By Gail S. Blankenau, Discover Family History*
Although it may be an exaggeration that the Inuit people had fifty words for snow, anthropologists have noted that they likely had hundreds of ways to describe it, because snow is such a constant in their lives.** German genealogists have remarked that there may indeed be fifty words for farmer, noting their farm ancestor’s Stand, or social standing, goes beyond general catchwords like Bauer or Meier for farmer. Indeed, the many terms for “farm” and “farmer” in the German language reflect that farming was one of the most important aspects of our German ancestors’ life experience.
DISTINCTIONS THAT MATTER…
With farming occupying such an important part of German society, there is a hierarchy to German farming—a hierarchy that emerged from older feudal systems. Although there were freeholding farmers, much of the land had a governing “lordship” whether a king, a count, a local squire, or a monastery, which owned the underlying real estate, with these farmers in a form of peasant tenancy, albeit many with hereditary rights to operate the farm. The hierarchies involved became the Bauernklassen, or farm classes. These farm classifications draw important social distinctions between farmers—distinctions that mattered very much to our ancestors and should matter to us as family historians. Researchers will find that throughout the Germanic states, there was a certain social status carried among the farms and the farmers that operated them.
Dictionaries that don’t help…
Where do we start when we encounter these “strange” farmer words? Many of us turn to dictionaries. The problem is that many of them simply define the terms as farmer, or small farmer, and they do not reflect local and regional differences that explore the word’s full meaning in a particular place and time.
For instance, one dictionary defines Colon or Kolon (Latin base) as a farmer on a full-sized farm. However, many Colons in different regions were not operating a full-size farm. The word indicates that the property was settled in the earliest stages of agricultural settlement for that location. Thus, there are places where even the small cottage farmer might be called Colon(na) if he or she had a hereditary leasehold of early origin.
It must be emphasized that definitions for one region do not always translate well to another. In an article about farm classifications in the province of Hesse, genealogists Wilfried Gerbig and Volkmar Weiss warned that, “respective designations [for farms] have to be examined for each individual region/village…on the basis of church books, registry documents, etc.***
Most sociologists and historians begin their classification by dividing agricultural workers into two main groups before they tackle the nitty gritty of local farm classes and their corresponding terminology. Throughout the Germanic states, there were farmers with full privileges and duties in their local Bauerschaft or farming community (rather like a farm cooperative), and those without full privileges and duties.
Distinguishing characteristics of Farmers with full privileges and duties:
- Full rights to common areas, based on farm size and assets
- Owed district taxes and services to the manor based on farm size and assets
- Had a say in questions that came before the farm cooperative
Distinguishing characteristics of Farmers without full privileges and duties:
- No (or few) rights to common areas
- Some duties owed because they benefited from schools and churches
- No say in questions that came before the farm cooperative
Genealogists Should Focus On…
From the starting point of farmers’ privileges and duties, genealogists need to focus on local farm classifications based on size and assets. Many areas break down farm sizes in fractions, although the fractional hectares involved were not as precise as the titles suggest. Other regions do not use fraction words, but they still classify farms by rough size, no matter what the terminology used. Remember, the farm’s classification determined what taxes and duties were owed to the lordship, and later to the civil authorities, so records associated with these payments will help researchers define the farm’s position, and thus the farmer’s place, in the social structure.
From Full-Size Farms Down…
All regions have the largest farms as full-sized farms, although the size of the full farm varies from place to place. These farmers not only possessed more land than the other farm classes, but had enough livestock (a span of horses or cattle) to help them till these larger parcels. Some of these full-size farmers might have the German word for “full”—or voll—in their titles: Vollbauern, Vollmeier, and Vollspänner may crop up in your records, along with Großmeier, Spannbauern, Ackerleute, Anspänner, Pferdner, and Hüfner. Hüfner, with a base word of Huf (an old unit of land measurement) indicates that the amount of land was sufficient to feed a normal peasant family.
From the full farmer, we go down to three-quarters, a half, a quarter, and in some places further into an eighth, and a sixteenth. If we take “Bauer” (farmer) as the base word, the half farmer is Halbbauer; quarter is Viertelbauer; eighth is Achtelbauer. These farm properties will be roughly a half, quarter, and eighth of the full-size farm for that area and the taxes and services owed will be a half, quarter, and eighth of those owed by the full farm. In some places, a researcher may observe a Meier at the top of a tax list, and the next classification of payments is under the heading of Halbmeier. From this, the genealogist can conclude that Meier in this particular case is not a catchall word for farmer, but means full farmer.
A very common word for a farmer of a small-size farm is Kötter (variants: Köter, Köt(h)ner). This term literally means “cottager,” and generally indicates the farm has a small house, a garden, and sometimes a little land for animals. The term “cottage industry” comes from this type of agricultural holding, as there often is not enough land to sustain a family without supplementary income from weaving, spinning, lacemaking, etc.
In some places, the Kötter have rights in the Bauerschaft, and in others they do not, so this particular term must always be investigated further. In certain cases, an email to the local archive might yield further nuance in the terms you see in the records for your ancestor. If you can find tax records (and some are online), the tax structure will often lay out the hierarchy of farms for your area.
Einlieger, Beisitzer, Haüsler, Büdner…
If you see these terms, it may mean your farm ancestor did not have full rights in the farming community. For instance, in the province of Hesse, these terms indicate this lower status. Your Einlieger may be renting a plot from a larger farmer and probably has no hereditary leasehold direct from the presiding lordship. Again, each region must be investigated further to see what rights and duties these classifications held.
