Decipherer of 19th-C. German wanted

Hi to both my fellow Citizen Archivist Transcribers, to National Archives/NARA staffers, and to anyone else who might see this message.

For some months now, I have been working on a National Archives Catalog File Unit -- this one:  -- with some other Transcribers (most-recently, one whose username is "Tooker").

The File Unit (which has been a featured document on the Citizen Archivist Missions page for quite a while now) concerns a Civil War Prize Case concerning a Confederate blockade runner (captured in 1864) called the Advance; the NARA title for the File Unit is "United States vs. A. D. Vance" (it seems that during Admiralty proceedings, "A. D. Vance" was also used as a name for the ship in question.)

The overwhelming majority of the documents within this File Unit are in English, but Image 189 contains an envelope and a letter (apparently found on the Advance when captured) which I believe (although I'm not certain) contain text which is overwhelmingly not in 1864 English (although the letter seems to have been sent from Danville, Virginia), but in 1864 German.

Neither "Tooker" nor I are familiar with German, the writing is such that I (myself) cannot make out many of the letters in the text (and in the letter, was able to make out "Gott", "wir" (I think) , "sind" (I believe), and 1 or more German words for "The" -- but not much else)... -- besides this, parts of a few words in the letter seem to be no longer present (these parts of the paper seem to have come apart from the document since 1864), and the Image itself is such that making out the words would be "challenging" even if the text were written in simple 1864 English.

Since just about all of the Images in this File Unit (including this one) have by now been at least partly Transcribed/worked-on, I believe that the File Unit will soon be "pulled" by NARA/National Archives staffers from the Citizen Archivist Missions page, so I am posting in hope that someone either among my fellow Citizen Archivist Transcribers or on the National Archives and/or NARA staff might see this and see if he or she has the skillset to decipher most of the content of Image 189 in the "United States vs. A. D. Vance" File Unit (or at least enough to give some indication to a reader of German what the message in the letter is).

I realize that this is a more difficult Image than most even without the fact that it's written both in a non-English language (which I guess is mid-19th-Century German) and in such a handwriting that deciphering the words may be trickier than deciphering many contemporaneous handwritings in English) -- but I hope that some reader may be able to decipher at least a considerable portion of the letter text (and preferably much of the envelope text as well); otherwise, I hope that this post may alert 1 or more Nstional Archives/NARA staffer (I have posted 1 or more Comment/s, but received no kind of response from any staffer) to the existence of this very-difficult-to-decipher non-English-language text found among mostly English-language materials.

Thanks to all who will read this message.


Ethan W. Kent/"EthanFromBellmore" in New York City.

  • I can't help with the German but I have been working on Mary Church Terrell's papers and there is some German in there. Some of the volunteer transcribers have been working on the German. Have you tried to post under the Crowd community? I'm reluctant to list their names without their approval but under Crowd there are German threads. Our moderators Lauren or Victoria, might be able to help you too.


  • Hi, Henry. (Thank you for replying (I just saw the reply today); Best Wishes to you for 2020 -- and I remember your name from when I was part of the "Crowd community" myself.)

    The short answer to your question is that No, I have not tried to post about this matter anywhere but here. (And since no one was replying here, I figured that nothing further would be done (at least as a result of my post here) .)

    A longer reply would be that it's been nearly 2 months since I posted the message which started this thread and pretty-much no more work is being done on that File Unit -- besides which, it might take an "expert" in 19th-century German handwriting (and I wasn't 100 percent sure even of the language of the text (perhaps dialectal? perhaps with non-standard spellings? perhaps not actually German at all (although I figured that the letter which composes most of the text in the Image was written to someone in what would within 10 years be the German Empire -- and located within what is now Germany)?) , as the writing was so undecipherable to me), and it might be best to have someone particularly-familiar with 19th-century German handwriting (including archaic ligatures, I think) to work on the Image's text's transcription.

    (As I have said, I was only able to spot a few recognizable words.)

    I may try to post to a Crowd Forum concerning this matter within the next few days. (Do you have a particular thread in mind -- or should I better contact Ms. Algee ("Lauren") or Dr. Van Hyning ("Victoria")?)

    That's about all I can say right now -- except Thanks for making the effort to reply, and to help.


    Ethan K. ("EthanFromBellmore") .

  • Hi Ethan-

    The people on this thread have done some German and a few of them have done some German I have come across doing Mary Church Terrell's papers. As I said before, I am reluctant to give names without their permission but if you post there you may get some feedback.

