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Archive for the ‘Research Tips’ Category

Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series, P is for… Proof! I had a lot of possibilities for the letter “P” such as surnames (including my own) and town names (not to mention the country of Poland, the source of most of my ancestors). But what good is all the information we collect without proof? How do we really prove our family history? Well, there’s an “app” for that – the application of the Genealogical Proof Standard, the measure by which one’s research is credible.

The Board for Certification of Genealogists defines the Genealogical Proof Standard as a conclusion that contains five elements:

  • a reasonably exhaustive search
  • complete and accurate source citations
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion

A conclusion based on all of these standards is proven, genealogically speaking. Of course, true “proof” of who are ancestors were could really only be obtained with genetic testing. But, absent the ways and means to perform such testing, the Genealogical Proof Standard is how our “evidence” is proven to be credible.

I, for one, am often stuck in the (un)reasonably exhaustive search phase – or as speaker and genealogist Warren Bittner refers to it, the “reasonably exhausting search”. Complete and accurate source citations are a continuing challenge for me, but it helps to make my case. Conflicting evidence is perhaps the most challenging part of proving a fact, but isn’t that sort of analysis and detective work what makes family history fun?

Can you prove your family history?

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

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Ryan, Beckett, and Castle in front of the murder board (Seamus Dever, Stana Katic, and Nathan Fillion in Castle's Season 3 episode "Close Encounters of the Murderous Kind"). Accessed via Castle-Fans.Org on January 9, 2012.

A few months ago I watched all the past episodes of the television crime drama Castle (ABC, Monday nights at 10:00 PM Eastern). I’ve always had a thing for romantic comedy shows about crime-solving duos. Castle didn’t disappoint and it’s now one of my favorite shows. It has good plots, interesting and well developed characters, subtle humor, and a hint of romance. While I enjoy the show more for the character relationships, I have to admit the characters’ crime-solving skills are impressive. I had a sudden realization of why that might appeal to me…those skills would work equally well in genealogy! After all, we may not be solving crimes, but we genealogists are solving mysteries all the time!  So I offer my favorite detectives as our new research role models…

On Castle, the NYPD homicide unit, led by Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), sets up a “murder board” for each new case.  They take a white board and start with a photo of the victim and some pertinent facts. Next they add information on potential suspects, witnesses, and a timeline of events leading up to the murder.  The character of Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) is a best-selling mystery author who “assists” the detectives on their cases.  Castle usually adds the “outside the box” thinking on how all of the pieces of the mystery fit together with how he, as a writer, would have written the story.

The “murder board” concept is perfect for solving genealogical mysteries. In fact, I realized I’ve had a murder board for years without calling it that.  The victim is the research problem – in my case, the birthplace of my great-grandmother Elizabeth (Elżbieta) Miller Pater. The suspects are the potential places based on clues I’ve found in my research of documents such as passenger list records and other documents that contain information about an immigrant’s birthplace.

On the show Castle, sometimes the detectives really think a particular suspect is the killer – the suspect was in the right place at the right time, had means and motive to commit the crime, and all of the facts seems to support the person as the one who did it.  But sometimes there’s a problem…the suspect “alibis out”.  That’s the term the show uses when a suspect has an alibi that checks out upon further review, so he or she could not have committed the crime because there is some evidence that places the person in another place at the same time.  In genealogical research, we often think we have the right answer based on sources that seem to indicate it’s correct.  But then the answer alibis out.  All records – including some in my great-grandmother’s handwriting – point to the town of Żyrardów as her birthplace.  But Żyrardów  is the wrong suspect – the town alibis out!  When the records were checked, the record for her birth was not found.

What’s next? In solving the murder mystery on Castle, the team turns to other sources such as witnesses or financial records that might lead to more clues or more suspects.  Sometimes they take a closer look at the timeline to see if they missed something in their initial research.  All of these actions have a lot to teach genealogists looking to solve their mysteries when the Number One Suspect alibis out.  In short, look for more clues!  Are there any witnesses?  Maybe older family members recall information that was passed down about the mystery.  Who else was connected to the mystery/victim?  Turn to records for siblings, collateral relatives, or even neighbors of the person you are trying to find. When did things happen? Sometimes just creating a timeline for an individual can help cross some suspected places, times, or events off of the list of suspects.

No matter what avenue your research takes, using the murder board concept can be very helpful – write it all down and plot it all out.  Even the negative searches – the suspects with alibis – need to be listed so you remember what resources you’ve already checked. Often in the show, the characters literally stare at the board trying to see if they missed something that will lead to a new search for a new suspect – or a new search for a former suspect who’s alibi was questionable or unproven. Often Castle will find a new direction based on his unique writer’s view of the “story”. Likewise, it benefits genealogists to re-view information, and to re-search, in order to find that missing piece to the puzzle.  It also helps to get help from someone like Castle – someone not so closely related to the case who might have a different view of those same facts.

I don’t have an actual physical board of information for the case of my great-grandmother’s birthplace, but after watching a few seasons of Castle I’m beginning to think it might be a good idea to throw all the pertinent facts up on the wall, or at least down on paper. This will enable me to review the facts and review the suspects and perhaps finally solve this mystery.  Where is Mr. Castle when I need him? I could use his help!

~ ~ ~

While we’re at it, let’s use a murder board to solve the mystery of how the actor who plays Castle, Nathan Fillion, who has French-Canadian and Irish ancestry, can look like the long-lost twin of genealogist Matthew Bielawa, who has Ukrainian and Galician Polish ancestry.  Hmm, have we ever seen Nathan and Matthew in the same room together?  I think a DNA test is in order…

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Did you ever have a moment in your research when you realize you made a mistake?  A rather dumb mistake?  Well, bloggers aren’t afraid to publically humiliate themselves by drawing attention to their mistakes, because our dumb mistakes can serve as a lesson to others.  What’s past is prologue, right?

I recently wrote about the sister who disappeared.  She ran off and got married to someone, name unknown, and never contacted her family again.  Or at least that’s the way the story went.  The truth is – she never contacted her brother James again, my grandfather. But she apparently kept in touch with her brother Joseph!

When I heard from Joseph’s daughter, my father’s cousin, I asked if she knew anything about her missing aunt.  She knew very little – except the aunt’s married name!  Where did my cousin get this information? From her father’s death notice.  As Homer Simpson would say, “D’oh!”

Since Joseph, my father’s uncle, died on my father’s birthday, it was one of the few family death dates that my father knew without a doubt.  I used that date to obtain a copy of Joseph’s death certificate, which provided me with his birth date (that was later verified through other records). So why didn’t I ever search for an obituary or a death notice?  Probably because I’ve rarely found one for any of my relatives. Or, I didn’t think it would tell me anything I didn’t already know.  That would be the genea-understatement of the decade.  If I had searched for one twenty years ago at the start of my research, I would have learned the missing sister’s name and place of residence in 1953.  I also would have learned the married names of my father’s two female cousins – something my father either did not know or did not remember.

So now I know.  Finally.  Let this be a lesson to you, kids – search for every piece of information you can. 

As for the sister who disappeared?  Jean Hynes.  More to come on Aunt Jean in the future.  I’ve learned a bit about her life since finding out this vital piece of information, but I still have not discovered anything about her death.  Once I do find her death date, I’ll certainly be sure to look for a death notice or obituary!

