I read this article on Slate recently about the origin of Jewish names, which got me thinking about my own last name: Erlanger. It’s one of the only indicators of the German heritage that peeks its way through the branches bundled with Irish Catholic leaves.
My last name wasn’t on their list, but I remember looking it up once and reading that Erlanger most likely comes from the town of Erlangen. Thinking about this inevitably led me to the earliest known bearer of my name, Herman Erlanger. I know literally nothing about Herman apart from the name scrawled on son Susmann’s marriage license by some unknown New York City clerk. His wife’s name was Julia; she exists in perpetuity on the line next to his with one subtle difference – mother, not father, and with no last name. These are my fourth great grandparents, the oldest (un)known originators of my name.
Susmann was born around 1821 in Germany. His parents were likely born around the turn of the century, depending on where Susmann fell in the birth order (I don’t know if he had any siblings, so it’s hard to tell). He immigrated to New York around 1846 for reasons and with family ties unknown, and in 1847 he married Schanette Neuzeit (forever known in US censuses as Jeanette Newcity, the misunderstood American translation of a very foreign name). After that the Erlangers are very easy to track, from the 1850 census on through the Civil War, up into the 1900s where we eventually land on me. I had some trouble there around 1920 due to a sneaky great grandparent who decided to change his name (and his religion, but I’ve told this story before), but it’s all pretty standard. It’s easy to track people when they continue to exist within a few miles of the same place they’ve been for 100 years.
Herman and Julia might have lived right down the road from the house built by their own fourth great grandparents, but the answer to that question requires a lot more time and money than I currently have. I used to know some German, but not anymore, and either way my knowledge didn’t extend to the reading of 19th and 18th century germanic texts.
I admit that having a family largely comprised of people from Ireland and England has made me spoiled. Everything is so accessible! Plus my distant Irish relatives are not so distant – they’re my friends on Facebook. Previous ventures haven’t prepared me for this level of difficulty. I need to do a few more push ups, lift a few more weights, before I’m able to vault myself up and over this brick wall.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your genealogy research? Inquiring minds want to know.