Finding Your Ancestors in Passenger List Records: Guest Blog Post by Melanie McComb, The Shamrock Genealogist

 Melanie McComb, The Shamrock Genealogist 

Immigration is a common theme among my family, particularly for my Eastern European ancestors. They travelled from countries like Poland, Romania, and Lithuania before coming to the United States. Recently, I was chasing my maternal great grandfather Anton Gailunas across the ocean. Until recently, I could not find his arrival passenger list record in America. I learned some valuable tips along the way to help you locate your ancestors in passenger list records.

1. Locate naturalization records


In the U.S., your ancestor would file a document called “declaration of intention” (otherwise known as first papers) if they were planning on becoming a citizen (not all immigrants filed). Then a petition for citizenship was filed.  If your family member arrived via ship, the name of the ship would be listed on these documents. This is your first big clue that you will want to research further in addition to the arrival date noted.

2. Research the ship

Researching the ship can give you a lot of insight into the route your ancestors took before coming to a new country. You will want to research the county the ship was owned by, what ports they travelled to, as well as what type of ship it was. Great grandfather Anton didn’t come to the U.S. on a passenger ship – he came on a merchant ship called the S.S. Northwestern Bridge. This is important to note since I had to look in separate records as crew lists are recorded separately from passenger list records. 

3. Research departure and arrival ports

Your ancestor’s journey likely involved separate ports. Look for the largest ports near where your ancestor lived – that’s where they likely departed. Their journey could have taken a few days before they were able to board the ship. 

Great-grandfather Anton came to America from Lithuania and went through several ports. First he departed from Bremen, Germany and then ended up in Hull, England. He eventually made it to America from England on a boat that arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana.

4. Research passenger list records

Now it’s time to look for your ancestor in passenger list records. Given everything you know about their route, you can see if records are still available. Check for records at both the departure and arrival ports. For example, many of the Bremen, Germany departure records were destroyed so I can only go off the arrival/departure records in England and America. 

You will want to expand the years your ancestor may have travelled to see if they were on different ships. In researching my great-grandfather, I found a crew list record from Hull, England where his line was crossed out. It looks like he was a sailor scheduled to show up on the boat but probably missed it for some reason. That explains why he came over to America at a later point. The record is significant because his father’s name is noted as the departure contact. I had verified his father’s name with Anton’s marriage license application and it matched. It also listed a sailor’s home as an arrival address, giving me more insight into how Anton worked his way to America (vs. buying a ticket for a ship). 

I highly recommend using This site has a wonderful collection of passenger list records and list of ships by ports. You can look up specific dates and ships to review the passenger list record. In addition, you can research on sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch for naturalization records and some passenger list records.

Following these steps will give you more insight into learning about your ancestor’s journey and hopefully help you to break through some brick walls. Best of luck!

5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Genealogy Translation

Genealogy can be an exciting journey, full of intriguing discoveries and amazing breakthroughs. But true genealogists know that the search for your ancestors can also mean long hours, brick wall after brick wall and months or even years of frustration. So by the time you finally get your hands on an ancestor’s document, you want to make sure to get the most out of your find. But what if this document needs translation? How can you make sure that your translator deciphers all that he/she can? Below, I’ve compiled my top tips for getting the most out of your genealogical translation: 

  1. Even if you only want a few lines translated, send the translator the entire document.

If you would like to have a part of a record translated (one church book entry, one section of a certificate, one page of a letter, etc.), you should still send your translator the entire document or all the pages you have on hand. Why? This provides a much greater sample of the scribe’s handwriting for the translator to work with. Just as my handwriting differs from yours, no two handwriting samples of the past are exactly alike – so the wider the handwriting sample, the easier the deciphering becomes for us translators. 

For example, I recently translated a record where I could not figure out the first letter of a last name – it looked a little like a V, but then had a strange cross through it. I scanned the rest of the record, but saw no more occurrences of that odd-looking letter. Fortunately, however, the client had sent me three pages from the same church book where her record appeared, and I finally found that odd-shaped letter in a first name, before the letters  “_osina”. As “Rosina” would very likely be the only name with that letter combination, I could now see that my mystery letter must also be an R – but it took three pages of handwriting samples to find it!

 In this last name, I could read the letters “eusch”, but that first letter was a mystery. After searching through other pages, I was able to identify it as an “R”, which the client then confirmed with additional records.

(Extra Tip: To save the translator time (and you money!), highlight or clearly describe which part of the record you would like translated).

  1. Scan your document in a high resolution.

Documents should be scanned in as high of a resolution as possible before you send them to your translator. Why? In the old German script, it is very important for us translators to be able to zoom in on the individual letters. Many letters look very similar to one another (see Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting for some clues on how to tell these letters apart), and we need to be able to zoom in to see the individual lines and strokes to distinguish certain letters from one another (without the document becoming blurry when we do this).  This allows us to provide you with accurate results and spellings throughout your translation, as well as finish the translation in a much more timely manner. We look at tiny little letters all day long – you, and you alone, can save our eyes!

  1. Send any genealogical information that you already know to the translator.

You have likely done a bit (or perhaps a lot) of genealogical research before sending your record off to be translated. If so, tell us what you know – it greatly helps! Names can sometimes be difficult to transcribe, as there are many spelling variations and no grammatical context clues to fill in the blanks. But if a client has already done the research, and knows that this is a church record for his great-great grandmother Walburga Appenzeller in Unteraarmühle, this saves a lot of time in terms of letter-comparison and squinting at individual lines and dots! That being said, a good translator will always double-check a name and let you know if the word looks different from the word you provided – sometimes there are surprises!

  1. Tell the translator exactly what the translation is for.

Is your translation for publication? Are you making a family book? Is it a birthday or Christmas present? Or do you simply need the information on the record for your notes and research? Make sure you communicate with us translators exactly what your translation will be used for and how you would like the finished product delivered. For example, I often include footnotes in my translations if I find any additional information that you may find interesting (does your ancestor’s record mention a battle? I would then provide information about when and where that battle took place in the footnotes). People who have reviewed my work usually enjoy the footnotes, but perhaps you want this translation to be a bit more formal, and you don’t want my thoughts in your final product – which would be absolutely fine with me. A happy client equals a happy translator, so don’t be afraid to communicate what you want.

  1. Share your genealogy excitement with your translator.

We genealogical translators are usually avid history lovers and enjoy solving puzzles as much as you do – so that means that we are thrilled to hear about your genealogical breakthroughs once you receive the translation. I get so excited when my clients tell me that the translation helped them to find a name they’ve been searching for for years, or that their family member started crying when they opened the translated diary of their grandmother they never got to meet (well, not necessarily the crying part, but the fact that the translation meant so much to them!). These are my favorite e-mails to receive, and it makes my work feel so much more meaningful. This shared experience then helps to strengthen the client-translator bond, and we will both look forward to working together the next time as we fill in your family tree. Happy researching!




Three Ways to Experience Your Ancestry Through Travel: Guest Post by Travel Coordinator Keri Forbringer

So you’ve discovered your family is from Germany…now what? If you’re anything like my family, you will want to go see the country for yourself.

My family is from Germany and Austria. Like many families, we can trace our ancestry to varying degrees. My mom’s side is relatively well-documented: her great grandfather came to the US from Esslingen, Germany in the 1800s, where he had owned a mill. There is both family lore and documentation to support the history. My dad’s side is more of a mystery: we know his grandparents both arrived in New York City, also in the 1800s, where they got married, had kids, and moved to the suburbs (the American dream, right?), but we can’t find much about their lives before their arrival. Like many immigrants, they may have wanted it that way. A fresh start, perhaps, that involved truly embracing their new country and its culture. 

Whether your family history is well-documented or hard to find, there is plenty to be gained through travel. How? Read on for three different ways to do so.

  1. Take an Ancestry Cruise

For someone like my dad – who knows relatively little about his ancestry, but is eager to learn – something like the new Journey of Genealogy Cruise might be ideal. This cruise is the first of its kind; and Cunard have partnered to offer a unique, in-depth genealogy experience. Passengers depart from London on November 4th and arrive in New York City after a seven-night journey across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2. This voyage follows the path of many American immigrants who sailed across the ocean to New York. It makes perfect sense that Cunard has partnered with Ancestry, because one in five immigrants who arrived in New York City did so on a Cunard ship. Passengers get an in-depth look at their own ancestry, using the resources provided and the expertise of the cruise’s special guests, which include genealogy, history, and ancestry experts. Upon arrival in New York, passengers can add a two-night extension to explore Ellis Island and historic Manhattan.

I can also personally recommend adding a trip to the Tenement Museum, which does an incredible job of showing what life was like for immigrants in New York. In particular, there is a tour called Shop Life that features a German family’s saloon from 1870s New York. Other tours feature immigrants from various backgrounds; all tours are well-researched and well-presented.

  1. Take a Guided Ancestry Tour through Germany

For someone who knows a little more about his or her family history, I might recommend something like a Go Ahead Tours trip through Germany. Go Ahead Tours has also partnered with to create an itinerary that gives travelers a general overview of Germany with a specific focus on ancestry. The trip is twelve days long and travels north-to-south through Germany, from Hamburg to Munich. Stops between the two cities include Bremen, Cologne, Heidelberg, Nuremberg, Ansbach and Rothenburg. Special ancestry-related tours include the BallinStadt Emigration Museum, the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, and the Hessenpark Open Air Museum. Genealogists will help you discover more about your family history before your departure, and expert guides will help you experience Germany and its history and culture during your visit.

  1. Design Your Own Trip with a Travel Advisor

The benefits of a group tour are clear: a pre-set itinerary with interesting people and a guide helping you along the way. But group tours are not for everyone. Perhaps you would like to focus more specifically on your family’s place of origin, the dates you can travel don’t align with the tour dates offered, or maybe you just don’t like groups. If you fall into this category but you don’t know where to start when planning your trip, I highly recommend using a travel advisor. A good travel advisor can help you determine your travel priorities. He or she can work with you to create a custom itinerary, which gets shaped and polished through a dialogue until it is tailored to your interests and is just right for you.

My mom falls into this category: she is an enthusiastic traveler, but appreciates having someone help her work out the details.  She loves having an itinerary that includes everything from hotel check-in information to details about where to park in a given city, along with pre-booked train tickets with instructions for finding her particular train. If I were to send her on a trip to explore her ancestry in Germany, we would focus her travels in Baden-Württemberg, where her family is from. If she wanted, I might set her up with a local church or office official who might be able to provide her with more historical records about her family in Esslingen. Her travel priorities tend to include experiencing the local culture, so I might encourage her to travel during an event like the Freiburg wine festival, or have her go to a Christmas Market in the winter.

Wherever your family is from – Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or Luxembourg – or wherever your interests lie – adventure travel like hiking or biking, or in cultural experiences like food, castles, churches, and town life – there is something to be gained from working with a skilled travel advisor. We can help you experience your family’s country of origin in rich detail, tailored to your specific interests.


