German Gazetteers Online
by Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA
All genealogical research is ultimately local in origin. Our ancestors lived in specific places, and the records about them were usually created in those places where they lived. Further, it is through a family’s location that we, in part, identify them.
The geographic aspect of genealogical research is even more important for Germanic ancestors than it is for most North Americans. Some key records for North Americans were created at the state, provincial, and national levels. That is seldom the case with German ancestors. Virtually all the key records about German families were created at the local level, in the town or parish where they lived.
Therefore, locating places in Germany is an important aspect of successful German research. From there it is essential to identify the parish where the family attended church. The primary tools for such research are gazetteers. Most of those gazetteers are written in German (often using an archaic font style), and are hard for most researchers to access, except via microfilm at a Family History Center. Fortunately, technology is changing all that. Slowly, an increasing number of gazetteers for various German states are appearing online.
The German Empire
However, due to the constantly changing map of Europe, particularly as it pertained to German areas, the boundaries and jurisdictional levels of German countries often changed. Indeed, the actual country of Germany did not even exist until 1871. Earlier, our German ancestors lived in one of many different and independent German states. These changes have significant impact on German research, one of which is how to designate the now changed jurisdictions which were in place when our ancestors lived there.
Over time, genealogical convention has evolved to the end result that most references to German place names tend to use the governmental jurisdictions established by the various countries which made up the German Empire, from 1871 to 1918. Using the boundaries and jurisdictions of this time period is useful for many reasons:
First, there is an excellent gazetteer which describes each locality in the empire and designates the jurisdictions to which it belongs.
- Second, prior to 1871, the civil (government) jurisdictions are of less importance for most genealogical work, since they generally kept fewer records of genealogical value.
- Third, the vast majority of German immigrants who settled in North America arrived during, or in the thirty years before, the existence of the German Empire. Thus, these jurisdictions pertain quite specifically to hundreds of thousands of German immigrants.
Fourth, the largest collection of German genealogical records (those at the LDS Family History Library) are cataloged and described on the basis of the Empire’s jurisdictions.
- Fifth, although the empire was first established in 1871, most of the major boundaries and jurisdictions had been fairly stable (with notable exceptions), since the 1815 Congress of Vienna, with its dismantling of Napoleon’s empire and establishment of the German Confederation. Thus, most 1871 boundaries and jurisdictions effectively date from much earlier in that century.
When the German Empire was created in 1871, it combined the Kingdom of Prussia with other German kingdoms, principalities, duchies and independent states. This was the culmination of centuries of political evolution among the Germans which lead to one primary German nation. However, as an empire, most of its constituent members had a high degree of autonomy, especially in the making and preservation of governmental records, at the local, regional, and state (kingdoms, etc.) levels.
Family researchers need to recognize these places for several reasons. First, they are part of the jurisdictions where our ancestors lived. Second, they have their own different sub-jurisdictions which affect research procedures. Third, many have separate gazetteers which may be necessary for identifying certain jurisdictions, such as parishes. Fourth, with so many German towns sharing the same name, it may require knowing the correct German country (state) in order to separate the right town from others of the same name.
The recent online posting of the seminal Meyers Gazetteer of the German Empire [Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs (Leipzig, Germany: Bibliographisches Institut, 1912-1913)] at Ancestry.com is a great boon for German researchers. However, it has several drawbacks. While it is currently available to use without a subscription, that will not likely endure. Second, it is not electronically searchable; rather, only the images are posted, requiring researchers to “drill down” to the right page to locate an entry. Lastly, it still requires being able to read the old German Fractur font, and understand a myriad of abbreviations.
Major Gazetteer Providers
The following discussion covers the growing number of free, English language websites where useful, if not always complete, gazetteers are available for most of the former German Empire. The list is arranged by the various German states (and Prussian provinces), since most of these gazetteers only cover one state. However, three websites include gazetteers for three or more states, and require some general discussion first. State-specific links are provided below
Genealogy Net - Considered by some as a kind of German “RootsWeb,” this German site (with many English pages) maintains many useful research sources and tools, including databases of places as well as people. Each database usually includes a brief discussion of the source of the data, and the nature of what is included in the database. For state and regional tools, select the “Region” tab, and then the country of interest, followed by the state on the country map (similar to GenWeb). Their three country modern gazetteer (GOV) is discussed at the end of this article.
