The Family History Project Revisited

Did everyone have a “Family History Project” in school?  I received my assignment in 8th grade, December, 1980.  Even though I was inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots three years earlier, I still knew very little of my family’s history except for my great-grandparents’ names.  Our assignment was to write an essay about one of our ancestors.  My grandmother lived with us, so I turned to her for help.  “Tell me about your parents!”  My Nan told me some stories, and I wrote it all down.  I received an “85” for the assignment, and I recently found that document.  As I read through it, I couldn’t help but laugh.  Not at my grade school grammar or writing style, but at all of the errors!  I began my genealogical research years later after college, and I proved “false” many of the so-called facts I thought I knew.  But, those errors created the basic information that I had when I began my research; it was all I knew.  I’ve since proved names and dates with the correct source information instead of relying on “word of mouth.”  As for my essay, well it certainly is an interesting story.  But is it true?

While there was some element of truth in the tale, overall it’s mostly false.  My grandmother did have a tendency to tell tall tales.  She may have told me a good story so that I’d have something interesting to write about for the assignment, because I didn’t know any stories about any other ancestors.  Or, she may have told me what she believed to be true based on her fuzzy childhood memories or the tall tales her own parents told her.  Let’s see how the story stands up against the truth as learned through real genealogical research.  I’ll look past the poor writing – I was 13 years old and I still had a lot to learn.  My 1980 essay is in bold, followed by my comments today.

“My great-grandfather Joseph Andrew Mueller came to America in about 1900.  Though his name was Mueller, he used Zawodny because it was his stepfather’s name.”

My great-grandfather was Joseph Zawodny.  Legend has it, as told by my grandmother and my then-nine-year-old mother, that after Zawodny’s death a stranger came to the door.  The stranger told my grandmother that he was Joseph Zawodny and that her father had used his name to “get into the country.”  His real name, according to that version of Joseph Zawodny, was Joseph Mueller.  Interesting…what a great story!  I was so sure that I’d find some evidence of it somewhere, somehow.   Instead, I found Joseph Zawodny’s birth and marriage record in Poland, with information that matches what he provided in the U.S. on documents such as his naturalization papers.  In order for this interesting tale to be true, the imposter would have had to assume the name Zawodny prior to his marriage.  Since the town in Poland was not very large, it is unlikely that a priest would have performed the wedding ceremony and recorded it with a false name, because he would have known both the bride and groom.  Evidence has revealed only the name Joseph Zawodny.

Regarding “Andrew” as his middle name, it was not recorded in either his birth or marriage record, but on his SS-5 application for Social Security, he wrote his own name as “Joseph Andy Zawodny”.

He did come to America “about 1900” – the precise date was April 6, 1902.  He arrived at the port of New York on the SS Graf Waldersee.  Of course, one could argue that this record only shows that a Joseph Zawodny arrived and intended to go to Philadelphia – what if he was using an assumed name?  Immigrants had to have the proper papers from their native land in order to obtain a ship ticket in the first place, so it is still difficult to imagine identity theft back then.

According to Joseph’s birth record, his father was Wawrzyniec Zawodny, who was born in 1853.  He was a farm worker who married Katarzyna Marianska on 10 May 1875 in Dobrosołowo.  She was born around 1853 in Komorowo and died on 29 July 1923 in Dobrosołowo.  Wawrzyniec died on 13 Dec 1917 in Dobrosołowo.  Based on these records, there is no evidence of a stepfather.

“He was born in Berlin, Germany on March 8, 1882, which is the same day I was born 85 years later.”

Joseph (Józef in Polish) Zawodny was born on 26 Jan 1880 in Komorowo, Poland near the town of Dobrosołowo.  I did hear the “same birthday” story growing up from my grandmother and mother.  I am not sure why my grandmother thought her father’s birthday was on March 8.  Several other documents throughout Joseph’s life, including some written in his own hand, confirm the birthdate, including baptismal record, WWI draft registration card, Social Security application, WWII draft registration card, a life Insurance policy, and his death certificate.

As for being born in Berlin, my grandmother thought he was German and named a German city.  Why?  He did speak German, but the area of Poland from which he came bordered Germany and many people spoke both languages.  He spoke Polish at home, lived in a Polish neighborhood, and attended a Polish church.

