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Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Birth Record in Germany
by Steven Bychowski
In a previous issue of the Clayton Town Crier (Apr 2015) we explored book collections at Clayton Library that cover beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels of German research. In this article, we’ll focus on one of these collections (“Map Guide to the German Parish Registers”) and provide a brief case study of how this collection was used to locate the birth record of my great-great-grandfather (GGGF) Johann Bychowski, after years of searching for him… in the wrong place.
Place of Origin
Discovering your ancestor’s town of origin is always the key to finding records from the old country. Those with German ancestry may have heard that their ancestors came from “Prussia”; or maybe the 1870 U.S. Census lists “Baden” or “Bavaria” as their ancestor’s birthplace. All of these German lands eventually became provinces of a united German Empire in 1871, which lasted until the end of World War I in 1919. However, to locate the more specific town of origin within these provinces, you may need to do a little more digging. Try searching for your immigrant ancestor in the following U.S. records:
After arriving in the U.S., early immigrants may have lived in neighborhoods and attended churches with large German-speaking populations. The baptismal, marriage, and burial records of these churches often provide a lot more detail about where the ancestors came from in the old country than do other types of U.S. records (such as census records).
Death certificates / obituaries
Death-related records often mention the birthplace of the deceased. Since the information in these records is often provided by an immediate family member, you might be lucky to find that the specific town or village of birth is named, rather than just “Germany” or “Prussia”.
Immigration / naturalization records
Naturalization petitions, especially those filed after 1906, contain a lot of detail as to the origins of the petitioner and may also specify the town or village of origin. If the person emigrated from the port of Hamburg, the Hamburg Emigration Lists also typically mention the towns of birth and of last residence.
If these U.S. records don’t help you find the place of origin, try doing a surname search on FamilySearch and restrict records by country: “Germany”. If the name is unique enough, you may find that a large percentage of the matches come from the same province of Germany. For example, when I do an exact spelling search for my surname (“Bychowski”) and limit search results only to Germany, I find that about 93% of all results come from the province of West Prussia (Westpreussen). Make a note of which counties and towns within the province are the most represented by the search results. Are any of these place names familiar to you?
Next, try a “place” search in the FamilySearch Catalog for some of these towns. As you start to type a place name, one or more suggestions will appear below the search box to help you determine how many different occurrences of this place may exist. Each catalog entry will be described from larger to smaller jurisdiction – that is, first country, then province, then county, then town/village (or parish). Make note of any entries from your province.
Finally, try locating some of the towns you discover on a modern map. I like Google Maps for this purpose. Google Maps allows you to zoom in on a place to see neighboring towns and villages, or to zoom out to see a broader picture of the region and where the town lies in proximity to lakes and rivers. Consult Wikipedia to give yourself a brief historical summary of each town or county – these are often extremely helpful!
For me, I had some help from the beginning. It was passed down through my family that my GGGF Johann Bychowski came from from Neustadt, West Prussia. He immigrated to Chicago in 1891 and died there in 1915. His Chicago death certificate gives his date/place of birth as 17 Feb 1830 in Neustadt, Germany. I started by reconstructing the different governmental jurisdictions for Neustadt. The town was under German/Prussian rule from 1772-1918 and is now part of Poland, and as such there are both German and Polish names for each locality:
Country: Germany Poland
Kingdom: Prussia (Ger: Preussen)
Province: West Prussia (Ger: Westpreussen)
District (Regierungsbezirk): Danzig Polish: Gdansk
County (Kreis): Neustadt Polish: Wejherowo
County Seat (KreisStadt): Neustadt Polish: Wejherowo
Catholic Parish: Neustadt Polish: Wejherowo
Church/religious records, especially for Catholic/Lutheran parishes, generally served as the vital records for most German lands before 1871. Using the FamilySearch catalog, I was able to determine that the church records for the Catholic Parish of Neustadt were digitized, and I browsed the digital images of the record books to locate my GGGF Johann’s marriage record in 1855. However, I could not find his birth/baptismal record from 1830, no matter how long or how thoroughly I searched. This made me wonder if he was born not in the town of Neustadt itself, but perhaps in one of the many farming villages surrounding the town. This led me to use the following Clayton Library resource:
Map Guide to the German Parish Registers
(Found under Clayton Library call number: H249 GERMANY.)
