What's in a Name?

24 November 2017

The Gishbaughers are a dying breed; at least that’s the story my brothers and I have been told countless times with the same earnestness reserved for camp-fire ghost stories. My brothers got the worst of it; tales of caution that if they didn’t have boys to carry on the family name, we’d all but cease to exist. Side bar: If I ever have children, I very seriously plan on hyphenating their last name. This is less to preserve family pride, and more to see what that sports jersey would look like. In all seriousness, though, there aren’t that many of us out there. My father recalls family road trips around the U.S. where he and my grandfather would find a phone book upon entering a new town and look to see if there were any other Gishbaughers in residence there. The answer was always the same: there were none. Dun dun DUNNNNNN!

Gishbaugher is a weird last name. Apparently we make it even weirder by insisting on pronouncing is “Gish-bahkr” instead of the expected “Gish-bower.” This has resulted in inventive renditions from Dishwasher to Fishburger and every other version that the middle-school mind can conceive. It took me so long to remember how to spell the name when I was learning my letters that my father amused himself by adding on new and creative endings each time I asked him how to spell it. Once he got all the way to an impressive “Gishbaugherzooniruts” before the gig was up.

There has been a lot of speculation about where such a unique name came from. My personal theory was that we were somehow related to Lilian Gish of silent film fame, but as Hollywood has not come calling yet, I’m prepared to let the dream go.


[The resemblance is uncanny, though, no?]

Recently, my brother uncovered some actual evidence that might shed some light. He contacted the Archives and Record Center for the Catholic Arch Dioceses of Pittsburgh and unearthed some baptism records. The records belong to four of the first-generation Gishbaughers to be born in America. Michael Gishbaugher, their father (my Great grandfather’s grandfather), emigrated from Germany around 1857. The interesting thing was that the spelling was different for each record. The evolution looks like this:


We don’t see the current spelling until it appears in the death record for their mother, Clara Gishbaugher.

From what we know of Michael, he had been living as a farmer in the Kingdom of Baden in Germany when he moved at the age of 24. The occupation is likely an indication that he was illiterate, thus the records relied on spelling liberties from pronunciations that were delivered in a thick German accent.

Now, from the vantage point of actually being in Germany, my goal is to solve the mystery of our last name once and for all. What was the original spelling? Are there more of us still walking around? Is the bloodline not going extinct after all?


Sleuthing our way around Germany sounds like oodles of fun (I picture the chief from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego beckoning me with a hearty, “Go get 'em, Gumshoes!”), but a few baptism records with misspelled names and a region of Germany that no longer exists is not a lot to go on.

So, I did what Dad would do…I got out a phone book. Nate and I poured over names in both the “G” and “K” sections. We quickly ruled out the “G” starting letter. There is nothing remotely similar to “Gish” anywhere. On the contrary, the “K” section is loaded with names starting with “Kirch” (Kirchbach, Kirchberg, Kirchberger, Kirchenbaur). Since the ch makes more of a sh sound in German, the variation doesn’t seem that far off. With a heavy enough accent, the r could easily fade away. Clue 1.

Clue 2 was discovered by Nate and his superior knowledge of German. He knew that “Kirch” translates to “church,” while “bach” and “berg” and “bauer” and “bürger” have their own meanings: stream, hill, farmer, and citizen respectively. My brother has actually been told the “Church by the Stream” origin theory before. Farmer and Citizen make just as much sense, though, so the search continues.


Clue 3 is the Kingdom of Baden. There is a city in South West German called Baden-Baden (or “Bath-Bath”) that’s famous for its hot spring baths. In the name of research, I will go to those hot springs. I will bathe in every last one of them if that’s what it takes to find the next lead in this great mystery.

Stay-tuned as Nate and I get out our magnifying glasses and trek into the unknown…all in the name of a name.

UPDATE: Nate and I made it to Baden-Baden last week. In the name of serious research, we left no hotspring untested. Sadly, though we found castle ruins and spectacular views (see pics below), Baden-Baden was a dead-end as far as my family name goes. Meanwhile, brother Mike, did some actual research and found the ship manifest on which the original Gishbaugher was listed [Michael Kirchbauer - "Church-farmer"] and several census records from Beaver County with multiple spelling variations that also categorized our ancestor as literate....so harumph. Mike and I are planning a trip to Struttgart, Germany in the Spring to track down some more clues!