Premium Member of the Week: Sandi Bohle

Thank you for chatting with us today, Sandi!

Can you share with us how you got started on your genealogy journey?

I was in high school and there was a project to create a family tree in our history class. They wanted the tree to be three generations and I actually was able to go back five. Both of my grandmothers were still alive. My paternal grandmother had letters and postcards that she and my great-grandmother had saved from family in Germany. My maternal grandmother had a notebook of information she had kept on our Norwegian side. I’ve entered my 4th decade researching my family.

Wow- Four decades! That’s an amazing accomplishment. What are some of your favorite genealogy websites that you’ve come across in your research?

Currently, my favorite websites are Baden-Württemberg Landesarchiv and also Evangelical Church in Baden Regional Church Archive Karlsruhe Family Research as they cover two of the areas I am researching. I tend to stay away from the big commercial sites because there’s so much misinformation and inaccuracies.

Those are all great sources. what #1 research tip would you share with anyone who’s just getting started?

Don’t give up! If you hit a roadblock, there is a way around it. Remember, we are doing research in a country that went through two World Wars with so many cities and records being destroyed. If you hit a wall in the civic records, fall back on church records.

Absolutely! Genealogy is a marathon, not a sprint. Do you have a favorite family story that you’ve learned in your years of research?

As we all know, Japanese Americans were in internment camps during World War II. But did you know that during World War I, Germans living in the U.S. who were not citizens were required to register as Alien Enemies of the U.S.? I have a copy of my great grandfather’s, Franz Rheinhold Schwarz, paperwork. It’s been a treasure trove of information regarding the family in Germany, in addition to being able to see his handwriting/printing, and personal stats. He had applied for naturalization in 1915 after having lived in San Francisco since 1888. It finally came through in 1920.

What a special find! can you share with our readers how the premium membership has helped your further your research?

Being able to translate and read records is extremely helpful. It’s been great having a group where I can post something to get help reading something that I’m stuck on. 

That’s wonderful to hear, Sandi! Thank you for sharing your research expertise with us. 

Check out our other Premium Member Highlights and their fascinating genealogy stories. And be sure to give them a comment if what they have to share has helped you, or if you like their family stories!

Premium Member of the Week: Larry Kenyon

thanks for joining us today, Larry. Can You tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Larry Kenyon. I was born Lawrence Austin Kenyon, Jr., but my family always called me Joe – some future genealogist descendant is going to be pretty confused about that. 😉 Four hundred years ago my ancestors lived in England, Switzerland, Sweden, but mostly from areas in present-day Germany and Poland.

 how did you get started with genealogy?

My parents both shared stories about ancestors with me and my siblings growing up, but I didn’t get started until after attending a family reunion 15 years ago, where one of my aunts shared some old photos from the 1890’s of some Swedish ancestors. No one else knew who they were, and I decided it was time to start scanning some of those old photos to preserve them.

That’s great that you took that initiative on behalf of your family! Are there any websites that have been most helpful for you on your genealogy journey?

It all depends on which area I’m researching; right now it’s the Canton Bern Archives since it has all the church books online, available as PDF downloads – I love original documents. 🙂 Ancestry and My Heritage are probably where I meet the most relatives though!

those are all great resources. do you have any tips you’d like to share with our readers?

Get help from local genealogists; they will know sources you’d probably never find yourself, local history, etc. I like traveling to ancestral towns, and my most rewarding experiences have come as a result.

wonderful tip! nothing beats seeing these places in person. Do you have a favorite family story or anecdote that’s resulted from your research?

This changes every year or two; for 2020, it was discovering that one of my 9th great-grandfathers was my wife’s 11th great. I think this man has about 3 million living descendants. 😉 But I like the weird coincidences that you occasionally come across in genealogy!

Wow, that is a crazy coincidence! lastly, can you share how the premium membership has helped you the most?

Instead of ignoring words I’m having trouble deciphering, the weekly Facebook sessions have encouraged me to tackle them, opening up more clues and making my research more complete.

that’s wonderful to hear, larry. thank you for sharing!

Check out our other Premium Member Highlights and their fascinating genealogy stories. And be sure to give them a comment if what they have to share has helped you, or if you like their family stories!

Did Families Really Stay in One Place? Finding Ancestral Towns, A Case Study

By Loretta Niebur Walker, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Niebur Lee of Daughters of Jacob Genealogy

We feel like we have hit a gold mine when a client comes to us with the name of a parent’s ancestral town in eastern Europe, especially when it is written in their parent’s own hand. When we discover that the record includes the names, birth dates, and home towns of that parent’s parents and siblings, it is as if the gold mine just became platinum.

