German Genealogy Tip #32: A Married Couple Usually Lived in the Husband’s Hometown

In pre-20th century Germany, individuals usually married others who lived nearby, but every so often, a man and a wife from different towns were united in marriage. When this happened, the woman usually went to live with the man’s family, and rarely the other way around.

There are a few reasons for this:

  1. If a man had Bürger status (citizenship in a town), it was not transferable to other towns. If he moved to another town and he wanted Bürger status, he would have to go through all the arduous legal processes to get a new Bürger status in that town.
  2. A man was granted a right to practice a certain occupation. German towns regulated how many shoemakers, carpenters, barrel makers, etc. there could be. Trades like these were typically coveted, and it would have been difficult for a new resident to come to town and acquire the right to a well-paying occupation.
  3. When a woman moved to a new town to marry a man, it was a much simpler legal process: they would usually just need to get the permission of the town’s Gericht (council).
  4. Men typically only moved to new towns during times of war, famine, or plague when matters became desperate and local authority structures weakened. When an area was destroyed by an invading army or decimated by the Plague, there was little need to consult or worry about getting permissions from councils, mayors, or barons. During those times, people did what they could to survive.

German Genealogy Tip #31: FamilySearch Has Free German Records

If you’d like to see and use actual, physical images of genealogical records from Germany, many of them are available for completely free on There are far more records on FamilySearch than the handful of transcribed/indexed records you get through regular the “search” function. To explore all that FamilySearch has to offer, you will need to dig in to the non-transcribed records in their collection.

First, go to the “FamilySearch” Search page. To the right, you’ll see a world map. Hover your cursor over Europe and Russia, and click. A pop up box will appear. Inside the box, scroll down to the “Germany” option and click the “Start researching in Germany” link that appears inside the box. On the “Germany” page, you can scroll down to view “Germany Image Only Historical Records”. There are hundreds of thousands of German records in this collection, which you would never find through a text search. Explore around and see what FamilySearch has to offer.

German Genealogy Tip #30: People Can Get Their Age Wrong

Scenario: Your ancestor gives an approximate birth year of 1870 for himself in all of the censuses during his adulthood. You find a birth certificate that matches him in every detail, but the birth certificate implies he is born in 1861. Can this possibly be him?

The answer: Yes, it can be. Don’t get too hung up on fluctuating birth dates, because people before the 20th century paid little attention to their birthdays and routinely forgot their ages. Some people’s purported ages tended to “drift” over the years, also.

Someone might claim to be 20 years old in the 1900 census, 28 in the 1910 census, 36 in the 1920 census, 44 in the 1930 census, and so on. If they were indeed 20 years old in the 1900 census, then they should be 50 years old in 1930, not 44 years old, right? Yes, but many, many people lost track of their ages and thought they were older or younger than they actually were. Sometimes, people near the ends of their lives could have a vastly different purported age than their actual age (I have seen people lose track of their purported age by as much as 10 years, over the course of their life). Generally, the closer the record is to the individual’s birth, the more likely it is to be accurate. (It’s easy for an 80-year-old to be mistaken for a 70-year-old, but it’s pretty difficult to mistake a 5-year-old for a 15-year-old.)

This was in large part because hard identification documents were not required until partway into the 20th century. Today, we all have physical drivers’ licenses and Social Security cards in our wallets, and we use our birthdays for bank verifications, credit card verifications, etc. In the 1800s and prior, people may have had their birth date written down in a family bible stowed in a drawer somewhere, and that may be the only written record of their birth date a person ever saw. Losing track of ages was also much more common when people migrated great distances. When people stayed in the same little village with all the same people their entire life, everybody tended to remember each other’s ages and birthdays better, and they were usually a short walk away from the church where their birth/baptism record was kept. When they journeyed halfway across the world and settled on a frontier surrounded by complete strangers, there was less reinforcement by multiple people of this knowledge. Another reason ages might have changed could be because young people misrepresented themselves as being older than they actually were in order to qualify for the military, a marriage license, or a driver’s license.

Should we disregard purported ages altogether? Of course not. If there is a discrepancy between the birth dates in two documents, a responsible genealogist will not just ignore the discrepancy. You will have to build a case with other evidence that suggests these are the same people. Do they have the same parents’ names, same birth town, refer to the same siblings, and/or have the same spouse’s name? That can be great evidence that two differing documents refer to the same individual, who just forgot their age. If the day and month of birth is consistent, but the year fluctuates, that can also be an indicator that one person gave multiple differing ages for themselves, because it’s more likely that they would remember their actual birth day and just forget the year. The point is that you can build a case that someone got their birth date wrong, because it happened all the time.

German Genealogy Tip #29: Use the German Phone Book to Find Surname Concentrations

Do you have a German immigrant ancestor whom you have absolutely no idea where in Germany they came from? Most of us do. One great method for finding clues on where they might have come from is to use the modern-day German phone book, which is available online at:

Here’s how it works. If the German surname is uncommon enough, you can look for where within Germany the surname seems to be concentrated today. Names like “Schmidt” or “Mueller” or “Meyer” are going to be too common to pinpoint with this method, but if you have German ancestors with rarer surnames like “Bödege” or “Tascher” or “Kerzell”, this method can be effective.

To use, input the surname you are searching for in the “Wer/Was” (“who/what”) input field, and then hit the “Finden” button. You will be given a list of all the people in Germany with that surname, and you may see some concentrations of that surname in certain areas. If you already have an idea where in Germany your ancestor was from, but you’re not completely certain, you can also add a town name to the “Wo” (“where”) input field, and see if people with that surname do show up in your suspected town.