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This month’s COG (for which I am late…the dog ate my homework, Teacher Jasia!) asked us to Research From Scratch by starting a search on someone else’s family tree.   When I began my own family research about 21 years ago, there were not any records available on the internet.  Lately I’ve wondered how much I could have found if I had waited until today to begin my search and how much easier it would have been.  This challenge was an opportunity to find out. The subject of my experiment: actor-singer-dancer-director Gene Kelly.  As most visitors to this site have since surmised, Gene Kelly is what I call my “other gene hobby.”  Gene was well known for his smiling “Irish eyes”, but I was curious about his Canadian and German ancestry as well.  Starting from scratch, how much could I find in a few hours?  In that short amount of time, I learned a lot about his ancestry.  But I also learned some research lessons that I’d like to share.

Start by interviewing your family, but don’t believe everything they say as fact.

When I began my own research, I started by asking my parents questions about their parents and grandparents, and I also referred to an interview with my grandmother when I was in grade school and needed to complete a family history project.  That same advice holds true today – you need basic facts about a family to begin your research.  In the case of my subject, I couldn’t actually talk to Mr. Kelly.  So instead I turned to the only biography that was written during his lifetime in which the author interviewed Kelly himself.

The book is Gene Kelly by Clive Hirschhorn (Chicago : H. Regnery, 1975).  While it is not entirely accurate – especially since it begins with the incorrect birth date of its subject – it was a way to get basic information about his brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents – as close as I can get to acquring the info from Gene himself.

From the first chapter of the biography, I learned enough basic facts to begin my research on the Kelly family:

  • Gene’s parents were James Patrick Joseph Kelly and Harriet Curran.  They married in 1906.
  • Both came from large families; James was one of eleven children, and Harriet one of 13.
  • Harriet’s father, Billy Curran, “had emigrated to New York from Londonderry in 1845…via Dunfermline in Scotland.”  Billy met “Miss Eckhart”, of German descent, married and moved to Houtzdale, PA.  They later moved to Pittsburgh.
  • Billy died before 1907 from pneumonia after he was left in the cold at night after being robbed.
  • There were 9 Curran children, and 4 who died, but only 7 are named: Frank, Edward, Harry, John, Lillian, Harriet, and Gus.
  • James Kelly was born in Peterborough Canada in 1875
  • James died in 1966, and Harriet died in 1972.  Of Harriet, Mr. Hirschhorn says, “No one quite knows whether she was 85, 87, or 89.”

In addition to Gene’s parents’ info were the basics about their children.  In birth order, the Kelly family included Harriet, James, Eugene Curran, Louise, and Frederic.  Gene was born on August 23, 1912.  This is plenty of information to begin a search.  But, don’t believe everything you read or everything your family members tell you – sometimes the “facts” can be wrong, and only research will find the truth!

Census records are a great place to begin your research.

Back in 1989, my research began at the National Archives with the U.S. Federal Census records.  Of course, back then the first available census was from 1910, and none of the records were digitized.  Today, I still think census records are the best place to start researching a family.   I used Ancestry.com and began with the 1930 census.  Despite many “James Kelly” families in Pittsburgh, PA, it was relatively easy to find the entire Kelly clan.  As I continued backward with earlier census records and Harriet Kelly’s Curran family, I found some similarities to issues I had in my own family research:

  • Names can be misspelled.  I expected this with Zawodny and Piontkowski, but not with Curran!  The Curran family is listed as “Curn” on the 1900 census.
  • Ages are not necessarily correct.  It seems that Harriet Curran Kelly has a similar condition to many of my female ancestors – she ages less than ten years every decade and grows younger!
  • Information can differ from census to census, and these conflicts can only be resolved by using other record resources.  Despite birth year variations for both Gene’s mother and father, James Kelly’s immigration year differed on each census as did Harriet’s father’s birthplace (Pennsylvania, Ireland, or Scotland?).
  • Finding in-laws is a bonus, and a great way to discover maiden names.  If I didn’t already know that Harriet’s maiden name was Curran (from Gene’s biography – and it is also Gene’s middle name), I would have discovered it on the 1930 census since her brother Frank Curran was living with the Kelly family.  Also, I knew Harriet’s mother’s maiden name was “Eckhart” from the biography, and the 1880 census of the Curran family lists her brother and sisters – James, Jennie, and Josephine Eckerd.

In the few hours of research on census records alone, I was able to trace Gene’s father only to 1910 after his marriage to Harriet.  In 1900 he was single, and I was unable to find a recent Canadian immigrant named James Kelly.  Gene’s maternal line ran dry with the Curran’s in 1880.  William Curran and Mary Elizabeth “Eckhart” married after 1870.  There are too many William Curran’s from Ireland to determine the correct one, and I was unable to locate the Eckhart family prior to 1880.

Naturalization records provide the best information – after 1906.

The signature of Gene Kelly’s father from his “declaration of intention” petition in 1913.

Ancestry.com also provided James Kelly’s naturalization record.  In addition to confirming his birth in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 1875 (also found in Ancestry’s World War 1 Draft records), the petition lists his immigration information and the birthdates of the first 4 Kelly children (youngest son Fred was not born at the time of his father’s naturalization).  Unfortunately the record does not list the birthplace of Harriet other than as Pennsylvania.  Was it in Houtzdale, PA, where her parents resided in 1880 or elsewhere?

Although Ancestry has Canadian census records, I was unable to definitely find James Kelly in Ontario on the 1881 or 1891 census.

The internet helps you find a lot of information, but not everything is online.

Census records can only get you so far before you need vital records.  While many states also have these records online, Gene Kelly’s ancestors settled in the same state as mine, Pennsylvania, which is not one of the “friendlier” states when it comes to accessing vital records.  If I were to continue with the Kelly research, vital records would have to be obtained offline.  It would be useful to obtain the marriage record for William Curran and Mary Elizabeth Eckhart, which may have occurred in Clearfield County since that was their residence in 1880.  Finding this record would reveal both sets of parents’ names and possibly birth information for William and Mary Elizabeth.  For the Kelly side of the family, I would likely attempt to obtain James Kelly’s birth record in Peterborough.

 [Side note: I have met several of Kelly’s relatives.  One cousin has delved deeper into the Peterborough roots of the Kelly family as well as James Kelly’s maternal line, the Barry family.  There is an interesting newspaper article on a house that may have belonged to the Canadian Kelly’s called One Little House Leads to Many Connections.]

Conclusion

I was able to confirm many of the intial facts I started with, but I didn’t learn any essential information in addition to those facts.  Specifically, I hoped to learn more about Gene’s maternal grandmother’s German roots, but I was unable to find out anything more about the Eckhart – Eckerd family using Ancestry.com alone.  More offline research is learn more about this branch of the family.  I did learn more about Gene’s aunts and uncles – this is important because researching collateral lines can lead to important information about shared direct ancestors.  Finally, I learned that it is much easier to start from scratch now than it was 21 years ago.  Even though the record sources I used were the same, digitization and the internet has made it much faster to find information!  And easier, which is great because it will hopefully prompt more people to start from scratch!  What are you waiting for?  Start researching your family!

[Submitted (late) for the 97th Carnival of Genealogy: Research from Scratch]

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Last week at the NGS 2010 conference, I grumbled to someone about something I disliked about searching for information in the Family History Library catalog.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I grumbled to someone who works  for FamilySearch with the catalog.  Because I happened to grumble to the “right” person, I ended up learning an important search tip that I previously did not know.

My complaint involved searching the catalog for place names to see what records have been microfilmed for that place.  If you search for the name of a town that has records cataloged under the name of that town, it obviously will come up as a search result.  But sometimes other towns or villages are included in the records of a larger town nearby,  and these names will not show any results if searched.

"Classic" Family History Library Search page at http://www.familysearch.org

For my searches, I used the current FamilySearch page at www.familysearch.org (more on the new “beta” site later). Go to “Library Catalog” under “Library” on the top menu bar.  Next I choose “Place Search” to find a locality.  As an example of my dilemma, if you search for the place name “Scheyern” in Bavaria, the result is  “Germany, Bayern, Scheyern.” Clicking for further details, you find that church records are available.  Drilling down further into the title itself, the notes section indicates:

Transcripts of catholic church registers of births, marriages, and deaths in the parish of Scheyern and the towns of Scheyern, Vieth, Mitterscheyern, Sulzbach, Paindorf, Niederscheyern, Hettenshausen, Triefing, Winden, and Ilmmünster.

However, if you search again under the place name of Paindorf or Niderscheyern or one of the other villages, the result for the Scheyern parish records will not show up and the result will say “No matching places found”.

This was my complaint.  But it pays to complain if the right people are listening.  I learned that if you search for keyword in lieu of place name, the appropriate record will be found (in the case of the town of Paindorf, there are records listed not only under the town of Scheyern but also Reichertshausen and Kemmoden).

Frankly, this was a revelation to me.  It may seem obvious to my readers, but I had never tried using a keyword search for place names before.  This is a very helpful hint, because many small villages in Germany, Poland, and other countries did not have a church of their own.  Instead, residents traveled to the next larger town and that is where the records will be located.

Beta FamilySearch page still under development at fsbeta.familysearch.org

I thought I would attempt similar searches in the Beta FamilySearch site since it will eventually replace the current FS site.  Randy Seaver gave the new site a big “thumbs down” in his review, FamilySearch Beta Library Search – FAIL, for several reasons.  One reason was due to a lack of information when performing a Place search, including the list of microfilm numbers.

I also tried the “Beta” FamilySearch site at fsbeta.familysearch.org.  Under “Library Catalog”, the “Place Names” search still brings up the same information as the “classic” site, which means those smaller village names are not recognized in the results.

Under this Beta site, there is no keyword search.  Instead, I tried the option to search “Entire catalog”.  Using this search parameter, you will get the same results as the “classic” keyword search.  With one minor exception – no microfilm roll numbers, as Randy noted.

When it comes to searching the “Beta” library catalog for place names, I have to agree with Randy that the Beta site lacks the information found in the “Classic” site.  However, if you read the comments on Randy’s post, the “Beta” is still in development and not yet ready for prime time.  I am optimistic that this will be fixed.

In the meantime, enjoy the tip of using either a Keyword Search (on the classic FS site) or an Entire Catalog Search (on the Beta FS site) if you have towns or villages that you have not been able to find in the Family History Library Catalog.  If you hadn’t used that search option before (like me), then you may find that the town you are looking for really does have some records available!

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In Part 1 of my interview with Zenon Znamirowski, the founder of PolishOrigins™, we learned about the company’s mission, the online forum, and the Forefathers Traces Tours.  In Part 2, I asked Zenon about the site’s databases as well as what resources he uses to find living relatives.

What are some of the techniques you use to find living relatives of clients whose ancestors emigrated from Poland to America a hundred years ago?

First and foremost I encourage everyone to add the surnames of relatives they are looking for and places where their ancestors come from to our PolishOrigins Surnames & Places Databases (click here for surnames and here for places). Only a few days ago I myself experienced that it works! A gentleman from New Jersey, USA, contacted me the with information that in his family there were people with the same surname as one of my grandmother’s, and they came from from the same tiny village! We are working now on proving our relationship.

We have plans to enable Polish speaking people to take advantage of the Surnames & Places Databases. I think the Database will gain additional, significant value with their  participation.

When a client wants us to try to find living relatives we follow a three-step procedure.

After we receive information about known relatives in Poland and their last known place of residence, we first check all possible sources available on line and in our databases. If we find any matches, we make phone calls and try to find relationships.

The second step is a personal visit to the area of last known residence of the relatives. From our experience it is a very effective way of finding people, especially in the country. People are very helpful and willing to talk to us. Usually everyone knows each other and if only there is in the town or neighboring villages someone who may be related to a client, the chances of finding him are really high.

If the personal visit doesn’t bring results, maybe because the family moved away from the town, we try other ways. We contact local historical societies in search of any mention in local records (not necessarily vital records but sources such as newspapers), try other sources like factory documentation, school records etc., or we contact people through popular social networking websites.

Tell us more about the Surnames and Places databases.

The goal of our Surnames and Places (S&P) Databases is to make it possible for everyone to search for people who are interested in the same surnames or places and to enable the exchange of information and findings. I mentioned about the S&P Databases in the context of sharing research information and relatives search. Now I would like to add  the most important features and benefits for users:

  • Privacy. We never reveal email addresses of our members to any other third party, including other members. All communication between people is done through the Private Messages system on the Forum. All you need as a registered member to contact other member is his or her ‘username’.

  • Indexed content. Our Datbases have such a structure, which allows search engines to index the content. Most of known to us genealogy databases are “invisible” to search engines, they don’t exist for websites like Google.com or bing.com. This means that if you add your surnames and places to our Databases, the chances are high that someone who is looking for the same combination of surname and place through, for example Google.com will find you. In the case of a rare surnames an entry in our Database can be found by someone who enters only the surname into a search engine (try, for example, a search for ‘Anazewski’).

  • Simplicity. The way of adding information into Database is very simple and user-friendly. Click here to see the registration form.

  • Personal pages. Aside from adding your surnames and places you can share with others more details about your achievements and search goals in the ‘More info’ box. For example, click here for my personal page in S&P Databases.

Currently, after a year of existence, more than 1,850 surnames and 1,100 places have been added by researchers.

The newest feature to PolishOrigins™ is “Polish Genealogy Databases”, which is advertised as “In one place. In one click. In English!”  Tell us more about this exciting search feature.

This is our youngest “child” in its infancy. We hope to raise it to become a strong and useful “member” of the PolishOrigins.com tools family.

The goal of the Polish Genealogy Databases or PGD tool is to allow all visitors to access the increasingly rich Polish genealogy resources that are available online and to understand the content.

By entering keywords (like surnames, places, dates) in the search box you can gain access to the content of English and Polish language genealogy sources and instantly get the results automatically translated into English all with one click!

I would emphasize the three most important features of the PGD tool:

  • Automatic translation of Polish language sources into understandable English.
  • Selection of the best searchable Polish genealogy websites. Very often, because of the language barrier, people are even not aware of the existence of great databases and websites.
  • Continual updating of the resources that are accessed. We will be gradually developing the tool by adding addresses for the most relevant and useful new websites that appear online every month.

Just try it for yourself: http://polishorigins.com/databases/ .

Thanks for sharing your insights with What’s Past is Prologue readers, Zenon!

Donna, if you would allow me, I want to express my deep gratitude to my wife Magda, Michał our web developer and “geek”, and to Shellie, James and of course, Nancy. Without their support, ideas and active participation throughout of this adventure nothing would have been possible.  I would like to also thank you, Donna, for the opportunity to discuss and to share with “What’s Past is Prologue” readers our PolishOrigins.com projects, services and plans.

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What’s Past is Prologue is pleased to welcome Zenon Znamirowski, the founder of PolishOrigins™.  The PolishOrigins™ web site, PolishOrigins.com, offers a variety of information useful to those researching Polish genealogy.  In this 2-part interview, I asked Zenon to describe the background of the site as well as some of its key features.  Here is what he had to say…

On the site, PolishOrigins™ is described as “a virtual space of collective wisdom”. This refers to the site’s forum as a place to learn from other researchers.  Can you tell us more about the forum and how members have learned from each other?

