What I Learned Researching My Ostfriesens

By ancestry, I’m one-half Ostfriesen. My maternal forebears all hailed from that small ethnic region in northwestern Germany and came to the United States in the mid-to-late 19th century. Much of my early research focused on learning more about these ancestors and there were several things I learned:

  • Names don’t have to be fixed. Many of my Ostfriesen immigrants changed their first names (or at least anglicized them) and practiced patronymics until the early 19th century. In areas where patronymics are practiced, last names are not fixed and a man named Jann Habben has children with the last name of Janssen and a father with the first name of Habbe. A man named Gerd Hinrichs had a father with the first name of Hinrich and children with the last name of Gerdes.
  • Names really don’t have to be fixed. One ancestor took the name of the property he bought as his own.
  • People migrate to areas where they know others.
  • People marry within their ethnic community.
  • Immigrants and their children are inclined to hold tight to ethnic practices. After that it starts to wane in many cases.
  • People are more likely to interact financially and legally with members of their own ethnic community.
  • Researching every record you can locate on a family will tell you more than you ever realized you did not know and may even correct some errors.
  • You are not as ethnically pure as you thought you were. I’m just a little shy of 1/2 Ostfriesen as several of my 16th century Ostfriesens were actually from other areas of Germany–or even, heaven forbid, France!
  • A failure to understand the language and culture of our ancestors can cause us to misunderstand and misinterpret some of their actions.
  • People often have multiple relationships with the same person–they may be related biologically in one way (or more), by marriage, and by a shared historical common geographic origin.
  • Our ancestors weren’t perfect.

Many of those lessons are applicable to ancestors from any location–immigrants or not. They’ve helped me research my Irish immigrants during about the same period and other Germans a few decades earlier. A significant number of these issues are ones I encounter as I research my families who settled in Virginia in the late 17th century and migrated to the western part of that state over a hundred year period. People aren’t as different as we sometimes think.

My mother and her parents–taken in 1954.

My Ostfriesens are near and dear to my heart. The first names sound strange to some yet they sound perfectly normal to me (Focke, Heipke, and Altje immediately come to mind as falling in that “strange to you but normal to me” category). I always try and say them (including Ubbe, Tjode, Gerd, Trientje, Focke, Bruns, Habben, Ufkes, Mimka, etc.) the way I would hear my maternal grandparents and Mother say them in the only real remnant of their ancestor’s Platt language that remained with them-even if many people don’t say the names the “old way” any more. There’s some sense of tradition and comfort in that and a little bit of a connection with my Mother and my Grandparents in doing so.

My research has expanded quite a bit beyond my Ostfriesens, but I’m glad it started with them. That experience taught me quite a bit.


They Have the Same Last Name–They Have to Be Related

Just because two individuals have the same last name does not mean that they are related. Researchers working on a Smith family know that two people with this common last name are not related, but what about a more unusual surname?

Well it depends on the origination of the name (and that even is not a guarantee) and jumping to conclusions makes for bad research.

One of my ancestral surnames is Habben–a somewhat unusual name. In Ostfriesland, Germany, where many of these families originate the surname is somewhat more common. However, the name is a patronym actually meaning “child of Habbe.” While patronymics was practiced, two men with the first name Habbe would have children with the last name of Habben–though there might have been no relationship.

Sweden is full of Larsons, Carlsons, etc. for exactly the same reason–patronymics.

Even surnames that are not patronymical in origin may be shared by two unrelated individuals. This is especially true with surnames such as Baker, Farmer, Lake and other names that may have been derived from occupations or nearby geographical features.

There may be cases where all individuals with the same surname are related, but let research, not your gut, be your guide. My tentative hypothesis is that all or most individuals with the last name of Trautvetter are related. However, research is not complete and just because the name is concentrated in a certain area of Germany does not mean there was one common ancestor.

Last names can be used as clues to relationships. But a last name only means it was that person’s last name, not that he (or she) had to be related to someone else.


