"Atterburn" or "Arterburn" represent the ancestral surname of Peter's
mother or the mother of his father, although spelled differently?
Did Peter simply adopt a new surname for some reason unknown
The pronunciation of the "Otterburn" surname with its anomalous
variations of spelling found in 19th-century English census records
are remarkably similar to the variations in spelling of Peter's surname
as recorded in 18th-century public records of Maryland and Virginia.
In 19th-century England, speakers of English (RP) pronounced "ar"
but supplied the "r" in spelling for common words of ordinary speech
(as in "card" and "arse"). This speech sound of broad A could easily
be confused with the sound of short O (as in "otter") and vice versa,
especially when names were spelled from vocalization, as illustrated
by these examples of anomalous spellings in England and America
(see also Some Research Notes (7th ed.), pp. 29-46; pp. 61-70).
The "Great Vowel Shift" that resulted in English (RP) had begun in
the 16th century, and also impacted the evolution of American
English in Maryland and Virginia.
The earliest spelling (1773) we have in Shenandoah County is of
"Peter Otterburn" in Henry's record of baptism, which agrees with
the broad A sound heard in "Arterburn." Some transcriptions of
"Atterburn" (e.g., when not in an alphabetical list, originally) could
just as easily have been transcribed as "Otterburn," since examples
of cursive capitals "A" and "O" (without an upper loop) can be found
that are virtually indistinguishable. Broad A (not short A) was almost
certainly intended for "Atterburn" in those instances where "A" may
have been originally rendered, although a deviation in spelling since
a short vowel typically precedes double consonants. Variability in
grammar and spelling skills is abundantly evident in 18th-century
public records and must be taken into account. "Atterburn" (as
transcribed) is found exclusively for Peter in Maryland and predom-
inantly for both Peter and William in Prince William County, which
suggests that "r" may not have been heard (as confirmed also by
"Otterburn") in Peter's pronunciation, originally.
Could there have been an unconscious bias that favored
A instead of O when personal names were spelled from
vocalization, simply because the sound of broad A may
have been more commonly heard in ordinary speech,
and also typically spelled more often than short O at
the beginning of names, by those who heard Peter and
recorded his surname? Might Peter actually have been
pronouncing "Otterburn" instead?
The evidence is clear that Peter's patrilineal ancestors could not
have been English (or Scottish) "Otterburns." Could Peter's mother
have been an "Otterburn?" There is no history of "Otterburns" in
the public records of colonial Maryland or Virginia, but there remains
the possibility that Peter's mother might have been an indentured
servant without any surviving documentary record. Could the mother
of Peter's father have been an "Otterburn?" This also must remain
a possibility, given the longstanding history of India's relations with
What are we to make of the tradition of German ancestry reported
by a majority of the descendants interviewed by Art & Jan Arterburn,
or of the related claim of Swiss ancestry for the ARTERBURNS by a
Shenandoah County historian? Could Peter's wife, Sarah, or his
previous wife in Maryland have been the source of this tradition?
Germans were the majority population in Shenandoah County, and
Peter clearly associated with Germans (e.g., "Henry Speelman, John
Woolf, Samuel Stover"). Some of the children of Peter and William
and their descendants intermarried with German and German-Swiss
families (e.g., Booker, Carrier, Houn, Smoote, Wey, Wolfe) in
Virginia and Kentucky.
The anomalous rendering of "Peter Arturberner" (and "Arterbern,"
once) in Shenandoah County was probably related, though more
likely a case of imputed identity, given what we now know. "Arter"
found in early southern Germany and northern Switzerland. But this
compound rendering apparently cobbled from the sound of Peter's
name has no history as a surname in either Germany or Switzerland.
Also, darkly complected Germans (e.g., "Black-Dutch") from southern
Peter's physical appearance and the fact that he was supporting in
court a German, Henry Speelman (a name also found in Switzerland,
incidentally), when this early spelling occurred (1774) might have
suggested such an identity to the clerk who recorded his name.
(German long A (as in "hard") is very similar in sound to English
broad A and English short O.) The evidence seems clear that
Peter's patrilineal ancestors were not German or Swiss. However,
Peter's support of Speelman and his apparent connections with
other German families suggest some kind of German identity,
very possibly derived from Peter's wife, Sarah.
"Arturberner" probably does not tell us anything about the origin
of our surname, but does mark the beginning of the emergence of
"Arterburn" as the predominant spelling found in public records of
Shenandoah County. ("Arterburn" occurs only twice in Prince William
County— in Glassford's accounts, for Peter.) Whether this particular
spelling became the final form of our surname due in large part to
German-American influence and a family preference for a German
identity is impossible to know for sure. The origin of the tradition
of our German ancestry and the origin of our surname are likely
not related, otherwise.
The formulation, "Peter Atterburn alias Williams," has not been
We also have the account of John Gardiner pointing out his
Maryland and Delaware / by Paul Heinegg.
"George Williams son and heir to William who intermarried
George's County .... John Ward aged 75 deposeth that he
has known George Williams a Native Indian from his infancy
... son of the Queen of Pamunkey who was wife to an Indian
[Note: The terms "intermarried" and "Native Indian"
in contrast with "Indian" suggests that George Williams'
father may have been an East Indian rather than a
Native American. Could George Williams' father and
John Williams have been one and the same? Could
George Williams' father also have been the father of
"Peter Atterburn alias Williams?" If so, might Peter
have adopted a different surname for some reason
unknown to us? Perhaps George's status as "heir"
might have been a factor. If Elizabeth was Peter's
mother, this might explain the naming of the early
20th-century "Otterburn School" (Otterburn Precinct,
today) to honor a "tribe of Indians" who had previously
inhabited the area. The school was located where
Peter's family is known to have lived in Shenandoah
County, Virginia (in Warren County, today). Perhaps
this was not garbled local tradition resulting only from
the memory of Peter's "East Indian" ancestry after all,
but actually a reflection of local memory of a Native
American ancestry for the ARTERBURNS, as well. It
might even be the case that family tradition about
William and Nancy in which Nancy was remembered
as a "full-blooded Indian" might actually refer back
to William and Elizabeth instead.]
"called Mc [?] William the father of the said Geo. Williams ...
that 31 years ago George Williams and his parents lived
where Fran[ci]s Payne now lives ... John Gar[di]ner deposed
the Indians were forted in Cornwallis' neck about fifty years
ago ..." (see Heinegg's complete transcription)
(Note: Here we have John Gardiner of Nonesuch
testifying in court in support of a land claim of
George Williams, whose family had lived in the
same community of Mattawoman (see below also).
If Peter belonged to this Williams family and had
had a longstanding acquaintance with Gardiner,
this could explain why we find Peter at Nonesuch
"Francis Pain, age 29 years; mentions Henry Ward ..."
John Ward ... mentions his father, John Ward, Sr.,
"Henry Tanner, age about 89, declares that about
Prince William County, Virginia Genealogy (Family Search)
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National Geographic Society: Genographic Project
Smithsonian/NMNH: Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation
Native Heritage Project: East Indians in Early Colonial Records
Miss America 2014: Nina Davuluri
ABC News: Indian Ancestry of Princess Diana