Kartenmeister - This personal site created by a German now living in Canada, is a powerful database search engine that identifies over 70,000 locations formerly in the German Empire. It indicates that “All locations are EAST of the Oder and Neisse rivers and are based on the borders of the eastern provinces in Spring 1918. Included in this database are the following provinces: East Prussia, including Memel, West Prussia, Brandenburg, Posen, Pomerania, and Silesia.” Scroll to the bottom of the page, and input the known search data into the appropriate boxes. Results include the parishes and other jurisdictions to which the locality belonged.
ProGenealogists’s German Genealogy Research - This free site, begun by Gary Horlacher, and now maintained by a genealogical research company, includes a variety of gazetteers of differing origin and content. Each gazetteer is based on an older, published gazetteer whose content was keyed into columns in a word processing document. Those documents were then converted to web pages. In most cases, the key data provided for each locality are the Catholic and protestant parishes to which the place belonged. Searches can be made by selecting the alphabetical portion of the gazetteer, or using a search box for the entire German web site. The company is in the process of consolidating each of these gazetteers into one database-driven site, to improve search efficiency and allow searches across all the states. They may add more states in the future.
German State Gazetteers
The following list of German state gazetteers is arranged according to the constituent members of the former German Empire, which consisted of 19 states. The list uses the German spelling, with English (if different) in parenthesis. Note that for the Kingdom of Prussia, each of its 13 provinces are treated as if they were separate states, and are listed after the full-fledged states.
Bayern (Bavaria) - Based on the 1928 Bavarian gazetteer, this alphabetical listing of all places in Bavaria identifies the local district (Kreis) and the Bavarian province, along with the Catholic and protestant parish.
Sachsen (Saxony) - This modern listing of municipalities in the current state of Saxony (Sachsen) reflects changes after the unification of East and West Germany. Modern Saxony’s boarders closely parallel those of the old Kingdom of Saxony. Smaller towns may not be in this list, which simply identifies the district (county) to which the places belong.
Württemberg - Based on the village registers of the Beschreibungen der Oberämter, published by the royal statistic-topographic bureau (1824–86), this alphabetical list simply gives the name of the place, and the “Oberamt” to which it belonged. It does not identify parishes. An old 1843 gazetteer is available in two volumes on Google Books.
Preussen (Prussia) - The various Prussian provinces are treated as separate states below.
Duchies (and Grand Duchies):
Anhalt - Wikipedia provides a very useful listing of the 1042 cities and communities (like townships) in the modern German state of Sachsen-Anhalt. The modern state comprises all of the former Duchy of Anhalt, along with most of the Prussian province of Saxony (Sachsen). The list is alphabetical, but clicking on a locality provides an entry with a brief history, along with the current population, latitude and longitude, modern district (Landkreis) and the postal code.
Baden - This database of towns in Baden is provided by Lineages, a research company. Typing in the name of a town provides a list of matching places, along with the parish and district (Kreis) to which they belong. Clicking on the entry for the town or parish brings up a list of church records available through the Family History Library. Type in only the first part of the place name (including just the first letter if desired) for a list of towns, parishes and districts that begin with those letters.
Hessen (Hesse) - Based on a 1939 book about the church and civil records for the former Grand Duchy of Hesse (often called Hesse-Darmstadt), this alphabetical list simply gives the Evangelical and Catholic parish for each place, or a see reference for some smaller places.
Mecklenburg - Both Mecklenburg duchies are included in this alphabetical listing, which simply names the duchy (Schwerin or Strelitz) along with the parish (Evangelical) and the 1819 census district and FHL microfilm number.
Oldenburg - Provided by a Germany-based genealogist, this is a list of preserved parish registers for the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Oldenburg. Arranged by church district, clicking on the district will generate a list of all parishes, and when the church records begin.
Waldeck - Abstracted from the 1909 gazetteer of Westphalia and Waldeck, this alphabetical list of places identifies the district (Kreis) along with the Evangelical and Catholic parishes to which it belongs.
Lippe (Detmold) - Extracted from the 1911 gazetteer of the Principality of Lippe, each entry is a brief description of the locality, including number of houses, population, parish, post office, civil registry office, judicial offices and other information.
Schaumburg-Lippe - This list, arranged in columns, identifies the town, its approximate size, civil office, district, church parish (keyed by a letter standing for one of the 24 parishes in the area) and other information.
