Germany Gathering Information to Locate Place of Origin

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Germany Gotoarrow.png Gathering Information

Finding the Town of Birth

In order to research your family in Germany, it is essential that you have identified the place where they came from. It is not enough to know only ‘Germany’ or ‘Prussia,’ as these were quite large entities. You must know the city, town, or parish that they came from. In many cases, it will be difficult to identify the place of origin by going directly to German sources. Therefore, you will need to search in American sources first.

What You Need to Know to Begin Research in Germany

It is essential that you know:
1. The given and surname of your ancestor: for example,Henry M Borgmann.
2. The exact place name, for example: Stadt Osnabrück, Kreis Osnabrück, Hannover, Prussia ( now Niedersachsen).
3. The time frame.
4. The religion of your ancestor: usually Catholic or Evangelical Lutheran.


Before you can embark in meaningful research, you need to be clear about the name of your ancestor. Many names have been Americanized or have been recorded according to sound. Following the paper trail of your ancestor may give you clues. Search ship lists, naturalization records, church records, civil records or any record where your ancestor had to sign his name.

Place Name

Another very important piece of evidence to find the correct origin of an ancestor is the place name. Again, you may run into problems here because many ancestors gave a place name as a point of reference. Also, a given place name may be spelled according the recorder’s understanding. Sometimes it helps to know what language your ancestor spoke and something about topographical features of the homeland. It is not enough information to just know that your ancestor came from Germany or Prussia. Even to know the German state, such as Hessen, sometimes proves futile, because there are states called Hessen, Hessen-Nassau, Hessen-Darmstadt, Kurfürstentum Hessen etc.

Time Frame

It is also most helpful to know the time frame when you search for a German ancestor. Germany was never a united state until 1871. Before that it consisted of hundreds of little states which had their autonomy, their own sets of laws, their own ways of administration. A general search by looking at census records is not possible in Germany, nor do there exist any centralized data banks from which to extract information. All successful research is based on knowing general and local historical backgrounds of the area in question, and the availability of records for a given time period.

Religious Affiliation

If you know the religious affiliation of your ancestor you may also get faster results in locating your ancestor. Most Germans were Catholics or Protestants, however, in some areas, the records of people of other faiths were kept by the predominant church. For example, Jewish or Mennonite births were occasionally recorded at Catholic parishes, especially in areas where the Church was used as the civil registration office.

Records to Search in the Country of Arrival

Search Home Sources

Thoroughly go over all home sources available to you, including family history papers, copies of records, pictures, old letters (i.e. with an old address), family bibles, journals/diaries, copies of vital record certificates and church records, memorabilia etc. Interview extended family and close relatives as well as former neighbors--all of which may prove very helpful in gathering as much knowledge about an ancestor as possible.

19th Century Census Records

  • Search19th Century Census Records, available for the United States, Canada, England, and other countries. Censuses are often taken every ten years.
  • Try to locate your ancestor in every census during which he or she was alive. This information provides a good framework for further research.
  • The 1850-1880 U.S. federal censuses sometimes list a German state or province as birth place.
  • The censuses for 1900 to 1930 ask for the year of immigration and whether or not the person was naturalized. This information can help you find naturalization records or a passenger list.
  • Many images of census records are available without charge at Others can be accessed at various subscription Websites.
  • State census records vary in availability and the type of information they contain, but they are always useful as another source to document an ancestor in a specific locality. See U.S. Online Genealogy Records by State for links to online state censuses.

Local Municipal Records

Pre-19th Century immigrants may be listed in local or county tax lists and other municipal records. Many such records have been microfilmed by FamilySearch and can be ordered to a family history center near you.

Vital Records

Vital records, or civil birth, marriage, and death records document important events in an ancestor’s life. Many states have posted statewide indexes on the Internet. The respective state and county pages on the USGenWeb may provide the needed links. See U.S. Online Genealogy Records by State, for online vital record databases.

  • 1. It is important to remember that a birth certificate for a child might tell it's parents' birthplaces.
  • 2. Marriage certificates might name birth dates and places of the bride and groom. They might also give the names and birth places of the parents of the bride and groom.
  • 3. Death certificates are very important. Birth and marriage certificates might not have kept by a state during the earlier years of your ancestor's life. There is a greater chance that your ancestor died after detailed record-keeping began. Death certificates frequently state birth date and place. They also state the names of parents and their birth places.

Church Records

Church records of baptisms, marriages, and burials may provide additional information. If, for example, the civil marriage record showed that a couple was married by a minister, this marriage was probably also entered in the respective parish register. City directories and county histories may help you find the name of the congregation where the minister served. You can also “google” the minister’s name and city.

Cemetery Records

Websites such as FindAGrave and Billion Graves are making it easier to get information from headstones, which frequently give birth dates, and occasionally give birth places. Each state has additional collections of cemetery records. See U.S. Online Genealogy Records by State for links to other online cemetery records.


Modern obituaries usually list birth date and place and parents' names. See U.S. Online Genealogy Records by State for links to online obituary collections.

