Your ancestor’s hometown is one of the most important finds you will make on your genealogy journey. Unfortunately, a town name can also be one of the hardest words to decipher on a historical record. Why? Because towns exist in the thousands, and, technically, the town name can be made up of any combination of letters that make sense within the German language. A bit overwhelming, to say the least!
So how do you go about deciphering the town name if you can’t read all the individual letters? Read on to find out all the tricks that I use when I am translating my clients’ documents:
1. take advantage of Google’s suggestion features
The first tip is the most obvious, but it is definitely worth mentioning. Try typing your transcription guess into Google Search, with the country or state where your document comes from after it (for example, type “Obertraun, Austria” into the search box). If an entry comes up, you then have verification that your transcription is correct.
If you are one or two letters off, however, Google’s “Showing Results For” or “Did You Mean?” features are very helpful. If you typed “Obertrun, Austria” into the search box, Google may correct you, saying “Showing results for Obertraun, Austria”. You can then double check the handwritten word on your document, along wit the location of Google’s suggestion, and verify that the suggestion is correct. If it is, mark it down, and continue transcribing. Nice when a search engine is so helpful!
2. use Meyers Gazetteer’s wildcard tool
If your town is in Germany (or used to be), then Meyers Gazetteer is the website for you. This collection of pre-WWI towns, villages, cities, estates, and more is a wonderful tool for deciphering towns – especially if you can’t read all the letters. Simply type the letters you recognize into the website’s search engine – and use an asterisk for the letters you don’t. Meyers Gazetteer will then give you a list of all towns with that letter combination.
Have a long list? Narrow your search by selecting the state (if known) where your document comes from (“Filter Results by Region”). You will then get a list of only the towns in that region, and can go back to your handwritten word and see if any of these towns match up with your word on your document.
3. Toggle the Meyers Gazetteer Map
No luck with the list? If you know another town name on your document (where the document comes from, the groom’s town name, etc.), then type that town name into Meyers Gazetteer’s search engine. Click on it, and it will take you to the entry for that town. Next, click on the map to the left of the entry, and the modern map will toggle to the historical map (pretty cool, right?). You can then drag the map around and see what towns are in the surrounding area. Does one of those nearby town names match up with your handwritten word? I have found a lot of town names using this historical map!
4. play with Google Maps
Just like the old-fashioned map on Meyer’s Gazetteer, Google Maps also works well for this trick. Type in the town you know related to your document, and drag the map around to see if any other towns nearby match up with your mystery word. (If you can’t find it on the Meyer’s Gazetteer map, try Google, and vice-versa – I sometimes have more luck with one, and sometimes with the other, depending on the town. Always good to have two options!).
5. Use the Record itself
Last but not least (although perhaps this should be first – it’s a good trick), use the record itself! More times than I care to admit, I have struggled and struggled over what a town name could be, only to find a stamp with that town name – in printed text! – at the bottom of the document. So before you start deciphering, scan your entire document, and look for other components of the document that might include the town name. These might include:
- Column Headings
- Document Titles
- Margin Notes (perhaps the town name is easier to read there)
- And More – every document is different!
So there you have it! With these five tips, deciphering the towns in your German documents should become much easier and easier. And if you want more help reading the German handwriting, check out my new self-paced handwriting course here! You’ll be reading the script in no time.
Any other tricks that you use? Let us know in the comments!
Good news: It is getting easier to be genetically German.
In 2007, 23andMe released the first commercial DNA test that could report on the origins of our ancestors on both sides of our family. At that time, they could break down your ancestry into just three categories: European, African, and Asian. And we were impressed. We were excited to get our hands on a technology that could see into our past and report information that may not have been previously known.
But now that DNA testing for origin information has become somewhat commonplace, we would scoff at a company who could provide so little information. That’s largely due to the fact that since 2007, our DNA testing companies have been setting aside significant resources towards improving their offering to give us more insight into our origins – and it’s working. 23andMe now boasts 175 population groups, a far cry from their original three. Even Family Tree DNA, who has the fewest population groups of the five major genetic genealogy companies, can break up the world into 24 pieces.
Where Does This Growth Come From?
Most of this growth comes in the form of companies increasing their reference populations. Reference populations are the groups of people the company is comparing you against. For example, when MyHeritage aimed to join the world of DNA testing, they turned to their vast customer base and their family trees and identified what they call their “Founder Populations”. These are individuals who have all four grandparents living in close proximity to each other.
