My grandfather revered his mother in the way that only a devoted son can. I never met her as she died about a year before I was born. I was six years old and visiting my grandparent’s home the first time I heard her name and realized that my grandfather had a mother of his own.
A portrait of my great grandmother, Margaret Anna Koenigs Birkhauser, hung in the room I slept in that night. It was in a large ornate oval frame. She would have been about fifty at the time it was taken. Her hair was drawn back and she wore a high-collared embroidered blouse with a cameo broach pinned at the neck. From pictures, I know that she was a pretty girl and she remained a beautiful woman all of her life.
But, I was a small child in a dark unfamiliar room , and for some reason her portrait scared me. I’ll never forget the hurt look on my grandfather’s face when I told him that I couldn’t sleep because I was scared of the “lady that is looking at me.” Years later, I can understand how he must have felt. The bond between a mother and son remains strong long after she has gone.
She was born in 1886 on a farm near Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin, the second daughter and fifth child of Michael and Barbara (Weber) Koenigs. Two of her older brothers—William “Bill” and Nicholas “Nick”—left home when she was still very young.
The oldest brother, William, seems to have had a special place in her heart, perhaps because he was her oldest brother. When he left home she was about 14. At first he moved only a few miles away to their uncle’s farm, but eventually, when she was still in her teens, he left the state and never returned.
All that my grandfather knew was that William ended up on a ranch somewhere out west with the other two brothers and died there around 1950. His whereabouts in the years immediately after he left Wisconsin, however, were a mystery. If my great grandmother knew where he’d gone, she had never shared that information with my grandfather.
A few years ago, I decided to go in search of William. My goal was to find out where he was between when he left home before 1900 and when he died around 1950. If Margaret had heard from Bill during those years, where did he tell her he was living and what did he tell her he was doing?
Census records quickly gave the answer.
The first US Federal Census was taken in 1790 with another following each decade until the most recent census taken in 2010. The information recorded varied somewhat depending on the decade; it was not until 1850 that all members of the household were listed, as opposed to just the head of the family.
By law, census records are not released to the public for 70 years and the most recent records to be released are of the 1940 census, which became available just a few months ago.
Census records are invaluable for tracing your family back generation by generation. For some, they may be the only way to find the next generation. They can also be used to trace a family forward decade by decade, and, as illustrated here, to follow an individual’s movements over the years.
Below is an outline of William Koenig’s life using only census records.
William appears as a newborn of eight months in the 1880 census of Forest Township, Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, the first child of Michael and Barbara Koenigs. According the census, he was born in October of 1879 in Wisconsin and both of his parents were born in Wisconsin.
There is no record of William ten years later in the 1890 census because the records from that particular census were destroyed. A tragic loss, to be sure, but fortunately, it is the only census that has not survived.
By the time the 1900 census was taken, William is living in the household of his uncle, Nicholas Weber. His birth is listed correctly again as having occurred in October of 1879. He is listed as a “boarder” in the Weber household and employed as a farm laborer. It was likely only a few years later that he left Wisconsin.
In 1910 both William and his brother, Nicholas, are listed as living in “Cape Nome,” Alaska. Each gave his occupation to the census taker as “prospector.” Gold was discovered on the beaches of Nome in 1899 and thousands of young men made their way to Alaska in search of adventure and wealth.
William is still there in 1920, still prospecting for gold.
Nick, however, is living on the ranch he owns in the shadow of Mt. Rainier.
Sometime between 1920 and 1930, William left Alaska and joined his brother in Washington.
The last census available, the 1940 census, shows William still living in Washington with his brother, Nick.
When the 1950 census is released to the public in ten years, William will still be listed as living in Washington. He died there in 1952 according to other records I have found online.
Most census records can be found online, either through state historical and genealogical societies or through membership services, like Ancestry.com. Let me know if you need help finding the census you are looking for. Email me at email@example.com.