In the Census

If I had a nickel for every census page I’ve looked at, I could probably afford this obsession hobby. I have lots of interesting census stories involving:

  • butchered surnames (“House” for “Haas,” “Brothers” for “Bruder,” and “Gukler” for “Kukler” are just the tip of the iceberg)
  • butchered first names–and the people who alternate between first and middle name, throwing in a random nickname just to keep it interesting
  • illegible handwriting
  • faded ink
  • people who aged less–or more–than ten years between census enumerations
  • children suddenly missing in a later census–did they die? marry? move? hire out? alien abduction?
  • children who never make it on a census–they are born and then die between census years, so you don’t even know to look for them
  • the occasional person/family who manages to show up TWICE in the census!

But the census with the most surprises and raising the most questions was a French census. Well, technically, three of them. It was fall of 2015, and my 2nd cousin once removed, Donna Bell, had contacted me to nail down some genealogy details as she was preparing to write her book of family stories. She had questions about our common ancestor, Sophia Gaertner, who you met in My Favorite Photo.

Sophia (my mom’s grandmother) was born out of wedlock. This wasn’t news, as my Mom’s parents had commented on it when she was younger, and we had birth records from Alsace documenting no father’s name. Sophia’s mother was Catharine (yes, with an “a”), but Donna wanted to find Catharine’s parents. Murphy’s Law, two Catharine Gaertners were born in Lorentzen, Bas-Rhin, within 4 months of each other! Generally, one sees the father’s name on the birth record, leading you to the marriage record for the couple, which will list the parents of the bride and groom. But . . . no father, no marriage, no parents, outta luck.

Enter the census records. The Archives Départementales du Bas-Rhin has a wonderful site, where they have digitized many of the Civil Registrations, the Tables Décennales (10-year index to the registrations), and some of the parish register books. What I didn’t realize was they also had several years of census records (listes nominatives de population). Their census was taken every 5 years, not 10, though some of the years are AWOL for Lorentzen. Fortunately the 1836 census (before Sophia’s 1842 birth) was available, as well as 1851 and 1856.

Looking at 1836¹, I found 2 Gaertner families, Charles and Daniel (each married to a Catharine), but only Charles had a daughter Catharine (later determined not mine) residing there. Daniel had 2 sons: Jacques (18) and Pierre (12). Later research DID confirm Charles and Daniel were brothers, but that didn’t nail down which family MY Catharine belonged to.

Moving on to the 1851 census², there wasn’t a Catharine in either household, but I did find Sophia in the household of Daniel with a Pierre and a Jacques. But the ages for the two boys didn’t make sense. Pierre was 26, but Jacques was only 13! What?? That was younger than he was fifteen years prior. I was focused, however, on the Sophia/Catharine issue, so pushed that anomaly out of my mind. Eventually, though, it crept back in, so I searched for the birth records for the boys. The census had their age, so it was a pretty easy task. Sure enough, there they were. As expected, Pierre was Daniel & Catharine’s son, however Jacques was NOT Pierre’s brother, but his nephew. He had no father listed, and Catharine (the daughter) was his mother. The 1856 census is consistent with that conclusion³.

Of course, I could have saved myself some time if I’d only translated what was in the census to begin with! The 1851 and 1856 census pages had “petit fils” in the column for Jacques or Pierre (petite filles for Sophia). We all know petite means “small,” right? I assumed it had something to do with their ages. WRONG! That’s what I get for studying Spanish in high school and college. Uncle Google told me this morning, when I finally looked it up, it means grandson/granddaughter. Excuse me while I bang my head against the wall for a bit . . .

So did these census records actually “change” anything? Not really. Sophia is still fatherless, and it’s unlikely that will ever be resolved. On the other hand, they’ve changed so much because now:

  • Catharine’s brothers need research
  • Sophia’s brothers (half brothers?) also need research
  • some of the scenarios explaining the circumstances of Sophia’s birth probably no longer apply

Regardless of what century one is in, people behave pretty much the same, and there are a finite number of ways a young woman ends up pregnant without a husband. But three times? There must be more to that story, though I have no idea what it is. And I’m certainly not about to judge Catharine or her choices. One thing is certain; I am eternally grateful she chose to give birth to Sophia. I wouldn’t be here, otherwise, along with another 600+ people (conservatively)! That’s a lot of doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, engineers, computer programmers, business people, pilots, and service men and women the world would have done without. And if you start to consider the number of people each of those descendants has interacted with, the impact is staggering.

So, thank you, Catharine Gaertner, even though I’ve still never actually found you in the census!


¹  [you need to scroll down and hit “accepter” to accept the terms of service to see the census record(s)]



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