Was Great Grandpa's Name Changed at Ellis Island?


"My great-grandpa's name was changed at Ellis Island!" How often have we genealogists heard this statement? Sadly, this is a commonly held misconception. There is not one shred of evidence to support the claim that officials changed the names of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

Officials not only did not have the time to start assigning new names to incoming passengers they didn't have the authority to do so. 

Check how many ships were arriving daily and how many passengers on average were on each one, then think about the lineups of immigrants waiting to be cleared. Yes, it’s about the math, it’s about the sheer numbers of immigrants arriving in any one day, month or year. There was no time for officials to do more than process each immigrant as quickly as possible.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Ellis Island Arrivals. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Sometimes an arriving immigrant used an incorrect name such as the surname of a stepfather rather than the biological father, or a name the family had adopted for other reasons. It is also important to remember that names of passengers were taken at the port of departure. These were entered on the ship’s manifest (which we commonly refer to as a passenger list). How the name was entered when the immigrant left their country is how the name was received at the incoming arrival port.

Sometimes an immigrant deliberately falsified their name and arrived under the name of someone else. Often these falsified arrival names were changed by the immigrants themselves later in life, such as when they applied for naturalization papers, or some form of pension, or they wanted to vote in elections.

If an immigrant's new name did not match that shown on their official immigration record such as a ship's passenger list, he or she might face difficulties voting, in legal proceedings, or naturalization.

One of the most common reason that an ancestor's name on the manifest does not match the surname your father and grandfather have used, is that it was a name unfamiliar to English speaking clerks, and was entered phonetically in other documents, such as census records. For example the surname Przybyszewskl is not only challenging for North Americans to spell, but also to pronounce. It can easily be incorrectly recorded and eventually may become the standard and new name.

Sometimes an immigrant chose to "Americanize" their surname themselves and simply began using a new name a year or so after settling in America. Americanizing a surname usually meant making it more familiar to English speakers and spellers. Many of these Americanized names were simply shortened from their original version, for example Kohnovalsky could become Cohn.

First names can also be inadvertently or intentionally changed by the immigrant himself or by a clerk recording the name phonetically. My husband’s Belgium born great grandfather’s name was Archie. Or so we thought. But baptism records in Belgium proved it was Achilles, which is pronounced Aw-shee. That sounds like Archie and so he became Archie to his friends in his new land of Canada.

Names in other countries and non-English languages are often changed to their English equivalent. My sister’s father-in-law was baptised as Waclaw in Poland. He is found under that name on his 1927 passenger list. But one year later he was recorded under the English equivalent of Walter as he crossed the border from America to Canada.

Another reason why an immigrant’s name can be different than his birth name is when a nickname was the name given by the immigrant himself. My grandmother’s original legal name was Ruth, but her family called her Dolly. She gave that name on official records but it was her decision, and was not arbitrarily assigned to her by immigration officials. My husband’s grandfather was Leon Thomas but he was always called Charlie and was the name he used on all official documents.

Below are some sample letters representing typical cases of immigrants who made their own decisions to change their surnames.

How Diamond became Cohen
How Kohnovalsky became Cohn
How Bahash became Amber
How Shukowsky became Zakotsky
How Asszony became Miazaroz
 An excellent article on this topic called "American Names / Declaring Independence" can be found at Immigrant Name Changes



Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

Adding Historical Context to Your Ancestor's Life

Nothing hits me in the gut more than knowing that a direct ancestor of mine spearheaded an Indian massacre. In January 1863, Colonel Patrick E. Connor and his regiment wreaked havoc at Bear Creek in southeastern Idaho, resulting in hundreds of casualties for the Shoshoni Indian Tribe and their families. Being descended from a decorated war hero, to whom I owe my middle name, does not generate the feelings of pride or excitement it once did. However, the relationship of Americans and indigenous tribes was complex to say the least. Without disregarding the atrocities committed by General Connor, Americans settling out west were victims of raids and brutality by the Western tribes as well. This article is not meant to debate the ethics of one side against the other, but rather to briefly demonstrate how research, thus adding historical context, gives us a fuller understanding of our ancestor’s lives and their actions.

Whether we're dealing with the more light-hearted fare of day-to-day life or events that taint our family history, adding historical context is an important process to bring us closer to our ancestors. The world of genealogy is catching on to this with great interest; more and more researchers are looking for ways to add “meat on the bones” and to bring to light the time-period of their ancestors and what their experiences were like. When we research the history around our ancestors, they become more than names on a branch, but people with a story to tell, that can captivate you, your family, and future generations. My experience in genealogy has proven repeatedly, that our history textbooks from grade school overlooked the amazing history retold through the stories of everyday people.

Image source: Library of Congress

We often find clues in our sources that probe us to ask, “Why did they do that?” or “Why did this happen to them?” At our disposal are voluminous resources that we can use to answer, or at least come closer to answering, these questions.


