This article is in response to many questions I have received regarding German genealogical research. One of the main troubles with starting research is knowing where to begin. A person may have heard their ancestor emigrated from Germany or even know the kingdom in that country, but this may not be enough information to begin researching German records. The place of origin for your ancestor should be specific. This will help you know exactly where to research in German records. I credit the following methodology to Larry O. Jensen, author of German Heritage Clues to Determining the Place of Origin of Your Immigrant Ancestors. He helped me understand the importance of this research process.
Begin with records in the United States to help you determine the place of origin of your ancestor. Start with the materials in your possession. You may have a family Bible which includes family births, marriages, or deaths, church or vital records, passports, ship passenger papers, your ancestor's emigration papers, occupation documents or military discharge papers. Any of these may give clues to establish where your ancestor lived in Germany. If you do not have any of these papers, seek out other living descendents in your family and ask for their help.
Review state, county, or local histories where your ancestor settled in the United States. Histories often identify well-known individuals, religious and community leaders, or those who first settled a specific area. The information on these people may include where they were from and their place of origin. Even if your ancestor is not listed in the histories, German emigrants who came to an area often followed family and friends who emigrated earlier. The place of origin of Germans found in the locality where your ancestors settled may provide clues for your ancestor's place of origin.
One of the first records your ancestor filled out upon their arrival in America may have been a declaration of intention to become a citizen of the United States. A petition for naturalization and final naturalization papers was submitted thereafter. The most detailed and accurate record of the three is the declaration of intention. This has the greatest possibility of revealing a place of birth. Counties cared for naturalization records until the early 1900s when the U.S. federal government took over the process.
Vital and church records of the place your ancestor settled may also reveal origin. Betrothals, banns, or marriage records may be found if your ancestor married after coming to the United States. Children of your ancestor who emigrated when still less than the age of twelve may be found in confirmation records. These records may show their place of christening in Germany. Death sources often revealing a place of birth include death, burial, and cemetery records or obituaries. Remember to check all jurisdictional levels for these records.
U.S. census records after 1850 or U.S. port records may list a birth place for your ancestor. Military records of the United States may also offer this information. The military may have been appealing to an immigrant because service offered land grants and also made gaining citizenship less difficult. Examine any records you may find for hints to determine where your ancestor came from in Germany.
Once you have determined the place of origin for your immigrant ancestor from Germany, research in that country will be more focused. Not only will you have possibly found more specifics on your ancestor's birth place, but you should now have a greater understanding of their life in the United States.