An Index is Only as Good as Its Spelling

Recently I was organizing some research related to my great-grandmother’s sisters (see some photos in my 3-part series on the Slesinski Sisters that begins here).  Three of her four sisters came to the United States on the same ship in 1920.  I found their passenger arrival records many years ago early in my research.  I probably found the record in the early 1990’s, which was long before:

How did we ever find anything?  Back in those ancient days, there were only two options for finding passenger list records: 1) view indexes and arrival records at the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) branches or a LDS Family History Library, or 2) send in a search request – by mail – to NARA.  Oh, and if you did visit a NARA branch in person to research, the only branches that had New York City arrival records – and therefore Ellis Island arrivals – were New York City (then located in Bayonne, NJ) or Pittsfield, MA.

I requested the sisters’ records by mail using the appropriate government form and providing what little information I knew.  Luckily, they found them and sent me the records.  What you received back then were full size images – 17 x 22 inches.  The arrival records in 1920 had two pages of information (including relative in the home country, birthplace, and physical description), and since the three sisters were separated on two different pages, in total I received four very large sheets – well worth the money! (Read more about The Way It Was with regard to passenger lists!)

But coming back to the present…I realized I did not have a digital copy of the record.  Since it is not easy to scan such a large document, I figured I would just look it up.  Since I have a subscription to Ancestry, I went to the site and entered one of the sisters’ names.  Result: nothing.  Hmm…  I remembered the surname was misspelled on the list, so I tried Sleszynska.  Result: nothing (Actually, while writing this post I tried again, and one sister is entered with the name spelled that way; however, I must have tried her sister’s first names or misspelled her first name, because I could not find the correct entry with a name search.)

Wait a minute, I know when they came and what ship they came on – how hard can this be?  Once again, I was not able to find their records.  Finally I removed the name from the search field and looked at all the Polish women who arrived on the SS Adriatic on 15 October 1920.  By this point, I was really curious as to how their names were entered into the database.  Since I had the pertinent data, I eventually did find them…but would I have known it was them if I was searching for the very first time and wasn’t sure when they actually arrived?

Let’s look at the sisters’ names: Janina, Zofia, and Marianna Slesinska, possible spelling Sleszinska.  This is how they are indexed on the various online sites:

Ellis Island’s site lists

  • Sleszyaska, Janma
  • Sloskynska, Zonia
  • Slexzynska, Maryanna

Ancestry’s site lists

  • Sleszyuska, Jama
  • Sloszyaska, Zo??A
  • Sleszynska, Maryanna
  • There is also an entry that reads Sister in 17/18 Janna Sloszyaska

Keep in mind, if you will, that the first two sisters appear one below the other on the list…

Now, as far as Polish surnames go, this one is not too difficult.  Based on the principles of the Soundex system, only one of these listings would actually be found using a search for either Slesinska or Sleszinska, and that would be Ancestry’s entry for Maryanna Sleszynska.  For Soundex to work, you at least need right-sounding consonants in the right places! Of course, even to find that one entry you would have to either wade through all of the entries or search for the first name “Maryanna” in lieu of “Marianna”.

Even Steve Morse’s site wouldn’t find these ladies if I didn’t already know where to look!

But there is an irony to this search that made it all the more amusing.  Of all the immigrant relatives I have, and all of the passenger arrival records I have copied, this list – the one with the surname-spelling-challenged-sisters – is typewritten.  It’s not even handwriting!  But, just because it’s typewritten doesn’t mean it’s legible…let’s finally take a look at these hard-to-find ladies:

Entry on the passenger list for Maryanna Sleszynska - although some white-out would have been helpful.

Passenger list entry for "Janma" and "Zo ia" - well, at least they knew they were sisters!

All I know is that in the original NARA indexes, Zofia really is listed as “Zofia Sleszynska” – for that is how I found these ladies in the first place!  The old adage is true…computers are only as good as what goes into them.  The moral of the story is…if you can’t find someone in an online index, it doesn’t mean they are not there – it just means they are hard to find!

By the way, you can still order passenger arrival list copies from NARA using the form via mail or online.  I wonder if you still get the 17″ x 22″ images?

2 thoughts on “An Index is Only as Good as Its Spelling

  1. Interesting post, which gave me some hope. I have been searching for one of my ancestors for several years, using various creative spellings for the surname and given names, with absolutely no luck. I am about ready to start searching all the ships line by line, probably my only option. You have given me hope that I will find him that way. Hope I make a good guess on the year.

  2. GrannyPam,

    Steve Morse’s site is great for trying to find folks on the passenger lists.

    Once I found someone whose last name was listed as a first name and vice versa, so consider that.

    Does census info give you a year to look for? Have you tried finding a naturalization record?

    Good luck – let us all know what you find.


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