Locating Old Parish and Civil Records

To build your family tree “across the ocean,” not only do you need to know exactly where your target ancestor was born, but you’ll need to figure out where his birth was recorded. For this step, I’ll be using research I’ve done for my dear old friend Michelle as an example. She and I always wondered if we were related because our great-grandfathers were both born in Hungary in the 1890s, had the same surname, arrived in Bethlehem, PA within 2 years of each other, and attended the same church.

Starting out, all I knew about Michelle’s family tree was that her great-grandfather Janos Horvath came to America before 1910, where met and married his wife Mary. They had three children between 1912 and 1919 and John died when their youngest child was a baby. With only this info, I followed the steps outlined in the my earlier post, Identifying Your Ancestor’s Birthplace. I started by searching death records between 1919 and 1921 and found the document for Janos, shown below.

At first, I wasn’t sure if this was the Janos/John I was looking for, but further investigation confirmed that is in fact the death record of Michelle’s great-grandfather. Useful information I gathered from this document includes:

  • date of birth – 09 July 1892
  • address – 333 Lehigh Ave, Bethlehem, PA
  • occupation – laborer
  • location of birth – Austria*
  • father’s name – John
  • place of burial – St. Michael’s cemetery, South Bethlehem
  • religion – Catholic (a quick Google search tells us St. Michael’s was a Catholic cemetery)
  • cause of death – tuberculosis (had been ill for a year prior to death)

* Due to changing borders, we’ll often see different countries listed as the place of birth for the same person. Often, it’s necessary to research the history of a particular region to make sense of this info. John’s wife Mary, the informant listed on the form,  didn’t know the name of her husband’s mother. Likely she wasn’t sure exactly where in Hungary John was born. I later learned that Mary was born near Bratislava, which is in modern-day Slovakia. Maybe she names Austria as John’s birthplace because it’s her best guess. When John died, In July 1919, it was at the tail end of WWI. This was just before the Treaty of Trianon, when two-thirds of Hungary’s land was given to neighboring countries. Maybe Mary assumed his homeland was soon to be part of Austria? We can’t be sure, but we can be wary of location info listed at certain times in history.

The next step in tracing John’s roots was to verify the birth date on John’s death certificate, I brought up the WWI registration card index and searched by state and then by last name (this is an option on Ancestry.com). These records can also be accessed for free on FamilySearch, here, and you can even narrow down results by birth year or place of residence.

Searching by name and residence, I found John’s card, below.

The 333 Lehigh Street address matches the address on his death record and John’s birth date is listed as July 10th, 1892, only one day later than the date on his death record. We can reasonably assume these two documents belong to the same person.  We also now have a very important bit of information – John’s village of birth.

But wait — What does it say exactly? Let’s take a closer look.

Dagonzurichaly, Hungary?

The 2nd word is definitely Hungary.

Bagonyzruch Kiraly…?



Austria-Hungary is pretty clear, but the village name is hard to read.

Hungarian village names are often a combination of words, just as the Hungarian language makes use of many compound words. Often, by breaking a word into smaller pieces, we can run those bits through Google translate and come up with something close.  In this case, the village name is Bakonyszentkirály, in Veszprém county. Bakony is a mountain range north of Lake Balaton. Szent means “holy” and király means “king.”

Learning to decipher village names takes a bit of practice, so fortunately, there are a plenty of village guides online. I have a few on this page.

For Evangelical Records, FamilySearch has most parish books online.  JewishGen has one of the internet’s largest databases of Hungarian-Jewish records. Although religious diversity has progressed steadily in Hungary over the past century, prior to 1900, Roman Catholics far outnumbered any other denomination. In some parts of Transdanubia, between the years 1828 and 1895, over 95% of the population was documented as Catholic. For this reason alone, most of my examples will be from the Catholic church records.

The 2nd embedded document on the Village Lists and Maps page contains all the villages named on the 1828 Hungarian census, so the file is quite large. Regardless of your ancestor’s religion, this document can help you figure out a sloppily-scrawled village name. You can scroll through and look for a village name alphabetically or download the file to search. You can use the standard Control+F (Windows), or Command+F (Mac) search feature.

The village we’re looking for in this example is tough to read, sure. This is often the case, but often, we can find a match by trying some creative keyword searches.

It is worth noting that Hungarian vowels are read as completely different letters than their non-accented counterparts. If I enter Bakonyszentkiraly, the village Bakonyszentkirály will not be found. In Hungarian, as well as many other languages, a and á are completely different letters. I start by searching the keyword “bagony,” (because the k sure does look like a g on the draft card) and that turns up a few villages, but none that share the “szentkiraly” part. Next, I try “kiraly,” but it shows zero results because i haven’t used the accented a. 

