German SIG

Welcome! The German Special Interest Group, led by Sylvia Elchinger, meets the first Tuesday of most months at 7pm, virtually via Zoom while we’re still social distancing. Come join us! Watch your GRIVA newsletter for registration links a week or two before each meeting.

May – August 2022 – No meeting

April 2022 – Niedersachsen (aka Hannover)

The current state of Niedersachsen is made up of pieces of the former territories of Hannover, Braunschweig, Oldenburg, and Schaumburg-Lippe. As with other states that we’ve looked at this year, these areas evolved over time, and date back to the original Duchy of Saxony, about 1000 A. D.

Hannover was originally an Electorate, formally known as the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg as of 1692. The electorate was legally bound to be indivisible (it could not be split among various heirs of the ruler), but it could add other land to its territory. The succession followed the rule of male primogeniture, which becomes significant later in its history.

Due to various royal intermarriages, George I of England inherited Lüneburg and Duchy of Saxe-Lauenburg in 1705. In 1719, he also purchased the Duchies of Bremen-Verden from Denmark. In 1803, the

Due to various royal intermarriages, George I of England inherited Lüneburg and Duchy of Saxe-Lauenburg in 1705. In 1719, he also purchased the Duchies of Bremen-Verden from Denmark. In 1803, the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück was added as well. Hannover changed hands several times during the Napoleonic Wars – in 1810 it was made part of the Kingdom of Westfalen, and in 1814 it was restored as the Kingdom of Hannover by the Congress of Vienna. After 1837, when Victoria became queen of England, Hannover was no longer part of the personal union with England.

In 1866, Hannover was annexed by Prussia. in 1885, it was divided into six Regierungsbezirke – Aurich, Hannover, Hildesheim, Lüneburg, Osnabrück, and Stade. After WWII, the state of Hannover was created under British administration, and in 1946, it was merged into the new Bundesland of Niedersachsen.

The •Duchy of Braunschweig-Lüneburg existed as far back as the 1200s. After the Congress of Vienna, it became a sovereign state called the Duchy of Braunschweig. It joined the German Confederation in 1866, and the German Empire in 1871. After WWI, part of the territory was ceded to Saxony, and part became the Free State of Braunschweig. In 1946, it was merged into Niedersaschen.

Oldenburg was a duchy until 1810, when it was annexed by France. It consisted of three geographically disperse territories – Oldenburg, Eutin, and Birkenfeld. It joined the German Empire in 1871, and in 1918, became a free state in the Weimar Republic. In 1937, it lost Eutin and Birkenfeld, and in 1946, it was merged into Niedersachsen.

The principality of Schaumburg-Lippe was created in 1807, from an area that dates back to 1647. In 1871, it became part of the German Empire. In 1918, it became the free state of Schaumburg-Lippe. In 1945 it was part of the British occupation zone, and in 1946, it was merged into Niedersachsen.

Since each of these areas (and areas in the other German states as well) had different names depending on the type of ruler over time, I thought it would be helpful to add this table for clarification:

German TitleGerman AreaEnglish TitleEnglish Area
GrafGrafschaftEarl or CountEarldom or Countship

Niedersachsen today is the second-largest state by land area, and the fourth largest based on population. It regained some territory from the former East Germany in 1993.

Historically, the state religion was Lutheran. in 1842, Hannover granted equal rights to Jews, with four regional Land-Rabbinates. In 1866, the Lutheran Church of Hannover was formed.

Civil registration started at different times in each of these areas; records area available at Ancestry and FamilySearch.

  • 1876 in Schaumburg-Lippe
  • 1876 for Oldenburg (also 1799-1814)
  • 1876 for Braunschweig
  • 1874 for Hannover (also 1806-1811)

Between 1820 and 1930, over 700,000 people emigrated from Hannover; 95% of these went to North America. Emigration resources include the following:

Unlike Saarland, there are many online Ortsfamilienbücher available for Niedersachsen on the Compgen website. Printed volumes can be found here, if your town of interest is not (yet) online.

City directories for Hannover are available for 1798-1975 (with gaps). They are also available for 72 other locations in Niedersachsen.

