While church registers are the most popular and useful sources for tracing most Eastern European ancestors, and civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths provide even more details, there are other record groups to be searched that may prove useful. If you are coming up empty in the search for vital records in a particular locality, here are three of the most underused resources to put on your research list.
1. Census Records
As you probably learned from exploring U.S. or Canadian census records for your ancestors, the prime value of census records is for grouping families together. In Eastern Europe, censuses were usually taken for tax and military conscription purposes. Searching census records can be hit or miss depending on the country, the region, and whether or not registers have been preserved. Because of shifting borders and the destruction of records during wartime hostilities, only relatively small portions of certain record groups survived in many instances. Therefore, you should check registers of births, marriages, and deaths (not census records) first, opposite of what genealogists typically do when looking at North American records for their ancestors. Also look for census substitutes such as city or parish directories or confession lists.
As you search for census records, keep in mind the two keys to successful research in Eastern Europe:
1. You must learn the immigrant’s original name
2. You need to obtain the specific name of town or village of origin
These steps are typically accomplished by a reasonably exhaustive search in records where your immigrant ancestor settled (for example, US and Canadian records).
As shown in the example below, I was able to locate the Figlyar family in the Slovakia Census, 1869 Szepes Oszturnya (Osturňa). These returns are digitized and available through the FamilySearch website. Because the database is “browse only” it is essential to know the village name with its Hungarian spelling (Oszturnya) since at the time Slovakia was administratively under control of the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as the historical Hungarian country name (Szepes).
A good first step to determining what might be available for the locality you are researching is to use the FamilySearch Wiki and click on the country (e.g. Slovakia). Then, click on the link for “Census” (where available) to get more information. You should also search the Family History Library Catalog by Place and then look for the Census category keeping in mind that not all records of the Family History Library have been digitized and some records are still only available on microfilm.
Websites by individuals and organizations may also contain indexes or images of census and other types of data sets. An online search query for the country name and the word “census” can often link you to these resources, or use the Online Records button on the FamilySearch Wiki page for the specific country and click the Blue Button that says Online Records to get to a chart with links to country wide collections. For example, Russia Online Records shows under the Census category a link to a FamilySearch collection Russia, Tatarstan Confession Lists, 1775-1932, which serves as a census substitute.
2. Occupational Records
While many of my ancestors were peasant farmers, I also discovered ancestors who worked in specific trades (My great-grandfather, Mihaly Fencsak was a bootmaker and my other great-grandfather, Andrej Straka worked as a tailor). You may be able to find guild records or occupational directories. Since guilds were associations of professionals with similar economic interests based on a certain craft or trade (such as tannery, metalworking, tailoring, and shoemaking, among others), some of these records are still in the possession of the guilds, others have been collected into local, city, regional, or state archives. Sometimes paperwork is found in home and family sources. For example, below is a scanned image of pages 2 and 3 of my grandfather’s 15-page worker pass book from Hungary. In order to learn the details, I hired someone to translate the pages from Hungarian into English. In addition, to listing his date of birth, and that he was Greek Catholic, the worker pass contained a physical description of my grandfather (low figure, a round face, gray eyes, regular nose, healthy teeth and brown/maroon hair) and he had an apprenticeship certificate and his occupation was listed as a cartwright assistant/helper.
Online sources such as the Czech Occupation Dictionary and the Industry and Trade Directory of Hungary in 1891 with an alphabetical list of occupations and industries can help you learn more about occupations. [NOTE: these are just two examples—you will likely find more].
3. Town or Village Genealogies or Histories
Town genealogies are known by various names, including “town lineage book,” “local heritage book,” “one-place-studies,” “Ortssippenbuch (OSB),” and “Ortsfamilienbuch (OFB). You can find a list of these on Genealogy.net. The Odessa Digital Library has a Village History Project and links to Village Records and Compilations.
One of my favorite research discoveries is a page from a local history book Dejiny Osturne that contains a copy of an 1855 summons for Jan Figler (one of my ancestors) to appear at the Mayor’s office. While the notice does not give any additional details, it does provide historical context for this particular family.
If you are a Legacy Family Tree Webinar subscriber, you can view a copy of this record in the syllabus for “10 Eastern European Genealogy Resources You Might Be Missing.”
Town or local history books may reside in the local mayor’s office, the town hall, library or museum, or if you are lucky they could be available online. A simple search of your ancestral town or village can lead you to its website where you may find historical images and information, and often contact information for the mayor. For example, the website for my grandmother’s village of Milpoš contains a section on its history. While the Milpoš site is in Slovak, I opted to have Google Chrome translate the page into English. Also, don't forget to search Facebook for town and village pages.
Continuing Your Search
FamilySearch and other online resources such as Google Books, Internet Archive and personal, archival, or organizational websites are excellent places to start looking for miscellaneous records. However, keep in mind that many of these hard to get resources may only be available in printed format in books kept by the town or village offices, or documents housed in state, regional, or local archives. Remember, there is no easy button when it comes to tracking down overlooked records for your ancestors, but if you are lucky enough to do so they may provide additional clues for further research.
Learn more Eastern European research tips from Lisa's classes on Legacy Family Tree Webinars.
For over two decades, author and instructor Lisa A. Alzo has been educating and inspiring genealogists around the world to research and write about their ancestors. She has presented 44 webinars for Legacy Family Tree Webinars, including nine on Eastern European research. Visit her website www.lisaalzo.com.