Without sounding too irreverent, there is a Talmudic statement found in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:22 – Ben Bag Bag used to say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. ” Ben Bag Bag was referring to the Torah, and I am definitely not referring to the Torah, but rather to the “facts” or the things we take to be clues when we are doing genealogical research.
Although we need to remain skeptical when reviewing non-documented facts and not trust in anything at all – a name, date or place, until we find documentation, that high degree of skepticism really can serve us well – it causes us to peruse the documents and files, and to expand our range of where and how we look. Sometimes the best we can say is that there is a better than even chance that the material we are examining is the correct documentation. Having accepted that, this new “fact” helps to inform the direction in which we are looking, and may ultimately be proven to be “true.”
It may also prove to be false. Remain skeptical. Look carefully. Examine alternatives and options. Did the person for whom you are searching use other names? Can you find her in a group of people whose names may fit other people you’ve identified? When Amelia could be Malka or Mali, and Becky is Rivke, Martha is Masha, Julius is Yudel and …. well, you get the picture. Imagination may be your most important tool.
After hours of looking for them on US censuses, and then naturalization records I found the censuses but not their naturalization although the claim according to the 1920 census was that that had been naturalized. Of course the census also stated that several members of this family had been born in the US, who, it was clear from when the adults claimed immigration, could not have been.
The matzevah (gravestone) yielded a Hebrew name for Amelia, so armed with that I went to ship manifests to see what I could see. Based on what I “knew” – her approximate year of birth and immigration year I found nothing. By expanding my search and looking for the first name and a “sounds like” choice of the last name, I found a garbled transcription which had some possibilities. When I looked at the arrival manifest, I realized why the transcription was garbled – the manifest was very difficult to read. Then, I looked for corroboration that I was reading the manifest correctly, and found a departure manifest which had the names more clearly written – a mom and 4 children. But wait – my records indicated that she should have only been traveling with 3 children. Where did the 4th come from?
Back to the records I had found – all secondary sources (no birth, death or marriage records) and a careful reading of often smudged documents led me to a census which asked how many children the mom had given birth to and how many were still living. The census form indicated that there was one more child than I had accounted for, who, based on the ages of the other children at that time, had not survived early childhood. Later on, finding a birth record for one of the children born not too many years after the family’s arrival in the US, indicated how many children had previously been born to these parents, the primary source corroborating the secondary source.
The date of the manifests pointed me to the possibilities of when the dad arrived in the US, and armed with this, I was able to find a like, not definitive, but likely manifest.
So, turn it and turn it again – look at the data from all angles and then look some more.