Happy July 4th–and Happy 50th to the Freedom of Information Act! Read more about the FOIA and genealogy records we can access because of it.
Today we in the United States celebrate our Independence Day with grateful hearts and parades. Well, genealogists with U.S. ancestors have an extra reason for fireworks: today marks 50 years since Congresss signed the Freedom of Information Act into law, and the U.S. became one of the first nations to open its records to the public.
The Freedom of Information Act
The FOIA opens certain kinds of information about the federal government and certain information created by the federal government. It doesn’t apply to everything, including documents that relate to national security, privacy and trade secrets. The FOIA also only applies to documents created by the federal government, not state or local governments.
Since it was passed, the FOIA has continued to be expanded and amended. Over the years, the numbers of FOIA document requests has skyrocketed, too. In the first five years after the FOIA passed, it only resulted in about 500 total requests for information–that’s an average of just 100 per year. Last year alone, there were more than 700,000 requests!
The FOIA and Genealogy
So, of course we have to ask the question: how well do FOIA and genealogy go together? As it turns out, quite well. My favorite FOIA request is for an ancestor’s Social Security application (the SS-5 form). This is the form that generated the assignment of a relative’s Social Security number and was the first step to receiving any Social Security benefits. It’s what the very limited information on the Social Security Death Index comes from, as well as the much-richer (but not comprehensively available) Social Security Applications and Claims database at Ancestry.com. That was released last year and caused a LOT of us to do a serious genealogy happy dance.
But if you want to see everything in that SS-5 application, you should order an image copy of the original (you can now also order a computerized abstract of it, which is cheaper but might not get everything right). Here’s what an SS-5 application looks like:
This one confirms the names of an African-American man’s parents–parents who survived slavery and left few other records of their existence. This man was part of the first generation in his family to legally learn to read and write. His signature is on the record.
You can also access other key 20th-century genealogy records that haven’t made it online yet–and in some cases, haven’t even been sent to the National Archives yet.
These include the following (with links to where to learn more):
- Post-WWII Selective Service records: draft registrations and SS-102 forms (with more draft/military information on them), through the end of 1959;
- Naturalization certificate files from 1906 to 1956;
- Alien registration forms from 1940 to 1944;
- Visa files from 1924 to1944;
- Registry files for 1929 to 1944 (these document the arrival of an immigrant whose passenger or other arrival record could not be found for whatever reason);
- A-files, alien case files for 1944 to 1951;
- Certain FBI files and certain CIA records (here’s a link to the slides from a National Archives presentation on using FBI files for family history.
There is some fine print on some of these records request procedures, so read carefully what records are there, what you’re allowed to order and how to request it. Happy Independence Day–and Happy FOIA anniversary!
More FOIA and Genealogy Gems
Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 21 about military record requests through FOIA
Passenger Lists Records:
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 34
Video & Show Notes
Original air date: 11/19/20
If you’ve ever struggled to find a passenger list or figure out what it’s telling you about your family history, you’re in the right place. In this episode I’ll show you where to look, and how to interpret what you find. Click to watch the video and follow along with the notes below:
A Question About Passenger Lists
Genealogy Gems Premium Member and Elevenses with Lisa viewer Deborah Huber wrote in about some challenges she was having with passenger lists.
“Hi Lisa, I have a few questions about the passenger records I have found for my mother and grandparents. They are all from Ancestry.com.” Let’s go through Deborah’s questions step-by-step.
Deborah is looking for the Felberg Family:
- Otto age 33 (Grandfather) b. 1894
- Marta age 23 (Grandmother) b. 1904
- Ruth age 3 (Mother) b. 1924
- They Sailed March 25, 1927 from Hamburg Germany to New York
“My mother was born in Heinrichshoff on “Stork Day,” a day celebrating the return of the storks in the spring and welcoming them to their nests on top of the chimneys.”
Passenger List records to look for:
- German Passenger list (the outbound record)
- New York Passenger lists (the incoming record)
Searching for the New York Passenger List
How to search for passenger lists at Ancestry: Search > Immigration & Travel > Search by name and birthdate. If you don’t see both expected passenger lists (ex. Hamburg and New York) check the Card Catalog. Example search: Hamburg passenger or Germany passenger. From the results page you might have the opportunity to click through and see a photo of the ship. You may also find a link to additional passenger lists (in this case, the Hamburg Passenger List).