Newspapers are a great primary source for investigating historical events and they help to demonstrate the character of a particular community. Not only do they provide primary accounts of important moments in our ancestors’ lives, but they also capture the opinions and sentiments your ancestor may have held towards particular social issues. The first place I’d look for links to online newspapers databases is FamilySearch Wiki’s article, "Digital Historical Newspapers” or Cyndi’s List. Also, visit Kenneth Mark's Ancestor Hunt website which provides tremendous resources for newspaper research. There are also over 15 "always free" classes on newspaper research by Tom Kemp inn the Legacy Family Tree Webinars library.


A lot of great study has been devoted to understanding life at the workplace. Try researching the history of a specific job like coal miner or a particular company, i.e. the Boston & Maine Railroad Company, to find collections and sources that provide insight into the day-to-day life of your ancestor at work.


If your ancestor was a veteran, there are abundant websites and records documenting the activities of your ancestor’s company or regiment to help better understand their experience on the battlefield. I would start by searching your ancestor’s regiment or company because there is a very high chance somebody created a webpage on it, or you can go deeper using records of the National Archives. The document below shows Colonel Connor’s own account of the Massacre at Bear Creek, extracted from a large series of reports and correspondence published as The War of the Rebellion.




29 Jan 1863 – Engagement on the Bear River, Utah Ter. [1]   
29 Jan 1863 – Engagement on the Bear River, Utah Ter. [1]



Accessing the articles written by scholars and historians is a great way to add historical context. Less focused on genealogical research, scholarly articles can provide fuller understanding on a variety of historical subjects, i.e. the witchcraft hysteria in New England or social conditions of Irish-Americans in urban communities. These academics have gone to great lengths to pull together a variety of primary and secondary sources to give a more balanced view of history. Pertinent databases include JSTOR, Google Scholar, and Academic Search Complete by EBSCOhost. Some are free, while others require subscription access. Check your local library or university to inquire about what research databases are available within their network.


Even if family treasures like diaries and letters do not exist in your family, consider reading those of other families that relate to your research. The farther back in time we are researching, the more important these primary sources become in determining what might have been our ancestor’s thoughts, feelings, and aspirations in their day to day lives. Many have been published and edited with commentary, like The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland or One Colonial Women’s World: The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit, while others still lie in the stacks of archives. To track down some of these, try the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections or ArchiveGrid by WorldCat. These are excellent catalogs to begin archival research.


Add some fun to your family history journey and enjoy a visit to a museum! Particularly in ones that offer living history settings, like Plimoth Plantation, the past surely does come alive. Museum guides, re-enactors, and collections on display provide a window into life as it once was. Something about experiencing history first hand cannot be recreated in any type of source or record. As a bonus, visiting a museum is a great field trip for the whole family to take, so everyone can better understand and appreciate the lives of our ancestors, but most importantly, all of the great work you as genealogists do in preserving the legacy!

Hear are a few examples of digital libraries and archives that could help with providing historical context, along with resources that provide links to some of these repositories.

"American Memory.Library of Congress.

Colonial North American Project.Harvard University Library.

Documenting the American South.University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Digital Collections.Library of Congress.

Nancy E. Loe. “States on Sunday Archives.” Sassy Jane Genealogy. A growing collection of free digital archives by State.

Primary Source Sets.” Digital Public Library of America.

Staff Writers. “250 Plus Killer Digital Libraries and Archives.Open Education Database (oedb.org), posted 25 Mar 2013.


[1] United States. War Dept; et.al. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. (Washington, D.C.: Govt. Printing Office, 1900), 187.


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).

Using Research Logs Effectively In Genealogy

Genealogy is a growth process like any other pursuit or passion. The more I got into genealogy and researching my family tree, the more of a headache it became to remember all the information and work I did. Research logs saved the day for me, because I now had an effective method for keeping track of all my searches. I always considered myself a good note-taker during school. But research logs, to me, go a step beyond just notes. They are documents of every activity we undertake in a research project about our ancestors. This was something I had to adapt as part of my personal growth as a genealogist.

 Why does it matter to be so meticulous? Because it saves you time!


Logging all of your searches and activities provides a great reference. Without a log of what websites and sources you’ve already checked, you might end up wasting time repeating searches. It’s easy for researchers to jump from one website to another, because we are in the zone of finding our ancestor. But consider slowing down a little bit and logging your searches. You might think you’ll remember, but these little details very rarely stay in our long-term memory and in a very short amount of time, we might forget!

When we take our work to a professional for a consultation, they often ask, “What have you checked already?" The researcher might say, “I’ve checked everything!,” but how are you able to back this up without evidence of the searches you’ve undertaken. While those involved in genealogy as a business consider research logs a necessity for client reports, those who are undertaking genealogy for personal enrichment should consider using the same tool. It will make you a better researcher and help with your desired genealogy goals. Logging the details of a particular search can help to easily demonstrate how you got that answer. What exactly did you enter into the search fields? Did you try a wildcard search or variation of the surname? These details really do matter.

Building and Using A Research Log

Creating a log is quite easy and you can create a template that works for you. My particular template was designed in Microsoft Word, which can be designed by clicking on the “Insert” Menu and scrolling down to “Table.” Alternatively, logging your research in a spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel works just as well.

