This uncommon but ancient surname is most likely of Germanic origins stemming from a root word meaning 'bridle' (Old High German: briddo). The name was probably a shortened or pet occupational name for a maker of bridles and tack for horses, or another similar equestrian association. In modern times 'bretzel', 'brezel', or in High German, 'bretze', has come to be used for a type of German baked good, the pretzel. Its use is likely a pet name stemming from the pretzel's unique looped shape, which is also reminiscent of a horse's bridle.
Alternately, it could have derived earlier from a personal name, Britus or Brice, of Celtic origin, which was borne by a 5th century saint who succeeded St. Martin as bishop of Tours. Consequently the name had a certain currency in France in the early Middle Ages.
Yet other research suggests it is possibly a habitational name associated with Breetz, a small town near Lüneburg in Lower Saxony. However in this instance, the reverse is quite possible as well - the town name is derived from an older surname. The region of Saxony is also somewhat distant from the densest historical concentration of Bretz families, further weakening the case for this origin.
A fourth possible origin forwarded by some researchers is as a corruption of the Latin surname Britius or Bretius which was possibly carried to the Baden area of southern Germany in the 3rd century by a Roman Magister Equitum (horse master). It is said his descendants were knights who used the spelling Bretz or Pretz for at least several centuries. For more speculation on possible Latin origins, see Genealogia Bretius.
It is recorded in over a dozen separate variations, including such forms as Bretz, Pretz, Pratz, Britz, Bratz, Bretch, Bretts, Breetz, Britts, Pratts, Prets, Beitz, Bretzius, Britzius. The first known recording of the family name anywhere is that of Hugho Pretz, in Augsburg, Germany, in 951.
During the First World War some Bretz families in North America felt pressured regarding their Germanic heritage and changed their name to something more English sounding, such as Brett or Bretts.
The range of spellings since the 10th century makes it very difficult for to provide examples of all the ongoing developments over the past eleven centuries, and examples have to be selected at random from the surviving European recordings.
These include: Hugho Pretz, who was a nobleman of the Holy Roman Empire under the reign of Otto the Great in the 10th century, and Ludwig Bretz who landed in America aboard the ship Royal Union on August 15, 1750. Nicolaus Bretch who was a Catholic mayor of Protestant Egelsbach, Germany, and who held office from 1711-1720, and Michael Bretzius, who served in the American Civil war during the 1860s, and was a tanner by trade.
The Bretz surname is relatively rare in the world today, although the family has spread to many lands from their beginnings in southern Germany. There are approximately 10,000 people carrying the Bretz name, and of course many others who, by marriage, share a Bretz lineage.
In Canada, the province with the most Bretz families is by far southern Ontario, followed by Alberta In the United States, the concentration is in the northeastern states around Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, but migration has taken some families further afield. This map of the North American distribution can be a bit misleading as the states and provinces are so geographically large that it makes the Bretzes seem much more widerspread than they actually are. In reality the families are concentrated in only a few metropolitan areas. The map is based upon several sources including telephone book entries from 2009.
The countries with the most prominent Bretz populations include Germany, the United States, Canada, and Australia (approximate/estimated numbers).
Coat of Arms
The Bretz surname is associated with a German coat of arms of the Late Middle Ages. Unlike English and Scottish arms this would have been granted to a family and it's descendants.
It is not yet known to which ancestor the arms is attributed to, but we do know it was created sometime between 1200 and 1605. We also know the region it is from in Germany was called Swabia, better known today as Baden and Bavaria. This is remarkably consistent with known historical locations for Bretz's in Germany, and with the current distribution of the family there.
Another family in the same region, of the surname Herter von Herteneck, had a strikingly similar coat of arms to the Bretz's, and it was recorded in the Armorial of Scheibler, dated 1450. There is no mention of a Bretz arms in it however, which might imply that it came about after it was published. Perhaps a coat of arms was occasionally renewed and bestowed onto new families as the original lines died out. Or else is it possible these families shared a common history?
