Willkommen to Your German Roots

By Chris Anderson and Ernie Thode Premium

If you think you’re going to end up in some Germanic castle on the Rhine or Danube after researching your Germanic family tree, you’re in for a twofold shock.

First, most of us came from the hearty peasant stock that made up about 99 percent of the masses. The nobility — which often was less noble than the peasants — was roughly 1 percent of the population. But your ancestors are worth discovering regardless.

Second, the path to uncovering your family tree can be hard work, and Germanic ancestry offers its own particular pitfalls in research.

But understanding your Germanic roots can be richly rewarding, even if you don’t find any castles — and there’s no ethnic heritage more important to the shaping of America. Some 58 million Americans have at least one Germanic ancestor, more than any other ethnic origin. From the 1860 US census through the 1890 census, emigrants from Germany outnumbered all other groups seeking a new life in America. They left their mark on their new country, from hamburgers to Oktoberfests, the Katzenjammer Kids to Albert Einstein.

And there are some wonderful resources available to assist you in discovering your Germanic ancestors — sources available right here in America as well as abroad.

What’s “German”?

You’ve probably noticed that we keep talking about “Germanic” ancestors, rather than “German.” That’s because “Germanic” is a much more inclusive term. Germanic ancestors could have come from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Alsace (part of France), much of what is now Poland, Luxembourg, southern Denmark, the present Czech Republic or even a bit of Russia.

The German language unifies Germanic people. Even so, German speaking is not all that unified: The number of dialects is much greater than in America, which is all the more amazing considering that the country of Germany today is about the size of Oregon.

While England, Spain and France spent centuries under a unified monarchy, medieval Germany never consolidated under a single ruler until becoming a nation-state under Otto von Bismarck in 1871 — after many Germanic people had already left the Old World. Instead, the various kingdoms and principalities were members of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as they called it, loosely under the Holy Roman Emperor. Germany’s central position in Europe meant that many conflicts were played out in what was a patchwork of hundreds or even thousands of secular and religious kingdoms, principalities, duchies, electorates, estates, free cities and free states, each with its own rulers, laws and local customs.

Because these small areas fluctuated with warfare and marriage, maps of Germany are just a thin slice of history. If you compare a map of Germany from the 1600s and one from the 1700s, boundaries may have shifted yearly in some places, or not for dozens of years or longer in others. To get a real perspective on the transformation of Germanic regions you need to imagine the map as a series of snapshots placed year by year that flow like a movie.

Step one: Understanding the family feudal

The feudal system in Germany meant that each independent area kept its own records, leading to regional rather than national archives. Various German lands each had their own capitals, and the empire had certain major governmental/royal cities, such as Frankfurt, Regensburg and Vienna. Berlin didn’t develop into a national capital until after 1871. Even then, the other German states did not send records on to “headquarters” in Berlin. The present German national archive houses records only from the post-World War II constitutional government.

Many regional records were destroyed in the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), so it’s unusual to find church records before 1650. Still, that means records go back 350 years in many parts of Germany, roughly 10 generations, which is not too bad as family histories go.

The legacy of feudalism has a bright side for genealogists, however. Because most peasants relied on a local feudal ruler for protection, the populace was taxed at every occasion. If somebody died, the ruler got the best ox. If the ruler needed grain, he took 10 percent of the harvest. If a villager wanted to marry someone in the next village, he had to wait until the ruler could make a swap of serfs with that village’s ruler. If the ruler decided to throw a party, he took a nice goose. If someone wanted to emigrate, the ruler took 10 percent of the person’s property. Fortunately for genealogists, taxes of all kinds generate records.

In poorer regions and in times of poverty, Germanic lands saw a relatively high rate of out-of-wedlock births. Being born out of wedlock meant a person was ineligible for many things — joining a guild, owning property of any kind or becoming a citizen in a free city. Not surprisingly, someone born out of wedlock might want to emigrate to a place where all “are created equal” and “endowed with unalienable rights.” So you may find your ancestors among this group.

Germanic inheritance law passed property strictly through the male line. Inheritance law becomes particularly important if you’re seeking northern German ancestors. Maintaining an intact farm was critical in the north, especially in Westphalia. And farm property was indivisible, so the farm name stayed with the land and the new owner had to adopt the farm name. Sons who weren’t in line to inherit the farm had incentive to get a trade or to emigrate, as they’d likely never get a chance to own a farm.

In other parts of Germany, where farms have been divided and subdivided among all heirs since the early 19th century, parcels of land kept getting smaller every generation and farmers might own widely scattered parcels. Although there were more landowners, this leads to inefficiency — another economic factor leading to emigration from those areas.

Step two:

Reading, writing and records

Deciphering the handwriting or print of Germanic documents may be the greatest challenge in researching your Germanic roots. Worse, early records are frequently composed in open paragraph form, rather than being nicely laid out in columns of name, birth date and father’s name. (Some later records, happily, use this standard post-Napoleonic record format.) Also, not every set of records is indexed. In the absence of an index, it may be necessary to look through dozens or even hundreds of pages to find the record you need.

You don’t need to read German fluently to be able to decipher most genealogical records. But you must learn to recognize the most common genealogical scripts and prints. This is absolutely essential since very few German records have been translated.

Older German records are prepared in letters similar to the style called Kurrent. To see a sample of this lettering, see the Family Tree Magazine Web site <>. We’ve also illustrated two other styles, called Fraktur and Sutterlin, to help you see the connection between Kurrent and modern styles.

