Eventually in your search for your immigrants' origins, you will almost surely locate a place name that appears to be the objective you were seeking. That all-elusive home town! While there will most likely be some excitement, and perhaps an audible gasp in that quiet library, it is necessary to treat this finding with some caution. Among the many records of our immigrant ancestors, there are many words masquerading as the home town that, in reality, are not what you are looking for. The purpose of this lesson is to alert you to these "problem" words, and teach how you can recognize them, in order to learn if you have actually reached your objective, or just another clue along the way.
Pitfalls to watch for
All too often, the term that North American researchers find associated with an immigrant is not really the town where the immigrant came from. Rather it is a different geographical term, or a very strange mutation of the place name, confused by the difference in languages. The good news is that these place names can be useful clues for continuing your research. Further, there are only about six different categories of "wrong names" to watch for. An understanding of the following kinds of problem terms will alert the researcher, and prevent seeking the immigrant in the wrong place:
- Cities that share provincial, county, or state names
- Port cities
- Large cities
- Multiple places with the same name
- Geographic names that are not towns
- Towns that have changed names
Cities that share provincial, county, or state names
City of York in YorkOne of the more common problems with places of origin relate to those places which are not just the names of a city or town, but also serve as the name of a larger jurisdiction, such as a state or province. Almost every country has such situations. Often it is the capital city that shares its name with that of the larger area. In many cases it is a large city, even if it is not the capital. In almost every such case, the place name is a great clue, but it seldom means that the immigrant came from the city of that name. Indeed, immigrants seldom left large cities (see the discussion below under that topic). Therefore, if the family tradition has your immigrant coming from Hanover, Germany, then it is best to assume that the German state, not city, of Hanover is meant.
Perhaps one of the most perplexing cases of this situation relates to the German state (duchy) of Baden (on the east side of the Rhein river). One of the localities in this beautiful area is the small town of Baden, today a resort known as Baden-Baden. However, many families whose ancestry comes from elsewhere in this duchy believe their family came from the town of Baden. While many residents emigrated from the state of Baden, if all those who are believed to have come from the town of Baden actually had lived there, this small, quaint town on the Rhein river would have rivaled the larger city of Freiburg as the largest in the state. There were simply not enough people in the entire town of Baden to account for all the persons believed to have come from there. The only explanation is that they came from elsewhere in the duchy of Baden.
Here are some examples of other city/state names to watch for. In each case, you should presume the immigrant came from the state or county of that name, rather than the city.
- Bern, Switzerland
- Brandenburg, Prussia
- Carmarthen, Wales
- Cork, Ireland
- Darmstadt, Germany
- Genoa, Italy
- Gloucester, England
- Granada, Spain
- Kassel, Germany
- Odense, Denmark
- Orléans, France
- Posen, Prussia
- York, England
A second major point of confusion in dealing with towns where immigrants lived are the many port cities from which they may have left. All too often researchers find the name of a foreign city and believe it is the town where the family lived, when in reality it is only the port from which they left. This seems to be a particular problem with the thousands of Germans who settled Pennsylvania before the Revolutionary War (before about 1780). Often these immigrants are wrongly called "Pennsylvania Dutch" which contributes to the confusion. The surviving ship arrival lists for Pennsylvania mention the port where the ship departed. Most of these ships left from Rotterdam, a Dutch port in the Netherlands (Holland). However, these immigrants were Germans who had sailed up the Rhein river, into another country (the Netherlands), where they booked passage to America. Untrained researchers, seeking their Pennsylvania "Dutch" families find the ship list, with the notation of Rotterdam, and assume the family came from that city, when they only came through, or "via," that port. (By the way, the word "Dutch" in this usage is a corruption of the German word, Deutsche, meaning German.)