I’ve seen all different kinds of logs, some with more columns for information than others, but what remains essential for a log is capturing all the details of a search. In my template, I have rows on the top to include the surname, residences, and my desired objective. The objective is important, because we might be pursuing specific research questions on an ancestor or family. In my personal template, I included five columns for recording details of a search: 

  • Date

  • Repository or Website
  • Title of Collection
  • Keyword Search
  • Results

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 2.49.26 PM
The date is important to log, especially for online research. Many times, a domain for a private family tree website will expire and the link could be broken when we access it at a later date.

The next column is where I write in the name of the website or database I am utilizing, or if I am are working on-site at the archives, the name of that facility. "Title of Collection" would be the name of the source and for example, if I’m trying a search from the homepage of Ancestry or Family Search, I would write in “main search engine.”

The most important columns are the next two because they capture the details of what I’m looking for and how I found or didn’t find the desire information. "Keyword Search" is where I would write in the names I’m looking for, but if there are multiple search fields for vitals, parents names, residences, etc., I am sure to include those details as well. Every site responds differently to the characters we type in or if we are using a search trick like the wildcard or search tools in Google.

In the results column, I indicate whether the search was negative or “No Matches.” When searching online, I like to include the number of results I get back with every search. It’s important data to record because I might be searching too broad or too narrow. It also might provide demographic information like how many families or individuals with that name are living in a particular jurisdiction. When we do get positive results, this is where I enter in my reference to that particular source, so I can build citations more easily. Once again, this saves considerable time. When we are creating our citation, we don’t have to backtrack to every website because it’s all right there in the research logs.

If electronic research logs are your preference, you can print blank research plan right from within the Legacy Family Tree software.

To print a Blank Research Log:

1. Choose Research Log from the Reports tab of the Ribbon bar.

2. Click either Print or Preview to view the report.

 You can also extend your use of research logs by watching the Legacy Family Tree webinar "Plan Your Way to Research Success!"

You might find that meticulously logging all this data is a bit obsessive and doesn’t apply to you necessarily. But I think we can all relate to wanting to save time and work more efficiently on our family trees, so consider using a research log as a tool for your genealogical pursuits. I’ve provided some other examples that are posted online and made available for re-use:


G. David Dilts. "Research Logs." FamilySearch Wiki, last modified 24 Feb 2016.  

Colleen Greene. "Evernote for Genealogy: Research Logs and Note Links." Posted 29 Jan 2014.

"Research Trackers and Organizers.FamilyTree Magazine. 




Jake Fletcher is a genealogist, lecturer, and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).

How Mobile Were Our Ancestors?

How Mobile Were Our Ancestors Library of Congress image

Do you think your ancestors stayed in one place? Guess again! A prevalent myth among genealogists is that our ancestors could not, and did not, travel freely.

The truth is that many of our ancestors traveled frequently. They were much more mobile than most of us realize. When you look across the centuries, you can find examples of our ancestors’ frequent trips in times when travel was difficult, slow, and often expensive.

While it may be true that our immigrant ancestors returned home more frequently in later centuries, after ships’ travel became faster, easier, and less expensive, we should not assume this is the case. I have found many 17th century immigrant ancestors who frequently sailed back and forth from their new land to their homeland.

17th Century Travel

Even though they could not simply hop on an airplane as we do, many of our 17th century ancestors didn’t hesitate to make the long journey home many times. I suppose it should not be surprising when we consider the fact that these early pioneers were willing to leave friends and family to settle in an unknown wilderness.

Tall Ships
Tall Ships

Many early settlers in the New World of North America travelled frequently back to Europe. Several of my Dutch ancestors who settled in New Netherland (present day New York) as early as 1630 returned to Holland on more than one occassion. Often they sailed back to settle wills or collect an inheritance from a family member. Sometimes they took a ship back to visit relatives or attend a wedding, just as we do today. Legal matters were also of importance and those were often the reason for a brief visit to their homeland.

Of course there were also individuals who might not be permanent settlers, but who travelled frequently due to the nature of their occupations. Soldiers, beaurocrats, sailors, and those with business interests were often among those non-settlers who made frequent trips from their homeland.

19th Century Travel

Many years ago I had the privilege of reading original letters sent in 1839 and 1847 from my great-great-grandfather to his mother in Illinois. In one letter he tells her how much he misses her and his siblings, and how he plans to come for a visit in the fall. 

1847 Letter Levi Excerpt
Excerpt from 1847 letter Levi Peer to Elizabeth Peer
Original letter owned by Marsha Peer (Swanson) Lindstrom

 I remember how surprised I was when I read that my ancestor lived in the wilds of what is now Ontario, which then was a newly settled country, and little more than a wilderness. There were very few roads, and no reliable method of ground transportation other than horse and wagon, only a horse, or by foot. From his home in Ontario it was over 500 miles to his mother’s home in Illinois.

Since great-great grandpa did not own a horse, it is likely that he planned on hitching a ride in a wagon going from his home to a larger center such as York (now Toronto) or Hamilton.

