A lot of times the sources used while researching the family history are confusing and/or have a lot of errors. Or it could be that I’m just ignorant of what was going on at the time and the source information is accurate, but it just doesn’t make sense without some crucial bit of knowledge. Sometimes you have to delve into the history of the times just to figure out what is going on with your ancestors.
One good example of this is the birthplaces of my Fischer and Horney ancestors (on my dad’s dad’s side of the family). One great great great grandfather, Eustache Fischer, came to America around 1889 while my other 3rd great grandfather, Nicolas Horney, came in 1860. Both of their families ended up in Goliad County, Texas. The families MAY have known each other before they came to America because Nicolas was married to a Fischer in 1849; but this is conjecture at this point.
The interesting thing to note about many of these men’s children is that the place where they report their birth country changes over the various census dates. And this is confusing if you’re trying to keep accurate information.
Every 10 years the US government holds a census where it keeps track of the country’s population with a few questions asked of every person in the country at the time. Two questions consistently asked is when and where you are born.
Selestine Horney (Eustache’s son) eventually married Isabelle Fischer (Nicolas’ daughter) about 1890 in Goliad County, Texas. But let’s figure out where they were born (the information here was taken from the various censuses):
|1870||France||Moved to USA in late 1880s.|
|1930||Died in 1929.||France|
The records for the 1890 were destroyed in a fire; so there is no information for that census.
Now you’d think people would know where they were born; so why is this so confusing? It also gets a little weird when you look at other aspects of the questions asked and answered in some of the censuses.
The 1920 census asks where each person was born and what their mother (original) language was spoken at home. The response for Isabelle and Selestine (his name is misspelled in the census): Born in France, Speak German!! Now what the heck are we supposed to make out of that?
Eventually I came across a form for Isabelle called the “Alsace-Lorraine, France Citizenship Declarations (Optants), 1872”. I had to do some reading on Ancestry.com to figure out what this was about; but, before we get into that, we need a little bit of history.
This Alsace-Lorraine region had been under frequent contention between Germany and France. As an article at Wikipedia.com states, France wanted the Alsace-Lorraine area because it was geographically a part of France. Germany, on the other hand, said it should be part of that country since most of the inhabitants spoke German! Ahhh – so that’s where the French birth location with German as the mother tongue came from for Isabelle and Selestine.
It turns out that, following the Franco-Prussian War (Jul 1870 – May 1871), the Alsace-Lorraine region of land was transferred from France to Germany. And it was part of Germany until the end of the First World War when it was ceded back to France in 1918. So, from 1870 and before and 1920 and later this was France while during the 1880-1910 census this area was German.
This whole thing must have been confusing to the census takers who likely weren’t well versed in the history of the area; and, to make matters worse, they were getting answers from German speakers that said they were from France.
Now, back to the Citizenship Declarations (Optants) form. If people were in the area after “ownership” of the Alsace-Lorraine region was transferred from France to Germany, they had to change their citizenship from French to German. They could declare that they would maintain their French citizenship which would then be published in bulletins. If they chose to remain French, they had to immigrate to France (many of them immigrated to American instead).
So, two siblings could have been born in the same house – yet be from two different countries. In 1870 they would have been born in France; in 1872 they would have been born in Germany.
After all of that you might be thinking – wow – good thing that doesn’t happen in the good ole US of A. Wrong! It does. In the early days, state borders and county borders changed! This is not as drastic; but if you’re doing research and know that your ancestor was born in one county – but you go look him up at the county courthouse – you might not find him.