Many researchers have a similar problem in confusing port names with actual towns of origin. American port arrival records and naturalization records often name only the foreign port, which some persons misinterpret as the town name. Here is a map showing many of the major European ports of departure. Among the major ports, watch for the following:
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Antwerp, Belgium
- Belfast, Ireland
- Bergen, Norway
- Bremen, Germany
- Cobh (Queenstown), Ireland
- Copenhagen, Denmark
- Danzig, Poland (formerly Prussia)
- Dublin, Ireland
- Genoa, Italy
- Glasgow, Scotland
- Gothenberg, Sweden
- Hamburg, Germany
- Hull, England
- Le Havre, France
- Liverpool, England
- London, England
- Londonderry, Ireland
- Olso, Norway
- Palermo, Italy
- Rijeke (Fiume), Austria
- Rotterdam, Netherlands
- Southampton, England
- Trieste, Austria and Italy
While it is certainly possible that immigrants were born and raised in a port city, it was uncommon. Treat any reference to a port city as just that, a suggestion of where the immigrant sailed from, not where they lived for any appreciable length of time.
Sometimes, in the course of research, the family learns the name of a large city, such as London or Berlin, from which the immigrant was said to have come. In most cases however, the immigrant did not come from that city. Immigrants were coming to a new country, where many of their neighbors, notably those who were not from the immigrants' country, did not know the geography of the immigrants' home land. However, they may have known a few of the larger cities. Much like today's American who lives in the suburbs may describe his residence in terms of a nearby city, so did our immigrant ancestors. It may have been simpler to mention a city that others knew about, rather than an obscure village that a clerk may not even be able to spell. In one recent research case, we found naturalization records for three brothers, each giving a different place name. One said only Prussia, another gave Posen, and the third named the specific town where he had been born. In this case, all of them were right, to a degree. The town was in Prussia, not far from the large city of Posen.
There is no list of "large cities" to watch for, for each immigrant decided on his own how to describe their place of origin. However, whenever you find a place name, determine just how large and/or popular that place was. The larger it was, the less likely that the immigrant was actually a resident of that city.
Before you wonder why he would not be from a large city (after all, wasn't that where most of the people lived, so isn't it likely that some immigrants came from large cities?), consider a few points: First, when our immigrants left home, most of the population was not in large cities; most of the people lived in small towns. Second, the very reasons a person would migrate (better economic possibilities) are the reasons to attract them to large cities. Indeed, many families lost several children to migration, but not all went to North America or another foreign country. Many family members simply migrated to a different town, and more often than not, to a large city where work was more plentiful. Perhaps this situation is best summarized by asking the question: Why did big cities get big? Certainly not because their residents left for foreign shores. Rather, large cities attracted new population.
When you find the name of a large city in the research on your immigrant, this can be a good clue, as it suggests an area where they might have lived. However, the larger the city, the smaller the clue. Capital cities are often mentioned (such as London or Berlin), even when the immigrant lived 50 or more miles away.
Multiple places with the same name
The next problem that immigrant researchers often find is that there are several towns with the same name in the ancestral country. This can confuse your research, as it may be difficult to determine which of several such towns an immigrant came from. There are several reasons why this happens. It is common in the German areas because originally there was no Germany, rather there were dozens of separate states, and similar place names were used, but with less confusion, as they were not all in Germany. For example, today there are at least 10 towns (mostly with church parishes) named Althiem in Germany (as well as at least one in Austria). Of those ten towns, one each is in Hesse and Bavaria. Three are in Baden, while five are in Wuerttemberg, each in a different district. Indeed, often it is only by the district to which they belong that we can tell the towns apart. This means it may be necessary to learn about neighboring towns in North American records to help distinguish between home towns with the same name.
The smaller the country from which the immigrant came, the less of a problem this situation may be, but the problem of multiple towns with the same name does occur in smaller countries as well. The German state of Lippe has perhaps 100 parishes, yet two of them carry the same name: Cappel. In the Netherlands, the city Hoorn also competes with six villages which share that name.
Note that this is not just a problem for non-English speaking countries. Great Britain has a quantity of shared town names as well. One standard atlas identifies seven towns named Newport, a common name. However, the same source also lists three different towns called Twyford, each in a different county. Comprehensive gazetteers will undoubtedly list even more places which share these names.
Geographic names that are not towns
A less common, but equally difficult situation, is learning that the place name you found is not a city or town, but rather a different geographic level. Usually these terms apply to a region, state, province, or area of the home country. Sometimes this area has well defined boundaries, at other times it is only a vaguely defined area. For example, many Americans are aware of Appalachia, but it does not appear on maps, as it has no clearly defined boundaries. Indeed, many gazetteers will not list it either, as it is not a formal jurisdiction.
