Michigan Polonia: An Interview with Ceil Jensen, CG

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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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2 thoughts on “Michigan Polonia: An Interview with Ceil Jensen, CG

  1. Donna,
    This is a beautiful posting, I’m so glad that I got to read it. Yes Polish people and Hungarians have lots of things in common, and I’m very proud of it

  2. Pretty great post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to mention that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing on your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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