by Jessica Grimm
If you have German ancestors, chances are you’ve encountered some challenges trying to track them down. Changes in jurisdiction and borders, lack of central record keeping, foreign language websites and Old German script are just a few areas that trip up many family historians. This guide will help you overcome these hurdles and discover free resources.
Here’s what you’ll find by section:
- Section 1: Introduction to German Genealogy Research and What You’ll Need to Know
- Section 2: Finding and Searching Records from Germany
- Section 3: Quick Tips for Finding Your Ancestors in German Records
- Section 4: 12 Free Sites You Can Search Now
Section 1: Researching Your German Ancestors: Where to Begin?
As with any genealogy research, start with what you can easily gather. If your ancestors emigrated, and you are not simply looking for them in Germany, begin by learning as much as possible about your family in the United States or Canada (or other location) prior to shifting your focus to Germany.
You’ll especially want to discover several key pieces of information about your ancestor in order to find relevant records in German sources.
Key Pieces of Information to Gather Before Exploring German Records
1. First Name and Surname
Although it is obvious that you will need the name of your ancestor before trying to find them in German records, you’ll want to be aware of historical German naming customs and spellings. This website has a nice quick breakdown. Understanding how your ancestors’ names fit these patterns and customs will aid you in discovering records about them.
Also, be aware that name and spelling variations or inaccuracies in records happen all of the time. Pronunciation of letter sounds sometimes differ from the way they are pronounced in English, leading to spelling confusions (it is not uncommon for a name to be spelled phonetically by an English speaker).
Or names may have been anglicized by the record taker, or even by your ancestor (such as Henry in place of Heinrich), in an attempt to simplify communication.
Take the time to find as many records as you can that contain your ancestor’s name, especially those close to an immigration year, as these often contain their name as it would have appeared in their homeland.
2. Place of Birth, German Residence and Associated Dates
If at all possible you will want to find your ancestor’s home town. Because records were kept locally in Germany it is imperative that you find the exact location of your ancestor’s birth or residence later so that you can identify where to find relevant records. Country and jurisdiction can depend on the year as well. Tips for where to do this are found later in the guide.
3. Their Religion
Very commonly, their religion will be Catholic or Evangelical Lutheran – but could also be Jewish or a less prevalent religion in the region.
Religion is important to note because many records that exist are church records. Sometimes larger churches also kept information on minority religions and became civil registration offices once mandatory record keeping was initiated.
Where Can I Find The Information I Need?
Start with home sources including living family members and family documents or photos. Your focus should be on names, places, and dates. Here are some tips from BYU for gathering information from home and family sources. Add this information to a family tree program and then begin additional research.
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If Your Ancestors Immigrated to the U.S. or Canada
Next, if your ancestors immigrated to the U.S. or Canada you should begin looking for information in larger American resources – such as federal and state census records, vital records, cemetery records, church records, obituaries, military records, naturalization applications and records, social security records, and passenger arrival lists.
Many of these records are available for free online – you can find a list of some of these free resources listed here and other lists here – as well as the additional search sites noted in this guide.
Using these records, try to build out a timeline of details in regards to your ancestor’s immigration to, and movements in, the United States. Learn everything you can about them and you’ll be more prepared to begin digging in German records.
Here are some places to start.
Be aware that the type of information recorded in federal census records varies from year to year. For example, only the 1870-1940 U.S. census recorded parent’s birthplaces. Most commonly you will see “Germany,” “Prussia,” “Bavaria,” or “Wurttemberg” listed. Check here for detailed information on what you can find in each U.S. census year.
While helpful for discovering which ancestor was the first to emigrate, census records will still leave you with a question mark as to the exact place your ancestor emigrated from, as well their home town. You’ll need other records for that.
Vital and Gravesite Records
Depending on the time your ancestor lived, vital records may or may not be available. If you know the location your ancestors lived in the U.S., check the history of the state’s vital record keeping at FamilySearch through COUNTY>STATE>VITAL RECORDS or COUNTY.
For example, while birth records were not kept in Clinton Co. Iowa until 1880, marriage records were kept as early as 1840. Birth records often name birthplace of parents and, with any luck, it might list a town, city, or village. You can find Family History Daily’s Guide to locating state by state resources here.
While hunting for my husband’s 3rd great grandfather’s place of birth in Germany, I searched Findagrave and uncovered the grave of his wife Elizabeth. Her headstone included her maiden name, birth and death dates, and listed a variant spelling of her husband’s name. All these were previously unknown.
For the years that civil records aren’t available in the U.S. or Canada, church records could fill in these gaps. Finding church records can also lead to discovering your ancestor’s religion or denomination. This will come in handy while searching German records as church records are the main source of records there.
Immigration and emigration records could also lead to further information. New York’s Ellis Island passenger lists can be accessed free online through the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation and generally cover the years 1892 to 1957. Read our guide to this site here.
The Castle Garden database generally contains records for passengers arriving from 1820 to 1892. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 offers free access to records for those who arrived through a Canadian port between 1925 and 1935. More Canadian resources can be found here.
