Using ship manifests to locate ancestral village in Russia
Using ship manifests to locate ancestral village
Very frequently the US researcher has the ship immigration manifests and looks for the birth place of their ancestor. How to approach it to make the search successfull?
The standard form of the Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States has two columns to look for a clues.
People usually read the column 11, "The last permanent residence", subdivided into "Country" and "City or Town". Reading something like "Russia, Kiev" or "Ukraine, Kiev" or "Russia, Minsk" or "Poland, Minsk" frequently sends the wrong signal.
"Kiev" in US migration papers very frequently means the "Kiev Gubernija" rather than the "Kiev city proper", which makes this geographical designation not suitable for any reasonable search.
By the 1897 Russian Census, there were 3,559,229 people in the Kiev guberniya making it the most populous one in the whole Russian Empire. (more details on this unfortunate event are available at
To have a real clue you have to take plenty of time and effort (as well as daos-like relaxation) to figure out the content of the more important column 12, titled "The name and complete address of nearest relative or friend in country whence alien came". It has TWO lines to write the address, and there usually the confusion starts.
Imagine the situation: the third-class passenger arrives in New York after a couple of weeks at sea, at the uncomfortable cramped place, with the acute seasikness just recently subdued. You've spent all your short life before that, say, in a small city. You probably even got some education. You know to speak Yiddish, Polish and Russian.
Here comes the enumerator, with the task to process several hundreds passengers of the ship. He is no linguist. He is a low level clerk. He was born in Italy and moved to NYC five years ago. He speaks Italian and English.
He asks you about the village you came from. You barely understand and then mum something in response. The enumerator does not quite understand what you say (he is not only non-linguist, he is also non-geographer and cannot know how to write all the geographical names correctly). He asks you several more times and then writes. What he writes is a result of the seasick Jewish migrant words interpreted by the hurrying Italian enumerator. They may closely resemble what you said if the placename was simple, and may not if it was not...
What to do?
So the only solution is to check to see where they come from from other sources. Probably
there was some friends/relatives moved to US with them. Maybe there was somebody on the same ship manifest travelling in the same compartment or the next and gave the more precise location on Ellis
Island or later on draft registration.
Handwritten translations of geographical names frequently make the real problem to decipher actual names, but it usually can be done with concerned efforts.
Although familysearchindexing.com already started doing this, there is no and it is unlikely to be available any time soon any sort of computerized index to birth-marriages-deaths in Kiev Gubernija or even
the smaller parts.
All records in late 1800s-early 1900s were on paper books, which are still scattered among several archives and very few of them digitized. The access to them is possible, but the search could move into the "reasonable" area when you know the exact geographic place to search -- village (preferably) or volost'.
Additional source for the placename location
Getting things right requires consulting the list of inhabited places for the relevant guberniya and a very relaxed mood, which could be clear from the description above.
After that you can write to the archive (better done in Russian or Ukrainian language respectively, as too few of them speak English) to ask them to do the search for you (archives usually charge a fee for
this kind of research), hire an experienced researcher to do this for you, or come over to the area yourself for a couple of week at least. If nothing else, this could be a good research holiday option.
I will share more details on the use of the list of inhabited places and writing to archives later.