German Census Records DO Exist

For a long time, German census records were thought not to exist. But they do! A leading German genealogy expert tells us how they’ve been discovered and catalogued—and where you can learn about German census records that may mention your family.

Thanks to James M. Beidler for contributing this guest article. Read more below about him and the free classes he’ll be teaching in the Genealogy Gems booth at RootsTech 2018 in a few short weeks.

German Census Records

German census records DO exist

One of the truisms of researching ancestors in America is that the U.S. Census is a set of records that virtually every genealogist needs to use.

From its once-a-decade regularity to its easy accessibility, and the high percentage of survival to the present day, the U.S. Census helps researchers put together family groups across the centuries.

On the other hand, the thing that’s most distinctive about German census records is that for many years they were thought not to even exist.

For Exhibit A, look at this quote from a book published just a few years ago: “Most of the censuses that were taken have survived in purely statistical form, often with little information about individuals. There are relatively few censuses that are useful to genealogists.”

The book from which the above statement was taken is The Family Tree German Genealogy Guide. And the author of that book is … uh, well … me!

In my defense, this had been said by many specialists in German genealogy. The roots of this statement came from the honest assessment that Germany, which was a constellation of small states until the late 1700s and not a unified nation until 1871 when the Second German Empire was inaugurated, had few truly national records as a result of this history of disunity.

As with many situations in genealogy, we all can be victims of our own assumptions. The assumption here was that because it sounded right that Germany’s fractured, nonlinear history had produced so few other national records, those census records didn’t exist.

A few census records from northern German states (see below) had been microfilmed by the Family History Library, but for all intents and purposes, a greater understanding of the “lost” German census records had to wait for a project spearheaded by Roger P. Minert, the Brigham Young University professor who is one of the German genealogy world’s true scholars.

Finding lost and scattered German census records

It can be said that Brigham Young University professor Roger Minert “wrote the book” on the German census. That’s because he literally did: German Census Records, 1816-1916: The When, Where, and How of a Valuable Genealogical Resource. A sample page is shown below.

Minert had a team help him get the project rolling by writing to archivists in Germany before he took a six-month sabbatical in Europe. During this time, he scoured repositories for samples of their German census holdings (To some extent, Minert’s project had echoes of an earlier work led by Raymond S. Wright III that produced Ancestors in German Archives: A Guide to Family History Sources).

What resulted from Minert’s project was the census book and a wealth of previously unknown information about German censuses.

While a few censuses date to the 18th century in the German states (some are called Burgerbücher, German for “citizen books”), Minert found that the initiation of customs unions during the German Confederation period beginning after Napoleon in 1815 was when many areas of Germany began censuses.

The customs unions (the German word is Zollverein) needed a fair way to distribute income and expenses among member states, and population was that way. But to distribute by population, a census was needed to keep count, and most every German state began to take a census by 1834.

Until 1867, the type of information collected from one German state to another varied considerably. Many named just the head of the household, while others provided everyone’s names. Some include information about religion, occupation and homeownership.

The year 1867 was a teeter-totter point Minert calls it “for all practical purposes the first national census.” Prussia—by then the dominant German state and whose king would become the emperor just a few years hence—spearheaded the census effort.

After the founding of the Second German Empire, a census was taken every five years (1875 – 1916, the last census being delayed by World War I). While there was some variance in data from one census to another, they all included the following data points:

  • names of each individual,
  • gender,
  • birth (year and, later, specific dates),
  • marital status,
  • religion,
  • occupation,
  • citizenship,
  • and permanent place of residence (if different from where they were found in the census).

While some of these censuses are found in regional archives within today’s German states, in many cases the census rolls were kept locally and only statistics were forwarded to more central locations.

Interestingly, there has been a lack of awareness even among German archivists that their repositories have these types of records! Minert says in his book that in three incidences, archivists told him their holdings included no census records, only to be proved wrong in short order.

Minert’s book goes through the old German Empire state by state and analyzes where researchers are likely to find censuses. For each state, there is also a chart on the pre-Empire censuses and what information they included.

Researchers wishing to access these records will often need to contact local archives. If you’ve uncovered a village of origin for an immigrant, you could contact them directly by searching for a website for the town, then emailing to ask (politely but firmly) whether the archives has census records.

FamilySearch has placed online German census records for Mecklenburg-Schwerin (18671890 and 1900; the one shown below is from 1867).

The Danish National Archives has some census records online for Schleswig-Holstein (much of the area was Danish until they lost a war with Prussia in 1864).

Other Census-Like Lists

In addition to these censuses, many areas of Germany have survivals of tax lists that serve as a record substitute with some data points that are similar to censuses. The lists generally show the name of the taxpayer and the amount of tax paid.

