4 Tips for Finding German Ancestors
Not finding your ancestor in genealogical records? The name you’ve been searching for may be wrong. Your ancestor may have changed his surname after immigration, or English-speaking clerks may have translated it. In colonial America, Bentz evolved to Pentz and eventually Pence; Zimmermann became Zimmerman or was translated to Carpenter; and Schwarzwälder became Blackwelder. As many as a hundred names could be derived from a single German surname. Here are some hot tips for fighting through German name changes and translations.
1. Watch for regional customs. If you have ancestors from northern Germany around Ostfriesland, you may find a pattern of changing last names. This area used patronymics—surnames taken from the father’s given name. For example, Peter Hansen’s offspring would have the last name Petersen. Ancestors from around Westphalia may have based their surname on farm ownership. A telltale sign is when a man’s surname changed at marriage—his wife was heir to a farm.
2. If an immigrant’s name is different in US records than in those of his homeland, the change happened after he immigrated. Ellis Island officials didn’t write names, they merely checked the passenger list that was created at the port of departure. Rather, your ancestor may have adopted an American-sounding name as a way to identify with his new home and avoid anti-German sentiments.
3. Don’t use census records alone to conclude an ancestor changed the spelling of his or her name. People didn’t write their own names on censuses. They (or a family member, or even a neighbor) stated their names to the census enumerator, who wrote them down. One census enumerator may write Müller, another Mueller and another Miller. Even within the same document, such as a will, you might find a name spelled different ways. Note all name variations you find and don’t limit your research to the most common spelling.
4. North Americans typically use our first names. Looking at the name Johann Peter Schneider, we’d see Peter as just a middle name. But in Germany, people were often given saints’ names (common ones were Johann, Maria and Anna) as first names and were called by their middle names. Your safest bet is to look for both Johann and Peter in records.
Dig into German records
Whether it’s from difficult translation or hard-to-read fonts, we can all agree that trying to decode German records is a pain in the posterior. Gothic typeface and crazy cursive handwriting can lead to hours of squinty suffering. Let James M. Beidler put salve on your wounded research with this hour-long on-demand webinar. He covers:
How to arm yourself with resources to build vocabulary and decipher abbreviations.
A methodology for solving the quirks of the printed Gothic/Fraktur typeface in which books, forms, gazetteers and newspapers are found through the mid-20th century.
Getting started transcribing and translating the handwritten German cursive script in which most church and civil records are found.
- And much more!
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