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Rhody Radio episode transcription has been been made possible by the American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grants for Libraries, which is an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

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Tracking Down Your Ancestors with the Steamship Historical Society of America

The roadsign for the Steamship Historical Society of America's Ship History Center. featuring a photo of a two-stack steamship

Aimee Bachari: [00:00:00] You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio online. My name is Aimee Bachari and I am the education director at the Steamship Historical Society, and you're listening to Genealogy Made Easy: Immigration by Passenger Ship with the Steamship Historical Society.

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Through recording, preserving, and educating the mission of the Steamship Historical Society of America is to share the impact of engine-powered vessels, their crews, and their passengers with future generations. Today we're going to talk about how to conduct genealogy research on immigration by passenger ship, and how to do it cheaply and easily. You'll hear from myself, and Genealogists Christina Alvernas, as well as our archivist, Astrid Drew, to learn all the tips and tricks you'll need to research where your ancestors came from and how they got to America. Have you ever wondered what it's like for your ancestors to get to Rhode Island? Well, you're not alone, and doing this type of research can be a lot easier than you might think.

Today, Christina and the crew at the Steamship Historical Society, located on Post Road in Warwick will guide you through the steps needed and provide many free options for conducting this type of research. I, like most of you, was always interested in how and why my family came to the United States. I remember asking my grandparents about their family histories. My grandfather's family were recent immigrants from County Donegal, Ireland, and we still have family there so that wasn't really much of a mystery. My Italian side seemed to have been in East Providence forever. Like many of our listeners from Rhode Island, I was born at Women and Infants or the Providence Lying-In Hospital as it was called historically, and so was my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother.

When I asked Nana what part of Italy her ancestors came from, she said, "Ugh, I don't know, somewhere in the middle." I knew this would be a lot harder than I thought. Luckily for me, I'm not the only history nerd in the family. [00:02:00] Let me introduce my cousin, Christina Alvernas, who really put together our family history. Christina is a genealogist and historical researcher focused on Rhode Island history. She has a BA in Cultural and Historic Preservation from Salve Regina University and a certificate in genealogical research from Boston University. Christina is a municipal clerk by day and is currently on the board of both the Middletown Historical Society and the Battle of Rhode Island Association. She's been researching her family since 2009. Hi, Christina?

Christina Alvernas: Hi Aimee. Thanks for having me.

Aimee: Thanks for sharing this great knowledge with us. I know a lot of people are curious about their family's immigration history, but see this type of work is overwhelming. How do our listeners even begin?

Christina: Well, the first step is to ask your family what they do know. Write down all the information that you know about the person you are researching. Names, date of birth, marriage dates, death dates are all clues and jumping-off points. If you have enough information, you start searching for them in different record collections to really build your case of what you actually know about that person. I tend to use ancestry.com and familysearch.org for this, but there are plenty of other sources too. Search for them in census records working your way back a decade at a time. If looking for an immigrant ancestor, the 1910 census specifically asks for year of immigration and citizenship status, which can be so helpful later on.

Keeping in mind, not everything in the census will be accurate. It all depends on who provided the information and how it was recorded, but these details can function as a tip. Vital records, if accessible, are essential because they can provide more accurate information on birth, marriage, and death dates, or even who the person's parents were. If your aim is to try to locate them on a passenger list, you can search those once you feel you know enough that you could identify them confidently. [00:04:00] Also, keep your eyes open on different types of records. I once found the name of the town my family came from in Sicily because a World War I draft card asked for birthplace of father. I never would've been able to find that otherwise. When I went looking through the passenger records, I had one more piece of the puzzle to help me locate that voyage.

Aimee: Wow, that's so cool. I would've never thought about looking at a draft card. You really never know what clues you might find in unexpected places. Can you tell our listeners about some free tools they can use?

Christina: Sure. There's more than you would think. For passenger lists. You cannot pass up Ellis Island. Check out statueofliberty.org, which contains all the Ellis Island records and resources. Keep in mind, there were a lot of other ports people arrived in, in the US and Canada. Familysearch.org also has passenger records and a wealth of other collections. They are run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and completely free. You do need to make a login, but they'll never charge you, and sometimes I have better luck here than on paid sites.

Aimee: Everyone loves free resources, but are there any that our listeners should pay for?

