Writing Family Histories for the Nonwriter

Genealogy research should go beyond finding documents and filling in names and dates on charts. After finding my first family documents, saving the information in a family history for my children and future generations became a priority. However, I was reluctant to write a family history because I was uncomfortable with the grammar rules and organizing my thoughts into clear statements. I also felt I could not give my research to another person to write the narrative because they could not feel my connection with my ancestors as a researcher and a family member. Fortunately, I developed a method that overcame my reluctance, and this process should also work for most nonwriters.

My strategy for writing my family history is to initially focus on transcribing the information into summaries for each ancestor. These entries can be bullet points; I use sentences, but they do not have to be. This method helps me start the process and should work for most people to overcome their fear and reluctance to start writing their family history.

I visualize my initial entries for an ancestor as just recording information. As a result, my first entries have an encyclopedic format and could be considered boring. Here is a sample:

“The baptismal record for my grandmother, Anna Chmielewska, indicates she was born on June 26, 1899, in Pierzshaly, Poland, to Aleksander Chmielewski and Julianna Zaluska.”

This format is mechanical. After using it frequently, remembering specific words, phases, and the sentence structure for each type of record is easy. Each entry begins with the name of the record type, followed by a verb such as lists, indicates, or shows. Next, enter the person’s name and then list the information in the document. Using this method, I can record the information quickly and accurately in my summaries for each ancestor because the words flow freely. In addition, frequent use has trained my eyes where to look for the information.

I use summaries as my primary research document and refer to them when needing facts to do more research. I also update them conscientiously when I find new information. Having all the information for an individual in one place is another benefit because it helps find new info faster. Additionally, I list the information in chronological order, which will slowly tell the stories. Finally, the latest info, details, and stories help me expand the initial encyclopedic entry into an appealing narrative. For example, here is the current narrative describing my grandmother’s birth and the walk to the church for her baptism.

“Anna was born at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 26, 1899, to Aleksander Chmielewski and Julia Zaluska in a small cottage in the farming village Przezdziecko-Pierzchaly, Polish Russia.

“In Poland, fathers choose the names of their sons, and mothers select their daughters’ names. Additionally, Polish parents often give their children saint’s names, and usually, the name is associated with the saint for the day of the birth. However, the saint’s name for June 26 was not Anna, so I do not know why my grandmother received her name.

On the day after Anna’s birth, Aleksander put Julia and the baby onto his horse cart and led them down the dirt road three miles to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Andrzejewo for Anna’s baptism. Walking behind their father were Anna’s four siblings – Marianna (age 17), Boleslaw (age 14), Stefania (age 12), and Hipolit (age 6).

“Also joining the procession were Grandfather Adam Chmielewski and the godparents Franciszek and Emilia Uscinski. Emilia was Julia’s first cousin, and, as godmother, she was responsible for dressing the infant for the christening.

“Another group accompanying the family to the church were Jozef Sutkowski, age forty-two, and Aleksander Sutkowski, age forty, who were needed as witnesses to the birth. They were farmers in Pierzchaly and brothers to Anna’s grandmother Teodora who had died four years prior.

“Grandmother Franciszka Zaluska and other family members met them in Andrzejewo because they lived near the church. Babka, who helped with Anna’s birth,  stayed behind in the village to organize the christening party.”

I may seem creative in my words in the second example, but I did not make up the details. They came from the documents and photos:

  • Birth and Baptismal Dates – from Anna’s baptismal record
  • Birthplace and location of church – from Anna’s baptismal record
  • Descendant from Nobility – from Anna’s baptismal record and the baptismal and marriage records of her parents
  • Size of the cottage – from vintage pictures of the village
  • Condition of roads – from vintage photos of the area
  • Origins of her name – from books on Polish customs
  • The list of people attending the baptism- from birth, marriage, and death records for the friends and family of the Chmielewski family and the village of Pierzchaly
  • Distance to the church – calculation from a map

Remember that sources of details and stories that go beyond the traditional documents are county histories, books on ethnic customs and traditions, maps, newspaper articles, and stories about daily life in the same area. Most of these sources do not mention your ancestors, but they give you insights into their lives.

