Episode #2: “The Average Johann” | The German-American Genealogist Podcast

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Published 13 October 2014

You’ve traced your family as far back in Germany as you can. You’ve gotten all the birth, marriage, and death dates. Now you want to know: What was real life like for your German peasant ancestors? Sure, there’s plenty of books on German politics, religion, and geography, but what was a day in the life of the average Johann? In this episode, I talk to historian Dr. Teva Scheer, author of Our Daily Bread, a book that reveals village life in early modern Germany.


    • Dr. Teva J. Scheer – Teva Scheer earned a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado in 2000. Our Daily Bread is her second book of historical non-fiction. The first, Governor Lady, is the biography of the first woman elected a state governor. Governor Lady was nominated for best biography in 2001 by the Colorado Book Awards (Colorado Endowment for the Humanities). Teva and her husband live outside Victoria, British Columbia, where she writes, teaches, and gardens.

German Genealogy Tip #14: Usually, German Immigrants First Lived With Relatives/Friends in America

One strong tendency I have noticed in researching German-American genealogy is that the first household German immigrants lived in after arriving in America was usually the household of relatives, or friends from their home town in the old country. Rarely did Germans immigrate to America and then just take up residence with a complete stranger. Germans typically planned their immigration process quite carefully.

In Germany, they would usually seek permission from their village council (or, later on, the Imperial Government) to emigrate, then spend several months securing money (from their own savings and from supportive relatives) to pay for their trip, and correspond with German relatives and friends already residing in America to arrange for a job and a place to stay once they arrived.

When I was researching my great great great grand uncle, William Schmidt, who was a German immigrant, I first found him living in Tama County, Iowa in the 1885 Iowa state census, in the household of an Adam and Mary L. Hotzel. (His surname is misspelled as “Smids”.) Since I didn’t recognize the Hotzel surname at this early point in my research, I figured it must have just been a fellow German farmer who was kind enough to give my Uncle Will a job and a place to stay.

When I started to see the “Hotzel” name crop up with other Schmidts, I did a little more research into Adam and Mary L. Hotzel. Mary’s obituary, in a February 1902 edition of the Traer Star Clipper, revealed that her maiden name was “Lindemann,” the same maiden name as William Schmidt’s mother, Martha (Lindemann) Schmidt. An investigation into the church records in William’s birth village in Germany revealed that Maria “Mary” (Lindemann) Hotzel was a sister of William’s mother, Martha (Lindemann) Schmidt. William Schmidt first lived with his uncle and aunt in America.

Thoroughly checking into the identities of the household with whom your German immigrant ancestor first dwelt after arriving in America will often reveal a whole new branch of your family tree. Or, if you’re not sure what town in Germany your immigrant ancestor came from, see if you can find out the home town of the heads of the first American household they lived in–chances are good that they came from the same town. If you’ve found records in Germany that state that a relative of yours emigrated to America, but you can’t figure out where in America they ended up, check the households of other relatives and people from their home town in American censuses immediately after your German relative would have immigrated–you may find your German emigrant relative living in this household with a slightly misspelled or mistranscribed name.

German Genealogy Tip #13: Stowaway Legends are Usually False

When I was growing up, I had a legend on both sides of my family about a German ancestor who stowed away on a ship to America. They were both very similar: a German boy of about 17 years of age managed to get on a ship without a ticket and then hid amongst the luggage until being found out, at which point he was put into some sort of service. On my father’s side, the legend was that the ancestor had been put to work shoveling coal into the ship’s furnace, and on my mother’s side, the legend was that the ancestor had been put on potato peeling duty.

I would later find out, in both instances, that neither legend was true. Archives in Germany would confirm that my German immigrant ancestors had paid all of their emigration fees and that their parents had bought ship tickets for them, and they both appeared comfortably in the middle of the ship passenger lists, with no indication that they had been discovered and added to the list mid-journey.

For some reason, much like the popular “Indian princess ancestor” myth that every American family seems to have, the “German immigrant stowaway ancestor” myth seems to be endemic to American families. Perhaps it adds to the family narrative of a desperate impoverished ancestor who, against all odds, came to the land of opportunity and made something of themselves. Another theory that many historians have speculated is that it may be a case of lost-in-translation: German immigrants may have told their English-speaking children and grandchildren about their voyage and stated that they were in “Zwischendeck” on the ship journey (which literally translates to “in between deck,” but more accurately means “steerage”), and perhaps the children thought that this meant they were hiding between the passenger decks (in the luggage deck).

Every so often, there really truly is an immigrant ancestor who came to America as a stowaway. There are some ways to find out if your ancestor was truly a stowaway.

The first thing to note is that many family history researchers falsely come to the conclusion that their ancestor was a stowaway because they can’t find their ancestor on any ship passenger lists. This may be because they have only checked Ancestry.com’s collection of ship passenger lists, and have neglected to check the National Archives’ Germans to America database, or the “German Immigrants” websites for the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, which often have records that Ancestry.com doesn’t have. It is also possible, though less likely, that a ship passenger list has simply been lost or destroyed, and no longer exists anywhere, or that the passenger list exists but has not been indexed or digitized online yet.

In all likelihood, your immigrant ancestor is listed on a ship passenger list that is available somewhere online, especially if your ancestor immigrated in the mid 1800s or later. Your ancestor’s name was probably misspelled, spelled phonetically, Anglicized, or has been wrongly transcribed by the indexer. Once you find your ancestor on a ship passenger list, you will be able to rather quickly tell if they were a stowaway or not.

True stowaways were inevitably found before the end of the journey, and would have needed to be listed in the ship’s records. They would be listed at the end of the passenger list, and would usually be explicitly marked as “stowaway”. If they were not explicitly marked as a “stowaway,” but their name is at the very end of the passenger list, perhaps written in different handwriting or with different strokes or with a different type of writing utensil, and perhaps with a bit of a gap between their name and the next-to-last names listed, this might also corroborate the hypothesis that your ancestor was a stowaway.

Typically, when a stowaway was found on a ship, they were indeed–like in the stories mentioned at the beginning of this blog post–compelled to perform some kind of labor in order to pay for their transport. Shoveling coal into the ship’s furnace or being put on kitchen duty would have indeed been likely sentences for stowaways. Given that fact, stowaways would often be listed in the “Crew List” for the ship, separate from the “Passenger List”. If you find your ancestor listed in a ship crew list for just one voyage, and never find them working on the crew of any other voyage of any other ship, that might be a good indication that they were a stowaway.

Be cautious and skeptical whenever you hear a family legend about a stowaway immigrant. Every family seems to have this legend, and it is almost always just that–a legend.

German Genealogy Tip #12: Dates in Germany are Written Day.Month.Year

In America, dates are usually written in the format “October 11th, 2014,” and when writing only numbers, “10-11-2014” or “10/11/2014”. The pattern we use in America is month-day-year.

In Germany, however, they use a (what I think is a much more sensible) system that goes: day.month.year. (The smallest unit of time, followed by a larger unit of time, followed by a larger unit of time.) This is also the format that professional genealogists usually prefer: 11 October 2014.

Thus, today’s date, October 11th, 2014, would be written in Germany as “11.10.2014”. When doing genealogy, make sure that you do not read the date through your American flavor of date reading, otherwise you will incorrectly get the date as November 10th, 2014. One other tip to help you know when a date is being written in German format (day, month, year) is the fact that periods are used in between each of the numbers, rather than hyphens or slashes.

German Genealogy Tip #11: Marburg Archive Will Look Up Hessian Emigration Info for Free

One of the best kept secrets in the Hessian genealogy field is the Hessisches Staatsarchiv Marburg’s (the Hessian State Archive of Marburg) free emigration look-up service.

If you send an email (in German text) to the State Archive in Marburg asking them (politely) to check for an emigration of a Hessian ancestor (note–they only keep records for the Hesse region of Germany, not other regions like Bayern, Thuringia, Nordrhein-Westfalen, etc.), they will do it for you at no cost. Their Kontaktformular (“contact form”) is located here.

