Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Maddening Draw of
a Universal Family Tree


I have to admit it: I cannot resist checking out those fun relationship apps built especially for genealogy conference attendees. I'm always looking for connections. And, face it, family history enthusiasts want to know about family connections.

The downside: those apps have to rely on data to drive their calculations. And that data usually comes from a universal family tree—the tree of everybody, crowdsourced by fallible people like you and me.

Naturally, since RootsTech Connect registration offered the chance to tap into this year's "Relatives at RootsTech" program, I opted in. I couldn't resist. Knowing full well about their genealogical Achilles' heel, I still wanted to see what the program could produce. 

In short: I was disappointed. Not only did I fail to produce even one fellow conference attendee closer than an awkward second cousin twice removed, but the two registrants I did find at that level were "verified" by a pedigree which did not line up to what I had documented. In fact, in one case, the age discrepancy between generations bordered on biologically impossible.

While I know there are compelling reasons for collectively maintaining a universal tree, whenever I have taken a close look at my corner of that universe, I have been disappointed. Yes, collectively, people keep watch over unsubstantiated assertions, but on a case by case basis, it seems my branches lack the kind of support needed to keep my genealogical neighborhood clean. Yes, of course I could take on the task myself, but that misses the point of collectively mounting that challenge.

This weakness is not just a symptom of universal trees, of course. A quick spin through the individually-posted collections on any genealogical database website will provide an eyeful for those willing to take a look. And that is my concern this weekend, on the jumping-off spot from one month's research goals to the next. 

Beginning with tomorrow's post, I've set aside the month to rectify my lack of progress on researching one particular third great-grandmother, Delaney Townsend Charles. While I can't locate documentation on the particulars of her life—other than a cameo appearance as "Lania" in the 1850 census—apparently there are several others who can glibly spout off many details of the generations preceding her.

Without, I might add, one single slip of supporting documentation.

How do people make such genealogical assertions? If I don't have any historical token of an event's occurrence, I feel compelled to leave that data point blank—thus my situation of not being able to push back even one generation. Forget that—I can only infer an approximate date of death for both Delaney and her husband, Andrew Charles. But the temptation to make research headway cannot overcome the caution needed to ensure accurate recording of the facts.

Relying on others' research can become a crutch to us especially when we limit our data exploration to only those same resources on which we build our online trees. Whether from a site hosting a universal tree or from one hosting individual trees, digitized documentation can only move our research progress as far forward as the hosting service can produce for our use.

There comes a time—for some, sooner than for others—when we need to learn to look elsewhere for the records we seek to verify our ancestors' specific existence. My March research goal will be one which insists on this brave step out into the documentational unknown.   


Saturday, February 27, 2021

RootsTech Wrap-Up


RootsTech Connect, this year's virtual answer to scheduling a genealogy event as all-encompassing as last year's conference in Salt Lake City, has been the talk of many bloggers in the past week. And no wonder: while the conference, in the past, drew more than twenty thousand attendees at a time to the Salt Palace, no pandemic in the world could stop more than five hundred thousand family history enthusiasts from registering for its re-invented self this past week.

I was one of those folks on the fence about this whole deal. Admittedly, I have never attended a RootsTech conference live; rubbing shoulders with that many people is just not my preferred mode of learning more about genealogical research. That barrier, of course, would have been removed with this year's parameters—so what took me so long to make up my mind?

For one thing, while I do enjoy attending conferences—albeit on a more modest scale—my preferred learning mode has switched from conferences to week-long, in-depth venues like the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. RootsTech, on the other hand, has switched from the typical conference-style one-hour level of depth to offering some sessions of a mere twenty minutes length.

There was only one selling point that got me to change my mind—well, other than the updated price tag. Not only was this year's event free for all who registered, but the virtual breakout sessions, all pre-recorded, will be available to watch for nearly a year afterwards. Now, that is a bit more manageable.

And so, approaching the midnight hour for signups, I logged in to officially register for this year's event, RootsTech Connect. I followed that with two essentials (although I admit, one is really for fun). I took care of the task of setting up my playlist—which some have dubbed Netflix for Genealogy—and then I opted in to Relatives at RootsTech.

While that seemed a self-directing effort, judging from feedback, apparently it wasn't. After several members of our local genealogical society asked me for help accessing RootsTech—and believe me, I'm no tech guru—I thought I'd better compile some self-help links. As it turned out, there were ample resources posted both on the RootsTech website and through YouTube, not to mention the promised help of an army of volunteers for the asking with just a click on the website itself.

Most of those links served their purpose in guiding members to access the online venue, so I won't share here what I found—it is, after all, Day Three of the event now. However, there were a few other helpful posts which may still be pertinent to share, especially if you are still setting up your playlist.

From professional organizer Janine Adams, I gleaned her tips and picks for the event, including her reminder to access the chat rooms while they are still live during the event. Likewise, Gail Dever from Montreal offered her overview of the event's features. One RootsTech speaker and regular genea-blogger, Elizabeth O'Neal, also listed her specifics of the event to keep in mind, a helpful overview.

Of course, while guidance from respected others may be nice, I like the direct approach: I headed straight for the "sessions" listing to search for topics. And once I realized the search for speakers wasn't quite adequate, I took the detour to the "speakers" tab on the RootsTech menu. Easy peasy.

There are so many sessions to take in that it wouldn't be possible to watch everything in the limit of this three-day run. More than one thousand breakout sessions in eight focal areas—not to mention the variety of languages in which presentations are offered or translated—will play continuously as the conference chases the sun around the globe until this evening's closing session on the main stage.

There is, on the website, a "Guide Me" tab in the menu, but in case you'd like to have some others offer their point of view, blogger Randy Seaver has assembled a compendium of blog posts on attendees' take on the conference. From a legal point of view, Judy Russell offered her recommendations, and from a genetic genealogy slant, Debbie Kennett offered her list.

Keep in mind, while registrants may watch their selected playlist sessions on demand at any time in the year ahead, some events are time-limited. Besides the live chat sessions, the keynotes may only be available at set times, even if recorded. And the vendors at the virtual Expo Hall—and their demos and information sessions, as well as their chat sessions and special conference pricing for purchases—are mostly limited to the three days the conference is scheduled. With the limited time remaining, one quick way to gain an overview of the newer additions to the Expo Hall is through blogger Linda Stufflebean's two part post at Empty Branches on the Family Tree. 

While I, for one, cannot wait until we return to in-person conferences—of the more modest variety, of course—the RootsTech team certainly must be congratulated for their enormous undertaking to convert their brainchild into a virtual experience. And kudos for their insight on how information hogs like myself couldn't possibly glom on to their every offering in just one glorious three-day stretch.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Last Tokens of an
Almost Forgotten Life


The story of my godmother and her parents now seems such a far-removed part of my childhood. Having discovered, this month, what I now realize about the life of Genia's parents, Michael and Lydia Melnitchenko, leaves me in an almost childlike state of wonder, even after all these years since I last saw them. They had seemed, in that time long ago, to have simply faded away in all but my memories.

For closure, though I can't find the necessary records to build a family history reaching back any more generations—yet!—I wanted to at least locate where they were buried. Even though current travel restrictions limit my ability to visit their graves, I still wanted to find their location.

This attempt, however, met with some restrictions. For one thing, I have yet to locate any record of the date of Michael Melnitchenko's death. He surely died in New York City, his adopted home after leaving his Russian Empire roots in the Ukraine, and even after having moved to—and then from—Marseilles. But accessing New York City vital records presents a challenge all its own. All I had, besides a guess, was that doubtful World War II draft registration card with the offered date of birth of January 11, 1897

Finding any final details on Lydia Melnitchenko was just as difficult—although I knew in her case, on account of her difficulties with post-traumatic stress, records might be even harder to uncover. And yet, it was for Lydia, not Michael, that I located a possible entry in the Social Security Death Index, fixing her date of birth as March 2, 1899, and indicating her death as occurring in April of 1977.

