Seeking Ancestors from Germany

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.

Depending on when your German ancestors arrived, these sites are worth searching:
> Castle Garden immigration:  http://www.castlegarden.org/
> Ellis Island immigration: http://www.ellisisland.org/

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.

Benjamin Church House – Milwaukee

benjamin-church-house-front.jpg Photograph by Barbara Bradley Petura

An exceptional way to be in touch with your family history is to visit locations important to your ancestors’ lives.  July 2007 gave me an opportunity to do just that. 

The place was the Benjamin Church House, located since 1938 in Estabrook Park, Shorewood. The house was built about 1844 in an area then known as Kilbourntown. That name came from Bryon Kilbourn, land owner and founder about 1835 of the pioneer town just west of the Milwaukee River.

Kilbourntown was one of three towns that merged in 1846 to create the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The others were Juneautown east of the river and Walker’s Point to the south.

In those days, the Church house was on Fourth Street at the intersection with Court Street, between Cherry and Galena streets. The site in the pioneer era is described as up a hill overlooking a tamarack swamp near the river.

Benjamin Church, my ggg-grandfather, was one of the earliest settlers in Milwaukee. He arrived in November 1835 via Chicago from his birthplace in Ulster County, New York.

A pioneer carpenter and master builder, he brought the Greek Revival style from the East Coast to the young city of Milwaukee — and applied it to construction of his own family home. With its four graceful columns on the front and other distinctive features, the house gives the feeling of a small Greek temple.

That Greek Revival style, combined with the use of hand-hewn lumber and Cream City bricks stamped with the date 1844 and initials of the brick maker, made the house worth saving, restoring and moving to a new location. The house today is an intimate museum of life in Milwaukee in the 1850s, with the furnishings giving a sense of what life was like in those days.

Standing in the cozy house, I imagined Benjamin Church returning home, up the hill to the house, climbing the steps to the porch and enjoying the modest elegance of the Doric columns, then entering the house right into the small living room.  A fire crackling in the fireplace and the sounds of his children would have greeted him at the end of a day’s work.

His wife Permilia would likely have been in the kitchen cooking dinner, helped by oldest daughters Ann Maria and Ann Augusta. I imagine the younger children doing their chores, or their studies, or perhaps playing.

Known to her family as Hannah, Ann Maria married Sherman A. Bradley on January 6, 1859. They too lived in the Church House and their son Jesse Charles Bradley was born there June 22, 1866.

A special treasure awaited me in the back room of the house, where a display board told the history of house and of Benjamin Church himself. There on display was his photograph! See it on the page with his biography.

The Benjamin Church House, also called the Kilbourntown House, is open to the public free during the summer. A docent or guide is on hand to talk about the house, its history and its significance in conveying a vivid snapshot of early Milwaukee history.

Check with the Milwaukee County Historical Society for the hours the house is open. It is worth a visit!

Essay and photograph by Barbara Ann Bradley Petura, July/August 2007.

Published in: on August 13, 2007 at 4:42 am  Comments (1)  
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