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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 01, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Plott Family Tree

Q: I have what may be somewhat of a unique problem. Most people, I guess either know a lot about their background or nothing about it. Myself, I know two things for sure, my father's name, Percy Glenn Plott (deceased) and the name of my great-great-great grandfather Johannes Plott who came to this country from Germany about 1750. I also know my family developed or bred a famous breed of bear hunting dogs, known as Plott bear hounds (The state dog of N. C.). Can you advise me on how to best proceed from here? Most of my relatives are dead, and running my own business and family obligations limits my time. Are there any services that would do a search for a reasonable fee? -- Bob

A: The first thing you will want to do is to write down everything you do know. I suspect that as you begin to write down information about your father, that your memories will hold keys to perhaps your grandfather. Even if you do not know his exact birth date or birth place, you may remember things that help you to estimate his date of birth.

Whether you do this research yourself or you hire someone, the initial information would still need to come from you, so writing down all that you know would also be the first step in hiring someone to do the research for you. If you wish to pursue hiring a professional, you will want to visit the Association of Professional Genealogists where you can search for professionals based on region and other criteria. Most professional genealogists charge an hourly rate plus expenses.

If you haven't done so already, you may want to use the Internet FamilyFinder to do a search on Johannes Plott. The Internet is home to many Web pages devoted to genealogy. It is possible that someone else online is researching this surname and has made some information available in a family history Web site. The Internet FamilyFinder is a search engine of just genealogical sites, in addition to the various databases found on

General search engines, such as are another avenue to try. Be aware that you may find sites devoted to the breed of dog, that simply mention your third great-grandfather. This is one of the pitfalls to general search engines.

Also, it is possible that there may be an additional generation. Allowing for 30-year generations, that is 30 years between births, right now your information accounts for only 150 years. I mention this just so that you can be aware should you decide to do the research yourself. It is easy to try to force the information already known into the tree, when there may be errors.

The best way to find your descent from Johannes Plott would be to begin with yourself and your father and work backwards. By getting records, such as vital records, you will begin to get more names of past generations. For instance, you father's death certificate may list his parents' names. It will tell you where he was born and would allow you to search for him in other records, perhaps even census records, if he was born before 1920.

Social Security Price Increase

Q: The Social Security Administration charges $27.00 for a copy of an individuals SS-5 form or $16.00 for an abbreviated copy. Why did the price go up so drastically ($7.00)? The cost puts a real dent in my research. When and who enacted the increase? -- Jeanne

A: As genealogists, we sometimes do not realize the impact we have on certain governmental agencies. Unlike vital records, where there are many offices and each of us is only contacting a few, the Social Security Administration has been kept extremely busy over the years as more and more researchers have located their ancestors in the Social Security Death Index.

As with all agencies of this nature, the Social Security Administration was forced to evaluate the costs they were incurring to retrieve and send an SS-5 form in answer to a request from a genealogist. The changes in the fees were the result of this evaluation.

We tend to forget that the individuals who are fulfilling our requests are being paid. The time it takes for them to locate the SS-5 form comes out of their daily routine. While the hard costs, the cost of photocopying and mailing the SS-5 form are minimal, the man-hours, are where the original costs were no longer covering the true expense.

While it is unfortunate that the price has gone up, there are often other records that can supply you with the same information that may be cheaper. Death certificates, for instance, will often supply you with the names of the parents and where they may have been born.

If you have found your ancestor in the SSDI, you can begin your search for a death certificate in the county our state where your ancestor was residing at the time of his death. This does not guarantee that he or she died there, but it gives you some place to start.

The fees were not arbitrarily set to dissuade us from requesting SS-5 forms. The fees were based on an internal investigation into the time and hard expenses expended on behalf of each request for an SS-5 form and then changed accordingly.

Ellis Island Online

Q: As I was browsing through the history channel, they were doing a feature on genealogy and stated that I could obtain boat information on all manifest information on immigration to Ellis island. They also stated you had alphabetically indexed this massive list of over 3 million people and this could be found by contacting and going to Ellis Island. I must have missed something because I can't seem to be able to do this. -- Dick

A: There are actually two different databases that may be of use to you depending on when your ancestor immigrated to the United States. It is also important to remember that there were many other ports of entry that were also being used when Ellis Island was open.

Ellis Island was opened in 1892. Prior to this, those arriving at the port of New York would have disembarked at Castle Garden. The Ellis Island Web site is available at Here you can search those passengers who arrived through the port of New York during the years 1892 through 1924. This is not all of the passenger lists available for this time period, only those immigrants going through Ellis Island. If you do not find the person you were seeking you may want to check out the other ports.

The other ports, including Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, are not available online at present. Their records are available on microfilm. Microfilm such as this is available through your local Family History Center, a branch of the Family History Library. Through your local Family History Center, you can submit requests for the microfilms that you need.

If your ancestor arrived before 1892, then you may want to read more about the International and Passenger Records Collection subscription service available through was involved in the compilation of the records on the Ellis Island project, but they also have an impressive collection of resources for those passengers who arrived in New York before the opening of Ellis Island along with other ports of arrival.

Vital Records Online

Q: Can I find birth records of my parents on the net? They were born in Italy in 1892. -- Gina

A: While the Internet has brought many useful databases online, vital records still are most often available only through written requests. There are some indexes available online, but none for Italy.

Vital records for Italy are found on the town level. Most available online vital records are compiled indexes from states, such as California and Kentucky. These indexes are available because of the need the states have to find individuals quickly when people contact them. By making these indexes available, it helps them because researchers can now check the index and have all the necessary identifying information before contacting them for a record.

Your Italian vital records are not being organized in this manner. As a result, anything found online would be the result of the work of volunteers. You might want to check the WorldGenWeb Project for Italy and see if they have any additional information.

Your most promising resource for vital records of those born in Italy, would be your local Family History Center. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has amassed quite a collection of microfilmed vital records for towns in Italy. A search of the Family History Library Catalog at would be the first step in determining if the town in question has been microfilmed. Before you can pursue research on your parents' and their birth records, you will need to know the town where each of them was born.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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