Sunday, 14 July 2019

DNA – can it assist my family history research?


Can it assist my family history research?

Having been researching my families from Germany, the former German eastern territories (now in Poland), and England and Wales for over thirty years, I had located the villages from which they departed in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s for the long voyage by ship to their new homes in Australia. This was done by reading and studying paper documents or copies of these on microfilm or microfiche. 
In recent years DNA testing has been widely advertised in a way that seems to imply that your genetic makeup will identify the places from which your ancestors came. Having identified my ancestral places of origin I saw that aspect of DNA research as a sideline only. In fact the estimates of ethnic origin were only broadly in accord with the known places of origin.
I thought that the greatest benefit would be through the ability of the programs to compare my DNA samples with the millions of other samples and so to find other people who might be (distantly) related to me. The number of people who share matching DNA with me has increased over time as more and more people take DNA tests, and I have been able to identify the way in which many of these are related to me. Some smaller matches belonged to distant cousins from branches of the families who had migrated from Germany to America. However some matches belong to people for whom I cannot identify the relationship. 
Although my DNA matches have allowed me to discover some previously unknown branches of my family, I realise that I need to learn more about some of the advanced aspects of DNA. Fortunately a series of seminars will be held in the Australian mainland state capital cities and Canberra 14–31 August that will give me new insights into the use of my DNA test results. World renowned DNA expert Blaine Bettinger will be the key speaker, backed up by Australian experts. I'll be there!

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Queensland Family History Society, Central European Group Meeting 27 July 2019

Queensland Family History Society

Central European Interest Group

Saturday 27th July 2019

The next Queensland Family History Society (QFHS) Central European Interest Group meeting will be Saturday, 27th July 2019, 10 a.m. till 12 noon at the QFHS library and resource centre, 
58 Bellevue Ave, 
Gaythorne QLD 4051. 
The group exists to assist those who are researching their family history from Germany and surrounding countries. Visitors are welcome. Donation of $2 goes to purchasing more resources.
Robert Heimann who is based in Graz in Austria and is visiting Australia will bring a presentation entitled "When Golinski isn't Golinski - a study of names in 18th and 19th century Prussian Poland." Those who were at the GAGHA conference in Adelaide last year had the chance to hear Robert on a different topic.

Monday, 9 October 2017

GAGHA Biannual Conference

Have you heard of the German-Australian Genealogy & History Alliance (GAGHA)?
In May 2016, Dirk Weissleder from the Deutsche Arbeitsgemeinschaft genealogischer Verbände e.V. (DAGV – the umbrella organisation of German genealogical societies) contacted several individuals and genealogy and family history societies around Australia with a view of creating a network similar to the German American Genealogical Partnership (GAGP). GAGP has subsequently been renamed as the International German Genealogy Partnership (IGGP). In September 2016 GAGHA was formed as an alliance of genealogy and family history societies with an interest in German-Australian history, culture and genealogy. GAGHA joined the International German Genealogy Partnership (IGGP) in February 2017.
GAGHA will be holding its first biannual conference on 17-19 August 2018 in Adelaide. Titled GAGHACon 2018: Australisches Deutschtum it will provide an opportunity for those of us who are interested in German-Australian genealogy and history to get together and network and learn. The venue is at Union House, University of Adelaide, Victoria Drive, Adelaide. Registrations will open in February 2018. Follow the link on the GAGHA website
Of course, many of us live a long way away from Adelaide, but it is planned to stream the sessions so that members of GAGHA who cannot get to Adelaide can watch the presentations locally.
Do you have a presentation or a story about any aspect of German-Australian history or culture that is interesting and of use to others? Consider telling your story whether it is from research, a project, an exhibition or your society. Let others know what is happening around Australia. There is a call for talks with proposals due 31 December 2017. See the link on the GAGHA website

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Researching abroad: Finding British Isles and European Ancestors

In the month of August there will be the chance for family historians to hear two international speakers in a series of seminars held in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth. Chris Paton from Scotland will talk about researching ancestors from the British Isles and Dirk Weissleder from Germany will talk about researching German and European ancestors.

Click here for details of the program at the various venues.

This is a great opportunity to come and learn and have your questions answered!

Thursday, 30 March 2017

DNA matches to German families - is it possible?

My wife and I have been researching our respective families for some thirty years. Back in the "old days" research meant walking through cemeteries looking for headstones, visiting the Queensland State Archives looking through microfilms, card indexes, and dusty bundles of Land Selection or Probate files, or visiting an LDS Family History Centre to read microfiche or microfilms. There were no online indexes then that could be viewed from the comfort of the home.

Of course things have changed and so much more information is readily accessible, although those of us who are used to visiting archives realise that 'it's not all online' by any stretch of the imagination.

