By Leslie Albrecht Huber
Between 1830 and 1880, Germans never made up less than a quarter of all immigrants to America. The percentage peaked in the 1850s when nearly thirty-seven percent of immigrants came from Germany. These numbers mean that a large numbers of Americans today can trace at least part of their family tree to Germany.
Yet, many researchers feel intimidated to make this leap across the ocean. Tracing your family in a foreign country with unfamiliar words, handwriting, geography, and records can be overwhelming. However, the wide variety of resources available on the internet makes it easier than ever before. Take a minute to learn about the country and the genealogical resources available, and you’ll gain the confidence and knowledge you need to start uncovering your roots from Deutschland.
Building Your Background
Before delving into German genealogy research, it’s best to have a little idea of what you’re getting yourself into. A little background knowledge can make the research go much more smoothly – and be more meaningful to you. And with the internet, gathering this base doesn’t need to take long.
History. You don’t need to become an expert on German history to trace your family, of course. But a little information can help you understand their lives and the records. For example, did you know that Germany didn’t exist as a nation until 1871? Most of the German states either fell under the jurisdiction of Prussia (the most important German state) or had independent rulers, meaning they had their own unique ways of keeping records. Or did you know that in some German areas conquered by France around the turn of the nineteenth century, the local records are kept for several years in French with a calendar that began on September 22, 1792? The events of history impacted your ancestors’ lives and the records that preserved them.
Of course, there are many websites with information about all aspects of German history. One that I like best is http://www.germanculture.com.ua/library/history/bl_german_history.htm. This site contains links to specific periods in German history so you can read about the time period that is relevant to your research. The website condenses information to present you with a few paragraphs filled with only the most significant events. Reading this will give you a general understanding in a matter of minutes.
Geography. The internet comes in handy for getting oriented to the area in which your ancestors lived, too. This orientation is important for several reasons. For one thing, borders changed frequently. Alsace-Lorraine, now a part of France, was mainly a German state through much of its history with records kept in German. The old German state of Pomerania falls mostly in Poland now, although the western part of it is included in the modern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. There are many other examples.
Also, becoming familiar with the area your ancestors lived can help you as you follow your family in the parish records. Many families moved often within a small radius. You’ll be able to recognize these place names if you’ve become familiar with the towns in the area.
One map useful for German genealogy research is a digitalized version of Atlas des Deutschen Reichs (Atlas of the German Empire) from 1883 found at http://www.library.wisc.edu/etext/ravenstein/. This interactive detailed map provided by the University of Wisconsin enables you to look up specific towns and then focus the map in on the relevant area. A guide on the side shows you which pages cover which localities. The detail and historical date of the map make it invaluable, but using it requires patience. Downloading the pages sometimes takes time and zooming up close can reveal less than top-quality images.
A map that’s easier to use, but without an index, has been posted by the Federation of Eastern European Family History Societies (FEEFHS) at http://feefhs.org/maps/gere/mapigere.html. Click on the correct region to see the images from the 1882 atlas. If you don’t know the region, another option is using MapQuest at http://www.mapquest.com/. Click on the link at the bottom for “Outside U.S. and Canada.” Here, you can locate towns as long as their modern names remain the same.
Language. Wading through records in a new language can seem intimidating when you first begin researching your German family. However, resources available on the web can make this manageable.
A good place to start is with a genealogical word list. The Family History Library (FHL) has produced one of the best, long used by people searching for their German roots. You can now download the list at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/RG/guide/WLGerman.asp. Even before you begin your research, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with these often used words. Some Catholic records utilize many Latin words. If you run into this situation, take a look at the FHL Latin word list at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/RG/guide/WLLatin.asp.
Of course, word lists don’t contain every word you’ll come across in your German research. You’ll need to branch out and try some other websites where you can type in specific words in German and have them translated. I’ve always used www.free.translation.com. It works well for words or pairs of words, but has a harder time translating sentences into anything that makes sense. Another option is http://dict.leo.org/ende?lang=en&lp=ende&search.
Once you get further in the research process, you may want to write to a German parish or archive to obtain records. You can find a good example of how to do this in German through another FHL guide found at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/rg/research/type/Letter-writing_Guide.asp. Choose “German Letter-Writing Guide” from the list provided. This guide gives instructions on how and where to write for records. Then, it lists German phrases and their English translation that are useful in sending for records. All you have to do is link the sentences together and fill in the blanks.
