Geneanet > Resources > Blog > Genealogy News

Finding Your Ancestors From Alsace-Lorraine

Posted by Sean Daly on Aug 5, 2023
Scenes of Alsace

Alsace and Lorraine are two distinct regions in eastern France, each with a long and storied history, and coveted by empires and states. “Alsace-Lorraine” refers specifically to the lands where Germanic dialects are spoken: upper and lower Alsace and the Moselle valley in Lorraine. Explanations.

Researching ancestors from Alsace-Lorraine — including upper and lower Alsace, the Moselle valley in Lorraine, and the small Territoire de Belfort, carved out of Alsace in 1871 — is a challenge for any genealogist. This region, for centuries a state of the Holy Roman Empire, dotted with duchies, from the 17th century changed hands between French and German administration five times — most recently in 1944! Lorraine was long a French-speaking region, except for the northeast (the département or county of Moselle) where there are several German dialects. But what about Alsace — is it essentially French, or German? The question is nonsensical. Alsatian (French: Alsacien, German and Alsatian: Elsässisch), a living language spoken throughout the region, is of course a German dialect. But Alsatians will tell you: Alsace is a region with its own culture, language, traditions, and laws, which from the Révolution largely preferred their rights and relative autonomy under France compared to the German Confederation and later Empire. Alsatians feel a strong identity: even today, in Alsace, you may hear the Frenchmen beyond the Vosges called “les Français de l’intérieur” (the French of the interior). Importantly, Alsace has had a long history of tolerance between Catholics, Protestants (Lutherans and Calvinists), and Jews (without however forgetting the pogroms and residence/occupation restrictions of the Middle Ages, nor the events of World War II, when most Jews escaped to elsewhere in France although thousands were then arrested and deported). Since 1992, the European Parliament meets in Strasbourg, a symbol of Franco-German cooperation after the three most recent wars.

In the 1920 US federal census, enumerators were instructed to note the country of origin and spoken language of each person counted. With the anti-German sentiment of World War I, some immigrants from “Alsace-Lorraine” would point out they were French speakers, even if they spoke Alsatian at home.
An Alsatian family. From the Geneanet Postcards collection.
The stork is a symbol of Alsace! This illustration is by beloved artist Jean-Jacques Waltz, known as “Hansi” or Uncle Hansi”.
Elsaß-Lothringen: Alsace-Lorraine. BNF-Gallica.
The Zabern Affair: in October 1913, a young Prussian officer insulted Alsatians with an epithet, upsetting people throughout Alsace. Satirists bemoaned the lack of autonomy and burdens of being part of the German Empire. BNF-Gallica.
In France during the German Imperial administration of Alsace-Lorraine, the two regions were often represented as maidens in traditional costume. In the background, the silhouette of Strasbourg Cathedral. BNF-Gallica.

A very brief history of Alsace and Lorraine

The Rhine valley between the Vosges and Black Forest mountain ranges, and the valley of the Moselle River which flows through Lorraine, have always been fertile and inhabited lands; the Romans conquered the Celts and began the long tradition of vine-growing. The Alamanni displaced the Romans, then the Franks arrived and were Christianized by the 7th century. The Lorraine region, named after Lothar II (a great-grandson of Charlemagne) and the home of Jeanne d’Arc, is twice as large as Alsace, but only the the Moselle valley in the northeast was part of later Alsace-Lorraine. Alsace, along the west bank of the Rhine River, and including the Vosges mountain range, was considered a natural western border of the Germanic peoples to the Vosges, and a natural eastern border of the French to the Rhine. No wonder the region changed hands so many times!