From there he could have taken a boat across Lake Ontario and then to Buffalo, but it is more likely he took a wagon directly to Buffalo. Once in Buffalo a boat would have taken him along the shores of Lake Erie, or he could have continued his journey by wagon. I’m quite sure he would have walked for much of the journey. At some point he likely took a raft down the Ohio River to his mother’s home in Illinois. To me that seems like an arduous journey and not one I would want to take, but the mention of his plans in his letter was casual as if it were not an unusual thing to do.

Lack of work also took our ancestors far from home. If a man could not find a job to support his family, there was nothing stopping him from travelling long distances if he heard that jobs were available elswhere. One of my Irish ancestors who left Ireland during the Famine Years to settle in Canada, left Canada for work in Colorado. His family stayed behind in their new home and he spent several years working far from home. It appears from records that he returned for visits now and again.

With the explosive expansion of the railroads in the second half of the 19th century, people became more mobile than ever. Suddenly travel was easy and inexpensive, and people from many walks of life were now able to travel for work as well as for pleasure.

Passengers waiting for the Illinois Central Railroad train ca 1882  Credit: Library of Congress
Passengers waiting for the Illinois Central Railroad train ca 1882
Photo credit: Library of Congress

We should remember that our ancestors were no different than we are. They laughed, loved, cried, celebrated success, mourned over loss and failure, and missed family far away. There are numerous reasons they travelled, and we should always keep in mind that they were not stuck in one place – they travelled as needed, and when they wanted to.

What tales do you have of your traveling ancestors?


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.



Why Do We Do Genealogy?

A friend asked an interesting question. "Why do you do genealogy?" The answer should be simple. One would think it would be something along the lines of:

"I do genealogy because I want to know who my ancestors were."

Why do we do Genealogy?
But guess what? Like most questions in life, the answer is not that simple. There are a myriad of reasons why we delve into genealogy research. Wanting to find out who our ancestors were is just the tip of the genealogy iceberg.

The reasons I currently "do genealogy" are not the same reasons I had twenty or thirty years ago. When I began my genealogy quest it was because my father had repeatedly expressed curiousity about our Irish origins. He died when I was 14 years old, and after his death I vowed to find out about our Irish McGinnis ancestors.

So my answer to that question, had it been asked those many years ago, would have been. "I do genealogy because I want to remember and honour my father."

It was a specific reason, very narrow in scope, but it sparked a broader interest in history. In fact, that is not my main reason anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. I've grown. Genealogy has been a journey, and as on any journey, my needs and desires and goals along the way have changed.

For example I’m extremely curious. Some would say nosy. I think most of us who love genealogy would make great detectives. My personality is such that I can't let a mystery lie without digging into it. I need to find answers.

So my current answer to the original question of why I do genealogy is now much more complex.

"I do genealogy for many reasons. One is my curiousity about my ancestors - who were they, what were they like, what experiences did they live through. My love of history is part of the reason I do genealogy. My desire to solve mysteries is a huge part of my passion for genealogy. And I do genealogy because I want my children and grandchildren to know and recognize the individuals over the centuries whose lives helped make us who we are today."

Born Died written in sand

Genealogy isn't a pursuit well suited for those who require instant gratification. It's a long-term process and to those who are not like-minded it seems an incomprehensible pursuit. I've spent more hours scrolling through microfilm searching for that one entry with an ancestor's name, then I care to remember. Many people would consider those wasted hours. I don't.

Some of my family are not the least bit interested in our ancestors. Some are interested to a degree. Tell them stories of the more interesting or outrageous ancestors such as our daredevil Peer ancestor who walked Niagara Falls on a tightrope and they listen. Tell them about great great grandpa, the farmer in England, and their eyes glaze over. 

I once had a friend say to me "But why do you care? They're all dead!" I care because they made me who I am. Without them I would not be here. They are part of me, part of my genetic makeup. They also deserve to be remembered, and to continue to be part of our lives. Our children and grandchildren need to hear about those ancestors. They need to speak of them to their children, and to carry on the stories they hear from me.

Some of my relatives are not interested in my treasured photos of our ancestors. To me those are the icing on the cake! Photos make my ancestor come alive. One of my relatives told me she wasn't interested in seeing a photo of our 2nd great-grandfather. Why wasn't she interested? Because, she said "Why do I care what he looked like? I never knew him."

Why do we do genealogy?
That absolute lack of curiousity is incomprehensible to me, just as my desire to know more is incomprehensible to her. A photo allows us to know our ancestors. With a photo in my hand I can study a face then ponder over whether or not great-grandma's nose is just like my granddaughter’s.  I can visualize the ancestors in those photos living their daily lives, just as we do today. With a photo I feel a connection I can’t quite feel with only a name and a date.

I’ve been asked when my research will be done. Many family members want to know why I am still looking when I know the names of ancestors back several generations. Non-genealogists rarely understand that genealogists want to find as many details and as much information about each ancestor as they possibly can.

Even though my answer to the original question is complex and multi-faceted, I can sum my reasons up in one sentence:

Without the past there is no present, nor can we build a future.

How would you answer my friend's question, "Why do you do genealogy?"


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.