Christina: Yes, ancestry.com is the big one, but others include MyHeritage, which is similar and some genealogists swear by, and Findmypast which is based in the UK and great if you're researching ancestors from that part of the world. Ancestry obviously has vast collections, so if you're doing a lot of research, it's hard not to use them. There are times when I'll only find an index but no image of a record on Ancestry and I hop over to FamilySearch and there's the real thing. It depends on what you're after, what your focus is at the moment, and how much time and money you want to invest.

Also, there are times when I've found passenger lists on one site that I couldn't on another so it's always good to cross-reference. When you're dealing with people coming from [00:06:00] non-English speaking countries and everything is in cursive, the indexing may be different from one site to the next. Maybe you couldn't find it on one site, but the record you're after pops right up when you search another. Sometimes you will find an index, but the record itself is always best. Don't stick with one site and don't give up.

Aimee: I think a lot of us know that the experience would be different for the passenger depending on how much they could pay for a ticket. Traveling on a passenger ship could be vastly different experience for someone depending on the year they traveled, the steamship line, the ship itself, the time of year, and the weather. One person may have had smooth sailing in a pleasant first-class experience and others may have had to deal with Atlantic storms, poor accommodation, or seasickness. We'll discuss how you can determine the weather and conditions depending on the steamship line later when we hear from our archivist Astrid Drew. Can you tell us how someone might determine the class of travel of an ancestor and what can that tell you?

Christina: Unfortunately, class of travel is not always listed, but you can determine their economic background from some of the other questions they answered. One field asks how much money they brought with them on the voyage, which can be very telling. Our ancestor, Gerardo, had $7 with him but was also listed as a shoemaker, which was a skilled trade.

Aimee: Thank you for that great information, Christina, on how to find clues and documents to start your ancestor's story, but what was so great about the history that you did for our family was the way it came to life rather than just names and dates. Christina, can you tell us a little bit about what it was to put the narrative together?

Christina: Yes. Sometimes it's easy to just keep gathering information and forget to actually do something with it. In this case, I had the special occasion of my grandfather's 90th birthday and it was a good excuse to pull together all those details I had been compiling for [00:08:00] years along with family photos to actually put it together for my family and do something with all of that. Being able to get an image of the S.S. Madonna, the ship that our ancestor, Gerardo D'Amico, came over on from the Steamship Historical Society of America Archives really made that project complete and it brought it to life.

Aimee: Let's hear from the Steamship Historical Society's archivist, Astrid Drew. To learn about how to get visuals and other materials you can use to illustrate what it was like for your family member to immigrate on a passenger ship. Astrid manages and organizes collections, digital media, and assists the public in learning more about the heritage of engine-powered vessels. She holds a master's of library and information science with a focus in archives and preservation from Simmons College. Hi, Astrid, you've been the archivist at Steamship Historical for how many years now?

Astrid Drew: Hi, Aimee. I've been working with the Steamship Historical Society for many years, but I've been the archivist here since 2014. I help researchers find sources to better understand ships in maritime history and get a grasp for what it was like for their ancestors to travel on those ships.

Aimee: That sounds really rewarding when you can help people uncover their own personal history. Astrid, can you just explain to our listeners what are the different classes of travel and why would that matter?

Astrid: When it comes to class travel, our ephemera collections can be really great resources to use to illustrate what that experience was like. In our collections, you'll see terminology like a tourist class, cabin class, and third class, which are all descriptive terms for what most people may be familiar with as steerage class. Depending on the timeframe, the terminology changes.

In earlier waves of immigration, [00:10:00] that class of travel, third class, was called steerage class, but as you move through the decades, it starts to change. That reflects the changes in the shipping industry and how companies were trying to attract people to travel on their vessels. As steerage came to mean, a not-so-nice thing, you have companies use this different terminology like third class, tourist class, tourist cabin, third cabin, all these terms. When you're researching for material to get a better sense of what your ancestors experienced, it's important to keep those terms in mind so that you go for the right things.

I should also note that our ephemeral collections include material like passenger lists. It can be a little confusing in that they are mentioned on our website under our collections descriptions, but they are not the passenger lists that probably most genealogists are looking for. Genealogists are probably looking for the passenger manifest list, which was the official document that a ship had to submit to a local authority or a port authority. The passenger lists in our collections are from our ephemeral collections, which means they are booklets put together for upper-class travelers.

First class or second class, you'll see these passenger booklets. They can be terrific and interesting little documents, even though they're not the official document, because they would have little annotations, like little notes, names will be underlined, or circled, or starred [00:12:00] because people would want to understand who they were talking to and who they were meeting. They can be terrific little artifacts that show you what a person was doing, who they were talking to, who they were traveling alongside. For some of these vessels, that includes really famous people. They can be really interesting documents in their own right, even though they're not the "official" historical record.

Interviewer: Now that our listeners know where to get records, what other types of museum materials might help them to illustrate their history?

Astrid: At the Steamship Historical Society, our collections include maritime art, such as the Posner Maritime Collection, and the Steven Barrett Chase Poster Collection. Paintings and posters may in some cases be stylized portrayals of ships, but they can still give a sense of what they look like. Posters as essentially advertisements can show what sorts of people or a company considered their audience, and what regions of the world their ship sailed to.

Our paper ephemeral collections include things like menus and brochures, which can give a sense of what people ate and drank, and what rooms look like on a ship. There are also blueprints and plans and ship logs, which are ledgers or books kept aboard a vessel, documenting details like weather patterns, and navigation. All of this together can give a sense of what a ship looked like and what a person saw and did on a ship during a voyage.

Aimee: That's so cool. Based on those materials, it sounds like someone could paint a picture of what life was like at that time. What if someone hits a record dead end, what should they do?

Astrid: Though historical records and art can be very useful, other resources like books on a given subject in maritime history can be great too. They can provide descriptions or illustrations and bibliographies, for instance, can provide additional research paths to explore. It's always a good idea if you found a useful and reliable book to see [00:14:00] where they got their information. At the Steamship Historical Society, our maritime reference library is a great place to start. We have books on all aspects of maritime history, focusing on specific ships to companies or regions of the world. It's a great way to understand the overall context and put yourself into that world.

Shipping registers in the library can tell you a great deal about the ship. Details like when a ship was built, and by whom, the owner, dimensions, and size, and even what kinds of wood, or metals were used to build it. Many of the registers are fragile, though, so if you're interested in that, I'd recommend contacting us first so that we can look up a vessel for you.

Our entire library catalog of over 8,000 volumes is online and searchable, which you can find on our website at sshsa.org under the Collections tab. If you're not located near the Ship History Center in Warwick, you can always search the titles you find in our library and libraries closer to you. We also have a large photo archive, which contains images of ships far back into the early days of steam shipping in the 1800s. It includes film negatives, glass positives, glass negatives, all kinds of image material that you can think of.

We do have a portion of it that is online and searchable through our website, but I just want to remind people that what is accessible on our website is only a fraction of what we actually have in our archives. If you are searching our image porthole through our website, and you can't find what you're looking for, please do reach out because we can search our entire archive and find some good material for you to use.

Say you know the name of the ship that your ancestor traveled on and maybe have information that you found in a shipping register, but no way of knowing what the exact ship looked like. This is where our photo collections can be a great asset to flesh out that ancestors and your history.

Aimee: [00:16:00] Thank you very much for all that information. I know it was a lot to digest, so we've put together a resource guide for you on these talking points, with links and materials in our collection. You can find it at shiphistory.org/immigration. You can also contact Astrid for research help at info@sshsa.org. We are open by appointment only though so be sure to email or call 401-463-3570 to schedule a time to come in.

One way we use genealogy to share this history is through our free education program at shiphistory.org. See Cristina's research and action and learn about our ancestor, Gerardo D'Amico's, journey onboard the Faber Line, and how Providence Rhode Island became another Ellis Island. Click the link on the podcast page to learn more. If you scroll to the bottom under Additional resources, you can see a PDF of the D'Amico family history and use that as a model for your own research.

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Thank you so much Christina and Astrid for sharing all this great information to our listeners. Visit sshsa.org to learn more about our organization.

?Christina: We'd also like to thank Warwick radio online for allowing us to record in their amazing studio at the Warwick Public Library. Warwick Radio Online is made possible in part by a grant from the Rhode Island office of Library and Information Services using funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Aimee: Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book and brought to you by library staff and community members all around the ocean state. This episode was made possible by an American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grant for Libraries, which is an initiative of the American Library Association made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. You can find more from Rhody Radio on Facebook [00:18:00] and Twitter. If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to Rhody Radio and give us a review on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever you listen to help us reach more of Rhode Islanders.

[00:18:22] [END OF AUDIO]

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