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Exploring German Ancestries

With the advent of a different and alien culture to research, you have to go back to the basics. You have to define new terms, policies, and procedures as well as find interpreters that can translate not only the language but the many nuances and peculiarities of the culture. In other words, you are not in Kansas any more.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Alan Smith
Word Count: 909 (approx.)
Labels: Ethnic 
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Part One: First baby steps

For many years I had looked across the globe at where many of my ancestors had come from with a cautious desire to dig into Germany and especially Alsace-Lorraine area. I discovered I had to re-learn many techniques in genealogical research, with the added barrier of a foreign language. This is the first part of a series of articles which will cover my adventure in tracing my German born ancestors. What I have learned, I will in turn pass on to others.

With the advent of a different and alien culture to research, you have to go back to the basics. You have to define new terms, policies, and procedures as well as find interpreters that can translate not only the language but the many nuances and peculiarities of the culture. In other words, you are not in Kansas any more. You begin to rediscover Europe's history while trying to redefine what was happening on the continent which would have urged ancestors to leave for America. It can be a daunting task.

As far as the hotly contested area of Alsace-Lorraine, there is another complication. Both France and German cultures have mixed and intertwined in the Rhine area for decades.

I had both the surnames in my family tree of Smiths and the Millers having come from Germany. I am not sure if Smiths were Schmidt or even possibly a shorten form of Messerschmitt. Despite searching passenger lists, I did not have a name of a ship or a date as to when they crossed. All I knew was that Adam Smith and his family showed up in the Shenandoah area of Virginia around the 1770s and purchased some land. I had an old researcher's note that inferred that Adam was born in Germany, as well as a couple of his children, before coming to America. I could only hope this was correct and that there was not an intervening generation or generations which traveled across the Atlantic.

In contrast, I did know that the Millers were known to have lived in Alsace with the spelling of Mueller. I found this information because knew they sailed from France on May 25, 1839 and had landed in a New York on July 7, 1839 aboard the "Moon-de-Grass. This data came from my sister's earlier research. She had help from a German-speaking researcher who found a birth certificate in Germany of one of my great-great uncles. On that document it listed the child's grandfather and his profession as a boat builder on the Rhine River. As regarded the Miller family, it was D-day for me: I had landed on the shore of Europe and was making some headway inland.

If you think it is difficult to locate some old town in the West which is no longer featured on a map, wait until you tackle Germany, which was an entirely different country back when my ancestors might have lived there.

Germany was not a unified nation until 1871, which makes most immigrants who left long before then, being citizens of a long since extinct government. Prior to 1871 Germany had kingdoms known as Bavaria, Duchies, Prussia, Saxony, and Wurttemberg. To add to the mess, there were free city states such as Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck, as well as personal states which all had their own laws and recording systems.

The dividing up of Germany did not stop in 1871. After World War II parts were given up when East and West Germany were carved out by the allies.

What this means to the researcher of German ancestors is that you must learn about any particular region of Germany where you might know or suspect your ancestors lived. It also implies that some sections during some years may have, in fact, been recorded by surrounding countries as well as the original German states.

One of the misconceptions is that Prussian ancestors were German. Prussia actually started between Lithuania and Poland. It later grew to include the southern Baltic coast and Northern Germany, and as a state it ceased to exist in 1947.

Some references on the web for German historical outlines can be found such as an article entitled, "Clamor in the East; An outline of German History"

The use of German immigration with passenger arrival records are generally not available prior to 1892. One reference is the: "Germans to America" series. Alone, it is an expensive series, but it can be found on CD and at various libraries. If you are fortunate enough to know what German port your ancestors used, you can use the "German Emigration & Passenger Lists." One source is the book, "German Emigration to America" by Michael P. Palmer. An entire list of resources can be found under the title of German Emigration & Passenger Lists.

If you are lucky enough to have records of your ancestor's movement to the new world, the next task is to locate the town and or birthplace of your ancestor. Then the work really begins in earnest, which is what my next article will address, i.e. "To gain access to documents from local municipalities."

All you can do as a novice like myself when looking for ancestors in other countries is to roll up your sleeves and begin. I can only hope that my travails will in the end help others who are brave enough to follow.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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