    Good luck,


  • Hi, folks, I'm one of the people Henry told about this. Yes, it's German, no, I can't read it. Danville does seem to be where they sent it from, but I can say that it seems to be the 1st page only of a letter. There is bleed-through (from the back page, which isn't included?). It's addressed to: Mrs. Catharina Klaus, Rülzheim/An Katharina Klaus [??] Rülzheim [Rins??] by Landau

    The letter starts with: Danville Va. August 15 [?] 1864 [Y??] Katharina

    Feel free to use this if it helps. I also can make out littler words, like Gott, das ist, etc. But you know, it took me an hour to do this, and it worked because of the capital letters. It would take a long time to finish, in part because it's so hard to read due to the bleed-through. So I am going back to Mary Church Terrell's more readable German in her diaries.

    Sorry I couldn't do more!

    Sharon McKinley

  • I showed the image to a friend of mine who is more fluent in German than I am.  Here is her response:

    "It’s in altschrift! That’s what makes it so hard to read (plus that it’s bled through from side two). That’s a lettering system that was dropped after WWII under occupation. The penmanship is actually pretty clear IF you can read altschrift, which I can’t really. (If somebody else is reading it slowly, I can make out the letters after the fact). Any octogenarian native-speaking German should be able to read this with ease. Same with any bookish native speaker, because there would have been plenty of adults who wrote their grocery lists and everything else in this script when they were growing up."

    Best Wishes,


  • Dear Sharon,

    Thanks for taking the time to look at the Image in question and at the bits of transcription that "Tooker" and I were able to get from it -- and for taking the time to add to this discussion.

    I'm sorry that I have not replied to you or to Henry Rosenberg (Thanks to Henry for posting again) -- or to (the much more recent post by) Karen Woodworth before this.

    (And Thanks for confirming that reading the text of the Image in question is not easy for 21st-century persons (even those who can read modern German handwriting). )

    I'll be replying to Ms. Woodworth's post shortly (within minutes, I think).

    Best Wishes to you (and Henry R.) for a good 2020.

    Ethan W. Kent/"EthanFromBellmore" -- in New York City.

  • Dear Karen/Ms. Woodworth,

    Thank you very much for your post concerning the Image I wrote about at the start of this thread -- and for showing the image to your friend who is "more fluent in German" than you are; please thank your friend for taking the time to look at the image and for her response.

    (I also appreciate your friend's noting that the fact that material had "bled through" from the back of the page seen in the Image adds to the difficulty of reading the text.)

    It was somewhat-cheering (when I first read your post) that your friend's reply suggested that not only scholars who have studied mid-19th-century German handwriting (the letter seen in the image is from the 1860s; I don't know when (earlier) , where, or how the writer learned to write German) , but some still-living persons who were schooled in German as recently as (well) before 1945 (and may be alive in the US -- or in Europe or elsewhere, and able to help with the transcription via the National Archives Catalog interface) could decipher the writing -- as well as "any bookish native speaker" of German (younger than in their 80s now?) who would have seen and read writing written by their elders. (It was also cheering to learn that the writing actually seemed relatively-clear  for writing of its type/of its era.

    I looked up "altschrift" via Google and Wikipedia, and that term actually seems to refer to a typeface (actually one relatively-close to modern English-language typefaces, known as Antiqua in English.

    If I understand correctly this English-language Wikipedia article:–Fraktur_dispute , this one:ütterlin,   and this one: (the latter article includes a reproduced page showing correspondences of handwritten German script letters and combinations-of-letters to the same letters/combinations in a printed typeface which would be easily read by 21st-century English-readers -- and if I or someone else wished to "tackle" the text in question, that could possibly used as a "key" to deciphering the old script ), the handwriting which Germans schooled between 1915 and 1941 were taught seems to have been an early-20th-century handwriting called "Sütterlin" (which differed from earlier 19th-century writing), and that handwriting style met its demise not so much as a result of occupation of Germany after World War II (it seems that there was some attempt to keep teaching it for a while in at least some schools in Germany as an additional style of handwriting -- and older Germans still often used the handwriting which they had learned as children), but due to an edict by the government of Nazi Germany in 1941. (Which would mean that persons living today who were taught Sütterlin writing in their school years would probably now be at least about 85 years old -- and the writing they had learned would not have been the writing seen in the 1860s letter in question.)

