52 Ancestors: In the Census


Oh gosh, let me tell you the story of my great grandfather, John August Gall, and the United States census.

John Gall in Prussian Army uniform

John Gall in his Prussian army uniform, taken in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland).

John Gall was born on August 28, 1874, somewhere in Germany. (The case of his hometown will have to be a story for another day.) At some point as a young adult, he immigrated to the United States where, as of what I have currently uncovered, managed to avoid any official records until he married my great grandmother Ida Borchert in 1912.

Censuses are a tricky thing. While sometimes they can uncover something interesting, they can also be a source of frustration, both of which are true for John August Gall. He appears on three censuses (1920, 1930, and 1940), each one listed different information for both his arrival and place of birth. I understand errors can occur on the census-takers end, but as someone who wants to learn more about this little-known branch of my family tree, it gets a tad frustrating.

The 1920 census:

John Gall is listed as the head of household, living with his wife Ida and their children, John, Jr. and Pauline. His age checks out (45), but his place of birth is off. He is listed as from Lorraine (as in Alsace-Lorraine, the territory between Germany and France which changed hands often), with a native tongue of French. His immigration year is listed as 1894, with naturalization year of 1900.

John Gall 1920

His parents are also listed as being born in Alsace-Lorraine with a native tongue of French. His wife Ida’s father is listed from France (he was from Luxembourg), but her mother is listed from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, which is correct.

John Gall parents born 1920

The 1930 census:

He is listed as the head of household once again, living with his wife and daughter Pauline. However, this census lists his place of birth as Germany and his native language as German. His immigration year is listed as 1892, and while the census lists John as naturalized, there is no column for the year.

John Gall 1930

The census is hard to read, but shows the changes from the 1920 census.

John A Gall

John Gall, date unknown, probably in the 1920’s or 1930’s.

The 1940 census:

This is the census where things get interesting. I had heard that John Gall had been in a home due to illness at some point in his life (at a time my grandma could remember), but I was surprised to see his name on this census. In 1940, John A. Gall is listed as an inmate at the Patton State Hospital, a mental hospital where he was a patient. His birth year remains Germany, and there is no longer column for immigration year.

john gall 1940

This census added a new set of columns, to list the residence of the individual on April 1, 1935. According to the census, John Gall lived at the state hospital on that date as well. Family lore is that he suffered a brain injury at work and was forced into the hospital, but due to HIPAA we cannot get his medical records.

The Differences:

The 1920 census lists his native language as French, but family members disagree with this, as they heard stories of him speaking in German. (I read an article once that said many German immigrants claimed to have been born in Alsace-Lorraine, due to the anti-German sentiment after World War I, but of course I cannot find this now.)

The immigration year is a frustrating one. I have no idea when he came to the United States. I assume it was after he turned 18, and probably later, due to his service in the Prussian army, but I am not sure. The two years listed, 1892 and 1894, would have made him 18 or 20. Due to the fire at Ellis Island in 1897, his records are probably lost.

The census only has limited information, and due to the nature of collection, language barriers, and other issues, but they can still be a wealth of information. I remain determined to uncover more about John Gall, and will try to rectify the inconsistencies listed on the census.

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