Mar 30, 2015

Lost in the Homeland, Part 4: Researching Genealogy in Germany

If you missed Part 1, it's here.  For Part 2, go here.  For Part 3, go here.

We may be in the home stretch, except for the fact that I keep thinking of more things to include.

14.  Family Name Societies:  I don't know of any directory of these (if you do, please let me know!), but I've found a wonderful resource in the Familienverband Berneburg in Eschwege.  This is a family association for the preservation of the history and genealogy of those with the surname Berneburg.  What a find!  It's opened up a huge area for me, and I went from not being able to get past my great-grandfather to having the name of my 11th great-grandfather, who was born in 1470!  I don't know how to tell you to find such an organization, except to . . .

14. . . . Google it!:  What good could it possibly do to try to find an ancestor who was born in 1840 through Google?  Well, you never know what Google might come up with.  I took a tip from  50 Best Genealogy Brick Wall Solutions and googled my great-grandfather's village and the year he was born:  Oberglogau 1840.  Much to my surprise, up popped the record of my great-grandfather's first marriage, not from Oberglogau, but from the OFB of a nearby village that included his place of birth.  Since my great-grandfather didn't marry my great-grandmother until he was in his 40's, I'd always wondered whether he'd had an earlier marriage, and there it was.  When you're stuck or bored or just have nothing to do, start googling stuff.  You never know what you might find.  And to go back to the section above, try googling "Familienverband ________," or "Ahnenforschung ______," whatever your surname is.  Something might pop up.

 15.  City Websites:  While you're googling, try searching for a website for the village your ancestors lived in.  I found a website for Erkeln, where my great-grandfather was born, and it included a forum.  So I posted that I was looking for anyone I might be related to, anyone with the name Ortmann, and I heard from several people and found a number of family members.

16.  Online Forums: A number of online forums for German genealogy exist.  The forum has subforums for all areas of Germany; unfortunately, the language of communication is German. has many message boards on all kinds of subjects. While I was googling around one day, I found a forum on dedicated to one of my surnames, Ortman.  Always check the dates on a forum though; this one has been silent for a couple of years.

17.  Postcards:  Owning historic postcards can help you bring some of the dry details of history to life.  I like to browse at the akpool website, where they have many many postcards from Germany.  I was lucky enough to find a postcard showing the building in which my mother was born -- fortunately, it is now a historically preserved building.

18.  Historic maps:  Maps can also help you bring stories to life.  I always look at the addresses on a census, see if the building still exists, and try to get an idea of where it was my ancestors lived.  If you go to Etsy and search on "historic maps," you'll come up with a number of vendors who sell them.  I got a great historic map of Bremerhaven that includes the street where my mother was born, the church where she was baptized, and a number of other significant places.  It all helps to enliven the past!

19.  How to Pay for This All:   No, not how to pay for the subscriptions and memberships and so on -- you need to figure that out in your budget -- but how to pay for documents you're ordering from city archives or churches.  Don't do what I did the first time -- go to your friendly neighborhood bank and have them transfer the money -- it wound up costing more than the documents themselves!  If the recipient has Paypal, wonderful, but not that many places in Germany accept Paypal.  I've heard good things about both Xoom and Western Union.  Through my genealogical work, I've made a couple of friends in Germany who are kind enough to let me send them money and then they send it on to the archive.  I'm very grateful for their willingness to do this!

In conclusion:  I'm sure that if I sat and thought for another day or two, I'd come up with something more to write about, but I think I'll stop and maybe do an addendum at some point.  My best advice is for you to be open to any possibilities -- yes, do the grunt work that sometimes leads to good results, but be open to trying new things.  I've had good leads and information come from unexpected places.  Ask questions -- wondering how my great-grandfather happened to die over 100 miles from his home led to the opening of a fascinating story.  Read documents very carefully and then read them carefully again -- you'll find that you might have missed some little tidbit.  In going over my great-grandmother's marriage document, I noticed that her mother's surname was different from my great-grandmother's maiden name -- which led to the discovery that she had been born illegitimately, as had her mother and her mother's mother.  Follow the historical trails you're led to -- right now I'm puzzling over why my great-grandfather's death record says that he was a Master Weaver and a "former trumpeter."  What did a village need a trumpeter for?  Was there an orchestra or a band?  

