German Research: Hansel and Gretel: Finding our German ancestors' trail home

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Usually our ancestors did their best to leave us a trail that would lead us back to their homes. They paid taxes, complied with governmental regulations, worshiped, recorded events and left mementos and tokens behind – some of which survived, and others were scattered or destroyed. There are genealogical trails that extend pedigree lines by simply leaping from one life event record to another. Other trails lead to a certain point, and then without warning, disappear. Our job is to search all available records that pertain to our ancestor’s immediate family, and if necessary, of those they associated with.
The research trail begins at the most recent available U.S. record – usually the death record - and retraces the steps of our ancestor’s life. In the desire to cross the ocean to German records, an exhaustive search of all available U.S. records is often overlooked. Following an ancestor’s life trail in America not only increases the chances of locating a record which includes a place of origin in Germany, it also increases the chances of recognizing that ancestor within the German records. Pedigree extensions immediately halt when the place of origin only lists “Germany”. This is due to the fact that research in the German records requires at least the following:

• Complete name of ancestor
• An approximate date of birth
• Religion
• Place of origin
Helpful additional information includes:
• Siblings
• Parents

Ancestor’s Name: Many times a name that was considered unusual in America was common place in Germany. Specific details regarding age, year of immigration, siblings, parents, spouse and children will help distinguish an ancestor from others who shared the same name. Remember that variations of surname and given names will exist. Recorders wrote down what they heard – resulting in a phonetic spelling or an Americanization of a surname. Some surnames were translated from the German meaning to the American counterpart such as Schwartz to Black, Schneider to Tailor or Zimmermann to Carpenter. German and English versions may be used concurrently. Family members may have used different surnames.

Date of Birth: Death certificates usually contain the birth year or age at time of death. U.S. census records either included the age of the person at the time of the census or the year of their birth. These dates – even when a specific month is given – should be seen as a guideline and not concrete evidence. Standard procedure when searching for a birth in German records is to search five years before and five years after the believed date of birth.

Religion: Civil Registration records were introduced in Germany by Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars 1799-1815 and were not required on a national level until 1876. Prior to this the clergy were required by law to keep records of their own parishioners – both those living within the town and also of neighboring areas assigned to that parish. Knowing the religion of your ancestors is critical information. Often, though not always, the religion practiced in America was the same religion practiced in Germany.

Place of Origin: Since no centralized record keeping and record retrieval systems exist in Germany, determining the place of origin is crucial. Place names were frequently duplicated throughout Germany. (There were 48 different locations by the name of Neukirchen in Germany!) This process involves telescoping the place of origin down from the country, to the state, to the region, to the county seat, to the town, parish and village.

U.S. Record Sources
• Census – note neighbors and their places of origin.
• Immigration – determine date, port of departure/arrival. Compare passenger lists against census lists. Many Germans immigrated and settled with others from their home village.
• Declaration of Intent – first document filled out by the immigrant in America. Includes disavowing allegiance to former ruler – may include the specific place of origin or list the nobility area.
• Petition to become a U.S. citizen may list place of birth. Before 1906 ANY court could process naturalizations, therefore Intentions and Petitions may be filed in different courts. Upon completion of all requirements the Certificate of Citizenship was given. This certificate was the least informative of the naturalization documents.
• Vital Records – of ancestor, children, siblings, parents.
• Probate/Will – usually lists children. May include relatives still living in Germany.
• Obituary – may include birth date, place of origin and parent names.
• Cemetery – remember to look at surrounding graves for common surnames.
• Church Records – notice godparents and witnesses. Many towns had German specific parishes. Search for church histories.
• Family Papers – emigration papers, letters, photos, certificates, etc. Especially take note of anything you cannot read. Too often important clues are dismissed because of the illegibility of the handwriting or language barriers. If you cannot read the information, be sure to take it to someone who can. One translation option would be to scan the image and post a query at
• Land – notice who purchased land at the same time near each other
• Local & County Histories – look for biographies and references to early German settlers.
• Military – draft cards, land grants, biographical sketches, society records (such as DAR)
• Newspapers – see has additional information regarding U.S. records along with helpful research tips.

