Ancestry Blog » Research The official blog of Ancestry Sat, 25 Oct 2014 13:00:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Uncovering a Free Black Man’s Past: Buying a Slave to Unite His Family Sat, 25 Oct 2014 13:00:30 +0000 Read more]]> By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Anne Gillespie Mitchell, Genealogist

“My ancestor, Lewis Freeman, was a free Negro who lived in Chatham, North Carolina from at least 1800 until his death in 1845. I would like to know when he was born.” – Harold F.

Dear Harold,

When searching for family roots in the South, a researcher might assume his or her African American ancestors were slaves. While it is true that, by far, the overwhelming percentage of black people in the South were doomed to spend their entire lives in slavery prior to the Civil War, it is also true that a small percentage lived as free citizens. And some, like your ancestor, were even able to prosper.

In 1840, for example, five years before your ancestor died, there were a total of 319,599 free black people living in the United States, about 13.4 percent of the entire black population, as Ira Berlin writes in Slaves Without Masters. Of those, 170,728 lived in the North and 215,575 lived in the South. North Carolina was fourth in the South behind Maryland, Virginia, and Louisiana with a total of 22,732 free blacks, or about 8.5% of the state’s total black population. This makes sense, since the vast majority of free black people lived in the Upper South (174,357 in 1840 versus 41,218 in the Lower South in 1840).

Lewis Freeman was one of those free black citizens of North Carolina in 1840, which makes it more likely we’ll find an answer to your search to find his birthdate. Unfortunately, however, few records from Chatham County or the Pittsboro area from the early 1800s exist. In North Carolina, births and deaths were not recorded until after 1913, and marriages were often lost or not recorded regularly before 1868. So, as is the case for many who lived in the 1700s and early 1800s, no clues exist about Lewis Freeman’s age in vital records. Accordingly, to find the answer to your question, we had to search elsewhere.

Putting Down Roots in Pittsboro

Remarkably, your ancestor was a very successful early black settler in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Lewis was able to purchase at least 16 lots in town and 20 acres in surrounding Chatham County. We get a sense of his holdings from the will he wrote in January 1845 (and recorded in August of that same year). To his wife, Creecy, Lewis left their home and various lots in Pittsboro as well as 20 acres in surrounding Chatham County. His original house, located on Main Street in Pittsboro, was a typical one-room structure. Very few African Americans are able to identify the home their ancestor occupied before the Civil War, but you are among the fortunate ones! Although Lewis’s home has been modified over the years, enough of it has remained to earn a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in North Carolina.

Clearly, your ancestor accumulated an impressive real estate portfolio. Less clear is the source of Lewis’s wealth. The early census records list him as being employed in agriculture, but he may very well have been more than a farmer.

In addition, and we are sure that this will come as a surprise to you and your family: your ancestor, Lewis Freeman, a free black man, was himself a slave owner!

Family of Lewis Freeman

Amazingly, according to the 1820 census, which we found on, Lewis had two slaves living in his household: a male and a female, both under the age of 14.

Lewis Freeman_1

A detail from the 1820 U.S. Federal Census for Lewis Freeman and household at


Why, you might reasonably ask, would a free black man own slaves? We can’t know for sure in Lewis’s case, but they may have been family members that he bought in order to keep them in his family, and protect them from being owned by white masters. It wasn’t unheard of for black family members to be bought and kept as slaves by other family members in these years, since in many Southern states, freed slaves had to leave the state or face being arrested and sold back into slavery. In other words, it was a desperate, but clever, way to keep the family together.

While Freeman’s will refers only to his wife Creecy and does not mention any children or slaves, documentation for the National Register of Historic Places does mention a son named Waller. And Waller’s probate records from 1868 shed light on the matter:

That one Lewis Freeman a free man of color the father of the said Waller and Grandfather of the plaintiffs….purchased from one C J Williams of Chatham County, N.C. on the 11th day of May 1814 Maria the Mother of the said Waller and with who the said Lewis lived as man and wife up to the death of the said Maria; this purchase was after the birth of the said Waller and the said [bill] of Sale from the said Williams to the said Lewis is registered in the office of the Register of Chatham County….the said Waller was purchased by the late George E Badger and the said Geo[rge] E Badger afterwards to wit on the 6th day of October 1830 sold the said slave to his father the said Lewis.

What this means is Lewis purchased a woman named Maria, his first wife, from one man. Maria was his son’s mother. And then, after their son, Waller, was born, he purchased Waller from another man. That way, Lewis, a free black man, was able to live with his slave wife and child as a family. Seven years later, after Maria had died, Lewis made a remarkable decision: he decided to sell their surviving son to a man named R. Tucker, who took Waller to New York City in order to free him. We actually found the deed of manumission executed on October 4, 1837! So you descend from two generations of free people of color!  It couldn’t have been an easy decision, but it ensured that Lewis Freeman’s son would be a free man. Remaining in the South, Lewis married a woman named Creecy, who eventually inherited his estate.

Estimating Lewis Freeman’s Birth Year

We believe that we have found the approximate answer to your question in the last federal census taken before the outbreak of the Civil War. As shown in an excerpt from the 1860 census below, Waller Freeman, Lewis’s freed son, was recorded as 60 years old, meaning he was born around 1800.

Lewis Freeman_2

A detail from the 1860 U.S. Federal Census for Waller Freeman and household at

If Waller was born in 1800, and his father was at least 18 years old when Waller was born, then Lewis was born no later than 1782, which was a year before the American Revolution ended.

We can only give you an estimate of your ancestor’s age, because before 1850, exact ages were not given in the U.S. Federal Census. Only age ranges were noted. In the 1800 and 1810 U.S Federal Censuses in Chatham, Lewis Freeman was counted, meaning that he was free at least by the beginning of the nineteenth-century.  But, like other free people of color and slaves, no other data was listed in those two records. But the census records from 1820, 1830, and 1840, however, give us more information, thankfully. In those, Lewis was listed as head of household and, assuming he was the oldest male listed, we can make the following guesses about his birth year:

Lewis Freeman_3

Using the largest lower bound and the smallest upper bound (above), allows us to narrow the possible years of Lewis’ birth to between the years 1741 and 1775, which means he would have been between 70 and 104 when he died in 1845. Like many people who lived in the early 1800s and before, we may never know the exact year of Lewis Freeman’s birth.

