Many Americans have ancestors from Germany, but are unsure how to find what area of Germany they came from, and who made up the earlier generations of the family. Strategies to begin your research will depend on what you know so far.
The first thing you should do is talk to your relatives to see if there are records or memories of where in Germany the ancestors came from. And about when. And where they settled in America. If relatives don’t know a great deal, you can search ship passenger logs or try to obtain the naturalization papers for the earliest male to arrive.
Or you can use Interlibrary Loan at your local library to get the relevant volumes of the Germans to America series and look up the family. There are 67 volumes covering 1840 to 1897. Click to see the full list of volumes.
Depending on when your German ancestors arrived, the census records can contain references to specific areas of Germany, rather than just Prussia or Germany.
For my research, the 1870 Census for Calumet County, Wisconsin, contained an invaluable clue. The elder Ferdinand Hachez, who settled in New Holstein in 1854, was recorded in the 1860 Census as being from Holstein, as so many of the settlers there were.
But in 1870, he told the German-speaking census recorder that his actual place of origin was Bremen, a free city in Germany. With help from an expert genealogist in Germany, I have found his family in Bremen, a exciting moment in my research. Click for more about the Hachez family.
When you have a pretty good idea of where the family originated, you can join one of the genealogy email discussion groups for that part of Germany — and ask for assistance. Most of the genealogy email discussion lists are in English or in both English and German — and the genealogists who help people in the USA speak and write English very well. For example, here are all the Rootsweb mailing lists for different areas of Germany
You might have luck with a list member knowing of your family. Or you may find a genealogy researcher on the list who offers to help, for a fee. I have had excellent assistance from Klaus Struve, an expert genealogist in Schleswig-Holstein who also has a splendid Web site about people who emigrated from that far northern area of Germany. He now has 63,000 names of emigrants listed. See his Rootdigger site here for a wealth of resources.
With his help, I now have this branch of my family back to the 1700s. The money spent was worth it, for I received transcripts of each of the German originals, followed by an English translation.
Finally, there are additional resources on German Americans — including books on German American genealogy — to be found on this Web page about German Americans and genealogy.
Best wishes in researching your roots!
This is one in a series of genealogy and family history research articles to help you find your family and ancestors, often for modest or no cost.