Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Burgherbrief Brings Down a Brick Wall

imageSometimes all it takes is a single document, a single word, to provide the key to breaking down a brick wall that has stood firm to all assaults.  This week I made progress on one of my very first brick walls that has haunted me since I started researching my family history.  This wall was my 2nd great grandfather, the Conrad from Denmark.

My very first step into genealogy was through the Danish census database, the Dansk Demografisk Database (DDD) at  After finding my great grandfather Christian Andreas Conrad listed in St Croix I could not locate his father.  I found his mother and grandmother, but his father never appeared in a census. I made no progress at all finding him until last October when I posted an article  (I Found My Great-Great Grandfather) about the discovery of a reference to him in one of my great grandfather's siblings’ baptismal record (excerpt shown above). It simply said that his name was C. A. Conrad and gave his age which put his date of birth about 1802, and his occupation as a merchant.  In Treasures from Mom’s House, I posted a picture of an older man which said on the back: A. C. Conrad.  Since first and middle names were often flipped, and there were no other known candidates, I surmised that this was a picture of my 2nd great grandfather, and that his name was probably Christian Andreas Conrad, the same as his son.

Then nothing.  I searched the Matriculs, the St. Croix land and house tax records.  No reference to a Conrad that I have found so far.  So he didn’t own property there.  The house my great grandfather and his family lived in was owned by my 2nd great grandmother, passed to her by her father (Frederich Christian Andersen, another brick wall).  I looked through the church records and found a few references, but they all just said “C. A. Conrad”.  I found voter lists for 1854-1870 which sometimes recorded him as eligible to vote, but always as C. A. Conrad.  I couldn’t figure out where he lived or where he was born or even be sure of his name.

I thought about the possibilities of him living elsewhere, maybe on St. Thomas, and his family living on St. Croix.  So I searched the St Thomas censuses for 1850 and 1855 since he had several children during this time.  No luck.  I looked in towns and in the country, but could find no reference.  While my previous finds told me he existed (no real surprise there), and gave me a couple of particulars, there was nothing to tell me how to move back at all.

Then this week I made a critical discovery.  One of the sets of documents posted last week by (New Virgin Islands Records on was a register of “Burgherbriefs”.  A burgherbrief was sort of a combination citizenship/business license that was granted to some citizens of the islands.  While I don’t fully understand the implications, someone with such a brief was a “Burgher”, entitled to operate a business, to serve on the Burgher Council (sort of like city council), and the right to vote for these members.  There were residency requirements to obtain a Burgherbrief, although I’m not clear how firm these were, and the process involved oaths of fealty to the King of Denmark.  These were issued to both foreign born and local born citizens. Initially only men were Burghers, and there were relatively few in comparison to the whole population.  Mr. Conrad was one of these men.


This is a section of the page showing that a Burgherbrief was issued on 9 May 1846 to one Chr. And. Conrad, a Skipper from Flensburg.  The entry in the last column indicates whether the person previously held a burgherbrief.  It says “jah Flen” meaning that he had previously been a Burgher in Flensburg.  So, I see that Christian Andreas is very likely his name, that he was a Skipper or Captain and that he was born in Flensburg.  So time for a little research.

What is Flensburg you may ask.  I did.  Turns out Flensburg is a city in Germany, right below the Danish-German border in the region known as Schleswig-Holstein.  Actually it is in Schleswig.  Before it was part of Germany Schleswig and Holstein were in Prussia.  Prussia got it in 1864 from Denmark.  So in 1802 when C. Conrad was born, Flensburg was a Danish city.  A quick trip to Wikipedia (where everything is true) told me that Flensburg was a major shipping city in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and had major economic growth as a result of trading with the Danish West Indies, buying sugar cane and producing rum.  It would appear that C. Conrad was involved with this trade.  If this is so, it is perfectly reasonable that he could have spent considerable time on and off-island, maintaining a home in both Flensburg and a family in St Croix.

So, I had a place to look.  Unfortunately, German records are very difficult to obtain, and few Flensburg records have been filmed.  Danish records are far easier.  But then Flensburg was part of Denmark, wasn’t it?  So I went back to the DDD and looked for any census records for Flensburg.  There was one from 1803 and another from 1845.  Conrad was a very uncommon surname in Denmark at the time (although it was a very common given name).  I found only a couple Conrad families.  This one looked the best.

1803-Danish Census Schleswig-Conrad

On the 5th line is an entry for a Christian Andresen Conrad, age 1, who would have been born in 1802.  While not exactly the same, this is a derivative work so it is a transcription (and possibly not fully accurate) and names are notoriously variable.  Interestingly, the Flensburg census is in German, not Danish.  It shows his father, Johann Michel Conrad, his mother, Maria Christiansen, and that Johann was a mason.  The area of Flensburg was called Süderhohlweg.

While this was compelling, I would have preferred that it was a closer match.  Then I went on and found this in the 1845 census

1845-Danish Census Schleswig-Conrad

This is the home of Christian Andreas Conrad (can’t ask for a better match).  I see that he is a Schiffer (Skipper) and that he was born in 1802, and that he was born in Süderhohlweg.  This is the same person as the child in 1803.  It also matches the information I have from the Burgherbrief.  This has to be my man.