Despite the lack of documentation on either of Genia's parents, I did have one other token of identification. Coming from a Russian heritage, each of them would have customarily included a patronymic form of their father's given name, embedded within their own name. Thus, I already had found records showing me to look for Michael Ivanivitch Melnitchenko. In Lydia's case, her petition for naturalization included an Americanized form of her father's name—as Theodore—telling me to look for a patronymic version of the Russian name Feodor. And her daughter's travel documents to Brazil revealed Lydia's maiden name to be Leonoff.

Still, flying otherwise blind except for those patronymic hints, it was possible to run into trouble. In fact, remembering Lydia's sister's name was Alexandra, I did locate some naturalization paperwork for an Alexandra Fedorovna Leonoff—right patronymic addition (despite misspelling)—except for one thing. That Alexandra was married; her maiden name was Danilchenko.

Even seeking burial information for Genia's Michael and Lydia presented challenges. Conveniently, just outside New York City there is one of the largest Russian Orthodox cemeteries in the United States. What were the chances that the Mikhail Ivanovich Melnichenko and Lydia Feodorovna Melnichenko buried there were one and the same as my Michael and Lydia?

A look at the dates was not encouraging. Mikhail was born January 26, 1897, and died August 8, 1972. The variation in spelling was likely due to the fact that people in a New York Russian cemetery might want to spell names the way they were spelled back home in Russia. But that date of birth? According to our Michael's draft card, his date of birth was January 11—fifteen days earlier.

For the two Lydias, the situation was much the same, with her social security record showing she was born March 2, 1899, and only giving a month and year of death: April 1977. As for the cemetery's headstone photo, that date of birth was March 15, not March 2—thirteen days later.

After having chased after—and fallen down—that research rabbit hole last weekend, bringing me on the grand tour of the devastation unleashed during the Russian Revolution, I did benefit from one observation. Although genealogical researchers in the western realm of the British Empire need only remember to adjust dates from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in the mid 1700s, apparently the Russians didn't tackle that adjustment until much later in their history—in 1918—and, for religious purposes, sometimes still employ the Old Style calendar.

While the calendar switch from Old Style to New Style should have meant a difference of eleven days, the variance between headstones and the few documents in which I could find their dates verified certainly isn't so standardized. Could this represent not a date of birth, but a date of baptism? Or could someone have handled the conversion inaccurately? Or is this just a case of mistaken identities—two couples by the names of Michael and Lydia whose dates inconveniently almost aligned?

Lacking further documentation, I have to leave open the possibility of such a coincidence. However,  I couldn't help but notice a few other details. The inclusion of their patronymics takes the edge off that "coincidence" argument, for one thing. But in addition, coming from the vantage point of a Russian Orthodox cemetery, it reveals one other detail I had been wondering about.

Melnitchenko—or any surname ending in -chenko—has always been a name which made me wonder just how "Russian" Michael and Lydia had been. True, there is more than one way to spell that surname Melnitchenko (the addition of a "t" seeming to be a customary American slip), and the surname distribution reveals quite a few Russians as well as Ukrainians claiming that name. And of course, when our Melnitchenkos left their homeland—wherever it was—they left as subjects of the then-falling Russian Empire.

Still, I found it particular gratifying, in examining those headstones, to see Lydia's patronymic name rendered as the Ukrainians would have spelled it, not the Russians. Remember, even in her hometown on the far end of the Black Sea—which, too, would have been swallowed up as part of the Russian Empire when she was born—by the time she left it, that ethnically-diverse city boasted a significant proportion of Ukrainian residents.

Perhaps, in the end, though I still can't find any documents linking the Melnitchenkos to the generations preceding them, it may turn out that Michael, Lydia, and Genia, who always listed themselves as Russian in origin, were actually ethnically Ukrainian, and only politically the subjects of the Russian tsar.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

One Problem About Finding Our Roots


There's one problem with that big, happy, universal ideal of everyone wanting to find their roots: not everyone can do it.

Not, at least, now.

While there's been a noble effort mounted, over the past many decades, to digitize the world's records so we can piece together the story of families from every country, we still slant toward European-centric, Latin alphabet-oriented record sets. There still are some countries for which, at least at the repositories which cater to genealogists on this side of the world, there are absolutely no resources available.

Take my difficulty in researching my godmother's roots. While Genia Melnitchenko was obviously born to parents having a surname which is readily recognizable to Ukrainians and Russians, there is a hidden tangle embedded in her heritage: the origin of her mother.

Lydia Melnitchenko was born with a surname also sounding quite Russian—rendered phonetically as Leonoff when she arrived in the United States—but she was born in a city whose residents didn't, as the foundation of their native language, use the Russian (or even Ukrainian) Cyrillic alphabet

That would leave me—if I could access any of the records in the native language of the country where Lydia was born—trying to read a script which looks something like this:

როგორ კითხულობთ ამას?

Translation: "How do you read that?"

My question, precisely. Or, to get more particular about how to read such documents: how would I even be able to access such records? If you look at the world's premiere aggregator of documents of genealogical interest, there are absolutely no records from Georgia listed as available at Yet.

That means wondering how to learn the language of the Georgians, with its mesmerizing script, is not a challenge worth tackling right now—for me, at least. Which is probably just as well: the Kartvelian languages which emerged from the people groups of the south Caucasus region are unlike any other, making it, by definition, one of the world's primary language families.

I did, in my original foray into the possibility of just how to proceed with fudging my way through Georgian documents—if there were any to be found, here on the other side of this quarantined earth—find some interesting reflections on the experience of learning such a unique language. One blogging student, after the disorienting experience of a first attempt at learning not the vocabulary, but merely the letters of the Georgian alphabet, realized this must be the same feeling experienced by young students who are tasked with their first exposure to reading—and that, in their native language. Incredibly, I managed to find a post by a linguist who blogged about the comparison of English and Georgian. And a few websites which offer to teach the hapless genealogist the Georgian language—or at least offer some fascinating tidbits about this language spoken by only four million people

Yes, there are really people out there writing about the Georgian language. Just not the people who would be most likely to cut the deal necessary to digitize the vital records which have become stock in trade for family history researchers pursuing their roots in a place like Georgia.


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Finding the Place Once Called Home


Finding the specific place of origin for our immigrant ancestors can be challenging. 

While as a general guide, we may know that an ancestor came from, say, Russia, when we consider just how large that country of origin might have been, we realize the size of the challenge facing us in our hope of narrowing the search to a specific city.

Furthermore, over time, locations sometimes underwent a change of identity—or even disappeared entirely—especially in war-torn regions and areas with border changes. And there is the burden of translating a place name from its spoken sound in one language to the way others heard the pronunciation, as rendered by the immigrant arriving in the new country.

So the question is: now that we've seen seaman Michael Melnitchenko arrive safely back at his home port in New York after the second World War, can we depend on the only two records we've found which reported his place of birth? Though the answer on each of the two documents we've found is different, at least they both approximate the same pronunciation. Let's see if that hint leads us to Michael's place of origin.

The first record we had found which provided a birth place for Michael Melnitchenko was a World War II draft registration card. Admittedly, I had my doubts that the card really was for our Michael. Though the middle name given had been poorly transcribed—as "Juan" instead of the more likely "Ivan"—the option of Ivan could have been an Americanized form of the patronym that Michael, as a typical Russian, might have used. But since the date of birth seemed to agree with other records, I'm willing to sweep all questions aside, at least while we explore the possibilities of a place of birth.

That first record stated Michael's place of birth was a city named "Nikolaiev, Russia."

