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Archive for September, 2012

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet series… U is for Unusual Resources! I already devoted a whole post to my Uncles, so in looking for a “U” term I decided to take a look at some of the more unusual resources that are available for genealogical research. The “usual suspects” include birth, marriage, and death records, quickly followed by records related to the census, immigration and naturalization, or the military. But sometimes fantastic genealogical information hides in the most unusual places…here are some of my favorite unusual resources:

Bank records - Ancestry.com has an interesting collection of immigrant bank records. Sometimes immigrants would open an account at a bank specifically for the amount of money needed for relatives to immigrate to this country. These can serve as an alternate resource for finding immigration records. They also may provide clues to the name or address of other relatives.

Fraternal organizations – Many immigrants belonged to fraternal organizations, and some of these provided things like insurance policies – which, if available, are an alternate source for death records. I found my great-grandfather’s life insurance policy through the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA) on the Polish Genealogical Society of America’s (PGSA) website. Recently I noticed that Ancestry has a similar collection of enrollment and death benefit records for Pennsylvania chapters of the Order of the Sons of Italy.

Employment records – I haven’t yet found any of my ancestors’ employment records, but I know that they exist for many companies. Sometimes these records can be found in special collections at libraries. If you’re not sure exactly where your ancestor worked, try getting a copy of their SS-5 application for Social Security, and for male ancestors try their draft registration cards.

Funeral home records – Sometimes funeral home records can provide additional information about family members that aren’t found on a death certificate. Obviously the type of information that was requested – and kept on file – varies with the funeral home. Some are available online (Ancestry has been posting more of these collections lately), but most probably reside with the funeral home itself if it’s still in existence.

Other unusual records I’ve used include consular records, coroner’s reports, police records, ethnic press newspapers, and church jubilee books. Each of these has the potential to provide some small nugget of useful information about your relatives. The key, of course, is actually finding where these unusual resources are hidden.

“Unusual” doesn’t have to just apply to the type of record or resource, but it can also describe the “out of the box” thinking that helps a researcher find information and solve research problems. Genealogist Steve Danko applies the scientific method to his research. I’ve found inspiration from a television show and use the Castle “murder board” approach. My “Pointer Sister” Caroline Pointer often takes a techno-approach to problem solving. If your usual method of problem-solving doesn’t work, try a method that is unusual to you!

Here’s to all the unusual means, methods, and records that help us find all the usual information we seek for our ancestors! What records have you used that would be described as “unusual”?

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet challenge]

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History:  gossip well told.  ~ Elbert Hubbard

Partners in crime: Nancy and I, probably up to no good, at National Honor Society induction during junior year (fall, 1983).

I was a teenage car thief.

Or so the story goes. That isn’t quite exactly true, but it seems to be how the story is told years later!

In my girls-only Catholic high school,my friend Nancy and I were probably known more for what we didn’t do than what we did. We didn’t smoke. We didn’t drink. We didn’t cut class, hike our uniform skirts halfway up our thighs, and we didn’t even wear makeup.

Nancy and I were good, polite, studious young ladies who got mostly straight A’s. Boring? Well, maybe to some, but we both also happened to have a great sense of humor and a mischievous streak, so we certainly weren’t bored. And, after all, the great thing about a devious mind in a goody-two-shoes body is that you rarely ever got blamed for your own mischievousness!

In junior year, we both had the good fortune to have Mrs. Campbell for history class (we called it “World Cultures”). Not only was Mrs. Campbell very smart (little did we know then that she was a future Jeopardy contestant) and an excellent teacher, but she was fun, too! Mrs. C had a sense of humor and a mischievous streak that rivaled ours in addition to a penchant for really bad puns. Let’s just say that Nancy and I learned a lot from her.

One day Mrs. Campbell broke off into an off-topic tangent about a student who attempted a  practical joke on her and failed. With a daring twinkle in her eye, she declared, “NO ONE has ever fooled me!”

