Using Ancestry: The Passports Database, by Michael John Neill

The recently released database of U.S. Passport Applications at was exciting news to genealogists. Frankly, I only had three relatives I thought I might find in the database and unfortunately none of them were located. However, when I began experimenting with search terms and names, I located quite a few family members I had never thought to look for. This week we look at some search strategies in this exciting new database.

The Importance of Family
It is important to remember that the database index used to search these passport applications is not an every-name index. The names that are a part of the database are the name of the applicant and possibly the spouse or the father. (Not every application listed the spouse and/or father.) Names of children (if traveling with the applicant) may also be included on the application, but they are not searchable.

Additionally, some applications have names of witnesses or individuals providing testimony for the applicant–also potential relatives. Other applications may have a name and an address of where the passport should be sent, not necessarily the applicant’s permanent address. All of these names could be additional clues and their presence reinforces the importance of searching for extended family members in this database.

The 1905 application of John Goldenstein from New Mexico is a case in point. Witness, L. U. Albers, indicates he has known Goldenstein for sixteen years, since approximately 1889. Goldenstein says he immigrated in May of 1889 and lived for a time in Nebraska and New Mexico. Albers knowledge of Goldenstein for sixteen years suggests that he also spent time in Nebraska. Goldenstein’s passport is to be sent to him in care of Mrs. T. M. Ehmen in Sterling, Nebraska, not to his actual address. Most likely he was stopping in Nebraska on his way overseas. It turns out that Goldenstein, Albers, and Ehmen were all related to one another, but those relationships are not stated in the application.

Experiment with All Search Boxes
I love playing with the Keyword field, but keep in mind that some applications were difficult to read and that towns, states, countries, names, etc. may be misspelled or abbreviated in both standard and non-standard ways.

A keyword search was performed for “west point illinois,” one of my ancestral stomping grounds. I did not expect all the results to have a location of West Point, Illinois, but several did. An application was located for a Veta Markley who was going to “travel in France and Italy.” She stated she was born in Stillwell, Illinois, in 1892 and that the purpose of her 1918 trip was to serve “my country as a Red Cross nurse.” Markley’s application includes a letter dated March 1918 from the acting vice-chairman of the American Red Cross.

My searches for West Point did not end there. I also searched as a keyword for “west point ills” and then “west point ill,” based upon how the state name for Illinois is occasionally abbreviated. This is an important consideration for any state or location.

Searches can also be conducted for places of origin in Europe as well, either using the Place of Birth field or the Keyword field. I searched, using keyword, for numerous European villages where ancestors had emigrated from (this was done because the villages were small and keyword searches tend to bring out more results). The application of John Goldenstein mentioned previously was located by searching for “wrisse” as a keyword). Unfortunately his application was the only one in the database with that place of birth. My searches for European villages as keywords located several applications for known family members and turned up some new potential relatives as well.

Searches for more urban areas must be more refined. Searching for “chicago” as a keyword will result in more hits than one can reasonably view. Other search parameters or terms need to be utilized to obtain a manageable number of search results. Entering a name is an obvious approach, but other techniques may result in individuals whose names were hard to read on the application or spelled incorrectly. One Chicago area family member I am researching was born in Carlisle, England. I searched the applications for natives of Carlisle residing in Chicago. Although there were results for Carlisles other than the one in England, the number of hits was manageable and there were several Chicago area residents from Carlisle, England in the database.

The difficulty in searching based upon place of birth is the result of several factors

  • Non-standard forms
  • Difficulty in reading/interpreting handwriting
  • Not all places are equally specific (e.g., Some natives of Carlisle, England, may indicate their place of birth as Carlisle, England, while others may indicate County Cumberland, or even just England or Great Britain).
  • The individual may have used the nearest large town instead of the actual place of birth

Do You Really Know the Name?
I stumbled upon the 1911 passport application for Minord H. Francen. My search was for the keywords of “Gothenburg” and “Nebraska” where some of my Ostfriesen relatives settled. The signature certainly looks like Meinerd H. Francen, but my experience indicates the name is probably closer to Meinert Franzen. Meinert indicates his place of birth is Wiesens, but the handwriting could easily be read as “Wierens” which is how it was indexed. Meinert’s application makes the important point of searching for individuals in multiple ways and having a search approach that is creative and flexible.

