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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist

Where are you from?

I grew up in very rural Iowa. The town we lived closest to was so tiny it didn't have rural mail delivery. So I consider my hometown to be the small town where I attended school and where my family's mail was addressed to. Many years later, I live in a medium-sized town outside a medium-sized city.

When I answer questions related to where I'm from, I go through a mental flowchart before answering. There is a variety of truthful answers. So to find the "right" answer I compute a number of questions in an instant based on who is asking, how long the explanation reasonably should be, and if my answer will be understood. I imagine a lot of people from less populous areas do this but maybe don't realize it.

Some examples:

  • If an official form contains a question, it is probably asking something about my current address or the town where I was born. Those are pretty easy to answer. I even know my ZIP code + 4. (My household regularly receives letters from government offices for the guy who last lived at this address 14 years ago, which bothers me greatly.)

  • If someone from my home state asks where I'm from, I'll say, "I grew up in My Hometown." If the person looks at me like they've never heard of it, I'll quickly add, "Which is 20 miles west of The Largest Nearby Town." If the person looks like they have heard of it and are trying to place it on their mental map, I'll add, "That's in This County."

  • If someone at work casually asks where I grew up, I'll say, "About 3 hours northeast of here." They live in a medium-sized city in a different state, and probably won't have a clue where My Hometown is, so that gives them a good understanding in the shortest amount of time.

  • If I'm in My Hometown and run into someone who asks where I live now, I'll say "Near This Medium-sized City On the Other Side of the State." They may have heard of the town where I actually live, but unless they are going to send me a letter or have a lot of time to devote to this conversation, we can both quickly continue on our way.

  • If I'm traveling domestically, I'll say, "I'm from Iowa."

  • If I'm traveling internationally, I'll say, "I'm from the U.S. Iowa is in the middle, near Chicago."

All of this is to illustrate that the understanding of where I am from might be relative or very general to most people. There should be many records of my lifetime that can help pinpoint where I was from and where I lived, but that would not have been the case even 100 years ago. They likely explained their "homes" in the same relative terms. For some ancestors, women specifically, the only clue we may have to their hometown or place of birth is a mention in their obituary or a line on a ship's manifest at the time of immigration. That information could be even further complicated by what the listeners or record-keepers understood.

An example is an immigrant ancestor, born around 1870, who left what some considered conflicting clues. Among them was a record from the U.S. stating the person was from Dresden, which is on the eastern border of modern-day Germany. Another American record said Freiburg, which is far to the north, almost to Denmark. For a long time, that branch of the family had been stalled at "Somewhere in Germany." A genealogist's intuition--along with further targeted digging in some very obscure German records--revealed that the ancestor was born in a very tiny town in Germany. It's closest large town is Freiberg, and the next-largest town near Freiberg is Dresden. That relativity was likely based on who was asking, how long the explanation reasonably could be, and how badly either participant wanted to spell "Oberschöna."

The little town of Oberschöna had the records we wanted, which allowed us to trace that family back a couple more generations.

At the oil mill near Oberschona 1908 postcard
"From Freiberg's surroundings." The oil mill near Oberschona, 1908


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