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# Wednesday, August 20, 2008
When You Think You're German, But You Aren't
Posted by Diane

Q. I’ve made little headway in 30 years of researching my Hondlenk line. I was under the assumption Hondlenk is a German name, but a friend went to Germany and asked everyone about it. Germans told her the name is probably Dutch or Danish. Now I don’t know what nationality it is.

A. From the genealogical material you sent, it looks like the source for your assumption is John Hondlenk’s listing in the 1860 Louisiana mortality schedule,  with the place of birth as Germany. (Census mortality schedules, in case readers are wondering, list those who died the year before the census was taken. The schedules exist for the 1850 through 1880 censuses.)

You don’t give John Hondlenk's birth year, but what “Germany” means has changed throughout history. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Germany—then a group of states, the largest being Prussia—covered much of Central Europe. Various wars and treaties led it to gain and lose territory to surrounding countries.

Germany as a nation didn’t exist until 1871. Its changing boundaries resulted in many Germans living outside the borders of Germany, and many non-Germans living inside Germany. John Hondlenk may have been born in Germany without being German, and his birthplace may or may not be in today's Germany. See the December 2006 Family Tree Magazine for help sorting out these boundary changes and population movements.

Surnames aren’t fixed through history, either. Your ancestor’s original surname might not be Hondlenk, but a variation or something completely different. After arriving in America, it wasn’t uncommon for immigrants to change their names or alter the spelling to sound more “American.” Our writer Nancy Hendrickson, who wrote about researching surnames in the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine, says she always assumed her Shore family was from Britain, but she later learned Shore is a variation of the Swiss Schorr.

Something else to keep in mind: The birthplace in the mortality schedule might be wrong. Someone may have provided the census taker with the wrong information, or the census taker may have misheard. Or perhaps your ancestor lived in Germany, or left for America from a German port, but wasn’t born there.

Just for kicks, I looked up Hondlenk in Ancestry.com’s free search tool for surname origins, but didn’t find anything.

Focus less on determining the nationality of the name, and instead try to find John Hondlenk’s town or parish of origin—information you’ll need to research him in Europe. Keep plugging away on this side of the pond: Research his relatives and neighbors; look for church, court and other less-often-consulted records; and try to connect with other Hondlenks on surname boards such as GenForum’s.

If any readers have come across Hondlenks in their genealogy search, click Comment and pipe up.


German roots | Surnames
Wednesday, August 20, 2008 7:41:57 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [5]