Wagner Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wagner Surname Meaning

The German surname Wagner is an occupational name for a waggoner or carter, derived from the Old German wagen meaning “wagon.” Wagner from waganari may also mean a wagon maker.

Clearly being a waggoner was a position of some importance in medieval times as no fewer than thirty three coats of arms were granted to name-holding families.

The name spread in Europe beyond German-speaking lands to Holland (as van Wagenen) and also to Eastern Europe. The Germanic pronunciation – “w” as “v” sounding and the long “a” – gave way in America to “w” as “w” and a short “a.”

Wagner Surname Resources on The Internet

Wagner Surname Ancestry

  • from Holland, South Germany and Austria
  • to England, America, Canada and Australia

Wagner is the 4th most common name in Austria and the 8th most common in Germany. It is mainly to be found in southern Germany. The largest concentrations of the name are in Saarland, Rheinland Pflalz, Thuringen, Hessen, Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemberg, and Saxony.

The Wagner numbers today are approximately:

  • 220,000 in Germany
  • and 22,000 in Austria.

This compares with the roughly 60,000 Wagners whose ancestors crossed the Atlantic and now live in America. Wagners starting coming in 1710, following the religious disturbances in the Palatine.

England. The Wagner numbers in England are small.

The best-known of these Wagners are probably the Wagners of Brighton – descendants of Melchior Wagner who had arrived in England from the Saxon city of Coburg in 1709 and became the hatter to King George I.

The Rev. Henry Wagner, the vicar of Brighton between 1824 and 1870, and his son the Rev. Arthur Wagner founded and funded a succession of Anglican churches in Brighton for the benefit of its rapidly growing population. From another line came Sir Anthony Wagner, the long-serving officer at the College of Arms in London.

America. In its Dutch form Van Wagenen, the name was one of the earliest in America, Geertie Van Wagenen being born in Kingston, New York in 1686. His descendants, the Van Wagoners, were to be found in the Hudson valley.

New York. German Palatine refugees started arriving in America in 1710, including Johan Peter Wagner from Hesse Darmstadt who purchased land from the Indians and settled in New York’s Mohawk valley. The stone house that was built there in the 1740’s is still standing today.

From this line came Webster Wagner, born in Montgomery county, New York in 1817, who started out working with his family as a wagon-maker. Then, after serving as an employee for the New York Central Railroad for many years, he invented the idea of the sleeping car and the luxurious parlor car. His innovations were first used on the NY Central and later spread to other lines. Webster Wagner died in an unfortunate rail accident in 1882 while riding in one of his sleeping cars.

Pennsylvania.  The German Wagner influx was mainly into Pennsylvania, which is still the state with the largest number of Wagners (the early spelling was sometimes Waggoner). These Wagners included:

  • Rev. Tobias Wagner from Wurttemberg who arrived in America in 1712 as a Lutheran missionary and was a pastor for many years in Berks county.
  • Abraham Wagner who came in 1737 with his brother Melchior also for religious reasons. He was from Silesia and belonged to the small Schwenkfelder sect there. Abraham became a successful physician in Montgomery county and left a considerable estate on his death in 1763.
  • Jacob Wagner who left Rheinsheim in Baden-Wurttemberg for Lancaster county in the early 1740’s before starting a trek to Rowan county, North Carolina twenty years later. Wagners of this line were to be found in Tennessee and Texas.
  • Joseph Wagner who came to Pennsylvania from Austria around 1820 and squatted in wild land in what is now known as the Poconos. His family cut down wood to supply props for the coal mines. A descendant George Wagner started the family Christmas tree nursery business.
  • Peter and Katheryn Wagner who were Bavarian immigrants who settled in Mansfield (near Pittsburgh) in the years after the Civil War. Peter worked in the coal mines there. Their son Honus Wagner played baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates and is considered to be one of the best baseball players of all time.
  • and Louis Wagner who arrived in the Pittsburgh area in 1840 and moved onto Lawrence county. His family owned the Wagner farm in Ellwood City which they still do.