Once identified, the DNA of these people is scanned for the unique DNA code that reflects their places of origin. Other DNA testing companies are following suit, gathering data from their own databases to help build their reference populations. Other strategies are to go out into the world and collect DNA from populations that are currently underrepresented. This has been a strategy of the company LivingDNA , as they have formed partnerships with other groups in order to build better reference populations.
Once a reference population has been selected and the DNA tested, it seems like it would be relatively easy to identify DNA that is specifically German, and then look for that same bit of DNA in anyone who was tested. Unfortunately, the process is much more complicated than that, especially when it comes to German DNA.
Why is German DNA Complicated?
Part of what makes genetically distinguishing a German from a Frenchman or an Englishmen is the simple fact that Germany is a very young distinction, culturally and geographically speaking. The area has long been a crossroads of cultures and people and therefore very difficult to pin down. In fact, out of our five major genetic genealogy testing companies (23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage DNA, and Living DNA) you CAN’T be genetically German at either Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage. So even if you are 100% German, testing at either of these companies will only place you in a broad Northwest European category at best, or assign you to a similar region like Britain, possibly leaving you with the impression that this DNA stuff doesn’t actually work. At the other three companies, the way they are reporting German differs, so let’s explore each one in more detail.
The official category at 23andMe is called French and German, so even then, they are hedging their bets. Of this category, 23andMe says, “This dataset includes people of Austrian, French, German, Belgian, Dutch, or Swiss ancestry. At this time, this dataset cannot be broken down further because the people in those regions mixed through history or have shared history, or we might not have had enough data to tell them apart. As we obtain more data, populations will become easier to distinguish, and we will be able to report on more populations in the Ancestry Composition Report.”
Despite this, you can still dig deeper into that category to find that they are attempting to further break down Germany into its 16 administrative regions by telling you which region(s) your DNA most likely fits into. In the image below, you can see that they have placed my mother in the Baden-Wurttemberg and Brandenburg categories. I know from our family history that she did in fact have ancestors in Baden-Wurttemberg.
23andMe DNA Report
While Ancestry does have a specific German category, the real power is not in being assigned to the large region of Germany, but to their Genetic Communities. These communities are not based on reference populations, but on DNA matching. Because of this different technology, these categories are highly accurate. In the image below, you can see my mother has been placed in the very specific Alsace-Lorraine & North Dakota category, which is exactly where her 3X great grandparents were born and where their descendants emigrated.
Ancestry DNA Report
It is actually a bit mind-boggling that her DNA can determine something so specific about her ancestry. Remember, membership in this community is entirely depended on her DNA, not on her family history.
AncestryDNA has 12 Genetic Communities representing different migration paths into the United States and other parts of Europe.
Ancestry DNA Reports
Living DNA currently breaks up England into 21 different categories, and their goal is to do that all over the world. They are neck-deep in their German project, which may not boast as many categories as their western neighbors, but still hopes to have significant improvements over their current offering. They do have a portion of this research almost ready, and I was able to run my mother’s sample through their new German dataset. In the old estimate, they didn’t really have a way to talk about German origins, but with the new data, my mom is 43.6% German, likely nearly spot on to what she should be.
Living DNA Report
As time moves on and the databases grow, all of our companies will be improving their offerings, allowing us even greater resolution when it comes to our DNA and our origins. But of course, the best way to determine if you are genetically German is just to do genealogy! Finding the paper trail that leads back to your ancestor is still the very best way to explore your German heritage.
Have you had your DNA tested? What percent German are you?
About the Author
Frustrated with your genealogy research? Diahan is the teacher you need. Her 18 years of experience in genetic genealogy shows that after just one class, you will find yourself believing that you can understand this science, and likely will even be excited to go home and try it out. Diahan lectures internationally, owns Your DNA Guide, and writes for Family Tree Magazine and Your Genealogy Today. She has a passion for this work, a love for people, and the best husband ever.
Frustrated with the old German handwriting? You’re not alone!
Come learn from professional German genealogy translator Katherine Schober how you can easily recognize certain letters in the old German handwriting, what those pesky abbreviations mean in historical documents, the spelling variations you need to know to decipher the words of your ancestors, and much more. If you’ve missed this presentation at conferences, now’s your chance to see a good part of it!