You might have the best luck finding your ancestor’s hometown in emigration lists. However, not all emigration records have been digitized and many (especially from the port of Bremen) have been lost or destroyed.
The Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild (ISTG) German Departures page contains transcriptions of passenger lists from eight named ports plus several unspecified ports between 1710-1952. These are broken down by year and ship, and not every list includes a place of residence.
The Immigrant Ancestors database contains birthplace information gathered from emigrant registers in Europe. This breakdown of ports and their records offers a useful review of immigration ports for German immigrants. See also FamilySearch German Immigration/Emigration research wiki page for information and details on available collections.
If you have searched all available sources and are still struggling to find the information needed, check here for additional tips.
Section 2: Finding and Searching Records from Germany
So, you’ve found the key details about your German relative from all available U.S. sources, now what?
Here we will discuss several considerations related to genealogical research of German records, including:
- concerns pertaining to history
- jurisdiction, and border changes
- German record-keeping
- church records
- civil registration
- language and Old German script
The area that is now Germany has a complex history that should be considered while doing genealogical research. It may be useful to review some German history or take a look at this German History Timeline.
Germany was not unified until 1871 when German-speaking areas, excluding Austria, became the German Empire. It’s important to realize that what once may have been identified as Germany could now be a part of Poland, France, Russia or Austria.
The big genealogical challenge to all this is that there was no central government prior to 1871 collecting records. Also, jurisdictions and borders could have changed over the years, putting your ancestor’s records in another country (sometimes actual place names may have changed as well). It will be necessary to search the respective county for records in these cases.
Check here for further information from FamilySearch on locating these records. Use historical maps to identify where exactly your ancestors lived and do some research regarding the time they lived there. A good map resource is the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at University of Texas Library or simply do an internet search for the town and region of your ancestor. You can also reference the online version of the Meyers Gazetteer to confirm location.
Finding German Genealogy Records
Record-keeping in Germany began through church records in the early 16th century after the Protestant Reformation. Be aware that there could be more than one church in a town or city depending on religion.
Many early records were also lost during the thirty years war in the early 17th century making records difficult to find prior to this time, but by 1650 most parishes (church jurisdictions which might include multiple towns, cities, villages, etc.) were keeping records.
Except for select regions that were invaded during the Napoleonic wars between 1803-1815, civil record keeping was not mandatory until a few years after unification in 1886. Therefore, church records are the main source for records before 1886. In some areas, churches acted as a civil registration office as well.
The Meyers Orts-und Verkehrs-Lexikon, or simply the Meyers Gazetteer, is a fine place to start your hunt for German records. It provides a wealth of information on “every place name in the German Empire (1871-1918),” which includes information on location, civil registration offices, and parish details.
The original Meyer’s Gazetteer can be found online at FamilySearch, however, MeyersGaz.org is far more user-friendly unless you are well acquainted with old Gothic script and the German language. Searching a place name will provide access to the original entry, an English translation, explanations for abbreviations, and supplemental information including relevant church information.
This resource is particularly helpful when preparing to search church records as you will need to know what both your ancestor’s town and the parish it was located in. Consult this abbreviation list for further help understanding the entries.
Church records become more concise and complete the more recent the date. Types of records that might be available include baptism, marriage, burial, member lists, confirmation, communion, family (entire book on one family) or parish registers (documentation of parish lineage information), and financial information.
Try using church record inventories to find out types and locations of records and what years are available – these also list contact information. This Church Book Portal will provide information on inventoried archives. Also check the FamilySearch catalog under Germany, Church Records, Inventories to find available church inventories. Use the filters to the left to identify which are available online.
If you are tracking down church records offline there are a few places to check. If you know where the records are being kept you can contact the facility directly. If you do not know where the records are being kept, you can contact relevant local, county, or state archives. Sometimes state archives have duplicate records that were created to avoid record losses. These can be used to fill gaps left by lost in inaccessible originals.
Less commonly, records might be found at a central church archive. Genealoger.com has a list of archives along with contact information. FamilySearch is also a solid source for information on archives and some collections from German archives have even been digitized by FamilySearch. To find what collections are available for free online search the FamilySearch catalog using the town name. For more information on German church records, go here.
Depending on the region, civil registration records begin anywhere from 1792 to 1886, but areas impacted and influenced by the Napoleonic wars began keeping records sooner. There are some civil records available digitally, check FamilySearch’s German collections for these records. Also, try searching their catalog under specific German states to see what is available on microfilm.
Hessian civil registration records have all been digitized and you can find free collections at GenWiki and Arcinsys. When searching offline, be aware that current privacy laws require that marriage records be kept private for 80 years, birth records for 110 years, and death records for 30 years. This might be avoided if you are able to prove your relationship to the subject of interest.
To find offline civil records use meyersgaz.org to locate the relevant civil registration office and contact them in writing. If the records are not found there, it is possible they are located at county or state archives.
Deciphering German Language Documents
Another hurdle for modern, non-German speaking persons is trying to decipher old records written in German and in Old German Script. Many records available online have already been transcribed and can be read easily and translated by using an online translation tool, but if you are working with original documents prior to WWII, there are resources to assist you with this.
BYU offers a free online script tutorial, which includes basic guidelines, common terms, letter charts and more. The Alte Deutsche Handschriften script generator tool will also allow you to enter your family names or other terms to view examples in old German script.
This free online German-English dictionary may also be useful. For further information and resources on this subject visit the FamilySearch German handwriting page, which includes links to a free course on handwritten German records.
Section 3: Quick Tips for Researching German Ancestors
Here are a few quick tips to help you get started, and make progress, researching your German ancestors:
- If your ancestor emigrated, begin your research in their new home to discover your ancestor’s exact German birth place.
- Familiarize yourself with the history of your ancestor’s region in Germany. This will help you find out where exactly your ancestors lived and where their records are being kept.
- When contacting German archives and other facilities, do so in writing, preferably in German. Avoid electronic translation tools that confuse language. Instead look for people who can help at RAOGK.
- Some websites in German have an English option – look for flag icons or you can use a translation extension for your web browser or Google Translate. This will not translate records (unless they are typed), but it will ease site navigation.
- Use the Meyers Gazetteer once you have an exact location you ancestor lived in! Meyersgaz.org provides free access to the original entries as well as supplemental information such as translation, explanations on abbreviations, and locations of parishes connected to the place.
- Focus on keywords in documents. Use a list of common terms in German or create one with Google translator to help you more quickly identify the information you need in the records.
- When searching vital records, don’t limit yourself to just your direct ancestors. In the search for your 2nd great grandfather’s birth place, for example, check for birth and marriage records for all known children as this will increase your chances of finding clues on a place of origin.
- When searching for emigration records, be aware that about 28% of German immigrants emigrated from ports outside of Germany. The most common were Le Harve in France and Antwerp in Belgium, but some people also left via ports in the Netherlands.
- If you find yourself completely stuck, you can try using GeoGen to identify the popularity of specific surnames in various regions of Germany.
- If you have had DNA tests completed it may be possible to connect with genetic relatives in Germany using the product website tools or websites like GedMatch.
Section 4: 12 Free Genealogy Resources for German Research
In addition to the free collections listed throughout this article, check out the following websites for access to millions of German records online:
1) FamilySearch’s Germany Research page is the landing page for all German records collections and learning resources available through FamilySearch. Collections are too many to be named but include church, civil, military, and city records with more records being digitized on an ongoing basis.
2) GenWiki English version and German (full version) is a vast learning tool and contains 13 databases, which can be found here via the limited English version. These include an ancestor database, school records, passenger lists, local heritage books, family trees, and city directories. There is also a metasearch.
3) JewishGen Germany Database is a growing database offered by the larger JewishGen website. “The combined databases have over 500,000 entries, referring to individuals living in Germany and former German regions.”
4) German Genealogy Group was created to provide support in researching Germanic ancestors outside Germany and has a focus on the New York area. It currently has 53 databases with indexed information gathered from original documents. It also provides information on how to obtain originals.
5) Immigrant Ancestors Project is a free resource from Brigham Young University (BYU) that uses emigration registers to find the birthplaces of immigrants in their birth countries.
7) National German Grave Registration contains 5 million records relating to German burials including war graves and POW records. It also includes a searchable database and interactive maps.
8) Dos Bundesarchiv focuses on historical and cultural resources including German military personnel records, a database of personal papers and images of German history, and name directory for Jewish victims of Nazi tyranny.
9) The Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild (ISTG) German departures page offers transcripts of passenger lists from 8+ ports from 1710-1952.
10) Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives offers access to 10,000 plus documents and photographs, including passenger lists to America, original immigrant passage contracts, steamship brochures, and more.
11) German Cemetery and Death Records, Internmet.net contains thousands of cemetery and death records for the 16 German states.
12) POWVETS allows researchers to search for POWs held in German camps during WWII.
Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, and Archion also deserve a mention because many wonderful records are available in their databases, but accessing them requires a paid subscription. Still, for many, the fee is worth it for easy access.
We may earn a commission to support our site if you choose to subscribe to these paid subscription sites.
All of MyHeritage’s vast German collections can be searched in one place as well. You can get a free trial here to access all records for 14 days.
Additional Online Learning Resources
Online learning resources for each topic are linked throughout this article. Some of the websites listed above also include Educational guides, such as FamilySearch’s Germany Research page where you can access 34 free courses related to German genealogy research along with useful PDF handouts.
Another extensive resource is the German Research Course offered free online by Brigham Young University (BYU) and their German Research guide. You can also use OCLC WorldCat to locate print resources through libraries and other organizations in your area.
Good luck and happy researching!
Jessica Grimm is an Associate Writer for Family History Daily who is currently enjoying the challenges of researching her husband’s German roots.
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