My ancestors were From Germany, and I don't speak German
According to the results posted by the U.S. Census Bureau, German-Americans are the largest self-reported ancestral group in America. Genealogical records from Germany are usually wonderful! The depth of information and available time spans are often astounding! Unfortunately, too many of us are scared away by the language, handwriting and nuances of German research. This does not need to be the case. A multitude of resources and reference materials, which if studied and applied, will help lead us across the ocean and into the hearths and hearts of our German ancestors.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to speak fluent German in order to experience success in German research. You will need to invest time in educating yourself regarding the German genealogical process, history, geography, language, vocabulary and handwriting.
This article will familiarize you with easily available resources that will provide training and information to help you develop and understanding of:
• Research Resources
• Language and Archaic Terms
• History, Geography and Gazetteers
• Records & Handwriting
Free internet resources regarding the nuances and basics of German research:
Brigham Young University Independent Study Online offers general Genealogical Research classes and an entire German Family History series at no cost.
ProGenealogist offers various informative and training articles.
FamilySearch Wiki , patterned after Wikipedia this online-library is community based where everyone can share something to assist in genealogical research. There are hundreds of articles on basic genealogical research and articles specific to Germany.
Jensen, Larry O. Genealogical Handbook of German Research. Pleasant Grove, Utah, 1980; (available at FamilySearch~ Research Helps ~ Articles ~ “G” ~ Genealogical Handbook of German Research.)This book has 22 chapters of priceless information and instruction. This sit also contains a German Genealogical Word List and a German Letter-Writing Guide.
Language and Archaic Terms
You will need a good modern German dictionary and at least one dictionary containing the archaic terms.
A German Genealogical word list is available at FamilySearch and FamilySearch Wiki along with word lists for Latin, French, Danish, Dutch and Polish – languages that often appear in German records.
Google Translation is a good source for both small translations and entire websites – be aware that any word for word translation prepared by a computer program is going to have some errors!
Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid, Notre Dame University.
The ORB: the On-line Reference Book for Medeval Studies has contains a Latin Word List.
Leo.org at is an online German/English dictionary good for individual word definitions.
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms includes common phrases found in German birth and death records, glossary of causes of death and archaic medical terms, German anatomical terms and terminology found in death and burial records.
Thode, ernest, German-English Genealogical Dictionary, Baltimore, Maryland; Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. c 1992. A wonderful hands on archaic dictionary and is available to purchase through many different book outlets online.
History, Geography and Gazetteers
An understanding of the events that impacted the geography, culture, migration, records, and language of those records is crucial. The history of Germany can be divided into the following time periods:
The First Reich: 843-1806
The Second Reich: 1871-1918
Weimar Republic: 1919-1933
The Third Reich: 1933-1945
Post WWII and Reunification of Germany: 1945-1990-Present
Wikipedia contains vast and varied articles relating to every aspect of German history
German History.docs is a collection of documents, images and maps divided into specific time frames within the History of Germany.
FamilySearch Wiki hosts a vast number of articles and invites you to contribute your knowledge to the database.
History of the World.net contains a historical overview beginning in 7th century AD.
Info Please.com includes modern history.
Lothar Kucharz has photographed people re-creating of many of the historical occupations.
San Jose State University, Department of Economics documents German economic history
San Jose State University, Department of Economics, continuation of German economic history
World Atlas.com- provides a historic timeline.
Google Earth modern day maps from all over the world.
Historische Karte - historical map at the end of the 18th century.
1883 Atlas des Deutschen Reichs
MapQuest.de includes modern day maps and a directions tool, enabling a quick calculation between villages, towns, etc.
1905 F. W. Putzgers Historischer Schul-Atlas.
1923 F. W. Putzgers Historischer Schul-Atlas.
Jensen Publications. Maps of the German Empire of 1871, Pleasant Grove, Utah. FHL Intl Ref 943 E7m ©1987. This edition contains a history of each of the areas of Germany back to the early tribal periods of Germany.
Karte des Deutschen Reichs Detailed maps covering the entire German Empire prior to World War I. FHL Intl film 068,814. Ancestry.com has imaged the maps and catalogued them at www.ancestry.com ~ Card Catalog ~Germany, Topographic Maps, 1860-1965.
Kartenmeister is a comprehensive database of locations east of the Oder/Neisse Rivers and is based on the eastern borders of the German Empire as of the Spring of 1918. Includes the former German place names along with today’s Russian, Polish and Lithuanian place names.
No centralized record or surname retrieval systems exist for Germany. Records were kept on a local level, specific to a certain jurisdiction. Therefore, before you can access the German records you will need to telescope your information down from the country of Germany, to the specific nobility area, then district, then town and then parish.
Internet Resources for Locating Your 19th Century German Emigrant and is a wonderful resource located at the FamilySearch Wiki, along with the previously mentioned The Genealogical Handbook of German Research have wonderful instructions on determining your ancestor's place of origin.
Once you have determined your place of origin within Germany, you will need to determine the correct record jurisdictions. The Family History Library Catalog is based on the record jurisdictions of the 1871 Empire. Records were kept on the following levels:
The Meyers Orts = und Verkehrs=Lexikon des Deutschen Reichsin conjunction with the gazetteer specific to your ancestor’s place of origin will provide your ancestral town’s record jurisdictions except for parish information. If your town had its own parish, then the information will be included, if not, you will need to consult the gazetteer specific to your nobility area for this information. Digitized versions of Meyers are available by searching the card catalogs at www.familysearch.org and www.ancestry.com
Regional Gazetteers: https://wiki.familysearch.orgarticle “Germany Gazetteers” provides instruction and important links regarding the regional gazetteers. Also go to the German Portal Page ~ [click on the name of your specific nobility area] ~ then click on Gazetteers. Many of the Gazetteers have been, or are in the process of being, entered into the Family Search Wiki.
Records and Handwriting
Once you have determined the place of origin and have found searchable records, you will need to familiarize yourself with the various types of German script. In addition to the resources already listed, additional help is available at:
BYU German script tutorials http://script.byu.edu/german/en/welcome.aspx
Minert, Roger. Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents, analyzing German, Latin, and French in Vital Records Written in Germany; Woodscross, U.S.A., GRT Publications, c 2001. FHL Intl Ref Area 417.7 M662d
Sütterlin – German Handwriting. http://www.suetterlinschrift.de/Englisch/Sutterlin.htmwww.familysearch.org~ FHLC ~ Education ~ FHL Research Series Online ~ Reading Handwritten Records Series ~ German Lesson 1-3. Free online German Handwriting Courses.
https://wiki.familysearch.org/en/Main_Page - search by keywords German Script for various training articles.