The search for Gothenburg and Nebraska also resulted in the 1889 application for William Ehmen, whose name is listed as William Eman. A Soundex search on the last name of “Ehmen” would have located this reference. A wildcard search for Fran* would have located the Minord Francen reference. In our attempts to be creative and clever with keyword searches, locations, and names, it is important to remember that wildcards can be used and that on the last name of the applicant, a Soundex search is possible.

I originally did not think I’d be spending too much time in the passports database. Now after finding a few relatives and writing this column, I’ve got even more names to search for.

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Michael John Neill is a genealogical writer and speaker who has been researching his or his children’s genealogy for more than twenty years. A math instructor in his “other life,” Michael taught at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and has served on the FGS Board. He also lectures on a variety of genealogical topics and gives seminars across the country. He maintains a personal website at:
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7 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: The Passports Database, by Michael John Neill

  1. When I was young, my Grandmother used to tell me stories of going to Cuba as a child. She remembers it being warm during the winter, eating bananas and drinking coffee. Being a Cold War baby, I couldn’t fathom this at all – Cuba was a closed county; why would anyone in my Germans from Russia farming family go there? They all lived in North Dakota. I figured my Grandmother was just pulling my leg!

    On Ancestry’s U.S. Passport Application 1795-1925 Database, I found Johan Franz, her father! He had applied for a passport to “The Republic of Cuba” in January of 1918, which was returned to him because the original application “…did not comply with the rules of the Department of State for the issue of a passport.” The Department of State demanded “Documentary Evidence” as the object and necessity of his proposed trip. This application turned out to be nearly three pages long and full of wonderful descriptive, previously unknown details!

    My Great-Grandfather turned to his friends in this large farming community. Two friends, M. Olaf Hausken and W.M. Wilkens, both of Kulm, La Moure County, North Dakota, swore out a joint affidavit in front of two witnesses at La Moure County Bank, stating they had known Johan “…for 20 and 11 years respectively”, and that he was “…a well-to-do farmer of McIntosh County, North Dakota and loyal citizen of the United States of America.”

    The reason for his proposed trip was “…for the sole purpose of selling some real estate for himself and a few friends, which said real estate was acquired some years ago, under some rather questionable ethical representations and just now, he has had a chance to dispose of this property, which, otherwise, may turn out a total loss, and a letter from a friend at Taco Taco, Cuba is hereto attached to explain the purpose of the proposed trip to Cuba.”

    These gentlemen wanted to reiterate their stand for Johan and “…wish to add that there is not the remotest possibility that the proposed trip, at this time, is undertaken for any other purpose than herein above stated.”

    Not only did this application ferret out and document the truth in what Grandmother had told me, it also gave me a picture of my Great-Grandfather, not once, but twice! Although the letter from his friend in Taco Taco, Cuba wasn’t attached, I know I can write the National Archives and see if the letter is still in existence. And, Taco Taco, Cuba does exist!

  2. I used passport section to identify some older photos I had purchased at a flea market. My thought was, these people had enough money to have their photo taken so maybe they had also obtained passports and traveled {my family did not}.

    One photo had a man and baby and on the back it said ” Isabell Forbes” and W. J. Clarke. A brief search shows that Isabell Clarke Forbes was married to Francis Blackwell Forbes {William Clarke was her father} and they were great grandparents of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. However, the photo is dated 1906 which makes it impossible for the picture to be Isabell as she was born in 1846. The man has a very striking resemblence to Senator Kerry so I do think this photo may be his grandfather.

  3. The U.S.passport Collection has been a gold mine for my research. I have found pictures of people I have been researching. I found a connection for my in-laws to a family we had been searching for.The wife was listed as an aunt of my father-in -law and it turned out she really was the sister of my father-in-law’s mother.A great new source.


  5. I did a search on Koverman and found that my gggrandparents had traveled from Pittsburgh to Europe. Amongst the application paperwork was a form stating that on my ggrandfather’s naturalization papers his last name had been spelled incorrectly and that he wanted to fix that mistake for the passport. I’ve had the naturalization papers for years and all this time wasn’t sure it was for my relative. Now I know it really is. What a wonderful find.

  6. I did a search for John Muir(The Naturalist) and found his application for Passport at the French embassy to travel to Russia. He list’s his ocupaation as Geologist. And his witness and travel companion was an important historical figure too. Great riches in this new online material. It’s really fun. Thanks

  7. Pingback: Keywords

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