In some cases, versions of the lists that include the basis for the tax (usually the value of an interest in real or personal property) have survived. The lists may also include notes about emigration. Here’s a sample tax record from Steinwenden Pfalz.

Some of these tax lists are available in the Family History Library system.

The best “clearinghouse” that reports the holdings of various repositories in Germany is Wright’s Ancestors in German Archives. As with the census records, the best way to contact local archives directly would be to search for a website for the town. E-mail to ask whether such lists are kept in a local archive.

In my personal research, tax records have proved crucial. For example, they confirmed the emigration of my ancestor Johannes Dinius in the Palatine town of Steinwenden. These records showed the family had left the area a few months before Dinius’ 1765 arrival in America.

James M Beidler is the author of The Family Tree German Genealogy Guide and Trace Your German Roots Online

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems

How to Use Online Genealogy Trees and Hints Wisely

Is the tail wagging the dog in your genealogy research? Resist the temptation to jump at each hint and online family tree. Instead, take the lead in your own research and follow the scent of each clue with genealogical best practices. Here’s how…

Almost as soon as you start adding information to your family tree on any of the major genealogy records sites (AncestryMyHeritageFindmypast) you will start getting suggestions. These suggestions are known by a variety of names on the various sites, such as hints, Shaky Leaves, Smart Matches, record matches, etc. No matter what they’re called, they can be a great way to quickly make even more progress in growing your family tree.

There’s an old saying: you get what you pay for. In the case of hints, you have technically paid for them by subscribing to the genealogy website’s service. However, you didn’t pay for them through careful research following solid genealogical methodology. You haven’t yet verified their accuracy, or in the case of suggested online family tree, verified their sources.

how to use online trees and hints wiselyhow to use online trees and hints wisely

Online family trees are one of the most common types of hints you’ll receive. And it’s no wonder: there are billions of names entered in online family trees*, so your tree is very likely to match some of them.

However, with all those matching trees there are bound to be problems. If you’ve been wondering about the reliability and usability of other people’s online family trees being recommended as hints, you’re not alone. Keep reading to learn more about using information gleaned from other’s online family trees.

The question of trusting online family trees

Brenda is a Premium eLearning member, and she wrote me recently with a question about using online family trees:
“I’m just getting back into my genealogy research after 10 years of not having time. It seems that research has completely changed to online work! I’m getting [hints that link to other] family lines, but can I trust them?”

And this related question comes from Douglas: 

“Weekly, I get emails with family tree matches, asking me to confirm the match. My problem is not with the matching but with when I dig into their tree, the source for their information is another tree. That info may be a clue but I learned way back that the info needed to be backed up by good primary and sometimes secondary sources, not what somebody thought was right.  Info that I entered in my tree years ago and found subsequently to be wrong is still hanging out in a dozen trees. What is your opinion?”

My guess is that at some point you’ve had some of the same questions as Brenda and Douglas. Am I right? Well, even though it’s exciting to find someone who’s already built a family tree that includes your ancestors, it’s important to proceed with caution. Avoid the temptation to “graft” or copy the tree onto your tree.

That’s not to say you should ignore online trees. Instead, let’s discuss how reliable they are and how to use them wisely and responsibly.

How to use online family trees as hints

Douglas has stated the problem accurately. The researchers behind those tantalizing trees may have made mistakes or copied unfounded information without verifying it. Unfortunately, this is a very common occurrence.

Once copied to one tree, incorrect information can easily get picked up by others and copied over and over again. And the problem is made worse because the more it’s copied, the more unskilled researchers may assume it must be accurate because they see everyone using it. It’s a vicious circle indeed!

mistakes in online family trees

Mistakes can happen in online family trees

Approach every online hint and tree as a clue – a lead – to be considered and scrutinized. You won’t know the accuracy of it for sure until you review the research and verify the sources. That being said, the next logical questions would be “how in the world will I have enough time to verify all of the information in all of these trees?”

The answer is, you don’t.

Instead, do your own genealogical research first, one person and one generation at a time. Work from the present generation backward and learn everything you can from known and trusted primary and secondary sources. If this idea sounds new to you, I strongly encourage you to start listening to my Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast. It’s free, and available here on my website, as well as through all major podcast apps. If you’re new to genealogy or returning after a long spell, this podcast will cover the basics in genealogical research and help you get on track.

Family History Genealogy Made Easy PodcastIt’s easy to let other people’s online trees give you a false sense that you are quickly and easily building your own family tree, but it’s just not true. A tree worth having is a tree worth researching. Don’t let the tail wag the dog here. Follow the proven genealogical research process, and then tap into online family trees when you need a fresh new lead.

