Search Engines can be a Dangerous Crutch

23 Jun 2016 by Leah Klocek

Search engines have been one of the great systems that came into common use with the advent of the internet (though they actually predate the unveiling of the Web itself, oddly enough).  Having the knowledge of the world at our fingertips is a heady ability.  How often in our daily lives do we think of something we don’t know and immediately Google it? If you’re me, the answer is “a lot” (I’m curious and hate saying, “I don’t know,” even on points of minutiae).  It’s even more helpful when doing genealogical research.  Oh, the hundreds of searches I’ve performed in FamilySearch and Ancestry, joyfully watching as relevant record after record floats to the top! I’ve used search engines to find members of my family – or others – in century-old census records, church records, ship’s passenger lists, in records as prosaic as city directories from the 1950s or as specialized as probate records.  So don’t get me wrong, I love search engines.


However, relying on them exclusively to help you find relevant records is a huge mistake.


The best way to explain why is really just to show you.  Enjoy my own little informal case study below! 


                                                      Meet Elias Moskowitz and Lena (AKA Leah) Kuper.​​








They were a married couple who emigrated to the US in the first decade of the twentieth century (and you may also recognize them from elsewhere on my website).  Growing up, Elias and Lena were quite familiar to me (in fact, I’m named for her), but I never knew all that much about them in terms of facts.  I knew that they came from Romania, and the place name “Iasi” as a possible hometown was floated around quite a bit.  I had a basic idea of their ages, where they wound up after coming to America, and naturally, their names. 


With a genealogical search engine, that’s generally enough to go on to get you started.  I found them and their family in a few census records, and the Find a Grave index, but not much else.  I accepted that.  After all, not everyone documents a whole lot of paperwork in their lives.  Some people never do show up in newspapers or land records or (if, as these two were, for example, Jewish) church records.  They slide through life quietly, ice skating lightly over the surface, not leaving deep grooves.  So I shrugged and thought, “Really nothing to be done.”


What did steam me – constantly and consistently – was that I couldn’t find them on any ship’s passenger lists.  I knew that they started at Point A (Romania) and wound up at Point B (New York).  According to the 1920 census, Elias came over around 1906 or 1907, and was followed a year later by his wife, Lena, and their first child, a toddler named Goldie.  Again, that really should have been enough to go on.  But no matter what searches I did, no matter what name variations I tried (and I thought I’d thought of all of them, believe me), no matter how many times I banged my head against my keyboard, they stubbornly refused to be found on any manifests. 


This didn’t make sense.  After all, they hadn’t just magicked their way over here.  Somehow, somewhere, there had to be a record (I doubted that they were stowaways).  When combined with a whole other set of great-grandparents I still haven’t yet found on ship’s passenger lists, I was about ready to throw my hands in the air and proclaim that I just must be descended from a whole bunch of big old liars.     


Recently, I bit the bullet, shelled out the $15, and ordered Elias’s naturalization papers from the National Archives, which I really ought to have done long ago.  I didn’t bother to search for Lena’s papers, because the 1920 Census said that he had submitted papers already, and until the 1920s a woman would have been automatically naturalized along with her husband, so she wouldn’t ever have filed papers of her own.  There would have been no need.  Now, Declarations of Intention, being the wonderful and amazing documents that they are, include the date of arrival in the US, as well as the port of departure, the port of entry, and the name of the ship.  If Elias remembered and related those details correctly, it would be a huge step towards finding him in an actual ship’s manifest.  That was a big “if.”  Do you remember the date of the very first day of college classes? Or the date of your high school graduation? Or your prom? Those were all important days, but unless you have an amazing memory, odds are that you have a basic idea, almost certainly to the year, maybe to the month, but not necessarily to the day itself, of when those events occurred.  The same principle applies here. 


Elias’s Declaration of Intention showed up in my inbox rather quickly (Note: When offered the option of electronic delivery, TAKE IT, unless you need a hard copy for legal reasons).  My first twinge of excitement occurred when I ascertained that this Declaration did indeed belong to the correct Elias (there were more than a couple Elias Moskowitzes in New York at the time, believe it or not).  And joy of joys, he had included all of the information on his arrival in New York! According to him, he had arrived on the ship Patricia out of Boulogne on 13 October 1906. 


