Discovering Your German Ancestors

More than 51 million Americans claim German ancestry, and many of these Americans have a strong desire to trace their long-lost roots. The first significant waves of immigration from Germany came after the failed democratic revolutions of 1848, a time period coupled with potato blight in parts of Germany. The numbers of German immigrants did not let up until the early 20th century. Of course, Jewish Germans fleeing fascism also left much of what had been their cultural heritage (as well as material possessions) behind. If you’ve ever been curious about wandering through your family’s ancestral village, standing in the church where your great-grandmother was baptized, or meeting the cousins who share your last name, it’s easier than ever to make it happen.

Before You Go

The more you can learn about your ancestors before you go, the more fruitful your search will be. The first place to seek information is directly from members of your family. Even relatives who don't know any family history may have documents stored away that can help with your sleuthing—old letters, wills, diaries, photo albums, birth and death certificates, and Bibles or other religious books can be great sources of information. The first crucial facts you’ll need are the name of your ancestor; his or her date of birth, marriage, or death; town or city of origin in Germany; date of emigration; ship on which he or she emigrated; and where in America he or she settled.

If family resources aren't leading you anywhere, try turning to the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church has made it its mission to collect mountains of genealogical information, much of which it makes available free of charge at The National Archives ( keeps census records, and anyone can, for a fee, get information from the censuses of 1940 and earlier.

The spelling of your family name may not be consistent through time. Over the course of history varying rates of literacy in Germany meant that the spelling of names evolved through the centuries. And on arrival in the States, many names were changed again to make them more familiar to American ears.

Once you’ve established some basic facts about your ancestor, it’s possible to start searching through German resources. Because Germany as we know it today didn’t unify until 1871, records are scattered. Lists of German ship passengers—many of which are now available online—are a good next step since they often included a person’s “last residence.” So if you can target your ancestor’s hometown, you’ll open the door to a potential trove of records. Many parish registers go back to the 15th century and document births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials.

Check out the links at the German National Tourist Office's websites,, and if you’re tracking down living cousins, try the German phone book at

On the Ground in Germany

Once you arrive, you can use the computerized facilities of Bremerhaven's German Emigration Center ( or enlist the help of an assistant to search the passenger lists of the HAPAG shipping line, at Hamburg's Family Research Center (

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