Sources for Genealogical Research in Mecklenburg
by Daniel Schlyter
In the area of Mecklenburg, as in most other areas of Germany, the church records [Kirchenbücher] are the most significant and accurate source of information for all family research. Church records, also referred to as parish registers or church books, give a wealth of valuable information for tracing your family. In them, church officials recorded all births, christenings, confirmations, marriages, deaths, and burials. Generally, this was done at the time of the event. The state church of Mecklenburg was the Evangelical Church and nearly 100% of the births, marriages and deaths in Mecklenburg are recorded in the parish registers of this church. Mecklenburg also had a few Roman Catholic and Evangelical Reformed churches as well which also kept church records (see pg.187). Church records are of particular value for genealogical research in Mecklenburg because the civil authorities in Mecklenburg did not begin registering births, marriages, and deaths until after 1876.
The data recorded in parish registers varied over time. The later records generally give more complete information than the earlier ones. The Evangelical Church of Mecklenburg Schwerin was first to start a uniform system in 1786. The Evangelical Church in Mecklenburg-Strelitz introduced the same system in 1810. This system was remained relatively unchanged throughout the 1800s.
Christening Registers: Children were usually christened within a few days of birth but occasionally it was as long as several months. The pastor recorded the child's name, the parents names, and the names of the godparents. Up to the end of the 1700s the pastors of many communities failed to give the name of the mother in the birth records or may have written only her given name. At first only the christening date was recorded. In later parish registers the birth date was given as well. When children died in infancy, the death date is sometimes added in the margins of the christening record.
Marriage Registers: Couples were generally married in the home parish of the bride. The pastor recorded the names of bride and groom, whether each was single or widowed, and the date of the marriage. The earliest marriage records gave little information about the parents of the couple. In most cases, up until the beginning of the 1800s, marriage registers recorded only the names of the bride's parents. In Mecklenburg-Strelitz the name of the groom's parents began to be recorded as a matter of course after 1810. This practice was introduced in Mecklenburg-Schwerin sometime after 1820. The birthdates of the bride and groom began sometimes to be entered in marriage registers during the 1800s. Some marriage registers even give the birthplaces of the groom and bride. Marriage registers sometimes also give the three dates on which the marriage intentions were announced. These announcements, called banns, gave opportunity for anyone to come forward who knew any reasons why the couple shouldn't be married.
Burial Registers: Deceased persons were usually buried within a few days of their death. The pastor recorded the burial date and death date, and the name of the deceased. Very early burial registers may give only a description of the deceased, such as "son or wife of Johann Schmidt" or simply "an old man" with no name at all. The age of the deceased is usually given, but this information is often lacking in the early registers. Burial registers from the 1800s often give the cause of death, the names of survivors, and sometimes even the place and date of birth. Parents' names (especially the father's name) are usually given in the burial record of children.
In general, the keeping of church records in Mecklenburg began in 1602 when the church made a proclamation requiring every parish to maintain a parish register. A few parishes kept church records before the proclamation. The church records of Rövershagen, for example, start in 1580. There are even some receipt books of the parish of Toitenwinkel which date from 1562. Most parishes, however, were slow to start keeping a parish register
Overall, the efficient recording of all baptisms, marriages, and deaths developed slowly. The record-keeping requirement was limited, at first, to baptisms, marriages and confession registers. In 1650 a revised church proclamation repeated the order to keep parish registers and added a requirement to maintain death registers. On March 19, 1764 the churches of Mecklenburg-Strelitz were ordered to keep their parish registers in an orderly and conscientious manner. A uniform system of record keeping was introduced in Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1786 and in Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1810. As of 11 September 1815 all parishes in Mecklenburg were required to keep a register of confirmations, but confirmation registers of many parishes date from as early as 1800. Indexes of the church records were officially started on 10 March 1881 but some parishes have indexes of their earlier parish registers.
Unfortunately, a great number of Mecklenburg's church records were destroyed in the wars of the 1600s. Others were destroyed as parish houses burned. In 1704, because of concerns about such destruction, some parishes began making copies of their parish registers. These copies were called Duplikaten. The practice of making copies of parish registers was introduced as law throughout Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1786. The original intent of this law was to copy all the available church records. But this could not be accomplished because there was so much to be copied. A year later, in 1787, the law was modified. Only the churchbooks that covered the time period after 1740 needed to be copied. The copies were supposed to be delivered to the Superintendent-Archive [Superintendenturarchiv]. This request was not completely obeyed. Most parishes at least made the copies, but some were never turned in to the archive.
