Check out this great post by Lisa Louise Cooke – and see if you can find where she mentions our website!
Check out this great post by Lisa Louise Cooke – and see if you can find where she mentions our website!
In 2007, 23andMe released the first commercial DNA test that could report on the origins of our ancestors on both sides of our family. At that time, they could break down your ancestry into just three categories: European, African, and Asian. And we were impressed. We were excited to get our hands on a technology that could see into our past and report information that may not have been previously known.
But now that DNA testing for origin information has become somewhat commonplace, we would scoff at a company who could provide so little information. That’s largely due to the fact that since 2007, our DNA testing companies have been setting aside significant resources towards improving their offering to give us more insight into our origins – and it’s working. 23andMe now boasts 175 population groups, a far cry from their original three. Even Family Tree DNA, who has the fewest population groups of the five major genetic genealogy companies, can break up the world into 24 pieces.
Most of this growth comes in the form of companies increasing their reference populations. Reference populations are the groups of people the company is comparing you against. For example, when MyHeritage aimed to join the world of DNA testing, they turned to their vast customer base and their family trees and identified what they call their “Founder Populations”. These are individuals who have all four grandparents living in close proximity to each other.
Once identified, the DNA of these people is scanned for the unique DNA code that reflects their places of origin. Other DNA testing companies are following suit, gathering data from their own databases to help build their reference populations. Other strategies are to go out into the world and collect DNA from populations that are currently underrepresented. This has been a strategy of the company LivingDNA , as they have formed partnerships with other groups in order to build better reference populations.
Once a reference population has been selected and the DNA tested, it seems like it would be relatively easy to identify DNA that is specifically German, and then look for that same bit of DNA in anyone who was tested. Unfortunately, the process is much more complicated than that, especially when it comes to German DNA.
Part of what makes genetically distinguishing a German from a Frenchman or an Englishmen is the simple fact that Germany is a very young distinction, culturally and geographically speaking. The area has long been a crossroads of cultures and people and therefore very difficult to pin down. In fact, out of our five major genetic genealogy testing companies (23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage DNA, and Living DNA) you CAN’T be genetically German at either Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage. So even if you are 100% German, testing at either of these companies will only place you in a broad Northwest European category at best, or assign you to a similar region like Britain, possibly leaving you with the impression that this DNA stuff doesn’t actually work. At the other three companies, the way they are reporting German differs, so let’s explore each one in more detail.
The official category at 23andMe is called French and German, so even then, they are hedging their bets. Of this category, 23andMe says, “This dataset includes people of Austrian, French, German, Belgian, Dutch, or Swiss ancestry. At this time, this dataset cannot be broken down further because the people in those regions mixed through history or have shared history, or we might not have had enough data to tell them apart. As we obtain more data, populations will become easier to distinguish, and we will be able to report on more populations in the Ancestry Composition Report.”
Despite this, you can still dig deeper into that category to find that they are attempting to further break down Germany into its 16 administrative regions by telling you which region(s) your DNA most likely fits into. In the image below, you can see that they have placed my mother in the Baden-Wurttemberg and Brandenburg categories. I know from our family history that she did in fact have ancestors in Baden-Wurttemberg.
23andMe DNA Report
While Ancestry does have a specific German category, the real power is not in being assigned to the large region of Germany, but to their Genetic Communities. These communities are not based on reference populations, but on DNA matching. Because of this different technology, these categories are highly accurate. In the image below, you can see my mother has been placed in the very specific Alsace-Lorraine & North Dakota category, which is exactly where her 3X great grandparents were born and where their descendants emigrated.
Ancestry DNA Report
It is actually a bit mind-boggling that her DNA can determine something so specific about her ancestry. Remember, membership in this community is entirely depended on her DNA, not on her family history.
AncestryDNA has 12 Genetic Communities representing different migration paths into the United States and other parts of Europe.
Ancestry DNA Reports
Living DNA currently breaks up England into 21 different categories, and their goal is to do that all over the world. They are neck-deep in their German project, which may not boast as many categories as their western neighbors, but still hopes to have significant improvements over their current offering. They do have a portion of this research almost ready, and I was able to run my mother’s sample through their new German dataset. In the old estimate, they didn’t really have a way to talk about German origins, but with the new data, my mom is 43.6% German, likely nearly spot on to what she should be.
Living DNA Report
As time moves on and the databases grow, all of our companies will be improving their offerings, allowing us even greater resolution when it comes to our DNA and our origins. But of course, the best way to determine if you are genetically German is just to do genealogy! Finding the paper trail that leads back to your ancestor is still the very best way to explore your German heritage.
