Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dear Randy - How Do I Research My German Ancestors?

On my post MyHeritage Record Matches Keep Delivering News! (dated 4 April 2013), reader Dieter commented:

"I am born in Germany, but came to the US just 15 years ago. Trying to build my family tree is very difficult, because every search I put in relates to US findings only.  I have no family members, who immigrated to the States, can anybody help/advice me, how to get info about German ancestors?"

Dear Dieter,

I do not have any experience with researching German records, either online or in repositories, so I cannot give you first-hand advice.

However, whenever I do not know much about genealogy records or research in a locality, I try to consult published material.  My advice:

1)  Consult the FamilySearch Research Wiki for articles about German records and research in German repositories.  For instance:

*  This link provides a list of articles about "Germany" genealogical research
*  The main article titled "Germany" provides an overview, and online help links
*  FamilySearch currently has 50 record collections with "Germany" in the title
*  The "German Research Websites" wiki page lists many online education and record links

2)  There are 16 video courses on German research on the FamilySearch Learning Center.  See the list for "Germany" here.

3)  There are 99 databases on Ancestry.com with the word "Germany" in them.  You will need a World Deluxe subscription to access them.

4)  The Germany GenWeb Project has links for databases, resources, list of German states, Maps, Ship Lists, Kingdom of Prussia, and Map of Civil Registration.  The list of German states includes links to GenWeb pages for those states.

5)  There are mailing lists, with queries from researchers, and responses from other researchers, for Germany and each one of its states.  And more.  See the list at http://boards.rootsweb.com/localities.ceeurope.germany/mb.ashx.  On the message boards, you can search for a place or surname to see if others have discussed the topic.

6)  If you know where your parents were born, lived, and died (and grandparents too), then you have a start.  If not, then you need to start with your parents (ask them for information if they are still alive, or obtain marriage and death records if they are deceased), and research back one generation at a time, searching for records and family information.  Each record you find may provide clues for more records.

7)  Do you have siblings still in Germany?  If so, do they have records, papers, photographs, etc. about your parents, grandparents, and earlier ancestors?  If not, do you have cousins who are children or grandchildren of siblings of your parents?

8)  There may be online family trees that include your deceased ancestors - the two largest online family trees for western Europe are ( I think!) at MyHeritage and GeneaNet.  There may be some Germany-specific online trees that I am unaware of.

You will have to work through the above websites one by one, carefully gleaning information that will help you.  You may find that there are some online databases with German records, but it's likely that you will have to search for records at repositories in Germany.

I would welcome advice from readers who know more about German research than I do, and I probably missed some obvious resources.  Please comment on this blog post, and I hope that Dieter will see them.

The URL for this post is:  http://www.geneamusings.com/2013/05/dear-randy-how-do-i-research-my-german.html

Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Anonymous said...

You gave very good advise to Dieter. I am in the same boat, but I am from France with NO one on this side of the pond either. My family doesn't really want to cooperate, so I had to fend for myself. I have found lots of leads on Geneanet (great suggestion), I have searched for blogs like yours in French for tips and tricks on how to research in France over the internet, I have gone to each of the "departements" official sites where I know I have ancestors and searched in their on line records (I am sure the Lander in Germany has some too), I have a world subscription at Ancestry.com which was very disappointing (over $300 for a total of 25 documents with no hope of finding more), I have paid for a membership in the genealogical society of the department where I have the most ancestors and plan on doing it again in another where I have found some leads (advise I got from numerous American genealogy blogs). And I have downloaded loads of great French Google books for FREE to improve my knowledge of my country's history to allow me to place my folks in the proper context. I am learning so much about the past, if not so much about my family, but this makes me happy anyway and it certainly gives a workout to my brain.
Thanks Randy for all the useful information and interesting posts you write.
Viel Gluck zum Dieter!!!

bgwiehle said...

Your correspondent has 3 major advantages: he knows the language (which helps immensely with older texts and handwriting), he has lived and was schooled in Germany (will be familiar with German geography, history and civil procedures), and he is now in the US (some record-access restrictions in Germany are not applied when looking at the same records in the USA, esp. FamilySearch microfilms).
Hopefully he has contacts and will find someone with knowledge of his family's origins a couple of generations back. Without a starting place, finding records will be like looking for the proverbial needle. There have been MAJOR population movements in the last 150 years that complicate people's origins in Germany - from the late industrial revolution to the two World Wars to the end of the Iron Curtain and more recent times. Assuming from his query for German ancestors that his family is not Polish, Russian, Turkish, etc. within recent memory (or obvious surname), they might still have been displaced from some other region in Europe.
Most of the resources you mentioned will be helpful to orient a beginner genealogist. Once past that point, they focus on English-speaking, usually US, descendants of the German immigrants. Even in Christa Cowan's talk on German research last week, the focus was on searching all the US records first - censuses, then naturalizations, then passenger lists, and finally in Germany itself, maybe. Not helpful to Dieter, the new immigrant himself.
Correction to your point 3): It should not be necessary to subscribe to the World Deluxe subscription at Ancestry.com if only German records are needed - subscribe at the German site, Ancestry.de
A MAJOR German website that was omitted from your blog post, is GenWiki [http://wiki-de.genealogy.net/Hauptseite], which has its own mailing lists, family trees (Ortsfamilienbücher & Gedbas), links to regional genealogical societies and many, many other resources. Many of the sub-domains have multiple language options.

Ernie said...


I would also suggest the metasearch site
http://meta.genealogy.net/ to get 10 different databases at once, including, among other things, Ortsfamilienbücher (local heritage books, submitted family research, and directories (Adressbücher). This is the metasearch site for the GenWiki that bwiehle mentions, kind of a one-stop shopping site. This is available in both German and English.

Ernie Thode

Anonymous said...


What year is the Map of the German States from????

Thanks, Bill

Gary Fredericksen said...

Great suggestions. I would like to suggest two additional basic sources - 1) Google "Genealogy Research Germany (or any other country) and 2) review what is on Cyndislist. Both of these give good starting places in addition to what you gave.

Jeff Hodge said...

I just want to point out one of the FamilySearch instructional videos (Randy's list #2). On the second page of that link is a couple of excellent courses in German handwriting. It really helped me with some Bible records figuring out person's names, dates, places, and terms (marriage, etc).

Anonymous said...

If one lives in San Diego County, the San Diego Genealogy Society has a German interest group that meets the 3rd Wednesday of the month, 1:00 at the Family History Center in Mission Valley. Next meeting is June 19. Also Ancestry.com just posted a new video on YouTube about German research.

T said...

I got quite a ways searching through ancestry until I got stopped with the language and lack of knowledge about geography.

Bobbi said...

I have found good connections on


There are a number of German genealogy groups in the US, that may be of some help.

Bobbi said...

I don't know what happened to the links, so I will try again.