Pitfall 1: Tough-to-understand records
Pitfall 2: Name changes and translations
Pitfall 3: Elusive places of origin
Pitfall 4: Confusing dates
Another way to distinguish dates in Germanic records is the occasional reference to special days: Easter is Ostern, Pentecost (Whitsunday) is Pfingsten, Christmas is Weihnachten, and New Year’s Eve is Silvester.
Pitfall 5: Cultural myths
- Anabaptist: This movement gave rise to a number of religious groups, including Mennonites, Brethren, Amish, Hutterites, Baptists, Dunkards and Schwenkfelders. Adherents have as little as possible to do with civil government and the military. They dress simply and believe in personal faith. The term Anabaptist does not mean “anti-Baptist.” Rather, it means “rebaptism.” Anabaptists believed those baptized as infants didn’t understand the rite and must be rebaptized by their own choice.
- Hessians: You may remember these soldiers as mercenaries for the British in the American Revolution. But not all of the soldiers we call Hessians were from Hesse; many were from Waldeck, Brunswick, Anhalt-Zerbst, or Ansbach-Bayreuth. Sometimes the very colonists the Hessians were fighting against had emigrated a generation earlier from those same German-speaking lands. When a “Hessian” soldier was captured as a prisoner of war, he may have been sent to work for a farmer who understood his German language.
- Huguenots: These French Protestants dispersed after 1685, when King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes guaranteeing the freedom to practice their religion. Many Huguenots remained “underground” in France, while hundreds of thousands left for Switzerland, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Sometimes they kept their French language and culture, and sometimes they adopted the language and customs of those around them. Some Huguenots eventually immigrated to America.
- Moravians: Similar to Palatines and Hessians, Moravians don’t necessarily come from Moravia. Jan Hus founded the religion in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic, but Moravians’ European “headquarters” at the time of their emigration to America was far to the northwest in Herrnhut, Saxony.
- Palatines: In the 1700s, the Palatinate was a fragmented area along the Rhine River ruled by the prince-elector of the Palatinate. After 1815, the Palatinate was a contiguous area on the west side of the Rhine with its capital at Speyer and ruled by the King of Bavaria. The largest number of Germans in colonial America came from the Palatinate, so people tended to call all Germans Palatines no matter their origins.
- Pennsylvania Dutch: This misnomer describes Germans in William Penn’s colony. Though a handful of Hollanders or Netherlanders also may have lived there, the “Pennsylvania Dutch” were German-speakers from Germany. Because the German word for the German language is Deutsch, colonial Americans may have lumped Deutsch and Dutch together.
- Waldensians: This group, followers of Peter Waldo (1140-1217), split from the Catholic church. Many moved to the tolerant Dutch states, and from there left to start the New Netherland colony in America. Italian Waldensians emigrated alongside their countrymen in the late 1800s.
We’ve shown you the pitfalls in understanding records, names, places, dates and cultural groups. Don’t let these challenges stop you. You can overcome them, just as thousands of other Germanic researchers have. When one road to discovery looks blocked, keep searching for a detour to the information you seek.