Genealogy Travel: Climbing the Family Tree in Alsace

Genealogy travel in Alsace

Four generations! Mary Rose (Dietrich) Sias as the matriarch, and the baby is me!

What is Genealogy Travel?

If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you probably love travel. Have you ever heard of genealogy travel? Ever thought of traveling with the goal of seeing where your ancestors were born or to learn more about your family history? We seem to have been practicing genealogy travel long before we knew it was a “thing,” but our trip to the Alsace region of France had ancestry research as a main goal. I had a few family stories and just one piece of paper to start from, my great grandmother’s birth registry in Anjoutey, a tiny town in Franche-Comté, just next to Alsace, in northeastern France. I was determined to learn more about this lady, Mary Rose Dietrich, who ran into the street in her nightgown (a veritable scandal, apparently) to announce to her neighbors that her great granddaughter (ME!) had been born on her birthday.

genealogy travel, Colmar

Half-timbered houses in bright colors, Colmar

Searching for Family

Families. They come in all shapes and sizes. Most people’s first thoughts are of Mom, Dad, sisters and brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. Some of us include our closest friends, those we’ve “collected” as family along the way. They belong right there too. We’re all made up of our experiences and the unique story we’ve created in life, but nature has its influence as well. The balance between nature and nurture has been debated throughout history: which has the stronger influence, and whether one can overcome the other.

Hunawihr, genealogy travel in Alsace

Overlooking Hunawihr, Alsace

Regardless of where we stand on those issues, we all come with a particular genetic package. It’s accepted science that our family history affects our chances of having certain health issues and physical characteristics, so it’s easy to believe we can inherit things that aren’t so visible too: personality traits, or affection for cinnamon. (I always remember reading the case of the “cinnamon girls,” twins raised apart who maintained a predisposed love of cinnamon despite totally different attitudes about it by their parents.)

“Despite different parental reactions, however, the twins maintained their craving. It could not be taught away . . .”  –from Nature’s Thumbprint: The New Genetics of Personality, By Peter B. Neubauer, Alexander Neubauer

Stories like that are fascinating to me. Whether we know our relatives and ancestors well, or not at all, if they hadn’t existed, neither would we. I wonder what I’ve inherited from them, and I want to know their story. In fact, learning people’s stories is one of the joys we get from travel. We have learned that genealogy travel, or travel with family ancestry research as a goal can be especially rewarding.

genealogy travel

Colmar Archives

Zeroing in on Alsace

I grew up hearing stories of “Alsace Lorraine.” I was always told it was a little strip of land that had sometimes belonged to Germany, and sometimes to France. They were known for great wines. Everyone said that my grandfather’s parents spoke German (I’m now convinced it was the Alsatian dialect they spoke.), but they identified themselves as French. My grandfather always made stollen, a braided bread with nuts and candied fruits for Christmas. His mother taught my grandmother how to make Knepfle, an Alsatian flour-based pasta. Their family name was Dietrich. The birth registry I had for my great-grandmother said that she was born Marie Rosalie Dietrich on February 20, 1887 to Joseph Dietrich and Rosalie Henrissat, who were living in Anjoutey, a tiny commune of the Territoire de Belfort.

For this trip, we decided to stay in an Airbnb (Friends who click this link get a $20 credit, and we get a referral bonus as well).  It was our very first Airbnb experience, and we were extremely happy with how it worked out. We chose the location based on proximity to the area I thought we’d find clues to my great grandparent’s story. Rougegotte is just 5 miles or so down the road from Anjoutey. Cottage Le Ginkgo is run by Géraldine and François. The apartment is open and bright, with a soothing, zen-like decor, incorporating the ginkgo theme. It’s a great jumping off point for discovering this beautiful area. Books and maps of the region got us oriented at first, but the assistance of our hosts in digging for information and translating documents was an invaluable part of or genealogy travel experience. Geraldine is an experienced researcher, and the couple’s local knowledge gave them access to key pieces of information I never would have found myself.

