Get Some Culture!

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Get Some Culture!

Some readers are aware that by heritage I am one-half Ostfriesen. This is despite the fact all my Ostfriesen 
ancestors came to the United States between 1850 and 1883. My Ostfriesen ancestors mainly settled in 
"colonies" in central Illinois where marriage into the ethnic community was particularly strong, particularly 
before World War I.

This extremely small area of northern Germany has nuances that distinguish it from other areas of Germany. 
In fact, the culture is more Dutch than Germany. This article discusses a few lessons I have learned while 
researching my Ostfriesen ancestors. Most of these lessons are applicable to researching from any ethnic 
area and make the point that assumptions and the failure to learn about an area's culture can leave you 
confused and your research coming up short.

Learn Before You Get Surf Happy
It can be easy to "instantly" obtain the names of hundreds or thousands of ancestors on the Internet. A year 
ago, a distant cousin who had recently become interested in genealogy contacted me. She had found much 
of our common ancestry on the Internet. She immediately wanted to extend the family further than the 
earliest known ancestor. Her enthusiasm caused me to refocus on the lineage and I began reviewing my 
materials hoping that I had overlooked something. I gently suggested that my cousin learn something about 
the history, culture and language of the area and gave her a few references. She was more than willing to 
learn and this was extremely fortunate. Some unfortunately want to extend the lineage back to antiquity 
and want to do it NOW. My cousin realized that learning is not a five-minute process and that an 
understanding of the implications and interactions of history, culture, and language cannot be obtained 
instantly by swallowing so many "multi-vitamins." This willingness to learn and study is extremely important 
when the culture is not one in which the researcher was born and raised. 

We're All Related
Some Ostfriesen surnames are extremely uncommon in the United States and one may be tempted to 
conclude that all families bearing the same surname are related. This is not the case however. My 
grandmother's maiden name of Habben is an excellent example. Many Ostfriesen surnames are patronymic 
in nature (derived from the name of the father). While Ostfriesland is not the only area to have patronymic 
surnames (Johnson is a good example of an English patronymic surname), it is somewhat unique in that the 
practice continued until the early nineteenth century.

My grandmother's paternal great-great-grandfather was Lubbe Habben, born in 1775. This individual was the 
first to begin passing on the Habben surname to his children. Lubbe's father was actually a Habbe Paben. 
All the children of this Habbe Paben had the surname Habben.

In Ostfriesland, the surnames generally changed every generation until 1813, when Napoleon put an end to 
what he saw as confusing nonsense. Early generations of my pedigree charts look strange, no one has the 
same surname as their father. 

There were other areas where surnames kept changing every generation, most notably Sweden and Wales. 
While not particularly difficult, patronymics can be initially confusing. In Ostfriesland, there is an additional 
fly in the patronymic ointment: some families did not change the surname every generation or chose a 
surname that was not patronymic.

Cultural Norms -- Not Laws
Many of our ancestor's actions were the result of the culture into which they were born and raised. 
Researching these ancestors can be difficult when one does not understand the culture. To reduce the 
difficulties, some researchers are tempted to make "laws" regarding their ancestors' behavior, even though 
no such "laws" actually exist. When the culture is difficult to understand and the societal practices are 
confusing it is very tempting to create order out of the chaos by creating "laws" of our own making. 
However, it is important to remember that these rules we create are our rules, not those of our ancestors 
and that we are still viewing their lives through our twenty-first century perspective. Frequently, it is necessary 
to make generalities about the behavior of a certain ethnic group, but it is important to remember that while 
these generalities are helpful for general understanding, they do not necessarily apply in each and every 

I am occasionally asked, why didn't the Ostfriesen immigrants all "do things the same," in regards to naming 
their children, Anglicizing their first name, etc. This would make research easier, but human nature does not 
work so simplistically. The answer is that there was no law for how these things were to be done and that for 
many immigrants there were many factors influencing their decision. These factors were not the same for 
each immigrant. It was easier to remain "ethnic" for those who settled in one of the larger Ostfriesen 
settlements. A member of any ethnic group will assimilate faster if there are no other members of their own 
ethnic group living nearby.

A Farmer is a Farmer is a Farmer
There are several words in the Ostfriesen dialect of Platt that translate loosely to the more generic term of 
"farmer." If one only records "farmer" as the occupation, one may lose a significant ancestral clue. There's 
a term that means farmer in the sense of a day laborer, another that means a person who rents a farm from 
a family member, and another term for one who owns and farms his own land in his own right. Obviously "a 
farmer is not a farmer is not a farmer." Your ancestor's "occupation" may tell you more about him than simply 
how he spent his time.

Unique Sources?
Researching in a new area or in a new country may open up resources that are not available in other areas, 
sources that may be unexpected. Ostfriesens have long been reliant upon dikes to keep the North Sea at 
bay. In 1717, Christmas brought a terrible flood that covered a significant portion of Ostfriesland with water. 
With rudimentary communication, one can only imagine the fear that filled the local villages as dikes broke 
and the water continued inland. Repairing the dikes was a significant expense and in 1719, a tax was levied 
on everyone twelve years of age and older. This tax list has been transcribed and published with an index. 
The resulting Kopf- Schatzung 1719 (Schulte, Erhard, Kopf-Schtzung 1719, Upstalsboom- Gesellschaft, 
Aurich, Germany, 1999) is an excellent genealogical source and effectively serves as a 1719 census for the 
area. In some villages the residents are listed by their social standing within their village. 

For the late nineteenth century, Osfriesen researchers have another excellent source: the Ostfriesische 
Nachrichten. Published in Breda, Iowa, this newspaper began in 1884. The paper's goal was to help 
Ostfriesen immigrants keep up with news from the homeland and from relatives and friends who had settled 
in America. Most issues from October 1884 through June 1912 are available on microfilm. The paper was 
published for many years after 1912, and efforts are underway to obtain as many of these missing issues as 
possible. This newspaper contains letters, obituaries, and other information on Ostfriesen immigrants 
throughout the United States. In many cases, these obituaries are more detailed than those in the English 
language newspapers from where the person actually died. My own great-great- grandfather had at least six 
letters published in the paper. Unfortunately, most discuss the price of corn and how the weather was 
affecting the local corn crop. 

Other Lessons?
There are a few other lessons I have learned in my Ostfriesen research: 
--- Chain migration--where one immigrant initially settles and sends for family or friends--should always be 
considered for possible clues. I have many non-Ostfriesen families, ranging from other Germans to eighteenth 
century Virginians where chain migration can easily be seen. 
--- Name translation. There might have not been hard and fast rules for how certain non-English names were 
translated into English. Of course, your ancestor will always be the one who took the unusual variant.

Final Advice?
Learn about the area where your ancestor lived before spending a significant of time and money researching 
records in the area. You may make assumptions that are entirely incorrect and that may waste valuable 
research time. RootsWeb has mailing lists for every area of the world at: 

Many of these mailing lists have home pages that provide links to specific sources and references for the area 
being studied. If they don't have such a page, post a message to the list inquiring about such sources or 
published references. 

One Last Comment
One relative of mine "fixed" the patronymic problem by giving all the sons the same surname as the father 
regardless of what the actual records said. To her, all those different surnames were confusing and made it 
look like every birth on her pedigree chart look illegitimate. And we couldn't have that!

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