Now it’s time to get creative. Let’s look at that village name again.

I can be pretty sure the letters kir appear in succession in the village name, so I try that. There are 32 results, which takes less than a minute to click through until I find the right one —

The 18th result is a village name that sure looks a lot like the one on the draft registration document. Whenever this list was compiled, the village was called Magyarbakonyszentkirály, very loosely translated as “Hungarian Bakony
(mountain range) holy king.” Close enough. 

The beginning of the document shows the legend as follows:

C. S. is Current Status, the current name of the village and/or its current location.

J is the Jaras or Distrit.

M is the Megye or County.

Rec is the village where the Roman Catholic Church Records are kept. If Rec = * then the records are kept in the same village as the entry name.

According to this, the Roman Catholic Parish where Janos’ birth records would be found is called Csesznek (pronounced chess neck, emphasis always on the first syllable).  Next, we head over to Family Search, login, select “search” and “catalog” from the drop-down.

Typing the first few letters of Csesznek results in the rest of the field auto-populating. Notice how the megye, or county of Veszprém is the same as in the previous image. We hit “search” and it brings up a new screen.

This tells us there are Catholic Church records as well as Civil Registration documents. The churches were the primary source of birth/baptism, marriage, and death records until October 1895. Events occurring after this time were required to be registered with the state, which took place at designated civil registration offices.

Note: If your target ancestor was born after 1895, there may be a few extra steps to find the civil registry location. If his place of birth was the largest town in the district, odds are, the civil records will probably be in that town. When in doubt, take a look at a time-specific map (such as Mapire, discussed in more detail shortly), and estimate a ~10km circle  around the ancestor’s village. Take note of the largest towns within that circle and check FamilySearch to see if any of them were civil registry locations. Residents were not expected to travel an unreasonable distance to report births, marriages, and deaths, so if there are truly no clues, an answer can usually be found by “walking the map.”

For Janos, we choose Anyakönyvek (Records) 1873-1895 and it brings us to this page.

Translated, this means births, marriages, deaths 1873-1895. If Janos had been born prior to 1873, we’d need to find another nearby parish. This wasn’t uncommon, as people would generally attend the church of their denomination which was nearest to their home. I haven’t checked, but it’s possible a church was build in Csesznek in 1873. It wasn’t unheard of for Catholics to walk 8km each way to their nearest church. Those of faiths with fewer members and fewer places of worship had much farther to travel.

In the image, you’ll see on the far right, under the word format, there are two icons. The magnifying glass tells us the records are indexed and the camera means they are also viewable. This means volunteers have gone through digital images of the original records and have translated the data into a searchable format. Those images are also available for us to view and search for additional details.

Note: Even though a set of records has a magnifying glass icon next to it, that doesn’t mean all the records are indexed. Some only have certain years covered, and most do not have the marriages or deaths indexed at all (as of this writing, May, 2018). Just because you enter a name and it says “no result,” it doesn’t mean the record isn’t there. Also, translation errors happen. Someone may have though an F was a T and now your great-grandmother isn’t appearing in the search results. Try a wildcard search with various parts of her first and last name. If her name was Veronika Fabian, try “Ver*” and “*abi*” or just “V*” and “F*” Uncommon letters like V will turn up very few results, so they lend themselves well to broad wildcard searches.

This is still far easier task than what genealogists had to do just a few years ago. Prior to the digitization of these records, researchers ordered the physical rolls of microfilm to their local Family History Center to view them. Prior to that, searching these documents required either traveling to Hungary, hiring someone from Hungary to do the look-ups, or writing and sending money to individual parishes for assistance.

OK, back to Janos. Let’s try searching the index and see what comes up.

Since the name Janos can also be found spelled as Johannes, Joannes, and a few other ways, I used the wildcard J*  for his first name and Horvat* for his last name (because Horvath was often spelled without the last h). I set the birth year at 1892, but nothing showed up, so I changed the year to 1891.

Above, we see a Janos Horvat, baptized on July 9th, 1891.  At the time, baptisms were usually performed within a few days of birth, and it was common for people to list their baptism dates as their birth dates later on US documents.  We see that Janos’ father is also named Janos (like on the death record), and the birth village matches up. I’d say we’ve found our Janos, but let’s check one more thing…

We can click the icon that looks like a tiny sheet of paper under the word “view” to see the original document. FamilySearch has a wiki page with examples and translations of all the headers.

