Researching Romanian and Bulgarian Roots

Researching Romanian and Bulgarian Roots

Learn how to discover your roots in Bulgaria and Romania.

When it comes to buried treasure, the southeastern European countries of Bulgaria and Romania seem to have it in abundance. Bulgaria’s plentiful Thracian artifacts include tombs filled with gold dating back as far as 4,000 BC—described as an “El Dorado” by National Geographic in 2006. Neighboring Romania’s history sparkles with enchanting castles, palaces and vampire legends, as well as one of the earliest human fossils, found in its anthropologically famous Pestera cu Oase (“Cave With Bones”).

Perhaps your genealogical quest to trace your Bulgarian or Romanian ancestors feels like an archeological dig through those hidden treasures of their homeland: You find yourself sifting through layers of family lore, bits and pieces of information, mystery photographs and cryptic ephemera. How do you unearth the buried treasures of your family tree? Channel your inner Indiana Jones and follow this guide.

First steps

Tracing ancestors back to Bulgaria or Romania is similar to researching kin from other East European countries. Your first objective is to identify the immigrant’s original name and, even more important, the family’s home village. These details will serve as the foundation for further research.

When seeking this information, be careful to avoid treating family lore as fact. Contrary to popular belief, for example, immigrants’ names weren’t changed at Ellis Island. Immigration clerks there never recorded names, they simply checked against a list filled out at the port of departure. So on passenger arrival lists, you’ll most likely find your ancestors by the names they used in the old country.

Dig for clues to names and the village in old family documents (look for letters and envelopes, naturalization certificates, photographs, obituaries and so forth). Then search every possible record you can find of your family on this side of the ocean—including but not limited to vital and census records, church documents, burial and cemetery records, naturalization petitions, school records and fraternal organization records. US census records generally list only a country of origin or a native language, rather than a specific town; passenger lists and naturalization records may be more specific.

You can search extant passenger lists for US ports on subscription site Ancestry.com. For New York arrivals, try the free Ellis Island database (registration required). If you strike out, Stephen P. Morse’s One-Step passenger search is designed to help you overcome transcription errors and other issues that can throw off your search. For example, on Morse’s Ellis Island Gold Form search, you can check ethnicity boxes for Bulgarian or Romanian to narrow your search.

Naturalization records and indexes are becoming increasingly available on websites such as Ancestry.com and Family­Search.org. You can order records from 1906 and later through the US Citizenship and Immigration Service Genealogy Program.

Earlier records are generally with the court where the immigrant filed them, so check courts in places your ancestor lived. See the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine for on finding naturalization records.

Once you’ve determined a place or origin, you’ll also need to know what jurisdiction the village is in now, as well as historically. Maps, atlases and gazetteers—geographical dictionaries that list all localities and often key identifiers such as churches—will be your key excavation tools. Start with the Foundation for East European Family History Studies online Map Library and the A Monarchia III. Katonai Felmérése (Third Military Mapping Survey of Austria-Hungary). JewishGen has a good rundown of Romania’s historical regions.

 
Consult the FamilySearch Wiki for helpful gazetteers: Select the entries for Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary (whose 19th-century empire encompassed the other two countries). Armed with key family facts and geographical guides, you’ll be ready to begin your overseas roots expedition.

Romanian research tips

Romania has long been a land of ethnic diversity. Romanians are the primary ethnic group, but the area also has been home to Hungarians, Ukrainians, Germans, Serbs, Roma (Gypsies), Jews and others over a history stretching back to the year 106, when the Roman Empire under Trajan expanded into what’s now Romania. In fact, the name Romania (Latin: Romanus) means “citizen of the Roman Empire.”

Immigration: The history of Romanians in America is relatively short. A small group of Romanians immigrated to California during the 1849 gold rush, but lack of success drove them to Mexico. The first major influx of Romanians took place between 1895 and 1920, when 145,000 émigrés from Wallachia, Moldavia and other areas arrived in the United States. The threat of Nazi occupation of Romania during World War II spurred another surge of immigrants.
 
Key history: Romania’s map has changed considerably over its long history. The original Romanian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia make up most of the eastern half of modern Romania. To the west, Transylvania (yes, that Transylvania) and part of the Banat were formerly in the old kingdom of Hungary. The eastern coastal area of Dobruja belonged to Bulgaria under Turkish rule until 1878.
 