Another essential resource is the older photos in family albums. Ask relatives to identify the event and the people. Also, review the images that show the inside of the homes. Also, there were clues and details related to my ancestors in the photos I saw in books and online collections – especially those depicting the neighborhood where they lived and worked. Additionally, the details sometimes may give clues to areas needing even more research.

Another source of clues is asking questions about the information you have found. The lack of an answer points to areas that need more research.

  • Where did they live? Find pictures of the home
  • Why did they move? Read the history of the area, focusing on what drew your ancestors to the area or drove them away
  • What was their occupation? Read accounts that describe the skills and effort they needed to do their jobs
  • What social history affected their lives? Only include events that directly affected them

The last essential part of my method is to write entries with an audience in mind. Picturing the audience helps to write for them in clear narratives. In my case, I try to envision my grandchildren or great-grandchildren reading my stories.

Whatever format the summary has, it serves two purposes: first, as research notes, so you can quickly research further, and second, as a readable document, you can easily share it with your family. In addition, the information is in a format your family does not have to know the genealogical jargon to understand what you share with them.

Points to Remember:

  • Be accurate in recording the data from documents
  • Add descriptive information to your statements found in other sources
  • Add first-person accounts when available
  • Use your voice, style, and vocabulary
  • Do not exaggerate
  • Omit needless words (keep it simple)
  • Focus on recording the information and saving stories, and your family history will appear

However, I must caution you that once you start, you may get addicted to this exciting journey along your family’s past. My research has brought many ancestors back to life. Sometimes, I can feel them looking over my shoulder as I enter their stories onto their pages. That feeling may seem crazy, but that’s the connection that may occur.

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The International Tracing Service (ITS): Find the stories for Post-WW II Displaced Persons

Did your parents or grandparents immigrate to the United States shortly after WW II? If so, they probably told you stories of staying in one or more of the refugee camps at the end of the war. The Allied forces established these camps to handle the masses of displaced persons coming from the German work camps or death camps, or post-war who fled their homes to escape communist rule.

Were your ancestors willing to tell you about their lives during and after the war, or did they avoid telling you these stories? The International Tracing Service may be able to help you find some of these details. They had the task of saving the refugees’ documents and giving us hope of completing their stories.

The work of tracing refugees began in 1943 when the Headquarters of the Allied Forces asked the British Red Cross to set up a registration and tracing service for missing persons. In 1944, The Red Cross gave the work to the newly created Central Tracing Bureau. The Bureau initially worked out of London but then moved to Versailles. Later it moved to Frankfort am Main and then to its current location in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Finally, in July 1947, the International Refugee Organization (ICRC) took over the Bureau’s administration and changed the Bureau’s name to International Tracing Service (ITS) in January 1948.

ITS collects and controls the documents, information, and research on Nazi persecution, forced labor, and displaced persons. The archive in Bad Arolsen contains about 30 million records from concentration camps, details of forced labor, and files on displaced persons. The archives have been accessible to researchers since 2007. Requests for information from individuals or descendants can be made by mail or on the ITS website (Home Page – https://arolsen-archives.org/en/). In 2015, ITS began adding records to an online database and today has over two million records in an online searchable collection of documents. Family historians should search the online archive at https://arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/ to confirm their ancestors are in the archive. The results will show one or two documents but not the complete file. Use the inquiry page (Arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/inquiries/) to request the entire file. Be patient because the average delivery time for the files is about four months and can take as long as eleven months.

The original goal of the authorities at the refugee camps was to repatriate the refugees to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. Authorities soon changed their strategy after reports of mistreatment of refugees who returned to communist countries, which caused a growing resistance of the refugees to return. Immigration to western countries became the new destination 

In late 1947, Belgium became the first country to adopt refugee immigration and accepted nearly 22,000 people. The United Kingdom accepted 86,000 refugees, in addition to 115,000 Polish army veterans who resettled in England and 12,000 former Ukrainian members of the German SS. By 1951, Canada had accepted 157,687 refugees, Australia took 182,159 refugees, and France accepted 38,157 displaced persons. In addition, Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina accepted almost 80,000 refugees.

From the end of the war to 1948, nearly 50,000 refugees had entered Palestine (many illegally due to immigration restrictions).