Automated record hints and matches

On genealogy websites, you’ll get two types of automated hints or matches. The first is for other people’s trees, which we’ve already discussed. The second is for historical genealogical records.

In order to deliver the historical record hint, the website has compared the data on your tree with the data available in the transcriptions of their records. Since many people share the same name and other distinguishing characteristics like birth dates, it’s important to look at each record closely and carefully.

Review both the record transcription and the digitized image of the document (when available), keeping in mind that not all the useful genealogical data is always transcribed. And in the process of transcribing, errors may have been made.

You first want to evaluate whether this document pertains to your relative. Next, you will need to determine what else it adds to your knowledge of them. Compare what that document says to what you’ve already learned about your family. Watch for multiple, specific pieces of evidence that support or are consistent with what you already know.

FindMyPast hinting 2 online family trees

Genealogy Giants guru Sunny Morton says that “record hints on Genealogy Giants FamilySearch and MyHeritage are especially known for a high degree of accuracy; Ancestry.com’s are generally pretty good, too, but the site is clear about reminding you that these are just hints. I don’t have data on how accurate Findmypast hinting is, but I do know that they’ve been adding more records to the pool of records they hint on, and that’s also good.”

wise owlAfter reviewing all the record hints you’ve received, conduct additional searches yourself for records about each ancestor. Use the same process described above to scrutinize and evaluate each record.

Remember that even a digitized record hosted on one of the major websites can have transcription, spelling, or other errors, and sometimes you’ll have to make judgment calls. There’s no substitute for your brain! And there’s no substitute for carefully verifying and documenting every discovery as you go.

Next steps for using hints and trees wisely

By using hints for online family trees and historical records as leads when needed rather than the main path to follow will help you build an accurate family tree.

We are here to help you take control of your family tree and your research every step of the way. For specific information about reviewing record hints, read Getting started on Ancestry.com. 

When you do find errors in someone else’s tree, here’s some sound advice for How to approach someone about errors on their family tree

And finally take a moment to read Don’t lose control when you post your family tree online.

If you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning member like Brenda, I suggest Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 152. It features my audio interview with Sunny Morton on take-home strategies for using hinting tools at the Genealogy Giants.

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google ToolboxMobile GenealogyHow to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Genealogy Research Trip Produced Amazing Family History Find

We love the ease with which we can search online, but a genealogy research trip can offer exceptional and unique rewards. If you have been apprehensive about visiting a courthouse or archive,  follow our 4 step plan for a successful genealogy research trip that could lead to your own amazing discovery!

Genealogy Research Trip of the past

By J. D. Cress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am spoiled. Spoiled because I did not join the genealogy craze before the dawn of the internet and the power that using the Web brings to our family history research. I don’t know the pangs of writing 100+ letters to possible relatives and then waiting…waiting…and waiting to hear back from at least one!

In my genealogy world, if an answer can’t be found on one of my favorite genealogy website repositories (like FamilySearch, Ancestry, or Findmypast) then a quick Google search usually does the trick.

However, we new genealogists of the Internet era may be banking on the fact that “everything” we need is online. This is obviously not true. In fact, many local libraries and archives are under-staffed and under-funded making digitizing of their holdings difficult. This is why making a genealogy research trip is a really good idea.

The Unprepared Genealogy Research Trip

Several years ago, I made my first research trip. I was woefully unprepared. On a whim, I drove three hours on a weekday to “go to the courthouse.” I arrived at lunch time…and it was closed for an hour. Sigh. However, a nice receptionist suggNewspaper genealogy research tripested I go to the local public library just down the street.

When I arrived at the tiny corner building, I asked at the circulation desk for the history department. She seemed a little taken back, but said, “We have a little room in the basement with some local history and genealogy things.” Note to self: not all libraries are large enough for a “history department.”

In the basement room, no one was on duty, but a nicely printed instruction sheet of what was available and how to use their files laid on the table. “I guess I just dig in,” I thought, and off I went.

Though this was my first genealogy research trip, it proved to be very fruitful. In a scrapbook simply titled “Walls Family,” I found a Xerox
copy of an article from an 1874 newspaper. In this article, my fourth great-grandmother (Susannah Harmarson Walls) had been interviewed because she was the oldest living woman in the township. Her interview began, “I was born in Delaware. The exact year, I do not know, but I suppose I will be 86 years of age on the 16th of July next. My father’s name was Levin Harmarson. He died when I was only three years of age. My mother’s name was Mary Woodard.”

