Croatian Ties

Croatian Ties

Unravel shifting borders, changing rulers and other research binds with our guide to tracing Croatian roots.

If you’re looking for family ties — and what genealogist isn’t? — you may find “ties” of a different type in your Croatian lines. That’s because men’s modern-day neckwear traces its origins to Croatian mercenaries of 17th-century French King Louis XIII. In fact, cravat, the name for the forerunner of neckties and bow ties, is a corruption of the French word for “Croat.” Whether your ancestors were soldiers from now-independent Croatia or later immigrants to North America, you’ll find that records they left are the ties that bind you to your origins.

Tied to History

The Croats are first identified as a distinct Slavic group in the seventh century, when they moved following the shape of a crescent — first to the area between the Danube, Drava and Sava rivers (called Slavonia); then westward to the Gulf of Venice (Istria); and finally southward along the Adriatic coast (known as Dalmatia since Roman times).

They organized two dukedoms, and beginning in the 640s, the Croats converted to Christianity. After rule by Frankish kings including Charlemagne, the Kingdom of Croatia was created in 925 when Duke Tomislav united the dukedoms. The Venetian Republic and its successor states, though, for many years held some areas ethnic Croats inhabited along the Adriatic coastline.

Croatia — Hrvatska in the local tongue — was called a kingdom until the end of World War I in 1918, but it was independent only until 1102. For the next 400 years, Croatia was in personal union with Hungary — though some scholars claim Hungary occupied Croatia. Then, after the Ottoman Turks surged into to the area, resulting in the death of the Croatian and Hungarian King Louis II in the 1526 Battle of Mohacs, Hungarian and Croatian nobles elected a member of the Austrian Habsburg family as their king.

The Croats became part of the multiethnic Habsburg Empire, and even after the European powers began to drive back the Ottoman Turks in the 1600s, Croatia remained an area of border fortresses under Austrian military control. Land ownership was tied to military service; troops included Serbians and Germans as well as Croats, introducing some minority groups into the area. After the 1848 Hungarian revolution, Croatia spent 17 years subject to “Germanization” while under Austrian supervision, before moving to the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy.

In the 20th-century, the Croats became part of the Slav-dominated Yugoslavian conglomeration that resulted from the World Wars. They were briefly the nucleus of one of Adolf Hitler’s WWII puppet states. In 1991, Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, standing alone as a nation for the first time in nearly 900 years. Wars with Serbia — primarily regarding the status of Bosnia, which lies between the two countries — followed in the 1990s.

Starting Points

One of the basic concepts of genealogy is to chain together every possible American record for a particular ancestor before delving into documents abroad. Although the attic’s still the first place to explore for Croatian ancestors, you may be confused over ethnic identities (see box at left). Genealogy expert Adam S. Eterovich notes that records of a Croatian family in America might not yield useful information, especially regarding the crucial spelling of surnames.

“In many cases, individuals tracing their Croatian roots do not know the correct spelling of the name and location of village, town or city in Croatia,” Eterovich says, let alone the name and address of the church, city hall or archive. “I recommend researching Croatian benevolent societies, clubs, churches and cemeteries in America. In most cases, if your immigrant ancestor in America participated in these institutions, you will find the correct name recorded and the specific village or town of origin in Croatia.”

Not only will such organizations (find contact information in the toolkit) likely afford you the opportunity to break through Croatian brick walls, they also will give you windows to your ancestors’ traditional culture and social life. In addition, you’ll find some online projects keeping the Croatian identity alive. The Croatian Immigrant History Project is collecting old photos and short biographies of Croatians who emigrated before 1920, though its database has mostly southern Croatians from the Dubrovnik area who ended up in California. As you explore the websites in the toolkit, you’ll find genealogical jackpots in the many other “microprojects” dealing with relatively small areas.

Language can be a barrier — and not only the native Croatian tongue. Some areas, such as northern Dalmatia, might have parish records in Italian, Latin, Croatian and Hungarian during various eras, in addition to a Croatian dialect script called Glagolitic (see an article on Glagolitic script here). Because Croatia is home to a Serbian minority, its version of Serbo-Croatian written with a Cyrillic alphabet also can come into play.

For language help, use FamilySearch resources including a letter-writing guide and glossary of key words in Serbo-Croatian. They’re essential if you plan to write to Croatia — the number of English speakers is few, so record requests are unlikely to be answered unless you write in Croatian. Enclosing International Reply Coupons to cover return postage is also key to receiving a response (see a guide here).

Some of the toolkit resources also can help with “translating” names between the different languages in records. The active mailing list and message board on Croatia GenWeb, for example, can assist new researchers with language dilemmas.

