“I can’t go yet, I don’t know the town”. I hear that all the time and I agree it is special to be able to walk through the exact town your ancestor did but what if you never find that town? I don’t want to burst any one’s bubble but that is a possibility. Not to say you won’t find it down the road but why deprive yourself a wonderful trip to the country your ancestor came from, maybe even more specific a general area they came from. You still will see some of the things they saw, learn about the culture and see how people from that area lived centuries ago and maybe even make a contact that can help you find that elusive town. Don’t wait until it is too late to go and be able to walk through that village.
That being said, let’s talk about how to go about finding that town. We will kind of focus on Germany but the principles are the same and we may cover other countries in future posts. Essentially speaking, the most critical piece of information needed by everyone who wants to pinpoint their European ancestral origins is the name of the EXACT village, town or city within the State or County of your ancestral country. Without this, your research about your ancestor’s life and family will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The reason for this difficulty is that European records are NOT usually amassed and made available in one (or just a few) centralized places like archives in state or regional capitals, as more modern records can be found in the US. They are more often in or near the original places of origin—the towns or villages where they were created—and even if they’ve been relocated to central archives of various kinds, they are often still organized within those archives by “LOCATION” name— not arranged alphabetically according to personal surnames.
Therefore, just knowing the surname and the general area someone came from (like Wuerttemberg or Baden or the Black Forest region or similar) is not going to help you much. Archivists are literally not in a position to look under a particular name for births or marriages or deaths in Baden, Wuerttemberg, Hohenzollern (or wherever else) in “the 1800′s” (or any other years) —they would have to know WHERE (in terms of the village, town or city WITHIN Baden) your particularly family members could be found.
Some important clues or details may be at your fingertips, or require some digging; others might take some thought, and even some lucky guessing. When someone asks me for beginning advice on pinpointing a German ancestor, I usually ask if he or she has or can take a guess about ANY of the following information about that person (assuming nothing is known about the village, town or city in which the ancestor was born or resided in Germany):
— the ancestor’s given names and last name (NOT just the family *surname*)
— the ancestor’s father’s name
— the ancestor’s mother’s MAIDEN name
— the ancestor’s wife’s MAIDEN name or any children’s names
— the ancestor’s religious affiliation (i.e., Catholic or Lutheran; if you aren’t sure what it was in Germany, what religion did they affiliate with in the country to which they emigrated?)
— the ancestor’s occupation (again, if you’re not sure what he did in Germany, how did he make a living after emigrating?)
— the ancestor’s approximate date of emigration (at least the year or range of years)
— the ancestor’s ultimate place of settlement in the US or elsewhere
— the ancestor’s date and place of death
These details will be CRUCIAL not only in possibly locating existing records about an ancestor, but in identifying a specific ancestor and helping demonstrate that he/she is not some OTHER person with the same or similar name who was born, married or who died about the same time who has NO RELATIONSHIP to you (the great genealogical nightmare.)
If you don’t have exact details, try to make an educated guess to get the ball rolling. This might be somewhat prone to error, but for other people to possibly assist you, the field of the search needs to be narrowed down as far as reasonably possible. Don’t be afraid to approximate dates of birth, emigration, etc. (This is important, first because not everybody’s ancestors were born or lived in the same era, and secondly, because some people emigrated as single adults, or with spouses and/or offspring, whereas others came with as children accompanying their parents or others. This would be important to know when doing, for example, passenger record research.)
To not make this a long winded post we will continue this in our next post about WHERE to look for these records.