2012 – German Genealogical Research

Coordinator: John Humphrey, CG
                       R. I. P. (April 1948-12 August 2012)

See more photos below course description.

John T. Humphrey, CG. John was an award winning author who specialized in German and Pennsylvania research. In 2010 he was invited to give a presentation on researching Germans in America at Schloss Dhaun in the Rhineland-Palatinate; in 2008, at the request of the German Embassy, he gave the keynote address at the 400th Anniversary Celebration commemorating four centuries of German immigration into the United States. He is past president of the Mid-Atlantic Germanic Society and a past vice president of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.

Description: One of the objectives of this track is to explore issues that present difficulties in locating German ancestors in more traditional American sources like the United States census, probate, land and other records. Problems with German names are a good example, but related issues are transcriptions and translations of American records written in German.

Background: Approximately 7,500,000 Germans immigrated to the United States over four centuries, more than any single group from the British Isles or any other European country.  Now millions of their descendants are desirous of finding their German forebears.

The Need: Many American genealogists do not know where or how to begin the search for their German ancestors once they have exhausted the traditional genealogical resources in  the United States like deeds, the U. S. census, probate, military records, and passenger arrival records.  Family historians aspiring to discover their German heritage frequently procrastinate because of perceived difficulties with language and handwriting. Equally important genealogists are not familiar with German history and thus have no knowledge of the record groups and resources available for uncovering a German pedigree in this country and in Germany. 

The course goals: One of the objectives of this track is to explore issues that present difficulties in locating German ancestors in more traditional American sources like the United States census, probate, land and other records. Problems with German names are a good example, but related issues are transcriptions and translations of original records written in German in the United States.

Language is an issue but as this track will demonstrate it is not an insurmountable obstacle. Family historians do not have to be fluent in German in order to find information on German ancestors. The course will establish a foundation in German language and handwriting skills—skills that are basic for exploring sources in German research such as church registers. This track has also been designed to furnish background on the history of German-speaking people in Europe and in the United States. An additional objective is the exploration of resources published in Germany. The course will conclude with a discussion of significant collections of German genealogical material, available in the United States, and it will demonstrate with case studies Americans, whose ancestors came from the German-speaking areas of central Europe, can reconstruct families and build some remarkable pedigrees.


John Humphrey in the German course
Collaborating in the German course
Listening to a presentation in the German course
Father and daughter took the German course together


REQUIREMENTS: Bringing a laptop to this course is not required.


8:30–9:45 a.m.  Introduction to the Issues and the Course

This introduction will lay out the overall objectives of the course and go on to describe how those objectives will be achieved. It will cover the primary obstacles to German research—issues with names, both first name and last, language, and difficulties associated with research materials published in the United States because of translation and transcription errors.

10:15–11:30 a.m.  Background on Germans in this country

This presentation will explore German immigration and settlement patterns within the United States. German immigration to the American Colonies and later United States can be divided into four separate phases. Each phase can be defined by surges in immigration and the locations within Germany where the immigrants in each phase had their origins. This overview of German immigration and settlement within the United States will also serve as a vehicle to determine the research interest of participants.

1:00–2:15 p.m.  German language skills for the Genealogist

This lecture explores the basics of German grammar. Nouns in German are easily identified because all nouns are capitalized. Verbs in a German sentence have a set position offering the opportunity to determine where the action is in a simple sentence. Compound words in German are a real issue because frequently compound words cannot be found in an online or published dictionary. The benefits of this brief and somewhat simplistic introduction to German will become apparent later in the course when church records, newspapers and published sources are discussed.

2:45–4:00 p.m.  A primer on German history

The history of Germany differs significantly from the history of the British Isles. For a thousand years the German-speaking inhabitants of central Europe were part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was not a state as we understand nation states today rather the Holy Roman Empire was comprised of 3,000 territorial entities that had their own laws, taxes, armies, religion, customs and dress. Napoleon’s invasion of central Europe in the first decades of the nineteenth-century started a process that terminated at the end of the century with the creation of a unified country that was the most powerful economically and militarily in all of Europe.


8:30–9:45 a.m.  German Church records

German church registers are the “heart and soul” of German genealogical research both in the United States and in Germany. German church records afford family historians the opportunity to track their ancestors back to the eighteenth, seventeenth and in some instances the sixteenth centuries. Genealogists who have experience with church registers of denominations whose origins are in Great Britain will discover when ministers recorded data in German church records they were more thorough than their English counterparts.

10:15–11:30 a.m.  German handwriting skills: The Gothic Alphabet Part I

This session and the one that follows, the Gothic Alphabet Part II, will be devoted exclusively to German handwriting. Both sessions will follow a workshop format. Character recognition can be learned more quickly when students recognize the underlying word in a document written with the Gothic alphabet. Because most American genealogists have no or little knowledge of German vocabulary the initial examples in this workshop will use English. This is a novel approach to presenting Gothic script but it is very effective because students learn to recognize lettering more quickly.