When: Thursday, July 25, 1:00 p.m. EDT
Photo Credit; Teri Cusamano
As a genealogy translator, I’ve translated my share of old letters. While many of these letters simply speak of family matters, farming information, financial issues, etc., every once in a while, sage words of wisdom seem to jump out at me from across the page. Of course, these words of wisdom are meant for the letter’s recipient – but I choose to think of them as voices from the past, sharing their advice with all of us who may very well need it today.
Below, I’ve collected some of these words of wisdom from the letters I’ve translated the past few years. Dating from 1874 to 1945, on topics such as love, health, clothing, and life in general, it’s fascinating to see how, while the world around us has changed, humanity in general remains much the same. Read on and see what you think. What quote do you think most applies to us today?
1. Love is our most important weapon and nothing can resist it forever.
– Family friend to teenage girl, June 1920
2. Since you’ve been friends for a year already, you should know where you stand. There is no reason for you to be treated like a toy; he’ll simply get rid of you one day if he so desires. If you aren’t courageous enough to have a serious conversation with him, and you think it will lead to you two splitting up, then the relationship was never a good one anyway.
-Mother to daughter, April 1940
Nachdem die Freundschaft schon bereits ein Jahr besteht, solltest du eigentlich wissen woran du bist, es hat doch keinen Zweck daß du dich Jahr u. Tag hinhalten lassest zum Spielzeug, u. wenn es ihm einfällt hängt er eines Tages ab. Wenn du den Mut nicht hast zu einer ernsten Aussprache u. denkst daß es daran zum scheitern kommt, denn ist das Verhältnis ohnehin doch eine Aussichtslose Sache.
3. We are all still healthy, which I wish for you all from the bottom of my heart – as health is the best thing in this world, better than money and property.
– Father to son, August 1924
Wir sind soweit noch gesund, was ich Euch von Härtzen Winsche thun, den die Gesundheit ist ja doch das Beste auf dieser Weld, beser den Geld u. Gut.
4. I was more with the children than ever and never enjoyed them so much, and never so clearly realized that now is the time to enjoy them, if I am ever going to – for they will soon, if they live, have other things that will take them from me.
– Father reflecting on trip with children, June 1880
Original in English.
5. Always be well-dressed – people judge a great deal based on appearances.
– Mother to daughter, July 1939
Gehe nur immer gut gekleidet, man urteilt viel nach dem Aüßern.
6. It is only when times … are so hard and a person grants help to other people during such times that one can hope to be saved from the current bleak situation. We emerged from the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War; we will also need to raise ourselves out of today’s hardships if we don’t want to be completely destroyed.
– A suitor to his sweetheart, December 1919
[German no longer available.] Wir sind aus dem Wirrwar des 30 jähr. Krieges herausgekommen und werden auch aus dem heutigen Elend herausmüssen, wenn wir nicht ganz untergehen wollen.
7. Don’t despair. We’ve pulled through other bad times and we’ll pull through these times as well.
– Husband to wife, during World War II
…nicht verzweifeln. Wir haben schon … andere schlimme Zeiten überstanden und werden auch dies überstehen.
8. Keep your head up high and don’t lose your courage; just think, if something doesn’t work out, then you are gaining more and more experience.
– Mother to daughter, October 1938
Nur Kopf hoch u. den Mut nicht verlieren u. denke wenn etwas nicht klappt, du bekommst immer mehr Erfahrung.
9. Don’t think that our life here on earth should always be filled with joy and pleasure; no, it wouldn’t be good that way. That would make us arrogant, because pain, displeasure and want – if they are not too great – simply test us, influencing both this world and the eternal afterlife; that is why we shouldn’t despair in times of adversity and why we shouldn’t be arrogant in times of happiness.
– Father to son, October 1874
Denkt nicht daß das irdische Leben allezeit nur Freude und Genuß gibt, nein das sollte nicht gut sein das sollte uns übermüthig machen, denn auch Schmerz Verdruss und Entbehrung wenn dieselbe nicht ja hart eintreffen stellen uns auf die Probe und entscheiden über ein dieseits und ein einigest Jenseits; deswegen in Widerwärtigkeiten nicht verzagt und in Glück und Wohlleben nicht übermüthig.
10. In any case, my beloved, we are right to hope, as we are both still young enough and are only standing at the beginning of this uneven road called life.
