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

March 15, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

African-American Birth Records

Q: I am a black female, my parents were born in 1913 and 1920. Were birth records kept on blacks during this time period? Thanks for your information. -- Beverly

A: After the Civil War, records that were previously not always kept began to appear as former slaves were getting married, having children and acquiring land.

By the early 1900s, vital records were being kept in most states. The exact date that each state began to record vital records does vary. In fact, this is actually more important to you for the time period in question than the fact that your parents are African-American.

To begin your research, you will want to read up on vital records. You will find a number of good articles at in the Learning Center.

You will also want to visit the appropriate state sites at USGenWeb. Here you can find out addresses and record availability for the specific states where your parents were born.

Where on the Ship's List?

Q: My great grandfather, Anton Martin, came to the U.S. from Pecs, Hungary. His naturalization papers indicate that he arrived in New York on October 4, 1892. The name of the ship is not given. I have read all the NARA ships' passenger lists for New York for one month before and one month after that date. He does not appear on any list. I am certain of the year from other documents. Is there something I have overlooked, or could the list be missing, lost, or not included on the NARA film? -- Martin

A: Depending on when your great grandfather was naturalized, it is possible that he does not remember the month of arrival. This is not unusual. Some of our ancestors did not complete the naturalization process until many years after they arrived in the country.

Unfortunately, your great grandfather's arrival, if indeed in 1892, falls in the unindexed period of time for the New York ports. There are some projects underway that are working on this unindexed period. In the meantime, researchers of ancestors to New York's ports in the years 1847 through 1896 must rely on information found in other records. Of course, this is what you have done and still you cannot find your ancestor.

If you have not gathered all of the records generated during the naturalization process, (for example, the Declaration of Intent or the Application for Naturalization), you may want to work on getting them. It is possible that the name of the ship may be on the papers you don't have.

It looks like until the indexing projects are completed, that without the name of ship, you may not be able to find a passenger list with your ancestor listed. Also, it is possible that the page or manifest in question has disappeared, in which case, you may never find what you are looking for. However, until you have exhausted all avenues, I would encourage you to keep up the search if this is important to you.

Of course, if you are searching for the passenger list in an attempt to establish where Anton MARTIN was born, you will be disappointed even if you do find the passenger list. Prior to 1906, place of birth was not included in the passenger lists. You are more apt to find this information on the naturalization records.

Where Is He?

Q: I have a mystery on my hands, and I hope you can give me some guidance. My great grandfather, John "Jack" Petrie, seems to have appeared out of nowhere! He married my great grandmother (whos family I have traced back for several generations) in a small town in upstate New York sometime around 1917. That is the first time he is traceable anywhere that I can find on this planet, and that's only by oral history. I started my research with his gravestone, which only says he was born in 1892, no date, no location, and died in 1939. Then I noticed in one of his son's obits that he died in March. So I went to the library and scoured the local paper on microfilm for March and April and then the rest of 1939 — nothing (even though it's a small town paper that writes a story when a cow gives birth). I have no idea exactly when he married my great grandmother, so I can't check a wedding certificate. I can't find out exactly when he was born or died, so I can't get any of that paper work. He never spoke about himself, his parents, or his siblings to anyone, so I don't know where to begin! I keep chasing my tail, and getting nowhere! He has one living daughter, my aunt, and she's in her eighties. She insists SHE doesn't know anything, even though she was a young adult when he died. I'm beginning to feel like someone's hiding something on purpose! -- Bonnie

A: First, let me mention that it is not unusual to get resistance from family members when researching your family history. Many people feel the past should be left alone. This is not necessarily because of something they know, but more because they are afraid you will dig up something embarrassing. They are uncomfortable and therefore they make it as difficult as possible for you.

That said, the records you have used are good, but I did not see that you have searched for these people in the census records. Census records should show John PETRIE and his wife in 1920. Depending on how soon they had their first child, you may find one or more children listed as well. You should also search for John in the 1900 census. He may have been living alone or still with his parents.

Ordinarily you would work backwards from the 1920 to the 1910 to the 1900 census and so forth. Unfortunately the 1910 census for New York was not soundexed. Only 19 states were soundexed for 1910. If you are sure that John PETRIE was living in that small town, it may prove useful to search the town reading the census line by line.

Census records are available on microfilm through a variety of repositories including your local Family History Center and possibly your own public library, if it has a large genealogy department.

Looking for Naturalization Records

Q: I have the actual naturalization paper of my great great grandfather from 1888. Several years ago, I wrote to the county records office in which he was made a citizen and they said that they could not find any records on him. Where else can I go to find the information that I need? -- Deloon

A: Prior to 1906, naturalization records are located in a variety of places. The naturalization process itself has gone through some modifications as new acts have changed the number of years required before each step could be undertaken. Because of these built-in waiting periods, it is necessary to know where your ancestor was living at the time.

When looking for naturalization records, it is necessary to first create a time line for your ancestor. Do your best to establish all places of residency from year to year. As your ancestor immigrated and then migrated within the country, it is possible that as he stopped in a given county that he undertook the next step in his naturalization process. The counties for all places you have established that he lived will need to be checked.

If he was one of those that went to a given county and settled in for the duration, then you may still be able to find the records you seek. While the naturalization process prior to 1906 was handled at the county level, some of these records are now found in the National Archives and its branches.

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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