Let me know what you think of all this advice for newbies -- is there anything I've left out?  Any valuable resources you've discovered?  This work brings me an enormous amount of joy, and if I can share some of what I've learned with others, it makes me even happier.

Mar 29, 2015

Lost in the Homeland, Part 3: Researching Genealogy in Germany.

If you missed Part 1, it's here.  For Part 2, go here

So, on to Part 3 of Researching Genealogy in Germany.  I have many more resources for you!

10.  U.S. Vital Records and Censuses:  I've skipped over U.S. records and their potential value to researchers in Germany.  Use every resource you can in the U.S. to find that key bit of information:  where your ancestor came from in Germany.  I collapsed a huge brick wall for one of my great-grandfathers when I ordered his death certificate from New Jersey -- no, the certificate did not include the place of his birth, but it included the names of his mother and father.  I had been banging my head against that particular brick wall for so long that I knew exactly where to find Conrad and Theresia Ortmann, in the tiny town of Erkeln, in Nordrhein-Westfalen.  I had rejected them as potential parents because the dates didn't match up (go back to #9 in Part 2 about dates and ages).  I corrected a big mistake in another line when I looked at a New York State Census and found a birthplace for a great-great grandfather -- I couldn't make out what it said, but it definitely did not say "Baden-Wuerttemberg," which is where I thought that branch was from.  I asked for help on the German Genealogy Facebook page, and together we figured out that it said "Hannover."

New York State Census

An additional bit of information from his N.Y. death certificate convinced me that I'd been on the wrong track -- my great-great grandfather's, Wilhelm Hug's, father was not Benedict Hug of Baden-Wuerttemberg but rather Adolph Hug of Hannover.  In correcting this mistake, I had to let go of a line of ancestors that I'd written about and come to love -- you can read the sad story here and here.  Genealogists have to live and learn.

11.  Church Records:  Church records, of course, are a primary resource in German research.  If you know the church your ancestor attended, you can write to them directly and ask for a baptism, marriage, or death record.  If you don't know the exact dates, you can run up a pretty big tab, because they will often charge you by the minute if they have to search.  An alternative for which you do the grunt work is to order a microfilm of the church records and have it sent to your local Family History Center, if you have one.  Look at the Catalogue section of the Family History site (remember, this one's free), and put in the name of the town; this search engine is kind of persnickety, so if you don't get anything on the first attempt, try another version of the name.  In the case I'm going to show you, I have to put "Germany" in first, and then "Ober Glogau," with a space in it, when that's not how the town is commonly spelled.  Anyway, I come up with a list of what's available for that town, and I click on "Church Records (2)."  This takes me to the Catholic and Evangelical church records.  I know this branch of the family was Catholic, so I click that and scroll down the page to find 73 microfilms I can order.  Each microfilm costs $8.33 in postage to send to the FHC, where it will be kept for 3 months, and you can go in and use it whenever the Center is open.  To help you know what to order:  "Taufen" = baptism, "Heiraten" = marriage, "Tote" = death.  Here's an example of what you'll see:

The death record of Anton Langer

Which brings us to the next big issue -- how the heck do you read these things??  Help is on the way.