Other resources for research in Niedersachsen include the following:

March 2022 – Saarland

This month we talked about the Saarland, the smallest state in area in Germany, other than the city-states. It is also the smallest in population other than Bremen.

Prior to 1793, the area that is now Saarland may have been part of :

  • Principality of Nassau Saarbrücken
  • Duchy of Pfalz-Zweibrücken
  • Imperial rulers of Dagstuhl, Illingen, and Kriechingen-Saarwellingen
  • Electorate of Trier
  • Kingdom of France (Duchy of Lorraine)
  • Reign of von der Leyen

During the Napoleonic Era (1793-1816), the area was divided among three different Departements – Saar, Donnersberg, and Rhin-et-Moselle. The Congress of Vienna variously reassigned parts of the land to Prussia, Bavaria, and the Grand Duchy of Hessen. After 1871, the area was totally under Prussian rule. Further reorganizations occurred after World War I, the area was renamed Territory of the Saar Basin, and was administered by France and Great Britain. By 1935, it was reincorporated into Germany as the Gau Westmark. After World War II, it became the Saar Protectorate, once again administered by France until 1957, when it was finally reincorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany.

Given the recurring ties to France, it should come as no surprise that many of the records for this area will be in French or German. If you’re looking at Catholic records, they will be in Latin as well. One thing to look out for in records from the Napoleonic Era is the use of the French Republican Calendar. You’ll have to convert dates like the 18th of Vendemaire in the Eighth Year of the French Republic – also known as 10 October 1799. (Date converters are available on the Internet.)

In terms of emigration, most of the early Saarland emigrants were subjects of Prussia or Bavaria – so look at the notes for the Rheinland-Pfalz presentation in November 2021 for more details. Other resources specifically for the Saarland include:

  • Emigrants from Dillingen, Pachten, and Diefflen
  • Burgert, Annette Kunselman. Pennsylvania pioneers from Wolfersweiler Parish, Saarland, Germany (c 1983)
  • Mergen, Josef. Die Auswanderungen aus den ehemals preussischen Teilen des Saarlandes im 19. Jahrhundert (c 1987) – vol. 2 lists emigrants from former Prussian sections of Saarland
  • Hacker, Werner. Auswanderung aus Rheinpfalz und Saarland im 18. Jahrhundert (c 1987)
  • Goelzer, Bernd. “Saarland Emigrants 1709-1799(c 1985; In The Palatine Immigrant, v.9, no. 3)
  • Krebs, Friedriech and Yoder, Don. “Emigrants to America from the Duchy of Zweibrücken” in Pennsylvania Folklife – v. 21 (1971) – v. 21, no. 4 (summer 1972)
  • List of emigrants from Zweibruecken to Amerika, 1728-1749

There are some digitized newspapers available on Google Books for Zweibrücken, Homburg, and Cusel. There are only two towns in Saarland (as of this writing) for which there are Ortsfamilienbücher available – Niederbexbach and Südlicher Hochwald. A list of printed OFBs for Saarland is available at CompGen.

Many of the resources listed for Rheinland-Pfalz may be applicable for Saarland research as well, depending on the timeframe. Other possible resources for Saarland research include the following:

February 2022 – Nordrhein-Westfalen

The current German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhine Westphalia) was created in 1947 from three distinct areas – the former Westfalen, Lippe-Detmold, and the northern part of the former Rheinprovinz. Since the Rheinprovinz was previously covered in November 2021, this month’s presentation focused on the other two areas that make up this state.

We’ve already seen areas that have evolved from one type of political jurisdiction to another, and Westfalen is no exception. With settlements as early as 1 AD by the Romans, this area was initially part of the Duchy of Saxony, then came under the control of the Holy Roman Empire. The Duchy of Westfalen was created in 1102, and lasted until 1803, when it became part of Hesse-Darmstadt.

