Monday, September 20, 2010

Principles for Basic Genealogy Searches

Recently I’ve been immersed in genealogy, preparing for my Utah research trip and doing genealogy consulting and lectures. It is always interesting for me to work on someone else’s family history with the benefit of the insights I’ve learned from my own. As I’ve been preparing a talk, a recent consulting job was a helpful exercise in articulating basic research principles.

I always recommend that people first start with interviewing everyone in their family who might know something about their history. In this case, the client didn’t have the benefit of family members who could offer that information so we were reliant on what she knew and remembered. She knew her grandmother’s married name and thought she knew her maiden name. She also knew the names of some of the siblings of her grandmother, the birth year of her grandmother and the year of immigration.

With that as our starting point we began by following principle #1: Work with what you know towards what you don’t know. We searched for her grandmother’s married name and quickly found the 1930 census. The census confirmed the year of birth, but the year of immigration was six years later than what we had believed it to be. Principle #2 What you believe to be true, isn’t always accurate. Don't let it blind you to other possibilities. We had done some unsuccessful searches for immigration records using the year we believed she came over. This new information told me we needed to widen our net and search a broader number of years. Principle #3 Start broad, then narrow as necessary.

With our broader net we quickly found the 1920 census record for my client’s grandmother and family. This record indicated yet another immigration date, but one that was close to that of the 1930 census. The 1920 census record was an important one for several reasons. It provided the name of the client’s great-grandfather who brought all of his children to the US. It told us he had filed initial papers to become naturalized so we could look for a naturalization record. It also told us that different siblings immigrated at different times. The record confirmed several of the siblings’ names and provided a few new ones of whom we hadn’t been aware. Most immigration records just indicate the place of birth as the country, but in this case, it actually specified Vilna, Russia. I knew from my own family experience that Vilna could mean the gubernia rather than the city, kind of like a county or province. My grandmother used to say she was from Vilna. In fact I found that she was from a small shtetl 75 miles away from Vilna which is now in Belarus, but at one time was in the Vilna gubernia.

Our next step was to search for immigration records as we hoped to find the town from which they had immigrated. Several siblings had come in 1914 as had my client’s grandmother Lillian. I had done some searches with the name “Lillian” with little success and wasn’t sure what that name might have been prior to being Americanized. Instead I decided to search on her brother Hyman whose pre-Americanized name I assumed was Chaim. Principle #4 Search for the non-Americanized name and Principle #5 If unsure, search for related names. Searching with just his non-Americanized name, birth year and year of immigration I quickly found the record which also contained his father Schaje and sister Lillian whose name appeared to be nothing like Lillian. Ellis Island had transcribed it as Kate. The year of birth corresponded with both censuses and what we knew it to be originally. One of the things I would be interested in seeing is a tombstone for Lillian as it might indicate in Hebrew what her original name was.

Within the record it indicated the last permanent residence as Wischnowo Wilna.  We now needed to convert the town name to what it is called today. We had a clue in that we knew Wilna was Vilna and we knew they were supposed to have lived close to Vilna. Substituting Vs for Ws the name now read “Vischnovo”. I then went to the communities database and input the name along with a request to tell me how close it was to Vilna. Up popped Vishnevo, Belarus within 53 miles of Vilna. All the other options were much farther away. We soon found a shtetlink for Vishnevo which talked about a match factory that my client recalled as a family business.

The key pieces of information on the immigration record are who remained in Europe and who were they going to. In this case they were going to Schaje's son Ichk, no doubt Isador in the 1920 census who had been the first family member to arrive in 1904.  The nearest relative remaining in Eastern Europe was Schaje's brother Abram.

Now that I had the town on which to search I decided to make use of the advanced searching techniques possible on the site. I input the surname and the town and soon pulled up ten records. Among them were Kate (Lillian), Chaim and Schage (Schaje) whose record we had found in 1914.  The variance in Schaje's name points out yet another principle #6 Transcription errors are prevalent due to transcriber unfamiliarity with Jewish names. Go to the original document to confirm.

