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 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.”
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.
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,
birth (year and, later, specific dates),
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 (1867, 1890 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.
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Ready to start your Australian genealogy research? A Legacy Tree Genealogist walks you through essential Australian history, geography, genealogical record types and online resources to trace your family tree “down under.”
Thank you to Legacy Tree Genealogists for providing this guest post.
Australian genealogy can be straightforward, but you do need to know a time period and a place, as well as the family name you are researching. Australia has only been a single country since 1901; before that there were colonies and territories beginning with the first European settlement in 1788. Even today the individual states and territories have their own governments and record systems with no single combined place to research. Therefore, knowing the time period and place where your ancestors lived is essential.
Australian history and geography
European settlement began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, which included both male and female convicts and military and naval personnel. The colony became known as New South Wales, and occupied the eastern half of the continent of Australia including Tasmania (previously known as Van Diemen’s Land). The western half of the continent was never part of New South Wales and was originally known as the Swan River Colony, and later Western Australia.
With the exception of Western Australia, the other states and colonies were originally part of New South Wales. Victoria was known as the Port Phillip settlement before it became self-governing in 1851, and Queensland was the Moreton Bay settlement until 1859. Early records for both of those colonies will be in New South Wales, so it is important to know when the individual colonies and territories were established.
Australia in 1856 – image courtesy Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Territorial_evolution_of_Australia)
Similarly, a knowledge of geography is essential, as Australia is a huge continent with most of the population along the coastline. Another complicating factor is that there may be places with the same name in one or more colonies/states. For instance, if researching ancestors from Maryborough, it would be necessary to identify whether you should be researching Maryborough in Queensland or Maryborough in Victoria.
To make matters even more confusing, some places changed their name! For instance, until 1911 Innisfail in Queensland was called Geraldton, not to be confused with Geraldton in Western Australia on the other side of the continent. Bendigo was originally known as Sandhurst, and many of the goldfield towns in central Victoria were known under the broader name of the Mount Alexander goldfield. Knowing the history and geography will help you immensely as you embark on your Australian genealogy research.
Getting started with Australian genealogy research
If you have Australian genealogy there are many wonderful free online Australian resources that will give you a head start in researching your ancestors and learning more about their heritage. Wikipedia – Australia is a good starting place for an overview if you are unfamiliar with Australian history and geography. Depending on where your ancestors were, read the appropriate sections of history and geography. For example, convicts were sent to New South Wales and Tasmania until 1842 when the colony was opened up for free settlement, but Western Australia only received convicts from 1850 to 1868. The gold rushes in Victoria in the 1850s attracted thousands of people, as did later rushes in Queensland in the 1860s and Western Australia in the 1890s.
Many immigrants were looking for their own land and a better life for their families. Each of the colonies had their own immigration schemes in a bid to attract as many people as they could. Most colonial passenger lists are now indexed and can be searched online at the various state archives. Some states have even digitized the passenger lists, which may be viewed freely online. State archives are a wonderful free online resource, and include offices such as the Queensland State Archives, Public Record Office Victoria, or the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.
A free useful portal site is CoraWeb – helping you trace your family history in Australia and elsewhere. It is divided up into categories such as archives, cemeteries, convicts, maps, probate and will records, shipping, migration, and other genealogy-related topics.
Australian birth, marriage, and death records
Like everything else, you need to know an approximate date and place before you begin to research birth, marriage, and death records. Prior to civil registration there are some church records which consist of mostly baptisms and marriages, with a few burials. Civil registration started at various times, and different colonies collected different information at different times, with South Australia having the least information on the certificates.
Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania) was the first to introduce civil registration in 1838, with Western Australia following in 1842, South Australia in 1842, Victoria in 1851, and New South Wales (including Queensland at that time) in 1856. Most states have online indexes available for searching, but only Queensland and Victoria provide digital copies of certificates for download after purchase. Western Australia still requires researchers to mail their applications with no online ordering.
Tasmania is perhaps the most helpful – with their early church records and births, marriage, and death certificates indexed, and digital copies online for free through the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office. The Tasmanian Name Index includes free indexed and digitized copies of various genealogical resources.
Federation in 1901 and the National Archives
The individual colonies voted to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, and since then there has also been a Commonwealth (later Federal) government. This took over some government functions such as the military, immigration, citizenship, and naturalization, although some states continued to have their own immigration schemes. This means that post-1901, researchers need to use the National Archives of Australia, as well as the various state archives.
