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Tracing Your Roots to Germany: The Nomenclature

Tips and hints for beginning German research.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Alan Smith
Word Count: 690 (approx.)
Labels: Vital Record 
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Whether learning a science, technical procedure, or foreign language, one is faced with understanding new nomenclature. At this point in my journey, I have good evidence as to my ancestors' country of origin. The next step is to narrow down in what part of the country and/or what town my ancestors last lived.

One very important step was to search the family surnames which frequent my early family tree. What was the heritage and ethnicity of the spouse families that married into the first and second generation of my family in the U.S.? What were the cultural backgrounds of the families who lived in the neighboring houses and farms?

In a majority of instances, families moved, lived by, and migrated to areas where people were similar in background and religion. More importantly, they often came from the same areas in Europe. For example, the first generation of Smiths inter-married with such surnames as Andereck, a form of Anderegg and Coffman which comes from Kauffman, both having Swiss German roots; and Bibler, which comes from Bibelsbach from Bavaria. This would suggest that the Smiths, probably from the German surname of Schmidt or perhaps Messerschmitt, may be from a German-Swiss area. In my situation I had to balance this data against family lore which mentions they set sail from France and that my fifth great-grandmother's maiden name of Jachman has a French heritage. Also, two of Adam Smith's sons married Tussing girls who came from the French name of Tusiant.

No matter what country a researcher is studying, he or she is going to have to dig into the birth, marriages, and death records, otherwise known as vital records. I discovered, to my chagrin, that vital records in Germany did not begin until after the French Revolution in 1792. Since my Smith family line landed in the mid-1700s, I could not rely these documents. Apparently, the French started keeping records in areas they controlled and became the model for most of the German states to followed suit by 1876. For example, Rhineland began collecting files in 1792, Hessen-Nassau in 1803, Westfalen in 1808, Hannover in 1809, and Prussia by 1874.

After some digging, I realized that for my quest, I needed to find an online German translation site, or strike up a relationship with a German-American who can speak both languages, or buy a German-English dictionary. To begin with, I selected the dictionary, knowing full well that requests for data directly from a German city office would still require a query written in German. There was no way around it. To request vital records from a German city clerk, you are going to have to request documents in German.

There are German terms which one will run into. Here are a couple of examples:

Standesamt: Is a German civil registration office. This is the name of the place which is responsible for vital records, like births, marriages and deaths. This is the office that you will find in any particular German town. Most cities have websites such as www.(nameofcity).de where you can find contact information.

Staatsarchiv: This is the name of a state archive which has copies of civil records. The district archives is called: Kreisarchive.

Many of these records are on microfilm up to 1876 throughout Germany and are available at the Family History Library or through local Family History Centers with catalogs.

The one example of a birth certificate which my sister was able to obtain on the Miller side of the family was quite informative. Of course, having it deciphered helped immensely. Unlike U.S. certificates, the grandfather was listed as well as his occupation as a boat builder on the Rhine river. This kind of information can really spark future searches as well as add more branches of the family tree.

The data above, though helpful is only a small sliver of the sources and methods in finding family genealogy in Germany and surrounding countries. The road of genealogy is long and winding. Now that the tracks have appeared on the other side of the Atlantic pond, the road signs must be read and understood.

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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