The same situations exist in our immigrant ancestors' home countries. Many of those countries, such as Norway and England, have re-named their counties, or developed different jurisdictions (departments rather than provinces in France). This often obscures old regional names, such as Brittany, that were well understood by the immigrants of their time, but may not appear on maps today. In Italy, the terms Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany, and Sicily refer to regions of the country. While they do appear on maps, there are no cities with those names, rather dozens or even a hundred cities within those regions.
Denmark is very much a country of islands, and immigrants may designate their home by the island where it was located, such as Fyn or Sjv¶lland. Franconia is difficult to locate on German maps, but this area comprises two administrative districts in the old Kingdom of Bavaria: Upper and Lower Franconia. Many of our colonial English ancestors came from East Anglia, but this is not a town. Rather, it is a region in east central England, comprising several different counties. Sometimes an immigrant may describe his home in terms of the mountain range or river where he lived. In addition to comprehensive gazetteers, you may need to use an historical dictionary or encyclopedia of the foreign country to learn just what the immigrant meant by the term he or she used.
Towns that have changed names
The final concern to discuss in this lesson relates to the ever-changing map of our immigrant's country. Certainly this is more of a problem for some countries than others, but this is a caution we all must heed. Over time, towns may have changed their names. Usually this is due to a foreign government taking over the territory and, often with a different language involved, renaming many cities. In parts of central Europe, where the German influence was strong for many centuries, some towns have a German name, as well as one or two in the local language(s).
However, town names can change for many different reasons. One interesting example is the city of Kitchner, Ontario. Prior to World War I, the city was known as Berlin, but that proved to be an unpopular name when Canada was fighting a war with a country whose capital shared the same name. In England, the ancient county of Salop has evolved, over time, to the more commonly recognized Shropshire, although both terms are still used.
School children often learn that Istanbul used to be Constantinople, and within the past decade we have seen Russia re-name Leningrad as Petrograd. However, that northern Russian city was founded in 1703 as St. Petersburg (for the Russian Czar, Peter the Great) and served as the capital of the Russian Empire until 1917. Actually, Petrograd is the Russian name the city had from 1914 to 1924, before it became Leningrad. A variety of historical events, often related to the reigning government, caused the following changes:
- Allenstein (Prussia) became Olsztyn (Poland)
- Breslau (Germany) became Wroclaw (Poland)
- Christiania became Oslo (Norway)
- Kv?nigsberg (Prussia) became Kaliningrad (Soviet Union)
- Memel (Prussia) became Klaipedia (Lithuania)
- Pressburg (Austria) became Bratislava (Czech)
- Tilsit (Lithuania/Poland) became Sovetsk (Soviet Union), and is now Tilsit again
The changes in eastern and central Europe have been so vast and numerous during the past two centuries, that entire gazetteers have been published to track these name changes. Other changes are documented in city or country histories. Although not a common problem (except for German areas outside modern Germany), astute researchers will watch for this situation as they evaluate any immigrant place names they find.
Actually, these problems are not as difficult to overcome as they may seem. The first step is awareness: knowing what the problems may be so you do not fall into the same trap your fellow researchers have experienced. This lesson itself is a major step in that direction. The second step is caution when dealing with what appear to be place names. Ponder the situations described here (see the assignment below). The third step is when you do find a situation described here, use that information as a clue to further research. You will now have perhaps a small region of the country, or a neighboring city to help narrow the possibilities. Even when dealing with multiple places with the same name, you have narrowed the possibilities. Indeed, in later lessons we will discuss sources in the home country that may locate a place name. The clues you develop in working through any of these identification problems will be critical to your success when using such an approach.
Now, for your assignment, review the documents you have found that appear to name your immigrant's home town. Carefully review these six kinds of problems to see if any might pertain to one of your immigrants. If so, review this lesson to see the best way to overcome the problem, or see if any other clues you have help to determine the correct place.
Actually, there is one other problem that many researchers face; the ancestral language. If the immigrant was not from an English-speaking country, then his or her native language sometimes creates additional problems when reading the place name. This is the subject of our next lesson.