From the Rheinland to New York in 1885 came a Wagner family, whose youngest son, Robert F. Wagner, became US Senator for New York and whose grandson Robert F. Wagner Jr. was three times Mayor of New York.

There were also Wagners in America from Russia, although these Wagners were of German heritage – such as George and Susannah Wagner who came to New York in 1893. Their story was narrated in Fonda Baselt’s 1994 book A Wagner Family Odyssey.

Canada.  Early Wagners came to French Quebec, either from German-speaking Alsace or Hessian soldiers stationed there who remained. Wagners from Germany went mainly to Ontario. William Wagner arrived there in 1850 and eventually settled in Manitoba where he founded the farming community of Ossowa.

The lawyer and politician Claude Wagner was the son of a Jewish violinist immigrant from Central Europe.

Australia.  Johannes Gottfried Wagner from Silesia came out to Brisbane in 1838 as a missionary. He tried to convert the local aborigines to Christianity, with what success it is not known. He later became a Presbyterian minister.

Henry Wagner, a shepherd, emigrated from Hesse in 1855 after some bad harvests and made his home in Toowoomba. Since those early pioneering days, the Wagner family of Toowoomba has become through its various enterprises one of the wealthiest in Queensland.

Wagner Surname Miscellany

Wagners in Germany.  The Wagner surname was said to have been first found in the medieval Duchy of Saxony.  Early examples of the name were:

  • Conrad Wegener in Schontal, Baden Wurttemberg in 1290
  • while an Ashkenazic (Jewish) Wagner was recorded in Alsace (present day France) in 1395.

The spellings were initially various – Wegener, Wagener, Wagnerin, Wagen, Wagenen, as well as Wagner – as it transposed differently into the regional German dialects.

There were at least 33 known associated arms for Wagner recorded in Reitstap’s Armorial General, including notable Wagner families in the Rhine province and in Nuremburg.  The most famous Wagner was probably the composer Richard Wagner who was born in Leipzig (Saxony) in 1813.

The Wagners in Brighton.  Brighton needed more churches to accommodate its population growth, particularly those with free sittings for the poor. Two Wagners, Henry the father and Arthur the son, stamped their mark on this church-building and indeed on life in Victorian Brighton.

During his time at Oxford, Arthur Wagner had been strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement, both by its High Church “Catholic” Anglicism and by its commitment to the poor.  These ideals ran against the grain of the Established Church at the time.  But he pursued them vigorously throughout his life with a single-minded dedication, using mainly his own money to fund his projects.

In 1850, after his ordination, Arthur Wagner became vicar of St. Paul’s in West Street, Brighton.   Five years later, he founded a religious sisterhood which became St. Mary’s Home.  His churches for the poor began with the building of the Church of the Annunciation, which was completed in 1864.  He would also advance small sums of money to enable builders to erect houses for poor people in the area. The occupants remained Wagner’s tenants and paid him a small weekly rent.  In total, he may have built some 400 houses for the poor.

But both the sisterhood and his church were controversial:  “There were the strange figures of the sisters of St. Mary’s Home who looked after the fabric of the church and were seen coming and going in the streets in their unfamiliar religious veils and habits.

Inside the church were such unusual fittings as altar lights, a sedilla, and a complete set of Eucharistic vestments, which was perhaps the first such set to be used by the Church of England since the reformation.”

His church practiced the Roman mass and liturgy and attracted “broad church” protests, even as late as the 1930’s.

Early Wagners in Quebec

Born Married
Wagner, George-Jean   1739   1765 Born in Bavaria, married in
Quebec, and lived at Lanoraie
Wagner, Andre-Henri   1750   1783 Born in Strasbourg (Alsace),
married in Quebec
Wagner, Friedrich   1754   1787 Hessian soldier in Quebec,
stayed and became a butcher

Rev. Tobias Wagner – from the Palatine to America.  The Rev. Tobias Wagner could trace his ancestry back to an earlier Tobias Wagner of Nordlingen in Bavaria in the mid 16th century.  The family  later settled in Heidenheim, Wurttemberg.  However, after the religious disturbances in the Palatine, Tobias decided in 1712 to leave his home to be a Lutheran missionary in America.

