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Ancestors in the Records:
Parish Records: Getting the Most Out of Parish Records

By Leslie Albrecht Huber
(first appeared in Heritage Quest, Summer 2005)

Anyone who has traced his or her family in Europe knows the importance of parish records. These records, which represent the key to genealogical research in Europe, document the basic events in people’s lives - births, marriages, and deaths and the church ordinances that went along with them (christening, marriage, and burial). For many peasants and lower class people (the great majority of the population in the nineteenth century and before), parish records may also be the only place information about the person was preserved.

Wading through parish records can be difficult. For most areas in Europe, the researcher confronts a foreign language. Also, writers in the 1800s and earlier used an older script, making many letters of the alphabet almost unrecognizable for those unfamiliar with it. Nearly illegible handwriting and pages faded from time and wear present a challenge as well. A birth record only three lines long can take lots of tedious effort to interpret. For these reasons, it’s tempting to just extract the core information and ignore anything else in the entry.

But, what many people may not realize is that parish records can contain a lot more useful facts about ancestors than simply birth, marriage, and death dates and places. Many recorders (usually the parish pastor or clerk) included addition information, either in other columns that were a standard part of the record, or just as details scribbled in the margins. This extra information can provide a link to the next generation, give hints to the names and residences of aunts and uncles, point toward an earlier marriage, or list previously unknown residences. In addition, occupations, causes of death, and other little pieces of information can tell you about the life experiences of your ancestor. By carefully studying and interpreting parish records, you can find important clues to your genealogical research as well as discover a lot of interesting tidbits about your ancestors.

Of course, parish records come with no guarantee to the amount or quality of the information they will contain. Much depends simply on what the recorder chose to write down. Some records, particularly early ones, give little information. A birth record may simply state, “On March 4, 1760 a son was born to William Harris.” Marriage records sometimes list only the name of the bride and groom, and death records can contain such sketchy information that it’s nearly impossible to tell who died, let alone gather any extra information about the family. Yet, just as some recorders chose to write only the bare minimum (or less), others chose to share their commentary and information freely.

Being aware of the types of useful information sometimes hidden in parish record entries can help you get the most out of these records. Below are some commonly occurring genealogical clues contained in parish records.

Names of Relatives

Information about relatives contained in parish records can assist in tracing a family line further. Marriage records, particularly, often provide information about the previous generation of a family, aiding in taking that next step back on the family tree. As many researchers know, marriage records often provide the names of the bride and groom’s parents. The name of the bride’s father is most likely to be included, although if the bride has been married before, the record will likely contain her previous husband’s name instead.

Many marriage records go beyond this. It’s not uncommon to find the name of the groom’s father and possibly even the mother of both the bride and the groom. In addition to listing parents’ names, records may provide information about them. For example, in the column for the bride’s father, the record could read, “Christian Gienken, the deceased farmer from Gross Laasch.” With an entry like this, you have a timeframe for the father’s death, and know his occupation and one place of his residence. Likely, if you looked in the Gross Laasch death records in the years leading up to the marriage, you would find a farmer by this name.

Death records also commonly contain information about certain relationships. In many cases, the death record of a child gives the name of the father, and sometimes the mother. For adult women, and sometimes men, the name of the surviving spouse is listed. A few recorders go further. Occasionally, the death record of an adult will tell the person’s parents’ names in addition to the spouse’s name. Dorothea Warning Hacker, one of my ancestors who lived to be seventy-three (although her death record claims she was seventy-five), has a particularly useful death record. It tells that her parents were the daily worker Johann Christian Warnke (or Warning) from Nevern and Sophia Engel. Finding that record enabled me to fill in Dorothea’s mother’s name on family group sheets for the first time.

Although often overlooked as a source of information for relatives, birth records can also provide clues about other family members. Many christening records list witnesses for the event as well as the residence of each witness. Witnesses can be neighbors or friends, but they often include family members too. Sometimes the record states the relationship of the witness to the child, making the job of the researcher easy. For example, it may say, “Karna Nilsdotter, grandmother.”

