Many family history researchers of European descent, at one time or another find an ancestor whose origins are confusing. One census record indicates they claimed to be born in Austria, the next one says Russia, and their death record says Slovakia or Poland. If you don’t happen to know your Eastern European history this can be perplexing.

Researching ancestors in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire can be a genealogy researcher’s nightmare if a love of piecing together puzzles is not a driving inspiration. An understanding of the political history of this area is helpful to understanding the lives and the cultural context for your Austria-Hungary era ancestor.

Between the years of 1867 and 1918 Austria-Hungary, also called the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a multinational state and one of Europe’s major powers. It was the second-largest country in Europe geographically (after the Russian Empire) and the third-most populous after Russia and the German Empire.

When researching in this area to determine an ancestor’s actual ethnogeographic background, we encounter communities that are today located in the countries of Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia, parts of Italy, Croatia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, and Poland.

Meyers Konversations-Lexikon ethnographic map of Austria-Hungary, 1885

To make things even more challenging for the genealogist, during Austria-Hungary’s political heyday there were five official administrative languages – German, Hungarian, Croatian, Polish, and Italian. Further, in addition to the so-called “official” languages, others used daily by the actual villagers in various locations within the greater empire included Bosnian, Czech, Romani, Romanian, Rusyn, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Ukrainian, and Yiddish.

What does all this mean to the family history researcher?

Simply put, each village or city has multiple names in various records, even those created during the very same time period.

In other words, the answer to someone inquiring what city he was in when stepping off a train in what is now Northern Slovakia might be Bartfeld, Bardejov, Bártfa, or Bardejów depending on what language the person you asked spoke natively, what decade it was, and if the person you were asking was an official or a someone from an outlying village in town to buy boots.

The political conditions in each location within the Austro-Hungarian Empire were incredibly complex, depending on pre-existing and longstanding religious, economic, and political circumstances of each individual community. Even though it was considered one country, division between Austria and Hungary was marked – so much so that there was no common citizenship. If your immigrant ancestor left his home between 1867 and 1918, he was either an Austrian citizen or a Hungarian citizen, never both. Use of either of these two in early records is a strong clue as to the specific hometown geography, as well as what ethnicity they identified with.

And to top it off there were likely several or even dozens of villages with similar names as various territories were absorbed into greater geopolitical entities over time.

For instance, I recently had a case in which a client’s grandfather left this region in 1890. The oral tradition of the name of his village could have referred to one of 15 such named villages in what is today Poland. Thankfully he passed down stories about the route he took at age 15 to board a ship for America, as well as the names of the surrounding larger towns in which his family shopped and studied when he was a boy. These clues led us to an area of the former empire known as Galacia, in a region colloquially known as Lemkovyna in the Rusyn language. Lemkovyna refers specifically to an area traditionally inhabited by the Lemko people.

Lemko children on a wagon in Kalusz, 1916. Photo credit: CULTURE.PL, Adam Mickiewicz Institute.

The Lemko are a distinct ethnic group from the Carpathian mountains region who consider themselves part of the broader Rusyn and Ukrainian communities. Their homeland, Lemkovyna (or ‘Lemkivshchyna’ in Polish) stretches along the border between Poland and Slovakia including some of the western territories of Ukraine.

Slightly north of Lemkovyna the northern parts of today’s Poland were a part of the Russian Empire. This fact and the constant fighting over control of the area influenced the often violent ethnic cleansings and wartime developments that the Lemko people of this area faced with increasing difficulty. It also heavily influenced their religion and their emigration.

Most Lemko people today from this particular area consider themselves Polish or Ukrainian Lemkos. Yet your ancestor may for all intents and purposes called himself Austrian, as his people likely did as they were forced to deal with an overarching political administration who spoke a different language from the language spoken in the home.

Prior to the formation of Austria-Hungary in 1867, Dlugie, Grab, Cichania, Ozynna and other Lemko villages were part of Austria. And prior to this, the Kingdom of Poland ruled the same villages until 1772.

In 1920 and 1921, the following successor states were formed (entirely or in part) from the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Treaty of Trianon and the Treaty of Saint Germain:

  • German Austria and subsequently, the First Austrian Republic
  • Hungarian Democratic Republic, and subsequently, Hungarian Soviet Republic, Hungarian Republic and finally, the Kingdom of Hungary
  • First Czechoslovak Republic, called “Czechoslovakia” from 1920 to 1938
  • Second Polish Republic, now Poland
  • State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, later, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and subsequently, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia
  • West Ukrainian People’s Republic, later united with the Ukrainian People’s Republic, while its territory was absorbed by the Second Polish Republic
  • Duchy of Bukovina, Transylvania and two-thirds of the Banat were joined to the Kingdom of Romania
  • Certain lands were ceded to Italy.
  • The Principality of Liechtenstein aligned itself with Switzerland, and adopted the Swiss currency to replace the Austrian.

Knowing exactly what village or city your ancestor came from and how long they lived there can be important to understanding who they truly were. It is well worth taking the time to identify and learn more about your family’s specific ethnogeography.

Orthodox Jews from Galicia at the Karmeliterplatz in Vienna’s second district Leopoldstadt, 1915; Das K. & K. Photoalbum: Ein Bilderreigen aus den Tagen der Donaumonarchie (German Edition) 1991.

After all, wouldn’t you like to know exactly what your ancestors’ lives were like, what mattered to them, and the specific challenges they faced? Were they Catholic Poles? Hungarian Jews? Could they have been they German Austrians? Slovakian Rusyns? Each of these cultures had its own traditions, language and foods, as well as religious and political challenges.

With a little patience and study of primary source records, family oral traditions, and digitized European records (if you’re lucky), the answers to these very questions just might be found at your fingertips!

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Bonus tip: If you want to be a good genealogy citizen, follow proper research protocols when listing the locations in your family history documentation as they changed names over the years. Tips on this challenge can be found in our post, Recording place names in an ever changing geopolitical landscape.