I realized that I might not be picking up all of the towns of Wischnewo due to transcription errors so instead decided to search for the surname with a given name that started with an “I” for Ichk and a town that started with a “W”. allows this flexibility.  Now I picked up another transcription of the town, “Wiscknewo” which didn’t show up earlier and it was for Itrko. Interestingly when I went into the record it showed Itzek, then 12 coming with his brother Selik and his sister Mine, accompanied by his father Schaje who must have then returned to Wischewo only to come back ten years later with his youngest children. Selik was a new sibling of whom we hadn’t been aware as he had not shown up in census records with the rest of the family, probably living independently from the family in 1920. A 1912 immigration record of brother Benjamin notes that he was going to his brother Selig. The birth year for the father Schaje in this earlier record read 1852 instead of the 1862 as we saw in the 1914 immigration record. Principle #7 They didn’t pay much attention to birthdays or dates in general, don’t expect them to tie out across all documents. My great-grandmother had a different birth year for herself in every birth record for each of her children.

And one more principle from this exercise…Principle # 8 Search related lines. Since I knew that Schaje had a brother Abram, I took a look at the unidentified records of the same surname. Several of them had a father in Wischnewo named Abram, thus making them cousins and an additional thread to follow.

Searching is a laborious process, but you can shave some time from your efforts if you keep these principles in mind.

1: Work with what you know towards what you don’t know.

2 What we believe to be true, isn’t always accurate. Don't let it blind you to possibilities.

3 Start broad, then narrow.

4.Search for the non-Americanized name in immigration records.

5. If you can’t find a specific name, search for related names.

6 Don’t forget that names can be transcribed in error. If names seem close, confirm the actual name in the original document.

7. Don’t expect birth dates or immigration dates to match exactly across all documents.

8. Search related lines for cousins.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Story Gathering

Several years ago I began a series of artwork on family history.  That series has been the source of many offshoots in artwork about family, community and cultural history.  Earlier this year I contacted Sholom Home, a Jewish elder facility about showing my family history artwork there.  As we spoke it occurred to me that my artwork often elicits others’ family stories and what better place to do so than an elder facility.  My initial phone call quickly morphed into a project in which I am now engaged.  My partner in this project is a local storyteller, Carla Vogel, who in addition to storytelling also does legacy work at a local hospice.  We had spoken for several years about possibly partnering and she seemed like the perfect partner for this project.

 Together we are interviewing residents of Sholom Home and recording their stories.  We are especially interested in legacy elements and how individual stories within the same community can begin to tell the story of a community.  I will then develop artwork around the stories, similar to what I’ve done on my own family history.

Along the way we’ve connected with the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest who frequently does oral history projects.   I’ve done genealogy and collage workshops for them in the past.  They are providing guidance in how to approach oral histories and will be a repository for the stories when we are finished.  The artwork will reside at Sholom Home when it is not being exhibited elsewhere.

We’ve done one interview and I’ve begun the first painting.  The woman we interviewed is in her
Detail of Painting
mid-90s.  Against the backdrop of nursing home chatter and frequent beeps from residents, she told us of her life and her experience teaching young children. Behind her is an image of her as a young woman reading a book that had special significance in her history. During our first interview she sang her favorite Yiddish song for us, also one of mine. Oyfn Pripetchik (At the Fireplace) is a song about a teacher, a rabbi, who is teaching young children the Yiddish alphabet. You can find the song at this link.  Teaching children the alphabet seemed especially applicable given our interviewee’s history.  She attends a regular Yiddish class and spoke of how much she likes the power and fire of the language, offering her latest words to stump her teacher.  In the painting I wanted to include Yiddish, especially some words from the song that related to children learning the Aleph Bes (alphabet). I’m not sure if I’ve finished this yet as I am still experimenting with how I want to represent these stories, but this is what I have thus far.

I am also continuing with my Radom Hole in Time series.  One of the things that I loved in the 1937 film of Radom was the way people walked almost into the camera creating a sense of immediacy in the viewer.  I wanted to do an image that would capture that sense.  The image on the right is the result of that effort.