The Polish History and Culture Challenge

Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

October is Polish-American Heritage Month!  In honor of this national celebration, What’s Past is Prologue is hosting the Polish History and Culture Challenge.  If you have Polish ancestry, it’s a great time to learn more about those ancestors and their lives.  But, even if you do not have any Polish blood, I invite you to take the opportunity to learn more about the country, its long history, and its people.

What’s involved with the “challenge”?  Simply do one, some, or all of the following “tasks” – or similar ones of your own invention.  Then, write about it on your blog.  Email me the link and I’ll post a round-up at the end of the month to see how much we all learned.  The best part is that you don’t have to have Polish ancestry to participate!  Become an honorary Pole by joining in on the fun!

Here are some ideas on how to celebrate Polish-American Heritage Month and participate in the challenge:


  • Find a Polish ancestor’s hometown
  • Decipher a Polish record
  • Write about one of your ancestor’s hometowns
  • Write a biography of one of your Polish ancestors
  • Develop a research plan for a hard-to-find ancestor
  • Join a Polish genealogical society
  • Contribute to a Polish genealogical record indexing project


  • Read a book about Poland or its history and tell us about it
  • Research an event in Polish history
  • Write about a Polish historical figure
  • Write about a famous Pole in the arts or sciences
  • Learn about Poland’s history through maps or photographs


  • Experiment with Polish food – make a recipe or try a restaurant
  • Read a novel by a Polish author or one set in Poland
  • Write about a famous Pole that you admire
  • Watch a Polish film
  • Learn how to Polka
  • Learn about some Polish customs or folklore

The possibilities are endless, but hopefully at least one of these ideas will be interesting to you.  I hope you will join me in celebrating Polish-American Heritage Month.  If you would like to participate in the challenge, email me with the title, subject, and URL of your post at djpoint at gmail dot com.  You can either send me emails as you post, or one at the end of the month if you post on multiple subjects!  All of the posts will be published in a round-up during the first week of November. Dziękuję!


I read it in the news?

The COG Herald, September 30, 2008, buried somewhere on a ripped and damaged page

SOURCE: COG Herald, September 30, 2008, buried on a ripped page in the back of the newspaper...

This week’s 57th Carnival of Genealogy proves to be an interesting one.  That is, if you actually have any ancestors that made the news!  The “Call for Submissions” says: Newspapers can be a wonderful source of family history information. I can find nary an obit much less a fascinating news story.  Not yet, anyway…I’m still looking.  The above is my suspicion, but since that’s a bit outrageous I may have to go with my first theory…someone was in the Witness Protection Program at some point.  But, you know what they say, “If you can’t join ’em, at least make yourself laugh.”  Well, somebody said it – I read it in the news!

Special thanks to The Newspaper Clipping Generator.

[Submitted for the 57th Carnival of Genealogy: I read it in the news!]

Distracted By Books

The illustrious footnoteMaven has presented a distraction-challenge!  As you can tell by my recent lack of posts, I need no help whatsoever in getting distracted, especially if the distraction involves books.  This challenge was to write your life story from the spines of the books in your collection.  For many this would be hard, but I own a lot of books!  What was hard was choosing which titles to use.  Although this is only semi-related to genealogy (it is my autobiography, so to speak), I have little else prepared to post today and therefore offer my distraction, er, make that my life story in books…

My Past

My Past

My Present

My Present

My Future

My Future

Here’s a counter-challenge…are you able to present a photo of your life story by using the titles of music CDs or albums in your collection?

Getting to Know Me, Getting to Know All About “What’s Past is Prologue”

Terry Thornton of Hill Country of Monroe County as challenged other bloggers to write a post as an introduction to new readers describing who we are, what our blog is about, and what our writing goals are, as well as choosing three examples of our brightest, breeziest, and most beautiful posts.  This one’s for you, Terry!

What’s Past is Prologue has an “About Me” tab which offers a brief introduction to my background.  It will tell you everything you want to know about me and probably a few things you don’t.  I’ve updated it in honor of Terry’s challenge!