Have you had your DNA tested? What percent German are you?
About the Author
Frustrated with your genealogy research? Diahan is the teacher you need. Her 18 years of experience in genetic genealogy shows that after just one class, you will find yourself believing that you can understand this science, and likely will even be excited to go home and try it out. Diahan lectures internationally, owns Your DNA Guide, and writes for Family Tree Magazine and Your Genealogy Today. She has a passion for this work, a love for people, and the best husband ever.
Church records are a vital source of genealogical information, and this is certainly true for German family history research. Once you discover your ancestor’s place of origin, the local parish registers can take your as far back as the mid-16th century. Such research has challenges. Besides the language barrier, you must also be familiar with the handwritten script used in various periods of record keeping. If only there was a short cut!
Luckily, you might find one in the form of an Ortssippenbuch (OSB). Ortssippenbuch (plural: Ortssippenbücher) translates as “local clan book.” You may also see them under the names Ortsfamilienbücher or Familienbücher, and some titles use the phrase, “Die Einwohner von… (“Inhabitants of…”), as in the OSB, Die Einwohner von Oppau und Edigheim, 1480–1813. Regardless of what term is used, OSBs feature concise genealogical information about inhabitants of a specific village or parish, based primarily on surviving local church records. They cover the period from the beginning of church records (as early as the mid-16th century) to about 1900. Some OSBs use local civil records, such as tax lists and court records, to expand and supplement the vital information found in the church books.
OSBs present genealogical information by family groups. Their use of a standard format and common symbols, terminology, and abbreviations makes the entries easy to decipher, even if you do not know German. Families are listed alphabetically by surname, and some include surname and place-name indexes.
Let’s look at an example from Ortsfamilienbuch Heinersreuth, 1559–1900 mit Denzenlohe, Flur, Vollhof und Tannenbach: eine Familiengeschichtliche Untersuchung (Genealogical Register of Heinersreuth, 1559–1900, including Denzenlohe, Flour, Vollhof, and Tannenbach: A Family History Investigation). Heinersreuth is a village near Bayreuth, a city in northern Bavaria.
* = birth
~ = baptism
† = death
The symbol for marriage (∞ or oo) is not found in this example, because individuals are listed by marriage date within the surname.
Each individual is assigned a reference number for cross-referencing purposes. The text for individual no. 791, the first entry above and shown in detail below, would read as follows:
791—Marriage: 21 July 1646 in Bayreuth
Hacker, Johannes; Protestant (ev.); stockman in Mosing; born on 15 Nov. 1610 in Unterpreuschwitz; baptized on 15 Nov. 1610 in Bayreuth; died in Aug. 1666 in Heinersreuth; buried (begrab.) on 22 Aug. 1666 in Bayreuth.
[Wife] Popp, Margaretha; Protestant; born on 19 Jan. 1611 in Laineck; baptized on 19 Jan 1611 at St. Johannis Church in Bayreuth; buried after 1653.
In this case, Margaretha does not have a reference number, which indicates that no information about her baptism or parents is available in records used in for this OSB.
Information about their children follows, and you will find more information elsewhere about them under the reference numbers in brackets.
Let’s look at their son, Andreas.
3) Andreas, born on 11 Dec. 1650 in Heinersreuth, died on 3 June 1710 in Heinersreuth. 
Further down the page you will find under no. 793 the individual entry for Andreas Hacker with information about his marriage and children. In this case, Andreas married Anna Weigel, who appears as a child of the couple listed at no. 3226.
Other Possible Information
Genealogical information is the main feature of OSBs, but many also include histories of the community, the church, the school, and civic organizations. Some include lists of emigrants with their destinations, information about “non-locals” (Ortsfremde) or refugees (Flüchtlinge, Exulanten), and rosters of soldiers killed in war.
Finding Out if an OSB is Available for Your Ancestral Place of Origin
OSBs are not available for every village, and they are more common for some areas than others. Many are available for places in Baden-Wuerttemberg and the Rhineland, for example, but few exist for Lower Saxony (outside of East Frisia) or Schleswig-Holstein. Many have been published for German-speaking villages outside of Germany, such as in Alsace and Lorraine in France, and in the Donauschwaben settlements in present-day Serbia, Romania, and Hungary (Banat and Batschka).
