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!
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.
- 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; Ancestry.com 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.
- 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 Ancestry.com 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.
- 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 email@example.com.
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!
Author’s Note: If you are interested in more tricks for deciphering the old German script in your genealogy documents, check out my new book on the topic, Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting!
You have your German genealogy document. You are feeling relatively confident with the handwriting. But those letters just don’t seem to be forming any word you can find in the dictionary. What could be going on?
As German spelling was not standardized until the end of the 19th century, the spelling of words in handwritten documents can often be rather “creative”, to say the least. In these types of situations, the trick to deciphering the handwriting is: Think like a German! (*For a simple chart of spelling variations, see the end of the article*).
What does it mean to think like a German, you ask? Well, in the German language, even today, many certain letters sound the same to German speakers. Case in point: I was once in a book shop in Austria, and had placed an order for a book. The bookseller asked for my last name, upon which I replied with my maiden name, Portnoy. He looked at me and said, “Now, would that be with a hard P or a soft B?” Confused, I replied, “It’s just a P. You know, Puh, Puh!”
Upon further inquiry, I found out that the Germans have a hard time telling the difference between their spoken P and B. They have therefore applied adjectives (hard and soft) to the letters to clarify which consonant they mean. For Americans, P and B are very distinct (although they are made at the same place in our mouth), but for Germans, they need that extra description to be sure which letter is meant. And this leads to the fact that many German writers of the past misspelled P words with B’s and vice versa.
K and G: For any linguists out there, you may now be recognizing a pattern. Just as B and P are spoken at the same place in our mouths, K and G are also formed in the same part of the mouth as one another (what differentiates these letters from each other is that the B and G are voiced, meaning our vocal cords vibrate when we make these sounds, while the P and the K are voiceless, with no vocal cord vibration). Again, English speakers make a bigger distinction between these sounds than German does, which means that our German ancestors often mixed up the K and the G in writing (in very creative cases, a K or a G may also have been used for a CH).
T and D: Just as the above letter pairs, the only distinction between these letters is whether the vocal cords vibrate or not, meaning that there is not a big difference in these sounds for German speakers. So if a word is not making any sense and you can’t find it in a dictionary, try replacing the T with a D or vice-versa.
F and V: In German, the letter V sounds like the F sound, meaning many German speakers often mixed up the two letters. Case in point: I once translated a letter from a German person living in America, written in German. The author was describing his occupation, and wrote the word “Varmer.” After puzzling what this random German word could be, I then realized that the author meant “farmer” in English, but had misspelled it with a V.
C and K: C is not a very common letter in German today, but in some words of the past, they did use a C where a K would be written today.
Extra H’s: You will often see many words in old German documents that have an H included where no H would be written today. Some examples include:
- verheirthat (verheiratet) – married
- thun (tun) – to do
- Thräne (Träne) – tears
- Monath (Monat) – month
For further examples, see here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Rechtschreibung_im_sp%C3%A4ten_19._Jahrhundert
Umlauts: Most German writers did use the umlaut (two dots above A, O, and U) but some preferred to write this sound as AE, OE, and UE. You can see this in the spelling of certain last names today. For instance, my German ancestors’ last name was “Müller”, but our family spells the name “Mueller” today. So if your ancestor wrote a word with “ae”, but you can’t find it in the dictionary, try typing “ä”.
EI and EY: Some words spelled with EI today were spelled with EY in the past (with two dots over the Y). Examples:
- bey (bei) – preposition meaning many different things, depending on the context (http://dict.leo.org/englisch-deutsch/bei)
- seyn (sein) – to be
- Freytag (Freitag) – Friday
EU and EI: Depending on the region of Germany, Austria or Switzerland, some authors may have pronounced EU words (normally pronounced as the OY in boy) as EI (like the I in bike). Some examples:
- eich (euch) – you all
- Freind (Freund) – friend
ß and S: ß (Eszett, or sharp S, pronounced as S) is still used in German today, although the rules on when to use it have changed. This means that you may often see ß in words where an S or two S’s would be used in German today.
I and IE: In the past, German writers often substituted an IE for what would only be an I today. Example:
- giebt (gibt) – to give (or Es giebt/Es gibt – There is…)
I and J: If you go centuries back into the past, you may see some words written with a J today that were written with an I back then. One example is:
- Iahr (Jahr) – year
While there are many more spelling variations, these are some of the most common ones. So if your word is not appearing in any online dictionary, try substituting its German equivalent, and see what you can find! And if you don’t want to puzzle through the mysteries of German spelling, you can always contact me here for translation help.
German Spelling Variations
|Letter One (These Were Interchanged With One Another)||Letter Two (These Were Interchanged With One Another)|
|The Below Letters Are the Standard Spelling Today:||The Below Letters Were Used More Often in the Past (as substitutes for left column):|
|no h||additional h|
|ä, ö, ü||ae, oe, ue|
|s/ss||ß (also used in standard spelling, although not as often)|