Keep in mind that after the Industrial Revolution and the world wars, many Germans moved away from the small villages where their ancestors had lived for hundred of years and relocated to larger cities like Hamburg or Bremen or Essen. However, if you find a handful of Germans with your surname of interest, living in a small village somewhere, it could be that these are the remnants of the family that remained in the original ancestral hometown–that hometown might be where your ancestor was from. If you are proficient in the German language, you can even use the “Telefon Buch” records to write a letter to the German individuals with that surname to ask them what they know about their ancestry. You might find a long lost cousin, this way.

If you can use the German telephone book records to pinpoint a town or an area in Germany where people with your desired surname seem to be concentrated, you can then pursue other avenues of research to try to find out if that is in fact where your German ancestor is from. You can contact a state archive or regional church district archive and ask them to conduct a search for your ancestor in that town (for a reasonable fee, of course).

Episode #4: “What’s in a Word?” | The German-American Genealogist Podcast

Episode 4: What’s in a Word?

Download file

Published 27 October 2014

What’s in a word? When doing German genealogy, it pays to recognize that the way German words are used can have profound meaning for locating and understanding your German ancestors. In this episode, find out how and why German towns changed their names over the centuries, and how you can use this to your advantage to find your German immigrant ancestor’s birth town in the old country. Join us as we learn about the unique handwriting that old German documents were written in, and about how German surnames could be spelled differently depending on the gender of the individual. In the latter half of the interview, we are joined by author Ernest Thode, writer of The German-English Genealogical Dictionary, who shares “tricks of the trade” regarding how to navigate German word structure to help you with your genealogy.


German Genealogy Tip #28: “Evangelisch” Means Lutheran/Reformed Church

When researching German records, you will often see an individual’s religion listed as “evangelisch” or “evangelische”. This is an umbrella term that describes most of the Protestant denominations after the Reformation. In Germany, this term was more likely to describe a church with Lutheran beliefs, and in Switzerland, this term was more likely to describe a church with Reformed/Calvinist beliefs. When Germans came to America, they often brought it with them under the name of the “German Evangelical Church”.

German Genealogy Tip #27: “-in” was Sometimes Added to German Surnames for Females

Don’t get tripped up by this when researching your German ancestors. Many times, German females would have “-in” added to their surnames. Thus, a woman with the last name of Schmidt might have sometimes been called “Schmidtin”. A woman with the last name of Mueller might have sometimes been called “Muellerin”. Their actual surname was not “Schmidtin” or “Muellerin”. The “-in” suffix is just designating that the person is a female. Their real surname would still be “Schmidt” or “Mueller,” in these instances.

German Genealogy Tip #26: How to Read German Civil Registrations (A Guide)

I got a fun little treat in my email inbox last night from — a printable guide to reading German civil registrations (government records of births, marriages, and deaths). I have personally had a lot of practice reading these, but I am so glad that is sending these guides out to researchers. Researching our German ancestors in Germany is so important to gaining perspective on their lives. If you didn’t get the email with the guide from, here is a link to the PDF file:

German Genealogy Tip #25: There are Multiple Towns with the Same Name

One thing you must learn quickly, when doing genealogy in Germany, is that there are multiple towns with the same exact name. Often there can be multiple towns in the same province with the same name, and sometimes there are multiple towns even in the same county with the same name.

Some towns have the same exact name, and some towns have very similar names: compare Rotenberg (Stuttgart, Württemberg) to Rotenberg (Rauenberg, Württemberg) to Rotenburg (Sachsen) to Rotenburg (Hessen) to Rothenburg (Bayern) to Rothenberg (Hessen) to Rothenburg (Oberlausitz, Sachsen) to Rothenburg (Sachsen-Anhalt) to Rottenburg (Baden-Württemberg) to Rottenburg (Bayern).

I soon found out, when researching my ancestral hometown–Machtlos (bei Ronshausen) in the Hersfeld-Rotenburg district of Hesse–that there was another town not far away called Machtlos bei Ziegenbain. Both Machtloses are of similar size and both are in the same county (Kreis Hersfeld-Rotenburg). It can be very easy to get two towns confused so make sure you account for all of the other towns that have the same name as the town you’re researching and then fastidiously investigate any records you find in order to make sure that you’re working with the right town.

German Genealogy Tip #24: Germans Chain-Migrated to America

Today’s German genealogy tip of the day is this: Germans almost always chain-migrated to America. If you have a German immigrant ancestor, bet on the fact that several of their close family members also immigrated to America, probably both before and after your ancestor. Readjusting to a new country, a new way of life, and a new language would have been difficult, and many Germans wouldn’t have undertaken such a radical change in lifestyle if they didn’t have some piece of home waiting for them in the New World. Immigration was also a costly process, and relatives who had already gone to America and become successful could send some of their savings to family members back in Germany to help them with the emigration process.

To find who the other immigrant family members of your German ancestor were, try checking the area (usually the counties) where your immigrant ancestor lived in America for other people with the same surname. Investigate those same-surnamed people in close proximity to your ancestor and see if you can establish a relationship. For someone with a common last name like Schmidt or Meyer, it might be difficult to wade through all of the unrelated families with the same name in a wide area, but for a very rare surname, like Körzel or Rathsam, you might be able to investigate all of the families with that surname in the entire state, or the entire country.

Also try contacting the state archive in Germany in the province where your ancestor was from and ask if they can tell you the names of some of the other individuals with your ancestor’s surname from your ancestor’s hometown who are also recorded as having emigrated. Then you can try to find where in America (or Canada, Australia, Argentina, etc.) those individuals ended up.