Astronauts to Ancestors - Real Research Breakthroughs Via The Internet


A version of this article first appeared in the January/February 2001 issue of Ancestry Magazine


By Mark Howells


I was actually looking for spacemen on the Internet when I found her - my German great grandmother listed as a passenger on a trans-Atlantic steamer in 1891. A neat and tidy bundle of information - her name, age, and town of origin. You could have knocked me over with a Space Food Stick when I discovered her there online. I had been looking for her and her family's town of origin for the last ten years on death certificates, obituaries, draft registrations, naturalization papers and censuses to no avail. Then, by a seeming accident, I found her place of origin on the Internet.

I have always been a firm believer in the power of the Internet as a tool for research. As a believer, I did not require a Internet miracle in my own research to prove its possibilities. However, there I sat at my keyboard, with a major research breakthrough having just fallen out of the sky like Skylab. Since research breakthroughs from any source are a cause for celebration, this article will examine the mechanics of my Internet breakthrough for the encouragement of my fellow researchers. If my great grandmother can be found on the Internet while looking for astronauts, other researchers can have similar successful missions on the Internet.

What To Write About

The ongoing dilemma of what to write about in this column was what actually sent me looking into outer space. The 2000 U.S. Census was about to complete its enumeration phase and I had just read a humorous article about the situations which faced the thousands of Census enumerators during their door-to-door visits. When asked where he had been on Census Day, one householder responded "Not on this planet."! His well-trained enumerator did not miss a beat and told the householder to pretend that he had been on the planet that day and got him to answer the remaining Census questions.

That made me wonder if the U.S. Census Bureau had ever been faced with counting persons who were actually "off planet"? The question isn't as spaced-out as it would first appear. Although there were no U.S. manned space flights in 1960, the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission was "off planet" in the census year 1970. There were no US manned space flights in 1980 but the Space Shuttle went up three times in 1990 and twice to that point in 2000. Had the Bureau ever had to count astronauts in space on Census Day and if so, were there any special measures required? There could be a column in it.

That was my mission on the Internet: find all the flight dates for NASA's 1970, 1990, and 2000 launches and see if any of the astronauts were up on the Census Day for those years.

Space Pinball

The first half of the task was easy. NASA appears to keep very good records regarding their history and willingly share it on the Internet. I went to NASA's main web site and drilled down. The NASA History Office had just the information I was looking for. The Apollo flights have a unique place in history and their flight dates are easy to find online. While more recent and thus less historical, the Space Shuttle flight dates were also easy to locate. I had my flight dates for '70, '90, and '00 in just a few minutes of researching on the Internet.

Now all I needed was dates of the Census Day for those three censuses. No problem, I thought. Finding genealogical information on the Internet is my hobby. I'm good at this - it will be a no-brainer.

I started, quite sensibly it seemed, with the U.S. Census Bureau's web site. Using their on-site search engine, I tried various combinations of the census years and "census day" but wasn't able to find what I needed right away. I did find the census day for the 2000 census was April 1st - nope, no space shuttle missions flying on that day. Now I only had to find two more dates. So I turned to some general search engines. I've been using Northern Light and Google in combination with some success lately. Using these search engines, the answers I sought did not pop out at me immediately. I was perilously close to being stumped. I even resorted to that old form of information - books - and tried to find the dates of the modern censuses. My personal genealogical library has several general references on the U.S. Census - but none which provided the date of the censuses past 1930.

The problem, of course, is that the details from the 1970 and 1990 censuses will not be available to the general public for many years to come. So the dates of these censuses are not as interesting to current users of census information such as we genealogists.

I returned to the results provided by the search engines and prepared to "surf". Perhaps the dates I needed were located on pages linked off of the results of my search? I don't think the term surfing really does justice to the act of wandering around the Web from site to site. It's more like bumping into one web site and then bouncing to another. More like a steel ball in a pinball machine - from bumper to flipper to bumper to bumper and so on until the ball finally comes to rest.

So, I started pinballing around the Internet. The search engines had provided me with a wealth of census-related sites. I explored the most promising sites and quickly found a good one on the 1930 census titled What to Expect from the 1930 Census. This site is one of those valuable sites hosted by a fellow genealogist which provides general information of interest to all of us. The What to Expect site describes which states and counties have been soundexed and what questions were asked by the 1930 census. It did not provide me with what I was looking for but I was glad for the information it did have since the 1930 census is due to be released in April of 2002. As with all interesting web sites, I was now thoroughly side-tracked from my main objective. What to Expect from the 1930 Census turned out to be a sub-page of a larger web site. I started to explore the whole site. As with many pages put up by our fellow genealogists, this researcher had many family history interests besides the 1930 census. It turns out that the site's main page was Resources for German Genealogy on the Internet. Always on the look-out for interesting and useful web sites, I continued to pinball through the various categories on the site. My own German ancestry made my ricocheting of potential value to my future research.

