This article is part of the series “Are your German ancestors playing hide-and-seek?” about various reasons why you might not have found your ancestors yet. One of the possible reasons could be changed boundaries that make you search in the wrong country.
Boundaries of German states, territories or even counties and towns changed quite a lot over time. Populations grew and made changes necessary. Political authorities changed – due to war, contracts or marriages – and made changes necessary. And that might make you search in a wrong country. And if a neighbouring town or parish was closer to a family’s living place they might have let their children or dead be registered in a “wrong” place.
All of this doesn’t make finding your ancestors any easier. Let’s have a closer look.
My search in a wrong country: Vorderösterreich
Last year I helped a friend and distant relative with his research about his German ancestor. He already found out that his ancestor had been an Austrian post official. So of course the focus was on Austria – for a while.
Then we found evidence that he resided in Freiburg/Breisgau, a town in Baden-Württemberg. Freiburg and its surrounding area belonged to the Republic of Baden from 1918-1945, to the Grand Duchy of Baden from 1806-1918 and to the Markgraviate of Baden until 1806. So… why did this “Austrian post official” ancestor reside in a German town? Were we searching in a wrong country?
Actually that part of modern Germany had a lot of scattered areas which belonged to “Vorder-Österreich” (Further, Outer or Anterior Austria) with changing potentates until the Napoleonic wars. And the aforementioned ancestor lived in these times.
So, depending on the ruling potentate of any particular time, documents might have been stored in different archives. And after the potentate changed, the old archives might have been transferred and incorporated into archives of the previous potentate.
It doesn’t mean it has become easier to find documents dealing with the post official and his family. But now we know why we couldn’t find much about him in Austrian archives. So now we know that we have to broaden our search. And it has been a fascinating journey so far.
My search in a possibly wrong country: Ostpreußen
The above mentioned journey nudged me to re-evaluate a few of my brick wall ancestors and break the deadlocks.
One of those dead points was a line in East Prussia/Germany. Last known ancestor was born in 1830. Not much to be found before that, nothing that I was able to connect to my family. Actually no fitting records before that. Huh?
One explanation would have been that these particular records vanished some way or the other during WW II. Quite possible, and that’s why I had put my research on halt more than twenty years ago.
Of course I checked on this line and that area now and then. When I didn’t find anything new I turned back to other more promising lines.
But now I took a different approach. I got myself some books about the area’s history. And guess what? I might have to look in a different country as well. For the first generations backwards, East Prussia/Germany had been correct, yes.
this family line had lived in an area that was close to the borders of the later Westpreußen. This had belonged to the combined Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania before that. Between 1772 and 1795 the neighbouring countries Russia, Prussia and Austria split Polen-Litauen among themselves. Officially this happened three times (but there was more hither’n’thither in between)… The newly acquired Prussian parts of former Poland then were named “West Prussia”, “South Prussia” and “New East Prussia”.
If my family had moved just a few villages within their area it wouldn’t have been a big deal at that particular time, still the same country. But after the three Partitions of Poland several parts belonged to a different country, even if my people stayed in one place from then on. So it’s possible that I had been looking in the wrong country (Ostpreußen/Germany) instead of possibly Poland.
I haven’t found any new generations – yet. Simply because I’m still reading and learning about the area’s history. Interesting stuff, and confusing
sometimes most of the time, so much politics back and forth… But I’ve found a few good hints to more families with the same surname, just not in the area I’ve been looking in so far. So I guess I’m on a good way to eventually make progress there.
This should be fairly interesting and challenging since one of the hints I have is that several people of this family seem to have been Hebrew. The family name points to that as well…
Family traditions and unusual phrases
A Hebrew ancestry might also backed up by the fact that two of my mom’s great aunts always served either “Wurstbrote” (cold cut sandwiches) or “Käsebrote” (cheese sandwiches) for dinner, never both types together. And they used separate special platters for each of them as well. Talk about “kosher”. A tradition which in this family might have been handed down from mothers to daughters even though this family line had been protestantic for several generations.
Another door to open to see what’s behind that. Now that I know what to look for I should talk with my mom about that family line again. Maybe she remembers other characteristics or phrases that might point to a Hebrew ancestry. Thrilling!
And all this because I finally realized my mistake of not checking enough(!) on an area’s history… Baby step by baby step I’ll hopefully get there.
if you can’t find your ancestors even if you’ve tried aplenty, make sure you learn the area’s history for that particular time. Maybe the potentate changed, due to marriage, political contracts or war. Or the administration changed, new boundaries were set up. Be aware that previous potentates often took their archives with them when they left.
That also means that – without changing the family line – you might have to search for them in German archives for several decades, then again in Polish archives for more than a century, then in German archives again… And still it’s the same family, maybe even living in the same house all of the time.
I’ve started to make a timeline for the area[s] which might be eligible. Border areas ain’t easy… but I hope the timeline will clear up a few things in the end. We’ll see.
Did you overcome any genealogical brick walls because you realized you had been searching in a wrong country? What made you realize that?