For Locating Ancestral Villages, Maps in New German Atlas Come to the Rescue! (Guest Post by James M. Beidler)

It’s been said that many historians can avoid being genealogists, but that no genealogist can be effective without also being a historian.

And when the genealogy involves the German-speaking people of Europe, somebody’s going to need a map—well, a lot of maps, actually!—and fortunately many of them have been collected in the new tome I’ve compiled, The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany, currently in preorder (A note for those who’ve heard and are wondering: Yes, this publisher—Family Tree Books, a division of F+W Media—is going through Chapter 11, but the books are being printed!).

Germany Has Complicated History

The reason for needing this book is that the history of German lands is complicated—and that’s before you hone in on the details! But those details are essential to be able to have a shot at tracking down every last record of your ancestors because it is your German village of origin’s political and church affiliations in the past that likely have an impact on where the records of particular villages are archived today.

This can be somewhat challenging because Germany has what I call a “non-linear” political history. In the United States, new municipalities and counties are generally created from existing entities – a “linear” political history. Germany, on the other hand, was a collection of small, independent states that were constantly being sliced, diced and otherwise disconnected as noble dynasties went extinct, lost wars or were divided amongst sons.

Three Time Periods Crucial

Truthfully, you often need to know at least three of the political and church allegiances for a village: during the era when an ancestor lived there; during the Second Empire period (since those affiliations are found in MeyersGaz.org and the Family History Library Catalog on FamilySearch.org); and today’s boundaries, both to help find villages on the modern map as well as what the current archives are.

Indeed, researchers should play what I call “Heimat Tic Tac Toe” and create a grid with sites of a village’s political jurisdiction, church parish and civil registry locations.

What’s in the Atlas

This publication brings together more than a hundred maps from Roman times through the present day, with an extra focus on the nineteenth century when peak immigration to America took place. It includes closeup two-page maps of every German state and Prussian province from this period. In addition to the partial index of cities and immigrant hotspots included in the print-version of the atlas, there will be an every-place index available online.

For each area of Germany, there is also at least one detail map for the pre-Napoleonic era to show the smaller states; other chapters include modern-day German state maps, as well as some showing demographics such as religion and dialects and also a few maps showing German-speaking Austria and Switzerland.

History of Germany Included

The book begins with a history highlights section that covers the main themes of German history as they relate to genealogy, including an explanation of how German boundaries became so complicated.

In part because of the German preference for following the Salic Law of partible division (in which all male children get a share of an inheritance), what is today Germany became a crazy quilt of small states. Other causes of disunity included the elective nature of the Emperorship (candidates offered bribes of territories and enhanced status).

In many cases all of the territory of a small state wasn’t contiguous; there abounded many enclaves (a territory, or a part of a territory, that was entirely surrounded by one different state) and exclaves (a portion of a state or territory geographically separated from the main part). It was only during the Napoleonic time period in the early 1800s when many of the small states and all of the religious states (ruled by so-called “Prince-Bishops”) were annexed into larger neighbors; this remained the rule after the defeat of Napoleon, with only the region of Thuringia remaining a spot with many small states.

Case Study: Hessen

Here’s an example of how maps and the political boundaries they show (as well as that historical background knowledge genealogists’ need) can help narrow down the focus of research even when a village of origin isn’t known.

Researcher Melissa Dunkerley has been trying to find the origins of Ernst Scharff, whose birthplace is variously identified as Hesse-Darmstadt and later as Prussia—and sometimes as the entirely unhelpful “Germany.”

While censuses just can be plain wrong, there’s a map of Hesse (Hessen in German) that gives Dunkerley a decent theory on how to square the circle of these various assertions of Scharff’s birthplace.

The map “Hessen bis 1866” shows the boundaries before they were adjusted by a Prussian land grab that occurred in a war that year. The red boundaries on this map show Hessen-Darmstadt before that war; among the changes as a result was that the thin arm centered on Biedenkopf was ceded to Prussia, making the relatively small number of villages in that “arm” the prime suspects for Scharff’s Heimat, since that would be consistent with him showing Hessen-Darmstadt as his place of birth in records before 1866 and Prussia afterwards.

To Order the Atlas!

