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Czech Genealogy

Czech Genealogy, or the study or investigation of one’s Czech ancestry and family histories can seem daunting to undertake, but it can start with something as simple as answering fundamental questions like, "who came?" and "Where did they come from?", "Why did they come and how did they get there—and where did they settle?" Or it can start there and lead down a fascinating trail, leading to ancestors that date back to the last century or even to the middle ages, and sometimes leading to living relatives which share a common ancestry. Many Americans of Czech descent have undertaken efforts to discover their roots in the Czech Lands and enrich their understanding of their immigrant origins.

Researching and discovering one's Czech roots is a wonderful and satisfying endeavor and one that can enrich family understanding of cultural origins. Finding an ancestor’s original birth record, visiting an ancestral home or even visiting the village where an ancestor lived can be a very satisfying experience. Even more satisfying can be standing face-to-face with a relative who shares common Czech ancestry but has been out of touch, sometimes for over a 100 years. Some with Czech ancestry have been fortunate enough to have been able to do some of these things. For those who haven’t, there may yet be such a possibility. The challenge is how to go about finding the key information on the ancestors who emigrated, their ancestors and following the trail wherever it may lead.

To begin the journey, you’ll first need the full name of an ancestor that came from the Czech lands and the city or village from which they originated. If you don't know your ancestor's village of origin, there are a few ways to go about finding that information. The most obvious approach is to contact older relatives to see if they know the name of the village or if they have original documents which indicate the name of the village of origin. Marriage, birth and baptismal certificates will usually provide the needed information. Family bibles, passports, and old letters are other likely sources.

Ship passenger lists often list the village where the people lived prior to embarkation and sometimes the destination place and sometimes the person. The US census which is now available for the years through 1940 can give clues to the ancestors' origin or year of immigration. If the name and year are known, an important resource is Leo Baca's Czech Passenger Lists . Baca's lists are alphabetized and sorted according to port-of-entry. The name and age of each passenger is given along with the name of the ship and the exact date of arrival. In some cases, Mr. Baca's books list the village from whence the passengers hailed and/or their ultimate destination within the United States. Knowing the exact date of arrival and the name of the ship on which your ancestor arrived will allow you to quickly and easily locate the original passenger list on microfilm. These lists are published in a series and can be found at most genealogical libraries and through ancestry.com. Ancestry.com has many resources that are helpful to Czech genealogists. The passenger list volumes, as well as Mr. Baca's books, can be found in most of the larger genealogical libraries.

If your ancestor is not listed in Leo Baca's Czech Passenger Lists, you will need to do a lot more leg work to track down your ancestor's passenger records. Arnie Lang's Guide to Immigration Records & Ships' Passenger Lists is a good place to start your search for these records.

The Ellis Island web site is another fantastic resource for finding your ancestors' passenger records. The center's free database contains records for over 22 million passengers arriving in America between 1892 and 1924. High-quality scans of the passenger records can also be downloaded from this site. A high percentage of the records in the Ellis Island database contain major spelling errors. The vast majority of these appear to be transcriptional errors from when the data was entered into the computer. If the person transcribing the passenger record misspelled your ancestor's name, it can be very difficult to locate the person for whom you're searching. In this case, the Gold Form developed by Stephen Morse, Michael Tobias, Gary Sandler, and Erik Steinmetz can be used to perform a much more focused search. For example, if you know the town from whence your ancestors emigrated, you can search on the name of the town and leave the name fields empty. This sort of search would return a list of all people in the Ellis Island database who emigrated from that particular town.

Finding an ancestor’s original birth record, visiting an ancestral home or even visiting the village where an ancestor lived can be a very satisfying experience—even more satisfying can be standing face to face with a relative who shares common Czech ancestry but has been out of touch, sometimes for over a 100 years. Some with Czech ancestry have been fortunate enough to have been able to do some of these things. For those who haven’t, there may yet be such a possibility.  The challenge is how to go about finding the key information on the ancestors who emigrated, their ancestors and following the trail wherever it may lead. 

The good news is the search for information and records documenting ancestors born in the Czech Lands of Bohemia and Moravia is no longer the daunting experience it has been in the past. Visiting and communicating with genealogical resources (archives) in the Czech Lands is easier since the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Since that time the Czech Republic has become a free and democratic country with easy air connections into the capital city of Prague and no visa requirements.  It is therefore possible to travel there without difficulty to visit archives and to visit our ancestral homelands, the lands where ancestors emigrated from.   

Visiting an archive and finding useful records is still not a simple matter and some have opted to hire professional genealogists to do the research. However, with the development of on-line systems, images of many of the pre-1900 original records from the archives are now accessible. Whether visiting the archive in person, hiring professionals to guide you or to do it,  or using on-line systems, the key is still determining which archive contains the records. With that information in hand it is increasingly possible to find and retrieve copies of original records on-line.

