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Finding Hard-to-Find WWI Era German Ancestors

Finding Hard-to-Find WWI Era German Ancestors

This surprise discovery of a WWI German ancestor on a free website can inspire your own family history research discoveries. Bonus: watch a free video on how to find your German ancestor’s home village!

Following Our German Expert’s Advice

Not long ago, I made a surprising military record discovery. It came about because I was looking at the e-book we put together of handouts of all the sessions we presented in the Genealogy Gems booth at FGS 2016. I was reviewing the notes from one of Jim Beidler’s sessions. (These handouts really are a wonderful benefit of coming by our booth at the big conferences!)

In the handout, Jim recommends des.genealogy.net and I didn’t recall having searched that site before. Here you can search among several kinds of records that have been transcribed or indexed by volunteers, including tombstones, memorial cards, World War I casualty lists and directories.

my first find: WWI German casualty list

Following Jim’s advice, I performed a search and, sure enough, I found a one-of-a-kind digitized document. At first glance it wasn’t clear what I was looking. The result contained a VERY rare surname in my family tree, Sporowski, that appeared alongside the name of my great-grandfather’s tiny home village of Kotten, which is rarely mentioned anywhere. The document was a World War I casualty list dated December 22, 1914! Aside from my great grandfather’s naturalization papers, this was the first time ever I had found the name Sporowski and the town of Kotten on the same page of any document. Just seeing them together gave me goosebumps!

Reading German Gothic Script

In order to confirm that I was reading the German Gothic script correctly, I turned to Google for a quick search of German Gothic Script Guide and quickly found several reliable options. I used the Foundation for East European Family History Studies German-Gothic Handwriting Guide available here

The guide helped me confirm my suspicions that the first letter of the first word was “G”, and that I indeed had the first letter of the surname correct, “S”. The entry reads:

“Gren. Emil Sporowski – Kotten”

While this document was not for my great grandfather, I had found the first documentation of his brother Emil! (Gustav also served in the military. Here’s his picture, below.)

Understanding WWI German Military Terms

So what did “Gren.” stand for? I suspected “Grenadier,” but I returned to Google and conducted a search of German Military Abbreviations to be sure. 

Google did not disappoint. The search led to several very helpful documents including one entitled German Military Abbreviations which was prepared by the War Department during World War II.  
Because it was a long PDF document I shaved off a lot of time by using Control + F to find the term “Gren” in this 246 page document. This found the answer instantly on page 72:  

WWI Germany Military Uniforms

I’m a very visual person, so I bee-lined back to Google to get my first glimpse of a Germany Grenadier Military WWI soldier:

WWI German Genealogy Research Success!

What a find in just a few short minutes! And what a lead that may result in additional records that exist for Emil’s military service. (This is the brick-wall family that Legacy Tree Genealogists helped me with recently.)

It was a good reminder that when searching online you never know what you’ll find. Leave no stone unturned — or in this case, no website unsearched — when an expert recommends it, especially if it’s free! And remember to take extra time to familiarize yourself with the sites you search and the collections you find: their original intended purpose, how they are organized, and where they may lead you next.

Learn More Like this 

Genealogy Gems will be rolling out the red carpet and more mini training sessions (like the one Jim gave at our booth) at the Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree (May 31 – June 2, 2018, Burbank, CA) and FGS 2018 (August 22 – 25, Fort Wayne, IN). Come by the booth to check out the schedule and learn how to get the handouts.

How to Find the Germany Villages of Your Ancestors

Here at Genealogy Gems we’re devoted to helping you be successful in uncovering your family history. Here’s a bonus for you below: a videotaped version of Jim Beidler’s RootsTech 2018 Genealogy Gems booth presentation, “How to find your German ancestral village.” Enjoy!

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.
Mid-Atlantic and Southern Genealogy: Tips & Record Types

Mid-Atlantic and Southern Genealogy: Tips & Record Types

Researching your U.S. mid-Atlantic and Southern genealogy can be a challenge (ever heard of “burned counties?”). These top tips and key record types may help you bust your genealogy brick walls in these regions.

Thanks to Robert Call of Legacy Tree Genealogists for writing this guest post! Learn more about Legacy Tree Genealogists below.

The Challenge

Some of the most difficult genealogical research problems filter down to us through the poor record keeping, burned depositories, and social customs of our ancestors who lived in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern United States. Notoriously challenging, many of the requests that we receive at Legacy Tree Genealogists are to assist others in discovering their Southern ancestors. In this blog post, we’ll discuss some of the key record types we use when solving a Mid-Atlantic or Southern States problem.

