Names of localities, their changes and related problems

Old family records often refer to ancestral villages and therefore contain important pieces of information for genealogical research. Unfortunately those villages have not often retained their names of the 19th century. This chapter covers several topics that will help the descendants locate the correct place of residence of their ancestors.

First of all, unlike most of the other Prussian provinces, the Poznan Province was consequently referred to in the documents by the capital city name (Posen). If this appears as a place of origin, it might leave the reader with the impression (and hope) that the well-known city of Poznan was the ancestor's hometown. If that were true, any search would be relatively easy, as for the 19th century there existed only a couple of Roman Catholic and Lutheran parishes in this city - and their records are relatively well preserved. Unfortunately, in most of the cases the word 'Posen' simply denoted the Province of Poznan which leaves no valuable information for family research. The entire province comprised hundreds of churches of both major religions and the number of its inhabitants reached 2 millions. It is really a hopeless task to search for a specific person or family living in 'Posen' and the sole surname rarely provides any valuable hint. In such cases it is necessary to find any documents explaining the precise location of origin for a family within the entire region.

Another important issue results from the fact that the Province was an area where two large ethnic groups lived. The Poles were the original inhabitants who were still the vast majority in the central, Eastern and South-Eastern parts of the region. The German population, on the other hand, had been slowly colonizing some areas of Greater Poland even under the Polish rule (up to 1793) and their presence in the Western areas was well established. When Prussia incorporated the Duchy of Poznan, the German influence grew rapidly and also their number gradually increased. Especially in the second half of the 19th century, the Prussian government supported the German colonization of the Province with vast amounts of money. During the entire century, the Germans gained a majority in the Northern areas of the Province (cf. the map of languages used in the Province by 1900). Furthermore, the German language was the only official (although before 1850 some auxiliary role of Polish was accepted by the administration) and also the names of towns and villages were slowly Germanized. This was accomplished both by changing the spelling to adjust it to the German pronunciation, and by direct translations of the place names. This process started with the Western and Northern parts of the Province, where many localities had long established parallel German names used by their Germanic inhabitants. Around the turn of the century, the Prussian authorities started to replace the Polish-sounding place names by designing completely new ones. In this way, for instance, the city of Chodziez (previously called Chodziesen in German) became 'Kolmar' and Inowroclaw (Inowrazlaw) was renamed 'Hohensalza'. Original Polish names were still used by the Polish-speaking inhabitants and in the Catholic Church, but they were eliminated from the official and public life. Given the gradual nature of those changes, it is no wonder that records issued by Prussian authorities, parishes, and cited in private correspondence reflect a variety of spellings for the localities within the Poznan province. To make matters worse, the precise rules of spelling were not always uniform and the Polish inflexion and diacritical marks make the problem even more difficult for anybody with little knowledge of the language.

There is no easy solution for the identification of doubtful place names. For those appearing in documents issued in German, it is important to find a gazetteer and maps edited in a comparable time period. The Prussian authorities published official gazetteers for the entire monarchy and all, even very small localities were included. There exists also a dictionary edited in 1912 which provides the reference for older versions of official names of localities (which were later replaced by new inventions). This is very helpful, as the gazetteers rarely mentioned the previous changes. There are also good sources which provide Polish versions of names, often with reference to the official, i.e. German version. The directory edited by Mycielski in 1902 is the best of them. A later dictionary of Nadobnik contains the official Polish names accepted after the area became Polish again (1919) and it refers to the latest German version.

In case of Polish surnames and locations names it is necessary to write it in the nominative case. This is the case a word appears in dictionaries and it usually differs This refers to the way a word appears in the dictionary and it usually differs from the genitive case ('of' or 'from somewhere'), the locative form ('in somewhere') etc. Such grammatical modifications usually change the last syllable of a name but the variety of existing patterns makes it impossible to provide any simple tips. The problem of grammatical variants is known to mislead even experienced researchers who often cite non-nominative cases of surnames or place names in their pedigrees.

It must be also remembered that in many localities, even their 19th century Polish name might significantly differ from its present form - due to the language changes or some historical processes. For example, many villages ceased to exist or they have been incorporated into the territory of the neighboring cities. In general, small hamlets do not appear on modern maps as the post-WWII Polish administrative practice usually merged them with the nearest village, especially in case of places with names derived from the larger entity. An example for this might be hundreds of small villages called 'Oledry' (Dutch Colony) which were originated as a Northern German or Dutch settlement near an existing village. Most of them are now considered as part of the main village. Such processes often make the use of old gazetteers practically worthless in respect to the present situation.

Note: Another renaming of the place names in Greater Poland was done by the Nazi authorities in 1941 - this completely ignored all the historical contexts and openly attempted to purge all Polish-sounding names. Due to the short time those names were in official use they have little relevance to genealogy. I do not discuss them here, nor do I provide them within the lists of available records. For reasons unknown to me, however, those names often appear in the LDS microfilms descriptions, although the time frame of the records on them very rarely pertains to the Nazi occupation.


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