Introduction to German Research


by William "Rod" Fleck

Chairperson of the German Interest Group of the Seattle Genealogical Society – 1991-2000



The following is the lecture outline that I hand out when I do my presentations within Washington State.  I hand this out, because of the occupational defect I suffer from – I talk really, really fast.  This way you can listen, read along, and revisit it later.  If this helps you in some way, then my purpose in posting it was fulfilled. 


I.       Purpose and Preparation

A.      A secret - you are all historians.  General purpose - be good historians who have an emphasis in family history. 

1.       Now some at my alma mater would cringe at that statement, yet

2.       You are conducting historical research on a specific topic area that involves the discovery, verification, documentation, and evaluation of materials from actual historical documents. 

a.       Historian!

b.       Actually, in some ways conducting a family research effort is like developing a master's thesis. 

3.       So why do the Ivory Towered Ph.D.'s cringe when they hear family historians called historians?

a.       Because we have a tendency not to do a few things:

(1)     Organize our materials in a standard format.

(2)     Annotate are finds in a fashion that permits others to easily verify the conclusions we have reached.

(3)     Sometimes place heavy reliance on myths, tall tales, and intuition - not that that is wrong, the Ph.D.'s do it also, but not to the same extent.  Nor is this bad, but it requires one to document when you are doing that and why.

b.       Yet we can overcome this attitude.

(1)     I have written on this in the past, but organization is a good starting point.  Utilize a methodology that allows you to quickly find what you have - the binder approach is what I use.  Demonstrate.

(2)     Also you need to make sure that you annotate your family group sheets of the source of information that this contained on the sheets.

B.      Specific purpose today, however, is to focus on doing research in Germany.  This is a bit broad, but I do hope to lay down a basic frame work that you can use in your efforts and then handle questions for as long as there are some.

1.       Primary need is to know the city, town or village your ancestor came from and in which area of Germany their "heimat" is located.

a.       What do I mean when I say German research, I like to use the phrase Germanic research, it is more encompassing.

1.       The Kaiser Reich of 1871-1914

a.       Modern Germany as it is now reunified

b.       Parts of Poland

c.       Parts of France


2.       Yet the suggestions will also work if you are researching in the area of Austria

b.       Usually what we need, we may already have!

1.       Review what you have

a.       Make note of any location of origins that are beyond Germany or Prussia (unless the later is prior to 1850).  Discuss

b.       Also write down any other information - such as "near Cologne" 

i.        This is a hint, but remember that this may not be saying that Cologne was the point of origins – rather it may be an effort to locate a region by your ancestor when they were speaking to others not from that region.

ii.       Easy reference point for most Americans.

c.       Also note any information regarding when immigration may have occurred, as well as the individual's religion upon arrival in this country.  These last facts will help you when you write to Germany.

2.       Exhaust state side services

a.       LDS - Family History Center

i.        IGI - both microfilm and CD-ROM

ii.       Family History Library - Mention PALMER's holes!

iii.      FHS COMPUTER CAN SAVE YOU TIME AND FRUSTRATION.  On line site is located at and this is really a thing to mark for your favorites.

b.       Associations here

i.        GGSA and GRA and FEEHS

ii.       Search sources

  a.     Immigrant Genealogical Society

          P.O. Box 7369
Burbank, California 91510-7369

          *        FANA searches.

  b.     Lineages, Inc.

          P.O. Box 417, Salt Lake UT 84110



c.       Books (available in the Seattle Public Library Reference Section, might be available in your local library).  I'll just mention a few.

i.        1850-1891

Glazier & Filby's Germans to America

ii.       Filby's Philadelphia Naturalization Records

iii.      Zimmerman's German Immigrants: 1847-1862 Bremen to NY.

d.       Internet - Check out the for a listing of genealogical areas, as well as surnames, and then post your message to the list.  You may have to subscribe, and doing so will probably provide you with a wealth of information about the region or others working on the surname you are working on.  You may be able to get assistance from experts in the area you are researching simply by typing out a query.  Some comments:

i.        Include the surname and location in your message line of your post;

ii.       Provide as much information as possible

e.       Specific Internet pages/places

          The mother of all home pages -

Great site that has some 43,000 links on it relating to genealogy - organized by category

·                    http:/

    Home page for German genealogy - worth stopping at and up dated on a regular basis.


     Federation of Eastern European Historical Societies - a must visit place for those dealing with Germans in Eastern Europe.  Check the portion of the site that deals with the specific ethnic organizations and groups.

A German based page with a great amount of material continually added. – very easy to search by village – topical site map as well

This organization specializes in the early 1700 immigrants of the Pennsylvania/Virginia areas.

Associated with the very popular genealogical program, this is a good place to do searches.

Search this surname section to see if someone is working on your same line - good way to find cousins.

This is how you can search the German phone book for surnames - German - may take a few tries to understand it.


                                                          use this to find towns, addresses (in USA), etc.