Before creating PolishOrigins.com, I was replying to many email requests related to the wide subject of Polish genealogy research and I was doing my best to respond with timely, knowledgeable replies, sometimes after consultation with other experienced Polish genealogists. I noticed three main things over the years. First, although the individual inquires were unique, my initial replies with suggested first steps, useful websites and online tools, and tips for understanding Polish language were often similar. Second, I was often amazed by the detailed knowledge that many of these people had acquired before contacting me. Third, their desire to help others and share the knowledge gained from countless hours of work, was remarkable.

If shared, this collective wisdom could save hours of pointless and frustrating work for others. This is especially true when two (or more) persons are researching the same surname or geographic area. This is why the PolishOrigins™ Forum may be so valuable.

Even with the vast amount of information and tools available on the internet, many people feel lost or isolated while struggling to begin their family history research. The PolishOrigins Forum gives people the chance to share with a wide audience. When sharing knowledge and experience, I believe that the equation 1 + 1 may equal more than 2.

I think Shellie from our Forum expressed the idea best in one of her very recent Forum posts when she commented to another researcher, “You have come to the right place. I was in your shoes just a short time ago and thanks to Zenon and the members of PolishOrigins I’ve learned how to uncover my roots. It has been a very rewarding experience for me. There is a spirit of sharing and discovery here among the members of PolishOrigins and I think that you will enjoy being part of the crowd.”

The mission of Polish Origins™ sounds rather philosophical when you say that a genealogical search is really a search to discover more than just where we came from, but WHO WE ARE.  Can you tell us a little bit more about this philosophy and how you got started in genealogical research?

I don’t think that I have the typical background of a genealogy researcher. I wasn’t  bitten by this “bug” because of a family member or a school genealogy project. A few years ago, while offering some Polish folk items on an online auction website, I met Nancy. While we were corresponding, she asked me if I knew any genealogists in Poland because she was planning to visit Poland in a few months. I asked her about the area she was interested in. Nancy replied, naming a few villages that were located … in the county I come from! And one of the towns of her ancestors was the exact town where I was born!

Nancy and her husband arrived a few months later and we had a very successful tour. Together with my cousin, who is a very experienced genealogist, we had the good-luck to not only visit all the villages and find much information in parish books, but we also discovered and met living relatives that Nancy had not known existed!

This is how my adventure with genealogy started. Nancy encouraged me to try to help other people looking for their relatives and became PolishOrigins.com ‘godmother’. She has actively supporting our efforts for years. Thank you Nancy!

Returning to your question about our “philosophy” and mission. Over the years, I have had many opportunities to observe people’s reactions when they make new discoveries about their families, see them walk through villages of their ancestors, or stand by the graves of older family members and talk what this all meant to them.

I am not a philosopher, and I am not sure if it is possible for me explain it clearly enough (not to mention that English is a foreign language for me) but I believe many of us doing genealogy for some time may have similar experiences. Usually we start with an interest in the lives of our closest family members – grandparents, great-grandparents. Then we become curious about the times and places they lived and this curiosity expands to other ancestors, also in collateral lines. We want to know more about local history and people living at that time. From local history we move further to the history of the country or nation where ancestors came from. We read or watch more and more about history, culture and heritage of the nation. And we want to go still deeper and deeper into our family investigation. I think each of us could it describe it his or her on words even better. We hope that by providing our services and building useful tools we will assist our visitors with this adventure and help find answers to the questions: “Where are my roots?” and “Who am I, really?”.

Your Forefathers Traces Tours to Poland give people the opportunity to see their ancestral hometowns and even meet relatives.  What can people expect from the tour? If they can’t travel, do you give “virtual” tours?

As I described on our Forefathers Traces Tours page, each trip is unique…and very personal. What is invariable, and what I have observed each time (no exceptions!) is an incredibly strong emotional experience accompanying visits to ancestral hometowns or homesteads and meeting relatives for the first time.

Of course, before any tour we discuss its main purposes and interests of our guests. We set the itinerary together, we assist in finding and booking lodging, and organizing transportation. On the tour we drive on Polish roads, very often in rural areas, interpret, and negotiate with local institutions.

A Forefathers Traces Tour itself is a great opportunity to perform research on the spot, especially if there are no other records available outside of our client’s ancestors’ home parish. It is very exciting to witness the moment when one of our guests sees their grandfather’s actual birth record, or when they enter the church where their great-grandparents were married.

As a rule, we are very flexible. As I always emphasize to our guests, “This is YOUR tour”. If there is a need or desire, we can together change our plans within minutes or hours. Unscheduled stops and side trips along the way are always welcome and often add to the excitement of the tour, especially when it leads to an ancestral home site, or the discovery of relatives. You will not be able to ask for this on trips organized by a tourist company for  large groups, where itineraries are strictly followed.

In my opinion Forefathers Traces Tour can be the crowning jewel in years of genealogical treasure hunting. Just read and view photos from our Forefathers Traces Tours Blog.

I haven’t mentioned it anywhere yet, but we are working on expanding our Tours offer to include Belarus. Soon, official information will appear on the Tours page.

If someone is not able to travel to Poland we can perform “virtual” tour for him. We can visit the place he is interested in seeing and take pictures there. We can also try to find relatives. We will prepare a report of what we find and send photographs.

Learn more about Zenon’s efforts to find relatives as well as some of the unique databases found on the PolishOrigins™ site in Part 2 of the interview.

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Before you can fill-in-the-blanks with names or dates, you need a solid Research Plan

F9A4CCF4861611DEACF8A4FA0D8B3722For our weekly Saturday Night Genealogy Fun, Randy Seaver challenged everyone to list their sixteen great-great grandparents, along with their pertinent birth and death dates and locations, in Saturday Night Genealogy Fun – Your 16 Great-Great-Grands.  Many geneabloggers responded to the challenge.  Midge Frazel further encouraged participation by gently nudging us on in This is a test of your local broadcast system.  Even though a lot of folks took up the challenge, many discovered that they DO NOT know all sixteen of their sweet sixteen – myself included.  My issue has been more of focus – I went for the easiest path upwards where the records were readily available, somewhat easy to read, and the great-grandparents’ names were clear that led me to those records.  Others have said that their blanks are caused by naming issues, and some have simply said they don’t know what to do to fill in those blanks.  Because of that, this particular edition of Randy’s SNGF was more than just a chance at bragging rights around the genealogists’ round table – it’s a serious opportunity for folks to lay out their research problems and get advice and input from hundreds of other geneabloggers!

No one ever said genealogy was easy – if someone told you that, they lied.  It’s hard work.  It’s hard detective work.  Like most hard problems, the solution can only be found by taking one step at a time.  Back in January, Miriam wrote Who Are Our Brickwall Ancestors, and Why Aren’t We Blogging About Them Regularly? In this post, she challenged us to write more about our brickwall ancestors in hopes of getting help from others – sometimes all it takes is a fresh look to gain a new perspective.  Miriam even proposed a suggested format, and many bloggers have followed her advice with great posts.  Some have blogged about their brickwalls, and later blogged about breaking them down!  I prefer to call my blanks roadblocks, but no matter what you name it, it is still an opportunity for research!

