Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Online Resources for Finding & Seeing the Parish for Villages in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Germany

Amazingly I have not written much of anything about German research on this blog despite a conservative estimate that over 75 percent of my ancestry is made up of ancestors from the old province of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Germany. This post and the next post (which prompted this post) will resolve that omission.

We descendants of ancestors from Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and to some extent Mecklenburg-Strelitz, have had it pretty easy when it comes to researching German ancestors. The key genealogy resource for German research — church records — are pretty much complete with little record loss for this area compared to other provinces/states of Germany. These wonderful records were also microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS/Mormons) and have been available for rental at local LDS Family History Centers for many, many years. Another key genealogy resource — census — also exists for Mecklenburg-Schwerin (numerous years) and has been available through Family History Library (FHL) microfilm rental too.

The only down side we have had is that they are not universally indexed and they were written in chicken-scratch … er, I mean, Schrift which is that angular writing form done by quill and ink.

Because of this availability I am blessed to say I have most of my Mecklenburg-Schwerin lines back to the early 1700s or 1600s when the Evangelisch church books begin.

But how did I get to that point?

Well back then the internet was just a baby and nothing like it is now so the steps I took had to be done at a library with a good genealogy collection or onsite at a needed location like a church. Flash forward to today and quite a few of these steps can now be done online but not necessarily all of them.

Before you begin researching a new-to-you area/topic, read up on that area/topic. You can learn quite a bit online but sometimes a book on the subject helps too. With German research you have to understand a few things. Germany did not exist as Germany until 1871; before getting together it was a bunch of localities operating in a variety of ways. The Germany of today is much smaller so much of yesterday’s Germany is now part of neighboring countries. Because of all this I think you can guess that records are not centralized. Most records are kept locally or regionally not nationally so that is what makes the first step so important.

1. Determine the village from which your ancestor originated.

Because records are not centralized and not every village has a church, you need to know the village and the province/state of Germany/former Germany to find the church parish your ancestor attended — I call this The Gold Key Information.

Where do you find the Gold Key? It may be in your or your extended family’s papers/photos, in an older relative’s memory, in the church records your ancestor attended, in later naturalization records, on a tombstone, in an obituary or anniversary item in the newspaper, in civil vital records, in published genealogies/local histories, in military records, in homestead papers, in club/organization memberships, etc. Do not just search your direct ancestor. Sometimes the collateral relatives are the ones with the answer you seek rather than your direct ancestors. And don't forget to check out those "family friends" because a lot of times they turn out to be some sort of relatives.

But sometimes you don’t find the Gold Key on this side of the ocean. In that case gather up what I call The Silver Key Information. It is the very least you need to know to find your ancestor in emigration/immigration records which may lead to the Gold Key.

The Silver Key Information is:
  • Original name(s) of ancestor(s)
    • As much as possible even nicknames
  • Approximate age at arrival/departure
    • As much of the birth date possible
  • State/Province of "Germany"
    • It’s a big place and it helps to be looking in the right state; and sometimes there is more than one place with the same name
  • Approximate date of arrival
    • A year or range of years from your clues

This Silver Key Information will help you identify your ancestor(s) in the passenger ship lists. With the passenger lists you work backwards starting with the arrival list and ending with the departure list if one still exists. And in most cases you are going to want to cross your fingers that your ancestor departed Germany using the port of Hamburg. Why? It is the port where the most records have survived and the Hamburg Passenger Departure Lists asked where did you last reside. While this isn’t always the birth place, it more often than not leads you in that direction.

This is the step that can sometimes be done online but not always. Not everything is digitized and not everything is on the internet. You may still need to visit a location in person or write a letter requesting information if you can not visit in person.

If you don't find the Gold key directly or by using the Silver Key information in passenger lists, depending on the area and time frame you are dealing with you might be able to use the Silver Key information (and the family dynamics you have figured out) to find your ancestors in other types of records from Germany/former Germany that have been digitized and indexed. (For example census or permission to emigrate documents.)

