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German Genealogy

The Family Tree GERMAN GENEALOGY GUIDE How to trace your Germanic Ancestry in Europe by James Beidler

Dated September 2013, no copyright page. ISBN from back cover 978-1-4403-3065-0. Size 6×9 239 pages. TOC shows 14 chapters, 7 appendices plus the index. Most valuable is the index of sample letters to request records and the address list of where to send them.

Review by Carolyn B. Leonard, 8 Jan 2020

This is the best of all the German genealogy guides I have seen, and I have reviewed several. Here are some of the pointers I saved from this book:

1.  Philadelphia was the port of entry for about 80 percent of the “first boat” German immigrants who came in during the 1700s through 1800s. (Sure enough, I found  my 1848 German great and great-great grandparents came through Philadelphia in 1848.) Baltimore and New York were next in numbers. Upon arrival, immigrants had one week to settle with the ship captain. Anyone who couldn’t pay after that was sold as indentured labor. Few if any German nobles immigrated because they wouldn’t have any interest in trading a nice German castle for a log cabin in America’s wilderness.

2. Throughout the colonial era, immigrants had to be in America at least seven years before they could apply for naturalization. Early in the 20th century new federal laws created a 2-step naturalization process. First, they filed a “Declaration of Intention” and later he could make a “Naturalization Petition.” Sometimes the declaration lists the ship’s name and the date when they arrived and may reveal from whence he came. After 1906, the process became more standardized under the US Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.

3.  Most Germans adopted surnames in the 1300s and a place name surname to indicate where the person was originally from. ie: Johannes, born in Parteheim, moves to nearby Ortenberg so Johannes from Partenheim becomes Johannes Partenheim. Most German records of commoners date only from the 1500s or later.

4.   Germany wasn’t a unified country until 1871. Many small states preceded that time and some areas were part of France or other nations.

5.  Earlier than the year 1658 (end of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe) records were usually not accessible until recent digitization. (In the mid 1990s when we visited Gernany, the historian we consulted told us my ancestors of the BERG name were recorded at the Rathous (sp?) in Ortenberg. Wish I had followed up on that)

6.  After The Revolution of 1848 people from Baden adopted a constitution.

7.  There is no centralized system for record-keeping so you will have to hunt. The archives made more than 100,000 photographs available to the public through commons.wikimedia.org. (The photos may be only from 1850 to 1950, that’s not clear.) The German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv)  hold the records of the Holy Roman Empire from 1495 (which included current Germany). This Bundesarchiv court settled disputes between citizens and between the lords and their subjects. But they were very slow – some cases required a century to complete.

8.  Major religious groups in the German states were Roman Catholic, but also Evangelisch (a forced union of Lutheran and Reformed congregations), Old Lutheran, and Moravian. Each also have their own archives altho many have been microfilmed by the LDS (familysearch.org). (I was surprised to learn my BAHR family was Catholic in Germany because they were protestant in America.) I learned people in the German states had to follow the religion of their rulers.

9. Standesamt means “civil registration office,” abbreviated sometimes StdA. However if the abbreviation is followed by a comma or semicolon, then the village has its own civil registry office. If there’s no punctuation, the town name after the abbreviation will contain the registry office serving the village in question.

10.  Two German naming traditions: First, German children were given two, or sometimes three, names. The second name is what you will find in records. (Sure enough, my German ancestral family had three sons and three daughters. All the male first names were John/Johannes, all the girls first names were Mary/Maria.) They were actually known by their second names. Nicknames in German are interesting. Americans drop the second part of the name: eg: Christopher becomes Chris; but in Germany they would drop the first syllable – Christopher might become Stophel or Christine become Stina. These short forms would be used in church and other records. Secondly, children were almost always named for one or more of their baptismal sponsors. Most common in males: first born for father’s father, second mother’s father, third for father of the child, fourth and so on would be named for uncles of the child.

11. Before the Protestant Reformation (1500s) the Roman Catholic Church was the only Christian church in the German states. Historically, Roman Catholic records were kept in the Latin language and as a result this non-cursive handwriting is considerably easier to decipher than German cursive script.

12.  Until the 1800s, most Germans were still tied to the land in some form of serfdom, which limited their ownership rights to “real estate.”

13. The Feudal System is where a peasant or worker known as a vassal receives a piece of land in return for serving a lord or king, especially during times of war. In feudal times of the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century) a small portion of the population controlled a LARGE portion of the wealth and resources. For instance, the Grand Duchy of Baden was much enlarged through the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1803–1806 and was a sovereign country until it joined the German Empire in 1871. 

14. There were four social standings: 1. The King (or for Baden, the Duke or Grand Duke) 2. Barons 3. Knights 4. Serfs or Villeins. The king owned all the land. Barons leased land (called the Manor) from the King. Known as Lords of the manor, they paid rent and provided lodging and food when the King and his court visited. Barons were rich and gave land to knights in return for military service and protection. Knights were wealthy tho not as much as a Baron, and they gave land to the serfs in return for free labor, food, and service on demand. People in the German states had to follow the religion of their rulers. The serfs or villeins had no rights. They were poor. 

I highly recommend this book for anyone researching German ancestry.