Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Falling Into the Gap


Have you ever celebrated finding a new record set, and set about scouring its contents for your ancestors, only to discover there's a gap in the collection, right where your ancestor should have been?

I've had that happen several times before, and seeking the passenger listings for my father-in-law's Stevens and Kelly families, it looks like I'm about to see that happen once again.

Let's just say that experience has cooled my enthusiasm for jumping right into the fray when I find a new online collection. I've learned to stop and consider what, exactly, is available within each collection I'm about to examine.

Based on the Declaration of Intent for John Stevens, an immigration document he filed in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, he claimed to have arrived in the United States at the port in New Orleans. An unexpected route for an Irish immigrant right in the midst of the famine back in his homeland, John Stevens' itinerary might have been for an entirely different reason than that of his fellow countrymen.

While I can't yet determine the route taken by his future wife's family—I have yet to find any immigration documents for the James Kelly family that I can say with assurance belong to the right individuals—I suspect they may have taken the same route as John Stevens. After all, what would have caused them to end up in the early 1850s at the same small town in western Indiana, other than the logical conveyance by river navigation?

Still, no matter where I've looked for John Stevens in record collections for the port of New Orleans—and, at the same time, searched for the Kelly family—I've come up short. Let's review the reasons why and see if anything has changed since the last time I attempted this search.

First, I review the resources available online—since I won't be traveling to do in-person research any time soon. My first stop is usually to check out the FamilySearch wiki. While the overview of the collection seems promising—the digitized records from the National Archives cover the years from 1820 through 1945—there are some caveats which already are sending me warning signs.

One warning, for instance, comes from the observation that the earliest records were handwritten, making it possible that, in transcription or indexing, the writing could have been misread. A second caution comes from the realization that all information recorded was gleaned from passenger reports. A false report, of course, leads to incorrect information. Even if the passengers reported all details correctly, there was always room for the possibility of clerical error. Combined, this cautions me that I might have to read through those handwritten passenger names, myself, line by line, if the usual search methods don't yield me an answer to my search query.

While the overview on the FamilySearch wiki for New Orleans passenger records is helpful, that is not the only place I look. Of course, I'm certainly pleased that also includes two record sets on New Orleans passenger lists in their holdings, which glean microfilmed material from several sources. And just in case one resource incorrectly identified my ancestors' entries—hey, this happens—not only can I jump from the records at FamilySearch to Ancestry to compare notes, but I can also check out the same material from the Louisiana Secretary of State's website.

Yes, having resources in more that one place can be cause to celebrate, but let's not get too hasty yet, shall we? After all, we have yet to actually do the work of searching for our Stevens and Kelly names in those records. And there is one more caution to keep in mind. This I found, courtesy of a finding aid compiled by the ever-helpful Joe Beine on the German Roots site online, where he notes that those lists I mentioned come "with some gaps."

Guess where the gaps are?

Granted, some of the gaps may have occurred before or after our Kelly family arrived in America—and other gaps have inspired work-arounds for those critical years of 1851 and 1852. However, because some of the handwritten material may require a thorough—remember the term, "reasonably exhaustive"?—search, before jumping into such a project, it is always good to review the fine print to see if we are still headed in the right research direction.

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