Researching ancestors from the region of Alsace can be a struggle. It is a region that has been fought over and tossed back and forth between France and Germany for centuries. As a part of the Holy Roman Empire, it was parceled into small fiefdoms. In the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, it was attached to France. In 1870, it became part of Germany again. After the Second World War, it was once again French. With all of these changes, the people were consequently much more mobile than in other parts of France. The poor souls were having repeatedly to pack up and leave their homes, choose new nationalities, give up their language, live with persecution. It is not surprising that so many of them gave up and left for the New World.
Documents can be confusing as the official language changed from French to German and back again, plus there are very specific local dialects: a unique for of Yiddish spoken by the Jewish population, a local German dialect and, on the border with Lorraine, their own dialect of French. Until the Revolution, all official documents were bilingual, French and German.
There is a much greater religious diversity than in the rest of the country as well, with well established Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anabaptist communities. Each religious group had their own cemeteries, many of them well preserved, under the circumstances.
For the researcher, these unique characteristics require a different approach.
- A knowledge of German and Latin is necessary, along with that of French.
- Both Catholic and Protestant parish registers in Alsace have a great likelihood of being in Latin or the local dialect of German. However, Lutheran preachers were more likely to enter in their registers in French. This can also be the case in La Moselle.
- After the French Revolution, the usage of Latin stopped, but the use of German, not French, replaced it. Gothic writing was used. When French usage was enforced, it was written as it sounded to a German speaker, and in Gothic letters.
- There are some dates that can help one prepare linguistically:
- 1810-1870 registers are mostly in French
- 1871-1918 registers are in German
- 1919-1940 in French again
- 1940-1945 back to German
- 1946- present once more in French
- Quite a lot of place name research may be required as villages and towns not only changed names as languages were changed according to occupation, but there were also changes to names in the local dialects and/or Latin.
How best to deal with researching your ancestor in Alsace? As always, start with a place, whether of birth, marriage, death or military registration. If you cannot find it in any of your books or websites and really are at wit's end, in your best French, write to the Archives Départementales of Bas-Rhin or Haut-Rhin asking their help (see below for their addresses). . Both are working to digitize their holdings but that will be of no help if you cannot find the town or village name. We have had enormous successes through the help of diligent and kind archivists who have determined with certainty the name of a location. Once you have that, you can start to search the parish registers for your ancestor, with a pile of dictionaries at your side!
5, rue Fischart
3, rue Fleischhauer
68026 Comlar Cedex
N.B. The picture above is taken from the charmingly polemical book by George Wharton Edwards, entitled "Alsace-Lorraine".
©2009 Anne Morddel