Hurray! Ellis Island resources are accessible on site!

Many, many thanks to Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee, for so articulately summarizing what is happening at Ellis Island.  She wrote:

“…the new Ellis Island National Immigration Museum story goes to the present day whereas the Ellis Island Immigration Museum story covered only through 1954. The new gallery, Peopling of America, opens today, May 20th. This major expansion of the museum “bookends” the Ellis Island era by telling the story of immigration to America before the processing station opened in 1892 and after it closed in 1954. To read more see: Original url: The historic baggage room now houses the world migration globe depicting migration patterns around the world, not just to the United States. There are displays about pre-Ellis Island as well as post-Ellis immigration. Displayed at the entrance is the American Flag of Faces, an interactive video with a montage of images submitted by individuals about their families and ancestors. If you would like to submit photos see: The site also has a link about genealogy-see:

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But it Sounds Like…

As a genealogist I often work with transcriptions of documents not originally written in English.  Of course I also work with documents written in English.  A lot of the time, even if the document is one which a person filled out themselves, spelling of names and places seems a bit “off”.  We can clearly see documents written in English in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and earlier, where significant changes in the spelling of a name makes it difficult to track a person, and we have to rely on other information like occupation, children’s or spouse’s names, birthplace, address, and other date.

Think of how this gets compounded when the person doesn’t read or write English, or in a very heavy accent is pronouncing a name or place and another person is writing what s/he hears.  A fairly common name like Schwartz (German for “black”) can be written in many ways.  Some of these might be SZWARC, SHVARTS, SZWARTZ, SZWARZ, SWERCZ, SWIERCZ, SWIRCZ.  Now imagine looking at the original documents written in Polish or Hungarian (both of which use the Latin alphabet but have more letters than English), or at Cyrillic (the alphabet used to write Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian and other languages)  or Yiddish documents (written in using the Hebrew alphabet), neither of which use Latin letters, and trying to determine which of the names could sound like “Schwartz.”

So, what’s a person to do?  Try not to be completely wed to the way the names you are looking for should appear.  Keep your mind open, after all, what if the name really began as Schwatzkopf, Schwartzbrodt or Schwartzberg?  Google the alphabet for the language you are looking at so that you can understand what letter combinations make which sounds – this will be a great aid to picking out names – you can try some combinations of the letters before hand so that you have an idea of how the name should look!

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Two Marriage Records – Same Bride, Same Groom?

Okay, what gives with this?  Why would there be duplicate marriage records a few days, weeks or months apart for the same bride and groom?  Really, they are the same couple – no mistaking this – their parents’ names are the same, ages, occupations, birth places and addresses all match on BOTH certificates.  The certificates of course all have different numbers.  Today I spent time looking at the marriage certificates/records of 5 different couples in the New York City Municipal archives. Their marriages were recorded between 1903 and 1937, the last year that marriage records are publicly available in New York City.

The answer proved to be very simple.   Perhaps this is not always the reason for these duplicate certificates and records, but it was clearly the same reason for these 5 couples.  In each case, one certificate represented a civil marriage, often but not always, conducted in a municipal office.  The second certificate represented a religious marriage and was conducted by a Rabbi or Cantor – a person designated by one of those titles or by the title “Reverend” which is a generic, non-specific title designating clergymen (in those days it was all men).

I don’t know if this situation exists today outside the United States, or if we are even still likely to find this occurring today.  These are examples of the separation of civil and religious ceremonies both designed to unite a couple in what we refer to as “marriage” – a category which does not distinguish between the civil and religious union.

In Eastern Europe, when there were religious marriages in the Jewish community, those marriages were not always recorded with the civil authority, and outside religious boundaries, that couple was not considered to be married, and the children of that union were generally given the mother’s surname, not the father’s. If and when that marriage was registered (often years after the birth of their children) the record was frequently amended and a note was inserted about the paternity, often with a surname added to the one given at birth.

So a person’s name might be Name X v Name Y where “v” coming from the Latin word vel, which means “also known as.” This person might then be known by both names, where the person might sometimes be known by the mother’s name and, at other times, by the father’s name.  Or Name X r Name Y where “r” coming from the word recte means “legally” and would mean that this surname was the ‘legal’ name.  There is a 3rd way a name might appear and that is with an “f” between the names standing for “false” which might mean that the person was not legally supposed to be using that surname which was the father’s surname and the parents’ did not have a civilly recorded marriage.

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Everytime new information is revealed…

…it leads to more questions.  Some of those questions are waiting to be answered through discoveries of resources in archives, some will remain, regretfully, unanswered.

At one time I had a stack of letters in many different languages – Polish, German, Yiddish, Russian – none of which I could translate.  I still have that stack of letters, but they are now, almost all translated.  These last few are from my great-grandparents in Romania in the 1920’s, all are handwritten.  Four letters are in Yiddish, two are in German, with Yiddish (in Hebrew letters) scattered throughout.  Three Yiddish letters have, to date, been translated.

I have records of my family in Romania dating back to the 1870’s and all of the records, no matter what their origin (local, regional, union, personal) all have the surname spelled exactly the same way, in Latin letters, in German and Romanian.  The handwritten letters are different.

The Yiddish letters are all written by (or for) my great-grandfather to his children in the United States.  None of these are written by my great-grandmother.  The German letters, written a few months after my great-grandfather’s death are written by my great-grandmother.

The Yiddish letters include messages from my great-grandmother or are clearly being written on behalf of both of them, and are signed with a first and last name, not “your father” or something similar.  Although my great-grandfather’s name, in Yiddish is spelled exactly the way we would think to find it, his surname is spelled differently than we would expect, based on ALL the Romanian and German records.  The questions arising from this are:

  1. Did he write the letters or did someone else write them for him?
  2. Why are they signed with his full name?
  3. Why is the name spelled the way it is in Yiddish?

Then there are other questions based on the content of the letters in which the complaint is of constant ill health (my great-grandfather was in his mid-70’s at this point), and poverty. The questions:

  1. Why didn’t they come to the US – all their children were grown and all except one were in the US – my great-grandmother left Romania for the US by 1928, after her husband’s 1926 death.
  2. The letters speak of acrimony and neglect by their children and allude to disagreements – what was going on within the family?
  3. The letters mention a lack of communication with some of their children and even not having current addresses – what was going on.

Questions layered upon questions.  No answers in sight.  Maybe this last Yiddish letter or the 2 German ones, still to be translated will provide some answers.

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Round and Round We Go!

I have identified 5 unique family groups and 1 additional person all living in Tuckums, Courland with the same surname in 1871. I have no idea if these are related to each other.  I have tracked two of those families to Michigan, US.  Well, let me rephrase that – I tracked two of these families from Michigan back to Courland.  Why you might ask did I do that, especially since I just commented that I could not tell if they were related to each other.

Well, therein lies the tale.  These two families settled in a  part of Michigan which was not, at the end of the 19th century, densely populated, nor is it now.  Three men, sons of Israel and Hanna settled in one small town, and three men, sons of Chaim Solomon and Chasse settled in another small town not too far distant.  There were no other people in the area with the same surname.  Through time and generations both families spread out.  Today they live in CA, MA, NY, FL, and all over Michigan, just to name a few places.

Thanks to probate documents I have now identified and verified all of Chaim Solomon and Chasse’s children, some of whom remained in Europe, some of whom came to the US in the years after their brothers did.  I have found no such papers for Israel and Hanna’s sons, but I admit, have not YET looked for them.  This is something which will be remedied over the next couple of weeks (of course).

I have found that Chaim Solomon’s father’s name was Marcus and Marcus’ father’s name has been transcribed as Heyman.  I haven’t seen the original but it’s probably Chaim.  Heyman/Heiman are an Anglicized (but maybe Gemanicized name, too?) version of Chaim.  So what do I have?

I have still not discovered a common ancestor.  I know there has to be one.  I have two brothers who both name their sons Heiman but who I have to yet connected to Marcus’ father.  Could Marcus, whose son Chaim was born in 1828, have been a brother to Israel and Judel?  Israel’s son Heiman (based on Israel’s grandson’s age) was born around 1810, and Judel’s son Heiman was born around 1828.

