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Guest blog: Researching your early 20th century American Ancestors

By Anne Hanson

Following on from Anne’s Journey into Genealogy podcast interview where she discussed her book “Buried Secrets” about her search for the truth of her grandparents heritage, Anne has written a guest blog post with an extract from her book about researching in the USA.

Nowhere to be Found

“When did you say this farm existed?”

The employee behind the desk at the Brooklyn City Register’s office, a handsome light-skinned black man, looked with raised eyebrows at the T-shirt-clad college student standing before him, wearing the huge round glasses that were the unfortunate epitome of late 1970s optical fashion.

“Between 1900 and about 1910,” I repeated. “My great-grandfather Willard Howe owned a farm, and it was taken over by the city and became part of Prospect Park. Where would the records be?”

“That’s impossible,” he said flatly. “The park was already here in 1900. There couldn’t have been a farm in Prospect Park.”

“Could you show me the records from before it was a park?” There must be some mistake, I thought. One of the few facts my dad knew for sure about his parents’ mysterious past was that his mother, born Ida Agnes Howe, had grown up on a farm in Brooklyn, New York on land the city later took over when it created Prospect Park. Her father, a wealthy immigrant from Sheffield, England, had bought this farm shortly after arriving in the US as a young man.

Shooting a colleague an almost imperceptible glance of mingled exasperation and resignation, the Brooklyn staffer disappeared into an archive storage area. Ten minutes later, he returned with a land map showing property owners before the park was established in the 1860s. I studied each faded handwritten name, but none even remotely resembled Willard or Howe.

“He looked at me like I was nuts!” I complained on the phone that night to my father Harley, the instigator of my search.

From as far back as I can remember, my dad was always speculating about the inexplicably missing past of his parents, Frank and Ida Hanson, who hailed from Brooklyn, New York. Harley grew up ignorant of the simplest facts about his parents’ histories, such as their birth year, or when and where they married. It was taboo to question his parents about their family histories.

Their documented lives began with their journey on the SS Kroonland steamship, begun in November of 1924, from New York City through the Panama Canal to the west coast city of San Francisco, California. After a short sojourn in San Francisco, they made their way east to Akron, in the state of Ohio. Their four children were born in Akron between 1926 and 1931, and they remained in Akron for the rest of their lives. But everything prior to that great journey through the Panama Canal was a mystery.

The one, key exception to Ida and Frank’s silence about their true histories were the stories that Ida loved to tell about her English gentleman papa and his splendid farm in Brooklyn, New York.  Her father, practically of noble descent back in Sheffield, England, had emigrated to the United States as a young man. After a brief stay in Connecticut, he had bought the farm in Brooklyn, New York, where he lived the life of an English country squire. The city had taken over the land when it created Prospect Park, Ida said.

Ida had been the only child of this wealthy English farmer and his wife, both of whom had died when she was a young girl. So substantial had her late papa’s “English fortune” been, according to Ida, that she and Frank could just go to New York to get money that was coming in from England.

Yet the genteel picture painted in Ida’s stories was strangely lacking in specifics. Ida never disclosed her parents’ names or the year of their deaths, for example. Indeed, during his childhood, Harley never heard the name of a single relative. Unlike the kids he played with, he had no grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins.

When I later looked up the history of Prospect Park, I learned that acquisition of land was completed in the 1860s and initial construction finished in 1868. My grandmother could never settle on her birth year – sometimes it was 1899, other times she said 1903 – but regardless, she simply could not have grown up on a farm located in what later became Prospect Park. That day at the land records office, the place at the heart of Ida’s childhood, the farm belonging to her English gentleman father, simply vanished from the landscape, as if crossed off a map.

When he was a young adult, my father began learning a few additional facts about his parents’ early lives. In 1953, his sister-in-law, Virginia, astonished at the Hanson boys’ complete lack of knowledge of their family history, conducted a genealogical interview with Ida and Frank. In an exchange unprecedented within the Hanson family, the pair divulged specific details, such as their parents’ and grandparents’ names, and even the names of Ida’s aunts and uncles back in Sheffield. For the first time, Ida revealed that her father’s name was Willard Howe, while her mother’s birth name was Alice Andrews. The charts Virginia created based on that 1953 conversation provided the framework for all of the subsequent Howe and Hanson family research.

Howe family tree

In my first foray into the family research in 1978, my dad and I had hoped that investigating the records on the ground in New York City would yield results where long-distance genealogy, conducted via the U.S. mail in that pre-Internet age, had failed.

We were wrong. Prior to my disconcerting experience at the Brooklyn City Register’s office, two previous days of investigation had been equally fruitless. At the New York City Municipal Archives in Manhattan, my scrutiny of birth, death, and marriage records failed to unearth any Howes who matched mine.

My examination of city directories at the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library also yielded nothing. Existing in the era before phone books, city directories of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century listed the name, address, occupation, and sometimes the employer of all heads of households. Despite the library’s extensive collection, these Brooklyn and Manhattan directories did not reveal a single individual even remotely matching the Hanson and Howe names, dates, and locations that Aunt Virginia had collected from Ida and Frank during her genealogical interview.

