Visiting a German Archive

A visit to a town archives in Germany.

One might think that visiting a library or archives or museum might be a good way to find information about one’s ancestors, and that’s true. But what can be found outside of the national or provincial (state) archives? Well, a lot!

Of course some records are mandated to be kept at a high level. But personal experience in Germany has also proven to be very helpful in finding more local information outside of the big institutions.

Cases in point. My ancestors’ emigration records are on file at the state archives in Karlsruhe, Darmstadt, and so on. All well and good – Johann Schmidt and family leave. But more information is found in the local (in this case, village) archive, where in later years there are photos of them. Earlier years have very detailed written descriptions. The relationships between the family members are given. Sometimes there are nieces, nephews etc who go along with the main family.

Further, there are often guild records. Property records and permission to travel from one place to another might be kept there. My German cousin arranged a visit to one of these, and in it I found “internal passports” allowing travel around the country in the 1840s; the actual bill from a restaurant in 1717 where my ancestor paid the lunch tab for the men who examined him for this master shoemaker’s license; a 1690 deed for some property (which I was privileged to actually visit, as it still stood, and the current resident was open to having this American see the property).

You may find old court records on file. Often time there might be tax records from local dukes, earls, monasteries, etc. that actually owned property that people lived on. I also found harvest crop records (kept because this was taxed by the local authorities). Sometime you find records of bad deeds as well – I found one man who was the town drunk (there’s no other way to say it), who was punished for being so intoxicated that when his house stared to burn down he could not rescue his children. (He had 14 – the three oldest died in the fire, and he and his wife had eleven more. Go figure).

Another distant relative was found hanging from a tree; the investigation and early information is written in German, but the determination of it being a suicide is written in Latin. So you have to be prepared to find surprising things. You will also find that having a command of more than one language helps. This is especially true near border towns such as those by France, Switzerland, Poland Czechoslovakia, and the like. And church languages such as Latin are also used at times.

These days, the allow ability of making a digital copy is pretty much on an ad hoc basis, varying from place to place. Some absolutely forbid it, and others are relieved that the visitor will make their own copies. Sometimes it is free, other times you have to pay a modest amount.

I cannot emphasize enough that you should arrange in advance to see things. Just showing up during open hours, unlike in the USA in most cases, might not ensure that you can access the material. Be prepared that the staff may or ay not speak English. And these little archives etc might be in a church; in a local historical organization; in a town or county hall etc.

I examined the following sources and they have good clues for further research:

Larry Naukam

About Larry Naukam

Larry Naukam holds degrees in Geography, Library Science, and Divinity. He has written for genealogical publications for 30 years. He is very interested in the intersection of computers and genealogy research

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