Ancestry Blog The official blog of Ancestry Wed, 22 Oct 2014 15:18:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Five Tips to Discover Your Eastern European Roots Wed, 22 Oct 2014 15:18:12 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> This is a guest post by Lisa A. Alzo

You’ve just discovered you have Eastern European roots.  Perhaps it was the result of exploring your exotic sounding surname, locating a picture of your Polish great-grandmother, or viewing your Ancestry DNA test results.  Now what?  If you have no idea where or how to begin, or have heard that it’s too difficult, here are five tips to help you jumpstart your research.

John and Elizabeth Alzo on their wedding day

John and Elizabeth Alzo on their wedding day

1.  Determine where your ancestor was from.  Typically knowing that an ancestor came from Budapest, Kiev, or Prague is not good enough.  Because the records that you need to do your research in Europe were kept on a local level, your research cannot proceed unless you know the specific name of the town or village of origin.  To obtain this information, start your search for records in the United States and Canada.  If possible, talk to living relatives of your immigrant ancestor.  Look for personal information in sources you may have at home or you can get from family members, such as:  Bibles, journals, letters, pictures, military service papers, funeral home records, or naturalization documents. Then, expand your search to other records using  Start with Census records.  In particular, U.S. Censuses from 1900, 1910, and 1920, will list the year of immigration as well as the country of origin. This will help narrow your search for immigration records.  These can be found by searching the passenger lists for each port using the Ancestry Immigration Collection.  Follow up with searches for vital, military, and other key records.

2. Pinpoint the ancestral home.  Once you determine where your ancestor was from, you must verify the spelling and determine where that town or village is now (Eastern Europe has had a lot of border changes). You will also want to know what province, county or district had jurisdiction over the place. Maps and gazetteers (geographical dictionaries) are the best way to sort out locality questions or discrepancies.  Several outstanding old gazetteers are now available online through Ancestry. For example, you can view the Prussia, Municipality Gazetteer, 1905 (Gemeindelexikon für das Königreich Preußen, 1905).  Ancestry also has a partnership with FamilySearch and you can use their site to see what Eastern Europe gazetteers are available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and search the Wiki there to learn about record collections and other useful tips.

3. Know where the records are hiding.  Most of the smaller localities were not responsible for keeping records. Church records were kept by the parish, which may have included several small villages. Similarly, civil registration was under the jurisdiction of locally incorporated communities or townships. Gazetteers can assist with determining the parish or locality that had responsibility for keeping records for the place your ancestor lived.  Once you have learned where to find the key records, you can then create a plan to obtain them.

4. See what’s online first.  Once you are ready to cross the pond you will need to find a way to get to civil and church records. Typically this is done bySelected European Historical Postcards_Lisa_Alzo Guest Post writing to the records office or church, hiring someone to obtain documents on your behalf (see #5 below), or traveling to the location to do on-site research.  But these options can be expensive and time-consuming, so you should first check to see if any records for your ancestral locality have been digitized.  Check the Ancestry databases for Europe for your country of interest.  Examples include the Hungary Family History research page and the Polish Family History research page.  Be aware that many Eastern European surnames are difficult to spell and pronounce and there can be issues with indexing and transcriptions when dealing with online records.  Also, keep in mind that many immigrants changed their names upon settling in North America.  Knowing what the immigrant’s original name was in the old country (and how it was spelled in his or her language) can help when searching for records in Eastern Europe.  To help flush out those elusive ancestors, consider changing your search criteria for a favorite database by experimenting with different fields, or using alternate views to display results (where available).  For example, if you always view your Ancestry search results by record, click to view them by category.  If you routinely just check the Card Catalog to find what databases are available, try using the place pages.  For additional tips on maximizing your searches, consult the Learning Center for free helpful articles and videos.

5. Crowdsource your brick walls.  Don’t be afraid to ask others for help.  Start a member tree for free on Ancestry.  Collaborate with others through the message boards, community pages, and on social media.  Join an ethnic genealogical society to interact with others researching the same localities.

Contrary to popular belief, not all records are online. In fact, many of the key documents you will likely need to trace your East European ancestry are tucked away in the basements of foreign archives. Sure, you can submit a research request, but be prepared for a very long wait.  A better option is to hire a professional based in that country (who knows the language and is familiar with the archives) to get what you can’t.  Click the Hire an Expert button on Ancestry to find a researcher for your area of interest and get a free estimate.  You can also obtain referrals from ethnic genealogical societies, or other researchers.

Finally, remember to be patient.  Records access is improving for many areas in Eastern Europe.  Many archives and repositories are bringing their records online or forming partnerships to do so, resulting in new and updated collections in private or commercial databases.  Persistence is the key to your success.

Lisa A. Alzo, M.F.A. is a freelance writer, instructor, and internationally-recognized lecturer specializing in Slovak genealogy research.  She is the author of nine books and hundreds of magazine articles, and can be reached via her website

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Portrait Studios of Detroit’s Polonia: The Face of Polish Immigration Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:19:38 +0000 Jessica Murray 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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4 Tips for Adoptees Using AncestryDNA to Find Their Family Tue, 21 Oct 2014 14:53:15 +0000 Anna Swayne Read more]]> Hear it from an adoptee, a story of she not only found out she is Irish, Scandinavian and European Jewish, but how she connected to a few family members as well. Read or listen to Nancy’s story hereBackground image of DNA molecule. Science concept

Taking a DNA test can open up possibilities that haven’t been available before, but will they happen to you? There is only one way to find out. Take a DNA test for yourself.

