In the 1920 Census, my husband's great-grandmother and 2-great-grandmother were enumerated with a birthplace Saxony. There is a note next to the birthplace which may be in a different hand that says Ger (presumably for Germany). I have a passenger list from 1882 which seems to read "Saxony" as well.

Previous (1900, 1910) and later (1930, 1940) census records show the birthplace of the family members as Germany. The lazy genealogists' answer for this difference in reporting might be, "oh, the family didn't want to say they were from Germany because of the war". I'm putting aside this interesting social question for the more practical one: if the birthplace was recorded as Saxony in the 1920 Census, what did that mean? Does it mean where Saxony was as of 1 January 1920? My ultimate goal is to gather more information about the possible locations for the family's origin in Germany.

The article Wikipedia: Saxony (disambiguation) shows the problem: the Kingdom of Saxony (1806–1918), and the Province of Saxony (1816–1945) are two different regions. The town that has passed down in the family tradition as the place of origin is in modern-day North Rhine-Westphalia, which is covered -- if Saxony = Old Saxony. (Not likely, for reasons noted in this answer.)

Edited to add: Before I wrote the question, I didn't know that the subject heading for places in Germany in the Catalog of the Family History Library are based on Meyers Orts. See FamilySearch Wiki article: German Historical Geography.

I'd like to find statistics or research about the birthplaces recorded for German-American citizens in 1920. A table that listed all the provinces or regions that were recorded in the census would make it easier to see how the provinces reported in 1920 matched up with Meyers Orts.

Update: Some new digital images have been posted online at FamilySearch, and I have used the index card from the Index to New England Naturalizations to locate the naturalization records for my husband's 2-great-grandfather. His birthplace is listed as Werdau (in the Free State of Saxony).

So the mystery remains about why the family story said his wife was "from" the other town (in North Rhine-Westphalia).

  • 1
    The answer to this question will lead you nowhere, a large number of possible places of origin will remain. Even the geographical distribution of surnames would help more in this case. – lejonet Aug 30 '14 at 23:26
  • Understood. I was asking the question for context. – Jan Murphy Aug 31 '14 at 1:19
  • 1
    A significant factor in 1920 was that the changed borders folloing WWI confused/upset many immigrants. My Transylvanian Saxons, who had variously used Austria & Hungary in previous censuses, often reported they were from Germany rather than say their birthplace was (now) in Romania. – bgwiehle Aug 31 '14 at 12:48
  • @bgwiehle My guess is that the US Census Bureau asked for the pre-War names so that they could have continuity with the older census statistics. – Jan Murphy Sep 2 '14 at 0:01
  • 2
    I've prepared a report from my database, and, although most of my immigrants are from Hungary, 12 of those enumerated in 1920 are from Germany. Of these, 8 reported "Germany" to the enumerator, 1 "Beraria?" (she was born in Ingolstadt, Bavaria), 1 "Germany Heilderheim" (she was born in Hildesheim in Provinz Hannover), 1 "Baden Ger." (but he was born in Egweil in Bavaria), 1 "Frankfurt Ger" (but she was born in Griesheim in Hessen). – bgwiehle Sep 2 '14 at 12:18

You quoted the instructions to enumerators (previously in your question; now in the self-answer). That gives you what SHOULD have been recorded.

Before 1918, Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) did not exist as a administrative division. It was mostly Provinz Hannover, Prussia. So, if the rules were followed, Saxony on the 1920 census could be the (former) Kingdom of Saxony, and not the (current) Lower Saxony, which should have been reported as Hannover or Prussia. Prussia's Provinz Sachsen included lands formerly belonging to the Kingdom of Saxony, and was complicated by enclaves from and in other German states. References to it, as a whole, should include Province, but I have not seen any examples in U.S. census entries.

But, in practice, there was a wide range of interpretation - simply reporting country of origin was easiest. All other subdivisions would necessitate explanations (how do you spell that?, where is that?). And the usual place fudges and mistakes (the nearest larger town, place where the person grew up rather than birthplace, placenames that aren't unique, country of ethnicity, regional placenames and new countries). Add in memory error because of years since immigration and age at arrival ...

