Where did my ancestors live before migrating to Russia?

Volga German Origins: Questions and Answers

By Maggie Hein

Question: I know that I have ancestors who lived in a Volga German village, but I don’t see that surname on the Surnames page on the Volga Germans web site. Why isn’t my surname listed there?

  • Answer: The purpose of the “Surnames with Confirmed Pre-Volga Origins” page on the Volga Germans web site is to share research that has been done to document exactly where a specific family came from prior to emigrating to Russia. The list does not include every Volga German surname. If you have done research proving a specific family’s origin location, please let us know so we can add it to the web site.

Question: The 1767 Census a/k/a First Settlers List (FSL) for my Volga German village includes the name of the place that my family came from. Can’t I just assume this information is correct?

  • Answer: No, you should not assume this information is correct. Sometimes the locations given are correct. Sometimes they are not. There are numerous locations stated in the published translations of the FSLs that have been proven to be incorrect when those locations were researched. Some of the place names given in the FSLs are regions, not specific towns. 


Question: I have a copy of the Stumpp book, and I found the name of an ancestor there, along with the place that they came from. Is that information correct?

  • Answer: I have gotten some good hints from the Stumpp book, however those are only hints. You still have to review the church records for the location to make sure that the person you are researching came from that location.

Question: Isn’t all of this information on Ancestry (MyHeritage, Family Search)? I just input all of my ancestors’ information into my online tree, and Ancestry (MyHeritage, Family Search) told me all about my ancestors. Isn't the information on those web sites correct?

  • Answer: Not always. Online trees frequently have errors. It is quite common for people to accept hints or copy from other trees without verifying that the data being copied is correct, and this bad data is copied from one tree to another across all of the online tree platforms. Unless you can determine the source for the original data and what evidence that person had for that data being correct, you shouldn’t copy it into your tree. You should be very cautious about accepting any "hints". Our Volga German family names tend to be common German names, so you will get a lot of “hints” that have nothing at all to do with the person you are researching. My personal experience with Ancestry “hints” to historical records is that most of them are completely wrong.

Question: I found a web site that reports the same information that is on the FSL. Isn't that proof that the information in the FSL is correct?

  • Answer: No. It is quite common for people to copy the information as stated in the FSL and post it on a web site or online family tree without verifying that it is the correct location. You can generally tell if the information hasn’t been verified because it will be missing exact birth and marriage dates and missing citations to the origin location church records. Without these details, you should not assume that the information has been verified.

Question: If I am not supposed to trust the place names given in the FSLs, how do I figure out where my ancestors really came from?

  • Answer: If you haven’t found your family listed with a verified origin on any of the various Volga German websites (see previous answer about the details that you should look for to determine if the information is verified), you should contact the AHSGR Village Coordinator (VC) for the village where your ancestor settled and see if they have done any research on the pre-Volga origin of your ancestor. If they haven’t personally done the research, they might be able to give you some pointers about where to look.

Question: The VC for my village does not have any information beyond what is in the FSL (or there isn’t a VC for my village). What do I do now?

  • Answer:

    • Check the AHSGR German Origins Pages to see if there is any useful commentary about what the real place name might be, or any suggestions about places to search.
    • Search the online Meyers-Orts to see if the place name given in the FSL is a real place. If it is, that is the place that you should research first. The online Meyers-Orts can help you determine what the nearest parish church is for that location.
    • FamilySearch is free and many records there are indexed. This is a good place to start because you might find that the records for the location you are looking for have been indexed. Note that there are sometimes records for both Catholic and Protestant parishes in the same town. Make sure you are looking at the records for the religion of your ancestor. If the records are indexed, search the indexes to see if your ancestor’s name appears there.

      • Log in (free to sign up and use) to your FamilySearch account
      • Under “Search” choose “Catalog”
      • Put the name of the place in the “Search by, Place” box. If there are multiple places with the same name, all of them will show up. If you have multiple places to choose from, you might need to do some additional research to choose the correct one.
      • One you have chosen a place, hit “Search” and a list of church, civil, and other records available for that place will show up.
      • Click on the listing for the church records that you want to look at. If there is a magnifying glass symbol next to a particular set of records, that means that the records are indexed and you can search them by clicking on the magnifying glass.

Question: The records for the place stated in the FSL are indexed, but when I searched for my ancestor’s name, it wasn’t there.

  • Answer: Sometimes the indexes are not complete, so you may still want to look at the actual church records (see next question). If you still can’t find your ancestor, you need to consider the possibility that the place name is misspelled in the FSL. Some of the place name spellings in the published FSL translations are really badly mangled, so be creative.

Question: The records for the place I want to research are not indexed on FamilySearch (or the records are not on FamilySearch at all). What do I do now?

  • The indexed information on the big genealogy web sites represents only a small portion of all of the German records that exist. Most German church records from the mid-1700s are not indexed, so it is unlikely you will find your ancestors German Origin location by searching for their names on FamilySearch, Ancestry or on any other genealogy web site. In most cases, proving a German Origin location is going to require that you look at images of church records one page at a time!
    • There are also some German church records available on Ancestry, and those are sometimes indexed 
    • FamilySearch has many records that aren't indexed
    • Most of the research that I publish comes from either Archion or Matricula. Both of these web sites have large collections of records, and none of them are indexed (see link to handout below for links to these websites). 

Question: The place name given in the FSL doesn’t exist. What do I do now?

  • Answer: The online Meyers-Orts has a “sounds like” function, and that might give you a suggestion. Sometimes just putting the non-existent place name into Google will generate a suggestion for a real place name. There are websites that give you options for searching places using different kinds of “sounds like” or “fuzzy” search methods. There are other resources besides the Volga First Settlers Lists that might help you narrow down the search (see link to handout below).

Question: I looked at some old German church records and I don’t understand the handwriting at all. How am I supposed to find my ancestors if I can’t read this crazy handwriting?

  • Answer: I agree, old German records can be challenging to read and understand, especially when the scribe has messy handwriting. Many older records are written in a script that is no longer used (Kurrentschrift) and you do have to invest some time in learning how to read that. Once you get past the script, you don’t need to be fluent in German to glean the basic information from an entry. There are web sites, books, and classes where you can learn the basics of reading German script and understanding church records.


Additional Resources for German Origins Research:

German Origins Research Handout