The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany is available from Family Tree Books at the URL, https://www.familytreemagazine.com/store/historical-atlas-of-germany

Beidler is a freelance writer and lecturer on genealogy as well as a research-reports editor for Legacy Tree Genealogists. Contact him by e-mail to james@beidler.us. Like him on Facebook (James M. Beidler) and follow him on Twitter, @JamesMBeidler.

Behind the Scenes of the Old German Handwriting Course: An Insider Look at the Why’s, What’s and When’s

Reading the Old German Handwriting:

Transform the Scribble of the Script into the Stories of Your Ancestors

 Ping! A new e-mail arrives in my inbox. As a brand new translator in 2011, I excitedly opened my e-mail, hoping for a new German-English translation project. I click on the document, and my heart sinks. It’s a handwritten letter, and to my untrained eye, the handwriting looks something like this:

After some research, I realize the letter is written in the old German handwriting, a type of writing no longer in use in Germany today. Luckily for me, my Austrian husband’s grandmother had learned the script in her school days,  so, with {a lot of) help from her, I was able to transcribe – and eventually translate – the letter.

A call for help to my German-speaking friends when I got asked to translate my first handwritten letter – little did I know, it’s mostly only the oldest generation in Germany who can read the script today.

As my translation business began to grow, I started to receive more and more requests for handwritten documents. Since I love history,  I was excited about the idea of these types of projects – but of course,  I needed to be able to read the handwriting myself. But where to turn? The internet, of course. Over the next few months, I googled and googled, scoured Amazon for books on the handwriting, and asked around in all the translation forums I could find. Eventually, I’d  compiled a decent collection of materials to help me learn, and I slowly started to get more and more proficient at reading the script. Fast forward to eight years later, and what started off as one impossible-looking project has now grown into an entire business (And no worries, I do consider myself very good at reading the script now – years of working with it every day will do that to you!).

I love working with old letters, diaries and records – I feel  so lucky to get to read the stories of the past.

But what if those first few months didn’t have to be so hard? What if I hadn’t had to search high and low for materials on reading the script? It was so frustrating searching  for the answer to one single question on one single word – only to have another question pop up the moment I was finally able to move on to the next line. I felt so helpless as I was forced to ask colleagues to explain things to me again and again, and wondered if there would ever be a day when I would just know all these things. 

With those months of struggle in mind, I decided create a “one-stop shop” for you all to learn the old German handwriting – so you don’t need to go through all those hours of frustration that I did. And so the idea for Reading the Old German Handwriting: Turning the Scribble of the Script into the Stories of Your Ancestors was born.

When making the course, I tried to think of every question I myself had with when trying to learn the script. For example: How is any normal person supposed to tell “e” and “n” apart? What do all those thousands of abbreviations on church records? What in the world does Tagelöhner mean, and why isn’t it in any German dictionary? How do you best decipher those marriage certificates?

                                                 

The letter “e” (left) and “n” (right) can look very similar to each other – but there is a trick to telling them apart.

With those answers in mind as course content,  I then moved on to the how aspect of the course. I love to teach – I taught English for three years in Austria – and I have kindly been told by colleagues and friends that I do it very well. One of the most important aspects of teaching, in my opinion, is recognizing that everyone learns differently. While some of you may prefer visual learning, others learn best  through audio, and still others need hands-on exercises to truly master something. I therefore made it my goal to incorporate all these learning styles into the course,  providing examples and exercises for all types of learners.

The course offers material for all kinds of learners.

Now, think back to your favorite teacher in elementary school. I bet he or she didn’t just stand up at the blackboard, droning on and on as  your eyes slowly started to fall shut. No, I would guess that your favorite teacher made up games and activities to help you learn – and because of those games, you can likely even remember what he/she taught you today. One of my favorite teachers would take us outside once a week, and have us try to jump rope while she quizzed us on state capitals. As ten-year-olds, we found this so fun, and didn’t even realize the learning we were doing at the same time – we just wanted to get the most jumps!

Flashcards are a great way for us to remember words and letters.

