Do you have a family story handed down over the years? Perhaps an ancestor was a ship’s captain. Or perhaps the family name was changed at Ellis Island. Or some lady in your family tree was a Cherokee princess. Another story I have heard many times is that some immigrant was the illegitimate child of the Russian czar or another royal person. Proving such stories can be difficult for one very simple reason: they often are not true! A more common scenario is a family story that contains a bit of truth but was embellished over the generations.
If you are using a family story to trying to find an ancestor, I’d suggest that you consider the possibility that the story is only partially true or at least was built on some amount of facts. I can offer two examples from my family’s stories plus a third example from someone else’s family.
First, when I was a child I was told that “our family took part in the Salem Witch Trials.” When I heard those stories, I assumed that the participant(s) was named Eastman although I am not sure that was ever clearly stated. I worked on that assumption for years and tried to find the story behind our family’s “participation.” One problem: my Eastman ancestors never lived in Salem! In fact, in the 1690s my Eastman ancestors were living about 40 miles further north in Salisbury, Massachusetts. Of course, that doesn’t rule out their participation, but it does reduce the likelihood of their being actively involved.
Next, after several years of reading almost every scrap of information I could find about the Salem Witch Trials, I eventually discovered that another ancestor of mine on my grandmother’s side of the family did live in Salem at the time. His name was Goodall, not Eastman. I never found any mention of him in any of the Witch Trial records, but I did learn that his son-in-law served on the jury. So yes, there was a nugget of truth to the claim that “our family participated in the Salem Witch Trials.” Indeed, it was a very distant relative: the son-in-law of an ancestor. However, the “real story” turned out to be somewhat different than what I had imagined.
My second family story involves a family claim that an ancestor had served as “a captain in the Revolutionary War.” This story turned out to be factual, although not what I had assumed. I found that he served as a ferry boat captain, crossing a river time and again all day long in the years before a bridge was built. I have never found a description of his “ship” although I suspect it was not much bigger than a rowboat.
For a third example, I recently corresponded with a lady who expressed frustration at not being able to find an ancestor listed in the records at Ellis Island. She felt that he must be listed. After all, she told me that “his name had been changed at Ellis Island.” She assured me that he had arrived in this country without paperwork and he could not speak English. He arrived with only fifty cents in his pocket. Since he couldn’t speak English, the authorities at Ellis Island had given him a name which he used forever after. He eventually made his way to Indianapolis, where he joined relatives who had immigrated before him.
That’s a great story, but let’s examine the so-called facts, one at a time.
“His name had been changed at Ellis Island.”
In fact, this never happened, despite all the claims otherwise. The story probably has a nugget of truth as many immigrants did change their names eventually. They processed through Ellis Island by using their true names, although often with spelling variations. After all, most of these people were illiterate and had no idea how to spell their own names in their native language, much less in English. Their names were copied from the documents in their possession which had been filled out by clerks back in “the old country.” Spelling variations were common, but the names on the documents almost always sounded the same as the true names.
In the months and years following immigration, these immigrants settled in new neighborhoods and were assimilated into American life. Indeed, many did change their names over the years, but not at Ellis Island. Names were not changed by immigration officials but often were later changed by schoolteachers, by local officials, or by the immigrants themselves.
“Since he couldn’t speak English, the authorities…”
In fact, most immigrants could not speak English, except for those arriving from the British Isles. Non-English languages were so common that the authorities at Ellis Island were well prepared. Ellis Island hired an army of part-time interpreters during its years of operation. Ships would arrive at any time of the day or night, and first-class, second-class, and third-class passengers would leave the ship within a few hours. However, those traveling in steerage (which includes the majority of our ancestors and certainly included anyone “with only fifty cents in his pocket”), remained on board at least overnight and were processed the following day, at the earliest. Delays of two or three days were not uncommon.
During the afternoon and evening hours after the ship’s arrival, a call went out for the part-time employees who worked as interpreters and were able to speak the language(s) of the passengers. If a ship arrived from Italy, no steerage passengers were ever allowed off the ship until Italian interpreters were available to interview them at length. The same was true for passengers who spoke Russian, Polish, Czech, Yiddish, or other languages.