Once you have those results back, you can review them. DNA can unlock the mystery of where your genetic roots came from 500+ years ago. Your unique DNA reveals what you have inherited from those who came before you. Are you Irish? Native American? Italian? When you take an AncestryDNA test, we compare your DNA to the known regions around the world and give you an estimate of how your DNA matches those regions. I have talked to many people who are adopted and the ethnicity is one of their top reasons for taking the test.

Now that you know where in the world your story started, you can dive into the matching. We compare your DNA to everyone else who has taken an AncestryDNA test to see if you can find family members to connect you with. Can you image finding a 1st cousin, aunt or even a sibling? It has happened. I have heard of some life-changing stories. If you didn’t read the story at the beginning of this article make sure you go back and read it. I would be confident to say that it has changed her life.

Are you an adoptee who is hoping to find family members through an AncestryDNA test? Here are four tips for success.

1. Look at the Closest Matches First

This seems simply enough, but if you don’t have anything closer than a 4th cousin-matching can get discouraging. It may take some time before a closer connection takes the test and we can compare them to you.

2. Contact All of Your 2nd Cousin Matches and Closer

Asking never hurts. Based on the predicted relationship, contact your 1st cousin and 2nd cousin matches to see what the possible connection could be. For example, a 1st cousin relationship would mean you probably share grandparents and 2nd cousins would share great-grandparents. A half-aunt or uncle could also show up as a 1st cousin and that is because you share only enough DNA as a 1st cousin. The further you go back the harder it will be to decide where the connection is.

3. Link Your AncestryDNA Results to a Tree

I know, you’re adopted and don’t know your tree. But put in your tree “adopted” and include anything you may know: a location, a surname… something. Not linking a tree is discouraging to your matches; they want to see something. It may seem like a crazy idea, but it may also help.

4. Be Patient

Depending on how much tree data you have online you may never figure out how you are related to some of your matches. Don’t get discouraged. Check back often and revisit your matches.

Read adoption success stories.

Begin with an AncestryDNA test and start making discoveries of your own.

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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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Ancestry Weekly Roundup: October 20th Edition Mon, 20 Oct 2014 14:08:53 +0000 Anne Gillespie Mitchell Read more]]> Blog Posts


CNN Roots


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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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New Find A Grave Upload and Transcribe Beta Available Fri, 17 Oct 2014 18:17:08 +0000 Kristie Wells Read more]]> We just launched a new Upload and Transcribe beta at Find A Grave. With this new feature, you can upload a whole trips worth of cemetery headstone photos and transcribe them in either new memorials, or attach the photos easily to existing memorials.

Upload Multiple Photos At Once

Add a group of headstone photos to Find A Grave using a new upload tool available on the cemetery page. Preview, rotate, and delete images from the photos you upload.

Quick Tip: Make sure “Location Services” is turned on in your smartphone camera when you take pictures, and when you upload photos through the beta, they’ll appear correctly on the photo map after uploaded! This works for both Android and iOS phones.

Easily Transcribe Uploaded Photos

You can turn your uploaded photos in to new memorials, or quickly attach them to preexisting memorials, using our new transcription tool. Find your photos to transcribe on your Contributor Tools page or on the cemetery page.

Get Help, Help Others

Photos that have been uploaded through this new feature, but haven’t yet been transcribed, will be opened to the community after 7 days. The photographer will still manage any new memorials created, and special attribution will be given to the transcriber. You can find community photos to transcribe at your friends profile page, any cemetery page, or on our home page.

Provide Feedback

We are constantly trying to improve Find A Grave, so please consider giving us your feedback. You can reach out to us through our online feedback form, and don’t forget to follow us on our Facebook page.


Find A Grave Community Day on Saturday, October 18th

Has it been a while since you visited a cemetery? Well, let’s change that. Immediately! Join us tomorrow for our first official Community Day at a cemetery near you. While we are looking to fulfill the thousands of photo requests that are pending on our website, ultimately we want to use this as a way for our community to come together and meet one another. You know what they say, communities that grave together, stay together.

We have several events taking place around the world – check out the Meetup page and if you find one in your local area, make sure to RSVP to let the local organizer know you are coming! Don’t see your cemetery or your town listed? That’s ok. Add it!

Now, can you help us get the word out today? The idea was to try to get volunteers in your local community to join you, so post a link to your specific Meetup page on your Facebook account, on Twitter, Google+, Instagram, etc. Let’s see if we can rally a few more folks before this event starts. And add the hashtag #FGDay to your post as we would love to see all the excitement spread across the web.

And please remember to take a photo of yourself at the cemetery on Saturday, then share it online using the #FGDay hashtag. We want to honor everyone who participated in this event and think what better way to do so than with a photo collage of all of you incredible people!!

Thank you all for participating and we hope you get a chance to meet some new people and can fulfill thousands of photo requests.



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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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