 

Top tips for mid-Atlantic and Southern genealogy

First, three general tips are good to keep in mind when researching Mid-Atlantic and Southern ancestors.

1. Be patient

Research problems from these states generally require much patience—slowly chipping away at the problem at hand, searching out documents, considering the evidence, and letting it simmer. Rushing through a problem will result in missed evidence, conclusions with insufficient proof, or even just accidental errors. Giving a research problem time allows for more evidence gathering, more critical evaluation, and for fresh ideas and potential solutions to emerge from the documents and our analysis.

2. See what’s been done

Evaluate the pertinent work others have done on the same ancestral families. Usually, the best places to find the best research are periodicals such as National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (which publishes articles pertaining to all regions of the United States), and The American Genealogist. (The article shown here comes from the National Genealogical Society Quarterly Vol 99:1, March 2011, pp. 5-14.) In addition to these, there are state, regional, and local genealogy journals. [Note from Genealogy Gems: use PERSI, the Periodical Source Index at Genealogy Giant Findmypast.com to search for surnames and other subjects that appear in genealogy journal and newsletter articles. Click here to learn more about PERSI.]

Similarly, use search engines and library catalogs (such as the FamilySearch Catalog, university catalogs, and WorldCat) to discover whether book-length treatments of your family have been published. Because these volumes are usually not published by academic presses, are self-published, and are rarely peer-reviewed, the credibility of each history must be carefully evaluated but could offer important clues for your own research.

Online family trees at the Genealogy Giants, like the Public Member Trees at Ancestry.com or the global Family Tree at FamilySearch.org, may also provide good research or point to the holy-grail source—such as a property deed, family bible, probate document, etc.—that provides the necessary evidence. Of course, there is a lot of bad information floating around the Internet (including in online family trees) so be careful about what you accept as reliable. [Click here to watch a free video comparing the online tree model at Ancestry.com with the tree type used at FamilySearch.org.]

3. Befriend your ancestors’ friends

Pay attention to the extended kinship network and friends of your ancestors. These people often followed similar migration patterns, which can help you discover where ancestors originated, especially as people frequently moved throughout the South. For example, perhaps you know your Fitzpatrick ancestors in Georgia were born in North Carolina, but you cannot determine where in North Carolina. If many of the Georgian neighbors migrated from Rowan County, North Carolina, it would be worth a look in Rowan County’s records for your ancestors. Documents pertaining to aunts, uncles, cousins, or in-laws may shed light on your direct ancestors and help untangle the web of relationships that may not be clear from documents related to your ancestors.

Now for some insight into record types we frequently use for Mid-Atlantic and Southern States problems.

Top records for mid-Atlantic and Southern genealogy

Property records

This record type is one of the most useful when tackling families in the South or Mid-Atlantic regions. Property records document the transaction of real and personal property among the parties to the transaction. This usually means the transfer of land but could also include enslaved people or other high-value items (we’ve even seen the rights to use and sell a patent in designated areas recorded in property collections).

Property was often transferred among family members, which in turn helps the genealogist in his or her work. Family relationships are not always stated in deeds, but sometimes can be inferred from the phrasing. Even a possible relationship can be noted until additional evidence proving or disproving the hypothesis is discovered. And don’t ignore the witnesses! Property records usually include one, two, three or more witnesses attesting to the validity of the transaction and the witnesses were sometimes family.

Less-experienced genealogists sometimes only search the deed volumes, but a county may have kept other types of property records (mortgages being a common one) which should be searched as well. Property records are helpful when researching enslaved ancestors as well because they document the movements among various slaveholders and sometimes the enslaved person’s family relationships. Because property almost always constituted an inheritance—which fell to family members after debts were paid—the distribution of an estate is sometimes documented in the property collections rather than the probate records.

Excerpt from a property transaction between William C. Cross and his wife, Elizabeth, and William D. Cross, recorded in Calhoun County, Alabama. FamilySearch.org.

Probate Records

Probate records are the documents a court generates to distribute a deceased person’s estate. As mentioned above, the property almost always was divided among the deceased’s family members (instances where the testator chose to bequeath his or her property exclusively to non-family which was a rarity). Thus, in the absence of good vital records, as is the case in Southern and Mid-Atlantic states for most periods, probates may offer the necessary evidence to prove a family relationship.

A word of caution: That someone was listed as an heir to a deceased person’s estate is not proof that he or she was a child of the deceased. Frequently, when an heir was not a child, he or she was a grandchild of the deceased, suggesting the parent of the grandchild was deceased and his or her portion of the inheritance then went to the grandchildren. Like property records, probate records can also help in researching enslaved individuals because they were considered property in the law and were included in probate records as property sold to pay debts or bequeathed to the deceased’s heirs.

