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Overheard in GenForum: Sara and Christopher Shettle
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

September 06, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: My great-grand parents arrived in the U.S. about 1907, from Germany. I do not know where they boarded or where they landed. Their sons were Jesse, Charles and Walter. Another brother died on board ship. They settled in and around Westminster, MD or Pleasant Valley, specifically. Thank you -- Daphne

A: The good news about your immigrants is that they arrived at a time when the passenger lists asked the most information. Once you locate them in the passenger lists, assuming they did indeed arrive when you said, then you will have information about their place of birth, who paid for their ticket, a relative they left behind, and perhaps even a relative they are meeting in the United States.

While it is tempting to immediately jump to passenger lists, doing some preliminary research will save you time in the long run.

Methodical research can save time.


The first step in your research of Christopher and Sara Shettle is to locate them in the census. You mention that they settled in Westminster, Maryland, so the state of Maryland will be the first step.

Ideally we would want to pick them up in the 1910 census, as that is closest to their arrival. Unfortunately the 1910 census was not soundexed for Maryland in 1910. The first census that was soundexed after their arrival is the 1920 census.

The Soundex system is designed to put like-sounding names together. This way if one enumerator spelled it Smith and another enumerator spelled it Smyth, you would not need to look in multiple places as you do in many indexes we use in our research. While the premise is good, it doesn't always work as we would like.

For instance, the Soundex code for Shettle is S340. Many of the European surnames, though, when spelled as they were in the old country, use additional consonants that often times resulted in a completely different Soundex code than we anticipate. Because your research is with a German surname, you will want to keep that in mind. You may want to go to the Germany message board and ask for suggestions of variant spellings.

Naturalization Records

While it is still tempting to jump right to the passenger lists, naturalization records should not be overlooked in your research. If Christopher was naturalized, then you will want to see what records may exist for him. Because you say he settled in Maryland, this will be the first place to look.

While his arrival was after 1906, a crucial date in naturalization records, it is still possible that records exist on microfilm for the time period when he might have been naturalized. In 1906, naturalization records began to be centralized in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. You could write to INS and see if they have his file, or you could first see what is available through repositories such as the Family History Library.

The Family History Library does have some naturalization records for dates after 1906. They have Indexes to Naturalization Petitions to the U.S. Circuit and District Courts for Maryland: 1797-1951 on 25 rolls of microfilm. You could order the appropriate roll through your Family History Center.

They also have two sets of naturalization records. The first, Naturalization records, 1792-1931 on 67 rolls of microfilm and the second, Naturalization records, 1906-1911 is on one roll of microfilm and includes its own index.

The naturalization records may supply you with additional information to help narrow your search for Christopher and his family in the passenger records. It is possible that through researching naturalization records that you will find the port of entry and the exact date of entry. You may also find the name of the ship they traveled on.

Passenger Lists

Passenger lists are still something that should be consulted. Like the census records, you will discover that the indexes to the major eastern seaports have been compiled using the Soundexing method. While Christopher may have eventually Anglicized his surname, it is likely that on the passenger list it is the original spelling. Like the census records, it is possible that you will need to conjure up potential alternate spellings before you find him and his family in the index to passenger lists.

The most probable ports of entry for Christopher and his family are Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and New York City, New York (Ellis Island). I mention Baltimore first because he settled in Maryland.

In Conclusion

Finally, you should note that "Shettle" is not a German surname. It is likely that in order for your research to be successful, your first step will be to determine the original surname, because it is probable that he is listed in the records mentioned under that German surname.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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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