Where do you start your German research?

To find our German ancestors, we need to know their Germanic name, the name of the town they left, and the approximate date (at least the year) of their birth or marriage in Germany. Does this sound like an easy process?  I find that it normally has many snags. If we are lucky, our family papers include documents from the old country that point to our ancestral home. Family oral history may also point to a town, but the name passed down maybe a large city in the area they left or the name given is a phonetic spelling. If your immigrant ancestors did not save copies of documents from the “Old Country,” you will need to find U.S. documents that list clues to the town’s name or area. First, the best strategy is to initially search for current records for family members and follow the paper trail back from the most recent ancestors to those who immigrated. Our journey is more challenging because German immigration happened from the 1600s to the 1900s, and older documents do not include the details we need or they have been lost. In addition, the earlier arrival dates generated fewer documents that we can use even if they are found. Even with these challenges, be persistent and diligently search for the information.

My research had many challenges and few documents that produced relevant town names. However, I successfully found German birth records for three of them. My first success developed from a village name listed in the 1920 U.S. census record. Typically, the birthplace column on the census lists only the country, but the enumerator also recorded the village name. This location was later confirmed by exchanging information with someone who grew up in this German village and verified that the family had indeed lived there until 1890. The second success came from information gleaned from family stories. Unfortunately, parts of the story were wrong and contained the phonetic spelling of the villages, but my persistence did yield the birth records for the two immigrants who left in 1850. The third example was more difficult because it was based on Y-DNA results. The descendants of my only match listed a possible birthplace for their ancestor that gave me a clue to a small area near the Rhine River. Searching online databases, I found possible birth records for both immigrants (mine and theirs) in a small village near the town they had listed for their ancestors. Even though the town they listed was a mistake, it was an important clue because the correct village was in the district named for the large town they had listed.

Collect as many place names as possible from the documents, oral histories, and any other source we can uncover. Gather all the place names found on documents related to our direct ancestors because they are clues. Also, save the place names on records for siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. For example, if their passenger manifest listed their destination as a friend, include this person in your research since they also came from the same place. Treat these place names as clues because they are usually not spelled correctly, and many town names have multiple locations. Look for your clues in various documents and the stories told by your older relatives. After we have a list of place-name clues, we need to find our ancestral home on a map. Finding multiple names from our list near one another should point to the most likely location of our ancestral home. Visualize you are working on a jigsaw puzzle, and the town names are the visual clues you need to put your puzzle pieces together.  

Researchers can encounter many confusing pieces of information. One factor causing much of the confusion is that speaking German does not limit the location of our ancestral home to being within the borders of present-day Germany. There are German-speaking people in Austria, Switzerland, Alsace (now part of France), Parts of the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Denmark, parts of the western portion of present-day Poland, and some parts of Russia. Before 1871, they listed their origins as Prussia, Bavaria, Rhineland, or other Germanic states. If we are lucky, they recorded their origin as one of the smaller states such as Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg Hanover because we would have a smaller area to search for the specific village. We may also be confused because towns located in border areas may have multiple names based on the multiple languages spoken in the area. As an example, the city of Stettin is also known as Szczecin in Polish. Be careful because the differences for smaller villages will be harder to distinguish. The spelling of the village name may vary because of how it is used in a sentence, and knowing German grammar may help recognize the correct spelling.

You need to Identify:

  • The general area that they left
  • The name of the village or town
  • The name of the town where the church or civil records were recorded
  • As many town names as possible to confirm where to look

Envision a map of the area around your ancestor’s birthplace, and each clue you find is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that has a picture of this map on it. Once you fit all of the clues together, the image on the jigsaw puzzle comes together, and you will be able to recognize where the area is located.