Genealogy Shorts – Identifying your Direct Line Ancestors in

Recently a online-discussion came up as to how to identify your direct ancestors when building a family-tree at I can understand the discussion. Looking at a family tree on Ancestry, especially a descendant chart, can be confusing, even if it is your own.

Along with the usual selection of ideas (writing their names in CAPITALS, adding an asterisk after their first name etc.) one person kindly added a couple of simple images they had created (see below). The idea is that you add these as profile pictures to your direct ancestors.

Image created by Gem Chapman


Image created by Gem Chapman

Personally, what I do is slightly different. To me it’s important, especially when I’m working on my wife’s German family tree, to understand the location that each ancestor came from. Most people’s ancestors came in clumps from specific regions, or even specific villages. My wife has ancestors coming for as far west as the Dutch border and as far east as Silesia. As a dumb Brit I find it hard to immediately recognise their ancestral villages by name. What I’ve ended up doing is using the town/village Coat of Arms, as a profile picture, to mark all of my wife’s direct ancestral line. This works particularly well for Germany where pretty-much every village has it’s own “Ortswappen” (coat-of-arms). This way I have a visual clue to both the ancestral lines and the individual’s birth location.

Being an ex-stamp-collector I’m naturally drawn to stamps that carry the German towns’ Coat-of-Arms. As luck would have it the caffeine-free coffee-company Kaffee Hag produced a number of sets of promotional stamp-albums way back in the 1920’s that depict over 700 different coat-of-arms from towns all over Germany. There are also sets of international albums that cover most of continental Europe and the British Isles. As far as I can see the are no copyright issues on such items. You can find images of the stamps here, or, like myself, you can pick up either full sheets, or individual stamps on ebay in Germany.

Kaffee Hag Ortswappen – freistaat Preußen, Provinz Hannover Regirungsbezirk Hildesheim

Being a bit nerdy about the whole thing I digital cut out any stamps I need, digitally boost the colours and fluff the edges using photoshop. See some samples below:

Kaffee Hag ortswappen: Bocholt, Provinz Westfalen, Registerungsbezirk Münster

Kaffee Hag Ortswappen: Borken, Provinz Westfalen, Registerungsbezirk Münster

Kaffee Hag Ortswappen: Goslar, Provinz Hannover, Regierungsbezirk Hildesheim

As an alternative you can always grab the “Ortswappen” from the appropriate page on Wikipedia. These are typically available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 license, which makes the image in the public domain. As an example, the Ortwappen for my local community, Mörfelden-Walldorf is available under this license.

taken from

Coat-of-Arms for Mörfelden-Walldorf, via Wikipedia

Final Thoughts

As a bonus I find it useful to use these Coat-of-Arms to identify places in what was Silesia. Following  the Second World War some of the places where my wife’s ancestors were born (e.g. Breslau) have become part of Poland. As a result both Ancestry and Family Tree Maker expect the current Polish town names, rather than the old German names that match the family records.

One downside of this approach is that these images appear as “Photo hints” for other Ancestry users. Naturally it may irritate a few folks. On the other hand I have seem some people use the images in their family tree. I guess it’s swings and roundabouts !

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