Help!! provides an opportunity for readers to ask for assistance with genealogical queries. We invite our readers to contribute solutions to questions featured in this section. See the Contact section for e-mail and postal addresses. Put GFH-HELP!! in the subject line.
Question: I am working on my family history and have found several histories of my New England ancestors. These books were written in the 1800s. I'm wondering how accurate they are.
Answer: Family histories can help you overcome brick walls, provide links to long-lost family lines, and fill in the "background" of genealogies with the personal recollections of ancestors. However, you are right to be concerned. In the 19th century, genealogy was the province of those with money to pursue it and an immigrant ancestor farther back than the genealogists lifetime. In other words, it was a hobby pursued primarily by those with New England and Virginia roots, and they usually had a specific goal find the Revolutionary War hero, find the Mayflower immigrant, etc. There is no doubt that, if the appropriate ancestral star did not appear, they were not above making one up. However, our 19th century ancestors were also victims of genealogical fraud in some cases. In particular, a person named Gustav Anjou created and sold family histories showing royal descent, which cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Some of Anjous fraudulent genealogies are still in existence today, wreaking havoc as they spread from one eager family historian to another. Because poor genealogical research did not begin with the Internet, always check your sources. If someone says Jane Smith married John Doe in Philadelphia on Dec. 23, 1806, dont believe it until you have seen a primary record even if the person who said so was Great-Grand Aunt Millie who attended the wedding.
Question: I know my ancestors arrived in America at the port of New York, but they dont appear in the Ellis Island records. Why is that?
Answer: There are two possibilities. First, that the names are spelled wrong or are different than you expect. Second, that they somehow slipped through the record keeping cracks. However, it is possible that your ancestor came into New York before Ellis Island opened in 1892. Prior to that, immigrants were processed at a center called Castle Garden, which operated from 1855 until just before Ellis Island opened in 1892. Passenger records from New York can be rather difficult, so it helps to check censuses and city directories to establish the familys approximate arrival in the United States. If you have additional clues such as the exact date of arrival or the name of the ship, you should be well on your way to finding them.
Question: I have a very old letter from my grandfather. The letter was written to his mother in Europe. He mentioned that he had applied for a passport and expected to visit later in the year. Can I get his passport records, and if I do, what will they tell me?
Answer: The U.S. government first began issuing passports in the 1790s, but it was possible to travel outside of the U.S. without a passport until World War I. Passport records have been microfilmed from the earliest records until 1925. There are several ways you can benefit from finding your ancestors passport. Passport applications asked for the applicants family status, date and place of birth, address, naturalization if the person was naturalized, and additional biographical information. Later records also include marital status and travel plans. The destination can provide a clue to the familys birthplace if birthplace is not recorded on the application. In addition, the fact that the passport exists indicates that there should be naturalization records in addition to what is on the passport application. These records are available through the National Archives or LDS Family History Centers.
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