One of the part-time employees became famous in later years: as a young man, Fiorello Laguardia was employed for several years at Ellis Island as an interpreter. Although he was born and raised in America, he spoke Italian fluently and could read and write the language. He assisted thousands of Italian immigrants process through Ellis Island. He was but one of hundreds of interpreters who worked at the immigration processing center. Today Laguardia is remembered as mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945.
Occasionally, a passenger who did not speak the language of the other passengers would be on board. For instance, a Greek national might travel overland from Greece to Italy and then purchase a ticket on a ship sailing from Italy to New York. The ship presumably was filled with Italian-speaking passengers, save for this one Greek person or family. In such cases, that Greek-speaking family would be detained at Ellis Island until a Greek interpreter was located. That might require a few hours or, occasionally, an extra overnight stay. Ellis Island had dormitories built just for such requirements. Nobody was allowed to pass through the immigration center until after they had spoken with an interpreter and their documentation had been examined by someone who could read and write the language of their documents.
“He had arrived in this country without paperwork.”
The requirements for admission to the United States were strict. First, one had to have proper identification in their possession, filled out in the old country. Even if the ancestors in question could not read or write, they always had some paperwork (probably written in their native language) that clearly identified who they were and where they were from.
Anyone who did not possess identification was sent back to the port of embarkation AT THE STEAMSHIP COMPANY’S EXPENSE. Of course, the steamship companies all knew this and did not want the financial burden of carrying non-paying passengers back to the old country. Therefore, all the steamship companies typically checked the identification of passengers before they could board the ship. Anyone who lacked proper identification usually was not allowed to board at the port of embarkation.
One of the facts about Ellis Island that we do not learn in school is that thousands of would-be immigrants were denied entry into the United States and were sent back. Most of those denied entry were for medical reasons, but others who slipped past the steamship companies’ scrutiny were denied entry for lack of identification or for possessing no visible means of support.
NOTE: I am told that some exceptions to the rules concerning required identification were made in 1945 and 1946 as a flood of refugees from war-torn Europe arrived at Ellis Island. These folks often did not possess identification. Their passage often was paid by the Red Cross or other relief agencies. If your ancestor arrived in 1945 or 1946, it is possible that he or she did not possess identification.
“He arrived with only fifty cents in his pocket.”
To be sure, many immigrants were nearly penniless upon arrival. I could quibble that the immigrant in question might have had fifty pence or fifty lira or fifty rubles, but never fifty cents unless he arrived from some country that used dollars and cents at the time. Whatever the currency, it certainly is true that millions of immigrants were nearly penniless upon arrival. However, immigrants were not allowed into the country if they were to be paupers. They all had to either have money in their pocket (which steerage passengers rarely had) or they had to have some documentation proving they had financial support.
Let’s assume that he really did arrive with the equivalent of fifty cents in his pocket. Who paid for his ticket? How did he or she pay for meals while on board the ship on a voyage that lasted a week or two?
Trans-Atlantic passage was never cheap. Somebody had to pay for the ticket. In many cases, passage was paid by some other relative who had gone to America earlier and had earned the money. It was very common for immigrants to save their money and pay for the passage of their relatives left behind. The newer immigrants were expected to do the same: save their money and pay for still other relatives to join them in America. In many cases, the immigrant had a letter in his possession written by a relative who had arrived in America earlier. The letter (often written by a clergyman or others) would state, “I will provide food and shelter for this person (or this family).”
Sometimes the letter came from a new employer in America who had paid for the passage. Many immigrants without relatives in America were “sponsored” by corporations. Indeed, the mills of New England and elsewhere sent many recruiters to the old country, looking for new employees. The mills of New England were full of sponsored immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Canada, and elsewhere. Many of their descendants still live in many of the mill towns.