The second mention we found was the passenger record listing his arrival back in New York City as a repatriated seaman, following the attack on the ship for which he had served as chief officer in 1943. That passenger record identified Michael's place of birth as "Necolaeff, Russia."

The problem was, once I tried finding either city in current records, I came up with zero results. There is no city called Nikolaiev, nor is there one called Necolaeff.

However, there is one city which could possibly substitute for those spelling variations, if we make a few allowances. The first is that we consider the phonetic similarities between the two spellings, and play loose with those details. The second is that we realize what the ears of English-speaking people might hear as the final syllable "-eff" might more likely be transliterated from a Russian spelling equivalent to "-ev."

One last detail: the only city name I could squeeze into a shape approximating either of our two options happened to be in a different country. That country, however, had long been occupied by Russia, thus rendering some cities in that country not one name, but two.

Thus, the seaport the Ukrainians call Mykolaiv was known for the entire time of Russian occupation as Nikolaev

If that was indeed the place of origin for our Michael Melnitchenko, there are some details which seem to corroborate this discovery. First of all, Nikolaev's long-standing history as a seaport and major ship-building center could possibly be the influence that led Michael to choose his occupation. Perhaps he followed in the footsteps of his own father. Given the position of Nikolaev in relation to the Russian Empire's ample grain exports from the nearby steppes, international commercial activity flourished by the late nineteenth century.

Another encouraging corroboration was that, despite the city being within what we now call Ukraine, at the time when Michael was born, almost two thirds of the city considered their ethnicity to be Russian, not Ukrainian. In all the documents identifying Michael Melnitchenko as a crew member of ocean-going vessels, he consistently reported himself to be Russian, and to speak the Russian language. Growing up in a city with such a history would seem plausible.

Of course, finding any records of Michael's family in such a city would present a challenge, as the government in charge of collecting those records is not the governmental body now responsible for that area. Furthermore, we can already surmise from the date of his daughter Genia's birth in France—January 6, 1924—that Michael and his wife had to have left Nikolaev some time before that point. Given the impetus of the Russian Revolution, the Melnitchenkos may have vacated their homeland long before Genia's birth.

There is one other detail which needs to be addressed, however: just how a seaman from the Russian Empire's Ukrainian coast came to marry a woman whose place of birth was on the very opposite side of the Black Sea.


Above: Excerpt from the November 23, 1943, passenger record of the S.S. John Rutledge, showing the entry for repatriated seaman Michael Melnitchenko, giving his place of birth as "Necolaeff." Image courtesy


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

In the Suicide Corner


Out of the haze of my memories of high school history class I can still recall one documentary film which captured my attention. It was one clever researcher's attempt to piece together the literary descriptions embedded within Homer's Odyssey to discern the actual locations along that fantastical journey.

While some people may be able to do so, I've always found it difficult to trace descriptions of others' navigation reports. Unfortunately, after all these years, I am still no better equipped at guessing just where people have traveled, despite detailed descriptions.

So it is with the mariner's report embedded in the biography of Captain Erich Richter, master of the ill-fated S.S. Richard Olney, once the ship arrived from New York at the north African port of Oran. Granted, the stated mission was to arrive at Salerno, Italy, only days after the historic Salerno landings of the Allied invasion of Italy. But what had been decided at the start of the mission was not what was to unfold, once the Richard Olney left port.

According to the captain's notes written on September 19, 1943, the Richard Olney was carrying explosives, ammunition, cordite, aviation fuel, and other supplies. According to reports from other sources, apparently the Olney was also transporting a field artillery battalion of the 34th U.S. Infantry division. As a troopship—in other words, a commercial shipping vessel used during wartime to convey soldiers—the Richard Olney would not have been able to actually land at a seaport at their destination, but would have had to unload their cargo and troops onto other smaller vessels such as barges, once they arrived at Salerno.

The Richard Olney left Oran as part of a convoy, a formation employed to provide protection from enemy fire. Each ship in the convoy was assigned a specific position in one of two columns. The Olney was directed to take position number thirteen—last ship in the first column, dubbed the "suicide corner."

By September 21, the captain noted receipt of a message from the convoy commander that submarines had been spotted in their vicinity. Orders to each ship in the convoy required keeping a tight formation, but in the midst of the journey, the ship directly in front of the Olney's final position was losing contact with the convoy, and the Olney attempted to reconnect with the ships and escort vessels ahead.

Consulting with navigation tools, the captain determined that the ship needed to readjust its course, for fear they would not "clear Fratelli Rocks." This is where the report lost me in the navigation description. The only "Fratelli Rocks" reference I could find would have put the ship's route passing south of Sicily on their way to Salerno—if, of course, Richter's "Fratelli Rocks" referred to "Scoglio Due Fratelli" or "Two Brothers Rocks." 

That, however, was not the problem soon to face them, as subsequent convoy orders changed the course for about one hour, and then again, through the night, navigation directions adjusted according to signs of threats lurking in the water.

It was at 7:55 a.m. on September 22 when a sudden blast ripped through the Olney from starboard, continuing into the engine room, the force of which buckled the plates on the port side of the ship. The captain, assessing the damage, determined the ship would not sink, and signaled for assistance from nearby ships. A British escort ship provided a tow, and the Olney was brought to port at Bizerte.

While the troops aboard eventually were transported to their destination on the S.S. John Fiske along with the Olney's cargo, a skeleton crew remained with the Richard Olney in port at Bizerte until they could be "repatriated" for service on other vessels. That—and the fuller description I gleaned from the biography written by the captain's daughter, Ursula McCafferty—provided the rest of the story explaining why my godmother's father, Michael Melnitchenko, left New York a crew member on the S.S. Richard Olney, but returned to New York as a passenger on another vessel.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Before the Mission


It is always exciting to stumble upon personal details of an ancestor's life which reveal closeness to action confirmed by reports of world history. Discovering that my godmother's father Michael Melnitchenko, chief officer of the S.S. Richard Olney in 1943, endured a harrowing brush with wartime destruction aboard ship, makes me want to discover more about that experience. I want to know what brought him to that fateful moment, and what the plan had been, had the mission gone as planned.

Before we can discuss details of the mission of the Liberty Ship S.S. Richard Olney, though, we need to realize many other plans needed to fall into place—and to do so in a systematic sequence. Here are those many preparatory steps.

The Liberty Ship S.S. Richard Olney was launched January 22, 1943. Sometime before the end of March, 1943, when Captain Erich Richter took charge of the ship, the Richard Olney was berthed in New York harbor, having recently arrived there from Santiago, Cuba. At that point, Michael Melnitchenko was not among those listed as crew members, and I am not able to locate any record of his having been added at that early date.

However, by the time of the ship's crisis on September 22, 1943, Michael was serving as chief officer, according to his written report of the morning's incident. The S.S. Richard Olney was part of a convoy in the Mediterranean, headed to Salerno in the wake of the Allies' invasion of Italy.

Every step along the way to that destination required several other steps to have been successfully cleared out of the way, before the Richard Olney could even begin to enter the Mediterranean Sea. 

Awaiting the right moment to begin their own mission, in September 1943, the Richard Olney had been berthed at the port of Oran in present-day Algeria—but shortly before that, at the start of the second World War, that wouldn't have been possible. 

For one thing, the Mediterranean had effectively been closed to merchant marine traffic since 1941, due to Axis control of the area. In addition, Algeria had been part of French North Africa. But early in the war, France had fallen to the Germans, which impacted the French territories of northern Africa as well, effectively closing off Allied access to the Mediterranean. Operation Torch began clearing those formerly French holdings from the Axis powers, enabling the Allies access to key African ports, including the Algerian port of Oran and ports in nearby Tunisia, including Bizerte, in May of 1943.

