This Methodology Tip is brought to you by Luana Darby from Lineages By Luana.
About one in four Americans have Germanic ancestry. German research can be challenging at times, especially when searching for vital records. To be successful in discovering those all-important birth, marriage, and death dates and locations, you will need to know two things – a religion and place of origin. Knowing your ancestor’s religion is important because church records are the largest and most significant source of vital information in Germany prior to 1876.
Today we will learn how to determine your ancestor’s religion in clues that exist in records on this side of the ocean.
Let’s consider the predominant religions of Germany. In most cases, your German ancestors were of the Evangelical (Lutheran or Reformed), Catholic or Jewish faith. Each of these religions had similar records that followed families throughout their lives documenting birth, marriage, and death. Familienbücher or “family books” are genealogical summaries or what we may call family group sheets, often listing parents, children, and grandparents. These family books are available for both Evangelical and Catholic parishes and can also be found in some Jewish records.
Now that we have covered the religions and records of your Germanic ancestors, let’s see which records created in their new home may provide additional clues.
Obituaries, in both English and German language newspapers, may list a burial location in a church graveyard, a funeral service in a local church, or even mention an ethnic or religious fraternal society assisting with funeral arrangements. These are clues that may not be found in other records. Remember, finding a clue to a specific faith here will often tie you to a religion in the old country. Follow up on every lead available! Chronicling America, the historic newspaper program created by the Library of Congress, provides a German language and ethnicity search option on their website to find those difficult to find newspapers that have been digitized. local libraries where your individual died will likely have copies of newspapers on film and may be able to tell you what other newspapers served that community over time.
Cemetery headstone inscriptions can also offer clues by engraved symbols signifying membership in a fraternal or ethnic society. Your Guide to Cemetery Research by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a fantastic guide for headstone symbols.
The Pastor’s name
Marriage certificates will often list the name of the pastor, priest, or rabbi. Follow this religious leader to find a parish or congregation where your ancestor may have attended. Records at this location may provide a village or city where your individual was born or resided before arriving in the new country. Recently, I was able to locate members of my extended family in records of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Cleveland. The family lived only 2 blocks from this predominantly German-American parish. Once I determined that I had found the correct parish, I began to scan the records. Baptismal and marriage records in these church books listed previous residence in Germany for parents listed on baptismal records and for both bride and groom on marriage records. These were records from 1853-1911!
Immigrant Aid Societies
Check records of the immigrant aid societies in your ancestor’s location. Immigrants, when deciding on a location to settle or a method of travel once in their new country, tended to seek out others with similar experiences and background. The German Immigrant Aid Society had chapters from New York to California. This types of society also existed within the religious community. Google is often your best tool to locate these types of records, as they can be archived almost anywhere – from local church files to state and local historical and genealogical societies.
Take a few minutes to see if you can discover your ancestor’s religion and maybe, just maybe, a place of origin as well!