German Research: Hansel and Gretel: Finding our German ancestors' trail home
Usually our ancestors did a pretty good job of leaving us a trail that would lead us back to their homes. They paid taxes, complied with government regulations, worshiped, recorded important life events, and left mementos and tokens behind—some of which survived, and others of which were scattered or destroyed. There are genealogical trails where you can simply leap from one life event record to another to easily extend pedigree lines. Other trails lead to a certain point, and then without warning, disappear. Our job is to search all available records that pertain to our ancestor’s immediate family, and if necessary, those they associated with.
Where to Start
Before it is possible to access German records, it is imperative to know the following basic information about your ancestor:
• Complete name
• An approximate date of a specific event that took place in Germany
• Place of origin
Helpful additional information includes:
• Information about siblings
• Parents’ names
Ancestor’s Name: Many times a name that was considered unusual in America was common in Germany. Specific details regarding age, year of immigration, siblings, parents, spouse, and children will help distinguish an ancestor from others who shared the same name. Remember that variations of surnames and given names will exist. Recorders wrote down what they heard—often resulting in a phonetic spelling or an Americanization of a surname. Some surnames were translated from the German meaning to the American counterpart, such as Schwartz to Black, Schneider to Tailor/Taylor, or Zimmermann to Carpenter. German and English versions of surnames may be used concurrently. For these and other reasons, family members may have used different surnames. Also, patronymics did exist in some of the northern areas of Germany such as Ostfriesland and Schleswig-Holstein.
Life Event Date: These include dates such as the date of a birth or marriage that took place in Germany. U.S. death certificates usually contain the birth year or age at time of death. U.S. census records either included the age of the person at the time of the census or the year of birth. These dates—even when a specific month is given—should be seen as a guideline and not concrete evidence. Standard procedure when searching for a birth in German records is to search five years before and five years after the believed date of the event.
Religion: Civil registration records were introduced in Germany by Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars from 1799 to 1815 and were not required on a national level until 1876. Prior to that year, the clergy were required by law to keep records of their own parishioners—both those living within the town and also of those living in neighboring areas assigned to that parish. Knowing the religion of your ancestors is critical information. Often, though not always, the religion practiced in America was the same religion practiced in Germany.
Place of Origin: Since no centralized record keeping and record retrieval systems exist in Germany, determining the place of origin is crucial. Place-names were frequently duplicated throughout Germany. (There were 48 different locations by the name of Neukirchen in Germany!) Identifying the place of origin involves determining first the country, and then the state, region, county seat, town, parish, and finally the village.
U.S. Record Sources
• Census – note neighbors and their places of origin.
• Immigration – determine date, port of departure/arrival. Compare passenger lists against census lists. Many Germans immigrated and settled with others from their home village.
• Declaration of Intent – first document filled out by the immigrant in America. Includes disavowing allegiance to former ruler – may include the specific place of origin or list the nobility area.
• Petition to become a U.S. citizen may list place of birth. Before 1906 ANY court could process naturalizations, therefore Intentions and Petitions may be filed in different courts. Upon completion of all requirements the Certificate of Citizenship was given. This certificate was the least informative of the naturalization documents.
• Vital Records – of ancestor, children, siblings, parents.
• Probate/Will – usually lists children. May include relatives still living in Germany.
• Obituary – may include birth date, place of origin and parent names.
• Cemetery – remember to look at surrounding graves for common surnames.
• Church Records – notice godparents and witnesses. Many towns had German specific parishes. Search for church histories.
• Family Papers – emigration papers, letters, photos, certificates, etc. Especially take note of anything you cannot read. Too often important clues are dismissed because of the illegibility of the handwriting or language barriers. If you cannot read the information, be sure to take it to someone who can. One translation option would be to scan the image and post a query at FamilySearch Forums
• Land – notice who purchased land at the same time near each other
• Local & County Histories – look for biographies and references to early German settlers.
• Military – draft cards, land grants, biographical sketches, society records (such as DAR)
• German Newspapers– Many towns in America settled by Germans, or that had a strong German community, also had a German newspaper. Birth, marriage and death notices were commonly included in these newspapers.
