The Tempest

Building one’s family tree and the excitement of “how far back” is a goal of many researchers. But what about the family’s history? Their story? Exploring the historical context in which the family lived can help offer clues to those pesky why questions: why did they leave for New York, or why did they stay in Berlin? Why was the family separated during WWI? Why did the family leave the countryside to live in San Juan? Newspapers can be an excellent source of learning context, particularly for events in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities’ Chronicling America project presents thousands of digitized newspapers from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. While the search tools can be cumbersome, the effort is worth it.

Wondering what happened to your ancestors during Huracán Ciriaco? On 8 August 1899, the storm raked over Puerto Rico, transversing the island from southeast to northwest, bringing 28 days of rain, destruction of farms, thousands dead and many more displaced.[1] This event occurred less than a year after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, an act that ceded the island of Puerto Rico to the United States government. Searches in the digitized newspapers of Puerto Rico help tell the story of Huracán Ciriaco.

Arroz y Habichuelas
La Democracia. (Ponce, P.R.), 15 Aug. 1899 [clip]

A letter from General George W. Davis, the US government appointed military governor of Puerto Rico, appeared in English and Spanish in La Gaceta, the official government newspaper.[2] La Correspondencia provided descriptions of the conditions in locations across the island, saying of Bayamon that tree branches and zinc tiles flew through the air, and that the hospital was without a roof.[3] It took until 15 August, a week after the hurricane hit, for the newspaper of Ponce, La Democracia, to put out an edition. That paper told a dismal tale of property destruction, listing the names of men and what they had lost. The editors wrote of the magnitude of the disaster, which grew day by day:

Conforme transcurren los días, va tomando mayores proporciones la magnitud del desastre que ha sufrido Puerto Rico. Cada momento de espera agrava más la situación, así como cada noticia que se recibe da más extensas amplitudes al cuadro de desolación que se ofrece a nuestros ojos. [4]

What else can be found in the digitized newspapers of Puerto Rico? Join my webinar Soy Boricua: Researching Your Puerto Rican Roots on Tuesday 12 June 2018 at 7pm ET, offered by the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society.

Dedicated to the memory of the #4645boricuas


[1] The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War. Online Collection, Hispanic Division, Library of Congress., accessed 1 June 2018

[2] Gazeta de Puerto-Rico. [volume] ([San Juan, P.R.), 12 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

[3] La correspondencia de Puerto Rico. (San Juan, P.R.), 09 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

[4] La democracia. (Ponce, P.R.), 15 Aug. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Solving a Massachusetts Mystery in the Records of Puerto Rico

Kallvalina McKola?

This is the name I’ve been searching for?

The 1908 civil birth register of James William Collins y Rivera retained an important vestige of the Spanish Civil Code[1] – along with the names of the father and mother, it requested the names of his maternal and paternal grandparents.

1908 Birth James Collins croppedQue es nieto por linea paterno de James Collins y Kallvalina McKola, naturales de Boston. He is the grandson of James Collins and Kallvalina McKola of Boston (paternal line).[2]

The baby’s father, also named James Collins, served in the US Navy, on bases in Puerto Rico and on ships. He was the focus of the research. My client, a native of Puerto Rico, provided the details the family had: James Collins might have been born in Massachusetts or perhaps Ireland. He married Rita Rivera. They had a son, also named James. My task: find James’ birth details and the names of his parents.

The birth register, along with the marriage register,[3]  established that James Collins, the seaman, was born about 1873, the son of James Collins. His mother’s name, the mysterious Kallvalina McKola.

How much Spanish did James speak, and how much English did the clerk know? The records are noted to be copies – did the clerk butcher the transcription? What about applying a phonetic approach? Could Kallvalina be Katarina, which would be the Spanish equivalent of Katherine (or Catherine)?

While there was only one James Collins in Puerto Rico, there were many in the records of Massachusetts. After a lot of digging and analysis, the parents and family of James Collins came into clear view. The death records of two siblings listed a mother named Catherine McCollough, and the birth register of James provided his mother’s given name as Catherine.

Kallvalina McKola. Catherine McCullough.

The clerk who wrote Kallvalina McKola was writing a version of Catherine McCullough. Thanks to the continued tradition of the Spanish Civil Code, that piece of information – the name of the baby’s paternal grandmother – was the key to finding the family in the Massachusetts records.