Another intriguing discovery is the arms for the Hohenburg dynasty, one of the more prominent lineages in Southwestern Germany during the 13th century. It is very similar to both the Bretz and von Herteneck arms, but has the colours reversed (silver over red). This depiction of a battle from 1298 shows the colors and dress of the Hohenburg knights.
Southern Germany was a very volatile region during this time. In the late 13th century, what was known as the Duchy of Swabia was gradually breaking up into many smaller units. The region proved to be one of the most divided in the Holy Roman Empire, containing numerous squabbling free cities, ecclesiastical territories, and fiefdoms of lesser counts and knights. The Swabian War of 1499 was one of the larger conflicts between the Swiss Confederacy and the Hapsburgs of Austria. Fearing the power of greater princes, the cities and smaller secular rulers of Swabia joined to form the Swabian League in the 15th century. The League was somewhat successful at bringing peace to the lands, and many noble families, such as the von Hertenecks, were granted coat of arms at this time. It is also likely this is the period from which the Bretz arms emerged, placing its origin between 1450-1605.
Interestingly, the main field of this arm's blazon is also the same as one used by the northern Swiss canton of Solothurn. The canton is not far from the German region Bavaria, although there is no known connection to the Bretz family (or the von Herteneck or Hohenburg families). One of the floated theories on the origin of Solothurn's colours holds that they came from the vexillum of the ancient Roman Legion of Thebes which was massacred in Helvetia (Switzerland) in 302. St. Ursus, the patron saint of Solothurn, was allegedly an officer of the legion. The flag was adopted in 1481 when the canton was admittted to the Swiss Federation, which is during the same time period as the Swabian League mentioned above. The colours of Solothurn are also similar to those of the old Swiss canton of Unterwalden. Both the Solothurn and Unterwalden arms are visible on this page of the Cotta Codex from 1459. Note the differences in the division of the field.
The Bretz arms is also similar to that of the Archbishopric of Magdeburg in northern Germany, a prominent Roman Catholic archdiocese of the early Holy Roman Empire. The town of Magdeburg is situated on the Elbe River and was one of the most important medieval cities of Europe. Emperor Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor, lived for most of his reign in the town and was buried there.
In Poland there was an arms of Germanic origin that was used by dozens of family lines which has a similar blazon to the Bretzes and the von Herteneckes. The style dates to at least the 15th century when it was brought to the area by Nicholas Wierzynek from Germany. What, if any, relationship there is to the Swabian arms is unknown.
Coats of arms in this time were popular for visually identifying a person and denoting status — impressed in sealing wax on documents, carved on family tombs, and flown as a banner on country homes. By the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, heraldry became a highly developed discipline, regulated by professional officers of arms.
The associated coat of arms for the Bretz surname is first recorded in J. Siebmacher's Wappenbuch, first published in 1605. The images above are from editions of this book. The colour edition dates from the 19th century.
The name was later recorded in J.B Rietstaps Armorial General, published in 1861. This monumental work took 23 years to fully complete and over 85,000 coats of arms are included in this work. An illustrated version by V & H.V Rolland's was called Illustrations to the Armorial General first published in 1903.
The French description listed in the Armorial General is as follows;
|Bretz - Souabe. Coupé de gu. sur arg. un homme, hab. d'un coupé de gu.. sur arg., tenant de sa main desire un sabre au oui, entre deux prob. coupé de gu. sur arg.|
When translated it describes the original arms as;
'Bretz - Swabian. Field cut red over silver. A man, clothing divided horizontally red and silver; holding in his right hand a naturally colored sabre; all between two elephant trunks divided horizontally red and silver.'
Red (Gules) was often used to represent fortitude and creative power, however, Germanic heraldry typically holds red to symbolize military strength and magnanimity. Silver (Argent) meant nobility, peace or serenity. The elephant as a heraldic symbol could mean several things such as great strength, wit, longevity, happiness, royalty, good luck, and ambition. The sabre or sword would be used to indicate justice, often military justice. For centuries sabres have also been associated with cavalry units.
