When German-speaking immigrants arrived in America, they tended to settle in communities of German-speaking people. Although the residents of a particular community may have come from different areas of German-speaking Europe, they had similar customs and similar ways of life that they retained for many years. At the same time, Pennsylvania Germans were eager to avail themselves of the opportunities of this new land. Remember that even though our Pennsylvania Germans retained much of their ethnic and cultural identity, they lived in America and as such, they were also Americans. Retaining an awareness of German customs while employing many of the same strategies for any research in Colonial Pennsylvania will lead to the greatest success when researching Pennsylvania German ancestors. In this post, I will guide you through some basic principles, methodologies, and resources to keep in mind as you begin your research.
Be Aware of Name Variations
Names are important in Pennsylvania German research. Variations in names were very common–sometimes members of the same family even spelled their surname in different ways. There were two major ways in which the change of names took place.1 The first was the translation of a German name to its English equivalent. For example, Zimmerman became Carpenter. It has been noted that when William Penn issued land patents to Pennsylvania German settlers, he would translate German names into their corresponding English ones whenever he could.2 The second (and most common) way that name variations came about was through the English spelling of German sounds: Stehli would become Staley, Bauman became Bowman, etc. Given names evolved just as surnames did. Often, given names were anglicized. For example, Heinrich became Henry, and Maria became Mary.
Familiarize Yourself with Pennsylvania German Naming Customs
Another very important consideration surrounding names is German naming customs. First, Germans often gave two given names to their children.3 The first name was for a favorite saint and was considered a spiritual name. The second given name was known as the “rufnamen,” or call name. This is the name the child would be known by. The spiritual name was often given to each child in the family. Favorite male saints’ names include Johan and Philip. Favorites for females were Anna and Maria. One family could have named their children Johan Georg, Johan Jacob, Johan Adam, Anna Barbara, and Anna Catharine. The children would be known as Georg, Jacob, Adam, Barbara, and Catharine.
Naming patterns are also important and can provide clues about extended family.4 It was a common practice to name the first-born son after the child’s paternal grandfather and the second-born son after the maternal grandfather. For girls, the first-born daughter was traditionally named after the mother’s mother and the second daughter after the father’s mother. Alternate naming patterns and customs for naming subsequent children do exist. Charles F. Kerchner wrote an article that goes over these customs in detail. You can read it here.
Access German Language and Handwriting Helps
Because German-speaking immigrants settled in communities with other German-speaking citizens, the German language was retained within their communities for decades. Thus many records, including newspapers and church records, were kept in German. A basic knowledge of key words in German and some practice in reading German handwriting will help as you are researching Pennsylvania German ancestors. Here is a list of valuable resources you can turn to:
- The German Genealogical Word List at FamilySearch is a glossary of often-used words that you might encounter in German records. Bookmark this page if you are looking at a lot of German records.
- The Germany Handwriting page at FamilySearch provides handwriting examples and handouts that can be used as reference guides for letters, numbers, days and months, and common symbols. There are also handouts for birth, marriage, and death records.
- Charlotte Noelle Champenois has created a ten-part German Paleography Seminar that is very valuable. Completing this seminar will help you gain confidence in your ability to decipher German handwriting.
- See what different given names might look like using this list of given names with examples from records.
- This script generator tool is also a valuable resource. To use it, simply type a name or other word into the font generator tool, then click on the 8 different fonts to see what the word might look like in the records.
- The German Genealogy Translations Facebook group is a great resource for help with the translation of German documents.
Employ an Essential Research Methodology – the FAN Club
We have already emphasized two important points in this series that suggest critical methodologies for researching Pennsylvania German ancestors, and I want to re-emphasize them here. First, land was very important to Pennsylvania Germans, and any records created surrounding the acquisition of land, taxation of land, and the inheritance of land will be essential to your research. Second, because Pennsylvania Germans formed communities with other Pennsylvania Germans, researching our ancestors’ Friends, Associates, and Neighbors (FANs) also becomes an important methodology, and one I will refer to again and again throughout this series. Noting and researching neighbors, witnesses to land transactions and wills, fellow church members, and even those who were involved in day-to-day activities with one another can lead to a more complete picture about our ancestors and help us extend their ancestry into Germany.
