Lack of available documents or difficulty finding the right ones
Have you written to the State only to be told there are no records? Written the County Clerk only to be told more information is needed (like if you had the information you’d be contacting them to start with!)? Read every county history and you’re still stumped? Where’s a good genealogist to turn?
The answer is simple: Start asking yourself questions instead of asking others for answers.
Where did they live?
When did they first appear there?
How could they have gotten there?
How settled was the area?
What were the laws AT THAT TIME?
When did laws change…and what were the changes?
The worst letter to write is: "Please send me all information on anyone named ______ in your records."
Few clerks, whether at governmental offices, libraries, archives or churches have the time (or desire) to read through volumes of information to find names and sort out relationships for you. They need to know the specifics that a good reporter would want:
Who are you looking for (first name, last name, maiden name, married name…the more information the better)?
What kind of records do you want? Land records, wills, sacramental records, biographical sketches? They will send the records that you ask for, if they can find them. But if you ask for too much, you end up getting nothing.
Where did they live? It’s not enough to say "Bay County", because Bay County has changed many times, cutting off from Saginaw and Midland Counties in 1857, letting go of Arenac County lands in 1883. Townships were split, first Hampton, then Williams, Beaver and others. Towns in existence 110 years ago have disappeared, while new towns have developed. It’s a big county, so have as much of your own research done before you request information from someone else.
When did they start showing up in the records you have found? This was a rapidly changing place between 1850 and 1910. Boats brought our first emigrant ancestors. Then came horses. Soon we had trains. Eventually we had ships and highways. To figure out where they came from, you need to figure out when they got here. There were identifiable waves of emigration, both within the US and from other countries, that help us figure out how people got to Bay County, and more importantly from where they came.
Once you can create a portrait of your own for your ancestors, contact local researchers or historians who are familiar with the development of the area. Check county histories to see what new industries popped up, where the workers were recruited from, and where they lived once they got here. Figure out what religion they were and which churches were available to them. Just as importantly, check out known research about their neighbors. People who traveled from Europe to America often came from the same parts of the same tiny lands. They spoke the same language and had a feeling of comfort with each other, so they settled together once they arrived. This gives you a starting point in puddle jumping to their homelands.
Why did they pick Bay County…or any other part of the U.S.? This is probably the most important question in creating a profile of the person you are researching. Of all the wildnerness lands in North America, why did this person pick Bay City? Was this person as poor as a can be and in need of the first available job? Was this an educated person who was hired to come here to set up a business or create an industry? Were there relatives already living here, so it was just natural that s/he would come here? When they arrived at Baltimore, Castle Clinton or Ellis Island, was this the place they claimed they were traveling to, or was this a place they found later?
How did they get here? This is the fun question.
If they were dirt poor, but managed to travel from the top of a mountain in Switzerland…cross all of the French countryside…pay passage on a ship in LeHavre…find a place to stay in New York…get on a train to Buffalo…travel by steamship to Detroit…journey north to a remote lumbertown in the middle of Nowhere…then still have money left to buy land and build a home…how did they pay for it all?
The answers are amazing. These people had drive and tenacity that few of us can fathom today. Remember, there were no credit cards; emigration was a cash and travel industry, and the cash needed was tremendous. What drove them to spend that amount amount of money to leave a land they had known their entire lives to travel to a place they had never seen, where people spoke a funny language, often not knowing a single person traveling with them?
Educate yourself as an historian, rather than a tourist.
Do research on the lands they left, the social climate of the day, and the resources available to them. You will be amazed at the lengths people would go to in crossing the ocean. Sometimes the village even paid their transport so that the village could thrive by getting rid of the impoverished.
Only after you start creating this profile can you figure out where the records are that can help you. If you are lucky, and your ancestors were literate and had legible handwriting, your search for records will open up. As internet sites develop to publish records, chances of finding your ancestors increase. Just make sure to verify the accuracy of every record you find…and make sure that's YOUR ancestor who is in that record.
When you look for records, do not limit yourself to local records. Too many people overlook military records kept by the National Archives Military Personnel Center in St. Louis, or land bounty records kept in other states. Figure out the events that surrounded and directed your ancestors’ lives. If some records claim they were French and others claim they were German, see if there was a war in Europe during that period, such as the Franco-Prussian war. If they fled France in the early 1800s, could it be because of the Napoleonic wars or the aftermath of the French Revolution?
Who can you ask to help you understand? High school teachers and college History professors are wonderful resources, as are graduate students at colleges and universities around the world. They love sharing their knowledge and are usually very happy to answer inquiries.
About Immigration Records and Passenger Lists
Prior to 1870, few "official" records exist in Michigan. No one was required to record births, deaths or marriages with the county. Naturalizations of immigrants could occur at any post office, justice of the peace, courthouse, or other "designated office". Even when records do exist, there is tremendous disarray…and missssspellings are too common.
The federal government did not standardize the naturalization process until 1906, and the information required prior to September, 1906 was terribly lacking in detail to help a genealogist. Consider the value (or lack thereof) of this 1855 Naturalization Petition:
Yes, this was all Amand Hugo needed to tell the United States in order to become a citizen. The lesson to be learned is which documents and sources are going to be a help to you, and to base that decision on an understanding of what was required to disclose at the time your ancestor filled out that document.
In general, neither Declarations of Intent nor Naturalization petitions pre-1906 have no value at all, other than confirming that your ancestor did become a citizen. It does not tell you which country or town s/he came from, as European lands passed from one ruler to another too frequently. Fifteen years later, during the Franco-Prussian war, this same man (born in Loraine France) would have disavowed his allegiance to a Prussian prince. Fifteen to thirty years earlier, he might have disavowed his allegiance to the King of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor or the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. It did not matter who was in control of the land when your ancestor left, it mattered who controlled it on the day when your ancestor was naturalized.
The picture changed in 1906 with immigration reform laws. From that point forward, Declarations of Intent included a full biography of the petitioner. You still want the Declaration of Intent for research purposes, but the Naturalization Petition reinforced the accuracy of the information on the DOI. Anyone arriving in the U.S. after 1905 needed to also provide information on the ship bringing them to the U.S., the date of arrival and port.
Looking for a little help in an otherwise dismal lack of information? Check out other families in the area. Find names, date of arrival in the U.S., and ethnicity. Where one relative may claim to be German, another may claim to be Polish. It helps understand that these were probably West Prussians, Poles who lived under German rule in the divided Poland. Did one claim to be Belgian, but another says Holland? They could still be cousins, just from towns on opposite sides of new borders.
When you find a happy discrepancy like this, explore it. Find out what the governments in Europe required of someone wanting to leave. Did they need visas and passports just to travel to another town, let alone to leave the country? France did. Switzerland didn’t. But a French-speaking Swiss émigrés needed to get visas to cross France to get to the ships, so they paid for a visa when they got into the country. Then either paid to extend it for travel out of the country or paid for a separate one at the City Hall in Le Havre. Those records are available to us today. In the provinces of France, indices of passport records exist for most the mid-1900s. If you can not find what you are looking for, write letters to local historians and find out where these records might be found. Also ask what other records are available from the region and how you can get someone to review them for you.
Asking questions is free. At this point, your efforts to regroup are only to get a fuller understanding of the situation. The satisfaction comes when you overcome your obstacles and are able to make that next link in your genealogical search.
© 2006 Jan Nearing, LaMere Consulting, Midland, Michigan. All rights reserved.
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