I was translating a document recently – and that handwritten town had me stumped. I could not read that word for the life of me. Adding to the challenge was the fact that we (my client and I) did not know what part of the German Empire the record had come from. So what to do?
Time to pull out the detective hat! In the video below, I walk you through my step-by-step process of finding what that mystery handwritten town was – a town that was so important for my client’s research. It was a very fun challenge – with a successful ending! Check out how I was able to do it below – and how you can do it in your own research:
One of the most difficult challenges that genealogy researchers encounter in German genealogy is the inability to discover the last place of residence for a particular line back in the homeland.
When I first started researching my Wendt immigrant ancestors years ago, I was fortunate to have learned the name of their last place of residence early on in my journey. The family research passed down to me was that my Wendt ancestors were either from modern NE Germany or Poland (near historical Stettin). I wanted to know exactly where in the homeland they came from!
To that end, I entered basic family information into the database on Ancestry concerning my second great-grandfather, Christian Wendt. Within seconds, I experienced an unforgettable, genealogical epiphany!
The Ancestry result was an indexed entry based on German emigration records, known as “Auswanderungsakten” from Brandenburg, Prussia. In other words, I had just encountered a primary-derived entry of Christian’s (imminent) emigration, that of his permission to leave Brandenburg, Prussia to America.
The entry on Ancestry matched Christian’s known birth date. Moreover, it disclosed his full name, the year that he emigrated to America, as well as the exact village and its associated historical Kreis, or district, of his last place of residence back in the homeland. Consequently, this amazing development got me across the pond!
While this remarkable discovery made all the difference, I wanted to see a copy of the original Auswanderungsakt. I did not have to wait very long. While the Family Search microfilm/microfiche loan service was still taking place, I was fortunate to view a copy on microfiche!
Exploring the Brandenburg Auswanderungsakten
While sifting through the microfiche from Family Search of a copy of what was described differently-albeit slightly-as Auswanderungskartei (or emigration card file) for instances of the Wendt surname, I came across a record of interest. It was for a Wendt family who was from the village of Damme in historical Kreis Prenzlau. The card listed a certain Martin Wendt, a working man, who was 48 years old. He emigrated with consent in 1846 to America, along with his wife, Marie-Dorothee geb. (née) Sprenger and four children. Initially, I had asked myself where the names of the four children were. How did Christian, my second-great grandfather, possibly fit in with this family? By advancing further through the microfiche, it did not take long to discover the names of those four children themselves!
As it turned out, the Wendt Family from the village of Damme consisted of Christian’s parents and sisters. The birth dates listed on the other part of the card corresponded to that of Christian and his sisters. Thus, by digging deeper, my quest to learn more about this particular Brandenburg record resulted also in tracing the Wendt line back another generation. At this point in my German Genealogy journey, I was in Prussian Genealogy heaven! I had discovered, then, that not only did I have German roots, but I had Prussian roots as well.
Ancestral Location on Meyers Gazetteer
If you know of a particular historical place name that was a part of the German Empire and wish to locate it, I strongly recommend using Meyers Gazetteer. It provides the historical, jurisdictional details that you would expect from a gazetteer. Moreover, in a majority of cases, it displays a corresponding historical map of what a particular location would have looked like during the period of the German Empire.
To locate a place name on Meyers Gazetteer, choose this link here: https://www.meyersgaz.org/.
Using the aforementioned Damme, Kreis Prenzlau example, one can view where my Wendt immigrant ancestors had resided decades earlier on a map from the German Empire era.
Prussian Genealogy on Facebook
Prussian Genealogy on Facebook is a global and supportive community with around 14,000 members. I created the community as an extension of my passion for Prussian genealogy and for the purpose of helping others just starting out or wishing to dive deeper into this fascinating area of genealogy.
The Prussian Genealogy community also promotes German and Polish Genealogy, DNA, History, Culture and other aspects as they relate to historical Prussia. The community would not be where it is today were it not for the help of the many members in the group who have made and continue to make a difference in the lives of those who wish to better understand their Prussian roots!
To apply to join the Prussian Genealogy community, known officially as Prussian Genealogy / German & Polish Roots, DNA, History & Culture, choose this link here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/prussiangenealogy
German Genealogy Translations on Facebook
The Germany Genealogy Translations group on Facebook is dedicated exclusively to assisting members with their German Genealogy translation requests. The volunteers generously take time out of their busy lives to assist members with their requests.
To apply to join the German Genealogy Translations group, choose this link here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/germangenealogytranslations
German Genealogy Word List
Arbeitsmann – working man
Ausgewandert mit Consens – emigrated with consent
Auswanderungsakten – emigration records
Auswanderungskartei – emigration card file
Ehefrau – wife
Kinder – children
Kreis – district
Jahre – years
German genealogy can be fulfilling, fun and even a little frustrating at times. If you are having trouble finding out the last place of residence for your German ancestor back in the homeland, consider searching for an emigration record and other relevant records as a part of your research strategy. Discovering and locating the ancestral location, especially before German Unification, is important in the pursuit of records on the other side of the pond. May you experience similar genealogical breakthroughs!
Stephen Wendt, MLIS, holds a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from K.S.U. He is a professional genealogist and speaker. At the virtual IGGP conference coming up in July, Stephen will be presenting, “Searching for Your Elusive Prussian Ancestors: A Case Study.”
Stephen founded Tree Tidings Genealogy and assists global clients with their Prussian and German research. You can learn more about his business at his website: https://www.treetidingsgenealogy.com/
You can follow him at the Prussian Genealogy and Heritage Facebook Page as well: https://www.facebook.com/groups/prussiangenealogy
Discovering ancestral towns is a thrilling part of any genealogist’s research. But if you don’t speak the language, how are you supposed to know if a word is the name of a town or simply another foreign term? In the table below, find all the town-related words you’ll need to know when working with your ancestors’ German records – as well as what these words may look like in the old German handwriting!
The table starts out with prepositions that may come before the name of a town (all with slight variations in meaning, but which all can be translated with “from” if appearing before a town), followed by many words meaning “here” (many of which are old-fashioned), and concluding with some general town vocabulary that’s important for any German genealogist’s knowledge base. For more information on discovering your ancestor’s hometown, see 5 Tips for Deciphering Town Names on German Records. Best of luck!
*Please note: Due to font limitations, the “final s” of the old German handwriting could not be typed here. Any final “s” in German (an “s” at the end of a syllable or the end of a word), should actually look like this:
This applies to the word “aus” below.*
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!
*This post contains some affiliate links, which does not affect you at all, but does help support James Beidler’s business as he earns a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate.
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 (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 here – get your copy today.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook (James M. Beidler) and follow him on Twitter, @JamesMBeidler.
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
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
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/