No comprehensive name index for OSBs exist. It is therefore absolutely necessary to know your ancestor’s place of origin. Once you have the location, consult the OSB lists on the GenWiki website. Villages are listed alphabetically. Clicking on the village name will return the title of the OSB and relevant bibliographical information.
Finding an OSB
Once you have the OSB title, look for a library that owns it. The St. Louis County Library History & Genealogy Department has one of the largest collections of OSBs in the U.S. A list is available here. OSBs cannot be checked out or requested through interlibrary loan, but the library staff will do lookups and copy up to 30 pages. Send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org. A limit of three requests per email applies.
The Family History Library, New York Public Library, and some academic libraries also collect them. The Peoria, Illinois Public Library has many for East Frisia. You can also check WorldCat to find a repository that has the OSB you are looking for.
OSBs as Secondary Sources
The information in OSBs were extracted and compiled from original records and are therefore subject to the accuracy, interpretation, and criteria of the person doing the work. OSBs are reliable, but you should take the additional step of checking the information against the original records yourself, if possible. OSBs include a list of sources (Quellen) from which information has been extracted. Online access to German church records is increasingly available and bring the task into the realm of possibility as never before.
More information about OSBs and aids for using them are available on the St. Louis County Library History & Genealogy Department website.
About the Author
Scott Holl is manager of History & Genealogy at St. Louis County Library in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a BA in German from Fort Hays State University, an MA in Theology from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and an MLIS from Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.
Finding Your German Ancestors in Chicago – Late 19th Century
If you are researching German ancestors who were in the city of Chicago or surrounding suburbs after the Civil War (1861-1865), then you may face challenges in finding records. Factors affecting your research can include destruction of records in fires, changing city boundaries and street addresses, and laws related to vital records collection.
Despite these challenges, there are helpful resources available for researching German settlers in late 19th-century Chicago. Before searching Ancestry or FamilySearch on-line databases for Germans who came to Chicago, it is helpful to have a basic knowledge of available source materials.
Question 1: Where Did My Ancestor Work and Live in Chicago?
Using time and place is a key strategy in establishing a genealogy foundation to tell your ancestor’s story. When direct evidence from a letter, newspaper, or another source shows that your ancestors lived in Chicago during the 19th century, finding an address can help you learn more. For example, it may lead you to find relatives with the same surname living nearby.
One place to find an address is in city directories. City directories can also lead you to find where your ancestor worked, if you know the occupation. By establishing a location, you may also learn where the closest places of worship were, and this could lead to finding religious records. Below are my initial search findings for my own paternal ancestors.
Chicago City Directories
Figure 1: 1875 August Rettammel – r. 56 Hooker, work for Kastens and Company
Sanborn Insurance Maps
One of the most interesting references for research in urban areas like Chicago are Sanborn Maps. The maps provide a picture at the neighborhood level of where homes, businesses, and other features (i.e., lakes, ponds) existed at the time period of interest. Sanborn Insurance Maps were created in the 1860s as aids to help insurance companies determine risk of fire and set insurance rates. Now, the maps are invaluable for doing family history research in the city of Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each of the Sanborn Maps has a key to help the viewer understand the annotations and colors.
While doing genealogical research on my paternal great-grandfather, I was able to learn through city directory searches, voter registration records in 1888 and 1890, and correlated primary records that he lived with his family at 351 N Southport Ave., Lakeview District. A lookup of Sanborn Maps (Figure 2) in the Library of Congress Digital Collections (http://www.loc.gov/collections/sanborn-maps) provided the following street-neighborhood view of the area in 1894.
Figure 2: 1894 Sanborn Map of Lakeview District, Chicago, Il.
Question 2: When did My Ancestor Arrive in Chicago?
Reviewing voter registration records is key.
Voting Registration Records
Cook County voting records from the 1880s and 1890s are a good source replacement for the 1890 US census that was destroyed in a 1921 fire in the basement of the Washington D.C. Commerce Building. Voting records can also provide information about naturalization status at the time of voter registration.
Figure 3: This excerpt from 1890 Chicago voter registration records indicates Aug. Rettammel was born in Germany and registered to vote October 9, 1888. He has resided in Illinois for 26 years, in Cook County for 26 years, and in Precinct 1 of Ward 2 for 9 years. He was naturalized in 1875 in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.
Question 3: What about Vital Records in Chicago? 
Starting with these Records
Compulsory recording of vital records (birth, marriage and death records) did not begin until January 1, 1916 for residents of Cook County. However, many previous vital records were registered with Cook County officials prior to 1916. Vital records collected prior to October 1871 were destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871, thus alternative sources are needed. Church records are often the key to finding vital record information. Also remember to search newspapers, military draft registration for WWI, and cemetery records for vital record information.