    (The "Antiqua-Fraktur dispute" article states:

    "Since few people remain who can read Kurrent, most old letters, diaries, etc. remain inaccessible for all but the most elderly German speakers. As a consequence, most German-speaking people today find it difficult to decipher their own parents' or grandparents' letters, diaries, or certificates." -- and I think this refers even to the early-20th-century Sütterlin script.)


    (I found this webpage from 2018 ("Do younger Germans still know how to read what my German teacher back in the 80s called "altschrift" (but is apparently really called 'Fraktur')?") :…  interesting -- including some statements from some not-so-young Germans that they are rare in being able to read the pre-1941 scripts (and that their having learned to read them was partly due to interest/curiosity -- and/or because they were involved with genealogy or (in their work) found it useful in deciphering old wills and such).)


    So: I'm glad that your friend found the writing relatively-clear (as it were) apart from the antiquity of the script and from the difficulties caused by the "ble[e]d[ing]"-through from the back of the page; perhaps I should ask Ms. Van Hyning (*Victoria") or Ms. Algee ("Lauren") of "CROWD"/"By the People" -- or their counterparts for National Archives Catalog "Citizen Archivist" work -- what they suggest be done to interest some transcriber to (perhaps using the "key" illustration I found in the Wikipedia article on German-language "Kurrent" handwritings) tackle the image in question so that not only bits of it will be transcribed.

    Best Wishes to you (and your friend) for the year 2020.


    Ethan W. Kent/"EthanFromBellmore" -- in New York City.

  • Hey, Ethan;

      Thanks for your good wishes. We're certainly a nice community of relative strangers!

      Can you get the owners of this stuff to post the back page? Seems hardly worth looking at half of an incomplete letter. I have located someone who might be able to do it, but I hate to sic her on it as it stands.


  • Hi to everyone who will read this; Thanks to Sharon (Ms. McKinley) for your latest post to this thread 2 weeks ago.

    (I'm sorry that I did not reply sooner, but it took a while for me to act upon that post and contact my Community Managers for the Citizen Archivists program connected to the National Archives Catalog interface (the Image in question is from the National Archives Catalog), and I waited a while to see if there would be a reply concerning my message to the Community Managers.)

    The "owners of this stuff" (as you call this) could be called either "the American people" or "the federal government"; specifically, it is the United States National Archives.

    I do not yet know why only part of the letter in question seems to have been both scanned and posted to the National Archives [online] Catalog -- as I have not yet received a reply explaining what happened in that respect (perhaps the sheet cannot be safely removed from wherever it now is/ cannot be safely flipped to its back?? (it is now over 150 years old) ) . (It might also be technically a problem to add another Image containing the rest of the letter to the File Unit as it is seen in the National Archives Catalog at this point (there would probably have to be renumbering of the images -- possibly with a need to take the whole digitized File Unit "offline"... -- but this is just my speculation, as I am very *un-* "tech-savvy".    )

    The "good news" which I can report is that I finally heard from 1 of the 2 Community Managers for the "Citizen Archivists" program, and that this Manager says that my previous message had been seen (but that her agency has been "short staffed, and that it would take some time to delve into the problems involved here) -- and that I should receive a reply next week.

    Sorry for the delay, and Thanks for saying that (which is true) that participants in History Hub are "certainly a nice community of relative strangers!".

    You can tell your friend/acquaintance who might be able to decipher more of the letter in question that the questions surrounding making more of the letter visible online are probably being looked-into, that the thread's subject in general seems to be looked-into, and that more information may be available concerning this soon.


    Thanks -- again -- to Henry Rosenberg, Karen Woodworth, and Sharon McKinley for keeping the thread I started alive after I thought that it would possibly lead nowhere.


    I thought I should post this before the end of this workweek; Best Wishes for a good weekend to anyone and everyone who may see this before Monday, January 27th.

    Bye (for now).

    Ethan W. Kent/"EthanFromBellmore" at the National Archives Catalog (and in History Hub).

  • Hi there,

    Thank you to everyone for your interest in transcribing this record! It is certainly an interesting one. Unfortunately, we do not know of any colleagues who are experts in 19th century German handwriting, and we are unable to confirm the contents of the transcription with absolute certainty.

    It may be that we are never able to fully decipher the contents of this record, and that is OK. As we tell all of our transcribers: do your best, and use your best judgement. It is perfectly acceptable to add [untranslated German text] to the transcription to identify the words in this section.

    Thank you again for your time and attention to these records. There are many thousands of pages of records available to transcribe in our Catalog, so there are many stories to unlock! We appreciate all your work as citizen archivists.


    Community Manager, National Archives Catalog