Exploring Census Records

Census records are notorious for being inaccurate, especially in cases where the relative’s native tongue wasn’t English. A person’s age may be estimated several years off or the birth year might be confused with the person’s current age. One other problem I’ve run into frequently is the country of origin being indexed incorrectly in most cases as “Russia” when the person, in fact, came from Prussia. Another complication is that maiden names are not listed.

While running a search with multiple parameters can yield fewer results, sometimes first names were grossly misspelled, so it is not recommended to search having the exact perimeter box checked. It must also be said that both the German name and the English equivalent should be searched for. A person could go by Karl, Carl, and Charles–which are all, by the way, very common names. And don’t even get me started on the name Friederike and its multiple equivalents (Fredericka, Friedrike, etc.).

There are also several types of censuses. Federal Censuses took place every ten years with a few exceptions. State and other territorial censuses can held fill in gaps between these years. Due to a fire, most of the 1890 census records were destroyed.

Looking for Migration Patterns

Often, a person who moved from Germany was accompanied by family or was traveling with the intention of meeting up with family, or at the very least a friend or sponsor. Look for patterns in names and ages. Even though maiden names are not listed on these documents, finding a record of a husband and wife with the same first names you are searching for in addition to the approximate names and ages of both them and their children can provide a great jumping off point for further research.

It can also be helpful if you notice patterns in destinations, especially if the destination was not a major immigration hub like New York or Chicago. If you find multiple individuals with the same surname in a smaller town, begin seeking out church records to see if a connection is listed.

Sometimes, relatives also immigrated in waves. It is not uncommon to find ancestors coming to the United States on separate ships, sometimes even years apart. Destinations may also have changed and just because a majority of the family ended up in the same destination does not necessarily mean that all of the family immigrated to the same place.

Using Ship Manifests

The most well-known port of entrance into the United States is Ellis Island. What most people do not realize is that Castle Garden was America’s first immigration center. Passenger arrival lists can also be found for Baltimore, Maryland. Other ports of arrival were Boston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. The National Archives has published a list of lesser-known ports and their surviving arrival lists as “Copies of Lists of Passengers Arriving at Miscellaneous Ports on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and at Ports on the Great Lakes, 1820-1874.” It is estimated that three-fourths of the more than one hundred ports have passenger lists.

Galveston, Texas became a port of arrival to German immigrants in the 1830s, though passenger lists only exist starting in 1847, as Texas was not part of the United States at that point. However, records between 1844 and 1847 exist through colonial documents. The passenger lists were also destroyed in the great flood of 1900 though the “Neu Branfelser Zeitung” and the “Galveston Zeitung” can be cited as a secondary source as these lists were published in the paper.

Canada was also a major port of arrival for many Germany immigrants. Some Canadian ports of arrival records can be viewed here, and records are available for 1865 onward. Prior to this, “there are no comprehensive nominal lists of immigrants arriving in Canada before 1865. Few such lists have survived” the Government of Canada’s official website disclaims.

German ports of exit for many Pomeranians included Hamburg, Bremen, Stettin, and Swinemünde. Sometimes these included stops in Liverpool and the U.K. before continuing onto final destinations. Rotterdam in the Netherlands was also another port of leaving and ships did occasionally pass through Sweden. More information and indexes can be found here.