To learn more about researching the records of Puerto Rico, sign up for Soy Boricua: Researching Your Puerto Rican Roots.



[2] “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 14 October 2014), San Juan > Nacimientos 1907-1908 > image 141 of 254; oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).

[3] “Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 28 March 2015), San Juan > Matrimonios 1905-1907 > image 499 of 522; oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).

The Eastern European Mutt is going to…


…Eastern Europe! I’ll be speaking at the 38th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Warsaw, Poland, August 5–10, 2018.*

Did You Know Your Grandfather was a Twin? and Other Questions I’ve Asked My Mother is my talk on how the translation of the 1897 Census of Dvinsk sent me on a quest to learn about my great-grandfather’s previously unknown twin sister and her family. The story winds through many different record sets in the US and Latvia, as well as Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It also looks at how oral history can help, and how sometimes the brickwalls we encounter are of our own making.

The talk builds off a previous blog post, titled Pages of Testimony. Will I see you there? Early Bird Registration ends 28 April 2018.

*Date and time of talk TBD

Pages of Testimony

Portrait of Ilja BortzI’m sitting with a blank Page of Testimony in front of me. Seventy-six years after Hitler attempted to rid Latvia of its Jews, I’ve been asked by Yad Vashem to complete this form about my grandfather’s first cousin and his family.

In early July of 1941, the Germans occupied Riga. In the process, they shot several thousand Jews and by August of that year, the Riga Ghetto was established. Between 30 November – 9 December 1941, the Germans and their Latvian auxiliary counterparts murdered 26,000 Latvian Jews in the Rumbula forest, five miles from the Ghetto. About 4,000-5,000 Jews remained in the Ghetto; some organized resistance efforts but were discovered in 1942. By summer 1943, the Germans were deporting inhabitants of the Ghetto to Kaiserwald concentration camp, and they destroyed the Ghetto in December 1943.[1]

Records were not kept. Names were not placed meticulously on lists. The fate of my cousins will likely remain forever unknown, lost somewhere between the walls of the Ghetto and the trees of Rumbula. Before the war, 40,000 Jews lived in Riga. Approximately 1,000 survived, but not my cousins.

Today, as I complete the Pages of Testimony, I remember:

Chaim Elijah “Ilja” Bortz, born 3 February 1906 in Daugavpils, the only child of my 2nd great aunt.

Keila Malatsky, married to Ilja. Keila was born 2 June 1897 in Riga.

The children of Ilja and Keila:
•    Nechama-Lea, born Riga 16 December 1930
•    Esther Frade, born Riga 26 January 1937

Ilja’s father, Srol Bortz, born about 1875 in Druya.


[1] Dates and statistics from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
[2] Photograph cropped from Ilja’s confiscated passport, courtesy of Yad Vashem and the Latvia State Archives.

The Name Change Myth

2016 was the year of Fake News. Let’s make 2017 the year that one of those fake stories finally goes away.

Your family’s surname was not changed at Ellis Island.[1]

You know the story. It goes something like this:

  • Carl? That’s not Russian.
  • The clerk at Ellis Island named your family after his son.
  • It was “German Day” at Ellis Island and that’s how your ancestors were called Carl.
  • The name was too long and ended in –sky or –itz or something and the clerk shortened it to make it easier to write.

There are hundreds of variations of this story. None of them are true.

Nope. No. Nein. Nem. Nu. Nie. Нет. קיין .

Language plays an important role in this myth. Many of the people who purport the story of the name change have ancestors who emigrated from a country that used a different alphabet, or had different letters, or used diacritical marks to distinguish pronunciation. An immigrant from the Russian Empire might know how to spell their surname using Cyrillic or Hebrew letters, and that name had to be transliterated into the Latin alphabet. A Pole with the letter Ł in a name would expect a “W” sound, not “L.” Umlauts and other diacritic marks from German, Hungarian, Czech and other languages do not neatly transliterate.

The creation of the ship’s manifests, or passenger lists, took place in Europe. The clerk was at the ticket agency. A copy of that list was sent with the ship’s captain to be presented at the port of entry. Sometimes a copy of that list remained at the port of embarkation.

