For German Americans researching their ancestors, tracking down a place of origin can be challenging. It’s also a frequent problem spot for family trees. For those who fight against generation-long brickwalls, it’s easy to get giddy and overeager when it seems like an ancestral hometown might be in sight, even if it’s farfetched. When we get giddy, we’re much more likely to make mistakes. One way of tracing your ancestors while also hedging your bets against potential errors is to look for patterns among your ancestor’s friends and neighbors. When large numbers of people emigrate from the same locality or region over a prolonged period of time, historians refer to this as a serial emigration. Although this may sound sophisticated, clues for identifying one can be in plain sight. For instance, when you look at your ancestor on the 1880 Federal Census, do you notice several other family heads with the same Germanic nationality like Bavaria [Bayern] or Baden? This is potentially an important clue as to where your ancestors came from, as well as an insight into the sort of community in which they took part in America.
German Emigration to America: a Brief Breakdown
Since feudal times in Europe, people residing in what is now Germany have been strongly community-minded. Towns and villages all adhered to strict social codes that ordered everything from who could inherit what to who was qualified to serve as a midwife. Nearly everything was decided on based on an individual’s social standing! It should come as no surprise then that when Germans, seeking greater prospects in the Americas, took the plunge and voyaged to new lands that they often did so in small (and sometimes large) groups. German immigrants to the American Upper Midwest and Mid Atlantic frequently traveled together on land and would settle together in clusters. One will see this all throughout the Alleghenies and the Ohio River Valley. Cincinnati, OH and Newport, KY were popular destinations for southern Germans but also large sub-regional populations.
When you look on a census record or church list, take careful note of folks around the same age with similar sounding places of birth: they just might be your relatives, and if not, they will almost certainly teach you more about your ancestor’s community!
In 2012, I was able to solve the “ancestral mystery” of paternal line’s town of origin by using this exact method. For decades, my grandfather on that side had maintained what for the Smith family was our oral tradition: that our ancestors were not so long ago Bavarians. As I began my journey through census documents, naturalization papers, and the works, his oral history proved accurate: our ancestor Jakob, as well as his two siblings, all claimed to have been subjects of the Kingdom of Bavaria.
Bavaria, however, is a large place within the context of Germany as we know it, and what I didn’t know then is that our family was actually from the Pfalz, then (in 1833) an electorate territory of Bavaria, and now part of the modern state of Rheinland-Pfalz. Historically, Rhenish Bavarians made up a substantial portion of the Germans who settled along the Ohio River Valley and the Greater Pennsylvania area from 1820 to 1880. Pfälzers were also among the very first German-speaking groups to emigrate to the Colonies, settling in Philadelphia and the counties nearby. A vast majority of PA “Dutch” settlers shared an ancestral home region in the Rhineland and also Switzerland.
I would have never had the slightest clue where to start with a place as broad as historical Bavaria had I not noticed an important pattern among my family’s fellow church goers and neighbors: by 1850, nearly 4 out of every 5 German families in that part of Jefferson County, PA were from the southwest Pfalz near the city of Pirmasens (this is a topic I have since published an article on). Of the charter members of the Reformed Church in Punxsutawney, PA. as I later discovered, nearly all were related either immediately or distantly to my family, and over 75% were from the same grouping of villages lying west of Pirmasens.
Of course, I was lucky in that some of these families had in fact clear ties to that region that were recorded in other documents. I wasn’t just researching my family: I was researching their neighborhood! Finding my family’s ties to them took more elbow grease and a lot of faith in the hunch that, among the various villages near Pirmasens, I would find my family in some parish register or government list. However, it wasn’t just luck that kept these families together in America.
Emigrants from the Holy Roman Empire and Germanic Kingdoms were as a whole a civic-minded people. Most left their ancestral homes for this same reason. As farmers, laborers, and tenants on land they did not own in the sense that we use that word now, they had little mobility and power to affect the society around them. Villages and cities abided by strict ducal and communal laws that had been in place since the Middle Ages. As these people began to migrate toward the Americas, they sought greater civil freedom but proved to be communally minded in that pursuit.
