Origin of the Diederich Surname

By:  J. William Diederich

"Diederich" is one of those family names which was derived from a given name, i.e., a first name. During the middle ages, when people began to adopt fixed family names, one of our ancestors took as his family name, a name which was normally given as a first name at baptism. Perhaps it was his father's name, or even his own. Thereafter, his children, grandchildren, etc., used it as a last name.

There is no way to trace when this happened because the written records do not go back that far. The adoption of fixed family names was a gradual development. The practice began among the nobility and was later adopted by the developing middle class in the towns. In the rural area where our ancestors lived, adoption of family names probably took place in the 1400s or 1500s.

As a given name, "Dietrich" appears in the oldest German Heldensage or heroic myth. The name is linguistically derived from two ancient Gothic words, "thiuda" (meaning people) and "reiks" (meaning ruler), thus "ruler of people." The legendary king of the Ostragoths, Theudoricus, used the name. I suppose German parents began to name their children after these ancient heroes at a very early date much as parents now name their children after saints, political leaders, movie stars, etc., today.

The variant spellings and derived names reflect regional differences in dialects and include Theodoric, Thiaderich, Tederich, Dietrich, Dietreich, Dieterici, Diederichsohn, Dittrich, Tittrick, Thierig, Dierich, Diercke, Direx, Dirk, Turk, Deutrich, Dedrich, Daderich, Tendrich, Dorken, Therkelsen, Tjarkes, Thyards, Dietrichkeit, Wierdzrych, Wiedersich, and I could go on and on.

Today, "Diederich" is a common surname, counting all the variant spellings. Thus, there is no assurance that one person with the surname of Diederich is in any way related to another Diederich. Long, long ago, scores of unrelated people in the German-speaking regions of Europe adopted Diederich (or some variation like Dietrich, Diedrich, Dieterich, etc.) as their family name. They could have just as easily chosen an occupational name like "Bauer", a place name like "Berlin", or a name describing some personal or physical characteristic like "Klein" or "Schwartz".

On the other hand, there may be some connection among those who spell their name as "D-I-E-D-E-R-I-C-H". Relatively few use this spelling. Most whose names sound like Diederich use one of the other common variations. Considering the fact that the name is pronounced "Dietrick", it is surprising that among almost all of our cousins this unusual spelling survived the tendency to spell names as they sound. Therefore, if a person spells his name "D-I-E-D-E-R-I-C-H", it may be only a coincidence; or, it may be evidence of a distant connection, assuming that the spelling is based on a dialect which is quite limited geographically.

Another possible indication of a connection, is the use of John, Michael, Peter, Paul, Anton, Nicolaus, or Matthias as given names in a Diederich family. For generations, these were popular given names among our branch of the Diederich family.

Religion is another potential source of coincidence or, on the contrary, an indication that there is no connection. A Catholic heritage is coincidence. But if a person's Diederich ancestors were Lutherans or members of the Reformed church, they probably came originally from northern, central, or eastern Germany.

Our Diederich ancestors came from that part of Germany which lies between the Rhine River and the French, Luxemburg, and Belgian borders. Our branch of the Diederich family can be traced back there to Lukas Diederich, who was born at Mannebach in 1643 and died there on 25 April 1737, age 94. The Diederich family may have been there long before that of course, but there are no written records through which that could be determined. The earliest written records of which I am aware are those of St. Remigius Catholic Church at Retterath, which is a few miles from Mannebach. Those records begin in 1734. The information about Lukas Diederich is recorded in that church's death register.

Between 1734 and 1743, there were ten Diederich couples who had children baptized at St. Remigius Catholic Church. They resided in various nearby farming villages: Oberelz, Lierstal, Arbach, Kolverath, Durbach, as well as Mannebach and Retterath. Thus it appears that the Diederich family was well-established in that area before 1740. Those villages lie about 25 miles west of Koblenz in Kreis Daun ("Kreis" means county) in what is now the Rhine Province of West Germany. However, you won't find the names of those villages on the typical small scale map.

Back in the 1700s and for centuries before that, the territory was governed by the Catholic bishops of Trier who "wore two hats." Whoever was appointed bishop of Trier held both a church office (bishop) and a political office (Elector of Trier). The designation "Elector" meant that he could cast a vote whenever the title of "Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire" (which was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire) was vacant. France's conquests between 1790–1814, and the eventual merger and unification of the German states ended that.

From a geographic standpoint (not political), the area is referred to as the "Eifel." It is a very hilly and forested region. Farming and livestock-raising are the principal occupations. It is not a prosperous area, and the desire for a better life has resulted in emigration from the area, generation after generation. This is probably why John and Peter Diederich (and many of their relatives and friends) migrated to Wisconsin beginning about 1845.