14 June 2024

A Contribution to AncestryDNA Communities

Ancestry, the genealogy company, updated their German DNA communities last month. Now among the 266 communities are four Germans from Russia communities. If you have had your DNA tested with AncestryDNA, your communities may have been updated from a broad description to something more specific…maybe more specific than you ever thought you would see outside of our own Germans from Russia research communities.

How did they do that?

From the support article “AncestryDNA® Communities,”

People in a community are connected through DNA, most likely because they descend from a population of common ancestors. Once we identify a community, we look for patterns. These patterns help us learn about the original group that still connects people through DNA today.

First, we find out where the ancestors of people in a community lived. We do this by comparing birth locations in their trees, using only trees linked to DNA tests.

Then, we find common journeys and migration routes using birthdates and birthplaces. When a parent was born in a different place than their child was, we know the parent moved. Once we know where these people lived and when and where they moved to, we match these facts with the history that explains it. This should answer the question, “What story binds the members of this community together?”

Earlier this year, Ancestry reached out regarding a German migration project related to their DNA communities. They had identified several communities with sub-communities in the areas that were on my maps. Having seen my research, they asked if I was interested in helping name the communities and tell their stories from a very broad level. Who were they? How were they connected? What prompted their migrations? What were their lives like? What bound them together?

It sounded like fun. It also sounded like a good way to get the stories of Germans from Russia onto a major genealogy platform. Those who first learn they are descendants through DNA tests might get on the right research path sooner simply by knowing one of their communities was Volga or Black Sea German or German Anabaptist.

For now, I will spare you the details of the several weeks long geek out that I enjoyed analyzing the data. It was a lot of fun. If you are interested in sausage making, let me know. 

In short, I was assigned four communities. Within each, there were between 4 and 12 sub-communities of that larger community where the DNA indicated there were closer relations. The names given to the communities made little to no sense and were more placemarkers for the data scientists: Large Dot North; South and North Dots, Less East and Romania; Might Be More Concentrated. For each, there was a list of surnames along with two sets of maps: one plotted the surnames, and one plotted the migrations.

After going through the data provided, filtering out the noise of non-relevant DNA cousins going other places and doing other things, and setting aside some odd places that ended up getting mapped, the four groups assigned to me shook out as I suspected they would: by region and religion. The regions were Volga and Black Sea, and the religions were Catholic, Protestant, and Anabaptist (Mennonite and Hutterite).

The divisions of the Protestant Reformation were still held tightly in the German colonies of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Our ancestors moved in groups to an isolated territory far from other Germans. This isolation of the enclaves of Germans created ideal conditions to observe how an ethnic group with strong religious propensities would behave over several generations. They married and had children with members of their own ethnicity and religion over and over. This has always been a part of our narrative history and supported by our paper trails. DNA also seems to confirm it among those who tested with AncestryDNA.

I was concerned about suggesting community names with religion in them. I tried not to. All of the other example communities I saw gave some kind of geographical description. My old community name was very broad, “Germans from Austria-Hungary and the Don Steppe.” Because the data was broken down so finely into these subcommunites, there was no other way to differentiate and describe the larger group without using religion, especially in the Black Sea region. I knew that the names would resonate with those who knew their family history and would provide breadcrumbs for those who do not. The sub-community names identify the enclaves or the individual colonies that the surnames tracked to most in the earliest time periods. The colonies were originally settled by religious confession, and that was how the religion was identified to add to the community name. Make sense?

Answers to Questions You May Have

  • I never saw your DNA results or your linked trees. Ancestry’s science team did that analysis. 

  • The DNA communities and sub-communities are not new discoveries exactly but a refinement of the previous, larger communities. Communities may change again and become more refined as more people test their DNA and the sample size gets larger.

  • Volhynia did not show up in my analysis. I looked for it, but it was not a part of my assignments.

  • All of the Volga Catholics were in one sub-community that was discovered late. That may be why it is not as refined as the rest of the Volga sub-communities.

  • Crimea showed up but did not have a strong signal in the data as a migration destination and did not appear as a sub-community. Even though I knew the story was there, I could not tell a story that was not represented in the data from Ancestry.

  • Migration to and settlement in South Prussia before Russia was mostly absent. This could be because the time spent there was too short to generate enough births to trigger migration lines, and/or the linked trees did not include the intermediate migration step.

