Sunday, July 15, 2007

Surname Breakthrough: Bear / Behr / Baehr

My paternal grandmother's surname, Bear, was always a bit of a mystery.

We knew from my grandmother that her grandfather spoke German, so we could assume that the origin of the surname was German, but Bear is not a German surname. The spelling must have been changed somewhere along the way. Where did it change? What was the original spelling?

German surnames that could be interpreted as Bear are numerous. There's Bar, Behr, Bähr/Baehr, Bär/Baer, and Beer to start with. Then you also need to include possibilities like Bayer, Baier, Beyer and Beier.

My Bear ancestors can be traced back to 1825, but then we hit a brick wall:

Ila Iola Bear (1913-1992)
Samuel Lewis Bear (1881-1939)
Samuel Rupley Bear (1856-1937)
Samuel Lewis Bear (1825-1864)


Samuel Lewis Bear was born on October 24, 1825 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. On January 6, 1849, he married Mary Rupley in Hampden Township, Cumberland County, PA. They shortly thereafter moved to Peoria, Illinois and later settled in Plano, Appanoose, Iowa. He died on April 6, 1864 in Benicia, Solano County, California, during the Gold Rush. We have no idea who the parents of Samuel Lewis (or Mary Rupley) are.

Then, a clue: my aunt recently spent a week with her uncle (my grandmother's brother) John Bear in Missouri and he remembered being told that Bear was at one time spelled with an "H". That would bring the original spelling possibilities down to Behr and Bähr/Baehr. So far, this hasn't led to any breakthroughs, but it's given us a new lead.

So how common is Behr and Bähr in Germany? I decided to enter them at the Surname Research Center of Ancestry.de (site is in German).

The Behr surname distribution map


There are approximately 11,696 people with the surname Behr living in Germany now. This is higher than average for a surname in Germany. It is the 628th most common name in Germany and is concentrated in the Hamburg-Harburg-Luneburg area of north Germany, which can be seen as the darker green cluster towards the top of the above map (view the Behr surname distribution results - in German).

There are approximately 7,664 people with the surname Bähr living in Germany now. This is also higher than average. It is the 1,002nd most common name in Germany and is concentrated in the Rhein-Neckar and Ortenau areas of southwest Germany (view the Bähr surname distribution map and results - in German).

The origin of Behr is Bähr. The origin of Bähr could be from the nickname "Bär" (bear) for a strong and/or courageous person or house, it could have been shortened from a longer surname beginning with "Ber-" (e.g. Berwein), or it could originate from the nickname "Eber" (boar).

2 comments:

Saami 11/12/2007 10:15 AM  

Hi Christina. Very unlikely the Saami are related to the Bahr you refer to, but in case it is I want to tell you about it. There are Saami families with the name Bahr, Baer and Bær. The way the name is written has changed over the centuries.

Here you can see a photo of Per Andersen Bær (Baer) from 1883:

http://www.ub.uib.no/avdeling/billed/kortsalg/foto/tromholt/kort7.jpg

I do not have an authentic photo of Anders (Andy) Bahr (Bær) but there are made a Canadian documentary drama about him. He moved reindeers to Alaska in 1929 on request from the Canadian government:

http://nfb.ca/collection/films/fiche/?id=33607

Sean Bear 9/12/2008 2:35 AM  

Wow! That is so neat how you have been able to track down your family tree...even if it has hit a brick wall. My last name is Bear too! I was born in Central Ohio which is where just about all of the family that I know of is located/from. My cousin and grandfather have recently begun researching our family history so, who knows! we may be related! :)

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