Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

We are all prone to error and victim to change. A family history crafted years ago may no longer serve at reunion gatherings. New information and new technologies have revised how we see our ancestors.

Case in point: I’d long been aware of a few minor errors in our own Green family history. So, when I recently unearthed a darkened copy of the Certificate of Naturalization my paternal grandfather received in 1917, it started a search for additional immigration information.

The report of our family’s immigration to Racine omitted key points and got a few facts wrong, yet proved accurate overall. Created years ago with the aid of microfilms at the LDS Family History Library in Hales Corners, the inaccuracies were understandable. 

At the suggestion of a genealogist friend, I located my grandfather’s Petition for Naturalization, which documented the family’s European port of departure (Liverpool), port of entry (Detroit) and mode of travel through Canada (train). Traveling with four sons (John, age 6; Peter, 5; Carl, 3; and Martin, 3 months), my grandparents’ North American place of arrival was not, as previously thought, New York but Quebec. 

Looking for related documents, I was surprised at how many are now available online, especially when I searched for my grandfather’s Danish name: Andreas Petersen Grøn, rather than Andrew Green. Suddenly I could see many new-to-me documents, as well as the ones available only on microfilm decades ago. Nineteenth-century church baptism, confirmation and marriage records were clearly legible in unbelievably graceful cursive.

The newly found information put to rest a supposition I’d heard repeatedly at family gatherings, namely that my grandmother had been pregnant on the voyage and lost a baby while the family was at sea. Given my Uncle Martin’s infancy at the time, this seems highly unlikely, though there were quite possibly deaths among the ship’s passengers. 

As often happens, the new information raised new questions. When exactly did the family leave their farm home in eastern Denmark? Can I find the name of the cattle boat that carried them from Denmark to England? Can I confirm the train route through Canada to Detroit and my grandfather’s stop-off near the Vermont border?

Researchers who follow will no doubt uncover my own errors and misconceptions, while filling in knowledge gaps and identifying additional limbs on the family tree. Family history is a continual, evolving revelation of when and where and exactly how our ancestors lived — as well as a satisfying journey.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Caves, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground,” co-authored with Greg Brick. Visit http://henschelhausbooks.com.