[Ger-Poland-Volhynia] research that straddles Russian-Prussian borders (Witkowo, etcetera)

Albert Muth albertmuth734 at gmail.com
Sat Jun 16 10:51:19 PDT 2012

Here, I provide some clues as to some issues you should consider
in your research in the late 18th and early 19th century on either
side of the Prussian-Russian border. If you have ancestors in the
Russian-Poland Lutheran Evangelical parishes of Sompolno, Maślaki,
and Konin (perhaps also Zagórów, Grodziec, and Żychlin—the latter
is Evangelical-Reformed), then pay attention!

This is a difficult time period to research for all of us. It is a period
transitions of many kinds. The country boundaries are changing.
Germans are moving into areas where there is no history of German
residency. Lutherans live at a great distance from the parish center.
There may be no Lutheran churches at all.

In the northern area of the gubernia of Kalisz, including the powiats
(districts, Kreise) of Słupca, Konin, and Koło (moving West to East),
a high percentage of people had originated in what we came to know
as the Prussian provinz of Posen (technically, this refers 1848-1918,
including the Empire period of 1871-1918). For sake of genealogical
discussions, it is convenient and necessary fiction to refer to this
entity back to the period of partitions. We must have something “to
hold on to” in our discussion. The borders are too slippery and
shifting, otherwise.

Genealogically, you must understand the principle “Geography Trumps
Start by researching your people using the available Evangelical
church records. The church records always start after the people
were living there. And the church still may not be close enough
for convenience in satisfying the need and/or law to register
births, marriages, and deaths. Furthermore, you must modify
your understanding of the modern concept of “attending church
on Sunday”. Many of our ancestors were deeply religious. But
they did not drive 20 km every Sunday to a specific building
where the church building was located. The town where the
church was located may be a place of record, but one did
not go there for each and every religious service.

Geography trumps religion. Through my research of tens of
thousands of birth records in Russian Poland (yes, I have
surpassed the 100,000 mark, but that does not entitle me
yet to refer to hundreds of thousands of birth records!),
I can assert that the legal situation only forced German
Lutherans to register Lutheran only in the early 1840's.
By this time, there was a very good network of Lutheran
churches, but many people were still recording births
and even marriages in the neighboring Catholic church.

To help visualize locations in what follows, I will be using
geospatial coordinates provided by JewishGen Gazetteer
(formerly known as “Shtetlseeker”). See

First, it is known that Witkowo was founded in 1708. It is
located at 52°26' N 17°46' E. By the mid 18th century,
numerous Germans already were living there. The first
Lutheran records for Witkowo were produced in the 1780's
though were “lückenhaft” (patchy, spotty) until 1790. As
has been stated, the first Lutheran records in the archives
date from 1817. So, we have a definite gap at the moment
in the records generated at the parish of Witkowo.

My sources tell me that for the period prior to the founding
of Witkowo, you should check the records of Schokken (Skoki,
in Polish) at 52°40' N 17°09' E (49.2 km WNW of Witkowo), as
well as the Catholic parishes of

   - Witkowo,
   - Niechanowo is 6.9 km. WNW of Witkowo at 52°28' N 17°41' E
   - Mielzyń is 5.6 km S of Witkowo at 52°23' N 17°46' E, and
   - Ostrowite, but which one?  One is 12.7 km NNE of Witkowo at 52°32' N
   17°52' E.  Another is 20 km ESE of Witkowo at 52°23' N 18°03' E

Another circumstance to watch very closely is the place-names
given for births of everyone in the family. It is known that the
geographical extent of the parish of Witkowo was very great.
Five daughter parishes, among them Ślesin (37.2 km E of
Witkowo at 52°22' N 18°18' E), were located in what
became Russian Poland (what are the names of the
other four?). The Prussian-Russian border was open
from the time of the partitions until 1817, meaning there
was freedom of movement. The border became a barrier
in 1817; the term used in German is Grenzsperre (Google
translates this as “border barrier”).

While it is true that areas in Russian Poland may still
have been dependent on the Evangelical parish of
Witkowo up until 1817, from the period 1808 on,
they most likely would have recorded their births
and gotten married in a local Catholic church. Determining
which Catholic parish is appropriate can be readily
accomplished by using one of the Polish gazetteers
(either Słownik Geograficzny or Skorowidz miejscowości
Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej—there are several online
guides in English that will help you get meaning
out of the paragraphs written in Polish).

Another source that is relatively inexpensive is
the book of maps by Stanisław Litak, “The Latin
Church in the Polish Commonwealth in 1772”. This
was the best $20 I ever spent.  It is now available
on CD only.

Suggestion for anyone who knows German well
enough to read a newspaper. In Google, search
the terms: Russisch-Polen Grenzsperre
You will find a lot of interesting things to read and
probably learn a lot in the process.

Al Muth
Michigan, USA

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