Challenge – William Althauser (1846-1922)

Genealogy comes with many challenges, doesn’t it? There are research challenges like burned courthouse, ancestors dying intestate, reading particularly bad handwriting, and financing research trips, just to name of few. Then there are challenges that our ancestors faced like immigration, deaths of spouses and children, and war.

Another challenge that comes with the territory is reconciling family stories, newspaper reports, and other second hand information with historic documents like baptisms, immigration records, and death certificates. I came across this situation a couple of years ago when I first began to seriously research my German Althauser ancestors. I know that I have mentioned in other posts how much I love researching my German ancestry, particularly the Althausers, for a variety of reasons. At first, I think I was so drawn to them because they were such a mystery, and unlike most of my other ancestors, they immigrated in the 19th century (the majority of the others came in the 17th and 18th centuries).

This post covers multiple challenges: reconciling facts, researching in another country, and deciphering records in a foreign language. It also highlights the challenges faced by immigrants, especially since the immigrants highlighted here were a single mother and young children, none of whom spoke English.

Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee Article on William Althauser

When I began researching William, the only record I had was a short article written about William in Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee in the section on Robertson County. Goodspeed’s included a who’s who of each Tennessee County, so I was very fortunate to find William there. Here is the article:

William Althauser, foreman and book-keeper of a registered distillery, was born in 1847, in Baden, Germany, and is one of a family of five children born to Jacob and Anna (Krieg) Althauser. The father and mother were natives of Baden, Germany.

The father was a cooper by trade, and in connection did farming. He died about 1850. The mother was born in 1807, and came to North Carolina in 1852, locating in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she died in 1880.

The subject of this sketch was reared without a father’s care or training, being only three years old at his father’s death. He received his education in the schools of Cincinnati, Ohio. At the age of nineteen he commenced keeping books for S. N. Fowler, a distiller at Cincinnati, but after two years he engaged himself to Mr. Charles Nelson as book-keeper, and has proved so trusty and efficient that to compensate him for this he has been made foreman of the entire establishment, it being the largest distillery in the county.

September 25, 1873, he was married to Mary F. Swift, a native of Tennessee, born in 1847, and the daughter of Richard and Mary F. Swift. To Mr. and Mrs. Althauser have been born five children: Nathaniel L., Robert P., Anna M., William E. and James A. Garfield.

Mr. Althauser has control of the entire business, and looks carefully after the interests of his employer, and nothing is done unless under and by his personal supervision. He is a member of the German Lutheran Church, and his wife a member of the Baptist Church. In politics Mr. Althauser is a stanch Republican.

What a great starting point! At least I had some information about his background, parents names, and nativity as well as dates. What I was going to learn was that second hand information, especially when you don’t know where the information originated, is sometimes helpful but it can also be quite wrong.

1900 Census

I then turned to the census records. I knew to begin with the 1900 census because a.) he was alive and b.) that census year gives specific information about immigration. The 1900 census which listed William Althauser, his wife Mary, and their children William and James living in Robertson County, Tennessee. My family knew that he worked as the foreman for a large distillery in Robertson County, so in this case, the family story and his occupation on the census record aligned. In the census, William reported that he was born in Jan 1846 in Germany, both of his parents were born in Germany, and that he immigrated in 1851.

1900 census
1900 census

Goodspeed’s Article vs. 1900 Census Record

There are some major differences between the census and the article. When I first looked at these records, I assumed that William gave the information for both sources; now, I do not think this is correct.

Birth date: The article says 1847, and the census says January 1846. Not a very big difference, but a difference nonetheless.

Birth place: This wasn’t necessarily a difference, but the article narrowed the search to (what was at the time) the Grand Duchy of Baden rather than Germany as a whole.

Immigration: The census record gives his immigration year as 1851, but the article says his mother immigrated in 1852. I believe the article implies that William immigrated with his mother, but it is not very clear.

Death Certificate vs. Census vs. Article

My next step was to locate William Althauser’s death certificate. The Tennessee State Library and Archives has a list of early death certificates on the website, and not knowing exactly when William died, I checked each year until I found him in 1922. I then scrolled through the microfilm at the Archives until I found his death certificate. His son, Nathaniel, was the informant.

William Althauser’s death certificate

The death certificate gave me new information that I now had to compare with everything else I knew:

Birth date: Given as 25 January 1846, which matches the census record. So, here, the article in Goodspeed’s was likely incorrect.