– Marie Lustgarten to Isadore Colle, sweethearts, January 1898
In allen Fällen mein Geliebter, haben wir vor zu hoffen Recht, denn, wir sind beide noch jung genug und stehen daher erst beim beginne dieser unebenen Strasse, Leben genannt. – Irene Kaplan, January 1898, Marie to Isidor
And one final quote – while this isn’t exactly sage advice, it did make me laugh to think our stereotype of Germany hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years!
Germany in general is terrible regarding the drinking habits of the young and old, tall and short, rich and poor, everyone is yearning for beer, can’t live without beer, and is completely undone by beer.
– Man visiting Germany from America, July 1900
Es ist überhaupt mit Deutschland etwas Furchtbares betreffs des Trinkens Jung & Alt, Groß & Klein, Reich u. Arm, alles strebt nach Bier, kann ohne Bier nicht leben und geht noch völlig in Bier auf.
Wilhelm Müller, as a WWI chaplain on the French front, 1915
The Old Letters
I rummage through old letters
that have slept for decades long
about to toss them to the flames
I realized that was wrong
as I began to read
of all that once had been
I knew, I couldn’t do it
couldn’t burn these words of men.
How those yellowed papers
so warmly spoke to me
A soul shining through the page
I couldn’t let it be.
Letters from a mother,
seeped with her selfless heart
her endless care for children
apparent from the start.
I read her loving words
so loyal, kind and true
Such good they did to me,
my sense of safety grew.
And touching notes from children –
forming letters wide-eyed
Seeing their little faces
shining with joy and pride
and, the writing over
on paper oh so fine
I see their bitter tears as well
when missing a stroke or line.
Adoring letters of friendship
from old romantic days
swearing to a lover
to keep one’s heart ablaze.
How soon this passion fades away
as time does take its course
This token of remembrance
recalls the relationship’s source.
I cannot part with these letters,
which speak to my very soul.
These letters are the hearts of men
To the flames, they shall not go.
Die Alten Briefe
Ich kramte in alten Briefen,
die seit Jahrzehnten schliefen,
den Flammen woll’ ich sie weih’n.
Doch dann begann ich zu lesen
von allem, was einst gewesen,
Da wußt’ ich: es kann nicht sein!
Wie’s doch aus den alten Papieren
so warm und so traut zu mir spricht!
Sie haben ja eine Seele;
nein – ich zerstöre sie nicht.
Da sind die Briefe der Mutter,
von selbstloser Liebe durchtränkt,
von nie ermüdender Sorge,
die nur ihrer Kinder gedenkt.
Und las ich die lieben Worte,
voll Andacht, wie tut mir’s so gut!
Ich fühl mich noch einmal nach Jahren
geborgen in treuer Hut.
Und rührende Kinderbriefchen –
die Buchstaben sorgsam gemalt!
Ich seh, wenn die kleinen Gesichter
in freudigem Stolze gestrahlt,
wenn Ihnen das Schriftstück gelungen
auf Briefpapier herrlich geziert,
ich seh’ noch die bitteren Tränen,
wenn Ihnen ein Unglück passiert.
Und schwärmende Freundschaftsbriefe
aus alter romantischer Zeit,
in der man begeistert geschworen
auf Treue und Unfehlbarkeit.
Wie schwanden die Ideale
dann vor dem erwachenden Blick!
Ein kleines Erinnerungszeichen
ruft alles Entzücken zurück.
Ich trenne mich nicht von dem Briefen,
aus denen so viel zu mir spricht.
Sie haben ja eine Seele! –
Nein, ich verbrenne sie nicht.
Church records are a vital source of genealogical information, and this is certainly true for German family history research. Once you discover your ancestor’s place of origin, the local parish registers can take your as far back as the mid-16th century. Such research has challenges. Besides the language barrier, you must also be familiar with the handwritten script used in various periods of record keeping. If only there was a short cut!
Luckily, you might find one in the form of an Ortssippenbuch (OSB). Ortssippenbuch (plural: Ortssippenbücher) translates as “local clan book.” You may also see them under the names Ortsfamilienbücher or Familienbücher, and some titles use the phrase, “Die Einwohner von… (“Inhabitants of…”), as in the OSB, Die Einwohner von Oppau und Edigheim, 1480–1813. Regardless of what term is used, OSBs feature concise genealogical information about inhabitants of a specific village or parish, based primarily on surviving local church records. They cover the period from the beginning of church records (as early as the mid-16th century) to about 1900. Some OSBs use local civil records, such as tax lists and court records, to expand and supplement the vital information found in the church books.
