Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 26
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On the Trail of Germanic Ancestors
A large percentage of Americans — about one in four — have one or more Germanic ancestors. Whether your ancestors came from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Alsace (part of France), or from Poland, Luxembourg, southern Denmark, or what is now the Czech Republic or Russia, if they spoke German, they are considered Germanic. Moreover, some of the early so-called "Holland Dutch" ancestors sometimes turn out to be Deutsch (German) or have Germanic connections. Germanic people also have immigrated to many other countries, particularly Canada, South Africa and Australia. Since the Germans have being coming to America since the 17th century, it is not unusual to find some of them perched upon your family tree. Sometimes the surname has been so anglicized that it is difficult to recognize it as German.
Germany, as we now know it has existed only since 1871. Prior to that time there was the German Confederation (1815-1866) and from medieval times until 1806 the major political union in Germany was the Holy Roman Empire, which consisted of hundreds of principalities. Regardless of when your German ancestors immigrated to the "new country," there is a great temptation to leap immediately into German records. Stifle that urge and learn everything you can about your ancestors through the country of arrival records first. Generally, you must know a specific town where a German ancestor was born or married before you will be successful in locating him or her in the old country since most German records were kept locally.
your immigrant ancestor's religion is important because the church records (Kirchenbucher) are the most
significant source of genealogical information for Germany prior to 1876. Many of these records have been
microfilmed by the Family History Library. However, it is unlikely
that all the records you need will be available at this repository. This library has created some excellent
finding aids and material to help you in your quest to find your Germanic roots. Three are them are available
online. You'll find them listed under Family History Library Publications and Research Guidance.
Before attempting to avail yourself of the multitude of German records, learn about the history, as well as the political and geographic boundaries of the area in which your families once lived. Determine, if possible, whether your immigrant ancestors were members of an Evangelical church (Lutheran, Reformed and United), were Catholic, or were of the Jewish faith. German church records, some of which date back to the 15th century, often contain detailed information about individuals in the parish. Explore the following links for more adventures in tracing your Germanic lines.
Hamburg Ship Passenger Lists
Among the valuable records in the Family History Library for tracing Germanic ancestors are the Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934. Approximately 30 percent of all European emigrants passed through this port. The Hamburg passenger lists (available on microfilm at the Family History Library) contain the names of virtually everyone who sailed from that port during these years. Several indexes direct (sailed directly to their destination without stopping at other European ports) and indirect exist for them. Be sure to check both.
Additional Ship Passenger Lists
Additional ship passenger lists exist — on film, in books, transcriptions, and online, with new ones being added daily.
If your ancestors were Austrian, you will need to know exactly where they came from within an area covered by the provinces of Burgenland, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tirol, Vorarlberg, and Vienna. Records in the United States often simply describe a person as Austrian without giving the exact place of origin. Your ancestors might have actually come from the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania or the Ukraine, and if so, your research will, or course, lead you to the records of those countries rather than what is Austria today.
A small number of Austrians came to the United States before the Civil War, but very few arrived during the Colonial period — among these were about 50 families of Protestants from Salzburg who found new homes in Georgia in 1734. It is estimated that there were about 275,000 German-speaking Austrians in the United States by 1900.
Of all the provinces of Austria and Hungary, Burgenland provided the largest number of German-speaking emigrants bound for America. The 1910 U.S. census is valuable for researchers of Austrian lines because it lists the language spoken. If your immigrant ancestor was from Austria, but spoke Polish, he or she would very likely be from Galicia in present-day Poland. Be sure to check this census for your Austrian families to learn which language they spoke. This information is critical to finding records of genealogical value.
Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths did not start until 1938 (except in Wiener Neustadt in 1872 and in Burgenland in 1895). Therefore you will need to locate vital records in the church registers in Austria. The great majority of Austrians are Catholic, but until 1849 Catholic priests also had to include in their registers the records of other denominations. So even though your ancestors may have been Lutheran or Jewish, you much search Catholic registers up to 1849. From 1878 to 1917 the Lutherans had to send a duplicate copy of all register entries to the church headquarters in Vienna. From 1870 on, other religions and also people with no religion, registered their names in local magistrates' courts, where the lists are still located.
Americans with Dutch ancestors discover that their ancestors probably arrived in one of three time periods: The early 17th century, the 1830s and 1840s, or just after World War II.
If your Dutch ancestors were among the early settlers of New Netherland your research will take you back through about 380 years of American records, and you will learn a great deal of history as you trace them. If your Dutch ancestors arrived in the middle of the 19th century, you will probably discover they settled in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois or Iowa, and that they came mostly from rural villages in The Netherlands rather than from Amsterdam or Rotterdam.
If your Dutch family arrived in the 20th century, they probably went to the Chicago area, the Midwest or the Pacific Northwest. However, you may find your Dutch almost anywhere in America. For research purposes it is often is faster to do Dutch research at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City than anywhere else, including The Netherlands. This library has an excellent collection of primary records as well as outstanding secondary sources. Among the records available are Dutch census records (some were taken in parts of that country as early as 1580, but generally dating from 1795).
Church records are a major source for those tracing Dutch ancestors prior to 1795. Civil registration began that year for the southern provinces and in 1811 for the northern ones. Church registers of baptism, marriages and burials began before 1600 in each province except Overijssel. However, many are not complete or have been lost, so not every parish has records dating to the 1500s. Court records, which contain criminal and civil suits, civil marriages, property transfers, probate records, powers of attorney, and other legal documents are rich sources. Some court records date to the 1200s. The Dutch have actively traced their genealogies and published many of them.
Looking for Luxembourgers
The first Luxembourgers to America arrived with the Dutch and settled in New Amsterdam (New York) in the 1630s. But most Americans with Luxembourg lines, will discover their ancestors probably immigrated in the 1840s. The eastern part of Luxembourg is closely connected to Germany in culture and language, while the western portion is tied to France and Belgium. However, you may discover the ancestors you assume to be from Germany were actually from Luxembourg because many Luxembourgers immigrants identified themselves as Germans.
Luxembourg has been a clearly defined territorial entity since the early Middle Ages and once was a powerful force in Europe. It became part of the French Republic under Napoleon in 1795, and in 1815 became a Grand Duchy under the rule of The Netherlands. It gained semi-independence In 1839 when it was separated from Belgium, but was still ruled by The Netherlands. Full independence came in 1890. In the 1820s several hundred Luxembourgers migrated to Brazil, Guatemala, and Argentina, but the climate, disease and limited economic opportunities in these localities made mass immigration unattractive.
A few Luxembourgers came to the U.S. in the 1830s, arriving through the ports of New York City and New Orleans. Those who came through New York then moved on to rural areas along the southeastern coast of Lake Erie. Many of the families who landed in New Orleans moved on to Ohio. In the 1840s larger numbers of Luxembourgers immigrated and most went to Chicago area or in localities along Lake Michigan from Chicago to just north of Milwaukee. Others made their new homes around Dubuque, Iowa. Later many migrated to the Plains states of the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas.
Almost all Luxembourger-Americans are Roman Catholics. Luxembourg civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1797. The Family History Library has microfilmed copies of these records for most Luxembourg towns to 1880. It also has copies of most parish registers to about 1800. The library uses 13 cantons as subdivisions under which town records are listed.