How to Find Ancestral Records Using Friends, Associates, and Neighbors (FANs)

June 10, 2012 at 2:44 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies, My Family History Stories | Leave a comment
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I suspect we all have “problem” ancestors.  They are the ancestors that “play hard to get” and don’t give up their secrets so easily.  John Vanderstay is one of my “problem” ancestors.

I have spent more than a decade attempting to nail down his immigration path.  I knew he immigrated from Germany, or was it Holland?  I was certain he first settled in Weston, Platte, Missouri, or did he settle somewhere on the east coast first?  I was sure he arrived in 1857, but it could have been 1856 or 1858 maybe even 1855.  Finally, I was absolutely confident that I had no idea through what port he entered or with whom he migrated. See what I mean?  A “problem” ancestor.

The perplexing nature of this problem has been exacerbated by the sheer multitude of name spelling variations.  I understand that spelling variations are one of the “givens” in the book of genealogy challenges.  But in my experiences, the Vanderstays tilt the difficulty scale.  Here is a sampling of the ways I’ve found it spelled.  One, two and three word variations.  Van vs. Von prefixes. Vanderstay or Vanderstag or staag or steng.  Vanflustay.  And the all time winner – Vandermaaij!

Tackling the Genealogy Problem with FANs.

From preeminent authorities down to us mere itinerant preachers of the Genealogy Gospel, have spoken of the wonders of researching not just an ancestor’s direct line, but looking at the world in which they lived in through the experiences of their “FANs” – friends, associates, and neighbors.  Why, because our ancestors lived in communities, traveled in communities, and died in communities of people.  And where you find their marriage witnesses, their children’s baptism godparents, their next door neighbors, their naturalization sponsors, their witnesses to deeds or probate, you find your ancestors.  Look to your own life for evidence.  In your life were any of the above witnesses, sponsors, neighbors your relatives?

Outline What the Known Facts

After many years of “hit and miss” research, I decided to get serious create a timeline of everything I knew about John Vanderstay and his immediate family.  With a preponderance of research I had a fairly rich description of his life – albeit without the critical immigration story.  I knew when and where he was born, married, had children, lived, sat out the Civil War, and died.  Yet nothing pointed to his immigration other than knowing which children were born in Germany and which were born in Missouri, and letting that frame the probable period of migration.

John Vanderstay Timeline

John Vanderstay Timeline

Expand the Research to the Birth Family 

John was one of five adult Vanderstay siblings who migrated and settled in Weston,Missouri.  They were Catherine Vanderstay Gerlings, Frank Vanderstay, Anna Maria Vanderstay Foelling/Felling, and Wilhemina Vanderstay Merwick.  I opted to start with Frank Vanderstay because he, unlike his sisters, didn’t change last names and complicate my research.

I outlined Frank Vanderstay’s life to clarify when he most probably migrated to America.  Then I looked for his passenger record or naturalization record – anything that would tell me his migration story.  Maybe he migrated with John?

And as luck – and a good strategy would have it – I came upon a passenger where which another researcher had identified as that of his great grandfather, Frank Vanderstay. The name, written on a torn and taped section of the record was transcribed “Frane Vandermaaij.” This seemed very promising.  But we need to check these things out before “hurrahing!” and adding the record to the tree.  Frank’s wife’s name was Elizabeth on the passenger record.  That was right.  Frank’s sisters, Wilhemina and Maria, were listed with their correct yet approximate ages.  That’s good compelling evidence.  Finally, there were two persons (a man and a woman ages 59 and 60) clearly listed as part of this family.  Although the handwriting was hard to decipher, I can suspect that they were Frank’s parents.  When the family members and ages correlated, I felt there was a case to be made that this indeed was the passenger record for Frank Vanderstay.

If this is correct, Frank came to America with his wife, parents, and two older sisters. Now I had a pool of FANs on which to base further research.

Which Nationality?  German or Dutch.

Frank Vanderstay’s passenger record was in the database entitled Dutch Immigrants to America – New Orleans Passenger Records 1820 to 1845 on  Here Frank self-identifies as being from “Holland.”  I did not expect to find the Vanderstays in a database of Dutch Immigrants.  Further, I was surprised at Frank saying he’s from “Holland.”  All of my research to date pointed to the family origin being Pfalzdorf, Germany.  It seemed logical to look for them in German records. I’d never thought to look for them in Dutch passenger records.

Until this discovery and I looked at a map.  Pfalzdorf is very, very close to Holland.

Pfalzdorf Germany

So Where’s John Vanderstay?

Now I had a record group or database in which to focus my research. Hurriedly, I typed in “John Vanderstay” in this singular database very eager to find John Vanderstay.  And nothing.  I tried every other spelling variation.  Nothing.  Surely, he must have migrated in the same or similar manner as his brother either before or after him but nothing was materializing in my searches.

Again, Remember the FANs.

I took a deep breath and looked to John’s extended birth family to search for another FAN in this database.  I had accounted for three siblings (Frank, Anna Maria, and Wilhemina) coming to America, but not Catherine.  Catherine married John Gerling in Germany!  Maybe they migrated together with John and his wife, Gertrude?  Gerling, I thought, was a more easily spelled last name than Vanderstay and I might have a better chance of finding it, so I tried it.

And viola!   Catherine (Vanderstay) Gerling, her husband, John, and their three children (Johann, Wilhelm, and Heinrich).   And a few lines up, there it was plain as day, Johann Von der Steny.  Accompanying him were his wife, Gertrude, and son, Wilhelm.    Finally, at the bottom of the same page the Foellings – Gerhardt, the soon-to-be brother-in-law of Anna Maria Vanderstay, his wife, children and parents.  The three families arrived in the Port of New Orleans on April 28, 1856 on the ship, Fanny Fonsdick, as citizens of Prussia, mixed among other passengers from “Holland.”

Lessons Learned

John Vanderstay and dozen immediate and extended family members migrated to America and settled in Weston, Missouri.  Then a year later almost to the date, the remaining members of this triad of families (Frank, Wilhemina, Anna Maria Vanderstay and their parents) followed their family members to America to complete the community.

If ever there was a testimony to the evidence of the power of FANs, I believe this to be it. I was up against a brick wall for a decade having only researched John Vanderstay and never finding his immigration story.  However, it only took me a couple hours to break through the wall once I looked at his extended family.

Happy Researching.


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