German Record Sources
Germany was a conglomerate of nobility areas including kingdoms, provinces, duchies and principalities. It did not exist as a “Nation” until 1871 and no national registration systems exist. Individual life events were recorded and are retrieved on a local level. Until the place of origin is known, the number of available German records and resources is very limited!
• FamilySearch ~ Show Advanced ~ provides various search fields and allows for “wild cards”. This database includes the digitization/indexing efforts of FamilySearch. A listing of a summary of the digitized films can be viewed at this site under Records. This is an ongoing project, so check the site frequently. (If you would like to participate in the Indexing efforts, please see Indexing at FamilySearch)
• Port Records: Of all of the ports used by German emigrants, only the Hamburg Passenger List 1850-1934, (with some gaps during WWI), has survived. Only fragments exist of records of other ports.
• Emigration Papers: Emigration records were kept on a county seat, (Kreis/Oberamt), level. All legal emigration required governmental permission with specific documentation along with an obligatory payment of a 10-20% moving away tax. Undocumented emigration during the 19th century is estimated to be around fifty percent. Passports were not usually required until around 1900.
• Emigration Records – Emigration records of some nobility areas of Germany have been compiled for various time frames. Articles at FamilySearch Wiki~ [specific nobility area] ~ Emigration and Immigration may provide pertinent information and available links to regional emigration records.
• FamilySearch Wiki, article Internet Resources for Locating Your 19th Century German Emigranthas additional guidelines, links and resources.
Geography and Gazetteers
The historical geographic boundaries of German were fluid! These changes affected the record’s language, location and current accessibility.
Meyers Orts-und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs:
A nationwide gazetteer that lists the place names within Germany as they existed from 1871 to 1918. It includes the state or province to which a place belonged and its different record jurisdictions. This gazetteer was used as the standard guide for listing the German place names within the FamilySearch Catalog. The hyperlink and a helpful training article about Meyers can be found at FamilySearch Wiki. Ancestry.com also has a digital version available.
When a hamlet, village or town was not large enough to support a parish, ancestors traveled to a neighboring location for worship and record keeping. The Meyers Gazetteerwill list parish information only if that place supported a parish. If parish information is not included in Meyers, it is then necessary to consult the gazetteer specific to a nobility area. Training information and links for many of these gazetteers are available at FamilySearch Wiki/Germany.
Life Events and Records
Church Records: From the time of Charlemagne to mid-1550, Catholicism was the official religion of Germany. In response to the Reformation, the Lutheran Church achieved legal status through the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the Reformed Lutheran Church was also legalized as a state religion. Sometimes specific records of Jews, Anabaptists and Mennonites were kept in their specific registers, sometimes the life events of these religions were included in the registers of the local dominant, government approved,faith. The events recorded in church registers included:
• Baptism/Christenings (may include actual birth date)
• Burials (may include actual death date)
Other available church records may include:
• Membership Records
• Communion Records
• Family Registers
• Marriage Proclamations, Divorces, Penance Register and Financial Records.
Civil Registration: The Napoleonic occupation wrought changes in German rule and record keeping, though most only remained in effect while Napoleon was in power. He implemented civil registration, transferring the responsibility of record keeping from the clergy to public officials. Though civil registrationwas not mandated on a national level until 1876, in many areas the local governments saw their value and required clergy to submit a yearly copy of their church registers. Life events records in civil registers included:
• Marriages (Other records created in the process of getting married included applications for permission to marry, marriage contracts and applications to take up residency.)
Other Record Types
When available, the parish and civil registration records are our primary record source of individual life events. Unfortunately, there are instances when these vital records do not exist or are not accessible. In such cases, other types of records may be able to provide needed information.
Addressbuch – Address book.
Auswanderungslisten – Emigration records.
Bürgerbuch – Citizen records.
Familiengeschichten – Family histories
Gerichtsbucher – Court records.
Grundbucher – Land records.
Musterungslisten – Military records.
Ortsippenbuchs – Town genealogies.
Steuerbucher –Tax records.
Volkszahlungslisten – Census records.
Wählerliste – Voter Registration Lists.
Zunftbucher – Guild records.