So, ignoring the fact that I’d done basically the same exact search ten times before, I did a search in and on the Ellis Island website’s Passenger Search.  After all, now I had confirmation that he’d come through Ellis Island! He HAD to be in there.  Aaaaand…no relevant results.  Dammit.  I then went into the database for New York passenger lists and found that the S.S. Patricia hadn’t even arrived in New York on 13 October.  Double dammit.  I found through a little idle clicking that it had arrived in New York on 12 October, which seemed a likely candidate, but when I clicked on the record, it took me to a page that showed the Patricia coming in out of Plymouth, not Boulogne.  Triple dammit.  Clearly, great-grandpa Elias had made a mistake somewhere.


Now, if you’re smarter than I am (In my defense, I plead pregnancy brain on this one), you have probably already realized the flaw in my logic.  Namely: ships didn’t have just a single port that they sailed into and out of.  A ship that stopped in Plymouth could easily have also stopped in Boulogne along the same trip.  Just because the page that showed up first in Ancestry was a passenger manifest for those who embarked in Plymouth didn’t mean that there weren’t many, many other sheets of paper documenting everyone else who got on along the way. 


At this point, with the name searches not doing me any good, I realized that there was only one real recourse here: I needed to search the entire passenger manifest manually (well, as manually as it gets when using keyboards and mice instead of fingers) and see if there was a name that could even possibly be close enough to turn out to be Elias Moskowitz.


So that’s what I did.  I found the whole passenger list by doing a ship search on the Ellis Island website (which, incidentally, also confirmed that one of the S.S. Patricia’s stops had indeed been Boulogne), paged through the non-relevant sheets of the passenger list (Cuxhaven, Hamburg, and Plymouth, in case you were curious), found where the list of passengers who embarked at Boulogne began, and started going through the list, name by name, page by page. 


And, nearly 40 pages into the overall passenger list for the Patricia, there he was.  My Elias Moskowitz, only he was written down as Ilie Moscovici.  No wonder I had never found him through the search engine! I had never done a search for names starting in “I,” and if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have clicked on him in the results list, seeing that his most recent foreign residence was listed as Paris.  It took looking at the whole record to be able to reconcile those differences.  After several years of sporadic searches and inevitable failure, there he was, listed with his place of birth (surprise surprise, not Iasi, but a town in the county immediately to the north).  Without a shadow of a doubt, it was he.


Once I’d found him and saw how his name was spelled, I found Lena and Goldie within about five minutes; a quick search for “L Moscovici” brought the two of them up right away on a 30 July 1907 manifest on the S.S. Potsdam out of Rotterdam.  It had Lena’s place of birth (surprise, surprise, also not Iasi, but a completely different town than Elias’s in the county immediately to the north) and Goldie’s (finally, the fabled Iasi!).  The reason that none of the three of them had shown up in my multiple searches, despite the fact that Ancestry possesses these records, is that not all of Ancestry’s records have yet been indexed for search purposes.  I could have searched for Ilie Moscovici till the cows came home, and that page on that ship’s manifest would still not have turned up by the time the cows came into the house, trashed the kitchen, slept in the bed, and then forgot what they were doing in the house in the first place and went back outside to mill around confusedly. 


In the space of a single day – even more than that, in the space of just a few hours – I made more progress on this branch of the family tree than I had made in years, and I put the success down to two factors: 1) I allowed myself to spend a few dollars to find a valuable document I wouldn’t get any other way, and 2) I didn’t accept what the search engine said as incontrovertible fact.  Just because the search engines didn’t see them didn’t mean that they weren’t there (a weakness on the search engines’ side), and just because I was searching didn’t mean I knew exactly the right thing for which to search (a weakness on my side). 


Search engines are great, as long as you use them in conjunction with good, old-fashioned page-by-page searches.  If the record you need isn’t showing up in the search engine, then go to the original source and use your eyes for their intended purpose.  Don’t let the fact that searching name-by-name can get tedious stop you.  It’s how our predecessors did it, how they had to do it, and we are still every bit as capable of slogging through the monotony to make grand discoveries.  And for my money, that moment of discovery is made all the more exciting by the hard work that preceded it. 


Are you going to let a bunch of old historians give you the genealogical equivalent of, “Well, in my day, we walked uphill to school, both ways, in the blinding snow”? Are you going to let them tell you that you clearly don’t have the patience, the attention span, or the dedication to do what needs to be done? Heck no! Pull up those records, throw on some music or old Star Trek episodes in the background to keep you company, and get to it.

He knows you can do it.  Don't disappoint Captain Picard. 

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