Monday, September 11, 2017

Brushing up on the History of Alsace-Lorraine

If I were to guess, many of you paid just enough attention in your history classes to pass tests and finish assignments. I was not much different. And I am also willing to bet that most of you regret this, once you started researching your family history.

I know I do! I have learned more about German history in the last year than I’ve known my whole lifetime!
Sign posted at Oldenburg, Indiana Freudenfest
And because what I’ve learned may help some of you in your own research, I would like to pass on a little of my findings.

Alsace-Lorraine is an area of a little over 5,000 square miles in France that runs along the present-day borders of Switzerland to the south, and Germany to the east and north.
Map of Alsae-Lorraine region (Encyclopedia Britannica)
In German, Alsace-Lorraine is known as Elsass-Lothringen. I have also seen Alsace written as ElsaB (what resembles a B in English, is actually a German S). If someone could help me elaborate on the German alphabet a bit, I wouldn’t mind the assistance.

As far back as the 800’s, Alsace was incorporated into Lothringen. Through the Treaty of Mersen in 870, it was united with the German territories. And for roughly 800 years, it remained firmly within the German border, and created a centuries-old German heritage by the local residents.

It wasn’t until the 1600’s when the French began to influence that “centuries-old German heritage”.  Between the Wars of Religion, and the Thirty Years’ War, this influence grew to the point of some of the cities requesting help from France. With the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 giving France an “informal protectorate” over Alsace, the French influence was becoming much more than mere influence.

King Louis XIV established full control of the area during his reign, and Alsace was completely incorporated into France by the French Revolution in 1789. The residents of this region continued to speak a German dialect all of their own, known as Alsatian.

For almost seventy years, this was the way of life for the people of Alsace-Lorraine. The residents of this area actively participated in French life, and the use of French continued to spread throughout the region. The centuries-old German heritage, and the language, was still firmly fixed rooted in the people. But many of them also embraced the French culture and language, too.

And at this point in the history of Alsace-Lorraine, the region begins to be at the center of a major tug-of-war between the two countries.  In 1870, Germany goes through a major upheaval and becomes a unified country. Shortly thereafter, in 1871, the two countries go to battle in the Franco-German War. A result of this war is that Alsace becomes annexed to Germany.

With two world wars being fought on these lands, the region was bounced back and forth several times throughout the next several decades. After World War I ended in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles handed Alsace-Lorraine back to the French. Near the beginning of World War II, in 1940, it was given back to the Germans. With the fall of the Third Reich, it was retroceded back to the French in 1945, where it remains to the present-day.

How does this affect your family research?

Depending on the time that your ancestor lived in the “old country”, that “old country” may have changed hands once or twice. This would then affect what nationality they were at that time, and where those records might be kept.

For example, my cousin, David, has records of our shared ancestor living in Merkwiller-Pechelbronn, in the Alsace-Lorraine area. He left this area, I presume, in 1871. My presumption being that he is recorded as boarding a ship in Hamburg, Germany in June 1871. His name is recorded as being Henri, and nationality as French. His residence listed as ElsaB (Alsace).

In other records, you will find his name as Heinrich. Nine years after he arrived in Indiana, he was already an Americanized “Henry” in the 1880 census. What is interesting is his place of birth on the two census records. According to the 1880 census he was born in Prussia; and the 1900 census, it was Germany.

So, in my family research, knowing all of this history of Alsace-Lorraine helps tremendously.  He was born in 1846; however, I am not sure if he was born in Merkwiller-Pechelbronn. If he was born west of the Rhine River, he would have been born in France.  Born east of the Rhine River, Prussia would be correct. Germany, as a unified country, did not exist yet.

The Germania - the ship that took my 2x-great grandfather to America
He sailed to America in June of 1871. Although I am not aware of the exact date that Alsace-Lorraine was annexed to Germany, but it was in the year of 1871. So, he very easily could’ve been a French citizen that was born in Prussia, when he boarded that ship in Hamburg, Germany.

Although I know all of this may seem as clear as mud. And, if you have no family ties to the Alsace-Lorraine region, or even to the country of Germany itself, this whole post will make you feel like you are back in world history class trying to stifle a yawn.

To any of my readers whose family trees take them back to this part of Europe, I sincerely hope that my post has helped at least a little.  Now that I even have a little more understanding of the history, I have a lot more questions for David at the family reunion next month regarding old Henri, Heinrich, Henry!!


  1. The reason the census lists Henry's birth as Prussia and as Germany is that Merkwiller was part of Prussia in 1880, and then called Germany in 1900. It was France when Henry was born. Merkwiller is in Alsace, on the French side of the Rhine.

  2. That makes sense. I guess when you read that in the census, you think of what the name actually was when they were born. I didn't think of the name changes later. With all of your research, David, does it look like I got things right in the post?