International Institute of Genealogical Studies


International Institute of Genealogical Studies - LEADERS IN ONLINE GENEALOGY EDUCATION

Introduction to German Research for North Americans

By Michele Simmons Lewis, Student

So why would a native German take the German Records courses offered at the National Institute for Genealogical Studies? Most of the research I have done in the past 23 years has been in American records not German. I mistakenly thought that German family history research was pretty much impossible for those living in the United States. Although I was born in Germany, I came to the US when I was only six years old so I don’t have a good working knowledge of German geography or history. I do not know the laws that govern civil vital records, the traditions that govern the church records nor do I have knowledge about what records are actually available. These are the things I need to know, and the things I am counting on The National Institute for Genealogical Studies to teach me.

German Script by Ian Kahn/Courtesy of

Introduction to German Research for North Americans is my first course. In the first module, we learn the four essential things you need to know about an immigrant before you can do more in-depth research. I had the funniest problem with this week’s assignment! I needed to make a table of my German immigrant ancestors to include these four essential pieces of information. As far as I know I don’t have any German immigrant ancestors because my mother and I are the first immigrants. My family, both past and present, are in Germany so I contacted a genealogist friend of mine and borrowed a couple of her immigrant ancestors for the assignment.

Module 1 goes on to explain the seven key elements to German research. One thing that I was happy to read in the text was, “…German research is often easier than British, Canadian, or U.S. research.”  I was immediately mad at myself for not taking the time to learn about German research before now. At this point I was only in the first week of my first course and I had already learned more than the sum total of my previous knowledge.

A concise history of Germany and the history of German immigration is found in Module 2. The assignment for this module was to do some in-depth research on two of the events listed on the timeline provided in the materials. This assignment had a direct bearing on my own research. I have a Prussian document dated 10 Jan 1922 that was a puzzle to me. It is a declaration of citizenship to Prussia for my great-grandmother Emilie (Fiege) Weichert. She was living in the Marienwerder district where she was born and had always lived. Why did she need this citizenship document? Through the research I did for this assignment I discovered that on 10 January 1920, half of the Marienwerder district became part of Poland. I now know that this paper was necessary to show her allegiance to Germany instead of Poland.

There are many areas of central Europe that have German ancestry besides the three “core” countries of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Module 3 details the history of these different countries and areas. This module also covers German migration. What I didn’t realize was that Germans migrated to many different countries, not just to America. Not only do you learn where Germans migrated to you also learn WHY they migrated.

Module 4 covers the essential German culture you must know to understand why your ancestors did the things that they did. Having this background knowledge also helps you interpret German records correctly. Religious practices, family traditions, naming customs, occupations, social status, education and language are all covered.

Modules 5 and 6 cover the resources you will need. Module 5 details the available online databases and the assignment for this module gives you practical experience using them. Module 6 lists the reference and instructional books you need to build your home library. I have already put several of these books on my Amazon wishlist.

Even with my German background I learned a lot in this introductory course and I am looking forward to the more in-depth courses.

Category: Courses

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