A Visit to the National Archive (Part 2)
By Philip Chin and Leonard Chan
In last month's May newsletter, Philip wrote about our visit to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) - Pacific Region facility located in San Bruno, California. In the May article, we gave a general overview of this NARA facility. For this month Philip writes about our return visit to the archive where we did some personal research on each our own roots. Philip's experience follows.
Research at NARA: A Personal Account (Abridged Version)
By Philip Chin
In researching your ancestors you generally start out knowing some information about your father and mother and if you're lucky something about your grandparents as well. I didn't start out with much beyond my father's name, birthdate, the street in San Francisco where he was born, some vague information about a trip to China in the 1930s, and equally vague information from a cousin that the family had at one time lived in Deadwood, South Dakota as well as in San Francisco. I also knew that my grandfather had been born in San Francisco but didn't know when. Unfortunately, my father's family has never been prone to talking much about the past. This is probably the first lesson if you ever want to look into your ancestors. Make sure your relatives talk about or write down the information so that you will have a better clue as to where to start looking.
Through searches of the indices (described in the side bar) I was finally able to find reference numbers to case files belonging to people that could be my father, uncle, and grandfather.
I gave the reference numbers listed in the ship landing cards to David Piff, the archivist assisting us, and he soon came back with the files. I looked into my supposed father's file first and at first Mr. Piff and I didn't believe it was him. The file photo looked far too young. Then the details began to fall into place. The street he was born on was the one I remembered in San Francisco. The date of birth was also correct. It turned out that the first photo in the file had been taken when my father was 8 years old and when he'd gone through his first "Immigration Service" (IS - predecessor to the INS) interrogation. I'd never seen any photos taken of him at that early an age and it was a shock to realize he'd ever been that young.
I was less surprised when I examined my uncle's file. He had pretty much the same glum expression in the photos taken when he was 14 that I was used to 40 years later. Amazing how some people never change isn't it.
My grandfather's file was fairly thick. It contained the record of his multiple returns from China and multiple documents related to his children and his wife. The IS was very thorough in cross-referencing because this was one of their main tools in enforcing the immigration acts against the Chinese.
The documents in my grandfather's file covered the period from 1911 when he'd first applied for pre-investigation to 1956 when the Social Security Administration accessed the file. Form 430 was an application for pre-investigation to the IS. To facilitate quick reentry into the US, a Chinese person would have to apply to have their status in the US investigated before they left the country. A denial of Form 430 meant either deportation or a denial of re-entry to the US. I was shocked to discover a letter from IS Inspector J.W. Nicholson recommending that my grandfather have his Form 430 denied in December 1911 based upon "discrepancies" in the accounts given between the applicant and witnesses.
I'd heard about the detailed answers required of Chinese immigrants by IS inspectors at the time but never before have I read any actual interrogation transcripts. These transcripts were obviously very moving to me because of my personal connection to the people involved. Reading about the discrimination and suspicion that Chinese faced at that time has always been disturbing but actually knowing that it affected your own relatives is something that disturbs you far more.
My grandfather had moved to Deadwood, South Dakota when he was 12 year old in 1903 and returned to San Francisco when he was 19 years old in 1911 when he put in his application. He was first asked about the building he lived in when he was 12. How many floors did it have? Where was the stairway located? Was it to the left or right of the ground floor store? What business was in the store? How many stories was the building? This proved to be a major point of interest for the IS. As part of the pre-investigation, the IS also interrogated my great-grandfather and great-grandmother. Grandfather remembered the building as having four stories, great-grandfather remembered two, and great-grandmother remembered three. Another point of IS interest was that my grandfather didn't remember living in a previous building that the family had moved from when he was 6 years old. As far as grandfather remembered, he'd lived in only one building on Commercial Street in San Francisco before he'd left for Deadwood. Inspector Nicholson stated in his recommendation, "It seems apparent to me, from these discrepancies, that this applicant is not the son of this couple, as he claims."
With this far from promising start another interrogation was ordered by a different IS inspector. "Do you remember the plaza in 1903?" "Did it have a fence around it?" "Don't you remember if there was ever any railing or fence around any part of it?" "Do you remember the Globe Hotel in Chinatown before you left?" "Where was it?" What were the locations of other prominent buildings in Chinatown? What were the locations of churches and missions, and their orientation to Chinese stores in the area? Then the questions went back to the plaza. "Are you sure there was no monument in the plaza when you left here?" "Nothing in the center?"
In his concluding report of March 1912, Inspector Charles Mayer stated "Applicant was re-examined by me and I found that he speaks English very well. He has the appearance of being thoroughly Americanized. I questioned him concerning San Francisco's Chinatown at about the time he claims to have gone to Deadwood and, from his ready answers, considering the length of time that has elapsed, I was impressed that he must have lived in San Francisco for a number of years before going to Deadwood, in order to have been so familiar with things that he described. I am inclined to think that the investigation at Deadwood and the re-examination of applicant, together with his ability to speak English, and his Americanized appearance, outweigh the discrepancies pointed out by Inspector Nicholson, for which reason I recommend favorable action."
I might never have been born except for Inspector Mayer. Grandfather was returning to China in 1912 to marry my grandmother. She would finally arrive in the US in 1917 as the "wife of a native."
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