I am many things…41 years young, a Philadelphian, a Catholic, a writer, a traveler, an aunt.  But this blog isn’t about any of that…I’m a genealogist.  I began researching my family’s history in 1989 and I haven’t stopped since.  This blog doesn’t merely focus on my family – I can’t even get my own family interested in that!  But I try to focus on the research techniques I’ve used to find things, or tips that can be useful in your search for your own family’s history.  By reading about things I’ve discovered on my genealogical journey, hopefully you’ll be inspired to seek a similar path.  This blog started partly because I wanted to write…I used to be good, or at least that’s what a lot of people told me.  But I didn’t put my talent to good use.  I was never successful at keeping a journal, so I decided to try to blog as a form of writing – even if it was only read by myself.  By forcing myself to write, perhaps I could re-discover the talent I once had.  But a funny thing happened…other people started reading what I wrote.  Thanks to new-found friends and fans, I’m still writing and I’m happy about that!

If you are new to the site and what to discover some of what it’s all about, these are my “picks” for the posts that best describe who I am and what sort of things you’ll find here.

My “brightest” work, which according to Terry is the best and what you should read first to understand me and this blog, is A Salute to Gutsy Women Travelers.  This offers a little bit of personal genealogy, research tips, and a dash of “wonder” that makes boring old facts a little more interesting to me.

For my “breeziest” work, or funniest, I nominate My Big, Old, Fast, Favorite Car.  I had a lot more laughs with my Top Ten list, but unless you happen to be a genea-blogger, who probably won’t get what’s so funny.  The car post, on the other hand, gives you a hint at my humor.

I have a difficult time calling any of my posts the most “beautiful” to be truthful.  But, if pressed, I will choose Hilaire Bergmeister: A Tribute to An Aunt.  I wrote it from the heart.  I don’t know much about the woman, but what I discovered and pieced together has made me admire her greatly.

I’d much rather hear what YOU think are the brightest, breeziest, and beautiful here, so if you have any other choices please let me know!

The Challenges of Researching Irish Ancestry

The Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture is always a challenge for me; I don’t have any Irish ancestry!  But sometimes I just can’t resist the challenge.  Besides, genealogical skills and research techniques can be used in researching any ethnic background, right?  Well, in trying to do my Carnival homework, that is, to work back a few generations on one branch of someone’s Irish family tree, I discovered that Irish research is hard!  I’ve traced many a Polish and German immigrant, and even a few Hungarians and Italians, but most of those came to this country during what can be called the “Ellis Island era” – or, between 1892 and 1924.  The few Irish folks I have tried to research are much older immigrants, arriving in the mid 19th century before both Ellis Island and Castle Garden and before detailed passenger arrival records.  Because of this, I haven’t gotten back to Ireland yet…but I did trace back a few generations and develop a plan to further research this family.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably know by now that my ancestry is Polish and Bavarian.  But there is some Irish in the family, in a manner of speaking.  My one niece is partially Irish – her maternal grandfather’s side is a mix of Irish and what I call “American”, for in tracing her grandfather’s surname, Rudolph, I am back to the 1700’s and the birthplace is still Delaware.  But my niece’s grandfather, Ed Rudolph, never talked much about his German-American Rudolph ancestry – he always insisted he was Irish on his mother‘s side.  I found him at the age of 3 on the 1930 Census and learned that his parents were Edward and Catherine Rudolph.  Through sheer luck, the record also revealed Catherine’s maiden name, for 14-year-old “sister-in-law” Edna Lee was living with them.  But is anyone Irish?  Not yet…the Lee girls’ and their parents were born in Pennsylvania, as was Rudolph’s mother, and he and his father were born in Delaware.

Looking back at the 1920 Census, both Catherine and Edna are living with their parents, William and Nellie Lee.  The ages match the facts in the 1930 Census, and there are no other families with similar names and ages. In another stroke of luck, Nellie’s father is living with the Lee family – Edward McGeehan.  William Lee and his parents were born in Pennsylvania.  Edward McGeehan was born in PA, but his parents are from Ireland.

In 1910, the McGeehan’s are being elusive; there appears to be a match in a New Jersey town close to Philadelphia, but the ages are slightly “off” and more research is needed to straighten it out.  However, William C. Lee, wife Nellie, and young daughter Catherine are living with their in-laws, Frank and Sophia Beatty.  The 1900 Census explains this relationship further: Sophia and William C. Lee are siblings, the children of widower Christopher Lee.  Christopher was born in PA in 1854, but his father is from Ireland.