Excerpt from a 1730s will from Cecil County, Maryland, where the testator leaves property to his “couzens.” FamilySearch.org.

[Ready to learn more about probate records? Click here to read Gems contributor Margaret Linford’s reasons for loving these genealogically-rich records.]

Guardianship Records

These records were created when a minor needed a legal guardian to represent them in legal matters (especially when the child inherited or could inherit property). It was not necessary for both parents to be deceased for a legal guardian to be appointed for a minor child. We have seen guardians appointed in instances when the mother was still alive, but the father deceased, and when the mother was deceased with the father still living. Guardianships can help prove a parent-child relationship or even whether a set of proposed siblings were truly siblings. These records also help prove the death of an ancestor. Guardians were sometimes older siblings, in-laws, grandparents, or extended families, so noting who the guardian was can help crack your Southern or Mid-Atlantic States research problem.

Excerpt from a guardianship bond from Butts County, Georgia appointing a guardian for William, Samuel, and John Shedrick, orphans of Samuel Shedrick. FamilySearch.org.

Civil court records

Once again, this type of record for mid-Atlantic and Southern states research problems often focused on property. When a dispute arose over property ownership, these matters were usually settled in the courts and there is a good chance that the documents pertaining to those proceedings may survive today. Disputes over property ownership may have been caused by conflicts regarding an inheritance. Or, perhaps neighbors argued over where a property boundary was located and the court records may document how the parties came about owning the property—which could have been through the family.

Court records may be more difficult to access because fewer have been microfilmed (the collections at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, are a good place to start but are by no means complete) or digitized, so it may be necessary to contact the local courthouse or the state archives. But the patience and effort may be well worth the discoveries.

Excerpt from the 1820s civil actions collection of Macon County, North Carolina, naming Su-e-Killah and Yo-hoo-lah as the children and heirs of Au-back, a Cherokee Indian, and his widow, Ta-nah. Ancestry.com.

While Southern and mid-Atlantic States genealogy research is some of the most challenging research in the United States, solving those “brick wall” problems is exciting and satisfying! Patiently working through the property, probate, guardianship, and court records while searching for our direct ancestors and those connected to them can help extend our ancestries and discover previously unknown ancestors.

Robert Call is a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit www.legacytree.comExclusive Offer for Genealogy Gems readers: Receive $100 off a 20-hour research project using code GGP100! (Offer may expire without notice.)

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

US Church Records for Genealogy and More Now Online

US Church Records for Genealogy and More Now Online

Using US church records for genealogy can help you solve brick walls in your family history research. Now online: Swedish-American, Presbyterian, Catholic and Methodist! Also: Connecticut newspapers, NY passenger lists, and vital records from Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey  and Tennessee.

Featured: Swedish American church records

New on Genealogy Giant Ancestry.com is a collection you’ll want to search if you have Swedish roots: U.S., Evangelical Covenant Church, Swedish American Church Records, 1868-1970. According to the site, “The records in this collection consist of administrative records from select affiliates of the Evangelical Covenant Church in America. Indexes have been provided for baptisms, marriages, burials, and membership records (arrivals, dismissals, and member lists), as well as congregational histories and biographical files of church leaders.”

“The member lists in particular have a wealth of information, including vital dates and emigration information. Some member lists may include the location in Sweden an individual or family was originally from. Records are written in either English or Swedish.” Although Swedish immigrants most famously settled the farmlands of the Midwest, this collection includes records from all over the country. States include CA, CO, CT, FL, ID, IL, IA, KS, MA, MI, MN, MO, NE, NJ, NH, NY, PA, RI, SD, TX, VT, WA, WI and WY. A smaller, related collection is also new at Ancestry.com is U.S., Evangelical Free Church of America, Swedish American Church Records, 1800-1946.

Ancestry.com has also been adding to another U.S. church record collection on the site: U.S., Presbyterian Church Records, 1701-1970. “This collection currently includes baptism, marriage, death, burial, and other records from Presbyterian churches” in 48 states and Washington, D.C., states the collection description. “Records from additional churches will be added in future updates to this collection.” This collection now contains more than 4.5 million records and is sourced from original church registers at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

More US church records, vital records and more…by state

Connecticut. The Genealogy Giant MyHeritage.com has published a new collection with more than 2.3 million records: Connecticut Newspapers, 1791-2009. Among titles included in this list are The Catholic Press, Meriden Record, Meridan (Daily) Journal, Record-Journal, The Norwalk Hour, Meriden Daily/Weekly Republican, Hartford Weekly Times, The Ridgefield Press, The Wilton Bulletin, The Journal, Bridgeport Morning News, Bridgeport Herald, The Redding Pilot, The Evening Hour, The Bristol Herald and The Branford Opinion.

