Ancestry Daily News
Michael John Neill – 2/21/2002
Get Some Culture!
Some readers are aware that by heritage I am one-half
Ostfriesen. This is despite the fact all my Ostfriesen ancestors came to the
United States between 1850 and 1883. My Ostfriesen ancestors mainly settled
in "colonies" in central Illinois where marriage into the ethnic community
was particularly strong, particularly before World War I.
This extremely small area of northern Germany has nuances that distinguish
it from other areas of Germany. In fact, the culture is more Dutch than
Germany. This article discusses a few lessons I have learned while
researching my Ostfriesen ancestors. Most of these lessons are applicable to
researching from any ethnic area and make the point that assumptions and the
failure to learn about an area's culture can leave you confused and your
research coming up short.
Learn Before You Get Surf Happy
It can be easy to "instantly" obtain the names of hundreds or thousands of
ancestors on the Internet. A year ago, a distant cousin who had recently
become interested in genealogy contacted me. She had found much of our
common ancestry on the Internet. She immediately wanted to extend the family
further than the earliest known ancestor. Her enthusiasm caused me to
refocus on the lineage and I began reviewing my materials hoping that I had
overlooked something. I gently suggested that my cousin learn something
about the history, culture and language of the area and gave her a few
references. She was more than willing to learn and this was extremely
fortunate. Some unfortunately want to extend the lineage back to antiquity
and want to do it NOW. My cousin realized that learning is not a five-minute
process and that an understanding of the implications and interactions of
history, culture, and language cannot be obtained instantly by swallowing so
many "multi-vitamins." This willingness to learn and study is extremely
important when the culture is not one in which the researcher was born and
We're All Related
Some Ostfriesen surnames are extremely uncommon in the United States and one
may be tempted to conclude that all families bearing the same surname are
related. This is not the case however. My grandmother's maiden name of
Habben is an excellent example. Many Ostfriesen surnames are patronymic in
nature (derived from the name of the father). While Ostfriesland is not the
only area to have patronymic surnames (Johnson is a good example of an
English patronymic surname), it is somewhat unique in that the practice
continued until the early nineteenth century.
My grandmother's paternal great-great-grandfather was Lubbe Habben, born in
1775. This individual was the first to begin passing on the Habben surname
to his children. Lubbe's father was actually a Habbe Paben. All the children
of this Habbe Paben had the surname Habben.
In Ostfriesland, the surnames generally changed every generation until 1813,
when Napoleon put an end to what he saw as confusing nonsense. Early
generations of my pedigree charts look strange, no one has the same surname
as their father.
There were other areas where surnames kept changing every generation, most
notably Sweden and Wales. While not particularly difficult, patronymics can
be initially confusing. In Ostfriesland, there is an additional fly in the
patronymic ointment: some families did not change the surname every
generation or chose a surname that was not patronymic.
Cultural Norms -- Not Laws
Many of our ancestor's actions were the result of the culture into which
they were born and raised. Researching these ancestors can be difficult when
one does not understand the culture. To reduce the difficulties, some
researchers are tempted to make "laws" regarding their ancestors' behavior,
even though no such "laws" actually exist. When the culture is difficult to
understand and the societal practices are confusing it is very tempting to
create order out of the chaos by creating "laws" of our own making. However,
it is important to remember that these rules we create are our rules, not
those of our ancestors and that we are still viewing their lives through our
twenty-first century perspective. Frequently, it is necessary to make
generalities about the behavior of a certain ethnic group, but it is
important to remember that while these generalities are helpful for general
understanding, they do not necessarily apply in each and every situation.
I am occasionally asked, why didn't the Ostfriesen immigrants all "do things
the same," in regards to naming their children, Anglicizing their first
name, etc. This would make research easier, but human nature does not work
so simplistically. The answer is that there was no law for how these things
were to be done and that for many immigrants there were many factors
influencing their decision. These factors were not the same for each
immigrant. It was easier to remain "ethnic" for those who settled in one of
the larger Ostfriesen settlements. A member of any ethnic group will
assimilate faster if there are no other members of their own ethnic group
A Farmer is a Farmer is a Farmer
There are several words in the Ostfriesen dialect of Platt that translate
loosely to the more generic term of "farmer." If one only records "farmer"
as the occupation, one may lose a significant ancestral clue. There's a term
that means farmer in the sense of a day laborer, another that means a person
who rents a farm from a family member, and another term for one who owns and
farms his own land in his own right. Obviously "a farmer is not a farmer is
not a farmer." Your ancestor's "occupation" may tell you more about him than
simply how he spent his time.
Researching in a new area or in a new country may open up resources that are
not available in other areas, sources that may be unexpected. Ostfriesens
have long been reliant upon dikes to keep the North Sea at bay. In 1717,
Christmas brought a terrible flood that covered a significant portion of
Ostfriesland with water. With rudimentary communication, one can only
imagine the fear that filled the local villages as dikes broke and the water
continued inland. Repairing the dikes was a significant expense and in 1719,
a tax was levied on everyone twelve years of age and older. This tax list
has been transcribed and published with an index. The resulting Kopf-
Schatzung 1719 (Schulte, Erhard, Kopf-Schtzung 1719, Upstalsboom-
Gesellschaft, Aurich, Germany, 1999) is an excellent genealogical source and
effectively serves as a 1719 census for the area. In some villages the
residents are listed by their social standing within their village.
For the late nineteenth century, Osfriesen researchers have another
excellent source: the Ostfriesische Nachrichten. Published in Breda, Iowa,
this newspaper began in 1884. The paper's goal was to help Ostfriesen
immigrants keep up with news from the homeland and from relatives and
friends who had settled in America. Most issues from October 1884 through
June 1912 are available on microfilm. The paper was published for many years
after 1912, and efforts are underway to obtain as many of these missing
issues as possible. This newspaper contains letters, obituaries, and other
information on Ostfriesen immigrants throughout the United States. In many
cases, these obituaries are more detailed than those in the English language
newspapers from where the person actually died. My own great-great-
grandfather had at least six letters published in the paper. Unfortunately,
most discuss the price of corn and how the weather was affecting the local
There are a few other lessons I have learned in my Ostfriesen research:
--- Chain migration--where one immigrant initially settles and sends for
family or friends--should always be considered for possible clues. I have
many non-Ostfriesen families, ranging from other Germans to eighteenth
century Virginians where chain migration can easily be seen.
--- Name translation. There might have not been hard and fast rules for how
certain non-English names were translated into English. Of course, your
ancestor will always be the one who took the unusual variant.
Learn about the area where your ancestor lived before spending a significant
of time and money researching records in the area. You may make assumptions
that are entirely incorrect and that may waste valuable research time.
RootsWeb has mailing lists for every area of the world at:
Many of these mailing lists have home pages that provide links to specific
sources and references for the area being studied. If they don't have such a
page, post a message to the list inquiring about such sources or published
One Last Comment
One relative of mine "fixed" the patronymic problem by giving all the sons
the same surname as the father regardless of what the actual records said.
To her, all those different surnames were confusing and made it look like
every birth on her pedigree chart look illegitimate. And we couldn't have
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 the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board
of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars
and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and
contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry
and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at:
or visit his Web site at:
http://www.rootdig.com/, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with
Copyright 2002, MyFamily.com.
Used by the author on his website with permission.