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  Michael John Neill – 8/13/2003

Before and After "Germans to America"

Germans to America (affectionately referred to as GTA by some) is a series of books indexing German arrivals to America between 1850 and 1897. The sixty-seven-volume series is the result of a gargantuan undertaking and it is estimated that each volume contains at least 60,000 entries. Despite errors and omissions, these indexed volumes of German immigrants are a starting point for descendants of German immigrants during the approximately fifty-year time span covered by the series.

The example used in this article focuses on Germans, but most of our discussion is relevant to those locating immigrants in any of the published indexes that have been released in the last ten years. Genealogists are fortunate that many passenger lists are indexed, but again a reference in one of these indexes is the beginning—not the end.

Those with German ancestors between 1850 and 1897 often use this resource. It is a great finding aid, but like any finding aid, using it requires care, restraint, and common sense. There are errors, and certain individuals are most likely omitted. However, users must remember that in many cases, the original records are difficult to read and some have not weathered the test of time very well. I always consider all reasonable spelling variants when using the print form of this reference. Sometimes unreasonable variants are required also. When the names don't match, it is necessary to compare the passenger list information with other known information on the immigrant. And if the individual is not in a compiled extract like Germans to America, it does not mean he is not in the original record. It just means he is not in the compiled extract.

As part of another project, I am "re-obtaining" immigration information on all of my children's ancestors. Since nearly three-fourths of their ancestry came to the United States between 1845 and 1883 from five different European countries and even more ports of departure, it is quite an undertaking. A significant part of their ancestry appears in Germans to America.

When I went to the Davenport, Iowa, Family History Center to order microfilm for another project, I had an extra hour and decided to locate as many references to ancestors in Germans to America as I could. Of course, all my files were not with me. Trying to find these people "on the fly" served to remind me of several things that should be done before, during, and after a search of Germans to America (or any similar series) is undertaken.

Before I turn to the index, I should:

--- Research the person fully in the United States first.
--- Determine if other family members immigrated, perhaps with the ancestor currently being researched.
--- Learn about handwriting variants.
--- Learn about phonetic variants in the language your ancestor would have spoken.
--- Read the preface to learn how the series was compiled—do not turn right to the index.

I also find it helpful to estimate how old the immigrant would have been in each year that is being searched before I search the record. While one can always "check" ages in a manifest to see if they are reasonable when compared to other records or a to "known" date of birth, having a ready "cheat sheet" can be helpful because it shows each year and the ancestor's age. This way I can easily see if the age of a specific individual "fits" and I can use the sheet to track which years have been searched in the books. While ages in passenger lists can be incorrect, they are usually relatively accurate—relative being the key word. It is the transcription or legibility of the original document that may create larger problems.

We will look at one example: Jans Janssen.

Jans was known to have immigrated in the 1880s, specifically before his 1888 marriage to Reka Sartorius. There were several surname variants for Jans, including Jansen, Jannssen, and Jannsen. Searching surname variants is an excellent idea, but it will increase the number of potential matches. In this case, given the common nature of the surname the problem was compounded. In viewing all the entries, I noted that one of the Jans Janssens is listed right before a Teke Janssen on a ship called the America, arriving in New York in March 1883. This entry was particularly interesting.

Jans is known to have had a younger sister Feke and according to family lore, the two immigrated together. Her name was in my data files on my laptop, so I could at least check that relationship without returning home. Feke is definitely known to have immigrated before her 1888 marriage in Illinois. An individual transcribing the records could easily read an initial "F" as a "T." It seemed like I had a potential match. Of course, I should continue searching through 1888 to make certain that there are no other Jans entries that fit the information on my known Jans.

My genealogy database on my laptop provided some additional clues. Civil registrations and other records indicate Jans was born in November 1856 and Feke was born in January 1862. They should have been aged 26 and 21 respectively when this ship arrived in March 1883. Germans to America indicates this Jans' age is 26 and this "Teke" is 20. Very close to the ages of "my" people. It appears I have a likely match. I searched the remaining volumes through 1888 and found no other entries for a Jans (or a variant) that looked like a potential match for my Jans.