On December 18, 1874 the Evangelical Church Council of Mecklenburg-Schwerin requested that the parishes send the copies of their parish registers to the Confidential and Main Archives [Geheime- und Hauptarchiv] in Schwerin for safe keeping. This request asked only for the books covering the time period up to 1750. Then, in 1914, the council extended this requirement to include all the copies of parish registers up to the year 1786.
Mecklenburg-Strelitz introduced a law requiring parishes to make duplicates of their church records in 1803. This law also required that the copies be turned in to the Main archive in Neustrelitz. This requirement was legislated again in 1927.
Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz were united on 1 January 1934. At that time the collections of duplicate church records at the state archives in Schwerin and Neustrelitz were gathered together in the Confidential and Main archives in Schwerin. Then, on 1 May 1934, the Evangelical Church Council established a central office for parish registers in the city of Schwerin. All the original church records not already deposited in an archive and not still in use were brought to this office. The parish registers, some 2,000 volumes, were carefully inventoried. As this was done it became evident that there were many gaps in the original parish registers and in the indexes. But many of these gaps could be filled in because of duplicate copies which had been gathered in the Confidential and Main Archives.
In 1944 the holdings of the Mecklenburg central office for parish registers were moved for safekeeping to abandoned salt mines in Grasleben, in what is now West Germany. In 1945, at the end of the war, they came into the hands of the British occupying authorities and were moved again to a palace just outside the city of Goslar in the Harz mountains. In 1951 the Genealogical Society of Utah microfilmed the parish registers of Mecklenburg in Goslar. The British authorities did not return the parish registers to Mecklenburg, but deposited them in the cathedral archive [Domarchiv] in the West German city of Ratzeburg, on the East German border where they remain to the present day.
During the 1950s The Genealogical Society of Utah also acquired church records of the Evangelical Reformed and Catholic churches from most of Mecklenburg. These records, along with the Evangelical parish registers described above are made available to genealogical researchers by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Through a system of family history centers these records are available for your genealogical research at sites all over the world. The records are cataloged and described in the Family History Library Catalog. This catalog is available on microfiche and on computer compact disk.
The church records are listed in the catalog under:
GERMANY, MECKLENBURG-SCHWERIN, [town name] - CHURCH RECORDS
GERMANY, MECKLENBURG-STRELITZ, [town name] - CHURCH RECORDS
To use church records for genealogical research, you must select a specific ancestor for whom you know a specific place of birth or marriage. This can be a difficult task since peasants moved so often. There are several sources that may give your ancestor's place of origin. You may be able to learn the town your ancestor came from by talking to older family members. Members of your family or a library may have documents that name the city or town, such as:
- Birth, marriage, and death certificates
- Family Bible
- Naturalization applications and petitions
See the Family History Library research outline entitled Tracing Immigrant Origins. Many of these sources will indicate your ancestor's last place of residence before leaving Mecklenburg, but this may not be the birth place. Also see the "Emigration Records" section of this book on page xiii.
Once you know the town your ancestor was born or married in, use the gazetteer in this book to determine whether the town had its own parish or whether the parish was in another nearby town. (See the explanation of the term "parish" on page 16.) Then, use the Family History Library Catalog to determine what records are available for the parish. The catalog will list the microfilm numbers.
Search first for the ancestor you selected. When you find his birth record, search for the birth records of his brothers and sisters. Then, search for the marriage record of his parents. The marriage record will often lead to the birth records of the parents. Or, estimate the ages of the parents and search for their birth records. Then repeat the process for both the father and the mother. This process may well be complicated by the fact that peasants moved so often. It was common for a man to be born in one place, marry in another place to woman who was born in yet another place. Then each of their children might be born in a different place. Other sources, as noted on the following pages, may give clues as to where the family moved to or from. It may be necessary simply to search the records of all the parishes in a specific area. This type of search is referred to as an "area search." Unfortunately you may have to go "far afield" to find a complete family as Mecklenburg peasants moved often and far.
As you search the records, remember that handwriting and language may be difficult to read. Where indexes are available, be aware that the original records may have been misinterpreted or names may have been omitted. Also look for various ways the name may have been spelled. Spelling was not standardized when these records were made. You may find your ancestor's name spelled differently than it is today.
Jews were established in Mecklenburg as early as the 1200s but in 1492 they were banned. Jews began to settle again in Mecklenburg in the late 1600 but their numbers remained quite small until the 1760s. Synagogues were established in cities of Strelitz (1763) and Schwerin (1773). The Jewish population increased from 2,494 persons in 1810 to 3,318 persons in 1845. The second half of the 1800s saw a decline in the Jewish population with 1,413 in 1910 and 1,225 in 1932.
