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.
I began my interest in genealogy many years ago but only in ernest started being serious about it a few months ago. I had photographs, documents and records of some relatives and I had questions, so many questions. I think I am emerging from the beginner stage of this type of research. I may still make beginner mistakes, but as an experienced librarian, I hit the ground running, so to speak.
One of the first things I discovered and am still learning about is how so many name variations come to be. My surname for example, Perbohner, has also been spelled with no letter ‘h’. The spelling with an ‘h’ is the German spelling, and without is Russian as there is no letter ‘h’ in the Russian alphabet I am told. So that’s what I knew, two ways to spell it.
What I actually found so far with spelling variations includes Terbohner, Parboner, Proboner, Porboner, etc. Maybe one half of all of my ancestors with my surname have at least one record with a spelling alteration from transcription or pronunciation recording errors. And then I learned through a document a relative wrote around 50 years ago that two brothers, Jacob and William, changed their surnames before they came to the US. They originally used the surname Bernhardt and soon after dropped the letter ‘t’. And their parents sometimes used the name Bernhardt. And other males adopted the name as their first name, with or without the letter ‘t’.
I wondered how they chose one particular name over another? Why would they do that, what did it mean? From what I understand today is that Jews did not adopt permanent family names until the 18th and 19th centuries when the adoption of permanent surnames in the German States was compulsory. An encyclopedia from 1906 explains part of the situation this way, “In Germany the tendency to adopt Christian names was perhaps most marked, such names as Bernhard,…” This story I am learning is not only of my family, but of history as well. And it’s being revealed to me piece by piece.
I’ll likely post again about this name issue. It’s a BIG one.
That I am researching genealogy and family history in a new level for me, I’m not surprised to run across jokes. Take this one for example that I recently saw in a posting on the genealogy.stackexchange forum:
“A sociological survey:
“Where were you born?” St. Petersburg.
“Where did you go to school?” Petrograd.
“Where do you live now?” Leningrad.
“Where would you like to live?” St. Petersburg”
I began doing some history on my family, genealogy and research years ago, ten perhaps. At some point in the last few months, I became ‘serious’ about this effort. And at the same time, I discovered that as I was finding out about the lives of my ancestors, I was finding myself in the process.
It’s not like I’m found now and in some sort of fixed state never to change again. I often get inspiration and am energized by others. Today I find inspiration on a blog titled I am and I am Not by Esther Cohen. She writes in the here and now about what is in front of her, what she looks like as she imagines what another sees, and what flow through her.
I’ll start blogging this research experience. Perhaps you will benefit from my research trails and trials. And family too may be interested in what I uncover, the hows and whys. This is a perfect task, the research that is, for I am an experienced librarian!
There are stories somewhere in my ancestry, lives and loves lived and lost. And new beginnings. As I dive into the history of family members, it changes me and becomes my story too. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to make it your story too. You can add details about my family (private email is just fine), post your own relevant stories or tips. And recipes, oh, do share with me your family recipes for all to share and enjoy!