Part 4: Tracing Your 19th Century German Ancestors: Comprehend Enough German
In Part 4 we tackle the most daunting part of having a German ancestor and that is understanding their German language records. Many English-speaking researchers feel intimidated at this stage, but please don’t! I only understand the most basic words but have been able to follow the paper trail of many Germans through their American records back into Germany. We are lucky to live in a time where there are many accessible strategies for finding and comprehending the wonderful German language records left behind by our ancestors. We need to learn to read just enough German to find our ancestors.
We will keep following our German-American example, Burkhard Schlag, to illustrate tools for reading German-language records. From Burkhard’s village, Züntersbach, we have the 1869 church book showing baptisms from Burkhard’s family in entries no. 454 and 457. (See Figure 1 below.)
When you first begin looking through a kirchenbuch (church book), you’ll notice that the handwriting script used by German priests has some letters that look familiar and some that are very strange. See what letters here you can recognize.
In entry 454 (Figure 1) in the 5th column from the left, it reads “Karoline Schlag,” Burkhard’s cousin. “Karoline” and the “lag” in Schlag are fairly recognizable, but what is going on with the “Sch” in Schlag? You are looking at Kurrent or Sütterlin, the cursive handwriting taught to Germans until the mid-1900s. The different formation of letters causes difficulty even for modern Germans. You may feel overwhelmed at this point, but hang in there. There are many avenues to take for a beginner. Try these seven steps.
Step 1: Learn to recognize your ancestor’s name in old German handwriting
If you have found the correct parish and all you can read is your ancestor’s name, you will be able to find records with their name. Then you can upload records with that name to online community groups, who can help translate the whole record.
Here is a fantastic website to help you see your ancestor’s name in old German handwriting: Alte Deutsche Handschriften (i.e. old German handwriting). Select “Font Generator” or “Schrift-Generator,” type in your ancestor’s name, and see eight different ways your ancestor’s name may look in records. If you want to see a lot of transcribed words, it may make sense to download a font. Here is the one I downloaded: Sütterlin.ttf.
Figure 2 illustrates one example of what Burkhard Schlag and Züntersbach may look like in records, from Alte Deutsche Handschriften. Note that I used the “round s” for the “s” in Züntersbach, one of the three ways an “s” can appear, because that’s how the priest wrote it in my example. Now look at record no. 457 in Figure 1 above, Burkhard’s nephew’s baptism. In the 5th column from the left, can you make out the (Heinrich) Burkhard Schlag by comparing it to Figure 2? Can you see the Züntersbach in the 2nd column?
Step 2: Watch webinars on reading German handwriting
FamilySearch has excellent free webinars for learning German handwriting. Use these waypoints to find them: FamilySearch.org > Help (the ? in the upper right) > Help Center > Learning Center. Once in the Learning Center use the search bar at the top to search “German Handwriting.” As you can see in Figure 3 there are many (1767) helpful resources at Family Search on this topic. This 2019 ten-part webinar will get you started: German Paleography Seminar: Introduction • FamilySearch.
As with any old document take time to familiarize yourself with how the priest wrote the various letters. Note how information is organized. Try to notice the common first and last names found in that parish. When you are reading your ancestor’s record and you find new relative’s names you cannot quite read, you can make educated inferences based on the common first and last names in your village.
You don’t need to read every word of your German’s baptism record to understand who the parents were or what village they were born in. German church records with columns or forms (e.g. Figure 1) that separate information into categories are more easily deciphered (e.g. the infant’s name column, 5th from left in Figure 1, will only have information about the baby and not his parents). If your records are in paragraph form, they may have extra details but are much harder to read for the beginner. With paragraph records you may need to find your ancestor’s name, and then ask an online expert for help with those (discussed in Step 7 below).
Step 3: Try WordMine.info
When you cannot decipher a word, try this helpful website: WordMine.info — International Word Search Engine. For example Figure 4 shows the birthdate, 3rd column from the left, in one of Burkhard’s nephew’s baptism record. Karl Burkhard Schlag’s American records gave his birthdate as 21 July 1871, so that was a helpful clue as to what this word was. The shorter underlined word is clearly Juli (July). But on what day was Karl born (longer underlined in red word)? I wasn’t sure, so I used WordMine.info.
I could see the first seven letters, but wasn’t sure about the rest of the word. Enter the part of the word you can read (“zwanzig” in this case), make sure the word list is in German (Deutsch), select “words that start with” in this case, next select the approximate number of letters in your mystery word, and it will give you options in German for what your mystery word could be (Figure 5).
After using WordMine.info., my puzzle was helpfully narrowed down to ten possible words that I needed to analyze. It looked to me like this nephew was born on zwanzigsten Juli or the twentieth of July.
