Monday, December 14, 2015

Hidden Behind That Surname

Ever get stumped with a surname and have to give up the chase to find that line's family history? What's in a name, anyhow? Is it like Shakespeare's rose—by any other name, just as sweet? Or can surnames tell us a story that might just reveal some history about our own family, as well?

Reviewing all my extended family surnames last week, I recalled just where I was stuck on my mother-in-law's line. In particular, one sticking point on her matrilineal line was the surname Metzger.

Of all my mother-in-law's family lines, this is the one for which I can go back only the briefest way—to their appearance in the Perry County, Ohio, census of 1850. In some enumerations, the Metzger family origin is designated as Germany. At other times, it is listed as Switzerland.

I can't pinpoint why, but I've always had the hunch that my mother-in-law's families came from the region once called Alsace-Lorraine in war-torn France Germany France. Even though I've never found solid documentation for this hunch, over the years of researching these settlers of Perry County, Ohio, I've seen a number of indications.

Naturally, when reader Intense Guy added his comment about a grade school classmate with that very surname—Metzger—whose family once lived not far from the French city of Metz on that German border region, I couldn't resist following that rabbit trail. Seeing that city's name—and how closely it resembled that surname—I couldn't help wondering whether there was any connection between the city's name and our family's name.

This made me realize: in exploring any surname-focused rabbit trails, navigation tools are in order. These, at the very least, must include maps and surname histories.

I took a quick look for information on that city, Metz, which Iggy had mentioned. Sure enough, it was in France, up against the current-day border with Germany, just below Luxembourg. While not quite part of the current French region of Alsace, it certainly was a key city of the former German Empire's Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine.

It would take some research using a historical map to see where the oft-moved borders for that region might have been before 1850—about the time our Metzger family emigrated to the United States. If they were indeed from this region, since its southern-most reaches stretched to Switzerland, perhaps that explains the varying reports of their origin. Remember, census enumerators were to record the then-politically-correct jurisdiction for immigrants' hometown origins, not the regional designation those people had always called their home. Gone, under such a system, would be any mention of specific regions—whether Alsace in France, or Posen in Prussia, as I discovered quite by accident when researching my own paternal grandparents.

But what is in the name, itself? Does "Metzger" have anything to do with "Metz"?

While it is sometimes challenging to find reliable reports on the history of a specific surname—I'm thinking avoidance of all glad-handing "coat of arms" sales representatives here—I did take a tour through the Google listings for history of the name Metzger.

Right away, I got reminded of something I learned years ago, when my sister-in-law, Air Force wife that she was, residing in Germany, made the discovery that the word "metzger" means "butcher" in German.

Is Metzger an occupational name? Could be.

Is it a German name? Seems likely. After all, though there are many in the United States with that surname, Metzger ranks as the nation's 1,558th most common surname. Hardly a Smith or a Jones. In contrast, in Germany—where you would expect a name like that to have originated—the surname ranks as the 337th most common name.

Interestingly, though, Metzger as a surname ranks similarly in France to its rank in the United States—with a rank of 1384. Why would all those people in France—4,751 as of 2014—have a German surname?

Perhaps it is because their ancestors had lived in the region once taken over by the Germans and dubbed Alsace-Lorraine.

As for how the surname found its immigrant way through America, is it no surprise that, in 1840, the highest concentration of that surname's frequency occurred in Pennsylvania—and then, by 1880, had dispersed westward to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois? This is the same pattern seen in our own family.

Most surprising to me, as I trawled through all the surname histories that came up on my Google search, was a report published by the New South Wales (Australia) Board of Jewish Education. While the article partly concerned not just Jewish surnames, but the evolution of surnames in general, it included a listing of occupational names, including Metzger, meaning butcher.'s listing of the surname's history, surprisingly, confirmed the Jewish connection, noting that it was not only an occupational name for people from southern Germany, but also for those with an Ashkenazic heritage. Who knew?

For all the political turmoil suffered over the centuries in that tiny region of Alsace and Lorraine, I wish I could find out whether that was the motivation that urged our Metzger family to pick up and leave home, heading far away to pioneer territory in central Ohio. If that were the case, it wouldn't be the sole example. After France lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, history recounts that many fled from the now-German annexed land, heading west to rejoin France beyond its relocated border. While that event took place in the early 1870s—over two decades after our Metzgers' emigration—that was not the first or only such scenario. This politically-disputed region likely provided many other inspirations for its residents to pick up and leave home for good.

Above: "The Exodus," 1872 painting by Alsatian artist Louis-Frédéric Schutzenberger, depicting the emigration from Alsace to France after the region's annexation by the German Empire; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.



  1. The Alsace and Lorraine area must have been a really miserable place to live back in the days of constant strife. Second only to the starvation times of the Irish!

    The "Pennsylvania Dutch" (that is, the Amish) are from that area.

    1. That is interesting, Iggy. I knew the "Pennsylvania Dutch" were really Deutsche, but I didn't know they were from that specific region. I am really hoping I can put together a cogent argument concerning the origins for those Perry County immigrants.

  2. This was a great read. I am learning about my family tree as my great great grand father, Nicolas Metzger immigrated from Alsace to South America. Thank you for all the research you have done. It's helping my own.

    1. Now, that's a fascinating switch, Luis: to South America?!

      While I don't have solid verification, I'm pretty sure Alsace is the origin for this family, though I've been contacted by others indicating the origin might have been nearby in Switzerland. I'd love to learn about your ancestor's journey that brought him to South America, Luis.

    2. Think we may be related my great great great pa was nicolas metzger father of louis and marie metzger

    3. Think we may be related my great great great pa was nicolas metzger father of louis and marie metzger

  3. My mother's maiden name is Metzger. They immigrated from Romania (then Hungary) to Philadelphia in about 1910. I discovered that the city in Romania (St Andreas) was established by the German/Austrian empire in about 1750 after defeating the Ottomans or Turks. To keep the area populated with Germans (non Muslims), immigration from the Lorraine area was encouraged by the German empire. Many covered wagons travelled from Lorraine to Hungary. People from Lorraine (all Roman Catholics) have been reported as the basis for the start of St Andreas in current day Romania. I am curious if the name has anything to do with the city name of Metz.

    1. What a fascinating history! Thank you for sharing that detail. The Metzger name is apparently more widespread than I had thought.

      Like you, I have that question about the link (if any) between the surname and the city name of Metz. Still more work to be done on this!

  4. Interesting article about Metzker. I am a Metzker descendant. My Albert Metzker shows up in the 1900 Census in Arkansas. Census says he immigrated in 1890. Can't find a record for that. Let me know if anyone can help.

  5. I traced my Metzger family name to Johanne Metzger who traveled from southern Germany to Pennsylvania in 1740 as an indentured servant, plus one generation back to his parents.

    1. That's great that you were able to trace your Metzger line that far back. With Metzger a fairly common name among German immigrants to the United States, it's important to be able to identify the founding immigrant ancestor.


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