Passenger Arrival Lists

Passenger lists, especially in the 20th century, may list birth place, last residence in mother country, and name and residence of a close relative in the mother country. Study the records of fellow passengers, as frequently relatives and neighbors traveled together. See United States Immigration Online Genealogy Records

Naturalization Records

  • Naturalization records may also list an ancestor’s birth place.
  • Prior to 1906 any U.S. court could naturalize foreigners. Many pre-1900 records only list “Germany” as the country of citizenship; however, there are notable exceptions, so these records should be checked routinely.
  • The process involved two sets of papers: a declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen, and a petition filed some time later.
  • Beginning in 1906, naturalization records became more detailed, as the responsibility shifted to the Federal government.
  • More information about naturalization records, along with helpful links, is found at Beginning Research in United States Naturalization Records and United States Naturalization Online Genealogy Records.

Military Records

Draft records for World War I and II ask for birth place, which can be listed as just Germany or in greater detail.

Social Security

Records Originating in Germany That Can Help

So far this article has covered records that can be found in the country of arrival. There are also records originating in Germany that should be consulted. See Germany_Emigration_and_Immigration for a detailed consideration of these records.

Passenger Departure Lists

Hamburg Passenger Lists

One source to determine place of origin is in a passenger departure list. Hamburg Passenger Lists: Hamburg a major port of departure for Germans and the records from there usually give the place of origin. The Hamburg Passenger Lists include the last foreign residence of people leaving from Hamburg.

  • There are two lists:
    • The Direct Passenger List (1850 to 1934) lists those who left Hamburg and went directly to their destination.
    • The Indirect Passenger List (1850 to 1910) shows those who left Hamburg, went to another port, and then on to their destination.
    • After 1910 the indirect list is included with the Direct Passenger List.

Bremen Passenger Lists

Unfortunately, the passenger departure lists for the port of Bremen were destroyed. The lists for 1847 to 1871 have been partially reconstructed. An early commercial partner with Bremen was the port at Baltimore, Maryland. Many Germans going to America through Bremen landed in Baltimore. The Baltimore passenger arrival lists are indexed.

A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:

Other Ports

Records from other ports tend to be sparse.

TIP: German emigrants usually left in groups from the same area of Germany. Be aware of the following information when searching your ancestor's passenger list or port record: After finding your ancestor on a port record or passenger register, write down all the people on the same list.
Check local census and other records to determine which people settled in the same area as your ancestor.
Check for place of origin information on those who were on the same list.
If your ancestor's surname is not unusual, but some of the others on the same list are, look those names up in the German surname books to determine where they originated.


Each state or city had its own laws regarding passports. In many cases, the applications for passports and the supporting documentation have been preserved. These records often give information such as the emigrant's name, birth date or age, birthplace, occupation, last residence, verification of identity, and physical description.


Residents of Hamburg had to apply for a passport to emigrate. A few emigrants from other parts of Germany stopped in Hamburg long enough to become residents. If they were residents, they might be in the passport records.

Stuttgart (Württemberg)

The Family History Library has indexed the Stuttgart-area passport records for the years 1845 to 1920. This index usually gives the emigrant's hometown and destination.

Permission To Emigrate Records

Germans had to apply for permission to emigrate from most areas. The Family History Library has these application records for several states and cities, including ‘’’Baden, Rheinland, the Pfalz, and Zwickau.’’’


For example, the library has microfilmed the emigration application records of Württemberg. They list the emigrant's birthplace, residence, assets, and indebtedness.

Westfalen, Minden

For Westfalen in the Minden area there is available at the Family History Library a book called "Beiträge zur Westfälischen Familienforschung." Call number 943.56 D2b v. 38-39.


For Bayern there is a periodical entitled Blätter des Bayrischen Landesvereines für Familienkunde. The call number is 943.3 B2b. The volumes which deal with emigration are V. 1, page 19 and 48, V. 2, page 103, V. 3, pages 9, 39, 73, 87, 102 V. 6-7, V. 9 pages 157, 417.

German Emigration Card Indexes

Dozens of card indexes exist for German emigrants.

Hessen Card Indexes

For example, the Family History Library has microfilmed card indexes for emigrants from Hessen. The indexes are divided into five sections for various time periods or areas of Hessen, each in alphabetical order. Other card indexes at the library include the following:

Other Card Indexes

Other Sources

  • Germans to America is a multivolume set that lists many Germans who arrived in the United States between 1850 and 1897. It is organized chronologically and then by ship. It often gives the town or state of origin of the immigrant. FHL Call number 973 W2ger v.1-67. Also available on CD- ROM.
  • Check the local libraries in the areas where your German immigrant ancestor lived. The reference librarian can direct you to local sources or local record keepers.  Ask where local newspapers and periodicals are archived and search them for such events as wedding announcements, obituaries, or other important life events.
  • County and town histories where your German immigrant settled often contain biographical information. Local histories sometimes provide a place of origin. City histories give the origin of prominent citizens, and county histories show where German settlers came from. Biographical information of descendants may contain specific places of origin beyond the non-descript "Germany" or "Prussian" words found in other records.
  • The German-American Newspapers and Periodicals 1732-1955 is a listing of German language newspapers throughout America.
  • There are many books written about Germans settling in various states.
  • Here is a Website for given and surnames which also has a forum where you can inquire about a name for which you would like more information.
  • Surname distribution tools for Germany, are based on recent data presented on a 3-D map. This can be helpful only if you had an extremely unusual surname.