Friday, November 25, 2011

A Passport Goes Home

My sister, who works in a university library, contacted me several months ago about an original 1921 U.S. passport that had been in her office for several years.  It had come with some donated materials.  She didn't know what to do with the passport, but she thought it was cool and knew it shouldn't just be thrown away, so she asked me for suggestions.  I told her I would try to find a descendant to whom the passport could be returned as a family heirloom.

The passport was for a married couple.  They had gone to China because the husband had a job teaching.  They had filed for an extension, and the extension included their baby daughter who had been born abroad.  I found the family in the 1930 U.S. census and discovered the couple had had three daughters.  Of course, I had trouble finding the daughters because they had married and changed their names!  I did discover the family had moved to California and found death dates for both parents and one of the daughters, but then got stuck.

I looked for family trees online and found three that looked credible.  I contacted the owners of the trees and all three got back to me, which was a pleasant surprise.  What also surprised me is that the first two to respond were not related at all to the families whose trees they had posted.  Is it common for people to post family trees of people they're not connected to?

On Thanksgiving Day I received a message from the owner of the third tree, who actually is related to the family.  Amazingly enough, the young daughter shown on the passport is still alive, now 88 years old!  Apparently, this passport may be the only surviving documentation from the time showing that she was born in China.  I'm going to mail the passport to her next week.

It feels so good to be able to send a piece of a someone's history back to her!  I don't know how it ended up with papers donated to a university, but I hope it stays in the family now.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

More "Immigrant Voices" from Angel Island

The "Immigrant Voices" feature on the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) site is growing.  Volunteers read through files on the immigrants who passed through the immigration station and write narratives about their lives.  One of the recent additions to the site is the story of Max, Fanni, and Gertrude Rohr.  They arrived at Angel Island on June 16, 1940 after departing from Shanghai.  Their stated intention was to go to Brooklyn, New York to stay with Fanni's brother Max Popper, but apparently they enjoyed California, because Max Rohr became a U.S. citizen in Los Angeles in 1946, and Max and Fanni both died in Los Angeles, Max in 1986 and Fanni in 1990.

AIISF wants to hear from descendants of Max and Fanni, or from anyone who knew them.  Also, volunteers are needed to create more narratives based on immigration files.  If you can help with either request, contact AIISF at

Jewish Family History Open House a Success

I really wanted to post about this earlier, but somehow the entire week got away from me.  The inaugural Jewish Family History Open House on November 13 was great!  I rushed back to California from Maryland, where I had been for my brother's wedding, to find that everything was set up and waiting for people to arrive.  (All those e-mails back and forth while I was gone were effective!)  Our first couple of researchers showed up early, and we then had a steady stream throughout the afternoon.  Altogether about 50 people attended, and we had about 20 volunteers, almost enough to keep up with the flow, with only a few slight delays in providing assistance.  The volunteers who so kindly gave up their Sunday afternoon were from the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, California Genealogical Society, and Oakland Regional Family History Center.

The attendees were almost evenly split between beginners and intermediate researchers.  Beginners had a short introductory class on family history and online research, and then everyone was assigned an experienced researcher to be a guide.  People came with questions about research all over the U.S. and in many countries.  We had several volunteers with special expertise in areas who were able to help with area-specific questions.  Almost every attendee found some kind of information during the day.  One man discovered he was indeed born in a concentration camp.  A woman was dismayed to learn that her father and his brother, both survivors, had each not learned that the other had survived and ended up living not far from one another but never found each other again, but she is going to contact her cousins and reconnect the families.

Almost everyone who came to the open house also attended Ron Arons' lecture, "Putting the Flesh on the Bones:  Researching Why Our Ancestors Did What They Did", which he gave twice during the event.  It is important to learn more about our ancestors as people, and not have them be merely names and dates on a page or in a database.  Ron's talk is a great example of the kind of in-depth research someone can do on a person.

I think we've started what could become a wonderful annual event here in the San Francisco area.  If we hold it again next year, I'm hoping to have representatives from local archives come also, to talk about records that area available right here that people can use in their research.  But right now I'm just looking forward to seeing the people who came to the open house continue with their research and learn more about their family histories.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A New Branch on the Family Tree

A wedding is a lovely event for everyone, but for genealogists it holds a special place in the heart:  You have lots of family members gathered in one place, and you are adding new members to the family tree!

