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While researching the 1910 Census on Ancestry.com, I came across an unusual error.  Since others may find similar issues with their research, I thought I’d share my way to “get around” the error.  My search was for some families in Philadelphia, PA with the surnames Miller and Mach.  When I click on the census image for the correct individual, they are nowhere to be found on the page itself.  That is when I noticed the Enumeration District numbers.  At the top of the page, it says “You are here” with the location of the record.  In this case, the end reads “Philadelphia > Philadelphia Ward 19 > District 328.”  However, the image located on that page shows an ED of 294.  By clicking on the hyperlink for Ward 19 in the “you are here” address, you can see the list of all EDs in the ward, or ED 291 through 332.  Guessing that perhaps the sequencing of the images got messed up, I went to District 294 instead.  Sure enough, what is supposed to be ED 294 is ED 328 instead.  I also found some of ED 328 in 295.  I alerted Ancestry about the problem months ago, but it still is not fixed.

Moral of the story for users of Ancestry.com:  For Philadelphia researchers – take note if you have relatives living in Ward 19 in 1910!  For all researchers –  if the ED on the image does not match the ED on the index, try the batch of images from the incorrect ED.  If you are lucky they will be from the ED you are looking for!  I would be curious to know if anyone else has encountered this indexing problem where the index itself is correct, but the images are loaded incorrectly.

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I’ve long admired DearMYRTLE and Ask Olive Tree Genealogy for answering so many questions from their readers.  But I’ve been a little jealous too, because I wished that *I* had some questions to answer.  Today I received a question via a comment to an earlier post, so I’ve decided to play the “Dear Abby” role perfected by Myrt (aka Pat) and Lorine and answer the question as a new blog post (especially since I’ve been quite slack in new blog posts lately)!

In two previous posts, I discussed finding Philadelphia Marriage Records: Philadelphia Marriage Indexes Online looked at the Family Search Labs site with the indexes from Philadelphia marriages from 1885 to 1951.  Then, When You Can’t Find Grandpa’s Marriage Record explored alternative marriage locations around the Philadelphia area if your ancestors lived here but the record is nowhere to be found in the above mentioned index.  But today a reader asked a very good question that I hadn’t fully addressed in either post: what about pre-1885 marriage records?

Brad asks:

What was the case with Philadelphia marriages prior to 1885? Were marriage certificate required at any point? I’m trying to find out more on my 2nd great grandparents and was wondering if I should be trying to hunt down their marriage certificate (they married in 1884).

Good question, Brad!  Cities and states had different requirements as to when civil registration began.  In Philadelphia, civil registration of births, deaths, and marriages was required beginning on July 1, 1860.  Records from that date through December 31, 1885 are available at the Philadelphia City Archives.  According to the Philadelphia City Archives site:

The marriage records give the date of marriage, names, ages, races, generic places of residence and birth for both the bride and groom, minister’s name and address, and denomination of marriage performed.

Most of the indexes are arranged alphabetically by first letters of last and first names, and then by year. If one of the parties to the marriage was Thomas Green and the marriage occurred on 31 August 1873, then one would look at the “G” volume, open to the section which included all people whose first names began with the letter “T” and then look at 1873. There are no separate indexes for men and women – all names are filed in the same index. Most of the indexes of this type stop between 1877 and 1880 so one would then have to look at the yearly indexes for the years 1877 – 1885.

All marriage indexes, registers and original returns have been microfilmed.

The Philadelphia City Archives is located at 3101 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104.  They can be reached by phone at 215-685-9400 (messages only) or 215-685-9401 (receptionist).  If you do not live in Philadelphia or are unable to visit the archives in person, they will search the records for you.  Send a written request with as much information as possible.  If you know the exact date of the marriage, the fee is $10.  If the exact date is unknown, a search will be made for $10 per each 3-month period searched (includes the certificate cost). Note that these fees are current as of today per the Archives’ FAQ page at http://www.phila.gov/Records/Archives/FAQ.html.

Brad, as you can see, the time period for your 2nd great-grandparents is covered with existing records.  If you can’t come to Philadelphia to perform a search yourself, the fee to search the entire year is a bit steep at $40 – so you may want to seek alternative means for look-up such as a local researcher.  Another option is to subscribe to a genealogy mailing list specific to Philadelphia such as Philly-Roots hosted by Rootsweb/Ancestry.  Often someone will ask other listers for help and you can make arrangements offline at less than the archives’ cost.

That might help Brad, but the question remains for others with roots that are deeper into Philadelphia’s history than either Brad’s family or my own: What about earlier records before July 1, 1860?

Since there was no formal registration required by the city (or state) before that date, there are few options when searching for marriage information.  One could try the following resources:

  1. Church Records – Try using city directories and old maps to determine possible churches.  If your ancestors were Catholic and you are lookingfor a record prior to 1920, one useful resource is the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center, which is located on the grounds of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary at 100 E. Wynnewood Ave in Wynnewood, PA.  Contact them at 610-667-2125 for more information and fees for research.
  2. Newspaper Announcements  – Very few old newspapers have been indexed.  Genealogy Bank has some Philadelphia papers from 1719 through 1922.
  3. Marriage Registers exist for some years, but they can be difficult to find for the pre-1860 era.  Try the Historical Society of Pennsylvania or search through the FHL catalog.

I hope this has been helpful to other Philadelphia researchers.  If anyone else has any research questions, I’ll try my best to help so please don’t be shy about asking!

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I enjoy highlighting unusual genealogical resources – records other than vital records, passenger lists, naturalizations, and the federal census.  Recently I entered some of my “usual suspect” names into Ancestry and discovered a resource previously uknown to me: immigrant bank records.  The historical background about these records is described on Ancestry.com as follows:

In the port cities on the east coast of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, many charitable organizations aided immigrants arriving from Europe. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was one of those organizations. There were “ethnic” or “immigrant” banks in many port cities, usually conveniently located in the Jewish neighborhoods where newly-arrived immigrants tended to settle. These banks were commercial enterprises, started mainly by established German Jews, as a place where recent immigrants could save money and arrange to purchase steamship tickets to bring their families to the United States. HIAS preserved the original records of some immigrant banks formerly operating in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Blitzstein, Rosenbaum and Lipshutz/Peoples Banks.

Today, the record books of the Blitzstein Bank, Rosenbaum Bank, and Lipshutz Bank are housed at the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center (PJAC). They offer unique kinds of information, including the name and U.S. address of the person who paid for the tickets, port of entry – usually, but not always the port of Philadelphia – and intended final destination (again, not necessarily Philadelphia).

The person I found in the index was Zofia Mach, but not much info is provided from the index alone.  It simply provides her name as the Passenger, as well as the Account Open Date (24 March 1929), Purchaser’s Name (Carl Mach), the Bank (Lipshutz/Peoples Bank) and the Order Number.  To obtain an actual copy of the record, instructions are provided on the JewishGen site with a separate page for each of the 3 banks that are indexed.  For the Lipshutz/Peoples Bank, a copy of the record can be obtained from the Philadelphia Jewish Archives (see below for more info).  I knew from my research that Carl and Sophie Mach lived in Philadelphia, so it was likely the correct family.  I was curious enough about what other information could be obtained from these bank records to send $9 to find out.  Here is a copy of the record I received:

SOURCE: Lipshutz/Peoples Bank Passage Order Book Records, Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center

SOURCE: Lipshutz/Peoples Bank Passage Order Book Records, Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center

I already knew Carl’s address and relationship to Sophia/Zofia.  Normally, one would expect that Zofia’s passenger arrival record would be easy to find without this record as a resource.  However, in this case, Zofia’s record is indexed incorrectly in Ancestry.com’s database: she is listed as Sofia Wach although her name in the passenger list itself is Sofie Mach.  Because of the mis-indexing, I used the ship name and date on this bank record to find her arrival record and may not have found it without the extra info. (Although the typewritten info shows departure from Hamburg to Philadelphia, the ship and date noted in handwriting at the bottom traveled from Copenhagen to New York.)

Two other interesting tidbits came from this record.  First, it lists Sophia’s address in Żyrardów, Poland.  Although I could not find it on a modern map of the town, the information could still come in handy for research in Poland.  Second, it’s the first time I’ve seen the cost of a ticket to America on any of the records I’ve found.  A second class ticket cost $143.  In the 1920’s, that was a significant sum of money – note that her husband had this bank account for five years before she made the journey.

The records of the three Philadelphia banks are also available on microfilm through the LDS Family History Library., and you can search the records via the JewishGen site if you do not have access to Ancestry.com.  See the detailed pages at JewishGen on their US databases page under Pennsylvania.  Be aware that the family I researched was not Jewish!  One did not have to be Jewish to have an account at these banks.

In total there are approximately 138,000 records among the three banks ranging from 1890 through 1949.  If you had relatives living in or near Philadelphia, it may be worth a quick search – especially if you have had difficulty locating their passenger arrival record.

Although the sites indicate that the records are held by the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center, they wrote in their response that they are moving to the Temple University-Urban Archives Center “in late Spring”.  So if you are planning to request a record, you may want to call either archive first prior to writing.

In the case of Sophia Mach, this was actually her second journey to America!  Since Mach is not one of my family surnames in the sidebar, I’ll write more later this week on why they are a subject of my research.  Are they related to my family?  More to come…

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One of my more popular posts has been Philadelphia Marriage Indexes Online.  As that post indicates, the FamilySearch site’s collection of Philadelphia Marriage Records is great online tool for searching for marriage information.  The collection is a listing of marriage licenses issued in Philadelphia from 1885-1951.  While these records are technically an “index” they are not searchable – to find a particular person, you must browse through the records.  This is easy for the years 1885 to 1938 because the list is alphabetical.  For the remaining years, the last names were entered in the order of application, so it takes some manual searching to find a particular person.

In my previous post, I lauded the availability of these records – not only can we search online, but they are free!  But I’ve also come across some comments on mailing lists and message boards from some disappointed individuals who were unable to find their ancestors’ marriage records in this index.  When you know a couple lived in the city, and you have an approximation of when they married, why can’t they be found in the index of Philadelphia marriage license records?  Simply put, many Philadelphia residents went elsewhere to get married.  This occurred mostly due to marriage laws that differed from state to state.  These laws that govern how marriages may be entered into and officiated are at the state level, not federal, so the rules vary.

For this reason, some couples married out of state, or at least outside of the borders of the city of Philadelphia.  The Pennsylvania rules that they may have been circumventing usually involved age or the waiting period.  In the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a law was passed on October 1, 1885 that required marriage licenses to be obtained prior to a couple marrying.  The county clerk of the orphans’ court was required to keep the records.  At this time, the information required by the couple was rather simple and included the names of the couple, birth dates and places of birth, occupations and current residences, any previous marriage(s), and if the parties are related or not.

