Friday, April 3, 2009
Going WAY Outside the Box
I was researching my great-great grandfather GRIMM, who was born in 1806 in Arnshain, Hesse-Darmstadt. I knew the village because one of my cousins had his Darmstadt-issued passport. Never give up on looking for family members you might not know exists! Anyway, since I knew the village, and had many questions, I decided to make a weekend trip over to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. That's a future blog in itself. I had yet to find where he died, his ship coming into the United States, but at least knew where he lived before, and was likely born.
After returning home from Salt Lake, with GRIMMS in Arnshain dating back to 1699 (yes, I lived at the library and was there from when their opening in the morning to their closing at night), I wanted to learn more about his village and hopefully more about him.
So I did what most people do, I Googled Arnshain. I got maps, weather, hotels, tourist information - tourist? In this little hamlet? I even came across myself, with my posts about Ludwig GRIMM. Then I saw a hit for a little restaurant, and clicked on it. There was actually an email link for someone who worked there. But, did they know English? I didn't know German! So I did the next logical thing, went to Babelfish and wrote my short note telling about my ancestors from that village and how I'd like to learn all about it. Babelfish translated, I copied and pasted it into the email link, and sent it off.
The next day I got a response. The young man at the restaurant did speak Engligh, not the greatest, but completely understandable. He did let me know that my German was terrible, and that the next time I write to him, it should be in English. I got a chuckle out of that, who knew the computer translator was so bad?
And who would have ever known that the one and only random person I chose would be so thrilled to email back and forth with an American? He sent me photos of Arnshain, and some beautiful aerial shots. It really is tiny, why tourists would go there, I'm not sure. He decided that he would go and talk to the oldest person in town about my ancestors, and get advice from him. Of course, this oldest person was not old enough to remember my Grimms, after all, they left in 1849. But he did instruct my new email pen pal where to go next.
This dear young man trudged across town to the church, and searched the old records, all without me asking. I just wanted to learn about the town and see if anyone by the name of Grimm still lived there. Eventually, he let me know, from the records, exactly when my Ludwig left, with whom, and from what port in Germany. That alone was very helpful, and that information was not found in the church records that I had looked at in Salt Lake City.
In between genealogy and photographs of Arnshain, I learned about the young man and his sister, who lived together. They'd traveled two summers before to America, and appeared, by their photos, to have seen it from coast-to-coast. They especially liked Florida and California - who could blame them for being partial to the states with warm sunshine and beautiful beaches. The letters went back and forth over a couple of months.
His final letter contained the aerial photos, and the last was of particular interest. It pointed out the location where my Grimms had lived. How amazing is that?
I realize this is not the usual method of research. Some "critics" said it was a ridiculous idea and I would be wasting my time, that most people are not interested in genealogy. I admit, on occasion I'm not known for being the most patient in waiting for records to arrive, etc. So I do random things like write to people in really poor German. I felt I had nothing to lose. What would be the worst? They'd write and tell me to leave them alone, or not respond? I can take apologize for bothering them. I can take rejection. The Internet is so anonymous, I really wouldn't take it personally.
I lucked out on this one, believe me I know. I've lucked out on every one since this first attempt. I still believe if you keep trying you are bound to connect with someone who is interested. It might not be with your first letter, as it was for me with my new German friend.
I've tried in other countries, and it's taken more than one letter to random people who had the same surname or lived in the same small village as my ancestors. You may have to write dozens of letters, but eventually someone will write back. They may just give you advice, they may go further and help you at their end, or they may tell you to halt all communication.
You might not learn all you wanted or hoped to. But even if you learned just a little something, you've connected with someone and made the world a little smaller, and you a little richer for having the experience. You gave something new a try. You went outside the box.