My ancestors were From Germany, and I don't speak German

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With German Americans being America’s largest self-reported ancestral group, (as recorded by the  U.S. Census Bureau) chances are at some point in time you will come face to face with German records. Unfortunately, too many of us are scared away by the language, handwriting and nuances of German research. This does not need to be the case. A multitude of resources and reference materials, which if studied and applied, will help lead us across the ocean and into the hearths and hearts of our German ancestors.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to speak fluent German in order to experience success in German research.  You will need to invest time in educating yourself regarding the German genealogical process, history, geography, language, vocabulary and handwriting.

This article will familiarize you with easily available resources that will provide training and information to help you develop and understanding of:

• Research Resources
• Language and Archaic Terms
• History, Geography and Gazetteers
• Records & Handwriting

Research Resources
Free internet resources regarding the nuances and basics of German research:; Brigham Young University Independent Study Online offers general Genealogical Research classes and an entire German Family History series at no cost. informative and training articles. Patterned after Wikipedia this online-library is community based where everyone can share something to assist in genealogical research. There are hundreds of articles on basic genealogical research and articles specific to Germany.
Jensen, Larry O. Genealogical Handbook of German Research. Pleasant Grove, Utah, 1980; (available at Research Helps ~ Articles ~ “G” ~ Genealogical Handbook of German Research.)This book has 22 chapters of priceless information and instruction. Research Helps ~ Articles ~ G leads you not only to the above Genealogical Handbook, it is also the path to locate the German Genealogical Word List and the German Letter-Writing Guide

Language and Archaic Terms
You will need a good modern German dictionary and at least one dictionary containing the archaic terms.

A German Genealogical word list is available at and along with word lists for Latin, French, Danish, Dutch and Polish – languages that often appear in German records.
Google Translation at is a good source for both small translations and entire websites – be aware that any word for word translation prepared by a computer program is going to have some errors!
Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid, Notre Dame University,
Latin Word List, at is an online German/English dictionary good for individual word definitions.
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms includes common phrases found in German birth and death records, glossary of causes of death and archaic medical terms, German anatomical terms and terminology found in death and burial records.
The German-English Genealogical Dictionary by Ernst Thode (Baltimore, Maryland; Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. c 1992.), is a wonderful hands on archaic dictionary and is available to purchase through many different outlets online.

History, Geography and Gazetteers
An understanding of the events that impacted the geography, culture, migration, records, and language of those records is crucial. The history of Germany can be divided into the following time periods:

 The First Reich: 843-1806
 The Second Reich: 1871-1918
 Weimar Republic: 1919-1933
 The Third Reich: 1933-1945
 Post WWII and Reunification of Germany: 1945-1990-Present

Historical Resources:– varied and multiple articles relating to every aspect of German history collection of documents, images and maps. keyword search Germany for access to a vast number of articles.– historical overview beginning in 7th century AD. includes modern history.– photographs of recreations of many historical occupations. German economic history– German economic history. historic timeline.– historical timeline.

Geographical Resources: - modern day maps historical map at the end of the 18th century. 1883 Atlas des Deutschen Reichs - modern day maps. Also includes directions tool, enabling a quick calculation between villages, towns, etc. 1905 F. W. Putzgers Historischer Schul-Atlas. 1923 F. W. Putzgers Historischer Schul-Atlas.
Jensen Publications. Maps of the German Empire of 1871, Pleasant Grove, Utah. FHL Intl Ref 943 E7m ©1987. This edition contains a history of each of the areas of Germany back to the early tribal periods of Germany.
Karte des Deutschen Reichs Detailed maps covering the entire German Empire prior to World War I. FHL Intl film 068,814. has imaged the maps and catalogued them at ~ Card Catalog ~Germany, Topographic Maps, 1860-1965.
www.kartenmeister.comis a comprehensive database of locations east of the Oder/Neisse Rivers and is based on the eastern borders of the German Empire as of the Spring of 1918. Includes the former German place names along with today’s Russian, Polish and Lithuanian place names.


No centralized record or surname retrieval systems exist for Germany. Records were kept on a local level, specific to a certain jurisdiction. Therefore, before you can access the German records you will need to telescope your information down from the country of Germany, to the specific nobility area, then district, then town and then parish. Portal page of Germany ~ Digital resources ~ German research on the Internet – compiled lists ~ “Internet Resources for Finding 19th Century German Emigrants”. The previously mentioned The Genealogical Handbook of German Research has an entire chapter on determining your place of origin.

Once you have determined your place of origin within Germany, you will need to determine the correct record jurisdictions. The Family History Library Catalog is based on the record jurisdictions of the 1871 Empire. Records were kept on the following levels:

 Region
 County
 Military
 Court
 Civil registration
 Parish level

The Meyers Orts = und Verkehrs=Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs in conjunction with the gazetteer specific to your ancestor’s place of origin will provide your ancestral town’s record jurisdictions except for parish information. If your town had its own parish, then the information will be included, if not, you will need to consult the gazetteer specific to your nobility area for this information. Digitized versions of Meyers are available by searching the card catalogs at and

Regional Gazetteers: https://wiki.familysearch.orgarticle “Germany Gazetteers” provides instruction and important links regarding the regional gazetteers. Also go to the German Portal Page ~ [click on the name of your specific nobility area] ~ then click on Gazetteers. Many of the Gazetteers have been, or are in the process of being, entered into the Family Search Wiki.

Records and Handwriting
Once you have determined the place of origin and have found searchable records, you will need to familiarize yourself with the various types of German script. In addition to the resources already listed, additional help is available at:

BYU German script tutorials
Minert, Roger. Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents, analyzing German, Latin, and French in Vital Records Written in Germany; Woodscross, U.S.A., GRT Publications, c 2001. FHL Intl Ref Area 417.7 M662d
Sütterlin – German Handwriting. FHLC ~ Education ~ FHL Research Series Online ~ Reading Handwritten Records Series ~ German Lesson 1-3. Free online German Handwriting Courses. - search by keywords German Script for various training articles.