That, in turn, cleared the way for Allied forces to mount an attack of nearby Sicily in July from those north African ports, further securing Allied access to Mediterranean waters, and especially paving the way for invasion of Italy. That final operation was what brought the crew of the S.S. Richard Olney to land there in Oran, preparing for and awaiting further orders in September, 1943.

Above map: the plan for the September 1943 Allied invasion of Italy at Salerno, following which the S.S. Richard Olney was to join a second convoy from Oran; colorized version of map courtesy Wikipedia from original government document; in the public domain.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Hasn't Christmas Hit Yet?


It's time for my biweekly assessment of how I've fared in the past two weeks of plugging away at family history research. Though I keep an eye on progress for each tree I'm building—now down to two trees, as I've consolidated into one the trees for my parents' families, and likewise another one out of my in-laws' separate trees—I also like to watch the ongoing results on DNA matches for family members who have tested. 

Usually, about this time every year, there has been a discernible bulge in the count of total DNA matches, no matter which testing company I'm watching. There is a simple reason for this: thanks to the many people who thought a DNA test kit would be a nifty holiday gift for family members, plus the processing time once the completed kits were received back at the lab, those results were usually posted to everyone's account by mid-February. In other words, Christmas finally hit. And, of course, added to everyone else's list for those who matched within the appropriate distant-cousin range.

Not so, ever since the news broke about the Golden State Killer case. I track match counts at four different companies on a biweekly basis for myself and my husband, as proxies for our extended families, and the numbers have been lackluster.

I have heard from friends and associates who submitted DNA test kits after last December's holiday season that they have yet to even receive their results, so perhaps the seasonal bulge is yet to happen. But I doubt it.

Still, with the proliferation of tools making manipulation of those DNA results easier, I've been able to identify more of those matches and, specifically, just how those strangers connect to our family's lines. I even spent some time in the past two weeks navigating my way around the "spaghetti bowl" that is 23andMe's automatically generated family tree—and spotted some ways to plug in DNA matches.

Of course, each successfully-aligned DNA cousin encourages me to find another challenge to resolve. That, in turn, demands references back to my genealogy database, often involving updates. Before long, there have been dozens of new names entered into the family tree as connections get made with previously unresearched lines.

Within the past two weeks, that process led me to add sixty names to my parents' tree, all of them on my maternal side. That, however, was a modest gain in comparison to what I was able to achieve on my husband's family tree. Thanks mostly to some connections with my mother-in-law's ample family lines, this past two weeks brought 243 new individuals to her line, especially her paternal side, where I discovered an entire branch which had previously been left empty, for lack of data.

That means, at this point, a total count on my tree of 25,212 documented individuals, and 20,088 on my in-laws' tree. Not to mention, I can't wait to find another spare moment to manipulate those spaghetti-string lines on the tree at 23andMe, where my mother-in-law's connections are becoming so much clearer. It never hurts to find encouragement through progress, but it seems we can't achieve that progress without first encountering some head-butting moments of research frustration. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Off the Shelf:
Home is the Sailor, Home from the Sea


How exasperating it is to find mention of a book dealing specifically with the topic we're researching, but lacking any reference to either title or author. That was the case earlier this month, when I ran across a forum discussion about the demise of the S.S. Richard Olney, Liberty Ship during World War II. The S.S. Richard Olney, of course, was the ship on which my godmother's father, Michael Melnitchenko, had served as Chief Officer during the time of that incident in 1943.

Thankfully, just this past week, I found another mention of that unnamed—and coveted—book and ordered a copy for myself, so it really hasn't been sitting on my bookshelf for more than, maybe, a hot second.

The book, written by Captain Erich Richter's daughter, Ursula McCafferty, was thankfully mentioned on the same website in which I had found mention of his receipt of the Merchant Marines' Meritorious Service Medal in 1946. Within a bibliography listing all publications regarding the Merchant Marines, the book was listed under the section for "Memoirs of World War II," under the title, Home is the Sailor, Home from the Sea.

As it turns out, the captain of the Richard Olney, who through his calm deportment in the face of serious threat in war time undoubtedly saved the lives of not only fellow crew members but also a division of U.S. infantrymen en route to support a vital operation at Salerno, was at one time a prisoner of war, himself. Born a German, during World War I, his ship had been captured by the British and he was kept as a prisoner in Australia. When Germany's merchant fleet was given as war reparations to the Allies at the close of the Great War, Erich Richter ended up moving his family to America. A career seaman, from that point he served on American vessels.

There was, indeed, a chapter devoted to the incident involving the Richard Olney in the book. How surprised I was, in opening to that chapter, to see a transcription of a letter regarding the event which had been written by my godmother's father as chief officer at the time. There is something about seeing the words of a document originated by a member of one's family which, at least to me, is transfixing. Seeing the name, Michael Melnitchenko, in print on that page seemed to magically transport me back to the memories of my childhood, walking alongside him on one of our visits to his apartment in New York City.

How I wish I would have known, at that time, to ask questions—many questions. But, as my cousin often ruefully admits, we wish now that we had known then that we should have been asking those questions. Though Michael Melnitchenko is now long gone—even his daughter has been gone for almost two decades—I wish I could have at least asked my mother if she knew of the experiences he had been through in his career. Although when they reconnected over visits, they always looked like they were engaged in so many deep and fascinating conversations, I doubt even she had any idea.


Friday, February 19, 2021

The Complicated Route
Leading to That Rabbit Hole


Ah, the "rabbit hole." Almost any researcher knows of it: that tempting—and often misleading—path which engulfs our good intentions and buries us with fascinating, but ultimately useless, details.

I'd posit that one requirement to qualify a research find as a "rabbit hole" is that it must have a complicated path leading to its official door. Let's see if we can reconstruct that path to today's rabbit hole.

We are, in case you need a reminder, hunting for any genealogical information on a woman named Alexandra Manouiloff, formerly of Marseilles, who immigrated to New York City and completed her petition for naturalization just before dying in 1966. This Alexandra was noted to be sister of my godmother's mother, Lydia Leonoff Melnitchenko (at least, as the Americans would list her married name). 

Searching for the surname Manouiloff produced little of consequence, when employing the usual genealogical websites, so I struck out in a different direction. I took my search to the archived newspaper collections, and ultimately out in the wide world to Google.

The first sign I could find of any mention of that surname—at least spelled in that precise manner—was in a commentary called "Bits for Breakfast," written by George Douglas and published in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 20, 1917. It was just a blip of a mention, but given the context—the recent changes in government in Russia—it was enough to give me a research toe hold.

Douglas began his observations by mentioning, "One of the first promises of the Russian Duma is a free press." The writer then went on to refer to the many European governments which had recently been rather heavy-handed in their policies of censorship.

He wrapped up his point by producing an excerpt from a mere report of a speech said to have been given by "Professor Paul Milyukov" in the Duma. The author, apparently, considered it to be a prime example of the difficulty of censorship.

"I hold in my hands," the professor was alleged to have said, "a copy of the Berliner Tageblatt for September 16, which contains an article entitled, 'Manouiloff --- (censored) Sturmer --- (censored).''

That was only a minor portion of a speech by Milyukov which Douglas attributed as a key cause of the change in the Russian government of that time. While on the one hand, as it is all I had been able to find on any mentions of that surname Manouiloff, I want to stay put, riveted on that one detail, on the other hand, we can't just sweep all those associated names under the rug. Those are details which will help us set the stage—whatever that stage might turn out to be.

Let's go back and review those names. First, the professor: who, it turns out, was actually politician Pavel Milyukov, whose many impassioned speeches seemed designed to elicit emotional responses. Indeed, his speech on November 1, 1916, addressing the Russian Duma attacked then-prime minister Boris Stürmer.