Technically, what I described above “counts” as working back a few generations on an Irish family tree.  But I didn’t know who the Irish immigrants were yet, only who their children were.  In looking at my niece’s great-grandmother, Catherine Lee Rudolph, I had two choices for researching Irish ancestry further.  Catherine’s paternal great-grandfather was the Irish immigrant who was in Philadelphia by July 1854 for his son Christopher’s birth.  Similarly, Catherine’s grandfather Edward McGeehan was born in Philadelphia in 1858 to Irish immigrants.  Could I find out more about either the LEE or the MCGEEHAN families?

I hope I can, but the limits of online research may be exhausted. For Christopher Lee, further Census research revealed that his wife’s name was Catherine, and they also had a daughter named Catherine born in 1879.  As Christopher is a widower by 1900, it is assumed that Catherine died between 1887, the year their son William was born, and 1900.  The death records for Philadelphia at Family Search reveal some possible matches, but the record does not contain definitive information (for example, it includes the fact that the person was married but not the spouse’s name).  I found Christopher’s own death record in 1911, but it does not list his parents’ names.  On the 1870 Census, instead of a 16-year-old Christopher I found a 19-year-old living with 31-year-old Thomas Lee, a gardener, and 20-year-old Mary A. Lee, a domestic servant.  Thomas is listed as having been born in Ireland.  If Christopher is really 16, it is possible that Thomas is his father, but not if Christopher is 19!  Mary may be a sister.  Going back to the 1860 for clarification, it gets more confusing.  Instead of finding a young Christopher, there is a 50-year-old Christopher Lee, born in Ireland, with a wife Catherine and sons Charles and Walter.  A search for Thomas Lee revealed many matches, but none that match with the previous info or also contain a young Christopher in the household.  More research is definitely needed to sort out all of the Lee families living in Philadelphia during that time.  One problem is that birth registration was not required in Philadelphia until 1860 – Christopher was born in July 1854 according to the 1900 census, or in July 1853 according to his death certificate.  The only option would be to determine where the family lived and search for a baptismal record.

The McGeehan research also came to a halt because of conflicting information in the census records.  There is also the same problem with vital records as Edward was born around 1858, prior to civil registration requirements.  However, he is still alive in 1920 at the time of his daughter Nellie’s death, and the death records after this date contained more information.  It is possible to find his record to yield his parents’ names.  Another lead is that one of the inconclusive census records shows a young Edward as the son of Edward McGeehan, an Irish immigrant who is a Philadelphia police officer.  As Edward Jr’s son-in-law William Lee becomes a police officer as well, it is possible that this is the correct family and that both Edward and his father Edward were police officers.  This is another path of research to pursue.

Thanks to my Irish genealogy homework assignment, I learned that Irish research is difficult!  First, the names are more common than some of the Polish and German names I have worked with in my family tree.  There are several Lee and McGeehan families in Philadelphia during this time period, so you can not rely on census information alone.  Second, because the immigrants came to the U.S. in the mid 1800’s, they are not as easy to pinpoint as my later immigrants who had such records as detailed passenger arrival lists, draft registration cards, and social security applications to lead the way to their hometowns.  Third, once you need birth records that go beyond when birth records were officially kept, it is obviously more difficult to trace.  Continuing with my niece’s maternal ancestry will be difficult, but challenging.

[This post was written for the 8th Edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture.]

Call Me Ishmael

Trendy names are all the rage now, but if you recognized the title as the opening line to Moby Dick, then you’ll realize that some names are memorable because they “stand out” from the rest — which is why parents often seek the unusual.  Many of the first names in my family tree wouldn’t have seemed unusual at the time they were used, but today in America they would be.  Maybe they’ll make a comeback, since today’s it’s all about “unusual” names.  In my ancestors’ times, names followed certain conventions.  In Poland, I’ve already written about name days or imieniny, in which the baby’s name was usually chosen based on the feast day of the saint on or near the day of birth.  Most of my Polish families followed this without exception.  In Germany, specifically in Bavaria, the church’s calendar was occasionally used for names, but more likely the child was given the name of the parent or someone in the family.  Certain saint’s names were extra popular though – in the town where I’ve done the most research, Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, a great majority of the boys were named Johann or Josef and most of the girls were either Maria Anna or Anna Maria.

Given my entire ancestry comes from those two regions, I have my whole family tree to work with in discussing the topic of first names.  I’ve documented roughly one hundred ancestors so far, with half of that number coming from my Bavarian quarter and the rest from my Polish sides.  The most popular boy’s name in my family tree in both cultures is Joseph, which is Josef in German and Józef in Polish.  Two of my great-grandfathers were named Joseph, and several of my great-greats.  The name John, or Johann in German and Jan in Polish, is also popular in my family tree.  For girls, the Bavarian ladies are mostly the Maria Anna – Anna Maria combination.  But on the Polish sides, the most popular female names are Elżbieta and Katarzyna, or Elizabeth and Katherine.