Perhaps more often though, no relationship is given. Then, you must play the role of a detective in determining who the witnesses are and their relationships to the family. In addition to names of grandparents, check the witnesses for names of the mother or father’s siblings. Sometimes, careful study of witnesses can turn up spouses of siblings and residences previously unknown. In one of my Swedish families, the mother’s sisters or sister-in-laws appeared as witnesses in the christenings of many of her children. By using these records, I tracked down marriage and death records for these siblings who had moved to surrounding villages.

Witnesses can serve another purpose as well. If you’re trying to figure out which of two birth records belongs to your ancestor, witnesses can provide crucial evidence that links the child to the correct family.

Previous Marriages

Marriage records often provide information about previous marriages, if there were any. As always, the quality of information is inconsistent. As mentioned before, if the bride was married previously, many records will list her husband’s name instead of her father’s name. Other times, the record will only state that the bride or groom is a widow or widower. Generally, marriage records of widows give more information about previous marriages than similar records for widowers. Keep in mind, though, that no mention of a previous marriage isn’t a guarantee that one didn’t exist.

Sometimes you may get lucky and find a record with an abundance of helpful information. The marriage record of one of my ancestors explains not only that Johann Albrecht was a widower, but that his first wife, Elizabeth Schulze, died on February 14, 1833 while they were living in Osterburg. Before finding this record, I didn’t know anything about this first wife (from whom he had several children) or that the family had ever lived in Osterburg. The record also gives his birth date and place, his wife’s birth date, and the names of both of their fathers.

Places of Residence and/or Hometown

Many European peasants moved around on a regular basis, although within a small radius. This can make tracking a place of birth, the vital piece of information needed to find a birth record, difficult. However, other parish records can provide useful clues to this mysterious hometown.

Marriage records often list a hometown for the bride and groom. This town name may be the person’s place of birth or simply his or her most recent place of residence. Since marriages usually took place in the bride’s parish, learning the origin of the groom can be particularly useful. Although the town provided isn’t always the person’s birthplace, it does provide helpful information that you can use to trace your ancestor’s moves. This can eventually lead you back to his or her place of birth. As mentioned in the previous section, the marriage record may also name the bride and groom’s parents. In addition, it could include the parents’ place of residence, which can be a good starting point for finding a birth record. Similarly, the place of residence of a deceased spouse can point you to where the family lived before.

Less often, death records have clues. Most death records will only list the place of death of the deceased person. However, if the person recently moved to the area or was perhaps living with a son or daughter only temporarily, it’s possible that the recorder included a previous place of residence.

Occupation

Occupations are a common piece of information to find in parish records. The occupation of the father is often present in christening records, while marriage records commonly contain this information for the groom and/or father. Even death records sometimes give the occupation of adult males (although some death records describe older, retired men only as widowers or “old-timers” instead of listing their previous occupation).

Paying attention to your ancestors’ occupations can prove valuable for a number of reasons. For one thing, it can help differentiate between two people in the same village with the same name. While one William Taylor may be a farmer, another may be a blacksmith. Also, if your ancestor has always appeared as a bricklayer, and suddenly you find a record describing him as a farmhand, you may want to double check to be certain you haven’t accidentally found another person with his name.

Occupations can also tell subtle stories of family fortune. A young married man may be a farmhand in the birth of his first two children, but then a homeowner or owner of a full-sized farm in the birth of his third child. This could mean he inherited the family farm (perhaps his father died between the second and third birth, or simply decided to retire). Other times, a man may be a farmer for a number of years and then suddenly sink in status to a worker or laborer, showing that he lost his land somehow.

Knowing your ancestor’s occupation also tells you quite a bit about what his and his family’s lives were like. Landless unskilled workers, such as servants, day laborers, or workers, usually eked out a miserable existence. These ancestors probably moved frequently looking for employment. Ancestors who owned land, on the other hand, probably stayed in one place since they had a tie to the land. They also enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle.

Age

Most death records include the age of the deceased person. This can be used to determine the approximate date of birth. Remember though, that ages in death records aren’t totally reliable, particularly for older people. The recorder may have just guessed the person’s age, without bothering to ask anyone. For a person new to the village or for an older person, no one may have really known how the old the person was. Don’t be too distressed if an age at death is off by a number of years. Obviously, ages at death listed for children tend to be more accurate. Also, some rare but useful parish death records include a birth date in the death record. Although these can be incorrect as well, they tend to be more accurate than ages.