            Conventional wisdom is that by the time an ancestral town is identified, the hardest work is done—probably because that is often the case. This can be especially true when the family is from the southeastern Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, for which many indexed records are available on the JRI-Poland and Gesher Galicia websites.

            In a document provided to us by our client, her father named his parents as Itzhak Josef Katz of Mikulince, Poland, and his mother as Rose Sara Katz of Tarnopol, Poland, along with the names and birth dates of three siblings, all with the last name Katz. A note added later in another hand indicated that Rose’s maiden name might have been Braun or Garff. In another document that we found early on, for which our client’s father also provided information, he listed his father as Josef Engel, his mother as Rosa Schorr, and his own last permanent address as Mikulince, Poland.

            Now, all we had to do was learn if the records from Mikulince and Tarnopol exist, if they are available online, access them, and piece the family together.  It was a genealogist’s dream job.

            Well, maybe.

A time-lapse video of our search would show us searching in the extensive databases of JRI-Poland, Gesher Galicia, FamilySearch (indexes and images), and the Central Archives of Ukraine in Kiev (AGAD) for records containing variants of each person’s name, plus any connection to Mikulince or Tarnopol.  We found no records that we could be reasonably confident belonged to this family.

            Surely, a family of seven, whom we were sure had lived in Mikulince for decades could not be that invisible. Our client’s father watched his parents and siblings be deported from that town. He listed Mikulince as his home town on every document he completed after his arrival in the United States. How is it that there is no record of anyone in his family living in that town? Surely there had to be someone connected to our client’s family, somewhere on the 30-plus pages of small-font results that listed every person who had any of the many names we searched, as well as any connection at all to the town of Mikulince or its environs.

            Testing that assumption involved the very low-tech strategy of cutting the lists apart into separate names, and then grouping as many of those names as possible into family groups, using the information given. By doing this, most of the Engels in Mikulince fit into family groups, with comparatively few “orphans” left over. The Katz family names from the same town did not gel into families as well, but to our chagrin, there were no clear connections to our client’s family anywhere.

Low-tech search strategy. Spoiler alert: This caption tells the end of the story. The largest paper nearest the quilt is the great-great-grandmother’s record. The small papers immediately to the right are names from the same generation, some with hypothetical relationships to the rest. The series of columns below the great-great-grandmother are each one of her children and their families. The diagonal papers are her children for whom we found no additional marriage or family records.

It was as if all the people in this family were invisible for their entire lives. It is understandable that individual documents for specific people may be missing because of gaps in the available records, or lack of records altogether. However, the odds are very slim that an entire family of seven could live in a town for decades and not have any major life event of any person in that family inscribed anywhere in that town’s well-kept records. Add the fact that we could not find any of the family mentioned in any records within a 50-mile radius, and this case was especially puzzling.  

            But by this point, I was so deeply invested in these people that I could not let them go. So, I examined all the results of the entire JRI-Poland and Gesher Galicia databases again, giving closer scrutiny to entries to which I had given only passing attention for any of several reasons. Perhaps, the names, dates, or relationships did not fit, or the town in which the recorded event occurred was more than 50 miles away from Mikulince or Tarnopol.

             Revisiting the broad search results did not seem much more productive than the previous passes them. However, one long-shot Gesher Galicia indexed record began to stand out.  

Marriage record found in Gesher Galicia indexed database. Used by permission of Gesher Galicia: https://search.geshergalicia.org/

Unfortunately, we were not able to access an image of the original record from which the indexed information was taken, so all we had to work from was the indexed information. Could this record help us find the elusive Katz/Engel/Schorr/Braun/Garff family? The pros and cons of this record belonging to our client’s family are summarized as follows.

Pros

Cons

Last name: Engel

First name: Berta, not known in family

Parents: Josef & Reisel (“Rose” in English)

Parents: no last names, first names are common.

Marriage town: Mikulince

Bride birth town: Mikołajów, 100 miles away

Bride’s parents’ town: Mikulince

Brides’s residence: Mikołajów

            The next logical step was to conduct searches for family names in the town of Mikołajów, which we did, using all of the family names. To our astonishment, the searches picked up both indexed records and scanned images for seven children born to Josef Engel of Mikulince and Reisel Schorr of Mikołajów whom our client knew nothing about!

            Reviewing these surprising records was a testament to the synergistic power of using both indexed and scanned records in research.

            Indexed results make it easy to search for specific names, dates, and locations in a vast body of records, as long as the information is included in the indexed fields of the document. They can also give us a false sense of security that we know everything we need to know about a record and lead us to prematurely trust or distrust a record. This is what happened to me when I first saw Berta Engel’s indexed record. Yet, the broad and deep reach of indexed records is one of the marvels of 21st century genealogy. After all, how else would I have possibly known to search for unknown children in the records of a town 100 miles away from the father’s town, and even farther from the town where we were told that the mother was born?