My only research plan in response to Miriam’s challenge was Research Plan: Finding Death Dates for Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Goetz.  Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Dallmeier Bergmeister Goetz happen to be two of my sixteen great-great-grands, and while I know their names, birth dates, locations, and parents’ names, I never completed my research by finding their death dates.  By developing the research plan, I have a clear idea of both the known facts and the clues to help me solve the  unknown details.  Although I have not had time yet to follow through with the plan, it is ready and waiting for me when I have more time.

But at least I had their names!  Now that some of us have cringed at the “blanks” in our “sweet sixteens”, it’s time to come up with research plans to resolve any blank spots.  Like I said in my post Sweet Sixteen: My Great-Great Grandparents, my tree is currently lopsided.  Some branches reach high into the air and are filled with green sprouts, while other are these little twig stubs lost in the foliage.

The first branch I need to concentrate on is my patrilineal line: the PIONTKOWSKI branch.  I have several clues on where to go next.  In fact, I could learn the names of three of my missing sixteen by obtaining the marriage record of my great-grandparents, Jan Piontkowski and Rose Kieswetter.  Soon I will come up with a research plan and present it here as a “continuation” of Randy’s challenge, and then I will try to develop research plans for the remaining “missing” information.  Even if I can’t get to the actual research right away, I will have “directions” on how to get me around this particular roadblock when I have the opportunity.  It’s time to stop ignoring those barren branches while climbing higher on the healthy ones!  Are you ready to try to fill in those blanks?

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Do all genealogists encounter roadblocks like this?

Do all genealogists encounter roadblocks like this?

The topic for the 22nd edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy is roadblocks and breakthroughs.  I like the using the term “roadblock” for those genealogy research problems rather than the term “brickwall” because a roadblock seems more like an obstacle I can “get around” or overcome.  We can always detour our way around a roadblock; knocking down a brickwall is possible, but it requires some heavy duty equipment.  I’m an optimistic genealogist, because I believe you never really encounter a brickwall unless all possible records for an individual or a locality do not exist.  Roadblocks, however, crop up all the time – even on what seems like the simplest genealogical task.  Just like a real roadblock you might encounter while driving, you usually don’t expect it and may not know the way around it.

The most common roadblock in my research has been related to NAMES.  That is, you know what name you are looking for, but you can’t seem to FIND it in an index.  Causes for these name roadblocks include foreign spelling, foreign accents, bad handwriting, nicknames, and name changes.  Many of my ancestors’ Polish and German names have caused delays in my research, but you can often detour around the roadblock if only you know the way.  In this post, I’ll offer a few tips that may help you with name roadblocks.  Although my own ancestry is Central and Eastern European, the tips to breaking through this particular roadblock are useful no matter where your family’s history began.

1. Use alternate searches – if possible, search for the first name and other identifiers rather than the surname.  If you can’t find a family on a census record, find the possible address using other sources and then search for the address instead of the name.  I was able to find my Zawodny family this way when the census had them listed as Cawodny.

2. Get creative – if the first letter of the last name is incorrectly indexed – whether through bad handwriting or bad indexing, try variations.  Try writing out the name in the style of handwriting used at the time the record was compiled.  Would a handwritten “P” resemble an “F”?

3.  Watch out for nicknames – don’t overlook your ancestor because they are using a nickname, their middle name, or the “foreign” first name from their home country.  Ludwig, Louis, Lewis, or Lou could all be the correct first name for an individual.  Some researchers get stumped looking for Uncle Bill or Aunt Stella only to discover that they could have found the record looking for Bołesław or Stanisława.

4. Learn all about the surnames from your immigrant’s home country.  In Poland, surnames can have masculine or feminine endings – so Piontkowski’s wife or daughter is Piontkowska and Zawodny’s wife or daugher is Zawodna.  These practices were still used in the US in the early 20th Century.  Russian and some other Slavic languages use similar feminine forms.  In German, feminine forms are uncommon today, but in older records you may see the suffixes –in, -yn, -s, -z, or –en added to the male surname for feminine forms of the name.

5. Try phoenetic sound of name for alternate spelling that Soundex might not pick up.  Sometimes we forget that our immigrant ancestors had accents.  Since the information in some records came from your ancestors speaking directly to someone collecting the information, it is important to remember their native language and its pronunciations.  In many cases, the use of Soundex in indexing will cover up for many of these phoenetic mistakes – but not all.  Take time to learn the nuances of your family’s native languages.  A simple example of a mis-spelled name on a census record that was likely caused by the immigrant’s accent is my great-grandfather’s Polish surname, Pater.  It is a relatively simple name as far as Polish names go!  Rather than the English pronunciation of the name, PAY-ter, the Polish pronunciation is PAH-ter, much like the Latin word.  On the 1910 census, the family is listed as “Potter” – a reasonable assumption based on how it is pronounced.  Fortunately, Soundex will catch this error.  But what happens when the pronunciation is very different?

Many foreign languages have letters that the English alphabet does not, and each of these letters has a unique pronunciation.  Unless you know how to “say” the name in the foreign language, you may hit a roadblock.  Some examples include:

Polish ą – pronounced “ahn” but it is often transcribed as a simple “a” in English.  So the Polish surname Piątkowski may be indexed as Piatkowski.  But, if you heard the name pronounced, the English transcription should be Piontkowski.  If searching for “Piontkowski” using the Soundex code, an entry under “Piatkowski” would not show up.

Polish Ł or ł – pronounced with an English “w” sound, this Polish letter confuses non-Poles.  It may be transcribed as a simple English “L”, or the lowercase version may become a “t” since that is what it looks like.   Or the record-writer has heard the name pronouced and makes it a “W” so that the surname Łaski is indexed as it sounds to the American ear – Waski.

German ü – Americans don’t know what to make of German umlauts.  Sometimes the umlaut is simply ignored, so the surname Müller is spelled Muller.  Other times it is listed as Mueller, since the “ü” has a “ue” sound.  But just as often I have found it as Miller, as if the ü is two letter “i” – and since English doesn’t have words like Miiller, it becomes Miller.

I could continue with examples of the different letters found in foreign languages from the French ç to the Hungarian Á to the Croatian Ð.  Aside from the unique letters, researching foreign names has to take the language into consideration – a “ch” combination in one language may sound like an “English” “ch” or a “k” instead.  In German, the sound of an initial consonant “B” often sounds like a “P”.  The point is to be aware of the way the immigrant’s original language sounded, because it may account for some of the incorrect spellings you will encounter.

I can’t emphasis enough the importance of learning about the language from which the name is derived.  It may give you enough knowledge to break through that roadblock!

Recommended reading:

Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings, Second Edition by William F. Hoffman (Polish Genealogical Society of America, Chicago, IL, 1997).

First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins and Meanings by William F. Hoffman and George W. Helon (Polish Genealogical Society of America, Chicago, IL, 1998).

Dictionary of German Names by Hans Bahlow (Max Kade Institute, 2002).

[Written for the 22nd Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: Roadblocks and Breakthroughs]

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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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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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Title page from McElroy's Philadelphia City Directory, 1858
McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory, 1858

If you have roots in Philadelphia (or southern New Jersey…more on that later), or if you are simply interested in maps or history, there is a very interesting site called the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network.  There are many useful resources here.  On the Resource Browser page, you’ll find all sorts of interesting things including browse-able city directories from 1856, 1858, 1861, and 1866 as well as various maps and aerial photos.  But to really see the maps in their full glory, and see the usefulness of modern technology at its finest, visit the Interactive Maps Viewer.  There you can view the city’s current street maps on top of historical maps from various years including 1942, 1903, and even 1855.

Besides being a lot of fun, these overlays are extremely useful for genealogical research.  For example, you’ve found an address from a census record, draft card, or city directory, but the street does not show up on Google Maps because it is no longer in existence or no longer called by the same name.  Although you can’t search for it by name, you can easily scan the current neighborhood and see the old names underneath.  As a “big” example of such a name change, I used the map to go to where John F. Kennedy Blvd is today.  This is the sprawling boulevard that leads up to the city’s Art Museum.  By unchecking the overlay for the current street map, I could clearly see the street’s previous name: Pennsylvania Boulevard.

The 1942 maps have many businesses, and especially factories, that have long since closed up shop.  By looking at your ancestor’s neighborhood, you can see many of the businesses that were in existence back then.  Or, you can see your ancestor’s place of employment on the map if you find the address via draft registration cards or social security applications. In the screen shot below you can see an example of some of the business names.

Factories in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia, 1942
Factories in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia, 1942

For me, it was interesting to see some streets from the city’s history that are now gone due to things like the construction of I-95.  Even more fun is to view the “newer” neighborhoods, such as Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, and see few streets on the old maps.  Instead, most of the area is farms, and some wealthier individuals that owned a lot of land are noted by name on the map.

For those with New Jersey roots, there is a 1930 aerial map.  Many current neighborhoods did not exist back then!

If you are having trouble locating a Philadelphia street on a current map of the city, a wonderful site is the Historic Street Name Index at PhillyHistory.org.  The image below is a partial screen shot to provide an example.  In this case, it clearly shows the name change of three different streets to Alaska, then Alaska St. also changes to Kater.  It also tells you what year the name change occurred and if the street is still in existence today.

The Historic Street Name Index
The Historic Street Name Index

Any city goes through many changes throughout its history.  Of course, some things remain the same.  You can still find Independence Hall in the same place as it was in 1776!

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Geography Awareness Week (November 16-22, 2008) is drawing to a close.  I was delighted to learn about it from Lisa, who had several posts at 100 Years in America related to her ancestors’ countries.  Inspired, Jessica also took up the cause and made us all more aware of our own geographical incompetence!  Their posts made me realize how much I enjoy geography.  As a traveler, I love to pour over maps and figure out where I want to go, or even to figure out where I was (maps were useless in Venice, so I was only able to see where we were in retrospect).  Fortunately, I inherited my sense of direction from my father; my mother actually got lost five blocks from our house when I was a child – I thought for sure we’d never make it home.  As citizens of this earth, it’s fun to learn about all of the wonders of it.  But as genealogists, it’s absolutely vital to develop a sense of historical geographical awareness.  By this I mean a knowledge of a place’s name or boundary changes throughout its history.  Without this knowledge, we might never actually find our ancestors!

This sense of historical geography awareness, which Lisa so eloquently called going back in time, helps us track the genealogy of a place.  I’ve noted many times on this blog how important it was to learn about Polish history in order to accurately determine where to obtain vital records for my ancestors, for Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire, Prussia or the German Empire, and Austria for over a century.  Parts of the country belonged to other countries as well as Poland expanded, shrunk, or disappeared altogether. Researchers who find evidence that their ancestor was born in Danzig, Prussia, need to know that the town today is Gdańsk, Poland.

Most European countries have had similar boundary changes in their histories as well.  Why, I was delighted when a commenter informed me that the origins of my Bergmeister family may be found in Bozen.  Bozen is a town in an area known as Südtirol, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or Austria.  But I knew the town by its current name, Bolzano, which has been Italian since the end of World War I.  I finally found my Italian roots!  Who knew?

It’s important to remember that not only countries shift borders or change names, but also states and towns.  For example, the city of Philadelphia did not have its current borders until 1854; the original city limits were much smaller, and the city expanded over time.  Learning these changes throughout the years in which your ancestor lived there is a must, because you won’t know where to look for records.  Simply looking at a map is a must – if you can’t find an ancestor in a census but the state line is only five miles from where they lived, perhaps you should try the neighboring state!

I gained a greater sense of historical geography awareness in researching my Pater family.  When my 2nd great-grandfather Joseph Pater arrived in the U.S. from Poland, he went to Philadelphia.  When I found the passenger arrival records for his wife and daughters, I was surprised to see that they listed their destination as joining Joseph in “Eden, PA”.  Uh, where?  I couldn’t find a town called Eden nearby, and I had never heard of it.  I would have discounted the find entirely based on this, but the names and ages were a perfect fit.  With a little investigation into the geography of my corner of Pennsylvania, I discovered that the Borough of Eden had existed only for a few years before the name was changed to Penndel, a town I knew.  The Pater’s lived there for at least eight years, likely working in the local textile mill, before moving back into the nearby city of Philadelphia.  So remember, kids, learn your geography if you want help with your genealogy!

I’d like to close with a question to my readers: when recording your ancestral information, whether you use computer programs or just on paper, do you record the town/state or province/country as it exists today, or as it existed at the time of the event?  Do I record my great-grandparents’ birth country as Germany, but their ancestors birth country as The Kingdom of Bavaria – even though it’s the same town?  Do I record my Polish ancestors’ life events as taking place in the Russian Empire, or in Poland – even if it didn’t officially exist?  I’m curious how others deal with changing names or boundaries, so please let me know in the comments!

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Historical fiction does not merely tell a good story – the reader also learns about the time and place of the novel’s events.  In conclusion of What’s Past is Prologue’s celebration of Polish-American Heritage Month, I can think of no finer novel to highlight than Push Not the River by James Conroyd Martin.  Genealogists will be delighted to learn that the novel is based on an ancestor’s diary!

As the Polish proverb says, “Push not the river; it will flow on its own accord.”  That sentiment is a perfect reflection on the sweeping events that occurred in Poland in the late 1700’s, the setting of the novel.  Anna Maria Berezowska is a 17-year-old countess whose life is changed by a series of tragic events.  The tumultuous time in Anna’s life coincides with an equally revolutionary time in Poland’s history: the Partitions and the Third of May Constitution.

During this time period, from 1772 to 1794, Poland was repeatedly divided – or “partitioned” – by its neighbors Prussia, Austria, and Russia.  The Third of May Constitution was modeled on the United States Constitution and was the first democratic constitution in Europe.  For the first time, some of the rights of the nobility were decreased, putting them on equal footing with the “middle class” townspeople.  The constitution also provided protection for the peasant serfs – another first.  Although the constitution was only in effect for a short time, its effect was revolutionary as Poland’s restless neighbors fought against these ideas which threatened their power.

These dramatic historical events provide the backdrop for Push Not the River.  Because of the divided loyalties of the time, it is a rich setting.  Anna’s life is affected by these events in multiple ways.  Her life as a noblewomen changes with the political events, and her love for patriot Jan is threatened by both the ensuing insurrection and her conniving cousin Zofia.

As a novel, this book is well worth reading if you enjoy romance, drama, history, or a mix of all.  From a historical perspective, readers will learn much about Poland’s history and its people.  But the most amazing fact of all is that the story is based on a true story!  James Conroyd Martin’s friend, John Stelnicki, is a descendant of the real-life Anna Maria Berezowska.  Anna kept a diary during the years of these events, and the diary is the basis for the plot of the novel. To quote from the author’s own website, “Vivid, romantic, and thrillingly paced, Push Not the River paints the emotional and unforgettable story of the metamorphosis of a nation—and of a proud and resilient young heroine.