“Joseph was an infantryman in the German Army and he was serving as a guard in a prison.  One day he was caught giving cigarettes to the prisoners and he was sentenced to a court marshall.  Since he had to leave, he deserted the army and boarded a ship as a stowaway.”

Joseph was 20 years old when he left Poland for the United States.  The area in which he was born was in the Russian Empire a few miles from the German border.  The country was not at war when Joseph would have been the right age to serve in the military – would the army be guarding a prison?  I have found no evidence of his service in any army.

The stowaway myth was proven false by finding his passenger arrival record (noted above) as well as his departure record in Hamburg.  He definitely paid for passage on the ship!

“When he arrived in New York he spoke several languages, but not one was English.  One of his first jobs was loading logs on wagons.  Once he was putting them on and the foreman kept saying, “Push, push!”  Since he didn’t understand English very well, he did what the Polish “push” meant – he let go.  Needless to say, he lost his new job.”

I was amazed to discover in the Polish-English dictionary the word puszczać, which is pronounced poosh-chach.  It means to let go, let fall, or drop.  So, perhaps there is some truth to this story!

“Within two years he came to Philadelphia and got a job as a toolmaker at Nicholson File Company.  It was then his wife came over.”

Joseph arrived in New York on 06 April 1902.  Joseph’s passenger list indicates he is going to his brother-in-law P. Szymanski on Ann Street in Philadelphia, and his brother-in-law met him at Ellis Island.  It is unlikely that he stayed in New York at all.  His wife, Wacława, traveled directly to Philadelphia on the SS Westernland on 26 July 1903; her husband’s address is the same as his sister’s from the year before.

Joseph probably did work for the Nicholson File Company, or at least their subsidiary in Philadelphia, the G. H. Barnett Company.  Nicholson was a major manufacturing firm in the early 1900s.  On Joseph’s draft registration for World War I, he indicates he is a file maker for Barnett Co located at Richmond and Frankford Avenues in Philadelphia.

“Joseph Zawodny and Laura Slezinski were married at a young age sometime before he came over.”

A true fact!  Józef Zawodny married Wacława Slesinska on 28 January 1902 in Dobrosołowo, Poland.  Wacława adopted the name “Laura” in the U.S.  Slesinska is the feminine form of the surname Slesinski, which can be found in some older church records spelled as Śleszyński.  When they married, Joseph was one day shy of his 22nd birthday and Wacława was 21.  The ages are typical for Polish marriages around that time – even a little on the “old” side.

“Daughter of a rich slaughterhouse owner, she was born in Warsaw, Poland on September 28, 1884.”

Daughter of a blacksmith, she was born in Wilczyn, Poland on August 29, 1880.  Her parents are Wincenty (Vincent) Slesinski and Stanislawa Drogowska.  Wilczyn is a large town close to Dobrosołowo.

“They probably met because she was a nurse and could have been helping the army.”

It is extremely doubtful that she was a nurse.

“After Laura arrived they bought a house on Livingston Street, where they went on to have eight children.  From oldest to youngest, their children were Janine, Helena, Marya (my grandmother), William, Walter, Stanley, Charles, and Dorothy.  Both William and Walter died when they were babies.”

True.  According to the 1910 Census, the family lived at 2826 Livingston Street in Philadelphia.  The official names for the children were in the Polish and were Janina (b. 09 Jul 1904), Helena (b. 30 Oct 1905), Marianna (b. 03 Aug 1907), Stanisław (b. 08 May 1909), Kazimierz (b. 01 Feb 1911), Bolesław (b. 04 Aug 1912), Władysław (b. 18 Jan 1914), and Zofia (b. 13 Jan 1916).  The names used in English (not all are direct translations) were Jen/Jane, Helen, Mae, Stanley, Charley, William, Walter, Dorothy.  Bolesław died at 7 months old; Władysław died at 14 months.

“After Joseph got fired for an incident at the file company, he got a job at Baden Housing, which was located in Cornwells Heights.  With this job he installed most of Atlantic City’s heating in the hotels.”

There is no way to confirm that he was fired.  It is unlikely that Joseph worked in Cornwells Heights, located just outside the Philadelphia city limits and close to where I grew up, and even more unlikely that he worked in Atlantic City.  He did not own a car to travel far distances to work.  The job that Joseph had with the file company was in the same neighborhood in which he lived, a section of Philadelphia known as “Port Richmond”.  Many Polish immigrants settled there, and more than likely he walked to work.