In 1911 the final changes to the map of Australia took place, with the separation of the Northern Territory from South Australia, and the establishment of the Australian Capital Territory within southern New South Wales.
With the centenary of World War One, the National Archives of Australia has digitized all army dossiers and made them freely available online. RecordSearch is the main database, and it can be searched in a number of ways including a “Name Search” and “Passenger Arrivals.” While not every record series is indexed by name, it can be useful to search for an individual’s name, especially if they arrived post-1901 or served in the military during either World War.
Australian Newspapers and Photographs
In Australia, digitized newspapers are freely available online through Trove, which is maintained by the National Library of Australia. Along with newspapers, Trove also includes government gazettes, books, articles, maps, manuscripts, photographs, archived websites, and other resources. If you are interested in what a place looked like at the time your ancestors lived there, then try an image search in Trove. Remember that it is continually being added to, so it is essential that you revisit your searches from time to time. (Click here to read another Genealogy Gems article about Trove.)
Christoe Street, Copperfield Queensland in 1876 when my ancestors lived there. Image courtesy State Library of Queensland via Trove.
Individual state libraries also have genealogy sections with online guides to various family history topics. These can be a good place to start, and most participate in the ‘Ask a Librarian’ where you can get advice and information. However, they cannot do individual research – just answer questions.
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Show Notes: Learn how to trace your ancestors back to Virginia just prior to the Revolutionary War. Professional genealogist Jeri Satterwhite-Dearing specializes in early Virginia research in her work as a professional genealogist with Legacy Tree Genealogists. She explains some of the biggest challenges you’ll face when researching early Virginian ancestors, the records you should be looking for, and some of the best resources.
Lisa: A while back, we did a video on Finding early American Ancestors in New England and we got tons of comments on it. We also received a lot of requests to dig into early American genealogical research. In this video and article, we are going to do just that for Virginia.
Guest: Jeri Satterwhite-Deering, professional genealogist at Legacy Tree Genealogists.
What are some of the unique challenges that face people who are trying to research ancestors in Virginia?
Jeri: I think the main thing is that the further back you go, the different record types that you would expect to find and use. You won’t have census records before 1790, and you won’t necessarily have marriage records, or death certificates, because that didn’t come till much later. But those records are there, and then you just have to really know where to dig and what to look for.
I rely more on land records, tax records, court records, and those types of record. As I said, census records go back to 1790, maybe 1783, when they have county type census. Then at that point you need to rely on tax records more and look for your ancestors in land records. Land records are full of all kinds of genealogical clues about your family as you as you dig in deep.
Lisa: And it can be a bit of a challenge for folks who might be researching Virginia for the first time. We hear about things, like you mentioned the land records and tax records, and that could be very new territory for us. It can be a little intimidating to jump into a record collection you haven’t worked before.
Jeri: Right, especially because then you’re relying on original documents, which means reading the handwriting of the time. That takes practice. It’s like when you first learn to write cursive in school. It’s not that hard, it just takes a little bit of time. It’s kind of fun, because they write different, and their terminology is different. But that’s where your dictionary comes in. Practice makes perfect. The more you do, the easier it gets.
Most of those records are going to be at county level. If you have a burned county, then you may have to rely on state records. The Virginia state library may have more than what is left in a burned county. There are all kinds of records there. It’s just a matter of knowing where to go.
Learn More About the County in Virginia
My first recommendation would be to learn more about the county you’re going to be dealing with. First go to the FamilySearch Wiki for the county. Read what they have to say about which records are available for that particular county and start there. Make a research plan. Make notes and determine exactly what to look for.
I know that you’ve done a couple of past episodes, especially I think it was episode 64, where you talked about how to do research using FamilySearch. I think those are things you need to learn a little bit before you jump right in. I think that would be a really good start if they’re not familiar with FamilySearch. It’s one of the best places to go to look at records when you’re starting out.
Lisa: And it’s free, which is great.
Jeri: That’s right, so it’s definitely a good place to start along with learning about the county. Learning about the formation of the county, that’s almost a genealogical research adventure in itself because you need to know how the counties changed so quickly over time. And you do need to get back to what that parent county was. It’s important to know the genealogy of the counties and know where to look for those records, because they’re not all just going to be in today’s county. You may have to go back to multiple counties to find those records.
