Sunday, January 8, 2017

German Research - Getting From Here to There

Hello again. I am continuing my series of blogs on German research, but these tips can be used for any nationality. Today I will present ways to discover when your ancestors came to the US and from where they originated with a focus on immigration and emigration records. But before I start that discussion, I wanted to talk briefly on a little project I did last night. Yesterday my wife and I went to the Vero Beach Antique Show and found a vendor who was selling antique cabinet card photos. For a brief history, cabinet card photos originated in the 1860s and were approximately 4" x 6" photographs on heavy card stock. These photos were common through the 1890s and faded in popularity early in the 20th century. I picked up 8 photos and brought them home to research who they were and possibly reunite them with their families. Five of the photos were of the Haycraft family taken in Louisville, Kentucky; Des Moines, Iowa; and Ocala, Florida. The pictures ended up being of a father, his wife, one son, a 6 month old granddaughter, and a nephew. Two other photos were of the Wood family from Dayton, Ohio. These ended up being a mother and son. The last photo belonged to the Helm family from Huntington, Indiana. I was able to link them all to their respective person and add their pictures to FamilySearch. Now I am waiting for replies from the messages I sent to see who is interested in having the original photos.

Now, back to the topic at hand. Almost all of us have immigrant ancestors somewhere in our lines. Some will be easier to find than others. I will be focusing on the time frame of the mid to late 1800s when there was a large influx of European immigrants, especially the Germans. German-Americans are the largest ancestral group in the United States with approximately 15% of Americans claiming German ancestry.

There were several waves of German immigration. The first significant influx of German immigrants was in the 1680s to New York and Pennsylvania. These were the Quakers and Mennonites who were seeking religious freedom. They were predominantly from the Lower Rhine region.

The next major wave of German immigrants was the Palatine migration which took place in the early 1700s with the majority occurring in 1709. This wave accounted for approximately 15,000 immigrants. These immigrants came from the Palatine region in southwest Germany. They cited poverty as their main reason for leaving German and settled predominantly in New York and North Carolina.

About half of the immigrants between 1728 and 1820 were "redemptioners". These were poor Germans who came to America as indentured laborers. They worked to pay off their debts.

There was another major influx of German immigrants during the 1830 to 1880 period. This is the time frame that my ancestors arrived in the US. Between 25% and 37% of all immigrants arriving in the US during those years were German but their home regions varied depending on the period. Between 1830 and 1860 most of the immigrants came from Hesen-Darmstadt, Hessen- Kassel, Westphalia, Hanover and Oldenburg. Between 1870 and 1880 most of the German immigrants came from Mecklenburg and the Prussian provinces of East and West Prussia, Pomerania, Posen and Brandenburg. These immigrants were generally small farmers leaving Germany due to the political upheaval and revolutions which climaxed in 1848 with a series of revolutions in Western Europe. Most of them were destined for the Midwestern states and arrived in cities like Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee. From those cities they often spread out to acquire farm land in surrounding counties.

These German immigrants usually departed from ports in northern Germany, Belgium and France, including Hamburg, Bremen, Antwerp and Le Havre. The availability of their emigration records varies depending on which port they departed from. For example, the Hamburg emigration records are a good source of information but many of the Bremen records were destroyed by fire.

So, how do we determine which wave our ancestors belonged to and where they originated. The first set of records that you should investigate are the US Census records. These records provide useful hints as to your ancestor's place of birth as well as possible immigration dates and status. But the extent of information varies depending on which census you search. My suggestion is to look at all of the available censuses for your ancestor and use the information to help narrow your search. Here is what I consider to be the most useful census information:

  • 1870 census - This census gives place of birth of the individual. Additionally it has a column for "Male Citizens of the US of 21 years of age and upwards". If a person was of foreign birth and this column is checked he would have been naturalized prior to 1870.
  • 1880-1930 censuses - These censuses list the place of birth for the individual's parents as well as the nationality of the individual.
  • 1900-1930 censuses - These censuses list the person's year of immigration. I suggest that you look at each census to see how much the immigration year varies. It will give you a hint of the approximate year but usually varies with each census.
  • 1900-1940 censuses - These censuses list the person's naturalization status. AL=alien, PA=first papers, NA=naturalized
  • 1900 census - This census lists the number of years in the US. This can be used to help narrow down the immigration year.
  • 1920 census - This census lists the year of immigration as well as the year of naturalization.
With this information in hand you can take the next step, searching the emigration and immigration records. Many people search the immigration records but never go the next step of looking for the emigration records. So, let's discuss how each can help you in your research.

Immigration records are the records of arrival in the US. Two of the most used ports of entry were Castle Garden and Ellis Island. Castle Garden is located in New York and was open from 1855 to 1892. It was America's first official immigration center. Over 11 million immigrants came through this port. You can find the records for Castle Garden at www.castlegarden,org. Ellis Island opened for processing in 1892 and has processed over 52 million immigrants. The Ellis Island records can be searched at But these were just the most used facilities. There were many more ports of entry to the US. The National Archives has records of arrivals for various immigration centers between 1820 and 1982, with microfilm copies available up to 1955. There are also some sporadic records prior to 1820, including the Port of New Orleans (1813-1819) and Philadelphia (1800-1819). More information on the National Archives collections can be found at FamilySearch also has digitized passenger lists for the Port of Philadelphia (1800-1945) and Port of New Orleans (1800-1945). You can also search an extensive collection of online books about immigration at Another port of entry was Galveston, Texas. Records are available for Galveston from 1846 to 1948 at There is also a group of sites for German immigrants that is broken out by decade from the 1850s until the 1890s. These lists can be found at,,,, and

These immigration records may provide you with the following information:
  • Nationality or place of birth,
  • Ship name and date of entry in the US,
  • Port of departure,
  • Physical description including age, height, eye and hair color,
  • Profession,
  • Place of last residence,
  • Name, address and relationship of people they are joining in the US, and
  • Amount of money they are carrying.
Once you know the name of the ship, I suggest that you check out The Ships List database at and the Immigrants Ships database at Here you may find passenger lists, histories of the ship, and many more bits of useful information.

Now that you have the port of departure and name of the ship you can start looking to the emigrant data. There are many sites that have German emigration data. One tip you should use is searching for the term auswanderer along with the location of origin for your ancestor. Auswanderer is German for emigrant. The German Emigrants Database includes records of emigrants from 1820 to 1907. It can be found at The Bremen passenger lists can be found at Since the emigration records were usually issued from the home state in Germany, you may also want to look at individual states archives. For example the Baden-Wurttemburg Landesarchiv has their emigration information online at

These emigration records may provide the following information:
  • Physical traits, 
  • Age, 
  • Names of family members,
  • Occupation, 
  • Residence, and 
  • Many more pieces of useful information.
Additionally, many areas of Germany provided a document know as the heimatschein. This document certified a person's home village. During certain periods citizens needed permission for many of their activities including marriage, emigration, and internal relocation. The purpose of these regulations was to control the talent and services available in a given area. You may be able to find these records if they were required for your ancestor to emigrate from his home village.

I hope these steps are helpful in your search for your immigrant ancestors and determining their home village. I will continue on soon with the next in this series of researching your German ancestors. Have a good day.

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