On 29 May 1900, the Lake Huron set sail for North America from Liverpool, bound for the Port of Quebec in Montreal. An “Outwards Passenger List” was cre1900-jankel-karol-border-crossingated, and kept in England. A similar version of the list went with the ship, and can be found in the Library Archives Canada collections. Both lists have the same version of the surname of an immigrant from Russia: KAROL.

Wait. Montreal? That raises another big factor in the myth. Did the family arrive at Ellis Island? What about its precursor, Castle Garden? Or Montreal? Or Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans or Galveston?

The final destination of this passenger was Boston, not Montreal, so another list is associated with the travel – on a form required by the US Government. Called a List or Manifest of Alien Immigrants for the Commissioner of Immigration, it too, was created prior to arrival. The fine print on the document illustrates that point:

Required by the regulations of the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, under Act of Congress approved March 3, 1893, to be delivered to the Commissioner of Immigration by the Commanding officer of any vessel having such passengers on board upon arrival at….

In this case, the list was used when the passengers prepared to cross the border from Canada to the United States. Again, the surname of the passenger was spelled KAROL.

After a few years of living with his sister-in-law’s family in Boston, this immigrant moved to St. Louis. He earned enough money to pay for the passage of his wife and children. They boarded the Pennsylvania in Hamburg and traveled to the Port of New York, arriving at Ellis Island on 22 Jan 1905. The surname on the manifest read CARROL.1905-jankel-carrol

I can hear the myth-lovers: “that’s it – it was Irish day at Ellis Island, and that is why they changed KAROL to CARROL.”

No. Nope. Nein. Nem. Nu. Nie. Нет. קיין. Or as the Irish might say, Ní féidir.

Like the UK Outwards Passenger List, immigrants leaving from Hamburg were noted on passenger lists; lists stored at the Staatsarchiv Hamburg in Germany. The Hamburg lists match the Ellis Island passenger manifest, surname spelled CARROL.

Sometime between arriving in Boston in 1900 and moving to St. Louis about 1904, Jankel KAROL changed the spelling of his name to Jankel CARROL. When he purchased the steamship tickets for his family, the manifest listed his name and address as: Jankel CARROL, 814 Biddle Street in St. Louis, nearly an exact match to the listing in the City Directory for Jacob CARROL at 814 Biddle Street. Jankel is the Yiddish nickname for Yaacov, the Hebrew version of Jacob. It’s not just surnames that change as families Americanized.1906-fold3_carroll_jacob_p_317_city_directories_for_st_louis_missouri

The surname CARROL changed one additional time, to CARL, before 1910, in St. Louis, some 950 miles from Ellis Island. Why? That cannot be answered. Som1911-jacob-carl-petition-for-naturalizatione educated guesses could be made, but those guesses become stories, and those stories run the danger of feeding the myth.

Let’s recap:

  • Passenger lists and manifests were created by ticket agents in Europe;
  • Alphabets and pronunciation play a role in spelling;
  • Some ports of departure kept copies of passenger lists and the names from those lists match the names on lists at the port of entry; and
  • Not all immigrants arrived at Ellis Island!

Still not convinced? Here are some additional resources discussing the myth of the Ellis Island name change:

Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was)
Philip Sutton, Librarian, New York Public Library

American Names: Declaring Independence and Examples of Name Changes from the National Archives
Marian L. Smith, Senior Historian, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service

The Name Remains the Same
Robin Meltzer, Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington

[1]If only Snopes was on the case.
[2] English slang, Italian & Spanish, German, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish.

New York Minute

Family history told me that my great-grandparents arrived in the US and went to Little Rock, Arkansas, before making their way to St. Louis, Missouri. We all asked the same question: Why did a shoemaker from Daugavpils, Latvia move to Little Rock, Arkansas? Amazingly, I found records that give the answer.

My maternal great-grandparents, Solomon and Anna Ketcher[1] reached New York on 3 July 1904, and headed to a relative’s tenement flat at 102 Suffolk Street, in the heart of the Lower East Side.


102 Suffolk St.

By the time my great-grandmother’s sister, Tilly, arrived on 18 Dec 1904, they had moved to 532 Avenue A in Bayonne, NJ. The day after Tilly arrived, Solomon and Anna’s first child, Robert, was born.

