If At First You Don’t Succeed…Keep Searching!

Since the start of my research nearly twenty years ago, my most elusive ancestor has been the one whose last name I share, John Piontkowski. (That’s a whole other post as to why our last names are spelled differently!)

Back in the “pre-online” days of genealogy, one of my earliest finds was the passenger arrival record for John’s wife, Rose. She arrived in New York on the S.S. Armenia in November 1906 and was accompanied by her son Józef, age 3, and daughter Janina, age 10 months. The record indicates that they are going to their husband and father John (Jan in Polish) in Philadelphia. Because the age of Janina is so specific, I concluded that John had to arrive in the US post-conception, or approximately between May 1905 and November 1906. Of course, this assumes he is her father, but I felt that this was a reasonable assumption!

Although several men named Jan Piontkowski (and its variations) fit this timeframe, I could never prove that any were him. I was not aware of any other family members, or any other possible destinations in the US, so it was impossible to verify. Over the years I searched on many name variations as well as other ports. Even Steve Morse’s site couldn’t help me (though it did help on many other occasions)!

I could have saved myself some aggravation if I knew that he was naturalized. I’m sure I checked the indices at some point (note to beginners: keep a record of both successful searches as well as failures) because I always run through multiple family names. But somehow I missed it. Was it indexed incorrectly? The most embarrassing fact is that on the 1930 Census, it clearly says that John is naturalized. But even the census can be wrong, right?

Piontkowski signature

Then I wiled away some internet time searching on Footnote.com. On such sites, I usually find nothing, no evidence of my family’s existence. So imagine my surprise when I see a Declaration of Intention for John Piontkowski in Philadelphia! Doubtful, yet excited, I ordered it, and sure enough it appeared to be my great-grandfather. Clues in his favor were the right occupation (leather worker), birthplace (Warsaw), age (born 1871), and wife’s name (“Rosie”). I remained slightly skeptical until I saw the Petition for Naturalization, which confirmed his identity because it includes the children’s names and birthdates. I had trouble finding the petition itself because John decided to suddenly include his middle name, Bolesław, which I never knew he had. I also got a full birth date for his wife, who was five years older than her husband – a fact which gets “covered up” on various censuses.

Naturally (no pun intended), I also got John’s arrival information – the S.S. Pennsylvania, arriving in NY on 04 March 1906. I had to see the record for myself…what did I find? A non-descript entry for Johann Piatkowsky, going with a friend to “Port Chester, NY” to another friend. Basically, someone I would have assumed to be him. I may have found the name, but without some designation – even just Philadelphia as a destination – I probably would have passed this by.

One important note: When dealing with Polish names, “normal” indexing can be flawed. Anyone knowledgeable about Polish surnames knows that a variation of Piontkowski is Piątkowski, with the “ą” character sounding similar to the “on” sound. While soundexing would take several variations into account, a Piatkowski simply will not show up when searching for Piontkowski because of the missing consonant. Be vigilant!

The moral to the story is to search, research, and search again. While I’ll usually post about how to accurately perform research, in this case please don’t do what I did – if the census says someone is naturalized, it’s worth a look!


6 thoughts on “If At First You Don’t Succeed…Keep Searching!

  1. You are so right about the variances in Polish research. 3/4 of my ancestry is German and I have been much more successful with that. My mother’s paternal side is Polish and I just struggle still (after 20 years also) in finding much of anything on the two surnames. I have them in Bay City, MI in 1891 when my great-grandparents were married but passenger lists, homeland information, etc is scanty.

    Congratulations on your find. That is always exciting and a boost to go looking for more.

  2. Hi, Cheryl,

    What’s your Polish surname that’s causing you trouble? Sometime two heads are better than one – maybe I’ll find a different angle for you.

  3. Thank you for sharing your Polish discoveries – I look forward to many more.
    I’m not quite sure why my ethnic German ancestry has maternal lines the easiest to follow… It seems to be almost the opposite with my husband’s family up around Suwalki, with illegible or missing maiden names.
    Your visit to Bavaria sounded fantastic. I do not think I have any family (however distant) remaining around Babimost but when I visited there in August some local contacts did everything possible to assist finding information and making us feel very welcome.
    Kind regards,

  4. Bronwyn, thanks for writing. Some lines are harder than others! I have found people to be friendly when I visited Poland, too. I’ve even had strangers in both countries that have not only helped me find information, but they treated me as family even though we weren’t.

  5. My grandfather was Jan Piatkowski. Any relation?
    I have his Date of Birth as Dec 15, 1879. He changed his name years later to John Piontkowski.

    Name: Jan Piatkowski
    [Jan Poitkowcki]
    Age in 1910: 30
    Estimated Birth Year: abt 1880
    Birthplace: Russia
    Relation to Head of House: Head
    Father’s Birth Place: Russia
    Mother’s Birth Place: Russia
    Spouse’s Name: Blanche
    Home in 1910: Elwood Ward 3, Madison, Indiana
    Marital Status: Married
    Race: White
    Gender: Male
    Year of Immigration: 1894
    Neighbors: View others on page
    Household Members: Name Age
    Jan Piatkowski 30
    Blanche Piatkowski 27
    Chester Piatkowski 4
    Eddie Piatkowski 5
    Carl Piatkowski 2
    Jan Smith 27


    View original image

  6. Paul,

    If your grandfather came from the city of Warsaw, they could be cousins. I don’t know much about my Jan Piontkowski yet, so I don’t know the names of his parents, siblings, or cousins. But stay tuned! Perhaps I will find out more later this year. Thanks for stopping by! If you have any info on where your family was from in Poland, please let me know.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s