For most of us living in the Evansville, Indiana area, it may not come as a surprise that 40% of Hoosiers have Germanic ancestors according to the Indiana German Heritage Society. But, did you know "German Americans ... form the largest self-reported ancestry group in the United States"? That's right. In the 2000 census, "German Americans account for 50 million people, or 17% of the U.S. population," says Winchin Chala in German Americans, still Number 1 ....
Researching German Ancestry
According to Kimberly Powell in "Researching German Ancestry" (About.com Genealogy), "Prior to its unification in 1871, Germany consisted of a loose association of kingdoms (Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony, Wurttemberg...), duchies (Baden...), free cities (Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck...), and even personal estates - each with its own laws and record keeping systems. After a brief period as a unified nation (1871-1945), Germany was again divided following World War II, with parts of it given to Czechoslovakia, Poland and the USSR. What was left was then divided into East Germany and West Germany, a division that lasted until 1990. Even during the unified period, some sections of Germany were given to Belgium, Denmark and France in 1919.
"What this means for people researching German roots, is that the records of their ancestors may or may not be found in Germany. Some may be found among the records of the six countries which have received portions of former Germany territory (Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Poland, and the USSR). Once you take your research prior to 1871, you may also be dealing with records from some of the original German states."
Begin With Yourself.
Kimberly Powell also advises us, "No matter where your family ended up, you can't research your German roots until you have learned more about your more recent ancestors. As with all genealogy projects, you need to begin with yourself, talk to your family members, and follow the other basic steps of starting a family tree."
Germanic Last Names
Surnames, otherwise known as Last Names weren't used until at least 1000 A.D. and didn't reach popularity in the Federal Republic of Germany until about 1500. "The origin of a surname may not always be what it seems. The obvious changes from the German "Schneider" to "Snyder" or even "Taylor" or "Tailor" (English for Schneider) are not at all uncommon. But what about the (true) case of the Portuguese "Soares" changing to German "Schwar(t)z"?—because an immigrant from Portugal ended up in the German section of a community and no one could pronounce his name. Or "Baumann" (farmer) becoming "Bowman" (sailor or archer?)... or vice versa? Some relatively famous examples of Germanic-English name alterations include Blumenthal/Bloomingdale, Böing/Boeing, Köster/Custer, Stutenbecker/Studebaker, and Wistinghausen/Westinghouse," according to German Surnames - Last Names. This article also gives us a tremendous insight into Jewish names in Austria and Germany who had to have a last name registered by 1787 and 1808 respectively. In many cases, Jewish people were named for an occupation or by a nickname. But, the Jewish sometimes had to pay for a last name!
"Locate the Birthplace of Your Immigrant Ancestor
Once you've used a variety of genealogy records to trace your family back to the original German ancestor, the next step is to find the name of the specific town, village or city in Germany where your immigrant ancestor lived. Since most German records are not centralized, it is nearly impossible to trace your ancestors in Germany without this step," says Kimberly Powell.
If your Germanic ancestors arrived by after 1850, you may be able to find them in the German passenger departure list. Otherwise, you need to read another article by Kimberly Powell called, Finding the Birthplace of Your Immigrant Ancestor.
Birth, Marriage & Death Records in Germany
"Even though Germany didn't exist as a unified nation until 1871, many German states developed their own systems of civil registration prior to that time, some as early as 1792. Since Germany has no central repository for civil records of birth, marriage and death, these records may be found in various locations including the local civil registrar's office, government archives, and on microfilm through the Family History Library. See German Vital Records for further details." This segment was also written by Kimberly Powell and tells us that some Protestant parish records date back to 1524, Catholic churches started keeping records in 1563 and the Reformed parishes started recording statistics in 1650.
"Indiana's German heritage ... includes contributions from: Austria, the Federal Republic of Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, German-speaking Switzerland, Alsace-Lorraine, Southern-Tyrol and other Germa-speaking countries and regions of Europe," says the IGHS.
However, your Evansville Genealogy Examiner was a little surprised to find out "Tell City, in Perry County ... is named for Swiss hero Wilhelm Tell." Later in the same article about Southern Indiana's German Heritage, it states "Spencer County is the home of St. Meinrad. St. Meinrad was established in 1854 by two Swiss priests to minister to the German speaking people who lived in the area.
".... Another priest, Father Kundek, began Ferdinand, of Dubois County ... ." Some Germanic families settled there, but others "... continued on down the Ohio to Evansville while the more resolute carved out the a new town in the Hoosier forest."
To see more about the IGHS, see About the Society which has links to all sorts of publications, historical interests and Upcoming Events including the Germanfest which takes place in Indianopolis, Indiana on October 13, 2012.