The Southwest Florida Germanic Genealogy Society, Inc.

I Have a German Ancestor...

Starting your German research can be daunting!  We just have it all together to do research here in the United States and suddenly we find that we have a German ancestor and must begin the search to find him/her. That can really be scary!  Right?  Yes... German research is different than that with which we are familiar... but it's very doable!   
Let's start with a little background information.
There was no unified Germany until 1871. Before that time, the German lands were made up of about 350 entities - large, medium and mostly small - kingdoms, duchies and principalities.  No central government covered them.  Each was independent and each has their own rules and laws.
There are challenges to German research
  1. The social structure was very different from what we know.  Most of our ancestors were tenant farmers. Many changes and boundaries occurred prior to the 1871 unification. There was no freedom of religion.  
  2. Many different languages are used in addition to German. German was not standardized until Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in 1523... and then... spelling was not standardized.
  3. Writing is very difficult to read whether in Gothic Script or Fractur Print.
  4. Our knowledge of German history is  minimal.   We need to know about the wars, the government, laws, migrations and religious trends.  Until the early 1800s, over 300 different German states existed... each with it's own ruler and laws.   Records are not centralized.. there are no censuses ... and there is no consistent civil registration.
  1. The Protestant Reformation (1517-1555) - Almost entirely Catholic before Martin Luther established the Lutheran religion.  Both Catholics and Lutherans kept excellent records.  The Bible was translated into German.  The German language was standardized but spelling was not standardized.
  2. Thirty Years War (1618-1648) - This was originally a dispute between the Catholics and the Protestants.  It became a war of domination for Europe.  Most countries went bankrupt.  There was much devastation and destruction (including records).
  3. Napoleonic Wars - Frequent raids were made by the French into German trerritory.  Many lands were conquered. The Code of Napoleon was introduced and enforced which required civil registration (in French). The Holy Roman Empire was abolished.  Total political entities were reduced from 300 to 40 states.  Napoleon met his Waterloo in 1815.
  4. Prussia - Rebelled against the Holy Roman Empire and names their ruler "kiing." The territory grew in size and strength.  Prussia army unmatched.
  5. German Empire (Deutsches Reich) unified the German lands into Germany in 1871.
  1. Located in central Europe.  
  2. Borders the North and Baltic Seas south to the Alps.
  3.  Northern part is flat terrain.  
  4. Central part is rolling hills
  5. Southern part is mountainous (foothills of the Alps)
  6. Shares borders with 9 countries
Available Records
  1. Church records (baptism, marriage and death/burial)
  2. Emigration (primarily the Hamburg passenger lists)
  3. Emigrant lists (Check the Family History Library catalog)
  4. Published Sources (Meyers Orts gazetteer, Ortsippenbucher and Deutsches Familienarchiv)
Basic Vocabulary
  1. Family: Kind/Kinder (child/children), Vater (father), Mutter (mother), Sohn (son) & Tochter (daughter)
  2. Church: Kirch/Kirchen (church.churches), Kirchenbucher (church registers)
  3. Birth/Baptism: Geboren (born), Geburtsregister (birth register), Taufen (baptism) and Taufbuch (Baptism book)
  4. Marriage: Ehen (marriages), Ehenreiister (marriage register), Ehefrau or Ehemann (married woman or man), Braut (bride), Brautigam (groom), Witnabb or Witwer (widower or widow)
  5. Death/burial: Tote (death), Togeborem (stillborn), Gestorben (died), Totenregister (death register), Grab (grave) Begrabnis (burial)
MUST KNOW - German surname, place of birth, religion and approximate birth/death
  1. German surname: different spellings, Americanized, use of naming patterns (Patronymic, occupations, descriptive, geographical or farm name).  Multiple names (2nd name is the name the person was called).  Little spelling standardization until early 1900s. Names rarely changed legally in a court of law.
  2. Place of birth - Records are local.  You must know the town of birth.
  3. Religion - Usually either Catholic or Lutheran
  4. Life span - when do you begin the search?
Begin with
  1. What do you want to learn?
  2. Organize your materials
  3. Be sure you have your sources entered
  4. Check your home sources
  5. Evaluate your sources.
Researching U.S. Records
  1. Family records - check with every possible member of the family
  2. Previous research - is anyone else looking for the same family line?
  3. Check original records - death, church, cemetery, probate, obits, etc.
  4. Church & civil sources - marriages and births of children
  5. Censuses - 1850 forward - particularly 1900-1930 for naturalization
  6. Property records
  7. Immigration and naturalization records
  8. Look for family members in the same records.  They travelled together and they lived close to one another.  There was rarely a "lone" family.
Researching German Records
  1. Family Search (
  2. German telephone book (
  3. German surname books: German Names by Hans Bahlow, A Dictionary of Surnames by Patrick Hanks & Flavia Hodges and
  4. Germans to America - Series of books indexing ship passenger arrival records of German immigrants for the listed years. (
  5. Departure lists -,, Ancestry immigration package
  6. Naturalization (
Basic Research Tools
  2. (need to translate to English)
  1. Meyers' Orts (free on Ancestry)
  2. Guide to Meyer's Orts (
  1. FEEFHS (www,
  2. Progenealogists (
  3. Ravenstein maps (
  4. Perry Castanada Maps (
MODERN GERMAN ATLAS (Deutschland ADAX MaxiAtlas (check
Special Resources
  1. Atlantic Bridge series by Charles Hall
  2. Meyer's Orts (Ancestry)
  3. German surname mapping tool (
  4. Map Guide to Parishes by Kevin Hansen (Mid-County Regional Library)
  5. Social Networking: Facebook, Twitter, free message boards ( and free mailing lists (
  1. Beginner's Guide to German Genealogy and Germanic Genealogy both from the Germanic Genealogy Society of St. Paul, MN (
  2. German Research Companion by Shirley Reimer (