It says Janos was born July 7th 1891 in B.M. Sznt. Kiraly = (Magyar)bakonyszentkirály (sixth column) and baptized July 9th. His godparents (7th column) were Peter and Maria, and Janos’ parents (5th column) were Janos Horvat, Roman Catholic, a zsellér, and Katalin Torma, also Catholic.  Before going any further, let’s learn about the zsellér.

The Cotter (Hungarian: zsellér, Latin: inquilinus, German: Kleinhäusler).

Not part of the first wave of settlers, and had to take smaller, and less well-located acreage, but had same obligations as the ‘farmer’ although in proportion to his smaller holding. Occupied a small building on a small parcel of land, on which he grew little beyond his family’s personal use. Worked for others as day labourer, or tradesman.1

Janos wasn’t a wealthy man, but he got by. This information is helpful if we choose to search for siblings of the target ancestor. Janos Horvat, zsellér in 1891 is probably not going to appear as Janos Horvat, wealthy landowner in 1892.

Below Janos Sr.’s name it says “noszlopi szül.” With a bit of practice, we learn that születés and variations of this word, with the root szül, mean birth, or born. An –after a location is an adjective suffix. As we would add -n to America to create the word American, -i has been added to indicate Janos was born in the village of Noszlop. Similarly, Katalin Torma has the words “márkói sz” below her name (szül further abbreviated to sz.), indicating she was born in the village of Márkó.

I’m going to take a step back and mention that I did scroll through the records from 1889 through 1893 to make sure there weren’t any other Janos Horvats born on a similar birth date. There were none. If any of the details do not match up (like Janos’ birth being off by 1 year), it is important to take extra steps like this to be sure we’re following the correct person.

As for Janos’ parents’ birth villages Nozslop and Márkó, these are some of the extremely useful details that can be found by viewing the actual records rather than just taking info from an indexed report. Please don’t be that guy who takes indexed records from Ancestry.com hints and puts them into his tree. Always, always check the original source, if possible.

But wait — Now we have to find Nozslop and Márkó. We know they are in the same Megye, or County (otherwise, that would usually be noted on the birth record), but where exactly?

To answer that question, I now introduce one of my favorite sites: Mapire.

Mapire enables the user to navigate historical maps of the Habsburg empire using state-of-the art technologies including Google Maps, Google Earth and OpenStreetMap. The main goal is to create an international collaboration to make this content available to the world in a common interface using latest GIS features.2

From the home page, there is a list of several map formats. I usually choose the very last one, Cadastral maps (XIX. century). Enter a location into the search box. I’ll try Bakonyszentkiraly (Mapire has a fuzzy lookup that accepts accented or non-accented letters interchangeably).

Above is the image using the cadastral map view. What is a cadastral map? This site explains it a lot better than I can.

Below is the same location, as it looks today, without any of the fancy historical map layers.

And right next to the blue dot it says Bakonyszentkirály. Yes, we could have skipped searching the village lists and gone right to the map, but the map won’t tell us the parish location. Mapire is fantastic, but it wouldn’t have brought us to Csesznek. It will, however, show us where Nozslop and Márkó are.

Often, the parents’ birthplace will be fairly close to where their children are born. Janos’ parents are  unusual in that they were not born near each other or near the birthplace of their son. Once I find the villages in the cadastral view, I switch back to the standard view to show the distances.

For geographic reference, that bit of blue in the lower-right portion of the map is the northernmost point of Lake Balaton.

Each  of Janos’ parents was born more than 25km from where Janos was born.

The next step would be to follow Janos’ parents back to their home villages, but we need to locate their marriage record first. Usually, the spouses’ ages and the names of their parents will be listed. Also, Janos’ birth record was pretty simple and easy to read, but many are not. In situations where birth records include a sentence or two in the notes section, it’s good to know how to translate some commonly-used words (a topic I’ll be covering in my next post).

Oh and in case you were wondering, my friend Michelle and I both took DNA tests and we do share some small bits of identical DNA, but not enough for our grandfathers to have been closely related.

The villages of Noszlop and Márkó are each about 85km from the birthplace of my great-grandfather. That’s nearly the distance from NYC to Princeton, NJ, or the distance from Milwaukee to Sheboyan, WI.  It doesn’t seem far, but before railways, streetcars, and other forms of industrialized transportation, 85 km was quite a trek. Maybe one day, I’ll figure out our common ancestor, but it’s probably going to be someone who was born in the early 1700s.

  1. http://www.felix-game.ca/html_files/gfarmer2.html
  2. http://mapire.eu/en/about/

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