Workshops, online records in Westmoreland County can help trace ancestors
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Do you want to fill in the blank branches of your family tree? Perhaps your grandparents immigrated to Westmoreland County in the early 1900s. You know the family stories, but dates and places are vague.
The Westmoreland County Historical Society regularly holds genealogy workshops, and now the county prothonotary office also can help.
The prothonotary's office has just put online its naturalization papers for immigrants dating back to 1906.
Anita Zanke, librarian for the historical society, already has made use of the new online information.
"I used it to look up my mother's naturalization papers," said Mrs. Zanke, whose mother came to the United States from Latvia. "My father threw all those papers away. My mother, aunt and great aunt, all became citizens here in 1960. They were sponsored by Vandergrift Mayor Richard Hunger, that's where my mother lived. When I was a child, I remember her bringing home an American flag after the ceremony."
Her mother's name was Zenta Spere, and she came to the United States in 1949, after World War II, fleeing her country after it was invaded by Germans and Russians, Mrs. Zanke said.
"Seeing those papers brought back memories of their difficulties. My great aunt was wounded in the war, and when she fled, she had to leave her children behind. The Red Cross later found a couple of her children, but the two youngest were never found. Seeing that on the naturalization paper, 'whereabouts unknown,' brought that all back to me."
The naturalization papers were handwritten by immigrants as they applied to become U.S. citizens. The papers contain birth dates and places of birth, the date and name of the ship they traveled on to come to the United States, children's names and ages -- even photos.
"One person told us they found in our online naturalization papers the only picture that they had ever seen of their great grandfather," prothonotary Christina O'Brien said.
"We hope these online papers will make it easier for people trying to look up their family history," she said. "It will save them coming into our office, and it preserves the old books we have that have ripped pages."
The naturalization pages can be printed from the online data base.
"We have records for 14,000 immigrants," Mrs. O'Brien said. The records may include a declaration of intention, a petition for naturalization, a certificate of arrival, an oath of allegiance to the United States and an affidavit of witness papers, she said.
The historical society advises those who are researching their family to begin with themselves, Mrs. Zanke said.
Start with yourself
"Write down your own history, your name, birth date and include copies of important documents, such as a birth certificate or death certificate of a parent. Keep those for your children," she said.
"Then work backwards, tracing your parents, and then their parents. Don't try to connect to a Revolutionary War soldier who has your same name. Go back from one generation to the previous one.
"Verify facts, too, such as birth and death dates," she said. "Sometimes there are mistakes on grave tombstones.
"Start with the oral history of your family -- relatives often recorded births and deaths in their family Bible -- or there are census records and cemetery records, church records and property records.
"Westmoreland County has a lot of records, as well -- from wills to marriage licenses to property deeds and tax records," she said.
The state has copies of most birth certificates for state residents, but the county courthouse may have early records. State archives may have some information, and national archives contain military service records and pension information, she said.
"One of the things our education coordinator stresses," Mrs. Zanke said, "is not to get hung up on one spelling of an ancestor's name." She gave the example of Joanna Moyer at the historical society, who said her personal research uncovered eight different spellings for her relatives' names.
Another common problem, Mrs. Zanke said, are changing boundary lines.
"You may find records indicating a relative moved from Cumberland County to Bedford County to Westmoreland County. But it turns out they lived at the same place. That's because Westmoreland was created in 1773, and before that it was Bedford and before that it was Cumberland."
Online family history sites, such as ancestry.com, can be helpful. But researchers from the historical society caution that they can have mistakes.
Mrs. Zanke said the historical society normally holds two genealogy workshops each year. In March, it will hold a class for people who have reached a stumbling block in their research. Last year, the society held a class on how to find military records going back to the Revolutionary War.
The society primarily has church records and family records. It also has a researcher who will go to the county recorder of deeds office to help families trace histories through property records.
The society has seen a spike in interest in tracing family ancestors. About 1,000 people a year use the society's library, most for family research.
People from more than 30 states use the society archives each year. That's because Westmoreland County was the gateway to the West, with the National Road -- created in the early 1800s and the first federally improved highway in the nation -- running through the county.
To access Westmoreland County's naturalization papers: www.co.westmoreland.pa.us, click on "elected officials" and then on "prothonotary."
First Published February 28, 2013 5:10 am