Romania became a kingdom in 1881. Following the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Romania expanded to include Transylvania, Bukovina, part of Banat, and the Russian province of Bessarabia. In 1945, it ceded the Bessarabian portion of Moldavia and part of Bukovina to the Soviet Union.

Geographical aids: What does this patchwork of peoples and political changes mean for your research? Pinpointing the correct spelling of your ancestral village name and its jurisdiction becomes more challenging. You may have multiple languages to deal with: For example, the Transylvanian city of Brasov is known as Brassó in Hungarian and Kronstadt in German.

Maps can be helpful, but gazetteers are better because of the further identifying detail they provide. A useful gazetteer of modern Romania is the 1974 Index of Localities of Romania, or Indicatorul Localitatilor din Romania (Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste Romania), on FamilySearch microfilm 1181561 (item 1). For places in Transylvania formerly under Hungarian rule, try the 1877 Gazetteer of Hungary, or Magyar Helsegnevtara, by Janos Dvorzak (Havi Fuzetek), on FamilySearch microfilms 599564 (volume 1) and 973041 (volume 2). This gazetteer will help you determine the former Hungarian spelling, and the nearest parish or synagogue; read the gazetteer guide.

Gazetteers exist for Transylvania, Banat and Bukovina, as well, so check the FamilySearch catalog for films you can rent for viewing at your local FamilySearch Center or get via interlibrary loan. The German-language Bukovina gazetteer Gemeindelexikon der im Reichsrate Vertretenen Königreiche und Länder, Bd. 13 Bukowina shows where people attended religious services—which is where the vital records normally were kept. Wallachia, Moldavia, and Dobruja lack gazetteers readily available to US researchers.

Administrative divisions: Knowing the jurisdiction of the village is critical for anticipating the type of records available. Romanian, Hungarian, and Austrian record-keeping traditions varied. For instance, civil registration began in Moldavia and Wallachia in 1865, the Hungarian Empire in 1895, and in Austria only after World War II. But religious vital records and transcripts created for civil authorities exist for all places back to earlier periods.
Romania has 43 archive branches, one for each judetul (district), plus a central archive and municipal archive in Bucharest. For areas previously in Hungary, note that current boundaries of these districts often don’t correspond to the historical boundaries.

Once you start research in the old country, you’ll focus on the following records:

Church records: Because civil registration began relatively late, religious vital records— Roman Catholic, Calvinist/Reform, Lutheran, and Jewish—will figure prominently into your research. Each denomination maintained its own set of records. In most cases, the religious authorities kept their own records after 1895, but were no longer required to do so by the civil authorities. Hungarian church records from the 1700s and 1800s—available on FamilySearch microfilm—cover parts of present-day Romania. To find them, do a place-names search of the FamilySearch catalog <www.familysearch.org/catalog-search> (type Hungary into the Places box) and look under the Church Records heading. You can then order microfilm for a small fee to view at your local FamilySearch Center <www.familysearch.org/locations/centerlocator>.

Civil registration: By law, government vital records are kept in local civil records offices and parish offices for 75 years, then transferred to the state archives in Bucharest or the district capital. Romanian civil registrations are restricted because they’re considered identity documents, so your best chance is to acquire the religious copy if you can.

Censuses: The Austro-Hungarian Empire conducted censuses in Transylvania, Banat and Bukovina in 1785, 1805, 1828, 1857, 1869, 1880, 1890, 1900 and 1910. Romania took censuses in 1912, 1930, 1941, 1956 and 1966. Except for Family­Search microfilm of a few early Austro-Hungarian census returns for parts of Transylvania, these records are accessible only at the national archives of Romania and Hungary. A 1942 Jewish census covering Moldova and Ukraine is available on JewishGen <www.jewishgen.org> and Ancestry.com.

FamilySearch hasn’t microfilmed records from the Romanian national archives, excepting records of the ethnic German minority in Banat and Transylvania Saxon villages (which were filmed in Germany).

Although you might have luck doing research by correspondence in Romanian (use FamilySearch’s letter-writing guide to compose your requests), hiring a professional researcher is usually the most effective route for tapping into Romanian records. Consult a list of online researchers.

Sometimes you may find records in unexpected places. For example, Ancestry.com has a limited number of databases unique to Romania. These are mostly resources from Bessarabia (now Moldova), some of which you can search for free. If your research expedition leads you into the neighboring countries of Macedonia and Turkey, get tips from the FamilySearch Wiki.