Not every question we have about our ancestors can be answered; and sometimes when records exist, we still can’t answer every question exactly. But by digging for clues and analyzing them within the context of their times, we can begin to get a sense of the kind of person they were and how they lived their lives. In your case, we can begin to see how very complicated the life of a free person of color could be, and the extremely difficult choices that they had to make to protect the people they most loved. Your desire to find Lewis Freeman’s birth date enabled us to make three astonishing discoveries about your fascinating ancestor: first, we were able to uncover the extent of his considerable estate, indicating that he was certainly one of the most prosperous free people of color in his lifetime; second, we were able to unveil the complicated family structure he had to create as a “slaveowner” in order to live with his first wife Maria and their son Waller; and third, and most poignantly, we were able to discover the ingenious way that he invented to free his enslaved son. When death set his wife free from this earth, Lewis took pains to see that their son was set free from slavery in the South, by selling him to a friend who would free him in the North. Since it is highly unlikely that Waller would risk returning to a slave state and being illegally re-enslaved, it is highly likely that Lewis knew, by taking this decision, he would never see his son again. It would take a bloody civil war nearly 30 years later to relieve other black fathers in the South of that terrible burden.


Do you have a mystery in your own family tree?  Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr and his team of Ancestry experts your question at


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Emigration to and Within the United States in the 1800s Wed, 22 Oct 2014 19:47:29 +0000 Lou Szucs Read more]]> 20141022migrantsEach of us has been touched in some way by the experiences, choices and attitudes of our ancestors.  The decisions they were often forced to make during the great migrations of the 1800s radically changed our ancestors’ world – and ours.

1800-1900 – Unprecedented population growth in Europe along with social, political and religious conflict left millions without land or a means of support in the 19th century. Many moved to cities, other countries or across oceans in search of a better life.  Industrialization accelerated rapidly with manufacturing techniques. Improvements in turnpikes, canals, steam engines and railroads made it possible for made it possible to move from one place to another with more ease.

In the years just after the American Revolution, the westward migration of Americans intensified. In 1800, significant numbers of settlers were moving to Kentucky and Tennessee – the only two states west of the Appalachians at the time. Early in the century, as the states of Ohio, Louisiana, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi and Alabama opened up, they too became magnets for those hoping to find their fortunes and better lands to cultivate.

1803 – War between England and France resumed. As a result, transatlantic trade and emigration from continental Europe became practically impossible. Irish emigration was curtailed by the British Passenger Act, which limited the numbers to be carried by emigrant ships.

1803-1851 – When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, the door was opened for the government to move forward more aggressively with earlier attempts to relocate eastern tribes of Native Americans to lands beyond the Mississippi River. Although initially rejecting the forced moves, small groups of Native Americans left for the west in 1810 and again between 1817 and 1819. For the next several decades, Native Americans were moved out of areas where whites were settling.  In 1838, U.S. Army troops were ordered to round up as many Cherokees as possible and to march them over 800 miles across the plains and across the Mississippi to the Oklahoma Territory. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Cherokees died on what became known as the Trail of Tears. In 1851, the Indian Appropriations Act consolidated western tribes on reservations to enable the westward expansion of settlers and to open the way for the building of the transcontinental railroad.

1807-1808 – In 1807, the Congress of the United States passed the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves.  The federal law that stated that no new slaves were permitted to be imported took effect in 1808.

1812-1814 – The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States brought immigration to a halt until the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 that ended the war.

1815-1865 – The largest global migration of modern times began just after the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) and continued for the rest of the century.  The first great wave of emigration to the United States brought 5 million immigrants between 1815 and 1860.

1818-1861 – Liverpool became the most-used port of departure for British and Irish immigrants, as well as considerable numbers of Germans and other Europeans as the Black Ball Line sailing packets began regular Liverpool to New York service. Before the American Civil War (1861-1865), the vast majority of immigrants came from western and central Europe: Ireland, England, Wales, France, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and German-speaking areas.


Ship Europa (built 1848) voyaged from Liverpool to New York. From New York Port, Ship Images at Ancestry.

1819 – The first significant federal legislation was passed relating to immigration: Passenger lists were to be given to the collector of customs and immigration to the United States was to be reported on a regular basis.

1820 – The United States saw the arrival of 151,000 new immigrants.

1825 – Great Britain officially recognized the view that England was overpopulated and repealed laws prohibiting emigration.

1825 – The completion of the Erie Canal linked the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Erie and opened up a new era in transportation history. Completed by thousands of immigrant laborers, the waterway forged a new route to the interior of the country and made New York City the greatest port in the world.

1840 – The Cunard Line began passenger transportation between Europe and the United States, opening the steamship era.

1845 – The Native American party, precursor of the nativist and anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party, was founded.

1846 – Crop failures in Europe and mortgage foreclosures sent tens of thousands of dispossessed to the United States.

1846-47 – Irish of all classes immigrated to the United States as a result of the potato famine. The fares of many immigrants were paid for by landlords, the British government or the local Poor Law Union.

1848 – The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought an official end to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), was signed on February 2, 1848. Under the terms of the treaty, Mexico ceded to the United States Upper California and New Mexico. This was known as the Mexican Cession and included present-day Arizona and New Mexico and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Mexico relinquished all claims to Texas and recognized the Rio Grande as the  boundary with the United States.

1848 – Failure of German revolution resulted in the emigration of political refugees.

1849 – California Gold Rush drew migrants from across the United States and foreign countries.


1855 – Castle Garden immigration receiving station opened in New York City to accommodate mass immigration. Alien women married to U.S. citizens became U.S. citizens by law (the law was repealed in 1922).