            On the other hand, there is nothing quite like reading the record of an event that was handwritten by someone who probably knew the participants well. Clean computer font cannot capture the feel of the signature of a father attesting to the accuracy of the birth record of his son. Or the signature of a great-grandfather on the birth records of his great-grandchildren when there is no other direct evidence in the records linking him to his descendants. Or reading notes that give updates about an ancestor’s ongoing life— written in the hand of whomever the local scribe was at the time—and reveal insights that we are hard pressed to find in the tidy results generated by search engines.

Signature of Chajim Schorr, our client’s great-grandfather at 84 years of age, witnessing his granddaughter’s birth record in 1886. See bottom half of far-right column.

In all, Berta Engel’s stray marriage record from a distant town led us to nine aunts and uncles of whom our client had never heard, a number of their children, 11 great-aunts and -uncles and their children, plus two more generations of grandparents before that, for a total of nearly 100 people.

            A number of intriguing mysteries remain. How did Josef and Reisel meet if their families lived 100 miles apart? Where were they between WWI and WWII when the record goes silent? What happened to the descendants of all of the “new” relatives who have been so recently found? Is the world full of family whom we don’t know yet? I suspect that it is, more than we know.

Acknowledgments

The research in this blog was made possible by the generous efforts of those who support the following websites:

JewishGen.   Hub for all things Jewish genealogy. A great place to begin and find advanced information. https://www.jewishgen.org

Gesher Galicia.   Detailed indexes of records from within the boundaries of the Austria-Hungary province of Galicia, which now lies in southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. Site accessible through JewishGen. Members have access to additional information. https://search.geshergalicia.org/

JRI-Poland.   Jewish Records Indexing of Poland.  Less detailed indexing of a vast store of Jewish records from historical boundaries of Poland. Records link to images of original records. Accessible through JewishGen. There is not much overlap between GesherGalicia and JRI-Poland. https://jri-poland.org

FamilySearch.   Entirely free genealogy site with vast resources and helps of all kinds. The source for many records that other sites index. Fabulous research helps in their “Research Wikis.”  https://www.familysearch.org

AGAD.  Central Archives of Ukraine Jewish Records from Communities beyond the Bug River.  http://www.agad.gov.pl/inwentarze/Mojz300x.xml.

About the Authors

Daughters of Jacob Genealogy is a boutique family history service that specializes in searching out the roots of clients of Jewish heritage and then bringing their unique family histories to life in gorgeous heirloom books that capture the imaginations of all generations. 

For more information, visit https://www.daughtersofjacobgen.com

From My Genealogy Bookmarks to Yours – 10 Important Genealogy Sites (Premium)

Over my years of translating all kinds of genealogy records, I have gathered quite a collection - and bookmarked - many helpful websites to help with genealogical transcription and translation. And in this post, I want to share them with you!  Church Holidays Calendar This website, kirchenkalender.com, is a must-have for working with church records. … Continue reading From My Genealogy Bookmarks to Yours – 10 Important Genealogy Sites (Premium)

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DNA Weekly’s Interview of SK Translations

I was recently interviewed by DNA Weekly for their genealogy blog – check out the article by clicking the button below!

SK Translations founder Katherine Schober is an experienced German genealogy translator specializing in deciphering old German handwriting. In this interview, she discusses the vocabulary, skills, and knowledge necessary for piecing together your German family history, and invites independent researchers to try it themselves by taking her online courses. 

What brought you to start SK Translations?

The Hidden Secrets of Geogen, Surname Locator Website (Premium)

Geogen.stoepel.net is a tool most of you probably know. On this surname-location site, you type in your ancestor's last name, and then see where the most occurrences of that last name appear on the map of Germany. While that is often a huge help in itself, did you know there are other things Geogen can … Continue reading The Hidden Secrets of Geogen, Surname Locator Website (Premium)

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Which DNA Test Offers the Most Accurate Ethnicity Prediction for German Ancestry?

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article belong to guest writer Andreas West and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of SK Translations. Thanks to Andreas for this well-researched and informative post!

Meet Our guest author Andreas West:

Andreas West is a native German genealogist who has been researching his ancestors for over 25 years, and has used DNA tests for the past eight years. He is the author of the “Your DNA Family” app, which people can use to confirm their family tree or find out who their birth family is. Take a look at the many features of the app here, and be sure to head over to https://yourdna.family/ for a free trial. 

You Have German Ancestry: Which DNA Test Should You Take?

With a number of DNA companies out there – such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, and FamilyTree DNA – how do you know which is the right fit for you and your German ancestry?