The Kingdom of Westfalen existed from 1803-1813. It was created as a “model state” under Napoleonic rule from numerous territories, and was the first German state to have its own constitution. During this time, Napoleon conscripted many German soldiers for his Russian campaign. He also taxed the Kingdom heavily in order to finance his efforts, which bankrupted the country and had a long-lasting detrimental economic impact. In 1813, the Russians dissolved the Kingdom, and the land came under Prussian rule.

The Province of Westfalen was created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815; again, it was a conglomeration of various previous territories. It was made up of 3 administrative districts with 36 counties; most of the area was very rural prior to 1850.

The Lippe district was first mentioned in 1123. It became a Kreis (equivalent of a county) by 1528, and a Fürstentum (principality) by 1789. It remained independent during the Napoleonic era, and was not a part of Prussia. Under the Weimar Republic it was a Freistaat, then was incorporated into Nordrhein-Westfalen in 1947.

In terms of records availability, church records for each of the three areas are available on FamilySearch; some are also available on Ancestry and MyHeritage. Protestant records can also be found at Archion ($); Catholic records for the Bishoprics of Paderborn and Fulda are available at Matricula; records for the Bishopric of Essen are not yet available.

There are civil registration records, which began in 1792 for Rheinpfalz, 1874 for Westfalen (with some in 1808-1815 as well), and 1876 for Lippe. Some of the Napoleonic civil registration records are available at the NRW archive; use keywords Standesamtregister, Zivilstandregister, or Personenstandregister to find these records. Also, death records for Münster and Arnsberg districts 1874-1938  on MyHeritage.

Emigration to America from this area mostly happened after 1849/50. Most went to the Midwest – Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota – to become farmers there. There were numerous laws and regulations regarding emigration. For example:

  • Male emigrants had to complete military service.
  • The emigrant had to make provisions for people and property left behind.
  • Minor males were subject to military service if they ever returned.
  • Shipping agents had to keep accurate registers of emigrants for state authorities.

Another type of emigrant peculiar to this area is called the Hollandgänger. These were migrant workers who went to Holland (hence the name) for 6-12 weeks every year to work on farms, in shipping, and numerous other occupations. The income they earned from this work was often necessary to carry them through a year. Some of these migrants eventually stayed in the Netherlands, so it’s a good idea to look further than NRW when researching your ancestor.

Emigration resources for this area include the following:

One of the peculiarities of this area is the “Genanntnamen.” The family name (surname) may be connected to the farm that they lived on. When the husband died and the wife remarried, thee new husband would take on the name of the wife. Many records – whether church records, civil registration, land records, etc. – will refer to the Genanntnamen. For researchers, this represents a particular challenge . A man who was initially known as Johann Georg Schmidt and had children with his first wife who had the surname Schmidt, might then marry Anna Maria Keller. He would subsequently be known as Johann Georg Schmidt genannt Keller, and children from this marriage would have the surname Keller. If he remarried a third time, official records would record him as Johann Georg Schmidt oder [or] Keller oder Fischer. So if you don’t find your person with the surname he was born with, keep looking for other marriages!

This state has primarily rural and agricultural roots (although mining was also a common occupation). Although in English there are few synonyms for “farmer,” you will find many terms for it in German, each with a specific meaning. The following list identifies some of these terms, as well as other farming concepts that will be important in your research:

  • Bauerschaft – farming community or cooperative
  • Colon – colony or estate = hereditary leasehold
  • Partible or inpartible inheritance – customs vary by region
  • Farmers with full rights – Vollspann, Vollbauer, Pferdner; Kötner, Hintersiedler…
  • Farmers without full rights – Häusler, Einlieger, Beisitzer

The website Westfalenhöfe is in the process of compiling farm histories in this area. While this is a work in progress, many estates have already been documented, and can provide a wealth of information about these properties.

More information about Westfalen land records can be found in the FamilySearch wiki. This article also contains numerous terms that can be used when searching for digitized images at the NRW archives. Some of these terms include Lagerbuch, Hypothekenbuch, Flurbuch, Kataster, Bauerschaft, and many others.

More information for NRW can be found here:

January 2022 – Handwriting and Records

Thanks to all of you who sent is samples of records that were giving you trouble for various reasons. We’ll be doing a similar exercise for the May meeting, so send your samples to by 4/15/22, and we’ll try to make sense of it all.