Recent years have seen aggressive marketing of DNA testing, which the advertisements seem to imply, will use your genetic makeup to identify the places from which your ancestors came. Our thirty or so years of research had identified our ancestral places of origin, so we saw that aspect of DNA research as a sideline only. In fact it would be interesting to compare the speculation of our origins with the hard documentary evidence that we had painstakingly assembled.

We thought that the greatest benefit would be through the ability of the programs to compare our DNA samples with the millions of other samples and so to find other people who might be (distantly) related to us. We knew that small matching segments of DNA might match by chance rather than there being any real relationship.

Ethnicity Estimate

So how do my results from the test with Ancestry stack up against the research? Its Ethnicity Estimate is shown here:

Ethnicity Estimate for Eric Kopittke from
How do these values compare with the evidence?
  • My father's parents were both born in the former eastern parts of the Kingdom of Prussia, one in Pomerania, the other in West Prussia. Since World War 2, these areas have been in Poland. They were settled by slavic peoples with later German migration from the west. Since "Europe East" includes Poland as well as other areas, 48% is close to the documented 50%.
  • My maternal grandfather was the son of migrants from the northern and western parts of Germany, one from Schleswig-Holstein, the other from North Rhine-Westphalia. I can therefore trace 25% of my ancestry to parts of modern day Germany. Since 'Europe West' includes Germany, the 30% is probably a little high.
  • In Schleswig-Holstein there was a mixing of German, Danish, and Friesian peoples, and some of the ancestors of my great-grandmother had Danish names - perhaps that is where the 10% Scandinavian came from.
  • Both of my maternal grandmother's parents were from Sussex in England, with their ancestral roots from villages near Lewes. They constitute 25% of my ancestry so is interesting that 'Great Britain' has only 6% listed.
Those values can be misleading, however. On clicking on each, the following ranges are revealed:

Europe East
36% – 58%
Europe West
7% – 54%
0% – 28%
Great Britain
0% – 21%

There is a large uncertainty with the quoted 'Ethnicity Estimate' values and that must always be kept in mind when looking at such results!

Genetic Communities

Ancestry explains its recently introduced Genetic Communities in these words:
Genetic Communities™ are groups of AncestryDNA members who are connected through DNA most likely because they descend from a population of common ancestors, even if they no longer live in the area where those ancestors once lived. For example, some Genetic Communities trace their roots back to groups of people who were isolated geographically. Mountains, rivers, lack of roads, or other barriers made it likely that each new generation would marry someone who lived close to home. Others have their roots in a groups who typically married others of the same religion or ethnic group. In each case, these groups came to share a significant amount of DNA. Modern-day descendants who inherited some of that DNA make up Genetic Communities.   
Ancestry has identified two Genetic Communities that match my DNA.
Genetic Communities for Eric Kopittke
A map is produced to illustrate these communities.
Map of Genetic Communities for Eric Kopittke
Clicking 'Eastern Europeans' produces a more detailed map along with a general description of the history of the region.
Eastern European Genetic Community
There is also a CONNECTION button which when clicked allows you to display the details of the others in the same Genetic Community. Three of my matches were estimated to be '4th - 6th cousins' and twelve at '5th - 8th cousins'. Unfortunately most had not supplied a family tree so there was no easy way to see whether the matches were real or just a random chance.

One had a tree with 4,904 names, and on checking the tree, I found mention of Caroline LATZ, a daughter of my grandmother's cousin. Caroline had married John RUHWEDEL in Queensland and it now became obvious that they had migrated to the Chicago area in the USA. That solved a mystery for me, and I could then provide details of Caroline's ancestors who were from small villages and estates in the former Prussian province of West Prussia. It turned out that my match was my third cousin three times removed - there is also a match to the parent of this person but interestingly that match does not appear in my genetic communities.

So the Ethnicity Estimate results are interesting but with the large uncertainty should not be taken too seriously. On the other hand the Genetic Community results can potentially point you to other distant relatives, but discovering what the relationship is depends on the other party posting enough of a family tree to allow connections to be made.

Monday, 20 February 2017

German family history from Poland

Significant numbers of Germans have been migrating to Australia since the 1830s. In 1838 some “Old Lutherans” landed in Adelaide seeking the right to worship the way that they believed in. The same year, the pioneer Presbyterian minister, John Dunmore Lang, brought a party of German missionaries from Berlin to Brisbane. As well, on 23 April 1838, the barque Kinnear arrived at Sydney carrying six German families, the first German vinedressers in Australia. They were from the Rheingau area of Hesse.

At the end of World Wars 1 and 2, large areas that had been under German control were lost to its neighbours. In the east, these became part of Poland, Russia and Lithuania. After World War 2 in particular, millions of people who were considered to be Germans were expelled from these areas.