One last FHL page you might want to have a look at is the handwriting guide at http://www.familysearch.org/eng/Search/RG/guide/German_Gothic99-36316.ASP. Most German records in the 19th century were written in the Gothic script. The guide provides some information and history about the script. Then towards the bottom, it shows examples of each letter written this way. Another interesting website is for the Suetterslinstube at http://www.suetterlinstube.org/Home_eng/home_eng_neu.htm. This German organization has volunteers who will transcribe documents in the old script free of charge (although they do accept donations).
Once you’ve got a firm background established, it’s time to take the next step. You need to develop a research plan. To do this, you must first become familiar with what records are available and how you can access them. A few general how-to websites can give you the direction you need.
You might want to start with http://home.att.net/~wee-monster/outline.html. This site, entitled “Basic Research Outline for German Genealogy: A Step by Step Guide for Americans of German Descent,” contains excellent information on how to go about tracing your German family. It has an easy-to-use format arranged by topic with links to many other important sites.
You can find the FHL’s German Research Outline in PDF format available for downloading at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/rg/frameset_rhelps.asp. Click on “G” on the bar above and scroll down to “German Research Outline.” This guide contains a little bit of everything from history to explanations of parish records to information on getting in contact with genealogical societies.
After developing your research plan, you’re ready to look in the records themselves. The internet has a rich supply of records that is constantly being updated. First, a reminder though: The value of records found on the internet varies. Always evaluate the source of information. Also, it’s a good idea to check the original records whenever possible.
To trace your family in Germany, you must first know the town in which your ancestors lived, as the how-to guides above explain. Some people are lucky enough to already have this information. Others have to spend some time searching. Usually you’ll need to start by looking in U.S. records. The how-to guides above talk briefly about his. Other information on U.S. records and websites is beyond the scope of this article.
Many people move to emigration and immigration records after U.S. records. You can find information on the web about immigration and emigration history and records as well as some transcribed original records.
For the emigration (or departure) side, I recommend starting with this page: http://home.att.net/~wee-monster/emigration.html. It’s divided by locality with links to sights containing more information. Sometimes links lead to pages with extensive data available, often for a fee, such as the Baden and Württemberg emigration lists available through Ancestry’s website. Others links go to sites that cover small areas or even individual towns compiled by volunteers and available free of charge. Near the bottom of the page, you’ll also find a discussion of finding passenger lists off-line.
The companion site, http://home.att.net/~wee-monster/passengers.html, tells the other side of the story, with information and links for immigration – people arriving in the U.S. The page is also grouped by ports with lists of links to online searchable databases, microfilm numbers, and useful books. You’ll find that you can search many of the indexes for ship arrivals in the major ports (such as New York City, Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia among others) through Ancestry’s online databases for a fee.
The Hamburg Passengers Lists are some of the most important emigration records for people with German roots. A new project entitled “Link to Your Roots” is making these records available for searching online. The database now covers only 1890-1914 with the goal to eventually cover the entire period from 1850 to 1934. You can access these records at http://linktoyourroots.hamburg.de/ltyr/index.html.
Locality Specific Records
Since Germany existed as independent states for so long, records and their availability differs from one place to another. There may be a census for one state or a series of parish records online in another. It all depends on what individual people or organizations have made available as well as what types of records were kept. To find out what is available both on and off the web, you’ll need to take a closer look at the state where your ancestors lived.
One of the best ways to do this is on the German GenWeb Project website located at http://www.rootsweb.com/~wggerman/. This page is part of the World GenWeb project, similar to the U.S. GenWeb project, but focused on foreign countries across the world instead of U.S. states. I could’ve listed this page under almost all the previous headings as well, since the site contains links to a wide variety of valuable information. You can find their most useful information by clicking on the “States of Germany” link near the top. This brings you to a map followed by information about how the states in Germany were divided. Then at the bottom, you’ll find the links to pages for each individual state.