The elephant trunk certainly stands out as an unusual feature and it would suggest a very exotic history for the arms, however further research questions that description. Notes and Queries, 1866, page 520, contains a section by a John Davidson which suggests that the use of 'proboscis' to describe the curved shapes in the crest is a misinterpretation by later Heraldic works.
The Nurnburg Wappenbuch (1609), which I had occasion to mention at p. 271, contains engravings of about 3000 coats of arms, of which nearly 400 have these horns (or elephant trunks) as the crest or part of the crest. In the description of them, the words used always are "die beyde Horner;" and although I have carefully looked though the book, I can find nothing at all about elephant's trunks. There are a good many families who bear the horns of animals for their crests, the same words being used to describe them as are used for the trumpets. I may mention Tschammer (stag's), can Sandiecell (bull's) can Adoltzheim (stienbock's), van Weiler (goat's). etc.
In the arms of Nostitz (an accurate painting of which, on porcelain, given to me by one of the family, lies now before me), one finds on an azure shield two curving horns, back to back, and not unlike bulls' horns or simply-curving sling-bugles, with their points towards the top of the shield; whilst the crest is a pair of the twice-curving horns or trunks, with the "finger-like appendage" mentioned by Mr. F. A. Davies, very plainly marked out; and I believe my friend G. Nostitz considered them to be elephant's trunks - but when I turn to my Wappenbuch I find the arms are represented , excepting the "finger-like appendage," in exactly the same manner as on my china-painting, but described as follows: - "Ein blouer Schildt, die Horner darin rot und weiss adgetheilt, auff dem Helm desgleichen, die Helmdecke," etc. From which it appears that these things are differently represented, according as they are borne on shield or on a helm.
I should say that there can be little doubt that they were originally intended to represent the Teutonic (Alt-Deutch) war-horns; although, on account of their great resemblance to elephants's trunks, they seem to have been mistaken for them.
Not only does this interpretation intuitively make sense, but also does so in the context of Swabian politics of the time. The Holy Roman Empire's Teutonic Order were a renowned military religious order formed during the Crusades, and who fought various conflicts in advancing Christianity across northern Europe. They were also associated with the Habsburg family of Austria, who were involved in many Swabian conflicts (noted above). The knights of the Teutonic Order often wore inposing great helms from which long horns extended.This image to the right shows the helm of Albert von Prankh from the 14th century, one of the Teutonic Order. The use of these horns in family coats of arms could very likely indicate fealty to the House of Habsburg, or to the Teutonic Order in some manner.
Another source indicates this Bretz arms also had a crest consisting of five ostrich feathers. Ostrich feathers typically indicated willing obedience and serenity. There is no known Bretz motto.
From all these above clues we can surmise that this coat of arms was probably granted to a senior soldier in 16th century Swabia in the service of the Holy Roman Empire and Habsburg dynasty.
There is another Bretz family arms found in the Armorial Special de France by Agnieres, published in 1877. It is listed as having been granted to a Rodolphe Bretz, lord of Haslach, in 1633. According to the record, this Bretz family were Austrians who became French as a result of the Treaty of Munster in the year 1648, the year of the annexation of Alsace to France. Its arms were confirmed by a charter in the year 1633 and issued by Ferdinand II, Emperor of Austria. Rodolphe Bretz distinguished himself during the Thirty Years' War, and successfully repelled the Swedes at Nördlingen in 1634. William Bretz, son of Rodolphe, was bailiff of Emmingen in 1697.
The French description listed in the Armorial Special de France is as follows;
When translated it describes the original arms as;
'Arms: Silver with three vertical lines of blue, above is a gold field with a black two headed eagle on display.
