Ancestry Blog 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


]]> 1
Happy 350th New Jersey! New State Research Guide for the Garden State Fri, 24 Oct 2014 21:53:53 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> HessianThis year marks 350 years since New Jersey’s birth as an English colony. To celebrate, our gift to you is the latest in our series of state research guides on the Garden State. Here are five things you might not know about New Jersey.

1. Between 1674 and 1702, New Jersey was divided politically between East Jersey and West Jersey, although proprietors of East and West Jersey continued to control first sales of land beyond 1702. They were reunited in 1702 and shared a governor with New York until 1738 when they parted ways and New Jersey got its own governor.

2. New Jersey played a central role in the American Revolution, with nearly 300 significant engagements fought within the state, including battles at Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth. New Jersey was divided in loyalty and many loyalists fled the state for Canada and England.

3. The state constitution of New Jersey initially granted suffrage to all residents, including unmarried and widowed women, but legislation in 1807 restricted it to free white males.

4. A series of canals and railroads built in New Jersey in the 1820s and 1830s helped facilitate the transportation of coal from Pennsylvania mines to the burgeoning industrial centers in New Jersey and New York City.

5. In 1916, a munitions depot on Black Tom Island exploded after a series of fires were set. The explosion destroyed ammunition bound for Britain and France, shattered windows in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and caused $100,000 damage to the Statue of Liberty. Fortunately it killed fewer than ten people.  Years later, it was determined that German agents were behind the explosion.

Want to learn more about the fascinating history of the Garden State and the records that will help you discover your family’s ties to that history? Check out our New Jersey State Research Guide.

We now have guides available for 39 states and Puerto Rico. See the entire list here.

]]> 3
What We Are Reading: October 24th Edition Fri, 24 Oct 2014 14:28:20 +0000 Amy Johnson Crow Read more]]> Genealogy happy dances can be brought on by breaking through a brick wall. They can also happen when we find a little nugget of information – an insight, a story – that we weren’t expecting.

Many of the things we’ve been reading this week have been around those little stories, whether they were tales of ancestors or of ourselves. (And when it comes to the stories of ourselves, you are recording your own stories, right? If you’re stuck for some ideas, check out our Throwback Thursday topics for some inspiration.)

Here’s some of what we’ve been reading this week:

He Married the Girl Who Brought the Eggs,” by Brenda Joyce Jerome, on Western Kentucky Genealogy Blog. The story of this sweet romance was in the local newspaper. (Not only is it a tender tale, but it’s a good reminder that newspapers have more than obituaries!)

Glamour and Grieving: How the Victorians Dressed for Death,” by Allyssia Alleyne, on CNN Style. Be sure to click through the slideshow; the photos and their captions give insights into what our ancestors might have wore while grieving and why they felt obliged to wear it.

Broken Wings: Finding George Remus,” by Cheri Daniels, on Journeys Past. A bootlegger, prison time, a murdered wife (that didn’t have anything to do with the murdered wife), a lost fortune – is it any wonder the wings on his tombstone are missing?!

At Home in a Cemetery,” by MissPeggy (Peggy Lauritzen), on Always Anxiously Engaged. It’s a tale of two trips to a cemetery, a broken foot, and a snake. What could possibly go wrong?

Find-A-Grave Community Day 2014, Part 1: Fernwood Cemetery,” by Tim Graham, on Photo Restorations by Tim G. Tim took part in the Find A Grave Community Day on October 18. In this post, he shares some of the photos he took, memorials he created, and why he’s looking forward to the next meetup. (We’re looking forward to that, too!)

Previous “What We Are Reading” Posts:

]]> 0
Between The Leaves: Interviewing Family Members Fri, 24 Oct 2014 13:54:17 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> Most of our family history research starts with oral history, the stories passed down from generation to generation. It’s important to capture these moments – whether by recording them or writing them down, to piece together your family history puzzle.

On this week’s “Between the Leaves” we asked our professional genealogists Amy Johnson Crow, Anne Gillespie Mitchell and Juliana Szucs to share their stories and suggestions for interviewing family members.

Looking for additional tips for interviewing your family members? Visit our recent Family History 101: Tips For Interviewing Your Living Relatives

Our Between the Leaves Google+ Hangouts are an informal and, hopefully, educational conversation where our professional genealogists share their methods, stories and passion for family history research. To watch all our Between the Leaves episodes visit our playlist on YouTube here.

]]> 0
Titanic Captain among those listed as more than one million historic Liverpool crew lists are digitised by Ancestry Fri, 24 Oct 2014 09:20:06 +0000 Brian Gallagher Read more]]> We are all familiar with the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. On the night of the 14th of April 1912, 1,500 people lost their lives after the liner hit an iceberg and sank to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. The captain on that tragic voyage was Edward Smith. Smith joined the White Star Line shipping company in 1880 and quickly became one of its most respected captains. He was regularly trusted to guide the largest new vessels in the fleet.

Edward Smith can be found in The Liverpool, England, Crew Lists 1861-1919 collection on Ancestry. The collection features the names of crew members who worked on vessels registered to the Port of Liverpool. In the crew lists, Edward Smith is mentioned in 1901 as captain of the SS Majestic, when he and his crew were called upon to transport troops to Cape Colony to fight in the Boer War. Following this, he was awarded a special Transport Medal for his service.

However warning signs of the later tragedy soon surfaced. In 1911, Smith was captaining the RMS Olympic when he collided with the British warship HMS Hawke. The vessel had to be returned to port with a badly damaged propeller.

