10 Tips for Finding Your Family on Passenger Manifests

Those of us with ancestors who immigrated to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries know how valuable passenger manifests can be, as they often provide the name of the immigrant’s place of birth. We also know how frustrating it can sometimes be to find those immigrants in indexed databases such as Ellis Island and AncestryToday I’d like to review some basic concepts regarding passenger manifests, and then share a few tips for finding your ancestors in those databases.

Types of Manifests:  Embarkation vs. Arrival

It helps to begin with an understanding of the manifests themselves and how they were created. There’s a persistent myth in American culture that names were changed at Ellis Island. This article explains more fully why that isn’t true, but the short version is that the manifests were recorded at the port of embarkation, and Ellis Island officials were merely working from those original lists. Many of these manifests recorded at ports of embarkation did not survive. For example, most of the Bremen lists were destroyed due to lack of space in the Bremen Archives. However, the Hamburg emigration lists recorded between 1850-1934 have largely survived, and sometimes it’s possible to find both the outgoing Hamburg manifest and the incoming Port of New York manifest for the same immigrant.

Types of Errors:  Original vs. Transcription

There are undoubtedly errors in spelling and transliteration that occurred on these passenger manifests, but most of the name changes that people attribute to “Ellis Island” were adopted by the immigrants themselves as part of their efforts to assimilate into American culture. In my experience, far more dramatic spelling errors were created during the process of transcribing and indexing the passenger manifests to create a searchable database, than occurred during the original recording of the manifests. I don’t want to place too much blame on the indexers here, as they’re faced with a formidable task. Anyone who’s ever looked at a passenger manifest knows that the handwriting can be cramped and illegible, the manifest might have been torn, taped, or faded, and the microfilmed image might be blurry or grainy. Combine this with the fact that you might see on the same page immigrants from a variety of different countries, each with its own language and maybe its own alphabet, and it’s immediately clear that indexers are brave and hardy heroes, indeed.

Faced with all these obstacles, how do we find our immigrant ancestors on those manifests?

1. Use wild-card searches.

If you have a subscription to Ancestry (or can access it at your local public library or Family History Center), you can search their immigration database using wildcard characters. Ancestry‘s directions state,

“An asterisk “*” replaces zero or more characters, and a question mark “?” replaces exactly one character. For example, a search for “fran*” will return matches on words like “Fran,” “Franny,” or “Frank.” A search for “Johns?n” matches “Johnson” and “Johnsen,” but not “Johnston.”

2. Try leaving off the surname entirely.

In cases where I suspect a surname has been butchered in the transcription, I sometimes omit it entirely, and search for the immigrant based on other identifying information.  For example, I could search for my great-grandmother, Weronika Grzesiak, by looking for a female passenger named Weronika, born about 1876, stating Polish ethnicity, arriving about 1898.

3. Play with the search parameters.

If your parameters are too specific, you get too few hits, but if they’re too broad, you get too many, so try tinkering with them one by one. Sometimes male passengers are marked as female and vice versa, sometimes first and last names are reversed, and that “race/nationality” box is tricky for Poles, who might be marked as Polish, Russian, German, or Austrian. Be flexible.

4. Determine your ancestor’s name at the time of immigration before you search.

I’d bet a million dollars that a Polish ancestor named “Walter Cherry” will not be listed under that name on his passenger manifest. There’s a good chance you’d find him under “Władysław Wiśniewski,” though. That’s because many of our ancestors adopted new given names, or new versions of their surnames, as part of their efforts to assimilate into American culture. Some common name changes among Polish-Americans were Władysław to Walter, Stanisław to Stanley, Czesław to Chester, Bronisław to Bruno, and Wojciech to Albert or George. For women, common changes include Jadwiga to Ida or Hattie, Władysława to Lottie or Charlotte, Pelagia to Pearl, and Bronisława to Bertha. These are generalizations, and it’s important to recognize that there were no hard and fast rules. You need to do research into your own family history to determine the names that your immigrant ancestors used. (See here for my story of my challenge in finding the passenger manifest for an immigrant who used Edward in the U.S. when his real name was Stanisław!) For Polish ancestors who settled in the U.S., try checking church records from the parish they attended here, as those are frequently a good clue to their original names.

5. Familiarize yourself with spelling and pronunciation rules in your ancestor’s native language.

In Polish, “Szcz” is a common combination of two digraphs (sz and cz), and there are a lot of surnames that start this way. In contrast, surnames that start with “Lz” are quite rare (I found exactly one example, Lzarewicz, which belonged to exactly 1 person in Poland as of 1990, in this database). So when your search results at Ellis Island or Ancestry include results for passengers with names like “Lzczerba,” “Lzcrepaniak,” and “Lzcsepansky,” you can bet that those names are misspelled and actually start with “S.” In these examples, when I checked the original image of the manifest, those names were clearly Szczerba, Szczepaniak, and Szczepansky.

