The Oskar Heftle and Johanna Wilhelmina Brackenhammer found in FamilySearch could be my ancestors but I'm not quite sure.

All I know is that one of my 3rd great grandparents was called "Oscar Heftlé" and "Johanna Brackenhammer" and were "from Germany". I know that Oscar was born in 1845 but do not know any other dates for them. They had a daughter whose name was Mélanie, and she lived in Switzerland and is in my direct matrilineal ancestry (I am not sure if the family as a whole emigrated or if only Mélanie emigrated when she became adult, but this is not my question anyway).

My question is, I do not know how common the forenames Oskar/Oscar and Johanna, as well as the surnames Heftle and Brackenhammer were in Germany in 1845. It is very possible that other persons would be born in the same year sharing the same forename and surname. The FamilySearch entry has no information confirming that they are married and got children, so I can not confirm or deny that this person is one of my ancestors.

It seems today that the name Heftle is almost extinct, Geogen shows only 2 entries remaining in Germany. The name Brackenhammer seems quite rare too. Can I use the fact that those names are rare enough to belive that the linked profiles are indeed my ancestors? Could we however imagine that the names were common 150 years ago? I also do not know how fashionable was the name Oskar and Johanna were in 1845, if they happened to be fashionable it would significantly decrease the probability that those persons were the ancestors I'm looking for.

EDIT: Since I originally wrote this question, I verified that both were indeed my ancestors with reliable sources. However at the time of asking I couldn't know it yet.

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    My experience is that Johanna (a female form of John) is quite common, even though it does not show up in the tables in this answer.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 23:13

3 Answers 3


You can't know that a particular record at Family Search (or any other vendor) belongs to your ancestor by analyzing the information in that single record and doing nothing else. Records that were made in 1845 or 1846 are so long ago that no one alive could know. All you can say is that elements of the record are consistent with other records that you believe to be your ancestors.

The Ancestry Insider talked about the nature of genealogy in several posts, two of which were titled The Chasm. In the post from Mar 21, 2011, he outlined three stages of genealogical research. I'll add a bit to his definitions from my own experience, but we are basically in agreement.

  1. We fill our pedigree and family group sheets with information we know, about people who were known to us personally, and (if we are not the oldest generation in our family) people who were known to our older living relatives. Your own knowledge is personal knowledge. Your relatives' knowledge is their own personal knowledge, but to you it is secondary -- "Uncle John says so".
  2. We extend our knowledge through vital records (and a few other types of records) which hold in a single record what seems to be a complete picture of an individual in a family context. This is secondary knowledge, someone says so.
  3. As we push beyond the era of vital records, no one record describes a complete person, and we are forced to cobble together a picture of them with fragments that we gather from other records.

The gap between what we know from living memory and from direct evidence, and from the history we can only know from records, and from combinations of records, is what the The Ancestry Insider calls The Chasm.

He returned to this idea in a post dated April 22, 2013

On one side of the chasm are the ancestors and relatives we know personally. We know them as people. We grew up with them or with our parents talking about them. On the other side are ancestors and relatives that we know only through records.

On one side of the chasm we utilized living memory—our own and our loved ones.’ On the other side we utilized records.

On one side of the chasm are the modern census and vital records that uniquely identify individuals and relationships. On the other side records are incomplete, spotty, illegible, unindexed, hard-to-locate, or offline. Records are indispensably helpful, though seldomly so.

On one side of the chasm we blithely used direct evidence. On the other side, we painstakingly categorize, compare, contrast, correlate, and cite direct, indirect, contradictory, and negative evidence.

Genealogy big-box vendors, especially those who encourage hint-driven genealogy, cater to people who are in stages one and two, who are looking for records which contain direct evidence that answers the question they want to know.

When these new style online-only genealogists they get to stage three, where inferential genealogy is necessary, they are bewildered and don't know what to do. They have been trained by the big vendors to collect vital records and census records and match them up by name, and they don't know anything else.

F. Warren Bittner, CG, in his webinar Complex Evidence: What it is, How it Works, Why it Matters called the collecting of birth, marriage, and death records False Research Imperatives. Too many times we collect birth, marriage, and death records for our ancestors, then we think we are done. Meanwhile, we ignore all the other information that might be available that would give us a more complete picture of our ancestors.

As GeneJ said -- we've all been guilty of premature connectivitis syndrome. But you will be on much better ground if you use the elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard, and do more than simply picking out the records that happen to match by name, and then thinking about those records out of their historical context.

When a genealogy vendor cherry-picks the records that seem to match an ancestor by name, they lead us to make the conclusion that these are our ancestors, ahead of examining other evidence, and instead of looking at other research paths. We start looking for reasons to back this conclusion up. We don't always stop to learn about the records themselves, to think about who created them, or for what purpose. We ignore basic fundamental questions about the surrounding communities that could be asked first.

What do we know about the area from which these records come? How much coverage does FamilySearch have? We assume that any records that were made about our relatives survived and there was no record loss. Assuming that a particular group of records must have records about our ancestors in it is never a safe assumption to make, especially when doing research in Germany.

You said: "(I am not sure if the family as a whole emigrated or if only Mélanie emigrated when she became adult, but this is not my question anyway)". But this is precisely the question that you need to consider before you leap back to Germany. Finding out more about how your ancestor emigrated -- establishing her as a member of a group -- can show you the way back to the correct part of Germany.