The United States was late accepting displaced persons, and then only after considerable lobbying for a policy change. There was significant opposition in the U. S. Congress to taking Central and Eastern Europeans and Jews. Nevertheless, President Harry S. Truman signed the first act in June 1948, allowing entry for 200,000 refugees, followed by the second act in June 1950, allowing entry for another 200,000. The American program was the largest and most idealistic of the Allied programs but also the most bureaucratic, which required a sponsor and the promise of a job. Charitable organizations, such as the Lutheran World Federation and ethnic groups, undertook much of the humanitarian effort.

ITS has a wealth of information in the documents that could add to your family history. The information will identify the camps where your ancestors lived. It may list their occupations, residence before entering the camps, birthplaces, and jobs while in the camps. Research the history of the camps to add background information about where they lived.

Pay attention to the details which you may have to translate. The details will reveal the picture of your ancestors’ struggles to survive after the war and how they rebuilt their lives. The details will also give you insights into the character you see in them.

Save their stories and honor their memory.

German Genealogy: Finding the German Records

My new book, “German Genealogy: Finding the German Records,” is now available on Amazon.com. If you have German ancestors, it will help you. Six steps needed to find your ancestors: 1. Identify their original German name 2. Find their approximate birth year 3. Find town names for clues 4. Find possible German locations 5. Find the German records 6. Translate the German records

https://www.amazon.com/German-Genealogy-Finding-Records/dp/B0B45L3VVY/ref

Hiring a German Researcher

You may consider hiring a professional researcher when you reach a brick wall. I have used this option when I could not find a birth record for my grandmother and a marriage record for my great-grandparents. I also asked a researcher to track down living descendants of my grandparents’ siblings to find pictures and stories of the family left in the old country.  

Since this is an expensive option, you need to be careful to hire a researcher with suitable qualifications. You also need to be specific in the information you request. However, I found that paying the right researcher was a bargain compared to the travel costs to perform the research myself in Germany. Also, I was excited when adding the new information to my family history

There are two associations of professional genealogists with German members that should be capable of doing the needed German research – one based in America and another in Germany. The American-based group is the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), with a few German members.

Website for APG – https://www.apgen.org

The German-based group of German-speaking professional researchers is called the Verband deutschsprachiger Berufsgenealogen. The English translation of the group’s name is Association of German-speaking Professional Genealogists. The German group’s website can be read in German, English, or French.

Website – http://www.berufsgenealogie.net

Things to do when hiring a researcher:

  • Request references from prior clients and check them before hiring a professional genealogist in Germany.
  • Also, ask for a research plan.
  • Discuss fees and payment options
  • Remember, the researcher expects to be paid for their efforts, not their results. Therefore, there is no guarantee the researcher will find the information you requested.
  • Your request must have enough information to give the researcher a chance at success. Better researchers have learned to ask questions to focus their research on providing the best results to their clients. 
  • Also, use researchers who are knowledgeable in the area of Germany, where the records originated. The documents you need may be in church and local government archives that may not generally be open to the public. Hiring someone familiar with the local archives is critical because outsiders may not be able to obtain the same access a locally known researcher can get.

Payment

Your discussion of payment should be part of the upfront negotiation with your researcher. The discussion should include agreeing on the amount and how to transfer the money overseas. The only payment method available when I started in the early 2000s was with a foreign bank transfer that cost between $50 to $100 for each transaction. Today, most foreign researchers are accepting payments using the following methods:

  • PayPal – you can use a credit card or bank transfer to PayPal, and they will charge the payee a transaction
  • XOOM – you can pay Xoom with your credit card, and they deposit the money into the researcher’s bank account. You pay $9.99 for each transaction, so try to combine as many payments as possible into one transaction.
  • TransferWise uses a system similar to Xoom but with a lower transaction fee (starting at $3.00). However, this service warns that they use an average currency rate, so you may pay more dollars to get the correct euros to your researcher. But, TransferWise predicts that you should save about 5% on the overall transaction.
  • Western Union – requires cash to be paid to their agent and a small transaction fee (for example, $8.00 for $150 to Germany)
  • Credit cards – some researchers have begun accepting credit cards as payment, and they absorb the higher transaction fee for foreign money transfers.

My decisions on hiring a researcher were based on:

  • How vital was the document or information?
  • My evaluation of the researcher to do the job
  • The convenience of the payment option
  • Finally, the cost versus the importance of the information

Example #1:

Early in my research, I contacted the church where my grandmother was baptized, requesting a copy of her baptismal record. I received a response from a local church member requesting $150 to find the document, translate it, and send me a copy. I declined the offer and decided to try later because I already had the birth date and names of her parents. Furthermore, I only wanted a copy of her baptism to have a physical record.

