I can’t really explain it. I don’t have a childhood memory that relates either to a cookie jar, or to some furtive pleasure that’s connected with breaking through a barrier (brick wall?). But when I pause to consider why I enjoy genealogy so much, I always seem to come back to this metaphor:
Every time I make a breathtaking discovery, it seems as though I’ve just snatched a cookie out of a cookie jar...one that I wasn’t supposed to raid. [Heh, heh.]
Is that the feeling you get, or is it different?
Henry Z. “Hank” Jones, Jr. writes about “Psychic Roots,” and he argues that the ancestors WANT us to find them. I can’t take issue with that, because I often end up feeling a “connection” of some kind with some of the individuals I research.
But the way that I describe my glee, at snatching some discovery away from the black hole of lost family history, suggests something entirely different. I feel as though “someone” has been hiding something from me -- something that I was NEVER supposed to know -- and that, against all odds, I’ve managed to seize this prize!
So, for today’s Open Thread, share with me your own thoughts about what it feels like to make a significant breakthrough. I’ll give an example below the fold, and cite a real-life road block to my getting results in my paternal line.
Still here? Good! Now I have to reveal a bit about my chosen “handle” of “Zwenkau.” That’s the village, south of Leipzig, where I’ve encountered the real-life road block to which I refer above.
My special interest is German genealogy. And while I don’t (yet) speak the language, some years ago I taught myself to read the old script so that I could make use of the many churchbooks and other records that the Family History Library has available.
I started this in a very tentative fashion before I retired, but quickly retreated when I encountered some frustration over not knowing how to pursue what I did find. Later, as I had more time to read films, I began to sharpen my skills and understanding.
Soon I was using my digital camera to take some reference photos of filmed records I’d found. And the more experience I gained, the more I could refer back to those images and decipher words that had stymied me months before. Eventually I became adept enough at this that I was able to send a German woman a transliteration of a couple of postcards her grandmother had written years ago. Which makes the point that most Germans today don’t know how to read that script, either; it hasn’t been taught since the 1920s....
So far, so good. If a churchbook has been filmed, and you can read it, you’re on your way. The church was the official record keeper historically, and what we call “vital statistics” weren’t found in civil registers in most of Germany before the unification of 1871. To learn about the ancestors, one simply went to the churchbook(s) of the church that person attended.
Now comes the road block. What if one can’t gain access to the churchbook(s)? Now, you may know that the Mormons have met some resistance in getting records filmed. I won’t get into why that is, but even where it is the case it is often possible to get the information by other means. A German researcher might be able to see the record in question by visiting a church archive, as one example.
But what if no one is permitted to view these records? No one, that is, but church archivists. That’s the state of affairs in what was once the post-1815 Kingdom of Saxony, where the village of Zwenkau is to be found. Not even German genealogists can see these records! Instead, one pays a stiff “research fee” to have a church "archivist" look something up, and even then you may not get the complete record. Moreover, the designated official is probably too busy with other church duties to spend but a brief time finding your record(s).
And so begins the search for work-arounds. What can be used when the vital statistics aren’t easily available? In my case, it was Kingdom of Saxony court records that the Mormons have been permitted to film. I’ll briefly explain.
Through a German-American genealogical researcher, I obtained the wording (in good German) for two letters I was to prepare and send to two churches in Saxony. I knew from family lore the names of the two towns where my great-grandfather had lived as a boy with his parents, and the researcher gave me the addresses of the churches to which I should send my requests (and money).
My great-great grandparents had produced 13 children overall, their births split between the two towns. Because I was asking for information about emigrants, both churches responded with birth and baptism information (for a price!). From the first church I also received information from the marriage record of this couple, including the names of the fathers of the bride and groom. But that was as far as it went. Being naïve, I wrote back to the first church in my own words, enclosing additional Euros and asking for more data on the family. I never heard back; the door had closed.
Now what?? Having studied German culture in the 19th century, I knew that Germans did not travel from one town to the next without registering in the new town. Could there be some documents available that would shed light on the husband and father of this family? I used the dates of the last birth in the first town and the first birth in the second town to give me a “window” of time in which such a record or records would be found. And, I was fortunate in that the second town was larger (Zwickau), and indeed had preserved such documents within the court records filmed by the Mormons.
Cookie jar number one!! There were three documents, in fact, and they were filmed one after another on the same reel of film. [If the interest is there, I’ll share what they said in a comment.]
But what about the first town? Would there be anything that could shed light on family there? Indeed there was. And, again, it was the court records that saved the day.
I went on a “fishing expedition” in my second trip to Salt Lake’s FHL. I ordered in advance the "Vault Films" that gave court records for Zwenkau’s district, and then devoted a block of time to scanning the films in search of anything I might find.
Cookie jar number two!! In the 1830s I found, back-to-back, two real estate deeds for my family. In the first one, my great-great grandfather is apparently buying his first house days before a child is born to the couple. But it’s the second deed that was the prize.
The second deed was for a one-acre garden plot. Nothing spectacular, you’d say? Not so! It was a small plot being sold out of the family, and one for which there was no clear title. This land was being sold because my 3rd great-grandmother had just died, and it had been she who had inherited the plot from her mother, who in turn had received it from hers. That 5th great-grandmother had received it from her brother some sixty years previous.
How do I know this? Because, in selling the land to outsiders, the family had to supply a chain-of-title that would convince the buyer that no one would likely be able to file a claim against the land. And so, because of this quirk, I gained the names of seven ancestors and relatives. All without the benefit of churchbooks. You could have peeled me off the ceiling.
Before the flight home, I texted my wife from the airport that I was “bringing seven new relatives with me.” She should have known me better than to fall for my joke, but I suppose the shock of even imagining being introduced to seven more of my family was just more than she could bear!!
But I couldn’t have helped myself; my hand was in the cookie jar again!!