What Is Left to Do?
A citation in Germans to America is just the beginning point. After all, an original record was used to create the finding aid. I now need to view the actual arrival manifest. In this case, I'm particularly interested in viewing the name "Teke." Certain details on the manifest may have been omitted from the transcription and these details may be genealogically relevant.

Germans to America indicates that the Janssens arrived in Baltimore on 17 March 1883 aboard the America, sailing from Bremen. I will need this information in order to get the passenger manifests on microfilm.

Ordering Passenger Manifests
These records have been microfilmed by the National Archives. Even though I may not actually obtain the records directly from that facility, my search for additional information begins on their website.

The National Archives site (www.archives.gov ) has a great deal of information on materials in their collection. In this case, I was particularly interested in passenger lists from Baltimore (see website: www.archives.gov/publications/microfilm_catalogs/immigrant/microfilm_50_rolls_m255.html ). Based upon the information on this page, I need to view roll 37 of Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Baltimore, Md., 1820-1891,a part of National Archives microfilm publication M255. This microfilm roll covers arrivals at Baltimore from March 1 through August 29 of 1883. I have several options when it comes to obtaining the microfilm.

--- Purchase from National Archives
The National Archives website www.archives.gov/publications/how_to_order_microfilm.html contains information on purchasing microfilm directly from the Archives. In this case, I will not purchase the film, but there may be circumstances where an outright purchase of the material is necessary or more efficient.

--- Rent from National Archives
The National Archives site www.archives.gov/publications/microfilm_catalogs/how_to_rent_microfilm.html contains information on renting film through the mail. Individuals can join the National Archives lending program and have the film sent directly to their home (then they can read the film at a library with a microfilm reader). Those who do not wish to join the program themselves should see if their local library participates in this service.

--- Branches of the National Archives and Other Large Genealogical Libraries
Branches of the National Archives should have these materials in their collections. Larger genealogical libraries, such as the Allen County Public Library, also have certain National Archives microfilm in their collection. Unfortunately, not all of us live within driving distance of these facilities.

--- Family History Library
This roll of microfilm is also in the Family History Library's collection. My final option is to order the film through my local Family History Center's interlibrary loan program. A search of the library's catalog (www.familysearch.org ) located the microfilm titled Passenger lists of vessels arriving at Baltimore, 1820-1921, lists from 1 March 1883 through 29 August 1883, with film information included—FHL US/CAN Film #417419. This citation (particularly the film number) will be needed when the film is ordered at my local Family History Center. The center will not have the film onsite, but orders are generally filled within a month or less. To learn where your nearest Family History Center is located, visit www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHC/frameset_fhc.asp . This is the option I will pursue.

Which Option Is Best for You?
It depends. I have a Family History Library approximately an hour from my home, and the library offers relatively liberal hours (including evening hours two days a week). When I order several rolls of film, the trip is worth it. I also have a microfilm reader sans printer at home, not something everyone has. Since the lookup on this film can be done relatively quickly, ordering the film through the Family History Library is my preferred choice. If a Family History Library is not convenient for you, joining the National Archives lending program or obtaining the film through your local library may be your best option.

In later columns, we will discuss what to do when you do not find your person in Germans to America. We'll also discuss the CD-ROM version of this finding aid as well and let you know which source works best for which problems. As always, read the preface or introduction before using any compiled material. We'll also see what turned up on the 1883 manifest for Jans and Teke Janssen.

Note: There's a series II of Germans to America that begins earlier than the series discussed in this article. Those with German ancestors immigrating before 1850 should consider that source.

Germans to America, vols. 1-67, covering January 1850 through June of 1897, Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, c. 1988-.

Libraries that have Germans to America:

Copyright 2003, MyFamily.com. Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can email him at: mjnrootdig@myfamily.com or visit his website at: www.rootdig.com/ , but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

This article used by the author on his website with permission..

Other Genealogy articles by Michael John Neill