He came first to New England, thence to a German colony in New York state, and then to Pennsylvania where he became pastor of a Lutheran church in Berks county.  He remained there until 1746 and then, six years later, was the first pastor of the Trinity Lutheran church in Reading.

In 1759, at the grand old age of ninety eight, he decided to return to Germany with his wife and youngest daughter – leaving six of his children in America.   Many descendants were to be found later in Philadelphia.

The Death of Webster Wagner.  Webster Wagner died in a train accident in 1882.  The local newspaper, The Radii, called it “a dreadful accident which will live long as a sad memory.”

On the night of January 16th, the train carrying Senator Wagner, as well as other senators and assemblymen, had been stopped en-route due to brake problems just on the outskirts of New York City. Unable to move until repairs were made, a brakeman was dispatched to warn oncoming traffic of this motionless hazard.  What happened to this brakeman?  No one really knows – because his presence or lack of it set in motion a haunting when the Tarrytown Special, a local run, came barreling around a curve and full speed into the rear of the motionless train.

It was an ironic twist of fate that Webster Wagner should die in the very type of car he helped to create. His life was snatched away when the flames from broken lamps and overturned stoves turned the luxury saloon coaches in blazing pyres that burned despite all efforts until there was nothing left for it to consume. To further the irony, two days before, Wagner had attended the funeral of a young acquaintance where it was said he wept as if a child.

For his family it would be a truly sad affair with no final chance to say farewell to Wagner face to face.  So badly burned and mutilated was the body that identification was made possible only by the discovery of a pocket watch and papers found on the clothes of the deceased.  His funeral cortège became the event of the year.  As with the funeral train of Lincoln sixteen years earlier, people both common and great turned out along the way to witness his final trip across New York state back to Palatine Bridge in Montgomery county. 

Robert F. Wagner’s Rise from New York Obscurity.  In 1886, when Robert was nine, his family immigrated to the Yorkville section of New York City.  There they lived in the basement of a tenement.  His father was the janitor for the building while his mother took in laundry.

All seven children contributed to the family’s income.  Robert, the youngest, was a newsboy and sold candy in Central Park.  One of his brothers, who was a cook, saved enough from his wages so that Wagner could attend City College and then New York Law School.

It was not Wagner’s academic credentials that launched his career, however, but Tammany Hall – a political machine not noted for its propriety.  In 1898 Wagner had walked into its clubhouse and offered to speak for Tammany against Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican candidate for Governor.  Wagner was an unlikely recruit, for his polished speeches and college degrees were regarded with suspicion by Tammany leaders.  Further, he was a Methodist, while their machine was run by Catholics.

But Wagner’s loyalty and intelligence were quickly recognized.  His law practice prospered through the resulting social contacts; and in 1904 he won election to the New York State Assembly from his home district.  His political career was off and running.

Ironically, Tammany Hall started Robert F. Wagner’s career.  But it was his son, Robert F. Wagner Jr, who broke the power of their clubhouses on New York city politics in the 1960’s.

Wagner Names

  • Webster Wagner pioneered the use of the sleeping car and the luxurious parlor car on American railroads.
  • Honus Wagner, known as “the Flying Dutchman,” played baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 20th century and is considered by many to be the best shortstop that has ever played.
  • Robert Wagner, born in Germany, was US Senator for New York from 1927  to 1949. His son Robert was later Mayor of New York.
  • Robert Wagner was a popular American TV actor of the 1970’s and 80’s.

Wagner Numbers Today

  • 1,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 60,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania)
  • 16,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Wagner and Like Surnames 

The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and Switzerland.  They were fleeing religious persecution at home.  Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them.  Some went to the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.  Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names.  Thus Fischer became Fisher, Schneider Snyder, Hubner Hoover and so forth.

The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century – in search of a better life, sometimes to avoid the draft.  They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up.  And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making.

Here are some of the notable German surnames in America that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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