Identify the Proper Jurisdiction for your Research
Another thing to keep in mind while researching Pennsylvania German ancestors is boundary changes. The state of Pennsylvania experienced continual growth during the peak years of German immigration to Pennsylvania. The Penn family purchased land from the Indians over the span of a century, which meant new areas started becoming available for settlement as time went on, resulting in migration from the original three counties of Pennsylvania into new regions. The map below illustrates various purchases from 1683 until 1792.
In 1729 there were only four counties: Bucks, Philadelphia, Chester, and Lancaster.5 By the time of the Revolutionary War, there were eleven counties, and by 1800, there were 23 counties. The rapidly changing boundaries mean that researchers need to ensure they are looking for records in the correct county. For example, my ancestor Jacob Fisher lived in Whitehall Township in the 1780s. This township is in Lehigh County today. However, Lehigh County was not formed until 1812, so I have found Jacob in the records of Lehigh’s parent county, Northampton County. Though this principle holds true in most cases, if you are not finding your ancestor in the records of the correct county, do check the new county, as sometimes records end up in both counties.
Use the Published Pennsylvania Archives
Not to be confused with the Pennsylvania State Archives which is a physical repository located in Harrisburg, the published Pennsylvania Archives is a valuable collection unique to Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Archives consists of a set of 138 volumes of records pertaining to the state of Pennsylvania that span the years 1664-1780, making it an important collection for researching Pennsylvania German ancestors. The volumes are arranged into ten series. All have been scanned and digitized and can be accessed for free at Fold3. The collection is name-searchable or browseable. The description of the collection at Fold3 states,
There are many valuable transcribed lists and documents available in the Pennsylvania Archives publication. People from all walks of life are mentioned. If your ancestor or research focus married, was baptized, paid taxes, was in the militia, ran for office, wrote to the government for help, was a foreigner who entered the port of Philadelphia, owned or attempted to own land, or wrote a diary or journal, just to name a few, then he or she could be mentioned.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has created a quick-reference guide that summarizes what is contained in each series of the published Pennsylvania Archives. Wikipedia also has a Pennsylvania Archives page with a list of the contents of each volume of the first seven series. Each entry on the list links to a scanned version of the volume found at Internet Archive.
Additional Resources for Pennsylvania German Research
- The German Genealogy Society has a great website called Palatines to America.
- Cyndi’s List has a page dedicated to resources for research about Palatine Germans.
- The Pennsylvania Colonial Records page on the FamilySearch Research Wiki has a list of online records and a bibliography of sources for various record types. It includes a section specific to German Settlements.
Online and Print Guides for Pennsylvania Research
- Visit the FamilySearch Pennsylvania Wiki page and Pennsylvania Catalog entry to begin your search for resources for Pennsylvania research.
- Ancestry has a Pennsylvania Research Guide that includes a nice timeline and links to various record types that you will find on their website, including a few that pertain to the correct time period for Pennsylvania German research.
- Kay Haviland Freilich has written the Pennsylvania edition of the NGS Research in the States series. This is a great overall guide for Pennsylvania researchers.
- Another valuable print guide is Pennsylvania Line: A Research Guide to Pennsylvania Genealogy and Local History by William L. Iscrupe.
With this basic information under your belt, the next posts in this series will take a deeper dive into the types of records you will be using as you research your Pennsylvania German Ancestors.
- Oscar Kuhns, The German and Swiss Settlements of Colonial Pennsylvania: A Study of the So-Called Pennsylvania Dutch (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1901), 231-246, specifically p. 242; digital version, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/records/item/27740-the-german-and-swiss-settlements-of-colonial-pennsylvania-a-study-of-the-so-called-pennsylvania-dutch : accessed 10 January 2022), images 238-253.
- Jϋrgen Eichhoff, “Types of German Surname Changes in America,” Pennsylvania State University, undated, p. 30; digital version, Loyola Notre Dame Digital Library (https://loyolanotredamelib.org/php/report05/articles/pdfs/Report43Eichhoff23-36.pdf : accessed 1 February 2022).
- Charles F. Kerchner, Jr., “18th Century PA German Naming Customs,” Penn Pal, 38, (February 2018): 1-3, specifically 1; digital version, Palam.org (https://www.palam.org/palam_update/resources/vol-38-no-1-feb-2018.pdf : accessed 19 January 2022).
- “Atlas of Historical County Boundaries,” Pennsylvania, The Newberry Library (https://digital.newberry.org/ahcb/map/map.html#PA : accessed 19 January 2022).