Since my original request, the records have been made available online to researchers in Poland. Ten years later, I received a copy of the document from another researcher and copies of the birth records of her siblings for $100.

Example #2:

I contacted a researcher in Romania in 2011 to find the marriage record for my father’s grandparents. He quoted a cost of $30 for the document and $120 for travel expenses, including an overnight stay. The marriage document and translation I received were a bargain for the $150. The information unlocked the mystery of my father’s family history and led to many more documents and family stories.

Eight years later, I found the marriage document in a new database on Ancestry.com, but I had already completed most of my father’s family history by that time. I shared my 2011 results with most of my relatives in 2012, and they were excited to hear the new details of their Szabados ancestors. I am glad I could unlock the mystery because some family members died before I found the records on Ancestry.com. Additionally, a few others have started to write a family history for their family branch. Unlocking that mystery in 2011 probably created excitement for them to begin researching their family history sooner.

Celebrate St Patrick’s Day by Remembering Your Irish Ancestors

Who were the first Irish immigrants in America?

Why did they immigrate; when did they leave; how did they get here; where did they settle?  

Some historians point to the Scotch-Irish, who began arriving in Philadelphia about 1713. Most were born in Northern Ireland, but their ancestors came from Scotland. King James I of England recruited their Scottish ancestors from Scotland’s lowlands to resettle the Irish land that the English King had confiscated in 1608 from rebellious Irish Ulster nobles. The first Scottish immigrants began arriving in Ulster in 1609. However, the Scotsmen felt disappointed with the reception from the Anglican English and the Catholic Irish. They had difficulties assimilating into their Irish lands.

The Catholic Irish resented the Scots because the English Crown gave the Scots land confiscated from the deposed Irish Lords. Further English authorities discriminated against the Scots by not giving them equal rights after inviting them to Ireland. English laws also required the Scots to pay tithes to the Anglican Church of England, even though they also paid tithes to their Presbyterian churches. This double discrimination caused tensions to grow, and the Scots began a mass exodus within three generations after arriving in Ireland. In the early 1700s, the Scots started leaving Ireland for the Pennsylvania and South Carolina Colonies in America to enjoy the religious tolerance and the vast new lands that the colonies offered.

Small groups of Irish Catholics also came to the American colonies in the early 1700s from the southern Irish counties. They left from the ports of Cork and Kinsale along the south coast. They were answering the invitation from the governors of the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland. The governors hired agents to recruit European men because their colonies needed workers to build their settlements, clear the land for farming, and produce goods for export.

The Scotch-Irish immigrants receive more recognition as early Irish immigrants because of their numbers and contributions to the settlement of western Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Appalachian region of America. The Catholic Irish were in the colonies in the early 1700s, and in the mid-1800s, they began coming to America in large waves.

If you are researching your family history, finding the origins of your Irish roots is crucial. Study the phases of Irish and United States history that affected immigration to America.

Remember that each immigrant has a unique story. Many Irish immigrants kept the details of their stories hidden in their hearts and memories. It was very personal and painful to discuss with anyone. Our challenge is to dig out as many details of their immigration saga as we can for our family history. Match some reasons for immigration to parts of their stories and then merge them with the rest of your family’s oral history.

Our immigrant ancestors laid the foundation of our roots in the United States. Our lives would be much different if they did not endure the challenges of emigration from Ireland. Do not underestimate their contributions. They performed vital roles in the development of America. Many of them cleared fields on the frontier and worked on farms. Many Irish were unskilled and toiled constructing the canals and railroads or in factories. Yet, their lives became building blocks in the growth of their new country.

The voyage and arrival process was a tremendous challenge to our ancestors, and understanding what they overcame should give more respect for their lives. I had a very different picture of my grandparents after identifying the challenges they overcame to settle in the United States.

Hopefully, your efforts will bring your ancestors’ story alive for your future generations.

German Names in Genealogy

A crucial factor in finding our ancestor’s records is knowing the correct name to use for our searches. However, even if we search the correct source, we may not find them because we do not recognize the name.