Keri Forbringer is a Virtuoso Travel Coordinator with Luxury Travel Works based in Shrewsbury, MA. She can be reached at



A Sound of Music Cook, Army Tinsel and American Chocolates: My Interview with the Austrian Grandparents

World War II. Most of us know it from the American point of view – sons, brothers and sweethearts being sent overseas. Scrap drives, Red Cross fundraisers and Rosie the Riveter posters for those left stateside. My own grandmother Nancy (born in 1931) was a child in St. Louis, Missouri during this time. But what was it like to be a child on the other side of the ocean, right in the middle of the action? To find out that and more, I sat down with my Austrian husband’s grandparents, Joseph (Sepp) and Anna Schweighofer, born in 1940 and 1939, respectively. Here’s what Oma and Opa had to say:


                                   Sepp and Anna as children in Austria, early 1940s

1. What was a normal day for you as a child?

Opa:  I lived on a farm in a small village: Zell am Moos, Austria. My family had a cow, two horses,  a bull, a calf, a pig, hens and sheep. We didn’t have a tractor, so we had to rake the hay ourselves. We would get up at 5:00 a.m. and do chores before school.  

Sepp’s parent’s on their wedding day


Pic 1: Sepp’s family farm in Zell am Moos, Austria

Pic 2: Sepp (second from front) and his family raking the hay

Since we only had one teacher at our school, the older kids went to school in the morning, and then the younger kids went in the afternoon. After school we had to do more work on the farm. We usually didn’t have time for homework, but the teachers didn’t mind – They knew we all had a lot of work to do at home. If we had some time left over at night, we would do the homework then.

Oma: I grew up in Laiter, one town over from Zell am Moos and next door to where we live now. My family also had a farm, but much smaller than Opa’s. And it was a full house – my grandmother, aunt and two cousins lived there with my father, mother, sister and me. My grandmother was bedridden from the year I was born, 1939, until the year she died (1954). My aunt took care of her that whole time! We also had 2 or 3 cows, and my mother took care of all the farm work. My father was a rake maker for the farmers, so that kept him busy. Everyone would always come to our house to buy the rakes.

Anna’s parents on their wedding day

                                                 Anna’s family, with the rakes in the back right

My father was also the “Kapellmeister”, or music director, of the town’s band for 50 years – from 1920 until 1970. And the band practiced in our house! So between the rakes and the band, he had no time to help Mother with the farm work. I actually didn’t have to help as much as my older sister Frieda did. She was five years older than me and had to do everything.

                                                                  Anna (bottom right) with her family

Our school was over a mile away (2 kilometers), and it took us about an hour to walk there with our little legs. We had no books, so had to copy everything down ourselves. When we got home we would do our homework and help around the house and farm. Sometimes we would visit with my cousin, who was ten years older than me. She could sew and make her own clothes. At that time, if you needed something, you made it yourself.   

2. When I first met you, Oma, I was very excited to find out that your aunt was the cook for the real von Trapp family, since one of my favorite movies is Sound of Music! What do you remember about her?

Aunt Aloisia had a hard life. Her father had died young, and her brother was in an Italian prisoner of war camp for all of World War I. When she got married, she moved to Mondsee (author’s note: the location of the church where Maria got married in the Sound of Music). She and her husband had two children together. Sadly, her husband got into a bike accident one day and ended up passing away, leaving her all alone with the two kids. I wasn’t born yet, but she told us that she was at the doctor in Mondsee some time after that and was looking for a job in the newspaper ads. She found the advertisement for a job as a cook for the von Trapp family in nearby Salzburg – although the family was obviously not famous yet!

                                                   Anna’s Aunt Aloisia in her younger years, far left

Aunt Aloisia applied for the job and ended up being hired as the family’s cook. But that meant she had to move in to their house in Salzburg and leave her two little children behind with her sister, who lived with my family. Aloisia would come home to visit when she could, and sometimes she would even get to bring the von Trapp girls’ outgrown dresses home for her own kids to wear. Since I wasn’t alive then, I don’t really remember any particular stories, but I know she liked the family. In 1938, when the Captain and Maria decided to leave the Nazi regime in Austria to go sing in America, they asked my aunt to go with them. She was touched, but of course did not want to leave her own children behind. She stayed in Austria, and the von Trapps always made a point to come visit her whenever they were back in the country.

The house where the von Trapp family lived and Aloisa served as a cook: Aigen, Salzburg, Austria

3. Do you have any memories of World War II (1939 – 1945, Oma, birth until age 6, Opa, birth until age 5)?

Oma: One stands out in particular – my older sister and her friends would always take the train to school, which was in a nearby village called Frankenmarkt. But one day in 1944, when the kids were in their classroom, the Allies bombed the town and the surrounding railways. With the trains out of service, my ten-year-old sister and her friends had no way to get home. They ended up having to walk home all by themselves – a nine-mile walk, for ten-year-olds, and they didn’t know the way! Their parents back at home had no way of knowing where their kids were and if they were safe – they were really worried and had no way of contacting them. It was a scary day for everyone.

Modern Google Maps showing the walking directions from Frankenmarkt, where the school was, home to Laiter – over a three-hour walk, if you did know the way…

That’s one of my strongest memories, but I also remember that throughout the whole war, there were people that died from every house in our neighborhood. Houses would get notices that one of their male family members had died in the war.

I also remember the blackout curtains that we had to put up every night, so the planes couldn’t see us, as well as the tinsel that the planes would drop down.

What tinsel?

Opa: It was tinsel that seemed to fall from the sky. We didn’t know why the planes did that, but maybe to mess with the radar signal of the German planes.

Oma: Well, for whatever reason they did it, we didn’t mind. We didn’t have any Christmas ornaments, so we hung the tinsel that we picked up off the ground on our tree to make it more festive!