If your German is rusty, the labels next to each of the form fields is thus:

Anrede – salutation
Vorname – your first name
Nachname – your last name
E-Mail – your e-mail address
Themenkomplex – topic
Betreff – subject of your message
Ihre Nachricht an uns – your message to [the Archive]

Before you go sending a message, you need to know the actual German name of the  person you seek. Keep in mind what I mentioned in my seventh German genealogy tip blog post: Germans often Anglicized their name after arriving in America. Therefore, if you seek the emigration data of your German ancestor named Charles, he is probably not going to appear in German records as “Charles,” but as “Karl”. If you seek the emigration data of your German ancestor named Louis, he is probably not going to appear in the German records as “Louis,” but as “Ludwig”. Use my previous blog post with a list of German names and their most common English versions in order to make sure you have the correct German version of their given name. The same goes for their surname. If you seek the emigration data of your German ancestor with a last name of “Smith” or “White,” they are going to appear in German records under “Schmidt” or “Weiss,” respectively.

Before you send your message to the Marburg Archive, you also need to know what town in Germany he was from (the exact town name, not just the district), you need to have a general idea of what year he was born, and you need to have as close of an idea as possible of when he emigrated. If you know the exact year or month he emigrated, that is great, but if not, a rough estimate of a year should suffice.

Once you have put together sufficient information, you need to write your request to the Marburg Archive in German. An example of such a message might be:

Ich suche nach Informationen suchen über die Auswanderung (sogenannte “Entlassung aus dem Untertanenverband”) der Conrad Lindemann (geb. 1.1.1813) aus Machtlos (bei Ronshausen). Conrad Lindemann und seine Familie kam in Amerika auf 12.6.1848. Für Ihre liebenswürdige Unterstützung sage ich Ihnen vielen Dank im Voraus!

English translation: I seek information regarding the emigration (the so-called “release as subject of the federation”) documents of Conrad Lindemann (born 1 January 1813) from Machtlos (near Ronshausen). Conrad Lindemann and his family came to America on 12 June 1848. I thank you in advance for your kind assistance.

After you have finished typing your message (if you use mine above as a template, please make sure you change all mentions of the individual to your individual, and all dates to your dates (or else you’re going to get a response about Conrad Lindemann from Machtlos, not a response about your ancestor), you must hit the “Senden” button, which, as you can probably guess, means “Send”. You should then receive a success message that reads: “Ihre Informationen wurden am [DATE] um [TIME] Uhr an uns weitergeleitet. Herzlichen Dank!” (Your information was, on [DATE] at [TIME] o’clock passed along to us. Thank you!”)

Following the successful submission of your request, you need to wait patiently. It will take at least two weeks to hear back from them, and possibly as long as two months, depending on how busy they are.

When you do hear back from them, if they have successfully located your ancestor’s emigration info, the emigration info may contain as little as their name and the month they emigrated; it may also contain their occupation, assets, who paid their emigration fees for them (often a family member), and/or number of family members they are traveling with; in some rare cases, it may even contain the full names and birth dates of all of their family members. (The latter is uncommon, though.) There is a chance, however, that your ancestor’s emigration information will not be found. This may be because you have given them the wrong town name for your ancestor, but it may also be because your ancestor emigrated without permission from the local government. Many Hessians emigrated without filing the proper documentation (many men were trying to leave unnoticed, to escape military conscription).

You will notice that I have mainly mentioned “men” and spoken in the masculine in this post. There is a reason for this. For the most part, only the “man” of the family needed to file for emigration. His wife and young children would probably not have been named in emigration documents, and–if mentioned at all–are probably just mentioned in a manner similar to: “Peter is emigrating with his wife and three children.” There might be an emigration record for a woman if she emigrated alone.

So remember:

  1. The Marburg Archive deals with Hessians only
  2. Fill out all the fields in the contact form
  3. Write your request in German
  4. Include the name, precise home town, age, and approximate emigration year in your request message
  5. Send your request and make sure you get a success message
  6. Wait patiently (it will take a matter of weeks before you hear back from them)
  7. Keep in mind you might get back a negative result (this could mean you have the wrong home town for your ancestor, or that they simply never filed for permission to emigrate before they left Hesse)

German Genealogy Tip #10: German Immigrants Often Switched Occupations to Farming/Mining

By the mid 1800s, there was very little land left in Germany that hadn’t already been divided up into small parcels. It was difficult to make a living at farming, and being able to own a large and successful farm was often the ultimate dream of German men. Due to the scarcity of farm land in Germany, however, many Germans took up more artisanal occupations like shoemaking, woodworking, tailoring, linen weaving, etc. In Dr. Teva Scheer’s book, “Our Daily Bread,” she explains that since Germany was a late comer to the Industrial Revolution, there was not much of a market economy in Germany, and villages would mostly have to produce everything for themselves. Thus, each village could have one or more shoemakers, woodworkers, tailors, linen weavers, etc.

