For those of us with ancestors who traveled, itâ€™s time to put on our dancing shoes and do a little â€œfamily history happy dance.â€ Ancestry has posted a database of U.S. passport applications, and it encompasses an amazing group of records, many of which include photographs of the applicants. This database really needs to come with the warning, â€œCaution: These records have the ability to consume entire afternoons and evenings and cause you to neglect your work for hours, resulting in missed deadlines.â€ Seriously. You would not believe the hours I spent in this database reading about people–most of whom werenâ€™t even related to me!
I found information on some individuals that will be a dream-come-true for many family historians. What struck me most were the stories. Because many of the records included the reason for the passport request, we really get a unique look at the applicants that we may not find in other records.
A Bit of History
In one 1846 record, I found a collection of handwritten letters requesting a passport on behalf of a Benjamin V.R. James. The first letter, written 11 June 1846 in New York reads,
“Mrs. Codwise and some other ladies of our city have formed a society called the Liberian School Society for the establishment and support of schools in Africa. They have lately engaged a very respectable colored man named Benjamin V.R. James to go out as a teacher and superintendent of one of their schools. He is an intelligent, pious, and dignified man and for some weeks, since my family has gone into the country has occupied the basement of my house in St. Mark’s Place. It is desirable that he should have a passport from the Secretary of State’s office and I should be much obliged if you would procure it and thus contribute your quota toward the benevolent object of the ladies.”
This entry would be of interest to both the Codwise and James family descendants.
Wish This Was My Janos
The 1924 record of Janos Jeno Szucs caught my eye since we have three generations of Janos/John Szucs in our family. (Click on the image to see two pages from this record.)Â Â It includes an â€œAffidavit to Explain Protracted Foreign Residence and to Overcome Presumption of Noncitizenship.â€ The document reveals that he had been living in Felsogagy, Hungary, and in it Janos states that,
â€œI was brought back to Hungary by my mother in 1900 when I was one year old and have ever since resided with her. Owing to lack of funds I could not return earlier to the United States. I have three times been called upon to perform military service but was found physically unfit for such service.â€
The document goes on to give the names and addresses of his cousin, Steve Dvoracaki, and uncle, Stephen Kokai, in the United States. An affidavit is provided by another apparent relative, Lajos Kokai, a native of Budapest, Hungary. That same page lists Janosâ€™s baptismal certificate–â€œissued by the Holy Ghost Church of So. Bethlehem, Pa.â€–as an identifying document and goes on to says that heâ€™ll be joining his cousin Steve in Niles, Ohio. There is also a photograph of Janos.
What a wealth of information on the family! And I couldnâ€™t help but think how confusing he might be to research without the details contained in this document.
Something for My Own Family
I did manage to find one of my relatives in this database. My mom was adopted by her motherâ€™s sister and her husband when she was very young, and she grew up with that family. Her uncle, who we always called Grandpa Pyburn, was a mining engineer in Mexico. His passport record is six pages long and includes a photograph of him from 1919 when he was twenty-five. Among the other cool things I found in his file was an affidavit from his father with his fatherâ€™s signature and included dates and places of birth for both of them. Their address in 1919 is also included, as well as the name of the company Grandpa worked for.
Grandpa Pyburn worked in Mexico for many years and although he was married in 1923 in Brooklyn, he does not appear in the 1930 census because he was working outside the U.S. And he certainly wasnâ€™t the only one who found employment outside U.S. borders.
Working Outside the U.S.
In browsing through entries for other surnames in our family tree, I ran across a record for George Sterling Dyer, also in the mining industry–although his work took him to Siberia. (Brrrr! I think Grandpa Pyburn had the right idea!)
Following Mr. Dyerâ€™s passport, is a request for his wife Carrie (along with her photograph) and an amendment that states, â€œit is necessary for me to have included in my passport my two minor children, Florence and Jessamine.â€ A photo of the two girls is on that page as well.
Another businessman, Michael Dyer was headed to Havana, Cuba, with his wife and son. Their passports followed his and an added bonus is Michaelâ€™s date and place of birth–Brackloon, Ballyhaunis, Ireland, on 29 September 1865.
Traveling to Settle Estates
I found two records of individuals returning home to settle family estates. Not only does the usual information provide clues, but the reason for their traveling could give you a clue as to the death date of a parent or other family member.
In the record of Marius Nielson I found a reminder of the effects of war. He was returning to Denmark in November 1919 because, “both parents died during the War and I must visit the home relative to settling [sic] the estate.â€
Using This Database
The records in this database cover more than a century of records and the content will vary by era. Earlier records that I viewed tended to be a little sparser in content but typically contained the age of the applicant. And if you can identify an ancestor in these records you will likely be rewarded with a good description of that person, since they didnâ€™t have photographs to identify people in those days.
Youâ€™ll want to search for everyone in the family too. You may find your ancestor signing as a witness for a brother, sister, or some other collateral relative, and in many of the records, those providing affidavits typically also listed their address.
As I mentioned earlier, there is usually more than one page pertaining to each applicant, so be sure to click through to the next image and back to the previous records to see if there is additional information or other family members. I also found a number of instances like the Dyer example above where other family membersâ€™ applications followed.
Use Census in Tandem
Finding Grandpa Pyburnâ€™s passport application brought back a flood of memories. I remember when we would visit him he would take me to the grocery store with him–just the two of us–in his car that I thought was very cool because it had a push-button gear shift. And he would always let me go on the rides in the front of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon with him in his den. When I was growing up, he was the only one who always called me Juliana–although it was also occasionally used when I was in trouble for something.
The memories prompted me to revisit his family history, and I even managed to find his fatherâ€™s family in the 1880 census–a record that had evaded me for years–using the birth date his father gave on the affidavit. (They were enumerated as Pylerson thanks to an enumerator with crummy handwriting.)
I now have the Pyburn family in censuses going back to 1860. I even found Grandpa Pyburnâ€™s grandfather in the New York Emigrant Savings Bank database that gave his place of birth as County Cork, Ireland, his arrival in the U.S in 1851, and his wife’s name, Mary Ryan.
Coincidentally my mother recently discovered some letters from Grandpaâ€™s father in her files and I canâ€™t help but think that itâ€™s appropriate that all these things are surfacing at this time of year, as the 20th of November marked the 28th anniversary of his death. Although he was not a blood relation, he is definitely an important part of our family history.
What Stories Have You Found?
I’m sure you’re going to have some fun with this database too. Please let us know what kind of gems you find in the comments section below.
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.