All in All You’re Just Another… Brick Wall

It’s inevitable. When researching your genealogy you WILL hit brick walls… many of them. Sometimes you can walk away to focus on a different branch for a while, and when you come back with fresh eyes you make some amazing discoveries. Sometimes you come back to that brick wall, only to have the desire to bang your head against it. For me, the Koehneke branch is the latter.

Now you may be thinking: “Koehneke?! That can’t be so difficult… it’s such a unique name!” I certainly thought so, too. Turns out there are, like, 40-something different ways you can spell the surname:

Koehnecke, Koennicke, Koeneke, Koennecke, Koenneke, Kohnke, Koenecke, Koehncke, Konecki, Koehnke, Koehnk, Koenke, Koencke, Koenicke — plus more distant variations of the name: Koenig, Konka, Konak, Konik, Kong, Konca, Konuk (these last ones feel like a bit of a stretch). THEN add in all of the variables that use ‘ö’ instead of ‘oe’……. *facepalm* None of this makes my research easier.

With that complication in mind, one method to help narrow things down is to identify WHERE in Germany the family came from. There’s one tiny problem with that… Germany only became Germany in 1871. Prior to that it was a constantly changing collection of empire states, kingdoms, duchies, and so on. Names changed, borders shifted, things were not as cut-and-dry as they are today. Since I’m not a historian and don’t have all of the details down to the letter, so here’s an overview courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

Okay… so let’s go with what I already know of the Koehneke line, as stated in various documents, histories, articles, etc.

Vera Koehneke, my great aunt, wrote an autobiography in 1937 — likely as a school project towards the end of high school. Here’s the information she shared regarding the Koehneke line:

Excerpt from “Autobiography” by Vera Koehneke, 3 May 1937

From this, we know a few things:

  • Her grandfather (my 2nd great grandfather) was William Koehneke
  • William was born in “Hanovre” Germany on 17 January 1843
  • William was a soldier in the “Prussian vs. Austrian Hanovre War”
  • Being on the losing side, he decided to leave the country instead of swear allegiance to the Prussian flag
  • William came to America on 26 December 1866
  • William had a sister named Dorothy
  • William’s dad was Henry Koehneke (my 3rd great grandfather)
  • William’s mother’s name wasn’t listed (my 3rd great grandmother)
  • William’s parents (both of them) were born in Hanover, Germany
  • William’s mother died in Hanover, Germany
  • Henry, William’s father, came to Chicago in 1868
  • Henry died in Chicago — no date was listed
William/Wilhelm Koehneke

In the year William was born, 1843, “Hanovre, Germany” would have most likely been the Kingdom of Hanover, which was established in 1814. Assuming William is the oldest of the 2 children, and that his mother was somewhere between 18 and 30 years old at the time of his birth… his parents (or his mother, at least) was most likely born sometime between 1813 and 1825. If she was born before 1814, “Hanover, Germany” would have most likely been part of the “Kingdom of Westphalia.” So where do you look for records? The key strategy for research in Germany is looking at records in the specific village where your ancestors came from. Aunt Vera’s writing doesn’t specify if it was the city or kingdom of Hanover. Beyond that, in the time span we’re looking at, borders changed… so what she described as Hanover in her 1937 school assignment could have been known as something completely different back in the day.

Kgr. Hanover covered a lot of ground!
From “The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany” published 2019

Okay… back to the drawing board. We need more specific information to help narrow things down.

Looking through the boxes of photos, letters, photographs, and other miscellaneous paperwork, I came across a small sheet of paper. On it, Otto Koehneke (Vera’s dad… my great grandfather… William’s son…. Henry’s grandson) had handwritten notes about the family tree. The poor quality of the document makes it near-impossible to read the last lines on the front of the sheet. The back sheet starts mid-sentence, and based on context it seems to be talking about the Koehneke line.

Family Tree notes written by Otto Koehneke
(this is an accurate representation of the quality of the physical document)

I’ll transcribe this for you so you don’t have to squint and try to decipher his handwriting. The last couple of lines on the first side read as follows:

Augusta Damler came from
Lippe [?????]. [?????] this was a
[can’t read this line]

The second page begins mid-sentence with the following:

what was the Kingdom of Hanover
Nearest town was Zelle or Selle.
At that time Germany was not
united. About 1866 there was a
war in which Hanover was also
involved against Prussia. Hanover
was beaten. Rather than pledge
allegience [sic] to Prussia — his company
went to Hamburg to America. They
arrived there about Christmas
time in 1866…..

The funny thing is that I’ve looked at this document at least 20 times, and I didn’t realize the note about the ‘nearest town’ until just recently.