Question: “Also, my mother always said that they didn’t go through Ellis Island but did land in NY City. I think Castle Gardens was already closed in 1927 so I’m trying to figure out where they did land.”
Answer: The record collection title alerts us to what is included in the passenger list collection: New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957
A quick Google search will tell us the dates that Castle Garden was in operation: “From August 3, 1855 to April 18, 1890, Castle Garden was America’s first official immigration center, a pioneering collaboration of New York State and New York City.”
Tip: Search Multiple Sources for Passenger Lists
You may find the quality of the digitized image varies from one genealogy website to the next.
Top Free Resources for searching for Ellis Island passenger lists:
- Ellis Island Passenger List Search at the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. Website: https://heritage.statueofliberty.org/passenger
- Stephen Morse: https://stevemorse.org/
Tip: Finding Passengers When Names are Hard to Read
When names are difficult to read, focus on other information that is easier to spot such as the person’s age. In the Felberg family’s case, Ruth was 3 years old. Looking for a “3” in the age column proved much easier than reading the names.
Identifying the Location Named in a Passenger List
Question: On the screenshot from the Hamburg list is says the destination was “Greenlake”. Is that a port? All I could find on the internet about Greenlake is that it is a NY state park.
Answer: The “Greenlake” mentioned in the indexed passenger list record refers to the final destination, not the port of arrival. Carefully review both original passenger list records.
Tip: Don’t Miss Page 2
Like many genealogical records, passenger lists records may be more than one page. If the index refers to something that you do not see when you click through to the original record, it is a strong indication that there is another page. Always look at the pages before and after any digitized record. In this case, we find Greenlake, WI on page 2!
- 1820 – 1907: Ship manifests are 1 page in length
- After 1907: Manifests are 2 pages with additional information provided.
Source: The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.
Now that we know that Greenlake is Greenlake, Wisconsin, we can run a quick Google search to find the correct name and county: Green Lake, Wisconsin. Then continue your googling to find more historical information such as old maps and postcards. Click “Images” on the results page to quickly review the results.
Here are a few of the resources we found for Green Lake, WI:
Deciphering the Passenger List
There is a wealth of information on the Felberg’s passenger list, starting with the name of Otto’s father and the town where he lived:
Hamburg Passenger Lists
Question: “I can’t read the actual document which is the Hamburg Passenger List.”
Answer: The Hamburg passenger list can be found in the Card Catalog. Card Catalog > Search Title (Hamburg Passenger Lists)
2 results: the passenger lists and the index.
We discovered that not only was the passenger list extremely difficult to read due to the ink copying over the page, but also the link did not go to the correct page. This is where the Index, found through the Card Catalog, because indispensable.
- 1925-1934 (The Felberg’s arrived in 1927)
- Band 161 (1927 F-J) (The year of their arrival and “F” for Felberg)
- F (for Felberg)
Search the Index to locate the page number for the passenger’s record. Then go back to the original record and find the handwritten page number in the upper corner.
Tip: Quickly Navigate the Ancestry Record
Simply press the appropriate key on your computer keyboard to quickly navigate the pages.
“N” = Next page
“P” = Previous page
Visit Elevenses with Lisa Episode 17 for more Ancestry search tips and tricks.
We found the Felberg family on page 117, exactly where the index said they would be. It’s a good idea to search all the passengers for others with the same last name. In this case, Otto’s brother Rudolph Felberg was also on the ship. This aligned with the family lore that Rudolph may have sponsored the family’s move.
- Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 211 With Barry Moreno, Historian at Ellis Island.
Premium Member Bonus Downloads (Membership required – learn more here):
- Download the show notes handout (ad-free).
- Download the exclusive Ellis Island Passenger Lists Quick Reference Sheet
- Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode 153 Jackie Schalk, Director of the American Family Immigration History Center at The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc discusses clues you may find in US passenger lists.