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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Researching Pennsylvania Dutch
by Rhonda R. McClure

May 31, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

If family traditions tell you that you descend from Pennsylvania Dutch, it is likely that you actually descend from either Germans or Swiss who settled in Pennsylvania during the colonial period. Millions of present-day Americans can trace their lineage back to this group.

Understanding what records are available is half the battle when it comes to any research. For example, in Pennsylvania it is important to know that they did not require the registration of births until 1906.

A look at Pennsylvania Dutch research.

Records of Birth

If your ancestry is Pennsylvania German, the children were most likely born at home with the aid of a midwife. While these births were seldom recorded in civil records, you might find them recorded in church records. Also, don't discount family papers. You may find them listed in the family bible.

Traditionally, the children were taken to church for baptism on the Sunday after their birth. In the church records, if the godparents were related to the baby, a notation was often made by the clergy. If this was the case, however, it would be unusual as godparents were seldom related to the infant.

While not always easy to find, you should look in your family papers for a Taufscheine (baptismal certificate). They often include the maiden name of the mother and are often written in fraktur, a decorative writing.

Fraktur can seem a daunting style to read. Not only is it decorative, but it is also in German. For more information on Fraktur, you will want to read Pennsylvania Dutch FAQs - Fraktur.

Marriages and Deaths

When it comes to researching the marriage of your Pennsylvania Germans, it may surprise you to learn that they were seldom married in the church. This doesn't mean they weren't married by clergy. Sometimes the wedding would take place at the clergyman's residence. Other times the ceremony may have taken place at a family member's home or a friend's house. There appears to be a trend among the Pennsylvania Germans in that the marriage often took place on a Tuesday or a Thursday.

Deaths usually took place at home. When the time came, someone was sent to notify the pastor and to arrange for the tolling of the church bell. It was up to the older women to bathe and dress the deceased's body. Very often the burial was the only service held. Sometimes those attending the burial would begin with prayers and hymns at the home of the deceased and conclude their service at the churchyard.

In addition to searching family records for possible records, you will want to visit your local Family History Center or search the Family History Library Catalog available online at the FamilySearch Web site. The Family History Library has an impressive collection of church records for the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Pennsylvania.

In Conclusion

One of the things I have discovered about accomplishing effective research is to learn all there is on the subject at hand. Researching the Pennsylvania Dutch, for instance, would have resulted in nothing but frustration if I concentrated on civil records, and vital records, instead of church records. Take the time to familiarize yourself with record peculiarities when working with a new ethnic or religious group in your research.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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