Genealogy Notebook presents stories, research and information on Pennsylvania family histories. Ran regularly, Spring 2004 to Spring 2006.

The types of source documents that help family historians most often depend upon such factors as ethnicity, ge­ography, and time period. Even within an ethnic group, there can be great variety.

Pennsylvania Germans constitute one such group. The large immigration to Pennsylvania of German­-speaking people in the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century was composed primarily of “mainstream Protestants,” those of the Lutheran and Reformed denominations, who left behind a large record of congregational and pastoral acts, such as baptisms, marriages, burials, confirmations, and communions.

It is interesting that the important “minority group” of the Pennsylvania Ger­mans – Anabaptists such as the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Brethren – left relatively few church records of genealogical value. Indeed, it’s an irony of sorts that although these Anabap­tists traditionally have shunned participation in civic life, the government records found in county courthouses and the Pennsylvania State Archives are often what enables genealogists to construct a framework for the lives of these individuals.

Documents, among them wills, estate inventories, deeds, and tax records, are the basic sources, says Toni Collins, historic site administrator of Ephrata Cloister in Ephrata, Lancaster County. “Estate inventories often list the tools owned by the deceased, giving us information about the individual’s occupation.” She also notes that unpublished Revolutionary War militia lists in the collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives are annotated with the reasons that pacifist Ephrata “house­holders” gave for not serving in the militia. When the ownership of the land on which the Ephrata Cloister was built came under dispute, it once again forced a group that leader Jo­hann Conrad Beissel (1690-1768) had wished to keep away from civilization to use the courts, an institution of civil government, to settle the matter.

Beissel founded Ephrata Cloister, one of America’s earliest communal societies, in 1732. He and his followers lived quiet Jives of prayer and charity. The community consisted of three orders, a brotherhood and a sisterhood, both of which practiced celibacy, and a married order of house­holders who supported Cloister activities. “It is the challenging thing about the Pennsylvania Germans. It is tough to document the life of the ‘average man’ in the eighteenth century,” Collins says, especially when compared to groups such as the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, many of whom produced voluminous correspondence that has found its way to pos­terity. Moravians and Schwenkfelders, two relatively small German religious sects, were also meticulous record-keepers.

In addition to the reliance on civil records, the lack of genealogically use­ful church records for most Anabaptist denominations requires more adept use of several other source groups. In some cases, the marriages of Ephrata householders (as well as other Anabaptist couples) show up in Lutheran and Reformed congregational and private pastoral records. Private family records, particularly bibles, seem to have been better preserved by Anabaptist families, and fraktur birth and marriage certificates that have been published yield information about vital dates and generational connections as do the church registers of mainstream groups. Newspapers also can be a source of information since many contain advertisements placed by newly arrived immigrants looking for other Pennsylvania Germans or by masters seeking information about runaway indentured servants.

While there are only minimal genealogy records at Ephrata Cloister, many other sources specific to the Cloister have already been published. Three versions of records of deaths in and around Ephrata Cloister – including one compiled by Brother Kenan, the original of which is in the Julius Sachse Collection of the Pennsylvania State Archives – have been published by the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley in Ephrata.

The few surviving personal letters, account books, and simi­lar items are invaluable in filling in details about individual’s lives. Because they are relatively scarce, however, it is sometimes difficult to draw general conclusions about them. “We don’t know if we are looking at the rule or the exception in many cases,” Collins acknowledges.


For Further Reading

Lamech and Agrippa. Chronicon Ephratense: A History of the Community of the Seventh Day Baptists at Ephrata. New York: Lenox Hill Publishing, 1972.

Meynen, Emil. Bibliography on the Colonial Germans of North America: Especially the Pennsylvania Germans and Their Descendants. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1982.

Reichmann, Felix, and Eugene E. Doll. Ephrata as Seen by Con­temporaries. Allentown: The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, 1953.


Individuals interested in pursuing genealogical research in this area may find several repositories to be helpful:


The author thanks the staff of the Ephrata Cloister for assistance in preparation of this installment of Genealogy Notebook.


James M. Beidler writes and lectures on genealogy. He authored “Genealogy,” a chapter in Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, co-published in 2002 by the Pennsylvania Histori­cal and Museum Commission and the Penn State Press. His newspaper column, “Roots & Branches,” appears in the Lebanon Daily News and the Altoona Mirror. From 1999 to 2003, he served as executive director of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.