Researching Female Ancestors in NARA's Military Records

We will never know whether U.S. Naval Reserve Yeowoman Mary Agnes Monahan, killed tragically in an auto accident on 5 Sep 1918, saw herself as a vanguard of progressing women’s equality in the United States.[1] Regardless, she and the handful of women who enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve during WWI would change American military culture permanently, forcing the government to officially recognize women as able to serve in the Armed Forces.

Rear Adm. Victor Blue (left center) chief of the Bureau of Navigation, inspects yeomen (F) on the grounds of the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C., in 1918. (19-11386). Source:Library of Congress

Americans traditionally think of men running the government and holding civic positions, as well as putting their lives on the line for freedom. As highlighted here, pertinent collections at the National Archives can provide more information about your female ancestor and how she contributed to the war effort.

Veteran’s Pensions

Many women stepped up to the plate and took care of family affairs while their husbands were on active duty. Ironically, the first NARA collection I want to highlight isn’t service records of female ancestors, but rather documentation related to female ancestors in pension records for U.S. Veterans.

Acts authorized by Congress allowed for soldiers to receive pensions based on certain eligibility requirements. If the veteran were to pass away, his widow could reapply for a pension. In her dispositions, the widow would provide important information useful to genealogists such as her maiden name, residence, marriage date and place to deceased husband, and the date/place of her husband’s death.

Fold3.com has digitized copies for Pensions and Bounty Land Applications from the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. While Fold3 also allows you to search pension index cards for later conflicts, copies of the full pension files for veterans of the Early Indian & Mexican-American war up to 1912 are only available at Archives I in Washington. Copies of pension files can be requested from the National Archives using the NATF Form 85.

Military Nurses, Matrons, and Hospital Attendants

The level of atrocity and casualties on Civil War battlefronts warranted a great need for female nurses. Individuals researching female ancestors that were hospital attendants, matrons, and nurses during the Civil War, can consult Record Group 112, Records of the Surgeon General (Army). This record group contains a series of service cards for females enlisted at hospital stations to take care of the wounded and dying. The cards are arranged alphabetically by surname and include information on place and dates of employment, salary, and the capacity in which hired.

Service cards, returns, and appointments of nurses in the Spanish-American War, 1898-1939 can be found in Record Group 112. RG 112 also holds papers of hospital stewards, 1862-93, arranged alphabetically by the name of the steward. These papers contain orders, correspondence, discharges, and personal reports of the stewards. Additional information about women serving in medical capacities for the military can also be found in Record Group 94, Records of the Office of the Adjutant General.

Women in the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. 


Females who enlisted in the U.S. Military

Before WWI, the only women enlisted in the U.S. Military had to disguise themselves as men. Under the Naval Act of 1916, females found a legal loophole in which they could enlist in the military, because there was no clause barring females from enrolling in U.S. Navy Reserve.In 1917, the Bureau of Marine Inspection & Navigation allowed for the inclusion of personnel who could serve in a non-combative capacity, such as “radio operators, stenographers, nurses... and many other capacities in the industrial line.”[2] 

Several hundred women, such as Mary Agnes Monahan, became yeowomen and were stationed at U.S. Naval Bases during the WWI. From this point forward, attitudes towards women’s involvement in the military changed greatly. During WWII, over 350,000 women served in the U.S. Armed Forces in five different capacities:

Women Army Auxillary Corps (WAC)

Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP)

Women Accepted For Volunteer Military Services (WAVES)

Women who service in the Marines and Coast Guard (SPARS)

Army and Navy Cadet Nursing Corps

A great deal of information related to a female service member’s occupational history is held in their Official Military Personnel File (OMPF). Copies of OMPFs can be ordered from the National Personnel Records Center using the Standard Form 180. Additional history about a veteran’s involvement in the military can be gleaned from online collections and files on Ancestry.com and Fold3.com. For information on women serving in the Cadet Nursing Corps consult, WWII Cadet Nursing Corps Card Files, available at Ancestry and Fold3.com. These cards provide the nurse’s name, location and length of service.

Obtaining a Civilian Personnel File

Historically, the U.S. Government’s work force is one dominated by men, but overtime, thanks to the women who were courageous pioneers not deterred by the status quo, they made their way into jobs traditionally reserved for men. The National Archives holds records documenting the appointment and service of federal government employees who served in military affiliated government bureaus. If you are research a federal employee, the first important step is for you to do some personal research to help narrow in on what department she served under and her years of service.

The National Archives holds Official Personnel Folders for Civilian Government Employees from 1850 to 1951. Requests for these files can be made by writing to National Archives and must include some basic information for an archivist to locate the file.[3]

Official Personnel Folders after 1951 are classified as “Federal Records” and not “Archival”, thus only certain information may be available to third party researchers. Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), only the former employee or a third party research that receives authorization from the former employee can access the full contents of the file.[4]

 Do you have any women in your family who served in the military?


[1] “Seamen and Yeowomen Killed in Auto Accident.” The Official U.S. Bulletin, Tuesday, 10 Sep 1918, page 14. Published in Official U.S. Bulletin, Issues 402-451 (Washington, D.C.: Committee on Public Information, 1918.): accessed at Google Books.