The Case of Schleswig-Holstein…
Schleswig-Holstein is a special case, particularly Schleswig, as there were always more “free farmers” who owned their property outright than in other Germanic areas, in which hereditary leaseholds were common. In Schleswig, Frei Bonden are indeed free holders, and Hüfner (Holstein) are larger farmers with commons rights. Instead of Kötter, we see the term Kätner as a term for the cottager class. Mecklenburg is an area where the base word of Hüfner is common, with Vollhüfner, Halbhüfner, and Drittelhüfner (a third), etc., along with Kossäten for the cottage-size parcels.
Like the top categories and terms that carry the concept of a full- or half-sized farm, the terminology for the very bottom of the agricultural working class is more consistent in meaning than the terms used for the middle farm classes. We have day laborers throughout the Germanic regions, or Tagelöhner, and the term means just what it says. In Schleswig, the term Insten means day laborer. We also see (all over the Germanic realm) the hired worker, or Heuerling (hireling), who may have a more regular gig than the day laborer. The time of hire could be for a season, a year, or more. For instance, Heinrich Blankenaufulland (1810-1850) of Sende, Westphalia, was a Heuerling, but he was employed by the same farmer for twenty-five years.****
A Real-Life Example…
For an example of a record that indicates the local hierarchy of farm classes, here is a list of payments owed at marriage (Weinkauf) for the farm classes in the district called the Grafschaft Rietberg (a state ruled by a Count in the Holy Roman Empire, today part of North-Rhine Westphalia):
Meyer 80 Reichstaler
Halbmeyer 40 Reichstaler
Zweitäger 16 Reichstaler
Eintäger 8 Reichstaler
Neuwohner 5 Reichstaler
Kötter 3 Reichstaler
This essay is a short introduction to the concept of German farm classes, and how you begin to find out your ancestor’s place in the social structure. You will encounter terms in church books and other records that may need further research for your particular locality and time in order to understand what the terminology used reflects. Tax lists, some of which are online, are a good source for farm classifications. Farm histories can be another great source. Censuses and population lists, where they exist, also yield clues. Some church bookkeepers were very precise, while others were not, so care should be taken when using church books to discover a farmer’s social class.
In short, follow the real estate adage: Location, location, location, and find records that give you the deeper meaning of your ancestor’s farm Stand.
Gail Shaffer Blankenau is a history and genealogy research expert, author, and speaker. She specializes in German genealogy, reading old German script, in Midwestern and Nebraska roots, land records, as well as lineage research. She is a popular conference and webinar speaker and her articles have appeared in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, The Genealogist, the National Genealogical Society Magazine, and more. She recently pursued a second master’s degree in history and her thesis won the University of Nebraska-Kearney “Outstanding Thesis Award” for the 2019-2020 school year. She is a life member of the Alden Kindred, the genealogist for the Nickerson Family Association of Cape Cod, and a board member of the Germanic Genealogy Society.
Get in touch with Gail:
[*] This essay is based on research presented in Beyond the Bauer: Your Farm Ancestor’s Place in the Social Structure, by Gail Blankenau. The presentation is currently in the Germanic Genealogy Society webinar archive at www.ggsmn.org Gail is working on a book that will explore German farm inheritance strategies and intergenerational transfers that will discuss these farm classifications in greater depth.
[**] Anthropologist Franz Boaz began the debate in his 1911 work in: Boas, Franz, “Introduction to the Handbook of North American Indians,” Smithsonian Institution, Bulletin 40, part 1. Critics later attacked his view, calling his assertions sloppy. Newer understanding of Native grammar now suggests Boaz may have been closer than his critics thought, depending on how one defines a word in these nuanced languages. See David Robson, “There Really are 50 Eskimos Words For ‘Snow’” posted at Washington Post, 14 January 2013, www.washingtonpost.com, Alaska Native Language Center, Larry Kaplan, “Inuit Snow Terms: How Many and What does it Mean”” https://uaf.edu/anlc/resources/inuit_snow_terms.php
[***] Wilfried Gerbig und Volkmar Weiss,”Standesbezeichnungen der bäuerlichen Bevölkerung im deutschen Sprachraum,” Familienkundlich Nachrichten, Band 8, Nr. 13 (1992). Translated by the author.
[****] Heinrich’s marriages at the St. Anna Catholic Church in Verl (now online at Matricula), as well as his children’s baptisms, indicate his social status and where he was hired throughout a thirty-year span.
GERMAN-ENGLISH DICTIONARIES ONLINE:
https://www.Brigittegastelancestry.com/occupant.htm A comprehensive list of “German Professions, Occupations, and Illnesses,” courtesy of Oliver Weiss.
Wikipedia: Surprisingly good definitions can be found on German Wikipedia: www.wikipedia.de.
EXAMPLES OF GERMAN WEBSITES THAT EXPLAIN FARM CLASSES FOR THEIR PARTICULAR LOCALITY (NOT COMPREHENSIVE—IN GERMAN):
Heimat und Geschichtsverein fuer Heinade/Hellental-Merxhausen, E.V. https://hgv-hhm.de/cms/front_content.php?idcat=782&lang=1
Stadt Gehrden (Region Hannover): http://northen.gehrden.de/portal/seiten/alphabetisches-familienregister-von-northen-1858–905000407-22850.html
Bauern und Bauernklassen in Westenholz http://www.funki-koellner.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Westenholz.pdf
Barsenhausen city website: file:///D:/Downloads/03_land_und_forstwirtschaft%20(3).pdf
Der Bauer und die bäuerliche Abhängigkeit bis zum 19. Jhd (personal website, location Oldenburg) http://www.ulf-neundorfer.de/bauer.html
I was translating a document recently – and that handwritten town had me stumped. I could not read that word for the life of me. Adding to the challenge was the fact that we (my client and I) did not know what part of the German Empire the record had come from. So what to do?