1858 – A financial crisis in Sweden caused large-scale migration to the United States.

1860 – New York became “the largest Irish city in the world.” Of its 805,651 residents, 203,760 were Irish-born.

1861-1865 – The Civil War caused a significant drop in the number of foreigners entering the United States. Large numbers of immigrants served on both sides during the war.

1862 – The Homestead Act encouraged naturalization by granting citizens title to 160 acres, provided that the land was tilled for five years.


Homesteading Family. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

1864 – Congress centralized control of immigration with a commissioner under the Secretary of State. In an attempt to meet the labor crisis caused by the Civil War, Congress legalized the importation of contract laborers.

1875 – The first direct federal regulation of immigration was established by prohibiting entry of prostitutes and convicts. Residency permits were required of Asians.

1880 – The U.S. population was 50,155,783. More than 5.2 million immigrants entered the country between 1880 and 1890.

1882 – The Chinese Exclusion law was established, curbing Chinese immigration. A general immigration law of the same year excluded persons convicted of political offenses, “lunatics,” “idiots,” and persons likely to become public charges. A head tax of fifty cents was placed on each immigrant.  A sharp rise in Jewish emigration to the United States was prompted by the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Russia.

1883 – In an effort to alleviate a labor shortage caused by the freeing of the slaves, the Southern Immigration Association was founded to promote immigration to the South.

1885 – Contract laborers were denied admission to the United States by the Foran Act. However, skilled laborers, artists, actors, lecturers and domestic servants were not barred. Individuals in the United States were not to be prevented from assisting the immigration of relatives and personal friends.

1890 – New York City had the distinction of being home to as many Germans as Hamburg, Germany.

1891 – The Bureau of Immigration was established under the Treasury Department to federally administer all immigration laws (except the Chinese Exclusion Act). Classes of persons convicted of felonies or misdemeanors of moral turpitude and polygamists.  Pogroms in Russia caused large numbers of Jews to immigrate to the United States.

1892 – Ellis Island replaced Castle Garden as the New York reception center for immigrants.

1893 – Chinese legally in the United States were required to apply to collectors of internal revenue for certificates of residence or be removed.

1894 – The Immigration Restriction League was organized to lead the restriction movement for the next twenty-five years. The league emphasized the distinction between “old” (northern and western Europeans) and “new” (southern and eastern European) immigrants.

1894-96 – To escape massacres, Armenian Christians began immigrating to the United States.

1900 – The U.S. population was at 75,994,575. More than 3,687,000 immigrants were admitted in the previous ten years.

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Portrait Studios of Detroit’s Polonia: The Face of Polish Immigration Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:19:38 +0000 Read more]]>
Paul Pieronek Autoportrait

Paul Pieronek Autoportrait

By guest blogger Ceil Wendt Jensen

The once thriving Polish communities of metro Detroit — on the Eastside, Westside, and in Hamtramck — have dissipated into the suburbs; and the schools and parishes around which life in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries revolved, have shut their doors. We feel a sense of urgency to document and display this earlier way of life, while those who lived it can contribute to its legacy. Today’s older generations knew the immigrants and witnessed their assimilation into American life. The communities captured in the photos no longer exist; but families still have vibrant memories and stories of this era. This album illustrates and describes the work of major and minor photographers who serviced the community throughout the cycle of life, chronicling religious sacraments, academic pursuits, and the activities of ethnic organizations.The photos document the zenith of Polish immigration and communities, as well as an art form that reigned during the twentieth century. While the exhibit is built on the Polish experience, it transcends ethnic boundaries and touches all families, chronicling the assimilation into American life. Our partnership with the Hamtramck Historical Museum and the Clinton-Macomb Public Library is not by chance. These locations are areas that were cornerstones of Polonia or are their current residences. By collecting and displaying the exhibit in three locations, we maximize participation. It is purposeful that the Polish Mission spearheads this project.

Our history dates back to the very first Polish community in Detroit, centered around St. Albertus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the city of Detroit, having opened their doors in 1872. Located there, along with the parish and school, was our SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary; the Felician Sisters motherhouse and orphanage; and the Martin Kulwicki Funeral Home. The organizations, businesses, and practices of this early Polish settlement were soon replicated on Detroit’s East and West sides; and our archives hold photos documenting this history. The Polish Mission and the Hamtramck Historical Museum have become repositories for artifacts from this time period.

During the process of preparing for the exhibit, vestiges of this heritage which have been tucked away in boxes and closets have come to us for identification and digitization for posterity. The Polonica Americana Research Institute (PARI) will house and maintain this digital collection. It is our mission to preserve the past history of our community and make it accessible for future generations. This Portrait Studio project is a proactive approach to helping families identify and document their pictorial history.

The Poles in Detroit organized fraternal and religious organizations to support their fellow man. The Polish Mission collection holds many panoramic photos of society congresses and reunions held in support and celebration of their Polish heritage. Akin to studio photographs are the professional photos that ran in the metro Detroit papers, which were sometimes condescending, in contrast to what we see in these sophisticated images.

Charles Russell Baker, Detroit, MI

Charles Russell Baker, Detroit, MI

The first Polish immigrants to Detroit frequented the portrait studios established by photographers that included William J. Emhuff, Constantine Eisenhardt, Charles Russell Baker, and Carl Aller. Photographers Stanisław Piotrowski and Józef Sowiński, Polish immigrants from Prussia, came to Detroit in the early 1890s. Sowiński established himself in the heart of Detroit’s Polish community located at Can-field Avenue and St. Aubin Street. This positioned his studio in easy walking distance for the numerous Polish families in the area. In the following decades, other Polish immigrant photographers also developed thriving businesses not only in the heart of this same area; but, also, in the East and West side communities of the city.

