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 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.