Step 4: Use German word lists and dictionaries
Once you begin trying to read your first records, clearly you will encounter unfamiliar words. German word lists are key to learning to recognize basic words like, father, mother, burial, birth, and marriage. You will need to be able to pick out the months of the year, and read the words for numbers. Try putting some of these words into the Alte Deutsche Handschriften website or Sütterlin.ttf font to visualize what you will be looking for.
Here is the Family Search wiki list: German Genealogical Word List. On this word list try scrolling down to “Types of Farmers.” In English there is one word, but in German there are many words for farmer, so you will want to know some of those, as well as other common occupations. Here is a separate word list for German archaic occupations.
The website Linguee is an easy-to-use site that may have more archaic words than Google Translate, which is ideal for genealogists. The online dictionary Wörterbuchnetz is perhaps the most comprehensive, with a combination of several German dictionaries from different dialects and time periods. With this German-language site, I use Chrome as my browser because it automatically translates my page into English. I keep a second page up but untranslated side by side with the English page, just to keep track of what words are being translated into what.
Step 5: Use Meyer’s Gazetteer to find the right village and jurisdictions
In Part 2 of this series we found Burkhard and Christine’s marriage record listing their hometowns. In Burkhard’s case, his marriage record said “Zundersbach,” and other American records indicated he was from “Zenterback.” Googling both possibilities did not find any villages in Germany. What village was Burkhard actually from?
Meyers Gazetteer can help you zero in on the ancestor’s actual village. Be sure to use the wildcard * for the parts of the village you are unsure of. In Burkhard’s case, “Z*n*ersba*” netted only one response: Züntersbach, which had the same kries (Schlüchtern) as his marriage record, and same state (Hesse) that matched his American census and naturalization records. In this case there was one village called Züntersbach, but often there will be multiple villages with the same name, so you will need the correct state and kreis (like county) to distinguish between them.
Using the Map tab, circled in red below (Figure 6), will let you toggle between an historic map of your village and today’s Google maps. This may be especially valuable if your village no longer exists, or is now in another country. For example try using this German village, Müscherin (do not use the umlaut in Meyers). You will see that the historic map shows it in Pomerania (Prussia), but toggling to Google Maps version shows that Müscherin, Pyritz, Prussia is known today as Moskorzyn, Poland (since World War II). Mapire is another great site that allows you to search older maps of central Europe.
Next in the search for Burkhard’s church records, I clicked on the Ecclesiastical tab (circled in red, Figure 6), which brought up another page that showed that while there was a Catholic church in Züntersbach there was no Lutheran church.
Meyers lists the churches by how close they are to your village of interest. This list will be very helpful for identifying the best churches to look in for your ancestor’s records. Züntersbach’s list showed that the nearest Lutheran church, where Burkhard likely attended, was in Oberzell one mile away.
Getting to know Meyers Gazetteer will make you wish you had one for every locality you search. Here is a short video from FamilyTree Magazine on how to use it. Meyer’s Gazetteer also will help you understand the village’s jurisdictions. In any genealogical research our question is always what records are available and where might they be found. Because German lands experienced changing boundaries, civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions can be hard to trace, but there are great tools for helping us out. Meyers lists the early 20th century jurisdictions of your German’s village (Figure 6 and 7), and the GOV tab in GenWiki (discussed in Part 5) will show your village’s jurisdiction over time.
Records for Burkhard may be found at any of the jurisdictions shown in Figure 7. Start with searching Ancestry and FamilySearch using the village, kreis, and RB. Be sure you select record sets with these localities associated with the correct state. For example, Burkhard’s Schlüchtern was in Hesse, and was not the one in Baden.
Step 6: Remember church books are chronological
Though church books are mostly not indexed, you can use the fact that often your German’s recorded American birthdate is the same or close to their German one. Since the church books are chronological, you can flip through the church book to get to the right date. Often there were indexes written in the back or front of church books that can help you navigate to entries with your surname of interest. If you do not find your ancestor with their exact American birthdate, try adding or subtracting a year or two. If you are in your ancestor’s correct home village, you will likely be seeing their surname on multiple records as you flip through. If you don’t, you may be in the wrong village.
Step 7: Still Stuck? Join an online community
My favorite German research community is on FamilySearch. Follow these waypoints to join the German Genealogy Research Group at FamilySearch.org > Help > Community > Groups > German. You can upload your records for help with transcribing and translation. It is best to give them a link to your record as opposed to a photo. That way they can zoom in and out and see all the records on the page to adjust to the particular priest’s handwriting. There are many Facebook groups as well. Here are two: Central Europe Genealogy Research Community and German Genealogy Records Transcription.
Overall remember to be patient with yourself when attempting to read old German handwriting. Even the most experienced experts need to take time and get used to a document. If it has been a while since I last read old German handwriting, it always takes me a hour or so of studying before I start to make progress- certainly longer than an expert but workable for my purposes. You will make progress and discover some amazing things from your ancestor’s German-language records! Just take it one step at a time. In Part 5 we will continue the search for German-American ancestors in Germany by learning how to navigate German based websites.