Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Everything You Need to Know About German Research in Two Hours or Less

I guess I really am breaking back into this blogging thing slowly...Where does the time go?

As I mentioned in my last post, Friday I flew to Toledo, Ohio (actually, I flew into Detroit and then drove to Toledo)to do a two-hour seminar on Saturday at the Toledo Public Library on tracing German ancestors. First, I have to say that I get really excited when I get to talk about JUST German ancestors. I like to talk about lots of things, but since I am a resident of Massachsuetts and do the majority of my speaking engagements in New England, I don't get to do many lectures that focus exclusively on German research. It's just often too narrow of a topic around here. Now, the same is not true in Toledo because just about everyone from Toledo is German (well, okay - that may be an exaggeration - but not by much).

I had two hours to share with people everything they ever needed to know about tracing German ancestors. Well, as I'm sure you know - that's impossibe. German research is not the kind of topic that can be covered in much depth in two hours. So, that is where the challenge was: choosing which information to share. The program coordinator and I had worked together to select two of my already-prepared lectures: 1) Jumping Over Hurdles in German Research and 2) The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at the German Immigration Experience. It was a nice combination of talks. The first focused on sources and methodology and the second brought it together in a case study.

I felt good about the seminar and really enjoyed doing it. Still, when it was done, my head was still filled with all the other things I COULD have told the attendees about German research.

The main message I wanted to get across was this: German research is NOT impossible. You can do it. People get intimidated of German research easily - mostly because of the language barrier and the handwriting I think. But truthfully, I really believe that German research is easier than US research. When I told my audience that, they all looked at me like I was crazy. It takes a little while to used to German research, but once you do, it really is very manageable - and lots of fun too!

So why do I say German research is easier? The main reason is because German research relies very heavily on one source: parish records. There is no source as important to US research as parish records are to German research. So I am going to focus the rest of my comments on using parish records.

In order to access these local records, you need the name of your ancestor's German hometown. This is the first hurdle I talk about in my lecture - and for many researchers, the highest of the four hurdles.

Once you have a hometown, you need to access records (the records hurdle). First, you must figure out where your ancestors went to church. This may not be the same as their hometown, because many villages were too small to have churches of their own. You can utilize gazetteers to find this information. Very few German parish records are online. Fortunately, many have been microfilmed and can be ordered to your local family history center. Otherwise, you may have to write for them.

The third and fourth hurdles are almost a combination hurdle: language and handwriting. Here's my advice: take advantage of the resources available at Click on the "learn" tab to search their wikis. Here, you will find word lists, letter-writing guides, and handwriting guides (as well as research guides). Be patient with yourself as you become familiar with the handwriting in particular. Go slowly and it will start to come together, little by little!


  1. My PA German ancestors don't seem to have listed their hometown anywhere - which is still my biggest hurdle in finding my Kuhn's in Germany (1700s). I'll keep working on it, maybe through others in the same PA region. Thanks for your encouraging blog. - Celia, Vancouver BC

  2. I am fortunate to live in Cincinnati, Ohio. We have a lot of the Church records on permanent loan at our local LDS library. Like Toledo, we have a lot of German roots here. I agree that once you get through some of the German script issues, the records are excellent. In the case of my ancestors, the priest recorded the name of their small farming community and their "station" within the community. Unbelievable detail.