  • Migration and settlement in Hungary (the Donauschwaben) before Russia was long enough to generate enough births to trigger migration lines, and enough people had that information in their linked trees.

  • Later migrations to Dobrudscha, the Don, the Caucasus regions, and Western Siberia were faint but present. These were all just parts of original DNA communities and sub-communities moving around.

  • For the mass migration to North America beginning in the 1875 time period, the data showed everybody leaving. We know that was not true, but that is what was in the linked trees and that was the story that I was to follow. I struggled with telling the story between 1925-1950 because of those left behind and whose stories did not get told.

  • The place name mapping was not perfect. Ancestry did its best to map whatever places you had in your linked trees, but very few, if any, place name authorities are going to know about our ancestral colony names, much less what their names are today and how often they have changed during our ancestor’s time there. I am still in favor of using ancestral place names in trees. Our history is not the problem here. I spot checked many of the odd migration places thinking maybe there was a story I was unaware of. Some I understood what was going on (creative place name spellings mapping to incorrect places, choosing the wrong place from a dropdown menu, bad data replicated in trees, etc.), while others I had no idea. Some were so out of bounds that I disregarded them as a glitch. I hope to understand this better at some point and maybe even help fix it. But it still comes down to what you put in your trees. So, if the migration lines on your maps of the Russian Empire look a little strange, this is why. It does not reflect in any way on the validity of your DNA communities. 

My DNA Communities

Below are a few screenshots of my communities. I am the spawn of a Black Sea Lutheran father and a Catholic mother, so I was assigned both Protestant Black Sea Germans and Catholic Black Sea Germans. The communities assigned to me did not surprise me. My known Volga DNA connection (Hi, Hannah!) going back to mid-1700s Baden was too weak to show up. I was hoping for a surprise Mennonite connection, but no luck.

Go to the DNA tab and choose Discover Your Origins. You will see your Ethnicity Estimate. Scroll down on the panel on the right until you see DNA Communities. The map will change, and you will see your assigned communities. See the image at the top of this post.

My communities are to the left along with my sub-communities. The Catholic side includes sub-communities linking me to Bessarabia and the Kutschurgan, Beresan, and Liebental enclaves—essentially, the Catholic colonies in Bessarabia (Krasna) and the Odesa region. And I also have one sub-community that links specifically to the Kutschurgan colony of Mannheim. This tracks what I have seen in my DNA matches over the years. I tested in 2017, and nearly all of of my maternal DNA connections link back to the Biegler (Bichler) and Hoffart families of Mannheim, and specifically to common ancestors Karl Ludwig Biegler and Armelia Hoffart who came to America in 1894. Their descendants seem to be the most curious about their DNA. 

My Protestant Black Sea German community has no specific sub-community. My paper trail places my paternal ancestors in the Glückstal colonies, the trail also leads to the Beresan enclave in the early 1800s and the Liebental enclave in the late 1800s. Most of my DNA connections have specific sub-communities in the Glückstal colonies, including some that go into Bessarabia. For what it’s worth, I identify as a Glückstaler.

Click on the community or sub-community name to zoom in and get a timeline of the lives of the people who lived there. As you scroll down, the map and descriptions change. See my note above about the strange places where migrations appeared in the Russian Empire.

Above are my Catholic ancestors and cousins moving into the Dakotas. All of my direct lines arrived between 1886 and 1913. 

Above are my Lutheran ancestors and cousins leaving the Dakotas and moving west, growing in numbers up in Saskatchewan and Alberta and, of course, the migration to Lodi, California. You can zoom in close to see the areas of concentration. 

Under your DNA communities, there is a button labeled Compare my DNA. Here you can choose among your matches and compare your ethnicity estimates or your communities. Below I chose DNA communities to compare. The new communities made it much easier for me to figure out which side of the family my matches are on. 

Above I have compared some of my Catholic Black Sea German matches on my maternal side. For privacy, I have removed the names and replaced them with the number of centimorgans we share. I had to try pretty hard to find two that did not include Mannheim. Most are connected through the Kutschurgan colonies, but there is one from the Liebental enclave near Odesa. I think I might know how this match fits in to my tree. Seeing the colony Kleinliebental is my clue. 

Above are some of my Protestant Black Sea German matches on my paternal side. I have not looked at their trees, but I suspect both their parents were both descended from Protestant Black Sea Germans, whereas I come from a mixed marriage. Why, you may ask, are there two sub-communities listing Wittenberg, Alt-Posttal, and/or Kulm? The data scientists found evidence in the DNA that there was a difference between the two groups and made them sub-communities. 

