History tells us that Europeans immigrated to America in the late seventeenth century. Did you know that many surnames changed after the immigrants arrived in America?

Most of these immigrants did not know how to read or write English. In fact, many did not speak English, preferring their native language. When a recordkeeper wrote an immigrant’s name on a document, he would write the name how it “sounded”.

Here are some examples of “Americanized” surnames are:

The German surname Fuchs became Fox.
The Dutch surname Van Cruijningen became Cunningham.
The Italian surname Barbieri became Barber.
The French surname Choinière became Sweeney.

In 2008, when I first became a member of Ancestry.com, I started my family tree. I became interested in where the name “Wakenight” originated. My father, Donald Eugene Wakenight, had passed away in 1993. My mother recalled hearing that we were from Germany. She said that my grandfather, Raymond Luther Wakenight, had told them the story years ago.

I decided to do some research. I started my family tree with my father, adding his parents and grandparents. I proceeded down the line until I reached my father’s third great-grandfather. Daniel Wakenight was born in 1792 in Maryland and died in 1866 Illinois.

Much of the information on Daniel Wakenight came from a family tree that I found on RootsWeb.com. The name of the family tree is The Descendants of Daniel Wakenight. The creator of this family tree is Sharon Strow, who is my father’s first cousin, once removed.

Sharon had collected an amazing amount of data on this part of the family. She spoke to and corresponded with many of our distant relatives. They, in turn, supplied her with information on the ancestors listed in this family tree.

Thank you, Sharon, for creating this family tree and preserving our family history!

On Daniel Wakenight’s page, Sharon made note of the following:

“I was passed on the information from Sylvester Wakenight that we came from Germany and that the name was originally spelled Weichneicht. I have run across this name in several other incidences, but with the way records were kept way back it is hard to know what was a misspelling and what was a different name altogether. I have no doubt we are from Germany. The problem is finding Daniel’s father for lack of record keeping in the early years.”

Sharon also made this observation about who Daniel’s father might be:

“Philip Wakenight died in 1815 (who he is–speculation is he is Daniel Sr.’s father, but was he? When he died most of his estate was bought by Daniel and his Widow Wakenight, but that doesn’t really prove he was the father.”

The earliest record that I found on Ancestry.com was of Daniel’s marriage to Isabelle Powell. Their marriage took place in Washington County, Maryland, on July 15, 1816.

Here are some interesting facts about this marriage record:

I could not view the actual record, as it was text only.
There were two different entries for this record on Ancestry.com.
One transcriptionist spelled his surname Waicknight, while another transcriptionist spelled his surname Wechnecht.

The fact that two people typed this name in two different ways is amazing. This shows us how people type what they see, and how the people keeping records (back then) wrote what they heard.

So, back to my search . . .

I knew Daniel married Isabelle in Washington County, Maryland, in 1816. I then started searching the 1820 US Census Records for Daniel. I found him living in Boonsboro, Maryland, with his surname spelled Weightneight.

I looked for Daniel on other censuses. On the 1830 US Census, the census taker spelled his surname Wechinicht or Wechtnicht.

On the 1840 US Census, the census taker spelled his surname Wetnight.

The 1850 and 1860 US Censuses had his surname written as Wakenight.

I studied each variation of the surname. I came to the conclusion that Daniel’s German accent had to be the cause of these various spellings. I wondered if a German-speaking person could help translate these name variations. I decided to contact several groups on Facebook to see if they could help in my quest.

As I await a reply to my inquiries, I turned my attention to Daniel’s parents. Sharon Strow had stated that Philip Wakenight might be Daniel’s father. Philip had died in 1815 Hagerstown and most of his estate went to a Daniel Wakenight and Philip’s widow.

Daniel was 23 years old at the time of his marriage. I thought that his mother might still be living in the area, so I began exploring the 1820 US Census. I narrowed my search to Washington County, Maryland. I found a Catherine Weightneight living in Hagerstown with two females under the age of 16.

I was getting excited! If Philip Wakenight was living in Hagerstown in 1810, could he be Daniel’s father? I examined the 1810 US Census. I found a Philip Wegnicht living in Hagerstown with one female between the age of 26 and 44 (his wife?) and two females under the age of 10.

I felt positive that this was the same family; except there was no listing for Daniel (a male) on this census. He would have been about 18 years old. Could he have been living with relatives? Could he have been working and living under his employer’s roof?

The early US censuses only listed the Head of Household’s name. With this fact, it was very unlikely that I would find Daniel in 1810. But, I could continue looking for Philip.

I started investigating the 1800 US Census in Washington County, Maryland. I found a Philip Witnicht living in Hagerstown. Included in this entry was a female (his wife?), one male under the age of ten, and one female under the age of ten. In 1800, Daniel would have been eight years old. Bingo!

I know this does not definitely prove Philip is Daniel’s father, but the connection is there. Sharon had said that Philip’s estate went to Daniel Wakenight and Philip’s widow.

I also did a search to see if there were any other Wakenights living in the Washington County area. I entered the name Wakenight and all the variations of the name (as shown above). I found no one with these surname variations between 1800 and 1840.

As I continued looking for more records on Philip, I stumbled across a marriage record. I discovered that a Philip Whitenet married Coly (Cath? or Catherine) Heckman on December 26, 1797, in Hagerstown. This would mean that Catherine was not Daniel’s mother, as Daniel was born in 1792.

I knew from reading Philip’s obituary that he was born around 1753. Philip would have been 44 years old when he married Catherine in 1797. Could this be his second marriage?

I continued my quest, looking for a marriage record before 1797. I found a marriage record for a Philip Whitwright and Susannah Phips. They married in 1792 in Ann Arundel County, Maryland.

However, I do not believe this is our Philip Wakenight. I searched for children born to Philip and Susannah. The following two names appeared under the surname Witwrieht.

As you can see Jacob was born on November 30, 1792. Daniel was born on December 16, 1792. With that fact, I had to assume that this was a different Philip.

So, my search continues . . .

There are many variations of the surname, Wakenight. In my family tree, you can see the following forms of the name.

Weichneicht, Whitenet, Witnicht, Wegnicht, Waicknight, Wechnecht, Weightneight, Wechnicht, or Wetnight.

I did notice one constant in each of these writings and transcriptions. They all contain a compound word. Two words that form a longer word.

So, my next quest will be to research German compound surnames.

I also recently discovered two websites that might help me. One is a directory for current German surnames. The other is a type of MP3 player that will pronounce words in different languages (i.e. German).

If you have an idea that might help me find our true German surname, please use the Comments Section of this page. You can also contact me on my Facebook page for The Genealogy Insider. I appreciate any input you can give me.