In a family tree full of Joe’s and Mary’s, what are the unusual names that really stand out?  I have several favorites among the more unusual names.  I don’t consider them favorites because I’d name a child that myself, but because they add a little spice to the family history.

Among my Bavarian ancestors, my favorite unusual names are Dionys, Kreszens, Wolfgang, and Walburga.

Dionys is the German form of the name Dionysius, the Greed god of wine, revelry, and debauchery.  I wonder if young Dionys was a rabble-rouser that lived up to the name or the complete opposite?  Of course, the name shouldn’t only be associated with the infamous Greek god – it is also the name of several saints, and there are monasteries and churches dedicated to St. Dionys throughout Bavaria.  The given name belongs to my 4th great-grandfather, Dionys Daniel.  Interestingly enough, Dionys married a woman with one of the other unusual names on my list: Walburga.  While the name isn’t as popular today in Germany, it was more common in earlier centuries.  The name itself if of German origin and means either “ruler of the fortress” from wald meaning “rule” and burg meaning “fortress”, or it could also mean “one who guards or protects” using the meaning of the Old High German word bergen.  (I can’t resist the side comment that if the couple lived up to their names one would assume that Walburga kept Dionys in line!)  The name Walburga was popular in Germany due to St. Walburga, who was the daughter of King Richard of England and came to Germany in the 8th century as a missionary.  What name did Walburga and Dionys give their daughter?  Anna Maria…of course.

Kresensz is another of my favorites.  It is a female name derived from the Latin Cresentia, which means “to grow in fame or power”.  Kresensz Zinsmeister Bergmeister is my 4th great-grandmother who lived from 1777 to 1852.

These three unusual German names all come from my great-grandfather’s side of the family.  On his wife’s side, the one name that stands out is that of her own great-grandfather, Wolfgang Fischer (1775-1820).  The name Wolfgang literally means “to go wolf”, so one can only wonder why his parents used the name.  But, it is also the name of another Bavarian saint, St. Wofgang, who was a 10th Century bishop in Regensburg, a town not far from where my Wolfgang spent his life.

In Poland, I find that most of the names that seem unusual to American ears are merely spelled differently from their English translations, such as my 2nd great-grandfather Wawrzyniec Zawodny.  The name looks exotic, but it is a Polish version of Laurentius or Lawrence.  One name that does not translate at all into English, and is therefore unusual by American standards, is his daughter, Wacława.  The name is the feminine form of Wacław, which means “may he gain fame and glory”.  It doesn’t have a direct English translation though, which is why she used “Laura” in the U.S.

My favorite unusual male Polish name is Hilary.  Yes, we forget today that Hilary is actually a male name!  It comes from the Latin hilaris which means “merry” and “joyful”.  I hope Hilary was a happy guy to have a name like Hilary – today he‘d be ridiculed.  Hilary Pater is my 4th great-grandfather and the oldest ancestor I have found so far in my Pater family.

My favorite unusual female Polish name is Teofilia.  Again, this name is a feminine derivative of the name Teofil, which means “dear friend of God”.  Hilary’s son, with the more common name of Jan, married a girl name Teofilia.  Their son is one of the many Josephs in the family tree!  Too bad they didn’t use Teofil, and he would stand out a little more from the average Joe!

[This post was written for the 11th edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: First (Given) Names.]

You Like Me, You Really Like Me

Today I had the pleasure of receiving two honors from fellow genea-bloggers.  First, Julie over at GenBlog is Feeling the Love and tagged me with the “I ♥ Your Blog” honor.  You are supposed to nominate 7 other blogs that you also love to pass this on.  But, so many genea-bloggers have been “loved” multiple times already.  So, I’ll be my usual self and break the rules instead.  I offer an alternative to choosing 7 blogs I love: if you also love my blog like Julie and are reading this, then please choose 7 blogs you love and leave a comment on one of their posts.  Nothing says “I love you” like a comment!

As if Julie’s honor weren’t enough for one day, I received another blessing…I’ve been picked by DearMyrtle for “Best of the Internet” for this week!  Myrt (aka Pat Richley) has chosen my post on The Family History Project Revisited.  Thank you so much!  I’m a big fan of Myrtle, and not just because it’s the second time she’s chosen me for “Best of the Internet”!  It truly is an honor, and I’m glad I’ve written things that others want to read.  I hope I can keep it up!

