Beginning German Genealogy: Defining “German”

Beginning German genealogy research starts with a key question: “What does ‘German’ really mean?” A Legacy Tree Genealogists expert responds with a story about ancestors whose German identity in the U.S. census seemed to keep changing—and why that was so.

Thanks to Camille Andrus of Legacy Tree Genealogists for providing this guest post.

What does “German” really mean?

My great-grandmother Erika was German. She was adamant about the fact that she was German. After her arrival in the United States, when she was asked to fill out information about her place of birth, she indicated that she was born in Germany. Erika was born in 1921 in Waschulken. Today, this small town is located in northeastern Poland. However, at the time, it was part of Germany. Although borders have since been moved, she never stopped claiming she was German.

In the United States, many German immigrants were listed on various federal censuses and other documents generically as being from Germany. Instructions given to census takers for the 1870 census notes that the country of birth for individuals who were born outside the United States was to be listed “as specifically as possible.” In the case of those from Germany, census takers were to “specify the State, as Prussia, Baden, Bavaria, Wurtemburg, Hesse Darmstadt, [etc].” (Click here to read those instructions for yourself.) This makes sense, as the unification of Germany had not yet occurred.

Above: 1870 census for Henry Blaser household (Henry listed as from “Wuertemberg” and Christina listed as from “Hesse Darmstadt”). Click here to view on FamilySearch.org.

Instructions for the 1900 census, however, indicate that census takers should “not write Prussia or Saxony, but Germany.” Also, in the case of Poland, they were to “inquire whether the birthplace was what is now known as German Poland or Austrian Poland.” (Click to read.) Thus, at least in theory, earlier census enumerations should indicate a more specific area or region rather than the generic “Germany.” (In practice, some census takers still used “Germany” in lieu of a more specific place.

Above: 1900 census for Henry Blaeser household (husband and wife both listed as from “Germany”). Click here to view this entry on FamilySearch.org.

The unification of territories in January 1871 created the German Empire, which lasted until 1918. Prior to the merger, the area consisted of a multitude of separate kingdoms, duchies and provinces. When an individual claims to have German ancestry, they often mean that their ancestors lived within German Empire borders (although not necessarily only during the empire period). These borders were much larger than that of modern Germany, with the most striking inclusion being a large portion of northern Poland. Even after the fall of the empire in 1918, it took many years for the borders to shrink to their current position.

Beginning German genealogy research

Because the concept of who is “German” and what areas are considered “Germany” have changed frequently over time, it is vital to keep shifting historical boundaries in mind if you have ancestors who claim to be German. They may not be from the area of modern Germany.

However, even knowing the province your immigrant ancestor came from is usually not enough to begin researching in German record collections. You need to know the name of the town your ancestor came from. Although in some rare cases you may be able to identify your immigrant’s foreign hometown through indexes created from German collections, more often than not, traditional research will necessitate using church records, civil vital records, passenger lists, naturalization records, newspapers, and other such records in the country to which your ancestor immigrated in order to identify their place of origin.

Church records can be especially useful if the immigrant attended a church associated with their native language, as these records often list foreign hometowns in marriage and death entries. For German immigrants belonging to various Protestant faiths in the Midwest region of the United States, the book series German Immigrants in American Church Records is a quick source to see if your immigrant’s name appears in the extracted records. (Click here to see this book series in the FamilySearch Catalog. Look at the description for each volume, then click View this catalog record in WorldCat for other possible copy locations to look for the volume you need at a library near you.)

Newspaper articles including obituaries can also provide the name of the immigrant’s hometown. Where available, foreign language newspapers should not be overlooked as obituaries in such papers often provide additional details not listed in their English language counterparts. Check with local libraries or historical societies to see if they have copies of foreign language newspapers.

Although early passenger lists and naturalization records usually only list a province or “Germany” as an individual’s place of origin, naturalization records post-1906, as well as more modern passenger manifests, often do list exact towns of birth. On occasion, less-obvious records, such as wills, list the town of birth. So it is important to check all record types in search of the immigrant’s town of origin.

