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Making sense of old handwriting


German-speaking people have a long history of migration, movement, war and border changes. When researching in Germany and German-speaking areas, it is important to have a basic understanding of these to know where to begin your research. Gazetteers will most likely be a necessity for German genealogical research as you try to identify villages, jurisdictions and locale.

Atlas to Cruttwell Gazetteer Map of Germany 1799

One reason for the necessity of a good German gazetteer is because the same town name could be used in multiple in one region or in many different regions (for example in Meyer's Gazetteer, if you search for "Königsberg" there are twenty-three places listed). German settlers tended to name their new settlements after their old villages. The first step in Germany research is to determine which town is the correct home town.

For these reasons, and others, gazetteers are particularly useful to a German researcher. Not only do they provide lists of place names, which is helpful when comparing spellings, but they also can help narrow down the region your ancestor came from.

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 (Köln, for instance, was spelled "Cöln" in the 1800s). Thus you will need to use a gazetteer from the correct time period and compare it with more modern maps for the current name of a town.

Information from a Gazetteer can include:

  • Name of place.
  • Place type (small city or large city)
  • Name of state or province to which it belongs.
  • Population size.
  • Boundaries of civil jurisdiction.
  • Distances and direction from other from cities.
  • Schools, colleges, and universities.
  • Different denominations and number of churches.
  • Major manufacturing works, canals, docks, and railroad stations.

Many gazetteers, especially those published in the last half of the nineteenth century, can be very helpful in determining the existence of a parish listed in an old record, or in confirming the spelling of a difficult place name. Today many place name lists and even digital copies of nineteenth-century geographical dictionaries can be found online, for example:

  • FamilySearch Wiki has a list of the different German gazetteers with an explanation of what time periods and geographical areas they cover.
  • Regional German gazetteers can be used once you know the region your ancestor is from and may give you more information than a national gazetteer. 

Using a gazetteer for the first time can be overwhelming with all of the information given. In order to understand your Gazetteer better, it is important to find and study the index. The index can be located either in the front or back of the gazetteer. In order to be thorough, most gazetteers use abbreviations. For example, "Standesamt" will be commonly abbreviated to "StdA." The Index might list the different abbreviations, but if not, look in Shirley J. Riemer and Dr. Roger Minerts "The German Research Companion."

A Brief History of German border change

The same town most likely belonged to different sovereign states or jurisdictions throughout it's history. To better understand when to use a gazetteer, a brief history of the Germanic people is necessary.

Before 800 A.D., Germanic tribes with no unity populated what is today Germany. After 800 A.D., the Holy Roman Empire began under Charlemagne and incorporated all of the Germanic states. This was a loose ruling, with little or no involvement from the Holy Roman Empire. German records began during this time, although the earliest ones were court records and were usually in Latin. Most of these records will not have a genealogical purpose.

Relevant Germanic records began with the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500's. Church records began soon after the Reformation with the newly formed Protestant Churches who needed to keep track of their congregations. Protestant records were written in German, whereas Catholic records continued to use Latin up until the early 19th Century. Church records are the basis of German genealogical research until mandatory Civil records began in 1876. Before this, the church kept records for the state.

In 1806, Napoleon created unified Germanic States out of the previous hundreds of small kingdoms. This new unity under Napoleon, which he called the Federation of the Rhine, consisted of 35 German states, 4 Kingdoms, 5 Grand Duchies, 13 Duchies, 17 Principalities and the Free towns of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen. In those areas mandatory, formulaic state record keeping began. German-speaking Austria, Prussia, Danish Holstein and Swedish Pomerania were not included. This lasted until 1815 when Napoleon lost his campaigns, but a lot of the states kept the new way of record keeping. It is not unusual to find the French Republican Calendar and French records during this time, especially in the states bordering France. If you find these, referring to the French Script page would be helpful.

After Napoleon's defeat, the German Confederation was formed in 1815 and consisted of a loose confederation of 39 German states. This Confederation was meant to replace the Holy Roman Empire, and lasted until 1866.

This North German Confederation was formed in 1866 under Prussia, excluding the southern most German speaking countries of Baden, Bayern and Austria.

Germany as a united country began in 1871, when all the contiguous German speaking states, except Austria, unified into the Second German Empire under Prussia. In 1876, Civil Registration began for all the states in the German Empire, although some states had kept this from the Napoleonic codes.

After WWI, in 1918, the Weimar Republic was created and lasted 1933.

Nazi Germany began in 1933 and lasted until the end of WWII in 1945. Germany was then split into four political zones, managed by the United States, Britain, France and Russia, Although most famous was the was the division between the East and West Germany, which lasted until 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, the German Republic is organized into sixteen states. To learn more about the Geography of German speaking countries, go to our Maps and Atlases page.

German Gazetteers


The official language of the Austria is German, and most of the records in Austria will be in German, but can be in Hungarian, Polish of Czech. Like Germany, the borders of the Austrian empire were frequently changed. A helpful place to start for general Austrian family history research is at the FamilySearch Wiki for Austria.

Austrian Empire 1805-1867

  • Allgemeines geographisch-statistisches Lexikon aller österreichischen Staaten (General geographic-statistical lexicon of all Austrian states) by Franz Raffelsperger roughly covers the years 1845-1853 and gives cities within the then Austrian Empure now located in Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Italy and the Balkan states. It is available through FamilySearch on microfilm or in book format in the Family Search libraries. 

Austria-Hungary 1867-1918





Jewish Gazetteers

  • JewishGen contains the names of one million localities in 54 countries in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
  • JewishGen Communities includes information about 6,000 Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Germans in Diaspora

Germany was not a country until 1871, and due to migration, colonialism, war and border changes, these are other places throughout the world you will find your German ancestors and German speaking communities. These will generally be researched with their non-German peers in a gazetteer covering their country or area.

Eastern Europe Gazetteers

Many Germans migrated to Eastern Europe including Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the Baltics. This FEEFHS page on Germans from Russia is a good place to start when trying to understand the extensive Eastern European localities. Specifically German Eastern Europe gazetteers are:

Place Names

Place names are important as one document leads to another place with further documentation of an individual. Gazetteers and reverse place name indexes both can help you discover where or what a given place is. With gazetteers, online-searchable ones like Meyer's Gazetteer give the option of using wildcards such as (*) or (?) to replace characters that are unknown or unidentifiable in a place name. As for Place Name Indexes, using an alphabetical index to locate the village might be necessary. Dr. Roger Minert has both forward and reverse indexes to help when only a partial name of the village is legible. They are also helpful for German-American research when the priest or scribe is guessing at the spelling of your ancestors home town.