Summing Up

This was a fun project. Like really fun. I am glad I had the opportunity to do it and tell our stories. If you have done an AncestryDNA test, check out your communities. If you had parents or grandparents or other older family members tested, it may be even more interesting. If they are still around, get them tested. I wish had. 

The next time I ask the question “How did you find out you were a descendant of Germans from Russia?” I hope someone says “I saw it on Ancestry!” 

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05 June 2024

Research Communities

When I have a question about one of our ancestors, I look to our Germans from Russia research communities. I do this because I know that we all know our respective ancestral neighborhoods, our surnames, our records, our place names. I know that those that are maintaining websites care about what gets put onto them. They take the time to locate, extract, transcribe, and translate records to make it easier for people to build their trees with good data. I know that no one is going to try to tell me that a Glückstaler family member’s baptism in 1874 happened in “Novorossiisk, Black Sea Guberniya, Russian Empire” or in “Alaska, Vereinigte Staaten.”

This is old news to many but new to me since I do no search FamilySearch often. I use it mainly to go to specific films. At least a year and a half ago (I know, where have I been?), their “Russia, Lutheran Church Book Duplicates” index began to include event places in some incorrect places, namely Novorossiisk, Black Sea Guberniya, Russian Empire and Alaska, United States (not even Russian America). They are wrong.

The search result and the record do not even match up. The name of the colony where these baptisms occurred was just a few images prior to this record. It should be Kassel, Kherson province, Russian Empire. 

Novorossiisk, Black Sea Guberniya, Russian Empire is a city in the Caucasus region on the Black Sea. I kinda get where they might have been thinking. They (am assuming it was a human and not AI) saw “Novorossiysk” and thought New Russia. Okay, that was indeed a name for the southern part of Russia in the 19th century. And then they saw “Black Sea Guberniya” and thought, oh, that must the Black Sea region where all those Black Sea German Lutherans were. But it’s not. 

Alaska, Vereinigte Staaten or Alaska, United States. Yeah. There is so much wrong with this, I can’t even. Before you try to defend this, yes, there probably were Germans in Russian America and in the settlements in Alaska. However, I doubt there were Lutheran parishes in Alaska, and if there were, they would not have been a part of the St. Petersburg Consistory and been sending duplicate church books to St. Pete. Why would this even be an option in the dropdown menu?

No one looked at the actual records to transcribe and translate the origin of the records. Newbie genealogsts under the impression that FamilySearch is an authority on the subject may just pick it up and use it as it. This is how bad data propagates in trees in FamilySearch and elsewhere. 

Please use Germans from Russia research communities. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use FamilySearch or Ancestry or MyHeritage or any of other big genealogy sites. You absolutely should. I, too, sometimes have complicated relationships with these sites. Forget about other people’s trees, in the end, they offer the largest repositories of records at your fingertips, some of which you may not find anywhere else. But use them in conjunction with a GR research community that knows your ancestral neighborhood. And continue to fight the good fight about using our ancestral place names in your trees and not letting our history be erased. 

On my map, I have an “About” pin for each layer that often gives sites where you can find out more about the people who lived in the colonies and other settlements. Below is a list of some of the research communities that know their German ancestral neighborhoods in the Russian Empire, have translated records, and will help you figure out your family tree.

American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) https://ahsgr.org/

Black Sea German Research (BSGR) https://www.blackseagr.org/

Eastern European Genealogy Society (EEGS) https://eegsociety.org/

Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS) https://www.grhs.org/

Glückstal Colonies Research Association (GCRA) https://www.glueckstal.net/

GRanDMA https://grandmaonline.org/

Mennonite Genealogy https://www.mennonitegenealogy.com/

Society for German Genealogy in Eastern Europe (SGGEE) https://sggee.org/

Volga Germans https://www.volgagermans.org/

Volga German Institute https://volgagermaninstitute.org/

Volga Records https://volgarecords.com/

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04 June 2024

New Video: German Settlers of the Black Sea Region (Thickets)

In my inbox this morning was a link to this new video by Thickets (Huschi) titled “German Settlers in the Black Sea Region.” Many thanks to Dmytro Yesypenko, Research Assistant at the Kule Folklore Centre and PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, for making me and several of my colleagues aware of it.