Once the town has been identified, church records and civil registration records, mandatory for the whole German Empire as of 1876, will be the most widely used sources for researching your German ancestors in Europe. (Click here to read about German census records, too.) As many of these records will be written in the antiquated German script, one will not only need to learn basic German genealogy vocabulary but also learn to recognize those words written in the old script. (Click here for a list of top German translation websites.)

Get help beginning your German genealogy

Camille Andrus is a Project Manager for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. She and their other German specialists are skilled not only in identifying German hometowns of immigrants, but also in reading and analyzing old German church and civil records. They would love to help you trace your German immigrant ancestors back to their hometowns and extend their lines there. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit www.legacytree.comExclusive Offer for Genealogy Gems readers: Receive $100 off a 20-hour research project using code GGP100.

Disclosure: This article contains offers with affiliate links, which may expire without notice. Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Scots-Irish Genealogy: Getting Started

Researching your Scots-Irish genealogy is easier if you can identify your ancestors as Scots-Irish! The Scots-Irish put down early roots in Virginia, the Carolinas, and the Appalachian “backcountry” and would likely have come from Northern Ireland or Scotland. Read these important tips for tracing your Scots-Irish family history.

Thanks to Suzanne Earnshaw, Project Manager at Legacy Tree Genealogists, for providing this expert how-to article on tracing your Scots-Irish family history.

Who were the Scots-Irish?

Researchers use the term “Scots-Irish” to identify a people who went back and forth between Scotland and Ulster, Ireland. The North Channel, shown on the map below (click on it to see the original image), is also known as the Straits of Moyle. It connects the west coast of Scotland and the Mull of Galloway at the narrowest part the strait. There, the strait spans only 13 miles. This short distance between Northern Ireland ports and the western Scotland ports made trade and commuting quite common between Ireland and Scotland.

Researching your Scots-Irish genealogy

To find a Scots-Irish ancestor, start with what you do know. For example, my ancestors immigrated to America from Scotland in the 1880s. I traced my great-great-grandmother here in the US through US records, until I found a record which stated that she had emigrated from New Kilpatrick, Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Then, I began searching Scotland Census records in 1881 to find out more about my ancestors.

Good research methodology includes finding your ancestors in each record possible to get an accurate picture of their life, and collecting data through which you can learn more about the previous generation. As I moved back in time through the Scottish censuses in 1871, 1861, 1851, and finally 1841, I found that some of these family members family on a record were born in Scotland and others were born in Ireland—my ancestors were Scots-Irish and moved fluidly back and forth between Ireland and Scotland. Based on this fact, I then knew to conduct research in records for both Scotland and Ireland to find additional family records.

Scots-Irish Genealogy Resources on FamilySearch.org

The free genealogy giant FamilySearch.org has a variety of records available, which are cataloged by collection. To learn what collections are available, go to familysearch.org, sign in for free (click here to learn how and why), click Search and then Catalog. Type in the place you would like to search for record collections.

Records were often kept at a variety of government and church levels, and they might be cataloged differently. To properly research, type in “Scotland” and see what records are available. Then type in a narrower geographic area such as “Scotland, Dumbartonshire” and see which of those records might be of interest to you. The next search would be even more specific: “Scotland, Dumbartonshire, New Kilpatrick.” This increasingly-specific record search process can be done for any place.

If you type “Ireland” into the FamilySearch catalog request, one of your choices is the collection Death records of Ireland, 1864-1870, with index of deaths, 1864-1921. Clicking on this collection takes you to the collection page. There is a note: “Ireland, Civil Registration Indexes are available online” (see #1 in the screenshot below). By selecting that option, you will be able to search an index of names that appear in “1864-1958 births, 1845-1958 marriages, and 1864-1958 deaths, but excluding index records for Northern Ireland after its creation in 1922.” Note that the index extends to 1958, further than the collection name indicates.

Searching this index is a good first step, since it will provide you with the registration district if your ancestor is listed. Type in the name and identifying details. When I searched for “Catherine Halloran” Death 1900-1950, I found the birth that matched and it gave me the registration district as Galway.