When these Germans immigrated to America, the situation was often quite the opposite. Land was so plentiful and affordable that Germans could acquire huge swathes of land at a fraction of what it would have cost them in Germany. Furthermore, since America already had a large scale market economy, there was less demand for the sort of artisanal trades that many Germans had. Not every town needed a shoemaker, linen weaver, etc. Those goods could be gotten from other towns that specialized in producing those goods. Instead, the job opportunities were largely in farming and mining.

Thus, when German immigrants arrived in America, their previous training often fell to the wayside, and they mainly took up farming and mining for a living. So, when you find a German immigrant ancestor who farmed or mined in America, don’t assume that they had the same occupation back in Germany. Or, if you find an ancestor in Germany who worked as a cooper or a carpenter or a glazier, don’t assume that that is how they made their living after immigrating to America. They might have kept that occupation after immigrating, but there is a very good chance that your German ancestor became a farmer or miner in America, as that is where the demand for jobs was in the 18th through 20th centuries.

German Genealogy Tip #9: Be Patient With German Archives

Many researchers of their German ancestors eventually reach the point where it comes time to cross the Atlantic, and they need to get birth, marriage, or death records from Germany. When this time comes, one of the best institutions to contact is one of the regional church archives (a “Landeskirchliches Archiv”). Regional church archives will often accept requests from American researchers (preferably written in German) and, for a few dozen Euros, will do a couple hours of research into their local parish records for you.

Something that all American researchers should understand, when requesting help from these German archives, is the need for patience. These archives are often understaffed, funded by private contributions, swamped with requests, and heavily reliant on volunteer work. On top of these factors, many of the German archives lately have been renovating their buildings or relocating to new buildings, and reorganizing their records, which is putting extra strain on their time.

You might hear back from an archive two weeks after contacting them, but in other instances, I have waited seven months to hear back from an archive after contacting them. If you choose not to visit Germany in person or not to hire a German genealogist to go to the archive in person to research for you, you will need to be patient with the archives and the volunteers that help them. One trick that some American researchers use to help speed up the process is to send a modest financial contribution (in Euros) to the archive.

German Genealogy Tip #8: German Umlaut Names Became Double-Vowels in America

Do you know what an “umlaut” is? An “umlaut” a “double dot” mark over a vowel, to indicate a more fronted or rounded pronunciation. Examples of German surnames with umlauts include: Schäfer, Schröder, or Müller.

Schäfer (with an umlaut) is pronounced “Shay-fer,” but if you don’t put the umlaut in, you should technically (in German) pronounce it “Shah-fer”.

When Germans with umlaut surnames immigrated to America, they would often change the way they spelled their surname to drop the umlaut and add an extra “e” to the vowel instead. This was because America, as an English speaking country, didn’t use umlauts, nor did their typewriters. Thus, Schäfer would become Schaefer, Schröder would become Schroeder, and Müller would become Mueller.

This also means that, if you’re an American who is researching your Mueller family history, for instance, and you want to trace your family back into Germany, you are most likely to find your family’s name spelled Müller when you get back into the German records.

German Genealogy Tip #7: Anglicized German Names

Something you will inevitably find when you research German ancestors who immigrated to America are names that changed to something more “English sounding”. Can you blame somebody named “Balthasar” for desiring a name that fits in a little better in America?

Some Germans would change their names only slightly: Wilhelms would become Bills, and Adelheids would become Adas… Some Germans would change their names greatly: A Wenzeslaus might become a Vince, or a Friederike might become a Rachel. These new, “Anglicized” names usually make sense when you consider the pronunciation of the names in German, or the etymological meaning of the names.

