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No matter where they lived

One of the very first lessons The Legal Genealogist learned as a baby genealogist just starting out was, genealogy is as much a matter of geography as it is of history.

Take, for example, my Baker family, who pulled up stakes from Virginia and moved to western North Carolina en masse during the Revolutionary War.

They ended up living in Rowan, Burke, Yancey and Mitchell Counties in North Carolina — and they never moved.

What changed was the county lines. Burke was created from Rowan in 1777,1 Yancey from Burke and Buncombe in 1834,2 and Mitchell from Yancey, Caldwell and Watauga in 1861.3

The lesson is an important one, we all learn, because the courts they attended or were called to were in the jurisdiction where they lived at the time. The taxes they paid were to that jurisdiction. The local laws they lived under were the laws of that place. And the records created in Rowan stayed in Rowan, the records created in Burke stayed there,4 and the ones created in Yancey stayed there, and …

So we’re taught, as American researchers, to think geography as much as history. Our early ancestors who lived in what is now Kentucky were under Virginia’s laws until 1792.5 What became Missouri was part of the Louisiana Territory until 1812.6 Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820.7

So if this is such a basic lesson, why am I focusing on it so much, and why today?

German Empire 1871

Because today is the 151st anniversary of another major bit of geographical history, one that impacts roughly one out of every six Americans, and one that most of us — yep, me too!! — forget all too often, even after a whole week-long course last week in German script that included lots of lessons on the history and geography of the areas where my ancestors lived.

I keep saying — to point the finger directly at one major offender — that my paternal ancestry is entirely in Germany.

Well, yeah, once there was a Germany.

But the German Empire — consolidating whole bunches of itty bitty little states, duchies and principalities — didn’t exist until 151 years ago today, when the King of Prussia, Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig of Hohenzollern, was proclaimed as the first German Emperor at the Palace of Versailles after the war with France.8

So though I tend to say that my ancestry is German, my great grandfather Hermann Geissler (1855-1933) wasn’t born in “Germany” at all. He was born in the Kingdom of Prussia. Many of his ancestors were born in the Kingdom of Saxony. His bride, my great grandmother Emma Graumüller (1855-1929), was born in the independent Principality of Reuß jüngerer Linie.

And all over continental Europe, we should expect to encounter the same kind of geographical fragmentation and border changes that we encounter in our American research. Princes, kings, even emperors came and went. Laws changed. And the records changed with them.

To thoroughly research our genealogy, we need to be mapping the ancestors — to the actual jurisdictions where they lived at the time, not to the political borders of the world as it exists today.

Something I was reminded of today, the 151st anniversary of the German Empire, and the first time my own ancestors might have even begun to think of themselves as German.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Mapping the ancestors,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 18 Jan 2022).


Image: Wikimedia Commons, user Alexander Altenhof, CC BY-SA 4.0

  1. “An Act for dividing Rowan County, and other Purposes therein mentioned,” Chapter 19 in Acts of Assembly of the State of North Carolina (Raleigh : By Authority, 1777), 33 et seq.
  2. “An act to erect a new county by the name of Yancy,” Chapter 83 in Acts of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina … 1833-34 (Raleigh : By Authority, 1834), 145-146. And no, that’s not a typo on my part. The printed statute does spell the county name without the e. But the county itself is and has always been Yancey with the e.
  3. “An Act to Lay Off and Establish a New County by the Name of Mitchell,” Chapter 8 in Public Laws of the State of North Carolina … 1860-61 (Raleigh : By Authority, 1861), 14 et seq.
  4. Well, except for those that didn’t survive the Civil War courthouse fire…
  5. See Wikipedia (, “Kentucky,” rev. 17 Jan 2022.
  6. The Missouri Territory was created by Congress on 4 June 1812. “An Act providing for the government of the territory of Missouri,” 2 Stat. 743 (4 June 1812).
  7. See “History,” ( : accessed 18 Jan 2022).
  8. Proclamation of the German Empire, 1871,” The Palace of Versailles ( : accessed 18 Jan 2022).
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