To view record images available in this collection, you’ll need to scroll down on the above catalog page. You’ll see the collection broken down into groups of records. Those with a camera icon on the far right (#2 above) have digital images on the site that you can browse through page by page. (Click here for instructions on browsing FamilySearch images.) Unfortunately, images of the original 1931 death records and the original index aren’t on the site; you’d only be able to look at original records through 1870 and the original index through 1921, as the collection name indicates.

More sites for tracing Scots-Irish genealogy

Irishgenealogy.ie. This website is free and home to the historic records of Births, Marriages, and Deaths of the General Register Office. Civil registration in Ireland began in 1864. Church records are also available on this website. Most on this website are for the Roman Catholic Church, but they do have some Presbyterian records as well.

The Ulster Irish were mostly Protestant by faith, since many were originally English. The Scots mostly worshiped as Presbyterians (a type of Protestantism). Knowing your ancestor’s religion might be a clue to which records to begin research.

AskAboutIreland.ie. This website can help you research your family pre-census. The Primary Valuation was the first full-scale valuation of property in Ireland. It was overseen by Richard Griffith and published between 1847 and 1864. To find your family, enter their surname in the search box. If you know the county you can put in that as well to limit the amount of records returned. Tip: Searching without the location can give you an understanding of the distribution of a surname at the time the valuation was taken.

Tithe Applotment Survey at NationalArchives.ie. This site has the Tithe Applotment Survey of 1823-1938 for the 26 counties of the Republic.

ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk. For information on how to search Scottish records on this official website for searching government records and archives, click here.

Here is my final tip: as you research your Scots-Irish ancestors be sure to thoroughly search record collections by looking for a variety of spellings, using wildcards in your search terms, and reviewing original records page by page when you don’t find them in indexes.

Legacy Tree Genealogists is a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit https://www.legacytree.comEXCLUSIVE OFFER for Genealogy Gems readers! Receive $100 off a 20-hour+ research project from Legacy Tree Genealogists with code GGP100.

Disclosure: This article contains offers with affiliate links, which may expire without notice. Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Understanding Genealogy Sources: Why “Provenance” Matters

Before you rely on any genealogical sources for your family history research, you should know their provenance. Ask these questions about the records you find—and you’ll better understand the source and what it may (or may not) be telling you.

In the art world, knowing the provenance of a piece is crucial to understanding its value. Provenance looks at an object’s origins, history, and ownership. These can shed light on whether the piece is authentic. In other words, it tells us whether it truly was created by the attributed artist in the stated timeframe. It also provides insight into the value of the item.

Genealogical sources: Why provenance matters

The principle of provenance is true for genealogical sources, too. Records created at the time of an event by eyewitnesses are generally much more credible. Documents created in places associated with your relatives, by people who knew them, are much more likely to pertain to them (rather than to other folks by the same name). The same holds true for objects that are passed down through the family. Therefore, whether you’re looking at a family Bible or a typescript of a reminiscence you find online, it’s important to learn as much as you can about it so you know how much to trust it.

Questions to ask about your genealogical sources

What type of document or item is it? When was it created?

The nature of an object or record can often tell you something about its history or credibility. In the case of a photograph, we might ask these questions:

  • What type of photograph is it? (tintype, carte de visite, Polaroid, etc.)
  • Is there printing or writing on the back of the photo?
  • If it’s a studio portrait, is the studio’s name and location identified?

For example, this photograph is a daguerreotype. It is a type of image taken on a silver-coated copper plate. Photo expert Maureen Taylor says these types of photos were in most use from 1839 to about 1865. You can learn additional clues from Maureen about using hairstyles, fashions, and other clues in the actual image in her book, Family Photo Detective.

Perhaps you have a manuscript in your grandma’s handwriting. Is it a diary or an autobiographical sketch? Is it dated or signed? Is it an original or a photocopy?

You will likely date these items, associate them with specific relatives, and judge the reliability of their contents based on answers to questions like these.