[2] Nathaniel Patch, “The Story of the Female Yeomen during the First World War.” Prologue (Fall 2006), Vol.38, no.3: accessed at http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2006/fall/yeoman-f.html

[3] National Archives at St. Louis, “Official Personnel Folders (OPF), Archival Holdings and Access, ca. 1850-1951.” http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/civilian-personnel-archival/index.html

[4] National Archives at St. Louis. “Official Personnel Folders (OPF), Federal (non-archival) Holdings and Access.”: accessed at http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/civilian-personnel/index.html


Further Reading & Resources:

Archives Library Information Center. “Women.”: accessed at http://www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/womens-history.html. This is a great list of resources for learning more about the history of Women in the United States.

National Archives at St. Louis. “ “Official Personnel Folder (OPF), Archival Holdings and Access.”: accessed at http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/civilian-personnel-archival/official-personnel-folders-archival-holdings-table.html

National Archives Trust Fund Board. Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1985.) See chapter 4, "Records of the Regular Army," Chapter 7, “Pension Records” and chapter 14, “Records of Civilian Government Employees.”

U.S. Naval War College - Naval Historical Collection. “Women in World War II Oral Histories.”: accessed at https://usnwcarchive.org/items/browse?collection=25

Women in Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc. “History & Collections - Welcome.”: accessed at http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/h&cwelcome.html


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist, lecturer, and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).



Maritime Occupations in the US Federal Census

How would you react if you discovered your ancestor's occupation was listed as "wharf rat?"In the 1880 US Census, 19 year old Major Thomas living in Mobile, Alabama is called just that! In that particular schedule, young Major was a prisoner in the Mobile County Jail.[1] Without knowing that wharf rat is a term for someone who loads/unloads cargo off ships, you might have come to a different conclusion.


Back in June, I wrote about records specific for researching seafaring ancestors in the United States. However, clues about their occupation can be gleaned from standard genealogical sources that are not specific to maritime life. When searching for sailors, captains, privateers, etc. it's always good to look at the standard genealogical sources before delving into shipping records because researchers more often than not need certain details to find a record of their ancestor on a maritime voyage.

Since 1850, the United States Census has instructed enumerators to note the individual’s occupation, thus these records are direct accounts of what they did for work. I have been curious, though, as to the diversity of maritime occupations in U.S. Census Records because sometimes the occupations they list are unfamiliar. What I also found unusual in learning about maritime trades is how descriptions of occupations are interchanged frequently. For example, a person who was a seaman, sailor, seafarer or a mariner essentially meant the same thing.

As an example, I searched the 1880 US Federal Census on Ancestry.com. I used Ancestry because the census search form allows you to search by occupation-only if desired. Below are examples of occupations for seafaring ancestors found in the U.S. Census:

  • Boatswain’s/Bosun’s Mate - Boatswain's mates are senior members of a ship’s crew. They supervise members of the ship’s department related to the hull and deck.

  • Customs Collector - Head officer at the customs house. Administered maritime and navigation laws, trade regulations, and protection of American seamen.

  • Inspector of Customs - There was no official title of inspector in the U.S. Customs Service, so this occupation could encompass the other positions of surveyor, weigher, and gauger. These positions were responsible for the collection of duties, assessment of cargo, and confiscation of illegal goods.

  • Longshoreman - A manual laborer who loaded and unloaded cargo off ships. Other names for this occupation that are recorded in the U.S. Census are dock loader, stevedore, lumper, and wharf rat.

  • Master Mariner - A master mariner is not the captain of the ship, but rather he is second in command and the only one eligible to command the ship in the event the captain is unable to.

  • Oiler - A member of the ship’s engine department.

  • Pilot - Pilots were instructed to navigate other ships through hazardous waters outside the port of arrival. They were required to have a substantial knowledge of waterways, inlets, and other landmarks surrounding a particular port.

  • Ship Commercial Agent - Agents for shipping companies consigned or invested in commercial ships and their cargo as insurance for any loss that would be incurred during the voyage.

  • Ship Caulker - Caulkers worked with shipbuilders; they were specifically assigned to making the hull of a ship watertight.

  • Ship Master - The captain of the ship, but could also be the ship’s owner.

  • Shipwright - A builder and repairer of ships. Other terms for this occupation include shipbuilder, ship carpenter, and ship joiner.

Heading farther back in time and across the pond, there are even more peculiar names for occupations that originate in England. While perusing Rodney Hall’s “Index of Old Occupations,” I found some peculiar job titles held by persons in the maritime world. Shipwrights or ship builders used to be called a chippy. A jerquer was an officer at the customs house who searched ships, while a coast waiter surveyed arriving ships and their cargo. How about aquarius ewar, which happens to be a waterman or riverman, someone who ferried passengers across rivers and through tributaries.[2]

Image source: Library of Congress

Many of these terms have faded with history and are no longer in use. The website for the U.S. Census Bureau provides an index for occupations and industry used in the 2010 Census, which provides how various titles for seafarers are described today.[3] It is important for genealogists to investigate occupation titles when we are unsure or they are unfamiliar. In heavily stratified industries such as maritime, these occupations take on very specific roles and we can learn a lot about their day-to-day tasks at sea or in the harbor. Consider the fact also that your ancestor may have to find work elsewhere when the shipping industry was in a slump or on the decline. In 1860, my 3x great-grandfather Owen O’Neill stated his occupation title as sailor[4], but by 1870 he was working as a farmer.[5]

Have these or other peculiar occupation titles appeared in your own research? What sources did you utilize to find out more about their line of work? Learning about your ancestor’s job is a great way to bring his or her story to life.



