Opinion

Exploring passports

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Summer is waning quickly and people are returning from vacations, something many look forward to each year. Did your ancestors do the same? Packing up and leaving home for weeks was a luxury most of our ancestors couldn’t afford, though many would try to do something relaxing if they could.

Well-to-do people often spent summers at a seaside or lake resort. Here in Maine we once had several grand hotels who hosted weary city dwellers in style while they escaped the heat of cities to the south of us. Sadly, those days are now history.

Other people made longer journeys to enjoy the culture, food, and historic sites of Europe. Immigrants often returned to visit family and friends in their “old” country. To do this required a passport. And, as a genealogist, you can only hope your ancestors filed for one.

Passports have been around a long time. In England the earliest passport dates from 1400 and in America from 1795. In modern times it was President Woodrow Wilson who initiated the requirement for a passport for American travelers, probably due to World War I and the fear of anarchists coming into America. Today U.S. citizens need a passport or its equivalent and possibly a visa to visit other nations. Passports officially fall under federal records and are issued through the State Department. Most genealogists don’t think of a passport as a resource document but it can be.

A passport can help you break down a brick wall or fill in more of the life of an ancestor or relative if you’re fortunate enough to find one. Passport applications covering roughly half of the 20th century can be found at Ancestry.com, available for free at many local libraries. To locate these go to Ancestry.com, click on search, immigration, then border crossings and passports. Border crossings, by the way, also are valuable resources in tracking ancestral travels or family visits to Canada or Mexico.

What will you find in passports? I browsed passport applications and found one for Agnes Wingate Bragg in 1903. Agnes stated her birthdate, her residence (Bangor) and that she would return in one year. It also gave a physical description, age, height, eye color, hair color, and other features but unfortunately stated that her nose was prominent.

In 1919 I found an application for Lester M. Bragg who listed his birthplace and date, his destination, a photo (wonderful if this was your ancestor), the written physical description, and a letter from the United Fruit Company stating that Lester was an employee and going to Panama on business. It also included a letter from Lester’s aunt certifying Lester’s birth in Kansas and her relationship to him through his father.

If these were members of your family would this information be worth having? Look at the information found — birthdate, place, residence, close relatives, occupation, employer, destination, and the photo and/or physical description. By all means check out this database. Who knows what door will open for you if you locate a family member there.

Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds a MA in History from the University of Maine and lives in Dover-Foxcroft with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. You can contact Nancy at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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