Octoberfest – A Good Time to Begin Your German Research

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Wie im Artikel 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.

For those of you who are German-speaking, you may instantly recognize that I am not. However, with the help of Babelfish, I hope I have come reasonably close to saying the following:

As mentioned in an article on Italian research earlier this month, genealogical research in a foreign language can be daunting. In the case of research in German, it can be more so given a less familiar language, records written in 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 should never have said “never!” October, the month of Octoberfest, 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 in a new line or about a new individual 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 establish 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 find 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, Switzerland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, or the former Yugoslavia. One look at a map of Europe during World War I or II will illustrate the magnitude of the boundary changes experienced by the country called Germany in modern times. Check out 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 momentous changes that occurred throughout European history. Understanding the culture and particularly the history of Europe is important to understand how wars, economic issues and geo-political boundary changes might impact your research.

In addition, 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 source to start with. This book is particularly helpful in that it includes a discussion of all of the German-speaking areas of Europe.

Once you have completed the necessary research in family and U.S. records and have consulted atlases and basic methodology resources, it will be time to look at other publications – there are numerous titles available. Given space constraints, I will mention but a few of the more comprehensive ones. 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) 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 includes 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 to you as you work on your German lines. All of the entries selected for this dictionary have appeared in a plethora of German genealogical records including 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.
  •  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 four to five generations after their 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. Remember that 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, you can 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 you identify which site might be most useful to you in any given stage of your research.

  •  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 number of years in a separate database. If you are using the “New Ancestry Search” function, you can enter the word “Hamburg” in the search box for the Ancestry Card Catalog and find the databases mentioned above as well as five others. A search for “Germany” in the card catalog yields forty-four links to immigration and emigration resources, picture, military records, vital records, stories, and maps. Check out a new German-language entry, Karten des Deutschen Reiches, 1860-1965 Germany, Topographic Maps, 1860-1965. By the way, some databases may not be included in a basic Ancestry subscription and you may want to see if you can access them through your local library’s AncestryPlus subscription.
  •  Kory L. Meyerink’s site 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.
  •  Familysearch.org also provides three useful publications that you can download to your PC in PDF format. They include the Germany Research Outline, a German Genealogical Word List, and a German Letter-Writing Guide.

You may also want to check out the German GenWeb Project to see what is currently available. When I went to the site, however, it had not been updated since August 2007, but you may find useful information. Das Telefonbuch is an online German telephone book with an English interface, and finally, a large number of German discussion groups, usually focusing on a specific region, 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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