This article is part of the series “Are your German ancestors playing hide-and-seek?” about various reasons why you might not have found your ancestors yet. One of the possible reasons could be the German tradition of vulgo names.
This type of names is not common in all German speaking states, mainly in rural areas with farmland. Sometimes you’ll find two surnames connected by:
- “vulgo” (vlg. or v/o)
- “genannt” (gen., gnt. or gt.)
- “dictus” (dict.)
- “qui et”
- and some more….
Why? Wait! Aren’t those just nicknames or something like that?
Fast rewind back until 14hundredsomething. Surnames as we know them now hadn’t formed yet. People were mainly called by their given names.
If there was a reason to distinguish between two persons with the same given name, they’d be called by their domicile, their profession or individual traits. Later those additional names turned into family resp. surnames.
If someone was a smith, his family would be called the smith family. He’d need the special buildings and equipment of a smithy. No matter who was the smith and lived there, he’d always be called the smith.
Usually his sons would learn the same profession and one of them would take over the smithy later, therefore becoming “the smith” himself.
Same with the miller or the baker who all needed special buildings and equipment tied to their profession which wouldn’t easily allow them to relocate. Since professions used to be kind of hereditary, those profession names were treated the same. That’s how our common day surnames developed.
Other surnames derive from the farm’s location. If it was located in the middle of the village (in German “Dorf”), it might have been called the Middendorp farm. Its inhabitants were “the Middendorps”, the ones who lived in the middle of the village. A farm at the southern boundary of the village might have been called Sudhoff, the house at the eastern boundary had the name Osthaus. You get the picture.
Müller genannt Schmidt? – Or is it Schmidt genannt Müller?
In some German speaking areas the farm’s name had priority over the family’s surname. Sometimes both names were combined, somtimes the family’s surname was dropped alltogether.
Let’s say the Sudhoff farmers were an elderly couple, either with no children at all or without surviving children and grandchildren. The husband died, and the widow moved to her niece’s farm to live and help there.
The Sudhoff farm was then leased to one of the Müller sons who just married a Meyer girl. In the first years he propably was known as “Müller genannt Sudhoff” (Müller now named Sudhoff), but after a while he would’ve skipped his birth name and be known as Sudhoff from then on.
Same with the children. If you’re lucky you’d find the first one(s) as “Müller genannt Sudhoff” but very likely they’d simply have been called Sudhoff.
Fast forward two decades. The children married, the priests noted their names as Sudhoff in the marriage register. The child who stayed on the Sudhoff farm very likely kept this name, the ones who left and rented their own farm probably took on their new farm’s name.
And if one of the Sudhoff sons became the smith’s apprentice, later his son-inlaw and finally his successor, he and his family probably were called “the Smiths” even if the smith’s “real” surname was something entirely different.
And this was just a basic version… don’t get me started on the advanced ones!
Anyway… long story cut short: if you can’t find your ancestor in a rural area with farmlands and farms, check the church registers for vulgo names. If there are such at all, check the marriage registers for marriages in which either groom or bride bear the surname you are looking for.
Jot down their given names, then check the infant baptisms for any child with parents with that particular combination of given names. Combine that with the surnames, then compare the children’s birth dates with your ancestor’s. If he fits right in you might have found him. Names of godparents and witnesses can be great pointers too.
Have you ever noticed that one of your ancestors seemed to have two surnames?