Finding German Origins
4/18/2012
You've got questions about discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history; our experts have the answers.
Q. Is there any way you can find information about 19th-century German ancestors if you do not know where in Germany they came from?

A. Congratulations on having gotten back to the immigrant generation. Since there is not any centralized German vital records archive or emigration archive, it is not possible to jump directly to German research without knowing where exactly they came from. You need to keep up your search on this side of the ocean in the same sources you have looked at so far—and more.

The place of origin may be found in church records, censuses, passenger lists, naturalization records, death records, obituaries, newspapers, city directories, county histories, family records and many other sources. Especially important for locating Germanic ancestors are German-language church records in America, which may give you a village of origin. Then again, maybe you will have to scrounge to locate the name of your ancestral home.

For instance, if you found a marriage record in America, you might ask:

  • Who were the witnesses? Could they be people the couple knew back in the old country? Where did they come from?

  • Who performed the ceremony? Was it a clergyman? What congregation was it? Might there be records there? Might there be a published history of the congregation? Maybe even one in German?

If you found an American death record, you might ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who was the informant?

  • Was there an obituary published in the English-language paper? Was there a more detailed obituary published in the local German-language paper or the regional religious newspaper?

  • Where was the person buried? What do the cemetery sexton's records say? What does the inscription on the tombstone say?

  • Who were the survivors?

  • What was the deceased's occupation? A railroad worker, government worker, or corporation worker might be found in governmental or business records.

  • Were any lodge or organization memberships mentioned in the obituary? There might be lodge records, such as Sons of Hermann or Schlaraffia, or society memberships, such as the local Männerchor or Turnverein (Turners).

  • Was the deceased a veteran? Do military pension records or draft records show a place of origin? Those who had to register for World War I drafts included men between ages 18 and 45, whether they eventually went to war or not. (WWI draft registration cards are searchable on subscription site Ancestry.com and browsable on the free FamilySearch.org.)

  • Were your German-American ancestors aliens during World War I? Aliens had to register too. Some of these records survive.

Another possibility is passenger arrival lists, some of which give places of origin, or the Hamburg passenger lists (available on Ancestry.com), which give the last place of residence in Europe. 

See Chapter 3 in A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Germanic Ancestors by S. Chris Anderson and myself (available as a digital download from ShopFamilyTree.com) for more help pinpointing origins in Germany.
 
You'll also find research advice in Family Tree Magazine's German Genealogy Guide digital download