How do I find where in Germany my ancestors came from?
When Missouri became a state in 1821, there were Germans living here. A few were first generation, and many more were either second or third generation. Germans have been coming to the United States since 1683, when they settled Germantown Pennsylvania. Many of those early German families had later generations that emigrated on to Kentucky, who would eventually move west just prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. Several had come from Maryland and settled down in the Cape Girardeau area. Some had joined the migration westward as Daniel Boone’s friends and come to the St. Charles Territory about this same time.
When Gottfried Duden arrived in 1824, he had friends here already who had helped him purchase some of his land in 1819. But it wasn’t until after his visit from 1824 until 1827, when he published A Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America that emigration really took off. His book was first published in 1829, but went through several re-prints and other emigration societies re-printed it as well. By the 1830 Germans like Eugene Gauss had read his book and headed for the new land.
Why they came
Duden’s book talked about a place where there was so much wide-open land available at cheap prices. Germany is not much larger than Missouri, and had just become a state 3 years before he arrived. Plus there had been financial and banking crisis and land was cheap. Anyone could buy the land – you didn’t have to be a citizen! You could buy as much as you wanted and wherever you wanted. Game was plentiful, and the people here ate as much land in a month as they did in a year in Germany. There were not any taxes, there wasn’t a King, and you could be whatever religion you wanted. Plus you were free to take whatever occupation you wanted, and speak your mind freely, and not be censored or executed for your words. Everything was so abundant that in Germany they called him the Dreamspinner! How could there possibly be such a Utopia? Some said it could not be real but a fairy tale. Perhaps some was anti-propaganda by the Government as they did not want to lose their best citizens.
There were as many reasons to be an emigrant, as there were immigrants
To decide that conditions are no longer tolerable, and to sell everything you own, and say good-bye to all of your friends and family is not an easy decision. It is not one made lightly, as anyone who has made such a decision to emigrate can tell you. And besides the push, there has to be a pull from a place to be significantly sufficient. When Duden’s book is published, there are hundreds of similar books being published suggesting emigration to Russia, Brazil and England to name a few. And knowing the reason that made your family decide to come, may give you leads as to when over the decades. As conditions changed in both America and in Germany, so too changed the reasons, and the manner in which it was done. However many times, families hear of someone whose reason of freedom from a King or how the land looked the same, and just assume that is the reason for their own family.
Before one can trace where their German ancestors came from, they have to be absolutely certain that the basic information they have collected on their ancestor is correct! They may have touched a hint on an online Genealogy program and have assumed that a person is their ancestor. It is highly unlikely that our ancestor was the only person ever born that used that name and it is easy to pick up a line that is not ours without enough documentation. If you have hit a brick wall, this could be the reason perhaps. And don’t assume that if you cannot find where an ancestor was born, that it automatically means they were born in another country, and because Grandma always said, “we are German”!
Listed below are my favorite documents that provide clues to where in Germany someone was born. Be careful too, because like the U.S. sometimes a City, or an early Kingdom, will have the same name as a Province or a State. And while there were and are residents of Bremen, and Hamburg, thousands gave this as an answer to the question “where did you come from” at the U.S. port as they entered. These are our Top Ten documents that provide a clue. Do not quit with the first one you find with the name of a city, but definitely keep going. While one may state a larger City the original place may have been a village nearby. If you don’t keep looking, then you may not find the one that said Nieder Gemünden instead of nearby Giessen. It was common practice just like today to name a larger more recognizable city in place of our own.
DOCUMENTS THAT MAY HELP YOU FIND CLUES OF YOUR EMIGRANTS BIRTHPLACE
- Occupation: If your ancestor’s occupation put him in the spotlight there are often histories devoted to that occupation. Did he perhaps found a company, or was he the first to bring Lager beer to America?
- Military Records: Indian War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II – Naturalized veterans. Chances are high that your ancestor served in one, and the National Archives is the Government’s repository for all of these.
- Newspapers – Missouri’s State Historical Society has done a fantastic job of collecting old newspapers – even those in German – before they were tossed or destroyed. With a little work with Google online you can understand a little easier.
- Obituaries and Gravestones: Again – If they are in German – use Google Translate for basics or to use translators. And don’t consider these infallible resources.
- County Histories (In the 1870s every county in America had one! Written by theirself!) If he held a position such as Mayor, was the local doctor, or everyone’s favorite blacksmith, he may be mentioned in local histories. And Community histories: Local Historical Societies still are republishing these early county histories, and making new ones by collecting local family histories.
- Federal and State Census: Don’t forget to read the census. Look at where their neighbors came from. If the whole neighborhood comes from Hesse – and yet 5 name Nieder Gemünden, chances are more likely they all came from the same or nearby villages. The census for 1900 and 1910 will also say when they emigrated.
- Legal records: Justice of the Peace, Probate, Land Deeds, Circuit Court, County Court, Taxes, and Plat Books. Many times there are more than one Johann Henry Schmidt in a county, and the Clerk will know this and note that this is the one from Offenburg and not Remscheid.
- Ship Lists: Indexers misspell names, names on arrival by Americans that don’t understand German. One of my favorites is Schöne, that between dropping the umlaut and anglicizing the pronunciation, it became Showney in the Bureau of Land Management in the land purchases. Don’t think the same name, but spelled differently means that it is not your ancestor.
- Religious Records: Their confirmation, their marriage, the baptism of their children, the cemetery listing. In many religions, these were the most accurate of reporting on this information to be found.
- Naturalizations: Intention – From the moment they stepped off the ship, and Finalization – years later. More about this in the Fall 2015 issue of Der Anzeiger.
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