School Days

You’re never too old to learn!

Anyone who has talked to me about genealogy has heard me say, “I come from a long line of peasants.” Unlike the celebrities on the TV shows, there’s no trace of Charlemagne or Edward Longshanks on my tree, despite an unexplained 25% “England, Wales, & Northwestern Europe” showing up in my DNA. Nor is there any lineage society in my future!

The records confirm that assertion. My great-grandfathers were identified in the US census records as “farmers.” Their ancestors in Germany or Alsace showed up as “Bauer,” “Ackermann,” “Taglöhner,” or “cultivateur,” in various records (German: farmer, farmer, day-laborer; French: farmer). An occasional linen weaver or cheese maker was thrown into the mix. Their occupations and status in town was fairly consistent, until I came upon my 4th great grandfather, [Johann] Jacob Meintzer, “teacher and farmer in Volksberg,”¹ in Alsatian Connections.

Teacher and farmer? That seemed like an odd combination. I took it at face value, though, because the compiler had no real incentive to overstate Johann Jacob’s position in the town. What do I know about him, though?

He was the father of my 3rd great grandfather, Johann Philippe Adam (Reunion), and his siblings, Jacob (Ten) and Catherine. For years, Johann Jacob was the earliest ancestor on my Meintzer line. Our Alsatian cousins recently linked him to Meintzers from Karlsruhe, Germany (less than 75 miles from Volksberg). I need to investigate that possible connection, at some point, to make sure everything lines up.

Alsatian Connections only provided

  • Johann Jacob’s occupations (above)
  • that he died before July 1787
  • he married Anna Elisabetha Philippi on 10 May 1768, in Volksberg
  • she was born in Volksberg, 30 May 1742
  • she died in Volksberg, Frimaire 23rd, year 14 (French Republic calendar— translates to 14 December 1805)

That’s a pretty basic sketch. Ms. Wesner used several sources for her compilation:

  • church record books and civil records
  • The Alsace Emigration Book, by C. Schrader-Muggenthaler
  • Eighteenth Century Emigrants from the Northern Alsace to America, by A. Kunselman Burgert

I decided I should try to verify the occupations, so I looked to the trusty Bas-Rhin Archives to hopefully find actual records from Volksberg. It was a good plan, unfortunately, the Protestant parish registers (births, marriages, & deaths) didn’t begin until 1772, with the civil registers even later—1792! Jacob’s & Elisabeth’s marriage in 1768 won’t be there.

Even worse (can it be worse?), the one register was bare-bones. Births have the date, child’s name, parents’ names; no ages, occupations, or birth places of parents. Marriages aren’t much better—date, groom, bride. Deaths have the date, name, age. Parents of young children are the only other people mentioned. Sigh. It makes it difficult to determine if it’s the right person/record. I can’t confirm whether Jacob was born in Karlsruhe or Volksberg from anything in those records. The other register had the paragraph format, but difficult handwriting and poor (or absent) margin notes for who the record was for. Wading through those 35 images would be its own project!

After 3 days of banging my head on the keyboard, what had I actually found? Not what I had hoped!

  • his 1785 April 16 death record, Jo. Jacob Mein[t]zer, 59 years, 6 months (buried the 20th)
  • Philippe Adam’s 1775 birth record
  • marriages for Johann Jacob’s sons (but not Catherine)—but without parents’ names or occupations!
  • numerous births, and several deaths, for his grandchildren. I was able to fill in Catherine’s family quite nicely! It didn’t help with confirming Johann Jacob’s teacher occupation, though.

All in all, it was a frustrating several days. I was grateful for the information I found, but none of it actually clarified the issue of where his “teacher” claim came from. I can only assume other records exist (or existed) locally, that aren’t online, yet. I may need a road trip, but am not sure whether it needs to be to the town(s), or to Strasbourg, where the Archives is located.

Meanwhile, I’ll have to take Johann Jacob’s “teacher” occupation on faith. Last year I finally found time to read my copy of Our Daily Bread: German Village life, 1500-1850, by Teva J. Sheer. I’d picked it up years ago, but hadn’t gotten around to it. I brought it along on a cruise. She created a fictitious town and main character to paint an image of everyday life, based on the research she’d done. The end notes are 23 pages long, and bibliography is 16 pages! She wrote about German towns, but it seems reasonable that Germanic-influenced Alsace might operate in a similar fashion.

I was surprised to discover that the teacher (Lehrer) was considered an official position in the town² (p. 75). Later on, she explained the teacher “enjoyed little status and less income.”² (p. 132) My mistake was thinking about the job in a present-day context. The picture she painted was considerably different:

A large part of his income derived from his collateral duties. He usually served as the church sacristan; as such, his responsibilities included church building maintenance, acting as assistant to the pastor, and serving as the village scribe at court and other village meetings. In addition, he frequently served as choirmaster and organist . . . musical skills . . . were often value more highly than their academic knowledge or teaching experience . . . provided . . . a dwelling with a small garden, but the dwelling also served as the village school . . . received a small monthly payment from the parents of each child . . . Prior to the 19th century . . . schoolmaster was typically a community member with little education himself.

Teva J. Scheer, Our Daily Bread: German Village Life, 1500-1850 (Adventis Press, 2010), p. 132.

That description kind of took me down off my high horse about having a “teacher” in my ancestry! It reminded me, though, not to drag my 20th- and 21st-century mentality and assumptions into earlier centuries. I also need to pull myself out of FamilySearch and Ancestry.com every once in a while for some non-lineage research. That will help me process the evidence I find in the right context and better understand what I’ve found.

Looks like my 18th-century school teacher had one more lesson to teach!

#52Ancestors


¹Doris Wesner, Alsatian Connections, Volume 1: Family Genealogies of Alsatian Emigrants to America (Apollo, Pennsylvania: Closson Press, 1995), p. 213.

²Teva J. Scheer, Our Daily Bread: German Village Life, 1500-1850 (Adventis Press, 2010).

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