Other Details

Parish records can be packed full of other helpful details. Some information was included on a routine basis. For example, many death records provided a place for the cause of death. Although some of these early diagnoses are slightly puzzling, the information is always interesting. Small pox, fevers, chest illness, typhoid fever, “unexplained childhood illness,” and pneumonia, are just a few of the common causes of death found in early parish records. Records may state that an older person died simply of “old age.” Looking at these causes of deaths can tell stories of tragedy, as illness often wreaked devastation on an entire family, claiming several family members in one swoop. In one of my ancestor’s families, the mother and two grown daughters died within weeks of each other, all from typhoid fever.

Occasionally, a pastor may have expanded beyond the name of the illness, giving rare insights into a person’s life. This happens in the case of Elisabeth Schmalfeld, the third wife of one of my ancestors. In her death record in September of 1830, the pastor explained that shortly after Christmas last year, someone found her outside on a very cold day. She had gotten lost in a snowstorm on her way to another town. Although she lived a number of months longer, she was always sick and never fully recovered.

Many pastors recorded information of interest in birth records as well. If a child was illegitimate, most made note of this. The pastor may indicate illegitimacy by only including the name of the mother in the record. Other pastors included the father’s name, but noted that the parents weren’t married. In some areas, the pastor wrote the name of the illegitimate child upside-down. A pastor may have also added a date when the parents married, if this event occurred later in the same parish.

Birth records can contain other types of information as well. Occasionally, some thorough pastors wrote the child’s death date beside the birth date. This happened most often among children that died only weeks or months after their births. On one side of my family, several birth records note that the child was born dead and therefore, never christened.

There’s always a chance for completely unexpected information to appear in a record. Pastors and clerks were free to add their own commentary. Sometimes recorders wrote a note next to someone’s name when the person moved to another town, immigrated to America, or joined another church. One record for my family provides the sad detail in the death record that the parish poor house supported the old man at the end of his life. Another record notes that the family was temporarily living with the mother’s sister.

Other Types of Parish Records

The information above gives hints on how to get everything out of the birth, marriage, and death records kept by nearly every parish. However, many parishes kept other kinds of records in addition to these three standard types. For example, some places kept confirmation records. These records often give the name of the child and parents as well as the confirmation and birth date for the child. In some countries, pastors kept detailed moving records, writing down the name of every person, or head of household, that moved into or out of his parish.

Finally, some lucky researchers will discover that their ancestors lived in a country where each village kept clerical survey records. For these records, the parish pastor visited the family every few years, often to test their knowledge of Luther’s Catechisms. For the genealogist, these records are incredibly helpful, not because of the marks given for religious knowledge (although this can be interesting), but because of the demographic information included. The pastor usually listed all the family members together, often with birth dates and places. He may have marked when a family member died, married, or moved away, making it the most complete record of the family available.

Although additional types of parish records don’t always provide information that can be used directly to fill in a blank on a genealogical chart, they can still be invaluable for learning more about your family and tracing them further back in time.

Figuring Out the Information

Once you’re convinced deciphering the parish record is important, you’re still stuck with the task of actually doing it! Staring at an unfamiliar word in an unfamiliar script can be daunting. First, don’t give up if you can’t make sense of the word or phrase immediately. Realize that figuring out the words in the entry may take a little time.

Then, make sure you understand what kind of information you’re trying to read. For example, if the information is included in a column, read the column title. Then, you at least know if you’re trying to uncover the name of a disease or a person. Then, familiarize yourself with the old script. Looking for similar words or letters on the same page can help ensure you are interpreting the letters correctly.

Finally, consult a genealogical word list or dictionary for help translating the word. You may have to try under a number of possible spellings (either because you mistook the letters for others or because the word was spelled incorrectly in the entry, something that happened very often) before you find the word you need.

As anyone doing European research would agree, parish records are a wonderful resource. By utilizing parish records, researchers can gather the important birth, marriage, and death dates and places they need to shape their families and trace their lines back.

But, hopefully now you believe that parish records are even more wonderful than this! The next time you find yourself stuck on a family line, try going back and studying the records you already have for the family. Find a good word list or genealogical dictionary as well as a sample copy of the letters in the old script. It may take a little patience and time, but going through the “extra” information in the records could provide all sorts of details you didn’t know before. It could very well make the difference in allowing you to trace your family further.