Now What: Missing Lenk

Now What: Missing Lenk

Expert answers on German origins.

Q. I’ve made little headway on my Hondlenk line. I assumed the name was German, but a friend went to Germany and asked everyone about it. Germans told her the name is probably Dutch or Danish. Now I don’t know what nationality it is.

A. From the genealogical material you sent, it looks like the source for your assumption is John Hondlenk’s listing in the 1860 Louisiana mortality schedule, with the place of birth as Germany. (Census mortality schedules list those who died the year before the census was taken from 1850 through 1880.)
You don’t give John Hondlenk’s birth year, but the definition of “Germany” has changed throughout history. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Germany—then a group of states, the largest being Prussia—covered much of Central Europe. Various wars and treaties led it to gain and lose territory over the years. Germany didn’t exist as a unified nation until 1871. Its changing boundaries resulted in many Germans living outside the borders, and many non-Germans living inside Germany. John Hondlenk may have been born in Germany without being ethnically German, and his birthplace may or may not be in today’s Germany. See the December 2006 Family Tree Magazine for help sorting out these boundary changes and population movements.
Surnames aren’t fixed through history, either. Your ancestor’s original name might be a variation of Hondlenk or something else entirely. Immigrants often changed their names to sound more American. Our writer Nancy Hendrickson, who wrote about researching surnames in the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine, says she always assumed her Shore family was from Britain, but she later learned Shore is a variation of the Swiss Schorr.
Finally, don’t rule out the possibility that the mortality schedule could be wrong. Someone may have provided the census taker with the wrong information, or the census taker may have misheard. Or perhaps your ancestor lived in Germany, or left for America from a German port, but wasn’t born there.

Focus less on determining the nationality of the name, and instead try to find John Hondlenk’s town or parish of origin, which you’ll need to research him in Europe. Keep plugging away on this side of the pond: Study his relatives and neighbors; look for church, court and other records; and try to connect with other Hondlenks on surname message boards such as Gen­Forum.

From the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine

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