This set of volumes aids the researcher in understanding and visualizing the boundaries/jurisdictions of the church parishes (Catholic and Lutheran) in specific provinces in Germany. The volumes are divided by province (Baden, Bavaria, Hessen, etc.) so it is important to know the province in which your ancestor resided. Each volume provides a historical background and genealogical resources available for the province (emigration books, lineage books, archives/repositories, etc.) as well as detailed maps of the districts, counties, and parishes therein. The Town Index in each volume refers the reader to a particular county map showing Catholic/Lutheran parishes serving that town. These maps also allow the reader to easily see the parishes which may have served some of the neighboring villages. The Family History Library microfilm numbers are included for each locality if its parish records have been microfilmed/digitized.
In my case, I started by selecting the volume for “Province: West Prussia / District: Danzig”. After looking up Neustadt in the index of town names, I was directed to a county map for Kreis Neustadt which showed the Catholic parish borders within that county. I discovered that the Catholic Parish of Neustadt, which served the inhabitants of the town itself, was surrounded by 5 other Catholic parishes which served the farming communities surrounding the town. One of these parishes was Lusin (Polish: Luzino). I browsed the digitized parish records of Lusin/Luzino for a possible baptism from 1830 and there he was: Johann Bychowski, born 17 Feb 1830, baptized 21 Feb 1830, listed with his parents Johann Bychowski and Marianna Grzenken, whose names I had not previously known. I learned that the family resided in the farming village of Gowino, located less than 5 miles from the town of Neustadt, but still within the county of Neustadt. So, technically, my GGGF’s Chicago death certificate was not incorrect when it said he was born in “Neustadt, Germany.”
Hopefully, this little case study will inspire you to check out this valuable resource at Clayton Library, particularly if you are stuck on finding that immigrant ancestor’s birth/baptismal record from the old country. Good Luck!
Searching Diocese Records of Baton Rouge and New Orleans
by Rebecca Grimes
Diocesan records for the Roman Catholic churches in the Dioceses of Baton Rouge and New Orleans are a treasure trove of vital records. You will find births, baptisms, marriages, confirmations, and funerals, also parents (with mother’s maiden names), grandparents, godparents (sponsors) and witnesses to marriages, where and when interred for funeral records, and much more information. At Clayton Library we have two sets of books indexing the records in these two Louisiana diocesan archives. In each book there is a list of abbreviations that let users know if it is indexing a baptism, marriage, etc., and where interred for funerals, also what church the event occurred at.
The first set is the Sacramental records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It is found in the general Louisiana book section under Clayton call number S123 LA Volumes 1-19, 1718-1831. The Catholic Diocese of New Orleans, first known as the Diocese of Louisiana and Florida, was established on April 25, 1793. The original diocese extended from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, from Spanish Texas to the Mississippi River and the southern tip of Florida.
Before the diocese was established the area was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Quebec and then the Bishops of Santiago and Havana in Cuba. The Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans now covers the Louisiana civil parishes (counties) of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, Washington, and St. Tammany. Housed in the archdiocesan archives are all sacramental registers that end prior to 1930. If an early 20th-century register also includes post-1930 entries it remains in the individual parish church possession. To request certificates for genealogical purposes, go to the Archdiocese of New Orleans website: scroll down to the section entitled “Requesting A Certificate for Genealogy”, then click on the link for instructions on how to request sacramental certificates.
The second set of books is the Diocese of Baton Rouge Catholic Church Records. It is found in the general Louisiana book section under Clayton call number C363 LA volumes 1-22, 1707-1900. The Diocese of Baton Rouge was established on July 21, 1961 from the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The diocese includes 12 civil parishes (counties): Ascension, Assumption, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberville, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Helena, St. James, Tangipahoa, West Baton Rouge, and West Feliciana. The records found in the diocese are records of baptisms, marriages and burials. To locate actual copies of these records, go to The Diocese of Baton Rouge website. There is a link entitled “Sacramental record holdings,” when you click on this link you will find a list of what holdings are included in the diocese’s archives. This will inform you of the Parish, Church or Chapel, what years for baptisms, marriages and burials, also what records are missing. There is also a link for requesting records that can be found under the drop-down menu titled Genealogy and Research. Requesters will have to mail in these forms, or you can schedule a time to visit the actual archives by appointment. Some of these records may not be available yet to the public.
The records for parishes that are still in existence within these two dioceses should also be found in the original parish church offices. You might be able to get a copy of a record from the original parish office, but the archives for that diocese should be your first point of contact.
