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.
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.
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.
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.
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.