Further reading:

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    @Bregalad I apologize for using you to make an example, but people need to be aware of the industry forces at work which encourage people to do bad genealogy by promising they will help us make it "easy". The industry push to match names is so strong, I try to prove that any new records I find are NOT my people. Most of us have fallen victim to the name-matching problem as we have started out. One thing that struck me about your two linked records is that they come from completely separate areas of what is now Germany, which makes me ask, how did your Oscar and Johanna meet?
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 20:15
  • Apologies taken. You are definitely right here. I also asked myself the same question about how they met. It's also quite possible that one of the records is my ancestor and not the other ! Anyway they somehow met, even through their names do not originate from the same region. It is very unlikely grandma knows how they met, I can more or less explain how my parents met, but not really anybody above, so unfortunately those stories gets lost too quickly.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 20:26
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    @Bregalad I have re-written the end of the answer to reflect that we all make these mistakes. I believe the industry encourages all of us to do this bad practice.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 20:30
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    @Bregalad Guess what? My grandma said her great grandfather was effectively from a small village very close to Basel and his work was to cut clothes. This narrows down the research isn't it? The probability that Oscar and Oskar are the same guy increases, same name, same surname, same birth year, same birth region.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 15:37
  • @Bregalad We've all said "same name, same place, same time, what are the odds?" -- but that isn't proof. All I'm saying is, keep an open mind and do the work. See Hilary Clinton Family Tree a Wake-Up Call for Genealogy. Even with a seemingly rare name, given common naming conventions, there's a chance you could have cousins living near each other.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 16:24

after reading all your questions, I think I understand now your concern. The surnames Heftle and Brackenhammer are quite rare in Germany. How I posted on your other question the family tree down from Tobias Brackenhammer leads to Oskar Heftle (born 19.09.1845 in Rheinweiler/Baden - died 20.04.1927 in Neuchâtel/Svitzerland; his profession was Kleidermacher= dressmaker) He married 1875 Nr.1. Johanna Wilhelmina Brackenhammer (09.10.1846 Kirchheim/Teck - 06.11.1886 La Chaux-de-Fonds)

There are three children I know, but no first name Melanie.

  1. Rosalie Eugenie Heftle (1876 - 1962) married 1899 Thomas Petersen. Later they emigrated to the U.S.A. - 3 sons (one lived in New Jersey - Weehawken)
  2. Oskar August Heftle (born 06.11.1877) married 1904 Marguerite Saucy
  3. Johanna Wilhelmine Heftle (04.02.1879 - died 28.12.1957 in Boudevilliers/Svitzerland) - unmarried ??

After the death of the 1. wife Oskar Heftle married 1887 the sister Nr. 2 Rosine Friderike Johanna Brackenhammer (08.07.1845 - 22.02.1908) untill then unmarried but with an illegitimate daughter Albertine Maria (*06.09.1865). For their part there are also two illegitimate children born: Hermann (*22.12.1883) and Helene (*11.04.1886 - 13.07.1936) Brackenhammer??

The family stayed in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Stadthausgasse 8 (street no more existent)

To proof your relationship to these persons it requires further hints and names of the descendants of Oskar Heftle and his children.

Source of these informations: Etat civil (Zivil-Standesamt) La Chaux-de-Fonds and information of my own family Brackenhammer.

  • 1
    AMAZING - I learned much more since I wrote that question (I visited the state archive in Neuchatel a couple of times) - I was sure I wouldn't get more information about them, especially the death dates !! The early death of my great-great-great-grandmother Johanna was particularly mysterious. Mélanie was illegitimate eldest daughter of Johanna at birth but was recognized by Oscar as its kid, I don't know if he did this for convenience or honesty (or both).
    – Bregalad
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 21:14
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    @Bregalad Please consider writing an answer to your question with the information you have found since you wrote the question. Stack Exchange welcomes self-answers and it's a useful way to record your progress.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 22:31
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    @Bregalad according to some webinars I've seen on German research, it is not uncommon for some times and places in Germany for couples to have children before marriage. It apparently took a long time to get permission to marry and people went on with their lives while they were waiting.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 22:33
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    @JanMurphy I need not to answer my question, the accepted answer answers it. (I.e. I should do the research to proof that someone is or isn't my ancestor, and should never assume anything just because a name is rare). However I could specify that in the middle time, I have verified (thank to you !!) that those people were indeed my own ancestors.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 21:09

I'm not really sure what you are asking. You can't really go into any online records and simply find a person with the same or similar name and assume they are your ancestor.

There is also a problem with the corruption of spellings, both in the original records and then by transliteration into English. For example, Brackenhammer may be a corruption of Brackenheimer (Brackenheimer being a person from the town of Brackenheim in Southern Germany).

Regarding Heftle, the "le" is Southern German dialect spelling for diminutive so Heftle means "little notebook" or similar. Alternative spellings would include Heftli, Heftley, and so on.

So whilst it may be of interest to know how common a certain name was, it doesn't help much in determining your ancestry.

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    @Bregalad The German parish records are so fragmented that until there's some proper system to join them altogether, I'm afraid that even with a rare name you are still finding needles in haystacks. Good luck. Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 20:20

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