Seated on the left side of the room, I immediately turned to Nancy a few rows to my right and raised my eyebrow. Nancy discreetly caught my gaze and nodded. The game was afoot! With a silent shared glance and only the faintest hint of a smirk, Nancy and I were thinking the same exact thing: “We’ll see about that, Mrs. C!”

After class, we wondered what joke we could play on her. We quickly realized it had to involve her car in some way, for the car had become a frequent detractor from our daily lesson plan. The Campbell’s bought a brand new car, and it was a complete lemon. Never in the history of American car production had a brand new car had so many mechanical failures. They were at their wits’ end in trying to get help from the dealership.

“We should steal it,” I said.

Nancy looked slightly shocked, yet amused, and gave me a questioning look.

“Well, not really steal it…just, you know – move it. If her car wasn’t where she parked it, she’d think it was stolen!”

Nancy smiled, “That’s perfect!”

Yes, perfect, until it dawned on us, both National Honor Society scholars, that neither of us could drive yet. Our friends who could drive thought we were absolutely insane and wanted nothing to do with our devious plans.

Time for Plan B! In the end, Plan B doesn’t sound like much at all – but, history is more about how things are remembered than what actually happened. Our classmate, Deena, worked in the main office during our class period. She would enter our room with a (forged) note for Mrs. Campbell that would tell her to call the dealership about her car – urgently! That’s right, kids, there were no cell phones in the mid-80’s!

This simple message was merely meant to invoke her ire – at the car, not us – and send her into a brief tizzy of humorous car-related stories which would have the side effect of getting us off the day’s lesson plan for the rest of the period until we revealed the joke.

See, we were not quite comedic geniuses yet, just lazy history students.

On the appointed day (my fuzzy memory thinks it was possibly April Fool’s Day) and the designated time, the note arrives. Mrs. C read it and looked quite distressed. She then did something we didn’t expect – she said she’d be right back and bolted out of the room!

When our note-delivery girl returned with the second note that said something to the effect of “just kidding”, Mrs. C still wasn’t back yet. Deena saw her in the hallway talking on the pay phone. Those who knew of our plan asked us what was going on: “Who’s she calling?” Others laughed and said, “You’re both dead!”

She couldn’t possibly be calling the dealership, could she? Maybe moving her car was a better idea after all.

She returned to the room, breathless – not from the short walk to the classroom, but from all the talking she had just quickly done on her call. She was about to explain what happened when she noticed that Deena standing in the front of the room. Deena handed her the second note while backing towards the classroom door and simultaneously trying to give a death-stare to Nancy and me on our different sides of the room.

That second or two while Mrs. Campbell read the note seemed longer than waiting for the bell to end Sr. Cherubim’s class.

Then… she laughed! And then said, “Oh my God, I have to call my husband!” and ran out of the room. She quickly returned and was dismayed that his line was busy. She explained that she called him about calling the car dealership because something else was wrong with the car. By the time she finally did get in touch with him – before our class was over – he had called not only the car dealership but also the Vice President of General Motors to discuss the lack of quality of their new vehicles and their poor customer service.

Fortunately, Mr. Campbell was as easy-going as his wife and they both actually laughed at our little prank. They thought the car dealership needed to be told off anyway, and we just prompted them to do it a little faster.

My memory has faded on the detail of how Nancy and I were identified as the perpetrators, but either we openly bragged about it or she immediately guessed from our sheepish grins. I think she actually admired us after that for our brave initiative. Mrs. C was so cool that by the end of junior year, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell agreed to chaperone four friends and me on a trip to Rome after we graduated – and she kept her word!

No cars were harmed or even touched in the prank, yet forevermore Mrs. Campbell called Nancy and I her car thieves. And that is how I got my class out of a history lesson one day and went down in Archbishop Ryan High School for Girls history as a teenage car thief.

How Mrs. Campbell signed my yearbook in senior year: Dear Donna, You have a great future as a car thief.

Our prank made it into our senior yearbook as a caption on a photo of Mrs. Campbell teaching class!

Left: Nancy and Mrs. C at our friend Mary’s graduation party, June 1985. Right: Mrs. C and me expressing our dissatisfaction with the hotel in Rome, July 1985.

[Written for the 122nd Carnival of Genealogy: School Humor]

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My ancestral towns

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet Series… T is for Towns! When I first started researching my family history, I did not know the names of the towns from which my great-grandparents came. Now I have a plethora of exotic-sounding foreign town names from Aichach to Żyrardów and Aschau to Zelów!

I always want to learn more about each place: What’s the history of the town? What was the town like when my ancestors lived there? What does it look like today?

Gazetteers are great for a historical perspective of your ancestral town. For Germany, I’ve used the Meyers Gazetteer of the German Empire (Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs) and for Poland, the Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavonic Countries (Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i Innych Krajów Słowiańskich).But an easy way to learn more about a town is to “Google it”! I’ve found that most towns – even some tiny ones – have websites. With the help of some online translators, you can even learn more about the town’s history from their website. Many towns even have pages that provide information in English.

Once you know the names of your ancestral towns – consider visiting in person. There’s nothing like walking in your ancestors’ footsteps to get a sense of what family history is all about.

Read past posts about some of my ancestral towns: Żyrardów, Mszczonów, and Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm.

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

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Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet series… S is for Signatures! Yes, my name is Donna, and I am an Ancestor Autograph Collector. Other than a photograph, nothing makes an ancestor seem “real” to me like seeing their names written in their own handwriting. A signature is very personal – from the cautious, large, sprawling script of someone just learning to write to the stronger, more defined flourish of an adult to the smaller, diminishing scribble of the elderly, our signatures, though changeable with time, are unique.

For ancestors living in the 20th Century, there are multiple documents that they may have signed such as marriage licenses, social security applications, passports, and insurance applications. Immigrant ancestors may have signed declarations of intention, naturalizations, or alien registration forms. Male ancestors may have signed draft registration forms or military service forms. I assume you can find signatures on wills or estate files, but I have no experience with these records.

Prior to the 20th Century, my ancestors were either in Bavaria or Poland. In Bavaria, couples signed the civil marriage record similar to marriage licenses today. In Poland, signatures of the relevant parties or witnesses were often annotated on the church books, which doubled as civil records, for births, marriages, and deaths. However, nearly all of my Polish ancestors were illiterate – including those that came to the United States, but they eventually learned to write by evidence of their signatures later in life. The oldest signature I found was from my great-great grandfather, Stanisław Piątkowski, from his marriage record in 1863. I am still curious to know why he, among all of my ancestors, was literate. His occupation was “private official”.

Signature of my 2nd great-grandfather on an 1866 baptismal record from Warsaw: Stanisław Piątkowski, ojciec (father)

In order to display my ancestor autograph collection, I put together the following charts to show my great-grandparents and grandparents on both sides. I’ve been wanting to do this since footnoteMaven posted something similar back in 2008 in Sign Here Please!  As she so astutely points out, signatures have a way of making genealogy “interesting” to family members not usually interested in family history! Case in point – I showed my mother these images, and she asked if she could have a copy!

My paternal signature family tree (click image to enlarge)

My maternal signature family tree (click image to enlarge)

 Happy Autograph Hunting!

 

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet challenge]

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Procession of First Communicants, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Philadelphia, PA, May 11, 1941.

Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series… R is for Religion! The faith of our fathers (and mothers) is important to genealogical research, because often times your ancestors’ places of worship kept records before the state or civil authorities did. Or, in the years after civil vital registration was mandatory, church (or synagogue, or other religious institution) record books can serve as an alternate record source to verify birth dates and other important data like parents’ names. But besides all of the wonderful record-keeping, religion can be important to family history on a much more personal level, especially if you share the faith that your ancestors handed down. Visiting the churches where your ancestors worshiped is a wonderful way to “connect” your family history from the past to the present!

My family is Roman Catholic. In records, it is hard to ascertain a person’s actual belief. In other words, just because they were baptized or married in a particular faith doesn’t mean they were devout. In my own research, I discovered that my one great-grandfather, Joseph Zawodny, probably was a faith-filled Catholic – he was a founding parishioner of St. Adalbert’s in Philadelphia, a “Polish” church for all the immigrants in the Port Richmond section of the city. The parish jubilee book also lists him as president of one of the charitable societies.  For other ancestors, I have no idea how active they were in the church – or not. I know that my maternal grandfather was a self-declared atheist at one point, regardless of his baptism in the Church.

As my research progressed, I discovered that not all of my ancestors were Catholic after all. My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Miller Pater, was Baptist. In researching her family I discovered that she descends from a unique group of individuals called the Unity of the Brethren, also called the Czech or Bohemian Brethren. The group was a Christian denomination that followed the works of the pre-reformation priest Jan Hus.

Around 1620, the counter-reformation was in full swing in Bohemia, and members of this faith were given the choice of leaving the country or practicing in secrecy (or, presumably, the choice to convert back to Catholicism). The sect continued despite persecution. In 1803, a group of these Brethren decided to leave Bohemia and they immigrated to Poland where they purchased a large amount of land and founded a new town called Zelów. It is in this Polish town that my Czech great-great grandparents were born. A sizable group of Czechs from Zelów, all textile workers, migrated north to two other Polish towns, Łódź and Żyrardów. My great-grandmother was born in Żyrardów in 1890…which explains why there are no records of her birth/baptism in the Catholic records of the town.

I’ve always been proud to be Catholic – like my Bavarian and Polish ancestors – but I was very happy to learn about this group of Protestant ancestors. Because of their faith, they took a bold step and left their homeland behind forever. Moving to a new country because of religious persecution in their homeland reminded me of the story of many of the colonial immigrants to the United States. To give up your homeland for your faith is truly a testament to your faith! The town of Zelów, Poland that was founded by the Czech immigrants is still known as the “Czech village”. I found a video online (subtitled in English) that shows the church and the town.

No matter what the religion of your ancestors was, finding out about their faith adds much to your family’s story. Some other family history faith-related posts I’ve written include Faith of Our Ancestors, Praying with My Ancestors, and First Communion, 1941 Style (from which I borrowed the great photo above). I thought religion was so pertinent to family history that I even started a whole blog about it – the Catholic Gene is a collaborative effort that reflects on the Roman Catholic faith and family history. We’ve been quiet lately, but hopefully we’ll be back to posting soon.

[Written for the weekly Family History through the Alphabet challenge]

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Continuing the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Series… Q is for Questions! My genealogical research would be nonexistent if I hadn’t asked questions. Euripides once said, “Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.” That, my friends, is sometimes what I think genealogy is like because we ask questions, find some answers, and end up with a lot more questions.

As a young teenager, I remember asking my maternal grandmother, who we called Nan, some simple questions. In retrospect, this marked the beginning of my future as a genealogist and family historian. I asked her questions about her parents: What were their names? Where were they born? When did they come here? What were they like? She told me some answers. They weren’t necessarily correct answers, but they were answers! 

After college I began researching my family. My Nan was no longer living, so my questions went right to my parents: When did your parents get married? Did they ever talk about their parents? When did your grandparents die? Where did they come from? I dutifully recorded their answers. Then I researched some records…and I found answers in spite of my parents’ answers, which led to more questions: Why didn’t you tell me you had great-grandparents in this country? Why didn’t you tell me about Aunt and Uncle so-and-so?

Their usual response: “Oh yeah, I forget about that!”

One would assume that genealogical records would provide concrete answers, yet inevitably the records led to tons of additional questions. Why isn’t she with the rest of the family on the census? Why can’t I find him on the passenger list? When did they immigrate? What was her maiden name?

Family history research is all about the questions – and finding some answers. But in some ways the questions are more important, because without them we would have no impetus for research, no reason for the quest. Answers are wonderful, but ironically every nugget of information leads to even more questions! I found you, now who were your parents?

Genealogy can be a greedy quest… Here’s to all the questions, and hopefully one day finding all the answers we can. I will close with one of my favorite quotes from poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The quote has absolutely nothing to do with genealogical research. But since it deals with questions, it is highly appropriate:

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
in Letters to a Young Poet

 [Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

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