This article was first published in “Der Blumenbaum“, the Sacramento German Genealogy Society’s award winning quarterly journal, in January 2012.
We all know the feeling of hitting a brick wall, having turned every single stone upside down, having looked everywhere and not knowing what the next step might be. But often the answer is very close, it is just that we are not aware of the hidden treasures in the records we have already found. Taking a closer look at baptismal records and investigating the godparents might enable us to overcome our brick walls. The godparents will lead us with their advice and support, just as they might have led our ancestors.
In former days, in Germany, the godparents were of utmost importance. Not only should they guarantee the child’s religious education, but they also should stand in if the parents were not able to provide food, shelter or education. For families at a certain financial level, the godparents also had to take care of legal and financial matters if the parents died. Therefore, the decision of which godparent to choose could be an essential one. Godparents were either close relatives like grandparents, aunt and uncle or cousins, or maybe neighbors, close friends or some influential person who would have been able to take care of things. Some of us might have found an ancestor who had a noble godparent, often the landlord. That was an honor the parents simply could not refuse…. (and did not mean that the landlord was the father of the child!).
Very often, you have a family who were landless farm workers or who had a so-called migrant occupation (“Unsteter Beruf”). Professions like miller, shepherd, hollaender, administrator and glassmakers are good examples. As they constantly changed their place of residence without leaving a trace, it is nearly impossible to keep track of them. If we get lucky, we might find something useful more or less by coincidence. However, if we are willing to adapt our search strategy, we may find that godparents can provide us with a bit of crucial information.
Let me tell you how I found out more about my ancestors, Friedrich and Maria Stange. They were hollaender, moving around a lot, taking care of the dairy business on big manorial farms. They never stayed put for long, and moved long distances when their contracts expired. I did not know where they came from, where they got married, or where three of their five children were born. I only knew where they had lived between 1796 and 1799 and then after 1824. I had spent years searching in almost 100 parishes and was close to giving up. Then, there suddenly was a tiny bit of information that helped me overcome my brick wall …
In 1826, one of Friedrich and Maria’s grandchildren was baptized in a small village in the Kingdom of Hanover. The godfather was Friedrich August Leiffheidt, a forester from Plattenburg in the parish of Gross Leppin in the Kingdom of Prussia. Three years later, the same Friedrich August Leiffheidt married Friedrich and Maria’s daughter Dorothea. Also, this young forester would be a godfather to more of their grandchildren. In fact, nearly all of them had Leiffheidt godparents. And I had absolutely no idea what kind of relationship these two families could have had, but I was struck by the idea, that the Leiffheidt’s and the Stange’s had known each other for quite a long time. Were they related or had they been friends or neighbors? I looked through the church records of Gross Leppin to follow the Leiffheidts back through several generations. Among their children was one born in 1810, who had a godmother I knew: it was Maria Stange, wife of the hollaender Stange, living in a small village close by. So, obviously the Stanges and the Leiffheidts had known each other much longer than I had thought. Probably their children had even grown up together. However, the confirmation records of the small village parishes showed no Stange or Leiffheidt children. Knowing that the Stanges and Leiffheidts belonged to the rural middle class, I reasoned that they might have been confirmed in the church in the next bigger town, instead. Sure enough, the town church book showed all of the Stange and Leiffheidt boys, with their dates of birth and their parents’ place of residence. The next church books I read were the ones cited in the confirmation records. Again, there was an interesting detail: the birth record of the Stange’s first-born son unexpectedly showed the place Maria Stange came from. In the next church book, I got lucky. I had found it, the place the marriage between Friedrich and Maria nee Hoeger had taken place. The record even told me that Friedrich was the son of a hollaender from Mecklenburg, who had just recently moved to Brandenburg. It also showed Maria’s complete family and even her grandparents, the local innkeeper and ferryman.
At last, I had solved the mystery and was able to find the whereabouts of my family from 1804 to 1824. All of that with the help of only one godparent!
So, whenever you come up against a brick wall, do not give up. Study the godparents you find in the baptismal records and try to find out more about them. Tracking the other family may be the key to solving your mystery…