Once a new community was established in America, however, it would become a magnet for the countrymen of the settlers who would emigrate after them. If they had a brother or cousin who settled in Newport, Kentucky, they were likely to start there in searching for a permanent home. If all you have to go off of is that first place of American settlement, don’t despair! Studying other families nearby may unlock the link to the past you’re searching for.
General Tips and Resources for Tracking “Close-Neighbors”
- Passenger Lists: although they’re tough to locate (and sometimes have not survived) and identify, passenger lists for European ships are still one of the essential documents any researcher needs to understanding an ancestor’s emigration. Because neighbors and relatives would often apply for permission to emigrate at the same time, they would board the same ship if it was within their means. Look carefully at any passenger lists for places of origin that may look similar to your ancestors and take careful notes! Currently, a large majority of the National Archive’s microfilmed passenger lists are available through Ancestry.com (for a subscription fee) and Familysearch.org (free to view from home, in most instances).
- Church/Religious Registers: neighbors who emigrated together and settled together most often worshiped together! Church and synagogue registers for ethnically German groups are perhaps the most valuable documents for German American genealogy because they include details and context that no other records from the 1700s and 1800s will have. Most states in the U.S. did not require county-based birth and death records until 1880, so finding a birth or baptism prior to means looking for religious records. Prior to 1880, a lot of German congregations were still German-language only, so one should get familiar with the in’s and out’s of reading German-language baptismal, confirmation, marriage, and burial entries before diving in. These register entries can be chalk-full of info, including parentage, places of birth (even foreign), occupation, etc., as well as info as to witnesses and sponsors, which can sometimes be a clue to related mysteries.
- Community Organizations: while not all German-language communities in the U.S. were developed enough to host a large number of them, one will find interesting points of personal overlap in social organizations. Look within counties for lists of these, if they exist, and go from there. You might even find that your ancestor was part of a German cultural heritage organization, as was common in Cincinnati and other large Midwestern cities! Such registers tend to include info on the oldest members and even recorded their own obituaries.
- Cemeteries: although cemetery records shouldn’t be examined out of context, they can be the next-best thing to church records, especially in instances when church records do not exist for the years you’re researching. Religious cemeteries will tell you generally about the makeup of that congregation if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and cross-reference other records (census data, vital records) as you go. A warning: never assume that because an individual is buried near an ancestor that this confirms a relationship. Exhaustive research using multiple sources is the gold standard for genealogy. Remember, too, that burial and gravestone info, even if literally written in stone, can be wrong! Our ancestors were not all literate, and folks did not keep track of birth and ID info as much as we do now (given our emphasis now on identity and personal security).
- Census Records: because census records are one of the broadest collections of data in the U.S., we tend to start our research there, although bear in mind what census data is at base: a tabulation of households for demographic purposes. They are not birth or marriage records, though they’ll give you an inkling to work from. Heck, they’re more likely to be inaccurate than any of the sources listed above! Nevertheless, there are better and worse ways of using census data. While looking through an online index, try a broad search within one county for all individuals born in say “Bavaria” or “Bayern” and see what pops up. Keep note of which townships or municipalities have the most of these folks: this could tell you whether there was a group of close-neighbors from similar places of origin. Next step is to look for affiliated institutions (churches, schools, social orgs) and see if there are overlaps. Another great use is to look at images of each census page on which your ancestor appears and take note of who all appears in the households near them. Eyeball about three pages before and three pages after the record in question, and pay close attention to the households nearby.
- Regional Histories: when we think of the United States, we think of our big cities as that perfect image of the “Melting Pot” of culture. But have you ever considered looking through state, county, and regional histories for indications to larger emigrations? Sometimes, finding an emigration pattern is a matter of reading between the lines, but in areas with large populations of German emigrants, you will find interconnections that are well-worth examining. Take one look at A Commemorative Biographical Record of Central Pennsylvania (1898) and you’ll see what I mean: hundreds upon hundreds of interconnected families with ancestral ties in Europe, whether Northern Irish, Welsh, or Hessian. Sometimes, even these historians themselves were aware of the population patterns and take note of them in chapters. Look for these in the non-biography sections of the book if available.