Archive for the ‘Research Tips’ Category

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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In Part 1 of my interview with William “Fred” Hoffman, I introduced Fred as the author or co-author of several books about names, surnames, and translating genealogical documents.  Today, we continue our conversation about surnames.

WPiP: When they began using surnames in Poland, were they standardized – passing from father to son – or not?

Fred: When surnames first started in Poland, there was no sense of any hard and fast rules that had to be followed.  Second names were just a convenience, a way of distinguishing this Jan from that Jan, this Piotr from that Piotr. At this point, they were not really what we’d consider surnames; they were more like nicknames. Some, by their nature, were appropriate to pass from father to son. Others were not. As time passed, circumstances made it more and more useful for people to bear a consistent surname. Given that universal literacy did not become a reality until the 19th century and even later, it should be no surprise that spellings could vary quite a bit. People were just sounding names out much of the time, and if they didn’t really have a good grasp of spelling, the results could be, well, interesting.

Spelling isn’t the only issue; the actual forms of surnames could vary greatly. Many researchers are perplexed when they see the same person or family called by several different names in documents. But there is usually some rationale to it, if you can just grasp it. For instance, if your father was called Jan, “John,” and you were, too, it wouldn’t be strange if people got my habit of referring to you as Janowicz, which means “son of Jan.” Then when you got older, you might become THE Jan, and your son would become Janowicz. Or you might remain Janowicz, and maybe they’d call him Janik, which means basically “son of Jan.” Or they might tell him Janczyk, which means the same thing. Or they might call him Janowski, which means “of the kin of Jan” or “one from the place of Jan.” Any of these names — as well as others I haven’t mentioned — might seem appropriate because they are all perceived as connected; they all refer to Jan in some way.

Remember, this was not a highly regimented, centralized society. No one had to fill a computer forms or apply for Social Security, so there was no great pressure to be absolutely consistent when it came to what you called someone.  Most folks lived in villages or on farms where everyone knew everyone else. It didn’t matter what you called a local person; everyone knew who you were talking about. (If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you known what I mean.) Until comparatively recently in Poland’s history, there was no social consciousness of a need for consistency in terms of surnames.

To be honest, from what I’ve read, surname consistency in Poland was not emphasized until after the partitions. The Austrian, Prussian, and Russian governments tended to insist on unchanging surnames, because it made their new subjects easier to keep track of. I get the impression a lot of Poles were baffled by this, thinking “Only some Prussian with a stick up his butt could possibly be so obsessed with something so trivial.”  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some Poles intentionally played games with their surnames, just to give their foreign masters a little aggravation.

By the way, I am pretty certain that some immigrants intentionally gave misleading questions to answers about their names and other personal information, because they didn’t want to be too easily traced. We may laugh now, but many of them still feared the secret police back home. Besides, their experience with authority on the whole was not pleasant, so they had no incentive to be cooperative. What if they left home to avoid military service, and suddenly wham! they’re deported right back to the village they tried to escape from? I have no doubt a lot of them felt it would be stupid to be too forthcoming when snooping authorities — census takers and the like — went around asking questions.

WPiP: What’s the strangest (hardest) name misspelling you’ve encountered? (Hopefully Pointkouski isn’t it!)

Fred: POINTKOUSKI is a good one, but it’s not one of the tougher ones I’ve seen. My experience with Polish names suggested immediately that it had to be a mangled version of PIĄTKOWSKI/PIONTKOWSKI. It wasn’t too hard to recognize.

Let’s see, I’ve seen first names mangled pretty badly. In one case, Kazimierz turned into Kagimu; in another, Hieronym (Jerome) turned into Heroin. As for surnames, I’ve seen NIEDZIAŁKOWSKI turned in to COSKEY, and INDYKIEWICZ converted to ENDECAVAGE. I think the worst mangled surname I’ve seen was WĘGRZYN, with nasal E, which sounds kind of like “VENG-zhin,” becoming WING CHING. Someone told me about this the other day, and I thought, “OK, that one takes the cake!”

WPiP: How did you become interested in name research?