12.  Books on German Genealogy:  Books on genealogy can be very expensive; it's easy to drop a couple of hundred dollars on them at a conference.  I've gotten very choosy and look for the ones that will be most useful, giving me the most bang for my bucks.  Two books I've gotten a lot of use out of:  The German Research Companion by Riemer, Minert and Anderson, and Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents, by Roger P. Minert.  The German Research Companion is a large book chock full of interesting and useful information, from German history to salutations for German letter writing to vocabularies of various subject areas (military, marriage, genealogy) to German-related organizations in the U.S, plus hundreds of other topics.  If you can't find it in the GRC, it probably doesn't exist.  The Third Edition has just come out.   Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents is what you need to understand the death record above -- what makes reading the records challenging is that they may be not only in German but in French or Latin, and that German handwriting has had a number of distinctive writing styles over the years.  This book describes the changes in handwriting style over time, gives you examples to study and the vocabulary you need to understand what's being recorded in any of those languages.  Soon what at first seemed so daunting is, well, not easy, but definitely easier.  And with the help of a chart of Fraktur letters and the good people at the Genealogy Translation page on Facebook when you get stuck, you'll be reading those records in no time.

13.  Other books:  Other kinds of books may not be able to help you get exact information about your German ancestors, but they can go a long way towards helping you make a small list of facts into a story.  Teva J. Scheer's book, Our Daily Bread: German Village Life, 1500-1850, is a readable, fascinating book on how our ancestors lived "back in the day."  It can help to give you a well-rounded idea of life in Germany centuries ago, and you can extrapolate that to fill in details of how your ancestors likely would have lived.  And check around for used or out of print books of various kinds on topics related to your ancestors -- I've gotten a book about the Silesian Weavers' Revolt of 1844 (my great great grandfather was a Master Weaver), a book called Letters on Silesia by John Quincy Adams, and the history of the "lunatic asylum" my great-grandfather died in, written by the psychiatrist who was the director of the hospital for 25 years.  This last book is at an academic level of German that makes it very difficult for me to read, but I have gotten enough out of it to know that my great-grandfather died in a progressive institution in which the patients were treated with respect, and I found this comforting to know.

So much for Part 3 -- on to Part 4!

Mar 27, 2015

Lost in the Homeland, Part 2: Researching Genealogy in Germany

If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.

Here we go with Part 2 of what I know so far about doing research in Germany.

7.  German Genealogical Societies:  Societies, which you must pay to join, can have many resources available only to their members.  I belong to several:  The Sacramento German Genealogy Society, the German Genealogy Group, and the Niedersächsischer Landesverein für Familienkunde, the Lower Saxony State Society for Family History.  If you're in California or Nevada and can get to Sacramento, every spring the SGGS has a one-day workshop for which they bring in excellent speakers.  It's a whole day focused on German genealogy, and I've learned a lot in the two times I've gone.  The GGG has links to interesting resources, including New York bride and groom indexes.  The NLF has a lively email list where you can ask questions, and their members will help you with your research.  Die Maus is a Bremen-based society that I haven't joined but should.  It has a great deal of information of many kinds, including Bremen passenger lists.  Most societies will also maintain a surname list; you should keep an up-to-date surname list that you can send as part of your membership application.  You can make good connections in this way.

8.  E-mail Lists:  If you don't speak German, you may have a little trouble with this resource, but here you will find a long list of email groups that mostly pertain to different areas in Germany:  Brandenburg-L, Franken-L, and so on.  Look at the area in brackets at the end of each listing; if you see the word "geschlossene Vereinsliste," that means a closed list (for example, you have to be an NLF member to join their list); if you see "deutschsprachige, offene Liste," that means an open, German-speaking list; if you see "bilingual, offene/open List(e)," it's an open, bilingual list.  If you're lucky, you'll find a list from your area and might get some help -- I once had a nice elderly gentleman go to an archive in Bremerhaven and look up some information for me.

9.  Emigration/Immigration Databases:  I've personally found the whole emigration/ immigration area to be very frustrating; at this point, I'm not sure that I have the correct information for all of the immigrant ancestors I've researched.  Here's where we get into an important issue -- if I've learned anything over the past few years, it's not to get stuck on dates or ages.  Many things might affect a date or age -- who's giving the report, do they have a reason to nudge the age up or down by a few years, are they literate enough to know exactly when they were born and how to figure their current age?   This is the Castle Garden record for my great-grandfather, George Siegler.  While it seems it could be right, the age is wrong -- I know his exact date of birth from church records in Lohr am Main, and that would make him 15 when he emigrated, not 17.  I accept that this is his record, though, in the absence of anything more definitive. 

