My maiden name was Mitchell. Family tradition stated that my grandfather had come to the United States from Austria prior to World War I and that his name was changed at Ellis Island. No one in the family knew the original name.
I had a problem...my grandfather died in 1942 and my grandmother in 1985 (before I began my family history quest). My father remembered his father saying he was from Austria (with a very pronounced accent) but knew little else. I know that individual’s names were not changed at Ellis Island. The manifests were created at the point of embarkation, and then presented to the immigration officials at Ellis Island. There was nothing, however, to stop an individual from using a different name as soon as he or she left the Island. That was most likely the case with my grandfather Here is how I searched for the missing pieces of the puzzle.
I first obtained a copy of my grandfather’s death certificate from Town Hall in Greenwich, Connecticut where he died (an original document with both primary and secondary information). It stated that his name was Frank John Mitchell; he was born on September 19, 1886 in Vienna, Austria; his father’s name was Frank (last name “Unobtainable”); his mother’s name was Ann (last name “Unobtainable”); both parent’s birth places were also “Unobtainable.” He died on November 14, 1942 at Greenwich Hospital of carcinoma of the stomach with metastasis, duration 18 months. The informant for the information on the death certificate was my grandmother.
I knew my father was born in 1920 in Greenwich, so the next primary source for my research was the 1920 federal census. The 1920 census is a wealth of information. I found that Frank J. Mitchell, along with his wife Minnie and son Frank (my father did not appear since the census was done in January and he was born in September) lived (rented) at 43 Sherwood Place in Greenwich. He was 31 years old (making his birth about 1889, different from his death certificate), my grandmother was 25 and Frank was 4 years, 8 months. Although the year of their immigration was unknown, it showed that Frank was naturalized in 1918 and that both my grandparents could read and write. It listed his birthplace as Austria with his primary language as Polish (interesting). My grandmother was shown born in Scotland (I thought she was born in Ireland?) and English as her primary language. The census also gives the birth place and language of each individual’s parents. Frank’s parents were both listed as born in Austria and Polish as their language. Minnie’s were listed as Scotland for her father, Ireland for her mother and English as their language. Frank was a private chauffeur.
These three lines provided a number of new pieces for my puzzle, although not all of them could yet be snapped into place. I realized that I did not know very much about Austria in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Before World War I, the Austria-Hungarian Empire consisted of parts of what we know as Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Austria, Hungary and part of Italy. Since his native language was Polish, did that tell me something about where he was born? Maybe he wasn’t born in Vienna. Since this was a peripheral issue to my main search, I moved those puzzle pieces to the side and concentrated on the next primary source, the Naturalization records. A visit to the National Archives at Varick Street in New York City did not turn up a Naturalization Record for Frank John Mitchell. My father said he really didn’t know anything more and suggested I call his brother.
Sometimes a member of the family may have information that they have neglected to share or which they feel is of little importance. Or maybe, no one has ever asked! I approached my uncle and it turned out he was holding a key piece of my puzzle. He sent me a letter stating that in 1977, after being named conservator for his mother who had been moved to a nursing home, and while cleaning out her house for sale, he discovered two strong boxes under her bed. (Don’t neglect the attic, the basement or any shoe boxes when looking for family history clues!) Among the documents in this box were a marriage certificate, insurance applications and a formal change of name petition filed with the Supreme Court of the State of New York signed by both my grandparents! My grandfather’s name had been Fedor Mylytczuk.
There truly is a paper trail for our ancestors if we look in the right places. Court documents, including deeds, wills can frequently give clues about our ancestors. This particular court document told me that Fedor Mylytczuk was born on the 19th of September 1886 in Kolimea, Austria which is now (1923) in the republic of Poland (I had to go back and learn more about the history of this area). He arrived in the United States in 1907, and petitioned for naturalization in 1912. It further stated, “At the time this petitioner applied for his certificate of landing and sent his application to Washington he stated in said application that it was his desire to change his name to Frank J. Mitchell which name he had assumed and used shortly after his arrival in the United States.” So much for the theory that his name was changed at Ellis Island!
Armed with the correct name and date, I found the Petition for Naturalization for Fedor Mylytczuk at the National Archives in New York City. The additional information from this source told me that his height was 5’ 6”, that he had a dark complexion with brown eyes and brown hair.
Having obtained his correct name and the year of his immigration, I was able to find a copy of the Ship’s Manifest at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Fedor Mylytczuk departed from Hamburg, Germany on the ship Amerika on June 6, 1907 sailing to New York (arrival June 17, 1907). He was single, 21 years old from Liski, Galicia. Passenger arrival records have been kept since 1820 and can be found at the National Archives, the Family History Library as well as many libraries. In addition, many indexes are now available online. The Ellis Island Database covers the period from 1892 - 1924. Earlier arrivals into New York can be found at Castle Garden.org.
My uncle provided me with two other pieces of primary source materials. One was my grandparents marriage license from 1914 which listed his parents as John Mitchell and Mary Prokow. It showed my grandmother’s birthplace as Aberdeen, Scotland and her parents as James H. Sprague and Rachel Mackay. Had this document not been given to me, I would have obtained it from Town Hall in Greenwich, in the same way I obtained a Death Certificate. Births, Marriages and Deaths are Vital Records and can be found in the Vital Records office of the jurisdiction (town or county) where the event took place.
The other item was their Voter Registration Cards from 1924. Frank listed his birth place as Liski, Austria. Minnie listed her birth place as Ballyshannon, Ireland and her birth at December 12, 1894.
You may have noticed a number of discrepancies in my grandmother’s information as we’ve gone along. I have discovered that my grandmother was a very unreliable source of information! I have also discovered that this appears to be a trait of the Irish. I was once told by another Family Historian that you could always count on dates and places being accurate for Germans. If however, you were doing Irish genealogy any date could be “give or take 5 years.” Family stories provide wonderful color and background to your family history puzzle, but remember to document the facts from your own research.
This gives you an idea of how to work from what you know, to what you need to know using original sources and interviews with relatives. I now believe that my grandfather, Fedor Mylytczuk, was born on 19 September 1886 in Liski, Kolimea, Austria (in the region of Galicia). This area is currently part of Western Ukraine. Using the marriage certificate, since this is the earliest document with my grandfather giving the information, I am confident that his parents were John Mylytczuk and Mary Prokow. I still need to obtain a copy of his birth certificate.
If you’re looking for an elusive name change, work back step by step, collecting all of the documents. Keep asking your relatives...aunts, uncles, cousins, because we know they always got the good stuff! <g>