Are you among the 50 million Americans with German ancestry? Have you traced your line back to an immigrant? Pat yourself on the back—you deserve it.
But don’t stop there. It’s time to take the next step and continue your research across the pond in your ancestor’s homeland. Your first target: church records. As in most European research, they’re your most important source for tracing German ancestors—they could help you extend your tree as far back as the 1500s. Sure, you’ll face scattered records, a foreign language and hard-to-read handwriting. But with online resources, accessing German church records is easier now than ever. And with our guide, you can find your ancestors’ records in just six steps—or with a little luck, even fewer.
1. Acquaint yourself with German church records.
Start by getting a feel for what you can expect to find in the records. Germany didn’t implement civil (government) registration of births, marriages and deaths until 1876. Before then, church records are the primary source of family information. A local church, whose parish boundaries may have included neighboring villages, kept these parish registers or church books, called Kirchenbücher in German.
Church records include information on births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials. Sometimes they also contain registers of confirmations, communions, members and families, and other records. Catholic records were usually written in Latin and Protestant records in German. German records are written in notoriously hard-to-read Gothic script.
Church records from different time periods and areas of Germany vary in the details they provide. More recent records tend to give more complete information. In general, churches in western Germany began keeping records first. The farther east you go, the later the records start. The earliest surviving Protestant records date from 1524 at St. Sebald in Nuremberg. Catholic church records begin in 1563, and most Reformed parishes started keeping records by 1650.
You’ll probably have to read websites and communicate with churches and archives in German. Don’t worry: You can do it even if you don’t know a word of the language. Refer to the German Word List on the FamilySearch Wiki and use online translators, such as Google Translate. When you visit a foreign-language website, Google’s Chrome browser, a free download, offers to translate it. If you favor Internet Explorer, the Google Toolbar also translates web pages instantly.
2. Identify your immigrant ancestor’s parish.
You need to know your ancestor’s German hometown to find church records there. Records of American churches that served German families often name members’ hometowns in Germany. The Lutheran church record for the death of my ancestor Tobias Schaubhut in Lancaster County, Pa., says, “1803, Tobias Schaubhut, von Eichen in Durlachschen, sturb d 19 October, begraben d 21 Oct, Alt 41 Jahr 4 Mo 1 Tag. Krankheit: mit zehrendem, hitzigem Fieber.” This translates as “1803, Tobias Schaubhut, from Eichen in Durlach, died 19 October, buried the 21 October, age 41 years 4 months 1 day. Sickness: with debilitating, hot fever.”
Other sources to examine for a place of origin include family papers, death records, obituaries, naturalization records, passports and county histories. Check FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com for your immigrant ancestor and potential relatives with the same last name. Ancestry.com’s Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934 are indexed for the years 1850 to 1914 and give the last place of residence in Europe. Also try to determine your ancestor’s religious affiliation, usually Lutheran (often called Evangelical in Germany) or Catholic.
Distant relatives may still live in the place in Germany where your ancestor was born. If you’re researching an uncommon surname, search the national phone book, Das Telefonbuch. Enter the name in the Wer/Was (Who/What) box and click on Finden. Also search Facebook for people in Germany with the last name.
Once you’ve discovered the place in Germany, find the location and the name of the church parish using gazetteers. It’s common to find towns of the same name in different areas of Germany, so this is important. Try to identify the parish, village, district and state. A large city might’ve had many parishes, while a small village without its own church was usually part of a parish in a nearby larger town. In Tobias’ death record, “Eichen in Durlachschen” refers to the village of Eichen, located in the Protestant region of Baden, which was known as Baden-Durlach until 1771. Eichen is near the larger town of Schopfheim in the southwestern corner of Germany, close to the French and Swiss borders.
ProGenealogists has links to gazetteers for several German states and provinces. My immigrant ancestor Leonard Slip was born in the village of Frankfurt in the province of Middle Franconia (Mittelfranken). ProGenealogists’ Bavarian gazetteer shows that this Frankfurt is in the Evangelical parish of Obersteinbach and the Catholic parish of Scheinfeld.
The German Society for Computer Genealogy (der Verein für Computergenealogie) has several useful tools, mostly in German, on its website. The genealogical gazetteer of place names contains 858,000 entries. To search it, click on GOV, enter a place name in the box and click the Search button. A search on Frankfurt produces 167 matches, including an entry for the village in Mittelfranken. The gazetteer gives the district, administrative region, state and country where the village is located. Click on the place name for links to maps and an article in GenWiki, the society’s user-generated online knowledge base for genealogy research in German-speaking areas of the world. It says that the village’s Evangelical (Lutheran) church records are probably still held by the local church, while the Catholic church records are held by the Archives of the Archdiocese of Bamberg. Some GenWiki articles also list local researchers willing to do record lookups.
If you prefer books to websites, consult Map Guide to German Parish Registers (Family Roots Publishing), a series of volumes by Kevan M. Hansen that list the parishes associated with each town, as well as neighboring parishes.
3. Check online church records.
Few German church records have been transcribed or digitized and placed online, but the list is growing. Here’s a sampling:
• FamilySearch.org: The free genealogy site from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a database called Germany, Prussia, Brandenburg and Posen, Church Book Duplicates, 1794-1874, with 1.6 million records. FamilySearch regularly adds new collections. To see its complete list of online German records, click on Search, scroll down and click on Continental Europe. In the list of places on the left, click on Germany. Some of the records aren’t indexed, but you can browse them.
