Germany Gathering Information to Locate Place of Origin

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Finding Place of Origin


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.

Name

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. For example, a name with a written "V" in German, would sound like an "F" to an American clerk writing it down. 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 is the correct town of origin of an ancestor. Again, a given place name may be spelled according the recorder’s understanding. 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 old states called Hessen, Hessen-Nassau, Hessen-Darmstadt, Hessen-Kassel 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 dozens of little states. All successful research is based on knowing 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.

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.

Emigration Questions to Ask Relatives

Find the oldest living relatives that you can and ask them:

  1. What do you know about our first ancestor to come from Germany? (open-ended)
  2. Have you ever heard mention of towns in Germany where the family lived?
  3. Do you have contact with any relatives in Germany?
  4. . Do you have contact with other branches of the family in the U.S.?
  5. . When _____________ came from Germany, did he travel with other family members?
  6. . Do you know when _________________ arrived and which port city?
  7. Did _______________ever become a citizen?
  8. Did_________________fight in World War I or II?
  9. When they first came, were there already family members here who they joined?
  10. Did_______________ever mention their parents in Germany?
  11. Were they Catholic or Lutheran?
  12. Do you have any old letters or postcards from Germany family?
  13. Do you have any pictures of family members in Germany?

Search Genealogies Compiled by Others

Records to Search in the Country of Arrival

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.
  • United States Census Online Genealogy Records will give you links to every census. The FamilySearch links lead to a free search, but the search engine is not as reliable. The other links are for subscription websites, but they can be searched free-of-charge at any Family History Center.
  • 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.

Vital Records

Understand that any birth, marriage, or death certificate gives information about other people besides the primary person it is about

  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.
  • There are wiki articles giving details on how to find vital records o each state. You can select the state of interest and the record (birth, marriage, or death) from this list: How-To Articles.
  • Many records may be online. See U.S. Online Genealogy Records by State, for online vital record databases.

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.

Obituaries

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

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

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. United States Immigration Online Genealogy Records is a comprehensive list of passenger arrival databases that you can search right now from your computer. There are many, many databases. The following search strategy will make your search more efficient.

Suggested Search Strategy

  1. Check the partner website indexes, as these cover many, many databases at once. The FamilySearch Historical Records databases is free to search with a free registered account. The other websites are subscription-based but can be searched for free at a Family History Center near you. Try to search each partner site because their search engines can often bring up slightly different results.
  2. If it is difficult for you to get access to the subscription databases, next try Additional Nationwide Collections Not Included in Partner Sites. These websites have a lot of overlap with the subscription websites.
  3. Search a nationality, religious, or political group collection that applies to your ancestor.
  4. Search the state collection for the first state where your ancestor lived.
  5. Read Tracing Immigrant Origins to learn about many other records that substitute for immigration records.

Research Tip

German emigrants usually left in groups from the same area of Germany. 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.

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.

Passport Applications

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.

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Online Databases

Hamburg Passenger Lists

Hamburg, one of three major ports of departure for Germans, has lists which give, name, age, birth place or residence. and 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. This online list is very small. The lists for 1847 to 1871 have been partially reconstructed.

German Emigration Indexes

Germans to America

  • 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.

Online Databases Restricted to Family History Center Use

German Emigration Card Indexes

Microfilmed Records at the Family History Library, Salt Lake City

These records are available only by searching microfilms at the Family History Library, Salt Lake City. There is a project to digitize them, so check back occasionally to see if they have become available.

Passport and Emigration Applications

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 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.’’’

  • The Hamburg Passport Applications have been microfilmed for the years 1851 to 1929 and include indexes. 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.
  • Index to Wuerttemberg passport applications : Stuttgart passport office 1845-1920 They list the emigrant's birthplace, residence, assets, and indebtedness.
  • 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.

Databases of the Genealogical Society of Utah

These collections are somewhat random in what they include. Be cautious in assuming that a individual with the same name is your ancestor. Back up the connection with additional evidence, such as a matching birth date, matching parents or other relatives, and evidence that the person located in the index did not remain in Germany.

Other Sources

  • Google the ancestor. An unknown relative may have begun researching the family and posted their findings in one of the many surname forums or chat rooms.
  • 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.
  • 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.