As writers, we become hypervigilant about typos. They suggest carelessness, if not ineptness. During the submission process, our fate can hang in the balance. We're shocked and indignant when we find typos in published books. "Where was the editor?" we demand.
Lately, though, I've been concerned about another kind of typo. The kind that obscures the truth.
I've been trying to uncover the truth about my immigrant ancestors. So many things get in the way of putting together an accurate picture. There can be honest errors. At other times, the facts are deliberately altered, like when my fifteen-year-old grandmother claimed to be eighteen when she applied for a marriage license. It can take some time to figure out that Austria, Slovenia, Carniola, and Krain can refer to the same place, at least in records from the last century. Language gets in the way, of course, when I'm trying to trace the path of my Slovenian family.
I accept all that. It's part of the challenge. The excitement of the chase. Unravelling a mystery.
But it's maddening when somebody's error in transcribing written records creates a barrier.
For instance, I'd been trying to find the immigration records for my Slovenian great-grandfather. In America, his name was Louis Adamic. (The same name as the famous writer, who was related to him. A cousin or maybe a nephew. That's part of what I'm trying to figure out.)
In the original Slovenian, the last name is written Adamič. The "ič" appears in many Slovenian names. It's a patronymic, similiar to many other Slavic languages. ("Son of Adam.") The problem is that the stresica, the diacritical mark over the letter c, changes the pronunciation to "ch." (The name is pronounced Ah-dah'-mich.)
So the dilemma for Slovenian immigrants was how to pronounce--and write--the name in English. The famous writer, Louis Adamic, wrote a whole book about the problem, called "What's Your Name?" He explained that he’d adopted the spelling "Adamic" (and pronounced it "A'-da-mick.") It's what he considered an "organic" name change. Close to the original, but allowing for ease and consistency in America.
But in my family, the last name was spelled in many different ways. Some variants preserved the original pronunciation and some didn't. In my research, I learned pretty quickly I had to consider all possibilities. Adamic and Adamick. Adamitch and Adamich. It turns out to be a common name--and not just in Slovenia.
The first name, Louis, also took many forms, usually Aloije or Alois.
So I'd been poring over the Ellis Island records. They are online now and easy to search. I kept plugging in endless spelling variations of the name. I knew the approximate year of immigration, so I figured I'd eventually find my great-grandfather hanging out on one of those ships.
I had no luck, until I figured out a way to use what they call a "wild card" search feature. You write the beginning of a name and add an asterisk for the part you aren't sure of. So I plugged in Adami* . . .
Scanning the passenger lists, I came upon "Alois Adamio."
I almost skipped him. I figured he must be Italian. Fortunately, I took a look at the record.
Alois Adamio's nationality was listed as Slovenian. He arrived in New York in March of 1898, on the Kaiser Wilhelm der Gross. The ship had departed from Bremen, but the point of origin was Carniola, Austria-Hungary. One of the old names for Slovenia.
When I looked at the original handwritten passenger manifest, I could see that his name had, in fact, been written correctly. Right down to the "ič" at the end of "Adam." I'd found him.
To take such care to get a name exactly right, including an unfamiliar diacritical mark, is unusual in these records. But someone took the trouble to write my great-grandfather's name correctly.
But then it got lost in translation. Maybe it happened when a helpful Mormon volunteer undertook the laborious task of putting those handwritten records into print form. Maybe it came later, when the records were compiled in a database. Maybe the error didn't creep in until the records were put online at Ancestry.com.
But that simple typo could have hidden the truth—a small piece of it, at least—forever.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders