Oktoberfest – A Good Time to Begin Your German Research

By Carolyn L. Barkley

This article updates an article by the same name that first appeared on Genealogyandfamilyhistory.com in October 2008.

Wee imp Article auf italienischer Forschung früh erwähnt dieser Monat, kann Abstammungsforschung in einer Fremdsprache erschreckend sein. Im Falle der Forschung auf Deutsch, kann sie mehr sein also eine weniger vertraute Sprache, die Aufzeichnungen, die in gotischen Index geschrieben werden, und die Zahl verschiedenen geographischen Positionen gegeben, die beteiligt sein konnten. Ich dachte nie, dass ich jede deutsche Forschung in meiner Familie tun würde, aber ich nie nie gesagt haben sollte „!“ Oktober, der Monat von Octoberfest, scheint die vollkommene Zeit, mehr über die Betriebsmittel zu erlernen, die, um uns zu helfen die, deutschen Linien in unseren Stammbäumen zu erforschen vorhanden sind.

Those of you who speak German may instantly recognize that I do not. However, with the help of Babelfish, I hope I have come reasonably close to saying the following:

As mentioned in a previous article on Italian research, genealogical research in a foreign language can be daunting. In the case of German records, research can be more challenging given a less familiar language, the use of Gothic script, and the number of different geographical locations that might be involved. I never thought I would be doing any German research in my family, but I have learned never to say “never!” October, the month of Oktoberfest, seems the perfect time to learn more about the resources available to help us research the German lines in our family trees.

As a reminder, apply your standard methodologies for beginning research as first steps in your foreign research: talk with members of your family to learn as much as possible; review all family papers and photographs for additional information; complete all applicable U. S. census research as well as passenger arrival and immigration records; and obtain all government records that might pertain to the individual. Your goal is to document basic, but detailed, information about your ancestor.

Having completed these preliminary steps, you will need to learn some basics about the world in which your ancestor lived. Do not assume because your ancestor had a German surname that your next step is to locate him or her in Germany as it appears on the map today. Your German-speaking ancestor may have come from Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Poland, Romania, Russia, Switzerland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, or the former Yugoslavia.

Knowledge of the history of Europe is important to understand how wars, economic issues, and geo-political boundary changes might have impacted your ancestor and thus your research. One look at a map of Europe before and after World Wars I and II will illustrate the magnitude of the boundary changes experienced by the area called “Germany” in modern times. Consult a good historical atlas such as Hammond’s Historical Atlas (Hammond, rev. exp. ed., 2000) or Concise Atlas of World History, edited by Patrick O’Brien (Oxford University Press, 2002) for several changes that have occurred throughout German’s history.

You will also want to consult “how-to” resources for German genealogical research. Angus Baxter’s In Search of Your German Roots: A Complete Guide to Tracing Your Ancestors in the Germanic Areas of Europe (4th updated ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008) is a good beginning resource. This book is particularly helpful as it includes a discussion of all of the German-speaking areas of Europe. In addition, you can download the German Research Outline from familysearch.org.

Once you have completed the necessary research in family and United States records and have consulted atlases and basic methodology sources, it will be time to look at other publications and there are numerous titles available. Given space constraints in this article, I am including only a few of the more comprehensive resources. Your local librarian can help you identify others.

