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

November 21, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

In Search of Waters

Q: My grandfather Robert Waters was born in Martinsburg, WV but I can't find record on his birth. In his VA record, he has 5 different birthdays. The obituary of his brother, Allen (Allie) Lee Waters, states he was born in 1880 in Front Royal, VA but I haven't been able to find record of that. His sisters Carrie Maude and Iona Waters were born in Arco, VA but I haven't been able to find records or even the town. His brothers and sisters are all buried in and around Martinsburg, WA. Where should I look for their parents (Eliza or Sarah Redman and John or Henry or John Henry Waters)? Thanks for your help. -- Jerry

A: Birth records are a relatively contemporary record. By that, I mean that in most states they did not begin to record the vital records, especially births and deaths until the 20th century. You may find that the counties in some states began to record the vital records earlier, usually under a state law, but that law did not require that the counties submit copies of the vital records to a state vital statistics office until the 1900s. This could explain why you cannot find a birth record on your grandfather Robert Waters.

You mentioned his VA record and that it supplied you with 5 different birth dates. The first thing you will want to do is to look at the records in question and see when the information was supplied and by whom. Are there different dates of record for each time his birth date is listed? How far apart are those dates of record? How far off are the different dates of birth?

Start by creating a time line of all the dates and places of birth you have for your grandfather and his siblings. Then begin to see what records might be available that can help you in either disproving or verifying the information. For instance, you mentioned having the obituary of Allen Lee Waters. Have you tried to get a copy of his death certificate? If so, did this verify that he was born in 1880 in Front Royal, Virginia? What did it list as the names of the parents?

You didn't mention what records you had on the sisters, Carrie Maude and Iona, that gave you the place of birth of Arco, Virginia. You said that there was no such town. Have you searched a gazetteer that was published around the time of their births? It is possible that it was some small town that has since been incorporated into a larger city. A gazetteer published at the time would be the most accurate way to verify if the town or township or hamlet existed and it might also supply you with the larger city or town under which it was connected.

With regard to your grandfather, have you been able to get his death certificate? If not, I would certainly make that a priority. Also, you mentioned having VA records for him. Did he have a social security number? If so, then contact the Social Security Administration and request a copy of his SS-5 form. This will supply you with the date and place of birth and the names of his parents.

Marriage records may help you as well. If you haven't done so, see if you can get copies of the marriage records for your grandfather and his siblings. Usually the marriage application will have questions regarding to age, birth date and place, and names of parents.

Also, be sure that you search the census records for all applicable years. Have you tried to find your grandfather's family in the 1880 census? You seem to have enough information that you should be able to narrow down to a couple of families at least, which would then give you something to work with in eliminating the family or families that could not be the right one.

Finding Customs List of Passengers

Q: In the middle-to-late 1880s, my grandmother, Barbara/Babette Becht, was a citizen of Heidelberg, Germany when she immigrated to New York. Which port would she have been most likely have emigrated from? I realize that these are the unindexed years, but am willing to search. Can you help me? -- Theresa

A: It is natural to assume that your grandmother came through the port of New York, and you may eventually need to tackle that port, but there are some indexed ports along the eastern seaboard that you will want to check first, before going through the New York records.

The other possible major ports of entry include Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. You will find that for these ports, the mid-1800s have been indexed either with an alphabetical index or through a Soundex. This will allow you to quickly check these ports and probably eliminate them.

If it does turn out that your grandmother must have come through New York, there may be some things you can do to narrow down your search. Was your grandmother living in 1900? If so, the 1900 census should give you the year of immigration. If she was living in later census years, you will want to check these as well to see if the year of arrival changed at all. It is likely you will not see naturalization information recorded on her. At different times she would have been automatically naturalized when her husband was, or of course if she married an American.

Ideally you would want to narrow down the search to something more realistic than just a year. Her obituary may help you, if it is a detailed one. It might even confirm that she did come into New York. Perhaps it will mention the season or the month she arrived. You might also want to see if you can find some sort of exit record on her from Germany. The first place to check for these is the port of debarkation. Some of these are available on microfilm through the Family History Center and some of them have been indexed, making the search a little easier. It is likely that she passed through Hamburg, so that would be the first port I would check, and those records are available on microfilm from 1850 to 1934 through the Family History Library and some of them are indexed. Many immigration records are also available online or on CD-ROM.