While I can’t turn a  jump rope for you while you’re learning the handwriting, I did try to incorporate this sense of playfulness into the course itself. Current students have been loving the interactive matching games, flashcards, spelling challenges and other exciting activities designed to make learning the old German script fun and memorable. Pick the activity that works best for you – or try all of them – and you’ll be amazed just how well those letters and words get lodged in your brain.

The matching games in the course make learning exciting!

I’m sure most of you aren’t learning the script just for kicks, however – you want to be able to decipher the records of your ancestors. And this course will help you to do just that. Reading the Old German Handwriting is divided into three carefully organized sections. Section A begins with each of the individual letters of the alphabet – vowels, lowercase consonants, uppercase consonants, and common letter combinations. Once you’re familiar with those letters, we then look at six different categories of vocabulary words. These categories were carefully chosen as the top words you need to know for genealogy records – words related to names, months, abbreviations, milestone words, occupation and causes of death. Finally, in Section C,  we make use of your newfound skills and learn to decipher church records, certificates and letters.  You’ll be amazed what you are now able to read!

This section above takes a deep dive into church records.

In conclusion, the course is everything I wish I would have known when I was trying to learn the handwriting – plus so much more information that I’ve learned through the last several years of translating day in and day out. Working with letters, diaries, certificates and church records has provided me with some great tricks, resources and hacks that make learning the script much easier and much more fun – and they are all available for you in this online course. Your ancestors are there waiting for you – now it’s up to you to go find them. 

Click on the link above to check out the course!


Q: Can I take the course at my own pace?

Yes! It is a completely self-paced online course – you decide when you start, when you finish, and how long you’d like to spend on each section. 

Q: How long do I have access to the course?
Access is unlimited! After enrolling, you have access to this course for as long as you like – across any and all devices you own. We have some students who have purchased the course now to take advantage of the launch discount, but are planning on starting it in a few months’ time when their schedules clear up.

Q: Do I need any experience with German to take this course?
No experience with the German language is necessary! This course has an entire section focused on German vocabulary you will find in genealogy records – along with how to recognize these words in the old German handwriting. While this course primarily focuses on the script, you can’t help but learn some German along the way!

Q: Can I download and print the course materials or will I only be able to see them on my computer?
Many of the course materials can be downloaded and printed out. These include:

  • all vocabulary lists
  • all text documents and articles 
  • all practice records and their answer sheets

The video lessons cannot be downloaded, but you may watch them on your computer as often as you like. The interactive activities – flashcards, games, etc. – are also meant for your computer only, but the words that these activities cover are available in your downloadable vocabulary lists. 

Q: This course would be a big investment for me. Is it worth the price?
It is! If you can learn to read the old German handwriting yourself, this will save you a great deal of money on translations. Not that I want everyone to stop buying translations – that is my business, after all – but I am a teacher at heart, and I love to see my students succeed. I truly believe you can learn the handwriting, and that you will enjoy that sense of accomplishment you feel from deciphering your own ancestors’ documents. It is fun, I promise!

Q: Do you offer payment plans?
Yes, you may either purchase the course with a one-time payment or in 4 smaller monthly payments – choose the option that works best for you on the course page.

Q: Are refunds available?
If you are not satisfied with the course within 30 days of purchase, you will receive a full refund. We want happy customers!

Q: Is the course fun?
That was my main goal! As adults, we’re no longer required to go to school – so when we choose to learn something, it should be a fun experience. This course includes flashcards, matching games, listening activities, and fun tests and quizzes – a style of learning for everyone!

Sign me up!

RootsTech Vendor Links

The RootsTech Genealogy Conference is one of my favorite events of the year.  With over 30,000 attendees, the energy at this event is unrivaled. People travel from all over the world to be in Salt Lake City for these five days, full of excitement for expanding their genealogy knowledge, learning more about their family history and connecting with fellow genealogy enthusiasts. There’s just something about finding someone with the exact same passion that you have – and RootsTech offers 29,999 other someones! For those of you who couldn’t be there, check out the Virtual Pass – 18 online recorded sessions from the conference (which includes my class on “The Magic of German Church Records”!).  I’ve also compiled a list for you of some of the great vendors present in the Expo Hall this year. From DNA tests and photo digitization to genealogical research and archive ideas, there’s something of interest for everyone! 