Lisa: Typically, when a record was created in a particular county, and then that county maybe splits out or changes we should be looking in the county that it was at the time our ancestors were there, right?
Jeri: Exactly. You might think, “that’s it, I’m done. I can’t find anything else.” When you feel that way, step back, review the various forms the county has taken. Check all of them. You’d be surprised where those records will be in many different places. They might even be in the courthouse basement. I’ve come across that many times as well.
In Virginia, not all deed records are going to be online. For example, here in North Carolina our counties have so many records available online. But in Virginia, they might not be on FamilySearch. You may have to go to a courthouse to actually see those records. However, they are getting better about getting them filmed.
If you’ve exhausted some of that, like I mentioned before, check out tax records. These put your person in their place in time, and that’s what you’re looking for. You always want to remember that a man by one name is not necessarily that man. Always remember that because there are so many same named people throughout history, and you have to be careful which one you’re chasing and get the right one.
Lisa: I love your idea about the genealogy of a county! Getting to know the history county at the same time as you’re getting to know the history of your family.
Virginia Burned Counties
You mentioned burned counties. Seasoned genealogists have heard that many times. But there are those who are new to genealogy, or they’ve been researching other parts of the country, and now they’re finding that their family line takes them into the South where burned counties are more common. Tell us a little bit about what you mean by a “burned county” and what does that mean to the records?
Jeri: Generally burned counties have a lot to do with war. That’s especially true during the Civil War. For the South, many courthouses burned down. But it happens even in today’s time. We see floods, we see fires. Again, look at your county history on the FamilySearch Wiki. It will tell you which counties were burned. Then you can determine where else to look for records.
I had a project recently that was in Washington County, Arkansas. The county was totally burned, and there was nothing really left. But at the state level, I was able to find the tax records. So, for the client’s ancestor, we were able to place him in that county in the time that we needed to place him there even though there was no information about him anywhere in the county. Those records were burned at two different times. Once in the 1800s, and then again later on.
When your ancestor got a deed, they would take it into the courthouse to get it recorded. This means that when you’re looking at a deed book, you’re not looking at the original record because they didn’t keep the original deed. They just recorded it, and then they handed it back. Folks then took it home to keep it in a safe place. I was very fortunate in one of my research projects that when we had burned counties, they had all the people bring their deeds back in and they recorded them again. And so that’s how we ended up with still having deeds that were probably burned the first go around in the clerk’s books.
I inherited deeds from my great grandmother that were in a trunk. That is probably what started this whole journey for me 30 years ago. One of the deeds was from 1812. It was just amazing! They had kept those deeds. The courthouse over in Orange County did not have that deed, so I took it over there, and they got to copy it into the deed book. And then they had it. There’s a lot of ways to get around the burned counties, and there’s reason for hope.
Lisa: That’s very encouraging that they brought records back in and entered them again.
State Level Records for Virginia
How do records end up at the state level? You mentioned a couple of times to check with the State Archives. Was there a process where every so often the counties were supposed to send copies of books to the state? Or did that happen much later?
Jeri: Well, I think it did, like, are in North Carolina, particularly. So many of our marriage records have gone to the state. So, they’re at our archives now. And so, they came out of the county’s hands, I don’t know, maybe because they just kept getting burned to the ground. They, and so they ended up, you know, at the at the state level at the State Archives for most of them. And so, your state archives is a good place for your research. State libraries are good, like the Library of Virginia (state library), as the just you couldn’t ask for better. And online and offline. It’s a great, it’s a great resource for learning and looking for records as well.
Important Types of Records for Early Virginia Genealogy
Lisa: You’ve mentioned a couple of different types of records. We talked about tax records. Would we find tax records for somebody who doesn’t own property?
Personal Property and Planned Tax Records
That would be your personal property tax records, and then you had planned tax records. So, there are two different ones and you want to look for each. There may only be just one white pole, which means that one person is over the right age to be taxable. It might be a horse, it might be a silver watch, things like that.
Land Tax Records
Then there’s the land tax where they’re going to tax you on how much property that you own.