On September 11, 1885, the New York Times printed a short article about the new law that was excerpted from The Philadelphia Times:

Some of the interrogatories will be embarrassing in special cases, but the law is inexorable and they must be answered.  The clerk of the court will be liable to fine if he fails to enforce the law to the letter, and parties answering falsely will be subject to the penalty of perjury.

One of the requirements of this new law made the marriageable age 21.  For anyone under 21, the consent of the parents was required.  Suddenly, an out-of-state marriage market was born!

Camden, NJ

One of the earliest locations for Philadelphians to marry was one of the closest and easily reached: Camden, New Jersey, located directed across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.  By 1888 the newspapers were complaining that Pennsylvania’s marriage license law was creating a “knot-tying business” for “love-sick couples” in Camden, “where impertinent questions are not asked, and where the performance of the marriage ceremony is not hedged about with restrictions.”

By 1891, Camden was called “the Gretna Green of the Union”.  Gretna Green was a small town in Scotland known for runaway weddings.  A New York Times’ article explains that those “unable or unwilling to procure a license” in Philadelphia simply traveled to Camden for a quick and quiet marriage.  The statistics cited in the article show that only 634 marriages were performed in Camden in 1885, the year that Pennsylvania changed their law.  By 1890, the entire state of New Jersey had 15,564 marriages with one-third performed in Camden – “although the population of that city is less than one-fifteenth of the population of the State.

My great-grandparents were Philadelphia residents who contributed to the booming marriage trade in Camden.  In 1910, Louis Pater celebrated his 17th birthday on August 24th.  Three days later, he married Elizabeth Miller.  On the marriage certificate, Louis’ age is listed as 22.  Elizabeth is listed as 20 although she would only turn 19 in another three months.  Elizabeth’s parents were in Poland – she had only immigrated the previous year – but her brother Emil served as a witness.  It is assumed that Louis did not think his parents would approve of the marriage at his young age.

Although Ancestry.com has marriage records from “Camden County, NJ, 1837-1910″ it is likely that these are moreso county records than those from the city of Camden.  Not only did I not find my great-grandparents’ marriage in this database, but it consists of only 6,000 records.  Given the marriage boom in Camden after 1885, it is assumed that the city of Camden’s records are not included here.

The city of Camden’s web page indicates that “Birth, Death, and Marriage Certificates can be aquired (sic) for anyone that was born, died, or married in the City of Camden. These certificates can be picked up in room 103 of City Hall or mailed directly to you.”

Elkton, MD

Another town famous for out-of-state marriages was Elkton, MD.  Located in northern Maryland, the town is situated close to Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  Until 1938, there was no waiting period required between the marriage application and the ceremony, so the town became known for “quick” weddings similar to Las Vegas decades later.  The following sign recognizes Elkton’s role in the history of marriage in the Northeastern US:

Historical Marker in Elkton indicating that the town was the "Marriage Capital of the East"

Historical Marker in Elkton indicating that the town was the "Marriage Capital of the East"

I do not have any direct ancestors who got married in Elkton, but I’m sure there are some collateral relatives who did.  If you can’t find a marriage record, try Elkton.  Records can be searched through the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cecil County, Maryland.  See their site for more information.

Other Pennsylvania Counties

It makes sense to travel across state lines to marry if Pennsylvania had “restrictive” laws regarding the marriageable age and a waiting period.  However, there was another option – the couple simply didn’t tell the truth on their applicatoin.  But, sometimes they did not want to lie about their ages in the city of Philadelphia.  In my own family history, both sets of grandparents got married in Delaware County – despite the fact that it is in Pennsylvania and therefore governed by the same laws as the city of Philadelphia.  Perhaps they were afraid that the city could “look it up” and discover their fib?  All I know is that both towns are a bit out of the way for me today and I have a car and highways; my grandparents did not.

In the Pater family, history repeated itself with another 17-year-old groom.  My grandfather, Henry Pater, was two months shy of his 18th birthday when he traveled to Broomall, PA with his intended, Mae Zawodna.  On the license application, Henry lists his birth year as 1907 instead of 1912, therefore making himself almost 23 years old.  Mae, who actually was born in 1907 and was five years older than Henry, listed her birth year as 1908 – making herself appear to be 21 rather than 22 and a half.  Neither family looked kindly upon the wedding, and in fact in the 1930 census a few months later they are each enumerated with their own parents – living a few doors away from each other.  Eventually they told their families they were married, and in June of the same year their marriage was blessed in a Catholic church.

My other grandparents traveled to Media, PA for their wedding in 1934.  James Pointkouski accurately reported his age as 23, but Margaret Bergmeister makes herself one year older – reporting her age as 21.  In reality, she would turn 21 a few months later.  She also provides an address for her parents; however, both had been deceased for some time.  They may have feared someone in Philadelphia confirming her birth record, which would have made her ineligible for marriage without the consent of her guardian.  But they also did not want to wait an extra few months – their son would be born seven months later.

Couples had many reasons to marry in seemingly unlikely places.  If the law required parental consent, a waiting period, or even proof of either a divorce or death of a prior marriage, some couples traveled to avoid the hassle.  Or they traveled to the next county to avoid the neighbors seeing the marriage notice published in the newspaper.  This was by no means unique to the Philadelphia area – Elkton, MD received couples from up and down the East Coast, and other states have similar “Gretna Green” locations such as the Kentucky and Ohio River Valley border. If you have trouble finding Grampa’s marriage record – look around the neighboring counties or states!

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The topic for the premier edition of the Graveyard Rabbits Carnival is “exceptional finds” – share those rare and unique cemeteries, gravestones, monuments, memorials, and inscriptions.

I am one of those genealogists that likes to explore old cemeteries even while I am on vacation.  When I visited Paris, France in 2007,  Père Lachaise Cemetery (Cimetière du Père-Lachaise) was on the list of sights to see along with the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame.  I would consider it an exceptional find for several reasons.  First, you will see many graves that are 200 years old – for Europe, where grave recycling is the norm, so it was refreshing to see “old” graves.  Many think it is exceptional because of its size – 118 acres – or because so many famous celebrities are buried there.  What was more fascinating  to me were the larger number of non-celebrities, everyday folks like you and me, that are laid to rest beside the rich and famous – truly a reminder that we are all equal in death.  As I walked around the cemetery, I was also struck by its universality.  Although it is a Parisian cemetery, its occupants’ names spanned the globe.  In addition to French surnames, I saw American, Polish, German, and many other nationalities.

Here’s a look at some of the unique gravestones and monuments I photographed (click on thumbnail to see a larger view):

For more information about Père Lachaise, visit the following sites:

  • Père Lachaise Wikipedia entry – more photos and a list of the more famous “residents”
  • A Brief History of Pere-Lachaise Cemetery
  • The cemetery’s own site – take a virtual tour

[Written for the 1st Edition of The Graveyard Rabbits Carnival: Exceptional Finds.]

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In Part 1 of “The Slesinski Sisters” I presented some photographs passed on to me by my grandmother that showed her mother and aunts: Laura, Josephine, Mary, Jane, and Sophie Slesinski, from “somewhere” in Poland.  The remaining photograph that I inherited from my grandmother is shown below.  All I had to begin my research were their (maiden) names – would I be able to find anything with such little information?

The Slesinski Sisters

The Slesinski Sisters

I had already researched my great-grandmother; her Polish name was Wacława, but in America she used Laura.  She came to the U.S. in 1903 following her husband, Józef Zawodny, who arrived a year earlier.  While the couple was easy to find in passenger list records, the key to Wacława’s birthplace would later come through researching her sisters.

I could not locate any of the Slesinski sisters in the census records, so I had to assume that they were married either at the time of arrival into the U.S. or at least at the time of their first census.  If they were married before they arrived here, I had no idea how to find their married names.  So I began with the assumption that they were single when they arrived – or at least some of them!

With luck, I found 3 of the 4 sisters on the same passenger arrival record: the SS Adriatic sailing from Southampton to New York, arriving on 15 October 1920. On the record, their surname was spelled Sleszynska and the first names fit with the information I had from the photographs.  Sailing together were Janina, age 19, Zofia, age 17, and Marianna, age 23.  They were all listed as dressmakers from Dobrosołowo.  Their destination was to their “brother-in-law Mr. Sioracki” at 600 Hazel Street in McKeesport, PA.

Research Tip: Be flexible with first names.  This can apply to either foreign translations like Zofia=Sophie, “adopted” names that are not translations like Wacława=Laura, or “like” variations of a name like Maria=Marianna=Mary.

Also, don’t discount similar spellings of the last name.  “Sleszynska” was similar enough to “Slesinska” to warrant a look at the record.  If the first names and ages offer a good match (and in this case, the destination), it may be the correct record.

This information meant that their sister Josephine was already married and living in McKeesport by 1920 – now I had a name to search on the 1920 census.  I wouldn’t find anything under “Sioracki” though, nor under the Soundex search, so the name was not spelled correctly.  However, I did find her using the address instead: Vincent and Josephine “Shieraski” at 600 Hazel Street.  Vincent is 33 and immigrated in 1904, while Josephine is 29 and immigrated in 1911.  One sister’s married name down, three to go!

Research Tip: Can’t find a name in an index or soundex?  It may be spelled or indexed wrong.  An alternate is to look up by address, which can be found in a variety of sources including city directories, marriage licenses, passenger lists, or personal records like photographs or family papers.

Because the three younger sisters arrived too late for the 1920 census enumeration and were not listed on the 1930, it was easy to assume that all three were married sometime during the 1920’s. The next step in the research was a search of Allegheny county marriage records through the mail.  Amazingly, all three marriage licenses were found!

  • On 14 October 1922, Maria Slesinska married Adolph Majewski
  • On 17 January 1924, Sophia Slesinska married Joseph Goreski
  • On 22 June 1925, Janina Slesinski married John Smilovicz

Research Tip: Some Polish surnames have masculine and feminine endings.  A daughter or a wife of a man with a name ending in -ski would use a -ska ending to the name.  However, this is not set in stone – especially once the couple or the woman immigrated to the U.S.  For purposes of searching records, search for both variations of the name.

Armed with the sisters’ married names, I searched the 1930 census in McKeesport.  The Majewski family lived at 804 Park Way: Adolph, age 38, Mary, age 28, and son Bolesław, age 6 (born in PA). Adolph works in a steel mill and is a WWI veteran.  This solved the mystery of who “Mr. Adolph Majewski” was on the photograph (see Part 1).  Because of his marriage to Maria/Mary, it also confirmed that the labeling on the photograph of the sisters was likely correct since Mary matches the woman standing with Adolph as “one of the family”.

Two of the sisters lived at 1202 5th Avenue.  The first family was Joseph Goreski (age 30), wife Sophia (age 21), and daughter Irene (age 5, born in PA).  Joseph also works at a steel mill.  Although listed on a different sheet, the “Sieradzki” family lived at the same address: Wincenty (age 41) and Josephine (age 38).  Wincenty (Vincent) worked as a die caster.