I always have fun wearing my Austrian dirndl at my booth at RootsTech!

Vendors at RootsTech: 

 23andme: What is your DNA story?

AmericanAncestors: The nation’s leading comprehensive resource for family history research and the largest Society of its kind in the world. 
 
Billion Graves: Discover and honor your ancestors.

Connect2Family:  Develop relationships among the living members of your extended family.

EasyGenie: High-quality genealogy forms
 
Family Chartmasters: Professional genealogy chart printing service
 
Fold3:  Discover your family’s military past.
 
Forever: The only full resolution online storage guaranteed for your lifetime +100 years

Genealogy Bank: Discover your family history in newspapers 1690-today.

International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies: Non-profit umbrella organization coordinating the activities and annual conference of more than 70 national and local Jewish Genealogical Societies  
 
Kindex: Searchable archives for everyone
 
Legacy Tree Genealogists:  Put your family history in our hands
 
Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems: The best information, innovation & inspiration to help you grow your family tree (I have been a guest on two podcasts with Lisa, as well as written several guest posts for her site)
 
Living DNA:  Find out where you really came from
 
Photos, Movies & More: Digitizing and protecting your family memories
 
RootsFinder: Free family tree  
 
RootsMagic:  Free family tree software

The Game of Genealogy: Board game on genealogy 
 
To The Letter DNA: DNA testing of envelopes, postcards and aerogrammes from your passed loved-ones to enhance your genealogical research
 
Trace: Better research by combining the best genealogists on earth with your specific family research objectives. 
 
WikiTree: Where genealogists collaborate

Your DNA Guide: Let’s discover the story in your DNA
 
All other vendors: https://www.rootstech.org/expo-hall

German Church Record Vocabulary: The Most Important Words

German church records can be a genealogist’s dream. Filled with names, dates, places of residence and more, these entries can be the key to breaking down the brick walls in our genealogy research. If you don’t speak German, however, these records may seem a bit  overwhelming. But never fear! Below, I’ve compiled the most important vocabulary words you’ll need to know when analyzing German church records – keep this list on hand, and you’ll be well on your way to filling in your family tree. 

Important Church Record Vocabulary

Name Name, Namen, Nahme, Nahmen
Parish Pfarre, Gemeinde
local hiesig
Baptism Taufe
Birth Geburt
Child Kind
Son Sohn
Daughter Tochter
Mother Mutter
Father Vater
Parents Eltern, Aeltern
Boy Knabe, Junge
Girl Mädchen
Stillborn totgeboren, todtgeboren
Year, Month and Day Jahr, Monat und Tag
(In the) Morning; Afternoon; Evening früh; nachmittags; abends
Legitimate; Illegitimate ehelich; unehelich
Profession/Occupation Stand, Beruf, Gewerbe
Godparents/Sponsors Paten, Pathen, Taufpaten, Taufpathen, Gevatter
Witnesses Zeugen, Beistand, Beystand, Beistände
Pastor/Priest; Assistant Pastor Pfarrer, Priester; Koop., Coop.
Marriage Trauung, Ehe
Groom Bräutigam
Bride Braut
Married verheiratet, verehelicht
Wife Frau, Ehefrau, Gattin, Weib, Eheweib
Husband Mann, Ehemann, Gatte
Location/Place of Residence Ort, Wohnort
Divorced geschieden
Widower/Widow Wittwer, Witwer; Wittwe, Witwe
Death Tod
Die; Died sterben; gestorben, starb
Burial/Funeral Begräbnis, Beerdigung

German Genealogy Research with Meyers Gazetteer: Finding the Place After You’ve Found the Place (Guest Post by Bryce H. Rogers & Paul Vernet, Lost Generations Genealogy)

German Genealogy Research: Meyers Gazetteer

Finding the place after you’ve found the place

A tricky aspect of German genealogy is locating your ancestor’s hometown and figuring out where to look for more records. Gazetteers help us on our way to find more records about our ancestors.

What is Meyers Gazetteer?

A gazetteer is a dictionary of place names. Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs (Meyers Gazetteer for short) lists places that existed in the German Empire from 1871 to 1912. If you know the name of your ancestor’s hometown in Germany, Meyers can help you figure out where to look for records about your ancestor.