If a document isn’t identified, study it closely for clues as to what it is. Contributing Editor Sunny Morton has spent a lot of time studying old diaries and life story writings. Here are some tips from her on understanding them:

  • Diaries and journals were created gradually over time. You may see date headers before some entries and changes in the handwriting or ink. Entries often focus more on the present or immediate past than the deep past and they wouldn’t reveal future events because they hadn’t happened yet.
  • Autobiographical sketches or reminiscences may or may not be labeled and dated as such. These were usually written much later in someone’s life, often over a short period of time. The writer’s tone may be more formal, introspective, defensive, or self-conscious as she reflects on the past.

Look at all other documents and items that are associated with the source in question. For example, not long ago I received a box of old family items from my sister-in-law. The box originally belonged to my mother-in-law (Pat) and held an eclectic mix of mementos. One item of particular interest was a Guest Book sporting a cover made of wood. I immediately understood the significance of the cover because my father-in-law (Bill) had worked his entire career in the forest products industry. But that didn’t mean that the book actually belonged to my in-laws. Further examination was required.

Before removing the book from the box, I made note of what was tucked in around it. Perhaps all of these items were unrelated, or perhaps they had all come out of the same closet. Slow and careful examination is key identifying all the potential clues about the item.

It took several hours of reading through the various entries to determine that the Book was given to Pat and Bill as a gift by Pat’s parents. It contained many original signatures acquired over many years from a wide range of friends and family.

If you’re looking at digitized records online, read the description of the record collection. If you’re in an archive, read the finding aid or other collection description. (Genealogy Gems Premium subscribers can learn more about using finding aids in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #149.)

Records or artifacts may come with dates or timeframes associated with them. Sometimes there is no date or only a rough range of possibilities. You may have to rely on clues from several sources to date the item and match it up with your family history timeline. For example, this quilt was found in a suitcase in my Grandmother Pauline Moore’s closet after her death with this note pinned to it.

She says in the note that it was made by her mother before her stroke, which occurred in the 1960s. Based on the flour sack fabrics, I would date it more in the range of 1925-1945. It’s possible that she may have hung on to all these scraps and made it later in life. But I know from past conversations with my grandmother that most of her mother’s quilting was done in the earlier timeframe. Adding strength to my theory is a dress that hangs in my laundry room. I inherited the dress from my grandmother years ago. I have photos of her wearing it in the pre-World War II era. It contains some of the exact same fabric that makes up the quilt.

Finally, with documents especially, consider whether you’re looking at the original version, meaning the first format it ever took. Whenever possible, consult the original. Indexes, typed-up copies, or abstracts are convenient reference tools. In some cases, they are the only versions you’ll be able to access. However, they may not be as complete or accurate. Handwritten copies of older originals may have been made in the days before photocopying technology.

Here’s a digital copy of a 4-page family history written by Sunny’s great-aunt Lena Hall (1903-1981). Sunny received this copy from her mother. The title “as told by” at the beginning hints that this is a typed version of an oral history. If an original audio taped version still exists, Sunny doesn’t have it. So in this case, this is the best version she can get.

When was it written? A note at the end simply says the document was “copied by a niece” in 1987. It was created after 1950 because Aunt Lena names that as the year her father died. Aunt Lena states that her parents now had “25 grandchildren, 58 great-grandchildren, and 4 great-great-grandchildren.” Studying a complete family tree in descendancy view would likely reveal when her parents had only four great-great grandchildren—perhaps the best way to date this document.

If you can’t identify or assign a rough date to an artifact, consult a professional historian, genealogist, appraiser, or others with knowledge of particular documents or objects.

Where was it created and where has it been kept over the years?

Sometimes, family history sources are labeled with place names, like the city stamped on the front of an old photographic studio portrait. These can help you connect them with your family—or confirm that they don’t pertain to your family.

Where the source has been kept over time, and who has kept it, is an important part of provenance. For example, last summer, I was given this camera by my uncle.