Then the real news.  In 1845 he is listed with his wife and 3 children.  Ten years later, he begins having children in St Croix with Sophia Andersen, although he never marries her.  Was Anna Maria Nielsen (listed as his wife in 1845) still alive?  Were there any more children?  Christian had children in St Croix in 1854, 1856, 1858, and 1861.  His youngest child in Flensburg would have only been 12 when his oldest in St Croix was born. Not exactly old enough to move out on her own.  Did he actually maintain two families?

My guess is that he did.  It was very common for seafarers to maintain a family at home and another in the islands.  Since they spent considerable time in each place, there would be long periods of absence and long periods of residence.  Of course, this is only a guess.

Anyway, that little word “Flensburg” was the missing link I needed to hop the Atlantic, find two census entries, and add another generation to the Conrad line.  One brick down.

Oh, and on my other wall, Frederich Andersen, I found his 1837 burgherbrief.  He was from Copenhagen.  I guessed that he was probably born around 1790, but it was a flimsy guess.  Andersen is a common name, but I only found one Frederich Andersen  in Copenhagen (nothing else even close over many years) and that was in the 1787 census.  He was 1.  His father was a ship’s carpenter.  So … maybe.


  1. Between 1846, when C.A. Conrad received his first Burgher Brief and 1852-53, when he and Sophia had had their first child, a momentous occasion occurred in St. Croix: the 1848 bloodless slave uprising that resulted in Gov.Gen. Peter von Scholten declaring their emancipation. The emancipation of the enslaved Africans proved to be an economic nightmare to the Danish West Indies. It devastated the already-shrinking sugar trade on St. Croix, and forced the planters to pay increased wages for an ever-diminishing return. Economic opportunities for spinsters were understandably limited, with many of them opting for the patronage of an older man (even one MUCH older as was Mr. Conrad) rather than resorting to menial labor and a life of misery.

    Another fact to keep in mind was that Burgher Briefs often paved the way for merchants to marry and in many ways the marriage itself was a form of a business alliance. Wives became unpaid partners in their husbands businesses, keeping records, running the business, maintaining a steady presence and sometimes even being granted power of attorney. Sometimes, widows continued to control their late husband's business or real estate holdings for several years after their deaths. Most likely Conrad married Anderson in order to maintain a business presence on St. Croix during those times he was away at sea.

    Although on the European and U.S. mainlands such a union would raise eyebrows, in St. Croix of the 1850's, it would be considered very much the "norm" and the children would not necessarily carry a stigma---if the children were properly "confirmed" in their church at the age of 14-15 and "introduced to society" and (better yet) sent to Europe for furthering their education.


  2. Very interesting Rachel. In this case, I'm not sure we're in that situation. C.A. Conrad and Sophia never married and I believe Sophia inherited property from her father. The St Croix passenger lists only run through 1841, and by that time a ship with captain A. Conrad was making annual visits in the late fall (November and December). I assume he continued the practice into the 1850's.

    Here's an interesting tidbit. I looked at the birthdates of the children (I have baptismal and sometimes confirmation records) and found that the first three children were born on:
    5 Nov 1854
    18 Nov 1856
    18 Nov 1858

    All in November. The last was born in February. This suggests that CA Conrad changed his schedule and began making annual (or biannual) visits in January or February.

    It's fun to consider how they may have gotten together. Sophia's father (Frederich Andersen) was from Copenhagen and he seems to have changed from being a policeman in 1833 to being listed as a Trader when he got his brief in 1837. Conrad began his visits around 1838 (first record I've found). Perhaps he was engaged in business with Frederich Andersen. Perhaps he developed a social relationship as well as a business one, as another Dane in the trade. Frederich appears to have died before 1841; Sophia would have been 16 at the time. Perhaps Conrad continued to visit and spend time with the family during his annual visits and began a relationship with her when she was about 32.

    Of course, that is just pure speculation!! I'd love to find another 20 years of arrivals in C'sted to see what the timing looked like!

  3. I was using the term "married" loosely.
    But now that you mention that Sophia's father died prior to 1841, her common-law-marriage to the much older, already-married C.A. Conrad makes even more sense. Even if she did inherit property, she probably didn't have any real source of income.

    You see, the most affected urban population by the 1848 uprising, besides the slaves themselves, were a group known as "spinsters."* Unmarried women who had outlived their legacies and had no husbands (or fathers) with whom to establish businesses, they often received income by renting out their house slaves to do occasional work. After emancipation, these women had to rely more heavily on charity.

    Actually, a woman in her predicament would have been considered somewhat lucky, even though her husband was many years her senior. He guaranteed her and her children a more-respected place in society and a "last name". Perhaps Anderson's dying wish to Mr. Conrad was that he take care of his daughter, to make sure she didn't end up as a manual laborer.


    *In European society ANY unmarried woman is a spinster, no matter what her age. I.E. marriage certificates in British Commonwealth nations always list the bride as a "spinster" on her marriage certificate, never as a "bride", as in "bride" and "groom".

  4. Touche. Solid arguments. Keep up the good effort.

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  5. Is this site still active? I have great grandparents/great great grandparents that were from the Danish West Indies. Their last names were Bithorn and (von) Lindeman. Finding information from this part of the world is impossible. Suggestions GREATLY accepted! Thanks
    - Carol