The photographs were not only made for the immediate family living in Metro Detroit; but copies were exchanged with members still residing in Poland. The portrayed event, with its inscription on the back, served to chronicle the journey to become an American. Detroit studio photos have been rediscovered in Polish albums as families return to their ancestral villages in all areas of Poland. The four generation Daschke portrait, taken by Józef Sowiński circa 1902, was shared by Polish relatives in the summer of 2014. As we digitized the vintage photos, we asked patrons to label the family members portrayed. Often the portrait was unknown and we needed to use context clues to identify the studio and time period the portrait was created. This led us back to the neighborhood and the possible parish where the family lived and the event took place.

Example: Compare the valance with fringe in the upper left corner of the Daschke photo with the same feature displayed in the Pawlowski First Communion portrait. Note that the rug patterns match; and the basket displays a plaque with the year 1902. Research was undertaken using U.S. census records that show the two families lived around the corner from each other.

Polish Mission_1

Charles Daschke Family, circa 1902, Józef Sowiński, photographer, 376 Canfield Avenue in Detroit, Michigan (Diane Snellgrove Collection)

Photo Size and Card Support

Polish Mission_2

Pawlowski First Communion, 1902 (Marcia Olszewski Collection)

The earliest photos displayed in the exhibit are properly identified as Cabinet Cards. This style of photography was popular from the mid 1860s into the early 1910s. The photos by Lutge, Aller, and Eisenhardt fall into this category and measure 5 X 3 ½ inches. The name of the photographer usually is printed at the bottom of the card; and some carry decorative advertising on the back. Larger Cabinet Cards, 6 ½ X 4 ½ inches, are thin paper photos glued onto the cardboard backing. Photos by Józef Sowiński and Lityński Brothers can be identified by the large stiff backing. Composites created by Jan Mieczkowski are readily identifiable by the oval shape of the photos and the angled arrangements (pp. 39-41). He, as well as Sowiński and Paweł Pieronek, added hand drawn details to the tableau such as gymnastic equipment, flora, and fauna. Additionally, the mounts are often embossed or printed on the front with the name and address of the photographer. Studios such as Pieronek and Wojnicki Brothers offered photographic prints in a range of sizes and presented the image as a loose print in a paper folder that closed to protect the portrait; and could be unfolded to create an easel for display.

Background and Props

The background consisted of a range of surfaces from a plain wall to artistic paintings. Some of the photographers were also trained artists; and it is reflected in the subtle backdrops used in their studios. The elements of the background help us identify an unknown studio. Study the Ziawinski Brothers backdrop (p. 55) featuring a painted staircase. It centers some of the First Communion portraits, while it is positioned on the left or right of other compositions. Their studio also featured a range of props that are readily identified. Each First Communion photo features a basket with the current year displayed; and a crocheted table cloth under the candle stick and religious statue. The carpet also aids in identifying where the photo was taken. Small area rugs are featured in the late 1890s into the early 1900s (p. 49); while “wall to wall” carpeting was introduced by the 1920s forming a more unified flooring.

Anastasia Krogulski (ABT 1903)Posing Chairs and Studio Furniture

The individual wedding portraits by Ziawinski (p. 54) showcase the bridegrooms each seated in a grand carved chair. The chairs were not household furniture; but created for the studio. The posing chair, as they were called, were devices used to present the sitter in an agreeable position. Some studios like F. G. Poli (pictured right), used the chairs as a resting device. It allowed the subject’s dress and figure to be displayed. The chair from the studio of Robert Cylkowski (p. 13, center) shows not only the padded top to form an armrest; but also the adjustable elements with a knob to align the back of the chair to fit the height of the subject. Jakubowski offered an ornate pedestal for the graduate pictured on page 28.

Posing and Styling the Subject

Detroit newspapers ran stories on how to interact with the studio photographers. One Detroit Free Press article related an exchange between a woman and the photographer. The article entitled Sitting for a Picture: The Photographic Artist Has His Merry Moments was dated August 2, 1896 and read — A very plain little woman who sat for a picture was displeased with the negative. “What is wrong with it?”, asked the artist. “It does not do me justice,” she said emphatically. The photographer looked at the negative and then at the subject. “I don’t think it is justice you want at all,” he said. “It is mercy.”

Clients who wanted to avoid a similar situation were guided by the advice of Lillian Russell, the American actress and singer who offers this in a Detroit Free Press article entitled Look Pleasant Please! It was dated October 18, 1914 and states —“Look pleasant, please,” said the photographer to his “fair” sitter. Click! “It’s all over, ma’am. You may now resume your natural expression.” If your photographer says that to you, make up your mind that your negatives are going to be a sad disillusionment. Of course, if he is an up to date photographer, he will not say that to you, as it is the business of the up to date photographer to see to it that your expression is not unnatural. But, then, the best photographers cannot do this without your assistance. The truth of the matter is that you have as much to do with the success of your photographs as has the man behind the camera. Don’t blame the photographer entirely if your pictures are not good. The best photographer in the world cannot make your picture attractive without your cooperation. It pays to go to a good photographer because a good photographer can do much toward getting a natural expression and an “unposy” pose. Do not wear a hat when you have your picture taken or you’ll live to rue it. Don’t wear freak pins or ornaments in your hair. Later you’’ll regret it. The simpler the dress you are photographed in, the better you will like it a year from now. The head, neck, and shoulder photographs are far the most advisable, because they stand the test of time. Don’t go to the hairdresser and have your hair dressed in a way not typical of you. Wear your hair as simply and as naturally as you can, for the hair dress has everything to do with the picture. Unless your nose is a good shape don’t have a profile taken. Look pleasant, but don’t feel it necessary to look like a dental ad to get the pleasant effect.

As we worked with this collection of photographs, we were impressed by the craftsmanship and the artistic eye of our communities’ photographers. We think you will agree with us once you have viewed the exhibition and the images in this album.

The Exhibition

As we worked with this collection of photographs, we were impressed by the craftsmanship and the artistic eye of our communities’ photographers. We think you will agree with us once you have viewed the exhibition and the images in this album.