There’s this really cool tool where you can enter in a surname and see an estimate of where that name is most prevalent (it also shows you different spelling variations). Check it out here. The name “Koehneke” doesn’t show up frequently, BUT, the highest concentration of hits is in an area identified on this map as “Celle.” It’s also on that map I included above! Ah ha! Let’s put a pin in this and come back to it a bit later.

If William came to the States in 1868, then in theory he should appear in the 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, and 1910 censuses (he died in 1914). I haven’t found 1870 yet… and virtually all 1890 census records were destroyed. BUT I do have the others: 1880, 1900, and 1910.

1880 Census

In the 1880 Census (above), William was living in Chicago, but he wasn’t listed as a head of household. Instead, he was living with Henry Drier, Henry’s wife Dora, and their 2 children. My assumption is that this Dora is actually Dorothy, William’s sister. File that factoid away for other research journeys… Here’s the rest of what 1880 tells us:

  • William is 38 years old (would have been born 1842-43ish)
  • William is a Boarder with the Drier family
  • William is working as a Commercial Merchant
  • William was born in Prussia
  • William’s father was born in Prussia
  • William’s mother was born in Prussia

Marriage record

William married Caroline M. Gerling in 1883. In the marriage record filed with the state of Michigan (which is where Caroline was living at the time), states that William was 40 years old at the time of his marriage and he was born in “Hanover Germany.” The rest of the info in this record is important, just not for the current brick-wall-busting search.

In the 1900 Census (above), it appears that William is now a head of household. He was living in what was possibly a multi-family home — like an apartment or condo. He had a full household! In addition to his wife, they had 5 sons (Otto, Alvin, Paul, William, & Ernest), and William’s niece Elizabeth Dreyer was living with them as well (which helps to confirm my ‘Dora-is-the-sister’ theory from 1880). Here’s what else we know:

  • William was born in January of 1843, and is 57 years old
  • William has been married for 17 years
  • William was born in Germany
  • William’s father was born in Germany
  • William’s mother was born in Germany.
  • William immigrated to the United States in 1867
  • William has been in the United States for 33 years
  • There is no note regarding William’s naturalization status
  • William was still working as a Commission Merchant

Looking at 1880 and 1900 side-by-side, the biggest discrepancy is that William and his parents were listed as having been born in Prussia in the 1880 Census… but in Germany in the 1900 Census. This could have been due to any number of reasons.. simplification, social image, enumerator’s style, different Census guidelines… who knows. Either way, both are too vague to help, but at least confirm the country(ish).

1910 Census

In 1910, William was again listed as the head of household, and was living with his wife and 4 of their sons. Here’s the breakdown:

  • William was 67 years old (born ~1843)
  • William and his wife have been married for 27 years
  • William was born in Germany and his native tongue is German
  • William’s father was born in Germany and his native tongue is German
  • William’s mother was born in Germany and her native tongue is German
  • William immigrated to the United States in 1866
  • William’s citizenship status is listed as “Na” — meaning he was Naturalized
  • William’s profession is listed as “own income”

The previous census listed his arrival as 1867, but this one is 1866. The difference could be explained by an error of memory. We also have learned that William was Naturalized, likely between the years of 1900 and 1910.

Death Certificate excerpt

William died while living in Chicago in January of 1914 at 71 years old. His death certificate confirms some info for us, and gives us some possible clues:

  • William was born in Germany on 12 January 1843
  • William had lived in Chicago for 46 years
  • William had lived in Illinois for 48 years
  • William had lived in the United States for 48 years (putting his arrival ~1866)
  • William’s father was John Koehneke, who was born in Germany
  • William’s mother’s maiden name was Cordes, and she was born in Germany

Hm… Aunt Vera’s autobiography said William’s dad was Henry, but the death certificate says his name was John. It may be possible that his name was John Henry (Johann Heinrich) or Henry John (Heinrich Johann), and that his name preference changed over time.

Also, we now know the maiden name of William’s mother! This should help us with research in German records. With William’s date of birth, his father’s name(s), his mother’s maiden name, and the possible closest town, you’d think I would be able to find SOMETHING. Zilch.

To be fair, the church records aren’t freely available. There’s a site called “Archion” which has digitized copies of a TON of German church records. The trick is that it isn’t a free site, and the pricing structure is a bit weird. Between that and my not having a job at the moment, I haven’t bit the bullet and paid for access yet. But I’m hoping that once I do I’ll be able to find record of William and his sister’s births, John/Henry’s marriage to ____ Cordes, and _____ Cordes’ death.

Ultimately, this branch of the family tree is testing my sleuthing skills… and has been keeping me busy since mid-2017. All I need is that one little discovery that unlocks a whole new world of information. Here’s hoping that happens soon!

Mary (nee Gerling), William/Wilhelm, and Otto Koehneke

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