10 Essential Books in My Genealogical Library

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, 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.]

Smile for the Camera: Crowning Glory

The prompt for the 5th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival is Crowning Glory: Show us those wonderful photographs of hairdos and maybe even a few don’ts. Don’t limit yourself to just hair fashion through the ages, got a great photograph of a hat, helmet, bonnet, or some other interesting headgear?

Well, it just so happens that the Pointkouski children seem to have a “thing” for funky headcoverings and/or hairdos.  Let me show you what I mean…

I would like to think that perhaps they take after their Aunt Donna:

But it’s more likely that they take after their Daddy:

Then again, the reality is that we all take after Pop-Pop:

Apparently humor is genetic!

[This post submitted for the 5th Edition of Smile for the Camera!]

Mosaics were made using Big Huge Labs Mosaic Maker.

100th Post!

Today’s a special day at What’s Past is Prologue – it’s my 100th post!  In the blogosphere, 100 is a party-worthy number to reach.  It’s been eight months, 246 days, and almost 65,000 words later.  I have to say, I’m surprised at myself for several reasons.  First, I’m still at it.  (I started a blog earlier than this one that has fallen by the wayside as this one has grown.)  I’m also surprised I haven’t run out of ideas yet, mostly thanks to fellow bloggers’ memes and carnival ideas!  I’m very suprised that people are reading what I write, commenting, and subscribing to read more.  Finally, I’m astonished that I am spending more time on this “free” writing than on my paid writing jobs.  Something ain’t right there…

When I started this blog, there were several things I hoped to accomplish.  Let’s look back and see how I did:

  • find more cousins, including some that might have an interest in genealogy, and share our family information – I’m still hoping to find more cousins.  Since the start of this blog, I’ve found two second cousins once removed, but not as a result of this blog.  I may have found another Bergmeister cousin as a result of my Bergmeister Family Page, but we’re connected so far back that we’re double-digit cousins!
  • -find others researching the towns or areas where my ancestors lived – I’ve had a couple of comments from folks researching in the same towns, but we haven’t exchanged info yet.
  • -share (hopefully) useful information regarding how to research – You be the judge!
  • -join the great community of genea-bloggers for fellowship, to learn from them, and to share our passion for genealogy in cyberspace – This has been the most successful aspect of blogging.  I really feel like I am part of the growing genea-blogger community, and I’ve made many, many good friends in far-off places.
  • -develop my writing so that I can continue writing magazine articles on genealogy as well as other topics -Blogging definitely helps your writing!
  • -organize my research, which will become a necessity if I hope to blog about it on a regular basis! -True.

I’ve learned a few things along the way.  First, I’ve gotten a kick out of writing about things that are more of a “personal reflection” such as about my old pastor, car, cats, and music.  I had no intention of ever writing such things, especially for all the world to read.  But, these personal memories have been so enjoyable – and, surprisingly, others seem to enjoy them as well!  I’ve learned that consistent blogging does help stimulate ideas for more writing and more research – your mind is constantly thinking of what to do next.  I’m a little surprised that my closest friends and family members only visited once, but strangers have become my blogging friends and fans.  I’ve also been amazed that the posts I hurriedly scribbled without any editing and barely any proofreading have “gone over” better than the ones I devoted hours of research and re-writing.  Go figure!  Equally surprising is the amount of time it takes to keep this blog rolling – hopefully I can continue with a pace that keeps it interesting even if I can’t post every single day.

I’ve learned I’m a bit on the “wordy” side…well, actually I knew that already.  I’ve tried to avoid short posts in favor of meatier ones.  Half of my posts are over 500 words, and 20 of those are over 1,000 words.  My Proust-worthy post is the 2,321-word tribute to my great-great aunt, and my Hemingway-worthy 11-word post wished my parents a happy anniversary.

As for stats…wow!  As of this writing, I have had an amazing 13,030 hits to my blog, which averages to about 53 visitors a day (low number 30/day, high 98/day).  By month, August was the clear winner with an incredible 3,027 visits.  August 29th was my most popular day with 380 people stopping in to say “hi”.  My most popular posts in terms of visitors are:

1,065 – Polish Names and Feast Days
668 – 1808: Where was your family 200 years ago
523 – Philadelphia Marriage Indexes Online
342 – About Me
268 – Carnival of Genealogy, 54th Edition
264 – Got Milk?
230 – Hilaire Bergmeister: A Tribute to An Aunt

What are people looking for when they find my site?  The majority are looking to find the meaning of Shakespeare’s phrase “what’s past is prologue”!  The second most popular search is for information on Polish Name Days.

