Germany Research Tips and Strategies

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Germany Gotoarrow.png Research Tips and Strategies

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The effects of history, local customs, and record-keeping practices can make German family history research difficult. Here are some suggested strategies and notes about things that are helpful to know.

Basic principles

  • Research the entire family as a unit. Document at least the births of all children. Many people have identical or similar names,  sometimes even in the same family. You may need to follow each child through from birth to death in order to confirm which one is your ancestor.
  • Avoid the temptation of tracing only the direct line. This is especially important in areas where farm names were used. If the wife's family owned property, the husband may take his wife's surname. Surnames may change as families move from farm to farm.
  • Document all information.
  • "Same name" does not equal "same person". Document each individual sufficiently to establish his unique identity. In order to do this, it is often necessary to extract all information on every possible person and his family and associates and organize it until the correct person is documented. Godparents are especially important in this situation. Also note details, such as occupation, house number,
    family relationships etc.
  • Dates and ages can be incorrect.
  • Make sure you are dealing with the correct place. Often there are several localities by the same name.
  • Published information [online or in print] is good as a base for research, but you should verify it through research in original records whenever possible.
  • Whenever both church- and civil records are available, check both sets. The records served different purposes and may complement each other in the details provided
  • After WW II, many areas of east Germany were given to other countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic. A new article,Finding parish registers for formerly eastern Germany areas now in other countries, announces searchable digitized parish registers in archives of those countries.


Geography and history

Complement your genealogical research with a study of the geography and general history of your ancestor’s birth place and the surrounding area. Much information can be found on the Internet. Find someone to help in translating material found on German web sites. Invest in some good books for your area of interest. Town or regional histories are often available.

Using maps

Use maps in your research to

  • Know where your ancestral towns are located.
  •  Become familiar with the surrounding area, including towns, rivers, mountains, valleys, major roads, and railways.
  • Understand changes in jurisdictions that may have taken place over time.

Using genealogy databases online

  • Databases are secondary sources.
  • Researchers submit what they know. This information may or may not have been documented.
  • The submitter may be more closely or distantly related to your ancestor and research from a different perspective.
  • Submissions are posted “as is”; they are not checked for their integrity.
  • Depending on region, record availability, and time period there may be a lot of duplication.
  • Variants can include different forms and spellings for the given name and surname and significant variations in both places and dates.

Using online indexes

  • Every index is different. If you can't find a person in one index, look for another index for the same set of records.
  • For best results become familiar with the search mechanisms used by each website. There are differences, such as the use of "wild cards".
  • An ancestor's name may be indexed differently than expected. When in doubt, check the actual record collection anyway.
  • Before doing a search, understand exactly what has been indexed. Is the complete record set covered,  a significant portion, or just a small percentage?
  • Indexing is often outsourced to countries with low labor costs; thus the indexer may not be familiar with the script and/or language of the records. Being aware of that possibility allows you to search under variant spellings not only by how the name may have sounded, but also by how it may have looked to someone who could not really "read" it in context.
  • It may prove difficult to locate the record referenced by the index, especially if the collection is "index-only." Other digital, microfilmed, or published indexes may need to be used.

Using town genealogies (Ortssippenbücher/ Ortsfamilienbücher)

Published town genealogies are convenient to use, but they are a derivative source and may contain inaccuracies:

  • Incorrect data may have been incorporated from another published or unpublished source
  • The author worked with a limited number of original sources and thus arrived at incorrect conclusions
  • Original documents may have been difficult to read
  • Mistakes were made in translation or transcription.

Use the published work with a critical eye. Whenever possible, it should be followed up with extensive research in the original sources, usually civil registration and church records.

Generally, town genealogies include everyone who showed up in the records, but there are always exceptions. Thus, if a person is not found in a published volume, check the original records anyway. Also study the preface and explanatory notes of the book.

The "Thomas Principle"

Be a "doubting Thomas" ! Believe only what you have seen yourself. Always ask where the data you have found came from. Look at the original document. Does it contain additional information? Do you agree with  the abstract, transcription, and/or interpretation? If not, more research is needed.

  • Evaluate each source as to completeness and reliability. For instance, a death record is probably fairly reliable in regard to the  death date, but not as much in reference to the decedent's age or birth date.This ia true even if the age given is precise. The recorder may have looked up the wrong person's baptism record.
  • Do not “Read too much in-between the lines”. [For instance, a cross in the margin means that knowledge of the individual’s death had come to someone who had access to the parish register. It does not necessarily mean that the person died as a small child.]
  • It’s better to check a record twice too many than once too few. Go back and review previous research in light of new insights and information.

