Your ancestors were from the Big City! Or were they? I recommend using caution when it comes to researching “big city” ancestors… That’s not because it’s harder to find ancestors in big cities – in fact, sometimes it’s much easier than finding them in small towns. But researchers should use caution because sometimes the information your ancestor gave on “official” records may not be entirely accurate after all.
Well, almost from there…
Years ago my brother joined the Marines and went to boot camp. Most young adults away from home for the first time feel a combination of joy and excitement mixed with a fair amount of homesickness, and strong young men joining the Marines are no exception. To combat the homesickness, many would try to seek out others “like” them; that is, people from their hometown. On day, my brother heard, “Hey, Ski, there’s a guy in Company C from Philly, too!” When he got a free moment, he sought the guy out – “Hey, I’m from Philly – what neighborhood are you from?” The guy sheepishly replied, “Uh, I’m actually from Reading.” Reading is a town in Pennsylvania about 50 miles outside of Philadelphia. My brother must have looked confused, because the young man added some clarification, “Nobody outside of the Delaware Valley ever heard of Reading, but if I say Philly they know where I’m from!”
My brother’s tale this serves as a modern example of something our ancestors occasionally did – not quite tell the truth about their birthplace. If you’re not careful, such “white lies” can lead you down the wrong road of research.
My great-grandfather, Louis Pater, duly noted his birthplace as “Warsaw” on his draft registration for World War I and also World War II. Genealogists looking for the magic answer might immediately act on that vital piece of information. But careful genealogists know that it’s better to verify that fact and weigh it against all possible record sources before zoning in on the one town. You see, Louis was a lot like the young Marine from Reading – not many Americans ever heard of Żyrardów, but nearly everyone has heard of that other town nearby…Warsaw.
Weighing the evidence
Would other record sources for Louis, his siblings, and his parents match up to Louis’ draft cards? Yes and no. Some records also listed Warsaw, including his mother’s and sisters’ passenger arrival records. Other records, like his marriage and death certificates, only listed “Poland” or “Russia” as the birthplace. But the majority of other sources did list Żyrardów – most notably his passenger arrival record and naturalization papers. In fact, for immigrants, the information on the naturalizations usually holds more weight than most other documents (except, of course, for an official birth or baptismal record).
My German great-grandfather similarly named Munich, or München, as his place of origin on his passenger arrival record, as did his wife. Most of his other records, such as the draft registration or death record, listed “Germany”. When I did finally find a town name, there were at least a dozen towns with the same name to choose from. But, only one was near Munich, and that proved to be the correct one. Why did he list Munich on his passenger list? Either because he actually was living in the city prior to his departure, or because it was the closest big city to his small hometown and therefore easier to identify to a stranger. Sometimes, that big city they name may be pointing you in the right direction for further research.
Does that mean you shouldn’t trust the word of ancestors from big cities? Of course not. But it does mean you have to be more careful. No matter if your ancestors emigrated from Europe or moved around a lot in the US, it definitely pays to collect all possible evidence before making a decision. And sometimes, what you read is true – one of my great-grandfathers really is from Warsaw!