Time to pull out the detective hat! In the video below, I walk you through my step-by-step process of finding what that mystery handwritten town was – a town that was so important for my client’s research. It was a very fun challenge – with a successful ending! Check out how I was able to do it below – and how you can do it in your own research:
One of the most difficult challenges that genealogy researchers encounter in German genealogy is the inability to discover the last place of residence for a particular line back in the homeland.
When I first started researching my Wendt immigrant ancestors years ago, I was fortunate to have learned the name of their last place of residence early on in my journey. The family research passed down to me was that my Wendt ancestors were either from modern NE Germany or Poland (near historical Stettin). I wanted to know exactly where in the homeland they came from!
To that end, I entered basic family information into the database on Ancestry concerning my second great-grandfather, Christian Wendt. Within seconds, I experienced an unforgettable, genealogical epiphany!
The Ancestry result was an indexed entry based on German emigration records, known as “Auswanderungsakten” from Brandenburg, Prussia. In other words, I had just encountered a primary-derived entry of Christian’s (imminent) emigration, that of his permission to leave Brandenburg, Prussia to America.
The entry on Ancestry matched Christian’s known birth date. Moreover, it disclosed his full name, the year that he emigrated to America, as well as the exact village and its associated historical Kreis, or district, of his last place of residence back in the homeland. Consequently, this amazing development got me across the pond!
While this remarkable discovery made all the difference, I wanted to see a copy of the original Auswanderungsakt. I did not have to wait very long. While the Family Search microfilm/microfiche loan service was still taking place, I was fortunate to view a copy on microfiche!
Exploring the Brandenburg Auswanderungsakten
While sifting through the microfiche from Family Search of a copy of what was described differently-albeit slightly-as Auswanderungskartei (or emigration card file) for instances of the Wendt surname, I came across a record of interest. It was for a Wendt family who was from the village of Damme in historical Kreis Prenzlau. The card listed a certain Martin Wendt, a working man, who was 48 years old. He emigrated with consent in 1846 to America, along with his wife, Marie-Dorothee geb. (née) Sprenger and four children. Initially, I had asked myself where the names of the four children were. How did Christian, my second-great grandfather, possibly fit in with this family? By advancing further through the microfiche, it did not take long to discover the names of those four children themselves!
As it turned out, the Wendt Family from the village of Damme consisted of Christian’s parents and sisters. The birth dates listed on the other part of the card corresponded to that of Christian and his sisters. Thus, by digging deeper, my quest to learn more about this particular Brandenburg record resulted also in tracing the Wendt line back another generation. At this point in my German Genealogy journey, I was in Prussian Genealogy heaven! I had discovered, then, that not only did I have German roots, but I had Prussian roots as well.
Ancestral Location on Meyers Gazetteer
If you know of a particular historical place name that was a part of the German Empire and wish to locate it, I strongly recommend using Meyers Gazetteer. It provides the historical, jurisdictional details that you would expect from a gazetteer. Moreover, in a majority of cases, it displays a corresponding historical map of what a particular location would have looked like during the period of the German Empire.
To locate a place name on Meyers Gazetteer, choose this link here: https://www.meyersgaz.org/.
Using the aforementioned Damme, Kreis Prenzlau example, one can view where my Wendt immigrant ancestors had resided decades earlier on a map from the German Empire era.
Prussian Genealogy on Facebook
Prussian Genealogy on Facebook is a global and supportive community with around 14,000 members. I created the community as an extension of my passion for Prussian genealogy and for the purpose of helping others just starting out or wishing to dive deeper into this fascinating area of genealogy.
The Prussian Genealogy community also promotes German and Polish Genealogy, DNA, History, Culture and other aspects as they relate to historical Prussia. The community would not be where it is today were it not for the help of the many members in the group who have made and continue to make a difference in the lives of those who wish to better understand their Prussian roots!
To apply to join the Prussian Genealogy community, known officially as Prussian Genealogy / German & Polish Roots, DNA, History & Culture, choose this link here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/prussiangenealogy
German Genealogy Translations on Facebook
The Germany Genealogy Translations group on Facebook is dedicated exclusively to assisting members with their German Genealogy translation requests. The volunteers generously take time out of their busy lives to assist members with their requests.
To apply to join the German Genealogy Translations group, choose this link here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/germangenealogytranslations
German Genealogy Word List
Arbeitsmann – working man
Ausgewandert mit Consens – emigrated with consent
Auswanderungsakten – emigration records
Auswanderungskartei – emigration card file
Ehefrau – wife
Kinder – children
Kreis – district
Jahre – years
German genealogy can be fulfilling, fun and even a little frustrating at times. If you are having trouble finding out the last place of residence for your German ancestor back in the homeland, consider searching for an emigration record and other relevant records as a part of your research strategy. Discovering and locating the ancestral location, especially before German Unification, is important in the pursuit of records on the other side of the pond. May you experience similar genealogical breakthroughs!
Stephen Wendt, MLIS, holds a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from K.S.U. He is a professional genealogist and speaker. At the virtual IGGP conference coming up in July, Stephen will be presenting, “Searching for Your Elusive Prussian Ancestors: A Case Study.”
Stephen founded Tree Tidings Genealogy and assists global clients with their Prussian and German research. You can learn more about his business at his website: https://www.treetidingsgenealogy.com/
You can follow him at the Prussian Genealogy and Heritage Facebook Page as well: https://www.facebook.com/groups/prussiangenealogy
When tracing Eastern European ancestors, it is no secret that church registers and civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths are the most popular and useful sources for extracting important genealogical information. However, there are other record groups to be searched that may prove useful for gleaning additional details, especially in the absence of church and vital records for your locality. This article will discuss five other key resources you might be missing.
Before You Search
Remember there are two key pieces of information you need to have before you can successfully trace your ancestors in the old country:
- You must learn the immigrant’s original name.
- You will need to obtain the specific name of the town or village of origin from searching records created for or about the immigrant after arrival, and then using maps, atlases, and gazetteers to pinpoint current and historical locations.
Many one-of-a-kind resources (letters, photographs, and other ephemera) exist in libraries (especially those with dedicated Slavic/Eastern European collections), historical societies, ethnic genealogical societies, and museums located throughout North America. You will also want to extend your search to similar repositories in Europe. Accessibility and availability will vary by country and local area. Privacy laws may apply.
Below is an overview of some of the most overlooked resources.
1. Census Records.
As you probably learned from exploring US or Canadian census records for your ancestors, the prime value of census records is for grouping families together. In Eastern Europe, censuses were usually taken for tax and military conscription purposes. Searching census records can be hit or miss depending on the country, the region, and whether or not registers have been preserved. Because of shifting borders and the destruction of records during wartime hostilities, only relatively small portions of certain record groups survived in many instances. Therefore, you should check registers of births, marriages, and deaths (not census records) first, opposite of what genealogists typically do when looking at North American records for their ancestors. However, locating a family in a census record can help you place them in a particular location at a specific time period. Check the FamilySearch Wiki by country and look for a Census Records tab.
2. Military Records.
Military records are often considered a secondary resource because they are not easy records to locate. To find military records for the various armies in the Austrian, German or Russian empires, you will first need to understand the history of the time period in which your ancestors lived, as this determines whether your ancestor served during the Partitions of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian rule over the Czech and Slovak republics, etc. Next, you will need to know how the process of conscription worked and the regiment/military unit your ancestor served in. Finally, you will need to become familiar with the types of records (e.g., muster sheets, personnel sheets, military citations), which vary by regiment and period. Two excellent sources for research advice include, A Guide for Locating Military Records for the Various Regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Carl Kotlarchik , and several excellent articles available from The Foundation for East European Family History Studies including the “Russian Central State Military Historical Archive” and “An Introduction to Austrian Military Records” by Steven W. Blodgett.
3. Land Books, Cadastral Surveys, and Tax Lists.
Land records, cadastral surveys, and tax lists are other documents that can provide additional clues about your ancestors. While often difficult to track down, land records may serve to fill in some of the generational blanks in a family tree, and tax lists can offer a glimpse into an ancestor’s financial and social status. Land records are primarily used to learn where an individual lived and when he or she lived there. They often reveal family information such as a spouse’s name, heir, other relatives, or neighbors. You may learn where a person lived before, occupations, and other clues for further research. The primary advantage of using land records is that they go back further in time than the parish registers of births, marriages, and deaths. Often, the same land was passed from generation to generation. Land records may be deposited in various archives, so you should check with the archivist to make sure you’re searching in the correct places. Cadastral maps were created to determine the economic potential of manors. Maps of manors depicted the actual configuration of farms, with bodies of water, roads, and other natural objects. The maps are accompanied by description books, which describe garden plots, fields, hay lands and pastures, and more. Just as we do, our ancestors paid taxes, and documentation from this process can be another potential source. In some countries, you will find revision lists that contain personal data on household members. Consult the FamilySearch Catalog, or check with state, regional or local archives.
4. Emigration Documents/Passports.
Most genealogists look for incoming passenger lists, but in some instances, there may be documents such as emigration lists, permissions to emigrate and records of passports issued. The information in these records may include the name, age, occupation, destination, and place of origin or birthplace of the emigrant, but if you don’t find them among family documents, they can be difficult to locate and typically reside in state or regional archives. Some countries kept records of those who left. Ancestry.com has Hamburg Passenger Lists, Handwritten Indexes, 1855-1934 and S., Passport Applications, 1795-1925 searchable online. To view a variety of passport documents, check out the Flickr Passport Photos collection by user mákvirág.
5. Town or Village Histories.
Individual towns or villages may also have published histories. These sources can come in book form or published or town or village websites. Search for the town or village name on Google, as your ancestors’ names could be mentioned in these narratives. While it could be a challenge to obtain a copy if you don’t have any living relatives in the town or village, you can always try contacting the local historian or mayor or check if the village has a page on Facebook. For example, my maternal grandfather’s family is mentioned in a book (Dejiny Osturne) about Osturňa, Slovakia, that was published by historians there. I also recently learned of a book about one of my other ancestral villages, Kučín, which mentions my book Three Slovak Women, and my 2010 visit there!
Keep in mind that records are organized by location so be sure to check all parishes, archives, and local register and mayor’s offices in the ancestral town or village. While some record sets may be available online, others exist on microfilm or in print form, through FamilySearch or country-specific archival and other websites, so be sure to check back periodically for new or updated collections.
Lisa A. Alzo, M.F.A., is a freelance writer, instructor, and internationally recognized lecturer, specializing in Eastern European research and writing your family history She is the author of 11 books and hundreds of magazine articles. Lisa works as an online educator and writing coach through her website Research, Write, Connect, https://www.researchwriteconnect.com and developed the Eastern European Research Certificate Program for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. Visit https://www.lisaalzo.com for more information.
From Katherine: I first met Kathy several years ago, when I was in the beginning stages of moving my German translation business into the genealogy field in particular. Kathy and her colleague Cindy were kind enough to meet up with me in St. Louis , hear about my business, and give me some insight about working in the genealogy field. At that meeting, I was also fascinated to learn about Kathy’s business – Family Tree Tours – and her genealogy group, Germans in St. Louis. Through both of those ventures, Kathy has gained a depth of knowledge about German genealogy – knowledge which she has kindly agreed to share with us today. Enjoy!
10 Must-Knows When Starting German Genealogy
A few months back, I asked my German research group to give some examples of what they wished they had known when they were starting out with their German genealogy. From their answers, we’ve come up with quite a helpful list! Below, find ten facts of German genealogy research you should know before you delve in to the world of your German ancestors:
#1. ALWAYS LOOK AT CHURCH BOOK RECORDS (at home and abroad).
Church books are the most important resource you will have to find more information on your German immigrant. Since many immigrants went to German parish churches when they came to the States, and the pastors did the books in the style of the Old Country, you have a good chance of finding a place of birth in a marriage, baptism, confirmation, or death record. Once you find your ancestor’s hometown, your next step is to look at the church books in Europe to verify your family was actually from there. You can then trace additional generations back and see if a previous generation originally came from another village.
To learn to work with German church records, see The Magic of German Church Records by Katherine Schober.
#2. THERE waS NO NATIONAL CENSUS IN the eighteenth OR nineteenth CENTURY IN GERMANY.
Germany was not a unified country until 1871, and they have no census like we know it. There are census records in a few places, but there is likely no indexed census to find where your ancestor lived. However, Ancestry.com does have a few censuses for Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Lübeck city.
#3. IF YOUR SURNAME HAS AN AE, OE, OR UE, IT COULD MEAN YOUR SURNAME HAD AN UMLAUT.
If your name is written Mueller in the U.S, it could be Müller in Germany. If your name is written Droege in the U.S., it could be Dröge in Germany. Search for both of these surname versions when looking for your ancestor.
#4. HAVE A LIST OF COMMONLY USED GERMAN WORDS USED IN CHURCH BOOKS AND THEIR TRANSLATIONS.
Here is a link for a German Word Lists: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/German_Genealogical_Word_List
#5. HAVE A LIST OF COMMONLY USED LATIN WORDS USED IN CATHOLIC CHURCH BOOKS.
Here is a link for a Latin Word Lists: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Latin_Genealogical_Word_List
#6. DON’T EXPECT NAMES TO BE SPELLED THE SAME EVERY TIME – BE FLEXIBLE.
Try not to assume or be adamant that your people ALWAYS spelled their name one way. You must try to search all variants of your surname. It is also important to remember that in the nineteenth century, many Germans had three names (a Christian name, a second name (call name), and a third name, followed by the surname. They may have written any one of those names on documents.
#7. ONLY KNOWING The german state – such as prussia – IS NOT ENOUGH – YOU WILL NEED TO KEEP LOOKING FOR A MORE SPECIFIC AREA.
Google German maps in different time periods (like 1815 or 1874) to see what area your German state (Prussia, for example) encompassed. This may be the hardest wall to break to find what specific area of Germany your ancestor came from. You will have to continue to search U.S. documents to find an individual town name.
#8. YOU PROBABLY WON’T BE ABLE TO SEE YOUR GReat-GReat-GRANDPA’S GRAVE IN GERMAnY. GRAVES ARE RECYCLED EVERY 20-30 YEARS.
This is one of the most asked questions from people going on our tours and I hate to have to disappoint them when I tell them that there are few nineteenth-century gravestones left. The grave plots in Germany are leased to the family for 20-30 years. At that point, if they don’t renew the plot, it can be leased to a new family. You will have to check church books for a recording of your ancestor’s death. In some cases, we have been a little lucky and found a few old graves, but this is not common.
#9. IF YOU HAVE A HOMETOWN NAME, YOU MUST ALSO KNOW THE STATE IT IS IN AND THEN FIND IT ON A MAP. THERE MAY BE MORE THAN ONE TOWN BY THE SAME NAME.
If you have a hometown name, you should also make sure to find it on a map! You will need to know a state (Bavaria, Baden, Hessen, etc.) and a Kreis (County) since there are many towns with the same name in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. You should always prove you have the right town by searching the church books there for your ancestor’s name and birth/baptismal date.
#10. EVERYTHING IS NOT ONLINE – YOU MUST USE BOOKS, MICROFILMS AND GAZETTEERS as well.
Please do not only search online. My biggest recommendation is to go LOCAL. Try contacting the local genealogy or historical society in the town or county your ancestor lived. Often, these societies may have indexes, records, and resources that are not online anywhere. The locals are also more familiar with surnames and may have insight that would help you with your search. Also, if there is a local public library, they may have a history/genealogy department that would be able to help. Call or e-mail them!
What other tips would you add for beginning genealogists? Let us know in the comments!
Kathy Wurth is a researcher, speaker, volunteer and owner of Family Tree Tours, a heritage travel company, specializing in ancestral trips to Germany and Ireland and other European countries. She is a member of several Genealogy societies and leader and founder of the Germans In St. Louis Research Group in St. Louis, MO. Kathy has been leading tours since 2007 and has helped hundreds of people visit their ancestral hometowns.