I was delighted when I found out that James wrote a sequel entitled Against a Crimson Sky.  This novel explores the Napoleonic era in Poland and the loyalties that continued to divide Poland.  The story culminates with the dramatic but doomed 1812 march into Russia.  Ultimately, it is a story of the love that Anna and Jan have for each other as well as their country.

Both of these novels made me an immediate fan of author James Conroyd Martin.  He graciously agreed to chat about these novels, their origin, and what’s next in his writing future.  And, he also offers some advice to those genealogists who want to write about their ancestors!

Push Not the River was based on your friend’s ancestor’s diary recounting events in her life.  How many of the events in the novel were presented in the diary as real-life events, and how many events did you “fill in” based on the historical events of that time?

I’m often asked what events are true-to-life right from the diary and what things I have added to the story.  For the most part the big events in each of the six parts are absolutely faithful to Anna’s account.  These include the rape, attempted murder by her husband, her being kept by the clan, Zofia’s scheming, her imprisonment by her (real cousin, not adoped one), and escape from the Russians across the bridge. I had to deepen characterization, bring in historical information that Anna assumed people would know, and help an occasional character exit the story for closure.  I also had to imagine the short chapters from Jan’s point of view.  Push Not the River has been optioned for film.  I’m not buying a tux yet, as the producer needs to secure funding. And in this economy!

Was Against a Crimson Sky based on events in the diary as well?

Push Not the River ends just where the diary ended. Anna was running out of pages and her life was becoming more settled so she hoped not to need the therapy of the diary.  When St. Martin’s Press asked for a sequel, I took the characters I knew so well and placed them into the milieu of the Napoleonic era.

I was happy to see that you’re planning a third book based on these characters called The Warsaw Conspiracy.  What can we expect, and when will it be published?

The Warsaw Conspiracy, the final book in my trilogy,  continues with the familiar characters and their children; however, this will be a bit of a political thriller revolving around the attempted kidnapping of the Russian Grand Duke, brother to the Czar, who had charge of Poland.

Is your own ancestry Polish as well?

I’m Irish and Norwegian, but I certainly feel I’m an honorary Pole. On November 9th I’ll accept a second major Polish award, this one from Wisconsin’s Polish American Congress. Last year I received a gold medal from The American Institute of Polish Culture. Maybe I should get busy with my own lineage!

Recently genealogy-bloggers have been discussing “creative nonfiction” as a technique in writing about their ancestors’ lives.  This is where you take the factual events of an ancestor’s life and bring it to life using literary techniques found in fiction.  To some extent, this is what you’ve done – although you added fictional material to flesh out the story line, and your intent was to create fiction.  Do you have any advice for genealogists who want to use the “creative nonfiction” techniques?

Absolutely! I would just say, Go for it!  A good story will always find its way in the world.

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Thanks, Jim!  I can’t wait to read the third book!  For more information on James C. Martin and his novels, including some excerpts and a “video trailer” of Push Not the River, visit his website at http://jamescmartin.com.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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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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The 56th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy asks us to tell about the ten books we can’t do without.  I thought this would be hard at first for two reasons.  First, when I first decided to learn how to research my roots in 1989, my friend Marie and I had no idea how to go about it.  So, we headed straight for the library and came out with an armful of books.  Those basic “how to” books taught us how to get started, and neither of us have stopped since.  But, because I got many of these books from the library, I wasn’t sure I had many genealogy-related books in my personal library.  Second, much of the specific information I need to look up today related to genealogy I find online – something that you couldn’t do in 1989.  Despite these two reasons, I went to my library shelves and was happy to find that I had at least ten books that are worthy of praise.  Hopefully you’ll find at least one interesting enough to add it to your own library.  My ten essential books are:

1.  The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny (Ancestry Publishing, Salt Lake City, UT, 1984).  If you’re looking for the most up-to-date genealogical resource book, this won’t be it.  But for a beginner in 1989, this 700+ page book taught me almost everything I needed to know on all aspects of genealogy from “major record sources” to resources unique to different ethnic groups.  Appendices provided the kind of information we all google daily, like addresses on societies, archives, and libraries in every state.  Apparently there is now a Third Edition with different editors (but the same title) that was published in 1996.  If you’re a beginner, I highly recommend it.  You will consult it many times over and it’s well worth the hefty cost.

2.  Polish Roots by Rosemary A. Chorzempa (Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., Baltimore, MD, 1993).  Again, this was one of the first books I acquired when I began my genealogical research.  It contains all of the basics from where to start in the United States to what’s available in Poland.  There are also chapters on Polish Genealogical Societies, geographic areas of Poland, surnames, and the Polish language.  According to Amazon.com, this book was updated in 2000.

3.  If I Can, You Can Decipher Germanic Records by Edna M. Bentz (Self-published, San Diego, CA, 1982).  Simply put, I doubt that I could have ever found a name in handwritten German church records without first devouring this book.  What makes it unique is that it has actual samples of what the handwriting styles look like instead of merely a list of German to English translations of common words found in the records.  When a German “B” resembles a “L” and an “e” looks like our “r”, do you really think I could have traced my Bergmeister ancestors without this book?

4.  Germanic Genealogy, Second Edition by Edward R. Brandt, Ph.D., Mary Bellingham, Kent Cutkomp, Kermit Frye, Patricia A. Lowe (Germanic Genealogical Society, St. Paul, MN, 1997).  This is another compendium of where to find basic info, only specific to Germanic peoples.  It has everything from how to find the immigrant’s place of origin to place names and more.  There are now newer books out there, but this one is still in print.

5. Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman (Avotaynu, Inc. Teaneck, NJ, 1994).  This bookoffers help with German, Swedish, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian genealogical records.  Talk about being worth it – you won’t get that much help for the money anywhere else!

6. In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian DocumentsVolume I: Polish by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman (Language & Lineage Press, New Britain, CT, 2000).  Jonathan and Fred do it again, only bigger and better. If you are researching documents in these languages, this guide is indispensable with nearly 400 pages of  record samples, translations, and explanations about the Polish language and handwriting.  Only native Poles can decipher Polish records without the help that’s found in this book!

7.  Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings, Second Edition by William F. Hoffman (Polish Genealogical Society of America, Chicago, IL, 1997).  I’ve extolled “Fred” Hoffman recently in my 4-part interview.  If you have Polish ancestry and you want to know anything about your surnames, you need this book for the clues about what the names mean and where they may have originated.

8. First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins and Meanings by William F. Hoffman and George W. Helon (Polish Genealogical Society of America, Chicago, IL, 1998).  “Polish” first names come from many different languages; this book sorts it all out and carefully explains their origins and meanings.

9.  Häuserchronik der Stadt Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm by Heinrich Streidl (W. Ludwig Verlag, Pfaffenhofen, 1982).  One of my earlier posts describes a häuserchronik as a city directory listed by street address that happens to include personal information such as occupations, spouses, and deed transactions.  This book was given to me on my first visit to my great-grandparents’ hometown, and I quickly went back a few generations with the information it contained.  If you have German ancestry, read my post noted above to see where to find out if your town has one of these books available.

10.  Stadt Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm by Heinrich Streidl (W. Ludwig Verlag, Pfaffenhofen, 1979).  This is a 400+ page history book about my great-grandparents’ town.  It’s in German, which I can’t read at all.  But, it doesn’t stop me from trying!

