German Genealogy Tip #23: Lots of Info in County History/Biography Books

In the latter 1800s and early 1900s, a popular form of literature was the local county history and citizen biography book. Virtually every county in every state in America had several such history books written about it during this period.

When researching German-American ancestors, especially ones who lived in rural areas, always check for local county history and citizen biography books published in the county where they settled. If your ancestor was featured in a biographical sketch, it may give a great deal of valuable information that might not be found anywhere else. has many such books freely available online in their collection, as do Google Books and the Internet Archive.

Episode #3: “All About Death” | The German-American Genealogist Podcast

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Published 20 October 2014

Happy Halloween! To celebrate the spooky and the macabre, this episode of the podcast is dedicated to exploring the records left behind by our ancestors after their deaths. How to find a death certificate, how to find a newspaper obituary, how to find cemetery burial records, and how to use probate records. Then, we speak with genealogist Janita (Barringer) Beals, who tells the amazing story of how she discovered that the remains of her grandfather, who had died 71 years earlier, had never been buried. Special featured music in this episode is Bach’s “Fantasy in C Minor”.


    • Janita (Barringer) Beals – Janita (Barringer) Beals is a family researcher who has done extensive research on Northwest Iowan history, and the German-American “Barringer” family of New York and the Midwest. Janita discovered the remains of her grandfather, Cleborn Barringer, which had been sitting at a funeral home in Spokane, Washington for 71 years waiting to be claimed. She took charge of the remains and helped ensure that they received a proper memorial service and burial with the rest of his family.

German Genealogy Tip #22: “Geb.” or “Geborene” Indicates Maiden Name

When reading old German documents, you will often see the term “geb.” or “geborene” in the middle of a married woman’s name. This is not part of her name. It means the same thing that we mean in English when we write “née” or “maiden name”. For instance, if a woman is named Elisabeth Scheuch (wife of Johannes Scheuch), and her maiden name was Ziegler, her name might be written as “Elisabeth Scheuch geb. Ziegler” (Elisabeth Scheuch née Ziegler) or “Johannes Scheuch und dessen Ehefrau Elisabeth geb. Ziegler” (Johannes Scheuch and his wife, Elisabeth née Ziegler).

German Genealogy Tip #21: Departure Passenger Lists Often Give Birth Town

If you’re having trouble finding your German ancestor’s birthplace, it can pay to find their passenger list from when they departed Germany. Especially if they departed from Hamburg or Bremen, there is a good chance that their birth place or town of origin is listed on the passenger list. When an emigrant left Germany, they would have created two records–a departure passenger list at the port in Germany where they left, and a separate arrival passenger list at the port in America where they arrived (American arrival passenger lists only rarely list the birth town of the immigrant). Many of the German departure lists have been lost, or destroyed during the world wars, but there are still many surviving lists from Hamburg and Bremen. These departing passenger lists can be accessed on

German Genealogy Tip #20: Find Your Immigrant Ancestor in the NARA’s “Germans to America” Database

S.S. Buckman, later renamed the S.S. Admiral Evans, as she appeared before the aft cabin was rebuilt. The ship still looked like this in 1910, when the West-Wise piracy attempt was made.

Have you had bad luck searching for your German immigrant ancestor’s arrival record in the collections or on other websites? The best and most comprehensive database of German arrival records for 1850-1897, in my opinion, is the National Archives’ “Germans to America Database,” located at:

You can search for your immigrant ancestor by last name, first name, age, country of origin, destination, and manifest identification number (a unique number that identifies a particular voyage of a particular ship).

After you undertake a search and are presented with a list of results, click the little paper icon to the left of the immigrant’s name (in the “View Record” column). This will display a page with more information on the immigrant, such as their name, age, sex, occupation, literacy, country of origin, last residence, destination, travel accommodations, and the manifest identification number of that particular voyage.

To then find out the name of the ship and the date of the voyage they were on, write down or copy the manifest identification number of that particular immigrant, and go to the Manifest Header Data webpage, which is located at:

At the Manifest Header Data webpage, type in the manifest identification number you copied from the passenger file from earlier, and search it. You will then come up with a result that shows you the matching manifest identification number, along with the corresponding ship name, port of departure, and date of arrival in the United States.