6. Databases index differently, so if you can’t find your ancestor in one database, check another.

My husband’s great-grandfather had a sister named Marcjanna Szczepankiewicz who was indexed on Ellis Island as “Marcyanna Sezezefsankiewiez” and on Ancestry as “Marcyanna Sczezyoankiemg.” On the manifest, the surname is clearly “Szczepankiewicz,” so this is a case of the indexers having no familiarity with Polish surnames. Even better, in looking up those examples, I came across one poor guy who was indexed on Ancestry as a 24-year-old Ruthenian woman named  “Fazel Lzczzvca.” I took a look at the actual manifest, and the passenger was a 24-year-old Ruthenian man named Józef Szczyrba. I didn’t have the heart to see how he was indexed on Ellis Island, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

7. Give Steve Morse’s site a try.

If you’re not familiar with Steve Morse’s website, you’re missing out. He’s got a variety of very helpful tools for genealogists, including resources for translations, DNA, searching census records, and a search portal for the different immigration databases (both free, like Ellis Island and Castle Garden, and paid, like Ancestry). I used to use his search portal all the time back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, because it was far superior to Ellis Island‘s search portal for the same data. But to be honest, a lot has changed since then, and both Ancestry and Ellis Island now offer fairly powerful, flexible search parameters that are comparable to Steve Morse’s. However, you may find that his search page is laid out in a more intuitive fashion, so it can’t hurt to try if you’re not having luck with the other search engines.

 8. If you already know your ancestor’s hometown but you still can’t find his manifest, try searching according to place of origin.

This technique is not only useful for finding missing manifests, but also can sometimes be used to gain insight into the family groups in your ancestral village. For example, one of my ancestral parishes is Młodzieszyn in Sochaczew County, Poland. Records for Młodzieszyn were largely destroyed in World War II, leaving only records from 1885-1908. So, my understanding of my family history there is very incomplete. However, I’ve discovered that passenger records can offer a surprising amount of information to help fill in some of these blanks. Manifests for emigrants from Młodzieszyn have given me their names, approximate birth dates, and the names and relationships of contacts in the new world (often family members), as well as the names and relationships of family members still living in their former home town. Many of these emigrants were born before 1885 when existing birth records for Młodzieszyn begin, so their passenger manifests are incredibly useful in constructing family groups. Of course, one problem with this is that the hometown is just as likely to be misspelled as the passenger’s name, but it’s still worth a shot.

9. If your ancestor has a common name but he immigrated with other family members, try searching for the manifest using the family member with the least common name.

For example, “Nowak” is the most common Polish surname there is, so if your great-grandfather was Jan Nowak, you’ll probably have to wade through a lot of manifests to find the right one.  But if you have reason to believe that he emigrated at the same time as his wife, Pelagia, try searching for her instead.

10. If your ancestor naturalized after 1906, get his naturalization papers first, then try to find his manifest.

I was really stuck trying to find a manifest for my husband’s great-grandfather Joseph Bartoszewicz. He was supposed to have come in with a large family group, and I’d tried pretty much all the tips I mentioned here, but I just couldn’t tease the data out of the search engines. However, he naturalized in 1914, and after 1906, Petitions for Naturalization included questions about the person’s arrival date in the U.S., the port of entry, and the name of the ship. I obtained Joseph’s naturalization petition, which told me that he arrived on 12 October 1890 in the Port of Philadelphia on the ship Pennsylvania. Great! Only I still couldn’t find him, using that date as an exact search term. Further investigation revealed that Joseph reported his arrival date inaccurately — the Pennsylvania did not arrive in Philadelphia on 12 October 1890, but rather on the 13th. I finally found Joseph and his family by browsing through the manifest page by page.

If you’ve been struggling to find the right passenger manifests for your family, know that you’re not alone. It can certainly be frustrating sometimes, and we’ve all been there. But persistence and flexible search strategies will usually pay off. As always, I’m happy to hear from other researchers, so if you try some of these strategies and they work for you, or if you’d like to offer other suggestions, please leave a note in the comments.  Happy researching!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Playing “Telephone” Across Generations: Documenting Family Stories

Family stories are always the starting point for genealogy research. Beginners are typically instructed to start with themselves and work backwards, interviewing older family members or generational peers to discover what they remember, or remember hearing, about past generations. Often it feels like a game of “telephone” played out over many decades. You may remember “telephone” as that game in which a number of players stand in a circle, and a complicated phrase is whispered from one person to the next. Repetition is not allowed, so although each person does his best to listen carefully, the phrase becomes distorted, often comically, as it is passed around. Finally the result is whispered to the person who began the game, who announces what the original phrase actually was, and everyone gets a good laugh. As family historians, our job is to sift out the wheat from the chaff, using our ancestors’ paper trail to document what we can from the family stories, but keeping in mind that not everything we were told is going to be verifiable.

