WHAT IS A GAMBER?
The United States Social Security Death Index lists over 500 people with the surname Gamber who have died in the last 40 years or so. There are other people with the family name Gamber located in Germany, France, Switzerland, South Tyrol (Italy), England, Spain, Turkey, Croatia, Serbia, Azerbaijan and perhaps other parts of the former Soviet Union. There is also a place named Gamber in the Gobalka Bay region of Somalia - though transliteration from Arabic may make this a pure coincidence. And the word appears in Bahasa Indonesia.
The available data indicate that there are a few thousand people in the world with the name. The fairly small total makes it possible that all are derived ultimately from the same source. The Balkan Gambers originated in the north of that region, and were likely originally German speakers brought in under the Hapsburg Empire. The Turkish family could also have originated elsewhere, as there is only one family using the name - though they consider themselves completely Turk. The Gambers in the former Soviet Union could descend from Germans invited to the empire by Czars Peter the Great and Catharine the Great. But then again there may be groups of Gambers not related in any way who ended up with that name through linguistic coincidence.
The German ancestry lines we have traced across the ocean lead to areas now in the states of Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemburg - people usually called "Palatines" in the immigration records. However, many were fairly recent migrants to the area. During the 30 Years' War (1618 - 1648) 60% and more of the population of some areas along the Rhine died, and after the war many Protestants migrated to the area - from Alsace, the parts of the Netherlands occupied by Spain (mostly present Belgium), Switzerland, and what is now northern Italy. Many were drawn by public campaigns for population by Palatine Elector Karl Ludwig. Among them was Ulrich Gamber, born 1656 in Hilterfingen, Bern, Switzerland, died 1725 Walsheim, Pfalz (Palatinate). (But then many in Switzerland were refugees from the war. We have nothing to indicate the origin of Ulrich's father.) After 1710 many left the middle Rhine in the hope of finding a better life across the ocean.
"Gamber" has no meaning in any major living language - it is not smith, miller or cooper. What does it mean? Several suggestions have been found.
The Historical Research Center, a business that sells "Family Name Histories" and coats of arms, provides two origins for the name:
Gamber can be an adjective - someone of or from Gamb - in the Germanic languages. In Alsace north of Strasbourg is the town of Gambsheim (home of Gamb). The name dates to at least 780 CE. But no Gamber has been found by someone who has extensively researched the town archives.
More than one correspondent says that the family memory is that the origin is Alsace - that the family were Huguenots (Protestants) who migrated from what is now France due to religious persecution.
But probably more fun is a story from Bern, Switzerland: in the 1960's in Bern there was a "beat" club owned by a Herr Rovina who served Gambrinus beer. The underground (literally and legally) club was called "Gamber" by its fans. It was closed down when a police raid caused a riot on 2 November 1965. (Gamber story in Berner Zeitung 16 Feb 2009).
Most of the Gambers we have researched are Protestant, usually Calvinist. The Catholics we have noted immigrated to the US after the Civil War.
GAMBER or GAMPFER?
Only with the start of the Napoleonic system of civil records was there any attempt to regularize spelling. Prior to that, spelling varied with the hearing ability and training of the scribe, the pronunciation of the individual, and among literate people personal preference. Then when people migrated to the US, a new factor complicated matters: how clerks (often English) heard and wrote the names they heard (particularly from people speaking only a dialect of German).
In the Hochstadt area, the records show a consistent spelling of "Gamber." But when I visited there I heard something that sounded like "Gampfer." Hence I presume that in the US "Gamber" and "Gampfer" should be considered the same name.
last update 22 February 2009
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