4. Do you remember the war ending (Oma – age 6, Opa, almost 5?)

Oma: I remember that only one house had a radio, so all the men would go there to listen. We had known that Germany was losing for a while, so we were relieved when we found out it was finally over. And then the Americans came and they were really nice.

5. What was it like with the Americans occupying your part of Austria (1945-1955, Oma age 6-16, Opa age 5-15)?

Opa: When I was about nine years old, I came home to find an American tank on our farm, with American soldiers standing around it. They motioned to me, saying, “Come here, little boy!” I went up to them, and they politely asked me to go buy them beer in the village. They gave me 100 schillings (approx. $8.00), which was more money that I had ever seen in my life. I took the money, ran to the village and bought the beer for them. But when I got back, the American soldiers and the tank were gone! I waited for them to come back, but days went by and they never returned. This meant that I was left with all of the change from buying the beer – 90 schillings, a lot of money for a nine-year-old boy! I saved the money and eventually bought my first motorcycle using that as my start.

Occupation of Austria. Image Cred: Euromaidan Press

Oma: We actually had two American soldiers staying in our house, as did many other houses in our neighborhood. We were required to give them room and board. But they were really nice. I remember that they loved scrambled eggs – my mom would make it for them every day!

So the people liked the soldiers?

Yes, the Americans were really kind. The soldiers gave us kids chocolate and were always friendly. The people in Linz weren’t as lucky. They were occupied by the Russians, and that’s where you heard horrible stories of how the soldiers treated people.

People of Salzburg greeting U.S. troops.  Image Credit:, Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps

6. What were those post-war years like?

Oma: Times were hard after the war. I remember we would hide bread if we got it so we would have it for later. We also had gray material that we had to make clothes from, and I remember that it was really itchy.

Besides the two American soldiers, we also had some other people staying at our house. A refugee from Czechoslovakia came to our village and ended up moving in with us. His wife and children also eventually came over, and we rearranged so that the family could have one room to themselves. They got more ration cards since they were refugees, and they would share the cards and the food with us. Eventually, they built a house next door to us and moved in there. It’s still standing today!

Anna’s family house in Laiter

We also had a Frenchman staying with us after the war. Both he and the Czech refugee helped around the farm and with the rakes in exchange for their room and board. One day, the Frenchman decided to leave, but I don’t know why. He left behind a letter for my parents to send to his family if he didn’t return. But since he wasn’t legally allowed to have been staying at our house, we were too nervous to send the letter. So we never did.

Opa: We had a Russian farmhand staying at our house after the war. He was very nice and very helpful around the farm.

6 . Moving forward a bit in time, how did you two meet each other (late 1950s)?

Opa: We were 18 or 19 years old. Oma was a waitress in Oberhofen (nearby village) and I came into the restaurant one day.

Oma: Yes, I remember he was sitting over in a corner, and I thought to myself, “Who is that good-looking guy?”

Opa: But nothing really happened right away. We had some group events and we danced with each other at those, and we also went to friends’ houses and spent some time together there.

Sepp and Anna’s wedding day, 1963

7. What were the first years like as a married couple (early 1960s)?

We built our own house that first year, and eventually moved in with our new baby Rosemarie. But when we moved in, the windows on the top floor weren’t installed yet. That was a problem, because our bedrooms were on that top floor. And as our luck would have it, that year was one of the coldest, snowiest winters we had ever seen. Snow kept blowing in our bedroom windows! Needless to say, we very much appreciated having windows that next winter.

Sepp and Anna’s house today, complete with windows!

When we built the house, we knew we eventually wanted to have a bed and breakfast, so we built it with that in mind. Laiter is right on Lake Irrsee and in the famous Salzkammergut region, so we hoped that guests would come from far and wide. We were so excited when we opened the doors in 1965. Our bed and breakfast wasn’t anything sophisticated – we just had one room for the guests, with six beds in the room. We didn’t have a shower, but we did have running water. Not every bed and breakfast had running water at the time, so we were very proud of that. And the tourist office made a special point of advertising that feature as well!

And the guests did come from far and wide! As soon as one car would leave, another car full of vacationers would show up. We had many visitors from Germany and other parts of Austria, but also from Hungary and other parts of Europe – we even had one man come all the way from Uruguay!


                          The guest book for the Schweighofer Bed and Breakfast

Since the guests took up one room, our four daughters slept together in the other. The guests loved our daughters and would often bring them presents. We would have repeat guests over the years, and we grew to have a special relationship with many of them. We would even send each other Christmas cards! Having the bed and breakfast brought us many happy memories and, best of all, many meaningful friendships.

Sepp and Anna’s four daughters, seen with Anna’s parents and two other grandchildren

Author: Today, Anna and Sepp still live in their same house in Laiter, which has also been home to many memories for their own growing family. Complete with four daughters and their significant others, five grandchildren and their significant others and five great-grandchildren (who, at ages 11 and under, have no boyfriends or girlfriends yet!), the family gathers at their beautiful home for every special occasion. As the lone American, I’ve been welcomed into their Austrian family with open arms – although maybe next time  I’l have to follow in the footsteps of my 1940s countrymen  and bring them all chocolates! 

Sepp and Anna with their family on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2013 (and yours truly bottom right!)


Five Transcription Tips for When You’re Just Stuck

Author’s Note: If you want more help transcribing your genealogy documents, join our Premium group – weekly access to live “office hours” where you can ask Katherine your transcription and translation questions – and get immediate answers. 