Fred: Studying languages has always been my favorite thing — naturally I couldn’t be a doctor or lawyer or someone who makes good money, I had to be a linguist! My B.A. and M.A. was in foreign languages, specifically German, with Russian as a second language. When I finished earning my M.A. and discovered that employers weren’t lining up to hire me, I tried different jobs, and had some success in the area of free-lance writing and editing.

In the 80s, a relative of my wife introduced me to the Polish Genealogical Society (now the Polish Genealogical Society of America, PGSA). Its founder and president, Ed Peckwas, also edited the society’s newsletter, and needed someone to give him a little help with articles that involved translating some Polish. I had never studied the language and didn’t speak it, but my wife is of Polish descent, and that link made me kind of interested in the language. Polish had the reputation of being hard, and if you’re a linguist, you love challenges! So even before I met Ed Peckwas, I had started trying to teach myself Polish, and found that my study of Russian at the University gave me a leg up on understanding. This helped me do translations, and more and more Ed began to rely on me to help him with material for his newsletter.

Ed was always looking for books the Society might publish, and from his contact with researchers, he realized that a book explaining Polish surnames might go over well. I guess I was the only person he knew who could do the research in Polish necessary for such a book. He asked me if I’d be willing to work on this project.  At first I thought “God, no!” because I had some notion how much work it would require. Still, I was rather intrigued by the idea, if only because there was so little in English on this subject. If you have the itch to write a book, it’s hard to resist the idea of being the first person to write on a subject. So gradually, I got more and more interested in studying Polish names, and eventually I thought I had enough material to write a book.

The task was enormously simplified when a Polish researcher I’d met, Rafał Prinke of Poznań, found out I was interested in Polish names and sent me a copy of a recent book on that subject by a Polish expert, Kazimierz Rymut. It wasn’t a very big book, but it was a revelation to me. Rymut had come up with a workable way to deal with Polish surnames, organizing them by the roots they came from.  I took the same basic approach he did, and used much of the material he provided, trying make it very clear to all readers that he was the one who’d done all the work, not me. That’s still true; I don’t do much in the way of original research, I just help people who don’t read Polish learn what the experts have said about their names.

Anyway, the Society published my book, and it sold well, for such a niche item. I started corresponding with Professor Rymut, and by then, I was hooked! I’ll never get rich by sharing analyses of Polish names in English, but it is something I enjoy doing. I can honestly say I learn something new every day. The only bad thing about that is, when I look back on my work in the early 90s, I’m really embarrassed by it. I guess that’s the way it goes; if I live another 10 years, and look back on the work I’m doing now, I’ll probably think “What a moron!”

Still, I think this work is some help to researchers — at least I’ve heard from plenty who said I was a godsend. As long as that’s true, and I think I’m doing someone a little good, I’d like to keep going.

Well, the book was certainly useful in my own research of the Polish names in my family!  For more information on Fred’s books and where to purchase them, see Part 1 of our interview.  Stay tuned for Part 3 when we’ll move on to the topic of translations…do you need to be fluent in a language to properly translate? What about using computer programs or online translations?  Find out Fred’s answers 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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This week, What’s Past is Prologue is delighted to host an interview with author William F. Hoffman.  Those readers with Polish heritage are probably thinking “Cool!” while those without may be asking “Who?”  William “Fred” Hoffman is the author or co-author of several key works that are highly useful to genealogists.  Two of his books deal primarily with names and surnames:

  • Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings (Second Edition) was published by the Polish Genealogical Society of America (PGSA) in 1997 and remains the premier work on Polish surnames (the first edition was published in 1993).  If you have a Polish or Eastern European name in your ancestry, this is the work that will offer some clues as to what the name means and where it may have originated.
  • First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins and Meanings was co-authored with George W. Helon and published by the PGSA in 1998.  “Polish” first names come from many different languages; this book sorts it all out and carefully explains their origins and meanings.

Fred isn’t just known as a “name” expert though…he’s also an expert in translating genealogical documents!  He has co-authored several books with Jonathan D. Shea including

  • Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide offers help with German, Swedish, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian.
  • In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents is available so far in Volume I: Polish and Volume II: Russian.  If you are researching documents in these languages, Fred and Jonathan’s guide is simply indispensable.  I own Volume I, and it’s nearly 400 pages of  record samples, translations, and explanations about the Polish language and handwriting.