The video is well done. Honest and raw about the historical narrative of those who lived in the Odesa area, what it was like, what’s left there now, who among those who occupy the old German houses even knows about the history.

The question of “founding” or “renaming” Odesa struck a bit of a chord with me. In my own research, I've found German colonies on old maps that were there under another name before they were “founded” per Karl Stumpp. Where did the original residents go before the Germans were moved in? Who were they? There are many historical narratives competing in Ukraine. The Russian narrative is just of them, albeit the most destructive one at the moment. Stumpp, the “father of Russian-German” research was, among other things, an German ethnographer with an agenda. His is another narrative to confront.

All that aside, it is always nice to see recent video of our ancestral colonies since visiting there is not an option. Those mentioned in the video include the following: Grossliebental, Kleinliebental, Alexanderhilf, Neuburg, Josefstal, Mariental, Peterstal, Freudental, Liebental, Lustdorf, Blumenfeld, Alt-Annental, Selz, Kandel. If you have visited the Odesa area, you will undoubtedly recognize some of the architecture seen in the video. And even if you haven't been there, you will recognize the churches. Notably, and I had never thought about this, the Catholic church in Selz was truly a cathedral. As the narrator says, “Now we are actually in Salz [Selz]. This is the village that today is called Lymanske. And here is the largest Catholic church, or the ruins of the largest Catholic church, in the entire South. This is not in Kherson, not in Mykolaiv, not in Odesa, or in any other large cities of southern Ukraine. Even though the Catholic community there was much larger,  the largest Catholic church in the entire south of Ukraine was built here.”

One story toward the end made me laugh and that was about how the Germans produced so much wine that they filled their wells with it to keep it cold and drank wine instead of water. I laughed because that was not the first time I had heard that story. 

The video is in Ukrainian, but you can turn on captioning and have the captions translated into English or German. Here is a short video on how to do that. You may also want to scroll down and click on “show transcript” and follow along that way, too. I have included a full transcript here for anyone wanting to read it.

This video project is one to watch. They’ve produced several others, too. Check out those on their YouTube channel.

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18 May 2024

SLIG Fall Virtual: Slava Ukraini! Genealogical Research in Ukraine

I am pleased to be a part of the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy Fall Virtual class “Slava Ukraini! Genealogical Research in Ukraine” where I will be teaching a session on the German colonists who lived within the historical borders of modern-day Ukraine. 

A description of the class, a short video, and the full schedule is available here. Registration is now open

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15 April 2024

Pending Toponym Changes in Ukraine

Ukraine’s Parliamentary Committee on Regional Development is in the process of evaluating and recommending renaming some of the country’s toponyms (place names—cities, villages, districts) to comply with its law “On condemnation and prohibition of propaganda of Russian imperial policy in Ukraine and decolonization of toponymy.”

To date this year, it has recommended 347 toponyms be renamed because they “contain symbols of the Russia imperial policy, or do not meet the standards of the state language.” Some of the current names of our German ancestral colonies will be renamed if all the recommendations are approved by Ukraine’s Parliament. 

This is not the first time Ukraine has renamed its cities, villages, and regions. Prior to this in 2016, Ukraine passed a law decommunizing toponyms. Two years later when comparing the current places names on the maps of this project with the official new names, there were several that were changed but not yet updated on Google Maps. It takes a while for place name authorities to catch up and for them to filter into online maps and genealogy software that uses current place names. 

I will update the maps of this project when parliamentary approval has been obtained and a final list of changes is available. Until then, I’m keeping tabs on it. If you’re interested, you can read the committee’s meeting notes here. Let your browser translate the page for you and then search for the word “renaming” on the page. Click on “All news” to see previous news posts. 

None of this should matter too much in your family tree. Ideally, you are recording the historical name of the place and country as it was at the time of your ancestors’ life events, be it imperial, interwar, Soviet, or modern. If you are recording current names or have written narratives of your family’s history using current names, you may have some updates or annotations to make.  

More on this to come as it becomes available. 

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24 February 2024

Remembering the German Settlements in Ukraine


Remembering the German settlements in Ukraine on this day, 24 February 2024. Between 1766 and 1942, Germans lived in over 3,000 places within the borders of Ukraine today, in both urban and rural settlements. Many were established by Germans after 1804. These places—whether they still exist or not, whether their names are the same or not—remain in the hearts of the descendants as one our ancestral homelands.

Slava Ukraini!


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