25 July 2007

FEEFHS: Will the real Pesach Pekarsky please stand up?

Prior to the IAJGS event, I also attended some sessions of the annual meeting of the Federation of East European Family History Societies (FEEFHS); click here for more information.

One particularly enjoyable session was Mike Karsen's entertaining "Immigration Online." Karsen is president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois and wears many other hats as well.

Among the myths he destroyed:
*Your family's arrival story is exactly correct
*The name was changed at Ellis Island
*The streets were paved with gold
*They must have come to Ellis Island, everyone did
*They settled in Baltimore so they probably took the non-stop

If all genealogists had half a penny for each time we heard "our name was changed at Ellis Island," our homes would be filled with sacks of coins!

Among Mike's refutations of the myth:

Manifests were completed with old country names before embarkation, locals wrote the ship manifests and Ellis Island had translators for at least 30 languages.

Mike made the point that chain migration was common. One individual arrived, began working and sent for another individual, who in turn continued the process. In one line, he found 13 people arriving in this process.

To find the proper answers to such family lore as "Aunt Nettie met her husband on the ship and were married before they arrived in NY harbor," or "Grandma's sister died on the way to America," researchers must gather facts and check documents.

In one case I was privileged to work on, the story was that a grandmother's niece left Mogilev, Belarus for Detroit: "She was the most beautiful girl in Detroit and married the richest man in the city." Neither was true, but with the help of several researchers in Michigan, California, New York and Israel, we pieced together the puzzle and discovered the truth, enabling the long-separated family branches to enjoy a happy reunion in Beersheva, Israel.

Documents include inspection cards, census and naturalization records, while essential facts include the family's original name and where they were from, when and where they arrived, who traveled with them, and their final destination (and to whom they were going).

Passenger manifests after 1906 provide better details, but other documents such as inspection cards, census, diverse naturalization documents (petitions and certificates, etc.) provide clues and details.

Not everyone arrived at Ellis Island (about 22 million people), and Mike's statistics showed that other major ports were destinations, such as Boston (2 million), Baltimore (1.5 million), Philadelphia (1.2 million), New Orleans (.7 million). Galveston, Texas was another, and before Ellis Island was established, Castle Garden saw 8 million arrivals.

Canadian records are in progress. British Columbia (Nanaimo port) is now starting their lists, and Archives Canada will extract all lists to the subscription Ancestry site.

How did immigrants choose a port? One consideration was affordability of tickets, or available space on a ship. Eighty per cent of immigrants did come to Ellis Island, but researchers should never overlook the other ports as possible doors.

My own research shows individuals arriving in Philadelphia who immediately settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Philadelphia ship might have been the next one out, or a "sale" for a certain line or ship may have provided incentives.

Various ethnic resources (Irish, German, Dutch, Italians, Russian, Swedish, etc.) help to pinpoint individuals.To locate Ellis Island arrivals, use Steve Morse's free site, developed soon after the EIDB went online. There are several forms available, and he's always adding new search tools for other complex searches. As far as immigration research, numerous researchers agree that the recently added gold form is best. Do read descriptions of what each form can do.

Fee sites include Ancestry with an ever-expanding list of new databases, including many port passenger lists. This is available at many local libraries, Family History Centers (some databases), universities.

For a comprehensive 13-page survey of online passenger lists by city and state, try Joe Beine's site, including online transcribed passenger lists.

Mike's case study of the search for his father - Pesach Pikarsky - using Steve Morse's gold page, with many filters, was interesting. He made the point that one must be careful of filters, which can produce wrong results, lost results, too many "hits" or none at all.

His tactics included a one letter "P" for given name, and added a year. None of the seven hits were his father. He went to the scanned original to see what was written. After all, he knew what he was looking for and could recognize what might have been transcribed in error by a volunteer.

He found his father's brother using the initial S for Shloime, coming from Zhitomir. He found his father listed with his grandmother and brother Shloime, Pesie and an additional brother, Leib. Pesie was transcribed as a female, a great surprise to Mike.

In column 18 (passenger destination and to whom), it said the family was going to their husband and father Moische Pekarsky in Chicago. In reality, Moische had died two years earlier and they were really going to a sister.

Mike supplied a few more interesting case studies, including composer Jerome Kern, which provided more clues to planning research.

Although more arrival records are seemingly available each day, don't ignore other ports. Try to gather the best clues before starting. Don't take family lore as law.

All in all, a great session. Thanks, Mike.

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