Learning Archaic Script

Week 46: #52 Ancestors – Different Language

By Eilene Lyon

Guten Morgen, meine Freunde. Das ist die Muttersprache meiner Vorfahren.

Because of my extensive Germanic ancestry, and my interest in that part of Europe, I’ve been studying the language using the free Duolingo app on my iPhone. I think it’s an effective program, depending on how you use it.

Duolingo gives you opportunities to speak, listen, and write in the language you are learning. You also translate back and forth between that and your native tongue. You can even learn Navajo and Hawaiian, if you so choose, not just widely spoken languages.

I don’t have much hope of ever being fluent in German unless someday I can live in Germany for an extended time. Not looking likely. But even knowing the basics will help me get around on vacation, and more importantly, already helps me understand records I’ve acquired in my genealogy research.

Frankly, German is difficult to read, and that is the first step to translation. The handwritten old German script is very different from what is referred to as Latin script. Some German records will use both in combination.

This is what I mean by difficult to read!

Recently, I obtained some German church records through Ancestry and Family Search that enabled me to finally find the families of origin for my 3rd great-grandparents, Carl Heinrich Gazsow* and Dorothea Anna Catharina Groth (and solve the mystery of why one record gives Dorothea’s maiden name as Thiesen).

Importantly, I found records that help me establish that Carl Gazsow was the brother of Fred Gazsow, who lived concurrently with Carl and Dorothea in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Fred immigrated a few years earlier than his younger brother, Carl. Because of Carl’s untimely death, the brothers’ descendants lost track of one another.

I shared my discovery with newly-found cousins who are Fred’s descendants. One of them remarked on Fred’s baptismal record that she couldn’t see where it says, “Christian Friedrich.” And that isn’t surprising, given how it is written.

Part of the key to finding Christian Friedrich’s name is looking in the column for “Kind” which means “Child” in German
Yes, this really says “Christian Friedrich” in old German script.
In the next to last column are the witnesses to the baptism. The child is usually named after at least some of these godparents. Here we see that the first is named Christian. The second is named Carl Friedrich. We can also see at the end of Christian’s entry that he is from Krankow and it appears that Carl Friedrich is as well.

I am (currently) only able to pick out some key things, but many records offer a wealth of information once you can decipher the script. Remember that Ancestry will only transcribe certain key items from the records. To glean more, you will need to learn to transcribe and translate the rest of the record yourself. Note that there are also American church records written in this script.

In this record for Carl and Fred Gazsow’s father’s baptism in 1792, we see the dates of his birth and baptism in the far left columns: November 3rd and 4th. This is followed by the names of his parents in the next two. In the “Kind” column we find his name “Jochim Christoph” but also another notation (yellow highlight). This tells us Jochim’s death date – in his baptism record! How cool is that? Note that the red arrow is showing us some additional information about the father (I haven’t figure it out, yet). The blue arrows indicate “geb” for born and “Parien” for the mother’s maiden name (Catharina Margaretha, if you’re wondering).

You might learn the place of origin for the parents in a baptismal record, as well as a father’s occupation. For instance, I learned from my 2nd great-grandmother’s baptism record that her father, who was a tavern keeper in Wisconsin, had been a shoemaker in Germany at the time she was born.

In this 1866 birth and baptism record, we can see (based on my possibly faulty deciphering) that Marie Friederike’s father, Andreas Mathias Nordt, is a shoemaker. Note that there is a combination of Latin script for the names and old style script for the other information. Click image to enlarge.

How do you go about learning to read archaic script? Fortunately, anyone can take lessons for free on Family Search. A couple weeks ago I attended a five-day webinar (one hour each) on reading handwritten German civil and church records. The civil records, which begin in 1876, aren’t highly applicable to my research, as my ancestors had almost all emigrated by then. But the church records are essential.

To find these excellent (free!) instructional videos, go to the Family History Learning Center and type “German” into the search box (or whichever language you need to learn more about). There are also groups on Family Search where you can share and get feedback on your translations, or ask for assistance. Here is the one for German.

So, what about that mystery maiden name, Thiesen? My search through church records revealed that Dorothea’s father, Johann Friedrich Groth, died when she was eleven. The following year her mother, Sophia Schumacher, married a man named Johann Heinrich Andreas Thiessen. Thiessen was Dorothea’s step-father’s name!

Not only that, but Dorothea had a half-sister, Anna Thiessen, who married Johann Heinrich Friedrich Kussow. The Kussows also immigrated to Wisconsin. And that solved the mystery of why I have people named Kussow among my DNA matches. Our common ancestor is Sophia Schumacher Groth Thiessen.

As with Carl and Fred Gazsow, Dorothea’s descendant’s and those of her half-sister also lost contact over time.

Feature image: A seated man sharpening a quill pen. Engraving by C. Guttenb (Wikimedia Commons)

*There are many variants on the spelling of this last name, including: Gaβow, Gatsow, Gaso, Gassow, Gaszow, etc.

39 thoughts on “Learning Archaic Script

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  1. That’s great that you are able to put your second language learning to practical use, even though travel seems to be in the distant future! My office mate is learning German using Duolingo and it’s enhanced by some communication with friends in Germany. I love Duolingo and the fact it is free and accessible for anyone who wants to learn a new language. I have been learning Scottish Gaelic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You have much more patience than I do. I also used Duolingo—for two years—and then went to Germany. No one understood me because I still didn’t know how to form a proper German sentence or conjugate verbs or know the difference between nominative, akkusative, and dative cases, different forms of nouns and adjectives, etc. Now after taking a class for a year, I stlll am really struggling! It’s a bear of a language.

    And that script is another nightmare! I can usually make out the names so I know I have the right record. Then I ask someone who’s comfortable with the script to transcribe/translate for me. My old eyes just cannot focus on that writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve found reading German script becomes easier, the more I do it. It’s a process of training the brain to recognize the letter groupings. I remember beating my head against the microfilm reader, unable to figure out a given name. I finally found another record, where it was written differently, and realized . . . it was my own name. How embarrassing! I’ve not tried the Family Search webinars, yet. I’ve got Edna Bentz’s book “If I Can You Can Decipher Germanic Records.” It’s old a the hills, and I believe Edna has passed away, but I think her children are keeping it in print.


  4. I never considered it before, but of course people might need to learn how to read archaic script, whether for research or personal interest. It’s great you found some help — yay for the internet!

    Even though the script is hard to read, it is quite lovely to look at. Artistic, even.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve struggled to transcribe documents written in good ol’ American English! The old German script really presents a challenge. Thank goodness help is so freely available online.


  5. Lots of good tips, though I’m sure it does help to have at least a basic understanding of the language you’re looking at (which is why I’ve never gotten anywhere with Polish records!). I’d like to learn German too, though I don’t have any German ancestry – I just enjoy going to Germany because I’m a huge fan of German baking!

    I had a sort-of great-aunt who had the surname Gazo. Don’t know if that’s a possible version of Gazsow too, but I’m not a relation at any rate, since my aunt wasn’t a blood relative, just a dear friend of my grandma who we called Aunt Margaret, and Gazo was her husband’s name besides (she was a Tomko). She was a lovely lady though – she came to all our family events and always brought us boxes of delicious chocolate covered pretzels at holidays and birthdays. I didn’t realise she wasn’t actually related to us until I was a teenager, not that it matters!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not into most German savoury things, since they tend to be meaty, but I’m actually making kasespaetzle for dinner tonight. We always had spaetzle growing up, I guess because Polish people just really like dumplings, and plain spaetzle with butter are my number one comfort food when I’m sick.

        Liked by 1 person

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