Saturday, January 13, 2018

Deciphering a Name

One of the bigger challenges for genealogists is figuring out what a family name used to be, before the immigrant ancestors had their names Americanized. The further back in time you go, the more difficult it becomes. During the early to mid 1700s, names were recorded in government documents only if the individual was a property holder, passed through the court system, or was a government official. Ministers kept records of every baptism, marriage, and burial they performed, but not all of those records have survived. For communities without an established church, dependent upon annual visits by itinerant pastors, the records might not include individual names, just the number of people baptized.

For the family that forms the core of my book, there are varying opinions about their name. It was eventually Americanized to Poe. Some researchers have decided that the original spelling was likely Pfau, but I am inclined to think that it was actually Pau or Paü. The use of the umlaut seems unlikely, as "Paü" is used today in Turkey, while "Pau" is a German word that is pronounced like Poe. "Pfau" was often Americanized to Faw, indicating a clear phonetic difference between the names.

I decided the best approach would be a search for any documents signed by members of the Poe family. The earliest I found were land deeds in the collection of the Maryland Archives. The family patriarch appears to have signed his name Georg Jacob Paü. I'm still not sure what to make of the apparent umlaut over the u.

Georg Jacob Pau signatures on the official copy of the deed of sale for a portion of land he owned, dated 18 November 1761.

Georg Jacob Pau signature on the official copy of the deed of sale dated 20 July 1762.
Collection of Maryland Archives, Liber H, Folio 127

On his estate inventory, his eldest son signed with a mark, not a name. All of the official documents and the Maryland Gazette, written in English, use the Americanized spelling of either Poe or Pow. I would guess that "Pow" would be pronounced like "row your boat."

One of the other stumbling blocks for genealogical research is the overlap in names from different families, coupled with a lack of record-keeping. For the Poe family, the second-eldest son was Andrew Poe. There is a general consensus that he was born in 1742. However, the records of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Frederick, Maryland, show that an Andreas Pfau, son of George Jacob Pfau, was baptized in June of 1749. This has been a bit of a red herring. It seems unlikely that the Poes waited seven years to baptize one of their children. It becomes less likely to be the same family when none of Andrew's siblings appear in those same records.

Similarly confusing is the birth of Barbara Pfo, daughter of Adam Pfo and Anna Maria Gefronin, in 1775 in Frederick, MD. I spent quite a lot of time pursuing this red herring. Genealogists have included this record in the family tree -- George Jacob Poe's third son was Adam Poe, so there has been an assumption that Adam Pfo and Adam Poe were the same person. The first wrinkle to the assumption is the proven fact that Adam Poe married Betsey Matthews in 1777 near Pittsburgh, but there is no sign of Barbara moving there with him. I finally ruled out the connection to Anna Maria and Barbara when I found Adam Poe's military records, which indicated that he arrived at Fort Pitt for service starting in 1773. Although technically possible, it seems improbable that Adam would have been spending time in Frederick after entering military service at Pittsburgh.

From what I can tell, there were a number of Pfaus in Frederick, Maryland during the mid-1700s. Although the names are similar, the pronunciation of Pfau and Pau/Poe are very different. The Poes lived on the Maryland frontier, not in the city. It took a lot of primary source research, but eventually I reached the point where I felt certain that my Poe family had no connection to any Pfaus in Frederick.

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