Researching Your Germanic Roots... Examining the idiosyncrasies, eccentricities and anomalies...

Researching Your
Germanic Roots
(...or "the stumbling blocks of")
The Frustrations of Germanic Genealogy Investigations

"With God, all things are possible"
(State of Ohio Motto)

From time to time, for over a decade, I had pondered the meaning of a particular document provided to me by my Cousin.  You might say, it took me over ten years to extract some of the significance of this document.  Today, I still am left with probably more questions than hard answers.  However, I am a little bit closer to those answers I seek.  Hopefully, with my "plain old-fashioned stubborn German determination" (which seems to be causing a slow transformation of "self" into no less than an amateur "Genealogist"), I will extract or locate the information required to bolster the accuracy of our Family Tree...or die trying (the later sometimes seems more likely)!

In the beginning, I hadn't realized any of the stumbling blocks inherent with this type of research other than the obvious "enemy of time".  This area, spells out some of the "stumbling blocks" peculiar to what I'll call "Germanic Roots Tracing" or "GRT" as well as some "general difficulties" that apply to identifying your roots beyond your own Mother and Father (my heart goes out to those who are adopted as this first step can be a most trying one with oft deliberately hidden records).

Discussions included in this topic:

1.  The Language Barrier
2.  The Problem with Germanic Names
3.  The Problem of Shifting Borders
4.  The Problem of Destroyed Records
5.  The Problem of Illegitimacy

The Language Barrier
As to be expected when we leave our own shores, language and customs become alien to us.  Add the factors of varying dialects, evolving language of the target period, archaic handwritten German Script (noted as "worst of all"), bad handwriting, Church records in Latin and the fact that you don't speak, write or understand a word of either is downright discouraging.  I have provided a Germanic Glossary to get started with.  It may be helpful in identifying meaningful data from records and photos with inscriptions that may already be in your or a relative's possession.  I will caution, as I have been cautioned, to not jump on the first plane in your quest of your "complete" heraldry or that perplexing "missing link".  Once you make it through this section, you will likely see some of  "the why" that goes beyond the language and difficult archaic terminology.  There is a lot of research that can be performed (and need be) right from your favorite armchair and much closer to home prior to embarking on such an adventure.

The Problem with Germanic Names
It was common during the mid 1700's to use only the second baptismal name in official records during later life.  The first name was given as a compliment, never used officially and was either that of a parent or grandparent.  Also, we must keep in mind that the further back we go, the less literate our Ancestors become.   This means your earlier Ancestors could not read or write.  Thus, name changes can occur within a span of a few or less generations due to the need to phonetically spell one's name.  If you are attempting to find a surname prior to the 14th Century, you need to know that there basically are none.  Interestingly, people were known by their first names to which they attached a descriptive word representing their occupation or the place where they lived.  This is quite evident within the study of the origination of the surname, "Pomnitz".  In the late Middle Ages, Pomnitz (Pumlitz) was "a man who liked to remember heroic stories of the wars".

Somewhat similar, and more evident in the Schleswig-Holstein and Friesland areas is the practice of taking the name of the farm one came to occupy.  The name would have originated from the initial owner and stayed with the farm through changes in ownership.   Making things even more difficult, are the instances where a man's wife inherited a farm and the husband consequently would change his name to her maiden name.  This practice hence resulted in the couple's children bearing different surnames.

Further, "Von" prefixed to a surname does not necessarily mean the bearer is of noble descent.  If a man migrated to an area where he found his name to be somewhat common he would add (suffix) to his surname the name of the area from whence he came prefixed by "Von" to distinguish himself apart (and we have reference to a "Von Pomnitz").  In a mere generation following, the man's son would shorten his name by actually dropping the "real" surname, taking only the "Von" and the name of the area from whence his father had come.  Got it?

It even becomes worse with the introduction of "patronymics".  This is the practice of naming a child with a new "surname" based on the first name of the father.  Thus, if my Father, Charles Pomnitz, had done as such for me, my name would be Edwin Charles rather than Edwin Pomnitz.  This practice leafs one with little more recourse than to locate baptismal and confirmation records in order to trace the "real" surname.

The culture of the times appear to, overall, place more significance on the area or homestead in which one is born and/or had migrated from or his occupation rather than the modern practice of proliferating the forefathers' surname.  The bottom line is that you need to be aware of the possibility that the Ancestor(s) you are seeking, may not bear the name you would expect him (or her) to have.  Each Ancestor needs to be assessed individually as there are no firm "givens" for your earlier Ancestors.   Sooner or later your search for them may take you to the Church Books of their anticipated area(s).  Working back into your Ancestry, learning all you can about each, rather than finding an exact or similar name and working forward is a far better practice.  The chances are too great that if you work forward in time you will likely succeed only in tracing someone else's genealogy.

The Problem of Shifting Borders
Germany, as we know it today, did not exist.  To elaborate at length on the multitude of historical events and to attempt an accurate portrayal of the metamorphism of Germany from the Middle Ages to the present is just not possible here.   It is a subject I can only encourage you to explore at your own pace as you delve into your own particular quest.  I will, however, attempt to condense key or greater events that you should be aware of that have greater likelihood of impact to your own particular GRT in the very near future.

The Problem of Destroyed Records
Germany has been a country plagued by war, periods of civil unrest, rebellions and invasions.  Add random natural causes such as destruction by fire and chance only serves to increase the possibility that what you are seeking, unfortunately no longer exists.   Research for areas such as Bremen (Brehmen) is stifled by the destruction of all records up to 1907 by authorities of the time.  Further, the records in this area from 1907 through World War II were destroyed by British bombing.  If you are looking in this area, your research is likely limited to those "Passenger Lists" that have been compiled to date from U.S. sources.

On a brighter and more positive note many records are quite well preserved, even duplicated.  German diligence can be cited for careful record keeping.  There are many published resources that provide explicit information on how to obtain various types of records.

The Problem of Illegitimacy
Let's just say that illegitimacy was fairly common in some rural areas of Germany, though socially unacceptable.  Illegitimate children were baptized and thus, a Church Book or Register entry may be found.  An illegitimate child can be clearly identified as the Church Book entry will be made upside-down or sideways.  The entry will also be quite specific by identifying the child as a "Hurenkind", the mother a "Hure" and the father a "Hurer" or "Ehebrecher".

Resources:  Genealogical Notes of Edwin Charles Pomnitz.   In search of your German Roots (Third Edition) by Angus Baxter.

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Last Update:  Monday, January 21, 2013