A German woman named Anna Klein might become Jane Little when she arrives in America. Why is this? Let’s think about it. In the German language, “J”s have a soft pronunciation and “e”s have a hard pronunciation. Therefore, “Jane,” in German, sounds almost identical to how an American pronounces “Anna” or “Hannah”. Furthermore, “Klein,” in German, means “little” in English.

If you know of a German individual in your family tree who migrated to America, but can’t seem to find them in any records after the migration, try thinking of phonetically-similar, but different-spelled, versions of their name. Also, try translating their surname into English as though it were a regular noun.

Below is a list of German given names, and the English versions of the names that many German immigrants adopted after arriving in America:

Adalbert/Adelbart Albert, Al, Bart, Bert, Del, Delbert
Alberta Ally, Bertha, Berta
Albrecht Albert, Al
Adelheid Ada, Addie, Adelle
Adolph(us) Dolf
Adrian Ryan
Agathe Aggie
Agnes Aggie
Alanzo Al, Lance
Alessandra Sandra, Sandy, Alexa, Alexis, Allie
Alexander Alex, Al, Andy, Xander
Alexanderina Alexa, Allie, Dena, Dina
Alfred Al, Fred, Fritz
Alois Al, Louis, Louie, Lou
Alwin Alvin, Al
Amalia Ama, Amelia, Emily, Emilie, Emma
Angela Anna, Annie, Angel
Anna/Ana Hannah, Jane
Anton Andy, Anthony, Tony
Ariana/Ariane Anna, Annie, Dena, Dina
Artur Arthur, Art
Augusta Aggie, Gussie, Gusta
Aurelius Oral
Balthasar/Balthazar Balt, Bill
Barnabas Barney, Arnie
Barnhard(t)/Bernhard(t) Barney, Bernard, Arnie
Barbara Barb
Bartholomäus Bartholomew, Bart, Bert, Burt
Brünhild(e) Hilda
Burkhard(t) Burke, Bert, Burt
Cäcilia Cecelia, Celia, Sissy
Carolina/Caroline Carol, Carrie, Lena, Lina
Carina/Carine Carrie, Karen, Dena, Dina
Caspar/Kaspar Jasper
Cathalina/Catlina Cathy, Lina, Lena, Kat, Kate, Katie, Kathy
Charlotta/Charlotte Char, Lottie
Catharina/Katharina Catherine, Cathy, Dena, Dina, Kat, Kate, Katherine, Katie, Kathy
Christian/Christoph Chris, Christ, Christie
Christina/Christine Krista, Kris, Krissy
Conrad/Konrad Conny
Cunigunde/Kunigunde Connie, June, Onie
Dietrich/Diederich Dick, Dirk, Drake, Rich, Rick, Theodore (Theodoric), Theo
Dorothea Dora, Dorothy, Dorrie, Dot, Dottie, Orthia, Ortia, Thea
Eberhard(t) Art, Bert, Bart
Eckbert Art, Bert, Bart
Edith Ada, Edie, Ida
Eduard Ed, Eddie, Edward
Elena Helen, Ellen, Ellie, Lena, Lina
Elias Eli, Al
Elisabeth(a) Alice, Beth, Betty, Elizabeth, Lisa, Lizzie, Liz, Elisa, Eliza, Elsa, Elsie, Lilly
Emilie Amelia, Emily, Emma
Emmanuel/Immanuel Manny, Man, Niel
Emmerich Eric, Rich, Rick
Erich Eric, Rich, Rick
Eva Ava, Eve
Ewald Walt
Felicie Lisa, Lizzie, Liz
Ferdinand Art, Fred, Fritz
Francis Frank
Franz Frank
Franziska Fanny, Fran, Franny
Frieda Fran, Franny, Rita, Ida
Friederike Frieda, Fran, Franny, Rita, Ida, Rachel, Rachael, Ricka, Ricky
Friedrich Frederick, Fred, Fritz
Gabriela Gabby
Gerhard(t) Gary, Gerald, Gert, Harry, Jerry
Georg George, Geo.
Gertraut/Gertrud Gertie, Gertrude, Trudy
Gesina Jennie, Jenny, Sena, Sina
Gilbert Gill, Bart, Bert, Burt
Gottfried Fred
