basic guidelines​

Here is an example of an old German document with Fraktur and handwritten text.

Techniques in Deciphering German Handwriting from Old Documents

There are four questions to consider when analyzing old German documents:

  1. What is the language of the document?
  2. Which alphabet(s) is/are used in the document?
  3. What is the general content?
  4. Who was the author?

The three principal languages of old German documents are German, Latin, and French. Most documents from the eighteenth century onward, including vital records, were written in German using the old Gothic handwriting. Many records produced by Catholic parishes were written in Latin, and many Cathloic scribes used a type of handwriting that strongly resembles the handwriting taught in schools today. Many documents from areas close to French territories, or areas that were occupied by the French military, were written in French. These documents also used handwriting based on the Latin handwriting alphabet.

The Fraktur alphabet was frequently used the in the titles and headers of old German documents. Much of the rest of the information was handwritten. It was customary for scribes to write family names in Latin script, and you may see this occasionally.

The content of the document can often be inferred from the author or authoring institution. Vital records, such as birth records, were not kept by the state until the early 1800's. Many local Catholic and Lutheran churches recorded births, christenings, marriages, and deaths. Emigration records were generally kept by the local government. Your main sources for genealogical records are church archives and state archives.

Document Extraction Guidelines

Extraction is the process of obtaining essential information from old documents. Essential information includes, but is not limited to, given name, surname, date of birth, place of birth, date of christening, date of marriage, place of marriage, name of spouse, date of emigration, destination of emigration, and date and place of death. The challenge of extraction is finding the necessary information when it is embedded in extraneous details.

Many family history researchers are not interested in recognizing and understanding every word in every entry they encounter. Many read only for specific surnames, then stop to determine if the person in question was a member of the family, then read for details until they have what they need to continue. In general, column-entry pages can be read with greater speed than paragraph entries, but in column-entries the surname of the principal is usually underlined or written in Latin handwriting, making the reading task much easier. Whatever the format of the record, each entry can be analyzed more efficiently by using the following tactics:

  1. Locate the principal person or persons (e.g., child and parents, bride and groom, deceased person).
  2. Determine the dates (whether expressed in numbers or words) of birth, christening, marriage, death and burial, recording date, and event date.
  3. Identify the verbs: geboren (born), getauft (christened), verheiratet (married), gestorben (died), and begraben (buried).
  4. Find the place names, such as home town, parish town, and county.
  5. Identify the occupations and/or status of important persons (e.g., farmer, butcher, widow, citizen, councilman, church elder).
  6. Determine the names of sponsors, pastors, and witnesses.
  7. Determine important adjectives: verstorben (deceased), ehelich/unehelich (legitimate/illegitimate), ledig (unmarried), ehemalig (former), etc.
  8. Locate other important numbers, such as time of day (morgens, nachmittags, or nachts), age of the principal, and address.
  9. Identify miscellaneous elements, such as stylistic terms, boilerplate, signatures, and comments by the scribe.

Depending upon the extent of detail sought, some researchers will be satisfied after identifying the types of information included in items 1-5 above. Each researcher will need to decide how much detail must be gleaned from a given record. It is not imperative to process the entire entry in every case. After all, some records include great amounts of extraneous information.

Having learned old German Script and having read through these guidelines, you are now ready to begin extracting. On the following page you will find a sample document with much of the information specified above. This document is only one of the myriad types you will encounter in genealogical research.


Much of the text on this page was adapted (with permission) from p. 45 of Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents: Analyzing German, Latin, and French in Vital Records Written in Germany by Roger P. Minert (GRT Publications: Provo, Utah, USA, 2001). Please consult this resource for more detailed guidelines of document extraction.