German Genealogy Tips: Identifying Your Ancestor’s Place of Origin in the Rhineland, Part 1

So your family came from the Rhineland, but where was their place of origin? Where all might they have lived, and what other regional identities or cultural ties would they have claimed? Regional German identity is a powerful agent, and in order to think about German genealogy effectively, one must understand the basics of German history and its territories. Just one look at a pre-1900 census record will very often reveal that your emigrant ancestor claimed one of these territories as their place of birth and likely maintained it as their national identity.

In United States today, the Federal Census often lists “German American” as its most frequently claimed ethnicity. Ever since the Colonial Period, German-speaking peoples have settled in the Americas and shaped its culture, though it’s important to remember that the history of the modern nation of Germany, Deutschland, is much like that of the United States: it was once part of a larger empire. That empire contained many diverse territories and saw much strife and warfare before its regions  were truly politically unified. In fact, unified Germany as we know it today is significantly younger than the United States, becoming an official nation state with the Unification of 1871 under Wilhelm I of Preußen [Kingdom of Prussia].

Of the 1/3 or so of Americans today who claim German American ancestry, it’s fair to presume that a large portion of these families emigrated prior to 1871, meaning that “Germany” was not their homeland, but more properly what we might call a Germanic territory or kingdom. From the time of Charlemagne to 1806, the primary political body of Germanic territories was the Holy Roman Empire [Heiliges Römisches Reich in German]. Under its various dynasties, the lands along the Rhine river were politically controlled by a group of religious and secular prince-electors, most of whom were historically associated with the House of Wittelsbach, the primary dynasty of Bavaria [Bayern], particularly in the south. Due to changes brought on by war and volatile political alliances, the localities along the Rhine historically have been affiliated with many different duchies, kingdoms, and states. The Rhine River Valley, of course, is much older than any of these political affiliations and is in a sense a cradle of European civilization—a river around which much of human history in western Europe has revolved.

This is another way of saying, if your family comes from the Rhine River Valley, it’s likely that locating the right area of origin will be complicated. However, with the right tools and know-how, and a basic knowledge of German territorial history, you can easily learn to read between the lines anytime you come across potential places of origin in records.

Research Tip 1: Identifying Historical Localities along the Rhine

Today, the Rhine River runs along the modern German states (from south to north) Baden-Württemberg (the Baden portion), Rheinland-Pfalz, Hessen (southwestern section), Westfalen, and Nordrhein. The spellings I’ve listed are German ones, and I strongly recommend maintaining German spellings in your notes at all times because important info often gets lost in translation to English, as one will see on United States Census records.

It’s important to note, however, that the states listed above are modern German states, the borders of which were drawn in 1945 following the end of World War II. If you are looking for a town on a contemporary map, then you will need to use these state names and spellings.

The vast majority of German emigrants to America, however, arrived in the 19th century, so to do effective research, we have to think along the lines of a 19th century map and its borders.

The following is a list of the kingdoms, duchies, and territories associated with the Rhine River, listed by date, along with their typical English translations:

1815-1866

Großherzogtum Baden = Grand Duchy of Baden [included the southern border of the Germanic Kingdoms, extending down to Switzerland]

*Watch out for spelling on this one. “Baden” [pronounced BAW-den] and “Bayern” [pronounced BY-airn] are easily confused, especially when English-speakers had to record information on behalf of emigrants. I have seen numerous instances where Baden was written instead of Bayern because an American census taker was unfamiliar with the German word for Bavaria. Bear in mind, too, that in the right cursive, “Baiern” and “Biern” can look a lot like “Baden.”

Rheinpfalz, Königsreich Bayern* = the Pfalz or Rhenish Palatinate, a historical territory belonging to the Kingdom of Bavaria.

* Variants include Pfalz-Bayern, Pfalz-Zweibrücken, Rhenish Bavaria. Not to be confused with the Rhenish Province of Prussia! Bear in mind that emigrants from the Pfalz between the years 1805-1918 would often list their place of birth as “Bayern,” which can also be spelled “Baiern.” This can be confusing for newcomers to genealogy because the lands of mainland Bavaria are actually separated from the Pfalz geographically. Always record the terminal place name as either “Pfalz” or as “Pfalz, Bayern” before 1945.

Großherzogtum Hessen-Darmstadt = Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, also referred to as the Electorate of Hesse-Kassel. One will occasionally see Rheinhessen, which included the southwestern portion of Hessen.

Herzogtum Nassau = the Territory of Nassau, later associated with Hessen

Rheinprovinz, Königsreich Preußen* = Rhenish Province of the Kingdom of Prussia

*Rheinland localities belonging to Prussia should not be confused with the Pfalz/Palatinate, as the Pfalz was a separate entity

*One should note two important details: 1) the lands along the northern Rhine were controlled almost entirely by the Kingdom of Prussia, whose territories spanned from the eastern-most borders to the western-most borders of the Germanic kingdoms. 2) the Palatinate, or more properly Pfalz, was ruled by its own count and had some degree of political sovereignty but was a territory of Bavaria and had been considered such since the 1600s.

1866-1871

During the years leading up to the unification of the German nation [Deutsche Bund], most of the designations listed above remained the same, but with one important detail:

Prussia’s territories along the Rhine were divided into two provinces:

Rheinprovinz = Rhine Province, including all German lands on the western bank of the Rhine)

Provinz Westfalen = Province of Westphalia, including all lands on the eastern bank

1871-1918

The largest change that occurred after unification was Germany’s annexation of the lands in Alsace-Lorraine [Elsaß-Lothringen] following the Franco-Prussian War. For centuries, the territory of Alsace, primarily German-speaking, had been disputed by the French and the Germans and was very often both the staging ground and targeted land in many wars.

Elsaß-Lothringen: Alsace-Lorraine, though these lands along the German border, prior to 1871, comprised several French départment, including Moselle (northern most), Bas-Rhin [literally “Lower Rhine”], and Haut-Rhin [literally, Upper Rhine].

One should note that Bas-Rhin is actually the the middle portion of Elsaß and not the lower-most since the Rhine’s source is actually in the Alps. Bas-Rhin is located directly below Pfalz-Zweibrücken. Lorraine as a place name tends to refer to the lands farther west of the Rhine.

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