One of the problems in researching family history from these areas involves name changes. Throughout this region some people considered themselves German while others considered themselves Polish. Naturally many places had both a German and a Polish name. For some, the German and Polish names were pronounced similarly but spelled differently. The town of Stuhm (German) or Sztum (Polish) is a case in point – some knowledge of German and Polish pronunciation helps here. For some, the names might be translations of each other. The village of Schönwiese (German) or Krasna Łąka (Polish) – describing a meadow – is an example. In others, the names were quite different – for example the city of Breslau (German) in Silesia is now Wrocław (Polish), and the former capital city of East Prussia, Königsberg (German), is now Kaliningrad (Russian). A further complication is that some of the places where the German name was too “Polish” were changed in the Nazi era. For example, Pachutken (German) or Pachutki (Polish) was changed to Tönigesdorf in the 1930s.

Most likely, for those of our ancestors who were born before the disruption of the World Wars, the names of the places of birth that were recorded would be the German names rather than the Polish names. This is a problem because the names to be found in today’s atlases and road maps are the Polish (or Russian or Lithuanian) ones.

Given such a problem, is it possible to research any family history from this area? As with all German research, it is necessary to identify the civil registry office (the Standesamt) that was responsible for registering births, marriages and deaths, and/or the church parish that was responsible for recording baptisms, marriages and burials. A number of websites are available to assist in this process:
·      Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs- lexicon … was a two-volume publication from the first decade of the 20th century, listing almost every locality in the German Empire of the day. An easy way to use this invaluable resource is by the Meyersgaz website (see which shows the relevant entry and provides an explanation in English of the significant abbreviations. The Standesamt at the time of publication is listed, and sometimes the Catholic or Protestant parish and Synagogue. As well, it is usually possible to view an historic map and overlay this on a modern map.
·      Kartenmeister (see is a website set up by Uwe Krickhain which lists almost every location within the former German eastern territories, together with details of the Standesamt and the Catholic and Protestant parishes and Synagogue.
·      Ehemalige Ortsgebiete (Former Eastern Territories – see is a website giving the names by which different towns and villages were known at key times over the past 100 or so years.

Putting this to use
A friend was interested in finding out about his mother’s birthplace. He had been told it was Escherlin in what is now northern Poland but had been in Pommern (Pomerania) and that the town had undergone a number of name changes. Furthermore the church records had been destroyed.

Unfortunately the Meyersgaz website had no entry for Escherlin and neither did the Kartenmeister site, but the Ehemalige Ortsgebiete site noted that it was known as Gryzlin in the district of Löbau before World War 1. 

The Meyersgaz site then showed that Gryzlin was a Rittergut (an estate) and that further details were available under Grischlin, Gryzlin being the former name. Grischlin was in the Kreis (county or shire) of Löbau in the Regierunsbezirk (government district) of Marienwerder Provinz Westpreussen (West Prussia); its Standesamt (civil registry office) was 4.7 km away at Jamielnik, it had a population of 279 and was the seat of a Protestant parish. 

Between the World Wars, Grischlin lay in the Polish Corridor, which gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea, and was named Gryźliny under Polish control. The Ehemalige Ortsgebiete site showed that in 1939 under German control, Grischlin was named Escherlin and after World War 2, once again under Polish administration, Gryźliny.

So my friend was correct, Escherlin had been renamed many times, although for at least some time it had been in the Prussian province of West Prussia not Pomerania.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Geogen – a “geographical genealogy” website

Geogen – a “geographical genealogy” website

The free Geogen website ( can be used to create maps showing the distribution of surnames in Germany based on entries in the telephone directory. A large concentration of surnames in a particular area could indicate where the name originated.
Enter the surname of interest in the input field and click the research button. The German special characters (ä, ö and ü) are distinct letters, so Müller, Mueller and Muller must be looked for in separate searches. As well as producing attractive maps that could be a conversation starter, Geogen may provide the clue to allow the researcher to break down some brick walls. Enjoy its use!
An example: my great grandmother Christina E. F. Brohmann was born in a rural area near Eckernförde in Schleswig-Holstein. While I have been able to find baptisms, marriages and burials for her family, I have not been able to go back further than her great grandfather Claus Bromann who was mentioned briefly when his son, Christina’s grandfather, Claus Wilhelm Bromann was baptised in 1792. Searches for other references to the older Claus have been unsuccessful!
Entering the Brohmann name into Geogen revealed the main cluster of people by that name in Altmarkkreis Salzwedel in the Federal State of Saxony-Anhalt with other individuals scattered across Germany. A similar result came when the variation Bromann was used. It could be that some Brohmann/Bromann family members moved to the Salzwedel area years ago in search of work and became established there, or perhaps the roots of my Brohmann/Bromann family might actually be near Salzwedel. Further research is clearly called for.