Finally, at 2817 Garbett Street were John Smilovicz (age 39), wife Jane (age 27), and son Henry (age 3 and 11/12, born in PA).  John works in a tin mill and was also a WWI veteran.

By researching just a few record sources I managed to find all four sisters’ marriages and a few children born by 1930.  After one sister’s social security application pointed back to Dobrosołowo, Poland – matching the passenger arrival record – I decided to find the births records of my great-grandmother and her sisters.  The three sisters’ marriage records in the U.S. provided some clues as to their parents names.  One did not list the parents at all, but the other two agreed on their father’s name – Vincent Slesinksi.  Their mother’s name was listed on one as Stella and the other as Stanislawa, but the surname matched: Drogowski (Stella was often used as an English variant for Stanislawa).  This was more information than anything I was able to uncover about my great-grandmother through her own records in the U.S.

Research in Poland proved to be difficult despite these many facts.  Fortunately, the youngest child, who happened to be Sophia (Zofia), was born in Dobrosołowo – the other children were found in nearby towns.   And there were more than five children in the family!  Birth records were found for the following children of Wincenty (Vincent) Slesinski and Stanislawa Drogowska:

  • Wacława Marianna, 29 Aug 1880
  • Józefa, 01 Jan 1883
  • Feliks, 24 Dec 1885
  • Konstancja, 18 Jul 1888 – 13 Aug 1889
  • Wincenty, 03 Apr 1893 – 02 Apr 1896
  • Marianna, 06 Apr 1896
  • Janina, 12 Dec 1898
  • Zofia, 10 Aug 1901

The birth records proved what the photographs showed: there was a large gap in the ages between the oldest and youngest sister – 21 years!  In fact, Zofia (Sophie) was only two years old when Wacława (Laura) left for America!   The sisters also seemed to shave a few years off of their ages for the census-takers, but that was common and is the main reason why census records are not completely reliable for ages. It is uncertain what became of their brother Feliks – no death record was found in Poland, but no definitive immigration record was found in the U.S. either.

I was even able to find the “end of the story” with regard to my great-grandmother’s sisters – they are all buried in St. Mary’s Polish Cemetery in McKeesport, PA, and a survey of the tombstones is available online.  While the birth years on tombstones can never be regarded as accurate, at least the death years can. The deaths are recorded as follows:

  • SIERADZKI, Wincenty 1888 – 1969
  • SIERADZKI, Jozefa S. 1891 – 1964
  • MAJEWSKI, Adolph 1892 – 1973
  • MAJEWSKI, Marya 1900 – 1955
  • SMILOWICZ, John 1888 – 1974 (Pvt US Army WWI)
  • SMILOWICZ, Jennie 1904 – (no death date listed)
  • GORESKI, Joseph 1900 – 1976
  • GORESKI, Sophia 1908 – 1990

Research Tip: EVIDENCE…which record do you believe?  For a birth year, birth or christening records obviously hold more weight than a person’s marriage record (they may have been underage, considered “too old” to be getting married for the first time, or older than their spouse), census record (they may be trying to stay young, or embarrassed if they are older than a spouse), or a death record (the person giving the information may not know the truth).

I assumed this was “the end” of my research into the Slesinski sisters.  While I had not done any research on the three children identified on the 1930 census – my grandmother’s first cousins – I had gone back to Poland and learned the names of not only their parents, but also their grandparents!  I was well on the way to continuing my research backwards into the Slesinski ancestry.  But a funny thing happened on the way…my research was “confirmed” in an unusual way.

Coming up in Part 3 – My research is confirmed!  By more photographs!

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Miriam recently challenged genea-bloggers to write about their brickwall ancestors.  In my case, I don’t have brickwalls so much as avenues of research I have not yet pursued.  One of my goals for 2009 was to find some missing details in my Bavarian ancestors.  In the case of my great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister, I can document his ancestry back to the 1600’s, and I’m still going backward once I find time to get back to the family history library.  I was fortunate that the church records exist for the towns of Puch, Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, and surrounding towns.  But, my research is far from complete – even though I can provide death dates for Joseph’s paternal grandparents, great-grandparents, and even his 2nd great-grandparents, I have no idea when his parents died.   But, I do have some clues from my research.  Here I present my research plan and ask readers to examine my evidence, logic, and path forward, and offer a critique or advice to set me on the right path.

Goal: Find death records for Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Dallmeier Bergmeister Goetz

Facts:  Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Dallmeier were married on 10 May 1871 in Vohburg a.d. Donau.  He was a flour merchant, born on 9 Feb 1843 in Puch as the son of Jakob Bergmeister, a miller born in Puch, and Anna née Daniel, born in Niederscheyern.  Ursula Dallmeier was born in Aichach on 17 Mar 1847, the daughter of innkeeper Joseph Dallmeier from Aichach and Ursula née Eulinger.  The date of the secular marriage was 11 Apr 1871, and it occurred in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm.  [Source: marriage record from Kath. Stadtpfarramt, Vohburg a.d. Donau, obtained 11 Dec 1995]

Joseph and Ursula went on to have at least 4 children:

1)      Hillaury Bergmeister, b. 12 January 1870 [Source: her marriage and death record, birth record not yet found]

2)      Maria Bergmeister, b 17 November 1871.  It is unknown if Maria survived infancy.  [Source: Vohburg parish register, FHL film 1271862]

3)      Joseph Bergmeister, b. 12 February 1873 (my great-grandfather) [Source: Vohburg parish register, FHL film 1271862]

4)      Ignaz Bergmeister, b. 23 April 1876 [Source: New York City marriage record in 1907 and WWI draft card in 1918; birth records not yet searched]

Clues:  In November 1897, their son Joseph gets married in Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm (for more details, see The Bergmeister Family page).  There is an important clue in the marriage record.  It records the bachelor Joseph as the son of the “deceased flour merchant Joseph Bergmeister of Munich and Ursula Dallmeier (who later married a Goetz), residing in Regensburg.”  [Source:  Marriage record for Joseph Bergmeister and Maria Echerer, Standesamt Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm, obtained 04 Nov 1993.]

Portion of the 1897 marriage record that details the status of Joseph Bergmeister's parents.

Portion of the 1897 marriage record that details the status of Joseph Bergmeister's parents.

The re-marriage of Ursula to Mr. Goetz (whose first name was later identified as Herman in their son’s marriage record) did not come as a complete surprise, because my grandmother had an “uncle” Julius Goetz.  More research revealed at least two more children of Ursula Bergmeister Goetz, half-siblings to the Bergmeister children.  They are:

1)     Herman Goetz, born 14 May 1885 [Source: Marriage license 1913, WW I Draft card 1918]

2)     Julius Andreas Elias Goetz, born 09 Nov 1886 in Regensburg [Source: Declaration of Intention 1908, Naturalization 1911, WW I Draft card 1917]

On the marriage record for Julius in 1919, the license lists the “residence of father” as “Germany” and “residence of mother” as “dead”. [Source: Clerk of Orphans' Court, Philadelphia, Marriage License #1919-415062.]  The marriage license for Herman in 1913 is a different format and does not ask about parents.

Based on the above facts, I can make reasonable assumptions about the approximate time and place of the deaths of Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Goetz.

Assumptions – Death of Joseph Bergmeister

Estimated years: 1876 – 1884 – based on the birth of his youngest identified son, Ignaz, and his wife’s first child in her re-marriage.

Estimated place: Munich – based on his son Joseph’s marriage record.

Alternate place: Regensburg – based on the location of his wife’s re-marriage

Negative search: Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm

Assumptions – Death of Ursula Dallmeier Bergmeister Goetz

Estimated years: 1897 – 1919 – based on the fact that she was still alive at the time of son Joseph’s marriage and she was not by the time of Julius’.  It is noted, however, that Julius immigrated in 1902 at the age of 16 – perhaps she died in that year.

Estimated place: Regensburg – based on her residence at the time of Joseph’s marriage and her Goetz sons’ birthplace.

Next step – where do I search for these death records?

Unfortunately, the FHL does not have church records on microfilm for such large cities as München (Munich) or Regensburg.  In each instance, I would have to write to either the civil or the episcopal archive. I am not sure if the lack of a date will be problematic – the ranges are too broad.  Although I have written to the archives in the past to get some of this information, it has been so long that I am not even sure which office to write to, or if they can perform such a search without a more specific date.  I could either make an attempt with a letter, or I can find a researcher in Bavaria to investigate further.

More clues – I may be able to narrow down the years by searching additional records (none of which are available either online or through the Family History Center) including:

  • Census records – After Germany was united in 1871, a census was conducted every five years between 1880 and 1910.  I am not sure where to obtain this information.
  • City directories – Both Munich and Regensburg are large cities.  If city directories exist, they may help pinpoint not only the year of death (especially for Joseph), but also a potential parish to find a church record.
  • Marriage record of Ursula Bergmeister and Herman Goetz – it is possible that the record of Ursula’s second marriage may reveal more about her husband Joseph’s death.

Any comments on my research to date, the assumptions, or where to go next will be greatly appreciated.  The following is a map that outlines the German locations noted above.

Detailed map of Bavaria showing all locations from Regensburg in the northeast to Munich in the south which are mentioned in the records for the lives of Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Goetz.  Where are their final resting places?

Detailed map of Bavaria showing all locations from Regensburg in the northeast to Munich in the south which are mentioned in the records for the lives of Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Goetz. Where are their final resting places?

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Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

During the month of October, which was Polish-American Heritage Month, I presented a challenge to all genea-bloggers, regardless of their ancestry, to learn more about the history and culture of Poland and write about it on their blogs.  I’m happy to say that a few folks did just that!  The following bloggers participated in this challenge:

Alwierz at the Polish-American Genealogy Research Blog writes about Polish genealogy every day!  But specifically for this challenge, Al turned his focus on the histories of his ancestors’ hometowns in Poland.  Al says, “I’ve researched and attempted to translate the histories of the area and parishes within the Kujawy area of Poland, specifically within Powiat Aleksandrow. Polish history is very rich and proud, so I had tried to translate these histories with the utmost respect. I had used two online translation tools, Google Translator and Poltran, along with my Polish – English English – Polish (Langenscheidt’s Pocket Dictionary). Any errors with any of the translations are my fault and will be corrected as they are pointed out.”  His articles for this challenge are:

This was a fascinating look at the Kujawy area in Poland.  Thanks, Al!

Jasia at Creative Gene also wrote a series of posts.  Her series focused on the crafts of Poland.  The slide shows and photographs in Jasia’s posts are beautiful, and really show the best of Polish art.  Her series about her Polish art collections are:

Aren’t they beautiful?  Thanks, Jasia!