Are there records you aren’t finding because you don’t know they exist? We know that not all genealogy records are online, but they are being digitized and added to websites daily. Digging deeper into state archives websites to find your ancestor’s records just might be the next step in your genealogy research.
What is an Archive?
Understanding exactly what an archive is and the different kinds of archives is essential.
An archive is defined by the Society of American Archivists as: An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations (http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms).
There could be one or more of these types of archives in any area where your ancestors lived:
- County or local archives collects and preserves local government records and historical records
- State archives collects and preserves government records and historical records from across the state
- An historical society that collects and preserves local records is also considered an archive.
- A genealogical society that accepts donations of family records is an archive.
- A museum that has exhibits and displays may also have records collections and would be considered an archive. Don’t forget the museums!
- Local public libraries that have genealogy rooms with records in them are archives.
- University & Colleges with on campus libraries and archives is a great archive resource.
- Religious denomination archives collect and preserves church records of all kinds within their specific denomination.
The term “archive” is not solely used to represent a county or state archive; any organization that accepts, collects and preserves government, historical and genealogical documents, records, memorabilia and artifacts is considered an archive, even if they don’t have the word “archive” in their title.
Where Do I Start?
Knowing where to find the records and how to find the records is the first step in digging deeper into archives. It’s always best to start at the local level and glean all you can from these archives:
- Try to narrow down the area where your ancestors lived to the specific county (parish) and the specific city within that county (parish)
- Find out what archives are in that specific area, where is the facility and obtain contact information.
- Talk to the archivists, librarians, clerks, county historians and educate yourself about what records are available and where the records are physically located
- Locate and bookmark the websites of each local archive.
Going to the Next Level
If the records you are looking for are not at the local level, they may be at the state level. All 50 states in the United States have a state archive and all of them have a building you can visit. Best of all, every state archive has a website. If you are not able to travel to the state archives to do research in-person, their website just might be the next best thing.
Locate the website of the state archive for the state where your ancestors lived. Doing a simple Google search should bring up the state archive website. Once you are at the website, explore and investigate the entire page. Getting yourself familiar with the website itself and how it is arranged will help you when trying to locate specific record sources.
You will also see that you may have to dig and click on everything to find what you are looking for or to find the hidden sources on a state archive website. Some specific pages or sections that you should be on the lookout for are ones that have page headings having to do with genealogy or history. The records and information you are looking for most likely is not going to be on the front page of the website. Take some time to really dig into the website and make notes about what you find and where things are located so you can return to those pages easily.
Many state archive websites have sections entitled Online Sources. This is where you will most likely find indexes, finding aids and information about the records collections the archives have at their facility. This section of the website could have multiple layers, so don’t be afraid to click through the pages to see everything that is available. This is where the researcher will find indexes they can search for their surnames.
Manuscript Collection finding aids can also be found in this section. The finding aid is a “road map” to any manuscript collection and will help you determine if there is something within the collection that is of interest to you and your genealogy research. You may also find indexes to the Vertical File Collections at the state archives. Many state archives also provide an index of the county records they have in their collections and this index could very well be on their website.
Online Exhibits and Displays
Many of our state archives have digitized their documents, photographs and artifacts and created online exhibits and displays for their visitors. Just like in-person exhibit and displays, this is a chance for the archives to show their patrons what they have in the back rooms of their facility. More and more archives are adding online exhibits and displays to their websites to attract researchers. These online exhibits and displays will have digitized documents, photographs, and artifacts on many different subjects. Some state archives will change out their online exhibits and displays periodically, so it is important to check back often.
State archives are the epicenters of document collection and preservation for each state. More and more state archives are encouraging their institutions to digitize as many of their collections as they can so these records can be shared with the public. These digitized documents, photographs and ephemera can be found on the website for anyone and everyone to view.
State archive websites can be a true treasure trove for the genealogist. If you are not able to travel to the states where your ancestors lived to do research, digging into the state archive website might just be where you find that piece of information that tears down that brick wall.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Manager and Public Historian currently working at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives. She lectures, teaches and writes about the genealogy research process, researching in archives and records preservation. She conducts virtual webinar presentations across the United States for genealogical and historical societies. She writes a popular blog entitled A Genealogist in the Archives and is a well-known genealogy Book Reviewer. She writes a bi-weekly advice column entitled The Archive Lady published at Genealogy Bargains. She writes history pieces for her local newspaper The Houston County Herald called From the Archives. She is a Professional Genealogist with an expertise in Tennessee records and she takes clients. She has been researching her own family history for the past 30 years.
When it comes to searching for genealogical information, researchers with German ancestry have the advantage of access to many high-quality published secondary sources. Prime among these are Ortssippenbücher (OSBs), which I described in the June 2019 issue of the SK Translations newsletter. Hofgeschichten and Häuschergeschichten are additional sources that can provide valuable information about your ancestor.
Hofgeschichten are farm histories (Hof means farm). Häuschergeschichten are building histories (Haus means house but can refer generally to a building). Both types of publications pertain to a specific village or town and include chronologies of each property in the community listing a succession of occupants. Häusergeschichten, as the name suggests, usually include a construction history of the property, although Hofgeschichten can also include this type of information.
For the most part, the succession lists (Höfefolgen or Bestizerfolgen) pertain to tenants, as property ownership was usually impossible for common people until the late 18th to mid-19th centuries. Leases were heritable depending on the area of Germany, making it feasible for a family to occupy a property over many generations. This feature can make the lists useful for connecting generations.
