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, only those that have a proven origin location. If you know of research documenting a specific family’s origin location, please let us know so we can add it to the web site.
Question: The First Settlers Lists (FSLs) for the Volga German villages include the place that the 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., however many of the locations are not. Sometimes the spelling is just slightly off, sometimes it’s completely mangled, sometimes it is a completely incorrect location.
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: I found a web site that reports the same information that is on the FSL. Doesn’t that provide additional proof that the information in the FSL is correct?
- Answer: Not necessarily. It is quite common for people to copy the information as stated in the FSL and post it on their 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 important information such as exact birth and marriage dates and citations to specific 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 my comment above 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 on 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?
- 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 will tell you what the nearest parish church is for that location.
Go to FamilySearch and see if the church records for that location are 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 Family Search 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. This will give you more details on the available church records. 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 I want to research are not indexed on FamilySearch (or the records are not on FamilySearch at all). What do I do now?
- Answer: At this point, you have done all of the things that are easy, don’t require a paid subscription to a genealogy website, and can be done online from home. The next step is to locate copies of the actual church records to look at. Depending on the religion and location, you may be able to view them online using FamilySearch, or on other websites such as Archion or Matricula. There are also some German church records available on Ancestry, and those are usually indexed.
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 previous question). If you still can’t find your ancestor, you need to start thinking about 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 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.
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 where they came from in Germany. Why do I need to look at any church records?
- Answer: You should be very cautious about accepting any online tree hints, whether they are record hints or hints to other trees. 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. The indexed information on Ancestry 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 records by searching for their names on Ancestry or on any other genealogy web site. 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 perpetuates across all of the online tree platforms. Unless you can figure out who the data originally came from and what evidence that person had for that data being correct, you shouldn’t copy it into your tree.
Additional Resources for German Origins Research: