Sunday, December 2, 2012

What's in a name?

Shakespeare’s Juliet asked Romeo that question.  It is also a question asked many times in a genealogy project.

Tracing ancestors back to European roots can involve many questions about names.  Emigration and Immigration officers often wrote down their interpretation of a name – and that became that person’s official name.  Many immigrants to the U.S. altered their spelling to make a name more comprehensible in America. Some translated a European name in it’s English counterpart – a Mroz family from Poland became a Frost family in the U.S. for example.  Others may have adopted an American/English name to try to avoid prejudice. And in current times, spelling may be altered by a transcriber's difficulty reading the handwriting on the original documents.

So, were my ancestors who carried the name Schipp in the U.S. the same people called Sip in Poland? If so, how and when did the name change? 

My maternal great grandparents, Michael and Elizabeth Schipp, came over separately. The appropriate arrival passenger lists show their name as Schipp. Michael is shown on the Hamburg departure passenger list as Schipp.

And I know they came from Posen, Prussia which once had been Poznan, Poland.  It is now, again, Poznan, Poland.  And Polish genealogists are very active in the Poznan area as they are in all of Poland.  The Poznan Project ( ) currently has an online database holding all marriages in Poznan (Posen) that took place during the 19th century.

My search of the Poznan Project began with a search for Michael Schipp’s marriage to Elizabeth. Zero results were returned. No male with that last name was married in Poznan between the years 1800 – 1899. Yet I know that is where they came from.

But there were plenty named Sip – including Michael Sip married to Elizabeth Jusczynska in 1872. The timing is in the right range and Elizabeth’s name is close enough to any other version I’ve encountered. I think they’re my ancestors but more research is needed.

The name/spelling change will probably always be a mystery but I have a pet theory. The Polish pronunciation of Sip may very well have sounded like “ship”. The Prussian goal was the Germanization of Poland. Schools were required to teach in German rather than Polish.  Germanic spelling replaced many Polish city and village names.  I suspect that Sip may have become Schipp according to the Prussians.  The Roman Catholic church, however, did it’s best to remain steadfastly Polish - recording names in their original Polish form.  I wonder if I’ll ever learn what really happened.

Is there a story behind your name?


  1. Welcome aboard the genealogy train. I'm one of those dratted researchers who take the skeletons out of the closet, shake the dust off and hang them on the line for all the neighbors to see. Welcome to the club.

  2. Welcome aboard! This is a great community of bloggers. One of the mysteries in our family was a name wrtten many different ways--Burton, Burtons, Burtous, Burtis What happened was the the u was mistaken for an n. Sometimes one letter can change everything.

  3. I was so glad to discover your blog today, thanks to GeneaBloggers. Your article today caught my eye, because I'm going through the same agonies with my Polish surnames, too. The reason your post also caught my eye was that my family also originates in Posen/Poznan. On top of the German/Polish language struggle, I also find the need to keep in mind that many of the names retained the Church's propensity to use Latin--making it a three way language tug of war. Oh, well, we will all struggle through it together, grateful for all the records that are now coming online.

  4. Hi, Jaqi
    It's definitely a challenging puzzle. To make matters more confusing, the Polish priest at their parish in Minnesota decided that "Schipp" should have been "Szyp" so that's what he wrote in the records for marriages and baptisms. Just adds to the fun.