Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Finding the Tendrils of History

 I was first drawn into genealogy when the immigration records went on-line. There was something about imagining that journey that fascinated me. It can become pretty frustrating however, when you can find no trace of it, as if family miraculously appeared, leaving no tendrils of history trailing behind.

I’ve learned the key to solving puzzles is addressing the blind spots created by our assumptions. We can test our assumptions, but if we consider them to be givens, they block our path to the true story.  I’ve learned to approach every puzzle with skepticism, especially when evaluating what we think we know. 


Recently someone asked my help with an immigration dilemma. He gave me the name the family went by in Europe, Svirnofski, and the name of a well-known relative. He suspected that his family members might have come on the same boat as that relative. If we could find that manifest, we might find his family members or at least a likely trajectory to the United States. One of the common approaches in genealogy in breaking through brick walls is to look at cousins. That is easier when they are well-documented cousins. In this case his relative was David Sarnoff, a well-known figure in broadcasting who headed RCA and founded NBC. When I begin a search, I want enough information to verify that I am looking at the right family. Dates and names were often fluid so you don’t want to spend your time chasing the wrong person. I figured the biographical data should be available for a well-known figure like Sarnoff.


I looked him up on Wikipedia where I confirmed that his father was Abraham and his mother Leah. The same names showed up in his 1917 marriage record on Familysearch.org. He was born in 1891 and came over in 1900. I always search within a band of years, knowing that memories are often imprecise and even dates reported by the participants are often incorrect.


With that information, I did a search for a naturalization record which after 1906 would tell me the name he entered the country under, when he came and on which ship. The 1920 census said he was naturalized in 1915, but that record wasn’t coming up. Instead I found a good substitute, a passport filing gave me an arrival of July 1, 1900 from Liverpool and the ship’s name which appeared to be the SS Agentic. 


I started with stevemorse.org, a website that provides a more efficient search engine. I did some preliminary searches looking for a name that “sounded like” the pre-Americanized version we believed it to be. I also did searches with the ship’s name. I wasn’t meeting with much success. Did a ship of that name even come to the United States? I knew I could find out.


Stevemorse has a ship lists search that pulls up the manifests if you input the dates and ship’s name. I put in the dates with a range around them and looked for a ship name that resembled what I had found on the passport file.  No such ship appeared. It occurred to me they may have come in through Canada, but was there something similar to the stevemorse search for Canadian ships? I don’t have to know everything, just how to find it. I googled “ships from Liverpool to Canada 1900” and it took me to a Government of Canada Library Archives Page with Passenger Lists from 1865-1922. My knowledge base had just expanded!  I went to “search database” and entered the information I was fairly sure of, Liverpool and 1900.  The page returned the names of ships and the dates of arrival. One of the ships was Lake Megantic, named after a body of water in Quebec.  I was pretty sure that was the ship as I weighed that name against the Agentic that he had recorded when applying for his passport. I could imagine him digging into his memory trying to surface that name that was just beneath the waterline. 



While the site had passenger lists, it is tedious work to go through a manifest line by line and there was a ship on June 1st and July 5th. I guessed that Ancestry would have it indexed if I could get to the right ship and they did. As I wasn’t sure how they spelled the name, I searched for David as the first name and S* for the last. I soon found David Swenowsky age 9 along with his brothers Mosche and Salomon coming to America with their mother Lena. Not exactly Szirnofski, but then neither is Sarnoff. Names were indeed fluid. So where was Abraham? Typically, the men came to America first, found work and a place to live and then sent for their wife and children. Often older children came first and the mother stayed with younger children until they were old enough to travel. The Swenowsky children were 6, 7 and 9. In fact they had been separated from Abraham for some time. A newspaper article noted that father Abraham had come six years earlier. Most families don't have the luxury of a bio in the New York Times. Abraham left Lena with a newborn and two toddlers. Travel would have been most challenging for her at that time.

We were curious about when the name change occurred. We traced David's father from his immigration, through the birth of two more children and up to his death in 1910. He died with his original name. By 1915, David Sarnoff had emerged in the 1915 census, reinvented as an American with a new streamlined name. His family had later followed suit.

I am always intrigued with the paths that lead to solutions and frequently retrace my steps to follow what is often intuitive logic. We have a tool kit that grows as we do research. Then we need to know what tool to use when and the interrelationships between them. And there is a sequential nature to solving a puzzle, so we need to understand that as well. When you can combine all of those elements, magic can happen.

