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Locating place of origin

In order to research your family in Germany, it is essential that you have identified the place where they came from. It is not enough to know only ‘Germany’ or ‘Prussia,’ as these were quite large entities. You must know the city, town, or parish that they came from. In many cases, it will be difficult to identify the place of origin by going directly to German sources. Therefore, you will need to search in American sources first.

Searching in US sources

There are many American sources you can consult to help you find the place of origin of your German ancestor.

Family Sources

You may start by consulting family members who might know where your family came from. If they do not know, they might be in possession of records or documents, such as old family Bibles or letters, that indicate place of origin.

Check with local libraries and historical societies. Many family records were donated to such organizations. Family sources include:

                 Family Bibles and Letters.
                 Emigration Papers and Occupational Papers.
                 Church Certificates (christening, marriage, death, etc.)

Family Histories

Your family records may provide an ancestor's place of birth. It may be in:
                 Personal Journals
                 Diaries
                 Family Histories


Germans To America

Germans to America is a multivolume set that lists many Germans who arrived in the United States between 1850 and 1897. It is organized chronologically and then by ship. It often gives the town or state of origin of the immigrant. FHL Call number 973 W2ger v.1-67. Also available on CD- ROM.

Libraries and Newspapers

Check the local libraries in the areas where your German immigrant ancestor lived. The reference librarian can direct you to local sources or local record keepers.  Ask where local newspapers and periodicals are archived and search them for such events as wedding announcements, obituaries, or other important life events.

County and town histories where your German immigrant settled often contain biographical information. Local histories sometimes provide a place of origin. City histories give the origin of prominent citizens, and county histories show where German settlers came from. Biographical information of descendants may contain specific places of origin beyond the non-descript "Germany" or "Prussian words found in other records.

The German-American Newspapers and Periodicals 1732-1955 is a listing of German language newspapers throughout America.

There are many books written about Germans settling in various states.

Naturalization Records

Naturalization records were kept by counties before 1906. These include:
                                      Application
                                      Declaration of Intention
                                      Petition

Naturalization records may give specific places of origin, especially after 1906.  This document can help you understand the naturalization process immigrants and its records - click here.  Pay attention to the names of witnesses used by your ancestor during this process.  They chose people connected to them and usually with Old World or family ties.

Passenger Lists or American Port Records

German emigrants usually left in groups from the same area of Germany. Be aware of the following information when searching your ancestor's passenger list or port record:

            After finding your ancestor on a port record or passenger register, write down all the people on the                           same list.
           Check local census and other records to determine which people settled in the same area as your                           ancestor.
           Check for place of origin information on those who were on the same list.
If your ancestor's surname is not unusual, but some of the others on the same list are, look those names up in the German surname books to determine where they originated.

Social Security Index

The Social Security Death Index may provide the birth place of your ancestor.  This article can help you learn more about Social Security Death Index.

US Census

Check these articles to learn the value of US and state censuses. Census records usually state only that the person came from ‘Germany’ or ‘Prussia,’ , however, they can be used to determine when a family immigrated.  Census records are also a way to plot the immigration year by looking at when and where family members are born. This information can be very helpful when you search in passenger arrival/port records. After 1900 the year of arrival in the United States censuses is along with whether or not naturalization has been sought after.

 There are many books about states or towns that have large populations of Germans.

US Military Records

The place of origin may be listed in the following military records:
                                         Enlistment
                                         Discharge
                                         Pension Records

Vital Records

Vital Records may include a birth place. You should search:
                                        State Vital Records (marriage & death)
                                        County Vital Records (marriage & death)
                                        Church Records (christening, confirmation, marriage, burial, membership)

Searching in German sources

Passenger Departure Lists:

One source to determine place of origin is in a passenger departure list.

Hamburgwas a major port of departure for Germans and the records from there usually give the place of origin.

The Hamburg Passenger Lists include the last foreign residence of people leaving from Hamburg. There are two lists:
The Direct Passenger List (1850 to 1934) lists those who left Hamburg and went directly to their destination
The Indirect Passenger List (1850 to 1910) shows those who left Hamburg, went to another port, and then on to their destination. After 1910 the indirect list is included with the Direct Passenger List.

Records from other ports, however, sources tend to be sparse.


TIP:  German emigrants usually left in groups from the same area of Germany. Be aware of the following information when searching your ancestor's passenger list or port record:

After finding your ancestor on a port record or passenger register, write down all the people on the same list.
Check local census and other records to determine which people settled in the same area as your ancestor.
Check for place of origin information on those who were on the same list.
If your ancestor's surname is not unusual, but some of the others on the same list are, look those names up in the German surname books to determine where they originated.

Books

You can also check other immigration books, such as Germans to America.

If the surname is an uncommon one, you might find its origin in a surname book.  These books identify the earliest date, place, and person by that surname. The following are German surname books:
                       Brechenmacher, Josef Karlmann. 'Deutsche Sippennamen'
                       Familiengeschichtliche Quellen
                       Quellenschau für Familienforscher

Surname distributions

Specific sources should be sought first but, sometimes using surname distribution websites like Verwandte.de (a MyHeritage website) or any German directory will give you a close enough idea to start searching. If you have a name that is concentrated in only one area of Germany, you may be lucky to find your ancestors came from that town. Give it a try.

Conclusion:

As you can see, more information is given about US sources than German.  In research, go from what you know to the unknown.  Use American sources first to find an ancestor’s place of origin.  Be aware that the name of your ancestor's village may be mutated over time due to misspellings or a German word being written by an English speaking person.  Keep searching and the connection from America to Europe will reveal itself.  


 

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