In this article, I’ll walk you through my experience with the different DNA tests. As a genealogist with known German heritage, I have experienced a number of complications regarding the accuracy of my DNA results. Given the complex nature of German DNA, this is not surprising – but I hope that my story can help you to find the test that will give you the most accurate DNA results possible. 

As there is so much difficulty in identifying German DNA (see Your DNA Guide’s Diahan Southard’s post on the topic here),  I was curious to see which company’s test gives the most accurate and detailed ethnicity results. Read on to see what I discovered!

First – My Own Genealogical Research

Considering that most of my ancestors (over 80%) originated from what is nowadays Germany, I began my analysis by comparing the current known locations of my ancestors (based on 25+ years of genealogical research) against the ethnicity predictions.

While both my parents have shown traces of Scandinavian DNA, I have yet to find any evidence of it in my genealogical research. To understand this further, I dove into how exactly ethnicities are predicted in the tests. 

Predicting Ethnicities

Prediction of ethnicities are commonly referred to as “Ethnicity Estimates” on your DNA test. With many people turning to DNA testing to find out more about their ancestry and ethnicity, ethnicity predictions are largely based on two main factors:

  1. Samples of data collected from scientific databases (such as the 1000 Genomes Project) and customer data collected from customers who self-reported that all 4 grandparents originated in the same country/region
  2. Clustering of DNA segments inherited from countries or regions based on best fit

There are, however, several problems that exist with these methods:

  1. A lack of diversity in scientific databases, especially on the African and Asian continents (which are only marginally represented).
  2. Possibly ethnicity inaccuracy: For example, even though all four of my grandparents were born in the same town, it does not mean that their ethnicity, and therefore mine, comes from this city or even the same region. I know this from the fact that one of my eight great-grandparents was born in Asiago, Italy and has no German ancestry.
  3. A lack of precision: By putting DNA segments into categories like “European” or “Northern European”, that doesn’t always help identify the country, let alone the region, these ancestors came from.
  4. Recombination events during meiosis: This type of cell division results in a random inheritance pattern for DNA, so siblings can have very different ethnicity predictions, and some ethnicities may not be inherited by one or more siblings.
  5. In terms of self-reporting, non- paternity events (NPEs) can also lead to incorrect results, since the person testing is unaware of the ethnicity of the real birth parent(s). In hospitals, accidents like swapping babies may also have happened.

Despite the fact that the method of comparing ethnicity percentages between DNA-based estimates and genealogical resources isn’t perfect, in the absence of a better method, we will use it as our main quality assessment today in comparing the tests. 

It is also important to keep in mind that DNA testing companies are constantly updating their predictions, so always check back for their new updates and improvements. 

My DNA Test Results

In order to give you an idea of the different tests and what type of results they show, let’s take a close look at my ethnicity results for each company: 

AncestryDNA

2021 result:

23andMe

23andMe offers different confidence intervals (speculative, standard, conservative) decreasing in detail (conservative is the least detailed). This article focuses solely on the speculative confidence level.

2014 result:

Split view between my parents (2014):

2021 result:

Looking at the 5 predicted regions of Germany (2021):

The following two Belgian regions (2021) have been identified:

Chromosome view (2021):

MyHeritage

Ethnicity estimate and genetic groups (2021):

FamilyTreeDNA

My Origin v3 (2021):

Comparison with my father (2021):

Comparison with my mother (2021):

How accurate are these tests, really?

For a fair comparison of the current state of the tests’ accuracy and detail level, we will use the 2021 predictions collected. 

Summary of ethnicity predictions versus genealogical-based ethnicity:

The Comparison

Ancestry DNA

Ancestry DNA offers the greatest breakdown into countries, with six predicted countries listed. The 55% of predicted German ancestry, or rather of Germanic European ancestry, is the second lowest. In the case of Germany and France combined, it increases to 60%.

Since my genealogical research so far shows no evidence of British ethnicity, it could either be an NPE or, more likely, a misinterpretation or an inability to distinguish between Germans and British (due to the Saxon history of the British).

23andMe

At first glance, the prediction of 100% German (French & German) does not seem very detailed. A great deal of 23andMe’s value, however, is in the more detailed DNA-based regions that the company adds. Ancestry DNA and MyHeritage, on the other hand, mainly base their communities (Ancestry) and genetic groups (MH) on submitted family trees.

I only have a small family tree associated with my mother at 23andMe, so it doesn’t have any location information (based on the last update in December of 2020). Most of my German ancestors came from those four regions. The link to the two Belgian regions makes sense through my Calefice ancestors (most likely from Liege).

Currently, 23andMe is the only DNA testing company that offers their customers a chromosome map of their ethnicity prediction. In this way, we can determine exactly where certain ethnicities are present on our chromosomes!