My Immigrant Grandparent

Q: When it's next to impossible to find information on a grandparent, what is left to do? I have sent for a passenger list and they returned it saying there is no record of my grandfather (even though I found his record on the Ellis Island site). I decided to skip that and go right to Immigration papers. I know more about 5 grandparents back then I do about my direct maternal grandfather. He came from Hungary in 1903 and was the earliest of my family to arrive here. -- Richard

A: OK - you mentioned that you found your maternal grandparent on the Ellis Island site. If you found him there, then the passenger list should be accessible to you from the Ellis Island site. If it is one of those images that is not available, then you will want to make note of the information about the arrival date, the name of the ship and the page and line number when he is listed. Then order the microfilm of the passenger list through your local Family History Center. If you can see the image online, then the passenger list that they have through the National Archives will be the same thing. Remember that the record on your grandfather is probably going to be found on two pages of the passenger list.

If you are hoping that the passenger list will supply you with his place of birth, you will be disappointed. They did not begin to ask for place of birth on the passenger lists until 1907, though you should find his last residence (which may prove useful) and information about a relative he was leaving behind.

You mentioned you were going to look for his immigration papers, I assume you are referring to his naturalization papers. The census records for 1910, 1920 and 1930 should indicate if and when he was naturalized. The odds are, given his 1903 arrival date, that his naturalization took place after 1906. This means that the records you need are available through the Immigration and Naturalization Service. You will want to visit their Web site to get information on order the records, if you haven't done so already.

His naturalization records are you best bet for learning where in Hungary he was born, since that would have been one of the questions asked on his naturalization forms. Remember that there are three sets of papers generated during the naturalization process. The first papers are the declaration of intent. This should verify the name of the ship and the date of arrival. The second papers are the application for naturalization and this is the generally where you find the identifying information as to when and where he was born, perhaps the names of his parents or spouse. The final paper is the naturalization certificate.

While you are working on the passenger list and naturalization records, if you haven't done so already, you will want to be sure to exhaust all the other records he might have generated while he lived in the United States. Be sure to look for his death record, his marriage record (if he married in the United States), his obituary, and any other records he may have generated. It is possible he had to register during the World War I Draft registration. This would also supply you with his date and place of birth. The WWI draft cards are arranged by county, then by draft board. If your grandfather settled in a rural area, it is possible they only had one draft board. If he settled in a big city, you will need to first determine where he was living in 1917 and 1918 and then use the draft maps, which are available on the CD-ROM that accompanies the book Uncle, We Are Ready! Registering America's Men 1917-1918 by John J. Newman to determine which microfilms you need to order for the most likely draft board or boards. These maps are also available on microfilm through your local Family History Center. Finally, depending on when he died, it is possible he applied for a social security number. His SS-5 form may also hold the necessary clues you need as it would have asked him for his date and place of birth along with the names of his parents.

Preserving My Work

Q: I have been putting together information on old New Jersey families from the 1700s through the 1900s collected from about 50 different books. I have about 1400 family names with information and I would like to put this information somewhere useful where people can take advantage of it. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wanted to use a disk I sent to some friends in Utah, so I thought if they could use it, it might be useful to others. -- Jane

A: Preserving our research is something that many of us think about, especially if no one in the family appears to be interested in what we have compiled. I am glad that you are thinking about ways to preserve it now so that your hard work is not lost.

In addition to submitting to the Family History Library's impressive collection, I would also encourage you to consider submitting the information online. If the information is in a genealogy program, then you can create and upload a Web page here at If it is not in a genealogy program, there are still other places that you can share the information.

If you haven't done so, please visit the New Jersey section of the USGenWeb Project. This volunteer organization is always looking for new information to share and I am sure they would be so thankful to have the information you have compiled. Don't worry about putting it into a Web based format. I am sure that if you are willing to share that those in charge of the New Jersey state page would be more than happy to help in getting it ready for a debut on the Internet.

I would also suggest that you contact the New Jersey Genealogical Society, the Historical Society, and any libraries in New Jersey that you know about that have strong genealogical collections to see if they would like to add your research to their collections. I know that not all societies and libraries can accept electronic media, so they may have to have some printed and bound volume, though it need not be an expensive, hard bound book.

These are just a few of the places I can think of that might use your information. It would certainly be appreciated by anyone researching the old New Jersey families.

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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