Thueringen (Thuringia) - There appears to be no online gazetteer for the eight small duchies and principalities that made up the area known as Thuringia.
The three former imperial (free) cities of Bremen, Hamburg and Luebeck do not have gazetteers due to their small size.
Elsass-Lothringen (Alsace-Loraine) - Derived from a variety of current and historical sources, this is an alphabetical list of communities in the former area of Alsace. Clicking on the town of interest provides an entry with variant spellings, current French jurisdictions, population at different dates, and the religious composition in 1807. There appears to be no online gazetteer for Loraine.
Brandenburg - Extracted from a 1938 gazetteer of Brandenburg, this is primarily a list of towns with their current postal code.
Hanover - As with Oldenburg (above), this is a list of preserved parish registers for the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Hanover. Arranged by church district, clicking on the district will generate a list of all parishes in the district, and when the church records begin. With over 1100 parishes so arranged on the page, use the Ctl-F function to search for the parish of interest. For the part of Hanover that was in the area called East Frisia, click on the link for “Parish Registers of the "Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche in Nordwestdeutschland.”
Ostpreussen (East Prussia) and another gazetteer of East Prussia - The Kartenmeister link is discussed above. The ProGenealogists’s link is labeled “Prussia” and covers both provinces, East and West Prussia. It is based on the 1910 Prussian gazetteer. For each locality, it identifies the district (Kreis) along with the Catholic and protestant parish, and the civil registry office.
Pommern (Pomerania) - The Kartenmeister link only includes what is known as “Hinter Pommern” or eastern Pomerania, which is the area now in Poland. It comprises about two-thirds of the former province.
Rheinland (Rhineland) - There appears to be no online listing of places in the former Rhineland province. However, studies indicate that the Family History Library Catalog has listings for more than 2,300 places in the province, and this includes about 75% of the parishes. To see the list, type “Rheinland” in the “Place Search” then, after selecting Rheinland, select “View Related Places.”
Schleswig-Holstein - This is an alphabetical list of parishes, giving both the civil and church district and the date that records begin. It is not a comprehensive listing of all towns in the province. A more extensive list of places, with their parishes, is at FamilySearch Wiki under Schleswig-Holstein Place Names.
Westfalen (Westphalia) - This is simply an alphabetical list of about 1,000 parishes in Westphalia for which the Family History Library has cataloged records. Studies suggest that the list encompasses at least 80% of the province's parishes.
Westpreussen (West Prussia) and another gazetteer - See “Ostpreussen” above.
Nationwide Gazetteers and Atlases for Germany
Often a genealogist may not know in which state a particular place was located. In such situations, a nationwide listing of places can be quite helpful. Such listings seldom identify the church parishes to which a town belonged, or the former civil jurisdictions. Modern German gazetteers also do not include places in the territories lost after the World Wars. Therefore, they are not sufficient for all of a person’s German research.
Genealogische Orts-Verzeichnis (GOV) (Genealogical Gazetteer)
This German language database includes places in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and parts of Poland. It searches for the character string typed in the search box (truncate by leaving off as many letters as desired). The results list includes the type of location, the higher level jurisdictions and the current postal code.
Deutsches Post (German Postal Offices) - This is the official site of the German Post Office. To search for a town, select “PLZ suchen” and type in the town name in the box labeled “Ort,” then press “suchen.” It provides the current postal code, or the new name of the community (many small towns have merged into a larger community) and its postal code.
List of German Municipialities (sic) - This handy list of modern municipalities (like a township in the U.S.) provides the modern German state, county and administrative district (if any) along with the postal code. Each letter of the alphabet has its own page, so use the Ctl-F function to search for a character string. Since these are officially recognized municipalities, smaller place names are not included.
Atlas des Deutschen Reichs (Atlas of the German Empire) -
Originally published by Ludwig Ravenstein in 1883, these contemporary maps are available online, with a 30 page PDF index to help determine on which page a town is named. The large scale, 1:850,000 helps to locate even many small towns.
ViaMichelin - This site is an excellent source for online travel-type maps of many scales. Similar to “MapQuest” it covers many countries, including Germany. Simply select the country and type in the place name. Then adjust the scale to your preference.
The future will undoubtedly see even more geographic tools on the web for German research. If the help you need is not there yet, keep a watchful eye on the sites noted above, and at other German research sites. In the meantime, good luck tracking down that elusive German place name!