Introduction: Berkey

Larry Pearce

As with many Americanized names, our “Berkey” moniker has uncertain origins. Often, when Europeans registered with immigration authorities at dockside, the agent would record what he thought he heard, particularly with German speaking people: “Shantz” became “Johns,” “Mauer” could become “Moore,” and “Burgi” might become “Berkey.” Sometimes it was a matter of (mis?)spelling, or possibly the transplant just wanted to adapt to the English of his new land. My first internet search claimed that our common Berkey name is Anglo-Saxon from 12th century Ireland, but further research reveals that it probably came from the word “burh,” a guttural sound with a  rolled “R” from Old English borrowed from the German word “burg,” meaning a town or fortification. Another locational possibility is a gentleman who “dwelt by the birch trees.” The Irish origin may be so in some cases, but I would refer you to Our Berkey Family Tree, which goes back to late 17th century Leonardi Burgi of Swiss ancestry. That is the most common spelling there today. He was probably a descendant of Melchior Burki, another familiar form found in the Alps. Other spellings and pronunciations there and in the British Isles include:  Burkie, Barkey, Burkey, Birky, Beirki, Birks, Birkes, and Byrkes. Soon after our Leonardi and son Christian landed in the Amish-Mennonite settlements of Eastern Pennsylvania in 1737, the last name was commonly spelled “Berkey,” the way it is in dozens of homes near me in the West-central Pennsylvania mountains of Somerset County, where many of the Swiss-German-American had moved after the Fort Stanwix treaty with the Native Americans of 1784. I’m always amazed at how so many of my Berkey neighbors are all related, when one looks closely and goes back far enough, despite their various religious persuasions now.

We believe that the earliest County Galway Irish Berkey families may have spent time in France, if they originated in Swiss-Germany. Normans often placed the “de” or “del” sound before their surnames, meaning “of,” “from,” or “near,” a geographical reference. Such was the case of nobleman William Fitzadelm de Burgo who took up residence on the emerald isle after the invasion of 1066. His son Richard Oge de Burc and brother Richard Mor de Burc ruled eastern Ireland beginning in 1177 under King Henry II. Their ancestors’ surnames morphed to the modern and more familiar Bourke and Burke. Other variations of the early Irish-British name may be found in many tax rolls and registrations. The great irony for our Amish-Mennonite ancestors is the British Berkey family motto in rhyming Old English: “Ung roy, ung foy, ing loy,” which translated becomes, “One king, one faith, one law.” Very British, indeed, but not likely adhered to by the much-persecuted Swiss-German Anabaptists.

Possibly the most notable Swiss Berkey/Burgi was named Yost (1552-1632), a German variation of Joseph. He was a successful clockmaker, builder of astronomical instruments, and mathematician who served in the royal courts of Kassel and Prague. He worked with the famous astronomer Kepler and now, even has a crater on the moon named after him. A search for contemporary Berkey notables reveals a few politicians and artisans, but few that could be considered household names. If you are a Berkey, why not do a search and send the information you find to our readers on the inquiry/response form below?

We close with the sentiment that the Berkey name in Pennsylvania has been here a long time and has had a strong work ethic associated with it, from the founders of the former Berkey Locker Plant in Somerset, founded in 1977 and which has only recently made way for a Starbucks and Ruby Tuesdays, back to the famous Berkey Creamery at Penn State, begun in 1865 and now a national treasure. Need help with a construction or excavating project? Just check the Yellow Pages for several reputable Berkey enterprises around our county. Whether you’re gazing back nearly half a millennium to Swiss telescope builder Yost Burgi or the nearly three centuries our Berkeys have held their place as American citizens, it’s a name to be proud of and worth sharing the story.


“Berkey Coat of Arms.” 22 December 2018

“Berkey Family Crest.” 22 December 2018

“Yost Burgi.” Wikipedia. 22 December 2018

Last revised 12/22/18

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