Next, Sheri Fenley, The Educated Genealogist, learned how to polka.  Well, she tried to learn how to Polka!  Who knew it would be so hard?  Disappointed, but still wanting to participate in the challenge, Sheri instead offers a wonderful look at the polka in The Problem with Polka!  A-one, and a-two, and a dziękuję to Sheri!

Lisa, at 100 Years in America, writes about the connections and friendship between Poland and Hungary in Two Good Friends: The Pole and the Hungarian.  What a beautiful proverb!  Thanks for participating, Lisa, and for your friendship!

The footnoteMaven has presented us with the fascinating life story of a little-known Pole who was quite famous in her day.  Read all about Madame Helena Modjeska in Today I am an Honorary Pole! We’re grateful for this glimpse into her life, and you’re welcome to be an honorary Pole any day.  In fact, in appreciation you shall be called footnoteMavenska for today!  Thanks so much.

Finally, I offered a hodge-podge of various posts here at What’s Past is Prologue as follows:

I hope my readers enjoyed this challenge and the wonderful posts from those that participated.  Thanks to all!  Or rather, to say it in Polish, dziękuję!

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October has been a celebration of Polish-American Heritage Month here at What’s Past is Prologue.  Today I’d like to introduce my readers to Ceil Wendt Jensen, CG and her website, Michigan Polonia.  In our interview you will read about how she developed an interest in genealogy, her experiences with finding her Polish roots, and get some of her expert advice!  Ceil had over thirty years of experience as a teacher of art and social studies.  In 1998, she became a professional genealogist.  Since then, not only has she traced her Polish ancestry back to the 1600s, but she has used her teaching skills to become an international speaker on Polish genealogy.

Ceil has authored numerous articles in genealogy magazines and journals, as well as several books, including Detroit’s Polonia, Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery and Detroit’s Mount Olivet Cemetery.  Her upcoming book, Sto Lat: A Quick Guide to Polish Genealogy, will offer both traditional and digital research techniques to finding your Polish ancestors in North America and Poland.

The header from the Michigan Polonia site - mipolonia.net

The header from the Michigan Polonia site - mipolonia.net

Visit the Michigan Polonia site for more information on Ceil’s books, speaking engagements, and articles. Ceil is currently upgrading the site to include adding audio and video files.  She also maintains the following blogs:

I can’t imagine how she had any free time with all of the above activities, but Ceil somehow found the time amid blogging, writing, teaching, and researching to graciously respond to my questions.

I read that you became interested in genealogy with a grade school project (as I did).  Can you tell us a little about that and how that led you on the path to become a certified genealogist?

My father was my first genealogical interview. He showed me a canvas wallet that held the documents my grandfather and great grandfather carried to the US from Mühlbanz (Milobadz), Dirschau (Tczew), and West Prussia (Poland). His death a few months later made me start asking questions of living relatives.

Przytula Family, Detroit c. 1908

Przytula Family, Detroit c. 1908

I visited with my maternal grandparents and great aunts who willingly borrowed documents from their cousins to get our research started.  One of my best collaborators was my Great Aunt Lilly- we went cemetery hopping together.  She provided me with a copy of the birth certificate of our uncle Mikołaj Przytula, born in Cibórz, Kreis Strasburg (now Brodnica – the certificate was issued in Lautenburg [Lidzbark]), and a great family photo of Mikołaj, his sister Stanisława and parents Adam and Johanna (Pszuk) Przytula. I featured it in my book Detroit’s Polonia. Unfortunately, when I took the documents to the local Family History Center in the 1970s the volunteer tried helping me find the villages with a current map of Europe. I needed a pre-World War I map to find the locations.  I set the research aside during the years I taught high school. But even as I traveled overseas with my high school students, I wondered how and when I would visit Poland.

When my great Aunt Lilly died at the age of 102, I pledged at her funeral that I would finish the research we had started in the early 1970s. It was a great time to resume my research. The Internet was developing sites for genealogical research, and I had earned a teaching degree in Social Studies and knew how to use primary and secondary sources.  In 2000 I attended the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy and found many of the teaching techniques I used in the classroom would segue into genealogy.  I also realized that most researchers were text based, and my background as an art teacher allowed me to bring maps, graphics, photos, and other media into the genealogical field.

I submitted my certification portfolio to the Board of Certification in Washington DC, and the judges awarded my credentials on December, 13, 2003. I am currently updating my materials for recertification.

What do you think are some common mistakes made by beginning researchers?

I volunteer at our local Family History Center and see several common mistakes new researchers make when they begin their Polish research. The first problem is putting the name into proper Polish.  Searching for William, Betty, or Chester will not yield any results. I help the patrons find the correct given name and surname by using Fred Hoffman’s books.  I also have them use Steve Morse’s Gold Form for searching ship manifests since it has the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex created to work with Slavic languages.

The second technique I offer researchers is the trick of putting a syllable of a name in a search engine instead of all the information known about their ancestor.  In fact, I found my great grandmother’s passage to America by entering just the first three letters of her infant son’s name into the ancestry.com search engine along with his year of birth and possible passage.  Jac*, born in 1888 and traveling between 1888 and 1889 brought up the manifest for Jacob Watkowiak (sp) , age  9 months. The last name was misspelled as WATKOWIAK instead of WOJTKOWIAK.  They sailed on the same ship that her husband Piotr took a year earlier.

What are your top three practical suggestions for Polish researchers?

1.  Use the Polish spelling of the given and surname when looking for them in their first US Census. They may not have immediately anglicized their names.

2. Research collateral lines- aunts, uncles, and cousins. They may have recorded needed information that is not noted in your direct ancestor’s documents. And, don’t forget to request records of family members who joined religious orders, their archives hold personal histories and necrologies.

3.  Use Google Images to find maps, photos, and stories about your ancestral villages in Poland. Try using Polish words instead of English such as “Rogalinek Parafia”. Google Web and Images will return interesting hits from Poland.  I found Marek Wojciechowski’s website featuring current photos of the region using this technique.

Your specialty is Michigan, specifically Detroit.  Can you tell us how your books came about?

While some Polish families first settled in an Eastern state before coming to the Midwest, my ancestors all came directly to Michigan.  The Adamskis and Wojtkowiaks first settled in Calumet, Houghton Co., Michigan but soon came to Detroit, where my Przytulski, Wendt, and Zdziebko ancestors resided.  So, it was natural that when I began to think of developing genealogy projects my hometown of Detroit would be featured.

Like so many other genealogists, I enjoy vintage photos and the local histories published by Arcadia Publishing.  I taught both black and white and digital photography in my classroom, so I felt prepared to develop Detroit’s Polonia – a book of vintage photos that could serve as a community photo album. I contacted Arcadia to find out the process of becoming a published author. They offered a complete package and outlined how to bring a book from an idea to a product. All along the way the staff offered constructive criticism, encouragement, and an editor.  I started with my own collection of family photos, and my colleagues in the Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan shared images. I visited local private such as the Felician Sisters in Livonia, Michigan and public archives like Detroit Public Library’s Burton Collection to find poignant images. We held a Detroit’s Polonia “Launch Lunch” for the book around Pączki Day, 2005 at the American Polish Cultural Center in Troy, Michigan.

The book was arranged on the cycle of life, and the last chapter featured Bill Gorski’s collection of tombstone portraits photographed in the 1970s. The chapter on burial practices let to the next two books Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery and Detroit’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. I wrote the books with the intent to use the royalties to place headstones on the unmarked grave of my ancestors buried at the cemeteries. On Memorial Day, 2008 we placed a ledger on the gravesite of our great grandfather Piotr Wojtkowiak.

Why did you decide to write about cemeteries?

In my case it’s a matter of honoring my ancestors. I have grandparents and great grandparents buried at Mount Elliott and Mount Olivet Cemeteries. They died before I was born – but I feel I know them after researching our family history in Michigan and Poland.

Piotr Wojtkowiak – my maternal great grandfather- was like so many other immigrants in the late 1880s. He took a chance on America. There are no photos of him but historical records tell his story. He was born in Tulce, Sroda, Posen to Mateusz Rychlewicz Wojtkowiak and Franciszka Szymnkowiak – the ninth of ten children. He worked as a locksmith on the manor farm of Count Edward Raczyński and ledgers for the manor reveal he was paid in grain and marks.

Piotr sailed from Bremen and arrived at the port of Baltimore Nov. 11, 1886. Her was headed to Calumet in the UP to join Finns, Italians and Cornish in the mines. Employed by the Calumet and Hecla mining company he was employed until he broke his leg in an accident.

After the injury Piotr settled in Detroit with his young family. Babies arrived every two years. They were to be „half orphaned” when Piotr contracted typhoid leading a crew of Detroit city workers digging sewers.  He died and was buried in an unmarked grave at Mt. Elliott Cemetery. Three weeks after his death, his wife Marianna gave birth to their seventh child. The curly haired infant  was named Peter in honor of his father.

In 1975 I started searching for my great grandfather’s grave at the oldest extant Catholic cemetery in Detroit. I was told by the office that he wasn’t in the ledger. I drove down there and sure enough, he was in the book- his name was entered as Peter Wojskowiak instead of Peter Wojtkowiak. He was buried in a single grave without a marker. In fact, in that area of the cemetery there were very few grave stones.

His unmarked grave was my incentive in writing the book Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery published by Arcadia.  I dedicated the book to Piotr Wojtkowiak (1863-1897) who died in Detroit at the age of 37. He left six children behind, wife Marianne giving birth to their seventh child three weeks later. A local newspaper writer picked up the story: Remembering Piotr.

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Thanks, Ceil!  I enjoyed this opportunity to chat, and I certainly hope my readers were as inspired by your own search for your family’s history as I was.  We look forward to your upcoming book! I hope to make it to the next United Polish Genealogical Societies conference for which Ceil is one of the main organizers.  Mark your calendars for April 23-26, 2010 at the Salt Lake Plaza Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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In our continuing celebration of Polish-American Heritage Month, What’s Past is Prologue is delighted to highlight one of the best sites on the internet devoted to Polish genealogy – PolandGenWeb.  I’ve invited PolandGenWeb’s coordinator, Marie Dallas, to tell us more about the site and what researchers can find there.  Marie and I have known each other for quite some time now, and unlike some other “virtual” friends I’ve made on the internet, we are actually “real live” friends that went to college together.  In fact, we started on our Polish genealogy quest together about twenty years ago!  We still haven’t discovered if we’re related or not, but we’re working on it!  I am also a PolandGenWeb province host for two provinces, though I admit I don’t spend as much time as I should to update those sites (both will be updated by the end of the year).  My name is also listed on the site as “creative consultant” but I really can’t take any credit for all that you’ll see there – it’s all Marie’s talents that have put it together.  Marie, on the other hand, spends most of her time keeping the main PolandGenWeb site up-to-date by providing relevant and useful information to family researchers, especially beginners.  I don’t know how she finds the time, because she does all of this for free while running a household with a husband, three beautiful children, and several pets!

