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Q. I think I found the name of town in Europe where my ancestor came from, but how do I find out where it was?
A. The single most important piece of information you need to trace your family abroad (besides their names, of course) is their home village or city, advises Family Tree Magazine editorial director Allison Stacy in the International Genealogy Passport CD.
Knowing just that they hailed from Poland or Portugal—or even a province such as Saxony or Sicily—won’t get you far. Most foreign records are kept and organized at the local level, just as they are in the United States. Even the Salt Lake City-based Family History Library (FHL) catalogs its holdings by locality.
Further, national identities and borders have changed significantly over the centuries. Italy as a unified nation has existed only since 1861, and Germany since 1871. The countries your ancestors left may not even be on the map anymore—think of Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Ottoman Empire (which once encompassed much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East). But archives and their records tended to stay put. So if your “Austrian” great-grandmother’s village is in what’s now the Czech Republic, you’d have little luck trying to find her birth or death records in modern-day Austria.
The impact of those political changes can trickle all the way down to the search for your ancestors’ town. In areas where land changed hands, cities may have had multiple names reflecting the languages of the various political entities in power. For instance, Bratislava, Slovakia, originated as Pressburg; Ribeauvillé in France’s Alsace region was known as Rappoltsweiler until the 1800s. Then there are the differences in English versus native-language spellings: We know Venezia, Italy, as Venice, and København, Denmark, as Copenhagen.
For these reasons, you shouldn’t make a mad dash to the atlas when you uncover a town of origin’s name in your research. First, figure out the correct spelling of that place, whether the name has changed since your family lived there, and if the word you’re looking at is a city at all. To do that, turn to a gazetteer, a geographical dictionary, for your ancestral country. Gazetteers tell you a town’s location (so you know where to look for it on a map), alternate names and jurisdictions it belongs to (district, province, even the parish in some cases).
When Stacy was researching one of her German lines, she found several different place names in family papers, including “Neustatt” (a misspelling of Neustadt) and Mittelfranken in Bavaria (Bayern in German). “With the help of an online gazetteer, I learned Bavaria has several towns and districts with Neustadt in their names, but only one in the province of Mittelfranken: Neustadt an der Aisch,” Stacy says. “That’s where I ultimately found records of my ancestors.”
You can find historical gazetteers at major public libraries, as well as the FHL and its branch Family History Centers (FHCs). We like the online worldwide gazetteers at <world-gazetteer.com> and <www.fallingrain.com/world/index.html>; check the listings for your ancestors’ region or try a Google search on the place plus gazetteer to find country-specific sites. Many online gazetteers even will plot towns on a map for you.
You’ll find more international research advice and hundreds of genealogy websites, books and repositories for discovering roots around the world in Family Tree Magazine’s International Genealogy Passport CD.