  • Encyclopedia of German-American Genealogical Research by Clifford Neal Smith and Anna Piszczan-Czaja Smith (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1976, reprinted 2003; currently on sale.) provides (among other subjects) information on the location of Germany-speaking religious congregations in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century. This information is particularly helpful in identifying counties with large populations of German-speaking residents. In addition, the book features sections on German genealogy, including land records, state vital records, court records, census records and more.
  • German-English Genealogical Dictionary by Ernest Thode (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992, reprinted 2008). Do you need to know what “Stammbaum” means? (family tree) Was your ancestor a “kistenmacher?”(maker of boxes; woodworker) Do you keep seeing the word “kirchsprengel?” (church parish) This title is indispensable as you work on your German family lines. All of the entries selected for this dictionary have appeared in German genealogical records such as church records, civil registration, family correspondence, journals, passenger lists and more. Having this book nearby as you work with original records will assist you in translating boiler-plate language and will enhance the facility with which you are able to understand a document. You may also download the German Genealogical Word List from familysearch.org.
  • Carl W. Schlegel’s four-volume American Families of German Ancestry in the United States (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1926, reprinted 2003) is another resource worth consulting. While many genealogical compilations begin with the immigrating ancestor, this title usually begins two or three generations earlier, when the family was still living in Europe and then continues through four to five generations after arrival in the United States. The entries provide detailed historical information and include the names of related family members.
  • Meyers Orts-Und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs, with Researcher’s Guide and Translations of the Introduction, Instruction for the Use of the Gazetteer, and Abbreviations, by Raymond S. Wright III. This three-volume set describes 210,000 cities, towns, hamlets and dwelling places in the German Empire prior to World War II and is an essential tool in placing your ancestor’s feet on the ground. It is also useful in determining the location of record offices and assists in discovering if the records needed for your research are available in the Family History Library or in another research institution.
  • Once you have identified a geographical location and a specific original record that requires you to correspond with a European record office or similar location, you will want to consult the Address Book for Germanic Genealogy by Ernest Thode (6th ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997, reprint 2000) which includes over 2,000 addresses, including municipal archives, genealogical and historical societies, religious organizations, newspapers and professional researchers. You can download a German Letter-Writing Guide from familysearch.org. In addition, you can use online translating services such as Babelfish to assist you in drafting your correspondence in German.
  • The Family Archive CD, German Genealogy Research Guide, containing the 3rd edition of Baxter’s In Search of Your German Roots, Thode’s Address Book for Germanic Genealogy and German-English Genealogical Dictionary, is currently out of print. If you visit the product page for this CD on genealogical.com, click the “Notify me” button and you will be notified if it becomes available again in the future.

Many useful online sites, including “how-to” articles, original records, directories and other resources, are available. Use Cyndi’s List to help identify useful sites or check out German Genealogy Links on the genealogylinks.net site.

  • Ancestry.com provides access to several important databases of original records such as the Hamburger Passagierlisten, 1850-1934 (Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934). Please note that these records are in German! Their great strength is that they provide departure information, rather than the arrival records normally associated with U. S. ports of entry. While the database title indicates a chronological span of 1850 to 1934, only the years 1890-1913 have been indexed; you may browse the handwritten records for the full range of years in a separate database. If you are using the new card catalog function, you can enter the word “Hamburg” in the keyword search box and find 252 entries. A keyword search for “Germany” in the card catalog provides 1,360 links to immigration and emigration resources, picture, military records, vital records, stories, and maps. Be sure to look at the German-language entry, Karten des Deutschen Reiches, 1860-1965 Germany, Topographic Maps, 1860-1965. Some Ancestry.com  databases are  not available in all subscription packages, so you may want to verify if they are available through your local library’s AncestryPlus subscription.
  • The German Genealogy Research page at progenealogists.com provides a very extensive series of links to articles either originally written for the site or based on presentations at conferences and lectures. Among the many subjects are articles on parish records, history of the German Empire, successful genealogical correspondence and travel to Germany, parish records, newspapers, eighteenth century emigration research, departure lists, the Palatines, specific German regional archives, and research in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. In particular, the maps provided on this site are extensive, easily accessible, and are complimented by online gazetteers and city street guides. Don’t miss this site.
  • In addition to the three downloadable publications already mentioned, familysearch.org also provides research guidance for the various duchies and kingdoms of Germany. It is necessary to know the place of origin of your ancestor (probably the vary thing you want to know, but don’t). A link is provided to Determining a Place of Origin in Germany that may prove very helpful.

You may also want to check out the German GenWeb Project to see what is currently available. When I went to the site, it had not been updated since August 2007, but you may find useful information there nonetheless. Finally, you can also consult Das Telefonbuch, an online German telephone book with an English interface, or a large number of German discussion groups, usually focusing on a specific region, that are available on Rootsweb. Check out this listing to identify one of interest to your particular area of research.

Glückliche Untersuchung!

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