Look What's Next to Melissa McCarthy!

I just received my latest issue of Irish America magazine, and I have to say that I'm pretty darn tickled to see an ad for my latest book (Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing) parked right next to Melissa McCarthy - a woman I happen to adore! Doesn't get much better than that! Time to go read about Judy Collins, the 50th anniversary of JFK's visit to Ireland, and Boston Strong.

LUCKY 13: A Modest Proposal Regarding Genealogy Grants

Mark Hall-Patton of Pawn Stars and Megan Smolenyak

UPDATE: Will consider applications for family treasures found not only in pawn stores, but also at flea markets, in antiques stores, on eBay. etc. Main objective is to rescue orphaned heirlooms.

Earlier this year, I had the honor of speaking at the banquet of the annual National Genealogical Society conference.  In a sense, I was the opening act, since Mark Hall-Patton of Pawn Stars was the featured speaker, and that makes it wildly appropriate that we were in Las Vegas. 

I had been invited to speak about my Seton Shields Genealogical Grants program (Seton Shields being my mother's name), which you may or may not know about. Because genealogical and historical initiatives and organizations are notoriously under-funded and because I'm so darn grateful to be able to make a living doing what I love, I decided to launch this program soon after I became a professional genealogist. Each month, I review new applications submitted to my website (it's a simple form that was designed to take perhaps 5 minutes to complete), as well as those from the previous 5 months (applications remain active for 6 months). Typically, I pop them all in a folder and my husband and I head off to a local coffee house where we rate each one and debate the merits of our favorites. Once we settle on one, I send off a check. It's as simple as that. 

Summaries of all the grants I've given to date are included on the website, and if you take a good look, you'll notice that it makes no difference whether the application is from an individual or an organization (non-profit or otherwise) or whether it pertains to New Jersey or New Zealand. What does matter to me are factors such as the nature of the undertaking, whether it's a new approach that can serve as a model for others, and how many it could potentially affect. Scan the summaries and you'll see grants for documentaries, ground-penetrating radar rental, cemetery restoration, digitization projects, and bookshelves for a library that just can't afford them. 

All told, I've given 161 grants and this month - May 2013 - just happens to be the 13th anniversary.  When I was invited to speak about these grants at the NGS conference, I wanted to find a way to make it relevant to Mark's talk, and after some noodling, it finally hit me. Vegas, 13th anniversary, pawn stores - Eureka! What about 13 orphan heirloom rescues originating in pawn stores?

Over the years, I've done a number of orphan heirloom rescues -- that is, I've used my genealogical skills to track down the descendants of the original owners of particular family history treasures that have gone astray. They may have turned up at a flea market, at an antiques store, on eBay or wherever, and when they do, people sometimes submit them to me. I've then gone into sleuthing mode, and once I find relatives (hint: I recommend finding descendants who live somewhere other than where the item was purchased so it doesn't end up getting re-sold), the submitter returns the photos, Bible, military medal or other treasure to the family. Occasionally, I write about these rescues. 

Though I've never done a rescue for a piece of family history found in a pawn store, being invited to speak on this occasion made a light bulb go on in my head. Pawn stores are exactly where many such items wind up, so I decided to do a genealogical mash-up blending my grants with orphan heirloom rescues.  At the banquet in Las Vegas, I announced what I'm calling my LUCKY 13 initiative and committed to giving 13 grants for the purpose of purchasing family treasures from pawn stores, doing the detective work to track down descendants of the original owners, and returning the item to that family.

Once you've made a rescue, apply for a Seton Shields Genealogical Grant. Over time, I will select a minimum of 13 such applications and cover the costs. It goes without saying that your odds of a successful rescue will improve considerably if you select an item with some form of identifying information, but if you happen to get stuck in your research efforts, consider submitting for my help with that aspect.

The way I see it, this is a win-win-win. Pawn stores will get sales from what is likely a fresh batch of customers.  Genealogists will get to go on a mini-shopping spree and apply their research talents for this worthwhile purpose.  And at least 13 lucky strangers out there will get a piece of their past back out of the blue.

Those at the banquet that evening were the first to hear about LUCKY 13, but now, I'm asking for your help to spread the word.  Tell your genealogical buddies about this, include it in your society's newsletter (might make a fun group project!), share it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ or wherever you hang out online. Do whatever is easiest for you and let's get these LUCKY 13 rescues under way as soon as possible!

P.S. Feel free to borrow the LUCKY 13 image above!

Jon Hamm and Megan Smolenyak

Yeah, I never thought those two names would belong in a post together, but I recently got to meet Jon Hamm and it turned out he had read my recent Huffington Post piece about his roots. So he was kind enough to sign a copy. He was interested enough that he had actually read a couple of my other articles that were linked. Delighted to find him as gracious a fellow as you would hope.

Smolenyak Classic: Finding Knute Rockne in the Ellis Island Database

So why am I calling this a "Smolenyak Classic"?  Well, it dawned on me recently that I have written hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and blog posts over the years, and the Internet being what it is, some of them are still out there, while others aren't.  I had been toying with the idea of re-posting some of them as Classics, and received the final nudge I needed in the form of an email from a fellow working on a book about Knute Rockne.  He could find a reference to one of my articles, but not the article itself.  So here it is -- the first of my "classics."  This one first appeared in April 2004, and while much has changed, it's remarkable how much is still relevant. 

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the annual Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards where they honor Ellis Island immigrants and their descendants.  This year’s ceremony paid tribute to Martin Scorsese, Paul Tagliabue, Knute Rockne, Robert Rubin, and Dr. Harold Varmus – and under the new “Peopling of America Award” (for immigrants who came through other ports) – I.M. Pei. 

Where’s Knute?

Honorees are presented an elaborately framed copy of their ancestor’s passenger arrival record, and while I was at the event, I learned that the manifest that included famed football coach, Knute Rockne, had been particularly difficult to find.  He had apparently come to the U.S. from Norway as a youngster, but his name – like those of many of our ancestors – had been a difficult one to locate.

Always up for a challenge, I decided to have a go at finding the record myself, and I discovered that he was indeed remarkably well-hidden in the database.  In fact, his situation involved several of the unexpected twists that can occur in the Ellis Island database (EIDB), so I decided to share my search tactics to illustrate how to ferret out your more elusive ancestors.

Data Gathering

Before attempting a search in the database itself, I wanted to equip myself with a few details, so I began by surfing the Internet using google.  By doing so, I learned that:

  • the original form of Rockne was Rokne
  • Knute was an Americanized version of Knut
  • Knute had come here in roughly 1893 with his mother
  • he was from Voss, Norway
  • he was about five years old when he came
  • his father, Lars, had come in 1891 in preparation for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and sent for his family after
  • the family had settled in Chicago

This initial scouting was the equivalent of talking with older relatives, had I been researching my own ancestors.  I had a lot to start with, but hoping to squeeze out a few more bits and pieces of data, I decided to search for the family in census records.  It took a little effort, but by focusing on Chicago and playing with variations of first and last names, ages, and other details, I found them in the 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 census records.  From inspecting these images, I was able to learn that:

  • Knute’s father, Lars, went by the name Louis in the U.S.
  • his mother’s name was Martha and she was born around 1859
  • he had a sister Annie who was born around 1884 in Norway

I was also able to confirm the arrival year of 1893 as this was the date consistently given in these records.  To see them for yourself, just search on “Louis Rokne” at Genealogy.com (for the 1900 and 1910) and “Martha Rockne” at Ancestry.com (for the 1920 and 1930).

Database Diving

With all this information assembled, it was time to go to the EIDB.  Recognizing that I was dealing with a lot of variables – not the least of which was that Scandinavian names come in both farm and patronymic varieties – I decided to use Steve Morse’s search forms (www.stevemorse.org).  I chose his short form (gray) form because I find it to be the most helpful for names that are prone to misspelling (2013 note: I use his gold form for almost all searches now).  And since Knut is one of those names that seems to confound many databases, I opted to center my efforts on his mother, Martha.  While I could have played with any combination of selection criteria, I made my first attempt with this trio:

  • first name starts with or is: Mart (I wanted to be sure to find her even if she had come as the old country version of Marta)
  • town names starts with or is: Voss
  • year of arrival is between: 1893-1893

Up popped two hits, one of which was for Martha Pedersen Rohne, age 34, with a residence of Vosservanger.  The age was right and I could easily see Rokne being interpreted as Rohne, so this sounded very promising.  I clicked on the “scanned manifest” option, but couldn’t find Martha on the manifest that appeared.  I realized then that I was dealing with a mislinked image.  Having encountered this situation before, I knew that the image was probably in the EIDB, but that I would have to do a little more work to locate it.  I began by noting a couple of details from the text information above the image: the May 30, 1893 arrival date and line number 597.

Missing Manifests

Armed with these bits of data, I returned to Steve Morse’s site and chose his missing manifests form, designed for just these situations.  Toward the left of the screen, I entered the date I had just copied and hit the “display” button.  This brought me to the opening page of the microfilm that contains the arrivals for May 27-June 5, 1893. 

Doing a little mental math, I realized that I was looking for a ship that had arrived about four days into this ten-day period – or about 40% of the way through the roll.  Of course, this was only an approximation as many ships could have arrived on one day and only one or two on others, but I used this as a rough estimate of how far to jump into the roll.  On the right of the screen, I could see that there were a total of 717 frames (essentially the same as pages), so I calculated 40% of 717 and went directly to page 286 by entering that number in the field called “frame” near the center of the screen. 

286 proved to be the first page for a ship that arrived on May 31st, so I knew I had gone too far.  I went back to page 250 and noticed I was looking at distinctly Scandinavian names, so I thought I might be in the right neighborhood.  Inspecting the left-hand column, I saw that the page contained listings for 216-272.  I knew from a few minutes earlier when I had scribbled down details from the text data in the EIDB that the record I wanted was on line 597, so I used the +1 navigation key to move forward through the pages.  My anticipation increased as I arrived at page 257 and scanned down for line 597.

There she was: Martha Pedersen Rohne (and yes, it looked like Rohne).  Better yet, she was traveling with Anna Larsdatter Rohne (age 8) and Knud Larsen Rohne (age 4).  The names and ages all fit, Anna and “Knud” were the children of a Lars, and their intended destination was Illinois.  I knew I had the right family. 

Where There’s a Will . . .

Looking at the record, I wondered why had Knute been so difficult to locate.  After all, “Knud Rokne” isn’t that far off from the actual Knut Rokne.  Playing with possibilities, I discovered that the transcriber had missed the ditto marks under Rohne in the mother’s name, so the future football coach had been hiding under the name of Knud Larsen.  Had you thought to look under that name, there were 95 candidates to explore.  Even then, when you picked the right one and clicked to see the manifest, you would have been taken to the arrival for a different ship.  Fortunately, even with obstacles like these, there’s almost always a way to find your ancestors in this amazing database, so if Grandpa has eluded you so far, I hope you’ll give it another try!


Megan Smolenyak: #Genealogy Round Up, March 10

Enjoyed chatting with Marian!
Marian's Roots and Rambles: Top Chef Genealogist: Megan Smolenyak

Love this article title!
Who does she think she is?

Brooke Shields, Who Do You Think You Are? (FYI, someone made a few edits and unintentionally injected a few errors. My mother was a Shields, so I promise I know how to spell it!)
Brooke Shields, Who Do You Think You Are?

With Hudson County as a backdrop, TV chefs, stars learn life lessons from their genealogy

Go, Lou Szucs!
Branching out on the family tree

Warning: This is a touch snarkier than usual!
Should David Cassidy Have Let His Roots Show on Celebrity Apprentice?

Wow. Father with motor neurone disease 'banks' his voice for his son.
Ill man records his voice for son

Would love to see this happen!
Motion for Annie Moore monument goes to council | thecorknews.ie

U.S. and Mexico Records Added This Week | FamilySearch.org

Pls join me in NYC on 3/16!
Who Do You Think You Are? Tracing Your Family's History

Hope to see you at Tattered Cover (Colfax) in Denver on 3/30!
Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History