German Genealogy Tip #19: How to Find an Ancestor’s Newspaper Obituary

One of the–I think–most overlooked and underappreciated resources when doing German-American genealogy, or genealogy in general, are newspaper obituaries. Especially when the obituaries are printed in the newspapers of smaller towns in rural areas, they can contain a cache of golden information.

Some of the most important pieces of information a newspaper obituary might offer are: birth place, birth date, maiden name, parents’ names, date and place of immigration, earlier residences and migrations, marriage date, marriage place, names of current (and sometimes previous) spouses, date and place of naturalization, employers, church membership, death date, death place, cause of death, funeral home in charge of arrangements, burial place, names (and maybe even death dates) of family members who preceded them in death, names and residences of people who came to attend the funeral from a long way away (which can give great clues on finding long lost branches of cousins), and names, spouses, and residences of family members who survived them.

Always check the two issues of their town newspaper printed after they died. If an edition of the newspaper was printed on the exact day of their death, check that one too, because sometimes the newspaper was able to report it on the same day that it happened.

Older, rural newspapers were not necessarily as organized and compartmentalized as today’s newspapers are, so even if your ancestor’s obituary doesn’t appear on the same page as the other obituaries, read the whole paper. Their obituary might have made front page news, or it might be hidden in the “local news” or “neighborhood gossip” section.

There are many great websites (almost all of which require paying subscriptions, of course) that have digitized millions of newspapers, such as,, and (As a professional genealogist, I have subscriptions to all three and rely heavily on them.) also has a collection of free digitized newspapers that can come in handy for a researcher, although they are mostly from large cities. There are also smaller, more specialized websites (often hosted by local universities or historical societies) that offer free access to digitized local area newspapers (such as for New York papers, or the Florida Digital Newspaper Library, just to name two).

When searching online newspaper databases for obituaries, keep in mind that your ancestor’s name may have been misspelled. Also, online newspaper databases often use a program that looks at the image and tries to recreate a pure text version of the print. These newspaper images are sometimes faded or blotchy, so the text transcription of the newspaper is probably riddled with errors. When searching for your ancestor’s obituary on an online newspaper website, try as many different spelling variations of their name as you can. Especially if they were an immigrant, try spelling their name phonetically. Also, if you know where your ancestor was buried, you can try searching for mentions in the newspaper of the cemetery where they were buried. Try other combinations of words you think might be in their obituary (“funeral,” “burial,” “died,” “death,” “survived,” “interred,” “cemetery,” etc.). Don’t rely entirely on web searches. If you think you know the issue of the newspaper where the obituary might have appeared, try pulling up the actual image of the newspaper and reading it line for line yourself.

Far from all of the newspapers in the country have been digitized, so just because you can’t find a town newspaper online, it doesn’t mean you can’t get ahold of it. You may need to contact your state’s historical society library, or use Google to hunt for a large university library in your state, because these institutions often have newspaper on microfilm. You might then be able to make a trip to your state historical society library or university library and view old issues of these newspapers on microfilm, or you might be able to go to your local town library and request an interlibrary loan of those microfilms. In certain cases, newspapers may have been neither digitized nor microfilmed, but the local library in the town where the newspaper was printed may store old physical copies of the newspaper, so try contacting them as well.

Try searching all of the different newspapers in the area, because often, multiple newspapers in the same town printed different obituaries for the same person, each obituary with unique information. If you don’t have luck finding a newspaper obituary for your ancestor in the town where they died, look up the town on Google Maps, find nearby towns, and search for newspaper obituaries for your ancestor in those nearby towns as well. Towns sometimes printed obituaries for deceased individuals from other nearby towns.

My last point of advice is to realize that newspapers were not the only ones who printed obituaries. You might be able to find an obituary that wasn’t in a newspaper. Contact the funeral home that handled your ancestor’s funeral arrangements–they might have stored an obituary for your ancestor. Contact relatives who might have attended this ancestor’s funeral–they might have kept a funeral pamphlet, which could have had an obituary printed on it. Find out what religious denomination your ancestor was a member of and contact that institution–many churches and religious denominations printed their own nation-wide newsletters and sometimes printed obituaries after the death of one of their church members.