One of Israel and Hanna’s sons, Sam, moved to go into business with one of Chaim and Chasse’s sons.  Sam also moved to Detroit at about the same time as his business partner did, although it does not appear that they remained in business together in Detroit.

I know that feelings do not create documentation and proof.  I am definitely not at a point where I can say that the evidence is incontrovertible and that I have met a proof standard (only a guess standard and perhaps not even that).  Searching through records, and attempting to draw those lines of proof closer together until I either prove or disprove my hypothesis that these two families are related.


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Handwriting (please!)

Handwriting (please!)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Janette Silverman @ 9:25 pm Edit This

Some days, today, for instance, I wish I could do the absolutely impossible.  I wish I could shake people who were in charge of creating records and say in very firm tones: “watch the way you are writing.  Someone in the future may need to read this.”  Of course it can’t be done, and the records we have are, well, the records we have.  I am attempting to figure out what brought a family from Arenac County, Michigan to Detroit.  In fact, more than that,  am trying to figure out who it was that they exchanged visits with in Detroit for several years before relocating there in the very early 20th century.

I know that the immigrants in the family I’m tracing came from Europe in the years between 1875 & 1885.  Other members of their extended family came around the same time, and all of these settled in areas where they could supply goods to the lumber and fur trades.  Ultimately my target family opened up dry goods stores.  They married, raised families, and then, in what appears to me to be sudden moves, they were visiting with people back in Detroit and ultimately moved to Detroit between 1914 and 1920.

Today, looking for some clarity, I went looking for everyone in Detroit with the same surname in 1910.  Of the 5 families with that surname in Detroit in 1910, I eliminated 2 families that appear to be of a different ethnic background than my target.  That left 3.  I started looking to see if I could find immigration records for a person in one of these families who apparently came over as an 8 year old in 1871.  It looked like I found only one family that would be a candidate –  a woman and her 2 children with that surname on a ship in 1871 – one of the children had the same first name as one of  the people on the 1910 census.  The only problem was that he birth year would make her 10 years older than her son according to the transcription.  No, the transcriptionist wasn’t at fault in this case – that’s actually what it looks like the person who wrote the information on the manifest wrote.  Of course the handwriting is really less than clear.

Like I said, I’d like to go back in time and give very clear instructions to the people filling out these forms.

Posted in piecing the puzzle together

So, what’s in a name?

Shakespeare said it long ago – a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  However, in order to connect the word with the object, we need a clear path.

In my mother’s family, my great-great grandfather seemingly arbitrarily used a variety of names – first and last.  His children seem to have each selected one of the surnames he used and that branch of the family went with that name.  His son, my great-grandfather, thankfully, listed all the names, first and last, by which his father used, on his father’s probate record.  Thank you, Allan Jordan for pulling those records for me several years ago.

Having that list of names gave us the ability to figure out relationships with people we thought were family, not just family friends.

My father’s family is more straightforward.  Surnames in his family basically stayed the same from Europe to the U.S. with little variation.  First names, however, were an issue.  There was one person to whom we kept referring to by what we thought was his name  – it was what his mother in Europe called him in her letters.  Decades later, we found out what his name was and that she had been referring to him by an endearment – always the same one!

One day, I got a phone call from a woman I had never heard of.  She had been looking at my tree, and called me, very excited.  Almost her first words were: “Your Mali is my Amalia.”  Once I understood what she was talking about, I pulled up my tree and hers to compare and was able to say to her “Your Chiel is my Yechezkiel, and your Israel is my Srul.”  Very exciting finds, and a wonderful familial connection.

But what of the Anshel, Leibe, Yudel, Salka, Shaiku and Mundek.  Who were these people?  Were they or their descendants still alive?  One afternoon, sitting with relatives and trying to piece this together, someone commented that she had a vague memory of someone calling her grandfather “Louis” by another name – Leibe!  That started a furious conversation that lasted for hours and followed many paths.  We pulled out photos of gravestones of people we thought were related but hadn’t identified, and photos of people with Yiddish names scrawled on the back.  It took a while, but ultimately we found that in our family Anshel = Arthur, Yudel = Julius, Salka = Sarah, Shaiku = Asher and Mundek = Moses.

So, what’s in a name?

Posted in piecing the puzzle together, research tips