Jews did not the have rights of citizenship in Mecklenburg. Jewish inhabitants were "allowed" residency but were subject to expulsion. An emancipation law of 1813 declared Jews to be citizens of Mecklenburg, but this was suspended in 1815. Mecklenburg adopted the constitution of the Frankfurt parliament in 1848 which abolished all disabilities on account of religion, but repealed it two years later. The Jews of Mecklenburg were finally granted citizenship in 1869 under laws of the North German Confederation and this was further confirmed in 1871 according to the constitution of the German Empire.
The Jews of Mecklenburg kept records of birth, marriage, and death much as the Christians did. These are referred to as Jewish records [Jüdische Urkunden] and are the most significant and accurate source of vital information for Jewish family research. Although some Jewish congregations kept records of birth, marriage, and death as early as 1760, 1787, and 1793, most Jewish records began with the emancipation law of 1813.
Jewish records provide the following:
Birth Registers: These records give the child's name (sometimes also the Hebrew name), birth date, sex, parents' names (and often their occupations), and the names of witnesses. In some cases the mother's age is given. For boys the records usually give the date of circumcision.
Marriage Registers: These records give the names of the bride and groom, and their ages with the date of the marriage. In many cases they also provide the name of the father of the bride and sometimes of the groom. They usually provide the previous marital status and often even give the date and place of birth for the bride and groom.
Burial Registers: Deceased persons were usually buried within a few days of their death. These records give the name and age of the deceased, the dates of death and of burial. They sometimes also give a date of birth as well as names of parents (especially the father) and the cause of death.
Jewish records along with Christian church records were gathered into the Confidential and Main archives in Schwerin. During the war these records were moved several times. A few Jewish records ended up at the end of the war with the church records and were microfilmed in Goslar in 1951 by the Genealogical Society of Utah. Most of the Mecklenburg Jewish records ended up at the German Federal Archives [Bundesarchiv] in Koblenz where the Genealogical Society of Utah microfilmed them in 1958. These microfilmed records are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and through family history centers at sites all over the world. The records are cataloged and described in the Family History Library Catalog, on microfiche and on computer compact disk.
Jewish records are listed in the catalog under:
GERMANY, MECKLENBURG-SCHWERIN, [town name] - JEWISH RECORDS
GERMANY, MECKLENBURG-STRELITZ, [town name] - JEWISH RECORDS
Records of births, marriages, and deaths made by the civil government are called civil registration [Personstandsregister or Zivilstandsregister]. Civil Registration was introduced in Mecklenburg on January 1, 1876. Civil registration records contain much the same information as that found in church records, usually in greater detail. An advantage of civil registration is that persons of all religions in the town are found in one register.
You can obtain genealogical information after 1876 from the vital records at the Civil Registry Office [Standesamt] of the town where your ancestor lived. The Family History Library provides a letter writing guide to assist in writing genealogical letters to Germany. This is Germany: Research by Mail.
Other Records of Genealogical Value
Vital records such as church records and civil registration are the most significant sources for genealogical research. However, you may need other sources for your research. For example, parish registers, especially in the 1700s, did not always give the names of parents or their professions. This information may be recorded in other sources in the state archive or the town archive or from the personal records of the family. The sources detailed below are some of the other genealogical sources that could be helpful in doing your genealogy.
A census [Volkszählung] is a count and description of the population of a country, province, district, or city. They were often taken for taxation and military purposes. Census records can be of great value to your genealogical research. They are of especial value in putting families together. But in Mecklenburg research census records are of less significance than church records and civil registration. The importance of the census to Mecklenburg research is not the same as in the United States where such vital records are difficult to find. Two censuses were taken in Mecklenburg in the 1800s; one in the summer of 1819 and one in 1860.
The 1819 census is available for Mecklenburg-Schwerin only. For Mecklenburg-Strelitz only a statistical summary of 1819 was preserved and it is of no genealogical value. For each family the 1819 census of Mecklenburg provides the family names and given names of all family members. For women it generally gives the maiden name. The birthplace, birth date, trade and religion are also given. Children who were employed as servants were recorded with their masters. This material is ideal for family research except for one flaw. The birth date, year and birthplace are not always 100% correct. However, it is still a better information source than the death register in the parish registers, where someone else entered the data. The reason the birthplace was not always correct is because of the migratory life of the leaseholders and day laborers.
The 1860 census is not available for genealogical research. Also, it is not as informative as the 1819 census and not nearly so important because by 1860 the information provided in the parish registers is much improved.
Between 1850 and 1890, Mecklenburg with a population of only 420,000 people had some 148,000 people emigrate, the majority to the United States. Most of these emigrants were peasants, struggling in poverty, looking for opportunities for a better life.
