Living Relatives are Your First Source of Information
Before contacting the archives or spending countless hours digging through old records, collect as much information about your family as possible. The greatest source of family history that is commonly overlooked is living relatives. Even if you have heard the story before, sit down with an audio recorder and save those stories. They will prove to be more than helpful later on, especially as older relatives age and their memory fades, and as others pass away.
When talking about important events that happened, try to get as much detail as possible. The most important facts when attempting to look back farther into records are dates of occurrence (birth, marriage, and death), places, and specific names. German records, and other records currently held by the Polish archives, are cataloged by place. To find the next ancestor, it is essential to know where that person lived to find the correct district office. Dates help narrow down the search, and can distinguish between children born with very similar names (for example, a person named Carl Priebe–many children were also named after other living relatives).
Free and Pay Websites, and Establishing an Ancestral Link
Before accessing archival documents, especially if one intends to travel to the physical archives, the next step should be to search for ancestors online. Given that you have already written down a list of family members’ names, possible places of residence, and any birth or death dates, there are quite a few websites that will supplement the information already found.
Ancestry.com offers a free two-week trial for first-time users. Two weeks is more than enough time to download and save all relevant information for viewing later. If your ancestor served in one of the World Wars, you will be able to find draft cards with pertinent information to that ancestor’s residence and next-of kin. Otherwise, federal and state census records can provide you with a list of others and their birth places. However, birth places are not specific to the county or city level, often listing “Germany” or “Prussia” as their country of origin. The key here is to find which relatives immigrated and in which year.
Ellis Island has a passenger search that can yield information about an immigrant’s last place of residence, who the passenger was traveling to meet, and closest living relative in their country of origin. Sometimes, this information was written down incorrectly. Nonetheless, you will be able to find information crucial to your search. These records are also accessible from Ancestry.com.
Other records housed online by Ancestry are selected births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths from churches in Pommern, Prussia. Do no assume that the records found will automatically be related to you. You must establish a link between your accurate records and the newly found source; dates and places are an absolute must for this.
If you prefer a free solution, Family Search can provide you with similar records, and sometimes documents not found on Ancestry. Their search function can yield historical records such as censuses, birth and death indexes, and the like. Most importantly, both Ancestry and Family Search have their own indexes to family trees, some that other user-submitted and others that belong to a larger genealogical index. Family Search also has a genealogy index, allowing users to search through millions of family trees. Many of these records are not the same as those belonging to Ancestry.com. While not as comprehensive as Ancestry.com, it provides supplemental information from family trees that were at times recorded before the use of the internet. Likewise, Ancestry’s Family Tree search can provide helpful hints and sometimes full pedigrees to German, Polish, or Pomeranian ancestry. It is broken into two parts: public and private trees. Private trees may only be accessed with permission, and the owner may wish to receive proof of relation. Public trees are completely viewable, hopefully showing citations for all information provided by users. Why do all the legwork yourself?
A word of caution, however. These submitted family trees may contain errors, and it is always best to verify all information given. Using other people’s family trees with common ancestors can help link birth places, marriage dates, death dates, residence, and year of immigration. These facts will come in handy when taking the next step into civil records–called the Standesamt in German, and diocese church books–also known as Kirchenbücher.
Please read on further for how to use the Standesamt and Kirchenbücher to your advantage.