Thursday, November 24, 2011

Turkey and Football

You may have noticed that the place of birth of your ancestors changed between the 1910 and 1920 US censuses. Your Austrian great great grandparents are suddenly Czech. Your ancestors were not confused, instead the map of the world changed as a result of World War I. Many of the countries that we now take for granted were part of great multi-ethnic empires. Two great empires were dismembered as a result of the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

Before 1918 much of the Arabic-speaking world was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, often referred to simply as "Turkey". As a result, in early records your Syrian or Lebanese ancestors may be listed as being "Turks" or as being from "Turkey".

One such immigrant was Joseph Robbie, the father of Joe Robbie, the founder and original owner of the Miami Dolphins. In 1914 he married Jennie Reedy in Sisseton, South Dakota. In this record, which can be found in the South Dakota Marriages, 1905-1949 collection on, he is listed as a "Turk".

Just 6 years later he is listed as being from "Syria" in the 1920 Census.

Remember that just because your ancestor is listed as a "Turk" or as being born in "Turkey" does not mean that your ancestor were ethically Turks or spoke Turkish. Many of the immigrants from before WWI were Arabic-speaking Christians from what is now Lebanon and Syria.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Genealogy of Writing Systems

What do the surnames Staszak, Schöndorf, Chêneau and Jaroš have in common? Beside being in my family tree, they all share a common sound. Polish "sz", German "sch", French "ch" and Czech "š" are the same sound, the sound represented in English by the combination "sh" or in the International Phonetic Alphabet by the symbol "ʃ". Why are there so many ways of representing this sound in different languages?

To answer this question, we must understand that writing systems, like people, have genealogies. In this case, all these writing system have a common ancestor, Latin. The reason there are so many different ways of representing the "sh" sound is that this sound is not found in Latin. As the Latin alphabet came to be adopted for other languages, people came up with ways of representing sounds not found in Latin.

There are four ways to do this. The examples below show some of the many ways that the "sh" sound is represented.
1. Combine letters to represent new sounds (Polish "sz" German "sch" and English "sh")
2. Modify existing letters by adding extra symbols called diacritics (Czech "š" and Turkish "ş")
3. Use a letter in a new way (Maltese "x")
4. Create a new symbol or borrow one from a different writing system (I can't think of any examples for this sound, but there are cases for other sounds like Old Norse þ for the "th" sound in "thorn")
In many cases, especially with languages without a long written history, the new writing system was often created by an individual or a committee. However, in languages with long written histories, things are much more complicated. For example, French is an ancestor of Latin in two ways. It owes not only its alphabet to Latin, but the language itself. The "ch" which represents the "sh" sound developed from an earlier "k" sound, or hard "c". The development in this cases was more gradual and less deliberate.

Although we often assume a deep connection between a language and how it is written, this is perhaps the aspect of a language that is most easily changed. Turkey did away with the Arabic script in the first half of the twentieth century and adopted a modified Latin script. In some cases, a single language or two very closely related languages may adopt two different systems, like Serbian (Cyrillic script) and Croatian (Latin script) or Hindi (Devanagari script) and Urdu (Arabic script).

For genealogists, an awareness of these differences between scripts can come in handy. A single surname may be spelled in many ways depending on the context. For a German name starting with "sch" like Schulz, don't be surprised if it is rendered by an English speaker as Shulz. Things are especially complicated for a language like Czech. A name like Jaroš may be spelled Jarosch, as it frequently was when Bohemia was a part of the German-language-dominated Austrian Empire. In Poland, this name might become Jarosz and, in the English-speaking world, Jarosh. Knowing something about the history of your family and where they're from and the languages of the region can help you better search for your ancestors.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Where exactly are they from?

Obituaries can provide very valuable clues for discovering the origins of immigrant ancestors. However, you need to be careful with information that may have become lost in translation as it passed from the original immigrants to their children or newspaper editors who may not have known your ancestors' language as well or at all.

For example, the first paragraph of Henry Kappmeier's obituary1 provides information about where he and his wife were born.
Mr. H. Kappmeier was born at Furstenthum Waldech at Pyrmont, Germany, Dec. 14, 1830. He came to America in 1854 and married Maria Bergmann of Koenigriech, Hannover, April 11, 1858. Their marriage took place in the now Chicago Avenue Evangeical Lutheran church, Rev. Hartman officiating at the ceremony.
If you are not familiar with German, you may assume that Henry was born in a village called Furstenthum Waldech and his wife in a town called Koenigriech. A simple mistake was made either by Henry's descendants or the newspaper. Furstenthum and Koenigriech are not the names of places, but are the words Fürstentum, meaning "Principality", and Königreich, meaning "Kingdom". Henry was from the Principality of Waldeck and Maria was from the Kingdom of Hanover.

When dealing with a foreign language, the first and most important rule is not to make any assumptions. If you are having trouble locating a place with Google Maps, it might be worthwhile checking a good dictionary like BEOLINGUS, an online German dictionary. Some of the words that you think are just part of a place name may have a meaning that will help you better interpret your records.

1. A copy of the original obituary from the Beecher Herald (Beecher, IL) can be found at Karens-Gen.Com.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Bureaucratic Morass: Navigating French Records

The French Revolution brought us two things, a way of organizing the state and a word for describing it, "bureaucracy". Of course, government has always taken place at different levels. Some terms used to this day, like "county", are rooted in feudalism. Literally, a "county" is the domain of a count. Other terms for places are related to the organization of the church, for example, "parish" in Louisiana. Modern states have also added many other terms to an already complex vocabulary for the various divisions of the state.

For a genealogist, the many different levels of government can present difficulties. These words are in a sense untranslatable. The meaning of a term cannot be understood without reference to the particularities of the organization of a country. For an American, the term "state" has a significance which it will not have for other speakers of English. Thus when approaching a new country, it is important not only to translate the names of the various units of organization but understand the system on its own terms.

Making your way in France
The different levels of organization in post-Revolution France present their own particular difficulties for genealogists. The largest unit is the "région". The names of the regions will probably be the most familiar to you. They include "Alsace", "Aquitaine", "Brittany" and other famous names. If you have a family tradition concerning where your family is from in France, the names of the regions may provide important clues. However, you need to be careful because the names of regions may not always correspond to the more traditional use of these terms. The city of Nantes was traditionally a part of Brittany, but now belongs to the Pays de la Loire region.

The next level down is the "départment". This is the second most important level for genealogists. Departments maintain their own archives, many of which can be easily accessed online. In my own research, I have extensively used the websites for Côtes-d'Armor and Morbihan in Brittany and Loire-Atlantique in Pays de la Loire.

Below the department level are the "arrondissement" and the "canton". You can usually just ignore these levels.

Finally, you come to the "commune". The commune is the most important level for genealogists. This is the level at which most records are collected. So, if you are looking for a marriage, death or birth record, you will need to figure out the commune name.

So, to recap, you need to identify both the commune and department in which your ancestor lived. The department will tell you where you need to look for an archive with the correct records. Once, you have found the right place, you will need to find the records for the commune. Only knowing the birthdate and birthplace of my great-grandmother, I have been able to trace back her ancestry to before the French Revolution across three departments.