“When the Depression came, Joseph lost some land in Merchantville, New Jersey.  He also lost money in Richmond Bank, which is one of the big banks that collapsed.”

I can not substantiate the land claim.  Again, even though Merchantville is only directly across the river from the Richmond section of Philadelphia, would he have had the money to do this?  It is probable that he did lose money in Richmond Bank, but probably not much.

“He retired, but when World War II started he went back to work, this time for the Coast Guard.”

Philadelphia did have a large volunteer contingent for the Coast Guard during World War II.  However, in January of 1942 Joseph turned 63.  I haven’t researched this because I don’t think he would have volunteered at his age.

“In 1938 Laura got sick and was hospitalized.”

While I do not know all of the circumstances that led to this, Laura was admitted to Philadelphia State Hospital for schizophrenia on December 6, 1938.

“Joseph’s daughter Marya, her husband Henrick, and their daughters Joan and Anita (my aunt and mother) moved in to take care of him.”

My grandparents, Henry (Henryk in Polish) and Mae and their daughters did live with Joseph, although I am not certain of when they moved in with him.  They lived at 3553 Mercer Street in the Richmond section of Philadelphia.  My mother, who would have been three years old if they moved in after Laura was hospitalized, fondly remembers her grandfather and how proud she was to live with him.  Her scattered memories: he always wore a suit jacket at the dinner table; he listed to a shortwave radio in another language which sounded, to her ears, like German; he would take them out on the weekends to visit relatives, but they’d walk so far in their Sunday shoes that they’d have blisters by the end of the day.

“Five and a half years later he died on June 6, 1944, which also happened to be D-Day.”

Joseph died on June 9, 1944 – three days after D-Day.

There ends my quasi-biography of my great-grandfather.  It was interesting to see how the stories stacked up against the “truth” available in genealogical records.  While it may not have been a genealogically accurate biography of my ancestor, these family history projects are highly beneficial for children.  Today, the availability of so much information on the internet would have allowed me to disprove some of my grandmother’s memories immediately!  But regardless of whether what she knew was true or not, projects such as these were designed to get the children to talk to their older relatives to find out the family history stories.

For years now, I’ve been hoping my niece gets such a project since I’d be the one she’d call as “keeper of the family information”.  She has many interesting stories about ancestors on both sides of her family, all of which can be substantiated with actual records!  But I am beginning to wonder if they do these projects anymore with the prevalence of divorce, adoptions, and other family relationships that would have been considered unusual back in 1980.  Then again, maybe this is the year – she’s about to enter the 8th grade!

In Part 2 to this post, I’ll offer my biographical sketch of Joseph Zawodny based on information I have discovered in genealogical records.  It may not be as interesting as my grandmother’s tale, but it’s all true.  Well, it’s true as far as I can tell, anyway – supposing he was who he said he was!

5 thoughts on “The Family History Project Revisited

  1. That’s really neat that you found your old paper and have gone back to determine the accuracy of it. I wish I’d saved at least two papers I wrote in school on family history. I’ve also disproven a few things my grandmother believed concerning her grandfather. Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. Donner:

    Yes, the schools are still doing this. We discussed my husband’s family with our grandson in California for his class project. I was disappointed that they were just collecting names and didn’t want sources. But it is a start.

    Finding the truth is important, but I think it would be far more interesting to discover how the myths started. What was the impetus for the story as it was handed down. Unfortunately, you’ll probably never know.

    Elementary my dear Watson.


  3. In the UK at about 10yrs of age there is/was school work based on drawing up a family tree. I tried to help my son, discovered how little I really knew, and have been addicted to genealogy ever since!!

  4. Pingback: BEST of the Internet for Genealogists – 14 Sept 2008

  5. Thats a great story, I am glad that I got the chance to read it. Would have been even better if you posted your 8th grade report in full.
    I started my research on some “famous claims” that to this day I have not been able to prove or disprove. According to family lore (Father and Uncle) we are related to StoneWall Jackson, but another side of the family insists its Andrew Jackson the president.
    After more reading I found that its possible that if you are related to one, then you are related to the other.
    What I do know is that we have Jackson’s in our family in Dunmore, PA area. And there is a rifle that was used by StoneWall (can that ever be proved I doubt it). One day I will have to post that story, but I never had to do a family tree report when I was in school, but all my nieces and nephew’s do, and well they can just ask me, and I can give them a pretty good layout of all thier families.

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