• State Archive of Baden-Württemburg: Images of 870,000 pages from birth, marriage and death registers of 35 Protestant, Catholic and Jewish communities in southern Baden are online. The original records at the State Archives of Freiburg contain 2.4 million genealogical records from 1810 to 1870. They happen to cover the parish of Schopfheim, where Tobias Schaubhut was born—although not the time frame, June 18, 1762 (based on his age when he died). More records are coming from this joint project of FamilySearch and the State Archive of Baden-Württemberg.
• Online German Genealogy Records and Databases: This site links to a range of German databases, including church records, organized by place. Note that some links go to collections on subscription websites.
4. Rent FamilySearch microfilm.
If the church records you need aren’t online, the next most convenient and inexpensive way to access them is on microfilm. FamilySearch has microfilmed records from around the world, and you can borrow them through its network of local FamilySearch Centers. Most of the microfilmed German church records date from before 1875 and come from the southwestern German states of Baden, Hesse, the Palatinate, Rhineland, Westphalia and Württemberg.
To determine if FamilySearch has microfilmed church records from your ancestor’s hometown, start at FamilySearch.org, click on Search and then select Catalog. (You might want to use the link to the previous version of the FamilySearch catalog instead, because the film notes are formatted so it’s easier to tell what’s on each roll.) Enter the village or city where your ancestor lived in the Place Name box, then choose the place from the dropdown menu. Note that the Family History Library catalogs records according to the political divisions of the German Empire of 1871, not today’s jurisdictions. You’ll get a list of records covering that place. Look for a church records heading and then click each title to see a description naming the parish and records covered. You can use Google translate to help with the German words.
For example, if you run a Place search on Eichen, the first matching place suggested is “Germany, Baden, Eichen.” Select that place and click Search. The one matching church record is Kirchenbuch, 1605-1962. The catalog describes the Evangelical (Lutheran) church records of Schopfheim as the parish register of baptisms, marriages and deaths, including records from Eichen and several other villages. The records are on 13 reels of microfilm, whose contents are described in detail in the film notes. The second item of microfilm No. 1,189,749 includes “Eichen Heiraten, Taufen, Tote 1739-1775” (Eichen marriages, baptisms, deaths 1739-1775). The ninth item on microfilm No. 1,189,879 has a Familienbuch (family book) from Eichen from about 1787.
Click on a microfilm number to place an order online. A short-term loan costs $7.50 and gives you 60 days to view the film at a FamilySearch Center.
Scrolling through the microfilmed church records of Eichen, I found the entry for Tobias Schaubhut, baptized June 19, 1762. The record gives his date of birth as the previous day, a match with his age in the death record in Pennsylvania. The entry also names his parents, Jacob Schaubhut and Maria Trinnler.
A Familienbuch organizes the church records into family groups, which can save you time browsing for references to other relatives. The listing for the family of Johann Jacob Schaubhut and his wife Maria Trinnler gives the names and dates of birth of their seven children, including Tobias.
5. Write to German churches.
If the records you need aren’t online or on microfilm, contact the parish directly. Most German parishes have websites with contact information. To find a parish’s website, Google the parish name plus evangelische kirche for a Lutheran church or katholische kirche for a Catholic church. For example, a search for obersteinbach evangelische kirche produces matches on the Lutheran church in Middle Franconia and on one in another town named Obersteinbach in Alsace-Lorraine.
• Evangelical (Lutheran): To find Obersteinbach, first select the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria. Then click on Zur Gemeindesuche (Search for Parish) on the left. In the box for Suche nach Stadt (Search by City), enter the name of a town and click the Suchen (Search) button.
A search on Obersteinbach produces no matches, so try searching by postal code. To get the postal code, go to Deutsche Post and click on Postal Code Search. Search on Obersteinbach. From the suggested places, select Obersteinbach (district of Markt Taschendorf). The match shows that Obersteinbach is a town subdivision of Markt Taschendorf and the postal code is 91480.
Now, go back to the Lutheran parish directory site for Bavaria, and enter 91480 in the box for Suche nach Postleitzahl (Search by Postal Code). Click the Suchen (Search) button. The three matches include Obersteinbach and Markt Taschendorf. Click on Details Anzeigen (View Details) to see the mailing address, phone number, email address and website link for each parish.
• Roman Catholic: First, identify the diocese where the parish is located. This map shows the 27 Catholic dioceses in Germany. Scheinfeld, for example, is in the diocese of Bamberg, so go back to Kath.de and select Bamberg from the list of Bistümer (Dioceses) in the section on the right. Then select Pfarreien Alphabetisch Sortiert (Parishes Sorted Alphabetically) from the Pfarreien (Parishes) menu. Select Sch and Scheinfield is the first one in the list.
Try the email contact for the parish first. Keep in mind that the primary job of the contact person is religion, not research, so you might not get a response right away. Limit each request to a specific record, such as a baptism or marriage, or at least to a certain family. Write in German, following the guide at FamilySearch.org. You may have to pay a fee, even if no records are found. If you need extensive research done, you may want to hire a local researcher in Germany.
6. Contact German archives.
• How to use Meyers Orts
• Finding an immigrant’s hometown
• German Genealogy Toolkit
• German genealogy guide
• Research in Germany’s historical regions
• Germanic ancestors outside Germany
• German Genealogy Cheat Sheet
• German Newspapers in America video class
• Interpreting German Records on-demand webinar