Finding the correct town and parish for your German ancestors

For the genealogist, it's easy to get bogged down in adding information from family births, marriages, and deaths among the many cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Usually a family member who knows of your interest sends a note that Uncle Junior has died. It's up to you to find the obituary and document the date and location for the death and burial, corroborate what you already know with the list of survivors and the biographic details.

But keeping track of your contemporaries isn't really enough. You know that a dedicated family researcher goes back toward the beginnings of the family. And often seeks information about parents and siblings of those who have married into the family.

At some point, the family researcher comes to the first immigrant from another country. The research becomes multi-national and usually multi-lingual. That jump across the ocean gets harder and harder for each generation removed from the immigrant. More to the point, it's more difficult to find the town that a family member emigrated from.

Accumulated research can turn up information about the other country in several locations.
  • Civil records (birth, marriage, divorce, or death) that name the parents or spouse and identify the person's home
  • Civil records for an immigrant that identify the country of birth or former citizenship
  • United States federal census enumerations, which ask the place of birth, year of birth or age, and place of birth for each parent
  • Church records (baptism, confirmation, wedding, or funeral) that may name the parents, spouse, or previous church that documents the person's baptism or marriage
  • Anecdotes from contemporaries or children of the immigrant
  • Biographical sketches from contemporary newspapers
  • Tombstone entries
  • Memorial cards from funeral services
  • Obituary notices and biographical sketches

Only on occasion do these sources certainly identify the town of emigration. And even if they do, the information must be met with some suspicion. After all, most of the sources contain information provided second-hand, from relatives of the immigrant. And memory fades, even for the immigrant, who may have left at an early age.

My experience in finding the town of emigration includes great ease and great difficulty.
  • My great grandparents John M. Kohn and Susanna Reinert were part of a family that already has many family researchers. Even before I began to research, their towns of origin in western Germany, close to the Luxembourg border, were known to be Wasserliesch and Igel.
  • My great grandparents Robert Ohnsat and Leopoldina Salinger were ciphers. An elderly cousin had some anecdotes that placed his home at Nysa or on the Nysa River in Silesia and her home at Frankfurt. This was partially true for my great grandfather, but not even close for my great grandmother.
  • My great grandparents Anton Deneke and Maria Anna Stephan had passed on information about their homes of birth, but not much more. His birthplace was known as Hannover, and hers as Königheim in Baden. Both turned out to be correct, though Hannover was the seat of the district government, and his actual birthplace was Brakel in Kreis Höxter.
  • My great grandparents Richard Butler and Mary Ellen Cummings were part of a family that includes several family researchers. As I began my work, I soon found the researchers who had information back to the generation that lived in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland.
Especially for the Ohnsat, Salinger, Deneke, and Stephan families, I found the International Genealogical Index (IGI) to be of some help. This aid allows you to enter a person's name and other data, which can search information for matches. You can then look through the matches for a likely location to research. I have provided more information in another post, the International Genealogical Index (IGI).

If you have a reliable town name, you can use the FamilySearch Catalog to enter the country name and town name. The catalog will list the corrected country, district, and county in addition to the town. If the town had a church that allowed its parish registers to be microfilmed, the catalog connects to a record that identifies the microfilms. With the microfilm numbers, you can order the microfilm at your local LDS genealogy library.

If you have a town name that is less reliable, you should use a couple of these online sources to find a corrected spelling or a correct district for the town.
  • Contemporary online mapping, such as Google Earth. This can provide a search for the town name, though it does not typically offer alternatives to misspelled names.
  • A listing of town names by country and area, such as the Global Gazetteer. Select a country, and then select a region or begin searching right away for the town name.
  • Go to a version of Wikipedia for a specific language (for example, French, German, Irish, Italian, or one of nearly 50 others) and enter the town name. Wikipedia provides a large number of alternatives if the spelling is not exact.
  • Try to find a web page for the town by using the format www.TOWN.COUNTRYCODE (for example, www.Wasserliesch.de).
  • Try to find the town name from a web page for the region or state by using the format www.REGION.COUNTRYCODE (for example, www.trier-land.de, www.hessen.de, or www.deutschland.de).
Happy hunting!
© Thomas G. Kohn, 2013.

Notes for further additions to this post

The records that cite Mesenich, Igel and Igel, Trier are listing the community (or parish), followed by the next higher level of church or civil government. In the opening pages of a microfilm of parish records, you would see listings of towns for Parish, Deaconate, Community, Civil Region (Pfarrei, Dekonat, Gemeinde, Regierungsbezirk). Also the microfilm's first pages would identify the archive (for example, the Trier Bistumsarchiv).

Mesenich and Metzdorf, being smaller towns that didn't (ever? occasionally?) have a parish church of their own, would be documented in the parish records of the next larger, nearer community where the family went for church services. This could be Langsur, Griwenich, Wasserbillig, or even Igel. If you go to Google Earth, you can see that all of these towns are within easy walking distance; none more than perhaps 5 miles distant, even by a winding road along the river.

So if you start searching microfilms of parish registers, you have a bit of duplicated effort, until you find the first entry of relevance for your Konzemn ancestors. From that point on, you might assume that at least for a couple generations, the family wouldn't change its choice of parish.

I do have a few of the many church records of which parishes were aligned with a deaconry. Their information is pretty well represented by the catalog structure of the LDS microfilm library.

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