The Wildfang Family of North America*
(below are excerpts summarized from the book)
Today the name is spelled Wildfang, Wildfong, Wilfong, Willfong, Wiltfong, and Wiltfang. Even Woolgang and Wolfgang(er).
We are all one family.
Johannes Wildfang arrived in Philadelphia Port September 22, 1734 with his family aboard the ship The St. Andrew, captained by John Stedman. Along with 263 other passengers they departed from Rotterdam, Holland on June 28, 1734, and last from Plymouth. The trip had taken five months, departing Altoona, Denmark, May 14, 1734.
The ship, St. Andrew, was chartered by the religious group known as Schwenkfeld'ers. They were followers of Caspar Schwenkfeld who was born in 1740. They had space left over on the ship and offered the remaining space to others. It would appear that the Wildfang family was amongst this group of others who were offered passage. The ship's master, John Stedman, prepared a passenger list, apparently during the voyage. This list of men shows a Johannes Woolfang. The list of women and children shows an Elizabeth Woolfang, Johannes Woolfang, and George Michael Woolfang. It is surmised that John Stedman was English speaking, and prepared this list as he toured the ship. He or his representative probably asked each family for their names and recorded them as they sounded to him. Our family would have spoken German at this time, so I think the name Woolfang more accurately represents the pronunciation of the name to an English ear, rather than the accurate spelling of the name. There exists another list (in German) that I believe is more accurate to the spelling of the name.
There are still many questions to be answered but it appears the family consisted of the parents Johannes & Elizabeth Wildfang and their two sons, Johannes Sebastian and the older of the two, George Michael. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, the males over the age of 16 were taken to the Court House. Here they were to swear allegiance to the rules of the country, the King of Great Britain and his successors to the Crown of England. All these males signed an oath, as did our ancestor Johannes Wildfang. It would appear that his name is written in an English hand, and he signs with an "X" between his first and last names. There are many names on this list that appear to be written in the same hand and acknowledged by an "X". The other names all appear to be signatures of various hands. My assumption is that Johannes probably had an identification paper of some sort that contained his name and it is certainly still a very common surname in Germany today.
Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in 1734 was a dangerous enterprise. We are fortunate to have found documentation of this very voyage the Wildfang family took in a diary kept by Christopher Wiegner. In 1978 Dr. Peter Erb translated this diary and produced the book entitled, "The Spiritual Diary of Christopher Wiegner". Christopher Wiegner was born in Ober-Harperskorf, Silesia on Feb 24, 1712 and died in Towamencin, Pennsylvania in 1745. He wrote in his diary of the Jesuit persecution which the Schwenkfelders endured and the hardship that was imposed upon them because of their religious beliefs.
It would appear the family was probably from Bohemia, at varying times a part of Germany, and of the Moravian faith.
[Note: the full account of the ship's travel across the Atlantic is documented in the referenced book]
As in the case of most Germans, if they had two names, the first name was usually dropped, so George Michael Wildfang became Michael Wildfang.
I don't believe there is any doubt the original spelling of our name was Wildfang. It is a very common name in Germany today and the only variation we see in the spelling in Germany is Wiltfang. Some of these families emigrated to North America since our family arrived in 1734 and they use either spelling, Wildfang or Wiltfang.
Basically, it's simple, the family could neither read nor write, at least the majority couldn't in the first 150 years or so in North America. This accounts for all the spellings. (It is possible that the opposite is also true; someone was well-educated, and English educated, and he didn't want the name to "sound" German, so the spelling was changed to Wilfong to match the pronunciation. -- this isn't an exact science!) When we see a "new" spelling come along we can generally trace it to a geographical area, isolated from others in their family. For example, the Wildfong spelling was created in Waterloo County, Ontario, Canada in 1802. Everybody in North America with the Wildfong spelling can trace their ancestry to Waterloo County. It's not to say that all the families from Waterloo County would take this spelling, though. Remember, it was "created" in 1802, and the families were still not literate at this point. So we still see the six known spellings evolving out of Waterloo County at a later date. Willfang in the Neustadt area of Ontario, and Wiltfong in Indiana, for example. Once these families were isolated from the families they left behind, and a subsequent generation was educated, a spelling was settled on. Possibly the spelling that they would eventually use came about because of mandatory birth registration. In many cases this is not true though, as my grandfather Walter, born in 1886, used the spelling Wildfong, but his name was registered on his birth certificate as Walter Wildfang.
For the most part, the Canadian family is to "blame" for all these spellings. As far as I can tell if George had never left his southern family to move to Canada, there probably would be only three spellings; Wildfang, Willfong, and the most popular, Wilfong, instead of six. The Wildfang spelling was used by the few families that stayed in Pennsylvania, and never headed south; Willfong by an Indiana family, and Wilfong was used by the West Virginian, Virginian, and North Carolina families, families that were very closely knit for more than a few generations.
As for the pronunciation, I believe the Wilfong spelling best reflects the intended pronunciation. I have spoken with a German citizen and his pronunciation of the name Wildfang in German is as close to Wilfong as you are going to get. Today though we tend to pronounce all the letters, so we see the name pronounced Wildfang and Wildfong and also pronounced both with a silent "d" and soft "a", in other words, Wilfong. Many families still debate as to how to pronounce their name, including mine.
A word on the meaning of the name. I have heard the meaning tomboy or wild child but I believe my German friends explanation is the best. In the days of the castles and manor houses the man given the responsibility of finding food for the home, was the Wildfang. Fang means catch, in other words, he was responsible for the wild catch. This might mean the catching of birds, fish or wild game. He also might have men working under him to catch the food, but as he was responsible, he was the Wildfang. Correct? I'm not sure, but it's a good story.
Naomi Wilfong Mitchell states: Wildfang means "a Wild Fang" and Wilfong means "a short sword used to kill animals".
*by Terence Kidd
N3H 5N4 Canada