The campus exhibit will be open to the public throughout the month of October 3-29, 2014 — Galeria, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. each Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, & Friday. A series of complimentary lectures will be presented at 1 p.m.
October 22 — Writing Your Pictorial History
October 29 — Records Arising from Death

Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools
3535 Commerce Road
Orchard Lake, MI 48324
(248) 683-0323

Hamtramck Historical Museum (November 1-23, 2014)
9525 Joseph Campau
Hamtramck, Michigan
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday – Sunday.

Clinton-Macomb Public Library (January 5-30, 2015)
40900 Romeo Plank Road
Clinton Township, Michigan
During regular library hours

This is a guest post by Ceil Wendt Jensen, MA, author, educator, and researcher. She is founder and co-director of the Polonica Americana Research Institute, the Polish Mission’s genealogy center in Orchard Lake, Michigan. She has conducted research throughout the United States and in Poland at libraries, civil archives, diocesan archives, and local parishes. She is a nationally known presenter, and has authored four books: Detroit’s Polonia, Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery, Detroit’s Mount Olivet Cemetery; and Sto Lat: A Modern Guide to Polish Genealogy, and collaborated on Portrait Studios of Detroit’s Polonia: The Face of Polish Immigration, The History of the Polish Panorama and the DVD Our Polish Story. Ceil can be reached at and

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CNN Roots with John Berman: What’s in a name? Mon, 20 Oct 2014 21:36:51 +0000 Read more]]> John Berman remembers walking past a wall in the Boston Public Library that listed the names of famous philosophers throughout history. His father would point to Baruch Spinoza’s name and say, “We are related to him!” It was a strong statement given “Spinoza” is the middle name they both share, after John’s grandmother Grace Spinoza. In seeking to learn more about this name, and his possible connection to “the prince of philosophy,” John asked us to investigate.

When you are looking to discover something new in your family tree, the best place to start is with what you already know. We started with John’s 2nd great-grandfather Benjamin Spinoza, who was 17 years old when he, his mother and brother came to America in 1867, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. The family was originally from the Netherlands and had journeyed from Holland to Liverpool, and then sailed into New York. Before Ellis Island, immigrants entered the United States through Castle Garden, which is now part of Battery Park. The family settled in Boston, where John’s family has lived for almost 150 years. But what were their lives like before they came to America?

To make the research jump across the ocean, it’s important to know more than just the country of origin. The key to placing Benjamin in a specific city came from a surprising place: Massachusetts Mason Membership Cards, 1733-1990, which gave us his exact birthdate and birthplace. His Massachusetts Death Record provided the name of his father, Isaac Spinoza.

Benjamin Spinoza’s Massachusetts Mason Membership Card

Benjamin Spinoza’s Massachusetts Mason Membership Card

In many cases, accessing European records requires visiting either a specialized library or the country itself. The Netherlands is an extraordinary exception! The country’s provincial government archives are working to make an index of their civil registration records available online for free. By using birth and death registrations to connect each generation, we traced the Spinoza (or Spionsa or Espionsa) family in Amsterdam back seven generations and 150 years.

They lived in Amsterdam while it blossomed into a major Jewish population center, nicknamed “Jerusalem of the West,” and during the height of the Dutch West India Company.

While Benjamin Spinoza was the last of his family to live in Amsterdam, John’s 7th great-grandfather, Isaac Espinoza, was the first. The earliest piece of documentation we found of the Espinozas in Amsterdam was the marriage certificate of Isaac Espinoza to Lea Alpron on February 22, 1737, which hints at his possible place of birth.


It says:

“Appeared Isaac Espinosa from Zallee [Sale, Morocco], age 26 years, son of Daniel Espinosa who resides in Barbarije [North Africa] – verified by his uncle Issak Espinosa and qualified according to the military duty dated 15 Feb 1737 and Lea Alepron, age 16 years old, with her mother Ester Alepron.

Isaack Espinosa [signature], Lea Alpron [signature]”

While John knew his ancestors were Sephardic Jews from the Netherlands, he was thoroughly surprised to learn they were from Africa! While not originally North African, Isaac and Daniel Espinosa of the Barbary Coast (John’s 7th and 8th great-grandfathers) are the descendants of Jews expelled from Portugal and Spain by the Alhambra Decree mandated by Isabella and Ferdinand of Aragon, and the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. If you lived in the Iberian Peninsula during this time and were not a Catholic, your choices were a forced conversion or a forced expulsion. As a result, 25,000 Jews fled to the Netherlands, while 20,000 fled to Morocco. As thousands of Jewish refugees fled across the Strait of Gibraltar, they faced the danger of the Barbary Coast’s infamous pirates, who captured slaves to sell in the Middle East.


The newly-independent and tolerant Dutch provinces provided more favorable conditions for observant Jews to establish a community and practice their religion openly. Baruch Spinoza, the famous philosopher, was a descendant of those first refugees in Amsterdam, while John’s ancestors lived in Northern Africa likely for a few generations before moving to the Netherlands.

What’s in a name? Definitely more than meets the eye. While John is not a direct descendant of the famed philosopher who he shares a name with, their families’ shared similar experiences, challenges, and prejudices, and eventually settled in the same community. His ancestors’ decisions to first leave Africa, then later leave Amsterdam for Boston, changed the course of history for generations to come.  And while their individual experiences are being relearned, their name has not been forgotten centuries later.



They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Christine Romans: Bedstemor’s Tickets Sun, 19 Oct 2014 20:28:03 +0000 Read more]]> We all have legends among our family stories. Some are linked to historical celebrities (my 3x great-grandfather rode with Teddy Roosevelt); some to historic events (my ancestors lived through the Great Chicago Fire); and some are inspiringly personal (my 4x great grandmother raised 12 kids on her own).

Many family history adventures start when someone wants to learn the truth behind one of the family legends. And, as professional researchers, we’ve learned time and again that many of these legends do have a kernel of truth in them.