It happens to all of us. We are feeling good about our transcription skills, happily deciphering our German document, when all of the sudden, a word appears that looks like this: 

Alright, maybe not that bad, but sometimes it sure feels like it. So what can you do with these words that make you want to tear your hair out? Below, here are some tried and true tricks of the trade for when you can’t read a word:

1. Keep reading.

It sounds simple, but sometimes it’s the simplest things that work the best. Make some kind of mark in your transcription to note that you’ve skipped a word (I always write —-), and continue transcribing from that point. Many times your illegible word will be repeated in another section of your document, and this second occurrence of the word will be much easier to read than the first one.  

2. Find a similarly-formatted record for comparison purposes.

For example, if  your illegible word is part of a church record, look at the many other records on that same page. These records are usually all in the same format, and many times a word that is scrawled in your record will be much clearer in another record (who knows, maybe the scribe was in a hurry on the day of your ancestor’s baptism, but was in a more leisurely mood the next day). If it is a marriage certificate, look for another example of a marriage certificate that is formatted the same way. 

Additional Tip: If you don’t have another record handy, try copy and pasting parts of your German transcription into Google Search Engine. Sometimes other genealogists will have posted their transcriptions and translations of similar records on forums or blogs, which Google Search Engine will then bring up. You can then check this transcription against your own record to see if there are any similarities, and, if so, if your difficult-to-read word then becomes clear. 

3. Look to the next line.

Our ancestors often divided up words between lines, without using any hyphens or any other indication to mark this. Oftentimes the rest of your letters will be one line down, and then your word will make much more sense.

4. If the word you can’t read is a city or town, check if there are any types of headings or even stamps on your document.

Sometimes the answer is right there on the page, in incredibly easy-to-read type! 

5.  If one specific letter is illegible, scan your document to see if you have already deciphered a similarly-shaped figure in another word.

Perhaps you sight-read the word “Vater” (father), and by looking at that “r” in “Vater”, you then realize that the illegible letter in your current word might be an “r” as well.  Another trick I employ is if a letter is written differently than the “normal” version of the letter, I will sometimes underline all instances of that strange-looking letter in my document. This then allows my brain to get used to the way this scribe writes the letter, making it easier to recognize in future words. Making a key for all these illegible letters can also be very helpful.

If you’d like more tips and tricks for deciphering German handwriting, check out my book with the same title: Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting, available in e-book and paperback form on Amazon. Best of luck with your transcriptions! 

German Language Insight for Genealogists

While learning German is obviously not required for German genealogy research, it often helps to have at least a bit of understanding of the language when looking for your ancestors.  In addition to being able to recognize the most important genealogy words in German records, knowing a little about how the German language works can help you to narrow down what documents you think are important for your genealogy research. Below, I have summarized some of the most basic facts about the German language, in the hopes that this may give you a bit of a leg up when looking at your German documents.

1. All nouns are capitalized.

In the German language, all nouns (persons, places and things) are capitalized, no matter if it is a “proper noun” or not. For example, the word birth (Geburt) is capitalized in German, as is the word child (Kind). So if you see a capital letter, you now know that it does not necessarily mean that the word is a name – it’s likely just a noun.

The word Geburt (birth) is written with a capital “G”.

2. German has many different words for the word the.


Crazy, right? Depending if the word is the subject (Nom), direct object (Akk), indirect object (Dat), or possessive (Gen)*, the German word for the changes. No need to worry about what these grammatical terms mean for this article (unless you are a grammar nerd like myself – in that case, see below), but if you see any of the words above, you will know they all mean the. 

3. Lowercase words starting with ge- are likely past tense words.

The German past tense is formed with either  haben/sein (to have or to be – see how they conjugate below) + the past tense of the verb, which is usually formed with ge-. For example, the German word for to eat is essen. To say I ate, you would say Ich habe gegessen. The German word for to drive is fahren. To say I drove, you  would say Ich bin gefahren. 

Some verbs use a “t” form in their past tense instead of the “-en” ending. For instance, the word for to play is spielen in German, with the past tense (I played) written as Ich habe gespieltWhile getting into all the rules of the past tense here would take a bit too long, the important idea to take away is that if you see haben or sein plus ge-verb, the sentence is likely in past tense.

4. Umlauts can also be written out with an “e” after the vowel. 

Most German writers do use the umlaut (ä, ö or ü), but in some texts, you will see this sound written as ae, oe and ue instead. In genealogy, this is especially relevant for the spelling of certain last names. For instance, the last name Mueller is spelled M-u-e-l-l-e-r in America, but our German ancestors spelled it M-ü-l-l-e-r. The ü changed to a ue in English spelling. 

5. German loves compound words.

The German language consists of many compound words, or two words combined together to form one. How does this help you? Well, if you come across a word and can’t find it in your dictionary, try looking up the two parts of the word individually. This should then help you to form a better idea of what the author could have meant. 

Some fun examples of German compound words include:

6. Sometimes the verb is written at the very end of the sentence. 

While many German sentences do use Subject-Verb-Object word order (just like we do in English: “I ate the burger”, in which the verb, ate, comes right after the subject, I), sometimes German puts the verb at the very end of a sentence or phrase. Why would they do such a crazy thing, you ask? Well, if the sentence includes a certain type of word (a subordinating conjunction*, to be exact), such as weil (because)dass (that), ob (whether), während (during), etc., this is a signal for the verb to move to the end of a sentence, as it cannot be directly after the subject when one of these words are present. So if you don’t see the verb after the subject, keep reading, and it may be the very last word in the sentence. See this article on German word order for more information:

Mark Twain explains this crazy grammar best in his article “The Awful German Language“: 

“An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man’s signature — not necessary, but pretty. German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head — so as to reverse the construction — but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.”