He said it was originally owned by my grandma, Alfreda Louise Burkett. Much to our delight, we discovered that the camera had unexposed film inside! I scurried off to a few local stores, and quickly learned that the film pre-dated the current standard 35mm film, and they couldn’t process it. As I mentioned before, there are times when you will need to consult an expert, and this was one of them. Google led me to a specialty photography store about an hour from my home. It also served up this website which revealed that the camera type (Kodak Senior Six-20) was produced from 1932-1937.

The knowledgeable folks at the photography store connected me with a highly specialized film developer in Colorado. I’ve sent the film for processing. They told me the film type (C-22) can be dated to pre-1970s. This time frame makes sense: my grandma passed away in 1986.

As long as it has taken for this camera to make its way to me, I’m going to have to wait a little longer to see what the roll of film reveals. There is so little of this film still in existence that it can take up to 18 months for the developer to collect enough of it to warrant a processing run. When the happy day arrives that the photos appear in my mailbox, I’m optimistic that the images will further help me narrow down the timeframe between the 1930s and the 1970s when they were taken.

This chain of ownership—from my grandma to her son to me—is strong and reliable, based on my confidence in my uncle’s memory and honesty. This makes me more confident that the pictures inside that camera will be of my family. Stay tuned, because I will surely share the outcome here on the blog.

Why was it created?

The original purpose of a source is highly relevant to how much faith you put in its contents. For example, a woman might have altered her testimony in divorce proceedings in an effort to minimize damage to her own reputation and future. A man filling out his draft registration paperwork may have lied about his age or citizenship, either to avoid military service or in order to be included despite being under age. And most certainly newspaper articles may be filled with a variety of biases by the author, publisher, or those being interviewed. Give careful thought to these possible motivations when evaluating the contents of records.

Does it appear to be complete?

Whenever possible, consider a source as a whole. It’s tempting to want to zero in on the paragraphs or photos that interest you most, but you may miss out on important information that changes what this source has to tell you. The specific placement of a photo in an album can be as significant as the printed photographic image. A photo’s position can indicate the relationship of the people in the photo to others on the same page, or the timeline of events.

Take note if any part of the source appears to be missing or illegible, especially if it appears that some of it has been deliberately removed, erased, or crossed out. You may be able to make more sense of the partial information—or take a guess at why it was removed—as you learn more about the family. (My grandma’s diaries from the 1930s gave me insight into this photo!)

There may be a perfectly innocent reason for the change. But you may also be seeing evidence that someone who wanted to erase unpleasant memories or conceal a scandal.

Who was the informant?

The informant in any record is the person who supplied the information. Sometimes this is the same person who created a record, such as the writer of a diary. In the case of a U.S. census, the informant is the person in a household who told the census enumerator about the people who lived there. In most cases, it’s impossible to know who the informant was. Thankfully in 1940, census enumerators were instructed to mark the informant with a circled “X,” as shown in these two households.

Remember that a source may have multiple informants, who would have been in the best position to provide certain kinds of information. Below is the death certificate for Mary Mollie Overbay, beloved grandma and hero of Genealogy Gems contributing writer Margaret Linford. (Read more about her here.) In this death certificate, Informant #1 reported the deceased’s personal information, and would typically have been a close relative. Informant #2 provided the medical particulars relating to the death, and would typically have been the attending physician.

What primary and secondary information is revealed in this record?

Historical evidence can either be considered primary or secondary information. Genealogical scholar Thomas W. Jones defines these terms in his book, Mastering Genealogical Proof:

  • Primary information is that reported by an eyewitness. Primary information often was recorded soon after the event, but it may be reported or recorded years or decades later.
  • Secondary information is reported by someone who obtained it from someone else. It is hearsay.”

The same document can include both primary and secondary information (which is why we now talk less about primary and secondary sources and more about information). On the death certificate above, Informant #1 shares the deceased’s last name, so was likely a relative. He likely had first-hand knowledge of the deceased’s marital status, spouse’s name, and occupation. If Informant #1 was the deceased’s father, he would also likely have provided primary information relating to the deceased’s birth, place of residence, and parents’ names. Secondary information he reported would include his own birthplace (as father) and that of his wife (since he presumably wasn’t present for it). If Informant #2 was the deceased’s attending physician, he would have provided primary information about the deceased’s immediate and contributing causes of death.

