Here a Johann, There a Johann, Everywhere a Johann, by Michael John Neill

In 1735 there were three small children named Johann Ayelts in the village of Wiesens, now located in Germany. They spent their entire lives in that same village. The village of Wiesens is a small one located in the north of Germany with a population of probably less than 500 people in the mid-eighteenth century.

Those three Johanns were:

Johann Ayelts, born 1727
Johann Bruns Ayelts, born 1731
Johann Ayelts, born 1732

This is a situation that can easily confuse genealogists. Separating the three Johanns reminds us of some important lessons about genealogy methods and the importance of knowing something about the area in which one is researching.

It would be easy to confuse similarly named men. After all, they were born within five years of each other and lived their entire lives in the same small village. One might also be tempted to conclude that the men are related to each other, perhaps they were first cousins, grandchildren of the same patriarch. Perhaps they were related more distantly, yet close enough that it matters genealogically. But conclusions about relationships cannot be made based upon names alone–there needs to be actual evidence of a relationship.

Names do not usually provide a direct, immediate proof of a relationship. In some locations, the sharing of a first and a last name may warrant a closer look for a relationship between the two individuals, after the researcher has “sorted them out” and determined which records belonged to which individual. In other locations, the sharing of a first and a last name may be happenstance.

Let’s look at the three individuals in question.

The First Name
Johann is one of the most common German first names and is passed down in many families. Conclusions about relationships based solely on the first name are not advisable. It is generally advised to keep in mind the relative commonness of any names when making a hypothesis about a relationship.

The Last Name
One should not always assume individuals with the same last name living in close proximity are related. The researcher needs to understand how common certain last names were in certain areas, how those last names were derived, and when last names were consistently passed down from parent to child. If these individuals lived in Virginia, rather than northern Germany, my initial hypothesis about any relationship would be different.

How Common Was the Last Name?
The last name of Ayelts (and Eilts, Eielts, etc.) is fairly common in the area where these men lived. You can determine how common a last name is by looking in online phone books, indexes, city and village directories, etc. for the area being researched. You can also simply browse through birth records for a five or ten year time span. Keep in mind that the commonness of a last name can vary greatly from one region of a country to another, and the relative frequency of a last name should be determined only by using materials from the area where the family lived.

Derivation of the Last Name
Different ethnic and political areas began passing last names from father to child at different times. In the area where the three Johanns lived, last names were not passed from father to child. Consequently the three Johanns might have had fathers with different last names. And in fact, that is exactly what happened.

Johann Ayelts, born in 1727 was the son of Ayelt Gerdes.
Johann Bruns Ayelts, born in 1731 was the son of Ayelt Bruns.
Johann Ayelts, born in 1732 was the son of Ayelt Janssen.

What the three Johann Ayelts did have in common was that their fathers all had the same first name and the children had a last name based upon their father’s first name (a practice called patronymics).

Other areas have similar problems. Swedish researchers separating out a group of Lars Carlssons will probably find that their fathers’ first names are all Carl.

If the three Johann Ayelts were related, it was not closely and not through the paternal lineage as might be assumed. Fortunately for researchers in this location, church records often distinguish individuals by mentioning their occupation and village of residence.

Women in records from this area are often mentioned as “the wife of.” but they are almost always listed with their maiden name. That is particularly helpful in this case. Two of the Johanns married women with the first name of Ancke. The use of the wife’s last name in christening records helped me to distinguish between the two couples.

Wrapping It Up
Had these three men lived in Virginia in the mid-eighteenth century, we might have looked for a relationship and determined it was odd that there was none. However, because of the area in which they lived and the naming customs of that time and place, finding no relationship among the three men is not a surprise.

It is important to remember when working in a new area to make certain that assumptions about culture and practices that you may think hold “true” are still valid in the new area. And always bear in mind that individuals with the same first and last name do not have to be related.

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Michael John Neill is a genealogical writer and speaker who has been researching his or his children’s genealogy for more than twenty years. A math instructor in his “other life,” Michael taught at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and has served on the FGS Board. He also lectures on a variety of genealogical topics and gives seminars across the country. He maintains a personal website

6 thoughts on “Here a Johann, There a Johann, Everywhere a Johann, by Michael John Neill

  1. My husband’s grandfather was Carl Johan Johnsson born in Sweden in 1849.
    My husband’s father was Emmanuel Anders Carlson born in Sweden in 1897.
    He came to the United States in 1922 at which time he spoke no English. My husband, Monnie Joan Carlson was born in 1931 and spent his life stuck with a girl’s name because his father was trying to name him after his grandfather and thought he was using the American version of that name.

  2. Michael, VERY nice article. PLEASE tell us the rest of this story! Were the three men related in any way? Were all three men called “Johann?” If so, HOW did the villagers tell them apart? And, what about the traditional German practice of giving two given names, the “Saints name” and the “call name?” Was that practice at work in this particular instance? [In your experience, when did German families stop doing so? I’d really like to know more about this…as I still find early MN immigrant families continuing this German naming practice, and this leads to records under TWO given names!] Hope you will followup this one with a piece about the feedback you get, and a bit more on German naming practices. Here in Minnesota, this is a BIG problem for many researchers, and I suspect that’s true across U.S.
    All best, Darlene Joyce, CG, Hugo, Minnesota

  3. P.S. I forgot to say that in my family–“Joh. Peter Fenical” died in Washington County PA; his probate was administered in 1805. That file includes 28 different spellings of his surname, and various bills and receipts and tax lists refer to him alternatively as “Joh.”, “John” and [mostly] as “Peter.” Most experts consulted agree that “Fenical” is an American evolution of the root German name, “Fenchel.” Joh. Peter’s widow and children all used the surname “Finical.” I’ve spent many years trying to identify this man’s parents and birthplace–and to determine if the “Joh.” stood for Johannes or Johann. I’m told there is a serious difference. Would love to see you expand on your article about German naming practices. Watching eagerly for your next piece on this! Darlene C. Joyce, CG, Minnesota

  4. There is another (easier) way to determinine surname frequency/distribution in Germany than the methods suggested. Visit and type the surname into the “karten zum namen” box. I didn’t find anything under the Ayelts spelling but there is a lot there under the Eilts spelling.

  5. The given name Johann is not necessarily always given to a male. Take for example my cousin Johann, whose name was derived from that of her grandfather John and her grandmother, Anna.

    But you are right. Similar names can prove to be very confusing in genealogical research.

    Thanks for the article.

  6. Also, I understand that some German families used the same name, for example Johan for every male in the family. At least my husbands family used Christian for all 3 brothers and called them by their middle names. Also, the tradition of extra names was carried on here in this country. My husband’s grandfather, the first generation born in this country had 4 names total. And sometimes he used one and sometimes another. Talk about confusion.

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