As we work backward when searching American records, we may find a document that should belong to our ancestor but has a slightly different name – either surname, given name or both. We need to be patient when we encounter these variations. Look for other details in the document to confirm this belongs to our ancestor and save the name for future reference. I have found that passenger lists and naturalization papers indicate the name closest to the original German name.

Also, do not be confused by the myth that immigration officials changed the names. They did not change any immigrant’s name at arrival. If you found your family changed their name, the immigrants probably modified their name after arrival due to problems with pronunciation and spelling of their names in their daily life.

Here are some tips to help sort through the variations we find in the records.

Surname variations in American Records

Phonetic Spelling – Most of the surname spelling variations occurred as clerks wrote the name as it sounded in English. The clerk did not speak German, and many immigrants had heavy accents. Also, they may have been illiterate or changed to minimize future problems. Simple examples of this substitution are:

  • Miller for Müller
  • Wineberg for Weinberg.

English Translation – During World War I, many Germans anglicized their names by substituting the English translation such as :

  • Kieffer to Pine
  • Feuerstein to Firestone
  • Fassbinder to Cooper
  • Schwaiger to Shepherd
  • Zimmermann to Carpenter

Since many immigrants could not read or write, phonetic spellings of names are very common. This practice is one explanation of the name change.

Names with Umlauts – If the German surname contains an AE, OE, or UE, it will have an umlaut over these letters in its German spelling. Including the name with the umlaut in your search criteria will help find your records in German databases.

My biological father’s surname may have been changed using both types of variations and includes an umlaut. German records list the family name as Wüertemberger. However, it was altered on Colonial and early American records to Whittinghill. One cousin pointed out that “berg” in German translates to mountain or hill. Therefore, when we say the name Wüertemhill with a heavy German accent, it sounds similar to Whittinghill.

Other practices that may confuse:

One situation causing name confusion in American records was the practice by the German immigrants of using both an anglicized name and their German name. The immigrants listed an anglicized name on civil records such as census and land records. However, they continued to use their German name within the German community. For example, their German name may be found in church records, German-language newspapers, and rosters of clubs and fraternal groups.

Another confusing situation found among immigrants occurs when different branches adopt different spellings for the surname. For example, among my Wuertemberger family in America, multiple branches have adopted similar but different surnames such as Whittinghill, Wurtenberger, Whittenberg, Wattenbarger.

German Given Names

I have also found that given names can cause confusing search results. In Germany, children were given multiple names at baptism – usually two but as many as four. The first name is a spiritual name, such as a favorite saint’s name, although biblical names were preferred among protestants after the reformation. Also, some families would repeat the first name for multiple children. The second or middle name was the name that was generally used to call or identify the person. The middle name was usually determined using various patterns each family had used to name their children after specific family members. If the child received more than two names, the additional names were of the parents or other relatives. Often the child dropped these additional names as they matured.

In American records, our ancestor may have used their middle name, and this practice initially confused me on a few occasions. However, in German documents, we will probably find them in records with two names, with the middle name being the name we are accustomed to seeing.

Below is a sample of a pattern German families used for naming their children:

          Sons                                                            Daughters

1st son after the father’s father
2nd son after the mother’s father
3rd son after the father
4th son after the father’s father’s father
5th son after the mother’s father’s father
6th son after the father’s mother’s father
7th son after the mother’s mother’s father
1st daughter after the mother’s mother
2nd daughter after the father’s mother
3rd daughter after the mother
4th daughter after the father’s father’s mother
5th daughter after the mother’s father’s mother
6th daughter after the father’s mother’s mother
7th daughter after the mother’s mother’s mother

If an infant died, many parents would name the next child born of the same gender with the name of the child who died. However, seeing two children with the same name does not always mean the elder child died. So always look for a death record.  

Another practice that may confuse us when searching church or civil records is the language used in creating the record. Changing borders has caused our German ancestors’ civil records to be created using German, French, and Polish, depending on location. As the various provinces and principalities fell under the rule of different countries, the language used in records could change. Church records may be in one of these three languages but I usually find Latin. Below are a few examples of how language changes the spelling of given names:

GermanLatinFrenchPolish
AlbrechtAdalbertusAdalbertWojciech
ElisabethElisabethaIsabelleElżbieta
FranzFranciscusFrançoisFranciszek
GeorgGeorgiusGeorgesJerzy
Johann (Hans)JoannesJeanJan
KatharineCatherinaCatherineKatarzyna
LorenzLaurentiusLaurentWawrzyniec
LudwigLudovicusLouisLudwik

The last example of name variation I have seen in my research is the use of nicknames such as Anny for Anna or Anne. For Barbara, I have seen Barbel, Bäbi, and Barbola.