The Ketchers lived with Jacob and Rosa Silk in Bayonne, the same family that previously sheltered them at 102 Suffolk Street. At the time, the Silks had six children between the ages of 2 and 13, so one can imagine that three adults (soon to be four) plus an infant created a problem.

Enter the Industrial Removal Office (IRO) – a scary name for a good organization. The IRO, founded in 1901, was created as part of the Jewish Agricultural Society to assimilate immigrants into American society, both economically and culturally. Originally focused on Romanian refugees, it expanded to assist all Jewish immigrants in finding employment. IRO agents spread around the country worked to secure jobs in communities, and then immigrants would be sent to those locations to establish a new life.

On 10 March 1905, my great-grandfather’s name was entered into the ledger book of the IRO, along with his wife “Annie,” and three others, unnamed but identified by age: 11-week old infant (Robert), and two adults, ages 19 (Tilly) and 25 (Tilly’s fiancé Hyman Atkin). A shoemaker was needed in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Solomon was assigned.

The IRO records include the ledger books, case files and correspondence, as well as reports of local agents. In the case of my family, the records included a copy of the telegram sent to Rabbi Louis Wolsey of Little Rock: “Shoemaker family, five persons, arrive Monday morning nine fifty-five via Iron Mountain Road. Three workers.” [2]


My family lived in New York for just a few months – a “New York Minute” – but that brief footprint was embedded in records, now housed at the American Jewish Historical Society, in the Center for Jewish History in New York.

  1. Ketcher underwent multiple spelling changes, appearing previously Katscher and Katcher.
  2. Image used with permission from the collection of the US Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY and Boston, MA.

Liberty Enlightening the World


On a grey, cold day in October, I boarded a ferry outside the gates of Castle Garden, at the tip of Manhattan.  Looking out the ferry window, my parents and I could see a misty Statue of Liberty. From this vantage, the scene would have looked similar to one more than 100 years ago when three of my four grandparents[1]  arrived in the United States via Ellis Island.

The St. Paul, the Pennsylvania and the Kroonland carried my ancestors through the Narrows and within sight of the famous statue. After the ships passed quarantine inspection, they docked at the Hudson River piers and citizens and most 1st and 2nd class passengers disembarked. Immigrant steerage passengers passed through customs and then boarded ferries, taking them to Ellis Island for medical and legal inspection. They entered the main floor past stacks of luggage, and climbed stairs to the Inspection Room [2].


Across this floor and through these lines walked

  • my maternal great-grandparents, my great-grandmother four months pregnant with her first child, my grandfather.
  • my paternal great-grandmother, shepherding four children under the age of 10, including my five-year old grandfather.
  • my maternal grandmother, three months old and bundled in the arms of her mother, along with her father and older half-sisters.

My maternal great-grandparents passed through inspection, and with $10 and a dream, headed into the cacophony of Suffolk Street and a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

My paternal great-grandmother and her children already had train tickets to their final destination of St. Louis, and after passing inspection would have taken a ferry to the railroad, probably out of New Jersey.

My infant grandmother, her parents and half-sisters also had train tickets to their final destination, however they were detained for several hours over concern that the group might be L.P.C., or Likely Public Charge. They ate dinner (lunch) in the detention cafeteria before it was determined that the group had not $10 but actually $45 dollars and the capacity to continue the journey by train to St. Louis.


My parents in the Ellis Island Registry Room.

The visit to Ellis Island brought me and my parents back to the beginning of our immediate family’s life in the United States. Our Ellis Island immigrants comprised just 12 of the more than 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island during its years of operation (1892-1954).

What is your immigrant story?







  1. Including my maternal grandfather in utero.
  2. Detroit Publishing Co., Copyright Claimant, and Publisher Detroit Publishing Co. Inspection room, Ellis Island, New York. [between 1910 and 1920] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed November 03, 2016.)


What do Albuquerque, Miami, Houston, Boston, Providence and Los Angeles have in common?

Genealogy Roadshow!

The PBS program that is “part detective show, part emotional journey” features incredible stories of everyday Americans. As a senior researcher for Genealogy Roadshow, I worked with lead genealogists Kenyatta Berry, Joshua Taylor and Mary Tedesco to dive deep into archives and other repositories for the evidenced needed to solve mysteries and provide the cast members with long-sought for answers.

