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Overheard on the Message Boards: Learning From Passenger Lists
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

May 08, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: My grandfather William Heinonen came twice to the U.S. to visit his sister Aleksandra (Sandra) Heinonen. I found him in Ellis Island lists on February 23, 1907 aboard the ship Philadelphia. But I can't find his first trip by Saxonia (left England 30 Oct. 1906). Also I found Aleksandra by Grosser Kurfurst 21 March 1903. Then she came back to Finland to bury her mother and travelled again by Teutonic (Southampton 27 April 1910) Can't find her name. Her name is in the list arriving to New York 28.December 1913 but I know that she died and was buried to the sea. I would be very grateful if someone could help me. -- Ritva

A: Often, when we are researching an immigrant ancestor, we assume that they arrived through Ellis Island. While many immigrants did enter the United States through this immigrant processing center, it was just one of many ports. In fact, Ellis Island didn't open until 1892, long after immigrants began to enter the United States.

The Ellis Island records that you have found actually tell you a lot about your William Heinonen and may explain why you cannot find him in 1906. The 1913 passenger list also provide clues and indicates that Aleksandra Heinonen did not actually arrive at Ellis Island in 1913.

Take time to see what the records actually tell.

The 1907 Passenger List for William Heinonen

You mentioned that you were able to find William Heinonen arriving aboard the Philadelphia at Ellis Island on 23 February 1907, but weren't able to find record of his travel in 1906. Your message does not indicate how you know that William Heinonen came over in 1906, though you mention a specific ship. I question this because of the information found on the passenger list for 1907.

In the passenger list for William Heinonen on the S.S. Philadelphia, that sailed from Southampton on 16 February 1907, line 22 details his answers to the questions asked on the passenger list. The one that caught my eye was question 15 Whether ever before in the United States; and if so, when and where? This question was asked of William before he left for the United States. You should notice that on his passenger list in 1907, he answered "no" to this question. This could explain why you have been unable to locate him in the passenger lists in 1906.

Depending on what the source was for your original information, perhaps they are mistaken either about the number of arrivals or when he actually arrived for the first time in the United States. The 1907 passenger list appears to be saying this was his first trip to the United States and that he was going to be staying with his sister.

If you are certain that the information you have on the original entry in 1906 is correct, then the next step would be to look at the other ports along the eastern coast of the United States to see if perhaps he arrived on the Saxonia through one of them (Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc.).

Aleksandra Heinonen

It appears that Aleksandra did quite a bit of traveling back and forth from 1903 until her death in 1913. While the ability to search for Ellis Island records online is a major step forward, there are times when the way in which a name has been transcribed in the index can actually work against us. This is one of those cases. There are some discrepancies in the information found in the 1910 passenger list and the 1913 passenger list. In 1910, she is listed as Aleksander Heinonen and with the profession of laundress. In 1913 she appears to be three years younger than she was in 1910. This is a perfect example of how we must be creative when searching for our ancestors in such records. By running a search for just her surname, the Aleksander Heinonen showed up.

You will want to get copies of all of her entries into the United States and then begin to compare them. It appears she always was going to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, for instance. In 1910 she lists a brother who was left behind in the old country whereas the 1913 passenger list notes her father. There are other differences and you would want to write them down and evaluate to see if you can show that each is the same person.

The line that you see drawn across her entry in the 1913 passenger page indicates that she did not actually disembark in New York City when the ship docked. To find out what happened, you may need to look elsewhere in the manifest for that ship. Just as there are lists of detainees and stowaways, there should also be an indication of any deaths that took place at sea. These pages are usually included in the scanned images you'll find online. Depending on the speed with which you access the Internet, you may find that ordering the microfilm of the 1913 passenger list is easier because you can go through each page of the ship without having to wait while it downloads to your system.

What Are the Records Telling Us?

These passenger lists for your William and Aleksandra Heinonen offer classic examples of the records telling us things that we either don't understand or need to take a closer look at. Too often we look at the record but we don't really read it, missing critical clues that can help us in our research.

Usually this happens when we think we know what we'll find, based on other research. In your case, you expected to find certain arrivals, and when you did, you may not have read everything available on the record. In other cases, you simply may not be familiar with a certain record type and miss the nuances of notations whose significant may not be clear to you.

We do this all the time with our research. We find a tombstone and we expect to find certain items on that stone. When we do, we move on. Sometimes it isn't until quite a bit later that we bother to actually read the information, perhaps because we are no longer in a rush — no longer trying to leap generations in a single bound.

In Conclusion

The information you had both helps and hinders us in our research. When combined with compiled electronic databases and indexes, we often overlook the very person we are hoping to find.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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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