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Germany is made up of different kingdoms, duchies, and Prussian provinces. Within these areas, emigration records were usually kept on a county seat or district level of government. To find your ancestor's emigration record you must first know the town he was from. Then consult the Meyers gazetteer to determine the county seat or district the town was in. If you already know the town information then go directly to Meyers gazetteer.
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.
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 their collections. Family sources include:
Family Bibles and Letters.
Emigration Papers and Occupational Papers.
Church Certificates (christening, marriage, death, etc.)
Your family records may provide an ancestor's place of birth. It may be in:
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 of the places your German immigrant owned property or settled at times contains 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.
Naturalization records were kept by counties before 1906. These include:
Declaration of Intention
Naturalization records may give specific places of origin. 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.
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.
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.
US Military Records
The place of origin may be listed in the following military 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
One source to determine place of origin is in a passenger departure list. Hamburg was a major port of departure for Germans and the records from there usually give the place of origin. You can also check other immigration books, such as Germans to America. Records from other ports, however, tend to be very sparse. If the surname is an uncommon one, you might find its origin in a surname book.
As you can see, more information is given about US sources than German. That is because most of the work in finding an ancestor’s place of origin will be done in the US.