Included in the property tax would be enslaved persons. So, if you’re doing African American research, especially for Virginia, these are helpful. If the person you are researching was an enslaver, they would have these people listed by their names, typically their first names because that’s generally all they had. Some of them were sorted out by age. Not necessarily every county would be the same. But you would have perhaps age under 15 or 16, and then over 16. And while that’s a broad range, you’re looking for every little thing you can when you’re doing that type of research. Those are the kinds of things that you would see in the tax records.
Another great resource is chancery records, which I love. They’re court records which you can find at the Virginia Library. You can search by plaintiff or defendant or just a surname. I usually just do the surname when I search. You go to each county so choose your county, and then choose your name. It’ll bring up folders of court records. Everybody sued everybody just like they do now. Everybody was in court all the time. Sometimes it’ll just be maybe a lawsuit over land, or it could be a lawsuit over a horse or an enslaved person as well. But a lot of times you would find records that would involve state records, probate records, and every now and then you will really get lucky and you could find a whole family’s history in some of these files that explain the parents and the grandparents, the grandchildren. I’ve had them go many generations in one file and even include the neighbors. It puts your person in their place and time and helps you not confuse them with someone else
Virginia Chancery Record, courtesy of Jeri Satterwhite-Dearing
I would say that if you don’t look at those you’re missing out, totally! They are refilming a lot of the records right now. So, when you search your file might not come up. You would be able to see the file folder, but you might not be able to see the contents of it. But then you could take that information and go to your county level court records. Again, I would go through FamilySearch and do your search in the catalog by the county, not just a record search. By doing that, you can actually find those folders are still going to be within the county. You’ll have to dig a little deeper. But it’s always rewarding to do that.
Lisa: You’ve mentioned several really important types of records, chancery court records, deeds, wills and estate records. What other types are there? You have on your list colonial tithables. What are those?
Jeri: Those were really early. They’re like taxing, and it has to do with who the person by the age, and if they’re old enough to be taxed. It’s another form of the tax record. Those are the really early lists that you would be back quite far. You might not need those for a while, but if you get lucky, and you’re really getting back pretty far, then those are good.
Understand Virginia Law
Lisa: I imagined to be able to really use these records, we have to really understand things like geography and the law. What are your recommendations to a genealogist on really getting to understand the law? What’s a good way to go about that?
Jeri: Reading, taking classes, I mean, there are so many classes available online nowadays, just from the comfort of your home to be able to learn a lot. That would be the best thing to get familiar with the law. Learning the law is a little bit more complex but it is important. For example, it helps you determine if someone would have been the right age to get married. It’s a good way to separate the person out that might be the same name. It would help you know if your ancestor was able to buy and sell land, whether they could be a witness, all those ages change frequently. Then you know whether to go look for those records.
Understand Virginia Geography
Lisa: Are there any other resources that you think should really be on the forefront of the minds of people who are going to be digging into their Virginia roots?
And I definitely look for maps with Google. (Resource: The Genealogist’s Google Toolboxby Lisa Louise Cooke.) You can Google historical maps for Roanoke County, Virginia, for example. Some of those older maps have the landowners on them. I’ve got a huge map collection. You can find them from the formation of the county. They will have the landowner’s names written where their land was. Maybe your person did not own land, maybe they were just tenant farmers, but you found the name of the landowner, or you find them in another record. Look to see who they were living around. You can then find where they were, when they were in that particular county. That also gives you a way to look for more records that might involve your ancestor, as well.
Lisa: Well, that makes great sense. Maps are such an important part of it’s all location and timeframe, right?
Jeri: Yeah, because everything was about land. It still is, but it always has been about the land, and you don’t want to bypass that. You don’t want to just look at census, marriage, and death records, and that’s it. You really need to understand the context of their life and everything that was going on around them in the area that they lived. You then know more about who they are. Say their name, know who they were, and make them come back. They can be alive.
Getting Help from a Professional Genealogist Specializing in Virginia
Lisa: That’s a great way to look at it. Jeri, if people get really stuck, and they just feel like I need help with a professional genealogist, how could they get in touch with you? And what do you guys do at Legacy tree genealogist?
Jeri: They can contact us, and we can steer them to the right professional genealogist for their project. We have a wonderful team, and they do really good work! If you get stuck or if you don’t feel like you have the years to go and take the time to take classes and do everything, come join us and we’ll be happy to get you on the right track and help you find your ancestors.