Christine Romans has long been a collector of the family stories in her tree. One of her favorites is the inspirational story about her 2x great-grandmother, Anna Pedersen. Christine’s family often talks about Anna who left Denmark at 20 years old, came to America, and then saved her money to buy tickets to America for family members she had left behind. Christine’s family calls the tickets she paid for “Bedstemor’s Tickets.” (Bedstemor is grandmother in Danish.) Christine was hoping to learn if we could prove that this legend was true.

We started by learning what we could about Anna Pedersen’s life in America. She settled in Council Bluffs, Iowa and one year after her arrival, she married a fellow Danish immigrant, Hans Olsen. Her obituary told of her 72-year service to her local Lutheran church in Council Bluffs, which helped us estimate her birth year, and mentioned her arrival in the United States in 1886.

We found Anna and Hans listed in all the U.S. Federal Census Records from 1900 to 1930 (along with some state census records in 1925 and 1935). They lived at 917 Avenue B, in Council Bluffs Iowa. As we looked at all the people listed in their household over the years, we learned that Anna and Hans often took in boarders, and some of those boarders were related to Anna.

We identified one of Anna’s nephews, Karl Petersen, who came to America in 1922. His passenger list told us his age, occupation, father’s name and address in Denmark, and his eventual destination in America: Council Bluffs. The passenger list went on to list who paid for his passage. There, in black and white, was the proof that his passage was paid by his aunt: Anna Olsen, 917 Avenue B, Council Bluffs. There really were Bedstemor’s tickets!

A detail from the 1922 Passenger list for Karl Peterson on listing Anna Olsen, 917 Ave. B, Council Bluffs as the individual who paid for Karl’s ticket to America.

A detail from the 1922 Passenger list for Karl Peterson on listing Anna Olsen, 917 Ave. B, Council Bluffs as the individual who paid for Karl’s ticket to America.

It seems Anna was so pleased with her decision to immigrate that she wanted to give that chance to other members of her family. We wanted to learn about her own journey.

Eventually, we located Anna on a passenger list arriving in the United States and a departure list leaving Denmark in 1886. That part of the family legend is true too: Anna left her family at age 20 and journeyed alone to make a new life in the United States.

It took Anna Pedersen two weeks to cross the Atlantic on the steamship, Thingvalla in 1886.

It took Anna Pedersen two weeks to cross the Atlantic on the steamship, Thingvalla in 1886.

As part of her journey, Christine crossed the Atlantic herself to visit Anna’s Danish hometown and the Church Anna’s parents were married in. She toured the countryside of Denmark and walked the docks of Copenhagen were Anna would have departed her homeland forever.

Anna’s inspiring story is one that Christine will pass down to her descendants. In Christine’s own words, “I’m finding out it’s not a legend. It’s not myth. It’s history.”




They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Fareed Zakaria: From Bombay, India to Bombings in London Sun, 19 Oct 2014 12:40:17 +0000 Read more]]> Many decisions made by our ancestors have had a direct impact on what and where we are today. Sometimes these influential ancestors are not generations away from our memory, but have lived in our recent history, still leaving us a legacy of choices made and stories to share.

Fareed Zakara, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” immediately knew the story behind the 1944 UK Incoming Passenger List we found for his father, Rafiq Zakaria. Rafiq had won a scholarship and first-class passage to the University of London during the 1940s in the throes of World War II. People said he was crazy for going to London in the middle of the war, but Rafiq saw it as an amazing opportunity to earn his Ph.D. The young man arrived in London as a ‘research student’ on 7 July 1944 on the ship Strathmore via First Class, as promised. What kind of environment did he willingly enter? What was the scene in London on 7 July 1944?

UK, Incoming Passenger List, 7 July 1944 (

UK, Incoming Passenger List, 7 July 1944 (

In June of 1944, the Germans began blasting London with “flying bombs” known as V1s and V2s. This time of the war was so devastating, it was later known as the ‘second Blitz.’ With wartime censorship, it was unlikely that Rafiq knew the devastation that had begun that June. The news was made public by Winston Churchill only a few days before Rafiq arrived in London. The very day that Rafiq finally arrived, the word was out. The New York Times had a headline that read, “London Is Flying Bomb Target, 2,752 Killed, Churchill Reveals.”  Rafiq had truly entered a warzone.

The New York Times, 7 Jul 1944

The New York Times, 7 Jul 1944

The howling sound of World War II air raid sirens would signal the approach of the V1 flying bombs. The V1 bomb was one of the first pilotless, weapon-carrying aircraft and was designed by the Germans as a “vengeance weapon.” Thousands of these bombs were targeted on London. The Royal Air Force was able to deter some of them, but too many found their mark and wreaked havoc in the streets of London. The haunting sound of the flying V1 engine cost a psychological price to those on the ground, just waiting for the engine to stop and the bomb to dive to its random target. An eyewitness wrote of this experience:

“The drone of the flying bomb grew ever closer, and I crouched low in this dark cramped spaced…. I waited, heart in my mouth, hoping that the engine would not cut out, but fearing that the bomb was about to drop. As the engine sound increased I grew really scared, until it suddenly stopped, and all was quiet for a few moments, with a silence that could almost be felt. Then there was a tremendous crash.”

– Mrs. S. Gaylor

Her written account has been joined by hundreds of others, gathered together by the BBC in an online archive of wartime memories.

Life in London during the war. View of a V-1 in flight. c. 1944. (

Life in London during the war. View of a V-1 in flight. c. 1944. (

Once these flying bombs found their target, entire streets were decimated. Thousands of lives were lost during these last months of the war. Less than a month after Rafiq arrived in London, a bomb only five miles from the University killed more than 70 people. The opportunity for an education had come at a trying time for Rafiq, but it would shape his future and the future of those who came after him.

A British flag lies among the rubble of homes smashed by the Camberwell Road rocket explosion. c. 1944  (

A British flag lies among the rubble of homes smashed by the Camberwell Road rocket explosion. c. 1944 (

After four years in England, two during the war and two following, Rafiq completed his studies with a Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His 1948 UK Outward Passenger List revealed his latest occupation. Rafiq Zakaria was no longer a “research student” as he was when he had arrived to London’s bleak backdrop four years prior, but had returned to India a press correspondent.