Bulgarian genealogy strategies

The Republic of Bulgaria is the third-largest country in southeastern Europe. With a landscape of both mountainous regions and fertile low plains, Bulgaria borders Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and the Black Sea. It’s situated in the geographical territory today referred to as the Balkans, along with Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), and Bosnia Herzegovina.
 
The history of this entire area is highly complex, due to successive waves of invasions, partitions, sporadic anarchy and internal turmoil. Despite its turbulent history Bulgaria is the oldest surviving European state to have kept its original name—since 681, when the Bulgars invaded the south Danube region.

Notably, Bulgarians were the first people to use the Cyrillic alphabet after its inception in the ninth century. The recognition of the Bulgarian Patriarchate by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 927 makes the Bulgarian Orthodox Church the oldest Slavic Orthodox Church in the world.

Immigration: Bulgarians first started immigrating to the United States in large numbers between 1903 and 1910. Approximately 50,000 ethnic Bulgarians arrived from Turkish-occupied Macedonia and from Bulgaria proper. They sought economic opportunity and to escape overpopulation and unemployment. After this time, Bulgarian immigration never boomed the way immigration from other southern and eastern European countries did. Then, in 1924, the National Origins Act limited the number of Bulgarians who could enter the United States to a mere 100 a year (the quota was lifted in 1965). During restricted years, some Bulgarians are believed to have entered with non-Bulgarian passports or via other routes in Canada or Mexico. Be aware that Bulgarians may be recorded as Turks, Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, Russians or Yugoslavs in American records.
The Bulgarian and Macedonian Cultural Center in West Homestead, Pa., houses correspondence, legal documents, manuscripts, files and oral histories of immigrants who lived and worked in America since the late 19th century, as well as other Bulgarian and Macedonian ethnography.
 

Key history: Keep in mind that Bulgaria was under the former Ottoman Empire from 1396 to 1878. It was the first state to join the Ottoman Empire and the last to be liberated (by the Russian army).

Bulgaria became an autonomous principality under Ottoman control. Eastern Rumelia, the southeastern portion of Bulgaria, was added to the country in 1885. Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria used the Young Turk revolution in the Ottoman Empire to his advantage by proclaiming Bulgaria’s full independence in 1908 and assuming the title of czar.

Bulgaria added more territory by 1913 during the Balkan wars. It aligned with Germany in both World Wars. Following decades under the Soviet sphere of influence, Bulgaria became an independent country in 1990.

Administrative divisions: Bulgaria is divided into 28 districts (provinces), each taking its name from its respective capital city. The provinces subdivide into 264 municipalities.

In addition to the geographic aids mentioned earlier, the 1989 Dictionary of Villages and Village names in Bulgaria, 1878-1987 (in Bulgarian, Rechnik na Selishchata i Selishchnite Imena v Bulgariia, 1878-1987) by N. Michev and P. Koledarov (Nauka i Izkustvo) is a helpful tool for identifying Bulgarian jurisdictions. This book—along with several history and genealogy volumes from the districts of Blagoevgrad, Burgas, Khaskovo, Lovech, Mikhailovgrad, Razgrad and Varna—are available at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, or see if you can get them through interlibrary loan.

Prior to the communist period, the Cyril and Methodius National Library served as a Bulgarian archive of sorts. An official archive system formed during the communist era. Each of the 28 districts has an archive, and the Central State Archives in Sofia serves as a national archive. Read more online about Bulgaria’s archives system and find addresses for local archives (click the English link in the upper right corner). Note that some Bulgarian records for the Ottoman period are in Turkey and Greece.

Civil registrations: Bulgaria instituted civil registration in 1893. Records are housed in district archives. FamilySearch has microfilmed civil registrations for the districts of Sofia and Plovdiv only—these usually cover 1893 to 1912.

Church records: Churches recorded vital events before the government did. You’ll find church vital registers mainly from the Bulgarian Orthodox and Roman Catholic religions; these typically date back to 1850, and as early as 1797 for some Catholic books.

Most church records are still located in the churches that created them. A few parish registers have been gathered into district archives and the national museum. The records list names, parents’ names, residences, and the dates and places of the events. Some marriage and death entries give ages. Baptisms also name godparents, and death records sometimes provide a cause of death. A record also may note the residences of people from outside the parish.