My Heritage

While the 97% figure for North and Western Europe is quite vague, it seems they are focusing more on combining DNA with their large number of family trees on their site. The genetic group of people from Vicenza is correct. However, no DNA percentage is associated with this group or any of the other largely-overlapping genetic groups. This approach, however, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as NPE or incorrectly-researched family trees cannot be used to determine ethnicities.

Family Tree DNA

Even though FTDNA’s new v3 MyOrigins prediction (from a 100% Western & Central Europe prediction in 2014) shows considerable improvement, the percentages are still very far off from both other ethnicity predictions and my own genealogical research. While the 38% for Central Europe is too broad, the 33% for Britain is simply not supported by any genealogical evidence. 18% Scandinavian DNA is also likely too high, as that would mean that two of my eight great-grandparents were from the Scandinavian region (more or less).

ONLY FTDNA AND 23ANDME’S OLDER PREDICTION recognizes Italian heritage 

Only FTDNA recognizes my Italian DNA. It is even relatively close to the expected 12.5%. 23andMe identified my Italian heritage in 2014 and 2017 with 6.9% and 7.0%, but somehow stopped recognizing it in 2020 when they changed their algorithm.

However, FTDNA fails to tell me where my 10% Italian DNA comes from. It doesn’t understand that it’s from my father (whose predicted value of 0% was wrong), and with 0% from my mother, it came out of nowhere!

Verdict and Recommendations

With FTDNA’s predictions looking completely off for a large portion of my DNA – and that Italian DNA coming “out of nowhere”-, I would hesitate to recommend them as the most accurate DNA test. 

While MyHeritage builds on the most detailed number of genetic groups, their pure ethnicity prediction does not give you any hint of potential NPEs or give you an idea of where you should look for those brick walls that you’re surely facing.

23andMe and Ancestry seem to be the best fit for German DNA right now. However, although AncestryDNA provides many details, some of their countries also seem incorrect. 55% of German DNA is too low for me, whereas 15% of Scandinavian DNA is too high.

Therefore, I would recommend 23andMe as the best test for determining where exactly your German ancestors originated. When I compare their regional prediction to my existing genealogical research, it is the only one that is based on DNA and is very accurate. Only they recognized the Belgian DNA lead. Their  DNA tests have also shown the same detailed regional level for African and Asian countries, which is a huge improvement for those of African or Asian heritage.

But whichever test you decide is right for you, I wish you the best of luck with your German research!

Premium Member of the Week: Kay Horwath

Hi Kay, thanks for joining us today!

First and foremost, how did you get started in Genealogy?

My mom held reverence for her older relatives that trickled down to me. As a kid, I loved hearing stories from the past from any relative who would tell them. When I was about 15, my mom talked her father into letting her borrow the turn-of-the-century, family group photos that he kept locked away, so that she could make copies. When I saw them for the first time, I was mesmerized. I just had to know who those people were. I wanted to know what they did and what made them tick. I wanted to know where they came from and how they got here. That would have been in the early 1980’s when tracking down records and articles took a whole lot more effort, but it was the beginning of my life-long love of genealogy.

I can definitely relate to that. Now that things are a bit easier online, what are your Favorite Genealogy Websites You Use? Any you’d pass on to our readers?

ALL the genealogy websites are my favorite – lol. I do have subscriptions to GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com, and NewspaperArchive.com, and I also use any free newspaper archive I can get my hands on, like the Advantage Preservation county sites.

For me, it’s always been about the stories. I’m more interested in getting a glimpse into an ancestor’s life than I am in the pedigree. One of my favorite things is finding newspaper stories or records that “prove” the stories I grew up hearing. I also do a fair amount of searching for other people’s family, sometimes when there are unknown parents or grandparents. Obituaries can be really helpful in nailing down family ties and connections.

I have my tree on Ancestry, but I use FamilySearch a lot, because there are so many old European church books. I’m almost glad that many of them are not indexed, because you learn so much about a community and family relations when you have to go through them a page at a time to find what you are looking for. Same with Matricula.

Ooooh…and I just learned about Meyer’s Gazetteer from a Katherine Schober handwriting workshop. I was able to solve a genealogy mystery almost immediately the first time I used it, and was able to add two more generations to a difficult line in my husband’s tree as a result!

Those are all so great, and I’m glad you ere able to add two generations to your research. How exciting! What would be your number one tip for others starting out their research?

Whatever search engine or search function you are using, beat it into submission until it reveals what you are looking for!

It doesn’t always work, but if my initial search doesn’t work, I try searching with everything else I can think of – alternate name spellings and potential misspellings, middle name and nickname, different location, no location, wild cards, family members’ names, initials, potential keywords – anything that might crack the nut. I just keep hammering away at the keys, and often it works!

