A few years ago I was doing research for a client in LA. She had family that came to St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1800s and didn’t know where they came from. While I was quite envious of the extensive research she could do in the US, I realized that I had an advantage in having my European origins in the more recent past, relatively speaking. Records after 1906 provide much more extensive information and her relatives had been here for several decades by then. I had traced her family through the census and had searched for immigration records. Immigration records were difficult to find and there was often no way to confirm that it was the correct record. Without those critical two points to draw the line between (relatives in Europe, relatives in the US), we had only supposition. Early naturalization records are also just as sketchy as early immigration records.
I decided to try a new tack, probate records. I was able to find an index listing for my client’s great-grandfather for a will in the Minnesota Historical Society Library. A fabulous place for anyone doing research on Minnesota relatives, this library offers birth and death records, countless newspapers, city directories and more. A friend was able to find his relative’s personnel file in the records of the railroad. I took the index number over to Ramsey County Courthouse where I located the Probate Office. They quickly settled me at a microfilm reader and pulled up the great-grandfather’s will from the 1930s.
The will offered a wealth of information. It identified family members, in one case a sister of whom we hadn’t been aware. It noted causes that he gave to, property he held and lo and behold---the town of birth. The will noted the town of Good Levey, Poland. I went to the Town Finder at Jewishgen and input the name. Up came the town of Garliava, Lithuania. The Russian and Polish name was Godlevo.
But we had another clue in the sister’s name. We began to search that new branch and learned that the sister had sons. We found their immigration records in 1907 which was a challenge as the name had converted from Bartelstein to Burton. In the record it indicated that they were going to their uncle, my client’s great-grandfather in St. Paul and gave their town of origin. This was further validated by another source. As young men her sons had to register for the draft in WWI. Their draft registration also indicated the town from which they came, a town just 35 miles away from Garliava.
Emboldened by my success in the St. Paul court records, I explored the Surrogate Court (same as Probate Court) records in Brooklyn for my own family. While no one had the wealth to justify a will, I did find guardian papers and records that unveiled other mysteries. One relative who lived in Brooklyn, but had died at her son’s in Morristown had a document that listed all of her children with their married names. It was quite simple to go to the court office, check a card file and have them pull up the requested documents.
There is no magic bullet for discovering the town of origin. Immigration records post 1906 are the easiest route. Even if the family came in the 1800s, it is possible that a family member came to them after 1906. If immigration records are not available you will need to continue to explore other avenues. Probate records provided an unexpected source for this information.
I am currently working with another person whose family came over in the 1800s where we are trying to find the ancestral town. We’ve been successful in working our way back through census records. We then found burial records on the Jewish On-Line Worldwide Burial Registry. This program, that I often contribute to when I photograph tombstones in Eastern Europe, also has many photos from the US. In this case the family cemetery was well documented and provided some information that may prove helpful. It gave us both her great-grandfather’s Hebrew names and the names of his father. The great-grandfather’s name in the US was Louis, but his Hebrew name was Nachum Leib. I have found that these names are often used interchangeably so we can now search using one or the other or both. With the names of her great-grandfather and his father we can search in European records, but it is still a broad universe within which to search without the town of origin. The next step would be to find death records for the great-grandfather. Death record information is as good as the knowledge of the person providing it. As his wife was still alive upon his death, she would be familiar with the town he came from. If we are lucky it will give us something more than the ubiquitous “Russia”.