You can see what Mark Twain means in this newspaper article I had the pleasure of translating below. The subject of the sentence, Termin (appointment), is in the second line, while the verb festgesetzt (was set) doesn’t appear until 9 lines later! So if you can’t find the verb in your document, don’t give up – just read on for a few more hours and it may eventually appear. 

While there are of course many more intricacies to the German language, it is my hope that these basic tips will give you a bit more of an idea of how German works. The German language is at times fascinating, at times entertaining, and yes, as Mark Twain put it, at times awful  – but overall, it is a great language to know, especially if you’re researching your German genealogy. Until next time, auf Wiedersehen (which happens to be another great compound word: wieder means again, sehen means to see)!

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* Cases in German, explained with English examples:

Example Sentence: The girl threw me the ball. 

Nominative case is the subject, which answers the question “who is doing the action?”.  

Who threw the ball? The girl. Girl is therefore the subject of the sentence.

Accusative case is the direct object, which answers the question “who or what after the verb?”. The girl threw what? The ball. Ball is therefore the direct object of the sentence and in the accusative case.

Dative case is the indirect object, which answers the question “to whom or for whom after the verb?”.

The girl threw the ball to whom? To me. Me is therefore the indirect object of the sentence and in the dative case.

Genitive case in German is the possessive case, expressed as “The sister of my father….” 

Of my father would be in the genitive case in German.

*Subordinating conjunction:

Six Need-to-Know “Letter Swaps” When Deciphering Your German Documents

“Why do you write your letters like that?” is a phrase that most of us have heard at some point in our lives. Just as each of us write our ABCs slightly differently from one another, so too did our ancestors – which can make transcribing their German handwriting rather difficult! Luckily, for those of us who work with the old German script on a daily basis, there is a great trick of the trade that helps with the daunting process of deciphering family documents: letter swaps. What is a letter swap, you ask? Well, some letters in the old German script look very similar to one another, and the way one person wrote one letter may be the way another person wrote its “swap” equivalent. So if a word isn’t making sense with the letter you think, trying replacing it with one of its “substitutes”, and see if you now have a plausible German word. Read below for the typical “swaps” in the world of German handwriting:


  1. h-s-f

While the lowercase letters h, s, and f above  are obviously different from one another in their proper form, they can often look similar to each other when quickly scrawled out by our ancestors.

s-c-h-r-i-f-t-l-i-c-h (“schriftlich”, or written)

Observe how the middle “f” and final “h” look similar (although if you look closely, you will see differences!)

*The letter “s” actually has three different forms, but this “s” is used at the beginning of a lowercase word or syllable. See Ten Tips for Deciphering German Handwriting for more information on the letter “s”.


  1. g-p


Lowercase g and p, with their circles above the line and their loops below, can often be confused for one another.


g-e-n-s (the end of the word Morgens, or in the morning)                  s-p-ä-t (spät, or late)

  1. a-o


Lowercase a and o can look similar if the author does not bring his final line of the “a” down to the line, as seen in the word “amtlich” below. 


a-m-t-l-i-c-h (amtlich, or official)                S-o-n-t-a-g (misspelling of the word Sonntag, or Sunday)

  1. e-n-m-r

For the exact differences of e-n-m, see Tip #2 on my Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting. Basically, the “e” (first sample) is more narrow, the “n” (second) is more jagged and spread out, with three points at the bottom, and the “m” (third) has four points. The “r” (final letter) should look different from these three, but if you look at the “n” (second), you can see how the “n” and the “r”, and even the “r” and the “e”, might sometimes look similar in actual handwriting.


e-r-z-ä-h-l-e-n      m-ü-ß-e-n (erzählen müßen, or must tell)         s-c-h-r-e-i-b-e-n (schreiben, or to                                                                                                                                 write)

  1. N-ST

Uppercase N and St can look similar if the author does not clearly cross his “t”. See the example of Nachmittag (afternoon) and Stunde (hour) above.

6. B-C-L

Uppercase B, C, and L can also look very similar to one another, depending on the author at hand. See the examples of Brief (letter), Christine, and Liebe (love) above to see how similar the letters can look (especially B and L).

If you would like more tips on learning how to actually tell these letters apart, see my book, Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting – it contains everything I wish I would have known when I was first starting out.  I would also recommend Roger Minert’s book Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents, which was instrumental to me when getting started in the field. But if you are not interested in learning these minute differences, or if it just seems too complicated and overwhelming, the above “letter swaps” should help if you cannot figure out the German word your ancestor or the church scribe wrote on your document. For example, if a “g” is not making sense, try swapping it out for a “p.” If you know there needs to be a vowel at a certain place in a word, but the letter looks like an “n”, now you know it is likely an “e”. The same goes for all the above letter combinations. Best of luck in transcribing, and, as always, if you would like a professional’s help, please don’t hesitate to contact me here.

5 Secret Transcription Tips from a German Genealogy Translator

Author’s Note: If you’d like more help transcribing your German documents,  join our Premium group today  – you get weekly access to live “office hours” where you can ask Katherine your tricky transcription and translation questions – and get immediate answers.

You’ve climbed up your family tree. You’ve located your German ancestor in Germany. And you’ve finally gotten your hands on those German records. Excited, you go to work with them….only to realize they are written in old German script*, a script even most native German-speakers cannot read today. What to do? Well, if you don’t want to deal with the translation yourself,  you can always contact a professional (I’d be happy to be of service). But some of you may want to give it a go on your own first.  And for that reason, I’ve compiled a list of five of my favorite transcription hacks that I use myself when translating. Read below to find out more!

*For more tips and information on transcribing German handwriting, see Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting.