So, readers, if you didn’t recognize the name “William F. Hoffman” you may be realizing by now that perhaps you should have.  I encourage you to consult his works.  The “name” books are available through PGSA and the “translation” guides are available through Avotaynu.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of things to discuss with someone as knowledgeable as Fred is about these topics.  My interview will be divided into four parts and posted throughout the week.  I invite you to pour a cup of your favorite beverage and join us as we chat…

WPiP: What do you think is the biggest myth or misconception about researching Polish names?

Fred: I’d say the biggest misconception I’ve encountered consistently is that surnames (not just Polish, all surnames) are etched in stone — that they’re unique, utterly stable, and indispensable in research.

Of course, a correct surname can help enormously in tracing your family roots. But anyone with significant experience quickly realizes that very few surnames are unique; they are vulnerable to misspelling and outright mangling; and they aren’t necessarily all that helpful. I tell people all the time that the correct place name can be far more valuable than a correct surname. Records are kept locally, so if you can find the village where your ancestors lived and get access to the local records, you can often spot your family while looking through those records, even if you have the surname wrong, by matching up names and dates and places. If all you have is the surname, even if it’s correct, you’re in the same position as a person wandering through the streets of Kraków or Warsaw yelling “Does anybody know who my family is?” Good luck with that!

You have to remember: surnames are human inventions. Humans do not usually do things perfectly and logically and consistently; we tend to do the best we can at the time with what we have. A surname is not a graven image. It’s more like a snapshot, a picture of something that was appropriate to an ancestor at the time. There is no guarantee it remained appropriate. An ancestor might have gotten the name BYSTRON (from _bystry_, “quick, rapid”) because he was quick, he moved rapidly. The name stuck, and his descendants were called by it. They might have been a pack of slugs, but once the surname was in place, it tended to hang on. What started out as a perfect description of an ancestor could become downright misleading within a generation or two!

Plus there could be a hundred other families in various parts of Poland who also went by that name because they, too, had quick ancestors. So much for unique and reliable! We know very well that a name like Smith or Jones is hardly unique — why are we surprised when Kowalski or Jankowicz, which basically mean the same things in Polish, are not terribly helpful in tracking down a given ancestor?

As for stability, what bothers me most about researchers and names is that people don’t apply their everyday experience to this question. We’ve all had our names misheard, misunderstood, misspelled — why are we astonished when this also happened to our ancestors? My colleague Jonathan Shea tells me I wouldn’t believe how many ways people have mangled his name. It’s four letters, for God’s sake!

So I advise people to keep an open mind about surnames, especially their spelling. Bring your own experience to bear, and you’ll realize names are not unique, they’re subject to change, and therefore they can only be of limited help. That may depress some folks; but with no false notions, they’ll be in a better position to deal with what they actually encounter in the course of their research.

WPiP: Some researchers focus on one spelling of a name only with no variations.  Is this the best way?

Fred: As my answer to the first question indicates, no, this is almost a guarantee of failure. If you find that your name has been absolutely consistent in form and spelling for generations, you are one lucky individual! You should forget genealogy and head for Las Vegas.

In trying to deal with name variations, maybe the best practical suggestion is to try to learn a little about how Polish is pronounced.  You don’t need to become fluent in the language, and you don’t even need to pronounce it perfectly. If you can just develop a basic notion how names sound, you have a better chance of understanding how they changed. More often than not, mangled spellings can be traced back to people’s efforts to write down what they were hearing. Most Americans have a hard time pronouncing and spelling Polish names, so there was a lot of room for error, even if everyone involved was trying to get the names right. If you know, the Polish name DZIĘGEL (with a hook or tail under the first E) is pronounced a lot like our word “jingle,” you won’t be thrown if that name morphs into JINGLE, as it often did in America.

Now, sometimes you find that names were changed in ways that can’t possibly be predicted. I’ve heard of cases where someone with a long Polish name like WOJCIECHOWICZ had his name changed by his boss at work. The boss would say, “Look, you, I can’t spell or pronounce your name. If you want to be paid, from now on your name is Jones.  You got a problem with that?” And since the immigrant usually needed the job more than he needed his name, he’d shrug and say, “OK, boss.” Just like that, Władysław Wojciechowicz turns into Joe Jones. You have to do really outstanding research not to be thrown off the track by that twist!

