From German to Italian

Week 15: #52 Ancestors – How Do You Spell That?

By Eilene Lyon

“How do you spell that?”


“That’s I-L-uh…?”

Names can be such a pain! It’s no wonder that many immigrants choose to “Americanize” theirs. I doubt that my grandma, Reatha Gusso Halse, realized that her Grandpa Charlie Gusso and his siblings changed the spelling of their last name. This is a clear-cut case in my tree where the surname was changed by the immigrant generation.

What Charlie Gusso and his brother and sisters may not have realized is that they changed their last name from a German one (or perhaps Polish, as we shall see) to an Italian one!

I earlier wrote a post about how I “reunited” Charlie and his Gusso family, with diligent research and some incredible luck. The Gusso family immigrated from Mecklenburg, in what is now northeastern Germany, on the Baltic Sea.1

Charlie’s grandfather was Joachim Christian Gastow. Or was it Gasow? Or Gatzow? Or Gaszow? The most frequent spelling is the last one. There just happens to be a town in southwestern Poland called Gaszów. It’s entirely possible this place could be the family origin.

Distribution of the Gaszow surname in Germany with Mecklenburg in yellow. The red dot shows the approximate location of Gaszów, Poland.

Joachim Christian’s daughters stayed in Germany, but both sons came to America in the 1850s: Carl and Friedrich. Carl was my ancestor, and he obtained employment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but his time there was short-lived. The 1860 census taker spelled his surname as Gazow.2 After he died and his widow, Dorothea, remarried, their children were listed with the last name “Gaso.”3 (If you’re keeping track, that’s the sixth iteration.)

In 1870, Carl’s brother Frederic had his last name spelled “Kassow” by the census taker.4 However, other records indicate that he adopted the spelling “Gatzow.” Thanks to DNA matches, I’ve been in touch with some of Fred Gatzow’s descendants in Wisconsin. From my year of studying German, I can see how the pronunciation of Gaszow or Gatzow might sound similar to Gusso and lead to that phonetic spelling.

Collection of snips from documents about the Gaszow family. The immigration piece in the middle spells Carl’s last name as Gagzow – yet another iteration!

DNA matches on Ancestry also revealed a group of people by the surname Kussow, who seemed to be related to me on my Gusso line.

“Aha,” I thought. “I’ll bet that’s another phonetic spelling for Gaszow!”

Seemed reasonable, but it turned out to be a coincidence. There was a family connection on my Gusso/Gaszow line, though.

As more German records became indexed and available on Ancestry, I learned that Carl Gaszow’s wife, Dorothea Groth, had a half-sister, Anna Thiessen.5 Anna married Johann Heinrich Friedrich Kussow in Germany.6

In 1870, the Kussows immigrated to the US and settled in Wisconsin.7 That is why I have distant Kussow cousins in America. Our common ancestor is Dorothea and Anna’s mother, Sophia Dorothea Schumacher Groth Thiessen. Now close your eyes and spell all that out loud.

So where does Italy come into all this? Gusso is an uncommon surname, with only a few thousand individuals. In the Old World, the highest density is found in Italy. The largest number is found in Brazil, another nation of immigrants, like the US.8 Thanks to phonetics, my German ancestors wound up with an Italian name.

Feature image: Grandma Halse labeled this photo “Gusso clan.” There are quite a few Halses in there. I can pick out my dad and his brothers. Also, their Halse father and grandfather. Their grandmother, Stella (Crandall) Gusso, is second from right (my dad is next to her). I have no idea who all the other children and adults might be. (Circa 1950)

  1.  Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934> 1850-1859 > Direkt Band 009 (16 Feb 1856 – 30 Jun 1856) image 170. This has the Gagzow family leaving Hamburg. The 1860 census indicates they were from Mecklenburg, which is confirmed by many other records. 
  2. 1860 United States Federal Census> Wisconsin> Milwaukee> Milwaukee Ward 6 image 58. 
  3. 1870 United States Federal Census> Wisconsin> Brown> Rockland image 6. 
  4. 1870 United States Federal Census> Wisconsin> Milwaukee> Milwaukee Ward 1 image 183. 
  5. Anna Maria Christiana Thiessen. Germany, Select Births and Baptisms, 1558-1898 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014. She has the same mother as my ancestor, Dorothea Groth, but a different father. One of Dorothea’s records gives her maiden name as Thiessen, that of her stepfather. 
  6. Anna Maria Christiana Thiessen. Germany, Select Marriages, 1558-1929 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014. 
  7. Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934> 1870-1879> Direkt Band 024 (5 Jan 1870 – 21 Dez 1870) image 434. 

53 thoughts on “From German to Italian

Add yours

    1. One of my Gusso cousins asked me if she was related to some other Gussos, but I explained the evolution of the name. To my knowledge, they have no connection to anyone else with that name, who are essentially all of Italian extraction. That her last name was “made up” was a bit of a surprise, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I can see how the unfamiliarity of names can lead to so many alternate spellings and how that might just stick. I had such a simple maiden name, then I hyphenated when I married. Even now when teachers are introducing me to their class, they have difficulty saying my name and I’ve seen it written in many different forms.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You did a great job making this interesting to read. Have you always known your family was of Germanic origin, or did your family assume they were Italian? I have an ancestor from Mexico who’s name is spelled differently on every single record, and none of the spellings show up in a search engine lol. Drives me nuts! Lancastrillon, Lancasterllones, Lancasterjones, and on and on with 5 more variations. I’m determined to figure out where they were from, and one researcher suggested to me they might be related to some English oil barons who merged their parents names Lancaster and Jones into “Lancaster-Jones” to follow Spanish naming conventions. It would be truly surprising and bizarre!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! You do have an interesting name to research. Have you done a DNA test to see if other variants appear in your matches?

