Finding Wilhelm Henss

To say that finding Wilhelm Henss (William Henss) was difficult is an understatement. It seems like his German home and family had been lost to the US Henss family from the very beginning. The why behind that fact remains a mystery. We will probably never know if William choose to keep his origins “quiet” or if at all happened just as a “matter of course”.

To read the history of William and Katharine Henss as we have it documented, please read William & Katharine (Kämmer or Kemmer) Henss- a brief history. (Please be aware their “story” is being revised regularly now, as new data is evaluated and digested.)

But as Paul Harvey used to say, “and now to ‘the rest of the story’.”

William Henss about 1865
William Henss about 1865

Finding William and Katherine Henss’ German roots was one of my father-in-law’s life ambitions. When he died, I promised to carry on the search for him. The information he fought hard to glean, in those largely pre-internet search days, was limited to what other family members were willing to share and what had been publicly published by Henry County Iowa History groups. You can get a reasonable insight of what was known to him and others by looking on  The data on most William Henss family trees on has not been revised significantly since 2007.

To summarize, the following information was “widely” accepted, when I took over the search:

  1. William came from Germany to Iowa in the mid-1850s.
  2. He was born in “Dormstead”, Germany.
  3. He was a blacksmith.
  4. No pictures or actual data from the old country were known to exist (at least not by my father-in-law or in our family).
  5. No family links were to known to exist or have existed with family in the “old country”.

In the years following 2007 (the year my father-in-law died), I examined and reexamined those known facts:

Fact 1:

  • William came from Germany to Iowa in the mid-1850s.

I believed this, however we needed to know not just where he came from but where he was born. Germany is a pretty big place to search.  Granted it’s not the United States in terms of size, but it still had around 40 million people at the time Wilhelm left. So if he came from Germany, then “where in Germany”?  This meant our known Fact 1 & Fact 2 were somehow inter-related or linked. But how?

Fact 2:

  • He was born in “Dormstead”, Germany.

This Fact was pretty easy to see as a problem. “Dormstead” was neither a German place/location nor a German word. It was pretty definitely Anglicized. To my ear that meant “Dormstead” was most likely originally “Darmstadt”, and had been debased into the English word-form of “Dormstead”. But even if I was correct, there remained problems. The challenge presented by “Darmstadt” was that it could be at least two potential “geographic or political entities” :

  • a Grand Duchy (Hesse-Darmstadt) or
  • a city (Darmstadt).

My thought from the beginning was that our “Darmstadt” was not the city; because, our guy (William/Wilhelm) was a blacksmith. Cities did not have many blacksmiths (as a percentage of the population); blacksmiths were both more needed and more commonly found in the country-side of the early 1800s. In all likelihood, we were looking for a blacksmith who came to Iowa from some village in Hesse-Darmstadt, rather than the “big” city of Darmstadt.

If I was accurate that meant the area we had to comb/ dig through was Hesse-Darmstadt (the Grand Duchy).  Until 1866 the Duchy covered 2,964 square miles (compared to Delaware at 1,933 square miles); and its population numbers were: 1819 – 643,821; 1828 – 718,274; 1837 – 783,671; 1846 – 852,679; 1855 – 836,424; 1871 – 852,894; 1875 – 884,218 (437,072 males and 447,146 females). This left us with a big pile of hay in which to find our “needle”, we had a Grand Duchy about 150% the size of Delaware without any actual place names within which to look and we had to sort through about 800,000 souls in order to find “our guy”.

And thus, we had to find a place to begin our search.

As a ‘computer-guy’, I began my detailed searches online.  What I was looking for were clues as to William’s village/ town of birth.