1:00–2:15 p.m.  German handwriting skills: The Gothic Alphabet Part II

2:45–4:00 p.m.  Reading and Abstracting German Church Records

This workshop will build on skills that were learned in the two previous classes. Handwritten documents and church records using German vocabulary will be explored after the vocabulary, that is essential for working in particular German record, is explained and or learned.


8:30–9:45 a.m.  Researching Pennsylvania Germans—the records

The search for information on families who came from the German-speaking areas of central Europe during the eighteenth-century is perhaps the single most difficult aspect of German research. There are the aforementioned issues related to names, language, handwriting and history but compounding the problem is the very simple fact as genealogists work back in time they have fewer records to use. This lecture will explore the records that can be used for finding information on Germans who settled in southeastern Pennsylvania of a general nature used by all genealogists as well as records that are unique to this ethnic group.

10:15–11:30 a.m.  Researching Pennsylvania Germans—the families

This is a methodology lecture. Case studies will explore difficulties associated with reconstructing families living in Pennsylvania’s predominately German-speaking counties. These case studies will demonstrate methods genealogists can use to circumnavigate a myriad of puzzles and problems connected with their Pennsylvania German research.

1:00–2:15 p.m.  Finding Places of Origin in Germany

Finding the place of origin for an immigrant ancestor is another very difficult aspect of German genealogy. As descendants of Germans in this country have demonstrated time and time again the ancestral “heimat” or hometown in Germany be can found. A variety of records are available that can assist with the search including military discharge papers, pension records, German-American newspapers, passports, memberships in German societies and church records maintained in the United States. Other sources of information are records maintained in Germany that furnish evidence of emigration and when all else fails, searches for unique and unusual surnames can yield some surprising results.

2:45–4:00 p.m.  Typefaces, Published Sources and German-American Newspapers

All materials published in German prior 1941 both in the United States and in Germany used a type-face that was called Fraktur. This includes genealogical materials for German research available on line through Ancestry and the more than 800 German language newspapers published in the United States. This session will introduce German Fraktur using printed materials and it will demonstrate how technology in the form of the personal computer and a word processing program can go a long way in helping to learn how to read documents.


8:30–9:45 a.m.  Maps and Gazetteers: Necessary Tools for Finding German Ancestors

Administrative districts, maps, locations where records were kept and even names of towns can be difficult to track and understand in Germany for a myriad of reasons. The many towns and villages in Germany that share the same name are an interesting example. That problem can be circumnavigated if family historians understand the methods Germans use to differentiate towns that share the same name one from the other. The nomenclature used to describe levels of administration is another problem as in Germany the classification is not consistent. Thus maps and gazetteers are vital research tools for German research.

10:15–11:30 a.m.  Exploring Sources of Information in Germany

Records available for finding information on ancestors in Germany do not replicate records used by genealogists in the United States. Census and land records are a good example; they are used extensively for research in the United States; they have limited value in Germany. Conversely German genealogists have access to a multiplicity of records not available in the United States because records can be found in archival sources that may go back 1,000 years. Sources used by German genealogists include citizen books, house books, funeral sermons and histories of towns that are centuries long.

1:00–2:15 p.m.  Published Sources Available in the United States

Published sources, despite their shortfalls, are an important resource used by most genealogists. Like their American counterparts German genealogists have published the results of their research in a multiplicity of formats including compiled genealogies and family histories, abstracts of records and articles on individual families or sources of information published by German genealogical societies among them Ortssippenbücher, Deutsches Familienarchiv, Deutsches Gesclechterbuch, Der Schlussel, the German equivalent of PERSI, and books about ministers. A surprising number of these publications are available in the United States.

2:45–4:00 p.m.  Finding German Ancestors on the Internet

With the advent of the internet family historians now have the opportunity to locate sources of information around the world. For German research that is important because it means genealogists searching for information on their German forebears now have the ability to find and identify sources of information in libraries and archives in Germany and/or in the United States. The internet also affords genealogists a means of identifying and contacting genealogists in Germany with whom they may share a common heritage and research interest.


8:30–9:45 a.m.  Records on Germans at the National Archives of the United States

Germany’s 1930’s racial policies created a set of records useful to Americans of German descent. These records can be accessed at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. They include thousands of Ahnentafeln for members of the German SS. Some files have the original documentation that was submitted to the SS Genealogy Office in Berlin with the Ahnentafel . These microfilms have information on Germans who lived in provinces that were ceded to Poland at the end of the Second World War—East and West Prussia, Posen and Silesia as well as East Brandenburg. In fact for some families these may be the only records that exist.

10:15–11:30 a.m.   Researching Germans in American Repositories and Libraries

Because Germans played a significant role in the history of the United States several libraries have important collections of genealogical and other material published in Germany. The Library of Congress is home to North America’s “largest and most diverse collection of German language materials,” in fact the library boasts that is had the largest collection of German titles to be found outside the German-speaking world. Other libraries in the United States have significant collections including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, The New England Historic Genealogical Society, the New York City Public Library, the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the Dallas Texas Public Library.