So assuming you have your Gold Key — the village and state/province your ancestor came from — it is time to move to the next step.

2. Use a parish/church guide to determine the correct location of the parish for your ancestor's village.

Mecklenburg Parish Guide

This step involves using a church parish guide or gazetteer that lists the parish locations for the village in the province/state your ancestor originated. I’m going to use Mecklenburg-Schwerin for the following examples. For other areas of Germany/former Germany the resources will be similar but carry different names.

Mecklenburg Parish Guide Detail
Belitz, Groß
 — Neukirchen
Back before the internet, the resource to use for Mecklenburg-Schwerin was on FHL microfiche # 60000834 which contains The Mecklenburgs familiengeschichtliche Quellen, by C.A. Engler and Edm. Albrecht, (Hamburg: 1936.) It is part of the grouping of microfiche that all Family History Centers start with so the plus was that you did not have to rent it. But the book is printed in Blackletter font/type making it a challenge to read for some and you have to visit a local FHC to view the microfiche. Essentially you would look up the name of your village and the parish location for that village was listed after the dash. If there was no dash and other location then that village had the church. So for Gross Belitz you would find it listed as "Belitz, Gross" and the Quellen indicates that the parish for the village is Neukirchen.

For many years now, that same information has been on the internet in various forms on various websites. The one place it has not disappeared from is the website of the Verein fur mecklenburgische Familien- und Personen-geschichte e. V. which is the association for Mecklenburg family and personal history. The group has taken the information from the Mecklenburgs Quellen, made additions and corrections to it and then put the information into a free searchable database called Orte in Mecklenburg or Ortsdatenback. While the site is in German there is a translate button for the pages but I suggest switching back to German so when you do a search you see the location name untranslated rather than translated into English. For example “Gross Belitz” which appears as “Belitz, Gross” in the database will appear as “Belitz, United” when the page is viewed with the English translation on.

To find similar guides for other areas of Germany look in the FamilySearch catalog for that state/province under the “church records — Inventories, registers, catalogs.”

Sometimes the guides will simply tell you the parish, like above, but other times the book will be more of a gazetteer. For the various provinces making up the Kingdom of Prussia, the main resource to find the parish is a gazetteer called Gemeindelexikon für das Königreich Preußen, 1905. The multi-volume set is on FHL microfilm but has since been digitized and can be viewed at the Ancestry.com website. The latest Ancestry title for the collection is Prussia, Municipality Gazetteer, 1905. While you can perform a search, I find it easier to manually view the volume you need. About five pages/images in is a Contents page listing the various Kreis (like a county) for that volume's province/state with the page number that Kreis starts on. At the back of each volume is an alphabetical listing of the villages which refer you to a Kreis number and location list number rather than a page number. The volumes are printed in Blackletter font/type as is the usual case with German printed material.

In more recent years, a new series of books has come out called Map Guide to German Parish Registers. There is a volume (sometimes more than one) for each province in Germany. There is an index in each book which tells you what page to look at for Evangelical and Catholic parishes for each village/location. This information is presented by Amtsgericht with an outline area map (no location dots) and the beginning/first FHL microfilm number for the parish if the church books were microfilmed by the LDS. There are currently 56 volumes published so far with more planned covering the free cities. You may find this book series at libraries with large/good genealogy collections, more likely in areas that had a lot of early German immigrants settle there.

3. View your village and parish location on a map.

The Mecklenburg
Genealogical Handbook

Usually once you know the village and the parish you want to see these places on a map. That was not so easy a while back. One printed resource, The Mecklenburg Genealogical Handbook by Charles Hall, contains detailed maps and a list of parishes on FHL microfilm. Hall wrote similar guides for other provinces of Germany under the Bridge Across the Atlantic series. The format of the volumes varied. Some listed Family History Library microfilm available for parishes, some just the villages in the provinces and some had detailed maps but not all.