Then there's the subsequent inconsistencies between enumerators, copy and transcription errors (as you noted under Traps).

Conclusion: Every census entry needs to be evaluated individually against other sources for the individual. There is no point in trying to judge compliance to the instructions from existing indexes or even new transcriptions, based on statistics alone, because

  • they lack comparison to the true value
  • many inconsistencies in the dataset

BTW, your reference to the Wikipedia page "Old Saxony" was interesting, but I think the label is mis-leading as a current placename or regional identifier. It's telling that there is no Wikipedia equivalent page in German. Within the page, it mentions that the "Old Saxony" was used by the Saxons in England, and all the referenced dates are before 1100.

| improve this answer | |
  • "Add in memory error because of years since immigration and age at arrival" -- an excellent point. The the head of household (age 46 in this census) was a young child at the time of immigration (however, her mother is in the household for this census record). The immigration year recorded in this census is 1880; my best candidate passenger list for the family's arrival is 1882. – Jan Murphy Sep 4 '14 at 15:29
  • While doing some review and cleanup, I've edited the original question to remove some of the material and shifted it to a self-answer. If you'd like me to edit your answer to change the reference to say "in your question" to "in your answer" I can come back and do that. – Jan Murphy May 25 '15 at 1:26

I've removed some material from the question and turned it into a self-answer to summarize what I learned myself.

The FamilySearch Wiki article on Germany Gazetteers: says:

The Family History Library uses one gazetteer as the standard guide for listing German places in the catalog. Regardless of the various jurisdictions a place may have been under at different times, all German places are listed by the jurisdictions used in the following reference:

Uetrecht, E. Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs (Meyers commercial gazetteer of the German Empire). Fifth Edition. Leipzig, Germany: Bibliographisches Institute, 1912-3. (FHL book Ref 943 E5mo; films 496,640-1; fiche 6,000,001-29.)

Meyers Gazetteer (often referred to as Meyers Orts) lists the names of places as they existed in Germany from 1871 to 1912. It gives the name of the state or province where each town was located at that time. The gazetteer is written in Gothic print, which can be hard to read.

Traps for the unwary

  1. Who says so? It is not safe to assume that the data on the 1920 Census was self-reported. We don't have the pages on which the original household was enumerated, and we don't know how many times the data was copied. Ultimately the decision of what got written down is the enumerator's. However, if the enumerators had 'corrected' the data, we might expect the answer to be "Germany" like all the other census records.
  2. It's not possible to get a quick-and-dirty count of the people listed with birthplaces of "Saxony" by doing a search for "Saxony" at online vendors like Ancestry.com. Ancestry's index is not a one-to-one transcription of what can be found on the census records; places can be regularized to modern equivalents. A search for birthplace Saxony pulls up Saxony, Germany and Saxony-Anhalt, Germany in the drop-down box. Choosing "Saxony, Germany" and searching for this place exactly yielded 21,430 records, the first of which was for a person from Coblentz.
  3. Even when Ancestry's abstract seems to be reliable, it doesn't reflect what the image says. Clicking through on a record for Saxony (Kingdom State) shows that the image simply reads Saxony Ger. Other detail pages say Germany [Sachsen (Kgr. /Land in Bundesrepublik) / Saxony (Kingdom/State)] where the image says Saxony Ger.

The instructions say:

(Number) 139. If a person says he was born in Austria, Germany, Russia, or Turkey as they were before the war, enter the name of the Province (State or Region) in which born, as Alsace-Lorraine, Bohemia, Bavaria, German or Russian Poland, Croatia, Galicia, Finland, Slovakland, etc.; or the name of the city or town in which born, as Berlin, Prague, Vienna, etc.

Update: for historical background see: The German Component to American Industrialization (1840-1893) by Walter Kamphoefner, Texas A&M University, which contains a breakdown of occupations by people of German origin in the 1880 Census.

Many immigrants came to the country in groups, so if you can't find direct evidence of your family's place of origin, you may be able to get clues from others in the FAN (friends, associates, neighbors) group who worked in the same industry.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.