There are five other Roman Catholic Dioceses in the State of Louisiana. These dioceses are as follows:
Diocese of Alexandria
Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux
Diocese of Lafayette
Diocese of Lake Charles
Diocese of Shreveport
Some of the Catholic church records within these five dioceses have been abstracted in the books by Father Donald J. Hebert, such as the volumes of South Louisiana Records, which contain abstracts of Terrebonne and La Fourche Parishes from the Diocese of Houma-Thibodeaux. The civil parishes that make up the Diocese of Lafayette and the Diocese of Lake Charles are abstracted in Father Hebert’s volumes of Southwest Louisiana Records. Unfortunately, Clayton Library does not have many books abstracting records from the civil parishes comprising the Diocese of Alexandria and even less for those making up the Diocese of Shreveport. Individual church parish research may have to be done by genealogists with ancestors from these dioceses.
Southwest Louisiana Records: Material Hidden in the Church and Civil Records
by Rodney Sam
The Southwest Louisiana Records (SWLR)
52-volume set of published abstracts of church and civil records compiled by Reverend Donald J. Hébert (1942-2000). The entries were compiled from Catholic church archives and courthouses in the civil parishes of Acadia, Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Evangeline, Iberia, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, and Vermilion. The abstracted registers begin in 1756 and end in 1915. What may be less known is that some of the SWLR volumes contain appendixes including supplemental information of historical, cultural and genealogical value to any genealogist with roots in southwest Louisiana. I will review several of them in this article.
Volume 1-A (1750-1800)
Includes a detailed explanation of how the entries were compiled. Hébert provides the meanings behind all the abbreviations used in the SWLR volumes ranging from the names and locales of Catholic churches to the definition of physical descriptors used for slaves and free persons of color (i.e. mulatre, negre, griffe libre). Pages 804 through 835 contain maps of Louisiana, France, a list of Spanish settlers from the city of Malaga arriving in 1779 and an abstract of the 1781 census of the Old Attakapas District.
Volume 1-B (1801-1810)
Pages 742 to 761 include a list of Acadian and Non-Acadian immigrants to Louisiana from the years 1805 to 1809 along with supplemental baptismal entries in St. Martin Parish. Pages 762-803 include a historical sketch of the parish of Opelousas, Louisiana. Appendix D includes items like cattle brands and a list of jurors from the former Opelousas and Attakapas parishes in 1810. Pages 828- 839 include a historical sketch of the Acadian migration to Louisiana.
Volume 2-A (1811-1818)
Pages 974 to 981 contain the history of the Louisiana parishes (formation dates), establishment of regional Catholic dioceses and how the Attakapas district was divided a few years after the sale of Louisiana to the United States. Pages 983 through 1012 contains other Items of cultural interest like the marriage of Texas pioneer James Bowie and a list of common names used in Louisiana of French, Greek and Latin origin.
Volume 19 (1888)
Pages 419 to 703 contain indexes to cattle brands in St. Martin Parish beginning in the 1760s along with copies of the actual brand books
Volume 33 (Supplement)
This volume contains, perhaps, the most valuable supplemental section for genealogists researching persons of color, slaves, and formerly enslaved persons in southwest Louisiana. Pages 106 to 307 is the beginning of the section “Records of Blacks 1765-1886.” These sacramental records were abstracted from Catholic archives across the region. They contain a total of 6,690 entries mainly from church archives in Arnaudville, Breaux Bridge, Church Point, Grand Coteau, Lafayette, Opelousas, and St. Martinville. They include baptisms, marriages, and burials of slaves, free persons of color and even former slaves who were emancipated after the Civil War. Many of the marriages include valuable genealogical information like the former names of slave owners that may not be found anywhere else. A perfect example is the below marriage:
ALEXANDRE, Gabriel freed from Mrs. Ned ROW m. 13 Jan. 1866 Onezia ROMARD, freed from Marcelite GUILBEAU (GC Ch v.4 pg 43)
Since most Louisiana slaves were members of the Roman Catholic church, you will come across marriages, births, and burials of slaves that often give the name of the slaveholder. The black records are indexed in alphabetical order by first and last name. It is not unusual to find slaves and free persons of color referred to only by their first name.
Volume 33 (Supplement continued)
Additional marriages, burials and baptismal records omitted from previous SWLR volumes can be found on pages 309 to 621. This section includes sacramental records of whites and persons of color spanning the years 1756 to 1904. You may find unknown siblings or missing vital information about your ancestor’s lives like dates and places of burial. I recommend taking a look.
Hopefully, the descriptions of the supplemental and appendix materials contained in the SWLR volumes will be helpful and beneficial to any genealogists researching in Southwest Louisiana.