Are you one of the 44.2 million Americans with a German ancestor, but sense that researching them is more out of reach than others in your family tree? Researching our German can seem daunting because of the language hurdle, but also because the whole concept of “German” is complex. People from central Europe had particularly complicated histories compared to those with more fixed national identities such as the English. Perhaps living on an island has helped define and consolidate who is English, and made possible a more centralized government earlier on in history.
Since the United States was primarily founded by immigrants from the British isles, every American schoolchild grows up learning something about British history in their American History classes. Naturally, the study of English Literature begins in Britain. If we want to understand the history of non-English speaking lands like Germany, unless we speak German, we will be reading about Germany from the point of view of English speakers. We need to find ways to see the world with German eyes to understand our ancestors and their records. Dealing with German-language records can seem daunting, but with today’s tools, they are more accessible to us than ever.
Though there are challenges to researching Germans, there are also advantages. With today’s access to online records and tools for helping translate them, it is more achievable than ever to walk in the footsteps of our German through their American records back into Germany. We take it one step at a time in this series, “Tracing Your 19th Century German Ancestors.”
Part 1: When did your German arrive? What do we mean by German?
Part 2: Start in America: How to search for your German’s church records.
Part 3: Tips for getting your German’s surname right.
Part 4: Learn just enough German to read records.
Part 5: German Archives and Genealogical Societies.
Part 6: Tips for using DNA with Germans.
For this series, we will start by narrowing the focus to Germans that arrived in the 19th century, when the largest number of Germans immigrated to the U.S. However much of the information and skills covered apply to Germans who came at earlier or later times. The first questions we need to ask is which Germans, and what was meant by German?
When did your German arrive?
Germans arriving in different eras experienced different patterns of migration and assimilation, and consequently left different kinds of records behind. When your German arrived will make a big difference in how you research them. Let’s take a little time to explain who came before the 19th century Germans, the Pennsylvania Dutch.
While the first Germans immigrants to North America arrived in 1683 and settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the largest wave of Pennsylvania Dutch were the 65,000 who came between 1727 and 1775. That early arrival means that by now millions and millions of Americans today can trace at least some of their ancestry to the Pennsylvania Dutch.
These early Germans tended to be fleeing the long aftermath of the Thirty Years War (i.e. religious persecution and economic devastation) from the areas near the Rhine down into Switzerland. Though many were Catholic or Lutheran, they were more likely to be from smaller Protestant sects (e.g. Anabaptists whose descendants became the Mennonites or Amish) than later waves of Germans were. Research into Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors involves understanding German religious factors and language common to all German research but also has many of the same aspects of research in other American colonial groups such as American censuses, wills, tax, and land records.
The next wave: 19th century Germans
Over 7 million Germans came to the U.S. between 1820-1900, certainly one of the largest immigrant waves to ever hit the shores of America. War, famine, and overpopulation have always pushed people to migrate, and the 19th century Germans were no different. Napoleon, the 1848-9 Revolutions, Franco-Prussian War plus crop failures (e.g. potato famines hit Ireland the hardest but central Europe suffered too) were just some of the reasons to leave.
It’s hard to overstate the amount of change in the 1800s, but what made German immigration explosive in this period, was the above perennial factors plus the increased desire for individual rights introduced by the Enlightenment, and the effects of the Industrial revolution. Feudalism in Germany had only completely ended in the early 1800s. The American and French revolutions introduced powerful ideas that all men were created equal that resulted in uncertainty and unrest in Germany.
Employment was shifting from mostly farming to more industrial work. Populations were moving from nearly entirely rural to more urban. Besides bringing upheaval, the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century made it simply much easier to get to America than in previous eras. Germans could get on a train to Hamburg or Bremen, board a steamship, and be in America in weeks. The industrial revolution brought change on an unprecedented scale. See the following image created by Luke Muehlhauser for a visual.
What did “German” mean in the 19th century?
When we say we have German ancestors, exactly who are we talking about? Germany became a nation-state only in 1871, so what did all those “Germans” arriving before 1871 call themselves? Often they would have been defined as German or “Dutch” only in America (“Dutch” was a misnomer of Deutsch used by native-born Americans). However, the newly arrived immigrants did not have a strong sense of being “German” themselves. They may not have even spoken the same dialects as their fellow “Germans.” Instead, they would have thought of themselves as citizens of a German state (e.g. Prussia, Hesse, Bavaria), or perhaps even had a stronger identity in a smaller jurisdiction like their village.
This more local identity was reinforced over the centuries for Germans due to the ever-changing borders and rulers of central Europe. To get a sense of this constant change, watch this short video (The Holy Roman Empire, Every State, Every Year) on the changing borders of the “Holy Roman Empire,” the largest German state from 962-1806.
The fact that Germany did not exist as one nation can be an advantage for those immigrants who were enumerated on U.S. censuses prior to 1871. German immigrants in the U.S. censuses of 1850, 1860, and 1870 mostly gave their state for country of origin, such as Hesse, Bayern (Bavaria), Baden, Hannover, Bohemia, or Prussia. This more specific clue to their origins is a bonus for those with mid-19th century Germans in their tree.
Since having a German ancestor has more layers than what someone means by saying they have an English ancestor, we need to define what we mean by German. For this series, we will think of “German” as someone from German-speaking lands in central Europe. Sometimes their locality became a part of the Germany we have today and sometimes not, such as Switzerland, Austria, western Poland, and many more. Unpacking what is behind the term “German” will help us in understanding our ancestor’s locality, which is another way of saying the history and availability of records in a place they came from.
Finding an ancestor’s hometown is far and away the best way to successfully match the same person we find in American records with that same person in German lands. It will be easier to understand our German’s village if we can understand the history of the jurisdictions that village was under over time. The good news is despite the complexity of language and changing borders, there are amazing tools discussed in this series, which can help us unlock the mystery of our ancestor’s hometown.
In part 2 of this series, we’ll look at ways that you can research your German immigrant’s in church records.