German · Immigration · Methodology · Steinkamp

Where Did They Come From?

This weekend, I began teaching a four-session course at the Newberry in Chicago. The title of the course is “Discover Your German Ancestors’ Origins.” This first week, I focused on best practices for finding an immigrant ancestor’s town of birth. Without this piece of information, the ancestral line cannot be extended further back in time. There is no country-wide indexing of birth information in Germany (or in any country that I am aware of). So, one needs to identify the town of birth.

There are several sources that I think of as the “sweet spot.” Those are the sources most likely to name the town. Of course, there are no guarantees in life (or in genealogy). The effectiveness of these sources varies based on time and location. Nevertheless, they generally tend to be the most effective. I devote this blog post to this topic.

Home Sources

As with everything, start with your home sources such as letters, Bibles, photographs, and emigration passes. Any kind of papers left behind by your immigrant ancestor may hold clues to their town of birth. Check with cousins and distant relatives to see what might be in their personal collections.

My dad’s first cousin has my great great grandfather’s emigration pass in her collection, which tells the town of his birth.

Joseph Steinkamp Emigration Pass

Church Records

If you know what religious affiliation your ancestor had, try to find out what church she attended here in the United States. Find records of all applicable events in her life: marriage, baptisms of her children, and her funeral. If she married overseas, get the funeral or burial information for her spouse, as well. He was probably born in the same area. Church records may give some indication of an immigrant’s origin.

Immigration Lists

Often the passenger lists for our ancestor only says that they came from Germany. Around 1898, New York passenger lists start to list the last residence. Beginning in 1906, the passenger lists show both last residence and town of birth. These passenger lists are two pages long, so be sure to look at both pages.

You say your ancestors came here earlier? Sometimes the passenger lists will say an exact town of birth or last residence. I have had very good luck with New Orleans passenger lists from the 1840s, which often name an exact town. Sometimes a passenger list from other ports will name a town, too. Do not overlook this resource.

Emigration Lists

If your ancestor left from the port of Hamburg, those lists are available 1850–1934 on Ancestry.  These passenger lists ask for the town of last residence. While that is not necessarily the town of birth, it is often in the vicinity.

Several German states have emigration lists that are available online. These can be helpful if you know the general area where you ancestor came from. Be aware that these lists only include people who received permission to emigrate. Not all our ancestors did. A sampling of these lists includes:

Naturalization Records

Naturalization laws changed over time. Be sure to understand those in effect at the time your ancestor would have become a citizen. Attempt to find the corresponding records. During the 1800s, for example, would-be citizens first filed a declaration of intention. These are usually more detailed than the second papers, which was the actual naturalization. Two great resources for understanding and finding these records are John J. Newman, American Naturalization Processes and Procedures 1790–1985 (Indianapolis: Family History Section Indiana Historical Society, 1985) and John J. Newman, American Naturalization Records 1790–1990, 2nd edition (North Salt Lake, Utah: Heritage Quest, 1998).

Death Records

Civil death records, when available, may list the town of birth of the deceased. Also, many twentieth century death certificates ask for the parents’ towns of birth. That means that you need to also get the death records of every child of the immigrant ancestor. If these are not available online, order copies from the county or town clerk.


The immigrant’s obituary may list the town of birth. Find every obituary that may have been published. Besides the newspaper(s) in the town where he lived, search the newspapers in the towns where he previously lived and the towns where other family members lived. Remember, if it’s not online check libraries and archives in the place where the paper was published. If there is a German-language newspaper, be sure to check for an obituary there because that is more likely to name the town. Chronicling America holds a directory of newspapers published in the United States, 1690–present.


If you’ve checked all these sources for your ancestor and the mystery remains, branch out and research these same sources for her friends, associates, and neighbors who were also immigrants. Our ancestors often settled near people they knew in the old country.

Happy Hunting!

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