Meyers lists every city, town, hamlet, village and backwater of pre-World War I Germany along with interesting but heavily abbreviated details about each place. Meyers was printed in German using the blackletter Fraktur typeface, a script very foreign to most U.S. readers (see example in Fig. 1 below).

Why Use Meyers Gazetteer?

Meyers can show you where to look for records about your ancestor! After civil registration began in Germany , vital events (births, marriages and deaths) were recorded by the Standesamt — the civil registry office. Before civil registration, local parishes and rabbinates were official government recordkeepers. Larger towns had one or more civil registry offices, parishes, or rabbinates. Smaller towns and villages without a registry office, parish, or rabbinate were covered by one located in a larger nearby town. Meyers Gazetteer tells us about about civil registration jurisdictions and provides ecclesiastical information which leads you to your ancestor’s vital records.

Where do I find Meyers Gazetteer?

The best and most user-friendly version of Meyers Gazetteer is currently available at www.meyersgaz.org. Originally printed in the difficult pre-1941 German Fraktur typeface, the authors at www.meyersgaz.org converted the important parts of each of the over 200,000 entries to our familiar Roman alphabet and translated those vital portions into plain English!!! Essentially, they’ve turned important details from this entry:

Fig. 1: Example  entry from Meyers Gazetteer for Winsen an der Aller; image courtesy of www.meyersgaz.org

into this:

Fig. 2: Extract of genealogically relevant info about Winsen an der Aller; image courtesy of www.meyersgaz.org

Enhanced with beautiful digitally scanned historical maps, ecclesiastical data, and town lists to aid in radial searches, town entries in this web iteration are very fun and very useful.

Fig. 3: Full color historical map of Winsen an der Aller, integrated with Google’s digital mapping technology; image courtesy of www.meyersgaz.org

Fig. 4: List of towns near Winsen an der Aller, Germany, showing their distance from Winsen as well as numbers and types of religious congregations in each; images courtesy of www.meyersgaz.org

Especially helpful is the “Ecclesiastical” tab (shown above), which gives a list of locations within a twenty-mile radius of your town as well as a tally of religious congregations located in each town on the list (Roman Catholic and Protestant parishes, Jewish synagogues and so forth).

No subscription or registration is required to access this handsome and valuable resource.

When and How Should I use Meyers Gazetteer?

Use Meyers Gazetteer when you think you know the specific place your ancestor came from. You may also search using the first few letters of a place name (Wins, for Winsen), or using the wildcard asterisk “*” in place of one or more letters at the beginning or in the middle of a place name (W*sen, or *nsen for Winsen). “The Homepage: Search the Meyers Gazetteer” heading on www.meyersgaz.org’s “Help” tab describes these strategies. (Click through on the link above for further explanation.) At the bottom of your search results, or in the case of no search matches, you may also click a “sounds like” option at the bottom of the page.

Fig. 5: “Sounds like” option returns results that may sound like your place name, based on data you put in

Knowing the kingdom or state where your hometown lies is helpful. There were many towns in different parts of the German Empire with the same name (see case in Fig. 6 below). The gazetteer will give you the information for each match. Knowing the city’s kingdom or state may save you searching other towns of the same name for your ancestor’s records.

Fig. 6: Search results returned when searching “Winsen” at www.meyersgaz.org; note that two “Winsens” existed in the same governmental Regierungsbezirk and a third marked a forest

Conclusion

Meyers Gazetteer and www.meyersgaz.org are excellent resources to use when you are researching a person from Germany. They help identify records and jurisdictions for German towns – small and large – and give us clues as to where specific records can be located. Finding your ancestor’s hometown in Meyers Gazetteer is one more important step to learning more about your ancestry, family history and genealogy. For more information, tips, links and free consultations, fill out our contact form at www.LostGenerationsGenealogy.com.

Lost Generations Genealogy is dedicated to helping as many people as possible learn about their ancestry, family history and genealogy. They offer a free library of genealogy self-help articles, tips and links (work in progress), free consultations, and professional research services. Give us a call, visit our website, or drop us an email at www.LostGenerationsGenealogy.com. Find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LostGenerations/