Certain Kurrent letters appear very similar. This can make your interpretation of Germanic documents difficult and lead to confusion. The handwriting of individual priests, ministers and clerks can vary significantly from one to another, creating further confusion. The idiosyncrasies of each individual’s style of forming particular letters can be baffling.

To be effective in translating a particular person’s handwriting properly, make photocopies of enough samples of one person’s writing to be able to decide what the letters are. By becoming familiar with numerous common words written by that person, you’ll better be able to decipher each word in that person’s handwriting.

Step three: Getting the name right

Once you have the name of an ancestor, you may be ready to start researching — but first make sure you have the correct name. The name may be wrong for several reasons. The surname may have been changed, or even translated by clerks, as a result of your ancestors having contact with English speakers, especially in the early North American colonies. Nicknames may be used instead of the standard given name. A sloppy census enumerator may even have altered the family name.

You may think you have an early ancestor named John Snyder, for example — except that’s not exactly the way he spelled it when he wrote it himself. He wrote Johann Peter Schneider. John is Johann, a common German name. And Snyder is Schneider. That sounds like Snyder, which is an anglicized version of Schneider.

Dropping the middle name can also lead to trouble. In pre-19th-century Germany, the middle name was usually the most frequently used name. Your ancestor may have gone by Peter Schneider, not Johann Schneider.

Because of the many forms and spellings that your ancestors’ names might have taken on or been twisted into, don’t limit your research to a single spelling or name. Keep records of the variations and examine all the possibilities at each step.

Family surnames followed different patterns depending on the region of Germany. If you have ancestors from northern Germany, around Ostfriesland, you may have a confusing pattern of changing names. Last names there were patronymics from the given name of the father: So Peter Hansen’s offspring would have the last name of Petersen, as they were the children of Peter, or Peter’s sons.

If your ancestors are from around Westphalia, their surnames may be based on the ownership of a farm. Watch to see if your ancestors’ male surnames change when they marry; this would be because the woman was the heiress to a farm.

Patronymics and the use of farm names as surnames are both regional customs, not universal practices throughout the German-speaking lands. But they’re one more thing to be aware of in your research.

Step four: Master the map

Germanic places of origin are hard to find, hard to identify and hard to pinpoint geographically. To find any mention of the place of origin, you need to look in the obvious places — church records, censuses, death records, marriage records, obituaries, family Bibles, papers brought from overseas and family histories. Don’t forget that neighbors in America may have come from the same place. By finding the neighbors’ places of origin, you may locate your own ancestor’s origin.

Suppose you find your ancestor’s birthplace listed on the 1880 US census as Preisen. You might think the next logical step would be to try to locate a village named Preisen. But foreign birthplaces in the census are listed as states, not specific villages, or simply as countries. The only state that resembles Preisen is the largest German state, Preussen, which translates into Prussia. Just as surnames are often misinterpreted, place names can be misunderstood too; our Preisen example is a dialectal pronunciation of Preussen.

Another source of confusion arises when researchers misattribute whether a given place is a village, county or district. In English, if someone comes from County Cork, Ireland, we know that it’s an area and not a town. Because German is a less familiar language, it’s natural, but wrong, to think that Amt, Regierungs-Bezirk, Kreis or Oberamt are the names of villages rather than names for districts. Oberamt Balingen means “District of Balingen,” for example.

The same thing occurs with mother churches and branch churches. Kirchspiel and Kirchensprengel both mean “church parish.” If you find Kirchspiel I.ienen, it refers to the church parish of Lienen, not a village named Kirchspiel.

Similarly, in the names of larger jurisdictions, Konigreich means kingdom, Herzogtum means duchy and Grafschaft means county or earldom. One additional complication in this last example is that there are actually at least three villages in Germany named Grafschaft. In the vast majority of cases, however, the reference would be to a district or county rather than a particular village.

Mapping your ancestors can be like solving a mystery. You might run across a place that’s changed its name (Veyl or Feil to Feilbingert), or one that uses an abbreviated form of a longer name (Bbronn for Büchen-bronn). You might need to find a village that no longer exists (Ronnen-berg is now in the Baum-holder military firing range), or one that has had its name translated (Newton for Neustadt). Maybe the place you’re looking for has a Latin version of its name (Trevero-rum from Trier), or an alternate spelling altogether (Gostyn and Gostingen). If you don’t find a place name you think you should find, review older gazetteers and lists of Latin forms of place names.

Your next steps

When researching your Germanic roots, don’t be an island. Make connections with Germanic genealogical societies and other Germanic-specific sources.

After you’ve exhausted all the US records you can efficiently get your hands on — in-chiding your local Family History Center — and you know the exact location in Germany to research, go to Germany. But don’t make too many assumptions about your trip. You may find a living relative who can add substantially to your store of knowledge about the family. You’ll see first-hand a number of areas historically significant to your ancestors. And you can enjoy the flavor of the old country that your ancestors inhabited.

The history of 100 percent of the world’s people has been condensed and preserved through the stories of less than 1 percent of the world’s people — those that make it into the history books shared in our schools. Don’t substitute the history in schoolbooks for the personal stories that can be a source of pride, laughter or sympathy for your children and grandchildren. These stories were part of the mysterious fabric that bound a family together, whether in the lands we loosely call Germany or in the new world your ancestors dared to help build.
From the April 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine