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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 08, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Pre-Ellis Island Records

Q: I haven't had any luck finding any information about my father's side of the family. According to some information I have about my grandparents, Joseph and Sarah Judith Saffer, they arrived in the U.S. approximately 1892. The first three of their children, Jack, Minny and Barnett, may have come from Poland with them. Are there any records of arrivals available prior to the opening of Ellis Island? -- Bruce

A: The short answer to your question is yes, there are records of arrivals prior to the opening of Ellis Island. The longer answer explores what alternatives exist for Ellis Island records and where they are kept.

First, the Ellis Island web site includes the names of those traveling through Ellis Island for the years 1892 through 1924. After opening in January of 1892, millions of immigrants traveled through Ellis Island over the next sixty years. The online site lists immigrants only up through 1924.

If your ancestor did arrive in New York before 1892, then you will need to do some additional work before you can locate the family. At present there is a gap of almost 50 years beginning in 1847 for the passenger lists for the port of New York. While the passenger lists are available on microfilm, there is no comprehensive index to these lists. However, you will find individual projects (like Germans to America) that have compiled mini-indexes to groups of immigrants who arrived during this time period.

Before tackling the unindexed passenger lists for the port of New York, you may first want to make sure they didn't arrive through one of the other eastern ports, such as Baltimore or Philadelphia. While these records are not available online, they are on microfilm and have been indexed. You can find these by visiting your local Family History Center.

If you do verify that the family did not arrive through one of the other ports, then you will need to try to narrow down the search in New York to a specific date. Even if you are able to identify the month they arrived, you can probably expect to do extensive page-by-page searches through microfilm. Knowing the ship they arrived on may help you to narrow the dates you would need to search. For instance, if you knew they arrived on the SS Carpathia in March 1891, you could use the Morton Allen Directory to determine what days of March the Carpathia arrived in the port of New York.

Other records that might help you in narrowing down the exact date of arrival include naturalization records, obituaries, and biographical histories.

A Complete Tree

Q: I have a question. I'm new to researching my family tree. I have found many many names that are linked with mine, but as I look there doesn't seem to be a 'tree' that is complete. Some misspelled names and dates are common I know. My question is how do I compile all that I have and let those people know that it's my family tree? -- Anne

A: The Internet has become a method of choice when it comes to publishing family history. The benefits of being able to change the pages as new information is found or erroneous information is corrected has made the Internet a dream come true to genealogists.

Most of the information you find online is the result of efforts by fellow researchers like yourself. They have used one of the many genealogy programs that are available to create the necessary files which are then uploaded to the Web.

As each researcher compiles his or her database, they post their information online. Some researchers elect to limit the information they post. For instance they may upload a tree for just one of the lines they are concentrating on. Others will upload everything they know. This could explain why you are finding information that appear to be "in pieces."

Actually, no one Web site is likely to have your entire family tree. If you feel that such a page is important, why not make one available by posting your own tree online? There are many avenues available for posting your family history on the Internet.

All of the currently available genealogy programs allow you to create Web pages of some of the various reports. The most common is the genealogy or journal style report. These emulate much of the style found in published genealogical journals such as The New England Historical and Genealogical Register and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. These narrative style reports offer freedom to include family stories and photos.

If you haven't done so already, you will want to investigate the various genealogy programs. If you are uncomfortable uploading to the Internet, you may want to look into the features of Family Tree Maker as it allows you to put your tree online with the click of a button. Your tree will be made available to others free of charge and will appear in many of the general and genealogical search engines.

With your own site, you can include as much or as little about your ancestry as you wish. By putting together your own web site, you can help the next researcher out by compiling and making available your own tree. If you include your contact information on your page, you also invite other researchers who are looking into your family lines to contact you so that you can share information.

The first step is to enter your information into a genealogy program. Once you have all of the information entered, you can then create the Web pages quickly and easily. Once you have the site up, you may want to post a short note on appropriate mailing lists (for example, those devoted to the surnames you have included in your Web page) letting them know that you posted some information mailing list members might be interested in. You will also want to submit it to various search engines. Each search engine handles this differently, so you would need to visit each one to see what they require. This will get the word out and allow others to find you.

Uncovering Many Generations

Q: I just started doing my genealogy after the passing of my mother and I have found 15 pages of our family on the Internet. My question is, because there are 15 pages and there are lots of names and lots of one-generation branches, how do I link the right children to the right parents? -- Melissa

A: Probably the first thing you should do is to get a good beginning how-to book on genealogy. Genealogical research can be overwhelming in the best of circumstances, but when you are new and are lucky enough to discover a lot of information then it can seem almost insurmountable. A good book to look into is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy by Kay Ingalls and Christine Rose. This book discusses the different types of forms you use in genealogy and other basics.

If you've come across pages that have been published in one of the standard genealogical styles, then you should see information on the father and mother of a family, with the children listed below. It is possible that one or more of the children is "carried on." This means that the child had children of his or her own and the family has their own page of section within the 15 pages.

The pages, if they are narrative in style, are either going to start with the furthest back known ancestor and come forward through the years, or they will begin with the most recent generation and go back. You will need to read through them thoroughly to ascertain which method was used.

If the pages are lists of names with dates and places of life events, such as births, marriages, and deaths, then you will need to hold off on putting this together into family units until you can do more research. Unless an entry lists individuals as parents specifically, it is best not to assume anything. You will need to take this list and begin to work in other records to determine how the individuals are all related. Some records that may be of use to you include census records and vital records.

Russian Research

Q: I started researching my family a few years back and came to a dead end. I traced my great grandfather to St. Petersburg, Russia but I don't know how to search any further. Does he have any brothers? Did his mother have brothers and sisters? I would like to find out this information but don't know where to look. I sent a letter to the main state Archive of the Russian Federation, but never received a response. I know he was born on October 26.1883. His Naturalization papers state his name was Demitry Beloff. -- Christopher

A: Researching Russian family history has, up until recently, been near impossible. Recent changes in government, however, have begun to make researching a little bit more doable. Still, researching Russian family history is quite a specialized field, with a special language and hurdles in communicating with record-holders. Add to these primary challenges an overworked archives staff and you find a lot of frustration.

Your first stop, if you haven't done so already, is to visit the WorldGenWeb Project Web site. Here you will find others who are researching the same country, while maybe not the same exact locale. They may have some good suggestions on how to best contact the various archives and other repositories, which they have learned through experience.

Because of the uniqueness of the research and the fact that the country hasn't been open for many years, you may find it necessary to hire a professional research firm to get some of the information for you.

If all you know about Demitry's birth place is that he was born in Russia, you will need to do some more research in the United States before you can take your research to the next level. Before you can effectively locate or begin to search the old country for such records, you may need to determine the town where he was born since many European countries file their vital records on the very local level. While you mentioned Saint Petersburg, it is possible that he was really from one of the many surrounding towns; this possibility is something you may wish to look into.

You may find this information on his naturalization records or at least his application for naturalization. Or, you may discover it on a passenger list. If he arrived in the United States after 1906 then his place of birth will be listed on the passenger list.

It is possible that the archive that you contacted simply hasn't had a chance to review your letter yet. Many archives and other repositories are often understaffed and overworked (as they are here in the United States). It is also possible that the letter never arrived at its final destination. You may want to try sending another letter. And while you wait, you can begin your research with new enthusiasm using some of the suggestions above.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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