List of microfilmed Parishes
in Mecklenburg Handbook
Detailed map in Mecklenburg Handbook
for area around Gross Belitz

Detailed Road Atlases of Germany
Finding a detailed map (the older the better) took some effort. For a very detailed modern map there is the ADAC driving atlas for Germany or a similar driving atlas by Hammond, or Michelen folded-maps covering Germany by regions. For areas of former Germany you would seek a map for the present-day country but the map will list locations in the country's current language.
Detail of ADAC road atlas
for area aroundGross Belitz
Detail of Hammond road atlas
for area around Gross Belitz

Google Map of same example area.
Note: Gross Belitz does not appear.

In this internet age, we are more likely to turn to Google Maps or similar website with detailed maps. A lot of times this may work but not all very small villages will show up. And since these are modern maps, locations may have altered their names. A lot of communities in Germany are coming together to share services and sometimes the communities are altering their names a bit so they may show up differently on a map now.

My favorite maps are still my ADAC driving atlas picked up in Schwerin in 2000 and a Hammond Atlas of Germany from 2010 picked up by chance at Barnes and Noble bookstore.

But I really like seeing the topographical and extremely detailed, older maps of Germany – the ones where you can see and count the buildings in a village.

German Maps at BYU Library
My favorite place to locate these is the Brigham Young University Library’s digitized German Maps (Togographische Karte 1:25,000) collection. The 3,000 plus maps cover all of Germany with some of Poland and were printed between the 1930s and 1950s. Though you can do an online search for a location only the locations used to label each map sheet are indexed. So there is a four volume gazetteer (actually located on Internet Archive) divided by former West Germany and East Germany which will help you locate on which map sheet your village/parish sits. Then take that map sheet number and do a search for that sheet number in the German Maps collection. Some maps are color and some are black and white but all are detailed … and free.
Topographical detailed map of same example area

4. Knowing the parish location, see if church records are available.

After you know the parish for your village then you have to figure out if the church books were microfilmed; microfilmed and now digitized online; or just digitized and online.

Years ago that meant visiting a local Family History Center to view the Family History Library catalog and then renting microfilm when available for a parish. (When I began there was a computer database catalog but it originally was on microfiche I believe.) Now you just have to search a few places online to learn if records are accessible. Some may be digitized and accessed for free or for a fee. Some may still need to be rented on microfilm.

Look for German parish church books at the:

  • FamilySearch.org website
    free online, cost to rent microfilm/microfiche
    Under Records, search the catalog using your found parish location and look under church records to see if any were microfilmed. If the microfilm has been digitized by the LDS, the catalog should tell you and have a link to the digitized film. If the microfilm is not digitized at FamilySearch you might have to rent it if it is not digitized on another website. You can also look under Records, browse the record collection by location to see for yourself if church records for your parish location have been digitized
  • Ancestry.com website
    pay subscription website, many libraries have Ancestry Library Edition subscriptions for patrons to use
    Search the various collections under Germany overall and under the province you need to see if any church records were digitized. Ancestry.com has other agreements besides the one with FamilySearch to digitize records. If your location is in former Germany, also search under the modern-day country for your location. (Keep an eye out for my next post. It is about something I found on Ancestry.com back in October 2016.)
  • Archion.de (the Evangelical Church Book portal website)
    pay/subscription site started in 2015 which went live in 2016
    Browse by participating church archive to see if any church books have been digitized or will be digitized for your location. The website is mainly in German with some English translated pages. Parish locations (or individual books) that are currently digitized are shaded in green. They are not necessarily all indexed yet. 

For areas of former Germany that are now Poland, some Polish Archives are digitizing the church records they hold and are putting them on their websites.

If the church books for your location are not available, you will likely have to write a letter (or sometimes an email) in German to the pastor of that parish asking if your ancestor appears in the church books, or you may have to hire a local researcher in Germany. Depending on the area of Germany, the church books could still be with the church or at a regional archive. But there is a chance the records may be lost/destroyed.

There are so many other details that I could cover but my goal with this post was to cover how to find a church parish and see it on a map so that I could simply cover the topic I wanted to write in the first place.  And that will be the next blog post.

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