The interview included the story of her mother re-marrying, the family leaving Delaware for Wheeling, Virginia, and she marrying her step-brother there. Then, they traveled on into Scioto County, Ohio. She named each of her eleven children and their spouses.

The information in this one interview was particularly helpful. Before this, we had no idea when or where Susannah and Levi married, and finding the spouses of their children had proved difficult!

Though this was an amazing find, I wonder what other records, items, or photographs I might have dug up had I prepared ahead of time. Perhaps, I would have had time to dig more into their microfilm holdings, archived pictures, atlases, or even had time to go to the local cemetery.

The Prepared Genealogy Research Trip

Fast forward several years and I am making much more prepared genealogy research trips. Get the most from your next genealogy research trip by following these 4 important steps:

1. Run a Narrative Report. Start creating your genealogy research trip plan by printing out a narrative report of your targeted family line. This can be done with the reports feature found in genealogy database programs like RootsMagic.

2. Look for holes in your research. Carefully read through the report looking for holes in your research or where you may be missing a source. In this case, a “hole in your research,” may be the missing marriage date of a couple, or the missing birth date of a child. Circle these “holes” and make a list of what the needed piece of information is to correct it and where you can find it.

Example: Clark County, Ohio. Need a death date for Edmund West. County didn’t keep death records that early. Likely died between 1830-1840. Check probate record books, estate files, tax records, cemetery records, and tombstones at Wilson Cemetery.

Maybe you have a birth date, but no source. A source is the proof of a particular fact. For example, a good source for a birth date is a birth register or even a marriage record. If you are lacking sources for your genealogy facts or are not sure how to begin sourcing your genealogy, learn more about that here.

3. Decide what repositories you will need to visit. After creating your list, determine where these items are held by asking yourself important questions, such as: Will I need to visit the courthouse, a library, an archive, cemetery, or all the above? Which location will produce the most results? Should I visit the archives first, or the courthouse?

4. Contact each repository ahead of time. Finding out the days and times when each of these places is open before you go is a must! Try to pick a day when all, or most, of the places are open so that you can get a lot done. If this isn’t possible, consider making an extended stay overnight to accomplish your goals.

Keep in mind that not all websites are up-to-date. Just because the library says it is open from 10 to 5 every day but Sunday on the webpage doesn’t necessarily mean that is still the case. Always call each establishment to verify days and hours of operation.

10 items for the genealogy research trip

Remember, there are newspapers, maps, documents, and pictures just waiting to be uncovered. By thinking about what you want to achieve while on your trip and what information you need to find and where, your genealogy research trip can be a successful one. Happy hunting!

More on Genealogy Research Trips

Still feeling unmotivated to get on the road, read or listen to these features for inspiring tips to make a courthouse records research trip in your near future!

Courthouse Records Research TripGenealogy Gems - Family History Podcast and Website

Premium Podcast Episode 126 – Road Trips for Genealogy

Premium Video – Using Evernote to Create a Genealogy Research Plan

Find Canadian Ancestors in Censuses from 1825 to 1921

canada_peg_figure_12111If you have Canadian kin, you’ll be pleased to hear that the 1825 census of Lower Canada is now searchable online, and the 1921 census will soon be available online, too!

The 1825 census of Lower Canada counted nearly half a million people. Heads of household were actually named, with other members of the household counted by category. You can search by household name or geographic location.

The 1921 census counted 8.8 million people in thousands of communities across Canada. According to the Library and Archives Canada Blog, the population questionnaire had 35 questions. The census also collected data on “agriculture; animals, animal products, fruits not on farms; manufacturing and trading establishments; and [a] supplemental questionnaire for persons who were blind and deaf. This represents a total of 565 questions.” The census was released this past June 1 from the national Statistics office to the Library and Archives. That office is processing and scanning the nearly 200,000 images for public use. It hopes to have them posted soon.

Here’s a sample page from the 1921 census population schedule:

Canada Census 1921 image

We think of Canada as a real melting pot today—or salad bowl, as they prefer. That wasn’t always the case. The 1825 census of Lower Canada counted mostly Europeans of French extraction. In 1901,  70% of Canadians claimed either British or French heritage. But in the first two decades of the 1900s, a huge immigration boom occurred that reached well beyond England and France. So the folks who show up on the 1921 census represented a newly multicultural Canada!

Start looking for your Canadian ancestors in the Library and Archives Canada’s popular Census Indexes, which include that 1825 census and a new version of the 1891 census, too. Watch the website for the 1921 census.

If your family arrived in Canada after the 1921 census, check out the website for The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, where a million immigrants landed between 1928-1971.

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