A Great Discovery

Naturalization Certificate of Elizabeth Miller Pater, who was naturalized on December 13, 1954 at the age of 64.

Of all the great discoveries I’ve made in over twenty years of genealogical research, one of the most amazing was made just this last month! It didn’t add a generation to the family tree or uncover new names, but it brought both a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. Several months ago while finding my ancestors on the 1940 Census, I realized something that I should have realized a long time ago: my great-grandmother Elizabeth Miller Pater wasn’t naturalized, at least not in 1940. Even though her husband (Louis Pater) was naturalized in 1925, wives had to file separately. I searched for her papers in the same court that her husband used, but nothing was found. It finally dawned on me that she would have had to file for the Alien Registration Act in 1940. There were two things I desperately wanted to find regarding Elizabeth: her birthplace and a photograph. Would her alien registration papers help me?

I filed a request with USCIS, and they quickly located her index file. I found out that she was naturalized in 1954. I then sent for a copy of the full file. After many, many months of waiting, it finally arrived. It contained 30 pages of information, some useless and some priceless! Not only did the file include her petition and certificate for naturalization in 1954, but also her alien registration forms from 1940. I could probably write several posts about the complete documentation, but here are the highlights:

What Made Me Smile

I have written before about how difficult it was to find Elizabeth on the passenger arrival records. With a surname like Miller (or Müller), there were plenty of candidates. But I did find her eventually (see the link above). According to her passenger arrival record, she came from Żyrardów, Poland, which I assumed to be her birthplace. In the naturalization file, the first smile on my face was at the fact that the U.S. Government couldn’t locate her – at first – on the arrival records either.

Apparently my great-grandmother wished to apply for Social Security benefits, and she couldn’t get them without either proof of birth or proof of citizenship. She remembered the exact date she arrived – April 16, 1909 – but she could not remember the name of the ship. She mis-identified the port of entry as Philadlphia instead of New York, so the folks at the Immigration and Naturalization Service could not find the record. I guess Steve Morse’s site didn’t exist back then or it might have been easier for them!  The letter said:

Referring to your citizenship application in which you allege arrival at Philadelphia, PA on Apr. 16, 1909 via S.S. unknown, you are advised that all records at the port at which you claim entry have been examined and no record referring to you has been found.

I laughed….yeah, I couldn’t find her at first either! But eventually, they did, once they searched for the port of New York and looked under her maiden name. She was trying to remember an event that took place 45 years before, so her memory was a bit fuzzy on the details.

I also smiled because every paper in the packet identifies her birthplace as Żyrardów, which I assumed, and her birthdate as 21 November 1890, which I knew from other records. This made me smile because more than one researcher has been unable to find evidence of her birth in Żyrardów on that date. I know that should make me sigh, not smile, but my own conclusion based on my extensive research was exactly what she said.

What Made Me Cry

A recurring theme on this site is my desire to find photographs of my ancestors because I have so few. I even entitled one post about Elizabeth “Do you have a photo of my great-grandmother?” I did have one, and I didn’t want to be greedy because one is so much better than none at all. So when I saw Elizabeth’s photo included in the naturalization documents, I cried. It was tears of joy, but it was the first time in my life I found a new photo of a great-grandparent – the few photos of six of my greats have been with me since childhood. This one was new. She’s a bit older, and looking not-too-happy, but it brought me great joy to see her. And also to see a resemblance-she immediately reminded me of my Aunt Joan, Elizabeth’s granddaughter.


As I casually read through Elizabeth’s Alien Registration papers (no photo required with those, in case anyone is wondering – I will transcibe the questions on the form in a future post), one little word raised my eyebrows and would have knocked me over had I been standing up.  The question:

13. I have the following specified relatives living in the United States:

Parents: (one, none, or both) _______

Her response? One.

Um, wait… WHAT?  SHE HAD A PARENT IN THE UNITED STATES IN 1940? I had a great-great-grandparent here in the United States! That, my friends, was news to me. When she came to the country in 1909, she came alone (at age 18), and there was never any indication that either of her parents came here.

I have suspicions it was her mother (yet another future post on why I recently had those suspicions). Either way, again the surname of Miller is a bit problematic. I have found one candidate on the 1940 census for her mother, Elizabeth Smetana Miller, and none for her father, John Miller. Both were born in Poland, likely in the town of Zelów in the Łódź province, and lived in Żyrardów in the Mazovia province since before Elizabeth’s birth in 1890 and at least at the time of her immigration in 1909. Much, much more to come on this new development as I track down which parent was here, when they came, and where they lived. And the obvious…that one parent here in 1940 was also required to register as an alien (assuming they hadn’t been naturalized prior to 1940)!

That’s the great thing about genealogy – you’re always discovering and finding something to smile about (or sometimes cry about). And, there’s always the possibility that you’ll be surprised. Here’s to more great discoveries!

[Written for the 121st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Great Discoveries]

10 thoughts on “A Great Discovery

  1. Loved this post and rejoiced with you on the photo of your ancestor (I, too, only have one photo of one of my great-grandmothers) and especially the news that she had a parent living in the US in 1940. That is a tremendous find and I know that you will eventually track that down as well.

  2. Great post Donna, like you I look for a photo of them as well (or event their signature). Something concrete that shows they were here (besides a record that was filled out by someone else.
    I do have a quick question, how long did the initial search take from USCIS? I requested an initial search a few weeks ago (to see what they held) and have not heard anything. I cannot find what I did with the request # they gave me. Ughhh – my printer was down when I requested, so I did not print the info out like I normally do.

  3. Great article, Donna! What a wonderful discovery! I can relate as I made a similar discovery last year. It wasn’t a direct-line ancestor that I discovered had traveled to the U.S. unbeknownst to me but a great grandaunt. But it gave me the same “oh wow, what?” moment. I look forward to reading about your research going forward. I had no luck finding my great grandaunt in the U.S. after finding her on a ship manifest so I’m thinking she may have just traveled here to visit family and then returned to Poland.

    How did you come up with a 30-page naturalization document? I recently sent for the naturalization docs for my recently deceased Aunt Renee and all I got back were 4 pages with no new info for me. 😦 It did come in the mail in just a couple weeks but I would gladly have waited a few more weeks for more detailed docs!

    Thanks for sharing in the COG, Donna!

  4. I was so envious of the picture on the certificate!! and 30 pages of documentation — gotta be some real gems in there. Congratulations

  5. I love reading about your discoveries, Donna. Your explanation about the discovery of your great-grandmother’s naturalization records and all the wonderful finds that went along with that is enjoyable to read. It is also a great source of ideas for those of us trying to do similar research. As always, you have included your personal story with your tips and experience thrown in for your readers’ benefit. Great find and great story!

  6. What a wonderful discovery! I think I would have cried seeing that photograph. I’ve never worked with these records. You’ve made me wonder if something like this might exist for my great grandfather who never became a citizen, though he was here as early as 1903. Thank you for sharing!

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