When it comes to immigrants and their name changes, I’ve seen four basic scenarios:

1) The immigrant knew how to read and write his name and was stubborn about holding onto it, so it remained unchanged. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Poles can sometimes be a teensy bit stubborn! So some immigrants’ names survived with little or no mangling, despite the worst their new neighbors could do.

2) The immigrant needed to find a way to get along, and realized his foreign-sounding name was getting in the way, so he changed it to an American name that sounded kind of similar. Someone named Mieczysław might choose to go by Mitchell because it sounded American and had an M sound, and a CH, and an L sound, kind of like his original name. If you’ve grown up answering to “Mieczysław,” it might be easer to get used to answering to Mitchell than, say, Butch. There’s just enough continuity of sound with the old name. This is not unique to Poles, by the way; there are jillions of cases where people of all different nationalities did the same thing.

3) Despite the best efforts of all concerned, the name was butchered, often past recognition. In this case, the Americanized version might retain nothing more than the same 1st letter, if that. If you have the Americanized form, you can’t reconstruct the original form; but once research tells you what the original form was, you may be able to backtrack and grasp how and why it was changed.

4) Immigrants got sick and tired of spelling and pronouncing their names, only to have them mangled. So they said “To hell with it” and junked their old names, choosing something short and easy for Americans to handle. A WOJTALEWICZ in Chicago might become WRIGLEY because he passed a sign advertising Wrigley gum and thought, “Hey, that’s a good American name.” Or the change might not have been their choice, as in the case I mentioned earlier about the boss laying down the law.

It’s worth noting that when they did change their names, immigrants often went for a clean break. For many of them, it hurt too much to remember the old country. All that was in the past, over and done with — so why not be a new man, with a new name? The basic law in England and the U.S. (at least until recently) has always been that you can call yourself anything you like, as long as you’re not trying to evade the police. So immigrants didn’t need to file any kind of papers about a formal name change, and usually did not. They went by a new name, and that was that. More often than not, when their children or grandchildren asked about any aspect of life in the old country, they clammed up, because they’d closed that door and had no intention of reopening it. I KNOW many people have told me that’s how it was in their families! This could extend to names as well.

As you can imagine, for a genealogist, scenarios 1 and 2 are fairly easy to work with. Number 3 is tough. Number 4 is impossible — the only way you’ll figure it out is if you do some very good, thorough research. It also doesn’t hurt to get lucky.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which Fred will discuss surname “rules” and the worst misspellings of Polish names he’s encountered! Later this week, in Parts 3 and 4 we’ll talk about translating records and tips for reading difficult handwriting.

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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Your ancestors were from the Big City! Or were they? I recommend using caution when it comes to researching “big city” ancestors… That’s not because it’s harder to find ancestors in big cities – in fact, sometimes it’s much easier than finding them in small towns. But researchers should use caution because sometimes the information your ancestor gave on “official” records may not be entirely accurate after all.

Well, almost from there…

Years ago my brother joined the Marines and went to boot camp. Most young adults away from home for the first time feel a combination of joy and excitement mixed with a fair amount of homesickness, and strong young men joining the Marines are no exception. To combat the homesickness, many would try to seek out others “like” them; that is, people from their hometown. On day, my brother heard, “Hey, Ski, there’s a guy in Company C from Philly, too!” When he got a free moment, he sought the guy out – “Hey, I’m from Philly – what neighborhood are you from?” The guy sheepishly replied, “Uh, I’m actually from Reading.” Reading is a town in Pennsylvania about 50 miles outside of Philadelphia. My brother must have looked confused, because the young man added some clarification, “Nobody outside of the Delaware Valley ever heard of Reading, but if I say Philly they know where I’m from!”

My brother’s tale this serves as a modern example of something our ancestors occasionally did – not quite tell the truth about their birthplace. If you’re not careful, such “white lies” can lead you down the wrong road of research.