      I knew I had some German ancestry, but research revealed much more than I ever suspected. I did not know the origins of the Gusso name at all – either it’s real German history, or the Italian connection (false, as it turns out).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s entirely possible, but you might find it if you go back enough generations. I think I started testing in 2016, and the most helpful (and surprising) results took years to show up.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. When I find surnames spelled in a variety of ways over a number of censuses, not only do I suspect the census taker but also the reporting individual. I have concluded my ancestors were functionally illiterate and did not know how to spell their surname. Or at least not using English phonetics. I regularly find an ‘X’ is used on land documents. My surname is also German but 100+ years ago morphed into something more French-like. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s no doubt census-taker error in these documents. The ones in German are church records in the old style script. I’ve learned to read it to some extent, but there’s also the possibility that the transcriber made errors. I’d have to double check, but I do think Carl and Dorothea were literate.


  4. Eilene, I’m curious about how those ancestry matches work? I assume you must have to give permission, as well as the other people. But is it through or through one of those DNA testing apps?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did most tests through I did my brother’s Y-DNA test through FamilyTreeDNA. I got permission from each of my parents and an uncle. Using the combination of tests, plus other known matches (cousins who tested independently of me), I can narrow down the possibilities of which family line we match on, even if the matches don’t post a family tree. All the Ancestry DNA tests are shared with all members, but many tests just have initials associated with them. Some people do put their names, though, which can also be a clue.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Both. The first group disappeared as in moved across the border to Michigan or Seattle in the early 1900’s when borders were more open. My grandfather who I never met was from a family of 9 kids, only two of whom I knew, two died young from pneumonia or from the Spanish flu, leaving several unaccounted for. I know I could find them if I had time. I was contacted by a descendant of the one in Seattle, as he made a comment on about a family photo of the nine kids that was posted online. My mother has the original from 1912. The other group disappeared in the 1870’s and also moved to MIchigan, but I think that might have been a family dispute, as he was one of the 3 brothers who had come together from Ireland in 1846. They were having financial problems as there was a second mortgage on the farm, plus 3 of their 4 kids had died, so maybe they just wanted a fresh start. The weird thing is he was never mentioned again – I only found him through land records (the mortgage on the farm across the road my ggfather’s, and a piece of paper stuck int eh family bible from a lawyer in Michigan. I should follow up some day, but I’m too busy now and you know it’s like going down the rabbit hole..

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s perfectly understandable. Some people really don’t even care to connect with long-lost relatives.

        Not long ago, I had a similar but opposite issue come up. I had done some blog posts that mention a cousin of my grandfather who moved to Canada. His grandchildren in the U.S. didn’t know what happened to him and knew nothing about him at all. I was able to send them some photos and point them in the right direction to learn more, including the land he purchased in Saskatchewan.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I wish I had had my mom’s DNA tested before she died. You can upload results from any of the testing companies to GEDMATCH and compare them, so you aren’t limited to only those who’ve tested with a certain company.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did upload ours to GEDmatch, which is helpful if you want to use DNApainter to see which parts of your genome came from which ancestor. I almost didn’t get my parents’ DNA, not because they died (they’re both still living), but Mom has dementia, and both had trouble coming up with enough spit! Dad had to do his twice. He said, “I failed my DNA test!”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve heard that the spit thing can be a problem. Glad you got it! My mom died in 2012 and I think the tests were out then, just barely. My dad died in 1993, long before DNA tests for genealogy.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There are times when I wish I hadn’t got all the tests, as some surprises threw me for a real loop. But once I got over that, it has turned out to be a useful tool at times. I actually rarely look at it anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is so interesting! I also just quite recently discovered my great-great grandfather’s original surname and it led back to the Posen area in the Kingdom of Prussia that is now part of Poland. And to my surprise, he had at least one Polish ancestor, I always assumed they were all German. And that one line in his family is my only Polish roots in my whole tree.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Anna! That is so cool you were able to discover his original name and where it led geographically. It is not an easy thing to figure out. What’s cool is that we never run out of mysteries to solve.😊

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I always wished I had a simpler surname as the first day of school was always interesting to see how people would butcher my name. Most people add a “W” to make it like the entity “Charles Schwab” when it is just Schaub, rhyming with the word “job”. I can see how people might be eager to change their name for pronunciation or just spelling purposes.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting to hear how a Polish sounding name became Italian! I’ve got a similar thing going on with my surname. My grandmother decided to change it from a Slovenian name to something that sounds vaguely French, though usually people just have no clue how to pronounce it. Consequently, I have an extremely rare surname only shared by the people descended directly from my paternal grandfather.

    Liked by 1 person

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