1. Change your Microsoft Word language to German (For instructions on how to do so, see here.)

Changing your “Spelling and Grammar Check Language” to German in Microsoft Word can be very helpful when transcribing German genealogy documents, especially if you don’t know German yourself – after all, the grammar check will actually tell you if your words are real German words or not!  For example, if you type in the letters you think you recognize from a word in your document, Microsoft Word will underline it in red if it does not exist in German. You can then right-click on the word to see suggestions of what the word could be. Type these into a dictionary, and see if any make sense within your genealogy document.

In the example below, perhaps the handwritten word looks like “G-e-b-u-r-l” to your eyes. You then type this into Microsoft Word, and see that it is underlined in red – meaning that it is likely not a German word. You then right-click on the word, and see five possibilities of what this word could be. You realize that it must be the first word on the list  – “Geburt”, which means “birth.” Satisfied, you continue transcribing!

Word of Warning: Our ancestors and other scribes often misspelled many words in their documents. Just because you have a red line under a word does not mean you transcribed it incorrectly. However, the “right-click list” can provide you with options for what the word could actually be (For common spelling mistakes our German ancestors made, see Think Like a German: Spelling Variations in Genealogy Documents). It is also important to note that many words that were common hundreds of years ago are no longer common today, and Microsoft Word may mark these as incorrect as well. is a great dictionary for old-fashioned German words. 

2. Let Google Search do the work for you.

Google’s search engine can make your transcription work much easier! Simply type your transcription guess into Google and see what happens. If many search results appear, this means you are very likely correct in your transcription (of course, it’s important to read the results to make sure that they correspond with your document’s meaning). However, if you have one or more letters wrong, Google may actually suggest the correct word for you. 

In a recent document  I translated with rather difficult handwriting, I was relatively positive that the handwritten word looked like “Mariengemeinde S-e-h-l-o-s-kirche” (Marien Parish Sehlos Church). However, since I knew “Sehlos” did not make any sense, I typed the phrase into Google to see what would come up. Sure enough, Google suggested “Mariengemeinde Schlosskirche” (The Castle Church of Marien Parish) which made much more sense and actually existed in that area. Thanks Google!


3. Use is my favorite website for transcribing.  Once you have identified as many letters at the beginning or the end of a word as you can, write them out, leaving a blank for the letter(s) you don’t know. Then go to, and choose either or “Words beginning with” (Wörter beginnend mit) or“Words ending with” (Wörter mit Endung) and type in the first or last letters of the word you are deciphering. Press “Suche” (Search) and a list of German words with that beginning or ending will appear. Hundreds of results? Check the box “Anzahl der Buchstaben” (Number of Letters) and fill in the number of letters that you think are in the word (I always do one more and one less than I actually think, just to be on the safe side – you never know with handwriting!). Check the words against your handwritten word, and hopefully you find a match!

Above, I recognized the first letters as “Scheu”, but the final two were just a scribble. I typed these letters into WordMine, along with the approximate number of letters, and then realized that my word must be “Scheune”, or “barn”, based on the word and context of the letter.

4. For town names, use Meyers Gazetteer.

The Meyers Gazetteer website is a wonderful collection of pre-World War I German cities, towns, villages and more (so yes, for all of you with ancestors in present-day Poland, France or other areas that used to be part of Germany, your ancestor’s town is likely included!). If you know from the context of the document that a word is likely a town name, but can’t recognize all the letters, type the first few or the last few into Meyers Gazetteer’s search engine, using a * for the letters you can’t read. The website then provides a list of possible places with that letter combination – check their locations and spellings, and see if it matches your word and region. Hopefully you find a match!

Here, the beginning of a list of German locations ending in “tenheim”.

5. Skip the word you can’t read and continue transcribing.

This may sound simple, but it has helped me many times when transcribing documents. If I have spent a few minutes on a word and just cannot figure it out, I simply skip it, marking it with “—” in my document to come back to later. I then continue transcribing, and, more often than not, the word becomes clear in a few minutes – either from the context of the rest of the paragraph, or, if I am lucky, from another occurrence of the same word later in the document. Oftentimes seeing the same word twice or even three times will provide clarity to letters that looked unclear before. 

So there you have it! I hope these tips and hacks will help you in transcribing your genealogical documents. And if you would like a professional’s help, please don’t hesitate to contact me here. Happy transcribing!




Before You Cross the Pond: Five Places to Find Your Ancestor in America

Number One Rule in Genealogy: Start with what you know, and document, document, document! Although you may think you know the name of your immigrant ancestor, expert genealogists say you should never start off with looking for him or her in Europe – instead, start with yourself (after all, who do you know better?) and go back from there,  generation to generation, documenting your sources along the way. 

Why all this work? Well, you may think your immigrant ancestor was Wilhelm Müller from Germany, but do you know how many Wilhelm Müllers existed? You need to be 100% sure you are looking for your Wilhelm – in the exact right time frame and geographical region – so as not to waste your time doing another person’s research! Even those less common names were more common than you might think. But where to start? Below, a list of 5 great places to find your ancestors in America before your cross the pond:

  1. Home Sources

Looking in your basement, your attic (or another relative’s basement and attic) can often turn up genealogical treasures. Letters and diaries of family members are amazing sources of information, and you never know what your grandma or grandpa ended up saving. Old photographs can provide you with clues – turn them over, and you may find names and ages of the subjects on the back. You may also find the studio where the photograph was taken, a great hint for where to continue your genealogy search. Family bibles can also be great sources – birth, marriage and death dates would often be written inside the front cover. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, people – go find your oldest living family member now and ask to interview them. Talk to them about their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles and their family stories. Besides giving you information for your genealogical search, hearing stories from the past is just plain interesting! I recently interviewed my own grandmother and learned about her life growing up in the 1930s. Check out her story Fly Soup, German Spies and Stolen Blue Jeans: A Glimpse into the 1930s with Grandma, here.

