What’s in a Maiden Name?

Having never been a history buff, I’m suddenly intrigued with the Franco-Prussian War, known in France as The War of 1870. If you read Soup, Snow, and Sentences, you might guess that a lecture from The Great Courses has piqued my interest. It has, but only because of discoveries made in 2012 and 2016.

Prior to a trip to Montreal in 2012, I challenged myself to learn French, a language previously unfamiliar to me, one that held my interest beyond our short trip to Canada.

Same airport food with fancy French names.

Dave with his Cafe au lait avec sucre.

The corner where we enjoyed crepes et vin.

Then, in the summer of 2016, I clicked on an Ancestry.com link on Facebook to find out the history behind my maiden name,


Once on the genealogy site, I decided  to try to trace my dad’s family line back to Germany. The site’s Two-Week Free Trial would give me time to find a few names and dates with no cost and little commitment.  I spent many hours during those two weeks clicking on green leaves to learn more about my ancestors. (I may even have neglected other activities and stayed up later than usual, finding the search to be a bit addictive.) When my Free Trial ended, I had, indeed, been able to trace the Pfeiffers back to Europe, but to my surprise, my great-great grandfather and great-great-great grandfather were born in France! I asked a couple of cousins if they knew that, but they  seemed uninformed  about our Family Tree. The two weeks ended, leaving me satisfied with birth, death, and marriage details about several sets of grandparents, but not yet interested in becoming a World Traveler client of Ancestry.com.

Recently, son Eric and his wife Amanda came for a visit, wanting to share the family history information they have unearthed on the internet, helping me trace my mom’s family back a few generations, reigniting my desire to access more information about my French grandfathers.  I found a Great Courses series on genealogy and selected a lecture called Extending Your Family Tree Oversees. The teacher’s enthusiasm about his trip to Europe in search of his roots prompted me to consider his challenge to learn about the history and culture of France. I talked Dave into signing up for a free trial on Ancestry.com and attempted to reach back into the eighteenth century for another set of ancestors. That’s when my family’s HISTORY began to ignite my passion.

I discovered the reason for confusion about whether the Pfeiffers came from Germany or France and, I believe, the reason why my great-great grandfather immigrated from France to America in 1872.  Michael P. Pfeiffer was nineteen years old when France declared war on the German Kingdom of Prussia, attempting to maintain control of the homeland of my ancestors. They were unsuccessful as the Germans mobilized, attacked, and defeated the army of Napoleon III, ending the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Germany then annexed Alsace-Lorraine and forced the citizens to declare French citizenship and leave or become Germans. Records show that twenty-two year old Michael P. Pfeiffer and his cousin Nicholas Wilhelm arrived in New York in 1872. Pfeiffer married my great-great grandmother in Ohio in 1880, and the rest is, well, history.

But, I still have questions. Finding the answers may take me on a long journey, searching out on-line records, visiting genealogy libraries, continuing to learn French… traveling to France? Oh yes, Alsace-Lorraine was regained by France at the end of World War II.

So, what’s in a maiden name? History. People. Story. My hope is no longer just to fill in names on my Pedigree Chart, but to also gather enough information to piece together some life stories about those men and women, my ancestors.

I’m proud that my ancestors kept the original spelling of Pfeiffer, despite our need to spell it often. The Germans pronounced it Fifer, however my branch went with Pifer along the way. Here is what I found when I initially took the bait on Ancestry.com.

Pfeiffer name meaning: German and Jewish (Ashkenazic): from an agent derivative of Middle High German pfif(e), German Pfeife ‘whistle’, ‘pipe’, hence an occupational name for a pipe player.

Well, what do you know about that!



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