Data is commonly extracted from tithe and tax records and may be supplemented by genealogical information from church records. Non-German speakers should be able to decipher the information in the lists if they can identify common words and abbreviations.
The chronological lists usually appear in the context of a broader local history that can help researchers ground their ancestral research in the larger historical and social context. Information can include historical development of the community, descriptions of churches and other important institutions, lists of war casualties, information about emigrants from the village, and maps and photographs. Researchers who do not read German may want to consult a translator in order to glean this information.
A farm history for the village of Oberpreuschwitz near Bayreuth, Bavaria was written by Ernst Wiedemann and published in Archiv für Geschichte von Oberfranken, Band 47 (1967) (Bayreuth: Historischer Verein für Oberfranken), pp. 7–110 under the title, “Hofgeschichte der Gemeinde Oberpreuschwitz, Kreis Bayreuth”.
The Hofgeschichte for Oberpreuschwitz begins with narrative sections outlining the historic development of the community through its land divisions among various landholders, and descriptions of the boundaries, characteristics, and ownership of the fields related to each house number.
The main section features the Besitzerfolge, a farm-by-farm chronological listing of successive occupants. The article also includes a Hofgeschichte of the neighboring hamlet of Unterpreuschwitz. The chronologies are followed by lists of sources used, a table summarizing tax-list data, and a name index.
The following chronology appears on pp. 55–56.
House No. 17, a manor, together with House No. 20.
1596 Peter Jeger and his son-in-law, Hans Neukam, a forest worker.
1620 Cunz Graßinger, subsequently Forkenhof
1620 Hans Hacker, mentioned since 1618 (still unmarried), died 1646.
1646 Hans Hacker’s widow, buried 16 Nov. 1678, 80 years old.
(1662) Hans Hacker, the son, buried 24 Oct. 1700, 73 years old; married on 26 Oct. 1660 to Margaret, widow of Hans Walther in Donndorf and daughter of Hans Ritter in Simmelbuch, buried on 19 May, 1699, 62 years old.
1700 Hans Hacker, birth name Seeser, baptized on 24 Oct 1670, buried on 1 Aug. 1704, married on 23 Nov. 1696 to Barbara Popp from Eckersdorf, buried on 18 Feb 1731, 60 years old. Second marriage on 26 Jan. 1706 to:
1706 Hans Roder from Vorlahm, born 6 Dec. 1677, buried 11 July 1713.
1714 Third marriage (of Barbara Popp) on 13 Nov. 1714 to Nicolaus Tressendörfer from Eckersdorf, born 21 Feb. 1683, buried 10. Feb. 1731.
1731 Johann Hacker, the son [of Hans Hacker and Barbara Popp], see House Nr. 20
The other half
1731 Hans Roder, the son [of Hans Roder and Barbara Popp], born on 17 April 1707, died on 4 May 1761, married on 12 Nov. 1731 to Anna, daughter of Hans Rieß in Dörnhof, born on 23 April 1716, died on 11 April 1778.
1772 Lorenz Roder, the son, born 1 July 1745, died 20 July 1811, married on 2 June 1776 to Anna Neukam from Dörnhof, died 12 July 1825, 74 years and five months old.
1811 Margareth Roder, the daughter, born on 20 May 1784, died on 20 Jan. 1829, married on 13 May 1802 to Leonhard Holl from Oberwaiz, born on 10 June 1782, died on 25 Feb. 1862.
1844 Johann Holl, the son, born 6 July 1818, died 1 Feb. 1886, married on 13 May 1845 to Anna Barbara, daughter of Adam Hacker, born 19 July 1821, died on 24 June 1893.
1889 Konrad Holl, the son, born 13 July 1864, died 17 June 1921, married 1 July 1890 to Kunigund Margaret, daughter of Konrad Kirschner in Melkendorf, born 10 July 1871, died 9 Feb. 1953.
1928 Adam Holl, the son, married on 5 Jan. 1938 to Margaret Körber from Unterpreuschwitz.
This example shows that the farm at House No. 17 had been occupied by the Hacker family beginning in 1620. In 1700, Hans Hacker became the occupant. When he died in 1704, his widow, Barbara, married two more times, first to Hans Roder in 1706 and, after his death, to Nicolaus Tressendörfer. Both Barbara and her third husband died in 1731. The property was then divided between Johann Hacker, a son from her first marriage, and Hans Roder, a son from her second marriage. The property was split so that both sons could inherit tenancy. Johann Hacker occupied one section of the property, which was designated as House No. 20, and whose chronology continues in a separate list. In 1811, Margaret Roder inherited the property. She married Leonhard Holl in 1802, and the property continued in the possession of the Holl family until the end of at least 1928, when the list ends. A footnote next to Leonard Holl’s name on the bottom of page 55 in this example lists his direct ancestors back to Hans Holl, Sr., who was born about 1588.
FINDING HOF– AND HÄUSERGESCHICHTEN
Some Hof- and Häusergeschichten are stand-alone publications, but many are included in histories of the local community. Look for books in which the village name is the title and words such as Geschichte, Chronik, Hofgeschichte, Hausgeschichte, Höfe, Häuser, and Heimatkunde (local history). The following are examples of titles:
- Häuserchronik Braschstadt
- Häusergeschichte Kirchberg bei Simbach am Inn
- Häuser und Höfe von Paitzdorf und Mennsdorf
- 500 Jahre Haus- und Hofgeschichte von Bobing
- Holzgünz: Heimatkundliche Beiträge zur Geschichte der Ortsteile Ober- und Unterholzgünz
Hof- and Häusergeschichten also appear as articles in journals published by genealogical and historical societies in Germany.