Blue (Azure) was typically used to represent loyalty. Silver (Argent) meant nobility, peace or serenity. Gold (Or) used in the upper field might indicate faith or gentility, or an elevation of the mind. The eagle indicates a person of noble nature, strength, bravery, and alertness; or alternately one who is high-spirited, ingenious, quick-witted, and judicious. Under Germanic heraldry the eagle with two heads can signify a conjoining of two forces, however, as the arms was granted by Ferdinand II, the use of the eagle is more likely in keeping with an allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire, its own symbol being the double headed eagle.
Members of this family line included; Jean Bretz, a criminal justice, born 1734. Erard Bretz, an engineer of bridges and pavements, born 1766. Sigismund Bretz, born 1805. The current family head at of the time of publication of the Armorial was M. Bretz, born 1848, and at that time single. There are no known living connections to this line that we have found.
There is also yet another, far earlier record of a coat of arms associated with the Pretz name.
In 951 Otto the Great renewed an 'old title of nobility and family escutcheon and established them with instruments of writing at Augsburg' for Hugho Pretz. From The Bretz Register by J. Harlen Bretz, 1949.
The coat of arms which Emperor Otto bestowed for Hugho is described as '...a lion holding a crown on his head, and a sword in his claws...'.
It is said this denotes noble descent and a war-like spirit. On his helmet Hugho wore three stars which denote success.
For interest, this image shows all of the known coat of arms for our branch of our families arranged in a tree of ancestry.
A collection of Bretz coat of arms images for personal use can be found in the Photo Albums under Bretz Armorial.
David Bretz (-) - Physics professor, American
George H. Bretz (1880-) - Olympic Gold Medalist, Canadian
George M. Bretz (1842-1895) - Photographer, American
J. Harlen Bretz (1882-1981) - Geologist, American
Nicolaus Bretz (1650-1738) - Mayor of Egelsbach (1711-1720), German
Johann Bretz - Fine furniture maker, German
John L. Bretz (1852-1920) - U.S. Representative from Indiana, Democrat, American
Julius Bretz (1870-1953) - Landscape painter, German
Ludwig Bretz (1737-1807) - Sergeant, Revolutionary War, American
Michael Bretz - Captain, Revolutionary War, American
Norman Bretz (1913-1956) - Wing Commander, RCAF WWII, Canadian
Norton Bretz (-) - Senior Research Physicist, American
Rudy Bretz (1914-1997) - Television pioneer, American
There is an old township in the Pfalz region of Germany called Bretzenheim (English: Bretz home). The village was first recorded in 1057 and was ruled by the Archbishop of Cologne of the Holy Roman Empire for many centuries. The area was also mentioned in the Treaty of Munster in 1648, during a time when it transferred hands between various Palatine Counts. In 1774 the noble Wittelsbach-Bretzenheim family of the area, worked to raise the township's status from village to county, and later to full principality in 1789. This was short lived however and only lasted until 1804 when the Napoelonic Wars ravaged the region. It is not known what the relationship of the Bretzenheim family is to the rest of the Bretz surname. Bretzenheim was also the site an American prisoner of war camp during late World War II which housed up to 130,000 German prisoners. The town still exists in what has become German wine country.
There is a family of Bretzes in the Bretzenheim region which has been making fine wines for 10 generations, since 1721.
There is research by Gérard Dupond of Bretzes in northern France going back to a Charles Bretz (~1595-1672). It is not known how this line is related to other Bretz families.
There are several stars named for a Bretz family member who discovered them during the mid 20th century. For example, 'Bretz 4' is a young T Tauri star in the constellation Monoceros about 2700 light years distant.
There is a stock market technical indicator called the Bretz TRIN-5 developed by William G Bretz.
The eponymous Bretz Floods were first described by J Harlen Bretz in 1923 as a series of catastrophic events which formed the channeled scablands of eastern Washington state as a result of the repeated filling and emptying of glacial lake Missoula during the last ice age.
Several spacecraft, including Stardust, Ikaros, SELENE, and the Phoenix Mars lander, all carried the names of several Bretz family members into space (along with 1000s of other names). In theory, these records of the surname will survive many hundreds of thousands of years, and possibly longer.
Last updated September 10, 2012