Dealing With Genealogy “Matches”

First off, I’m not really convinced that “match” is the right word to use when a search is performed in a specific database for an individual. The results that are returned matched your search query–that’s true. But there’s never a guarantee that a “match” is your actual person of interest. But there are some things you can do to help you analyze your “matches:”

  • Track how you find your “matches.” What were the search parameters used, etc. Problem-solving to see if you missed people cannot be done if you have not tracked how you searched in the first place. It also increases the chance you keep performing the same search repeatedly expecting a different result. Full disclosure: I only track how I found my matches for those instances when I can’t easily find people and determine that I have the “right one.” Tracking the search process takes time and in many situations it’s not necessary.
  • List all the “matches” that could be your person of interest. Remember that none of them may actually be the person of interest. There is no guarantee that the true person of interest rests among your “matches.”
  • See if you can find these “matches” in later records–starting in the same locality where you found them in the first place. Start with the “matches” that appear have the highest probability of being the person of interest or have highest probability of being found in other records. If a search for naturalizations for your Bernard Dirks who lived in Adams County, Illinois, turns up one in Tazewell County, Illinois–make certain there’s a not a Bernard Dirks living in Tazewell County at the exact same time your Bernard Dirks is living in Adams County.
  • Is this other information on the “match” consistent with what is known about your person of interest? If it is not, you probably can eliminate the “match” as being your person of interest. Keep a list of these eliminated matches–along with the reason why you eliminated them. You may need to refer to that reasoning later.


Genealogy “Matches”

I’m thinking that the phrase “genealogy matches” should be replaced with “genealogy possibilities.”

The word “matches” suggests to some that you’ve automatically got the right person in a different record.

Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.

You possibly have the right person. It’s up to you to analyze and interpret to be as certain you have a “match.”


Webinar: Female Ancestors

Researching Female Ancestors

We are no longer taking registrants for the live session of this presentation. If you did not receive attendance links, please email me at the address in your receipt. Thanks.

This presentation discusses approaches and techniques for determining an ancestor’s maiden name and locating “missing” females. Geared towards the advanced beginner or intermediate researcher, it focuses on American records and sources before World War I. The content is not specific to any one time period and many of the approaches can be refined for different locations or types of records. Concepts discussed will include:

  • overview of women’s legal rights;
  • property ownership;
  • inheritance;
  • citizenship;
  • and strategies for making the most from what you can find.

If you are stymied on your female ancestors–and half your ancestors are female–this presentation may give you the insight you need.

  • Pre-order a recording of the session for delivery after processing on or after 18 October–includes handout.

Restored to Illinois Citizenship in 1867

There are many clues in this “private act” by the Illinois General Assembly to “restore William Kile to citizenship” that was passed in March of 1867.

It references his criminal act and May 1859 conviction in Mercer County, Illinois. He was pardoned by the Illinois governor and later served in an Iowa unit in the American Civil War.

The act restored Kile to “all the rights and privileges of a citizen of the state of Illinois, the same as if he had never been convicted of any such crime.”

There are a variety of records suggested by this Act:

  • Kile’s criminal conviction in Mercer County
  • Kile’s pardon by the Illinois governor
  • Kile’s military service
  • Kile’s military pension–if he received one
  • Kile’s petition to have this Act passed.

And I need to see what rights (other than voting and perhaps holding political office) Kile received when his rights as a citizen of the State of Illinois were reinstated.


Homicide Justified

I’ve been working on the murder of a slave in Bedford County, Virginia, in the 1810/1811 time frame off and on for some time. Newspaper accounts only indicate the last name of the man involved and I’m working on determining exactly who he is. We’ve mentioned the case before, but it’s been on my genealogical back burner for a while.

A little searching on GoogleBooks for some of the key terms located a reference to the incident in Homicide Justified: The Legality of Killing Slaves in the United States and the Atlantic World by Andrew T. Fede. How much it actually mentions the case I’m looking into remains to be seen, but I’m hoping it will give me some insight into the legal issues that I’m certain to encounter when (or if) the actual records are located.

Never hurts to look at GoogleBooks (http://books.google.com) for your search terms as well–especially when it’s been a few years when it was last done. This relatively new item was not located the last time searches were conducted.


Birth Place Search of DNA Match Trees Not Working at AncestryDNA

Searching the trees of matches at AncestryDNA for specific places of birth is a great feature–if it works.

As of 10 October 2019, this feature appeared to have some functionality issues–translation: it’s not working.

I searched my own matches for Tioga, Hancock County, Illinois. Given my ancestral background, I should get results. It’s where three generations of my Trautvetter family lived and where my great-grandfather was born in 1869. But I got more results than I expected and some made no sense.