Also, remember that just because you didn’t find it the first time you looked, doesn’t mean you won’t find it the next time, whether in an online search, or a record book. I revisit the same online church books often, because information I have now might make a record I’ve seen several times before, more meaningful now with my new context.

Those are wonderful tips! What about stories in your family? Any Favorite story that’s been passed down?

My mother told me that her grandmother used to talk about one of her brothers, Harry Mattice, who disappeared. They never knew what happened to him.

It took a 2nd cousin and I almost a decade, but between census records, his wife’s obituary, and a death certificate with limited information, we pieced it all together. Around 1917, he left Eastern Nebraska for Western Nebraska where he married Ada, a Swedish immigrant. She got pregnant almost immediately, gave birth to twin daughters, and died hours later.

He then moved to Texas to work in the oil fields. We located a death certificate that we were pretty sure was his with only his name, approximate age, and cause of death (head trauma), but we couldn’t locate an obituary. I tried an online message board one last time looking for help.

A kind soul looked beyond the obituary section and found an article about his death in another section of the newspaper. Harry, known as “Harry the Trapper”, had been living, it seems, as a hermit!

One day, he was headed back to his camp on a mule. The mule threw him off and tragically kicked him in the head. He never regained consciousness. I felt we had for sure found the right Harry Mattice when it said in the article that they could not locate next-of-kin, but that folks heard him speak of his two little daughters in Nebraska.

Wow, what a crazy story! That’s amazing. And finally, what about the premium membership? Has it helped your research?

Being able to get handwriting and translation help has brought many of the German language records I’ve been looking at to life. Often I can make out names and dates, but sometimes there is other important information that gives more insight into the lives of the folks in the record, and it has been wonderful being able to get help once a week when I need it.

so happy to hear it. THANKS FOR SHARING YOUR STORY and great tips WITH US, Kay!

Check out our other Premium Member Highlights and their fascinating genealogy stories. And be sure to give them a comment if what they have to share has helped you, or if you like their family stories!

  • Donna Jones (Stumbling upon Loyalists in the Revolutionary War…)
  • Sandy Johnson (Great website tips and a discovery after ten years of research…)
  • Michele Dambach (A special trip to Germany with her German-born father…)
  • Janis Keough (A missing count in the family…)
  • Alex Tolksdorf (Russian soldier, some cherries, and a toilet…)
  • Nina Gafni (Uncovering the past, even when it is painful…)
  • Debra Hoffman (The unbelievable story of a found postcard…)
  • James Beidler (Planning a family reunion in only three days…)
  • Maria Mueller (Meeting a new cousin and not realizing it…)
  •  

Do You Know Your German Farm Ancestor’s “Stand”? (Guest Post by Gail S. Blankenau)

By Gail S. Blankenau, Discover Family History*


Although it may be an exaggeration that the Inuit people had fifty words for snow, anthropologists have noted that they likely had hundreds of ways to describe it, because snow is such a constant in their lives.** German genealogists have remarked that there may indeed be fifty words for farmer, noting their farm ancestor’s Stand, or social standing, goes beyond general catchwords like Bauer or Meier for farmer. Indeed, the many terms for “farm” and “farmer” in the German language reflect that farming was one of the most important aspects of our German ancestors’ life experience.  

DISTINCTIONS THAT MATTER…

With farming occupying such an important part of German society, there is a hierarchy to German farming—a hierarchy that emerged from older feudal systems. Although there were freeholding farmers, much of the land had a governing “lordship” whether a king, a count, a local squire, or a monastery, which owned the underlying real estate, with these farmers in a form of peasant tenancy, albeit many with hereditary rights to operate the farm. The hierarchies involved became the Bauernklassen, or farm classes. These farm classifications draw important social distinctions between farmers—distinctions that mattered very much to our ancestors and should matter to us as family historians. Researchers will find that throughout the Germanic states, there was a certain social status carried among the farms and the farmers that operated them.

Dictionaries that don’t help…

Where do we start when we encounter these “strange” farmer words?  Many of us turn to dictionaries. The problem is that many of them simply define the terms as farmer, or small farmer, and they do not reflect local and regional differences that explore the word’s full meaning in a particular place and time.

For instance, one dictionary defines Colon or Kolon (Latin base) as a farmer on a full-sized farm. However, many Colons in different regions were not operating a full-size farm. The word indicates that the property was settled in the earliest stages of agricultural settlement for that location. Thus, there are places where even the small cottage farmer might be called Colon(na) if he or she had a hereditary leasehold of early origin.

Regional differences….