Most Mecklenburg emigrants left through the port of Hamburg. The port of Hamburg maintained records of departures starting in 1850. These departure records are called the Hamburg passenger lists. The records of Hamburg have been microfilmed and are available in the collection of the Family History Library. See the research outline, Europe: Hamburg Passenger Lists. The information in these lists varies over time but usually includes the names of the emigrants, ages, occupations, and destinations. In addition the Hamburg passenger lists give the last residence or birthplace. Usually only the last place of residence is given rather than a birthplace. And for Mecklenburgers, more than for any other group of German emigrants these two are not the same.
According to an article by Michael Palmer in the September 1988 issue of the German Genealogical Society of America Bulletin (Vol. 2, no. 9, Page 101) people desiring to leave Mecklenburg-Schwerin were required to request permission from the government. Although some single men emigrated illegally, the majority of families and most single men as well filed petitions for permission to emigrate. These petitions and the permissions themselves are called emigration papers [Auswanderungskonsensakten]. These records were first kept from 1826, but a fire in 1865 destroyed the records for the period 1826-1861. Only the indexes are left for this period. For the 1862-1914 period both the original emigration papers and the index are still available. These records exist only for Mecklenburg-Schwerin. No records of this type survive for Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The surviving records and indexes are at the state archive [Staatsarchiv] in Schwerin at the following address:
You can write to the state archive and ask them to check the emigration petitions for you. You can write in English if you keep your letter clear and concise and avoid complicated or idiomatic sentences. You need send no money with your first request; the archives will send you a bill (approximately $25 to $30) along with the results of its research. However, it is appropriate to acknowledge this by asking them to "please send me a bill for your services."
In the society of Mecklenburg, occupations were a measure of social status. Some trades were viewed as more prestigious than others. Many trades, such as butchers, tanners, shoemakers, tailors, and others were organized into guilds. The purpose of a guild was to provide training of apprentices and otherwise regulate the practice of the trade in the area.
The records kept by guilds [Zunftbücher] could prove to be a valuable source of information for genealogical researchers. But the records are kept in various places (usually in city archives), and they are not generally accessible to the public. The Family History Library has not acquired any guild records for Mecklenburg.
The guild system existed in Mecklenburg until 1868. Guilds were usually established in each city. The records of these guilds contain lists of members of the guild. A master craftsman could not practice his craft unless he belonged to the local guild. As a rule, masters were at least 25 years of age. The guilds recorded advancement from the rank of apprentice to journeyman and from journeyman to master craftsman. Contracts between masters and parents of apprentices may be included in guild records. Apprentices and journeymen had to register with the local guild as they moved from place to place. Marriages of journeymen may be recorded in the guild records.
If your ancestor lived in a city, the citizenship books [Bürgerbücher] can be a valuable genealogical source. Citizenship books contain names of all the townspeople who gained citizenship. These were mainly the landowners and craftsmen. For some cities citizenship books date as from early as the 1400s, but generally they date from the time of the thirty years war (1648). These books indicate whether or not the person was the son of a citizen. For a new citizen (who had to be at least 25) the citizenship books record his trade, where he was from, and sometimes even his parent's names and where they were from. These books are usually still in the city archives. The Family History Library has citizenship books (on microfilm) for several towns in Mecklenburg. These are listed in the Family History Library Catalog under:
GERMANY, MECKLENBURG-SCHWERIN, [city name] - CITIZENSHIP
GERMANY, MECKLENBURG-STRELITZ, [city name] - CITIZENSHIP
Several other sources, some obscure and largely inaccessible, are noted in Mecklenburgs Familiengeschichtliche Quellen [Sources for Mecklenburg Family History] on pages 85-97. The records noted are not available at the Family History Library. All are of value in building a pedigree going back generation after generation, but because of their impracticality they are not discussed here. The book is available for more thorough study. It is available at the Family History Library and at family history centers on FHL fiche 6,000,835. (FHL book 943.2 K2e)
This book is by no means an exhaustive listing of all genealogical sources for Mecklenburg. There are a number of sources of lesser genealogical value in existence. Most are not readily accessible and the availability of better records like church records and the 1819 census make them of only minor interest. Nevertheless, you may find that some lesser known source is the very one that can solve your research problem. A few such sources are even available, on microfilm or in book form, at the Family History Library. The library has for example published books of tax lists covering the 1400s and 1500s. Learn to use the library catalog. You may find valuable material for your research. Look in the Family History Library Catalog under:
GERMANY, MECKLENBURG-SCHWERIN - [RECORD TYPE]
GERMANY, MECKLENBURG-STRELITZ - [RECORD TYPE]