In the 19th century, many births were at home, with only a midwife in attendance. The birth would be recorded in the county by a doctor who made a later visit and saw the child. A typical Chicago birth recording in the 1870s provided the child’s name, number of children of mother, race, sex of child, date and place of birth, nationality and place of birth of each parent, full maiden name and residence of mother, full name of father and occupation, name of medical attendant, and date of registration of certificate.
Figure 4: My own search for my grandfather born on 4 June 1876 at 56 Hooker St., Chicago, Illinois.  Born to parents August Fredrick Rettammel and Louise (nee Felix) Rettammel.
Death certificates are accessible from 1871 and some of the records can be found on Ancestry.com or the indexes in FamilySearch. The records were issued by the Cook County Bureau of Vital Statistics and the original provides the full name of deceased, age, sex, marital status, occupation, date and time of death, cause, and the duration of illness or disease that was noted.
Figure 5: The author’s great-grandmother’s certificate of death record in 1890.
Also in the form was the street address for place of death with ward, nationality and place of birth, and the length of residence in state. The place and date of burial and the name and address of the undertaker are other items noted. All of these notations are important as you continue to learn more about your ancestor’s life in the past. In 1910, the names and birthplaces of the deceased’s parents were included on the death certificates.
Marriage records in Chicago began in 1871. The names and ages of the bride and groom, their respective town or city of residence, and the officiant are listed on the license. In the example below, the name of the minister is listed as W. Bartling [sic], that will help with the Rettammel family religious records and potentially lead to learning about the family in 19th century Chicago and other family members not known at this time.
Figure 6: Illinois Marriage Index – August Rettammel marries Mrs. Louise Fischer (widow) on August 7, 1892.
Question 4: How Do Religious Records Help?
Church records are a key source for learning more about individuals, as they can highlight details that a family historian may not otherwise find. For example, church records can include vital records and place of origin information. Since Chicago was a key destination for many German immigrants in the 19th century, key information for a researcher to find is what religion the family practiced during the date and time of the research focus. Sanborn Maps can then identify affiliated churches in the area where your ancestor lived. It is also key to learn if the church exists today, and if not, was the churched merged and records transferred and available today. Other resources for identifying churches and finding church records include those assembled by archivists at Newberry Library in Chicago.
Hello, my name is Bob Rettammel, M.A., a professional genealogist based in Madison, Wisconsin. I became interested in family history in the summer of 1978 when I discovered a box of old family photos in my paternal grandparent’s house.
I am currently President of the Dane County Area Genealogical Society (DCAGS), and also a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), National Genealogical Society (NGS), and Wisconsin State Genealogy Society (WSGS). I also was part of an 18-month professional study group called ProGEN, which I completed in November 2018.
A facet of genealogy that interests me a lot is photo restoration and history of photographic processes. I specialize in German-American research but also work in all types of U.S. record sources and databases. I have a variety of clients including those looking for ancestry records in Dane County and other locations in Wisconsin and out-of-state archives. I have also worked on two research projects with the TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?”, Season 9 (2017), episode 5, and Season 10 (2018), episode 4.
Facebook Page for my business is Rettammel Genealogy Service, LLC. I also have a website at www.rettammelhistory.com
 In 1909 all residential streets in Chicago were renumbered. Prior to 1909, Chicago was comprised of divisions: North, South and West. This means you need to convert any address found if you want to see the actual property.
 1875 Chicago Directory, page 834. Fold3.com, accessed 20 July 2018.
 Chicago, Illinois, Voter Registration, 1890. Illinois State Archives. Ancestry.com, accessed 20 July 2018.
 A good reference to locate vital records in Chicago and Cook County areas is https://chicagogenealogy.org/Chicago
 Illinois. Cook County Birth Registers, 1871–1915. Index. FamilySearch, Salt Lake City, Utah. FHL microfilm #1287722. Illinois Department of Public Health. Division of Vital Records, Springfield.
 Cook County, Illinois, Deaths Index, 1878-1922. Certificate No. 00012109. Cook County Building, 118 N. Clark Street, room 402, Chicago, IL 60602, received August 2009.
 Loretto Dennis Szucs, 1996, p 486
 Marriages in Cook County were indexed from 1871 to 1878 by the groom’s name. The Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed all records prior to that year, so oldest year civil records are after that year.
 Cook County, Illinois, Marriages Index, 1871-1920Ancestry.com, accessed 20 July 2018.
