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Crisscrossing the Atlantic

By Daniel Hubbard | February 27, 2011

Getting back across the Atlantic is always a challenge. Immigrants’ names changed under the influence of English phonetics and naming patterns. Some intentionally picked names easier for their new neighbors to pronounce, names less foreign and more easily accepted.

It was a long voyage and the great separation made it seem unimportant to record, with any precision, the names of places that were so far away and perhaps intentionally put out of mind. Often people said that they came from the nearest large town. Depending on the area, that might not have been so very near. The farther away a person was from their birthplace when they made their statements, the less accurate they might be. The width of the Atlantic is a distance that could produce a great deal of imprecision. A person with an altered name coming from a poorly specified place is never going to be easy to find.

The Atlantic wasn’t just a physical barrier to our forebears, it is a mental barrier to us. Not only did place names from the Old World often go unrecorded here in the New but there is so much to understand before we try to make their crossing in reverse. The more difficult the problem that is about to be attacked the more thorough the information that we need. Just when we expect emigration to have made records hazy about the details we need—birthplace, birth date, even name at birth—is the time we most need those details to be correct. Chances are good as well, that we will be faced with an unfamiliar language and records that aren’t what we expect. None of that should be discouraging but it does go to show why we are encouraged to do really solid research in the records on our own side of the Atlantic before attempting to connect to records on the other side.

As hard as crossing the Atlantic can be, there are times when crossing it several times can be what is needed. Each apparent connection across the sea makes the other connections all that much more certain—something like the way each strand contributes to a rope’s strength.

Once

I recently was asked to help someone trace two ancestors back across the Atlantic to Sweden. One had an unusual surname among the witnesses to her marriage. The immigrant bride had the same unusual name surname. I wanted to find that bride on a ship’s manifest but hadn’t found her yet. Could this possible relative be a clue? I found a girl who seemed to be that bride living in her childhood home and lo and behold she had a brother whose name matched the name on her marriage license.

Twice

When I looked for him on a manifest, I found a man with the right initials leaving Sweden for America but it was not clear that he was the correct man. In any case he traveled alone—there was no sign of his sister. Back in America. I looked for some trace of him beyond that marriage license.

I found him in the 1880 census with a horribly anglicized name. It was just recognizable. His age and country of origin were a match and then in the last row for his family I found his mother. The same mother I had found for my bride and her brother all those years before. She too had crossed the Atlantic.

Thrice

When I found the mother on a manifest, she was traveling with two daughters that hadn’t appeared in the other records that I’d seen.  Also interesting was that she traveled without her husband. I guessed that fact had a story to tell. That is where this assignment ended but I was curious. I found her a widow living in the poor house just before she set sail.

Three Atlantic crossings, each related to the other. Each crossing tied to the others at both ends. Any good rope requires at least three strands and though there is much more to do in order to understand, this rope seems well made.

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