So here is a set of proven steps to follow to find records for a specific Czech-born ancestor:

  1. Find where the ancestor was born or lived
  2. Find which archive (there are 7) holds the records
  3. Learn how to use that archive
    • Find what registers the archive has on-line
    • Find an index and use it
  • Retrieve the record – then the fun begins

Step 1 – Finding the Town
Step 1 is the fundamental starting point for any search.  If the location where the ancestor was born or lived is known, you can move on to the next steps.  However if not, you will need to identify the village or town where the ancestor came from.  There are several ways to go about this.  First, family documents, marriage, birth & baptismal certificates will sometimes provide the needed information. Family bibles, passports, and old letters are other likely sources.  Living ancestors may recall their birthplaces or those of ancestors.  U.S. Census records can identify when an ancestor emigrated and other family members living together.  Lastly, ship arrival registers, many of which are well-indexed, often list the destination and the origin of the traveler. 

Step 2 -- Finding the Archive
With the name of the village or town in hand, proceed to Step 2 and determine the specific archive containing the records.  To do that, try to locate the ancestral village or town on a map. Google Maps or mapy.cz can typically provide a good start at locating the town on the map.  The best paper local maps that show region (kraj) and district (okres) borders are available from local Czech tourist offices and shops in the Czech Republic.  With Google Maps, mapy.cz or the paper local maps, locate the village/town and identify the region, district and most important, the corresponding Archival District.  The Archival District archive is where early (roughly pre-1900) birth, death and marriage records are filed. Early land records, also available in the archives, can be another source for discovering ancestors and related family members. More recent records, (roughly post-1900) are recorded in the district principal town archives.  These towns roughly corresponding with a county seat in the U.S.  The charts below show the Archival District that corresponds with each region and lists each local district that also contains more recent records.  The regional chief towns are where regional governments are located.  The districts (Okres) are named for their principal city, where the local district archive (matriky) is located. The district archive is where the more recent records (post-1900) can be located.  So far there are no internet archives available for the local district archives.

The following map and table shows and names the 7 archival districts 77 districts (okres), with borders—and lists the principal internet archive URL for each Archive.

The district names correspond to the city where the archive is located.  For example the Brno District Archive is located in Brno. 

Step 3 - Accessing and Using the Archive

When accessing the corresponding district internet archive, use the URLs listed below rather than those listed in the balloons on the map.  There are small differences that make some of the links unusable.

 

Archival District Internet Archive URL
Praha www.actapublica.eu*
Praha City www.ahmp.cz/katalog*
Plzen www.actapublica.eu*
Litomerice matriky.soalitomerice.cz
Trebon www.ceskearchivy.cz
Zamrsk www.vychodoceskearchivy.cz
Brno www.actapublica.eu*
Opava www.archives.cz

 

*denotes sites currently limited to Czech—accessing the site with Google site translation tool works reasonably well

Note that it is possible that these URL addresses may change over time.  Also names of an ancestors village or town may have changed over the years, or they can be garbled in the pronunciation or spelling.  Another complication to be alert for is that, like in the US, the same names can used for many villages and towns. 

Step 4 – Access the Internet Archive

For Step 3 and 4 you need to access the archive websites.  Some of these sites have an English option for navigating the site, but others are in Czech or German and the English option is still under development.   For the non-English sites accessing the site using the translation feature in the Google browser can help manipulate the menus for searching to get to the correct parish book.  Learning to use the websites can take some practice, especially for the non-English sites, but the good news is that if you can navigate the indexing, the images of records (birth, marriage and death) may be retrieved.  Now it can be tricky to navigate to the specific record for an ancestor.  However, as the systems improve, this process should become easier.

Original parish records are normally recorded in long hand.  So they may be a bit daunting to read, and of course are in Czech or German, and if they are old enough even Latin.  So even having the record in hand may take some careful study and language skills to ferret out the pertinent facts, but it is worth the effort.  Once you find that first record with your own family name on it you will want more.  There will be puzzling moments and surprises.  Many find it an adventure well worth taking on.  Discovering ones roots is a special experience and one that can be shared with the whole family.  Now that there are more resources available what took years can be done much quicker.

Many villages and towns have kept historical chronicles, which are histories of the town and its residents over time.  Typically written by town residents, these chronicles are a wonderful window into the culture and times as well as a source to help identify an ancestor, where they lived, who they were in the village and sometimes even when they left the town or emigrated. They are typically only available for research or viewing by visiting the town hall (radnice) of the town or, for the smaller villages, the mayor’s office. 

There are a number of societies whose primary mission is to facilitate Czech genealogical research.   These are typically membership organizations; however their websites are public and contain much useful information.   Depending how committed you are to genealogy, you may find it useful and satisfying to join one of these organizations to gain access to its resources and participate in their activities.  One of the best is the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International.  Their website is at:   http://www.cgsi.org .  The site has links to other websites of other organizations as well.   In addition Ancestry. com, http://www.ancestry.com  has substantial resources, although it requires membership to access all the resources at home.  Many public libraries have access to Ancestry.Com.  Also, the Family Search Centers have access to the genealogical collections of the Church of Latter-day Saints.  Their website is www.familysearch.org

For a more detailed paper with much helpful back ground and strategies for research, click here: