Genealogy Tips: Records for German American Research (part 2)

Introduction: In this article – the second of a two-part series – Katie Rebecca Garner discusses methodology for researching 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.

The previous article in this series discussed places to find records of your German American ancestor. This article will go over methodology: why you are searching which records.

Before you can research your ancestor in Germany, you first need to research them in American records that identify the town of origin. This includes church records, tombstones, family Bibles, personal papers (including diaries and letters), military discharges, pension papers, vital certificates (including those of the children), obituaries, church registers, passenger lists, naturalization papers, passports, and Taufscheine (folk art).

Photo: German Americans dancing.
Photo: German Americans dancing.

Photo credit:

The above-listed records will reveal the following about your ancestor: their religion, when they arrived, whom they associated with, their occupation, and their education. This is the information you need to know before crossing the pond.

The FAN (friends, associates, neighbors) club approach is helpful when researching German American ancestors. German neighbors typically intermarried for multiple generations after coming to America. Additionally, German immigrants often wrote home telling their friends and family about their new life in America and (successfully) convincing them to emigrate. In either case, it is helpful to know who your ancestor’s neighbors were. Sometimes, finding a neighbor’s origins is easier than finding your ancestor’s.

People who knew each other in Germany often traveled to America together. This means that passenger lists can also be handy for FAN club research. You can research the entries above and below your ancestor on the passenger list or the places of origin for other passengers on the ship.

Using the FAN club can help you identify the same family on both sides of the ocean. Referring to occupation can also help, as many emigrants kept their same occupation after crossing the ocean.

Church records are important on multiple accounts. German American church records often list the place of origin and are the largest source of vital records in Germany. FAN club research is also helpful in this regard. If you don’t know your ancestor’s religion, check that of their friends and family. When you encounter a minister’s name on a record, look him up.

Church records include baptisms, marriages, burials, confirmations, communicant lists, and family registers. In America, be sure to check all local church records. As mentioned in the previous article, some churches shared a building, and some families had their kids baptized by the next minister who came into town.

Baptismal records usually include: the names of the child, parents, and sponsors; the birth date; and the baptismal date. Sometimes, they indicate the relationship between the sponsors and the child. Whether or not that relationship is stated, the sponsors were part of that family’s FAN club. Note that baptismal records may not be a good birth record substitute for ancestors who practiced Anabaptist faiths due to the Anabaptist practice of baptizing adults.

Marriage records usually name the bride and groom and give the date of marriage. Sometimes, they list the fathers or the residences. Occasionally, they give birthplaces. In the case of a remarriage, the record might name the former deceased spouse.

Burial records usually give the name of the deceased and the date of burial. Sometimes, they’ll give the death date and burial place. Occasionally, they’ll list family members such as a spouse or give the number of children, or they might give birth information. Once you find one type of death record, you’ll have the information needed to find other types, including obituaries. Some records will give details that others don’t.

Confirmation records are harder to find because they have not been as well preserved as other church records. When they are found, they usually give the name of the confirmed. Sometimes, they’ll provide the age of the confirmed and the name of the father.

Communicant lists named the members communing and were organized by family. Some of these lists crossed out members who had left the congregation. Finding a family on multiple communicant lists can show how long they’d been part of the congregation. A woman appearing under her maiden name on one communicant list and then under a married name on another can help narrow down her marriage date.

Photo: a Pennsylvania German fraktur Taufschein from 1788. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: a Pennsylvania German fraktur Taufschein from 1788. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Taufschiene is a German folk art of baptismal certificates, which often contain genealogically valuable information. These and Bible records may be found in county historical societies and university libraries.

Passenger lists and naturalization records are more helpful in the 20th century than in earlier times because those records were more detailed after 1906. Some passenger arrival lists give the place of birth of the passengers. Whether or not the passenger lists provide the details you want, knowing the port of arrival can help you guess where the ancestor may have departed from.

You can also use surname distribution maps to help guess an ancestor’s origin. This is especially helpful if your ancestor had an uncommon name. If your ancestor had a common name, try the surnames of their FAN club members.

Census records can help determine a place of origin within Germany. The 1870 census lists the German states of ancestors born in Germany. Additionally, if your ancestor came from a place in Germany that is no longer part of Germany, the census can hint at that. When borders changed in the old country after an emigrant left, they often had to give the place it was at the time the record was recorded rather than the place it was at the time of their birth.

Newspapers can also help in your research. German Americans often kept their newspapers and printed them in German or bilingual. Newspapers near your ancestor’s port of arrival may have announced the arrival of immigrant ships. The announcements of your ancestor’s vital events are likely to name places of origin in Germany and maiden names of female relatives. Some of these can be found on GenealogyBank.

Try these methodologies if you’ve been stuck on any of your German American lines. Also, be sure to check out GenealogyBank’s collections.

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

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