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Alsace-Lorraine Genealogy Basics

Alsace-Lorraine crest

Changes are happening quickly in terms of Alsace-Lorraine research. Even so, we continue to receive communications that indicate a lack of understanding as to just what Alsace-Lorraine is. We have all ready given a brief, oh so brief, history of the region, and numerous discussions of the Optants. (For a much fuller history, see the wikipedia article.) Now, a bit of geography seems to be in order.

Alsace and Lorraine are two areas in eastern France that have often been in western Germany and before that, the Holy Roman Empire.  Being border territories, when the border shifts, so does their legal nationality.  Together, they cover just under 14,500 square kilometers and contain thousands of villages, towns and cities, the largest being Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Metz, Thionville-Hayange and Colmar. The eastern border of the region is formed by the Rhine, a river which locals crossed constantly, for love or money. Much of the other side, during the nineteenth century, was the Grand Duchy of Baden. 

Eight different dialects are spoken in Alsace-Lorraine:


  • Two of  French roots:

Lorrain, in all of the west

       Franc-comtois, in a very limited area of the southwest 

  • Francique méridonal palatin, which is close to High-German, in the northeast
  • Two of  High-German roots:

Alsacien, in all of the east

     Haut-alémanique, in the southeast 

  • Three of  Middle-German roots:

 Francique luxembourgeois, in the northwest

Francique mosellan,  in the north

      Francique rhénan, in the central north

This is a part of the world where French and German identities intermingle. Thus, when researching ancestors from this region, one must recognize this fluidity and expect that documents on the same person could say that he was French or German, came from Alsace or France or Germany or maybe Baden, and that all would be true. Ancestors who said they were French could have spoken a variation of German, and vice versa.


There are no French départements named Alsace or Lorraine, nor are those the names of any villages or towns. Elsass-Lothringen was the German name for the territory after the 1871 annexation. The departments that cover Alsace are Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin. The department that covers Lorraine is la Moselle

Lists of communes can be very helpful in locating an ancestral village:

A few days ago, Haut-Rhin put some of their civil registrations and ten-year indices online. Bas-Rhin is expected to have theirs up some time this month. There seems to be some competition between these two departments, or so the rumours go. Thus, Haut-Rhin, in a rush to be the first of the region, may have not been quite ready to open the database when they did, for it does not work very well. (Competition does not always work in the consumers' favour. Sigh.) Bas-Rhin keeps issuing notices that they are checking, checking, checking, to make sure all is correct before they make their registrations available. The more cautious Moselle is aiming for 2012. The links are in the panel to the left.

Get a map; get some dictionaries; get to work. Enjoy!

Update: the Bas-Rhin parish and civil registers are up, and the site is a joy to use. Well done.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy