One of the primary functions of American consulates and consular agencies in foreign countries is to provide services to American citizens residing or traveling in those countries. One of those services is to handle the details associated with the death of American citizens within the territory they represent. In many cases the consul or consular agent corresponded with family members or their lawyers back in the United States. In other cases a citizen in the foreign country might learn of the death of a relative in the States and work through the consulate to determine whether they would inherit any money from the deceased person.
Within Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s, several of the consulates and consular agencies maintained separate files of correspondence relating to the estates they handled. Most of these were related to work the officer did to ensure legatees received their share of an estate. However, several files included correspondence related to debts incurred by citizens, divorce situations in which one of the parties had returned to Germany, or other situations in which the officer was asked to assist.
These files frequently contained information about families in Germany that were related to the deceased. Surviving relatives were named to prove relationships or to ensure that those people would share whatever proceeds of the estate remained. Occasionally the correspondence included copies of birth and death certificates from officials in Germany. Sometimes handwritten charts showing family groups were included.
At cities where there was an official consulate, the records were maintained by (or attributed to) the consul himself. Consular agents were appointed to service other cities that did not have a consulate. Usually these agents were hired to perform duties in service to the State Department. Part of their income was generated by fees charged for performing these services. According to one source, the agent was legally entitled to 5% of the value of the estate that he handled. This is obvious from letters included in some of the files.
These files generally contain only incoming correspondence - not correspondence sent by the officer. Thus when researching these files it can sometimes be difficult to follow the chain of events, since you are only seeing half of the conversation. You might see letters from a citizen or lawyer requesting information from the officer about the status of an estate being processed in Germany. There are quite a few letters from local German officials sending documents that were obviously requested by the oficer. German citizens would write letters to the officer, hoping to share in money from estates in the United States. Of course, these letters from Germany are in German. The handwritten ones, in particular, can be difficult to read and translate.
The researcher reviewed each file and provided a synopsis of the contents. As much information about the deceased as possible was extracted. Names of family members and other individuals mentioned were also recorded. In cases where official certificates or documents listing family members were found, the researcher photographed the documents. Names, dates, and places were transcribed into a database that can be searched by given and surname. If you find a record of interest, you can look for the abstracted information in the files below. If the file indicates that it includes photos of documents, please contact the MAGS webmaster, who will connect you with the person who maintains the files.
Additional records included in database
The consulate records of Bremen, Germany include a volume of death records for the period 1877 to 1901. The volume includes a collection of original documents of various formats. These include death records generated by German authorities and ship captains. There are even a few birth records for children of United States citizens. An index is included at the end of the volume. The names from the index along with the death year are included in the consular estates database. The consulate field will indicate Bremen.
Within the estate case files at the Frankfort consulate is a large envelope with a unique set of records. Following the 1903 devastating hurricane and flood of Galveston, Texas, the acting consul general Simon Hanauer decided to establish a relief fund. He advertised in local German newspapers and within the American expatriate community. He also contacted consuls at the sixteen subordinate consulates and asked them to do the same within their regions. The envelope contains responses from the consuls with names and amounts contributed. Hanauer combined the lists and deposited the money with a local banker. He eventually collected over 12,000 German Marks and forwarded the money to the State Department to be sent to citizens in Texas.
The names of the contributers from each of the consulates are included in the consular estates database. The comment field will note that the name was found in the Texas relief fund file. The consulate field will indicate in which list the name was found.