How do all these clues add up?

It’s clear that as genealogists our goal is not only to evaluate each family history source, but also each piece of information it provides. We need to scrutinize it from many angles and make some judgments. Asking the right questions helps us ultimately answer the all-important question: how much do you trust what this record is telling you?

Next steps: Keep learning

Is there more to do after you review a family history artifact or record and extract every piece of information from it? You bet! Create a research plan that will help you find other records to verify or shed additional light on the information in the document. For example:

  • If you’ve got a death certificate, look for other death-related records, such as an obituary, tombstone inscription, and funeral home records.
  • Follow up on additional leads provided in the source. A death certificate sometimes mentions a Social Security number or military service, both of which have their own paper trails.

If you’re new to research plans or looking for a way to take them paperless, you’ll find detailed answers in my video class “Using Evernote to Create a Research Plan.” The video and handout download are available to Genealogy Gems Premium Members.

About the Author

About the Author

Lisa Louise Cooke is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Home Archiving for the Genealogist: 5 Ways to Think Like an Archivist

You may be doing some “home archiving” without even realizing it, if you’re the keeper of any family photos, documents, heirlooms, or artifacts. Professional archivist and genealogist Melissa Barker offers these tips for the family historian and keeper of the family archive.

Home Archives

I have always said that “home archiving” is something genealogists do, perhaps without ever calling it that. So family historians can definitely benefit from learning how archivists work. Here are five ways to think like an archivist.

5 Home Archiving Tips for Family Historians

family history video documents home archiving1. Learn to preserve family artifacts.

Archivists are always educating themselves on how to preserve certain items that have come to their archives. Genealogists inherit family heirlooms all the time. Learning how to preserve them is thinking like an archivist.

Tip: Preserving an item means keeping it from further deterioration. This may mean putting it in special storage materials, keeping it out of strong light, and storing it in a place that isn’t too hot, cold, or humid. Click here to read an article on humidity and your family archive.

2. Organize your “collection.”

A very important job for archivists is keeping their records collections organized so they know what they have and can pull them efficiently. Genealogists, as home archivists, would also benefit from keeping their genealogical records organized.

Tip: Get inspired! Click here to catch some tips on organizing your digital photos from Denise Levenick, The Family Curator and author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records.

archival sleeve3. Store your treasures carefully.

Archivists are always careful to use special materials such as archival file folders and boxes to put records and artifacts into for preservation. Genealogists should use archival materials to preserve and store their records just like archivists do.

Tip: Click here to read my article on how to archive family history documents. It’s packed with great tips and recommended products to store your items safely.

4. Keep the stories that go with your artifacts.

Telling the stories of the people that have come before us is also something that archivist try to do with the records they have in their care. Archivists do this by sharing their records collections with the public through displays, exhibits, and open houses. Genealogists should tell their ancestor’s stories by sharing their family histories with their families and passing down their ancestor’s stories to the next generation.

Tip: Create a meaningful display of artifacts in your own home. Group together items that tell a story, preferably unique, eye-catching items. Add framed copies of documents and photos (keep originals safely tucked away). Click here for some fantastic ideas from Lisa Louise Cooke on sharing your family history with the non-genealogists in your family.

5. Archive your own mementos.

Archivists collect today for tomorrow! Many archivists collect documents and artifacts that are produced today so they can be preserved for tomorrow. They collect items such as the high school graduation program, digitizing the local newspaper, and that local diner menu.

Genealogists do the same thing in their “home archiving” by collecting and preserving a funeral card, digital photographs they took at the grandbaby’s birthday, and the marriage invitation you received for your niece’s wedding.

Home Archiving, National Archiving: It’s all in the Genealogy Gems Podcast

Did you know I’m on Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast now? I chime in frequently with that “offline” archival perspective that’s so important in our research. Click here to see the list of recent episodes. In Episode 211, publishing this week, I report on a fascinating way you can help make collections from the National Archives more accessible to everyone. Why not listen in? It’s free!

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