Tips and Resources for Researching Immigrant Ancestors from Austria
Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Shelbie Drake specializes in German and Austrian research. In this article, she provides valuable tips and resources to help you find records in the area that was once known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire
At face value, the name of the Central European country Austria seems straightforward. However, the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the dual monarchy of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary – is a prime example of why learning the history of where your ancestors originated is critical when researching genealogy.
For example, Ludwig Zabran was recorded in the 1910 U.S. census as having lived in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. According to his entry, he was born in Austria in about 1886 and immigrated to the United States in 1907.(1) However, two things complicate matters in identifying Ludwig’s country of origin. Firstly, Austria, as we know it today, did not exist in 1910, and secondly, he indicated that he spoke Polish, not German.
His record is not unique. When immigrants born before 1918 claimed Austria as their birthplace, they were usually not referring to the small country that we know today. Someone with roots in the dual monarchy lived through its dissolution in 1918.(2)
Two important questions remain: How do I find where my ancestors were from, and where can I find historical records?
Today, the modern-day countries that formed from the former lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are:
- Austrian Empire: Austria, Czechia, Croatia and Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia /Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), Montenegro (part), Poland (part), Romania (part), and Ukraine (part)
- Kingdom of Hungary: Hungary, Romania (part), Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia /Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), Romania (part), Montenegro (part), Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Although this large landmass was under a common rule for more than a half-century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was ethnically and idiomatically diverse.
Knowing the names of the kingdom and hometown within the Austro-Hungarian Empire is crucial for locating your ancestors’ records. Before dissolution, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was divided up into 18 crown lands:
- Lower Austria
- Upper Austria
- Hungary proper
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
Language and Religion of the Empire
The majority of individuals within the Austro-Hungarian Empire were Christian (Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Lutheran), and church records were predominantly written in German and/or Latin. Beginning in the 1870s and through to the Empire’s collapse in 1918, many churches kept records in the native language of their respective congregations.
Key Websites and Resources for Researching Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire
GenTeam is an essential gazetteer for researching the name of a hometown within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although the site does not allow you to use unusual search terms, you can specify your search for a place that either “starts with,” “contains,” or “is” in your search queries. One advantage of using this resource is that the entry for a specific town will notify you what parish individuals in that town attended, as well as what parish they previously attended. However, it is important to note that this site lacks the jurisdictional detail that the German Meyers Gazetteer provides. Along with the gazetteer, GenTeam provides several index-only record collections for regions such as Vienna, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. Before using this site, it is necessary to sign up for a free account.
From some areas within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it can be difficult to find the correct town name on GenTeam using the available search parameters. Gesher Galicia helps to solve this problem by providing a list of towns within the former Kingdom of Galicia (Galizien/Halychyna/Галичина). Gesher Galicia provides researchers with the Galician town name, the administrative district, the judicial district, and where Catholic, Jewish, and Greek Catholic parishioners would have attended church.
After discovering the name of an ancestor’s hometown, the next step is locating church records. This can often be a frustrating process because records are sometimes not digitized, or they may have been destroyed during one of the World Wars. For the predominately Roman Catholic portions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, several hundred Catholic church records for Germany, Austria, Poland, Serbia, Luxembourg, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Italy have been placed online, free of charge. Matricula Online allows you to either search manually for a specific parish or enter the name of the town in the search bar. The country of Slovenia recently placed all of its Catholic church records with Matricula Online. Due to this, it was possible to discover that Artiče, Slovenia had church records available from 1789-1890 online. As a bonus, this resource does not require you to sign up for an account.
In the past, it was possible to explore the various Catholic church records available for the former Kingdom of Bohemia on Matricula Online. Recently the Czech Republic moved its online records from Matricula Online and to its own free digital databases. We discussed the Czech Republic’s digital archives in a past blog post and you can click here for more information.
If your ancestor is from within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, church records will not be in English. FamilySearch Wiki is an excellent tool to assist you in your research as several different language guides are available. For example, if you type in German Genealogical Word List into your search bar, FamilySearch Wiki usually is one of the first results that will pop up.
However, for the former Austro-Hungarian and German Empires, many records are written in Kurrent, which is the old style of German handwriting. Writing in Kurrent is virtually extinct within German-speaking areas of Europe, and today German speakers write in a more Latin-based style.
Many of the letters in Kurrent are vastly different from Latin-based writing styles, and for the beginner, deciphering keywords and phrases can be challenging. FamilySearch Wiki also has a resource for this on their page entitled Germany Handwriting. FamilySearch Wiki is an excellent resource because it allows you to discover what resources may be available and provides foreign language research guides.
Creighton Abrams once said, “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.” Remember, you are not researching your ancestors within the massive land area that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire; instead, look into the 18 different crown lands. Were your ancestors from the area formerly known as Czechoslovakia? Focus on resources within the areas of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Did your ancestors speak Polish even though they said they were from Austria? Focus on resources for the former Kingdom of Galicia. Genealogical resources to assist you in the search for your immigrant ancestors in their hometowns are only a Google search away.
If you’ve hit a genealogy brick wall because you can’t find vital records for your ancestor, let Legacy Tree Genealogists’ staff of experienced researchers help you. Contact us today to discuss your research goals and request a free quote!
(1) 1910 U.S. Census (population schedule), Chicago Ward Eight, Cook County, Illinois, ED 1641, sheet 5A, Stephen Snagoces household, https://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed August 2021.
(2) “Austria-Hungary,” Wikipedia, https://wikipedia.org, accessed August 2021.
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