So, you have a vague clue about a village of origin, say in the village “Hradiště.”
You look up Hradiště on the Czech Parish finder and discover that there are over 20 different places with this name.
But you don’t know which Hradiště is your Hradiště.
Since so many of the Czech parish records are available online now, should you jump directly to the Czech records to try to find your ancestor’s village of origin, and eliminate each village one by one?
The problem with going straight to the records in the potential village of origin will be this: how will you know that this Jan Novák is the Jan Novák you’re looking for?
The surname “Novák” exists throughout all of the modern Czech lands. I know this from looking at a surname density map that you can find here:
Also, the surname Novák is the most common in the entire Czech Republic. “Jan Novák” is the equivalent to “John Smith.” Researchers need to put aside their own personal biases and remember that just because Novák isn’t a super common name in the United States does not mean that makes it uncommon elsewhere!!!
Czech surnames are interesting, because there are some cases where a rare surname might actually be a clue to the village of origin. The kdejsme.cz site, which is a modern surname density map, might help you in the search for your ancestors. However, those will have to wait for a different blog post.
There were certainly other people named Jan Novák, even from the same village, perhaps even born the same year, the same month, even the same day! If you want to search all the Hradištěs in all the okres (counties) in all the kraj (regions) of the Czech Republic, you greatly increase the chances of accidentally linking your family to the wrong Jan Novák. That would be very sad, and ultimately a waste!
You need to gather evidence that will identify your Jan Novák from all the other Jan Nováks, including his occupation(s), religion, and especially his family relationships.
Here are some ideas:
Have you found him on a passenger list? Look for both the arrival and departure manifest. This is the most likely place where you will find clues to the village of origin, as well as add valuable clues about your Jan Novák, who he was, and how you will be able to identify him from all the other Jan Nováks. More about this in a separate blog post.
Have you found his headstone? Sometimes the headstone, particularly on earlier immigrants, will have Czech writing on it that might include the village of origin, or a clue to the village of origin. Have you been to/seen a picture of the headstone? In this case, it would be important to check the headstone or an image of the headstone, not a derivative source from an online database. If the cemetery is on findagrave.com, somebody may have uploaded the photo already. If not, you can do a photo request, and a volunteer may upload it for you. I have been both on the volunteer end and the receiving end. It’s really neat.
Have you tried any probate records? Usually immigrating Czechs were enthralled about the prospect of land ownership. The freedom to own property was probably very important to him, because he probably experienced manorial lords, the robota tax, and other oppressive land-related laws back in the Czech lands. He likely kept a will. Many immigrants did, even if all they possessed was two silver spoons – it was the freedom to do it that was so important to them.
First, go to the family search wiki website for the US state that your ancestor lived and died in. This will give you state specific research strategies that will help you find the probate records. Sometimes you can order microfilm with probate records from a local LDS family history center. Sometimes you just need to go to the county court house and request the records in person.
Have you tried any land records? It would be great for you to go to the courthouse anyway, because there you can get copies of land records, some of which indicate villages of origin!
Do you have any artifacts? Do you have access to a family bible? There might be handwritten genealogies written inside. Do you have any old Czech books from this ancestor? The inside cover might contain a stamp with the publisher, their address, etc. That can really help narrow your search, because usually books in the past were printed nearby to where they were bought and sold. Do you have any jewelry, clocks, or other antiques? You might discover their manufacturer, and where they were made, and narrow your search that way.
Do you have any church records? Was your ancestor Catholic or protestant? Sometimes the village of origin was written in the margins of US parish records, sometimes for baptism records of their children. These are usually found in the churches themselves.
Do you have any correspondences, papers, or other original records at home? Who does? They existed. They probably exist somewhere still. Who can you contact in your living family tree that might know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows who has the treasure box in their attic? Make some connections online through Familysearch Family Tree (free!), ancestry.com (subscription), etc.etc. Don’t accept the information you receive from distant cousins at face value though! Use the connection to sleuth down the original records.