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Why Can’t I Find My Levensohn Immigration Records?

My great-grandfather, Joseph Levensohn, and eight of his nine offspring immigrated to the US between 1892 and 1912.  I haven’t been able to find the immigration record for a single one of them.  Some of them may have come in pairs or in groups; some individually.  I think they would have immigrated using the surname LEVENSOHN, because that is the name that each used in the US (except for the youngest, who went by the name of Joe Levenson – he dropped the ‘h’).

One of the first lessons of family history research is that spelling of a name doesn’t matter.  When I was younger, we would always dismiss the possibility of being related to someone named “Levenson” or “Levinson” as not possible, “because we spell it with an ‘h’.”  But the spelling of a surname is not immutable, isn’t sacrosanct, and, when researching Jewish families (or, for that matter, any families that immigrated from a country using a different language and a different alphabet).  The family was from Kiev, either the city or a town in the gubernia.  Family lore has it that they were learned, so they they could possibly write their names in Yiddish, Russian, and Hebrew.  But it is less likely that they would be able to spell or write an Anglicized version of their names using the Latin alphabet.

The ship they finally boarded to the US might have been German or British or a steamship line based in some other European country.  It isn’t likely that the purser, or whomever wrote the manifest, would have spoke Russian or Yiddish or Hebrew, much less be able to translate and transliterate from one of those languages.

So when I search for their immigration records I try soundex and phonetic searches; I try variant spellings, such as LOEWENSOHN or LEVISON or. . . I have tried a multiplicity of possibilities.  I use Steve Morse’s one-step search engines; and I try other search engines, such as at Ancestry.com.  I try wildcard searches, when possible.  I try searching very specifically and very broadly.

Although New York was the port most frequently entered by Eastern European Jewish immigrants during the 1890s and 1900s, there were several other ports of entry:  Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore; land entry after initially sailing into Canada; more minor ports, such as Charleston; less likely, Galveston or San Francisco.  I’ve searched them all.

Here are the family members, their approximate dates of birth, and their approximate dates of immigration.  As far as I know, only Joseph Levensohn was not single – he was widowed.  I’m listing them in the order they arrived, according to records I’ve been able to find.

  • Max Levensohn, b.ca 1872, arr.ca 1892 (age 20)
  • Morris Levensohn, b.ca 1881, arr. ca 1894 (age 13) (maybe up to 3 years later; must have lied about his age)
  • Clara Levensohn, b 1876 – 1879, arr.1896,7 (age about 21+/-2)
  • Fannie Levensohn, b.ca 1889, arr. 1898 or 1902 or 1904 or 1908 (age 9 – 19)
  • Hannah (Annie) Levensohn, b.ca 1879, arr.ca 1900 (age 21)
  • Joseph Levensohn, b.ca 1854, arr.ca 1906 (age 52)
  • Jenny Levensohn, b.ca 1894, arr.ca 1906 (age 22)
  • Sarah Levensohn, b.ca 1885, arr.ca 1906 (age 21)
  • Joe Levenson, b.ca.1891-1896, arr.ca 1906-1912 (age 10 – 21)

(Some of these may seem strange, but wild variations in birth dates and immigration dates are common among people researching their Jewish families.  People lied about their ages (still do, from time to time); a person responding to a census could have mis-remembered or simply guessed about another household member’s immigration date; someone might know his birth date on the Jewish calendar but never was particular about when he noted it on a document.  Many other reasons are possible.  I have found birth dates and immigration dates on documents such as marriage license applications, census records, and death certificates.  The dates can vary widely.)

Here’s what I postulate:  Max arrived first, alone.  Morris arrived next, alone and lying about his youth.  Although it seems plausible that Morris and Clara may may have arrived together  (my first record of Morris in the US is in the 1897 Cincinnati City Directory, and Clara, as a woman traveling alone, is less plausible than arriving with a brother) the 1900 census seems pretty clear.  The 1900 census shows the three siblings  – Max, Morris, and Clara – living together on Western Avenue in Cincinnati and each has a different immigration date (Max 1892, Morris 1894, Clara 1896).  To reinforce that, the census explicitly notes that Max had been in the US  8 years; Morris 6 years; and Clara 4 years.

So there should be three separate immigration records for these three siblings.  Any ones I have located so far just don’t fit closely enough with any of these three ancestors.  Of course “Max,” “Morris,” and “Clara” are names used in the US.  In the Old Country their names would have been different.  Knowing that, I have searched variants and researched common name changes among Jews at the time.  I have been flexible when looking for first names.  [I don’t know the Yiddish or Hebrew names for any of these people.  Morris’s grave is the only one I have found, and it does not carry any Hebrew on it.  My working hypothesis is Moshe, but that is by no means certain.]

What about Annie?  Although it seems more likely that she and her sister, Clara, might have immigrated together, rather than two single women traveling alone, why would she not have been living with Clara and Morris and Max in 1900?  I haven’t found Annie on the 1900 census.  Her marriage took place in 1903 in Cincinnati.  And the 1910 census in Cincinnati says she immigrated in 1901.  A later census puts the date earlier.

So, so far it seems that each of these siblings:  Max, Morris, Clara, and Hannah/Annie immigrated separately, perhaps each one as the money became available.  So there should be four separate immigration records.

Fannie appears to have traveled alone, too. In one scenario she was a young child when she came to the US.  Her first appearance in the US – in my research, that is – is in 1910, in Cincinnati, married.  On that census she is listed as having come to the US in 1898, and it gives her age as 21 in April, 1910.  If that is correct, she would have been a child of about nine years old when she came to the US.  I can’t imagine that she came alone, if that is the case.

Imagine that the 1910 census information is more or less true.  That would seem to imply that she traveled with an adult; but I do not see any of her older family members who immigrated at that time.  It would also seem to imply that I should be able to find her on the 1900 census.  She is not with family members in Cincinnati on the 1900 census.  Could there be unknown relatives who lived elsewhere (the odds would say New York or one of the other large East Coast port cities), with whom she immigrated and with whom she was living in 1900?  That is a possibility I haven’t investigated carefully, one that I plan to follow up on.

On the other hand, there is contradictory and confusing information on later censuses, giving her immigration date as late as 1908.  So, perhaps the reason I have not been able to locate her until the 1910 Census is that she was not yet in the US.

Might papa Joseph arrived with his daughters, with several of them listed as arriving in 1906?  And possibly with young Joe?  I have not found this group, but I need to try once more, looking for them as a family.  Until I laid it out like this, and wrote the narrative on this blog, I hadn’t done this particular search.  Giving myself a place to discuss my research with myself was one of the reasons I recently began this blog.  It might make sense that the widowed Joseph brought the rest of his family (except eldest daughter, Leah, who never came to the US) as a group, if finances permitted.

However – not to get overly optimistic – I’ve done individual searches for all of these ancestors, and have come up empty.

To be continued, when I find something.  .

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