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We're from Germany but Where?

Where in Germany?

When you’re tracing an ancestor to Central Europe from a century or more ago, you need to find out which state they were from- the Kingdom of Bavaria, or of Hannover? from the Duchy of Saxony-Altenburg, or of Saxony-Coburg, or Saxon-Meiningen, as opposed to the Kingdom of Saxony? From some part of Austria, which became distinct from generic Germany in the mid-1800’s? Maybe Switzerland, which separated from the Holy Roman Empire centuries ago?

Map of Germany

What to do: It’s not enough to find the village or town an ancestor is from- make sure you know what district or province or country it is in, and remember that through 1871, Germany was split into many sub-countries- several kingdoms, many duchies, earldoms, principalities, even teensy Herrschaften. That’s how you know to rule out other places sharing that name.

1) Try looking up the place name and see if there is one or many places by that name, or by variant names. I’ll often include wiki ‘place name wiki’ (like Reute wikipedia or Rothenburg Bavaria wiki) , since the wiki often -not always- includes alternative names, the exact location and what province it is and was in. There are plenty of other sites that help; try Meyer's Gazetteer (Germany only, alas), a German atlas from a century ago that's now online; you can zero in on the right province; you can find nearby churches and place names.

2) The first hit or several hits may or may not have a disambiguation link that tells you what all the current and past places by that name are: you might include the search term disambiguation or Begriffserklärung (the German equivalent) to get that (for instance: ttps://

3) Once you find the wiki for that exact place, see if it lists what country it belonged to when, what previous spelling or name changes it has had, or what town may have since annexed it.

It wasn’t just the border to France, Denmark and all the rest that would shift, a town in central Germany might find this dynasty and that pushing new borders over it.

4) Always keep an eye open for other helpful information: if your ancestor attended a school or church with a rare name, or on a particular river, or served under a specific king, anything that may help you zero in on what their exact home was.

Let’s walk through an example- in the Voegtly Cemetery in Pittsburgh you’ll find this gravestone

You can make out the persons’ names, their dates (for help with typical gravestone words and abbreviations, look here).

Maria Dorothea Gros died in 1888, with no need to point out that she died in in the US. They did feel the need to say she was born in the old country in 1828, in Lorbach, Hessen Oarmstadt. That ‘O’ is hard to read, and troubling, because German doesn’t start words with oa. Worse, there is no Oarmstadt, Germany. The stone is hard to read; perhaps the letter is not an o. G? There is no Garmstadt, but if you keep looking there is a Darmstadt, and more importantly, there was a German country named Hessen - Darmstadt. Was there ever a Lorbach there? There are three Lorbachs, and one of them is an asteroid; we can rule that one out pretty safely. Another is in the province of Nordrhein-Westfalen, but third one is now a part of Büdingen, Hessen, which was part of Hessen - Darmstadt. That's the light brown 'Grhzm. Hessen' in the middle of this map (Großherzogtum Hessen, the Grand Duchy of Hessia).

Elsewhere in the cemetery is a gravestone for one Andreas Kress, who was born in Elm, Kurhessen. That will be the darker brown in the middle, Kurfsm. Hessen, 'Kurfürstentum Hessen'.

Wikipedia lists an Elm in German, one in Switzerland, one in England- if you search in English. Click on the German-language version, and it lists a half-dozen places named Elm, and one of them is in Hessen. That Elm is no longer an independent village, it has been annexed into a larger village, Schlüchtern.

The German-language Wiki tracks it moving from one earldom (Grafschaft) to another, from Hanau-Münzenberg to Hessen-Kassel in 1717; the county was elevated to an Electoral Principality (Kurfürstentum Hessen) in 1803. If you can’t read German, do not despair- you can an online translation adequate enough to get the idea, or you can just click onüchtern, then click on the English-language version... unfortunately this time round, the English Wiki doesn’t help with that history. But Lorbach’s wiki has a little history... in German. But if you click on Büdingen, which annexed it, and then on the English version of that wiki, you get the history in English.

Still, we’ve established that this is the Elm in Kurhessen, but what is Kurhessen? It’s got Hessen in the name, and the wiki tells you it means Electoral Principality of Hessen, but what’s that? For centuries, the Holy Roman Emperor (who ruled Germany and surroundings, but rarely Rome itself) was elected by the highest nobles of the land; the Latin word for that office was Elector, and the German word was Kurfürst (KOOR-fiurst or KOOR-feerst). As said, Hessen was granted that status in 1803, even though the emperorship had become hereditary by that time... and three years later, in the Napoleonic Wars, the Holy Roman Empire and its emperorship were dissolved.

bummer for the Elector. Still, it’s bragging rights.

And it's all ways to riddle out which of the many, many Germanies of before an ancestor hailed from.


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