How Can You Find Your Prussian Village?

Damme church
Village church in Damme (Brandenburg, Germany) – Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

 

There is nothing more rewarding than to be able to answer the perennial questions that many of us ask ourselves: Where did our ancestors come from?  Who are we?  For many of us with Prussian roots, the spark for entertaining such questions often begins with looking at records.

Many years ago, I had seen “Prussia” listed as the country of origin for some of my ancestors on the U.S. Federal Census.  From that moment on, I wanted to learn more about my Prussian roots, especially about my SECOND Great-Grandfather, Christian Wendt (see Fig. 1 below).1  Who was this man?  What were my Wendt Family ancestors like?  What was the homeland in Prussia like?

Christian Wendt.jpg
Fig. 1   My Prussian SECOND Great-Grandfather, Christian Wendt

Christian Wendt first appeared on the 1850 U.S. Census with his parents, Martin and Maria Wendt, and his sisters.  It was definitely exciting to learn a little more about him and his family while they resided in Niagara County, New York.2  However, I wanted to know when they arrived to the United States and where they came from in Prussia (now Germany).  On the 1900 U.S. Census, it indicated that they had emigrated to the U.S. in 1846.3  This detail was a good starting point, but I was just at the beginning of my personal Prussian search.  I needed more answers and proof.

A breakthrough occurred after spending what seemed like an eternity of searching for my Wendt ancestors on a passenger arrival list.  I found the record on the popular Ancestry database under “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957” (see Fig. 2 below). 

wendt-Passenger List
Fig. 2    New York Passenger List –  15 June 1846

The passenger list indicated the following information, which I knew corresponded nicely with this immigrant Wendt Family.  I had found out that:

  • Christian Wendt and his family had arrived in New York on the 15th of June 1846
  • Their port of departure was Hamburg
  • The ship that they traveled on was the Howard

This passenger arrival record was like a dream come true!  I was now able to trace my Wendt Family to their point of departure in Hamburg.  Since the record did not indicate any other geographical details, including the name of the Prussian village, my search was far from over.

The next step was to look for emigration records.  I did not have to search far!  It just so happened that I had found the village information and more that I was looking for on Ancestry as well under the “Brandenburg, Prussia Emigration Records” (see Fig. 3 below).5  

Christian Friedrich Wilhelm Wendt_1846 Passenger Information_Damme Prenzlau
Fig. 3   Transcript of Hamburg Emigration Record for Christian Wendt on Ancestry 

This emigration information marked a turning point in my Prussian family research.  I had learned not only the name of the village of Damme, but about the Kreis (county) of Prenzlau as well.  This information proved to be crucial in order to pinpoint exactly where the village was on a gazetteer (a kind of geographical dictionary). 

My search did not end there.  I wanted to verify whether everything on the transcript was factually correct.  I was determined to look for a copy of the record.  I did not have to wait long.  During a time in which the LDS microfilm service was still in effect, I had the opportunity to borrow and view a copy of the record at my local Family History Center.  I took two digital images of the immigration cards on microfiche containing information about my Wendt ancestors (see Fig. 4 and Fig. 5).6  On the first image, there is information concerning the parents, Martin and Maria (in this case, she is listed as Marie-Dorothee), the number of their children and their place of origin.  Also, it lists Martin’s age, his occupation and their travel destination to North America in 1846.  On the second image, there is a list of the names of the children, including Christian, and their dates of birth.

Hamburg Emigration - Wendt
 Fig. 4   Hamburg Emigration Record for the Wendt Family
Hamburg Emigration - Wendt (2).jpeg
Fig. 5   Hamburg Emigration Record for the Wendt Family (Cont'd)

It was a privilege to view a copy of the emigration record.  A thorough review of the emigration record was proof enough that the information had been transcribed correctly.  In my case, I was very fortunate to have been able to trace, online, my Wendt ancestors to their Prussian village of origin.  In reality, though, one's Prussian village of origin is not as easy to find as some might think.  Fortunately, there are other techniques that can be employed.  In the next segment (How Can You Find Your Prussian Village? – Part 2), I will demonstrate how it is possible to find a Prussian village using other records.  