You can find emigration/immigration databases galore; good places to start are Cyndy's List, Ellis Island and Castle Garden on the American side; try, Deutsche Auswanderer-Datenbank,  and the Bremer Passagierlisten at Die Maus on the German side.

9.  Geogen  is a fascinating little site run by Christoph Stoepel, and it can be very useful if you are stuck and if your ancestor has an unusual name.  Enter any German surname in the search box, and it will give you a choice of a relative distribution (so many per million) or absolute distribution of that surname in Germany (this is in the present day, not historical).  I was stuck on my Berneburg line -- I know my grandfather was born in Hannover, but I couldn't seem to get any farther back than that to find where his father was born.  I called up the relative distribution map from Geogen, and here's what came up:

The darker the color, the more Berneburgs live there.  See the very darkest part?  That's Werra-Meissner-Kreis, which turned out to be exactly where my great-grandfather was born, in a town called Eltmannshausen, and the Berneburgs go way back in that area.  Huge breakthrough!  However, as I mentioned, this is only helpful if your ancestor has a fairly unusual name.  Here's the map for the surname Meyer:

Not too helpful in narrowing things down, right?  Still, I have a map saved for each of my ancestors' main surnames.

Well, I thought I could do this in two parts, but clearly that's not going to work.  On to Part 3.

Lost in the Homeland Part 1: Researching Genealogy in Germany

While I'm not an expert on genealogy by any means, I have been researching for a number of years and have learned a few things along the way.  Since 100% of my non-US research is in Germany,  many of the things I've learned are about doing research in that difficult venue.  Joining Ancestry and hoping for the best won't get you much of anywhere, I'm afraid.  I'd like to share some of the resources I've tapped into in doing my German research, in the hope that it might help some who are just getting into it.

Why is researching in Germany so hard?  For one thing, the nation called "Germany" didn't exist before 1871 -- what we now think of as Germany was a group of loosely related kingdoms that shifted borders, had different systems for keeping records, and so on.  Few civil records were kept; most records were in the hands of the various churches, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed.  Many records were damaged or lost in the two great wars of the 20th Century.  Places that were formerly in  Germany are now in Poland or the Czech Republic or France.  In Germany, it's essential to know the city or at the very least, state, that your ancestor came from; without that, you're stuck at square one.  All of these things together make for pretty rough sailing for a new genealogist.

 Pre-Unification Germany.  From Wikimedia Commons

So where do we look?  I've found these resources valuable:

1.  The Big Three:,, and will certainly get you started.  The first two will cost you, though, and at Ancestry a basic membership won't be enough -- you need a World Membership to gain access to German records.  If you're seriously getting into Germany, though, the World Membership, even for a few months,  is worth it because you will be able to search so many more records.

2.  Cyndi's List Germany pages:  Cyndi's List is an incredible resource for genealogists.  She has over 1,000 links for German researchers, and her list is updated frequently.  If you're out of ideas (or even if you're not), visit Cyndi's List.

3. is a large site run by the Verein (Club) fuer Computergenealogie.  The site is in German and English, and it's not terribly hard to use.  A couple of things are very useful.  In the upper-right-hand corner, there's a yellow button that says "Metasuche."  If you click on this, you'll be able to do a "meta-search" of all their resources.  You put in a surname and a place name, and it searches all its resources for you.  If the name is fairly unusual, you may want to leave the place name off and just search on the surname.  Try putting the name into the "GEDBAS" section and see what comes up.

4.  Ortsfamilienbuecher (OFB):  Also on -- If you can find an online OFB for your ancestor's town, you will have a treasure trove.  An OFB is a historical record of the people in a town and their relationships, and they can be extremely rich sources of information. has quite a few.