Birth place: Given as Baden, Germany, which matched the Goodspeed’s article and was consistent with the census record.

Father: Nathaniel apparently did not know or could not remember the name of William’s father. According to the article, the father died in Germany when William was very small, so perhaps William did not speak very much about his father. Or perhaps Nathaniel wasn’t paying attention. The only name I had was Jacob from the article.

Mother: Nathaniel named Mary Krieg as William’s mother. This is different from the article, which states his mother was Anna Krieg. Luckily, the surnames matched, so I hoped that the surname was correct.

Passenger Lists vs. Death Certificate, Census, and Article

My next challenge was to find the immigration record. I was very worried about finding the passenger list because the earlier the passage, the harder it can be to find.

I knew that William came from Germany, he arrived in 1851 or 1852, he was likely traveling with his mother and some of his siblings, and that his mother was either Mary or Anna. The article stated she entered the country through North Carolina, which sounded odd to me, but I checked all passenger lists coming into New York, New Orleans, Massachusetts, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

Finally, I found a passenger group that seemed to best match my William and Mary/Anna.

Althauser family on the Helvetia manifest.

Immigration date: Ship Helvetia arrived in New York City harbor on 28 November 1853. 1853 is different than both 1851 and 1852, but it is close.

Immigration place: New York City, not North Carolina as stated in the article.

Place of origin: Baden, Germany, which is consistent with the census, article, and death certificate.

Mother: William’s mother’s first name is Anna, not Mary.

Mother’s age: Given as 44, which meant she was born about 1809. This is two years difference from the birth year given in the article.

William’s name and age: His name is actually Wilhelm in German, which is never referred to in documents created in America. He is 7 years old, which is consistent with the 1846 birth year.

Siblings: Here was another challenge. I couldn’t read several of William’s siblings’ names! I could read Anna, Pauline, and Wilhelm, but I struggled with his brothers’ names for a while. I later determined that the captain had written their names as Andre, Jacob, and Johann. However, their were five people who looked like they were Anna’s children, which was consistent with the article.

Naturalization Documents

For several years, I was stuck at this place. I knew when William immigrated, his mother’s name, his siblings’ names, and I found him living in Cincinnati in 1860 and 1870, before he moved to Tennessee. However, I was no closer to finding out more about William’s early life and his ancestry. It makes it quite difficult when you don’t know the hometown of the immigrant.

But, after some research, I finally located William’s naturalization documents! I was beside myself with happiness because not only did they tell me where William was born, but it included his personal statement. William stated that he believed he was naturalized because he entered the U.S. as a small child. I was incredibly fortunate that William was under the impression that he was naturalized because if he had realized his mistake earlier, the documents might not have been as detailed.

William Althauser naturalization application

Birth date: Given as 25 January 1846. Consistent with the death certificate, census record, and passenger list. At this point, I assumed the birth date was correct.

Birth place: Given as Opfingen, a small town in the Grand Duchy of Baden. This little bit of information sent my research in a very specific direction. Baden was also consistent with the passenger list, death certificate, article, and census record. This was also the piece of information I was most hoping to find!

Father: No name given, but he stated that his father died when he was three or four years old in Germany. His death in the Goodspeed’s article was given as 1850, and if William was three or four when his father died, this would be consistent.

Mother: No name given, but he stated that she, himself, and his siblings immigrated in 1853 and arrived in New York City. This is all consistent with the passenger list and the Goodspeed’s article.

Requesting Records from Germany

Here was a brand new challenge for me: ordering records from Germany. Doing some initial research, I learned that in some German states, including Baden, citizens who wished to immigrate had to apply for permission. I hoped that the Althausers applied and that the documents had survived. The local archives is the Landesarchiv Baden-Wurttemburg, and the website included some of the larger record groups for each small community. To my surprise, the permission to immigrate records were listed by each individual. It is actually quite fascinating. You can see all of the families who wanted to immigrate from that community during the 19th century. Here is the entry for the Althauser family:

It reads: Immigration of the widow of Jacob Althauser, Anna Althauser, born Krieg, with her children to North America to her siblings.

Names: Jacob and Anna Althauser. The names match the ones in the Goodspeed’s article as well as the name of the mother on the passenger list. Anna is called a widow and her birth name is Krieg, both of which are consistent with the article.

Immigration application year: 1853. This is consistent with the passenger list and William’s statement in his naturalization application.