Who else is sending folks my way?  (Drumroll, please…).  My most popular “referrers” are Hill Country of Monroe County and Creative Gene. Thanks Terry and Jasia!

One fun thing about blogging is the feedback you can get from your fans.  I’ve been fortunate to receive 296 comments so far, and I’m grateful for them all.   My most frequent commenter award goes to (appropriately enough for my 100th post) —  Lisa from 100 Years in America.  I’m sorry this doesn’t come with any prize, but you’re tops in my book.

Thanks to all of my visitors, commenters, and the 43 people that are “subscribers” through feeds.  I appreciate the fact that you are interested in what I have to say.  I hope to keep it coming, and keep it interesting.  I’ll try my best.  In Polish, after wishing someone a Happy Birthday, you wish them “Sto Lat” – or 100 (more) years.  I don’t know what “post” or “blog” is in Polish, so let’s just say Sto Lat and thank you.

Family Heirlooms or the Lack Thereof

I’ve always been impressed with other folks’ family heirlooms – what I like to refer to as “genealogical memorabilia”.  My family doesn’t have very many.  For years my brother and I didn’t even know we had family.  We secretly wondered if our parents were part of the witness protection program.  Other kids had cool stuff from their great-greats.  Old diaries that told all the family secrets?  None here.  Letters between family members with stories of the old days?  Nope.  Official documents?  Not any they left behind – I had to find them through public records.  Obituaries? Not even one.  Wills?  Zilch – there’s nothing to leave behind!  Photographs?  Some, but not a large number.  Even when it comes to tombstones there are only four ancestors that have one out of the fifteen direct ancestors who died in this country!

You hear a lot these days about the “carbon footprint” we leave behind.  But what about our “genealogical footprint”?  Other than having children, what we “leave behind” our ourselves will either become treasured memorabilia or simply trash.  There’s a debate over if the abondoned love letters found in a trash can should be published if the owner believed they were trash.  Although I hate generalizations, it seems to boil down to two types of people: the pack-rats and the throw-outs.  Children of throw-outs usually become pack-rats, and vice versa.

I come from a long line of thrower-outers.  Gone are my father’s baseball cards from the 1940s, the original one-sheet movie posters he obtained while working at a movie theater in the late 40s and early 50s, and my mother’s collection of autographed glossy photos from the film stars of that same period.  My grandmothers didn’t think anyone would want such clutter, and truth be told my own parents probably would have thrown them out later as well.  My maternal grandmother also felt the need to throw out her mother’s china and crystal brought over from Poland in 1903 – who wants old stuff when you can have new?

But, I can live without these things.  They would certainly be nice to have, but I’ve collected enough of my own junk treasure over the years.  What I miss not having the most are the more personal relics from my parents and their ancestors.  I have so few.  A handwritten note from my grandfather to grandmother nine months before they married.  A note from my almost-8-year-old father to his mother who was recovering in the hospital after the birth of his baby sister.  These are the things I long for – personal memorabilia, not collectors’ items.  These things tell me more about the people than any other type of remembrance.

I decided to reduce my own footprint, or rather, clutter, after college.  I had saved every letter and card I received since high school (no email back then, kids).  I saved those that were funny, noted some important event, or were otherwise significant to me.  As I sorted through old Christmas cards to throw them out, one took my breath away.  I realized it was the last Christmas card my grandmother gave me before she died the following year.  While it may not mean much to future generations, it’s now in my own personal box of genealogical memorabilia.

It took me a long time to realize that my memories are more significant than any item.  I pray that these are never taken from me, but in order to make my memories meaningful to future generations I have to write them down.  Just as we should back-up our data on the computer, we need to back-up our own life story so we can leave it behind.

Make your memores, your family stories, your legacy, your genealogical footprint.  Make your life story your heirloom!