War memorial in front of Anjoutey Church, Territoire de Belfort

WWI Memorial at Anjoutey Church

The Dietrich/Henrissat Families

The Dietrich name is quite well-known in the region, and we began to see it pop up everywhere from the time we arrived in Strasbourg, the capital: from a car dealership to an antique shop to a winery. (I’m still trying to find a connection there!)  Starting in Anjoutey, though, my first discoveries were about Mary Rose’s maternal line, the Henrissat family. Fro the birth registry, we knew that Mary Rose (Marie Rosalie) was born in 1860 in Anjoutey. When we went to visit the church of Anjoutey, we found that a newly-discovered uncle of Mary Rose, Andre, was listed on the World War I Memorial in front. His headstone, listing his wife and son was just up the road in the town’s small cemetery. He and his family must have stayed behind when Mary Rose and her family set off for the US. From Anjoutey, we visited another town a few miles away, Rougemont le Chateau. This is the place where Mary Rose’s sister, Lucie was born. All the churches in the region were open no matter the time of day. We rarely saw a soul, but all of them were lovely. As a side trip from town, a nice hike in Rougemont led us to the ruins of a 12th century castle, Château de Rougemont. There’s so much history everywhere you look.

genealogy travel

Andre Henrissat and Family

Mary Rose’s mother, Rosalie Henrissat, was born nearby in Carspach, as were all of her siblings. Her family seems to have been there, within 20 miles or so, for as many generations as I could find. I was able to go back to my 6th great-grandfather on her side of the family, born in the 1750s! With the help of our Airbnb hosts, we discovered that Mary Rose’s father, Joseph Dietrich was actually from nearby Colmar. This fact came up after we had booked a few days there before we moved on. Colmar is a great destination on its own, but one of my favorite afternoons was spent in the Archives of the City Hall poring over old books and registries. It was thrilling to see the actual signatures of my ancestors, and hold the books in my hands. The writing was hard to read, and my French is very limited, but with the help of the head archivist, I got some wonderful details. Joseph was the youngest of eight children born to a shoemaker named Martin, who was also born in Colmar. I can imagine that opportunities for Joseph were limited and it must have been tough with all those kids in the house. He became a weaver. We learned that there was a big  textile operation near Rougegotte. Rosalie also worked in textiles, as a “smoother” of the fabrics, and they must have met somehow through their work.

genealogy travel

Anjoutey Cemetery

A Bit of History

Alsace lies on the west side of the Rhine River, nestled between it and the Vosges Mountains. To the north and east is Germany. To the west is the rest of France, and to the south German-speaking Switzerland. The regions of Alsace Lorraine and the Territoire of Belfort have been shaped by politics, war and geography. In 1860, when Rosalie and Joseph were born, the areas they lived in would both have been part of France, though the region has always maintained its distinctive Alsatian culture. The two would have been about 10 years old during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). After the war, from 1871 to 1918, Alsace-Lorraine (which included Colmar) became a German possession. From one year to the next, the records in the Archives change from being in French to being in the German language. The population living in the region was given the choice of choosing to remain French or to be German. Residents of the newly German region had to make their choice by 1872. If they wanted to be citizens of France, they were to move to France (since their home was no longer IN France). If they stayed, their citizenship would become German.  Over 100,000 people left their homes to “opt” for French citizenship. There are some great reads out there about the region, its people and its history.

Rosalie’s family lived very, very close to the border of Alsace with a tiny region called Territoire de Belfort. Belfort’s history is unique in that it was not annexed to Germany, but was retained by the French in the Treaty of Frankfurt of 1871. It makes total sense that Joseph and Rosalie ended up in this sort of neutral territory (which included the aforementioned Anjoutey and Rougemont where their daughters were born) before they emigrated to the US.

genealogy travel

Research in the Colmar Archive.

The Search Continues

I still have more research to do on the details of how the couple and their daughters arrived to the US in the 1890s, but they ended up in western Massachusetts in a town known for its connection to the textile industry. Joseph and Rosalie, and their daughters all worked in the mill. The couple had one more daughter, born in the US. Mary Rose went on to marry my great-grandfather, Chester Sias in 1907. He worked at the mill as well, and was known to be a master dyer, able to match any color brought to him. They had four children, including my grandfather, and passed away the year after I was born, 1971. I’d love to learn more about life in Alsace today and during the time my ancestors lived there. I learned so much in just two weeks, I can only imagine what more time could uncover. Maybe I could even find and meet some living relatives. Maybe they make wine!


genealogy travel

The house where Joseph Dietrich was born in Colmar!


About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.