I’m sure there are tons of „how to“-instructions available on the net about genealogy in Germany – there is surely no need for another one. I would like to speak about German genealogy from the practising researcher’s point of view.
Let us assume that your forefathers emigrated from Germany sometimes in the 19th century. They went overseas by ship – and that means that there are good chances to find them in the passenger lists (have a look at Deutsches Auswandererhaus Bremerhaven). You should know a year – or at least narrow down the year of their passage, it helps with the search.
But the most important thing is the name. The 19th century did not have something like a Duden (Ger., Eng.); there were no fixed rules of orthography. The way names were spelled can vary a lot, and names in these lists were often written down as they were heard. For example: “Schäfer” (shepherd) can be spelled “Schäffer”, “Sche(f)fer”, “Scho(f)fer”, even “Schif(f)er”.
A Franconian speciality is the difference between consonants pronounced “hard” and “soft”: For reasons unknown to me a written “B” is mostly pronounced “P”, the same goes for “G” and “K”, “D” and “T” – and of course vice versa, the written “hard” consonant is pronounced “soft”. And speaking about dialects: The emigrants from the South of Germany surely had difficulties to understand Northern Platt (correctly Niederdeutsch (Ger., Eng.)), and the variation rich Franconian dialects surely were of limited beauty to the Hamburgian officials, who had to write down these names.
Another very important name is the one of the place of origin. Normally the name of the location the emigrants come from is recorded in the passenger lists, but sometimes only a vague description or just the name of a province is given (“Ostpreussen”). Family lore and tradition may have preserved and passed down the place of origin’s name over the generations – but from my experience, I have to say that this is not always a reliable source of information.
You may be lucky and letters of the emigrants’ family in the old Heimat survived and there may be a written name of a place. If you are in doubt about it, let someone who knows the old handwritings have a look on it: A single letter can make a huge difference! It is a difference whether a place is for example called “Unterregenbach” or “Unterengenbach” – they belong to different administrative bodies, different church parishes – and hence the records are kept in different places.
A further complication arises from the fact, that some names are not unique: A place called “Haslach” can be found at least more than eight times in different parts of Franconia. It is very important to find the right place of origin; this saves a lot of fruitless, frustrating and expensive research. Since the middle of the 19th century, a lot changed in the public administration and in the administration of the two large churches here too. From the kingdom of Bavaria – with some Franconian specialties – via the Deutsche Reich from 1871, through the whole brutal 20th century up to now, places changed names, were incorporated into larger administrative entities, or even stopped existing at all. The Gebietsreform of the 1970s brought the last major change in this respect. Parishes and Dekanate were changed, reformed, united, and separated again. But the 19th century knew these reforms too: Between the newly formed kingdoms of Bavaria and Baden the frontier was corrected in the 1850s. This led to the fact that church records of places originally belonging to Bavarian/Franconian parishes today are kept in Karlsruhe in the Landeskirchliche Archiv.
All I want to say is that the time used to identify the place or origin of the family – which is the starting point for a genealogical research and important for finding the records – is well used time. If one has the correct family name and knows the right place of origin, a research can be started – let’s look for the German genealogical records. (mg)