Before My Time is about the ancestry and extended family of my four grandparents: John Samuel Krentz (Indiana/North Dakota), Margreta Tjode Hedwig (Gertie) Buss (North Dakota), Rosmer Pettis Kerr (Pennsylvania/Michigan), and Evelyn Elvina Hauer (Michigan), and other topics in genealogy and family history.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Whole-Community Genealogy

As genealogists, we learn early about the benefit of doing whole-family genealogy, the most obvious benefit being that when you can't find your own ancestor's record, you might be able to find his sibling's and thus work your way around an impasse in your research. You don't have to hunt dead relatives for very long before someone mentions whole-family genealogy to you. It's a thing.

I've never heard whole-community genealogy mentioned, though. In fact, I've just googled "whole community genealogy" and got exactly three hits. When is the last time you googled anything and got only three hits? So my plan for today is to tell you why I think whole-community genealogy is a thing, and should be a thing. In a nutshell, of course, it's because you just never know... until you know.

Some years ago, upon learning the name of the locality in Germany that had been home to one of my ancestors, I ordered the appropriate microfilm from the Family History Library. When it came and I sat down at the microfilm reader and began cranking that infernal handle, my intention was to look for anyone with the relevant surname, not just my great-grandmother. She would have had siblings, of course, and after all, the more you learn about your ancestral family, the more interesting they become. No great-grandparent is an island--I'm pretty sure that's how John Donne would  have put it if he were a genealogist.

As I scrolled through the records, cruising for my surname, I began to notice other familiar surnames. You see, I was familiar with many of the surnames in the Indiana town where my great-grandmother had settled. I'd not only looked at the churchbooks there, but also had spent the better part of a year going through three decades worth of the weekly newspapers, from 1903 to the 1930s (more microfilm!), collecting such newsy gems as "[one of your distant guy-cousins] broke the bone in his instep Wednesday when he slipped off a tractor," and "[the future wife of your half-first cousin once removed], who was operated on Tuesday morning at 11 o'clock at Indianapolis for the removal of her tonsils and adenoids, is recovering nicely. She has been in the hospital for two months."

I'd filled three legal pads with such colorful notes, and in so doing, learned a lot about everyone in town, not just those with the pertinent surname. The more familiar the various surnames became, the more I began to notice them in my family's records, as godparents, maybe, or marriage witnesses, or spouses of my ancestor's siblings. A community grew up around a great-grandmother I'd never met. My understanding, if not of my great-grandmother, then at least of her times and the life surrounding her, was greatly increased.

So, when looking at the records of her German birthplace, familiar surnames jumped out at me, and a picture emerged--a picture of relationships that began on a different continent and continued here in this country. My understanding grew even more, not only of my great-grandmother, but of the continuity of community. I began building a place-related family tree from that microfilm and by the time I was done, I had all three of that locality's microfilms on permanent loan and 747 of my closest relatives and all their merry in-laws from there in a database that I uploaded to RootsWeb. At that point in time, I hadn't had an Ancestry membership yet, and RootsWeb was a separate entity, free and therefore within my budget.

I found that experience so worth doing that I did it again when I found another great-grandparent's German home. (Pshew! Only 166 relatives in that second database!).

It's been at least ten years since I did those projects. This subject comes up now because I've discovered yet another ancestral German place. And with both Ancestry and FamilySearch at my fingertips, I see that the opportunity exists to create another extensive place-related database. Once again, I see not only my own ancestor's surname in that locality, but also others that are familiar and associated with mine on this side of the pond. Creating this database might enable me to connect some Detroit families that I've thus far been unable to link. Godparents and marriage witnesses in the old German records may be the key that will unlock that door.

There's much to consider before I decide whether to undertake a project of that size again, not the least of which are the many unfinished projects I'm already entangled in. I guess we'll see.

In a similar vein, today I happened upon the Society for One-Place Studies, a volunteer organization which was started last year. Family historians with an interest in a particular "street, village, hamlet or town" may want to consider joining this society. (And no, I'm not jumping into that right now either! But you go right ahead!)


Cheryl said...

Great post, TK, and very well written. I agree wholeheartedly with the content here. As you know whole community research has been very fruitful to myself in my research in Pommern.

TK said...

Thanks, Cheryl. It sure makes things more interesting, doesn't it!

Blog Archive


Our Family in Books: A Bibliography

  • My Ancestors in Books (a library of resources and notes pertaining to Reverend Samuel Stone, Major General Robert Sedgwick, Elder John Crandall, and other early Americans in the forest where my family tree was grown)
  • The Zahnisers: A History of the Family in America by Kate M. Zahniser and Charles Reed Zahniser (Mercer, Pa. 1906)
  • History of St. James Lutheran Church [full title: A little of this and a little of that in the 141 year (1861-2002) History of St. James Lutheran Church, Reynolds Indiana] by Harold B. Dodge, published at Reynolds, Indiana, 2002; 170 pages.
  • Lisbon, North Dakota 1880-2005 Quasuicentennial, published at Lisbon, North Dakota in 2005; 391 pages.
  • The Paschen and Redd Families of Cass County, Indiana by Alfred Paschen, c. 2005 (Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, MD); 322 pages.
  • Sheldon Community History: Sheldon Centennial 1881-1981, published at Sheldon, North Dakota in 1981; 376 pages.
  • Sheldon, North Dakota 1881-2006 - 125th Anniversary: The Queen of the Prairie, published at Sheldon, North Dakota in 2006; 498 pages.
  • A Standard History of White County, Indiana, written under the supervision of W.H. Hamelle, c. 1915 (The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago and New York).
  • The Roots of Coventry, Connecticut by Betty Brook Messier and Janet Sutherland Aronson, c. 1987 (Coventry 275th Anniversary Committee, Coventry, CT); 206 pages.
  • "Elder John Crandall of Rhode Island and His Descendants" by John Cortland Crandall; New Woodstock, New York, 1949; 797 pages.
  • "The Descendants of Robert Burdick of Rhode Island." Nellie (Willard) Johnson, Pd.B.: H & L Creations, LLC.

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