Genealogy Tips: Records for German American Research (part 1)

Introduction: In this article – the first of a two-part series – Katie Rebecca Garner reviews resources to research your German American ancestors. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.

Once you research back to your immigrant ancestor from Germany, you most likely want to cross the ocean in your research to learn about that ancestor in their homeland and continue tracing their family there. However, just because you’ve found the immigrant ancestor doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready to jump the pond.

Before you search abroad, you need to learn your ancestor’s town of origin and their religion in the old country. This article series will review resources to research your German American ancestor and research methodologies to find their religion and town of origin.

Photo: German American friends celebrating.
Photo: German American friends celebrating.

Photo credit:

You can search many record types to find your immigrant ancestor’s story.

Newspapers, church records, and other records kept by German Americans were recorded in German. Additionally, some German and German American research websites are in German. In either case, Google Translate is your friend.

Newspapers are a good resource for German American research, as will be discussed in more detail in the next article in this series. German American communities kept their own newspapers printed in their language, or bilingual. These can be found in GenealogyBank’s newspaper collections.

The National Archives (NARA) has microfilmed many passenger lists, some of which have been digitized by FamilySearch. Those not on FamilySearch can be obtained by contacting NARA.

Any diaries written by your ancestor or anyone in their FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) club – or anyone traveling to or from the same place as your ancestor – can be an excellent source of family history. You can also look for books written about the immigrant experiences. GenealogyBank’s historical books collection can be searched by name or keyword.

DNA testing can be helpful for your research. If you or any relatives have taken a DNA test, you may be able to join a relevant DNA group, such as the Y-DNA Palatine project or any other group.

Your surname may hold clues. One surname distribution map website is In the search box, type in the name of your ancestor or their associates, and the map will show red circles in the areas where the surname appears. The higher the concentration of that surname, the bigger the circle. When I typed Garner into the search, the map showed several small red circles.

Church records are vital for German American research. FamilySearch has databases of digitized and indexed church records, but not all church records are online. If you conduct an online search for your ancestor and pull up nothing, you may need to find the repository housing your ancestor’s church records (assuming those records are extant).

First, you must understand who initially held the church records and who holds them now. The original holder of the church records was the individual congregation, one congregation in the charge or parish, or a pastor. These records are now kept either by the congregation, denominational archives, or in a special collections library or archives. Occasionally, church records are kept in someone’s attic.

Your ancestor’s denomination will significantly affect how well the records were kept. Lutheran churches were generally more organized than Reformed churches. Moravians were good at record keeping because they were the most literate. Even if your ancestor wasn’t Moravian, it might be worth checking their records because the Moravian day book sometimes mentioned non-Moravians.

Even when you locate your ancestor’s congregation, finding church records can still be tricky because of the practice of sharing churches. You may need to search multiple churches to find your ancestor’s records. Start with the church closest to your ancestor. Look up union churches in the area and the history of your ancestor’s congregation. Check the other congregations that shared records with your ancestor’s church.

To expand further, check any church within the township where your ancestor lived. Be sure to identify the boundaries of your ancestor’s time, as they may not be the same boundaries as in the modern day. Also, check within a five-to-ten-mile radius. Once you identify your ancestor’s pastor, check his records. While researching my Garner line in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I found them on church records for various denominations and congregations. Online databases have made this easy to find, but there are more records to find once I apply this process to that line.

Once you identify the town of origin in Germany, you can research emigration records, such as departing passenger lists, newspapers, permission to emigrate (assuming your ancestor left Germany legally), military records, and church records. Many of these records can be found on FamilySearch or in German archives.

The next article in this series will review research methodologies for learning about your German American ancestors.

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Note on the header image: German and American flags. Credit:

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