Emigration and Archives in the United States,

Looking into America

Albert Peterlin

We in the United States have become so familiar with the intriqucies of our massive and usually non-centralized bureaucracy that we take for granted our ability to navigate within its often-uncharted waters. Those of us in the United States usually feel our greatest challenge lies in discovering the city of original departure from the “Old Country” or the last European village our ancestor called home.

Rarely do we stop and contemplate the problems to be encountered by our European cousins trying to fill in their genealogical database with their American cousins who seem to have vanished within the hills of a country that stretches beyond the imagination. Still, to search American records from outside requires a basic understanding of how complex the U.S. federal system is. Within one complimentary and sometimes-competing system reside national, state, county, and local governments, all with taxing and governing authorities. Laws are also at multiple levels, and while that can mean even more bureaucracies forcing residents to maintain a paper trail, it also means records can be divided by subject, filed at many different “governmental levels,” and an even greater chance records or documents could be misfiled, lost, or accidentally destroyed. Finally, remember, the immigrant ancestor who fled a thoroughly documented, mature, and structured European nation had a streak of independence, imagination, and ingenuity that could frequently adjust to hide, trick, or befuddle even the most highly trained bureaucrat in a new nation.

Now, for the good news! Many, if not most, of the immigration (ship passenger manifest) records held in the United States can be found in one or two well documented locations. The largest holder of immigrant records is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), National Archives, Washington DC 20408. Here are the many thousands of documents concerning Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals on microfilm, and the microfilm itself can be purchased or individual records requested and acquired by mail. However, this is a new and changing world, and the Internet has opened doors as never before. By searching for NARA in an internet search engine like YAHOO or GOOGLE, you can locate the internet web site for NARA, download the listings of ships indexed by arrival date or name of ship, and order a copy of the microfilm for later use. Of course, these same record and the indexes available can also be ordered, searched, and then returned by the many LDS church centers around the globe.

You’ll note I suggested you needed a ship name and date of arrival to be able to make use of the ship manifest records maintained by NARA. In many cases, a European cousin would have almost no way of knowing the exact date of their ancestor’s departure, where they landed, or where they ended up in the United States. Overcoming this can be a difficult process made even more difficult because our ancestors who traveled thousands of mile by sea to get the United States, were not intimidated by the hundreds and thousands of miles between towns within the United States where work was plentiful. In many instances, our immigrant ancestors arrived in New York City, lingered for some months to a few years and then headed west to work towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, California and all points in between. So, what’s a European to do?

If lucky, the answer can be as simple as accessibility to the Internet. Online telephone books remain a used but rarely appreciated people gazetteer. “People Search” Internet engines are easy to find, simple to use and provide a lengthy list of individuals easily alphabetized by surname. It might take many letters to find family, but the process is done every day with great success. In addition, there is frequently a clustering of city addresses and the researcher is able to narrow their city of interest to a manageable few. Do not underestimate the utility of this simple, first step solution to learning where your ancestor lived in the United States.

There are other very useful online tools that can accomplish much the same thing, and that is the Social Security death index typically found on web sites such as ancestry.com or on web sites maintained by the LDS church. Again I recommend the use of online search engines such as “Google” that can help narrow the search to manageable levels. Two other useful search engines that have been helpful to me are vivisimo.com and wisenut.com. These last two will actually help start an organization process for you so the web sites of interest are not just alphabetized, but already grouped into related subject matter areas.

The goal of finding a city or county of settlement in the United States is extremely important for the European trying to use American records, because without and exact ship name or date of immigration, one must almost always find that information about one’s ancestor. That usually means naturalization records and for those records you will need the county of residence to access the naturalization paperwork in the county courthouse involved or in the National Archives in Washington DC.

The name, address and request requirements for all county courthouse records in the US can be found in a reference book titled “The Source” by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny, Ancestry Polishing. Of course, the text is now available by CD-rom and both the book and the cd-rom can be purchased online. It should also be available in the reference section of your local library. Recognizing that the LDS Family History Library is the greatest single repository of genealogical information, The Library, A Guide to the LDS Family History Library by Johni Cerny and Wendy Elliot, Ancestry Publishing Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, is a second reference text that can be found in the reference section of a local library.

Interestingly, if the search for naturalization documents proves fruitless, a secondary source for information can be the WWI registration records maintained by the National Archives and Records Service, 1559 St Joseph Av, East Point, Gad 30344. Again, you will need the name of your ancestor and the city he lived in. If your ancestor was in the United States but not naturalized, this may be one place to look.

This research process is not an easy one, but the number of records available online is increasing. The task of finding the “needle in a haystack” is actually getting easier every day. While there will always be a need for books, the utility of record searching on the Internet is increasing exponentially. I would like to recommend one new web site and suggest it become the first source of immigrant information for individuals looking for an ancestor in the United States: the web site at Ellis Island. By inserting the words “ELLIS Island” on “google,” I immediately found the web listing for www.ellisisland.org, a site you will want to visit and revisit as you continue looking for relatives in America.

Typically, however, no job in genealogy is simple or accomplished in one step without study, initiative and persistence. At the Ellis Island web site, I entered the surname Peterlin and found 111 matching entries. In this case, I already knew my grandfather, Jozef, arrived in 1907 and that he was 20 years old at the time. I also knew his brother Franc arrived about the same time. Unfortunately, in all 111 Peterlin surname entries, I could not locate my grandfather or his brother. I found 6 Joseph’s, some spelled, Josip, others Jozef, but none had an entry date of 1907 except one from Gottschee, not Komenda. While not a fully fruitful search, I now have many more individuals to search through and the listing of cities in Slovenia, Italy, and Austria they departed from intrigues me. So, on the Peterlin side, I am happy I knew the county of residence, that I was able to obtain a copy of his naturalization papers from the Lackawanna County Courthouse, and then quickly acquired his ship passage manifest from NARA in Washington, D.C.

My grandmother’s maiden name was Jerin, and when I completed the Ellis Island search on Jerin, I pulled up a listing of 22 names. Her brother Franc was listed with exact information, as I knew it. And, there at the bottom of the pile, number 22, was Theresia Jerin, Tobrace, Austria, 1908. I had the woman of my past and while the last city of residence in Slovenia, Sobrace was mis-spelled Tobrace, I had found her.

Even with this very useful search engine, please take great care to make use of all “the tricks of the trade” of an experienced genealogist. Expect to see any vowel inserted for any other. Watch for common misspellings, and a written S and T can look much the same on old paper with flowing cursive writing. Expect almost everything to be written as it sounded, as opposed to, corresponding to the intricacies of the original mother tongue.

It all comes down to a few recommended steps, three on the web and one at NARA or the National Archives in Washington, DC. Visit the virtual Ellis Island (their web site), scan the Social Security Death Indexes, and make a surname listing from the online telephone book.

Finally, remember the Slovenian Genealogy Society International, Inc. We are here to help you. When we in the United States run into any difficulty searching records in Slovenia, we contact SRD. When you run into difficulties looking through the other side of the looking glass, ask us for help. We’re also on the web, and you can reach us by snail mail at SGSI, 52 Old Farm Road, Camp Hill Pa 17011.