These photos were found in my grandmother’s house. If we turn them over, we can see the name of a photo studio on the back (This studio is in Germany, but the same could be true for American photos.)

  1. Vital Records and Church Records

 Vital records and church records can provide a great deal of information about your ancestors’ lives. Vital records offer birth, marriage and death dates, while church records provide this information and possibly more (sacraments). Where can you find these records? To name just a few places:

(If you are looking for a translation of the common vital records from Germany, I am now offering downloadable birth, marriage and death certificate translation templates, complete with the German transcription and English translation of all printed words on the form, in my online shop.)

  1. Census Records

The census has been taken every ten years in the US since 1790. Because of privacy laws, the most recent census available is the 1940 census. The census can provide you with treasure troves of information, including your ancestor’s name, family members’ names, ages in that year, immigration year, occupation, language spoken and more. Where can you find census records?

This 1920 census from Missouri offers information about my great-great-grandfather. It was found on

  1. Ethnic Newspapers

When our ancestors moved to America, they often formed German-speaking communities in order to feel like they had a bit of their homeland in their new country. These communities often had their own newspaper, reporting on the events and stories relating to their community members. A newspaper from your ancestor’s community might mention your ancestor, along with a piece of information you might known have known about him or her – perhaps an address, a parent’s name, a siblings name, etc. Check out great collections of ethnic newspapers at:

Westliche Post was a German-speaking newspaper published in St. Louis. It can be found at the St. Louis County Library.

  1. Passenger Lists

New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Baltimore were all ports of entry for our ancestors coming to the US. Their passenger lists can provide you with your ancestor’s birthplace, the date they arrived in America, the name of the ship they traveled on, their occupation, a description of how they looked, their most recent place of residence, and more – a wealth of information for the interested genealogist. Where can these lists be found?

These are just a few ideas of where to start looking for your German ancestor. Other sources (naturalization records, military records, etc). can also help you in your genealogy quest. And once you make it back to your immigrant ancestor and are ready to cross the pond, feel free to contact me here for any German language translation you may need for those documents. Happy hunting!


The Family Tree German Genealogy Guide, by James Beidler

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The Great Hat Mishap: An 1890s Tale

It was the 1890s. Catherine Foristal, the daughter of two Irish immigrants in St. Louis, Missouri (and my great-great-grandmother), had just gotten her first job at a shoe company. Each day, on her way to work, young Catherine would pass by a millinery (hat) store, peering in the window and seeing what new styles and items had arrived. One day, however, she stopped in her tracks – in the shop was the most beautiful hat she had ever seen. Black, modern, and adorned with an arched, elegant ostrich feather, the hat would look absolutely stunning on her. But one look at the price tag sent her quickly on her way.

         Millinery Shop               

In the following days, every single morning and every single evening, Catherine would walk by that hat, longingly envisioning it on her own head. But she knew her mother would never allow it. Jane Foristal, who, like her husband, had emigrated to America in the wake of the Irish potato famine, was a frugal woman. In addition to having six mouths to feed, spending money on such frivolities as a fancy hat was something she would never do. Or allow her children to do.


                                                                  1890s Hat Fashion

Pay day at the shoe company finally arrived. After picking up her money, Catherine began to make her way home. As she walked past the millinery shop, she thought to herself, “I have the money…and it really would look lovely on me….” She just couldn’t resist. With her wages weighing down her pocket, Catherine walked into the shop and bought herself the beautiful black hat with the long ostrich feather. When the cashier handed her her purchase, she couldn’t believe it – the stylish hat now belonged to her, Catherine Foristal!

But what about her parents? Well, she would just have to hide the hat. With a new resolve, Catherine marched the rest of the way home, planning and scheming. Once there, she quietly opened the front door and smuggled the hat up to her bedroom, planning to try it on for the first time after dinner. 

   Catherine’s Parents, Irish Immigrants Jane and Richard Foristal (1874)

Dinner that night was hard to sit through, but it eventually drew to a close. As soon as she could get away without arousing suspicion, Catherine slipped upstairs, anticipating the moment when she would finally see her beloved hat on her head. She quietly took the hat out of it’s hiding place, reverently running her hands up and down the beautiful ostrich feather. All of the sudden, she froze – her mother’s footsteps were on the stairs. “Catherine?” her mother called out. Panicked, Catherine didn’t know what to do. There was no time to hide the hat. As a cool breeze hit her face, Catherine saw her chance – she impulsively tossed the hat out her open bedroom window, sailing it down to the yard below. Her bedroom door opened a second later.

Not really listening to what her mother was saying, Catherine devised a plan to sneak out and get her hat as soon as she could. Her mother, however, had much to say, and she and Catherine eventually went downstairs to the dining room to continue their talk. By this point, it was starting to get dark, and Catherine hoped she’d be able to see her hat in the yard outside.  Suddenly, the dining room door burst open. Her father, who had been out watering the lawn as the evening light faded, barged in the room, completely exasperated and out of breath. “Begorrah!1 ” he bellowed, “That’s the boldest cat I’ve ever seen! I’ve turned the hose on it four times and it wouldn’t even budge!”

American actress Lillian Russell, in the hat style of the times, 1898.

Library of Congress

Later that night, Catherine snuck out into the yard, hoping against hope that the nagging suspicion whirling around in her mind was wrong. As she bent down in the bushes, she reached for her new hat, only to find it sopping wet and completely ruined. She never told her parents there was no cat. 

[1] Irish exclamation for “By God!”

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