germans, german genealogy

German Genealogy – Tool for Locating Ancestors

If you find a ship’s passenger record for a German ancestor, will you automatically know where to look for your ancestor’s records in Germany? If you cannot find the passenger record, does this mean that you will never learn where your German ancestor came from? According to the authors of Ancestors in German Archives: A Guide to Family History Sources, Raymond S. Wright III, Nathan S. Rives, Mirjam J. Kirkham, and Saskia Schier Bunting, the answer to both of these questions is “No!”

First some background: the German Territories, and later the German Empire, provided more emigrants to America than any other European national group. When they came to America, German immigrants left behind a trail of records familiar to everyone in genealogy from births, marriages, and deaths, to citizenship and census records, and from land and tax records to emigration records. The key to German genealogical research, of course, is to find out where these records are located, but since there are more than 2,000 national, state, and local repositories in Germany, to say nothing of church repositories and other private archives, such an undertaking is daunting if not downright impossible. We know there are records, but what good are they if we can’t find them? And these records stretch back to the Middle Ages, encompassing family history sources so vast in number and so scattered that the mind reels.

To overcome this challenge, Brigham Young University (BYU) launched its Immigrant Ancestors Project in 1996. The principal mission of this undertaking at the time was to identify the records of German emigrants and to create Internet-accessible databases describing emigrants’ birthplaces, occupations, spouses, and children. Ancestors in German Archives: A Guide to Family History Sources is the direct outgrowth of that ambitious project.

Under the supervision of Professor Raymond Wright, BYU mailed questionnaires to approximately 2,000 national, state, and local German government archives, as well as private archives. The questionnaires asked archivists to identify their archives’ jurisdictions and to describe the records housed in their collections and the services provided by their staff. The questionnaires asked specifically for information about each archive’s collections of vital records, religious records, military records, emigration records, passport records, censuses, and town and county records. Archivists were also asked to describe any published guides or inventories to their collections. The returned questionnaires, supplemented by Internet searches, were used to create summaries of each archive’s jurisdictions, holdings, and services.

The result of this massive survey is an exhaustive guide to family history sources in German archives at every level of jurisdiction, public and private. Anyone searching for data about people who lived in Germany in the past need only determine which archives today have jurisdiction over the records that were created by church or state institutions. The Locality Index at the back of Ancestors in German Archives, moreover, makes this task even easier because it identifies every town with an archive, no matter what kind.

Let’s return to the questions we initially asked as it relates to a German genealogy search: If you find a ship’s passenger record for a German ancestor, will you automatically know where to look for your ancestor’s records in Germany? If you cannot find the passenger record, does this mean that you will never learn where your German ancestor came from?

If you find a passenger record that states when and from where in Germany your ancestor came, you still have to figure out what German state, city, parish, or other repository has control of his/her records. If you cannot find a passenger record but have a rough idea of your German ancestor’s origins (e.g., from Heidelberg after the U.S. Civil War), you may be able to skip over the missing passenger list and go directly to German vital records for your ancestor. Whichever the case, Ancestors in German Archives will make your task far easier than ever before. It is a one-stop guide to genealogical sources in Germany, and, most importantly, it answers the fundamental questions about the very existence of genealogical records in Germany and paves the way for successful research.

Image credit: Emperor Charlemagne and Emperor Sigismund, by Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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