The online Croatian Genealogy Newsletter is a terrific spot for finding new resources (check out its extensive bibliography). Quite a number of these are in Croatian, which means you’ll probably need language assistance from folks on the GenWeb site, the Croatian-English dictionary and Google translation tools.

Roots in Records

Today, almost 4 million Croatians live in Croatia, but an estimated 4.5 million have spread throughout the rest of the world. Some left their homeland as early as the Ottoman conquests in the 1500s, but most of the emigrants are more recent. Ethnic Croats dug into the 1849 California Gold Rush, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s and early 1900s that larger numbers of Croats migrated overseas, primarily for economic reasons. Their destinations included the United States (particularly industrial areas stretching from Pittsburgh to the Midwest) and Canada, as well as South America, Australia and New Zealand. Once you’re ready to trace your ancestors in Croatia, look for these records:

Church records: For many villages in Croatia, the best records will be those of the churches. In most cases, Croatians historically have been Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Greek Catholic. FamilySearch’s Family History Library (FHL) has microfilms of the parish registers from all these faiths. Search the library’s online catalog for the village name; you can rent film through your local FamilySearch Center.

In general, church registers include baptisms, marriages and deaths. Some begin as early as the 1460s and usually run through World War II. Most begin before the late 1600s, offering the opportunity to document quite a few generations. In addition to vital records, you can sometimes find confirmations and communion records, as well as a book called Knjiga Dusa (“A Book of Souls”), a genealogical record of any one generation that lists the man and woman upon marriage and each child as he or she was born, with comments about death and emigration. The FHL collection includes only church records deposited with the Croatian State Archives. If a village church’s records hadn’t made their way to the archives, you’ll need to write to the parish priest of that particular church to request the documents you are seeking. Look for directories of churches through the FHL. You can also write to regional archives for help. JewishGen has a primer online here.

Civil registration: Government tracking of births, marriages and deaths began only in 1946, after World War II heralded the reformation of Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was a republic. Local civil registry offices in city halls hold these records (look for small towns’ registries in the next larger town). Write to request these records. For contact info, try the directory of Catholic parishes.

Military records: Many Croatians, including those in Slavonia, are listed in the many rolls of military records from the Military Archives (known by its German name Kriegs archiv) in Vienna, Austria. Since Croatia spent much of the 1600s and early 1700s as part of the border, the military had a large role in its affairs in this era. The records are on FHL microfilm and end in 1869. Originals of the records relating to Croatia are in the Croatian State Archives (see toolkit). These records are in German, the language of the Austrian Empire.

Censuses: Some censuses, compiled beginning in 1785 for taxation purposes and others to facilitate conscription, exist in municipal and district archives (find addresses here).

The FHL has two rolls of census microfilms. A civil census was conducted during 1804-1805, and regular censuses were conducted in 1857, 1869, and every 10 years between 1880 and 1910.

When it comes to Croatian research, don’t let the challenges of language and changing jurisdictions fetter your research. Instead concentrate on using the available records as the ties that wrap your pedigree together into a fashionable bow.

Cryptic Croatians

Famed merchant and explorer Marco Polo might’ve had a Croatian birthplace. Ferdinand Konscak, who mapped out the peninsula now known as Baja California, was born in a tiny north Croatian town in the 1700s. And famed composer Joseph Haydn’s origins were Croatian.

If you’re saying, “Who knew?” join the crowd. And if it seems only remotely possible that you have Croatian ancestors, think again. Croatian origins are often obscured by centuries of subservience to other nations. This results not just in Croatian records being kept in other languages, but also in an ethnic identity confusion: Croatians might be noted in American records as Austrian, Hungarian, Venetian or Italian, depending on the time period and exact geographic origin.

Often, the way you can “repatriate” these misidentified ancestors is through notations about “mother tongue” in records (such as the US census, naturalizations or passenger lists). If the documents list “Croatian” or “Serbo-Croatian,” let that override notations of citizenship.

Tip: Use the letter-writing guide to help you compose records requests in Croatia.

Toolkit

Websites

Publications

  • Finding Your Ethnic-American Roots: Croatian by Robert D. Reed and Danek S. Kaus (Ultramarine Publishing Co.)
  • A Guide to Croatian Genealogy by Adam S. Eterovich (Ultramarine Publishing Co.)
  • Jugoslavija Auto Atlas (Yugoslavia Road Atlas) (Jugoslavenski Leksikografski Zavod)
  • Cassell’s New English-Croatian and Croatian-English Dictionary (MacMillian Publishing Co.)
  • Searching for Your Croatian Roots by Robert Jerin (self-published)

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From the July 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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