For anyone who has looked at old German records, of course the biggest challenge is probably not the language itself, but rather the handwriting. So we looked at the three types of fonts that you might encounter in any given document.

The first is Fraktur, which is that “gothic” type with all the extra squiggles.

Fraktur type

Viewed alphabetically in a chart like this, it might seem fairly straightforward. But when you’re looking at words in sentences, maybe at a document where the ink is smeared for part of the page is faded, suddenly there may be some challenges! Things to look out for in Fraktur:

  • Upper-case B, P, and V may look similar
  • Upper-case A and U may look similar
  • Upper-case I, J, and T may look similar
  • Lower-case k and t may look similar
  • Lower-case f, l, and the long s may look similar
  • Lower-case r and x may look similar

The next font to consider is Kurrentschrift, which is the handwriting you’ll see in all those church registers through the early 1900s.


What you see in this chart is, of course, the ideal. And if you’ve ever looked at a single document in German handwriting, you know that the reality is far more challenging. Everyone has their own handwriting, just as we do today, with the added twist of unfamiliar letter shapes.

The third font type is Sütterlin, which was prevalent in the early 1900s, until 1941. After this date, Germany used what is termed “Latin” handwriting, i.e. the same as we use today.


There are a lot of things to look out for in both of the latter fonts. Consider each group of letters below, and compare them to the chart above. It’s easy to see why it can require some effort – worth it! – to decipher the handwriting.

  • c, e, i, m, n, r, u, v, w, x
  • mm, nn, u
  • a, o
  • b, d, l
  • f, h, s
  • k, t
  • g, j, p, q, y, z
  • ck
  • sch
  • st
  • ss
  • sz
  • N, St
  • B, C, L
  • K, R
  • 1, 7 8

For instance, the only thing distinguishing the c and the i is the dot above the i. The only thing distinguishing the n and the u is the little arc above the u. And that little arc is not to be confused with a straight line above an m or an n – that straight like indicates that the letter below it is to be doubled. Look at the word Zimmermann (carpenter) and you’ll see why a writer would want to use the shortcut of the straight like above the m and n. Also look at how similar the e and the r are, or even the e and the n. One trick that might help is to count the “peaks” of the letters – an m has three peaks, an n only has two, an i only has one. So those four peaks together at the end of the word should be 2 n’s, rather than mi or im or un, because there’s no dot or arc above either of the letters. Simple, right?

There are numerous script generators available for each of these fonts:

How can these help you? At a very basic level, use the script generator to write out the name of the ancestor you’re looking for. This can make it easier to spot the (sur)name among all the other handwriting on the page. You can also use these tools to write out key words for the type of document you’re searching. For a birth record, you might want Vater/father, Mutter/mother, Sohn/son, and Tochter/daughter.

Which brings me to another helpful aid – FamilySearch word lists. FamilySearch has created genealogy word lists for many languages. For our purposes, the most helpful would be the German and Latin word lists. If you’re researching in another country that used to use German but now uses a different language, e.g. Poland, you can also search for those word lists on FamilySearch.

Other resources that can help you with your German research:

  • If I can You Can Decipher German Records by Edna Bentz. I would probably rank this as THE most helpful volume you can have when doing German research. Ms. Bentz spent years collecting and recording variations in the formation of each upper- and lower-case letter in the Kurrentschrift alphabet. That alone is worth the price of this volume. Also in this volume are symbols for the days of the week (page 19 in my edition), occupations, illnesses, ecclesiastical calendar, and more.
  • German-English Genealogical Dictionary by Ernest Thode. If the FamilySearch word list isn’t enough, try this comprehensive volume of definitions.
  • Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents by Roger Minert. This volume not only describes the handwriting, but also examines each of the major types of entries in church registers – birth, marriage, death.
  • Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting by Katherine Schober. Useful volume that goes into more detail about some of the handwriting challenges I listed above.
  • German Church Records – Beyond the Basics by Kenneth L. Smith (out of print – check WorldCat for library availability).
  • BYU German script tutorial
  • FamilySearch 3-part video lesson and 10-part paleography seminar