Gotthard Art, Goddard
Gottlieb/Gottlob Lee, Otto
Greta Maggie, Margaret, Marge
Gustaf/Gustav Gust
Hans John, Johnny, Jack, Joe, Joey
Hartmann Art, Harry
Hedwig Heidi
Heinrich Henry, Heiney
Helga/Hilga Hill, Hilly
Helena/Helene Ellen, Helen, Lena, Lina
Herbert Bart, Bert, Herb, Herbie
Hugo Hugh
Ilsa/Ilse Elizabeth, Lizzie, Liz
Ignaz Enos
Ingrid Greta, Gretel, Gretchen
Isaak Isaac, Zach, Zack
Jakob Jacob, Jake, Jack
Jeremias Jeremiah, Jerry
Joachim Joaquin, Joe, Joey, John, Johnny, Jack
Johann(es) John, Johnny, Jack, Joe, Joey
Johanna Anna, Annie, Hannah, Jane, Jo, JoAnn, Joan
Jörg/Jürgen George, Geo., Joe, Joey
Josef/Joseph Joe, Joey, Seph, Seth
Josphina/Josephine Josie
Justina/Justine Josie, Tina, Dena, Dina
Julia(na) Leah, Leia, Lena, Lina, LeeAnn
Jutta Judith, Judy
Karl/Carl Charles, Charlie
Karla Carol
Kersten/Carsten Christian, Christ, Chris
Kirstin/Kirsten Christine, Christina, Krista, Kris, Krissy
Klemens Clem
Konstantin Conny
Lanzo Al, Lance
Lars Larry, Lawrence
Laurenz/Lorenz Larry, Lawrence, Lars
Leonhard(t) Leo, Leon, Lonnie
Leopold Leo
Leonora/Leonore Eleanor, Lena, Lina, Nora, Ora
Liselotta/Liselotte Lisa, Lottie, Elsa, Elsie, Lizzie, Liz, Lilly
Luis Lou, Louie, Louis, Lewis
Ludwig Lewis, Louis, Louie, Lou
Lukas Luke, Lou, Louie
Magdalena/Magdalene Magda, Maggie, Marge, Lena, Lina
Manfred Mannie, Fred, Fritz
Marcellus Mark, Mike
Margaretha Maggie, Margaret, Marge, Meta, Greta, Gretel, Gretchen
Maria/Marie Mary, Mae, May, Minnie
Martha Mae, May
Martinus Martin, Marty, Art
Marwin Marvin
Matthias Matthew, Matt
Michael Mike
Miriam/Mariam Mary
Nicholaus Nick, Claus
Nikolai Nick, Cloy
Nils Neil, Nick
Ortia/Orthia Dorothy
Ottilie Tillie
Petrus Peter, Pete
Raphael Ralph
Regina Gina
Rupert/Ruppert/Ruprecht Bob, Rob, Robert
Sabina/Sabine Sabrina, Sarah
Salome Sally, Oma
Siegfried Fred, Fritz
Sonje Sonia, Sonya, Sunny
Steffan/Stephan Stephen, Steven, Steve
Susanna Susan, Sue
Sven Steven, Steve
Sybilla/Sybille Sybil, Bella, Belle
Tanja Tania, Tanya, Annie
Theodor Theo
Timotheus Timothy, Tim
Toennies/Tönnies Anthony, Anton, Tony
Udo Otto
Ulrich Rich, Rick
Valentin Al, Alan, Allen
Vinzenz Vincent, Vince
Waldo Walter, Walt
Wenzel/Wenzeslaus Vincent, Vince, Hansel
Wilhelm Bill, Will, William, Wm.
Wilhelmina/Wilhelmine Mena, Mina, Minnie
Xavier Avery
Zacharias Zach, Zack
Zilla Cecelia, Sally

Episode #1: “German-American Day” | The German-American Genealogist Podcast

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Published 6 October 2014

The very first episode of The German-American Genealogist Podcast! In this episode, we discuss the history of German-American Day, October 6th, and the struggle of German-Americans to find their place in the national fabric. We also discuss tips for researching German ancestors: things you need to know about your German ancestors’ names, and two important (and free) databases you can use to research your German roots. Finally, we speak with genealogy professional Thomas MacEntee, who shares some of his secrets to using the latest technology to research your roots.

Thomas MacEntee