Howe in 1903 city directory

It just didn’t make sense that my careful perusal of city directories and municipal records had yielded nothing. Some records might have been lost, but not all of them. Although impoverished immigrants occasionally evaded the notice of municipal authorities and directory publishers, it made no sense that Ida’s landed and prosperous parents were nowhere to be found. My search for Willard’s probate records in the Kings County Surrogate’s Court in downtown Brooklyn also yielded nothing.

During a visit to England in 1988, my sister Karen and her husband, Mac, trekked north to Sheffield to look for records of Ida’s father, Willard Howe, in the Sheffield Archives. A large and well-maintained local history repository, the archives surely would contain some record of our Howe ancestors. But Karen and Mac found no Willard Howe. In fact, the archives did not contain a single Willard.

Mac, who had lived in England as a teenager, was first to pick up on the anomaly.

“Willard isn’t an English name,” he said.

Ida’s father and his siblings were Willard, David, Virgil, Daniel, Eliza, Grover, and Eugene, according to Aunt Virginia’s genealogical chart. English boys weren’t named Willard, Virgil, Grover, or Eugene in the mid–nineteenth century, Mac pointed out.

“These aren’t English names. They’re American names.” Mac was right, but what were we to do? We couldn’t find these siblings in US records either.

In the decades that followed, the Hanson family researchers fruitlessly searched for Willard and Alice Howe. None of us were ever able to confirm a single fact of the supposed Howe family tree.

When online resources became available in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I doubled down and re-did all of my earlier research. New York, like many US states, possesses a wealth of data that can be mined by family researchers. Beyond the basic sources of the decennial US Census, vital records and city directories, many local resources exist. New York State, for example, conducted its own census every 10 years from 1825 to 1925.

I scoured New York City newspapers, as well as school, church, cemetery, and probate records. My father and I called the Cunard Archives at the University of Liverpool, where a sympathetic librarian informed us, with regret, that he was not aware of any existing passenger lists from my grandparents’ voyage through the Panama Canal on the SS Kroonland. When I sent for my grandparents’ Social Security application forms, which become public information after a person’s death, they failed to shed light on Ida’s and Frank’s past, beyond the fact that both claimed 1899 as their birth year, and Ida affirmed that her father’s name was Willard Howe.

New York City has always been a key port of entry for immigrants to the US. Each arriving ship had an associated Passenger Manifest, also called the Passenger Arrival List, which was filled out at the traveler’s point of embarkation. Although information varies, these records typically contain the traveler’s name, age, date of arrival, ship name, nationality, birthplace, as well as their final destination in the US. Ellis Island, located just off lower Manhattan, was the primary point of entry for passengers arriving in the United States from 1892 to 1924, and the Ellis Island Foundation now has searchable records for passengers arriving in the Port of New York from 1820 to 1957. Unfortunately, records prior to 1892 are incomplete, as many were destroyed by a fire in 1897.

Surely there would have been some record of Willard and Alice Howe’s arrival in the US in the 1890s or in the 1880s at the earliest. But no. As in every other source of information we examined, Ida’s parents, Willard and Alice Howe, are nowhere to be found in Ellis Island Foundation records.

Willard Howe-Ellis Island Foundation

Beginning with that baffling visit to the Brooklyn land records office in 1978, and continuing over the next two decades, my grandparents’ secret past took on a life of its own. At the beginning, the family project was a puzzle that I dipped into from time to time before flitting off onto the next big activity of my young life. As the years passed, however, our continuing research failures fueled my determination to pry open the door to the past. Something was off in their story, and I wanted to know what it was.

By the year 2000, I was grasping at the flimsiest of leads in our family investigation. Then, the widow of one of my father’s brothers sent my father a box containing my grandparents’ photo collection, which had been stashed away for years in a closet.

These photos would ultimately lead me into the heart of my family mystery, and to the truth. My dad’s life, and mine, would never be the same.

*          *          *

Every day, more records of interest to genealogists that previously were only available in person are being digitized and made available online. Following are just a few of the many examples related to New York City.

The New York City Municipal Archives is undertaking a massive digitization project that will provide online access to 13.3 million historical birth, death, and marriage records. As of May 2023, seventy-six percent of 13.3 million records are digitized and are available online.  The records are available at this URL:

The same is true for Brooklyn City Directories. The Brooklyn Public Library has digitized Brooklyn city directories and telephone books for 1856-1967. This collection is accessible via Internet Archive and allows for full-text searching within each volume. Visit this URL for more information:

If you know your ancestor’s street address, Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases can provide a vivid window into the built environment of their community. These atlases, originally produced to allow fire insurance companies to assess fire risks in urban areas, show detailed, block by block, building by building information that is unparalleled in its completeness and detail. Some library reference departments possess copies of local Sanborn atlases. More information also is available from the US Library of Congress at this URL:

If your US ancestors played a role in public life, or if they had a penchant for getting into mischief, newspapers, the social media of the day, provide a diligently-reported chronicle of doings great and small. In addition to the paid site, an impressive array of digitized newspapers, searchable by keyword, are available from the US Library of Congress at

For some states and municipalities, aerial or street images may be available for various times from the mid-twentieth century onwards. For example, in New York City, the tax department, in conjunction with a federal program, photographed almost every property in the city’s five boroughs from 1939 to 1951. The resulting 722,485 images are today available online. More information is available at this URL: Collection: 1940s Tax Department photographs | NYCMA Collection Guides

Listen to the podcast interview here:

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