Immigration, Migration and Name Changes

When I first started my genealogy digging, I thought that the greatest challenge I was facing was the fires that seemed to ravage so many Midwest courthouses in the late 1800s and early 20th century.  It seemed at every turn, I was being told, “Those records were destroyed in the fire of…”

Lately, the courthouse fires seem to be at best a minor challenge compared to the daunting challenge thrown up by having so many German and Austrian ancestors whose names were changed, misspelled or somehow morphed.  I have seen lineage lines seemingly disappear into the mists of time all because of name changes that happened during their immigration to the U.S. or even during their migration from state to state.

One of the strangest ones so far is the Hill line.  I have been able to successfully follow the line back to my Great Great Grandfather, Samuel P. Hill, and then the line just vanishes!  For the first few generations, I have census records, birth and marriage records – all of those little nuggets of proof that genealogists love!  When I reach Samuel Hill, it’s as if he just fell out of the sky one day!  My suspicion is that this disappearance is all due to a name change.  One of the family “legends” is that when the Hill family came over from Germany, their surname was dramatically different than “Hill.”  All my mother was ever able to remember was that it was something like “Hillfinker” or “Hillfiger.”  So now, my challenge is to find the mysterious original surname.

Another wonderful example of this has been the Washler line of my ancestry.  This one, thankfully, has been MUCH easier to follow through its many iterations.  The original surname, as it came from Germany, was Wörschler.  From that good German name, it has taken many twists and turns…Warstler, Wastler, Warshler and Washler.  While many of the changes have been generational or regional (the name changed as the family migrated), the most interesting instance of this change that I have found all happened within one generation and all in the same county.  My Great Great Grandfather, John Warshler, moved to DeKalb County sometime between 1860 and 1870.  When he arrived here, all records point to him using the surname of “Warshler.”  His sons, however, did not stick to that apparent family name!  My Great Grandfather, Curtis, is listed in almost every public record as “Washler” but his siblings seem to be divided between “Warshler” and more predominantly, “Warstler.”

The lesson learned from all of this…I have had to learn to think “outside” the name box and think of and look for more creative spellings and variations of each and every surname.  In some cases, the creative thinking has paid off, and in others, I seem to have to just keep digging further!