"In the Germanic states the use of arms on armor continued later than in England; and even afterwards the right to arms was a distinction jealously guarded. Because of the many wars of the Holy Roman Empire, with the consequent loss of heirs or lands by old families and the ennobling off new ones, great emphasis was placed on blood, rather than mere rank or wealth. At one time an effort was made to show this distinction by using the closed helmet for newly ennobled families and restricting the use of the open helmet to those who were noble by descent of at least three generations (eight quarterings) and to doctors of law.
Within the sphere of influence of those Central European states speaking Germanic languages, the helmet and crest were also used to represent lands. When a man held several noble fiefs, he would display above his shield a helmet for each fief, each helmet bearing the crest of the family through which the fief it represented had come to him. For this reason, multiple crests shown with some German arms frequently furnish valuable genealogical clues.
The greater portion of the German-speaking emigrants to America before the Revolution came directly from the Rhine Valley or Switzerland, although there were some from other sections of what was later called Germany and Austria. However, in many instances they had resident in the Rhine Valley only a few generations. Following the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which reduced the population of Germany to one-third of what it had been, there was a considerable movement between states. Many of those in more northerly sections move into the Rhine Valley, only to find themselves again in the path of warring armies; many were glad to seek peaceful homes in the new country.
In Germany there are many surnames for which no arms are known, if indeed families of those names ever bore them, and there are far fewer different arms for each name. Furthermore, it is often necessary to trace the line back a century or two further in order to locate an arms-bearing ancestor.
As in Switzerland, so in Germany; while there were some cases of scions of noble houses coming to this country, the majority of those coming to America prior to the Revolution were of the farmer, artisan, tradesman, teacher, or burgher class, rather than of knightly rank. Many of these burghers or tradesmen of the 17th century descended from knights of the 14th and 15th centuries.
Another point to remember is that surnames were loosely used. Fixed use on the Continent was later than in England, and in some places surnames were of little importance as late as the 16th and 17th centuries. A man of rank often used his title or the name of his estates instead of his family name; his sons might each use a different name, indicating the fief he inherited. A man not of knightly rank might be called by some distinguishing name or the place from which he came to an extent that he would use it to the exclusion of his own name. This practice makes the identification of the immigrant ancestor difficult, yet by a study of the name one can sometimes get a clue as to the origin of the family, and once it can be established that he bore arms, and the arms are identified, the tracing of his pedigree, regardless of many removals of the family, is greatly simplified."
Reference: Heraldry for The American Genealogist, 1959
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