gallagher, my grandmother would have been named Julia Gallagher. This is not certain, it is just a theory. However, it is a known fact that Doran would not have been Julia's correct last name. This is one grandmother born with the "wrong" last name. Unfortunately, there are no direct male line descendants of Thomas Doran so we can't be certain what his father's last name was.

Surnames passed from the mother - My grandmother, Elizabeth Menke's "correct" last name should have been Fenneman. I'm sure my first cousins are saying "What?! That can't be right!" It is. While Menke has been passed down as this line's last name for nearly 300 years, my sixth-great-grandparents were Anna Helena Menke and Andreas Fenneman. Since Andreas was not as rich as Anna Helena's family and she had inherited the family estate, he took her last name when he married her. If standard rules of today were followed, their children would have been born with the last name of Fenneman and this surname would have been passed all the way down to Johan Anton August Menke, and his daughter, my grandmother.

In addition, my great-great-grandfather Johan Diedrich Menke's sister inherited the estate since she was the oldest child to survive into adulthood and because Johan Diedrich, her oldest but younger brother, sailed to America. Her name was Margaretha Maria Adelheid Menke. She married Gerd Herm Tobe. Gerd Herm also took the Menke surname when they married and he took over the estate. They eventually sold the estate and moved to America. Even after they were no longer on the estate, Gerd (also known as Gerhard Herman) continued to use the Menke last name and his headstone in West Point, Lee County, Iowa reads "G. Herman Menke". I'm only aware of daughters from this marriage and no sons so the surname confusion apparently did not pass along to any further descendants in America.

A disproved theory - While this doesn't have anything to do with changed surnames, it does relate in that it is in regard to a theory I had about a surname origin. Looking at my Panther ancestors, hoping to find where the surname originated, I had a theory that the family name was passed down from Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera. Abdes Pantera was a Syrian-born commander of a brigade of archers in the Roman military who was stationed in, and lived out the last years of his life in Germany. His burial stone was found near Bingerbrück, about 90 miles north of where my Panther family is from. Pantera is the Latin version of the word panther. I suspected that his descendants continued going by the surname of Panther and they ended up in Stadelhofen, Germany. I had one of my Panther first cousins do a yDNA test to prove or disprove this. Had it been true, we would have likely seen a Middle-Eastern haplogroup in his results. It ends up the yDNA haplogroup for our Panther surname is I-M253. Family Tree DNA says, "The I-M253 lineage likely has its roots in northern France. Today it is found most frequently within Viking/Scandinavian populations in northwest Europe and has since spread down into Central and Eastern Europe..." This means that it is very much a European origin and not Middle Eastern.

These are just a few examples of how a surname may not be the name you suspect it to be or what it "should" be, following today's surname descendency rules. There are several others. Don't be shocked if a yDNA test shows matches to other surnames, and don't automatically assume that family stories about name changes are true. If it's said they changed their name at Ellis Island, be aware that this rarely happened.


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