The New York Public Library has made its Ancestry database—usually only accessible from NYPL locations—usable from home for free during the coronavirus crisis. As the de facto archivist in my family, I was excited to learn about this change. I’d only performed genealogical research at NYPL once, and even then there was way too much to research for one afternoon. With this new availablity, any NYPL member can spend as much time as they want using the resource from home: no commute time, no commute expenses, no putting the rest of your schedule on hold for what can seem to some like a superfluous project. Now you can do all kinds of research in your spare time—whether in the middle of a sleepless night or across an entire quarantined Saturday!
I spent an entire weeked delving deeper and deeper into my family’s past, and I’ve now traced almost every line of my family back to their entrance to the United States (only one line had previously been traced back that far). Along the way I’ve made some interesting discoveries: from occupations and incomes to arrival dates and ship names to presumably unplanned progeny.
Before I go any further, let me show you this completely ridiculous version of my family’s history that I wrote for a class project in fourth grade. It was “true” as far as any of us knew. Disclaimer: it’s a close race between fact and fiction on this page.
You get the point, and you’re probably familiar with this type of ancestral embellishment already. I wonder what percentage of Americans claim their ancestors came over on the Mayflower…
Anyway, in no particular order, here are the top five of my most interesting documented genealogical finds (not all of which are from NYPL, but I think all are interesting):
In 2017, my father discovered about twelve cassette tapes with recordings of his mother interviewing his grandmother, who was born in 1889 in Lithuania, grew up there as a shepard, and came to the US alone in 1910. I digitized the tapes and hired a Lithuanian translator to translate those hours and hours of conversation into English, and was amazed to find 1984 audio of my great grandmother singing what was either a song from her Lithuanian childhood or an impromptu song about those last years of her life. You can hear her sing here, and you can follow along with the translated lyrics below. I’ve also included her family’s entry in the 1940 US Census, found through the NYPL.
The dreams are gone,
The images fade,
And only the times of the past
Squeeze the heart.
But to you I wish happiness,
To live joyfully.
Let all your happy dreams
Let all your paths
Be covered in flowers,
Let life give you
Plenty of happiness.
And here are some (unfortunately low) quality scans of photos my grandfather took when his ship, the USS Salamaua, was struck by a kamikaze pilot in the Lingayen Gulf in Luzon. As far as I know, these are the only photographic record of that event. And beneath these are some new discoveries made on the NYPL Ancestry site: the same grandfather’s WWII draft card (although he enlisted on December 8, 1841) and his name in a muster roll aboard the Salamaua on March 31, 1945.
If you’re unsure where exactly your relatives came from before entering the US, know that there is a huge archive of petitions for citizenship available through the NYPL’s Ancestry database. My family never knew anything about my father’s father’s father, but through NYPL’s ancestry I was able to find documents like this, which provide tons of useful information (from eye and hair color to “pock marks on the face,” from town of origin to date of arrival, from birthdate to…wait, WHAT- a photograph!?).
And here is the same ancestor’s registration for the World War I draft:
Until two weeks ago, my family knew almost nothing about my maternal grandfather’s paternal grandfather, other than that he was Irish (or at least of Irish descent) and a fireman in NYC. Using NYPL’s database, I was able to find him in the census, place an accurate name to him, find out what firehouse he was belonged to, and trace him back to ca. 1860 Ireland. Here he is with Engine Co. 61 in the Bronx in 1908 or 1909:
And finally, here is some information that my mother researched through many trips to the NYPL and to cemeteries, farms, and other sites around the NY/NJ area. The years-long project resulted in her acceptance as a Daughter of the American Revolution.
That’s it for this post. Now go make the most of this period of isolation and get yourself to the NYPL’s Ancesty site!