[1] 1880 US Federal Census, Mobile, Mobile County, Alabama, population schedule, 7th ward, enumeration district (ED) 142, page no. 19, dwelling 112, line 30, Major Thomas; Accessed on Ancestry.com (online database: 29 Jan 2016), image 19 of 66; citing NARA microfilm publication T9.

[2] Rodney Hall, “Hall Genealogy Website – Old Occupation Names,” last updated 22 Mar 2015. http://rmhh.co.uk/occup/index.html: accessed 6 Feb 2016.

[3] United States Census Bureau, “Industry and Occupation - Indexes,” https://www.census.gov/people/io/methodology/indexes.html: accessed 6 Feb 2016.

[4] 1860 US Federal Census, San Mateo County, California, population schedule, Belmont post office (Township no.3), p. 39, Eugine [Owen] O’Neill; NARA Publication M653, roll 65.

[5] 1870 US Federal Census, San Mateo County, California, population schedule, Belmont, p.1, dwelling 9, family no. 12, Owen O’Neill; NARA Publication M593, FHL microfilm 545,586.


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).

Starting Your Tennessee Genealogy Research

If you research North Carolina or Virginia ancestors, you will not find it unusual to track your ancestors to Tennessee.  Do you know the best resources and sites to research your Tennessee ancestors?

Starting Your Tennessee Genealogy Research
Original Photo Source: Library of Congress


First Things First

Just as you would with any other new location you are researching, learn about the county and state where your ancestors lived. Research the county and state lines and any boundary changes that may have occurred during the pertinent time period. Refer to this interactive map of Tennessee’s evolving county borders.

TN Map 1826 LOC.gov
Source: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division


Tennessee State Library and Archives

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a natural place to start your Tennessee genealogy research. You will find a variety of resource guides and online digital collections. Examples include Searching for Your Ancestors at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, Early NC/Tennessee Land Grants, and African American Genealogical Resources.  Be sure and check the Family Bible project and the historic Tennessee map collection, too.  Take time to explore the Tennessee State Library and Archive’s website as you begin researching your Tennessee ancestors.

Another great resource for Tennessee residents is the genealogy tab at the  Tennessee Electronic Library.  You will need to provide Tennessee zip code and phone number to gain access.

Tennessee Records in the State Archives of North Carolina

Initially, part of today’s Tennessee’s eastern counties were part of North Carolina.  In 1784, North Carolina ceded part of their western lands to the federal government, but set aside land for land grants to Revolutionary War veterans. Land grants for these counties can be found in the State Archives of North Carolina. 

Once Tennessee became the 16th state, the county records for those previously North Carolina counties stayed with the county seats. A few early records for these counties were retained in North Carolina.  Refer to the Records relating to Tennessee in the North Carolina State Archives document for a listing of these records.

For a more detailed explanation of the formation of modern day Tennessee including the State of Franklin, go to the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Umbrella Rock - Lookout Mountain
Lookout Mountain, TN Source: Library of Congress


Tennessee Genealogy Databases around the Web

Sometimes in genealogy research, the researcher needs to think outside the box. In other words, get creative in the search for records and resources to further your research and break down those brick walls.   Examples of good resources for the Tennessee genealogist include:

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but a starting point for the researcher with Tennessee ancestors.

You can also start your Tennessee research by watching these webinars by J. Mark Lowe in the Legacy Family Tree Webinars library:

What are YOUR  favorite Tennessee genealogy resources? Tell us in the comments!

Lisa Lisson is a genealogist, blogger and Etsy-prenuer who writes about her never-ending pursuit of ancestors, the “how” of genealogy research and the importance of sharing genealogy research with our families. Specializing in North Carolina and southern Virginia research, she also provides genealogical research services to clients. In researching her own family history, Lisa discovered a passion for oral history and its role in genealogy research. You can find Lisa online at Lisa Lisson.com.




Oh Those Dit Names!

Oh those dit names

Have you experienced the problems genealogists can encounter when searching French ancestors who used dit names? A dit name is an alias or nickname, in essence a second surname, given to a family. This second surname can be used in place of the original surname or it can form a double surname. A dit name doesn't usually apply to one person, but to many members and generations of a family. Dit names are generally found in France and New France (present day Quebec) and can be very challenging for researchers.

The Dutch in New Netherland (present day New York) had something similar with their frequent use of nicknames to identify individuals. Those nicknames often became the established family surname after the English takeover and demand for standard surnames.

