During the early days of quarantine, way back in March, when people hunkered down and embraced being stuck at home, we found hobbies. Some took up jigsaw puzzles or crosswords. Me? I decided to take up the archives at Zamrsk, in the Czech Republic. Yes, I leaned into a side of myself so entirely nerdy that I had to look beyond obsessive crosswords. I gave into my genealogy geek fully and emerged having learned some things.
As I wrote about in previous posts, the Zamrsk archives are the repository for church record books from hamlets and villages in what is now the Czech Republic. I suspect that we are fortunate that the German Catholic records survived the expulsion of the ethnic Germans from the region after World War Two. We are even more lucky that they have been beautifully digitized and made available to any sleuth with an internet connection.
As I further mentioned previously, the Bier family originated from Ketzelsdorf, now called Koclirov, in Bohemian Czech Republic. Before World War II, Ketzelsdorf was occupied primarily by Germans, many of whom emigrated to the Rock County region of southern Wisconsin. The name Bier was overwhelmingly common in the village. But how common? I wanted to know. I also enjoy spreadsheets. Perfect quarantine project.
I previously dipped my toe into these confusing waters while attempting to solve a modern-day genealogic mystery that required knowing how a certain Bier and another Bier were related, which required going into these amazingly detailed, and amazingly unreadable archives. Despite not speaking German, I developed a system for analyzing the various types of data, including birth registries, marriage registries, and death registries. Thanks to their scrupulous record-keeping and use of house numbers to identify individuals, I ended up with a beautiful spreadsheet of 959 unique individuals–all with the last name Bier.
I love my spreadsheet. Is that weird? Perhaps. But I figure, if other people get to proudly post images of their completed jigsaws, I get to post this. In addition to tagging each person by date of birth, they are also assigned to a family group of birth and a family unit of parentage where applicable.
Once I batched all these Biers into family units, I tried to figure out how they all connected up to each other. I made a little index card for each family unit, 161 total. I innocently expected to build a neat forest of family trees. Instead, I ended up with a crazily tangled thicket of Biers. You see part of it pictured below. I kept this on the office wall for several months, as I thought it lent a charming “is she going crazy?” vibe to my Zoom calls.
So, each of those index cards is a set of parents and one or more children. It covers births from 1718-1920. The colored index cards are founding ancestors, or what I considered to be founding ancestors, as the earliest record (where? Heck if I know) of Biers in Ketzelsdorf is back in the 1600’s. The lengths of yarn represent a child from the upper index card establishing their own family unit at the lower end of the index card. I followed only male lines, and so every family is a “Bier” family. This is lazy, but I suspect that if I had traced out every maternal line as well, I would have essentially created a master family tree for all of pre-world war Ketzelsdorf. And I have a lot of time on my hands, but not that much time.
Once I sorted out all of the interconnectedness (seriously, a LOT of interconnectedness), I ended up with 5 unique thickets of families, all joined through at least one marriage, often more than one. The thicket that I posted on my wall like a crazed detective is the largest of the five. It has 10 founding families and 659 people. All are connected by at least a marriage, most through offspring.
In addition to being the largest, the family taped up on my wall contains my branch of the family tree. I’ve written before about how numerous the Biers of Southern Wisconsin are. It’s crazy to think that our ancestors are just a teeny, tiny bit in this overwhelming sea. The Biers of Wisconsin trace back to Emil and Emilia, both born around 1750. If you were looking at this and didn’t know that the family up and moved to the United States in 1882, it would be a confusingly incomplete story. I imagine that is the case for many of the terminal index cards.
Groups 2-5 did not have nearly so much intermarriage and were each founded by a single ancestor or two. All together, these groups comprise 256 total individuals. For the mathletes among you, that left 44 random Biers that I couldn’t attach to any family group, a satisfyingly small number. Most of these were children born to Bier women without a named father, which tells an interesting story in and of itself. In addition to the other 4 thickets, there were free-floating households and individuals that I simply didn’t have enough data or facility with the language to sort out. When you trace the line down, some of the families “die out” because no further children were had, some were likely mistakes, and some up and left the village.
In addition to a satisfying, searchable spreadsheet (I’m sure I’ll become wildly popular for my spreadsheet) and crazy wall art, I was left with a few random observations.
- The Germans were not creative namers. In fact, one of the few unique names was my great-great-grandfather’s: Valentin. And thank goodness for that unique name, or I doubt I would have easily located my branch in the tangle. In contrast to the lonely Valentin, the most common names were: Franz (127), Anna (97), Johann (87), Anton (73), Maria (64), and Theresia (63).
- I mentioned that I was left with a number of stand-alone individuals, born to women with no father named. I imagine that many of these children appear in later marriage and death records as “claimed.”. The baptismal records evidenced a charmingly misogynist habit. In the case of a child born outside of marraige, a father could be added later, if and when the parents were married, thereby striking the word “illegitimate” from the record. In these cases, the records were physically scratched out after the fact, and the father added. I suspect that paternity was, actually, known in most all of the cases at the actual time of birth.
- I found a family in which twins occurred seven times across three generations, following the male line. Two sets of twins happened in the same nuclear family and all four children survived! There were other instances of twins, but they rarely survived infancy. Stillbirths were recorded, but the name and gender of the baby were not noted, the name being listed as “N.”
- Triplets happened in 1846. All three girls died the day after they were born.
- There were periods with extreme increases in the death rate, that I’m certain corresponded to infectious disease outbreaks. Some of these followed household patterns. In 1873, the spike occurred exclusively in toddlers. How my medical hands wish I could decipher the details in those records!
- The last event noted in the Catholic register of Ketzelsdorf was a death on July 10, 1945. As noted above, following the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the so-called Wild Expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakis began on January 25, 1946. Roughly 1.6 million ethnic Germans were deported to the American zone (West Germany), and an estimated 800,000 were deported to the Soviet zone (East Germany). To learn more about this time period, visit my friend and yours, Wikipedia, for a primer.
So, was I the lamest quarantiner? Perhaps. Did I miss the boat in terms of submitting my Zoom background for rating? Definitely. Did I keep myself busy and avoid the inevitable slip into housebound-psychosis? You’ll have to ask my family on that one.