More than 60 years later, Rafiq’s legacy continues with his son, CNN News Correspondent Fareed Zakaria. The stories Fareed heard as a child are not only a part of his own family history, but contribute to a much greater history of the world.



They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Erin Burnett: Think of Ireland, and Think of Skye Fri, 17 Oct 2014 15:48:08 +0000 Read more]]> Why do our ancestors move around so much or why do they stay put for generations? What was happening in the world around them where they lived and what kind of toils may they have faced? Understanding the historical context of the time in which your ancestors lived can shed light on these kinds of questions and create a clearer picture of their life and legacy.

CNN Anchor Erin Burnett knew she had Irish and Scottish roots but had always wondered about her point of origin across the Atlantic. Her mother’s side of the family came from Boston and was part of the strong and determined working class of the early 1900s. Her great-grandfather, John Charles Stewart, had immigrated to Boston from Prince Edward Island, Canada and owned his own grocery store near his home on Elmwood Street in the Roxbury/Boston area. He was the first American in the Stewart family–a family whose Scottish roots stretched deep into the mystic highlands on the Isle of Skye.


The Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852 was responsible for a significant increase in emigration from Ireland to North America and even Australia. With the height of recorded Irish emigration happening during this time it is not as well known that hundreds of thousands of people also emigrated from the Scottish Highlands, many assisted by landlords and the government. Even during the ten years following the height of the Great Famine, the emigration continued, specifically to Canada.

In direct response to the growing needs in the Highlands, the Scottish government created a map in 1848 of the “Distressed Districts” on the Isle of Skye, to better locate and assist them. The Parish of Portree was right in the center of an area most destitute on the Isle of Skye.

Highland Destitution Board Records on the Isle of Skye, National Archives of Scotland

Highland Destitution Board Records on the Isle of Skye, National Archives of Scotland

The distinctive landscape of the Portree area is a result of crofting, a type of farming prevalent to the highlands of Scotland and used largely as a means to sustain populations. Usually a small and arable enclosed area of land, a croft allows a common working community to grow crops when surrounded by a rocky and highland-hill terrain. Having a potato-dependent structure much like Ireland, the potato blight destroyed their crops and Isle of Skye residents had no employment and no food to sustain them. Erin’s 3rd great-grandfather, John Stewart, was a crofter of eight acres in Sconser, Portree Parish at the height of this poverty.


A crofter’s cottage in Sconser, Scotland c. 1912 (

In an excerpt from an 1851 letter to the Association for Protection of the Poor, Mr. Donald Ross, secretary of the association wrote of this small village on the Isle of Skye:

“…Sconser is the most desperate case. There are about 400 persons this night without 400 ounces of meal among them all. Many of them are actually starving.

“…At Sconser there are no less than eighteen families without land, without food, and without labour.”

At the time this letter was written, Erin’s 3rd great-grandfather John Stewart was 60 years old living with his wife and seven children, ranging in ages 14 to 28. Most of John’s extended Stewart family had already left Scotland and relocated to Prince Edward Island in Canada. Though he was one of the last of the Stewart cousins to remain in Portree Parish, there were nine mouths to feed in his Stewart household and John’s thoughts may have been far across the Atlantic, hoping for even greener pastures than the breathtaking but deadly backdrop that surrounded him.

In 1858, on one of the last organized emigration campaigns from Portree, John and most of his family left the Isle of Skye on the ship James Gibb, never to return. John joined his extended family in the Caledonia area of Prince Edward Island, Canada and farmed the rest of his days there.


Passenger’s Contract Ticket from Isle of Skye


When thinking of the effects of the “Irish Potato Famine” in areas outside of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands may not come to mind. But, as a haunting reminder of how a grave time in history reached the most remote of places, Mr. Donald Ross said it best when he closed his letter, “Think of Ireland, and think of Skye.”




NEW EPISODES ALL THIS WEEK ON CNN They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. All week, starting October 13th on CNN.  


They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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Research in the Keystone State: New Pennsylvania Research Guide Fri, 17 Oct 2014 14:20:36 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more]]> independence-hall

Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Photo by Amy Crow.

There is so much to explore in Pennsylvania, both in the state’s history and in our own family histories. I’ve been doing Pennsylvania research for a long, long time and I’m amazed at how there is always something new to discover. Did you know these five things:

  1. Pennsylvania was the first state to abolish slavery.
  2. Oil might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Pennsylvania, but the first successful oil well was dug in 1859 near Titusville. (The American Chemical Society has a booklet all about the early oil industry in Pennsylvania.)
  3. Philadelphia had the highest death toll of any U.S. city during the 1918 influenza pandemic. More than 11,000 people died there.
  4. Anthracite coal wasn’t used for fuel until 1808. Even then, it was only experimental.
  5. Yuengling, based in Pottsville, was established in 1829 and is the oldest brewery in the United States. Just think – you could be drinking the same beer as your ancestors!

If you have Pennsylvania ancestors – and lots of us do! – check out our new Pennsylvania State Research Guide, with a general history of the state, a timeline, and lots of resources for you to explore.

For those of you without Keystone State ancestors, it’s alright. Head over to the Learning Center where we have guides for almost every other state. (The series will be completed soon!)

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CNN Roots with Jake Tapper: Obituary Gold Thu, 16 Oct 2014 22:10:25 +0000 Read more]]> For a family historian, finding a story-rich obituary can be like receiving long lost money from an unknown great-aunt!  We knew that with CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper’s tree, we needed to find some of that “bank roll” to fill in the blanks within his ancestors’ Colonial story.

One of the first obituaries we found gave insight on the life of Jake’s 5th great-grandfather, Solomon Huff, and why he may have been a founder of the Hay Bay Church, the first and now oldest Methodist building in Canada.



