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German and Genealogy
Getting Started

Tracing your Austrian, German, or Swiss Roots

Also see: English-German Genealogy Glossary and the Germanic Genealogy FAQ page.

Germanic People in the USA
Americans of Germanic ancestry make up the single largest ethnic group in the United States. One in four Americans claims to have Austrian, German, or other Germanic ancestors somewhere on their family tree. By the time of the Revolutionary War there were an estimated 225,000 German-Americans, comprising almost nine percent of the total population of colonial America. Germans fought on both sides of the Revolution, with 30,000 Hessian mercenaries hired by the British and the Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben enlisted by George Washington to whip the American troops into shape. Many of the Hessians remained in the New World and several waves of German migration followed over the years. A great number of Austrians and Germans came to the "land of unlimited opportunity" (Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten) in the years from the 1880s to the 1920s, usually for economic reasons. Others were later forced into American exile by the Nazi regime.

Of course, German-speaking emigrants also went to many other parts of the world. As a result, there are tons of Web sites designed to help you trace your Germanic roots. Many German-specific links can be found on our Germanic genealogy resources (see below). For a good example of a Germanic genealogy search in Germany, see this article: "German Roots: A Personal Search" (with sample documents). If you're new to the genealogy game, take a look at the About.com Genealogy site, which offers advice and links with basic help for beginners.

How to Get Started
In this brief guide to Germanic genealogy we'll point you toward sources and tell you where to look for German records.


Preparation

  • Family Tree/Stammbaum - It is important to have a diagram or chart showing the ancestors you want to find information for. Doing this with a computer program is best, but you can also just write it out by hand.
  • Talk to Family Members - Write, phone and talk with people in your family, particularly the older folks. They may know a lot of information about your family's history that can help you.
  • Places - Try to find out as much as you can about exactly where your ancestors came from. A specific town or city may be vital to finding any information. Narrow it down as much as possible. Some knowledge of European/German geography and history is essential, since many places (and their names) have changed countries, sometimes several times.
  • Family Bible - Don't forget to check all the family heirlooms, photo albums, documents and other possible sources of family background information.
  • Arrival/Departure - Try to find out when (date, year) and where (port) your relatives departed and arrived. Some German and other passenger lists are online. (More below.)
  • Information! The more information and facts you have to start, the better. It helps you narrow your search and avoid wasted effort.


Sources

  • Census Records - Copies of U.S. Census records for the years 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880 are avalable in some libraries on microfilm. These and more recent census records can be a rich source of information, but you need to know where to look (state, county).
  • U.S. Naturalization Records - These records can be a source of information for birthplace, date of arrival, and even the ship the person arrived on.
  • LDS Family History Library - Although the Mormon family history library is in Salt Lake City, Utah, there are branches in many communities, and some resources are available online. The records are available to all.
  • Shipping Records - Most German immigrants arrived in the New World via ship. Try to find out when (date, year) and where (port) your relatives arrived or departed. Some German passenger lists are online, but not all. Most of the Bremen records were destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II, but the article "From Hamburg to Amerika" is about how the Hamburg State Archive is putting its emigrant passenger lists online.
  • Church and Civil Records - Depending on when and where in the German-speaking world your ancestors were born, married or died, the records may be in a church archive or in a civil registry (Standesamt). Germany was not a unified country until 1871. Prior to that (sometimes earlier or later, depending on the region), the church kept most vital records. After the early 1870s in most cases vital statistics were kept by the towns and cities. Remember also that because of European history, the names of countries and towns may have changed. In some cases, records have been lost due to war or natural disasters.
  • Genealogical Societies/genealogische Gesellschaften - Don't forget to check on any state (Länder), regional or other genealogical societies in Germany, the U.S. or Europe that may be able to help you with your search. Many are now on the Web.

There's much more to consider, but this should help get you started. Please look at our other articles, English-German glossaries and links for more family history help (below).

Data sources: Die Deutschen und die Amerikaner, Heinz Moos Verlag, Munich, 1977; 1990 U.S. Census


Related Pages/Links

Germanic Genealogy - Contents/Inhalt
Our genealogy starting page. Lists all the articles, glossaries and link pages for tracing your Germanic roots.

Germanic Genealogy FAQ
Some frequently asked questions about Germanic family research.

German Roots: A Personal Search
A personal account of a visit to a small town in Germany to discover one family's origins. Helpful lessons from the field in how to conduct such a search—with sample documents.

Genealogy @ About
About's genealogy site is a good general resource for beginners and more advanced family researchers. There are even some links for German.

German Names, Parts 1-3
All about German names: first, last, and geographic.

German Names - Links
A collection of Web links for names - in English and German.

Germanic Genealogy: Vocabulary
A helpful English-German guide to names and general vocabulary encountered in genealogical research.

Germanic Genealogy
Web Links for Germanic genealogy resources. From your Guide.


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