On Saturday, October 17, I attended the meeting of the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society (SBCGS). The special guest speaker was Stephen J. Danko, who authors Steve’s Genealogy Blog.

To say that Steve gave an outstanding presentation would not be telling you anything new. Those of you who know Steve or have heard him speak would expect nothing less.

But as the ladies who sat next to me put it, he was able to take a difficult topic and bring it down to the level of the average person. I thought that was an excellent description.


The first part of Steve’s talk was entitled, “Genealogy and the Changing Map of Eastern Europe.” He presented some ideas for finding information about immigrant ancestors (i.e., census records, church records, and passenger manifests), and gave a timeline of “history in a nutshell” for Poland and Eastern Europe.

Poland’s history was really quite fascinating. Apparently, back in the day, everybody who was anybody wanted to invade that chunk of land. My theory is that the countries with the best food are the ones who were always invaded, but that didn’t come up in Steve’s talk.

Several members have added their ancestor’s names to the “American Immigrant Wall of Honor.”

During the break, I had an opportunity to snap some pictures, and tried to unobtrusively canvas the room with my camera. When I returned to my seat, two ladies in the seats next to me wanted to know why I was taking pictures. Was I the Society’s historian? No. Was I from the newspaper? No. Was I Steve’s wife? I assured them that no, I was not Steve’s wife, nor was I his stalker… I was just a friend who was taking pictures for my own purposes. I did not confess to being a blogger.

They went on to rave about how interesting Steve’s talk had been so far, and how much they had learned. “Is he very smart?” I said, umm… yes, I think so. He’s got a Ph.D in biology or botany or something, so he must be pretty smart. They said they thought so, but they loved the way he was able to take a difficult subject like Eastern European history and make it easily understood by “regular people.” I had to agree.

“Is he a calm man?” Err… I think so. He’s been calm every time I’ve seen him. “He seems like he would be a calm man.” I don’t know what this had to do with anything, but I think they were impressed that he seemed at ease talking to a large group.

What they really loved was the personal touch that Steve added by inserting stories from his own research and including a few photos from his recent trip to Poland. The one of him with the two cousins was the biggest hit.

Personally, I think he had them at “hello.”


After the break, Steve’s talk continued with, “A New Look at Immigrant Passenger Manifests.” This included what you can expect to find in a passenger manifest, as well as annotations made before and after arrival.

Some of these items were quite shocking by today’s standards. Can you imagine a Customs official asking an immigrant today if he/she was a polygamist, anarchist, or intended to overthrow the U.S. government? Or labeling an immigrant an imbecile, illiterate, or a cripple with a piece of chalk… right on his/her clothes? There were real concerns back in the early to mid 20th century!

For what it’s worth, I have not had any luck whatsoever finding my – or my husband’s – immigrant ancestors in passenger manifests. Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough or in the right places. But let me just say that finding John McGraw on a boat from Ireland during the Potato Famine years is not the easiest task.

I do feel inspired to keep trying now, though. Maybe I’ll have better luck armed with new information.


As a side note, the SBCGS Library, a.k.a. the Sahyun Library, is named for Dr. Melville, Irene, and mom Geraldine Sahyun, who donated the land and buildings which house the Society’s library collection. Dr. Melville is best known for having formulated the famous eyedrops, VISINE®. Steve happened to mention before starting his second talk that he had picked up a bottle of VISINE® during his trip to Poland, and had it with him in his bag.

The Polish VISINE® bottle later posed for a few snapshots, and if I’m not mistaken, it will now be living at the Sahyun Library.


As for the rest of the meeting, I’m happy to report that the SBCGS is quite “healthy.” President Art Sylvester announced that the group now has over 500 members, and I’d guess that at least 100 or so of them were present on Saturday.

I enjoyed meeting in person some of the members with whom I had only corresponded or read about in newsletters. I really appreciated the folks who took the time to introduce themselves and make me feel welcome.

Thank you for a great day!

Steve graciously posed for fan photos following the meeting.

Please be sure to check out the SBCGS blog for more about upcoming meetings and events.

Copyright © by Elizabeth O’Neal

Elizabeth is a professional genealogist and California native living in the Santa Barbara area. She has been researching her own family for almost three decades, and providing research services to others for about 8 years.

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