I have talked to many researchers tracing their families who are plodding right along, finding their ancestors in United States records with reasonable success, extending their family trees back generation by generation. Then something happens that brings them to a screeching halt—they reach a German immigrant ancestor. Many people seem to believe that once you come across a German in your family, it’s time to throw in the towel and switch to a different family line. German research is just too hard. Right?
After years of helping people trace both their American families and their German families, I can say with confidence that in many ways German research is actually easier than United States research. Here are three reasons that tracing German ancestry might not be as difficult as you think.
One Record Group Holds the Key to Your Success (Probably!)
If you’ve spent time doing United States research, you know that piecing together your family tree usually requires checking many avenues. You want to use census records—but they give only glimpses into your family every 10 years. Vital records and church records are promising—if they were kept during that period. You might need to turn to probate records or land records at some point.
German research is very different. No record is as important to United States research as parish records are to German research. Kept at local churches and often including birth (or baptism), marriage, and death (or burial) records, parish records are the backbone of family research for nearly all German families.
German parish records are important for several reasons:
- German parish records include almost everyone. In the small villages, there was often only one option of where to attend church. The expectation was that all babies were baptized, all marriages were performed in the church, and so on.
- The records often date back farther than other record types.
- Many families can be found in the same parish or at least near the same parish for generations.
- Parish records included the most important genealogical information.
Don’t mistake the emphasis on parish records to mean that no other useful genealogical records exist in Germany. Civil registration records can be important. Some areas kept census records. And, of course, a variety of land, probate, and other records can be found. However, chances are good that you’ll get what you need in parish records.
You Don’t Need to Be Fluent in German to Decipher Parish Records
For many people trying to trace their families, staring down at a German parish record is enough to make them break out in a sweat. They’re hit with a double whammy—not only is the record in German, but it’s also written in the old Gothic script, meaning that many of the letters were formed differently than we form letters now. Although in a dream world, we would all be fluent in the languages of all the countries our ancestors come from, this is almost never the case. And it isn’t necessary.
Actually, all you need to wade through most parish records is a general familiarity with the script and a knowledge of relatively few words—and both of these are easy to come by with the tools available at FamilySearch.org. Most parish records were recorded in tables with predictable columns of information. Even parish entries that were written as paragraphs almost always follow set formats. They tend to contain the same words and phrases across years and places. Here are two resources that will help that you don’t want to miss at FamilySearch.org:
- German Word List. This guide contains the most commonly used words in German parish records and their English translations.
- German Handwriting Guide. Here you’ll find links to examples of the old script as well as hints on how to decipher it.
Parish Records Are Often Thorough
Something else that might make German research easier than you expect is that German parish records usually contain a lot of genealogical information—often more, in fact, than any particular United States record for the same time period. Of course, just as records in the United States vary greatly in content, so do German parish records. The information was written by parish priests or clerks, with no standard rules or forms across regions or time. Some recorders seemed intent on telling the whole family story while others wrote nothing more than a name. Still, you can expect to find the following information in many 19th-century (and sometimes earlier) German parish birth or baptism records:
- The name of the child.
- The date of birth and baptism.
- The names of the parents—including the maiden name of the mother!
- Sometimes the occupation of the father and the name of the town where the family lived.
- If the child was illegitimate.
- The names of witnesses (and sometimes their occupation or relationship to the family).
- The death date if the child died young (usually marked with a cross in the record entry).
Similarly, here’s what you can often expect in marriage records:
- The full name of the bride and groom.
- The date of marriage.
- The date banns were read or published (giving people a chance to object to the marriage).
- The name of the father of the bride or her previous husband if she was widowed and sometimes the name of the father of the groom. You might even be fortunate enough to find the names of both parents of the bride and groom.
- The residences of the bride and groom and sometimes of their parents.
- The occupation of the groom and possibly of the fathers.
- Sometimes the ages of the bride and groom or possibly their birth dates and places.
For more information on German parish records, check out FamilySearch’s wiki on the topic here.
So instead of throwing in the towel, when you discover a German ancestor, perhaps you should celebrate instead! Dive in, and you might just find that success comes more quickly than you were expecting.
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