Beginning German Research
Building your family tree is easier than it once was. The internet is a great help. Despite its help, you should interview your relatives as soon as possible to obtain their stories and whatever they can remember about their families and ancestors. Write down names, dates and places of birth, marraige, death, and burial. They probably won't remember all of this information, but it is a good start. Write it down on a full size sheet of paper and start a filing system. Some of your relatives may have an old family bible where facts, usually about family deaths have been slipped into it. Make copies.
While doing this time consuming effort get on the internet. Go to the Morman Church's Family History site. It's free. Also you might try the week's free trial on Ancestory.com. It's a pay site, but you might find that it's worth the cost. On each site search your name and your rellatives' names. You may well find a family tree with you in it..If so, you have saved some time.
Do not assume that the data that either you or someone else has collected is correct. Errors abound. Thus, confirm all of it. There are primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are original documents, and include birth, marriage, and death certificates. Try to see at least photo copies of them. Even they will sometimes contain errors so make sure that follow up sources agree with them. All other sources are secondary ones. They consist of data that comes from someone’s memory and often told to another person to write down. This includes census information, ship’s passenger lists, and newspaper articles. Even the information on primary sources comes from somebody’s memory. Certificates don't write themselves.
Success with your "German Research" may depend on how well you carry out "preparatory" searches in the American area where your immigrant ancestor settled and lived. If you haven't found some usable clues with regard to names, dates, and places in this country, finding the connection with a European family line may be difficult or impossible.
You, the family genealogist, are in a unique position to carry out the preparatory research. You have accumulated knowledge about the descendants of the immigrant, have first-hand contact with older descendants still living, and can become familiar with many of the local research sources in the area where the immigrant lived.
If you complete research in the areas described below, none of which requires previous knowledge of "German Research", you will be more confident in attempting overseas research yourself. Furthermore, if you seek help from a German research specialist, he or she will usually expect that the preparatory "spade-work" has been done. Also you may avoid having to backtrack to look for essential detail
LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED
Locating key facts, such as the village of origin, the correct spelling of a name, or an important date, may require searching in several sources. The sought-for detail may appear in only one obscure place. Duplicate information found during your research may help confirm the accuracy of the data, or shed "new light" on information previously thought to be infallible. This will help build a "body of knowledge" about the immigrant and the succeeding generations.
Examine original or microfilm copies of the primary sources. The detail for which you are searching may have been misread or omitted in secondary sources. Use indexes and extractions only as finding aids.
You may find that the spelling of your ancestor's surname has undergone changes, or that he or she used a different call-name, or order of given names, at various times in his or her life. Dates of key events are essential in "narrowing the search" during subsequent use of record groups which may not be indexed. Construct a chronology or time-line of the life of your ancestor, his relatives, and neighbors, and "test" all of your facts and fables against it.
Reference to a dwelling place, even the name of a district or region, when combined with other information, may help in ungarbling or resolving duplicate place-names and pinpointing the real location.
CONSIDER THE SOURCES
Critically examine the source of your information; particularly so-called "family tradition" or that which comes from secondary records such as notes or narrative written long after an event took place. If you find conflicting evidence you may want to discount (but not discard) some items depending on answers to the following: What was the real source of the information? Was it translated into English at some point, if so when, and by whom? Did the author or speaker have contact with others who should have remembered the facts? Does the narrative sound modernized, embroidered, or popularized?
Home sources - Old letters, postcards, baptismal or confirmation certificates, photos, scrapbooks, old book flyleaves may be found, packed away by cousins who have limited interest in genealogy. Tactful, but persistent, visits and correspondence may turn up valuable clues in neglected keepsakes.
Local Records and Publications - If you have not already done so, scrutinize published local area histories and newspapers, lodge records, tombstones and other local sources which may contain information about your ancestor's native background.
Census Schedules - Extract all the information from microfilm copies of all the original census schedules in which your immigrant ancestors appear. Census schedules made after 1850 indicate birthplace. The approximate date of immigration may be evident by observing the birthplace of the children. Very occasionally, the census enumerator, instead of recording just the country or province of birth, recorded the district or village of birth. The federal census schedules for 1900 and later are especially important, since those responding were ask to state the date of their immigration.
Birth, Marriage and Death Records (Civil and Church) - These records often give a more specific immigrant origin than a census. The more formal records may give the actual village of origin. Some birth and death records include blanks for the birthplace of both parents and therefore records for the first generation offspring should also be checked.
Court Records - Early versions of your ancestor's name may appear in the entries of court dockets, minute books, estate, or land records. Original documents such as wills and deeds drawn for your ancestor, his or her friend, relative or neighbor, and now stored in dusty courthouse packet cases, may bear the authentic signature of your ancestor.
Land and Tax Records - Find the exact dwelling place of your ancestors, plot the boundary of their land holdings, then learn the names and holdings of the nearby neighbors. Neighbors, for which the place of origin may be learned, may have been relatives or have come from the same homeland location.
Passenger Arrival Lists - Learn the availability of published and unpublished passenger arrival lists, which lists are, or are not, indexed, and how to get microfilm copies. Find your family on the arrival lists. The appearance of their names and ages will firmly identify the family, confirm their arrival date and name of the ship, easing the search in European departure lists. The village of origin is given sufficiently often to make the original lists well worth searching. Confirm the contents of published lists by consulting the primary source.
Naturalization Records - These usually state date of immigration and country or province of origin. Before 1906, local courts handled naturalization proceedings. Later records may be obtained from U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 425 I St NW, Washington DC 20536 by submitting Form G-641. This form is available from Immigration & Naturalization Service, 1921 Stout, Denver CO 80301.
GETTING ACQUAINTED WITH THE "FHL"
The Family History Library (FHL) and your local Family History Center (FHC) are likely to be the main sources of both primary and secondary records used during later research. Learn the content and organization of the Surname, Author-title, and particularly the Locality Catalog. During this familiarization process, many may feel more confident when using the microfiche collection instead of Family Search computer. Become familiar with the gazetteer section at the beginning of each state and national section of the Locality Catalog.
Search for the name of your immigrant in the International Genealogical Index (IGI) or other surname databases. This is fun, but don't confine yourself to surname searches and don't be overly disappointed if you don't find an identifiable ancestor. Even though the files contain millions of names.
Learn to use the Family Search Computer to navigate through the FHL Catalogs and Data Bases. But remember the machine can answer your search requests only when you have entered or selected the appropriate category or topic. Learn to browse, whether you use computer or microfiche.
German Language and History - Begin to learn some genealogical vocabulary. Acquire and study thoroughly the FHL Research Outline - Germany, available via your local Family History Center (FHC.) Study historical maps of central Europe and get copies of more detailed German historical maps for reference at home.