German Genealogy Tip #18: Villagers Sometimes Reported Births, Marriages, and Deaths to a Registrar in a Larger Nearby Town

For most of Germany’s history, vital events like births, marriages, and deaths were largely only recorded in church records. During some parts of history in some German regions, some civil recording of vital events also began to take place (especially in areas under French occupation during the Napoleonic wars). In the mid 1870s, after the unification of many of the Germanic territories into a national empire, civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths became the norm.

Eine Vervielfältigung oder Verwendung dieser Seite in anderen elektronischen oder gedruckten Publikationen und deren Veröffentlichung (auch im Internet) ist nur nach vorheriger Genehmigung durch das Hessische Staatsarchivs Marburg, Friedrichsplatz 15, D-35037 Marburg, Germany gestattet.

A registrar where citizens go to report their vital events was called a “Standesamt”. Not every town had a Standesamt, but there would have been at least one Standesamt within several miles of any given village. If a German’s village was too small to have a Standesamt, they would have had to go to the nearest Standesamt in a larger town.

When you are doing genealogy research in German records, especially research in the 1870s and later, you will inevitably need to request documents from a town’s Standesamt. If your ancestor’s town was too small to have a Standesamt, don’t assume that they just didn’t register their vital events with any civil authority. You will have to check the Standesamt registrars of larger nearby towns to see if they were responsible for recording the vital events in your ancestor’s village.

Some provinces of Germany are beginning to post their Standesamt records online for family history researchers. One province that has been very good about this is Hessen. (Click here to read a tutorial I created on how to access Hessian Standesamt records online.)

German Genealogy Tip #17: Old German Documents Were Written in Sütterlin Script

If you’ve ever looked at old documents from Germany, you’ll know that many of them look as though they were written in some completely foreign alphabet. Even if you speak modern German, you might not recognize any of the words. This is because old German documents were often written in a handwriting called Sütterlin script. While it takes some practice, German speakers can learn to read Sütterlinschrift (Sütterlin script) and decipher genealogical documents from the early 20th century and prior.

Below is a chart of Sütterlin characters and their modern counterparts:

German Genealogy Tip #16: Germans Use Symbols to Denote Birth, Marriage, and Death

If you ever receive genealogical records or historical documents from Germany, or if you ever correspond with a family history researcher in Germany, you will find that German family historians use a set of symbols to denote genealogical events:

* born (the star symbol references the star said to have heralded the birth of Christ)
baptized (the tilde resembles a wave or ripple in water)
 married (the infinity symbol represents the lifelong commitment of marriage)
o/o divorced (a broken infinity symbol represents the breaking of the commitment)
+ died (the cross resembles a common grave marker shape)
[] buried (the two brackets together resemble a burial plot)

An example of a German genealogical record might look like:

Johannes Müller
* 5.10.1786 Beispielburg
~ 15.10.1786 Beispielburg, Evangelische
23.7.1810 Beispielburg, mit Martha geb. Schumann
2.3.1842 Fiktiondorf
[] 3.3.1842 Friedhof Fiktiondorf

German Genealogy Tip #15: Towns in Border Regions Changed Hands

The region that we call “Germany” has seen a lot of iterations over the centuries. Before the 1870s, “Germany” was actually a collection of dozens of different kingdoms, duchies, and principalities. Even since the 1870s, the borders of the nation of Germany have changed vastly over the years. As a result, many of the towns in the border regions have changed hands–sometimes several times. Germany currently borders Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Poland. As a result, some towns that were in Germany one or two centuries ago, may be within one of these other nations’ borders today, or vice versa.

You may find an old document that lists a person from a German town named “Königsberg in der Neumark,” and when you go to a map, you will find yourself unable to locate the town anywhere. This is because this town is now in Poland and is now called “Chojna”. It can be difficult, at times, to keep track of where certain border towns ended up and how and when their names changed.

One good resource for keeping track of name-changing border towns is Wikipedia’s article on “Cross-border town naming“. The Wikipedia article includes border towns that have changed hands between Germany and the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, and the Czech Republic.