  • There were the traditional places such as (where I found all the dead-ends that remain there until this day).  However, I also found a wealth of source materials and links, most of which is described in William & Katharine (Kämmer or Kemmer) Henss- a brief history.The materials provided a good and reasonably complete picture of the Henss family in the US (Iowa).  But there were almost no (zero) clues regarding their German origins. All US Census documents were imprecise; travel and immigration records were imprecise or non-existent; residence and death records were also uninformative.
  • I used Yahoo Groups and Rootsweb forums to ask questions and gather information.  In most instances these were slow and produced few historical data points.  However, they did provide me with knowledgeable people to discuss issues, findings, and ideas.  The most plentiful of all were the contacts I made were from Germany (Hesse) as you will note in my appreciation list below. And since the end of my journey was in Germany, it goes without saying that the “jackpot” came from Germany as well.
  • In my search, I also relied heavily on the Internet Archive as a source of maps and texts.  When you are looking for people who lived a 150 years ago, out of copyright texts and maps are “perfect”.  New and current maps are much less helpful, especially when there have been significant geopolitical changes in the search area over those intervening years.
  • I, also, relied heavily upon and my local LDS Family Search Center in Parker, Colorado. I reviewed dozens of tapes/ films.  However, none of my Familysearch “fishing expeditions”  worked very well until I found a very special text called Map Guide to German Parish Registers, Grandduchy of Hessen by Kevan M. Hansen volume 1 copyright 2004 (ISBN 0-9753543-0-2). In this text, I was able to find a town mentioned as being associated with the Henss family in one of the old Henry County Iowa Histories (Beuern).  I then used the Hansen text to construct, conduct, and conclude a radial area search of Evangelische Kirchen (Lutheran Churches) “all around” Beuern.

Fact 3:

  • He was a blacksmith.

This fact was of little value early.  When you have a family name (surname) as unique as “Henss” it is only rarely that you need a secondary “fact or trait” to differentiate one person from the next when choosing between multiple records. In a couple of instances, we did resort to using William’s trade in identifying when the surname was “messed up” by a well-intentioned bureaucrat.

Fact 4:

  • No pictures or actual data from the old country were known to exist (at least not by my father-in-law).

All the photographic and documentary evidence in our possession was Iowa based.

Fact 5:

  • No family links were to known to exist or have existed with the “old country”.

So, there was no help from the German-side of the Henss family.

The Search & Breakthrough:

My end of the search has taken some seven (7) years. My father-in-law spent much longer.  I don’t really know who, if anyone, preceded him in his search.  I do know that other Henss family members have been stuck at this same road block for multiple years. During those years, we have managed to accumulate a rather complete picture of the life and time of William & Katherine as they established the Henss Family in Southeastern Iowa and it has spread across the US.  Sadly though, until our breakthrough this past week, we have had very little to say about where William originated from and to whom he belonged.

But that all changed this week when we examined the FHL (LDS Family History Library) film of births from Ettingshausen.

Wilhelm Henss 20 Dec 1831 Birth Record
Wilhelm Henss 20 Dec 1831 Birth Record

Now we are moving into a new phase of research, our radial search of churches in Hesse has struck “gold”. Wilhelm Henss was born 20 Dec 1831 (this matches our known birth date) to Johann Philip Henss and Elisabethe Keil in Ettingshausen, Hesse-Darmstadt.  Johann Philip, like his son, was a blacksmith (another link). In addition to the immediate family we have uncovered nearly 100 additional German Henss Family members (from those days gone by).  We will doubtless uncover more; and we will, as my father-in-law would have wanted, share our findings with interested family.

Johann Philip Henss was an older brother of Maria Anna Henss (who married Conrad Kassel) and hosted Catherine Kemmer after she arrived in America. The father of our two Henss siblings is Johann Heinrich Henss who was born in Beuern Hesse-Darmstadt. (These additional facts and data were sourced from Familienbücher developed and managed by: Hans-Karl Brückmann and Hanno Müller).

All our facts line up… und Wilhelm ist wieder mit seiner Familie zusammen gebunden (and William is once again rejoined with his family).

Summary & Appreciations:

In truth, none of this would have been possible without the following:

  • my father-in-law (Robert Rich Henss) and his fine research and documentation
  • my wife (Becky) along with her patience and financial backing
  • the LDS Family History Library & tapes (we examined dozens of church films from both Hesse-Darmstadt and Iowa)
  • the Internet Archive (we examined and downloaded 1000’s of pages of old Iowa histories and texts- they are all available in the ManyRoads online library)
  • many helpful German Genealogists, most from Hessen, who pointed me to potential search areas and confirmed many dead-ends along with one incredible find.
    • Peter Bohrer
    • Frank Breunig
    • Hans-Karl Brückmann
    • Geschäftstelle der HfV in Darmstadt
    • Burkhard Goetzl
    • Michael und Michaela Geisler
    • Jan Hofmann
    • Gisela Kartowitsch
    • Ulrich Kratz
    • Hanno Müller
    • Isolde Müller
    • Achim Tepper
  • In the US the following folks were very helpful in providing clues and information:
    • Teran Buettell
    • Glenda Tressler Smith