Notes:

1. Christian Wendt photograph, ca. 1900; digital image 2015, privately held by Stephen Wendt, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015.

2. Ancestry, “1850 United States Federal Census,” database, Ancestry  (https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=8054&h=7656618&tid=&pid=&usePUB=true : accessed 1 July 2012), entry for Christian Wendt (b. 1834), Wheatfield, Niagara County, New York, p. 169B, fam. 361; citing “affiliate film number” M432_560.                                                                                               *The Wendt surname was incorrectly transcribed as “West” on  the Ancestry database.

3. Ancestry, “1900 United States Federal Census,” database, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7602/4119884_00243/76645495?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/4137462/person/120011088967/facts/citation/540049711391/edit/record : accessed 1 July 2012), entry for Christian Wendt (b. 1834), Park, Deuel County, Nebraska, dist. 98, p. 2, fam. 33; citing “affiliate film number” T623.

4. “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1857, Roll 62: 1820-1957,” database, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll indiv=1&dbid=7488&h=1023032323&tid=&pid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=XPV679&_phstart=successSource : accessed 31 July 2012), entry for C. Wendt age 12, arrived New York, New York, 15 June 1846 aboard the Howard.                                                                                            

5. Potsdam. Auswanderungskartei [Emigration documents], year 1846, Wendt Family; Brandenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv, Potsdam, Germany; FHL International Fiche 6109219, 6109220

6. Potsdam. Auswanderungskartei [Emigration documents], year 1846, Wendt Family.

 

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What is your family story?

Hugo_cropped
Hugo Wendt, my great-grandfather. Circa  1912.

The Value of Family Stories

At some point in our lives, many of us have experienced a loved one share the same family stories over and over again.  Perhaps we did not fully appreciate them back then, but we cherish them now.  For other folks, perhaps not much oral family history was passed down.  At any rate, each of our respective family stories is a kind of gateway to our ancestral past.  It is not uncommon, later on, for such family stories to spark an interest in genealogy—that of discovering where we came from and who we are.

Genealogy and Oral Family History

One way genealogy enthusiasts and professionals start their family history journey is by pursuing their loved ones’ earlier stories and transforming them into a timeless treasure. Perhaps certain stories were snippets of a rich or of a more complicated family past.  One story, for example, which was passed down in my family for a couple of generations, was that the marriage of my great-grandfather (depicted above) failed because he was injured in a train accident.  With no other information to go on other than that he suffered a horrible head injury in a train accident, the inescapable conclusion had been the following theme: that there was a causal relationship between the earlier train accident and the family break-up.

Validate Through Research

Oftentimes, we are able to ascertain the veracity of an oral family story by performing research.  Perhaps a particular story was entirely factual-or in part-or demonstrably false (or somewhere in between).  In my great-grandfather’ case, our family did not have many of the details.  My family’s forgotten past made it next to impossible to determine ‘where’ I came from relative to this family line.  Interestingly enough, in depth research indicated a likely causal link–at least to some extent.  However, over 20 years had elapsed between the train accident and the family break-up. In between both tragic events, my great-grandfather had been very accomplished in his professional life, which none of my contemporary family members had even known about.  A majority of the missing information was unearthed by performing historical newspaper searches.  Consequently, this tragic family history story has been expanded to include outstanding moments along the way!

Your Family Tradition

The key to starting or continuing genealogy research is to focus on what we know and take it from there.   There are many tools at our disposal in the pursuit of answers.  Whether it is evaluating an oral family history, attempting to take a family line back a generation, searching for DNA details or determining whether we are related to a famous person in history—whatever the reason may be, many of us are curious about where we came from and who we are.  Far from being a dull undertaking, genealogical research helps us to answer burning questions about our family past.  It is this passion for unlocking their family history which constitutes why many genealogy enthusiasts and professionals do genealogy in the first place.

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