The Liverpool, England, Crew Lists 1861-1919 collection has been published from original records held by the Liverpool Record Office. The records were a form of employment contract between the shipping company and crew, and needed to be completed before any vessel set sail. The collection, which refers to a total of 912 ships and spans nearly 50 years, lists each crew member’s name, age, birthplace, residence and past maritime experience, and even remarks on their general behaviour. There are also details regarding whether crew members were discharges, deserted or died at sea.

The history of Liverpool is intrinsically linked to the development of its port throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, with its natural harbour helping the city become a powerhouse of the industrial revolution and a key transport hub for travel to the promising shores of America and Australia. The port also contributed greatly to the diversity found within the city, with Liverpool rapidly developing a uniquely Irish character. Around 300,000 migrants arrived in the city from Ireland in 1847 alone and within five years a quarter of the city’s population were Irish-born.

Miriam Silverman, Senior UK Content Manager from Ancestry comments, “From ship captains to their crew, this collection sheds light on a period in which the port of Liverpool was a global transport hub. With more than a million maritime records now available online at Ancestry, it will also be of huge significance for anybody looking to trace their seafaring ancestors back to Liverpool at this time.”

Search The Liverpool, England, Crew Lists 1861-1919 collection today and find your seafaring ancestors on Ancestry. This collection can be accessed here.

Follow Ancestry on Facebook and  Twitter to keep up-to-date on new collections.

]]> 3
Throwback Thursday: Fun in the Water Thu, 23 Oct 2014 14:40:43 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> July 1970This past weekend was pool closing weekend. When we bought this house 12 years ago, it came with the pool and while my daughter enjoyed it, I think I’ve been the one who has spent the most time in it. I’ve loved the water since I was little and although we never had a large pool growing up, we did have many little ones like this one. And we loved them no matter how small. Note that awesome slide. It actually came with a one-step ladder. Not sure why that was necessary, but we thought it was super-cool.

When we didn’t have pools, we still played in the water. We made games of running through the sprinkler, and for a while we had a slip ‘n’ slide. If you’re not familiar with slip ‘n’ slides, they were long strips of plastic that you attach to the hose so the water would create a fountain over the plastic runway. You would get a running start and hurl yourself down the slippery plastic surface. I loved that thing. Problem is, when you hurl yourself repeatedly onto a hard surface you tend to break a few blood vessels. I remember having bruises all over my stomach one year.

When we went on family vacations, the high point was the hotel pools along the way. Visiting cousins with pools was an extra bonus. And trips to the East Coast meant swimming in the Atlantic Ocean where we could ride the waves into the shore.

What about you, what memories of the water do you have? How did you stay cool in the summer? Share your stories with us, and more importantly share them with your family.


]]> 1
Creative Ways to Get Your Kids Excited About Family History Month – Part Three Thu, 23 Oct 2014 14:20:13 +0000 Jessica Murray Read more]]> Want to get the little ones in your family interested in genealogy? We’re introducing part three of our weekly series for the month of October in honor of Family History Month with creative ideas to engage the little ones in your family about family history.

1. Family Journalist Little girl dressed as a reporter

If you have a future journalist on your hands or an older child, challenge them to capture interviews with different family members. This lesson in family history extends beyond your family and also shares valuable lessons on history local to your town or even the world.

For interview questions, visit our handy PDF with suggested interview questions to use when interviewing your family members. We would recommend recording these interviews so you have them forever; there’s nothing that can replace the sound of a grandparent’s voice.

If you’re looking for clues on relatives who have passed away, consider having them answer these questions to help piece together what their ancestors life was like.

  • What kind of clothes and hats did they wear in those days?
  • What kind of houses did people typically live in at that time?
  • Did they have electricity, indoor plumbing, appliances?
  • What games did they play when they were young?
  • What was the main entertainment? Circus? Plays?
  • What did people eat? (Asking about dessert can have surprising answers!)
  • What kinds of toys did kids play with when their ancestor was young?
  • What kind of music or dancing was popular?
  • Who was president when that person was born? Who did they first vote for in a presidential election? What historical events happened when they were young?

2. Family Board Game

This is the ultimate activity for family game night! This personalized board game uses multiple trivia questions on game cards for each family member and a board game template, just like Monopoly or Candy Land. You can find this creative idea at Photo Gifts and Ideas, which has helpful how-to instructions on creating your very own board game + FREE templates you can download.

I plan to create a few of these and play with my family at our next family reunion.

Family Board Game Templates on Photo Gifts and Ideas Blog

Family Board Game Templates on Photo Gifts and Ideas Blog

3. Create Personal Timelines

This was an exercise my history teacher had us do in Middle School and I found it so valuable that I’ve saved it all these years. We were instructed to add our personal timeline to one side and include important historical events on the other side. Since I was only 13, you can see that I added the most important events in my life at the time like my little brother being born and getting my first dog.  Creating my personal timeline helped me pay attention to current and historical events at a younger age, but the best part now is that I have this adorable timeline that I hope to show my kids someday.


Personal Timeline

Personal Timeline

Want more ways to get your kids excited about Family History Month? Check out our suggestions from Week One and Week Two.

What fun or creative activities are you doing with the children in your family to get them excited about family history? Tell us in the comments below!

]]> 0
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.

]]> 9
Five Tips to Discover Your Eastern European Roots Wed, 22 Oct 2014 15:18:12 +0000 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

]]> 0
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

]]> 1