*This post contains some affiliate links, which does not affect you at all, but does help support James Beidler’s business as he earns a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate.
It’s been said that many historians can avoid being genealogists, but that no genealogist can be effective without also being a historian.
And when the genealogy involves the German-speaking people of Europe, somebody’s going to need a map—well, a lot of maps, actually!—and fortunately many of them have been collected in the new tome I’ve compiled, The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany (A note for those who’ve heard and are wondering: Yes, this publisher—Family Tree Books, a division of F+W Media—is going through Chapter 11, but the books are being printed!).
Germany Has Complicated History
The reason for needing this book is that the history of German lands is complicated—and that’s before you hone in on the details! But those details are essential to be able to have a shot at tracking down every last record of your ancestors because it is your German village of origin’s political and church affiliations in the past that likely have an impact on where the records of particular villages are archived today.
This can be somewhat challenging because Germany has what I call a “non-linear” political history. In the United States, new municipalities and counties are generally created from existing entities – a “linear” political history. Germany, on the other hand, was a collection of small, independent states that were constantly being sliced, diced and otherwise disconnected as noble dynasties went extinct, lost wars or were divided amongst sons.
Three Time Periods Crucial
Truthfully, you often need to know at least three of the political and church allegiances for a village: during the era when an ancestor lived there; during the Second Empire period (since those affiliations are found in MeyersGaz.org and the Family History Library Catalog on FamilySearch.org); and today’s boundaries, both to help find villages on the modern map as well as what the current archives are.
Indeed, researchers should play what I call “Heimat Tic Tac Toe” and create a grid with sites of a village’s political jurisdiction, church parish and civil registry locations.
What’s in the Atlas
This publication brings together more than a hundred maps from Roman times through the present day, with an extra focus on the nineteenth century when peak immigration to America took place. It includes closeup two-page maps of every German state and Prussian province from this period. In addition to the partial index of cities and immigrant hotspots included in the print-version of the atlas, there will be an every-place index available online.
For each area of Germany, there is also at least one detail map for the pre-Napoleonic era to show the smaller states; other chapters include modern-day German state maps, as well as some showing demographics such as religion and dialects and also a few maps showing German-speaking Austria and Switzerland.
History of Germany Included
The book begins with a history highlights section that covers the main themes of German history as they relate to genealogy, including an explanation of how German boundaries became so complicated.
In part because of the German preference for following the Salic Law of partible division (in which all male children get a share of an inheritance), what is today Germany became a crazy quilt of small states. Other causes of disunity included the elective nature of the Emperorship (candidates offered bribes of territories and enhanced status).
In many cases all of the territory of a small state wasn’t contiguous; there abounded many enclaves (a territory, or a part of a territory, that was entirely surrounded by one different state) and exclaves (a portion of a state or territory geographically separated from the main part). It was only during the Napoleonic time period in the early 1800s when many of the small states and all of the religious states (ruled by so-called “Prince-Bishops”) were annexed into larger neighbors; this remained the rule after the defeat of Napoleon, with only the region of Thuringia remaining a spot with many small states.
Case Study: Hessen
Here’s an example of how maps and the political boundaries they show (as well as that historical background knowledge genealogists’ need) can help narrow down the focus of research even when a village of origin isn’t known.
Researcher Melissa Dunkerley has been trying to find the origins of Ernst Scharff, whose birthplace is variously identified as Hesse-Darmstadt and later as Prussia—and sometimes as the entirely unhelpful “Germany.”
While censuses just can be plain wrong, there’s a map of Hesse (Hessen in German) that gives Dunkerley a decent theory on how to square the circle of these various assertions of Scharff’s birthplace.
The map “Hessen bis 1866” shows the boundaries before they were adjusted by a Prussian land grab that occurred in a war that year. The red boundaries on this map show Hessen-Darmstadt before that war; among the changes as a result was that the thin arm centered on Biedenkopf was ceded to Prussia, making the relatively small number of villages in that “arm” the prime suspects for Scharff’s Heimat, since that would be consistent with him showing Hessen-Darmstadt as his place of birth in records before 1866 and Prussia afterwards.
To Order the Atlas!
The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany is available here – get your copy today.
Beidler is a freelance writer and lecturer on genealogy as well as a research-reports editor for Legacy Tree Genealogists. Contact him by e-mail to email@example.com. Like him on Facebook (James M. Beidler) and follow him on Twitter, @JamesMBeidler.
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 stevemorse.org. 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!