This past Saturday I was in Maryland for my brother's wedding.  All four of my father's children were there, which made him as happy as can be.  Other family members also attended, and there was lots of catching up all around, along with plenty of photos (my father is a photograhy nut, and my nephew just got a BFA in photography).  Once I get copies I have to make sure all those photos are labeled!!

My mother passed away several years ago, but my brother included her in the ceremony in a way I've never seen before.  When he walked up the aisle, he placed a rose on a chair in the front row to symbolize her presence at the wedding.  I thought that was a wonderful way to remember someone who could not be there.

The choice of wedding date also was affected by my mother.  She was born on November 11, and that was one of the days considered for the wedding.  In deference to her birthday, my brother and sister-in-law chose to have the wedding the day after that.

My new sister-in-law is very sweet and I'm happy to have her as a member of the family.  As a genealogist, I of course took the opportunity to talk to as many of her relatives as possible to start building that new branch of the tree.  I'm lucky in that her father has a strong interest in family history and remembered quite a bit about his side of the family.  He also wants to do more research, and I said I would be happy to help him.

Because my father has good-quality cameras, I was able to bypass waiting to get a copy of the marriage license and certificate for my files.  Right after the minister signed everything, he allowed my father to take digital photos of the certificates.  Oh, the joys of modern technology!

Any family gathering is an opportunity to talk to your relatives and to find out more about your family history.  Sit down with older members of the family and let them talk about their memories.  Ask questions that you've been wondering about.  Bring a digital camera and get copies of things such as the marriage certificate or the photos that are being handed around.  If you take photos of the event, don't forget to note who is who in them, so that you're not looking at it five years from now and wondering who those people are.  And write down your memories of the event to add to the family story.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Armistice Day

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  That is when the armistice ending World War I was signed.  I grew up hearing about Armistice Day (now called Veterans Day in the U.S., to honor all veterans) from the time I was a small girl because my mother's birthday was November 11.  She knew her birthday was special, and she shared that with us.

I was in England in 1996 on Armistice Day (they still call it that).  Everything stopped at 11:00 a.m. -- drivers pulled over, radios didn't play anything, and people stopped moving and talking.  For two minutes the country remembered the sacrifices and deaths it endured during World War I.  It was a very moving experience.

A friend of mine in Chicago goes every year on Veterans Day and places a flower on the grave of Zalman, the grandfather of a friend of mine in the Bay Area.  Zalman served from 1917-1918 and was in France during the Armistice.  He wrote to a girlfriend during the war, and when he returned he asked her to type up all the letters he had written to her, so my Bay Area friend has a fascinating collection of letters he wrote from the war front.  As much as he was permitted to, he included where he was writing from, so we have a pretty good idea of his movements throughout his tour and what he experienced.

On Veterans Day this year I particularly want to honor my stepson and daughter-in-law, who both served in the U.S. Army, but I also am thinking of all members of armed forces, past and present.  They sacrifice a lot in the service of their country, and they deserve our thanks.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ancestry Day San Francisco

Ancestry Day San Francisco went well today.  The numbers I heard for registration varied between 900 and 1,000, but counting all the volunteers it had to be least 1,000 attendees total.  Everything seemed to run very smoothly, and the California Genealogical Society had plenty of people around if you needed help.

I did several consultations with attendees who had questions on next steps in their research, I taught one class, and still managed to go to two talks myself, so it was a busy day.  Most of my consultations were on Jewish genealogy, and along with making suggestions for additional research I shared a list of resources for Jewish research in the San Francisco Bay area.  I also tackled questions about German research and a deadbeat husband in Oklahoma.  I think I was able to give everyone good advice on what to do next.

My class went incredibly well.  The ballroom was pretty packed with about 140 people, probably the largest group I've had for my online newspaper talk.  And it was the first time I've used a microphone for the class!  I'm still pretty sure everyone would have been able to hear me (many years of vocal training have taught me how to project my voice very well), but the AV guy convinced me he didn't want to catch any flak, so I gave in.  Several attendees came up at the end to tell me they really enjoyed the talk, including the senior reference librarian from the Oakland Public Library.  That was a particularly special compliment for me, as I respect her opinion very much.

The first class I attended was about, the new, modified verison of since that company was purchased by  I picked up quite a bit of useful information.  The most promising was that the acquisitions division is aware of the U.S. Army morning reports in Kansas City and is trying to work out an arrangement with the National Archives to digitize them.  These morning reports aren't exactly a substitute but can help with research where the records are missing due to the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.  These records have not been microfilmed, so currently you must travel to Kansas City to view them.

