Another Language – German

The majority of the ancestors that I have found originated in English speaking countries – America, England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland –  so I don’t often deal with documents in other languages.

However, I have a little German ancestry on both my mother and father’s sides. My 3rd great grandfather, William Althauser, immigrated to the U.S. from Baden in 1853 when he was 7 years old. Over the past two years, I have done quite a bit of research on his German family, during which I first encountered German records. One of my minors in college was German, so I have some basic knowledge of the language, but working with German written in the 19th century and before was a whole new experience!

In the 19th century, German people wrote in the Kurrent script, an alphabet based on a medieval cursive script. This makes reading documents so much more difficult. Not only are the records written in German, but in a completely different alphabet! I worked on translating some of the Althausers’ immigration records, but I finally had to give up and ask the help of a translator. However, church registers are a little easier to decipher because they typically follow a pattern and use the same basic vocabulary for each entry.

Besides working with traditional German records, another resource that I have found particularly helpful for German-speaking ancestors is the Ortsfamilienbuch. An Ortsfamilienbuch (literally translating to place family book) is a book put together by individual towns that trace the genealogies of all the people who have lived in the town using church records, military records, homage lists, and other resources. These books also give short histories of the towns, the demographic makeup, and short overviews of some of the records used.

Entries for the Althauser family.

The length of the books depends on the state of the records in each town. For example, my Althauser family came from Opfingen, and the church records survive from the mid 17th century. So for many of my German families, I can trace them back to the early 17th century just by using the published Ortsfamilienbuch for Opfingen. The Ortsfamilienbuch is written in German (modern German thank goodness!) but it still took me quite a long time to get through the introductory material and tracing the families. Now I need to take what I have found in the book and double check it with the church records. But for that, I need to make a trip to Germany!

This is not the case for every German town. Some towns only have church records going back to the early 20th century, and some back to the Reformation. These books can be purchased, but they are a bit pricey. If you would rather not purchase, some larger libraries (even in the U.S.) have them in their collections. I have found the Ortsfamilienbuch to be an invaluable resource when studying German families, and I hope others find them useful as well!

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