I contacted the Archives and asked if they could supply me with copies of the permission to immigrate papers. They very graciously replied yes, and after I sent the fees, they sent me digitized copies of the records. I was very proud of myself for emailing them in German and deciphering the records request forms. I had no idea that the records would be so detailed and informative.

Translating the Documents

I now had the documents! But I couldn’t read anything. Although I have a minor in German, I can only read German written in modern day lettering. In the 19th century, German was written in Kurrent, and old style of lettering. Below is an example of the alphabet written in Kurrent.

As you can see, it is quite difficult to read, especially when the letters are written close together. Some letters are quite difficult to tell apart, particularly e, c, m, and n. My other issue was the fact that spelling could be a bit different in the 19th century, so it was very difficult for me to not only transcribe the letters but also translate them. I am not ashamed at all to admit that I contacted someone who specializes in translating German records to transcribe the records into modern day German. What I found out caused me to have conflicting emotions. Reading the words was so heartbreaking and sad, just to think what Anna and her children went through prior to immigration. I was also so excited because I was learning new information that no one in our family knew about.

The documents revealed that Jacob and Anna Althauser were quite poor, and she and the children were relying on money from the almshouse for support. Reasons for their poverty have been discussed in other posts, so I will not rehash that here. Jacob died on 9 July 1852 at the age of 44 and was buried two days later. Anna reported that her siblings wanted her to come to the United States (they had already immigrated), and they helped pay for her passage. At the end, both Anna and her daughter Pauline signed the document. (I was so surprised that they could both write! I later discovered that they both attended school.)

The last page was one of the most important in the whole packet. It was a transcription of the church records that gave the births, death, marriage, occupation, and parents names of both Jacob and Anna as well as the births of all of their children!! I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

Anna’s children and their birth dates.

You can see Wilhelm at the bottom of the page. It reads Wilhelm was born on 11 January 1846.

Permission to Immigrate vs. Other Records

William’s birth date: January 11? William reported that his birth date was 25 January on his naturalization petition, and his son Nathaniel gave the same date on the death certificate. The church records, and the permission to immigrate papers, clearly state that he was born on January 11. Church records also show that he was baptized on 7 February. I am inclined to believe that the church records would be the most accurate, as it was not uncommon for people to report different dates for their birth date. But it seems strange that both William and Nathaniel would agree on the wrong date.

William’s parents: Finally, the mysteries surrounding William’s parents were solved. William’s parents were Jacob Althauser and Anna Krieg which aligns with the Goodspeed’s article. Jacob died in 1852, not in 1850 as the article alleged. Interestingly, the article reported that the family immigrated in 1852, and that was the year of Jacob’s death. Whoever gave the information had the essence of the story correct, but not all of the facts correct.

Parents’ birth dates: The permission documents also give the birth dates of Jacob and Anna. Jacob was born on 11 October 1807, and Anna was born on 8 February 1808. The article reported that Anna was born in 1807, which was close to her birthday, but Jacob was in fact born in 1807. Again, the article was very close, but not quite accurate.


Researching William Althauser was challenging for many reasons, which include:

1. Reconciling facts from a second or third hand account to facts from other records.

2. Searching for the birthplace of an immigrant.

3. Ordering records from a different country and attempting to transcribe/translate them.

This research journey has also exposed the challenges that faced the immigrants themselves, both before they left for the US, during the journey, and after they settled in the US.

I also learned a valuable lesson: continue to question records, especially if they were made in an unofficial capacity, like the Goodspeed’s article. Obviously, someone who knew William well supplied the information, but I don’t know if that person was in fact William. It is curious to me that William would state that his birth year was 1847 when he clearly reports it as 1846 in other records, that he immigrated in 1852 when he reported 1853 on his naturalization paperwork, that the family entered the US through North Carolina rather than New York City, and that his mother died in 1880 when she died in 1877. William, from what I could tell, was a very careful person, and I don’t believe he would give all of this incorrect information in the 1880s but report everything correctly (or most of it) in the 1910s.

This made me wonder if his wife, Mary, gave the information to Goodspeed’s. All the information about the present – name of his wife, their marriage date, her parents’ names, their children’s names, and their church attendance – was all correct. If Mary did supply the information, it would be reasonable that she knew the basic story but the exact dates and some locations were incorrect. These inconsistencies only helped fuel my search for the truth, and the end result was very exciting and satisfying.

I believe that the most challenging cases can turn out to be the most rewarding and even the most interesting.