Ignoring My Germans

I have German ancestry but had not had much success "crossing the pond" back to Germany. I knew enough about German genealogy to be aware that without the location of my ancestor's home village, town, or city, I wasn't going to have much luck delving into German records to find them. After exhausting records created by my German family after their arrival in the United States, I had pretty much set my German research aside. Besides, there was the whole language barrier. My High School German studies were not going to get me by in reading a foreign language. Research regarding my German great grandmother and her family were thus put on the shelf while I pursued lines of lesser resistance.

On the Resources for German Genealogy on the Internet, one of the sub-categories was Emigration and Immigration. In reviewing that category, I happened to notice links regarding the Hamburg Passenger Lists. It is estimated that one third of all immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe between 1850 and 1934 are listed in the Hamburg Passenger Lists. Hamburg was a major port of departure during this period and their passenger departure lists managed to survive the Second World War. These lists have been microfilmed by the Family History Library onto 486 rolls of microfilm. Most of these passenger lists have been indexed. I was peripherally aware of the Hamburg Passenger Lists but as I was not ready to delve into my German research, I had not yet consulted them.

In common with more ports of embarkation and arrival, modern Hamburg is beginning to recognize the value of its immigration history as an adjunct to general tourism. Bremen, another major German port of departure, is using U.S. passenger arrival records in an attempt to reconstruct passenger list database for ships out of Bremen. Arrival ports such as Galveston in Texas have also developed passenger arrival databases. Perhaps the most anticipated project for creating a passenger arrival database is that underway for the American Family Immigration History Center at Ellis Island. Some 17 million records of passengers arriving through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 are being entered into a searchable database. Well, Hamburg has also begun the process of putting their departure records into a database - and even better, they've put some of their results online already. The Hamburg Link To Your Roots site allows searches of passenger departure lists from 1890 too 1893 at the time of this writing. The data for these years is by no means complete yet.

From naturalization records, I knew that my German ancestors immigrated in 1891. The Hamburg Link To Your Roots site included partial records from the year 1891. I decided to take a chance and enter my surname of interest. It wouldn't take too long - I probably wouldn't find anything anyway. I could soon be back to my search for the census dates for 1970 and 1990.

[Search Screen from Hamburg Link To Your Roots]

Search Screen from Hamburg Link To Your Roots

I was shocked when I received a hit back showing what had to be my great grandmother - Auguste SCHREIBER. Her age matched up nicely with her death records. She traveled as a seven year old girl in the company of her mother and five brothers and sisters on the steamer "Kalifornia". Her siblings's names matched census information. The family traveled in Steerage with three bags of luggage. Although I am not given to interpretive dance, I perform the genealogical dance of joy when I saw that she and her whole family were listed as being from Salzwedel in the Provinz of Saschen.

I printed copies of each of the individual passenger departure records for the whole family. Printing from a Netscape browser conveniently labels the printouts with both the date of printing and the URL where the information was found. I wanted to be able to return to this information again as well as share it with my cousins.

After my initial excitement subdued somewhat, I thought more carefully about what I had found. As an extracted record on an Internet database, I had been provided with a lead to the original records. I needed to follow up this lead by consulting the original Hamburg Passenger Lists. The LDS provides an excellent description of the Hamburg Passenger Lists available online through their FamilySearch's Research Guidance. After consulting how the microfilmed records were organized, I visited the online Family History Library Catalog and determined the individual roll of microfilm I would require in order to view the original record. I scurried up to my local Family History Center, ordered the microfilm, and waited.

Things To Do While Waiting For Microfilm

Salzwedel huh? Where in the current or former Germany was that? The Provinz of Saschen (Prussian Province of Saxony) had become part of former East Germany and was now the state of Anhalt-Saxony in the unified country. Salzwedel was somewhere in there. I used one of my favorite search engines to find information on Salzwedel and soon was led to the Salzwedel town web site. But it was inconveniently all in German. No problem, I went to Alta Vista's automated translator and ran through various web pages and portions of text from the Salzwedel town web site. The English information I received back was somewhat stilted but I was able to get the gist of the town's history (birthplace of Jenny von Westphalia - wife of Karl Marx), some of its culture (famous for its glazed cakes), it's location, and local places of interest in the town. Great background information, but I also found e-mail contact information for the Salzwedel Rathaus (city hall) and the names, postal address, and telephone numbers of the clerks in the Salzwedel Standesamt (register office). If the original records panned out, I knew how to contact the city via the Internet.