Two of the matches had small trees (5 people or less) and I manually searched those trees for a birth place of Tioga for everyone. None of the individuals in the tree had that place of birth. My closest match (a first cousin once removed) has a tree that is private and very, very small. Based upon who that is, I highly doubt he has a relative born in Tioga.

It doesn’t appear that the search functionality of places of birth in the attached trees of DNA matches at AncestryDNA is working. Makes it difficult to use this feature when analyzing things.


Did Your Civil War Deserter Appeal?

Desertion during the American Civil War was not uncommon. Many who deserted went back home for one reason or another without being immediately punished for the act. The reasons for desertion varied and for many the desertion did not present any future problems.

Until they applied for a pension.

That’s what I’m suspecting happened in the case of George A. Trautvetter who was in company H of the 14th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. The reason for his appeal is not stated, but it would be reasonable to conclude that he was paving the way for an eventual pension application. We’ve partially written about Trautvetter’s appeal before:

Trautvetter was one of several men who deserted his unit at the same time and returned to western Illinois. None of the men received a pension. Trautvetter was the only one who appealed the desertion mark on his record as evidenced by the compiled military service records of those who are indicated as deserting at the same time he did. Trautvetter’s appeal is fairly short and he is the only one who provided any evidence. He admitted to the desertion in his appeal and his justification apparently did not rise to the level requiring additional investigation.

Trautvetter’s compiled military service record at the National Archives indicated that he had appealed the desertion charge.

Card in Compiled Military Service Record of George A. Trautvetter, Company H, 14th Illinois Volunteer Infantry; National Archives, Washington, DC.

Trautvetter’s appeal provided some details about his parents during the Civil War era. In Trautvetter’s case that information was not really anything new, but it is always possible that a desertion appeal could provide clues the researcher is not already aware of.


Do Not Suggest Anything Secondary–Yeah, Get Real

I’ve used a version of this discrepancy chart in several lectures and presentations over the years. Only once has it gotten a strong negative reaction when a gentleman approached me and said:

You should not be suggesting people use secondary details in their search. You should be looking for this woman’s birth certificate.

Having issued his edict, he turned on his heel and walked away.

I understood his point: these are not actual records of Ida’s birth in this chart. They are records of other events that mention Ida’s birth. The individuals who provided the information about her birth in those records did not have first hand knowledge of it. I understand that.

There’s just one problem: Ida was born in Illinois, Missouri, or Iowa (according to the records on this chart and other records that have not been included in this chart) in 1874. None of those states kept vital records (either at the state or the local level) during the time period when Ida was born. There are no extant family bibles of which I am aware that include a contemporary record of Ida’s birth. The family apparently attended church sporadically (if at all) and do not appear to have been members of a denomination that practiced infant baptism. No church record of her birth has been located. There are no known extant family letters or diaries that contain a contemporary record of her birth. I periodically take another look at what might be available for Ida during the time period of her birth, so far nothing has surfaced.

The difficulty for Ida is the time period and the location of her birth. That’s the problem for many genealogists: some people were born in places and time periods when records were not kept.

I would dearly love to find something that provided the exact date and place of Ida’s birth. However, it’s probably not going to happen. And it may not be crucial to my search. That may sound like genealogy blasphemy–“not needing an exact date and place of birth,” but it’s not.

What is crucial is that I tie Ida to her parents. There are a variety of records that do that, particularly the 1880 census, her marriage application, and the institutional commitment papers of her father in the early 20th century. All three of those documents indicate that Ida is the daughter of Ira Sargent. The marriage application provides the names of both her parents. The census indicates who her father is (or at least what was told to the census taker and what is consistent with other records). The death certificate of she and her sister provide the same names for their parents that are listed on every other record. Of course, consistency is evidence of consistency, but at least there are no additional names floating around to be explained away. And I, Ida’s great-grandson, match other known descendants of Ira and two of Ira’s known siblings, at DNA levels consistent with the paper record. That’s a big plus as well.

It’s the relationship that is important. Precise dates are nice when they can be obtained, but that’s not always possible. What is fortunate in this case is that Ida’s ages all point to a relatively consistent range of birth dates.

What’s also important is that we obtain every record that we can. Sometimes those records are not as contemporary as we would like.

1874 in the midwestern United States is not the only place where one has to rely on secondary sources for birth information. There are many places where that reliance is necessary.

You won’t always get the precise date you want and you won’t always find a contemporary record that clearly states the fact you are trying to prove.