Lesson 10 Table of Contents Lesson 12

L e s s o n 11


1. Some suggestions

Almost any American who decides to find out something about his family history will sooner or later find that the trail leads to an immigrant ancestor or ancestors. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants. As a German teacher, I have often noticed that quite a few of my students have had German names. For some students at least, awareness of their family's ethnic heritage probably plays some part in the decision to take up German instead of some other foreign language. At any rate, some knowledge of German will certainly be an asset if you ever become interested in researching a family tree that leads back into German-speaking central Europe. Not only that; you will also find that an interest in German genealogy will contribute to your knowledge of German history, geography, and culture as well as providing a stimulus for expanding your knowledge of the German language. You may, for example, find that once you have identified the town or district your family came from, this awareness will raise other questions in your mind. What was life like there? Why did they leave? What sort of attitudes did people have in the old country? What sort of German dialect would they have spoken? How did the family experience the main historic events of their time?

To learn something about your family's history, start by asking your older relatives questions and take notes. As a framework for making sense out of what you learn, try to get specific dates for important events in the lives of family members. You should try to note the exact date and place of birth of each family member and you should try to organize the relationship of family members by using tables and diagrams. Other dates to look for are dates of death, marriage, divorce, immigration, and naturalization. Maybe someone in your family has already gathered some information along these lines and perhaps there is someone in the family who will send you photocopies of documents in their possession. You may be lucky enough to have a relative somewhere, even a distant one, who is a gold mine of family lore and can go on for hours with stories about the lives and times of family members.

Once you have put together what there is to find out by asking questions, you may want to proceed to the next step, which is to seek out public documents. For birth records, death records, and marriage records you can try writing to the local county clerk or to a state vital records office. The Handy Book for Genealogists by George B. Everton, or Ernest Thode's Addressbook for Germanic Genealogy are filled with the addresses of such government and church offices and archives. Chances are you will be able to find some books on genealogical research methods at your public library. For a free catalog of books and supplies for the genealogical researcher, write to Genealogy Unlimited, Inc., P. O. Box 537, Orem, Utah 84059-0537. Nowadays it is even possible to get computer software to help organize and store family history information.

Perhaps your family has been in America for some time, but somewhere in your research you will have to begin looking for records in some foreign country. There are several books available on German genealogical research, but I particularly recommend The German Research Companion by Shirley Riemer, or Germanic Genealogy. A Guide to Worldwide Sources and Migration Patterns, by Edward R. Brandt, Mary Bellingham et al.

Once you get into researching German genealogical records you will probably notice that there is a good deal you can learn about the changing political geography of the German-speaking countries. Before 1871 a German immigrant usually declared his nationality by naming one of the many states of the German Federation that were brought together in 1871 under the German Empire, known also as the "The Second Reich." Thus, you may find that your ancestor was from Prussia, or Bavaria, or perhaps one of the many smaller states. If you aren't sure where the region of origin was, you can check it out in a reference such as Webster's Geographical Dictionary. The German states were constantly changing their boundaries, so careful attention to dates may be necessary. It may well turn out that the place names in your family's history include the names of some small towns and villages that don't appear in the usual atlas. In that case, check the Atlas of Central Europe. In some cases places which once had German names now have new names because of changes in national borders. Pressburg, e.g., is now Bratislava. Webster's Geographical Dictionary deals with this type of problem.

2. Suggested further reading

Angus Baxter. In Search of Your German Roots. A Complete Guide to Tracing Your Ancestors in the Germanic Areas of Europe. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 3rd ed., 1994.

Edward R. Brandt, Mary Bellingham et al, eds. Germanic Genealogy. A Guide to Worldwide Sources and Migration Patterns. St. Paul: Germanic Genealogy Society, 1995.

George B. Everton. The Handy Book for Genealogists. Available from The Everton Publishers, Inc., Logan, Utah 84321.

Atlas of Central Europe. London: John Murray Publishers, 1963.

Shirley J. Riemer. The German Research Companion. Sacramento: Lorelei Press, 1997.

Ernest Thode. Address Book for Germanic Genealogy. 5th ed., 1994. Available from the author, R. R. 7, Box 306, Kern Road, Marietta, OH 45750.

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Created: 4 August 1998, SEL
Updated: 17 November 2007, BAS
Comments to: Eberhard Reichmann, reichman@ucs.indiana.edu
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