I became interested in my family history soon after I was married in 1991. My husband and I were incredibly fortunate to have six living grandparents at that time, as well as plenty of their siblings still living. As I’ve tried to document all the many bits of information I gathered from them, one truth in particular has emerged:  if an older relative remembers a specific name, it’s safe to say that the person is connected to the family in some way, even if it’s not in the way that he or she remembers. Remembered names aren’t just pulled out of thin air.

As one example of this, I interviewed Uncle Mike Stevenson (Szczepankiewicz) about the Szczepankiewicz family history. Uncle Mike was the youngest brother of my husband’s grandfather, Stephen Szczepankiewicz. Although he knew a great deal about his father from his mother’s stories, Uncle Mike had never met him: he died on 14 February 1926,1 and Uncle Mike was born 3 months later, on 23 May 1926.Nonetheless, Uncle Mike proved to be a reliable source. He told me that his father, Michael Szczepankiewicz, had never naturalized. This assertion is validated by the 1925 New York State census, in which Michael Szczepankiewicz is listed as an alien (Figure 1):3

Figure 1:  Extract of 1925 New York State census showing Michael Szczepankiewicz and family.3michael-szczepankiewicz-family-1925

This extract shows that 49-year-old Michael Szczepankiewicz was born in Poland, had been living in the U.S. for 20 years, was an alien (“al”) at the time of the census, and was employed in “building labor.” Since Michael died in 1926, and the naturalization process took longer than a year, it would not have been possible for him to naturalize prior to his death. Uncle Mike also mentioned that his father was a stone mason who helped to build Transfiguration Church in Buffalo. Although I have yet to document this directly (maybe payroll records exist in the archive of the diocese of Buffalo dating back to the construction of Transfiguration Church?), the fact that Michael was a construction laborer is consistent with that claim.

When I asked Uncle Mike about the family of his mother, Agnes (née Wolińska) Szczepankiewicz, he told me that Agnes’s mother was named Apolonia Bogacka. Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out. Records showed that Agnes’s mother’s name was Tekla, as shown by the 1892 census for New York State (Figure 2): 4

Figure 2:  Extract from 1892 census of New York State showing the family of Joseph Wolinski, including wife “Teckla” (sic).4wolinski-family-1892

So where did the name “Apolonia Bogacka” come from? The answer was found in the 1900 census (Figure 3).5  Living with Joseph Wolinski’s family is his mother-in-law, “Paline” Bogacka.  The name “Pauline” was commonly used by women named Apolonia in the U.S. as a more American-sounding equivalent.

Figure 3:  Extract from the 1900 U.S. Federal census showing the family of Joseph Wolinski, including mother-in-law “Paline” (sic) Bogacka.5joseph-wolinski-family-1900-census

So it turns out that Uncle Mike’s great-grandmother had also emigrated, and he was confusing her name with the name of his grandmother!

As another example, my grandfather’s first cousin, Jul Ziomek, told me in a 1992 interview that the mother of her grandmother, Mary (née Łącka) Klaus, was named Janina Unicka. Jul was a very reliable source in other matters, but in this case, her memory did not serve her well. The civil record for Mary Klaus’s second marriage, to Władysław Olszanowicz, tells us that her mother’s name was (phonetically) Anna “Taskavich” (Figure 4).6

Figure 4:  Civil marriage record from North Tonawanda, New York, for Mary Klaus and Władysław Olsanowic (sic).6mary-klaus-second-marriage

The correct spelling of Mary’s mother’s name in Polish is found on Mary’s baptismal record from her home village of Kołaczyce — she was Anna Ptaszkiewicz (Figure 5).7

Figure 5:  Baptismal record from Kołaczyce, Austrian Poland for Marianna Łącka.7marianna-lacka-birth

The section of the record in the red box pertains to the mother of the child and reads, “Anna filia Francisci Ptaszkiewicz ac Salomea nata Francisco Sasakiewicz.” For those who might be unfamiliar with Latin, this translates as “Anna, daughter of Franciszek Ptaszkiewicz and Salomea, daughter of Franciszek Sasakiewicz.”

