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Overheard in GenForum: George Dobson about 1886
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.

September 28, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am trying to find out any information about George Stanley Dobson, and the ship he came over on. He was born in Yeovil, Somerset, England on May 24, 1876. His parents were Simon and Helen (Stewart) Dobson. He had a brother Douglas Harold Dobson born in 1878. On his death record it said that he lived in the United States for 60 years. I assume that he came over when he was 10 years old. George lived in New York City, all of his life. I don't know if his parents and his brother came too. I have looked on the net for the ships and nothing. Any information would be appreciated Thank you -- Robin

A: When working with any immigrant ancestor, it is important to be sure and exhaust all the possible record types and sources found in the country to which the individual immigrated. While you have his death certificate and have done some searching on the Internet, there are many other records that may prove useful.

The obvious record type would be the ships' passenger lists themselves. Unfortunately, if your information is correct, then your George arrived in the unindexed time period of New York City's passenger lists. This will require you to try and narrow down the date of arrival with other records.

Finding an immigrants arrival on a ship may require some ingenuity.

Unindexed Years

While these records are not available online, most of the ports have had their passenger lists indexed in one form or another. Some of them have soundex cards. Others have simple alphabetical arrangement to their cards. Regardless of how they are arranged, they make it easy to search for an immigrant, when trying to determine the ship of arrival.

However, for those with ancestors who arrived through the port at New York City from 1847 through 1896, no index exists. This fifty-year gap has seen some major immigrant traffic also, and therefore searching through the passenger lists is not a simple endeavor.

While you do not know the name of the ship your ancestor arrived on, some people do. They just don't know the exact date of arrival. Some may know the port of departure and an approximate time period. For both of these researchers, microfilm M1066 Registers of Vessels Arriving at the Port of New York from Foreign Ports, 1789-1919 may be the answer. This set of twenty-seven rolls of microfilm lists the names of the vessels, the port from which they left and the date that they arrived in New York City.

Some of these lists are arranged chronologically. Some of them are arranged alphabetically. For your specific research time, the lists are arranged alphabetically and then chronologically.

Looking for Information

Because there is no index and you are currently unaware of the name of the ship on which your ancestor traveled, you must turn your attention to other record types. The goal here is to try to get some of this information.

Attention should be spent on the census records. Because you know that George lived sixty years in New York City, it is acceptable to expect to find him in the 1920 census. A search of the 1920 soundex, places George on Elton Ave in New York City (Bronx). Also included on this soundex card is his supposed year of arrival in the United States (1896) and information regarding naturalization. The card says he was naturalized in 1898. While the date of arrival is suspect, the date of naturalization allows you to seek out information from naturalization records.

Many of the naturalization records that you need to work with are available from the Family History Library through your local Family History Center. One of them is the Index (Soundex) to Naturalization Records 1792-1906 for New York. A county search of the Family History Library Catalog under New York and then under the heading Naturalization and citizenship will reveal this index.

The index reveals that George S. Dobson was naturalized on 28 Dec 1898 in the Supreme County of New York County. His date of birth coincides with what you have and his date of arrival is listed as 1887 through the port of NYC. Unfortunately this does not give us the necessary information we hoped to find. Neither does the actual naturalization petition.

Ideally, a declaration of intent for George might supply the name of the ship. The problem here is that he was a small boy, only eleven years old, and his memory at the time of his naturalization does not appear to be so good where this is concerned.

A Different Approach

Because George was only eleven years old when he immigrated it is plausible to assume that he did not make the trip on his own. It is likely that he traveled with his family. If this is the case, then it is possible that his father was going through the naturalization process and may remember more about when they arrived.

The first stop with this research is the computerized 1881 English census. These CDs are available at many Family History Centers, as well as being available for purchase to the home researcher. A search here revealed the entire family supplying needed ages for George's parents to make it easier to identify them in other records. This also supplies us with places of birth for Simon (Scotland) and Helen (Sherborne, Dorset, England). While not the information we are currently seeking, this is certainly welcome information for later research.

A look at the 1900 soundex for New York reveals that George's mother Helen appears to be living with George. A look at the census page does reveal that she is a widow and while she is the mother of two children, only one is currently alive. This tells us that both Simon, her husband, and Douglas, the son, are dead by 1900. Some additional information lets us know that Helen lists her year of arrival as 1888. Unfortunately the citizenship column has been left blank on her. George is listed with the year we already have.

While a lot of research has been accomplished, and many new facts appear to have been discovered, we are still no closer to determining exactly when George arrived in this country. In George's household in the 1920 census, his mother Helen is listed as an alien. This means she did not go through the naturalization process. So his father dies and his mother does not go through the process. This means the only records that exist are his and he does not remember enough.

In Conclusion

Unfortunately, this means that you will need to do a line by line search of the passenger lists for the year or May 1887 to April 1888. The good news is that you can skip all the ships that did not come out of London or Liverpool as those are the two most likely ports of embarkation for George and his family. These records are available on microfilm, though it will take some time to go through them.

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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