Be flexible with the spelling of the surnames and given names – you will probably find multiple spellings. I save all of the variations and refer to my list as I research.

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:

Where do you start your German research?

To find our German ancestors, we need to know their Germanic name, the name of the town they left, and the approximate date (at least the year) of their birth or marriage in Germany. Does this sound like an easy process?  I find that it normally has many snags. If we are lucky, our family papers include documents from the old country that point to our ancestral home. Family oral history may also point to a town, but the name passed down maybe a large city in the area they left or the name given is a phonetic spelling. If your immigrant ancestors did not save copies of documents from the “Old Country,” you will need to find U.S. documents that list clues to the town’s name or area. First, the best strategy is to initially search for current records for family members and follow the paper trail back from the most recent ancestors to those who immigrated. Our journey is more challenging because German immigration happened from the 1600s to the 1900s, and older documents do not include the details we need or they have been lost. In addition, the earlier arrival dates generated fewer documents that we can use even if they are found. Even with these challenges, be persistent and diligently search for the information.

My research had many challenges and few documents that produced relevant town names. However, I successfully found German birth records for three of them. My first success developed from a village name listed in the 1920 U.S. census record. Typically, the birthplace column on the census lists only the country, but the enumerator also recorded the village name. This location was later confirmed by exchanging information with someone who grew up in this German village and verified that the family had indeed lived there until 1890. The second success came from information gleaned from family stories. Unfortunately, parts of the story were wrong and contained the phonetic spelling of the villages, but my persistence did yield the birth records for the two immigrants who left in 1850. The third example was more difficult because it was based on Y-DNA results. The descendants of my only match listed a possible birthplace for their ancestor that gave me a clue to a small area near the Rhine River. Searching online databases, I found possible birth records for both immigrants (mine and theirs) in a small village near the town they had listed for their ancestors. Even though the town they listed was a mistake, it was an important clue because the correct village was in the district named for the large town they had listed.

Collect as many place names as possible from the documents, oral histories, and any other source we can uncover. Gather all the place names found on documents related to our direct ancestors because they are clues. Also, save the place names on records for siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. For example, if their passenger manifest listed their destination as a friend, include this person in your research since they also came from the same place. Treat these place names as clues because they are usually not spelled correctly, and many town names have multiple locations. Look for your clues in various documents and the stories told by your older relatives. After we have a list of place-name clues, we need to find our ancestral home on a map. Finding multiple names from our list near one another should point to the most likely location of our ancestral home. Visualize you are working on a jigsaw puzzle, and the town names are the visual clues you need to put your puzzle pieces together.  

Researchers can encounter many confusing pieces of information. One factor causing much of the confusion is that speaking German does not limit the location of our ancestral home to being within the borders of present-day Germany. There are German-speaking people in Austria, Switzerland, Alsace (now part of France), Parts of the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Denmark, parts of the western portion of present-day Poland, and some parts of Russia. Before 1871, they listed their origins as Prussia, Bavaria, Rhineland, or other Germanic states. If we are lucky, they recorded their origin as one of the smaller states such as Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg Hanover because we would have a smaller area to search for the specific village. We may also be confused because towns located in border areas may have multiple names based on the multiple languages spoken in the area. As an example, the city of Stettin is also known as Szczecin in Polish. Be careful because the differences for smaller villages will be harder to distinguish. The spelling of the village name may vary because of how it is used in a sentence, and knowing German grammar may help recognize the correct spelling.

You need to Identify:

  • The general area that they left
  • The name of the village or town
  • The name of the town where the church or civil records were recorded
  • As many town names as possible to confirm where to look

Envision a map of the area around your ancestor’s birthplace, and each clue you find is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that has a picture of this map on it. Once you fit all of the clues together, the image on the jigsaw puzzle comes together, and you will be able to recognize where the area is located.

Where Were Our Ancestors Born?

