Given Names And Surnames

In genealogical research, the most important pieces of information from old documents are names—personal names and place names. The spellings of the first name, or given name, and the last name, or surname, must be established with accuracy.

There are infinite numbers of names in old German documents and many variant spellings for specific names. If you cannot readily identify a name, you should search through indexes compiled by local recorders or qualified researchers. In addition, there are several good reference works that feature thousands of given names and identify them by gender. The Immigrant Ancestors Project, for example, provides the following lists of German names. You may download them (in Adobe PDF format) by clicking on the 

links below:

Below are some German emigration documents. The given names and surnames are underlined.

No reference work can list all given names and surnames. There are, however, surname lists in county, provincial, and even national archives. You can also consult the International Genealogical Index for the existence of certain names in the vicinity of the town where a record was written. As always, caution should be used when consulting compiled listings, since deciphering errors could have been made.


Place Names

While it is relatively easy to theorize the given name or surname in a particular record, one of the greatest challenges in deciphering is the identification of a place name. Indeed, for the pursuit of an ancestor, knowing the place name is more valuable than knowing an event date. Even if a town is mentioned in a vital record as being in the same parish or an adjacent county, it can be very difficult to identify the correct spelling.

It is helpful to have access to a gazetteer (a list of the names of localities within the county) or a map. Finding place names in a gazetteer or on a map is often easier than trying to deduce them from a record. Gazetteers and maps are available in archives and bookstores, as well as on the internet. The IAP has an extensive list of place names in German lands.

Meyers And Other Indexes

One of the most extensive gazetteers in the field of German family and community history is Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs (Meyers Geographical and Commercial Gazetteer of the German Empire in English). Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon is a multi-volume resource that includes over 210,000 city and town names within the reach of the German Empire prior to World War I. It was completed in 1912 and was published in the Fraktur typeface. All volumes of Meyers are available in various genealogical research centers, including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Meyers is also available online at or in its entirety, with an account on (View the table of contents and searchable database)

When you are searching for place names, please be aware that some of the towns listed in old documents may not exist anymore today. Some towns may have been "absorbed" by other adjoining towns, and other towns may have simply changed their name. Many cities and towns, in fact, were spelled differently before the twentieth century. (Cologne, for instance, was spelled "Cöln" in the 1800's.)

Another valuable tool in establishing the spelling of a place name is a reverse alphabetical index. In such an index, the names are listed backwards; in other words, the names ending with -a or -ba, etc., are listed first. If you can decipher the last syllable or two of a town name, you can work forward to the first letter and thus assemble the correct name or identify a small number of possible names. This is especially useful where the first letter or letters of the name are torn off from the page, lost in the tight binding, or otherwise illegible.

Reverse alphabetical indexes are available for over two dozen German-speaking lands, including Bavaria, Westphalia, East and West Prussia, and Switzerland. Many genealogical libraries, including the Family History Library, carry each of these indexes. You may also purchase one directly from GRT Publications at


Much of the text on this page was adapted (with permission) from pp. 42-43 of Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents: Analyzing German, Latin, and French in Vital Records Written in Germany by Roger P. Minert (GRT Publications: Provo, Utah, USA, 2001). Please consult this resource for more detailed guidelines of document extraction.