OSBs present genealogical information by family groups. Their use of a standard format and common symbols, terminology, and abbreviations makes the entries easy to decipher, even if you do not know German. Families are listed alphabetically by surname, and some include surname and place-name indexes.
Let’s look at an example from Ortsfamilienbuch Heinersreuth, 1559–1900 mit Denzenlohe, Flur, Vollhof und Tannenbach: eine Familiengeschichtliche Untersuchung (Genealogical Register of Heinersreuth, 1559–1900, including Denzenlohe, Flour, Vollhof, and Tannenbach: A Family History Investigation). Heinersreuth is a village near Bayreuth, a city in northern Bavaria.
* = birth
~ = baptism
† = death
The symbol for marriage (∞ or oo) is not found in this example, because individuals are listed by marriage date within the surname.
Each individual is assigned a reference number for cross-referencing purposes. The text for individual no. 791, the first entry above and shown in detail below, would read as follows:
791—Marriage: 21 July 1646 in Bayreuth
Hacker, Johannes; Protestant (ev.); stockman in Mosing; born on 15 Nov. 1610 in Unterpreuschwitz; baptized on 15 Nov. 1610 in Bayreuth; died in Aug. 1666 in Heinersreuth; buried (begrab.) on 22 Aug. 1666 in Bayreuth.
[Wife] Popp, Margaretha; Protestant; born on 19 Jan. 1611 in Laineck; baptized on 19 Jan 1611 at St. Johannis Church in Bayreuth; buried after 1653.
In this case, Margaretha does not have a reference number, which indicates that no information about her baptism or parents is available in records used in for this OSB.
Information about their children follows, and you will find more information elsewhere about them under the reference numbers in brackets.
Let’s look at their son, Andreas.
3) Andreas, born on 11 Dec. 1650 in Heinersreuth, died on 3 June 1710 in Heinersreuth. 
Further down the page you will find under no. 793 the individual entry for Andreas Hacker with information about his marriage and children. In this case, Andreas married Anna Weigel, who appears as a child of the couple listed at no. 3226.
Other Possible Information
Genealogical information is the main feature of OSBs, but many also include histories of the community, the church, the school, and civic organizations. Some include lists of emigrants with their destinations, information about “non-locals” (Ortsfremde) or refugees (Flüchtlinge, Exulanten), and rosters of soldiers killed in war.
Finding Out if an OSB is Available for Your Ancestral Place of Origin
OSBs are not available for every village, and they are more common for some areas than others. Many are available for places in Baden-Wuerttemberg and the Rhineland, for example, but few exist for Lower Saxony (outside of East Frisia) or Schleswig-Holstein. Many have been published for German-speaking villages outside of Germany, such as in Alsace and Lorraine in France, and in the Donauschwaben settlements in present-day Serbia, Romania, and Hungary (Banat and Batschka).
No comprehensive name index for OSBs exist. It is therefore absolutely necessary to know your ancestor’s place of origin. Once you have the location, consult the OSB lists on the GenWiki website. Villages are listed alphabetically. Clicking on the village name will return the title of the OSB and relevant bibliographical information.
Finding an OSB
Once you have the OSB title, look for a library that owns it. The St. Louis County Library History & Genealogy Department has one of the largest collections of OSBs in the U.S. A list is available here. OSBs cannot be checked out or requested through interlibrary loan, but the library staff will do lookups and copy up to 30 pages. Send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org. A limit of three requests per email applies.
The Family History Library, New York Public Library, and some academic libraries also collect them. The Peoria, Illinois Public Library has many for East Frisia. You can also check WorldCat to find a repository that has the OSB you are looking for.
OSBs as Secondary Sources
The information in OSBs were extracted and compiled from original records and are therefore subject to the accuracy, interpretation, and criteria of the person doing the work. OSBs are reliable, but you should take the additional step of checking the information against the original records yourself, if possible. OSBs include a list of sources (Quellen) from which information has been extracted. Online access to German church records is increasingly available and bring the task into the realm of possibility as never before.
More information about OSBs and aids for using them are available on the St. Louis County Library History & Genealogy Department website.
About the Author
Scott Holl is manager of History & Genealogy at St. Louis County Library in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a BA in German from Fort Hays State University, an MA in Theology from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and an MLIS from Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.