Example of a page from a Bremen OFB

5.  German Genealogy Facebook pages:  This can be one of your best resources, because you're dealing with actual people, and it's likely that someone can give you a hand or point you in the right direction.  Here are a couple I belong to:  German Genealogy, German Genealogy:  Just Ask!, Genealogy Lower Saxony, Genealogy Silesiae Superioris, and Genealogy in Hesse.  Look for groups related to the areas you're interested in and join!

6. City/State Archives:  Civil archives in Germany will have information for perhaps the last 150 years.  You can email them very politely (preferably in German) and ask for the records you need.  If you don't speak German, you can use a template letter such as the ones found here.  The problem with writing in German, of course, is that they will respond to you in German, and Google or Bing Translate are not going to be very helpful -- you will need access to someone who speaks idiomatic German to help with translation.  If you don't know German, do not just type your letter into Google Translate and then send the resulting German translation -- it will be very poorly written, even comical, and you will likely irritate the people you're trying to get help from.  German friends have said that it's better to write good English than poor German, so you might just try English.  There will undoubtedly be a charge for this research; see Part 4 on how to pay for it.

So that's a start -- so as not to make this post extremely long, I'll end it here and begin Part 2.  Stay tuned for more ideas for researching in Germany!

Mar 24, 2015

Goin' to the Jamboree!!

I'm excited to be going to the Southern California Genealogical Society's Genealogy Jamboree again in June!  I had a great time last year, lots of great sessions, nice people, just a lot of fun all around.

This year, I'll be attending the DNA Day and then the three-day weekend workshop.

Here are the dates:

Genetic Genealogy: DNA Day Plus!
Thursday, June 4, 2015
Burbank, California

Southern California Genealogy Jamboree
Friday-Sunday, June 5-7, 2015
Burbank, California

I see on the website that there's a revised schedule, so I'm going to go through that to see what I'd like to attend.  I love planning what to see at conferences, don't you?  I'll post my favorites soon.

A Treasure Trove of Ancestors --

Well, it's either feast or famine in the genealogy game, isn't it?  There are long dry spells sometimes, when you think nothing's ever going to happen again.

But don't lose faith -- keep putting the work in, keep putting the feelers out, and eventually, something will come up.

Like today.

A while ago, I learned that there's a Familie Verband Berneburg/Werneburg (Family Association for Berneburg/Werneburg) in the city of Eschwege in Germany.  Getting in touch with them was on the back burner for a while, but about a month ago I finally got around to emailing them, telling them my mother was a Berneburg, and wondering if they could help me get any further with my Berneburg line.

Today a member of the Verband emailed me, apologized for the delay, and sent along three pages of family tree information on our ancestors.  Here's just part of one of the pages.

It took me all morning to transcribe the information into, but it was so much fun to see our family go farther and farther back.  The information also included occupations for some of the people:  stonecutter, mason, customs official, wagon maker, and several weavers, which adds to the one we have in the Langer line.  It includes some wives and a bit of their families, but overall it's just a straight shot down the Berneburg line.

All the way to 1470.  1470!!  Can you believe it?  His name was "Cuntz D. Alte Berneburg" (no jokes, please), and it's possible that he was the first person to have the Berneburg surname.  I've gone to presentations where we've been told not to trust information that goes beyond the 1500's, because before that, people literally didn't have last names.  It was only somewhere in the 1400's-1500's that people began to have surnames.  I do trust this bit because all of this information (I think) comes from church records, and they are about as reliable as you can get.  (There were no civil records in Germany until much, much later.)  

 Forest near Eltmannshausen/Eschwege, Germany
Photo taken by Mike, on Flicker; used under Creative Commons

Here's something interesting, too.  A site called "Geogen" will give you a map of the distribution of any surname in Germany.   Here's the one for Berneburg:

The darker the color is in a particular area, the more Berneburgs live there.  See where the very darkest part of the map is?  That's exactly where all these ancestors were living.  Pretty cool.

So there you go.  Have faith, keep plugging along, and you might just wind up with your 11th great-grandfather before you know it!  Many thanks to the Berneburg Family Society for opening up and filling in a new part of our tree!

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