To get Bulgarian church records, you must either write to the church, do research on-site or hire a local professional to do the research for you. The latter is usually the most effective option; find contacts on Bulgarian GenWeb.

Censuses: Bulgaria conducted its first national census in 1880, just after liberation from Ottoman rule. Unfortunately, the name lists for 19th-century censuses haven’t all been preserved. Ottoman censuses of males— taken for purposes of taxation and military conscription—covering 1831 to 1872 are believed to be housed in the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul, Turkey.

Scarce information is available on other Bulgarian sources, including land, probate and military records. The Central State Archive has some genealogical collections, and community libraries hold compiled genealogies. There are some genealogical collections in the Central Historical Archive, and compiled genealogies exist in some community libraries (reading halls) but researchers should have realistic expectations regarding the extent of these collections.

Because of Bulgaria’s alliance with Germany in both world wars, records for certain ethnic groups, such as Sephardic Jews, may be hard to find. Learn about tracing Sephardic roots in the May/June 2013 Family Tree Magazine.

Language help

If you have trouble finding your Bulgarian or Romanian ancestors in indexes and databases, one problem could be the differences in names and alphabets between American records and those from the old country. Romanian, for example, uses 28 letters (31 since 1982) rather than the English 26, while the Bulgarian alphabet has 32 letters. At first glance, you might mistake some characters for a bunch of squiggles. For help, consult the Bulgarian alphabet and Romanian alphabet.

Considering most North Americans’ unfamiliarity with East European tongues, the prospect of actually reading your ancestors’ records might also seem overwhelming, as does the potential variety of languages you might encounter. Bulgarian records were kept in Bulgarian (whose Cyrillic alphabet poses an added challenge), Turkish, Greek and Old Church Slavonic. You’ll find help with some common Bulgarian genealogy words here.

Records from western Romania and Transylvania are usually in Hungarian and sometimes in German. Elsewhere, they might be in Romanian or even written in Cyrillic. Download a list of Romanian genealogical terms.

Although resources and guides may not be as plentiful for Bulgarian and Romanian genealogy as for other heritage groups, don’t let that discourage you—you’re not alone in your quest to learn about your past. Forge connections with fellow family historians on message boards, forums, blogs and social media websites. For example, the Romanian Genealogical Society has an active Facebook page where researchers exchange tips and ideas. By drawing on the perseverance of your Bulgarian and Romanian immigrant ancestors, you can dig up buried genealogical treasure and bring your family history to light.
 
 
 
 

Timeline

500 BC | Thracian tribes settle in southeastern Bulgaria
681 BC | Bulgarian state is established
100 | Romans rule Bulgaria
395 | Bulgaria joins Eastern Roman Empire
846 | Bulgars convert to Christianity
890s | Bulgarian scholars create early form of Cyrillic alphabet
1018 | Byzantine Empire absorbs Bulgaria
1185 | Bulgaria rises in rebellion
1330 | Serbs defeat Bulgars in Battle of Velbuzhd
1396 | Turks conquer Bulgaria
1463 | Vlad Dracul “the Impaler” becomes Prince of Wallachia
1859 | Moldavia and Wallachia merge, forming modern Romania
1878 | Treaty of Berlin splits Bulgaria in two; Romania achieves independence
1908 | Bulgaria gains independence
1916 | Germany and Bulgaria declare war on Romania
1938 | King Carol II of Romania establishes dictatorship
1944 | Russians occupy Bulgaria, gradually introducing communist regime
1955 | Romania joins Warsaw Pact
1989 | Communist governments collapse in Eastern Europe
2004 | Bulgaria and Romania join NATO
2007 | Bulgaria and Romania join the European Union
 
Tip: Bulgarian names consisted of a given name, a patronymic, and a family name. A child would take his father’s patronymic as his family name, so the son of Petar Stoyanov Ivanov would be Georgi Petrov Stoyanov.
 
Tip: Romania instituted fixed surnames in the mid-19th century. Many names are patronymics ending in -escu (such as Petrescu) or places of origin ending in -eanu (as in Moldoveanu, “from Moldova”). Some Romanians with non-Romanian names adopted Romanianized versions of their names.
 

More Online

 
 
 
From the July/August 2014 Family Tree Magazine 

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