Can you describe PolandGenWeb – what’s its purpose?

PolandGenWeb is part of the WorldGenWeb Project, a non-profit organization devoted to providing free genealogical information and resources. The site is intended to help genealogical researchers uncover their Polish ancestry by providing research guidance, maps (historic and present day), town locators and town lists, translation aids, archives addresses, and much more. In addition, each Polish province has its own website devoted to researching one’s ancestors specifically within those boundaries and can be accessed from the PolandGenWeb home page. The site is free to access and run by volunteer effort. Over the past 10 years, it’s grown tremendously in content.

What are some of the good resources we can find there? Do you have anything no other site has?

One of the better resources of PolandGenWeb, I think, is the Basics of Research page. It covers “newbie” information, such as how to effectively begin one’s research and what resources can be used to find the information one is looking for. Another good resource is the Poland Catholic Records Microfilms set of pages. Peter Gwozdz maintains the content and has provided very detailed information on how to work with the parish and civil records microfilmed by the LDS. I’m very grateful for his contribution to PolandGenWeb.

And of course, there’s Rafał’s Polish Surname List. This unique resource is an alphabetical list of surnames submitted by those researching ancestors of Polish ethnicity or those who lived in Poland (occupied territories or present-day boundaries). Each entry includes an email address to contact the submitter and most include the town or region where the submitter’s ancestors were from. At present, there are over 37,000 entries.

Tell me about the “Records Transcription Project” – it looks like you have quite a collection! What’s on your site? Is it hard for others to contribute?

The Records Transcription Project is the highlight of PolandGenWeb.  All of the content housed on the site is contributed by volunteers, and the majority of transcribed records are births/baptisms, marriages, and deaths from parish or civil records microfilmed by the LDS. There are a couple of sets of records whose content was taken directly from the parish registers in Poland and has not yet been microfilmed by the LDS. While the project does include resources outside of Poland, such as ethnic Polish cemeteries in other countries, the focus is on providing data from Poland (both historical and present-day areas).

In addition to the vital records, PolandGenWeb has a growing collection of transcribed cemetery inscriptions and War Memorials.  Debbie Greenlee is spearheading the effort to encourage folks who either live in or visit Poland to transcribe the names found on memorials erected to commemorate those town residents who were killed during war time – particularly those who were killed during WW2. Most are not soldiers’ memorials but memorials to murdered civilians.

It’s relatively easy for anyone willing contribute to the project.  If one rents a microfilm containing parish or civil records in Poland, instead of extracting the information from only the records for one’s ancestors, one can can extract additional information for the Transcription project. If one is visiting Poland, one can photograph and/or transcribe the names found on tombstones and war memorials in the places they visit. More details on how to contribute to the transcription project can be found here.

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Thanks, Marie!  I hope others find PolandGenWeb as useful as I do.  Take a look at all the site has to offer, especially if you are just beginning your research.  Once you’re an experienced researcher, give back by contributing to one of the transcription projects.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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This week we’re interviewing author William F. Hoffman.  In Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview, we discussed surnames.  But that’s only part of “Fred” Hoffman’s area of expertise – he’s also authored several books on how to translate genealogical records (see Part 1 for more info on his books).  Today, we’ll begin discussing translating genealogical records once you find them!

WPiP: Do you need to be “fluent” in a language to translate records?

Fred:  When it comes to the kinds of records genealogists rely on most, you don’t really need to be fluent. It helps, of course; but I’ve dealt with plenty of people who were not fluent in a given language, yet succeeded in extracting the information they really needed. Their translations usually weren’t perfect, but they were close enough. I’ve found that patience and persistence can be more important than innate linguistic ability — though you do need at least a little of that. Some folks simply have no talent whatsoever for languages, and they’re not likely to have much luck.

Most of the records genealogists use rely on a certain basic format, so that you can reliably expect to find the same specific information given in a specific order, time and time again. You also see the same words and phrases showing up again and again. It’s not hard to learn to recognize them and understand what they mean. Once you get familiar with the standard layout of specific documents, you can spot, say, the name of the person who was born. You recognize where his parents should be named, followed by how old they were, followed by where they lived, and so on. Remember also, these documents don’t usually come at you from out of the blue. You have some idea where they came from, and when they were drawn up; that info provides a context that makes interpreting them easier.

Now, once you get past your basic records —  birth, marriage, and death records, that sort of thing — translation gets tougher. You could say that, by definition, once you depart from the norm, and you don’t know what to expect, that’s when fluency is required. You may have to rely on the assistance of a professional translator. But it never hurts to try yourself first. Much of the time, you have a real shot at figuring out what you want.

WPiP: Do you recommend use of computer translations, either online or with software?

Fred:  On the whole, no, I really can’t — at least, not unless you understand up front that the results are unreliable, and may even be downright hideous.

I know a lot of people rely heavily on the online translators you can find on various websites, or on various translations software packages. I admit, in some cases, computer translations may be adequate. The simpler a given passage, the better those non-human translators do with it. If you’re taking a text in Polish and trying to turn it into English, computer translations may get just enough of it right to give you a basic idea of what’s being said. So if you’re trying to figure out what a Polish text says, it does no harm to run it past a computer and see what you get.

But I definitely cannot recommend using them to turn English into Polish, as, for instance, when writing letters. Too often, what comes out is absolute gibberish. One sentence may be comprehensible, while the next produces only howls of laughter. And you have no way of knowing which is which! I haven’t seen a non-human translator yet that can handle Polish grammar adequately; and the choice of words is typically iffy. Think about it: in English a _nut_ can be a specific kind of food, a piece of shaped metal, a slang word for a crazy or eccentric person, or a vulgar term for a testicle. Do you really want to leave it up to a computer to figure out which meaning you intend?

A further huge problem with using them on records of genealogical value is that the vocabulary and style in those documents tends to be older. Most translation software is designed for use in business or everyday life in the modern world. It simply will not recognize some of the terms and expressions that recur consistently in vital records. Languages have changed quite a bit over the last century, and turns of phrase that used to be standard are often archaic — whether you’re talking about Polish or English.

WPiP: How do you deal with bad handwriting (any tips to overcome?)?

Fred: I often find I can’t make heads or tails of a handwritten document the first time I look at it. I don’t panic; I look it over, make out any letters or words I can, and set it aside. A few days later, I come back to it, and usually I can make out a little more. I keep chipping away at it and eventually figure it out. Patience and determination — those are the keys, whether you’re talking about translation or research.

One mistake a lot of researchers make is that they limit themselves to copying too small a sampling of the handwriting. Don’t just copy a couple of entries — go on and copy several pages while you’re at it. Then before you go to work trying to translate an excerpt, take a little time first to just look over all the pages, paying close attention. Don’t force anything, not yet. Just familiarize yourself with them before you try to translate them. After a while, you start to recognize things, especially if you have a large enough sampling to allow for good comparison. If you think that mystery letter is a D, look for a variety of places where the same person wrote a D in words you recognize, and compare it. A larger sampling lets you do that. What is at first incomprehensible gradually reveals its secrets.

So whenever possible, copy more pages, not less. It’s amazing how often those extra pages turn out to have something that makes all the difference. And don’t just plunge into translating; take a little time to get acquainted with the text first.

Stay tuned for our final part of the interview tomorrow.  Is one language any easier to learn than another?  What about Fred’s next book?  Find out tomorrow!

Update, September 1, 2008 – The 4-part series is complete, so here are the links to each segment of our Interview with William F. Hoffman:

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Image – Polish Army in France recruitment poster, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Image – Polish Army in France recruitment poster, courtesy of Wikipedia.

One unusual record source for those with Polish ancestry is Haller’s Army records.  What was Haller’s Army?  During World War I, Poland did not exist on any “official” map of the world.  General Jozef Haller formed a regiment of Poles in France to join the fight in the name of their homeland, with the ultimate goal of Polish independence.  They were also known as the Blue Army because of the color of their uniforms.

Many people have never heard of Haller’s Army or of their contributions during “the Great War”.  Because it isn’t well known, many Americans of Polish descent may be very surprised to find out that their ancestors, who had already immigrated to the U.S. prior to 1917, volunteered to fight for the Polish Army in France under Haller.  It is estimated that nearly 25,000 Polish men, immigrants to the U.S. and Canada, volunteered and fought in France.  Most were recent immigrants who had not yet become American or Canadian citizens.  Despite immigrating to a new country, these young men were fiercely proud of their homeland.  They willing volunteered to fight for Poland’s democracy and independence.  Because of the Partitions of Poland, none had grown up in a free Poland, and Haller’s Army was the first free Polish Army since Napoleon’s time.  At the war’s end on November 11, 1918, when Poland officially regained its independence, Haller’s Army continued the fight in the Polish-Soviet War until 1921.

Did Your Ancestor Volunteer?

The Polish Genealogical Society of America holds the recruitment records, and while the records themselves are not available online, the index is searchable by surname at the PGSA site.  If you find a match, the records can be obtained through PGSA by mail for a minimal donation – see complete information on how to order copies at http://www.pgsa.org/hallerreqform.htm.

I’ve referred to this as an index of those that volunteered for Haller’s Army, but if you find your relative’s name it does not necessarily mean they served.  A search for the surname “Pater” found several matches, but I was surprised to find “Ludwik Pater” from Philadelphia.  Ludwik is the Polish form of Louis, my great-grandfather.  I ordered a copy to see what I could learn.  The form is in Polish, as are the applicant’s responses, but the volunteer who looked up the record also provided a translation for most of the entries.  An online copy of the form is available in English here.  For the responses, a Polish-English dictionary will help.

The record provides a wealth of genealogical information including date and place of birth, address, marital status and number of children, name and address of nearest relative in both America and Poland, and a full physical description.  The U.S. WWI Draft records are similar and from the same time period, but the form for Haller’s Army is more detailed regarding relatives both at home and in Poland as well as the physical description, which includes not just the eye and hair color, but also height, weight and other features such as teeth, chin, and “distinguishing marks”.

Another feature of the Haller’s Army recruitment papers is some very detailed questions that could offer clues for searching other records.  The form asks:

  • Are you a citizen of the United States of America (second papers)?
  • Did you serve in the Army?  Type of arms?  How long?  Rank upon discharge?
  • What Polish organizations in America do you belong to?
  • If you belong to the Falcons, for how long…and do you hold any office?

Responses to these questions could lead you to naturalization, military, or fraternal organization records.  [Note: The Falcons were established in Chicago in 1887 as an immigrant aid society concerned with physical education, Polish culture and heritage, and gaining Polish independence.  The organization still exists today.]

My great-grandfather filled out his registration card for the U.S. Draft on June 5, 1917.  At the time, he was 23 years old with a wife and 3 young children.  On November 12, 1917, he volunteered for Haller’s Army.  I had never heard about military service during a war by any member of the family, so I assumed he wasn’t accepted because he had a family to support (which is why he was not drafted by the U.S.).  As I researched this article and found the English translation of the form, I learned, with some surprise, that he was sent to the training camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario on November 18, 1917 – less than a week after he volunteered.  But the information provided by the PGSA didn’t indicate an actual record of service in the Army, so what happened?

I’m not sure, and I’m rather puzzled to finally notice that he went to training camp!  I will have to investigate this further.  I do know that he was home in Philadelphia by May, 1918 because his fourth son, Victor Pater, was born the following January.  If he did make it through the training camp successfully, he could not have served in the Army long enough to make the journey to France to fight.

It does speak volumes about the Polish character if young men like my great-grandfather were willing to fight for their homeland – even though they no longer lived there.  My great-grandfather immigrated at the age of 14 and had lived here ten years by the time he volunteered, but he felt strongly enough about the cause for Polish independence to fight in a foreign land.

If you have Polish ancestry, it’s worth typing your surname into PGSA’s index search to discover if your ancestor played a role in Haller’s Army.  The Haller’s Army website best describes these Polish immigrants, recent arrivals to a new country but with a deep love for the old country.  The site proclaims: “They fought for their family. They fought for their ancestors. They fought for their freedom. Most of all they fought for their homeland – Poland.”

[Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image: Polish_Army_in_France_WWI_recruitment_poster.jpg]

For more information on Haller’s Army:

[Posted for the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: research experiences and techniques.]

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Sometimes we forget that “stars” are people, too.  And as regular folks just like us, their genealogy can be traced with the resources we all use online.

I was saddened to hear of the death of actress and dancer Cyd Charisse on June 17.  I knew her date of birth to be March 8, which happens to be my birthday, but I was surprised that newspapers couldn’t quite agree on her year of birth.  No surprise there since it’s not unheard of for Hollywood stars to fib about their age.  So, I decided to confirm it for myself.  As she was “believed to be 86″ according to her New York Times obituary, I knew she’d likely be on the 1930 Federal Census.  Her birth name has always been reported as Tula Ellice Finklea.  Place of birth: Amarillo, Texas.

After a quick search on Ancestry.com, I found Ms. Charisse on the 1930 Census (though she is indexed as “Lula” vice “Tula”).

The Finklea Family, 1930

Cyd/Tula is 8 years old, so her birth year is 1922.  Her father Ernest is a jeweler, and the family also has a cook and a maid living with them.  All were born in Texas, but her father’s roots are from Alabama and Texas.  Her mother Lela’s parents were from Mississippi and Louisiana.  It would be interesting to see how far back her American roots go.

In other Ancestry records, I found what appears to be her birth record, though the name is blank and only her mother’s name is listed.  Her father died in 1938 when Cyd was only 16 years old.  Her mother must have moved to Hollywood with her – her death is listed in a 1990 record at 88 years old – clearly Cyd got her longevity genes from her mother!

I’ve written a short tribute to Cyd on my Gene Kelly blog, including resources for more information on her life and career.  If you’re a fan of movie musicals as I am, you know that she was graceful and beautiful – she looked fabulous even in recent photographs.  Rest in peace, Tula – the world will miss you.

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Yesterday I wrote about CCC records as a resource in Civilian Conservation Corps: A Genealogical Resource – Part 1.  When I first started my genealogical research, I decided to find out more about CCC records because my grandfather supposedly served in the Corps.

My father remembered his dad talking about the CCC, but he didn’t know any details.  In 1993, I wrote to the National Personnel Records Center to find out.  I learned that my grandfather did indeed serve with the CCC…in a manner of speaking.

On April 7, 1933, James Pointkouski applied with the U.S. Department of Labor for “Emergency Conservation Work”, another name for the CCC, just weeks after President Roosevelt began the program.  His application states that he was born in Philadelphia on July 6, 1910.  His occupation is “chaueffuer” [sic], but he had been unemployed since October, 1932.  He lists his education as 1 year at Northeast H.S. and 1 year evening at Central H.S.  He lists his parents, John and Rose, as recipients of his $25 allotment each month and their address.

The very next day, Grandpop signed his “Oath of Enrollment” at Fort Hoyle, Maryland.  In the oath, he swears and affirms “to remain in the Civilian Conservation Corps for six months … obey those in authority and observe all the rules and regulations…”  The oath also relieves the government of responsibility if he suffers injury while working, and he understands that he won’t get any allowance when he is released from camp other than transportation home.

My grandfather’s physical examination record tells me that he was 5’9″ and 150 pounds with blue eyes, brown hair, and a fair complexion.  He has good hearing, but his eyesight wasn’t that great – 20/50 in one eye and he suffered from strabismus, or “lazy eye”, in the other.  I didn’t remember that about him as he got older, but the lazy eye is apparent in photos of him when he was young.  Otherwise, he was quite healthy, which was good news considering that he was only 22 years old.  CCC members also had to receive shots for typhoid (3 doses!) and smallpox, all of which are annotated on the form.

Before I discuss the record of his service, fast-forward to a few years after I received these records.  I accompanied my father to my grandmother’s house to remove some belongings and prepare the house to be sold.  My grandfather was long deceased, and my grandmother was either in a nursing home or had just died (I can’t remember when the house was sold since she spent several years in a home).  I found very few photos or papers of genealogical interest in my grandmother’s belongings.  But, one of the few things I found was a handwritten note from my grandfather to my grandmother.  It is dated April 22, 1933 – while he was serving in the CCC!

My grandparents were not married until January, 1934, and the note offers some clues to their relationship.  It begins: “I didn’t mean it when I told you to forget me…” He goes on to encourage her and cheer her up as if he heard (through her letter?) that she was sad or depressed.   He goes on to say (in a run-on but touching sentence), “Do you realize that if I had been working steady last winter the ring I gave you for Xmas would have been an engagement ring so you must know I appreciate a lovely girl, but owing to the way things were (at) home and no work, how could I tell you how I felt toward you.” After cheering her up some more, he adds, presumably in case she didn’t get the ring reference above, “I hope to be more than a friend someday.”

He goes on to talk about “camp”:  “Well, our stay in camp is near over, we all have received our 3 shots and I hear we leave for the forests next week.  I’m feeling so good and don’t even think of rum, don’t care if I never see another drink.  Let’s forget about money.  Perk is well able to get by anywhere, I always did.  Well, goodbye Marge, I am Your one and only, Jimmy.” In the postscript he asks her to send a snapshot and adds at the end “Love + Lots of Kisses”.

April 22, 1933 letter from James Pointkouski to Margaret Bergmeister

April 22, 1933 letter from James Pointkouski to Margaret Bergmeister

I was amazed later to match the date to the time he was in the CCC.  For the first time, I could see the impact that the Great Depression had on my grandparents.  It was also interesting to see “Perk” as my grandfather’s likely nickname/alias.  His older brother, Joseph, simply dropped the actual surname of “Piontkowski” and used “Perk” for the rest of his life.  My grandfather by this time had already adopted the creative alternate spelling of “Pointkouski”, but he must have still referred to himself as Perk as a nickname.  What amazes me the most about this note is that my grandmother kept it for so long – to me, this means it was very important to her.  Could it be that, because of his note, she realized how much he loved her?

Regarding leaving camp for the forests, I looked back at his enrollment record.  From 8 April to 5 May (1933), he was stationed at Fort Hoyle, MD performing “general labor”.  His manner of performance was “satisfactory” (the form indicates that the choices are excellent, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory).  From 6-8 May, the location changes to Ellenton, PA and his manner of performance changed to “unsatisfactory”!  He was discharged from service on 11 May, well short of his six-month service requirement, due to “absence without leave”.

Why did he suddenly leave?  Did he miss the rum too much?  Or did he miss his girl Marge too much?  Was he tired of the physical labor, or did he get an actual job offer for his usual job driving a truck?  Neither of his children know the answer.  Perhaps he went home to Philadelphia for the weekend and decided to stay.  Based on his note, he obviously missed my grandmother quite a bit.  By January of the following year, they were married.  I’m not sure if he actually did get her that engagement ring or not – the marriage was precipitated by the news that my grandmother was pregnant!  She gave birth to a healthy baby boy, named James after his father, in August.

I’ll never know why my grandfather cut short his vow to the CCC, but one thing’s for sure – Perk was well able to get by.  He spent the rest of his life employed as a truck driver, raised two children, and lived happily with his girl Marge until his death in 1980.  Thanks to my grandmother saving that one small remnant of their past, I know without a doubt that he loved her a lot more than he loved working for the CCC!

For more information on the Civilian Conservation Corps and the great work they accomplished, see the links at the bottom of my previous post, Civilian Conservation Corps: A Genealogical Resource – Part 1.

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The CCC, or the Civilian Conservation Corps, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. In 1933 during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt found a unique way to combat the country’s unemployment crisis. The Civilian Conservation Corps was created on March 21, 1933 and today is one of the best known results of Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. Even if young people today have never heard of the Corps, it is likely that they have benefited from the Corps’ work, for it was active in every state and left a valuable “footprint” behind.

CCC members were recruited through local welfare boards. To join, a young man had to be between the ages of 18-25 and be unemployed or have an unemployed father. War veterans of any age could also join. The men committed to a six-month enrollment that could be extended for up to two years. CCC workers were housed and fed on-site at campsites, and they earned about $30 per month – with the requirement that $25 be sent home to their family. The camps were run by the Army, but it was a civilian organization.

Besides benefiting young unemployed men and their families, the CCC had a great impact on the country that is still felt today. They built roads, planted trees, strung telephone lines, and improved state and national parks by building campsites and trails. By 1935, over a half million men were members of the Corps. The CCC was disbanded in 1942, mostly because of America’s entry in the war and the ongoing draft.

Did your ancestor serve in the CCC?

If your grandfather or other relative served in the CCC, you may be able to find his enlistment papers. The records are held by the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. These records are not available online. For more information on writing to NARA, please see the CCC Alumni site guidelines or the James F. Justin CCC Museum guidelines.

Some information sites indicate that you will need to have your ancestor’s company number and year served in order to obtain the records. However, the name and state may be enough to locate the record. You will also need to know the person’s birth date and proof of death. Available records include the person’s enlistment form, record of physical examination, and discharge information. From these, there is enough information to determine where the person worked, and there are many sites available in each state about the CCC from which you can determine what the person may have actually worked on during their service. Who knows…the trees your grandfather once planted are likely still providing shade in the nearby state park today!

I remember learning about the CCC in history class, and even then I thought it was a great idea. With the current economy, unemployment, and “green” movement, I think the CCC should be re-instated as a means to give young disadvantaged men meaningful work. When I learned about the CCC, I didn’t have any personal connection to the organization…or did I? Stayed tuned for “Part 2: My Grandfather Served in the CCC…Sort Of” for a description of my grandfather’s rather brief experience with the CCC and what I discovered in his records.

For more information:

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FamilySearchLabs has made Philadelphia Marriage Indexes available for 1885-1951.  This is great news for those of us searching our roots in Philadelphia!  It should be noted that these are the indexes only, not the actual marriage licenses.  Also, you are not yet able to search the records with the name search since they have not completed the indexing, but you can browse the collection.

The collection is divided into several groupings:

  • 1885-1916
  • 1917-1938
  • 1939-1942
  • 1943-1946
  • 1947-1951

If you are researching the years 1885-1938, you’re in luck – the record groupings that span those years are alphabetical (and typed, so they are easy to read).  Simply to to the first letter of the surname you want to search and click on the number of images available and the records will appear on screen.  Then, jump forward in the alphabet until you find the name you are looking for.

What information will you see?  Simply the last name and first name of either the bride or groom, the last name of the spouse in parentheses, the year, and the license number.  You can then cross-reference the spouse’s name to get a first name for that person.  While this may not seem like a lot of information, it did help me track down some maiden names and the year of marriage for quite a few couples.  Of course, you can find out much more information by getting a copy of the actual marriage license, and now that you have the names, year, and license number it should not be too difficult.  See the Philadelphia Marriage License Bureau for more information.  For older marriages (pre-1915), you can obtain copies at the Philadelphia City Archives where the records are available on microfilm.  Some of the older records are available at LDS Family History Centers as well.

For the indexes from 1939-1951, the records are not strictly alphabetical, and they are printed instead of typed (printed very neatly, I might add).  They are grouped by year, then by the first letter of the last name, then by the first letter of the first name.  So, you’ll find all of the Pinto’s, Pater’s, Parker’s, Petruzzelli’s, and Portnoy’s jumbled together, but if you know the person’s first name, you can jump right to the section for that letter (so all of the Joseph’s, John’s, and Jacob’s with a last name beginning with “P” are together).  Because of this, the indexes for these years will take more time to look through.  But, the fact that they go all the way up to 1951 means that I should be able to find the marriage records for many cousins to help fill in some bare branches on the tree.

My only “pet peeve” is that I can not seem to access one record group.  For the years 1917-1938, the surnames beginning with X-Y-Z simply will not come up.  I can’t access the records for Zawodny!  I’ve sent a message via the “Feedback” form, so I’m sure the smart folks at Family Search Labs will fix the link soon. Update: As of 25 July 2008, this problem has been fixed on the site and the X-Y-Z records can now be accessed!

One word of caution: if you can’t find a couple listed in the index, try elsewhere.  All four of my grandparents were born and raised in Philadelphia, yet both couples got married – and therefore got their marriage licenses – in Media, PA (the county seat for Delaware County).  My only great-grandparents to be married in the U.S. chose Camden, NJ – despite the fact they both lived in Philadelphia.  Also, one of the most popular “marriage destinations” back then was Elkton, MD – apparently the legal age for marriage was younger here, so you didn’t need your parents’ permission as you would in PA!

You never know who you might find in these records – and you may not even realize it’s someone famous!  I already have this particular marriage record, but I looked the groom up in the index anyway.  It’s also a good example of what the 1939-1951 indexes look like:

Future Famous Couple

Future Famous Couple

Did you know that actor Gene Kelly was married in Philadelphia?  He and Betsy Blair (that’s her “stage name”) chose a spot “in the middle” for her New Jersey family and his Pittsburgh family.  They were literally on their way to Hollywood where Gene would begin his career (bonus points if any readers know which film was his first…without snooping on the net).  At least I finally found a way to combine my two GENE hobbies!

Related articles: When You Can’t Find Grampa’s Marriage Record (alternate locations) and More on Philadelphia Marriage Records (pre-1885 records)

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Today I decided to try my luck with FamilySearch Labs latest offering, Philadelphia City Death Certificates 1803-1915.  There isn’t much available online for Philadelphia, especially post-1900 when my families were living here, so I was pleased I’d at least have a few years worth of records to search.  I entered in the usual surnames, and I quickly found death certificates for siblings of both of my grandmothers.

In the Bergmeister family, there were five children.  The first four were all born within 2-4 years of each other, but the gap between my grandmother, Margaret, and her next oldest brother, Julius, was 6 years.  I found death records for two children born in between Julius in 1907 and Margaret in 1913.  The first was a boy, Charles, who lived for 15 hours on 17 July 1909 and was listed as a premature birth.  A sister, Laura, was also born premature on 05 November 1911 and died the same day.

The Zawodny family had six children, and again there is about 2 years between each child until a 5 year gap between my grandmother’s siblings Kazimierz (known as Charley) in 1911 and Zofia (known as Dorothy) in 1916.  My grandmother used to say that she had two brothers who died as infants, and I confirmed that with the records.  Bolesław was born on 04 August 1912 and died six months later on 08 March 1913.  The cause of death is listed as acute gastroenteritis, although my grandmother seemed to remember her father slipping on an icy sidewalk while holding the baby, who then fell and died later of a head injury.  Another son,  Władysław, was born on 18 January 1914.  He died just over a year later on 27 March 1915. This time the cause of death coincided with my grandmother’s memory.  He developed infections in his mouth caused by his teeth not developing and growing properly.  My grandmother called the boys William and Walter, which roughly correspond to common English names used for those Polish names.

I’ve looked at many records in my genealogical research, and I’ve seen numerous deaths of babies in those records, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.  But these four records were different, and I was saddened to view them.  These children’s deaths were closer to me because they would have been my grandmothers’ siblings, my parents’ aunt and uncles.  How difficult it must have been for my great-grandparents to suffer these losses.  In both cases, the children died one after the other.  Also in both cases, each family then had one more child, a girl in both cases. The next generations would occasionally have miscarriages, stillborns, and infant deaths, so living in “modern” times is no guarantee of a healthy baby.  But I’m glad I found these records so their very short lives are not forgotten.

FamilySearch Labs appears to be a wonderful site.  It is easy to use, and the records were mostly transcribed correctly (my one great-grandmother’s maiden name was incorrect both times).  Another benefit is that it is FREE for all to use.  For folks that can’t afford Ancestry, this is a good alternative for a small group of records.  My only complaint is that there aren’t enough records available yet!  If enough genealogists volunteer to transcribe records, this could truly be the future of online genealogy.  I’m very excited to see that another project in the works is Philadelphia Marriage Records from 1916-1951 – I’m sure this will help me fill in even more gaps on my tree.  If you’ve tried this site and had success filling in your family’s gaps, be sure to leave a comment.

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Religion and Genealogy

Today Craig at Geneablogie posted about a new the crisis with Catholics, Mormons at Odds Over Genealogical Records?  In his post, Craig mentions the news report about Catholic dioceses forbidding LDS access to church records for fear of the Mormon practice often referred to as baptizing the dead.  Craig notes that several of us genea-bloggers are Catholic, so I’d like to offer my thoughts as well.

I saw the story on some Catholic blogs I read before it made it to the genealogy blogs, and I struggled with how to address it here.  Frankly, I’m surprised it took so long for this to happen – I was surprised that records were made available at all after I learned that the Mormons use them for their faith, so to speak, in addition to their genealogy.  Other faith groups have often complained about the “re-baptism” of deceased ancestors into the Mormon faith, most especially Jews, who were greatly (and rightly) offended by this practice. 

As a genealogist, I am saddened to think that one day records may not be available – for without them, I would know very little about my ancestors.  That is to say, without the Mormons taking those records, microfilming them, and making them available for me to look at. 

As a Catholic, I can sort of understand why the Church, or why other faith groups, find offense in the Mormon tenent that they can baptize any deceased person into their faith.  When I first heard of this, I was somewhat taken aback.  What?  They can make my great-grandfather Mormon?  He’d “roll over” as the expression goes.  I think my great-grandmother was Protestant, but I haven’t prayed to “make” her accept my faith today!  It was her life to live, and I respect her choices and her life.

I say I “sort of” understand because I find it more humorous than offensive.  To me, my faith is very important.  I love being Catholic, and I love the Church.  Because I have accepted this particular faith as “my” faith, I obviously think it’s better – at least for me – than other faiths.  If you can’t believe in your particular faith all the way, what’s the point of believing it?  As such, it doesn’t matter to me if some other faith decides to make me one of their own long after I’m gone.  Why?  Because my faith is chosen by me and nothing will change that unless it’s my decision.  If any Jew, Muslim, Mormon, or Protestant wants to pray for me or if they want to pray to convert me, okay!  I doubt I’ll be leaving my faith any time soon, but I’ll accept your prayers on my behalf.  I respect other religions, but they can’t change me or my faith whethere through prayer, re-baptism, or any other practice.  

As Kimberly Powell points out, the Mormom re-baptism isn’t “valid” in the sense of the Catholic faith – so denying them access to the records to prevent this is only hurting those of us who use them to enrich our understanding of our family history.  Can’t we all just get along and respect that we all believe different things?  I think the Mormons need to separate their religion from their genealogical efforts…for them, the two may be intertwined, but for others it is confusing.  As Craig said, we all need each other.  And we’re likely all related, too. 

On a completely unrelated note, this is my first-ever post written remotely on a laptop.  And I like it!  I think I have to get one of these…

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MapMy Bavarian great-grandparents’ hometown was Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, just north of Munich. Only my great-grandmother, Maria Echerer Bergmeister, was born in the town and her family had lived there for centuries. My great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister, was born nearby and went there to work for his uncle. Pfaffenhofen was the site of the couple’s wedding in 1897 and the birth of their first child a year later, a daughter. He left home in 1900 to immigrate to America, and mother and daughter joined him there in 1902. Did they ever miss their hometown? What was Pfaffenhofen like?

Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm is located in the Hallertau region of Bavaria, which is the largest hop producing area in the world. The region is in Oberbayern, or Upper Bavaria, and it has a long history. The area was likely first settled by monks from the Benedictine monastery in Ilmmünster in the 8th Century. Their estate was called Pfaffenhöfe or Priests’ station and was located north of the current town. Four centuries later, Duke Ludwig I, called Ludwig the Kelheimer, founded the market town of Pfaffenhofen where the Ilm and Gerolsbach rivers meet. The town was mentioned by name as early as 1140, and by 1197 it was called a “market town”. By 1318, Pfaffenhofen was referred to as a fortified settlement.

Pfaffenhofen ad Ilm Coat of ArmsFrom 1387-1389, the Städtekrieg, a war between Swabian towns and Bavarian dukes, was fought throughout Southern Germany. Pfaffenhofen became one of the war’s victims when it was nearly completely destroyed by fire in 1388. When the town was reconstructed, it was surrounded by a circular wall with four gates and 17 towers. The Pfänderturm is one of the original 17 towers and the only one still standing today. By 1438, Pfaffenhofen officially received recognition as a “town”.

Engraving of Pfaffenhofen, 1687

[This is an engraving of Pfaffenhofen by Anton W. Ertl in 1687. The town's wall, two of the gates, and many of the towers are clearly visible.]

Another war left a significant mark on the town. In 1632, soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War were billeted to houses in town. One of the soldiers had the plague and the disease quickly spread. Of the 1,800 inhabitants, only 700 survived the outbreak. It would take Pfaffenhofen another 200 years to reach the same population.

Population growth was never a problem after that time. The town continued to attract residents. While the population was about 4,000 at the beginning of the 20th Century, it is now closer to 23,000.

The town square, or hauptplatz, has existed on roughly the same site since the town was founded centuries ago. The square has many unique and beautiful buildings. Standing majestically at one end of the square is the town’s church, St. Johannes Baptist. The church was built in 1393 in the Gothic style to replace the Romanesque style church destroyed by the 1388 fire. After The Thirty Years’ War, the interior was renovated in the Baroque style. The steeple, about 253 feet high, was first built in 1531. Destroyed by a lightening strike in June, 1768, it was immediately rebuilt. Most important for descendents of Pfaffenhofen’s Catholic residents is the existence of parish baptismal, marriage, and death records dating back to 1597.

Hauptplatz, St. John's

[Two views of St. John's Church in the Hauptplatz. The left photo is from 1875, the right from 1998.]

Pfaffenhofen’s maypole is in front of the church in the square. Erecting a white and blue painted maypole became a tradition in Bavaria in the 16th Century. In the 18th century, symbols and shields of different worker’s guilds were added to the pole, and this is how Pfaffenhofen’s maypole is decorated today.

Interior of St. John\'s church, Altar

You will also see evidence of the former worker’s guilds inside the parish church. Each guild had some church obligations as a part of the guild’s rules. Once a year each guilds celebrated their own special Mass, with special times for each guild. For example, the brewers’ Mass was celebrated on Monday after New Year’s while the tailors’ was on the Monday after Easter week.

Because of the guilds close association with the church, when the church was remodeled in 1671, the artist Johann Bellandt of Wessobrunn carved a number of apostle statues honoring the guilds: Mathew for the butchers, Phillip for the bakers, John for the brewers, Bartholomew for the leather artisans, Jacob for the weavers, and Simon for the tailors.

Because I do not read German very well, information about famous residents of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm is difficult to find. Two individuals seem to have made a difference in the town and are worth a mention here. When I first visited Pfaffenhofen, I was surprised to see a street named after Joseph Bergmeister. They named a street after my great-grandfather? No, but they named a street after someone with the same name – his first cousin. Cousin Joseph was born on 11 August 1874, a year and a half after my great-grandfather. Unlike his older cousin, Joseph never left Pfaffenhofen. He became instrumental in introducing electricity to the town in the early 1900s. In recognition for his work, he received a medal from the town in 1934 and an honorary doctorate from the Technical College of Aachen. He died on 31 October 1950. I’m not sure when a street was named in his honor, but you can drive down Dr-Bergmeister-Strasse today! (The first name Joseph is still valued in the Bergmeister family today – you will find Joseph Bergmeisters on both sides of the ocean who are related, whether they know it or not, as 3rd and 4th cousins. In my own family there are five generations of Joseph Bergmeister’s so far.)

Another more famous Joseph from Pfaffenhofen is the poet Joseph Maria Lutz (1893-1972). He was born in Pfaffenhofen, gained recognition as a poet, and today there is a museum in his honor in town. He is also known for adding a verse to the Bavarian anthem in 1946. As there is no longer a king of Bavaria, Lutz wrote a new verse to replace the stanza about the king.

One of Joseph Maria Lutz’s poems is entitled “Hometown.” Written in 1965, the poem shares his feelings about Pfaffenhofen. The following translation was provided by Mr. Robert Wilkinson:

Hometown

The houses line themselves cuddle cozily after a fashion,

Intermittently broad and proud, intermittently narrow and aged,

The church spire points to heaven on high,

And the people are loudly singing to the chiming tower bells.

And country lanes stream in from adjacent forest and field

To become streets of prominence in both name and importance,

And in Time’s own passage finally come to stillness.

The bemused places of childhood are rekindled yet again with laughter,

And even the old fountains cascade in a trance of stillness,

as the swirling eddies made rush, silently

like life’s Insignificant Other, just as only Love can know.

And somehow even the Wind takes on a life,

Blowing in gust after gust, through the years,

And through the days, back to childhood’s Home,

As in fairy tale nights and imagined lands.

From the squares and tedious narrow alleys echo the familiar sounds,

the rolling wagon wheels, the clip-clop of stout mares,

the staccato of the blacksmith’s hammer,

or as in years of yore, the rolling barrels and the rooster’s crow.

And all that appears Close once again, is yet so Far,

And Life itself avoiding yet the grave;

strives for heavy-hearted Contentment much like a halting

song of Greeting or Return.

You, my little Town,

even if I have forgotten much,

I behold you precious still,

I, forever at Home in you.

I had the opportunity to visit my ancestors’ hometown in 1998 and 2006. I’m sure my great-grandparents would be amazed at some of the changes that have taken place. But, in many ways, they would find a lot of things the same. The apartment they lived in before coming to the US is still there, and it probably looks much the same. They might be surprised by all of the cars though!

Last Tower Standing

[This is the last tower still standing. The "Pfänderturm" or debt-tower, was built between 1388 to 1438.]

Sources for this article:

Related Posts:

[This post was written for the 47th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Place Called Home.]

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Zyrardow on the mapMy immigrant ancestors came from many different places. Some came from large capital cities that had very old beginnings and long histories (Warsaw, Poland). Other hometowns were not as large as a city, but they were large market towns born in the 1300’s that continue to have vibrant communities today (Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Germany and Mszczonów, Poland). Some of my ancestors came from much smaller places, centuries-old farmlands that evolved from feudal lands to modern villages (Puch, Germany and Komorowo, Poland). But of all the hometowns of my ancestors, the one that first captured my heart isn’t very old at all. In fact, compared to the ancient histories of these other places, it is modern in comparison. Although it lacks a history as long as other European towns, it makes up for it with the interesting way in which it was born. The town is Żyrardów, Poland.

The biography of Żyrardów begins in France. In 1810, the French government had a competition for inventors to create a mechanical linen spinning mill. The prize to the successful inventor was 1 million francs. One enterprising engineer, Philippe de Girard (1775-1845) from Lourmarin, succeeded. But with the fall of Napoleon, France could not pay the prize. Girard’s luck went from bad to worse as he endured debt, business failures, and bankruptcy. But his luck turned in 1825, when the government of the Kingdom of Poland invited him to help create a textile industry in Poland based on his invention.

Zyrardow coat of armsGirard originally opened a factory in Marymont, 2 miles outside of Warsaw, in 1831. For unknown reasons, Girard moved the operation two years later to a small farming village and forested area called Ruda Guzowska, approximately 27 miles WSW of Warsaw. This factory was very successful. More and more workers came to the area, and the settlement grew larger. In Girard’s honor, Ruda Guzowska was renamed Żyrardów. In the Polish language, the letter “ż” is pronounced similarly to the letter “g” in the French language: Żyrardów means “of Girard”. Girard was not able to see the success of his namesake town, however; he died in 1845, a year after returning to France to open more linen factories.

Arial View

Żyrardów continued to thrive in Girard’s absence. The factory was taken over by a pair of German industrialists, and by 1880 they employed 5,600 workers. The town literally grew around the factory building, and today it is one of the best preserved towns to see 19th Century architecture. It resembles a university town, with nearly every building – from the factory, to the apartment-style homes, to the churches and hospital – made from the same red brick. The area grew from a small farming village to an industrial settlement of approximately 175 acres. By 1880 the factory had 16,000 spindles with over 1,650 mechanical looms, and the value of their annual production (in 1880) was 2.2 million Silver Rubles. The former forest and farmland became responsible for the majority of linen production for the Russian Empire by the end of the 19th Century.

Workers in ZyrardowOne unique aspect of the town is that it was multi-cultural. The majority of workers were Poles, but there were also a large number of ethnic Germans working there as well. The factory itself had German managers, and there were also a number of Czechs, Scots, and Irish. The town itself had both a Roman Catholic church and an Evangelical Lutheran church, and there was a thriving Jewish community as well. The Słownik Geograficzny entry from 1895 indicates that the town had 7,126 registered inhabitants by 1880, including 5,134 Catholics, 1,541 Protestants, 244 Jews, and 207 belonging to other denominations.

The town was not without discord, however. Rather than ethnic disputes, there were employment disagreements. The government did not allow unions, but the workers were concerned about working conditions and low wages. There were many strikes at the factory throughout its history, beginning with the first in 1883.

Naturalization for Louis Pater

My Pater family immigrated from this town from 1905-1909; it was the place they called home. They were all weavers, which means they all worked in the factory. I don’t know why they left, but maybe they thought they could earn better wages in the United States. All of them became weavers in Philadelphia’s textile industry. My great-grandfather, Louis (Ludwik) Pater and his father, my 2nd great-grandfather Józef Pater, were born in Żyrardów (Louis in 1893, and Józef in 1864). Józef’s father, Jan, was born in Ruda Guzowska around 1834. Jan’s father Hilary pre-dates Żyrardów’s history and was born in a small village nearby.

RC Church, WiskitkiI had the opportunity to visit Żyrardów in 2001. It was a sudden visit with not enough advance planning, but I was grateful to see the town. My Pater ancestors were baptized and married in the nearby village of Wiskitki, and I was thrilled when my guide was able to sweet-talk the young priest into opening the church for me. My family probably attended this church because the main Catholic church in Żyrardów was not built until 1903. Wiskitki is a settlement that dates from 1221, with the first mention of “town” status in 1349. Over the centuries, the town declined and became smaller. After World War II, Wiskitki and Żyrardów were combined as one district, but in 1975 Wiskitki once again received rights as an independent town.

My Miller / Müller family also immigrated from Żyrardów; however, I have not yet found a birth certificate as proof that anyone was actually born in the town. My research indicates that the Miller family may be among the ethnic Germans from Bohemia that emigrated to the area to work in the textile industry. My great-grandmother’s brother, Emil, immigrated to the United States. In 1910, he and his family returned to Żyrardów – perhaps because of the death of his father. When the first World War broke out, the family could not return. Emil died in Żyrardów. His wife and American-born son later returned to the US, but his Polish-born daughter and American-born daughter remained.

Besides my ancestors, Żyrardów was the birthplace of some more famous citizens, including the Polish writer Paweł Hulka-Laskowski (1881-1946) and former Prime Minister Leszek Miller (b. 1946).

Sources for this article:

[This post was written for the 47th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Place Called Home.]

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