How to Find Your German Hometown: A Case Study

By Andrew Koch

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I’ve always been passionate about my German heritage, and I hope to someday travel to my parents’ homeland. With help from James M. Beidler’s book Trace Your German Roots Online (Family Tree Books), I’ve been trying to find my German hometown so I can visit. Here’s what I’ve tried so far.

Surname Clues to Ancestral Hometowns

I have several German lines, but I wanted to work on the “simplest”: my Muenchen (München) line. München is the German name for the city of Munich, and surnames often correspond to ancestral place names. So I can call this case closed, right? My Muenchen ancestors must have come from Munich.

Unfortunately, even my earliest research suggested not. Following a tip from Trace Your German Roots Online, I searched for the name on Geogen’s Surname Mapping tool. This showed the distribution of surnames in Germany today.

The Geogen Surname Mapper tool complicated my theory. Münchens don't seem to live in or around Munich.
Geogen mapping tool for last name München

I assumed Münchens would cluster around Munich in Bavaria, but the surname mapper showed something different. Most Münchens live in Saarland and the Rheinland-Pfalz in southwestern Germany, with some in Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia and Bremen. Bavaria (in southeastern Germany) has few.

This made a certain amount of sense—people adopted geographic-based surnames like München to indicate where they came from. Why would someone want others to know he was a “Munich-er” (Müncher) if he still lived there? This suggested the path to finding my German hometown might be longer than I anticipated.

Work Backward in Time Using Records

Without an easy answer, I started looking for a German hometown in the Muenchen line using online records. Spelling errors made these searches difficult—census indexes variously listed my ancestors as Meinken, Menken and Minchew. But based on that data, I identified Peter Muenchen (born about 1827) as my immigrant ancestor.

These sources will help you pinpoint an immigrant ancestor’s Old World town or village of origin.

According to the 1880 census, German-born Peter lived in Cincinnati with his wife (Paulina) and five of their children. (Two other children, including my third-great-grandfather Frederick, had already married and left the family home.)

Going back even further, I find the “Minchews” in the 1870 and 1860 censuses. In both, Peter’s birth country is listed as Prussia, while Paulina’s is listed as Hesse-Kassel. Peter’s marriage record to Pauline Muenchen (née Walter) didn’t specify a hometown, nor did later census records for any of their children.

I was hoping to find my German hometown in this 1870 census return, but I see only state.
1880 US census entry for Peter Muenchen

I hadn’t found a hometown, but these states were a great starting point. Hesse-Kassel had somewhat stable borders throughout time, making it easy to determine what towns and cities comprised it.

But “Prussia” presented a bigger problem, since Prussia made up varying amounts of land at different points in history. Was Peter from Royal Prussia in modern Poland, or one of the hundreds of city-states that the Kingdom of Prussia annexed throughout the 1800s?

With birth years and home countries in hand, I turned next to passenger lists. I found a German-born Peter “Menchen” who came through New York in 1852 and was born around 1828. Likewise, I discovered a German-born Pauline Walter who came through Baltimore just a few months earlier.

Passenger lists can help you find your German hometown.
Passenger list for Paulina Walter

The names, birthplaces and ages fit. Peter’s passenger list didn’t mention a hometown, but Paulina’s did. Just 18 years old, she arrived in Baltimore along with Peter Wehner and Dillard Walter. According to the list, all three hail from a place called Fulda. Paulina and Dillard were bound for Marietta (presumably Marietta, Ohio), while Peter was heading for Pittsburgh.

I kept striking out in trying to find Peter’s hometown. His marriage record, passenger list and will didn’t give a hometown, nor did his tombstone. He doesn’t seem to have naturalized, so I couldn’t consult that record either. Even his children’s census records were mum on hometown. Other users on listed Mettnich (or Mettnick) as his hometown, but none of them had strong evidence to support it.

Map Potential Hometowns

Meyers Gazetteer gave me great information about Fulda, my ancestor's German hometown.

I decided to keep researching Paulina’s hometown instead. According to the online version of Meyers Gazetteer, Fulda lies in the German state of Hesse-Kessel. That lines up with what I already knew about her birthplace. The gazetteer also provided details about the town. Apparently, Fulda has seven Catholic churches, one Evangelisch (Protestant) church, and one synagogue. I may not know for sure where my Muenchens came from, but I could travel to Fulda to see where my Walters once trod.

Out of curiosity, I also searched Meyers Gazetteer for Peter’s supposed hometown, Mettnich. As it turned out, Mettnich is in the Rheinland—consistent with where Münchens live today. I’m not any closer to solving that mystery, but at least I have a lead!

First published, August 2018. Last updated, May 2023.

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Track down your German ancestors’ hometown with Meyers Gazetteer, one of the most useful geographical resources.