December 06, 2001
We rely so heavily on indexes that there are times when we feel out of our element or hopelessly lost when faced with working in records that have no index. In some cases, we must simply bite the bullet and begin the laborious task of going page by page through the record in search of our ancestor. Other times there may be alternatives to at least narrow down the number of pages we must search through.
A Case Study
My research focused on the family of Irving Berlin, the music composer. The research was posing some unique problems due to the name change. Born Israel Beilin in Mogilov, Belarus in 1887, he and his family immigrated in 1893 to avoid the pogroms inflicted on the Jews in Russia at the time.
Online biographies on Irving told how he was left to support the family at the tender age of eight when his father died. My own research located the family in the 1900 census, with papa, Moses, still living and the surname spelled Baline.
The 1910 federal census is not soundexed, so initially I skipped this one and went to the 1920 census. I discovered Israel, now going under the name Irving Berlin, living in an apartment with his secretary and housekeeper. Having first looked in the soundex for the surname Beilin, I discovered that neither Moses or his wife Lena was listed. Since Moses was supposed to have died when Irving was young, I was not completely surprised by his not being there, and concluded he was deceased. I also concluded that Lena must be deceased as well.
The biographies mentioned that Irving was drafted during World War I, so I was going to see if I could figure out which of the many draft boards in New York City was the one in which Irving would have registered hoping to find his draft registration card. To do this I had to determine where in the city he was living, so I set about looking in the 1916, 1917 and 1918 city directories. While I found Irving listed with no problem, I was surprised to find a Lena Berlin, widow of Moses also listed, not under the surname Baline or Beilin, but under the surname Berlin.
I began to track Lena in the city directories, taking her back to the one published in the summer of 1913. She disappeared in earlier city directories. Interested in learning more I decided to locate her in the 1915 New York state census. My problem was that she was living in The Bronx and, unlike Manhattan, which has a card index to street addresses for the 1905, 1915, and 1925 state census, I had no such index to help me easily pinpoint her location in the sixteen microfilms for Bronx County for the 1915 census.
The 1915 Census
The New York state census records offer some useful information. In addition to pinpointing individuals during the midpoint between the federal census, some of them ask questions as to the length of residence in the given county. Unlike other states that tabulate the individuals simply by gender and age, much like the early federal census records, the New York state census lists everyone living in the household along with their relationship to the head of the house.
Like later federal census records, the later New York state census records are arranged by divisions. They do not use the enumeration districts of the federal census though. Instead the sheets are arranged by assembly district and then by election district within each county. Without that knowledge I feared I was destined to have to do a page-by-page search through all sixteen rolls of microfilm.
Directories and Maps
The first thing I did was to return to the 1915 city directory and see if there was a map in the directory that outlined the divisions. There wasn't, so I turned my attention to the holdings in the library to see if there was a map for the time period close to 1915 for New York City that might supply me with these divisions. Again I was left empty handed. However, a map showing 1920 federal census enumeration districts would prove itself useful in the end.
Published on microfiche, I made copies of the sections that showed the streets of The Bronx. It took six maps to show them all, and I ended up copying them on 11x17 size paper. This was a serious map.
While there was no street index to this map, I used the city directory's street index to help in pinpointing the section of the map that was the most important to me. City directories have listings of the streets, showing the cross streets and the block numbers where those streets cross. Armed with this I was able to quickly pinpoint Beck Street on the map. I also had a good idea of the surrounding blocks now, along with the house numbers associated with those blocks, which would prove essential in working with the state census.
It will only be through the efforts of those researching in the foreign records that some of these records will begin to make it online. While this may not seem fair, that you will need to do the work that others will benefit from, it seems to even out in the end. Someone will help you down the road.
Rolls of Microfilm
I returned to the library catalog and printed out the film numbers for the sixteen rolls of microfilm. I pulled the first five microfilms and sat down to work. As the first pages of the 30th assembly district, the first district for the Bronx, began to go by, I looked at the street addresses and located those streets on the maps I had printed. Seeing how far away these streets were from the blocks where Beck street was, I felt confident in skipping that assembly district.
I did the same thing with the next assembly district, the 32nd. The streets in this district were closer, so I began to skip just a few pages at a time. In reading the end of the second roll of microfilm, as the streets began to get closer and closer to Beck Street I began to slow down and look at each page. Of course, this was made easier by the fact that I wasn't looking for a person, but just skimming the street names.
About half way into the third roll of microfilm, I found the very block I needed and within seconds the house number, a tenement house, on Beck Street where Lena was living. It was not long before I found the listing for Lena.
What looked like a daunting task that might have taken days to research was, in the end, whittled down to a couple of hours of research. It took a little understanding of the geography of the city and the specific blocks of the street where Lena lived, but finding her in the unindexed state census was not an impossibility.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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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