It must be emphasized that definitions for one region do not always translate well to another. In an article about farm classifications in the province of Hesse, genealogists Wilfried Gerbig and Volkmar Weiss warned that, “respective designations [for farms] have to be examined for each individual region/village…on the basis of church books, registry documents, etc.***

Most sociologists and historians begin their classification by dividing agricultural workers into two main groups before they tackle the nitty gritty of local farm classes and their corresponding terminology. Throughout the Germanic states, there were farmers with full privileges and duties in their local Bauerschaft or farming community (rather like a farm cooperative), and those without full privileges and duties.

Distinguishing characteristics of Farmers with full privileges and duties:

  • Full rights to common areas, based on farm size and assets
  • Owed district taxes and services to the manor based on farm size and assets
  • Had a say in questions that came before the farm cooperative

Distinguishing characteristics of Farmers without full privileges and duties:

  • No (or few) rights to common areas
  • Some duties owed because they benefited from schools and churches
  • No say in questions that came before the farm cooperative

Genealogists Should Focus On…

From the starting point of farmers’ privileges and duties, genealogists need to focus on local farm classifications based on size and assets. Many areas break down farm sizes in fractions, although the fractional hectares involved were not as precise as the titles suggest. Other regions do not use fraction words, but they still classify farms by rough size, no matter what the terminology used. Remember, the farm’s classification determined what taxes and duties were owed to the lordship, and later to the civil authorities, so records associated with these payments will help researchers define the farm’s position, and thus the farmer’s place, in the social structure.

From Full-Size Farms Down…

All regions have the largest farms as full-sized farms, although the size of the full farm varies from place to place. These farmers not only possessed more land than the other farm classes, but had enough livestock (a span of horses or cattle) to help them till these larger parcels. Some of these full-size farmers might have the German word for “full”—or voll—in their titles:  Vollbauern, Vollmeier, and Vollspänner may crop up in your records, along with Großmeier, Spannbauern, Ackerleute, Anspänner, Pferdner, and Hüfner. Hüfner, with a base word of Huf  (an old unit of land measurement) indicates that the amount of land was sufficient to feed a normal peasant family. 

From the full farmer, we go down to three-quarters, a half, a quarter, and in some places further into an eighth, and a sixteenth. If we take “Bauer” (farmer) as the base word, the half farmer is Halbbauer; quarter is Viertelbauer; eighth is Achtelbauer. These farm properties will be roughly a half, quarter, and eighth of the full-size farm for that area and the taxes and services owed will be a half, quarter, and eighth of those owed by the full farm. In some places, a researcher may observe a Meier at the top of a tax list, and the next classification of payments is under the heading of Halbmeier. From this, the genealogist can conclude that Meier in this particular case is not a catchall word for farmer, but means full farmer.

Small-Size Farms…

A very common word for a farmer of a small-size farm is Kötter (variants: Köter, Köt(h)ner). This term literally means “cottager,” and generally indicates the farm has a small house, a garden, and sometimes a little land for animals. The term “cottage industry” comes from this type of agricultural holding, as there often is not enough land to sustain a family without supplementary income from weaving, spinning, lacemaking, etc.

In some places, the Kötter have rights in the Bauerschaft, and in others they do not, so this particular term must always be investigated further. In certain cases, an email to the local archive might yield further nuance in the terms you see in the records for your ancestor. If you can find tax records (and some are online), the tax structure will often lay out the hierarchy of farms for your area. 

Einlieger, Beisitzer, Haüsler, Büdner…

If you see these terms, it may mean your farm ancestor did not have full rights in the farming community. For instance, in the province of Hesse, these terms indicate this lower status. Your Einlieger may be renting a plot from a larger farmer and probably has no hereditary leasehold direct from the presiding lordship. Again, each region must be investigated further to see what rights and duties these classifications held.

The Case of Schleswig-Holstein…

Schleswig-Holstein is a special case, particularly Schleswig, as there were always more “free farmers” who owned their property outright than in other Germanic areas, in which hereditary leaseholds were common. In Schleswig, Frei Bonden are indeed free holders, and Hüfner (Holstein) are larger farmers with commons rights.  Instead of Kötter, we see the term Kätner as a term for the cottager class. Mecklenburg is an area where the base word of Hüfner is common, with Vollhüfner, Halbhüfner, and Drittelhüfner (a third), etc., along with Kossäten for the cottage-size parcels.