The St. Louis County Library History & Genealogy Department actively collects these and other sources for German research. Search the library’s catalog at https://webpac.slcl.org/ or contact the History & Genealogy Department at email@example.com. Other libraries with sizable German research collections may also have them, and they are usually listed in WorldCat. Many are available for sale at abebooks.com and other online book sellers, as well.
Locating Hof- and Häusergeschichten for a village or town and interpreting the information in them can be a challenge, but the results can yield and substantial amount of genealogical data pertaining to your ancestor and valuable historical and cultural information to add to your family’s history.
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.
Have you hit a brick wall? Is your one German ancestor giving you more trouble than you could ever have imagined? Luckily, there’s another source available – one you might never have considered. Thank you to Garth Wunsch for sharing his journey of using these fantastic sources with us!
How German City Directories Helped Me Find my Great-Grandfather
I’m seventy-five years old, which I seldom think about, but today is still the first day of the best half of my life… and at the rate my genealogical research is going, I may well need that next three score and ten… well actually, fifteen, to solve all the riddles my family history has posed.
Genealogy is strictly a hobby, so no professional letters after my name, no book credits, no public speaking… and in fact this is the first published article I’ve written outside my own genealogical society in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. So this is an amateur’s story using “ancient” city directories (German: Adressbücher) from Eastern and Western Europe. I was amazed at what they have to offer…
It all started with Grandma…
My interest in our family history began with a Q & A between my paternal grandmother and myself. Grandma was doing her usual thing… working at something or other around the giant flat-topped Findlay cook stove, the heartbeat of the home in pre-electricity Anywhere. Although that encounter was well over forty years ago, I still have the original notes I scribbled with a red pencil on buff newsprint!
Fast forward four decades…I’m attending one of our monthly genealogical meetings, and I come across a magazine left behind for us by another member. The feature article, on using the World Wide Web to research your German roots, included a website that I hadn’t seen before. I decided to check it out – and was very glad I did.
A Trip Back in time…
Once at the computer, I type in the link, and find myself inside thousands of pages of old German Fraktur text. I was, in effect, looking through pages and pages of digitized city directories spanning many decades of Berlin’s residents. In addition to names, these directories included:
- People’s addresses
- Who else lived in the building
- People’s occupations
- Double-index between name and address for businesses and individuals
Could my great-grandfather Adolph be somewhere in these historical pages?
To access these Berlin city directories yourself:
2. Click on the telephone and address book image.
3. Click on the little German flag at the top right, and it will switch to the British flag – and English text (no need to do this if you are fluent in German).
on the trail of my great-grandfather…
In 1900, the population of Berlin was 1,888,848 – a lot of names to go through! Luckily, the directory only listed the “heads of households”, so this narrowed down the search a bit at least…
From my Q&A with grandma forty years before, I knew that Adolph (the name he went by – and the only name I had for him) was a baker by trade, that he lived in Berlin, and eventually married the young Fräulein that delivered the baked goods every morning – the baker’s maid.
In the surname section, I began my painstaking struggle with the text, looking for our last name of Wunsch. I searched through the W’s, moving 50 pages at a time, until at last I landed in approximately the right spot.
But suddenly, those upper case W’s looked like fancy English M’s to me! Perusing page after page of Fraktur font had “fraktured” my brain and I had trouble remembering W’s looked so different! Because of that, I actually skipped past the name Wunsch on my first go. It appeared to my English brain as Munich. I was confused, how did I end up back in the M’s?
Then it dawned on me – again – hey silly, this is Fraktur and that is a W. So back I go, looking for that Fraktur Wunsch, and there it was!
I Found the last name, now what?
While the city directory is organized alphabetically by surname, under the surname, there are no rules. It appears they were just typeset in random order . So how to find Adolph?
Luckily, I only had six A. Wunschs’ to choose from. One was a female with her married name. (Useful tip… if a female is listed, she’s likely a widow, and you get her married name too). That narrowed my search down to five.
Recall I mentioned that occupations were listed in these records? There was a miller and and a cigarette maker… and my German isn’t good enough to figure out the rest… but thanks to Google Translate, I knew that “baker” was Bäcker. To my great good fortune, of the five names listed, there was only one Bäcker. I had him!
And the best part…
Based on the “A’, the last name, the location, and occupation, it had to be him, but what was that W before the A? I called up Gerry Rosenfeld, my German-speaking friend and a fellow researcher, to share my great discovery. Gerry had an Ancestry subscription, so off he went, and in twenty minutes called back with info on Wilhelm Adolph Wunsch. Everything matched with my great-grandfather, especially his birthdate!
Discovering this W was crucial to my future research – I could now use the name Wilhelm Adolph Wunsch to find more information on my great-grandfather (For more information on German names, see here).
And find it I did! Knowing his name was Wilhelm Adolph Wunsch allowed me to find his long-sought marriage certificate below:
I trust this little story will encourage you to keep up your search and find your own German ancestors!
1. City directories can provide you with the name, address, occupation, housemates, and business information of your German ancestor.
2. To access city directories, either use this link for the Berlin directories or type in the German word “Adressbuch + city name” to see if you can find your town’s address book.
3. The first names may be in random order under the alphabetized surname. Knowing the names are in random order is useful to remember if you happen to be searching a really long surname list, such as Schimidt. You just never know where your Schmidt is on the list…never give up!
4. Keeping a discovery journal as you make your great genealogy finds may be very helpful for future research (for yourself and other family members).