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Research Tip 16: European Censuses

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
Censuses are popular with genealogists. They name almost everyone in locality and often include important information about household members. Most family historians are familiar with United States decennial censuses, but may overlook them when searching for ancestors in European records.

Most nations in Europe created census records at some point in their history. Unfortunately, these records were often destroyed as soon as statistical reports were compiled. Germany is a case in point. The state archives of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Schwerin, Germany, has a large collection of census records naming individuals. Some date from the first quarter of the seventeenth century.

Other parts of Germany — Saxony, for example — have only statistical abstracts from censuses conducted as early as the middle of the eighteenth century. Few European censuses are indexed, requiring searchers to examine all census entries from the appropriate locality and time period.

Denmark's earliest census was taken in 1769, but the second census in 1787 began the practice of naming individuals and recording facts about them and their families. Like most European censuses, Danish censuses are not indexed, but are worth searching for important information about ancestors and their families.

Genealogists should remember that Schleswig-Holstein, Germany was part of Denmark until 1864. Sweden and Norway have census-taking traditions similar to Denmark, but began recording individual information about one hundred years earlier. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, has microfilmed many of these censuses.

England's census-taking traditions also begin in the eighteenth century. These enumerations are statistical in nature until 1841, at which time census takers were required to list all members of each household, and record facts about them. Similar censuses are found in other parts of the now defunct British Empire, including Canada and Australia.

How does a family historian determine whether or not censuses were kept in the area where ancestors lived? A search of the Family History Library Catalog will provide some quick answers. Search under the country as well as the county, province, department, or equivalent jurisdiction. If no entries are listed under the topic "Census", it will be necessary to write to archives in the area to determine the prevalence of censuses that name inhabitants.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has microfilmed censuses from several European nations. If researchers are unable to find needed censuses in the Family History Library Catalog, a letter or telephone call to the state archives nearest the ancestral home town will produce answers to questions about censuses from the area. Try the Internet or a call to the embassy or nearest consulate of ancestors' home countries for the address of archives.

The Family History Library has published a series of Research Outlines for many European countries. Each country's outline contains a discussion of census records. Doreen S. Goyer's and Gera E. Draaijer's book The Handbook of National Population Censuses (New York: Greenwood, 1992) is another valuable resource.


About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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