·        HUNDREDS OF OTHERS, e-mail me for some of the ones that I have used on a regular basis and I can send you the links.


2.       You have found it!  The name of the village, town or city, or you have the name of a state that is not as broad as Prussia.  Now what.


II.      Contact/Writing

A.      Need to talk about the archival structure.

1.       General statements

a.       Except in the five new German states, the former East Germany, the phrase "decentralized" is an understatement.

b.       Yet, professional and courteous beyond belief.

c.       Also swamped with requests.  So later I'll mention some tips on writing that will help you to get your letter answered!

2.       Structure.  Two major divisions at the outset - Religious and secular

a.       Religious

(1)     Evangelical

(a)      Includes Lutherans, Reformed and United churches

(b)     General archives do exist, but from my experience and my member's experience most of the items you'll be looking for (vital records, etc.) will be kept in the local community or in the district parish archives.

(2)     Catholic

(a)      Organized into ecclesiastical districts centered around bishops and archbishops. 

i.        27 archives with earlier church records.

ii.       Most of the information will probably be in the local churches

iii.      Yet your letter to the Arch bishopric's Archive will probably be forwarded for you.

(b)     Records, as is also the case with the Evangelical church records, will be in a combination of German and Latin script.  With the First Name and the surname being written in Latin Script making it somewhat easier to decipher.

(3)     Jewish

(a)      I have no experience in this area whatsoever

(b)     I do know that many records were lost, destroyed during the Nazi-era.

(c)     Best source for material and guidance here is to make contact with the Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (P.O. Box 900, Teaneck, NJ 07666).  This Association is an umbrella for the 45+ Jewish genealogical organizations in the U.S. and Canada.  They also publish a valuable magazine to Jewish or gentile genealogist working in Eastern Euorpe - Avotaynu.  Also visit their web site - for information.

b.       Secular/Governmental

(1)     Remember that Germany did not exist as such prior to 1871 as a state.  Prior to that it was a Confederation of Dukedoms, Principalities, bishoprics, etc.  You need to have a historical map and a modern map to help you pinpoint where you need to search.

(2)     Some general divisions

(a)      Staatsarchiv and Landesarchiv

          These are the equivalent to the state archives, in political analogies.  But, they are very different in that they will contain immigration petitions, military records, guild records, copies of the vital records, citizenry books, and censuses if conducted.

(b)     Stadtarchiv

          These are city archives or local archives.  These, depending upon the Land in which you are working, may have all of the documents that you are looking for or are hoping to find.

(c)     Familienarchiv

          These archives are focused upon a specific family, usually nobility, and may be located in historic homes, castles, estates, etc., or at the Staatsarchiv or Stadtarchiv.  Existence is hard to determine, yet E. Thode's book lists some with complete addresses.  While Baxter's book just lists the families name and the Land in which the archive is located.


B.      Tools to help you determine who to write to? where to write?

1.       Map work - historical and modern geography is going to be your best guide.

a.       Find a historical map of Germany - most LDS Family History Centers have on either on microfilm or in "hard copy.  Seattle Public Library has an Atlas of the German Empire - 1892 (R912.43 B471A) that is very good.

b.       Locate your village, town, city on the historical map.

(1)     LDS has on microfilm in every FHC a Meyers Gazetteer that can help you in this effort. (Film # 496.640 & 496,641; Fiche 6,000,001-029)  However Meyers is printed in fraktor and may not be the easiest to read.  It will, however, give the location by district, region, state and kingdom of every village with that name.  A good introductory article on the use of Meyers can be found in The German Connection, Joan Lowrey, Vo. 14, No.3, 7/90.


          OR, you may want to check out the Ritters Geographisch-Statisches Lexicon, 2 vol, located at Suzzalo Library, University of Washington, Seattle – Call number is G103 R58, 1910.

****  A good guide to this source is available from Evelyn Ruehl, of Kin Hunters at 2319 North 45th Street, #321, Seattle, WA 98103

(2)     The US Board of Geographical Names has a Gazetteer of the former West and East Germany.  These can be much simpler to use than Meyers yet will not have all of the information that Meyers would.

(3)     Some of the old Imperial German Atlases have gazetteers in them and these can be invaluable for you to use.

(4)     REMEMBER - you need to look for the village that is consistent with the information you already have.  For example, if an ancestor says they were Bavarian on every USA census, and there are five villages with the name Steinau in the former Kaisers Reich, you will only want to know if there is one in Bavaria to begin with. 


2.       Modern maps

          The best overview I have found of modern Germany is the Ravenstein, Deutschland - 1:500,000 (approx. $9).  Yet, check around, also check out the sources I listed in an article on sources available to the German genealogist in SGS’s 1993/4 Bulletins.  On line sites are awesome for this:


· - a great map source for Western Europe – very easy to use

· - another one that is awesome.

