We Need Gazetteers to Find our German Birthplaces

Gazetteers

A gazetteer is a dictionary of place names and should be used with a map of the areas we are researching. They help us pinpoint a specific place and associate towns with the jurisdictions. It is an essential reference for information about places and place names. It typically contains information concerning the geographical makeup of a country, region, or continent and the social statistics and physical features, such as mountains, waterways, or roads. Gazetteers describe towns, villages, churches and states, rivers and mountains, populations, and other geographical features. They usually include only the names of places that existed when the gazetteer was published and often their former names. The place names are generally in alphabetical order, similar to a dictionary. They can also provide interesting facts about the community and help us to know where to look for additional records.

Gazetteers may also provide additional information about a town, such as its:

  • Boundaries of civil jurisdiction.
  • Longitude and latitude (modern versions).
  • Distances and direction from other cities
  • Schools, colleges, and universities.
  • Denominations and number of churches.
  • Major manufacturing works, canals, docks, and railroad stations

Gazetteers have existed since the Hellenistic era in Greece. The first known gazetteer of China appeared in the 1st century. With the age of print media in China by the 9th century, the Chinese gentry became invested in producing gazetteers for their local areas as a source of information as local pride. Geographer Stephanus wrote the earliest European gazetteer of Byzantium, who wrote a geographical dictionary in the 6th century, which influenced later European compilers of gazetteers in the 16th century. Modern gazetteers can be found in reference sections of most libraries as well as on the Web.

Meyer’s Orts

The best gazetteer for German towns is Meyer’s Orts and Verkehrs Lexicon des Deutschen Reiches. The English translation of the title is Meyer’s Directory of Places and Commerce in the German Empire 1912. Dr. E Uetrecht compiled it in 1912. It includes all areas of the pre-World War I German Empire. Overall, this gazetteer contains more than 210,000 cities, towns, hamlets, villages, etc.

There are two difficulties when using Meyers Orts. One is the effort needed to correctly decipher the Gothic script used in its printing. The other is the numerous abbreviations the publishers used to save space. Making a copy of the list of abbreviations at the beginning of Volume I will be helpful when trying to read the town entry.

Some local libraries have a copy of Meyers Orts on their shelves. It has been available at Ancestry.com under Meyers Gazetteer of the German Empire. However, it is now available in a very user-friendly version at MeyersGaz.org.

This digital version of the Meyers Gazetteer is easily searchable, and we can enter standard letters. We do not have to enter diacritics to get results. Another available helpful tool is entering a wildcard. When using a wildcard, we do not have to know the accurate spelling of the town. The first letter, a wildcard, and the ending will generator possible choices. The website offers a helpful help guide at:

https://www.meyersgaz.org/help/help.html

The website shows a copy of the original narrative in the gothic script, a modern-day map, and the details of the description in a readable format. We can also access a page that shows a list of nearby churches by denomination and distance. We can also toggle between the modern map and a 19th-century version from the German map collection, Karte des Deutschen Reiches. The older map may show spelling closer to the list we collected from the older documents. This website is relatively new, and they are working to make improvements.

The town names are listed alphabetically in three volumes:

  • Volume I: A-K
  • Volume II: L-Z
  • Volume III: Supplement (contains additions and corrections)

Each entry contains a paragraph of information. If all of the information is available, it will include the following things and appear in the following order:

  • Name of place
  • Place type
  • Name of state to which it belongs
  • Government district
  • Population
  • Post Office and other Communications information
  • Railroad information
  • Courts
  • Consulate
  • Embassy
  • Churches
  • Schools
  • Institutes
  • Military
  • Financial
  • Business Institutions
  • Trades and Industries
  • Shipping Traffic
  • Local government services
  • Dependent Places

We find another critical group of information when clicking on the Ecclesiastical tab. The tab gives us a list of nearby towns with churches and gives us clues on where to look for our ancestors’ baptismal, marriage, and death records.

Kartenmeister 

Another online database to find our ancestor’s German towns is Kartenmeister at http://www.kartenmeister.com.  The search results show variant spellings of the place name, GPS coordinates, a link to a Google map, and historical population estimates.

This database contains towns located east of the Oder and Neisse rivers. In addition, it includes towns within the borders of the eastern German provinces in the spring of 1918. This database contains the following provinces: East Prussia (including Memel), West Prussia, Brandenburg, Posen, Pomerania, and Silesia. The website is beneficial because most towns have Polish names on current maps.

It currently lists most towns or points of interest, such as mills, bridges, and battlefields. As more information becomes available, this database will be updated.

We can search this database in several ways or criteria.
1. German name
2. Older German name
3. Kreis/County
4. By the next larger town (this is a proximity search.)
5. Today’s Polish, Russian or Lithuanian name.

JewishGen Gazetteer

The JewishGen Gazetteer (formerly called ShtetlSeeker Town Search) is under the databases tab on Jewishgen.org. It contains one million localities in 54 countries in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. For each locality, the search results for each location will display:

  • The place-name(s), with the native name in bold
  • GPS Coordinates — latitude and longitude.
  • Country in which the locality is located today

The GPS coordinates are invaluable in finding the town on a map and confirming it belongs to our ancestors.

It uses the Daitch–Mokotoff Soundex system for approximate spellings of place names, and this should give a list of towns with possible spelling variations. It is an excellent website to use first when we believe the town names may have incorrect spellings. It does not matter our family was not Jewish. It only matters their village was located in the area this database covers.

Web page addewss: www.jewishgen.org/communities/loctown.asp.

Type in our town names in the search box, and the results will usually list multiple towns that may be possible locations for our ancestors. Look for towns that match the province and county information we find. Locate each likely town on a map to see if the other town names we found are close to one of the possible towns in the results list. I use this site for possible locations and then use other sources to eliminate a location from the list or confirm a location may be the birthplace. The actual proof is always finding our ancestors’ birth and marriage records.

Additional German Gazetteers:

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