How can we find the records for our immigrant ancestors? Most are available online and are cataloged by the name of the town where officials created the record. So, we need to find documents or stories that will give us town names. It is also essential to find as many names as possible – do not stop when you find the first town name even if it is stated as their birthplace. There are usually more than one location with the same name so you will need more than one name to find the correct location on a map.

Here is the list I used to find these clues:

  • Documents and letters from the old country – Look in the shoeboxes and desk drawers for the papers your immigrants saved. I was lucky when researching my grandfather’s origins because I found a copy of his birth record. He needed to prove his age for his Medicare application. The document listed the village where he was born, the parish of his baptism, and the diocese. We also found copies of birth records for my wife’s great-grandparents that they brought with them. Note: officials, clerks, and priests transcribed these copies, and we should find the original registers later.
  • Family oral history – Interview older relatives for immigration stories because this may be a great source of clues. However, be careful. Many immigrants gave the name of a large city and not the small villages where they left. Also, the town name may have a phonetic spelling. Still, use all town names as clues to be sorted out when you have completed your list.
  • Marriage records – Civil and church records may list where the bride and groom were married. I was lucky and found town names listed on these records for my ancestors. I also found many priests insisted on listing in the church marriage registers where the bride and groom were baptized
  • Naturalization Petitions – In 1906, the U.S. Congress changed the immigration law and required specific additional information in the naturalization petitions. The petition then included when and where the immigrant arrived. It also listed when and where they were born.
  • Passenger Manifests have various formats, but all have columns indicating their last residence, and some include where the passengers were born.
  • Death records such as death certificates and obituaries may include information but not always. Another caution is that these documents may not have accurate information because the person giving it may not know what is correct.

Do not stop the search when you find one name.  Collect as many names as possible. Save all of the names that you find even if you believe the spelling is not correct. Remember that some clues give a phonetic spelling. Save every name because most countries have multiple locations for towns with the same name. So, you will need to have more than one place name to point the way.

Additionally, you should research the documents of children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and friends of your ancestors if they were born in Europe. The place names on documents for these relatives should point to the same area as your ancestors.

This process is similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle. The town names are on the pieces, and the completed jigsaw puzzle is similar to a map showing most of the town names from the list that we compiled.

After you have exhausted your search through the documents, you will find that one of the names may be the name of the county (powiat), another one the township (gmina), another town will be the location of the parish church. Other towns on your list may be surrounding villages. All are needed to find your ancestors. You will know where you are going when you see the cluster of the names on a map.

Should you give a DNA test kit as a Christmas Present?

Have you started shopping for your Christmas gifts? The DNA testing companies have started their sale ads on TV suggesting their test would be a great gift, and you are probably wondering which company offers the best test.

I can rate each company for my use but can not suggest one for you to take without knowing what you want to learn from the test. The test results give you two types of information. The basic data set is a list and diagrams showing the possible areas your ancestors left and imply these are your Roots! The second set of information is a list that matches your DNA in varying degrees to other people and gives a range of relationships, such as 2nd to 4th cousins or 4th to 6th and more. The test results will not magically present you with a complete family tree as some ads suggest. To get your family tree, you will have to commit to many days and nights of work uncovering your family history.

If all you want is to know your ethnic origins take the test and review your results. However, this set of data is the least accurate. Also, each company bases its projections on different base data, so comparing results from different companies may present a confusing picture. (Note, this comparison may happen when your siblings or cousins each use different companies for their test samples.) I have not found data that points to one company’s results being more accurate than the others. All are updating their data to improve their accuracy, but I have found comparing the results does give me clues that help. The results are not 100%, but they will provide a general idea. I am sorry, but they can not point to a specific village.

If you want to start uncovering your family history, DNA testing is not the first step. You need to collect family stories, documents and compile a family tree showing at least four generations before submitting a sample for DNA testing. The DNA results will give clues that may tell you how you relate to your cousin matches. If the relationship is not clear, you need that information when you contact your matches.

DNA testing is not magic. It is a science and a tool that may give you clues to your family history. Genealogy Research also is not magic. It is detective work where you need to apply sound and detailed research to be successful.

Please don’t jump into DNA testing without knowing why you are doing it. It may lead to something fantastic, or it may be a waste of your money.

Find the details, do the research, and have fun.