Stürmer, as it turned out, had an assistant who, in Russian fashion, went by the name Manasevitch Manouiloff. We know now, by our understanding of the workings of Russian patronyms, that Manasevitch would be the patronymic form referring to Manouiloff's father—what we would consider a given middle name actually being a formal and acceptable way of referring to a man, sometimes in place of including his given name.

The speech attributed to Milyukov had been printed up in various British and American journals. We learn, in gleaning clues from these journals, that Manouiloff had been arrested the previous September for "blackmailing the Union Bank of Moscow." In addition, he was fingered as "a former functionary of the secret Russian police in Paris." His purpose, it seems, was to furnish reports to his superiors on the activities of Russian "revolutionists."

Some time following such accusations, this Manouiloff did eventually end up in prison, perhaps not so much for being implicit in a scheme to bribe editors of key newspapers, but more as a function of the demise of the entire Russian parliamentarian provisional government.

Enter first sighting of said rabbit hole.

In the turmoil of the waning years of the tsarist government, there was one woman who, somehow, figured significantly in the story of what became of the tsar, his wife and family, and the infamous spiritual leader known as Rasputin. That woman, a lady in waiting in the court of the last Emperor of All Russia, became a close confidante of the tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna.

Perhaps only because Anna Vyrubova managed to escape her Bolshevik captors do we have her memoir of those last years of the Russian court. I certainly wouldn't have known of that history—having never researched ancestors with Russian heritage until embarking on this exploration of my godmother's family—except that, thanks to that all-encompassing Google search for the surname Manouiloff, I discovered its thrice-mentioned appearance in Vyrobova's manuscript.

Thankfully, Anna's memoirs are freely available to all who want to explore her story through the foresight of Project Gutenberg. But I warn you—should you want to do more than search for Manouiloff's mere mentions in her manuscript—the tightly-packed text can wear on your eyes. Better to find a copy of the book, Memories of the Russian Court, or its newly remade reprint, now entitled My Dear Friend, the Tsarina.

Or, for those who would prefer, at the start of this weather-stricken weekend, to freely jump with abandon into a beguiling four-hundred-page rabbit hole of pre-revolution Russian court history, you can start with the typewritten transcription here.

And don't say I didn't warn you. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

So, Just How DO You Spell That Name?


Some surnames have got it made. There isn't much wiggle room when it comes to spelling a name like Baker, bestowing a certain sense of research confidence. But Manouiloff? Oh, let me count the ways a name like that can be messed up.

When I first stumbled upon the possibility that my godmother Genia, only child of war refugees Michael and Lydia Melnitchenko, might have had an aunt who also immigrated from their interim residence in France, I thought I was on to the beginning of a productive search for at least one branch of her roots.

Not so. Just as unexpectedly as Alexandra Manouiloff appeared in records linked to the wandering Melnitchenkos, she vanished from the scene. First I found her in Marseilles. Then I spotted her in a passenger list, arriving in New York City. And not long after she filed her petition for naturalization, she died.

Oh, I checked all the usual places for further signs of her name in records, but without any success. That's when I took my search straight to the search engines and out from the confines of genealogical websites. There are, as you've realized from past searches here, many ways to find further information on surnames in general.

What could I find about the surname Manouiloff? Sadly, not much—but of what I did discover, it will take more than one post and, I promise you, a long slide down a rabbit hole as well.

Where would a surname like Manouiloff show up, you ask? I tried directing that question to the surname distribution site,, but was rewarded for my effort by a null set—plus a list of alternate spellings to try, many (but not all) of which led back to Russia.

Reconsidering my query, I thought maybe a suffix like "-off" didn't look very Russian. Perhaps it was more likely that Russians might end such a sound with "-ov." Furthermore, since the name, as we saw it, came from a refugee who had settled in France, for whom the middle syllable, spelled "oui," might actually sound like the French word for yes, "oui," we might need to reconsider that section of the surname as well. Once again trying to think like a Russian, perhaps the spelling might originally have been more like "uy"—thus, I settled on the Forebears alternate choice, "Manuylov."

That didn't tell me much.

Face it: Alexandra Manouiloff's surname could have been spelled in any of a kazillion ways, especially considering it had passed through an intermediary stop before arriving on American shores to be mangled by English-speaking bureaucrats.

In fact, as far as the French went, during the time period spanning the war-torn twentieth century, when Alexandra would have settled in Marseilles, one French genealogy site indicated that only one person was born with that surname at all. And whoever that was, it was someone who was born in Paris.

Now, keep in mind, all we have for Lydia's and Alexandra's addresses in France were for Marseilles, but if you recall Lydia's daughter's profession—a ballet dancer—we need to remember that Genia spent quite a bit of time in Paris receiving her training and then beginning her career. It is not beyond possibility that having an aunt in Paris to chaperone her activities when Lydia was not available would have made that arrangement more realistic.

Who might that one Manouiloff born in Paris have been? To Google I went for more information, and found references to one "J. Manouiloff" referenced as a contributor to a few research articles published in French science journals in the 1970s. Whether that J. Manouiloff was one and the same as a Joseph Manouiloff listed in a French genealogy site who has since died in Paris, I can't tell.

There were, of course, other Manouiloffs listed at both Ancestry and MyHeritage, but I can't at this point tell whether there was any connection. As Alexandra was listed as Lydia's sister, and I already have discovered Lydia's maiden name, we need to remember that Manouiloff was Alexandra's married name—a name useful for tracing her details in later life, but not helpful for the years before her arrival in France.

Before chasing after any conjecture about alternate spellings, though, there is one fascinating detail I stumbled across that we may as well stop to examine. I warn you: it will be a rabbit hole, and likely not of a type to equip us to find answers to our questions about Lydia's family, but if you are interested in Russian history, you may find it a fascinating detour. You see, embedded deep within the Russian history which was likely at the root of what caused the young Melnitchenkos to flee their homeland was another player's vignette in the Russian saga, someone who also happened to claim that very same name, spelled exactly the same way: Manouiloff.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

With the Rarest of Names


In the field of genealogy, the discovery of an unusual surname can seem like a gift: a name which only a few can claim, it provides a wide open playing field, uncluttered by competing possibilities.

Not so, I am finding out, with the surname Manouiloff. That was the married name of the woman listed as my godmother Genia's aunt on the passenger records of their 1947 arrival in Virginia. Alexandra Manouiloff was the name given as that of the closest relative, outside of the United States, of Genia's mother Lydia Melnitchenko. Alexandra, according to that report, still lived in Marseilles, the city Lydia and Genia had just left for good.

My first thought was to wonder whether Lydia's sister remained in France, or whether she would eventually consider moving to America, as well. So, of course, I took a look to see whether any other family members eventually joined Lydia in her move to become a United States citizen.

As it turned out, I did find a few details on the woman. But only a very few. Perhaps this name was turning out to be a bit too rare.

First, arriving in New York on the French ship Liberte on May 19, 1958, was a woman named exactly that: Alexandra Manouiloff. Unfortunately, the only other detail affixed to her typewritten entry on the passenger list was her passport number and the term "Stateless." Sadly, this was not one of the forms for which the magic of flipping the page would reveal the secrets we are eager to uncover.

The second discovery was a typewritten index card for those who had filed petitions for naturalization with the federal district court in New York City. The card did, thankfully, squeeze in a few useful details, unlike some on which I have seen not much more than the person's name entered. From this card dated June 20, 1966, we learn not only Alexandra's petition number as well as alien registration number, but also her current address and date of birth.

That October 12, 1899, birth date came in handy for matching up those two sparse records with the sole remaining one I could find: her entry in the Social Security Death Index. Rather, let's make that "his" entry, as the given name recorded was not Alexandra, but Alexander. However, with the gift of finding that same birthday—October 12, 1899—combined with what we will soon come to see as the very unusual spelling of her surname, I believe it is safe to assume it was Alexandra who died in August of 1966, not long after her petition for naturalization was recorded as having been received.

