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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill - 1/18/2006

Ethnic Eccentricities

Who Dreams Up These Rules?
Among the most frustrating things for the genealogist working in a new area are the unwritten rules, social practices and cultural norms that our ancestors followed. These behaviors are not often written down and yet they affect almost every aspect of our ancestor's lives and the records they left behind. Every ethnic area and time period has its own unique problems. And every genealogist will encounter this problem sooner or later. I first encountered these problems when working on my Ostfriesen ancestors.

Ostfriesland is a small ethnic area in northern Germany from where all my maternal ancestors originated. Regular readers of this column have heard of the Ostfriesens before. This week we will look at some things I learned and problems I encountered when beginning my research on these ancestors. Now that I have researched in other regions and time periods, I know that similar problems exist for virtually every area.

These Names Make No Sense.
Initially the naming patterns and practices drove me nuts. I was fourteen years old when I started working on my Ostfriesen families and had little knowledge of the linguistics or the culture. The only advantage I had was that I grew up hearing the names pronounced the "right" way, instead of the Americanized pronunciations. As a result, the variant spellings did not confuse me as much as they could have, although it was difficult at first.

This was especially true when my research crossed the Atlantic back into Europe. Jans Focken would have children named Hinrich Janssen, Trientje Janssen, and Focke Janssen (a "sen" was added to the father's first name to create the child's last name of Janssen). Habbe Lubben would have children named Johann Habben, Tjode Habben, and Jasper Habben (by adding an "n" to the father's first name). The practice here is relatively simple patronymics, where a surname is derived from the first name of the father. The problem was that in Ostfriesland the practice was continued until the early nineteenth century. (Wales and Sweden also continued the practice later than other areas.) Once one understands the basic way patronymics operates, there is significantly less confusion and there are definite patterns and tendencies. The problem is that our ancestors did not have a guidebook to use to help them with this system and there were no laws about how patronymics were to be applied. That was the just the way it was done. When things are "done the way they are done" the genealogist two hundred years later can easily be confused. Every ethnic region has its own idiosyncrasies; it is up to us to learn them.

Then I Learned that the Rules Were Not Consistent.
Just about the time I thought I had a good handle on the patronymics, there would be a family that actually passed the same last name from father to child. This was done with the sole intent of confusing a descendant two hundred years later (or at least it seemed that way). There was no red flag in the church records warning me that this family was a little bit different. Ministers do not often leave comments in the parish register that "this family breaks social standards." It is up to the researcher to be constantly aware of the possibility for a family that did not play by the rules. This is done by thinking about the records one obtains and the information they contain. The researcher must do more than simply let their "eyes pass over the words" as records are read. The family historian must think, analyze, compare and contrast as they read in order to avoid drawing incorrect conclusions.

Just when a genealogist thinks she has a reasonable grip on an ethnic group or a time period, they encounter that one family that seems to break all the rules. (Of course, the families that break all the rules are sometimes the most fun to research.)

A Modern Researcher "Cleans It Up."
In areas and time periods where patronymics were practiced, a pedigree chart is greeted with confusion by some. No person on the chart has the same last name as their father or mother. Even strict male lines of descent have a different last name every generation. To those unfamiliar with the practice of constantly changing last names, it looks like every couple on the pedigree chart never bothered to get married. Some genealogists, concerned that other relatives will think the entire family was spawned from centuries of such behavior seek to rectify the situation. They "fix" the surnames so the father is listed with the same last name as the children even though this was not the case. This usually is done by taking the surname of the immigrant ancestor and deciding every direct male line ancestor of that immigrant had that same surname, whether he actually did or not. Some see this as looking more "presentable" to the modern eye. Imagine my surprise when several of my families have last names in the published family genealogies that appear nowhere in the actual church records.

We do our ancestors a disservice when we attempt to make information about them conform to modern standards. Give the facts, explain what you can, and leave it at that.

One Hundred Words
I also realized that I did not need to be an expert in the language in order to read most of the records.

Reading foreign records, particularly church records, does not require an advanced degree in the language. What it does require is patience and a willingness to learn. Generally speaking, there are some basic words that a researcher needs to know in order to use foreign records. The names of the individuals involved and other identifying details change from one entry to another, but the word for "born," "died," "married," "father," "mother," etc. do not change from one child's christening entry to another. I quickly learned that once I knew how to read the basic "genealogy words" in a foreign language I could make a reasonable translation of most church records, particularly those entries that were created using "boilerplate" text. It was not the words that gave me the biggest problem in reading foreign language records. Like most genealogist, it was the script used by the priest or minister that creates the biggest problem.

Lessons Learned
Whenever I work in a new area I try to constantly remind myself that there might be an underlying behavior or practice with which I am not familiar. It is my responsibility to learn as much about these practices as possible. I also remind myself that not every family might have engaged in this practice all the time and that some later family members might have "cleaned things up" to make information about family members more appealing to modern sensibilities. And I learned that with some time and patience I could make a reasonable translation of most foreign language church entries.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Research Trip to Salt Lake City, 17-24 May 2006
Join Michael John Neill on a research trip to the world-renowned Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, 17-24 May 2006. Researchers will have a week at the Family History Library, guidance from Michael before and after the trip and plenty of opportunities while at the library to ask questions and get assistance on their own problems. Additional information is available at:

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