German Record Sources
Germany was a conglomerate of nobility areas including kingdoms, provinces, duchies and principalities. It did not exist as a “Nation” until 1871 and no national registration systems exist. Individual life events were recorded and are retrieved on a local level. Until the place of origin is known, the number of available German records and resources is very limited! ~ Show Advanced ~ provides various search fields and allows for “wild cards”. This database includes the digitization/indexing efforts of FamilySearch. A listing of a summary of the holdings can be found at, arrow down to Germany. This is an ongoing project, so check the site frequently.
• Port Records: Of all of the ports used by German emigrants, only the Hamburg Passenger List 1850-1934, (with some gaps during WWI), has survived. Only fragments exist of records of other ports.
• Emigration Papers: Emigration records were kept on a county seat, (Kreis/Oberamt), level. All legal emigration required governmental permission with specific documentation along with an obligatory payment of a 10-20% moving away tax. Undocumented emigration during the 19th century is estimated to be around fifty percent. Passports were not usually required until around 1900.
• Emigration Records – Emigration records of some nobility areas of Germany have been compiled for various time frames. Articles at ~ [specific nobility area] ~ Emigration and Immigration may provide pertinent information and available links to regional emigration records. has additional guidelines, links and resources.

Geography and Gazetteers
The historical geographic boundaries of German were fluid! These changes affected the record’s language, location and current accessibility.

Meyers Orts-und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs:
A nationwide gazetteer that lists the place names within Germany as they existed from 1871 to 1918. It includes the state or province to which a place belonged and its different record jurisdictions. This gazetteer was used as the standard guide for listing the German place names within the Family History Library Catalog. The hyperlink and a helpful training article about Meyers can be found at ~ Gazetteers ~ arrow down to “Using Meyers Gazetteer” for instructions and link to the digitized version. also has a digital version available.

Regional Gazetteers:
When a hamlet, village or town was not large enough to support a parish, ancestors traveled to a neighboring location for worship and record keeping. The Meyers gazetteer will list parish information only if that place supported a parish. If parish information is not included in Meyers, it is then necessary to consult the gazetteer specific to a nobility area. Links for many of these gazetteers are available at

Life Events and Records
Church Records: From the time of Charlemagne to mid-1550, Catholicism was the official religion of Germany. In response to the Reformation, the Lutheran Church achieved legal status through the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the Reformed Lutheran Church was also legalized as a state religion. Life events of Jews, Anabaptists and Mennonites may be entered in the registers of the local dominant faith. The events recorded in church registers included:
• Baptism/Christenings (may include actual birth date)
• Confirmations
• Marriages
• Burials (may include actual death date)
Other available church records may include:
• Membership Records
• Communion Records
• Family Registers
• Marriage Proclamations, Divorces, Penance Register and Financial Records.

Civil Registration: The Napoleonic occupation wrought changes in German rule and record keeping, though most only remained in effect while Napoleon was in power. He implemented civil registration, transferring the responsibility of record keeping from the clergy to public officials. Though civil registration was not mandated on a national level until 1876, in many areas the local governments saw their value and required clergy to submit a yearly copy of their church registers. Life events records in civil registers included:
• Births
• Marriages (Other records created in the process of getting married included applications for permission to marry, marriage contracts and applications to take up residency.)
• Deaths

Other Record Types

When available, the parish and civil registration records are our primary record source of individual life events. Unfortunately, there are instances when these vital records do not exist or are not accessible. In such cases, other types of records may be able to provide needed information.
Addressbuch – Address book.
Auswanderungslisten – Emigration records.
Bürgerbuch – Citizen records.
Familiengeschichten – Family histories
Gerichtsbucher – Court records.
Grundbucher – Land records.
Musterungslisten – Military records.
Ortsippenbuchs – Town genealogies.
Steuerbucher –Tax records.
Volkszahlungslisten – Census records.
Wählerliste – Voter Registration Lists.
Zunftbucher – Guild records.