Those are my top ten “essential” genealogy books in addition to a very detailed atlas of Poland and several dictionaries (English, Latin, German, and Polish).  As I said, I find a lot of information these days online.  But, I’ll always need books.  On my “to buy” list are Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills and In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents, Volume III: Latin by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman which may be published later this year (read Fred Hoffman’s answer on what we can expect to see here).  I’m also looking for more local history books on Northeast Philadelphia where I spent most of my life.

[Written for the 56th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: 10 Essential Books in My Genealogy Library.]

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Since today is “Labor Day” in the United States, I wanted to take a look at my ancestors’ occupations.  Some of the jobs are still performed in much the same way today as they were in my ancestors’ times.  My grandfather James Pointkouski (1910-1980) was born in the right century to be a truck driver, and the medium-size delivery trucks he drove are quite similar to those used by his fellow Teamsters today.  My great-grandfather Joseph Bergmeister (1873-1927) was a baker, an occupation that has changed very little over centuries – in fact, today his cousins are still making wonderful things in the same bakery his uncle founded in 1868.  My carpenter ancestors, 4th great-grandfather Karl Nigg (1767-1844) and 5th great-grandfather Johann Baptiste Höck (1700’s), would be in as much demand today as they were back then.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a good carpenter these days?  Similarly, Karl’s father and grandfather, Phillip Nigg ( ?-1774) and Martin Nigg (or Nick), were masons – bricklayers.  The construction business will always be in demand!

But many other jobs of my ancestors no longer exist in the same way. Some of the factory jobs of my 20th Century ancestors, such as the Pater family who all worked in clothing factories as weavers, still exist – but you won’t find the industry as prevalent in the United States as it was when they were working.  Many of the other occupations of my ancestors have become outdated with modern times. For example, one of my 5th great-grandfathers, Franciszek Świerczyński of Mszczonów, Poland, was a carriage-maker in the 1800’s.  Since carriages have been replaced by cars, I imagine that he’d be in another line of work today.

I have shoemakers on both sides of my family.  My 4th great-grandfather, Ignacy Pluta (1821-?) from Mszczonów, Poland (he married the daughter of the carriage-maker), was one as was his father, Ludwik Pluta.  In Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, I have traced over six generations of shoemakers from my Echerer line.  The first Echerer son to be something other than a shoemaker was Karl (1846-1880s), who took up the occupation of his mason great-grandfather instead.  While we still need shoes today, their construction has changed.  Some shoes today are still hand-crafted with leather, probably using the same methods my ancestors used.  Most shoes are mass-produced, and it would be hard to make a living as a shoemaker today unless you were a factory worker.

The more you research your genealogy and the farther back you go, the more interesting occupations you’ll find.  Some will be “modern”, like my innkeeper ancestor.  Others, like the glassmaker, still exist but today the job is more of a “craftsman” trade or art that is more specialized.  Again, modern machinery makes many of the things our ancestors once made by hand.

One of the more unique occupations in my family history is that of my 3rd great-grandfather, Franz Xaver Fischer (1813-?) from Agelsberg in Bavaria.  He was listed as a söldner, which translates as mercenary.  Mercenary?  I was intrigued and pictured a soldier of fortune, hired out to neighboring countries.  Until I learned the Bavarian meaning of the word… A sölde is a small house with a garden.  For tax purposes, there were different designations for farmers.  A bauer owned a whole farm, a Halbbauer owned half, and a Viertelbauer owned a quarter.  Then there was the söldner, who owned either 1/8, 1/16, or 1/32 of a farm.  My mercenary was a poor farmer!  Well, not too poor – there was a further designation called häusler - they owned a house, but not the land.

Let’s salute all of our hard-working ancestors today.  I wonder what they’d think about some of today’s job titles.  “A program manager?  What the heck is that?”

Research tip: Translate your ancestors’ unusual occupations with these helpful sites:

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This week we’re interviewing author William F. Hoffman (see Part 1 for more info on his books).  In Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview, we discussed surnames. Yesterday, in Part 3 Fred discussed translating records.  Today we wrap up our conversation with more on translations.

WPiP: What’s the easiest language for non-linguists to learn with regard to research, not fluency?

Fred: The answer to that question is always a little bit subjective.  I mean, we find Polish hard, but young Polish babies have no problem learning it at all.

But I understand what you mean by this question, and I think most people would say the answer is Latin.  Many of our words derived from Latin words with similar or related meanings, so the terms you run into are often familiar, or at least not completely alien. That, in turn, makes you feel like you have a fighting chance.

Also, during the period when English (and other European languages) were developing their standard written forms, Latin was the language of educated people. So the way writers said things in Latin had a lot of influence on the way they said things in English or German or Polish. As time has gone by, we’ve gotten farther and further away from that — but even in the 19th century, there’s just enough similarity and continuity to give you a hand.

I think most English speakers would say German is harder than Latin, but still not too bad. English and German are from the same family of languages, and there are basic similarities in the ways these languages express ideas. Polish is quite a bit harder. Russian … Well, it is a challenge. Still, the harder a language, the more gratifying the moment when you realize you’re starting to make progress with it.

WPiP: When can we expect to see your Latin book?  Can you give us a sneak peak at the highlights?

Fred: I’m sure you’re referring to the Latin volume of the In Their Words series of translation guides, on which Jonathan Shea and I collaborate. Jonathan took the lead writing the first drafts of the Polish and Russian volumes, because those are his strongest languages, and he knows them better than I do. He wanted me to write the first drafts of the Latin and German volumes, because I have more experience with them. Of course, once the first draft of any of these books is written, we both work on refining and improving it.

I keep hoping we’ll have a chance to finish the Latin book this year. But it seems like every time a week comes when I scheduled working on the first draft, something else comes up absolutely has to be done right away. I’ve been promising the Latin book for years now, and it’s still not done. I still HOPE to finish a first draft before the end of the year, so that we can publish it late this year or early next year. That will clear the way for us to tackle the real monster: the German volume.

But don’t hold your breath. One thing about writing books — they almost always take longer than you think they will. We started working on In Their Words as a single book on four languages, more than a decade ago.

As for the highlights, the Latin book will follow the same basic pattern as the Polish and Russian volumes. We’ll talk a little about the language itself, then show and analyze sample documents, emphasizing terms and expressions that tend to show up again and again. There will be a large vocabulary section, including words we’ve run into that don’t generally appear in dictionaries. We’re also planning a section on common first names and their equivalents in English, French, German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. That can be very important, because the Latin forms of specific names may be very different from the ones people actually sent by in everyday life. You need to know that a Pole called Adalbertus in a Latin document probably went by Wojciech.

When the book is ready, you can be sure Jonathan and I will not be shy about saying so. There will be notes on various Polish genealogy mailing lists. I just may mention it in PolishRoots’ free monthly e-zine, Gen Dobry! And we will announce it on the home page of our Web site, www.langline.com. I’m also keeping a list of people who want to be informed when it’s done; you can ask to be added to the list if you write me at wmfhoffman@sbc.global.net.

Fred, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us!  This concludes our interview with Mr. Hoffman.  He offered some great tips to researchers, including 1) surname spellings were not “set in stone” throughout history, 2) pay attention to how the name SOUNDS for clues on how it may be misspelled in records, 3) when trying to decipher a handwritten record, copy more than just the entry for more clues to decipher individual letters.  I wish I had known those things when I started my research; it would have saved me some time and frustration!  I am looking forward to Fred’s Latin volume of “In Their Words” since many of the older church records for my family are in Latin, and some of the phrases can be a challenge for my high school Latin memories.

I hope to interview other authors and genealogists over the coming months – please be sure to leave a comment if this interview series was helpful to you!

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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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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