This month I am focusing on surnames that are in some way related to that most common of English surnames, Smith. Like people, languages can be grouped into families that are related by descent from a common ancestor. Languages in the same family will resemble each other in many ways. Last Saturday, I talked about the surname Smith, which comes from the word for someone who works with metal. English belongs to the Germanic language family which includes German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages. So, you find surnames like Schmidt in German or Smit in Dutch with the same meaning and origin.
In Europe there are three very large and important language families: Germanic in the North, Romance in the South, and Slavic in the East. In Slavic surnames derived from the word meaning Smith are also very common. These include Kowalski and Kowalczyk in Polish, Kovář in Czech, Kováč in Slovak, Koval and Kovalenko in Ukranian, Kovalev in Russian, and Kovač in Serbian.
Mathias Kowatch in the US Census
My second great aunt, Gertrude Schoendorf, married Matthew Kowatch. This surname is most likely related to the Slavic surnames described above. But, before we examine how it is related, let's take a look at my aunt's father-in-law, Mathias Kowatch In a post earlier this week (here), I explained how we can use census to explore our linguistic heritage. Mathias Kowatch can be found in four censues (1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930). Several different responses are provided for his place of birth. These include both the place listed on his enumeration and that of his son.
1900 - Hungary
1910 - Germany
1920 - Slk/Hun.
1930 - Czechoslovakia/Hungary
But in the three years where the mother tongue is provided, German is given. What's going on here?
First, the 1910 census appears to involve a mistake. I would guess that the enumerator assumed Mathias was from Germany because he speaks German. This would fall into the category of an error. For the other cases we have to understand something about the history of the region. Before 1918, much of eastern Europe was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This empire was divided into two main parts: Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. The Kingdom of Hungary covered modern Hungary along with modern Slovakia and parts of Romania and the former Yugoslavia. The kingdom also contained large numbers of German minorities scattered throughout (See map of ethnic makeup of the empire here). The pattern in the censuses suggest that Mathias was from what is now Slovakia and that he was a member of the German speaking minority.
Another clue comes from another error by the enumerator, but this time the error is in our favor. Although the enumerator is only supposed to give the country of birth, sometimes a more specific location is given. The 1920 census provides the following information:
This somewhat difficult to decipher place name may correspond to the town of Medzev, Slovakia, which is known in German as Metzenseifen.
The development of the surname Kowatch
Now that we have a better understanding of Mathias Kowatch, we can return to his surname. One of the most common names in Slovakia is Kováč, meaning "smith". In Hungarian, one of the most common names Kovács, which is spelled differently—both Slovak č and Hungarian cs are pronounced like English ch—but sounds pretty much the same way. The Hungarian name is a borrowing from Slavic. The name Kowatch, which was probably originally Kowatsch, is the German spelling of this Slavic name; German w corresponds to v and tsch corresponds to the ch-sound. Tsch may have been changed to tch under the influence of English words like "watch".
It is possible that this Kowatch family was originally Slovak or Hungarian, but were later Germanized, but there is no way to tell from the available evidence. Perhaps a DNA test would offer some evidence. This is a good example of how names are not always the best guide to the ethnicity of your ancestors. Although the origin of a name may point to your ancestors' origins, this may be very remote with your ancestors having assimilated to another culture long ago or they may have adopted a name which is unrelated to their own family's origins.