German Immigrant Ancestors
in Syracuse and Onondaga County, New York

A Note about Illegitimate Births in Old Germany

There were social, cultural, and religious prohibitions against illegitimate births. Shame was attached to them, yet they were not an uncommon occurrence throughout the German lands, for the marriage laws were in many instances cruelly restrictive, requiring that prospective spouses obtain substantial wealth before bonds of romance could be formalized. Non-firstborn children from large families could find it particularly difficult to acquire the nest egg needed to marry a sweetheart or legitimize a baby. As land grew scarcer in the mid-1800’s, many Germans grew up with nowhere to live and no way to afford or earn separate dwelling space apart from their parents and numerous siblings. Many people were middle-aged by the time they wed, and it was not unusual for couples by then to have had several children together, for regardless of the laws, human nature would not wait.

The local religious authorities would duly note in their church register books the birth status of the children they baptized (illegitimate or legitimate) and the marital status of the parents, including later legitimization of the children if and when the parents were subsequently married within the purview of the priest or minister. These facts found in the records today provide an enlightening window into the distant times, places, and conditions in which our ancestors lived.

The difficulties of forming and supporting a family, and being able to lead a life consistent with the moral and religious strictures they had been taught, led several generations of Germans to try emigration (Auswanderung) as a solution.


Howitt, William, “German Experiences: Addressed to the English, both Stayers at Home and Goers Abroad” (1844), reprinted as part of Life in Germany: Selected Portions of Three Works on German Life in 1842, 1844 and 1901 by Origins, Janesville, Wisconsin, 2003. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 6, “Police Systems and Funerals” [pages 29-30]:
If a man wanted to marry, he must first have permission of the police; and a grave fellow, in a colorless coat, and with a sword by his side, would march off to his beloved, demand an account of all her worldly goods, having first done so by the man himself; and if he found that the proposed bride had not a prescribed sum, would enjoy her with a certain portion of her lover’s. If, however, the lover had not a definite amount of worldly goods, in many states, he could not be allowed to take her as wife at all....and the consequence is that people take the liberty of living together without marrying, and the population returns show a strange exhibition of illegitimate children, often exeeding the number of the legitimates. Nay, you could no longer marry, be born, or be buried, without a police regulation. Are you dead, then comes the policeman and the police doctor to see that you are really dead; and if so you shall have a coffin according to the due formula of the police, and shall be buried on the third day. There is a prescribed coffin, and a prescribed size, for every age and station....Such are the minute regulations by which the German police enter into this and every other of your domestic transactions. You are treated as so many great children who cannot take care of yourselves, and so the government, by its numerous agents, the police, becomes your general guardian, bailiff and beadle.

Paterson, Jenny. “‘Planned Illegitimacy’ Among German Immigrants,” Ances-tree vol. 6, no. 2 (August 1993). Published by the Burwood-Drummoyne & Districts Family History Group, Burwood, New South Wales, Australia.