Monday, March 28, 2011

Lions and Tigers and Westfalen--Oh my!

This past year I "stumbled" upon a goldmine of a genealogical find. You know the type--you gasp in awe of it, knowing that it is about to open up generations of research doors to you, and life will never quite be the same. Such a moment hit while tracing my ancestor's children through census records in the 1900's. One of these distant great-uncle's of mine happened to list the hometown of his German father--a hometown I assumed in my 12 years of research that I would never know the name of. Through a little google-ing and mapquest-ing, I finally figured out the correct spelling of this town name provided by (my now favorite) distant-great-uncle:
Westenholz, Germany.

Up to this point in my life, I considered myself a PDG researcher (Pretty Darn Good)--I could whip up a 4-5 generation American pedigree chart in a short amount of time, while still sitting around in my pajamas at home. I'd have it fully sourced, with notes of explanations. I had frequented the Delaware State Archives since my childhood (literally), and broke through difficult brick walls using land records, Bible records, and late-night-umbrella-wielding graveyard sleuthing. While others sat in their cars wondering if ghosts were going to get them, I was out there with my flash light, hoping that if they came, they'd at least let me in on a birthdate or two!

But....Germany? I didn't know whether to feel at a loss, or remain in blissful ignorance of how "easy" family history research could be. I know I had taken a Latin Paleography class (a fancy term meaning "how to read old Latin handwriting") in college--but that had been years ago. Would I even need it now? I had even sat through a few German Research classes at the FHL the previous Summer--but still wasn't sure how that would help me.

Shaking off my nerves, I pushed up my sleeves, got dressed, and made a trip to the Family History Library. Surely, I could find something there.

And, surely, I did :)

Hoping against hope, I drew upon what I knew: our family was filled with stories of my grandfather's strict Catholic grandmother. If she had been so faithful, probably her German immigrant father was Catholic back in the old country. Just my luck, the FHL had Catholic church records from Westenholz! After a quick lesson in basic reading of baptism records in German, I came across his name on the birthdate he celebrated in the states:

Jodocus Hermann Höber, son of Ludwig Höber and Elisabeth Moerfeldt.

My mind reeled, my heart beat increased 10-fold, and I held back the tears as I realized that I had just broken across the Atlantic Ocean barrier--I was sitting face to face with my great-great-great Grandfather's German birth record.

I sat hours that day, writing down names and discovering a new-found love for Catholic Church records. Why couldn't all my ancestors be Catholic? These were fantastic! Often a marriage date and spouse, or death date was noted in the margins of a birth record. Siblings were easy to find, families pieced together with ease, and the matriarchs of each family seemed to enjoy the steady rhythm of birthing children every 2 years. Ages and parents were listed on Marriage records, occupations printed, and cause of death explanations quickly pulled at my heart strings, binding my heart to theirs. A definite connection was quickly formed
with the people of my past that I had not even been aware of one week before.

Six months of gleeful research followed. When difficulties arose in the records (why is there always a second name listed? Farm names, what's that??), a consultant was always available to educate and advise me. And imagine my satisfaction when I discovered the pre-1800 records all written in Latin. Helllllllo college education! Many prayers of thanks were sent heavenward as both the paleography class and my Spanish fluency kicked in. I began to tackle the church records written in difficult script, and started to even brag a little to my husband that I felt I was getting pretty good with these "advanced German records".

Enter: Robringhausen, Germany.

(note how much I had to zoom up on this one, to even see the town!)

That's right. By this time, thanks to, I had found the Passenger List records of Hermann Höber's in-laws, also from the Old Country. My delight in finding them had been stopped short by what I assumed was a misprint in town of origin (Google couldn't even fathom a name close to "Robingshausen". And why was the wife and daughter going by a different last name than the husband? Later census records listed their marriage date as 4 years after their first daughter being born--surely a misprint. Or....perhaps she was from a previous marriage of the wife? ) I felt utterly confused, and completely defeated. I put my questions on the shelf, and concentrated on conquering the documentation of all my Westenholz family branches.

As my confidence in searching the German records grew, I decided to revisit the above "brick-wall". I had just corresponded with a distant cousin from the Westenholz line, who shared with me that most German immigrants to St. Charles County, Missouri were from one of two cities in Germany. While mapquest-ing these cities, I found Westenholz 10 miles north of them....and to my mouth-gaping-open surprise, saw a town named Robringhausen 10 miles south of them. Could it be?

A quick search of the FHL catalog left me again empty handed. They, like google, seemed to be unaware of the town's existence. I looked for larger cities nearby, and finally through some internet stalking of a few modern-day church websites, and Google translating, found out that Robringhausen (a town of only about 150 people now days) is part of the parish of Mellrich. Suddenly, Mellrich became my golden ticket with the FHL, and a new journey began.

If I had thought Westenholz was "advanced" German research, I was soon corrected by the records contained in Mellrich. What on earth were these big long paragraphs?? I could pick out names--but how frustrating that no one had thought to write in actual numbers. How was I supposed to figure out which set of chicken-scratch scrawled German lettering was supposed to be the date? I was thrown off by the fact that no one seemed to be married--and why did people suddenly have THREE last names??

My first encounter with Robringhausen left me feeling significantly humbled (it didn't help much when after the fourth time up to the help counter, a consultant peered over her librarian glasses and told me in a thick German accent, "You should vreealy learn some basic Gsherman!"). Despite the confusion, I could not deny the fact that I was witnessing a miracle--these were records I had given up hope of ever finding. I had wondered about these people for 12 years, ever since I received that letter from Aunt Joan telling me about "Grandma Mac's" fiery red hair, German accent, and immigrant father. I felt that after all the years of searching and reaching for these ancestors, someone was finally reaching back in return. Too many things were falling into place. Too many "coincidences" were happening to pave the way to these discoveries. I had to press forward.

What has followed since that time are my efforts to educate myself in German research, especially in the Westfalen area of Germany (then Prussia). After the fourth FHL consultant rolling their eyes or grimacing after my mention of Westfalen, I became acquainted with the fact that this area of Germany is "different". I have found amazing articles to help me understand the Hof way of life, and how it affected naming patterns (coming soon in a future post!). I have also picked up some basic German, and am getting pretty good at not hacking up a lung when saying the gutteral ich. I can also now say and understand the numbers (making those Robringhausen records a MUCH more enjoyable experience!).

My journey with German family history research has been fascinating for me. I love the challenge and newness of it all. I love researching a family line that no one on earth ( least in the cyber world!) has researched or published before. My growing understanding of the customs and records have increased my love for the people that make up my German roots.

In honor of this new found love for this research, and due to the fact that I have not found many helpful online guides to Westfalen research, I will be writing up a few information articles, in hopes that I can help a few other researchers out there.

Until next time, Auf wiedersehen ya'll!


  1. Yay, this is so cool Beth! I am in YW still and our project for the year is to research and find a female ancestors name to take to the temple and do the work for them. I wish you still lived here so you could help us (I really mean me) out! But I will keep reading your blog and asking questions since my family line that needs the most research is from Germany!!!!!

  2. That's awesome Beth!! Keep up the good work!! =)

  3. Loved readying this! I'm jealous of your passion for family history. :)