3.       Books

a.       Always check to see if there are books on researching in your particular area, or at least articles.  This can save you a lot of time and effort.

b.     The German Research Companion, by Shirley Riemer is really a heck of a book that gives you information in 25+ chapters covering anything you wanted to know.  The price is $34.95, yet if a group is interested in getting multiple copies, she might be open to a less her at P.O. Box 221356, Sacramento, CA 95822-8356.

c.     Histories.

(1)     Not many in English. – Take Die Chronik der Deutschen, & the Bohemia Book

(2)     Prof. G. Schweitzer's book is the best written, yet the print used is not the easiest on the eye.  Also it is $19+.  A good read however and it will help you sort out the basics of German history.  Contact his publisher at 407 Ascoti Cout, Knoxville, TN 37923-5807


C.      General Concepts

1.       "Hurry-up and wait"

a.       You will not get instant answers

b.       About the time you forgot that you mailed the item is when it will arrive.

2.       "Targeted shotgun approach"

a.       Mixed results, and I have had some German experts look at me disapprovingly when I mention this.  However, it's worked for my group in SGS, and for myself.

b.       Explained

(1)     Alter the letter so that you send a copy to the village archive, sometimes via the Bürgermeister, as well as to the Staatsarchiv.

(2)     May also want to address one to the local minister -

Evang. Pfarrer

Kath. Pfarrer


3.       E-mail mailing lists –I would almost recommend starting here – just in case.  These groups can help you quickly limit an area of search, may help find other researchers etc. also has message boards that can be a good place to post a general query, but not the same as e-mail mailing lists – which can be found at their mailing list site for Germany.


D.      Writing

1.       English versus German...write in what you know! (I have been told by one professional researcher/lecturer that this may be perceived as rude by the German receiving.  While that may be the case, I have yet to find a form letter that I truly find to be adaptable to what an individual wants to write.  Also, I hate form letters – my group for nine years has used this advice and found it to be a positive way of doing business.)

2.       ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS send at least two International Exchange Coupons.

a.       Cost you a little over a dollar a piece and provides a means of return postage to your foreign recipient.

b.       Like getting a S.A.S.E - you kind of feel guilty if you throw it away.

c.       Also helps with groups that cannot afford to pay postage for responses. 

3.       Remember that kindness, humility, brevity and neatness is an archivist's dream - so Keep It Simple!!!

a.       Outline form of your letter.

b.       One page maximum length.

4.       Correspondence log

E.      What is available to ask for.

1.       Examples I have

a.       Civil registry - Reichspersonenstandgesetz or Gerichtsbücher

b.       Vital records - Kirchenbücher

(1)     Extract format

(2)     Copied format

c.       Confirmation records

(1)     Usually a part of the Kirchenbücher

(2)     May be seperate as Konfirmationbücher

d.       Guild records - Gilderbücher

e.       Military records - Musternlisten  [1]

f.       Property records - Grundbücher

g.       Immigration - Auswanderenlisten

2.       Other types of documents that may exist, depending upon the area.

a.       Census - Volszählungen - rare and not like ours

b.       Police Registers - Einwohnermelderegister

c.       Local Family Books - Ortssippenbücher

d.       Lineage Books - Geschlechterbücher

e.       City Directory - Addressbücher

f.       House Books - Häuserbücherbücher

g.       Citizen Register - Bürgerbücher

h.       Newspapers - Zeitungen

3.       Two other examples of very different things

a.       The rejection letter - very short with little that looks like information.

b.       Third Reich

(1)     Gauleiter Extracts - Probably will only get these from individual researchers or individuals researcher families in areas that were occupied by the Program by the Nazi government to extract "German vital records" and make copies. 

(2)     Ahnenpass - requirement within the Third Reich to prove “blood purity” back so many generations depending upon positions and involvement within the government, military, factories, etc.



A.      "The waiting is the hardest part..."

1.       Once you have forgotten you have written

2.       What do you do in the mean time?

a.       Read your histories - even the driest histories can help shed light on the experiences and world events that surrounded, and probably influenced your ancestors.

b.       Work on fleshing out the American portion of the family history

c.       Make notes regarding things you may have discovered in your historical readings that could have impacted your ancestor's lives.

B.      Results

1.       If in German, you may need translators – Check with local college and such.

a.       If you get a result, or find someone who is very helpful, please always send a note of thanks

b.       Also help us update the Source List.

2.       Payment of international assistants

a.       Some may ask for cash so they can play the currency markets.

Government agencies will not want cash, so I recommend using a source that provides a check drawn on a bank within Germany.  Or if at all possible, see if they will now take a check drawn on your bank.  This is starting to become very common.  Other means of payment can be by credit card via a secure internet site, or through payment mediums such as


2.       Once you have material in a readable form

a.       Update group sheets

b.       Annotate source for new information

c.       Complete your correspondence log.

3.       Reevaluate your record as a whole and make plans for your next round of letters and inquiries.



Finally, feel free to drop me a note at: 530 Collins, Forks, WA 9833


Be patient, sometimes the job, family, or hobbies prevent me from a quick response.

[1]   For $4.00, I can send you a copy of the article I wrote on this topic - Military Research.