[Image of Salzwedel town page]

Salzwedel's Town Website
(I somehow managed to miss the heavy metal Motörhead concert)

As if to prove the old adage that there is a nugget of truth at the core of every family "tradition", I was amused that the passenger lists had mentioned my great grandmother's town of origin as being Salzwedel. Both my great aunt and my grandfather had insisted in person or in family documents that their mother was born in Salzburg. Well, at least the got the "Salz" part right.

I then spent some time reading about immigration through Hamburg on a site related to the Hamburg Link To Your Roots site. In pictures and text (thankfully in an English version), Emigration Port Hamburg shows just what it was like to leave from Hamburg. Using the Emigration Port Hamburg site, the Hamburg Link To Your Roots site, and the LDS' Hamburg Passenger Lists Research Guidance, I was able to combine a searchable database, a description of the source records from which the database was created, and a description of the process which made the records themselves. Thus the Internet provided both its traditional ease-of-search function with historical background and a detailed explanation of the records.

[Image of Hamburg in 1890]

Hamburg in 1890
Source: Emigration Port Hamburg Web Site

A Study in Black and White

After a wait of a few weeks, my Hamburg Passenger List microfilm was in and I viewed it at my FHC. The online database had been correct in every detail. I took photocopies of the actual passenger list showing my great grandmother and family as immigrants to the United States and was more convinced then ever that I had finally found my Germans. The nifty thing about the Hamburg Lists is that because they are departure lists, you can cross check them against arrival lists as well. So I duly ordered the New York passenger arrival list microfilms for the period of the "California's" crossing of the Atlantic. When I viewed those films, I was please to see that 15 days after leaving Hamburg, my family arrived safe and sound at the Barge Office in New York harbor (used during the transition from Castle Gardens to Ellis Island). I had my Germans going and coming both.

A review of the LDS' Germany Research Outline available through the FamilySearch's Research Guidance showed that Salzwedel should have commenced the civil registration of births just a few years prior to the birth of my great grandmother. I should be able to request a copy of her birth registration from the Salzwedel register office. I had the e-mail address for the Salzwedel city hall and knew the name and physical address of the register office itself, so I wondered if I could e-mail a request for my great grandmother's birth registration.

Teutonic Efficiency

I consulted the German Letter Writing Guide at FamilySearch's Research Guidance. It gave me instructions on how to format my request for a birth registration and gave me the German phrases to use for the request, an offer of payment, and my thanks. By picking and choosing the components from the Guide which fit my situation, I was able produce a sufficiently understandable e-mail request in German. For safety's sake, I had a German-speaking friend review the letter and they added some corrections to my request. Fairly confident in what I was attempting, I sent the e-mail to the Salzwedel city hall.

I heard nothing in reply via e-mail. No automated response. No confirmation that my e-mail had been received. Nothing. As the days wore on, I was beginning to wonder if my e-mail had disappeared into the ether.

Six days after I e-mailed my request, I got a snail mail envelope postmarked from Salzwedel. I was happy to have gotten any response at all and was expecting that it would contain some forms to fill out and an explanation of the Deutschmarks involved. Instead, what I received was a complete photocopy of my great grandmother's birth registration! I was simply astonished. Here was her date and time of birth, her parents, their residence and religion, and her father's occupation. All in my hands only six days after I had sent my cut-and-paste request by e-mail. To paraphrase a favorite cheese commercial: "Behold the power of the Internet!".

In a somewhat slower progression, I was able to consolidate on my breakthrough. I traced my great grandmother's maternal line back three more generations from Salzwedel church registers. I bought some detailed maps of Salzwedel from the German subsidiary of Amazon.com and used them to locate streets and peripheral villages mentioned in the church records. I obtained information about the ship "California" and even got a picture of her. I requested and received some nice visitor information pamphlets from the Salzwedel tourist bureau.

Back In Orbit

I did eventually remember that I had started all this by looking for the dates of the 1970 and 1990 U.S. Censuses. With renewed resolve, I retraced my steps and did eventually find a U.S. Census Bureau web page titled Census Dates for Countries and Areas of the World: 1945 to 2004 which provides recent past census dates for both the U.S. and other countries.

Come to find out that the Census Bureau has standardized the date of the U.S. censuses to be April 1st since at least 1950. April Fools' Day. Well, that was somehow appropriate for the fool's errand I had sent myself on. No manned U.S. space flights were "off planet" on April 1, 1970 or April 1, 1990. The Census Bureau has yet to enumerate astronauts in space. No, there's no article in it. Still, I'm happy with the results. I now have a story to tell anyone who insists that that you can't do "real" genealogical research on the Internet.

Post Script: Of course, it was only a matter of time before the census made it into space.



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Astronauts to Ancestors - Real Research Breakthroughs Via The Internet
Created & maintained by Mark Howells.
For information about this article, please send email to markhow@oz.net
Updated September 26, 2002

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