A dit name might be derived from any of the following:

* A nickname
* A location of origin
* A physical characteristic
* Land owned
* A name used in the Army
* The first and last name might be combined to form one name
* Various other reasons

For example I have an ancestor who settled in New France (present day Quebec) in the 1660s. His name was Simeon LeRoi.

 His baptismal surname was LeRoi. His dit name was Audy or Ody. In contemporary records we might find him as

* Simeon LeRoi dit Audy (or Ody)
* Simeon LeRoi
* Simeon Audy or Ody
* Simeon Audy (or Ody) dit LeRoi


LFT Dit Name LeRoy dit Ody 1670 copy
1670 Baptism. Translation of underlined portion “Jean, fils de Simeon le Roy dit Ody” Jean, son of Simeon LeRoy dit Ody” Image Source: Ancestry.com. Quebec, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968


Compounding the challenge of finding ancestors who used dit names we also have changes from French to English, or in the case of my LeRoi family, French to Dutch. The LeRoi aka LeRoy surname underwent great changes, becoming LeRoy dit Audy or Ody, Audy and Ody in New France (Quebec). Simeon’s son Jonar left Quebec for New York where his name became Jonas Larroway (with variant spellings). Other changes from French to English were LeRoy in the United States and Canada.

Some of Simeon's sons assumed the Audy dit name as a surname and there are Audy descendants today who are from Simeon LeRoi. Some descendants use the LeRoy surname.

So what is the diligent researcher to do when it comes to entering such a name in a genealogy database? It is considered good practice to choose one standard way of entering the surname. It is equally important to record the name exactly as it occurs in each document you find. Your notes section comes in handy for this. As an example, for my Simeon LeRoi dit Audy, I might opt to use the LeRoy variation but I will record each name as found in various records. If, for example, I find a record with him recorded as “Audy” I make note of that.

It is also a good idea to consult Jetté, René, and Micheline Lécuyer, Répertoire des noms de famille du Québec des origines à 1825. (Repertory of Family Names of Québec from the Beginning to 1825). Montréal, Québec, Canada: Institut Généalogique J.L. et Associés, 1988. This book consists of a list of dit names and if your ancestor is found, it will give you the standardized surname in use.

You can also check for your ancestor’s name at the American-French Genealogical Society website as it contains a very complete list of French-Canadian Surnames:Variants, Dit, Anglicizations, etc. When I look up my ancestor’s dit name of Audy, I find it listed with Roy, LeRoy and Ody

Another place to learn about dit names and to check for your ancestor’s name is at the Family Names and Nicknames in Colonial Quebec website.

If at any time during your research you encounter a stumbling block of an ancestor whose surname seems to disappear, consider the possibility that he may have a dit name.

It's a challenge to trace dit name ancestors but researchers need to proceed methodically and carefully. If you have a dit name ancestor in your lines, be sure you keep all possible name variations in mind such as dit names, accidental name changes, deliberate name changes, spelling variations, and phonetic misinterpretations.


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.






Why you may need to redo every online search you've ever done

 This one image is making me rethink every online search I've ever performed.


In her recent webinar, Read 'Em or Weep: Promise and Pitfalls in Newspaper OCR, Mary Roddy presented a convincing case of why we need to not just think of and use name variants (nicknames or common misspellings) in our searching, but to also carefully study the letter combinations and perform alternate searches based on the limitations of the optical character recognition (OCR) that was used in creating the index.

Now, in English.

OCR is technology used by companies to automatically index digitized documents, like newspapers. While very good, there are some limitations of using indexes that were created with OCR technology, and there are other related limitations that are not the fault of the technology at all. Regardless, the end result is that you might not find your ancestor in the index, even though they may be in the record.

Mary's example of searching for the surname of Roddy in an online Ohio newspaper collection found 7,148 entries. Had she stopped there, she would have missed 155 additional entries for her potential ancestors. This doesn't even count searching for surname variations like Rody, Roddie, Rodey, etc. When we understand some of the limitations of OCR technology, and some of the history of typesetting, we can adjust our search strategies and come up with the right combination of alternative letters and names to search for.

In the example below, the surname of Roddy is shown in the digital image of the newspaper. But searching for the surname of "Roddy" in the index did NOT locate this entry.


Using the techniques Mary explained in this webinar, she instead searched for "rodclv" and successfully located the record.


Are you now starting to think about your own ancestral surnames, like I am? Which of them have the potential to fail the OCR test and thus cause your search to come up empty?

After you come up with a list of alternate spellings for the surname, Mary suggests adding these to a spreadsheet.


If you use Legacy Family Tree, another way to keep track of these surname variations is to add a new unlinked person (Add > Add Unlinked) and give them the surname of "RODDY SURNAME". Then click on their AKA button and add every variation you can think of. Then, anytime you are searching for this surname, open up this person and you have easy access to their list.


With the tips Mary gives in this webinar, including her chart of "How letters might appear", this may be one of the most important classes you view this year. As it is one of our BONUS webinars, you'll need either a monthly or annual webinar membership to view it, or you can watch the brief preview. If you are a subscriber, click here to view the class.