Local History: A Saint Played Here Before Me

This week I visited the local hospital when my father went to the ER (it’s okay, he’s fine now!).  It seems as though I visit there about once a year for one parent or the other, except I’ve been there three times since Christmas and once was for myself!  Fortunately, it’s very close to my parents’ house.  As I walked towards the entrance to the ER, I noticed the old building that is seemingly out of place with the rest of the hospital.  Ever since then I can’t stop thinking about the history that is all around us – history which we are often unaware.

The neighborhood in which I grew up, the section of Philadelphia called the Far Northeast, was not developed until the 1950s and 60s, but it has a rich history that goes far beyond the current housing developments and shopping centers.  It’s unfortunate that we never learned about this local history in school, like why so many things had “Indian” names or why streets had funny names or who the people were whose names were on the public schools.  Even though my ancestors are not connected to that corner of Philadelphia, I am, and I’m fascinated by what was there before me.

My parents bought their brand new house in 1961; I arrived six years later.  Frankford Hospital’s Torresdale Division was built when I was a child.  I don’t recall what the corner looked like before then, but I remember sledding on a hill that is now a parking garage needed as the hospital expanded.  But two remnants of the entire area’s past remain standing on the hospital’s grounds: the old house and a chapel.  Both belonged to the Drexel family.

The grounds were purchased in 1870 as a summer home for Francis A. Drexel, his wife, and three young daughters.  The Drexel’s were very wealthy; Francis’ father, an immigrant from Austria, made a fortune in the banking industry.  The family lived in the city on Locust Street, but packed up for the summer to escape the city heat and spend time in “the country”.  This farmland area had only been incorporated into the city of Philadelphia in 1854; prior to that, the land consisted of small villages whose names are known today as neighborhood’s names.  In 1870 when the Drexel family first came to their summer home, the area, though officially part of the city, was country-like with a lot of open space, trees, creeks, hills, farms, and very few homes.  This whole Torresdale area of the city would remain mostly “open space” until the 1950s.

The Drexel family name is remembered today for two main reasons:  Francis’ brother Anthony founded Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Francis’ daughter Katherine is a saint.  Katherine’s story is admirable no matter what religion you believe in.  In today’s language, we’d say she “had it all” because of her family’s wealth.  But she gave up all of the worldly things she could have had for a much worthier cause.

Katherine’s mother, Hannah, died only weeks after giving birth to her.  When Francis re-married to Emma Bouvier (a relative of Jackie Kennedy), Emma became step-mother to Katherine and her sister Elizabeth.  Francis and Emma had a third daughter together, Louise.

When Katherine was a young woman, the family vacationed out west.  She was appalled at the poverty endured by Native Americans.  Likewise, she saw much suffering and poverty among African-Americans in the south.  Many “rich” women like Katherine would have simply donated large sums of money to help these poor people.  But Katherine wanted to do more; she wanted to serve these people.  At the age of 33, she decided to become a nun.  She would go on to found a religious order of sisters called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose mission was to serve and educate the poor, specifically native and African-Americans.

Katherine became “Mother Katherine” as she led this order of missionary sisters in their mission, and she used much of her own personal inheritance to fund schools and convents.  Katherine died in 1955 at the age of 96.  She became “St. Katherine Drexel” in 2000 – only the second American-born saint.

Back to her early life and what she has to do with my old neighborhood…  When the Drexel’s first bought their summer estate, which has been reported to equal anywhere from 90-300 acres of Northeast Philadelphia, Katherine was 11 years old.  A chapel was built directly behind the mansion, and even today it is an impressive sight on the hill.  When Katherine founded her religious order, she housed novices on the grounds until their convent was built in nearby Bensalem.   The chapel, and the entire family estate, was called St. Michael’s.  Today, their old home is used as an office building.  The chapel was desanctified for secular use and is now used as a “wellness center”.  I once got a view inside as a teenager, and it was impressive even though it was no longer a chapel at the time.

The history of my neighborhood is much older than Katherine Drexel and her family.  But, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight one “era” of the neighborhood.  Long before the housing boom, my street was part of the Drexel grounds.  It’s somehow nice to know that a saint enjoyed summers riding horses with her sisters on what became my house, block, church, school, and neighborhood.  Maybe that’s why I always felt blessed to be there.

For more information:

[I hope to provide more posts on Northeast Philadelphia, other Philadelphia neighborhoods, and the small town in New Jersey where I now live.  All of these areas have a rich history that few seem to either know or care about today.  I’m afraid written history doesn’t go back as far as in Europe, but I should at least be able to find information about the area at least back to the 1600s!]

Celebrating Occupations on Labor Day

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: