Introduction: I found it necessary twice in my life – once in 1989, and a second time right after Sally died, in February, 1994 – to sit down quietly with Grandma Dorothy in her living room and ask her, point blank: “Grandma, where did your ancestors come from?” I begged her to share all details about both her mother’s and father’s ancestors. I had made the same pleas for information to Sally in the 1980s. Sadly, in my haste, did not give Grandma or Sally advance opportunity to jog their memories before expecting them to answer my questions; and, being the impatient younger I was, conducted on-the-spot interviews in which I failed to take serious notes. My bad.
Fortunately, over the years I have also been able to use public library resources and the Internet to help me reconstruct the history – and I expect even more history than Grandma Dorothy herself knew. I was also able to recall at least some of the more salient pieces of the history shared with me, and I have been able to fill in the blanks in the oral history by talking with relatives. Several important pieces of the history handed down to us I have found backed by available records.
In this chapter, we will look at what I have found about the roots of Grandma Dorothy’s father, Joseph Berger. Specifically, this includes coverage of the Berger line plus surnames that have married into our Berger line, including Weisent, Krebs, and Andress.
Origin and Derivation of “Berger”
At the outset, it’s tempting to ask about the origin of a surname. So then, from where does our “Berger” surname derive? Well, the short answer is that we don’t know. And we may never know. In our case, the spelling has changed from the oldest document I can find. Originally I thought Berger might be a surname might be a “toponym” for person from the berg, or mountain, or a surname adopted to identify a person who lived in the mountains (e.g., Johan von der Berge, or “John (from the) Mountains”). Or, since France was next door back in the day, in French, the surname bergier meant shepherd.
But, the earliest recordation in our Berger line that I can so far locate (and that I can also cross-verify) is one Bernardhus Bürger, born in 1699, in the town of Deidesheim, Pfalz, Germany, to a Michaelis Bürger and a Gertrudis Kaub. This record is a church book entry for baptisms (kirchenbuchen taufen). Here, for Bernardhus (or Bernard, in English), his last name was spelled with a u, and with what looks like an apostrophe above the u. I do not speak German and cannot locate any source now, but I do suspect this was a shorthand for ü (u with the umlaut on top of it — two dots on top of the u). (The umlaut affects pronunciation.)
Excerpt from kirchenbuchen taufen (church book baptism entries), from the Roman Catholic Church at Deidesheim (1699) (Saint Ulrich’s Parish Church).
Bürger (as spelled with an umlaut above the u), literally translated, means “citizen”. In other words, if we we to make a literal translation of Bernardhus Bürger’s name, it should be just “Bernard Citizen”. But it’s hard to tell if the name in the 1699 kirchenbuchen entry was spelled to reflect a specific meaning of “citizen”, or was just a scrivener jotting down how he understood the family was pronouncing their name on the day of the baptism. My guess is that spelling here would be from the scrivener, and not from an uneducated peasant who I presume did not know how to spell his own name.
Additionally, the name “bürger” can also signify a member of a guild, or someone specialized in a skill and a member of a guild. We find a specialization in our Bürger line in vine dressing, as discussed further below — I don’t know if there were any guilds for vine dressers back in the day.
Surnames were not adopted in Germany for the general population until the medieval era. For hundreds of years, last names were most common only among the ruling classes and wealthy persons. Later, merchants and middle class adopted them. As for the general population, including the peasant classes, the FamilySearch wiki says that surnames were well-established by the 1500s.
Note that all of my German records research has been online, but there must be many other sources to research. Even so, my expectations of finding out much more information further back than the 1600s are not sky-high: locating documentation of German roots before then can be extremely difficult. Worse, religious violence during the Thirty Years War (1618-1649) resulted in many records destroyed during the plundering.
However, both religious and civil registries were able to recover and it was a great and pleasant surprise to me that we today are able to research and locate verifiable ancestor records dating to at least the mid-17th century.
Anyway, now on to our line of Bergers. Following is a rundown of the chain of descent, beginning with Bernard (although Michael and and Gertrude are identified as his parents in the kirchenbuchen entry):
 https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Germany_Names,_Personal. A lot of work seems to have been done on the origin of German surnames. See also, e.g.: https://www.alumniportal-deutschland.org/en/germany/country-people/german-surnames-family-names/;