Believe it or not, it’s quite reasonable, based on Polish phonetics, that an English speaker might come up with a spelling of “Taskevich”for “Ptaszkiewicz.”  But no matter how you slice it, this is pretty far off from “Janina Unicka.”  So where did Jul come up with that name? The 1910 census gives us a clue (Figure 6):8

Figure 6:  Andrew Klaus family in the 1910 U.S. Federal census.8andrew-klaus-fam-1910

Living with the family of Mary Klaus, there is a boarder named John Unicki.  At this point I have traced Mary Klaus’s family back in Poland for another 3-4 generations, which is as far back as existing vital records go, and I’ve seen no evidence of the Unicki surname anywhere in the extended family tree.  I’ve concluded that cousin Jul’s memory was inaccurate on this point. It must have been dim memories of this boarder, Jan Unicki, living with her grandparents that caused her to associate the name “Janina Unicka” with her grandmother’s family.

As one final example, my husband’s grandfather, Stephen Szczepankiewicz, told me that his father, Michael Szczepankiewicz, immigrated from Russian Poland to Buffalo, New York, along with four brothers and no sisters. He recalled the names of his father’s brothers as Bernard, Felix, Alexander and Joseph. It turns out that he was partially correct.  Further research indicates that his father did indeed have brothers who also emigrated from Poland to Buffalo who were named Bernard (Anglicized from Bronisław), Alexander, and Joseph.  What Grandpa didn’t know was that there were two more brothers who emigrated, Adam and Walter (also known as “Wadsworth” — both names are Anglicized versions of his Polish name, Władysław), as well as a sister, Marcjanna, who emigrated to Buffalo along with Bronisław and then disappears from records there (Figure 7):9

Figure 7:  Passenger manifest for Marcyanna and Bronisław Szczepankiewicz, arriving in the port of New York on 3 May 1902.9marcjanna-manifest-cropped

 

Try as I might, I could not document a brother named Felix/Feliks Szczepankiewicz, or find one with a name that was even close to that.  Why would Grandpa remember an Uncle Felix if there never was one? Well, it turns out that there was an Uncle Felix, but it was on his mother’s side, not his father’s side. Grandpa Steve’s mother was Agnes/Agnieszka Wolińska.  If we take a closer look at that 1892 census for the Woliński family shown in Figure 2 and the 1900 census shown in Figure 3, the oldest child in the family is Feliks.  So it seems likely that Grandpa was just mixing up which side of the family Uncle Feliks was from.

As is evident from these examples, family stories work best when used as a starting point for genealogy research, but we can’t let our research end there. Time can play tricks with people’s memories, so it’s important to attempt to document everything we’ve been told.  If conflicts exist between the story and the evidence, consider how these might be reconciled.  As you document each story, you’ll begin to get a sense of the reliabilty of each relative’s memory. If you have any particularly wild stories that you’ve been able to document, please let me know in the comments — I’d love to hear about them!

Sources:

Buffalo, Erie, New York, Death Certificates,1926, certificate #1029, record for Michael Sczepankiewicz (sic).

“United States Social Security Death Index,” database, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VMDV-RJ7 : 20 May 2014), Michael A Stevenson, 28 Apr 2011; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing), accessed on 8 November 2016.

Ancestry.com, New York, State Census, 1925 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012), http://www.ancestry.com, Record for Stepahn Szczepankiewicz, accessed on 8 November 2016.

Ancestry.com, New York, State Census, 1892 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012), http://www.ancestry.com, Record for Joseph Wolinski household, accessed on 8 November 2016.

Ancestry.com, 1900 United States Federal Census (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004), http://www.ancestry.com, Year: 1900; Census Place: Buffalo Ward 9, Erie, New York; Roll: T623_1026; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 69, record for Joseph Wolinski household, accessed on 8 November 2016.

6 “New York, County Marriages, 1847-1848; 1908-1936″, database, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Family Search, (https://familysearch.org), Wladyslaw Olsanowic and Mary Klaus, 21 Nov 1916; citing county clerk’s office, , New York, United States; FHL microfilm 897,558. accessed on 8 November 2016.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Anna’s Parish (Kołaczyce, Jasło, Podkarpackie, Poland), “Urodzenia, 1826-1889”, Stare Kopie, 1866, #20, Record for Marianna Łącka.

Ancestry.com, 1910 United States Federal Census (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006), http://www.ancestry.com, Year: 1910; Census Place: North Tonawanda Ward 3, Niagara, New York; Roll: T624_1049; Page: 16B; Enumeration District: 0126; FHL microfilm: 1375062, record for Andrew Klaus, accessed on 8 November 2016.

Ancestry.com, New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010), http://www.ancestry.com, Year: 1902; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 0272; Line: 5; Page Number: 132, record for Marcyanna Sczezyoankiemg, accessed on 8 November 2016.