In this case, we started with uncertainty about names and spellings and with the usual assumption that they came to New York. It wasn’t until I gathered more information on the date and ship, then tested whether that ship existed in the universe where we were looking, that another path presented itself. I learned something new when I googled the Canadian ships and discovered I could check the names. And I didn’t commit to one name option until I could see what presented itself, realizing that people’s names were especially fluid during this time. While we didn’t find the other family members, we now know that the Canadian path is likely to be the doorway for other family members.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Teasing Out the Story

My stepdaughter and her family are moving to California. In the twenty-five years my husband and I have been together she has always been here. Weddings, babies, homes and holiday celebrations  leave a trail of memories. Some years ago, her sister’s family left Minnesota for California and they have built a satisfying life there. My husband worries a bit as fathers do. I remind him that they are competent adults with family there to cushion the adjustment. We have learned that relationships change, but also deepen with moves. Longer visits create time for the casual, but often important conversations. 

And what does this mean for us? We no longer have parents or children anchoring us to Minnesota or the Midwest. Do we visit for extended stretches or pick up roots ourselves in time? For now, we’ll see how they like it and plan a more extended visit when the world is a safer place. 


My thoughts are colored by our experience with the pandemic. The world does feel more connected across distance. Despite months of isolating physically, I’ve remained connected with friends around the country and in my own city via Zoom. Would some of that continue if we were to move? For now, It is strange to say goodbye in the midst of a pandemic. How do you do that when socially distancing? It is an oddly dislocating experience. 


As a genealogist, I find myself considering the ways families once spread out around the country. Often it echoed the chain migration of our ancestors, the pioneers ventured out and were followed by others emboldened by the success of their adventurous family members. That began with coming to America, but it continued as they explored cities outside of New York. It is not too unlike my present-day experience, but without the instant communication we've become so accustomed to.


I’ve been deeply immersed in genealogy consulting this year and a case I am working on has given me new insight into how our ancestors moved from New York  to clusters of family within the country. We tend to think families used to always live nearby and the divisions of geography are new.  I’m not so sure it is. About seventy percent of immigrants entered through New York. Many of them remained there where they were often the first contact for subsequent immigrants from the family. Others dispersed across the country forming a nucleus around which others gathered over time. After one leaves one’s family behind, perhaps to never see them again, a second move may seem less daunting.


I’ve been studying records of the Industrial Removal Office, a service designed to move Jewish immigrants outside of New York in the early 1900s, assisting them with transportation and jobs. It is a rather odd name for the purpose. Companies contacted them with jobs to fill, individuals with pleas to help with the costs of sending family. In the 1907 records, I found my client’s great-grandfather born in the 1850s. He was sent to Minneapolis three months after his arrival in the United States. Accompanying him was his soon to be married daughter, already trying out her new name. One week after arrival she and her fiancĂ© got their marriage license and she remained in Minnesota where she had five sons. Her father returned to New York where we find him in the census, both 1910 and 1915. He died soon after and by 1920 his widow was in Minnesota living with one of her children and in 1930 with another. "What should we do with mom?" I could hear them debating.


I knew of the younger children who came over on the boat with their parents, but older siblings had come earlier. One of the ways that I often learn of the broader relationships is by tracing the person that a new immigrant goes to upon arrival. Often it is an uncle, a sibling or an adult child. I had begun exploring that ancestral couple I referenced earlier, the great-grandparents of my client. I was looking for a possible Lithuanian marriage or birth record that linked their two surnames, Katz and Jaffe. In the process, I stumbled across a young man whose parents shared the same two surnames. In following his path I discovered two young men traveling to America, each carrying one of those names. Who were they and was there a relationship? In fact, they were going to a common uncle who lived in New York and shared the maiden name of the great-grandmother in Minnesota, likely a brother. Now I needed to determine if there was a Minnesota connection. 


My starting point had been an immigration record, but vital records and tombstones helped solve the puzzle. Death and marriage records frequently have parents’ names, even maiden names. Jewish tombstones will frequently have the Hebrew name of the father as well as the Hebrew name of the decedent. These names often clue me in on the name they went by in Europe before they Americanized it. That's the name I search for when looking for immigration records.

In this case, I knew the name of the great-grandmother's father was Itzaak from her tombstone. Now I just needed similar information for her possible brother, the New York uncle to the two young men. I knew that stevemorse.org, a very efficient search engine, was a good source for access to New York records. I also knew that familysearch.org, a free data source, typically listed parents’ names if available. Armed with this knowledge I went to the stevemorse.org website and found the section on birth, death and marriage records that searched the familysearch.org database. At the top of the page, I could toggle between them as I tried each one, tracing people through their various life stages. When I found the death record for the uncle, his parents’ names did indeed match his sister's parents. Ultimately I was able to match two additional siblings by examining people who shared the same surname in New York and comparing their parents’ names. Soon I had confirmed the great-great grandparents and four of their children, not to mention those two young men in the next generation, one of whom moved to Minnesota while the other stayed in New York. Often I trace them through obituaries to validate the ties.


This is the part of genealogy that I find most fascinating. Teasing out relationships and connecting the information, reuniting families if only on paper.