25 April 2023

5 Ellis Island Videos Dispel Immigration Myths

Some family history myths never seem to die. Perhaps the biggest one is "my ancestor's name was changed at Ellis Island." Despite what you see in "The Godfather" or its parody "Mafia!" (where they rename an immigrant boy Vincenzo Armani Windbreaker), it didn't happen.

Ask yourself this. When you board an airplane, does the airline know your name and home address? Yes, they do. If you board a cruise ship, does that company know who each passenger is? Absolutely yes.

In fact, they recorded everyone's details at the port of departure and gave them a basic inspection. It was in the shipping company's best interests to turn away anyone who would be rejected in New York. Why? Because the company had to pay the return fare for any rejected immigrant.

East Coast Immigration

Visit the Ellis Island Foundation online to see 5 videos that detail your ancestor's immigration experience. Here are some of the key points from these educational and informational videos.

1. The immigration process is much more difficult now that it was when your grandparents arrived. For the most part, all you had to do was arrive, have a place to go, and not have a contagious disease. The entire process happened within hours.

2. The medical inspection lasted a few seconds. The staff had an average of 6 seconds to look at an immigrant and decide if they were healthy enough. They checked for one contagious eye disease called trachoma that was a big problem at the time. To do this, they had to turn the immigrant's upper eyelid inside out to look for bumps. If the person was sick, they might stay in the building's dormitory until they recovered.

During the Ellis Island years, European immigrants went through a relatively speedy entry process.
During the Ellis Island years, European immigrants went through a relatively speedy entry process.

3. Ships had a manifest with each passenger's name and information when they arrived. They turned the manifests over to the Ellis Island officials. In the Great Hall of Ellis Island, people waited in line for hours to speak to an inspector. Translators were there to assist. The inspectors asked questions to see if a passenger's answers matched what was on the ship manifest. They asked questions like, "Where are you going?"

4. About 1 in 10 immigrants also had to go before a board of special inquiry. They had to wait in the dormitory for their hearing. After answering several more questions, the majority passed and went on their way. In fact, Ellis Island denied entry to only 2% of immigrants.

Of course your ancestor came here legally. It was so easy to do.

West Coast Immigration

The Ellis Island videos mention that their immigrants came from Europe. Asian immigrants arrived at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco. My husband's Japanese ancestors arrived there. Recently I found the manifest showing his grandmother Hanako's detention at the facility.

Asian immigrants faced a longer, tougher entry process at Angel Island in San Francisco.
Asian immigrants faced a longer, tougher entry process at Angel Island in San Francisco.

I found her on a page filled with woman who had 2 things in common:

  1. Many had a rubber stamp next to their name that says Photograph Marriage. We all believed Hanako was a "picture bride," but she denied it. Now we have this proof as well as what seems to be the actual photograph.
  2. Most of the people on the page had uncinariasis, also known as hookworm. Officials labeled these immigrants as having a "dangerous contagious disease." The people were all detained, treated, and released. Many of the contagious picture brides are also labeled L.P.C.: likely public charge. That seems odd when they had an arranged husband to meet them.

It looks as though they held Hanako for 18 days before her husband took her to her new home.

Immigration was much harder at Angel Island because of prejudice against Asians and the Chinese Exclusion Act. If there were European immigrants arriving in San Francisco, they received preferential treatment. Officials processed their papers aboard the ship so they could disembark and be on their way. This was also true of 1st and 2nd class passengers at Ellis Island.

Unlike Ellis Island, the Angel Island immigration process didn't take hours. It took weeks, months, or sometimes years.

It's important to understand the experience of your immigrant ancestors. I often think of my great grandmother Maria Rosa, who made the 3-week voyage while she was 6 months pregnant. It sounds nauseating! Or my grandfather Pietro, who arrived at age 18 after somehow getting from southern Italy to a port in France. Or my grandfather Adamo, who first arrived in 1914 as a 23-year-old, but had to return to Italy to fight in World War I for the Italian Army.

They all made long, difficult journeys, and most seemed to decide to never speak about it again. Take some time to understand the journey your ancestors made. You know you owe everything to them.

To learn about the Ellis Island immigration process, view the 5 videos at https://www.nps.gov/elis/learn/education/eie-series.htm.

To learn about the Angel Island immigration process, see the History Channel page at https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/angel-island-immigration-station.

18 April 2023

Where Will Your Roots Map Take You?

A couple of years ago I was looking at a map I bought while on vacation in Italy. I realized all my ancestral hometowns fit into a small area of the map. My roots are extremely concentrated. They're all in one province (that's like a county in the U.S.), with one exception that's just over the border.

Here's the part that amazes me. My grandparents and one set of great grandparents met and married in America. But their roots were in neighboring towns in Italy. You may have similar stories in your family tree. Of course immigrants felt comfortable in neighborhoods where everyone spoke the same language. And they felt even more comfortable when their neighbors spoke the same dialect. Imagine how much that helped them make the transition to their newly adopted country.

Generating Your Roots Map

This week I wanted to see a visualization of not only my ancestors' towns, but all their birthplaces on the map. I turned to a program I tested 2 years ago: Microsoft's Power BI Desktop. (BI stands for Business Intelligence.) If you want to try this, see the 5 steps further down in this article. But here's how easy it is to create the map once you're in Power BI:

  1. Click the Map icon (which looks like a globe) and expand the graphic to fill the workarea.
  2. Drag the FactType field into the Filters column and check Birth in the list.
  3. Drag the SortableLocation field and drop it in the Location section of the Visualizations column.

Those 3 steps gave me 18,947 blue dots on my world map. (That's how many people are in the GEDCOM file I'm using.) I see a ton of dots covering the New York City area and scattering over to the Midwest where Dad was born. Italy is positively overrun with blue dots.

Each datapoint in your family tree can generate more research leads.
Each datapoint in your family tree can generate more research leads.

I can use the scroll wheel on my mouse to zoom in on Italy. There I can see a huge cluster of blue dots from Naples in the west to Foggia in the east. I love this visual. This is the cradle of my civilization.

If you'd like to create this map for your roots, all the software is free. The only caveat is you must be using a Windows computer. Here's what to do:

  1. Download and install the free Microsoft program at https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/desktop.
  2. Export a GEDCOM from your family tree program or website. You may want to filter your export to your blood relatives (your ancestors and all their descendants) or only your direct ancestors.
  3. Open your GEDCOM with Family Tree Analyzer (https://ftanalyzer.com) and choose to Export Facts to Excel. (It will actually be a CSV file.)
  4. Open the CSV file to see if there are any columns you don't want. I noticed start date and end date columns, and 2 columns up front, that I decided to delete. Save your changes.
  5. Launch Power BI Desktop and choose to Get Data from your CSV file.

Now you're ready to create your map by following the 3 steps I outlined at the top of this article. It makes me proud to have such a tight cluster of roots. Having clusters all over the world might make your existence more of a miracle.

Following the Trail Wherever It May Lead

My Italian cluster is why I spend all my time indexing and exploring vital records from these towns. Even if someone is in my tree due to marriage only, they are me. They're all me.

I'm even expanding into other neighboring towns. I was trying to track down the family of a DNA match when I realized her ancestor's last name exists in the next town. I started scouring that town and found her ancestor's 1842 birth record. And I saw a handful of familiar last names there.

The nearby dots, towns next to your ancestral towns, hint at future family tree research.
The nearby dots, towns next to your ancestral towns, hint at future family tree research.

I have more than enough towns and data to keep me exploring and discovering for the rest of my life.

Are your map clusters telling you to research a new town? Look for nearby dots on your map. Maybe your ancestor married someone from the next town. It may be time to expand your search.

11 April 2023

How to Deal with the Worst Document Handwriting

Discovering where my 2nd great grandmother was born was a genealogy victory. No one else in my extended family knew about this town. They only knew that some ancestors came from somewhere in Avellino, Italy. I'm the one who gave it a name: Santa Paolina in the province of Avellino.

In a nutshell, here's how I discovered her hometown:

  • Her eldest son's U.S. WWII draft registration card said he was born in Tufo, Avellino (find out more). I searched that town's vital records.
  • The records told me his mother's family came from nearby Santa Paolina. I searched that town's vital records.
  • There I found my 2nd great grandparents' 1871 marriage documents and my 2nd great grandmother's 1845 birth record. Victory!

Once I knew the town, I could research my family. I used the Antenati website to build several generations of her Consolazio family. (That name itself was a recent discovery.) But my 3rd great grandmother who married a Consolazio had no relatives in Santa Paolina. Where did she come from?

Her 1898 death record from Santa Paolina had the answer. She was born in another town called Apice. I don't know how Rufina, my 3rd great grandmother, met her husband when their towns are 10 miles apart. Back then, transportation involved mules or horses.

A Tough Challenge

This got me excited to explore the vital records from Apice. Then I got a look at those vital records! The town of Apice has some of the worst vital records I've ever seen. The handwriting is atrocious, and I swear the clerk routinely left letters out of names. Amazingly, I did identify Rufina's ancestors, including all 8 of her great grandparents. They are my 6th great grandparents, all born in the early 1700s.

Building my 3rd great grandmother's family tree from AWFUL documents required a helpful tool.
Building my 3rd great grandmother's family tree from AWFUL documents required a helpful tool.

Chasing down all those names was a challenge, and I may have some of the last names spelled wrong. But my family tree mission is to connect as many people as possible from my ancestral hometowns. I'd like to piece together a lot more Apice families. It's the horrible handwriting that slows me down.

The other night I forced myself to go through all 112 Apice birth records for 1816, the year Rufina was born. I'd already downloaded the files to my computer, so my goal was to rename each file, making them searchable. It was torture. I had to guess at many last names. I hope that other documents, written by a better clerk, will make the family names clearer. Literally.

A Helpful Research Tool

When I first tried to tackle the Apice documents, I created a companion file as an aid. Someday this town's last names will be as familiar to me as those from my grandfathers' hometowns. But until then, my companion document is a necessity.

My document is an Excel file, which makes alphabetizing a snap. But you can use a text file or Word document, too. Here's all it contains:

  • Name. I record my best guess for every last name I see. As I review more records, I check what I think I see against what I recorded in my spreadsheet.
  • Alternate. It's typical to see variations in Italian names, particularly in the prefix or final letter. Giannini/Giannino, deMarco/diMarco. I make note of variations to assure myself I've seen this before.
  • Cognomix results. That refers to an Italian last-name website that tells you where in Italy you'll find a particular last name. Whenever I add a name to the spreadsheet, I check this resource to see if the name exists in Apice or in towns nearby. It's reassuring to find the name still in Apice because I know I'm spelling it right. I can also consult the Italian White Pages online to see if the name is in the area.

You'll need another type of resource for names that aren't from Italy, of course. Consider censuses for your town, directories, and newspaper articles.

One last thing I did in this spreadsheet is a bit of color-coding:

  • A green background in the name field means I'm pretty confident about the spelling.
  • Red text in the Cognomix results field confirms the name still exists in that town today.

You can find lots of help online for deciphering bad handwriting. (Go to the FamilySearch Wiki and search for the word handwriting.) You can compare letters from the word you can't quite understand to similar shapes on the same page. Can you confirm that the first letter is a capital P? Do some of the letters match a word you can read because of its context?

But last names can be a big problem. It helps so much if you get familiar with the language. For instance, I know a last name in Italy won't start with a W or contain a K.

Don't give up when the town scribe had the worst handwriting imaginable.
Don't give up when the town scribe had the worst handwriting imaginable.

Here's how you can overcome the worst handwriting in your genealogy research:

  • Get familiar with last names from the place you're researching.
  • Get in-language handwriting tips from FamilySearch.org.
  • Use directories and other tools to see if what you think is a name is actually a name.
  • Keep a log (like my spreadsheet) while reviewing documents from a particular place.

I can't go back further than my 6th great grandparents from Apice unless the town's church records go online. But I want to keep exploring the town and find links to any DNA matches. This spreadsheet is critical to my research. Will it help you, too?

04 April 2023

Collect Important Family Places to 'Tour' Anytime

I've had 16 homes in my life. And that's not counting college dorms or the months my family lived with relatives. It's a lot to keep track of. I do have a list of the 16 addresses along with some details in my ongoing biography Word document. But I wanted something better.

I turned to Google Earth for a far more visual way of storing these addresses. Now I can "fly" from home to home: starting in the Bronx where I was born, flying out to California, then back to the east coast, ever-so-briefly to Indiana, then several more stops on the east coast.

How can you use Google Earth for genealogy? You can create several collections of places, each with a unique name. I named my first collection Houses. What if you created a collection of all the addresses you have for a certain branch of the family? I could collect all the past addresses of my Ohio cousins or my western Pennsylvania cousins.

Take a virtual visit to your family's past anytime you choose.
Take a virtual visit to your family's past anytime you choose.

What I found infinitely enjoyable was collecting places from my vacations. I used my photos to help me remember and find hotels, restaurants, landmarks, and more. I was so excited to find the magical side street in Lyon, France, where I had the dinner of a lifetime. I'd forgotten the name of our hotel in Lyon, unfortunately. So I used Google Earth to roam the streets, pulling details from my memory, and I found it!

Preserving these details in this 100% visual way will be a treasure for the rest of my life. I did the same for a little town near Nice, France, and for Milano, Italy, but I have many more vacation destinations to do.

To start building your collections, you'll need a free Google account. Your collections get saved to your Google Drive. To save a place to a collection, use the magnifying glass icon to search for the address. Then choose Add to Collection. Click the Replace button (a misleading label) to change the title of the place, add a description, and even upload a photo. It can be your own photo or one you capture there in Google Earth.

I lived in California as an infant and didn't return to the west coast until 2016. I made sure to visit my old house and take a few photos. I attached the best one to this address in my collection. I also added something no one else can: a photo of the house under construction in 1959.

When you want to take a virtual tour of your saved places, open your collection. If it isn't already open, find it in Google Drive and double-click it to launch Google Earth. Once it's open in Google Earth, click the Present button.

Use family photos for landmarks and you can find those important places in Google Earth.
Use family photos for landmarks and you can find those important places in Google Earth.

The globe will spin and zoom in on the first location. You can use your mouse or the onscreen +/- buttons to zoom in or out some more. There will be a big panel on the right showing an image of the place or landmark. Sometimes you can click More info in this panel to scroll through photos of the place. Close that panel to see more options. You can drag and drop the little person icon to a spot on the map and have a street-side view of what's around. That works the same as it does in Google Maps.

Back in Present mode, you can keep clicking the right arrow until you've flown to all the locations. Or you can click the Table of Contents and choose any one of your saved places to visit.

Which collections would you like to create? How about adding places from your family photo collection? Imagine adding photos of the family gathered at that location. I guarantee you're going to have a lot of fun.

You can fly from one favorite place to another using Google Earth. Here's a flight from Lyon, France, to Milano, Italy.