Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Passenger List Confusion

I have posted before about passenger lists and the difficulty in finding people. Recently I was looking for information for a friend whose grandfather had come to Canada from Romania in the early part of the 20th century. From other family information, including a personal biography written by this individual, we had a birth date and the year he immigrated. As with many cases, especially for non-English speaking people, the record of his name was inconsistent.

Trifu Samoila was born on November 10, 1887, in a little town named Uzdin, a few miles north of Belgrade. The town is presently located in Serbia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. That corner of the country is also a place where many families are of Romanian descent. That was the case for the Samoila family. So, on many documents, there is a mixture of nationality and origin.
Part of the outgoing passenger record for the ship, Lake Simcoe, which sailed from Liverpool, England to St. John, New Brunswick on March 4, 1903, showing the Samaila family (copyright-holder The National Archives; image downloaded October 27, 2014 from Ancestry)
Part of the incoming passenger record for the ship, Lake Simcoe, which arrived at St. John, New Brunswick on March 14, 1903, showing the Samaila family (copyright-holder Library and Archives Canada; image downloaded September 18, 2014 from Ancestry)
The ship passenger list shows the family of Roumanian (Romanian) origin. They were en route to Regina, Saskatchewan, which seemed to confirm this was the right family. Later documents, including Trifu’s marriage record and the 1916 Canada census, show his birthplace as Hungary. His Canadian naturalization certificate says his birthplace was “Serb-Croat-Slovakia” and his nationality as Hungarian. Uzdin was, in fact, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. Just to add to the confusion, the family’s surname has been spelled and/or transcribed differently on many records on both continents.

Anyway, both passenger lists show adults Jan/Yan, age 46, and Iconio/Iconia (age 40) Samaila and children, Trifu (11), Adam (10), Totia (4-5) and George (3). On the face of it, this is a nice, neat family. The problem is that it is actually members of two families. Jan, later called John, and Iconia had two sons, Adam and Totia (Joseph). Trifu and George were their nephews, sons of John’s brother, Peter, who had immigrated earlier in 1903. The age of 11 shown for Trifu was not accurate as he would have been closer to 16 years of age. No other immigration documents have been found so we cannot determine why he was recorded much younger than he actually was.

Given all of the other information we have about the family and most of the facts shown on the passenger lists, we have no doubt that they represent the right families. Without the additional data, however, perhaps especially Trifu’s own biography, these passenger lists might only have served to confuse or misdirect a family history researcher.

There are genealogical lessons to be learned, or at least reminded of with this example:
1.      Assemble and compare every kind of information you can about an individual.
2.      All types of records can and often do contain errors or mistakes, whether accidental, intentional or through carelessness.
3.      Question everything. An individual’s own recollections may be faulty especially in what they think they know about other family members and their ancestors.
4.      Be aware of different spellings of names and especially of transcriptions on public websites.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.