Where in the World is Your Ancestor From?
It seems a simple question to ask where an ancestor’s birthplace was. But to trace ancestral records from many countries of origin could require some political boundary investigations. Adding to that, language or pronunciation changes occurred along with varying political boundaries. This gives us a multi-threaded map to unravel.
Case in point. I have relatives where it is stated on birth records that they were born in the German named Jakobstadt (Yacobstadt) which is currently known in Latvian as Jēkabpils. Jēkabpils is part of the duchy of Courland (Kurland in German and Kurlandia in Russian). I needed to understand these place name changes to evaluate ancestral records for matches with specific individuals. When the birth cities reports varied, I was confused until I learned of the many town name changes over time. I’ve also noted on US census documents a foreign born relative’s birthplace listed as New York! Ok, I can record that as an anecdote of cultural interest but not take it seriously enough to alter my own records for their birth.
Given that some country names we know today did not exist when my ancestors were born also adds to the confusion. Were my ancestors born in Poland? Well, maybe 🙂 It depends on who had territorial control over the land when my ancestor was born. Read more about the Poland-Germany border changes. And these changes help me to understand my mother’s sometimes hesitant answers when I asked her about her own father’s birthplace.
The most useful lookup I have seen for current or previous town names I am most likely to run across is the JewishGen Gazetteer. This database contains over one million town names in 54 countries. I grabbed a screen capture for the image included in this post. The town of Mitau is listed on several of my relatives birth certificates. And the town is currently known as Jelgava. The GeoNames database covers all countries and contains over eight million place names. You can do a place name lookup, and see a geographical satellite image of the region. Another tool I like to use is the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names. This resource has been developed for art libraries to be used in descriptions for information about art, architecture or material culture. It shows you the preferred place name in use today and a simple hierarchical display of place in relation to region and country.
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