Searching For Family Ties In Strasbourg: The Story Of A Serendipitous Encounter, Helpful Hilton Staff & A Beautiful Cat

Searching for my roots in Strasbourg. © 2012 Ralph Grizzle

Serendipity Strikes

A couple of years ago, I received an email from an Avid Cruiser reader that suggested I may be related to her husband. His last name, Griswold, could, of course, be a derivation of my last name, Grizzle.

Becky, who bills herself as an “Independent Research Professional” with an interest in genealogy, asked if I could provide some basic information about my father’s family. I gladly obliged, eager to learn more.

We corresponded back and forth, and after a few months of email exchanges, Becky sent me a long document tracing the paternal side of my family back ten generations to my seventh great grandfather.

He was listed as John Grissel when he immigrated to America in 1722. He died at age 45, in 1740, owner of 138 acres in Chesterfield County, Virginia, as John Grizzle.

In a life spanning only 4.5 decades, he fathered four sons from his marriage to Elizabeth Elam in 1718, who presented the will of John Grissell upon his death. Clearly, my last name evolved through a series of spellings and mispellings.

But where did John (or could it have been Jean at one time?) come from? He immigrated to America, but from where? My great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather’s origins became my quest.

Helpful Hilton Strasbourg Staff

That is how I came to search for my last name in Strasbourg. I had never been to this lovely city, and yet, this year, I’ve been three times, all because of river cruising. Sunday, in fact, I board a luxury barge for six nights. I’ll begin writing about that journey and posting photos from what promises to be a beautiful voyage.

I found derivations of my last name in Strasbourg. There is one Grisel and one Grisselle in the phone book. If my French were better, I would have knocked on their doors already. Instead I knocked on the door of Richard Bulow, who does genealogy research in Strasbourg. It was an odd, but rewarding encounter, but first let me tell you how I found Richard.

Bob, the friendly concierge at Strasbourg Hilton, helped me find Richard and provided me with directions. The general manager Katharina Schlaipfer kindly arranged a bicycle for me (Strasbourg has more than 500 kilometers of dedicated bike paths making it a pleasure to pedal the city). I cranked along for about 20 minutes looking for an office on Rue du Jura. Instead, I found an apartment.

An Encounter With A Cat

I arrived on time, precisely 2 p.m. Surely, though, I had the wrong address. An old woman, speaking no English, stood in an open doorway. “Oui, oui,” she said, indicating that she had been expecting me. She led me to an elevator, up three floors, and knocked on a door. “Je suis le mère,” she said, which I understood to mean that she was the mother of the man who opened the door.

Richard greeted me with academic interest, that is to say neither warm nor cold, but with a “let’s get on with it” approach. His apartment smelled of smoke and cats. I learned that he raises and sells beautiful Birman cats. One was stretched out on the couch, distinguished by its medium-long hair, pale colored body with a few dark dabs and deep blue eyes.

The visit turned out to be more interesting than what we were able to uncover about my relatives. I had come here only on a hunch, having seen on that John Grissel could have been from Alsace.

Richard’s questions were discouraging, however. Did I know the village where John Grissel was born? No. Did I have a death certificate? No. Marriage certificate? No. Death certificate of his first son? No.

He shrugged his shoulders in that sympathetic way that only a Frenchman can do, then stepped away and came back with a few books that included family names from the region. There were many derivations of spelling, meaning the search would prove to be challenging.

Though his English was understandable, Richard struggled to tell me that had I been searching for a relative born after the French Revolution, 1789-1799, my quest would have been easier, as records were better organized and in French.

As I was searching for a relative born in 1695, my challenge would be to first discover the village, then go online to search the archives of Bas-Rhin, a resource I discovered from a helpful young woman, Geraldine, a press officer at Strasbourg’s tourism office.

As I sat in her office, she phoned the archives department for tips that might help me with my search. Speaking in French to the person on the other end, Geraldine laughed at one point in a way that suggested disbelief.

What did she laugh about? First, you need to know a little history about Alsace. France and Germany exchanged control of Alsace a few times over the past centuries. Thus, the city came to have two predominant religions, Catholicism and Protestantism. The church, of course, kept records of births and deaths, and all of the records were in books that were scanned and browsable online, remarkable really.

However, the Protestant birth records were in German; the Catholic records, in Latin. So now I not only had to discover the village of my seventh-great-grandfather’s birth but also learn Latin.

My quest will continue, and maybe it will take me to other places. John Grissel also could have been Swiss or English, or maybe he came from someplace else altogether. I hope not. If he came not from this lovely region, I’m not so sure I want to know the truth.

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