Like the top categories and terms that carry the concept of a full- or half-sized farm, the terminology for the very bottom of the agricultural working class is more consistent in meaning than the terms used for the middle farm classes. We have day laborers throughout the Germanic regions, or Tagelöhner, and the term means just what it says. In Schleswig, the term Insten means day laborer. We also see (all over the Germanic realm) the hired worker, or Heuerling (hireling), who may have a more regular gig than the day laborer. The time of hire could be for a season, a year, or more. For instance, Heinrich Blankenaufulland (1810-1850) of Sende, Westphalia, was a Heuerling, but he was employed by the same farmer for twenty-five years.****

A Real-Life Example…

For an example of a record that indicates the local hierarchy of farm classes, here is a list of payments owed at marriage (Weinkauf) for the farm classes in the district called the Grafschaft Rietberg (a state ruled by a Count in the Holy Roman Empire, today part of North-Rhine Westphalia):

Meyer                          80 Reichstaler

Halbmeyer                   40 Reichstaler

Zweitäger                     16 Reichstaler

Eintäger                          8 Reichstaler

Neuwohner                    5 Reichstaler

Kötter                             3 Reichstaler

In Conclusion…

This essay is a short introduction to the concept of German farm classes, and how you begin to find out your ancestor’s place in the social structure. You will encounter terms in church books and other records that may need further research for your particular locality and time in order to understand what the terminology used reflects. Tax lists, some of which are online, are a good source for farm classifications. Farm histories can be another great source. Censuses and population lists, where they exist, also yield clues. Some church bookkeepers were very precise, while others were not, so care should be taken when using church books to discover a farmer’s social class.

In short, follow the real estate adage: Location, location, location, and find records that give you the deeper meaning of your ancestor’s farm Stand.

***

Gail Shaffer Blankenau is a history and genealogy research expert, author, and speaker. She specializes in German genealogy, reading old German script, in Midwestern and Nebraska roots, land records, as well as lineage research. She is a popular conference and webinar speaker and her articles have appeared in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, The Genealogist, the National Genealogical Society Magazine, and more. She recently pursued a second master’s degree in history and her thesis won the University of Nebraska-Kearney “Outstanding Thesis Award” for the 2019-2020 school year. She is a life member of the Alden Kindred, the genealogist for the Nickerson Family Association of Cape Cod, and a board member of the Germanic Genealogy Society.

Get in touch with Gail:

www.discoverancestry.org

gail@discoverancestry.org

Footnotes:

[*] This essay is based on research presented in Beyond the Bauer: Your Farm Ancestor’s Place in the Social Structure, by Gail Blankenau. The presentation is currently in the Germanic Genealogy Society webinar archive at www.ggsmn.org  Gail is working on a book that will explore German farm inheritance strategies and intergenerational transfers that will discuss these farm classifications in greater depth. 

[**] Anthropologist Franz Boaz began the debate in his 1911 work in: Boas, Franz, “Introduction to the Handbook of North American Indians,” Smithsonian Institution, Bulletin 40, part 1. Critics later attacked his view, calling his assertions sloppy. Newer understanding of Native grammar now suggests Boaz may have been closer than his critics thought, depending on how one defines a word in these nuanced languages. See David Robson, “There Really are 50 Eskimos Words For ‘Snow’” posted at Washington Post, 14 January 2013, www.washingtonpost.com, Alaska Native Language Center, Larry Kaplan, “Inuit Snow Terms: How Many and What does it Mean”” https://uaf.edu/anlc/resources/inuit_snow_terms.php  

[***] Wilfried Gerbig und Volkmar Weiss,”Standesbezeichnungen der bäuerlichen Bevölkerung im deutschen Sprachraum,” Familienkundlich Nachrichten, Band 8, Nr. 13 (1992). Translated by the author.

[****] Heinrich’s marriages at the St. Anna Catholic Church in Verl (now online at Matricula), as well as his children’s baptisms, indicate his social status and where he was hired throughout a thirty-year span.

GERMAN-ENGLISH DICTIONARIES ONLINE:

https://www.genealogy.net

https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Understanding_Occupations_in_German_Research

https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/German_Genealogical_Word_List

https://www.Brigittegastelancestry.com/occupant.htm A comprehensive list of “German Professions, Occupations, and Illnesses,” courtesy of Oliver Weiss.

Wikipedia:  Surprisingly good definitions can be found on German Wikipedia: www.wikipedia.de.

EXAMPLES OF GERMAN WEBSITES THAT EXPLAIN FARM CLASSES FOR THEIR PARTICULAR LOCALITY (NOT COMPREHENSIVE—IN GERMAN): 

Heimat und Geschichtsverein fuer Heinade/Hellental-Merxhausen, E.Vhttps://hgv-hhm.de/cms/front_content.php?idcat=782&lang=1

Stadt Gehrden (Region Hannover): http://northen.gehrden.de/portal/seiten/alphabetisches-familienregister-von-northen-1858–905000407-22850.html

Bauern und Bauernklassen in Westenholz http://www.funki-koellner.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Westenholz.pdf

 

Barsenhausen city website: file:///D:/Downloads/03_land_und_forstwirtschaft%20(3).pdf

Der Bauer und die bäuerliche Abhängigkeit bis zum 19. Jhd (personal website, location Oldenburg) http://www.ulf-neundorfer.de/bauer.html