Making the Case for Seeing the Bigger Picture

I volunteer in translation help groups on Facebook. Recently, these groups have become hugely popular among family history researchers of all levels. Members have found assistance with their German (and Russian, Italian, Hebrew, you name it) genealogical documents in the half a dozen or so groups on Facebook dedicated to this cause. It can be very rewarding to give that key piece of information that will enable someone to take the next step in their research, so I do enjoy helping out.

Yet, I often come away contemplating the value of my work there. Not so much because I am offering for free what I could be doing for a fee – I choose to put in a certain amount of volunteer time, and I stand by this choice. Rather, I am aware that the anonymity of the setting and the snapshots of research I get to see, put limits on how much I can help.

When we have the opportunity to see the bigger picture, we get better results. Here’s why:

  1. We have a larger sample of the handwriting for comparison. Handwriting styles vary surprisingly, by region, by person, and most significantly, by time period. Oftentimes, we will need to familiarize ourselves with the author’s individual style before we can provide a high quality translation.
  2. We learn about the family in their community. It’s so much easier to put the pieces of a puzzle into place when one has seen the full image. When we are familiar with the people, the places, the circumstances of their lives, we can more precisely convey the details.
  3. As professional researchers, we have knowledge of sources and strategies available to follow up on new information gleaned from a record. For example, when we learn the name of a village from a handwritten document, we can identify the location, find available records, and historical information, to assist the client in identifying the next steps in their research.

Here’s an example:

This is a marriage record from the Lutheran parish of Geismar, Hessen-Kassel:

1674 Marriage Hahn-Haberkorn

I read: den 5.ten November 1674. Adam Hanen undt Anna Martha Johannes Hebler Hawenk… tochter copuliret. which translates to: on 5 November 1674, Adam Hanen and Anna Martha, daughter of Johannes Hebler Hawenk… were married.

I cannot make out the surname of the father of the bride. Is it Hawenker? Hawerkem? Neither of these options are surnames that exist in Germany. And what is the significance of the crossed out word? Is it a surname? An occupation?

If I had offered to translate this record in a translation group, this is where the trail would end. With more in-depth examination of the parish register, however, I am able to translate this record as: Married on 5 November 1674: Adam Hahn and Martha, daughter of Johannes Haberkorn.

The -en ending in Hanen is the accusative case, a grammatical ending no longer customary with surnames in modern German. The surname is actually Hahn (spelled Han here). The scraggly writing of the bride’s surname spells out as Hawerkorn, as I learned from a record a few pages down. Phonetically, W and B are related sounds, and often interchangeable. In later records, Haberkorn is the prevalent spelling. Hebeler is another common surname in this parish. It appears the pastor simply made a mistake in noting the name. However, it could also point to a relation between the Hebeler and Haberkorn families, so I am taking note of this detail for future reference.

As you might have guessed, the correct identification of these two families led to the discovery of an additional generation on both the Hahn and the Haberkorn lines. I was able to achieve these breakthroughs through careful study of the records of the surrounding years.

The second example is less of a handwriting issue, but illustrates point 3, identification of a place. It shows how we came to find the HAHN family in Geismar in the first place.

Here’s an excerpt from the passenger manifest of the UHLAND, arriving in New Orleans from Bremen on 30 June 1854. We see a group of travelers from Hofgeismar, among them passenger no. 294, Johannes HAHN. These families all settled in Muscatine, Iowa, and until recently, their German hometown was unknown.

Hofgeismar, a town about 15 miles north of Kassel, turned out not to be the place. A disappointing search of Hofgeismar parish registers turned up no evidence of any of these families. What could have gone wrong? Did the record taker make up a place? Confuse towns? Bremen departure lists were destroyed, so they could not be cross-checked.

1854:6:30 NO Arrival

Again, expanding the view led to the answer. Above the party from Hofgeismar, we find a family from Udenborn, also headed for Iowa, and very possibly traveling with the Hofgeismar group. The study of a historical map shows that Udenborn is nowhere near Hofgeismar, but just down the road from another place: Geismar.

This is where Johannes HAHN, along with all others in his travel group, was found. A major breakthrough for the many descendants of these Muscatine County families was achieved. To date, over 300 persons have been identified in Geismar parish records (dating back to 1655) and linked to families on this passenger list – which thousands more yet to be discovered.

Neither of these successes could have been achieved without taking a step back to include the larger picture. Once this picture was in focus, the puzzle pieces fell into place with astonishing speed.

In my volunteer help, I have been attending to more clear-cut items such as deciphering names on old photographs, and notes on postcards. For these, crowdsourcing works beautifully. I have the greatest respect for the many generous people giving of their time in volunteer forums.  However, their ability to assist has limitations the serious researcher should take into account. The complexity of parish records, diaries, and old letters demands a more comprehensive approach. The rewards are, quite literally, innumerable.

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