Was there any obituary? Not that I can find. Facing the tedium of sorting through New York State death records—especially those originating from the fiefdom of New York City—will likely be something I'll need to consider. I can't even find a place of burial at this point. And, other than her sister's family, certainly not any indication of who might have been left to mourn her loss.

Such is sometimes the fate of searches for surnames which seem a bit too rare. But I'm not satisfied to leave the search just yet. As we've done with so many other surnames in the past, let's see what can be found by taking our research question outside the sheltered realm of genealogy and into the broader orbit of the Internet at large. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

With the Flip of a Page


Sometimes, it seems we struggle so hard to capture the exact picture of our family's history—and then other times, we reach the solution as easily as if it were just the flip of a page.

When I first started working on my godmother's family tree—a project I thought was hopeless, since everyone I knew in that family had long since passed away—one silly goal I had kept almost as if my own little secret was that I wanted to see if Genia had any relatives still alive.

That type of search simply wouldn't have become a possibility if it hadn't been for the massive digitization of government documents, newspapers and other publications. The search capabilities we have at our fingertips now would have been startling science fiction only a few decades ago. But then, we have to give credence to the warnings of "operator error," as well, for despite the powerhouses we now command as part of our modern search capabilities, sometimes the solution to our research dilemma can still be as simple as turning over a page.

That, in fact, was the only barrier standing between me and the beginning of discovering a possible answer to my question: who were Genia's relatives?

Let me take you back to that passenger list for the S.S. William Ford Nichols, arriving at the port of Norfolk, Virginia, on April 21, 1947. That was the document where I had discussed the additional handwritten comments at the bottom of the page, explaining that "stateless" passengers Lydia and Genia Melnitchenko had used for identification a document called a Nansen passport.

We already know, from the many other records we had found for Genia and her mother, that these two lines in the alien passenger listing referred to the right people. Just last week, in fact, we had flipped the page on Lydia's husband's arrival in New York City after that horrifying torpedo attack to see that her former address in Marseilles was indeed confirmed.

Here, at last, Genia and Lydia had arrived in the United States to stay for good, it seemed, after decades of facing up to what must have seemed like continual warfare. But just like any other alien arriving on our shores, the immigration officials wanted to collect details about who was coming in, and where they had come from

In the case of this 1947 passenger list, the address of a significant other from the "old" country was not showing on the page we had already viewed. That, however, could be had for the simple flip of a page—but had I already done that? Of course not. At that point, I was looking for other details. The logical next step had slipped my mind while I was on another research trail.

Finally returning to do my due diligence in the nosy researcher department, I found an unexpected gem. I had somehow thought that any address given by Lydia or her daughter would have referred to her seafaring husband, wherever he was residing at the time. That, as it turned out, was not the case.

The address Lydia provided was for someone else living in Marseilles, the city she had just left on her final voyage to America. The address was written as "3 Impasse Bombinette" but of course, I couldn't just accept that recording of the information. I had to look it up for myself, which was a good way to double-check details.

What is still existent in Marseilles is a winding dead-end alley called Impasse des Bombinettes. I doubt the numbering system still remains the same, but already I could tell from the map of that geographic area that this road was not far from the address which Michael Melnitchenko had recently given as Lydia's own residence in Marseilles.

The address, though, was something I was only mildly curious about. What I really was keen on seeing was the added note above the name and address given: it was marked "sister."

Lydia's sister was named "Mrs. Alexandra Manouiloff." Whether that was a phonetic transcription of what an American government official thought he heard an aging, travel-weary, twice-displaced immigrant say in possibly-mispronounced French, I can't tell. But you can hardly expect me to wait around for a response to such a conjecture. I'm now off to see whether I can find any documents containing a name like Alexandra's.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Knack of Being Nosy


Since the habit of flipping pages and being nosy has stood me in good stead while researching my godmother's father's personal history, I thought I'd extend the courtesy to Michael Melnitchenko's wife, as well.

The only reason I had learned anything at all about Lydia Melnitchenko was that she was the customary chaperone for my godmother, Genia, during her early years traveling as part of a ballet troupe. Just as every passage to America for French-born Genia required reams of immigration paperwork, because she was traveling internationally as a minor, the same documentation needed to be completed for her chaperone from Marseilles, Lydia.

In the stacks of records I could find for Genia, of course her mother was always listed by her married name. If I hoped to push back the family history yet another generation, I would need to obtain her mother's maiden name, which passenger lists seldom required. I did, however, locate it in a later set of records which provided resources for my research goal: United States immigration records and Social Security applications.

Though Genia was born in Marseilles, France, and lived there with her mother while her father was earning his living in the ocean-going shipping industry, the family still very much identified as Russians. For people of Russian heritage, this naming tradition became a two-step, family-linking process.

Once the Melnitchenkos finally settled in New York City after the second World War, from Genia's own Social Security application, I learned Lydia's maiden name: Leonoff. And, a bonus for those researching family with Russian heritage, I learned Lydia's possible father's given name as well, thanks to the patronymic naming system.

That tip came disguised in index cards typed out from information on United States immigration applications, in which the women had an odd addition to their name, in the form of a man's given name inserted between the woman's given name and surname. Not quite a bona fide patronymic system, but let's just say it was Americanized.

I had first seen this on the card typed up for Genia's immigration paperwork, in which her given name was written as "Olga Eugenia Michael." Michael, of course, was the Americanized form of her father's given name. Thus, when I found the same type of card for Lydia, listing her as "Lydia Theodore," I figured that must have been her father's given name—or at least its Americanized version.

Theodore, of course, would not be how the name was written or pronounced in Russian. It is more likely it would have taken the form Fyodor. Add to that the traditional Russian patronym for a daughter of Fyodor—Fyodorovna—and we get the idea of what maiden name Lydia might have carried, back in the homeland of her Russian roots: Lydia Fyodorovna Leonoff (or possibly Leonov).

Despite having deciphered just what Lydia's name at birth might have been, I still faced substantial obstacles in being able to locate any documents from that early stage in her life, given the turmoil she had suffered in her homeland. Still, I hoped there would be a way to uncover at least a little bit more of her story, knowing how much the stress had silenced her as her life wore on toward its end.

Truth be told, I had always hoped there would be a way to find any relatives for the family at all. I already knew that Genia was an only child, and presumed that her parents had been alone in coming to this country from war-torn Europe. I always harbored that dream of discovering another family member.

That's where the lesson of being nosy and learning to flip pages came in. Just like I had for researching Michael's ordeal in surviving the torpedo attack on the ship where he had been serving during the World War, I once again started flipping pages for other records in which I had found the family listed.

This time, it was on the record of the final arrival in America of Genia and her mother, that I flipped a page and discovered there might be another family member out there. Her name was Alexandra, and she lived back in Marseilles.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Fast-Forwarding the
Tedium of Record Searches


Finding an ancestor's will in digitized court records can be a great discovery—until you realize that the situation was messy and produced an impossibly long probate file. Such was the case, both with my third great-grandmother, Sidnah Tison McClellan, and with her father, Job Tison.

Embedded deep within those messy folders lies the key for someone hoping to sort through their African-American ancestral branches, for both these Tisons were slaveholders—Job in Glynn County, Georgia, and Sidnah in Columbia County, Florida. Though researchers don't necessarily need to scroll through old microfilms to find the details needed in specific files any more, large or complicated files still remind us of the tedium of these searches through legal records.

