A while ago I had an enjoyable experience: I introduced a casual acquaintance to genealogy research. When I mentioned that she should research her family tree, she first replied, "Oh, I could never do that. My parents and grandparents are all deceased. Nobody in my family knows anything about their origins. All four of my grandparents were Jews from Russia, so there won't be any information available. They all immigrated around the year 1900. Besides, the family names were changed at Ellis Island."
While she stood and watched, I went online and quickly found immigration records for three of her four grandparents, as well as the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census records for all of them and the village of birth in Russia for one of them. In the census records I uncovered the names of their children who were living with them, including one child who was an aunt that my friend had never heard of. (I suspect that the child died young although that is not yet proven.) I also was able to show my friend that one grandfather was named Rupert in several records, not Robert, as she had been told. I also found the original immigration records in the Ellis Island online database and showed her that the family names certainly were NOT changed at Ellis Island, as she believed. I found her grandparents' occupations and also uncovered the fact that one of the four was illiterate.
I then instructed my friend on how to go back another generation. She can obtain the names of her great-grandparents by writing to the Social Security Administration and paying a fee. I even printed out four letters to the Social Security Administration, one for each of her four grandparents. All she had to do was write checks, put the checks and letters into envelopes, and attach postage. She did that later the same afternoon, noting my caution that she will not receive a reply for several weeks.
My friend is now hooked. Every day since this discovery she tells me about a telephone conversation she has had with an elderly aunt or some other record or old photograph that she has discovered. She is eagerly waiting for responses from the Social Security Administration. She will visit a local LDS Family History Center next week. She also obtained a genealogy program for her computer. Not bad for someone who claimed four days ago that she would never be able to research her family tree!
This was so easy and the rewards so great, I feel like an ice cream vendor at an August Red Sox game. My total time expended was less than 30 minutes. You could do the same.
To be sure, I am experienced at using these online resources. If you have less experience, you might need more than 30 minutes. I also pay for access to Ancestry.com in order to look at their census records and other sources of genealogy information. If you do not pay for that access, you still can view the same records for free or nearly free by looking at microfilm copies at a genealogy library or at a Family History Center near you. That excursion will take you more than 30 minutes, but you will still find it easy to uncover similar information.
In my friend's case, all four of her grandparents emigrated from Russia to the United States as children or young adults between 1900 and 1910. However, the techniques about to be described will work well for almost any ancestors who arrived within the past 100 or so years, whether from Russia, Europe, Central or South America, or even the Orient. Results will vary, but you often can find more than you ever expected.
For immigrants who lived beyond the mid-1960s, the first resource to use is the online Social Security Death Index, or SSDI. The Social Security system was established in the 1930s and started computerizing records in the 1960s. Records for those who died after the mid-sixties while receiving Social Security payments can be found online. Later records include all deaths, not just those receiving benefits. For details, see my "Social Security Death Records Explained" article at http://www.eogn.com/archives/news0305.htm.
As its name insinuates, the online SSDI contains only an index with an abbreviated amount of information. It has the following information about deceased individuals:
- Social Security number (which is omitted on some genealogy databases)
- Given name
- Date of death
- Date of birth
- Last known residence
- Address used on the last benefit payment check
- Date and place of issuance of the Social Security Number
While this information is valuable, it still is only half the story. When your ancestor applied for a Social Security Number, he or she had to fill out an SS-5 form and prove that he or she was the person claimed. In order to prove their identity, each person had to list a lot more information than what is available in the online index.
The application form (SS-5) contains the following information:
- Full name
- Full name at birth (including maiden name)
- Present mailing address on the date the form was filled out
- Age at last birthday
- Date of birth
- Place of birth (City, county, state)
- Father's full name "regardless of whether living or dead"
- Mother's full name, including maiden name, "regardless of whether living or dead"
- Sex and race
- Ever applied for SS number/Railroad Retirement before? Yes/No
- Current employer's name and address
- Date signed
- Applicant's signature
As you can see, this is a wealth of data for an individual whose origins have been unknown to you! Your immigrant ancestor's place of birth and parents' names may be unknown to you, but these facts are recorded on a piece of paper stored in a filing cabinet at the Social Security Administration.
The best news is that photocopies of the SS-5 forms can be obtained by writing to the Social Security Administration and paying a fee. For many who immigrated in the very late 1800s or after, this may be the only record you can find to go back another generation.
Some online services will even generate a letter to the Social Security Administration for you. This week, my friend and I used Ancestry.com to find the records in the SSDI. For each record, I clicked on an icon to write a form letter. The next screen that appeared contained the letter, along with the name and Social Security Numbers already filled in. I printed each letter and handed it to my friend. She wrote checks for the fees and then stuffed the letters and checks into envelopes.
The Social Security Death Index is available on a number of online sites, including Ancestry.com, Family Tree Legends at http://www.familytreelegends.com/ssdi, FamilySearch.org at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/frameset_search.asp?PAGE=ssdi/search_ssdi.asp&clear_form=true, and others.
Actual immigration records can be found at the Ellis Island site at http://www.ellisisland.org. Many of the records have been transcribed and indexed, although not all. You first search the indexes at no charge, then look at the original handwritten pages after paying a fee.
The U.S. Census records from 1790 to 1930 are available online on HeritageQuest Online and at Ancestry.com. You must pay a fee to view them on Ancestry.com but may be able to use a local library to view either site at no change. Some U.S. census records are available on other sites, such as the 1880 census record indexes available at no charge on http://www.familysearch.org
All of the above records are also available on microfilm and can be viewed at little or no cost if you visit a Family History Center near you. You can find your nearest Family History Center at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHC/frameset_fhc.asp
Online or off, there is a wealth of genealogy information available to you today, with more being added every month. Please never say, "There won't be any information available" or, "The family names were changed at Ellis Island." Take a look for yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you can learn.
If someone you know ever says, "Oh, we could never find any information about my ancestors," please give them a copy of this article.