Published the day Solomon died in 1828, an excerpt from his obituary reads:

“…In 1788 he moved from the United States to this Province, and settled on Hay Bay. He was the first person in the wilds of Fredericksburgh and Adolphustown that devoted the Lord’s Day to religious purposes. On Sunday Morning he would call in his neighbors and sing and pray with them. He was appointed a Methodist class leader at an early day and remained such as long as he was able to get to the house of worship, in which situation he was useful and much esteemed.”

Information written by Solomon’s contemporaries, those who knew him and interacted with him on a regular basis, was invaluable to the story of who Solomon really was. His religious fervor directed not only his life, but even in death. The obituary continues:

“…A few moments before the breath left his body, he raised both his hands, and clasping them together, with his eyes lifted towards heaven, and a cheerful countenance, delivered up his spirit to that God which gave it.”

Through the lens of this almost 200 year-old obituary, it was not difficult to see why Solomon was a founder of the Hay Bay Church and was honored as an important and valued member of his community.

Another amazing obituary we found was for Jake’s 7th great-grandfather, Englebert Huff. Englebert was quite the character, with a life lived so large that it made the news all the way to London. Even a local paper, The New Hampshire Gazette of 1765, printed a lengthy obituary for him just a month after his death:

The New Hampshire Gazette, 1765

The New Hampshire Gazette, 1765

In this article, Jake learned that his ancestor died from a fall. Other articles expounded that the fall was from a horse and stated that Englebert was described as “a man of considerable local celebrity for his scholarship and dashing horsemanship.” At the time of his death, Englebert had excellent health, was of “honest principle” and was reported to have lived until the ripe old age of 128!

Whether truth or tale, this “obituary gold” gives us a peek into the colorful life of Jake’s ancestors and sheds light on the kind of man he was—a popular and enigmatic storyteller.  One could say the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, even nine generations later with his grandson, Jake Tapper.



They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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CNN Roots with Don Lemon: An Étouffée of Stories Thu, 16 Oct 2014 15:58:39 +0000 Read more]]> Don’s roots are not unlike the hot plate of étouffée carefully prepared for his return by his mother, Katherine: both Cajun and Creole, a spicy, savory blend of seafood and rice that is decidedly Louisianan. The instigator of the entire Roots series, Don wanted to better understand his deep Louisiana roots and wanted his mom with him every step of the way. The surprise family lunch and impromptu family reunion that welcomed Don home foreshadowed what he would later discover in his past: tight-knit families in small communities stick together, and while you don’t pick your family or your circumstances, you can make the best of them.

Don grew up not just hearing stories about his grandmother Mary H. Bouligney; she was a part of his life until she passed when Don was in his thirties. She was born in a small town called Brusly (pronounced Brew-ly) or Brusly Landing, and was raised by her grandmother Henrietta Jackson (Don’s 2nd great-grandmother.) Mary H.’s death certificate states her parents were Catherine Jackson and Harry Rivault. Family legend states Catherine died in childbirth; census records tell us Harry Rivault was a married white man.

As an orphan of mixed heritage in Louisiana born in the year 1915, life could have been bleak for Mary H., but Henrietta raised her as her own. Henrietta was the glue that held several generations of the family together. She owned her own home, ran a farm, and had three sons, two grandchildren including Mary H., and later a great-granddaughter all living with her. What might have been the motivation behind this maternal influence to several generations? Don’s mom Katherine was surprised to learn that as a young girl, Henrietta was an orphan too. This explains her open and accepting attitude towards caring for children without parents and taking them in.

Curious about the circumstances where Mary H.’s parents met, we looked into the life of Harry Rivault. Four years before Mary H. was born, her father Harry Rivault was newly-married to Odille Bossier, and living in West Baton Rouge, according to the 1910 United States Census. He stated his occupation was as an “overseer” at a plantation. Two of his white neighbors listed their occupations as “assistant engineer at Sugar Factory” and a “Hostler at Plantation.” The remaining families, all African American, worked as farm laborers. The sugar factory and plantation refer to the only place it could in West Baton Rouge: Cinclaire Sugar Mill. It is possible Mary’s mother Catherine worked at the Sugar Mill—anyone who worked for Cinclaire lived “on campus.” The field laborers lived in the former slave housing; overseers and management lived in a row of houses on a different street. He and his wife Odille never had children, and he tragically ended his life in 1941 after several months of poor health.


Cinclaire Sugar Mill




















Harry’s grandfather and Don’s 2nd great-grandfather, Charles Bertrand Rivault, was a French carpenter who immigrated to Louisiana in 1848. He settled in West Baton Rouge and married into the Furbos-Landry family, who were one of the largest land and slave-owning families in the county. By 1860, Charles was the owner of two slaves, a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. By September 1862, a year and a half after the start of the Civil War, Charles enlisted as a private in Company H, Regiment 4, of the Louisiana Infantry for the Confederacy. During Reconstruction in the 1870 United States Census, Charles managed to maintain $1,000 in personal property, worth approximately $18,000 today.

Living near Charles Rivault in 1870 were Moses and Catherine Jackson, Don’s 3rd great-grandparents. Moses and Catherine spent the first twenty years of their lives enslaved, and their children would become the first generation of African Americans born free after emancipation. The 1870 Census is significant because it’s the first time previously enslaved African Americans were listed by name in the federal census as citizens of the United States. Moses’ occupation is listed as a farm laborer. They did not have any real or personal estate values listed.

Next door, Valerie Landry was a white farmer with $2,000 in real estate and $400 in personal estate (combined values around $43,000 in 2014). He had several domestic servants in his home. All his immediate neighbors were African American. Because of proximity, it’s a fairly safe assumption that Moses worked for Valerie, and possible—if not likely—that Valerie could have been his former owner. Valerie Landry was a cousin-in-law of Charles Rivault, making him Don’s 3rd great uncle.

Don’s reaction to learning about the white and black sides of his family tree was profound— there was no angry condemnation, just a touch of sadness and an acceptance of the past that cannot be changed. The present and future, however, are bright, because while you can’t pick your family or your circumstances, you can make the best of them, and that’s exactly what Don is doing.




They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:

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