The speaker told us that the majority of the indexing on Fold3 is done manually, not by OCR scanning, which I think is a good thing.  He also mentioned that the indexing is done overseas, however, but didn't say if any quality control or checking was conducted.  The other interesting tidbit was that I learned what happened to SmallTownPapers on the site.  Apparently the original license was extremely favorable to SmallTownPapers, and they were not willing to renegotiate the terms, so the decision was made to drop the license.  That's a shame, as it was convenient to have that bundled with the Footnote/Fold3 subscription, but it was a logical business decision.  On the other hand, SmallTownPapers is now a free site, but I haven't been able to determine if they're offering the same content they did previously.  If they are offering the same content, and it's free now, then what was the point in Footnote licensing it before?  And if it isn't the same content, what happened to the rest of it?

The second class I took was a mixed bag.  Some of the information I was familiar with, some was new and helpful, but some I knew to be inaccurate.  It's always frustrating when a speaker gives bad information, but it can be more of a problem for beginners, because they tend to have less experience to critically assess that information.  Ah, well, such is life.  I did learn something new, so overall that makes it positive, right?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Where did Mabell go?

Sometimes you totally lose the trail of someone you're researching, and I've lost Mabell.  I know she was born about 1881 in California, probably in Redlands, San Bernardino County.  In the 1900 census she appeared with her family in Redlands.  In October 1900 she married George in Los Angeles, and they went to Santa Barbara County, where he had been living.  (How did they meet and marry?  Good question.)  Their son Thomas was born in 1901 in California, maybe in Santa Barbara.  By 1905 George was working as a gambler (according to a newspaper notice) and they were living in Reno, which is where Mabell filed for divorce.  In 1910 Mabell and Thomas were living in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Why did she move there?  Another good question.)  Mabell appeared in Kansas City directories from 1909 through 1911.  Then she just ... disappears.

I haven't been able to find her in the Missouri death or marriage databases.  I can't find her in the 1920 or 1930 censuses.  I can't find her in city directories.  I can't find evidence that she came back to California.  I haven't found her in the newspaper after the 1905 notice.  I simply can't find a reference to her after 1911.

I know Thomas was living with his father in 1920 and then pretty much stayed with him until George's death in 1952.  Thomas died in 1974.  Neither of their obituaries mentions Mabell.

Mabell's youngest brother died in 1937.  His obituary mentions two surviving brothers but nothing about Mabell.  The oldest brother, who died in 1942, didn't have an obituary that I can find.  The middle brother died in 1964; his obituary also doesn't mention Mabell, but it doesn't mention the two brothers who predeceased him, either.

Obviously, Mabell didn't really disappear.  She died or remarried, and I haven't been able to pick up the trail in online databases.  She moved around quite a bit, so I can't assume she stayed in Kansas City.  So what's my point?

The point is that I've only been using online resources so far.  You can do a lot with the information available online, but you can't do everything.  An estimate I have heard consistently is that only about 10% of records that genealogists use are online.  If I had limitless funds and time, I would probably take a trip to Kansas City and try to find more detailed information about Mabell there.  I would want to look at the actual indices of deaths and marriages, because there is always the possibility of mistakes and omissions in transcribing these lists into searchable databases.  Mabell's father was from Missouri; I could trace his family to see if it was from the Kansas City area, which would have given her a reason to go there.  I might try to get the divorce decree from Washoe County to see if it has any clues.  I would try to track down every living relative on both sides of the family and contact each person to see if anyone has any information.

The practicalities of family history research, however, are that we never have limitless funds or time.  We have to narrow our focus and pick and choose what we can spend time and money on.  In Mabell's case, I can't afford to go to Kansas City, so I'm trying to decide the next logical step after having looked at marriage, death, census, directory, and newspaper listings.

I think I'm going to try to find descendants of her youngest brother, who was the first to pass away.  I've already determined that her oldest brother had only one son and then divorced, so the odds are less of him having stayed in touch with his father's family.  The middle brother married later in life and did not have children of his own; his wife had children from a former marriage.  If any branch of the family remembers Mabell, the youngest son's is the most likely.  And he had five children, giving me more chances of finding a descendant alive today.