December 2021 – no meeting

November 2021 – Rheinland-Pfalz

This month we discussed the current German state of Rheinland-Pfalz, which (like Hessen last month) has deep roots and a long history. At the time of the Holy Roman Empire, there were up to 45 separate entities in this area, from duchies and principalities, to independent cities and bishoprics. The specific areas that were covered this month include the following:

Because of its geographic location, this was an area that was hard-hit by wars over many years. The 30 Years’ War from 1618-1648 and the ensuing plague epidemic wiped out two-thirds of the population. Rulers anxious to repopulate and get their economies moving again invited people from other places to settle here. Swiss, Austrians, Italians, and Huguenots were among those who came. From 1689-1697, King Louis XIV of France invaded the area and burned much of it – resulting in tremendous property loss, but also a loss of records that might have been valuable to us as genealogists. In 1707 the War of the Spanish Succession had much the same result.

In 1709, for various reasons, there was a mass emigration of about 14,000 people from this area to England. Some of these emigrants then moved on to settle in the Hudson and Mohawk valleys of New York; others settled in Ireland. In later years, emigration was not only to North America, but also to the east, with settlements founded in Galicia, Russia, and Hungary, among others.

To counter the loss of people to other countries, some rules put in place rather draconian measures. For example, a person with an estate valued at more than 200 guilders was forced to pay one-fifth of their assets in order to leave. If they left without permission, they were likely to forfeit their entire estate.

There is no shortage of information about emigrants from the Palatine. This is a short list to get you started:

Other opportunities for research in the Palatinate include the following:

  • Pfälzische-Rheinische Familienkunde e.V. – this organization offers a Pfarrerlexikon (directory of Lutheran ministers), and well as a three-part Mühlenlexikon (directory of mills, miller families, and milling technology and terminology). Other digitized works are available to members only.
  • Westdeutsche Gesellschaft für Familienkunde e.V. – offers a database of death notices dating back to 1582 (although realistically, most are from the 19th and 20th centuries), as well as an emigration database with over 105,000 names from 159 sources. Their digital library is a benefit for members only.
  • Ortsfamilienbücher – there are a dozen or so OFBs for the Pfalz available online at Compgen. However, there are also many more printed volumes for you to explore here.
  • Adressbücher – or city directories are available from several sources, including FamilySearch and Dilibri. A list of digitized volumes can be found here.
  • Military conscription records – may be a way to find those elusive ancestors for whom no emigration records can be found. Some of these are available at FamilySearch, others can be found at the Landesarchiv Speyer. These records are usually organized by “class” – i.e. records for the year 1809 will be for people born in 1790-91, or whatever the age criteria was at the time.. You may also find lists of deserters or people who did not show up when they were drafted in a local Amtsblatt or similar publication.
  • Amtsblatt – has been mentioned numerous times in conjunction with emigrant information. People generally placed an ad in this type of publication to take care of their debts before leaving the country. But as mentioned above, the Amtsblatt may also be a source of information about military matters. A third possibility is listing of estate matters – who the deceased and heirs are. Many of these can be found at Dilibri under the subheadings Journals and Newspapers.
  • Staatskalender – this is not a calendar as implied by the name, but rather an annual volume summarizing anyone in a government or (royal as opposed to judicial) court capacity in the respective area.
  • Institut für Pfälzische Geschichte und Volkskunde
  • Landesarchiv Rheinland-Pfalz – civil registration
  • Landesarchiv Speyer – civil registration
  • Apertus – portal for Pfalz archives
  • Dilibri Rheinland-Pfalz – address books, maps, newspapers
  • Landesbibliothek Rheinland-Pfalz
  • Rheinland-Pfalz – GenWiki portal page
  • Deutsches Wörterbuch by Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm (Uni Trier)
  • Pfalz-related books on Google Books
  • Palatines to America

German SIG Posts from previous meetings…

…can be found under the header “Previous German SIG posts, which is a drop-down from the German SIG tab.