Different volunteers maintain each state page. This means that the content and amount of information varies. For example, the page for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern contains wonderful, detailed information about the history of the region, daily life of the people, reasons for emigration, as well as explanations about the types of records available and how to access and use them. Some of the other state pages contain similar types of information. Others are a little sparser. It’s definitely worth spending some time exploring the pages of your ancestors’ state.
A German group maintains another very useful site (in English) located at http://www.genealogienetz.de/reg/regio.html. Scrolling down a little on this main page will take you to two maps, one of present-day and one of pre-1945 Germany. Clicking on the appropriate link will take you to a list of the German states. Again, the content on each state varies. However, many have comprehensive pages which contain a general history of the area, a description of the divisions of the land, as well as detailed information about the types of sources available, what they contain, and how to use them. The pages also provide links to other useful sights specific to your locality.
When looking for locality specific pages, you should keep in mind the many border changes the German states have undergone through the years. The German GenWeb page, for instance, only contains pages for current German states, as it explains on its front page. You must visit the France page for information on Alsace-Lorraine, since it is now a part of France, or the Poland page for information about West Prussia. The second page listed above has separate pages for the states of the old German Empire. For the many people whose ancestors lived in a German state which is now a part of Poland, you may also want to try this webpage: http://www.polishroots.com/genpoland/index.htm.
Other Records and Information
There are many other German records and resources for tracing your German family on the internet. One don’t-miss general site is Joe Beine’s “Resources for German Genealogy on the Internet” at http://home.att.net/~wee-monster/. The site contains hundreds of pages, a few of which are already mentioned specifically in this article, with a wide range of information. Some pages contain detailed instructions and information about certain types of records, others contain searchable databases, while still others provide links to useful websites.
If you’ve spent much time on the internet looking for your family, you’ve probably already become familiar with “Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet.” This comprehensive database of links provides a simple, easy-to-access list of many of the genealogy records available online. You can look through her list of German-focused sites at http://www.cyndislist.com/germany.htm.
I’ll mention another couple of sites in passing. A website entitled “Find Your Roots in Germany” found at http://www.roots-in-germany.de/ seeks to combine information for the researcher and traveler on one site. The page contains a number of links in German and English to other sites mostly focusing on the German-American experience as well as to individual states. Karen Huish’s site at http://khuish.tripod.com/german.htm has a long list of links that contain a little of this and a little of that. Finally, Andreas Hanaceck maintains a site at http://home.bawue.de/~hanacek/info/edatbase.htm#ddd that provides interesting links not included on many of the sites above, but with a strong leaning toward sites in German – although the site itself is in English.
Finding Sources Offline
You probably won’t find everything you need to trace your German family tree on the internet. Although the collections of records available online grows constantly, many important sources aren’t there yet. Parish records constitute the backbone of German research. Only a relatively small percentage of these can be accessed online. At some point in your research, you’ll have to leave the internet to embark in original research. However, resources available online can provide vital direction in doing this.
Family History Library Catalogue. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City contains the world’s largest collection of genealogical records, including a huge amount of original German records, indexes, histories, and other records. The microfilmed records can usually be ordered to branch family history libraries located at LDS churches across the world (which you can find through this website: http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHC/frameset_fhc.asp). Checking their catalogue to see what sources are available should be one of the first steps on nearly every German research project. You can access the catalogue online at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp. To see what records are available for your ancestor’s town, choose “Place Search.” Then, type in the name of the town (or the name of the nearby town where people attended church) in the blank for place.
Genealogical and Research Societies. The internet can also help you locate genealogical and research societies. These societies can aid you in your research in numerous ways. Perhaps they have a center located near you where you can access records. Some have volunteers available to answer your questions or do quick look-ups for you. Others offer services in which they check certain records for a fee.
One useful society to check out is The Immigrant Genealogical Society whose listing can be found at http://feefhs.org/igs/frg-igs.html. This society has numerous records of interest to people tracing German families available to the public for research three days of week. They also do record searches for a fee. FEEFHS has links to other societies under the heading “Germany/Germanic Genealogy” at http://www.feefhs.org/ethnic.html. Many other societies exist.
The websites mentioned in this article, of course, represent only a small sampling of the sites available to help you trace your German family. I’ve chosen some of the ones I believe are must useful for getting started. However, I recommend doing a little exploring on your own. You might find some new favorite research sites.