Searches through digitized files, while making the task much easier—for those records included in collections at or—still only enable computer-assisted searches by the name of the principal party. Thus, I can find the will for Sidnah McClellan, but not necessarily do a computer-driven search for any of the other names mentioned in the document. Paging through the extended file of Job Tison—which took decades to settle, incidentally—can make such a search complicated, indeed.

I had first tried to piece together the names when I was seeking the identity of one particular enslaved man who has ever since figured prominently in the oral history passed down in our family. That man was King Stockton, newborn son of enslaved woman Hester, who had been "inherited" by Sidnah and brought to Florida on the occasion of Sidnah's marriage to George McClellan.

My thought was to see if any of the names listed in Sidnah's probate in 1860 lined up with the names of the enslaved people mentioned in her father's will in 1824. With such a span of time separating the two events, I figured it wasn't very likely, but there were a few names which I wanted to trace.

In Sidnah's file, the following names of enslaved persons were mentioned: Arnett, Charley, King, Hester, Butch, Gipsey, Tom, Rose, Frank, Clarissa, Bob, Jane, Mary Ann, "Old John," Maria, Frederick, and "Old Mary Ann." In addition, there was a name that appeared to read Manimina, but the handwriting was too difficult to decipher confidently.

Comparing Sidnah's list with that of her father, there was in that 1824 listing Tom, Judy, Ned, Maria, Ben, Hester, Phillis, Clarissa, Peter, Joe, Lydia, Patty, and Frank. In addition, there was the specific stipulation to leave "Mary Ann and her future increase undivided" until the point at which the youngest Tison child would come of age.

That youngest child would have been Theresa Elizabeth Tison, who was born in 1820, and by 1841 had married Sylvester Mumford, who in the 1850 slave schedules reported five enslaved individuals, the oldest of which—a male—was then said to have been twenty six years of age. Even if his list had included that "inherited" person, Lydia, named in Job Tison's will, that would have had to be an infant from Job Tison's listing.

As for any of the other names matching up, of course King's name wouldn't have appeared; he was born long after Job's passing. While there was a match with the names Tom, Frank, Maria, and Mary Ann, those were names common enough to have been repeated in many lists. Clarissa might have been a less usual name and perhaps one with significance, but it is too soon to tell.

The task from this point is to see whether any of the names from the Tison will appear in the subsequent listings of any of his children. But to complete such a task would mean locating and reading, page by page, through the wills of each of the next Tison generation—or checking interim records filed before 1865.

Thus, the tedium—until recently made the announcement, which I found thanks to a tip from fellow blogger Randy Seaver on his Genea-Musings, instituting an update to how such records are made searchable.

Several different record sets of interest in African American genealogy will be updated in the process, but the one I welcome the most will be the re-indexing of their "U.S. Wills and Probate Collection."

For this collection, the intention is to "capture all people mentioned by name in wills." While this is helpful news for those trying to trace their enslaved ancestors, it is also a beneficial change to any of us who are seeking out specific details which might—or might not—be included in a will. For instance, considering the possibility that those who serve as executor, or even those who sign as witness, would be a significant part of an individual's "FAN Club"—Friends, Associates, or Neighbors—this augmented search capability would make it much easier to do a geographically-limited search for a specific name mentioned as, say, witness to other persons' documents.

I have often wished that universal search ability would be applied to other record sets, as well, such as, for instance, Irish baptismal records to seek the names of godparents for a child. There are some patterns of association which are applied so commonly among specific people groups that to be able to conduct a computer-assisted search to bring such relationships to the surface would indeed speed along our research progress.

Not to mention, cut through the tedium of research and let us get on to the analysis of what we're finding. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Following Up on a Note to Myself


After being astounded, thanks to the week-long course at SLIG in January, at all the resources available for those determined researchers intent on finding their African American roots prior to the Civil War, I couldn't lose sight of the fact that the very next month is designated African American History Month.

Though it may or may not be on account of that designation, it just so happened that during this past week, I was engaging in a little early spring cleaning, and came across a note I had written to myself a couple years ago, regarding the division of several slaves according to probate records after the passing of Sidney McClellan. At the time, I had been struggling to identify one of them—whom I later realized was named King Stockton—so once I had found my answer, I had set aside the rest of the names.

Fortunately, I didn't toss that handwritten note, but kept it in a pile to follow up on. Now that I've learned about some tendencies in record keeping, prior to that Civil War, I know it may be possible to assemble names into family groupings, a most helpful first step. But I also realize that every name on that list represents someone else's ancestor. And someone out there now may be looking for that information.

If I can, if it is at all possible, with the records I've already found, I might be able to reassess those groupings, extract theories about those family groupings, and then test the idea to see if there were, indeed, such families living in the area the McClellans once called home.

Perhaps that all seems like an assignment to find a genealogical needle in the family history haystack of humankind. But now that I've seen it done, I have been witness to the actual possibility. That alone is encouraging. After all, not until we believe we can achieve something will we attempt to do so.

Not that the task won't be challenging. Some of the techniques I learned during that week at SLIG were based on theories and hunches, and then pursued through documentation. Just having this list, gleaned from probate records, will give me a head start. I'm interested in seeing how things go as I try my hand at what the experts demonstrated during class. Experts have this way of making the nearly-impossible look so easy.

Friday, February 12, 2021

"Free" Passage


For the price of being plucked from a torpedoed ship in the midst of a World War, Michael Melnitchenko was awarded the chance to get "free" passage back to his port of origin in New York City. According to the requisite documentation upon his arrival there, classified as an alien in war times, his passage had been paid by the W. S. A.

That little detail wasn't freely evident on the document in which I had first found Michael after his harrowing wartime experience. It took some exploration of the pages surrounding his actual record to glean the context and locate his entire report. I've learned, over the years, to develop the knack of being nosy, and once I've found a person's records, to flip through the rest of the record set.

I learned, for instance, that the Liberty Ship S.S. John Rutledge was transporting not just one, but several seamen who had been involved in similar wartime scenarios. For several, the tag, "repatriated seaman" was included on their entry. In fact, Michael had, himself, been entered in the listing for the others from the torpedoed S.S. Richard Olney—until port officials realized Michael was not a United States citizen, at which point they lined out his name.

Even on the page where Michael's entry finally was completed—the Aliens' listing—it took a little more of that habit of nosy research to discover just who paid the passage for him. The first page of his entry revealed much of what we've already come to realize: that Michael was born in Russia—in "Necolaeff"—but when asked about his nationality, the entry indicated, "No National." Just as his wife and daughter had done in a later passenger list, he was likely claiming to be stateless.

The second page of Michael's entry in the Aliens' listing provided more clues about the episode in late 1943 which brought him back from the unlikely location of Bizerte in north Africa. While it was reassuring to see that he listed for "nearest relative" his wife Lydia, then living in Marseilles, France—at least assuring me we weren't dealing with a deceptive double—what caused me the most questions was the statement of who had paid for his voyage.

In response to the form's question, the answer was an abbreviation: W.S.A. I had to check that one out. In the process, I found the explanation for another phrase used for all the other seamen from the S.S. Richard Olney: "repatriated seaman."

A development in response to America's entry into the second World War, the War Shipping Administration was established by Executive Order on February 7, 1942, becoming the government's ship operating agency, tasked with the purchase and operation of the civilian shipping capacity the government needed to coordinate war efforts. 

In a press release issued by the W.S.A. about a year after Michael Melnitchenko's ordeal on the S.S. Richard Olney, the agency defined the term "repatriation."

Repatriation means the returning from foreign soil or waters, for any reason whatsoever, of any merchant seaman who is not performing the duties to which he had been assigned.

While that definition did have an ominous tinge to it, the press release went on to explain that 

Contrasted with the early months of the war when the majority of the repatriated men were "wet survivors"—men who had been torpedoed—the majority of the repatriates now are men who have been injured, become sick, or who participated in special missions with the armed forces and are returning to join other ships.