Some key dates concerning Alsace-Lorraine

  • 1648: The Peace of Westphalia ended the destructive Thirty Years’ War, with the Hapsburgs of Austria (with roots in Alsace!) and Louis XIV of France redrawing the maps of their borders, with the lands west of the Rhine going to France. In particular, to promote the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, a degree of autonomy in local rights, languages, laws, and traditions was granted to Alsace which continues to this day (for example, the exemption for Alsace-Moselle from France’s 1905 law separating church and state). Immigration from Switzerland and to a lesser extent Austria.
  • 1685: The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was not applied in Alsace, although there was anti-Protestant pressure. Administrations were required to produce documents in French, although there were exceptions including Strasbourg.
  • 1716: emigration of Alsatians to Louisiana (town of Des Allemands).
  • 1784: Census of Jews in Alsace. Seven years later, Jews are accorded the same rights as other French citizens; many Alsatian Jews moved to cities, while others went to Paris.
  • 1789: With the French Révolution, the local laws and exceptions in Alsace were suspended. The next year the départements (counties) of Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin were created.
  • 1792: “La Marseillaise”, France’s national anthem, is composed in Strasbourg by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. A year later, civil registration begins throughout France (made complicated by the use of the Republican calendar! In your Geneanet tree, use our Calendar Converter feature to convert dates from/to Gregorian, Julian, French Republican, and Hebrew calendars).
  • 1815: Napoléon defeated; Alsace occupied by the victorious armies.
  • 1820: Beginning of Alsatian emigration to New York which continued throughout the century. Many headed to the Midwest and settled in Chicago, or in Waterloo County, Ontario.
  • 1830: Beginning of Alsatian emigration to Algeria which continued over four decades, with a final wave following the Franco-Prussian War.
  • 1871: Following the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace and the Moselle valley of Lorraine were consolidated into a state called Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen under the direct control of the German Empire’s Kaiser. France paid Germany an indemnity of five billion francs. The unconquered French-speaking town of Belfort at the southern tip of Alsace became a territory and later a new French département (county). Alsace’s major textile industry lost the French market, with stiff competition in the new German market. Alsatians were required to state their allegiance, to France or Germany; those who chose France (the “optants”) left Alsace, some emigrating to the United States.
  • 1887: German language imposed in Alsace-Lorraine.
  • 1911: Alsace-Lorraine was granted a constitution instead of imperial control from Berlin.
  • 1913: the Zabern Affair: a young Prussian military officer insulted Alsatians; the Kaiser sided with the army.
  • 1914: With the outbreak of war, most young men who had grown up as German citizens were conscripted into the German army, although about 18,000 joined the French army. Alsatian conscripts were not generally sent to the Western Front, but the Eastern Front and the navy.
  • 1918: Following World War I, Alsace and Moselle were reintegrated to France; over 100,000 Germans returned to Germany; many were expelled by commissions. The short-lived Alsace-Lorraine Soviet Republic was suppressed. Alsatians were disappointed to discover that workers’ rights had been better in Germany than in France.
  • 1933: As the Nazis gained power, Jews from Germany and Central Europe arrived in Alsace until the outbreak of war.
  • 1939: Many Alsatian Jews fled Alsace. Following the defeat of France in 1940, most remaining Jews were expelled. Alsace and the Moselle département were annexed by Nazi Germany to the neighboring German states of Baden and Westmark respectively, without a treaty (Vichy France did not press Germany on the matter). French speaking and place names were suppressed. The Struthof concentration camp was established. From 1942, young men (most of whom had already served in the French army) were conscripted into the German army (the “malgré-nous”), most sent to the Eastern Front.
  • 1944: Alsace-Lorraine was liberated and reintegrated to France (the historical region of Germanic dialects is now called “Alsace-Moselle”). Most of the “malgré-nous” who had survived Soviet detention returned, but some remained in POW camps well into the 1950s.
In 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War, Alsatians were required to choose either French or German nationality; many chose French. These records of the “Optants” are very useful for genealogists!
Ettendorf, Alsace. BNF-Gallica.

A key step — locating your ancestor’s town or village

Record keeping in Alsace and Lorraine has been reliable since the Napoleonic Code was introduced in the early 19th century, and records stayed in the municipality where they were created; copies have been digitized in each of the current French départements, and are available free online. However, to look up a register entry, you need to know your ancestor’s name, town, date, and type of record. If you have only partial info, start with a name search at Geneanet: if you are lucky, your ancestor is already in one of our 1.8 million trees! And use our Origin of Last Names heatmap feature, particularly useful if your family has an unusual name. If you are Premium member, you will have access to the available indexes at Geneanet (BMD, census, military conscription) for the départements of Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin, Moselle, and Territoire de Belfort.

Geneanet’s Origin of Last Names feature builds a heatmap from 1.8 million family trees. The name WILLER before 1900 has a very strong correlation with Alsace!

Birth, marriage, and death (BMD) records can be found in French or German for the same person; some older records are in Latin. Keep in mind that German records may be written in Sütterlin script, which can be quite a challenge for the uninitiated. See our article “Resources for German Genealogy” for tips and tools to help you decipher these, or find someone who can! Use France’s Tables Décennales — indexes compiled every ten years — to locate a certificate number in the registers. Our article “Searching for French Ancestors with the Tables Décennales” tells you how.

Guebwiller in the Vosges mountains of Alsace.. Image: Visit Alsace

Resources for Alsace-Lorraine genealogy


Are there any records on the immigration of German religious groups from Alsace to Russia in the 1800’s? A lot of these eventually immigrated to the Dakotas in the United States.

Tring to find out the town were the Doucette’s are from and if I have any family there or if the Gariepy’s are from there also and if there family there.

See more

Log in to leave a comment. Sign In / Sign Up