Genealogy expert chronicles arrival of immigrants NORTH LAUREL/SAVAGE

October 16, 1992|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

From a tiny office in his Savage home, P. William Filby works to tell the story of America.

An internationally recognized expert on genealogy and immigration, Mr. Filby, 81, has published more than 40 books listing the names and ports of arrival of 4 million American immigrants.

"They tell you the name of any immigrant who came to America, where they went and who they brought with them," Mr. Filby said of his books.

To illustrate, one of the 4 million listings contained in Mr. Filby's immigration books is John George Legner, who arrived in South Carolina in 1752 with his wife and two children, Pince, 8, and George, 3. His wife's name was not available.

The Legner listing guides researchers to the Lexington Genealogical Exchange, Vol. II 1983 pages 72-75, which contains further information, including the Legners' country of origin, the ship they sailed on and the passenger list.

"It's the real story of people coming to America," Mr. Filby said.

Born in Cambridge, England, Mr. Filby came to America in 1957. He became interested genealogy when he became a librarian at the Peabody library in Baltimore.

He began compiling immigrant lists in 1980 after his retirement ,, as director of the Maryland Historical Society.

He's published 14 volumes listing immigrants from Europe and a 29-volume series titled "Germans to America," listing immigrants from Germany between 1850 and 1875.

In genealogical circles, he is regarded as one of the leading researchers.

"He's Mr. Passenger list; his work is the most comprehensive of anybody's," said Judith P. Reid, a reference specialist in local history and genealogy with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Genealogists and librarians refer to his work "American and British Genealogy and Heraldry" as the "bible" of the field, Ms. Reid said.

Researchers and people wishing to trace their family history find his passenger and immigration lists so valuable because prior to 1820 no official immigration records were kept, Ms. Reid said. The arrival records of immigrants who came to America after 1820 are stored in the National Archives.

"For the early immigrants, his material is all we have," Ms. Reid said. "It's an incredible void that's been filled there."

Mr. Filby compiled his immigrant lists from a variety of sources, including ship records, diaries and letters.

As his reputation in the field grew, people all over the country began to write to him with information regarding immigrants' arrivals.

"Somebody might simply send a postcard or a letter with a list of passengers on the ship Alfonso," Mr. Filby said. "If I don't get 5,000 new names a week, it's a bad week."

Mr. Filby is also a collector of rare books and an appraiser, a calligrapher and a former captain with the British Intelligence Corps. During World War II, he worked as a cryptographer and code-breaker.

Mr. Filby wears the Intelligence Corps' official badge on his blue blazer and recently returned from a trip to England where he attended the corps' 50th reunion.

"There were 320 of us, no one under age 70," Mr. Filby said. "It was a great occasion."

Before coming to the United States, Mr. Filby was a librarian in the rare books and science departments at Cambridge University.

Mr. Filby and his wife, Vera, have lived in Savage for 35 years. He was president of the Savage Community Association from 1968 to 1970.

He is a frequent speaker on genealogy and was recently the keynote speaker for the National Genealogical Society's conference. In 1989, he received the American Library Association's Isadore Gilbert Mudge citation, the top award for reference works.

Besides his genealogical books, Mr. Filby said, his best known work is "Star-Spangled Books," which tells the "official" story of the writing of the national anthem and corrects some mistaken assumptions associated with the story.

For example, Mr. Filby said, it is widely believed that Francis Scott Key wrote his poem in 1814 on the back of an envelope. However, Mr. Filby's book points out that envelopes weren't invented until 1840.

And, contrary to most accounts, Mr. Filby said that Mr. Key's finished lyrics were published in the newspaper, the Baltimore Patriot, not the Baltimore American.

"They're all small things," Mr. Filby said. "But it's nice to get kids to read the true story."

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