It is likely that Michael would have been classified as one of those repatriated seamen from "the early months of the war." It was apparent from his subsequent crew listings that he did, indeed, return to New York to "join other ships." But that strange jaunt to Pennsylvania before this incident makes it very tempting for me to wonder about that last phrase in the W.S.A.'s definition: "participated in special missions." Why that strange detour to the West Hickory Tanning Company?

The second page of Michael's entry in the "Aliens" listing on the S.S. John Rutledge included a multitude of questions of the type fired at immigrants attempting to come to America: whether he was a polygamist, or an anarchist, or deformed or crippled. The little details I could glean from that page were the most helpful, painting a picture of his usual accommodations in New York City.

As I had noticed from Michael's many other crew listings, his entry upon arriving in New York City had often had a stamp emphatically declaring that he could have no more than 29 days leave to go ashore at any one time—clearly an attempt to restrict aliens from "disappearing" into the country as an immigrant. Such was the case, again, with this entry.

Despite that, the form also alerted me that, at least according to his report, Michael had last been in the United States at the date of his departure on the ill-fated S.S. Richard Olney on August 5, 1943, and that, before that point, he had been in New York for fourteen months. Note that the report declared his presence in New York, not Pennsylvania, when it was fairly clear that the duplicate information on the Pennsylvania draft registration was not the handiwork of an evil twin, but Michael himself—a story we'll likely never uncover.

And while his final destination was listed as New York, in asking Michael about his intentions after that point, he denied any intention to return to his native land, nor to become a citizen of the United States. The only other detail we can glean from this form was that upon arrival in New York, Michael was to report to the city's office of the War Shipping Administration on Broadway—and that someone had entered the instructions, "reship."

Finding those other details helped confirm the right identity of this Michael Melnitchenko—husband of Lydia in Marseilles—and assured us that his city of birth, no matter how it was spelled, was indeed the city for the right Michael Melnitchenko. Flipping through the pages surrounding his record turned out to produce some useful information on Michael, even though we are still left with mysteries surrounding that odd Pennsylvania draft registration.

As it turns out, flipping a few pages for entries found on Michael's wife also proved a productive exercise in being a nosy researcher. We'll return to Lydia's side of the story on Monday.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

On His Way Home . . . Again


You have to admit: seeing the name of a seaman listed on a form devoted to passengers seems a bit odd. One would expect to see a mariner's name on the manifest listing crew members, not passengers. But there he was, our Michael Melnitchenko, arriving in New York harbor on November 23, 1943, as a passenger, right in the midst of the second World War.

The port from which he had sailed shouldn't have been much of a surprise; judging from the many crew listings I had already located, Michael Melnitchenko had sailed from several ports across the Atlantic on his return trips back to New York City. But this one point of origin seemed a bit exotic: Bizerte in northern Africa, one of the oldest known Phoenician settlements in the region, dating back to 1100 B.C.

Despite its ancient history, Bizerte had recently seen action during the then-current World War, when the German and Italian forces which had occupied the port city were routed by the Allies on May 7, 1943.

That, of course, was only one point in a wide swath of unseen dangers lurking in the waters between the continents bordering the Atlantic. As early as December 11, 1941, when the Axis powers declared war on the United States, they re-instituted a policy which they had previously utilized in the North Sea—only this time, directed at the coastline of the United States. Called the "Second Happy Time" by the Germans, it became an open season for attacks on American vessels by German U-boats, sinking a total of 609 ships from January through August of 1942.

This, of course, led to the loss of thousands of lives, but what may not be realized is that many of the ships attacked were not specifically military vessels, but included merchant marine vessels.

Countering that move, from the lead of the British, American shipyards began a massive project to produce what they called Liberty Ships, built from 1941 through 1945. Because of a previous Act which the United States Congress had passed in 1936, many of those built were intended as commercial merchant vessels, which could be used in war times as "naval auxiliaries." 

The S.S. Richard Olney, launched in January, 1943, was one such Liberty Ship, but as we'll soon see, the ship only remained in service until September 22 of that same year. Depending on which account we consult, the Richard Olney was either damaged when it hit a mine, or when it was torpedoed. If you scroll down the listing to the "R" section at this link, you will see the note, "mined off Tunisia 1943." And yet, if you consult this other alphabetical listing of American Merchant Ships Sunk in WWII, it states the Richard Olney was torpedoed on September 22, 1943.

Because of one specific detail, I wanted to delve further into the fate of that Liberty ship: the written comments scrawled across the page holding Michael Melnitchenko's sole entry on the "Manifest of Alien Passengers" aboard the S.S. John Rutledge, returning from Bizerte on November 23, 1943.

According to the notes, Michael was a "repatriated seaman" and "Ex S.S. Richard Olney." Most alarming were the added caps, "T O R P." If this signified that the ship had been torpedoed, why were others stating it had hit a mine?

In a discussion forum called, someone six years ago had brought up that very topic. He posted a comment to the ongoing discussion: "The SS Richard Olney was piloted by my grandfather, Eric [sic] Richter, when it was hit by a torpedo. It didn't strike a mine." The writer went on to say that his mother had written a book about the captain, which included a chapter on that very incident, but he unfortunately neglected to name either the book or the author.

Thankfully, as the thread continued, another member mentioned two books in which the incident was described in detail. According to this second forum member, one of the books reported that the S.S. Richard Olney was 

torpedoed by an unknown submarine.  A torpedo struck on the starboard side and exploded in the engine room. The explosion blew a hole in the starboard side 36 feet in diameter and a smaller hole in the port side. She was towed to Bizerte by a British tug and declared a total loss. She was not abandoned at any time.

The other book described the incident as one in which the ship had struck a mine—though, as the commenter reflected, there was no explanation in the book of where the mine had been or how the ship would have strayed into that area.

Obviously, this was not simply a luxury liner filled with vacationing passengers. Being a Liberty Ship, it was likely co-opted for specific wartime reasons. Not surprisingly, another forum member mentioned,

My father was one of the 34th Infantry Division soldiers on-board the ship and was en route to Italy. He told me stories of the day of the attack. He always said it was one of the last remaining Italian submarines that fired the torpedo. He recounted that he was near one bulkhead, apparently just one compartment away from the blast and was thrown as far as the opposite door [of] the next compartment.
What was surprising, considering the extent of the damage to the S.S. Richard Olney, was that more lives weren't lost than the two crew members who didn't survive. According to a web page called "Merchant Marine Heroes," which provides a listing of all the Meritorious Service Medals awarded during World War II, Captain Erich Richter, mentioned in the first forum post above, was indeed recognized for his efforts during the ship's crisis.

According to the report accompanying a photograph of the Captain as he received his award, his leadership during that episode coordinated temporary repairs to keep the ship afloat long enough to contact a nearby naval escort ship, which towed the Olney into port at the recently-secured Bizerte.

Considering that, at least on the report at his return to New York, Michael Melnitchenko had been listed as the ship's Chief Officer, he was undoubtedly in the midst of the efforts to keep the Richard Olney afloat long enough to safely deliver all who were on board to land and attend to the injured. What an experience that must have been—hardly what I would have expected, believing Michael to have been a sailor on commercial vessels, certainly not any involved in military action.
How Michael got from that harrowing incident to the ship which provided his return to New York is one question for which I'll likely never find the full answer. Even so, embedded on the form listing his presence on the return voyage are several details which we still need to delve into more fully. We'll take a look at those tomorrow.

Image above: Excerpt from the form, "List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States," showing one entry for Michael Melnitchenko on the ship, the S.S. John Rutledge, sailing from Bizerte, Tunisia, to New York City, arriving November 23, 1943; image courtesy


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