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Originally "Preussen" referred to the geographical area that had been settled by a Baltic tribe, the Pruzzen. This area later became the Duchy of Preussen (Prussia), a Polish fiefdom, which was obtained by the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1618. In 1701 the margrave of Brandenburg assumed the title of "king" for himself and his succesors. Thus, Prussia became a kingdom, and eventually included all the property controlled by this dynasty. Land holdings expanded steadily to include the area around Magdeburg and Halberstadt in Saxony, and western areas such as Kleve, Mark, and Ravensberg.
Prior to 1815 Prussia was divided into fourteen provinces. In many cases, the provincial boundaries changed significantly over time. Understanding these boundary changes is crucial for effective family history research.
By 1871 Preussen (Kingdom of Prussia) contained the following provinces:
Brandenburg | Hannover | Hessen-Kassel | Hessen-Nassau | Hohenzollern | Ostpreussen | Rheinland | Pommern | Posen | Provinz Sachsen | Schlesien | Schleswig-Holstein | Westfalen | Prussia - Westpreußen
Between 1920 and 1945 additional boundary changes took place and several provinces received new names. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles large parts of Posen and West Prussia became part of Poland. The remaining area became the Grenzmark Posen-Westpreussen. In 1938 this region was divided up among Pommern, Brandenburg, and Schlesien (Silesia).
Boundary changes and jurisdictions will be described in more detail in the article about each respective province.
"Prussia" listed in U.S. records
U.S. records often identify German immigrants as having come from "Prussia", or from one of the Prussian provinces. To trace your ancestor in the German records, you must know the town of birth. When this is not known there are sources that can help you discover possible choices for the town of birth. Refer to Determining a Place of Origin in Germany when you are not sure of the place of birth.
In U.S. records the locality "Prussia" may also be written in its German form "Preussen" or "Preußen", or "Borussia" in Latin. Phonetic variants include "Bryce, Preissen, Breisen" etc. The Prussian provinces Ostpreussen (East Prussia) and Westpreussen (West Prussia) are also often confused with Prussia as a whole.