The would-be immigrants would sign employment agreements for two or three years, sometimes longer. In turn, their new employers would provide steamship tickets, often for the new employee and his family, along with dormitory accommodations upon arrival. Thousands of immigrants did arrive at Ellis Island with little money in their pockets but holding letters (with their correct names clearly written) that guaranteed passage to an American city and to guaranteed employment. If your ancestor went to work in a mill or factory soon after arrival, especially if that mill was not in New York City, be suspicious that his passage was paid in advance by his new employer.
“He eventually made his way to Indianapolis where he joined relatives who had immigrated before him.”
Now the story makes sense. The ancestor did not arrive at Ellis Island without knowing anyone in America. He probably carried documentation that stated he was to go to Indianapolis where his livelihood was guaranteed.
New York City had many “travelers’ aid” societies that helped immigrants board trains and travel. Such agencies would include the Italian Society of Emigration, the St. Joseph’s Home for the Protection of Polish Immigrants, the Swedish Lutheran Home for Immigrants, and other mutual aid societies. Many of these organizations are still in business today.
A new arrival in America who could not speak English and could not read or write any language and had little money in his pocket could not be expected to find the train station and purchase a ticket for a distant city that was a 2- or 3-day trip inland. Such immigrants always had at least a bit of assistance from people who spoke their language.
Indeed, my correspondent had a family story that appeared to be built on a bit of truth but had been embellished over time.
Now let’s return to your family story that has been passed down over the generations. The story may be wrong or, as in the case of my correspondent, may have been “enhanced” significantly.
Let’s examine a few other common family fables:
There is no such thing as a “Cherokee princess,” despite the thousands of people who believe they have such a princess in the family tree. The Cherokees and other American Indians had no concept of royalty. There were no princes or princesses anywhere amongst American Indians. Even the title of “chief” was not hereditary; it was not passed down from father to son. If you have a true Indian Princess in your family tree, she obviously was from India.
In many countries, ALL illegitimate children were referred to as “the child of the king” or the “child of the Czar.” In most cases, they had no royal parentage.
In Canada, nearly a thousand young female immigrants were admitted as “the King’s daughters.” However, that title refers to the fact that their passage was paid by the French government. In effect, the King paid for their passage whereas other young women often had passage paid by their fathers, brothers, or other relatives. Historians have never found a single one of these young women that was a true daughter of any king.
Not everyone sailed on the Mayflower. The list of 102 passengers on that tiny ship is well known and documented in many places. (See Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Mayflower_passengers/.) Thousands of families erroneously believe that their ancestors sailed on the Mayflower. If all the stories were true, the Mayflower would have been bigger than the Queen Mary!
“All the records were destroyed in the war (or fire or flood or tornado or other disaster).” This is NEVER true in North America and rarely was true in Europe. First of all, there is no central repository of records. Tax records are typically stored at a local government facility, military records are usually stored at a national location, baptism records are stored in the local church, and marriage records are typically stored in the church with duplicates often stored at the town or city offices. And so on. No one disaster ever destroys all the records of a person’s existence.
“The name was changed at Ellis Island.” Not true. Get over it.
“He jumped ship upon arrival in America.” This one is possibly true but has been claimed far too often. In short, be skeptical. Even if it is true, you will probably never find any documentation to prove it. Those who jumped ship didn’t want to leave records for fear of deportation! It is a great family story, but probably is not true. Even if there is some truth to the story, you probably will never prove it.
“He arrived with fifty cents in his pocket.” Ask yourself: who paid for the ticket and how did he survive in his first few weeks in America? How did he or she travel from Ellis Island to their final destination if they had no money? Also, why did the authorities at Ellis Island allow him to pass through when they sent all the other paupers back? Yes, many immigrants did arrive with little or no money, but they always had some guaranteed method of support after arrival. If they didn’t possess such proof, they were sent back.
If you cannot find information about an ancestor’s story that’s based upon family folklore, question the story. It could be partially right and partially wrong, or all wrong. Go back and ask yourself how you would approach your research if you didn’t know about the family story. Would your research point in a different direction?
If you have already spent a lot of time trying to prove a family story and have been unsuccessful, I would suggest that you stop and try to find that ancestor through traditional genealogy research methods. If the story is correct, the facts will eventually prove it.