Massachusetts. The New England Historic Genealogical Society continues to update its collections of Massachusetts: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston Records, 1789-1900 on subscription site AmericanAncestors.org. Recent additions (with thousands of names) include the parishes of St. Bernard (Newton), St. Ann (Dorchester), St. Anthony of Padua (Allston) St. Jean Baptiste (Lowell), St. Augustine (South Boston) and Immaculate Conception (Marlborough).

For your information, Ancestry.com hosts a related database that has also recently been updated: Massachusetts, Boston Archdiocese Roman Catholic Sacramental Records, 1789-1900.

Michigan. Ancestry.com has updated Michigan, Death Records, 1867-1950, now with over 8.3 million records! According to the site, “this collection contains death registers (1867-1897) as well as certificates (1897-1941)…. Due to privacy laws, images are only available for records that are more than 75 years old.”

Montana. Ancestry.com has updated Montana, County Marriage Records, 1865-1993, with “county marriage records from various counties in Montana. Details vary, but may include the following information for both the bride and groom: name, age at marriage, marriage date, marriage place [and] parents’ names.

New Hampshire. Now on Findmypast.com is a browse-only collection, New Hampshire, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records 1636-1947, with more than 400,000 vital and town records acquired from the offices of local town clerks in New Hampshire. According to the site, “The collection includes records of births, marriages, and deaths; vital registers; indexes; minutes of meetings; and records of other civic activities.” (This collection comes from FamilySearch; you can search their free index and images here.)

Also for New Hampshire: Ancestry.com has updated its collection, New Hampshire, Marriage and Divorce Records, 1659-1947.

New Jersey. After a recent update, Ancestry.com now boasts nearly three-quarters of a million records in its collection New Jersey, United Methodist Church Records, 1800-1970. These are sourced from the Greater New Jersey United Methodist Church Commission on Archives and History in Madison, New Jersey, and includes baptism, marriage, burial, and membership records from mostly-closed churches within that region.

Also for New Jersey: the nonprofit activist group Reclaim the Records has published New Jersey Marriage Index, 1901-2016 and New Jersey Birth, Marriage, and Death Indices, 1901-1903 and 1901-1914 on the Internet Archive, making them “totally digital, and totally free—forever.” Subscribers of Genealogy Giant Findmypast.com may find it more convenient to search part of these records on Findmypast in New Jersey Death Index 1901-1903 and New Jersey Marriage Index 1901-1914.

New York. The collection New York State, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1917-1967 has recently been updated at Ancestry.com, now with nearly 9.5 million records. The collection description includes this explanation: “Contained in this database are passenger arrival and departure lists, and crew arrival and departure lists for vessels that were filed at various ports in New York. The captain or master of each vessel was required to submit these lists to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) upon arrival if they had departed from a Canadian or other foreign port, or whose last scheduled U.S. port of arrival was in New York.”

Tennessee. Ancestry.com has updated its collection Tennessee, Death Records, 1908-1958, so that it now boasts nearly 3.9 records. According to the collection description, “This collection contains information regarding: name of the deceased, age at time of death, death place, death date, gender, birth date, birthplace, parents’ names [and] parents’ birthplace. Additional information, such as occupation, cause of death, and date and place of burial, may be available on the original record and can be obtained by viewing the image. The name of the informant providing this information is also given, and may be useful in evaluating the reliability of the data.” A related Tennessee collection at Ancestry.com has also been updated recently: Tennessee, City Death Records, 1872-1923.

Find your Swedish ancestors

Are you intrigued by those new Swedish American church records but you’re not sure how to find your Swedish ancestors in them–or what the records say if you DO find their names? Beginning Swedish genealogy can be daunting. But don’t let language barriers or unfamiliar naming traditions deter you! Check out these getting-started tips for Swedish research from an expert at Legacy Tree Genealogists.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

About the Author: Sunny Morton

About the Author: Sunny Morton

Sunny is a Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems; her voice is often heard on the Genealogy Gems Podcast and Premium Podcasts. She’s  known for her expertise on the world’s biggest family history websites (she’s the author of Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites); writing personal and family histories (she also wrote Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy); and sharing her favorite reads for the Genealogy Gems Book Club.

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