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Locating place of origin
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.
Germans To America
Germans to America is a multivolume set that lists many Germans that 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. Although not comprehensive, this work has a large number of names of Germans who emigrated to the United States during this peak time of German migration. FHL Call number 973 W2ger v.1-67. Also available on CD- ROM.
There are many books written about Germans settling in various states.
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.
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.
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
Passenger Departure Lists:
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.
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.
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'
Quellenschau für Familienforscher
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.