Strategies for evaluation

  • Know what each record says in its entirety! Be sure to have all relevant details translated by someone who can read the complete record and write down all the information.
  • Evaluate all information found and decide whether the conclusions are reasonable and make sense.
    Look at families as a unit. Do all the information puzzle pieces fall into place?
  • Know what was likely or possible at the time [For example, some states set minimum ages for marriage and required proof of sufficient property before issuing a marriage license in the 18th and 19th centuries.]
  • Understand the family’s socio-economic background and its implications in their daily lives.
  • Also keep in mind popular late 19th and early 20th Century myths such as “He was an illegitimate son of a nobleman, whose mother worked at the castle.” Or “The surname was changed at Ellis Island.” “They met on the boat coming over” etc]. There may be some truth in them, but fairly often these were just romantic notions.

Regional peculiarities

Regional differences may affect genealogical research. Here are some examples:

  • In Mecklenburg, micro-mobility [moving around from town to town within a relatively small radius to get work] and the use of multiple given names are common challenges. Mecklenburg-Schwerin is also one of the few areas where a statewide census was taken at irregular intervals [1819, 1867, 1890].
  • In Ostfriesland patronymics were used regularly until at least 1811. After that the practice was gradually replaced by a modified system that included the father’s given name as the child’s middle name, used with the now mandatory fixed surname.
  • Schleswig- Holstein went back and forth between Denmark and Germany for several centuries. Regular censuses were taken by the Danes in the 19th Century. Records may be written in German or Danish. Patronymics may be used. 
  • In Westfalen and neighboring areas the preference of farm names over personal family names was strong into the mid-19th Century. Husbands frequently took on the wife’s surname, if that was associated with the property on which they lived. Sometimes the surname changed as tenant farmer families moved from farm to farm.

"Technical difficulties"

Possible "technical difficulties include pages missing from the original record or accidentally skipped during filming. This may not be obvious. Many record books do not have page numbers, and numbering added after the original pages had been written can be misleading.

Older books may have fallen apart and been re-bound prior to filming. Pages may have been bound in the wrong sequence. This is difficult to detect on a two-dimensional film or digital image. So- always make sure that all elements of the record fit together and make sense.
Pages may have been numbered after a book was re-bound, resulting in consecutively numbered pages that may be out of their original sequence.

"Left side-right side" films

Some catalog entries note: “l.s.-r.s.” in the description. This is shorthand for “left side – right side”, meaning that the left-hand pages were filmed separately from the right-hand pages. This can be tricky if the entries go across both pages. Often the year will be written only on one side, while the parents’ names are written on the other side of the page.
In this case, you will need to begin you research on the side that has the names. Good note keeping is imperative! Each frame has a frame number stamped above the image. Note this number, left side or right side of the page, and which entry on the page is of interest. Then find the matching frame on the opposite side and match up your information. The frame numbers may be off by one, depending on which side of the page received the first number.

Using a library catalog

Statistically, there are bound to be inaccuracies in any library catalog or finding tool. It may not describe a record fully or accurately. For example, if births and deaths appear to be filmed completely, but marriages aren’t listed, check the films anyway. You may be lucky and find that the marriages are actually included as well.

  • If there are several sets of records for the same time period, check them all and try to figure out the difference. The films may include originals and transcripts of various types, or Lutheran and Reformed records may be filmed together. Sometimes church records and contemporary civil records [especially around 1800] are filmed together, but not distinguished in the catalog entry.
  • Entries that have been edited recently may not show up in the Catalog. If you can no longer find a record that you know was previously there, ask a reference consultant to check the master catalog.

Common false assumptions

Some common false assumptions [the opposite tends to be true]:

  • Most couples were married when their first child was born [illegitimacy rates varied by time period and locality, but generally tended to be around 10 %]
  • People usually married young [Many states passed laws requiring minimum ages at marriage in order to curtail population growth among the lower classes.]
  • People didn’t move around much. [That depends on the local economy.]
  • A person will always be recorded with the same first and last names. [This also depends on local customs.]
  • A cross in the baptismal record means that the child died young.
  • Ages given in death records are usually correct. [Ages are flexible. Variations of up to five years either way, more for very old individuals, are normal.]
  • Notations in original records are always correct.
  • Family books are usually complete and correct. [For instance, they may be missing several children that died young.]

Search and Research!

  • When you have a larger-than normal gap between children, re-check the baptismal records. Double-check records often.
  • Re-do work you did when you first began doing research.
  • Re-check records after new information has shed a different light on things.