More than 10,000 applications were sent in for Season 3, and can share your story and questions with Genealogy Roadshow here. Camera shy? Hiring a professional genealogist might be a better route for you. Check out my services and tips for working with a professional.
Season 3 begins airing on Tuesday 17 May at 8pm ET and runs through 28 June 2016. Check your local listings for your stations and time.

Tell Me A Story

Oral history is arguably the backbone of genealogy. “Every story has a kernel of truth,” I hear myself telling clients, “let’s figure out where the story started.”

This Thanksgiving, StoryCorps is promoting The Great Thanksgiving Listen, an effort to encourage interviews of people over the age of 65. While it’s geared towards teachers and high school students, StoryCorps developed an app that just about anyone can use.

With so many people joining family and close friends in the coming weeks, take time to ask someone to tell you a story. Some fantastic interview tips can be found here, and a more comprehensive resource page is here.

Question prompts I use include:
•    Find a group photo or a childhood photo with the person you are interviewing. As him or her about who else is in the photo, where it was taken, if it was a special holiday or celebration.
•    Building on that theme, ask your interviewee about their favorite holiday, special foods their parents or grandparents made. Ask about old traditions.
•    When was the first time they flew in an airplane? What was the make and model of their first car? Did they serve in the military? What was their first job?
•    Where did they go to school? Did they have a favorite teacher or subject to study?
•    Did they grow up in the city, or on a farm? Who else lived with them when they were children? Were other family members living nearby?

It might take more than one try. You might need to take a break, or do it a different time of day. Offer to also let the person interview you. Most importantly, sit back, and listen.

“Records from Letichev, including Medzhybizh…”

I read that line in an email on the UkraineSIG listserv, a part of, and my mouth dropped open. Records from Medzhybizh? How do I get my hands on those?!

Researching Eastern European origins presents a variety of challenges: languages, shifting country borders, name changes, and records loss. There is also the myth of records loss – the Nazis destroyed everything – and then there are the true, devastating losses.

On 10 April 2003, a massive fire tore through the Kamyanets-Podilsky Archives, destroying or damaging more than 100,000 files, including “five the most valuable fonds of the history of Kamyanets-Podilsky Province since the end of the XVIII – the beginning of the XX century.”(1) The archives held the records of the area that comprised Podolia guberniya during czarist times.

According to an article in Avotaynu (2), “Five of the most valuable fonds were severely damaged:

  • f.226, Podolia State Chamber (Kazennaia Palata) (1796-1919);
  • f.228, Office of Governor of Podolia (1795-1917);
  • f. 112, Office for Peasant Affairs of Podolia Guberniya (1861-1919);
  • f. 678, Kamianets city office (1875-1920); and
  • f. 249, Office of Military Governor (1795-1845).

Destroyed or damaged records also included revision lists and Jewish metrical volumes. Since the 2003 fire at the Kamyanets-Podilsky Archives, researchers with ancestors from towns in the region have wondered if they might ever access or work with data relating to their relatives. My paternal grandmother’s parents were both born in Medzhybizh, so this has always had a great impact on the research for my family.

Today, with the support of, I’m announcing a fundraising campaign to support the translation of records from Letichev and Uezd, including Snitkov, Derazhnia, Medzhybizh, Zinkov, Mikhalpol, Volkovintsy, Butsnevtsy. Yes, you read that right – documents for Letichev and the towns of Snitkov, Derazhnia, Medzhybizh, Zinkov, Mikhalpol, Volkovintsy, Butsnevtsy!

This project will translate and index 1221 images of records from towns of Lectichev and its uezd, including Snitkov, Derazhnia, Medzhybizh, Zinkov, Mikhalpol, Volkovintsy, Butsnevtsy. These images are from the 1829 and 1833 lists of families for conscription.

This opportunity to translate and make the dataset and documents originally from the Kamyanets-Podilsky Archives available for study is truly exciting news, and needs your donations to make it a success.

Donate to the project here and look for the line that reads “Document Translation and Indexing Project for Letichev and Uezd”

We have a translator ready to start, so I hope you will join me in funding this important work.

(1), accessed 27 August 2015

(2), accessed 27 August 2015