Close enough

WarsawMy great-grandfather, Louis Pater, duly noted his birthplace as “Warsaw” on his draft registration for World War I and also World War II. Genealogists looking for the magic answer might immediately act on that vital piece of information. But careful genealogists know that it’s better to verify that fact and weigh it against all possible record sources before zoning in on the one town. You see, Louis was a lot like the young Marine from Reading – not many Americans ever heard of Żyrardów, but nearly everyone has heard of that other town nearby…Warsaw.

Weighing the evidence

Would other record sources for Louis, his siblings, and his parents match up to Louis’ draft cards? Yes and no. Some records also listed Warsaw, including his mother’s and sisters’ passenger arrival records. Other records, like his marriage and death certificates, only listed “Poland” or “Russia” as the birthplace. But the majority of other sources did list Żyrardów – most notably his passenger arrival record and naturalization papers. In fact, for immigrants, the information on the naturalizations usually holds more weight than most other documents (except, of course, for an official birth or baptismal record).

My German great-grandfather similarly named Munich, or München, as his place of origin on his passenger arrival record, as did his wife. Most of his other records, such as the draft registration or death record, listed “Germany”. When I did finally find a town name, there were at least a dozen towns with the same name to choose from. But, only one was near Munich, and that proved to be the correct one. Why did he list Munich on his passenger list? Either because he actually was living in the city prior to his departure, or because it was the closest big city to his small hometown and therefore easier to identify to a stranger. Sometimes, that big city they name may be pointing you in the right direction for further research.

Bottom Line

Does that mean you shouldn’t trust the word of ancestors from big cities? Of course not. But it does mean you have to be more careful. No matter if your ancestors emigrated from Europe or moved around a lot in the US, it definitely pays to collect all possible evidence before making a decision. And sometimes, what you read is true – one of my great-grandfathers really is from Warsaw!

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Randy Seaver, passing on a post on the APG mailing list, asked us what our genealogical regrets are so that others can avoid our mistakes. What would I do differently? My responses are similar to Randy’s and others who have posted replies, which should prove to any newcomers to genealogy just how essential certain things are! These are my top 3 genealogical regrets:

  • I regret that I didn’t start my research sooner. I didn’t officially begin researching until after college, but I wish I had started in high school. For one, I had a lot more free time while attending college than I did after starting a full-time job. Even though I’ve had two census releases since I started my research, and even though some things are more automated now and indexed on the internet (and therefore EASIER now), the main reason I wished I had started sooner is because many older family members have since died. By the time I figured out who some cousins were, the older folks were gone and I missed a possible opportunity to learn more from them.
  • I regret that I didn’t organize my notes better. You’ll read it time and again from many genealogists…get organized! I am what I call “slightly organized” in that I know generally where things are, but it take me forever to sort through things to find what I want. I even have notes written on scraps (a paper plate, believe it or not) that I haven’t seen fit to otherwise document. Yet.
  • I regret that I didn’t focus my area of research to one family at a time. When I first began, I used a shotgun approach…I’d fire a question or query, and if my shot in the dark hit scattered targets I’d run off and start researching in each of those directions. Well, it I guess it works, but it’s probably not the easiest or best approach. It’s certainly not the scientific method. When I found an “easy” line, I’d focus on that family and get better results in my research. But the other lines with their questions and mysteries would still draw me back, and I’d lose the focus on the line on which I had experienced some progress.

To re-phrase my regrets in the positive, I present Donna’s 3 Rules of Successful Genealogy:

1) Don’t wait or think about it…get started now. Find and talk to your older relatives while you can.

2) Find the method of organization that suits you and stick with it always.

3) Focus your research; using a systematic approach will save you time later.

What would you do differently – do you have any genealogical regrets?

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Not so long ago in a galaxy not too far away, the word “genealogist” may not have been associated with the most technology-savvy person.  The image that came to mind may have been more of a bookworm-librarian searching through piles of books and papers  in dusty old archives.  Today, many genealogists are very well versed about the latest computer technology because it helps to advance our research so much!  So set your GEDCOM-phasers on stun as we uncover the topic for the 43rd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Technology!

When I first heard the topic, I thought we’d be writing about technological advances in the lives of our ancestors or during our own lifetimes.  But, that’s not quite the slant towards technology that the Carnival-goers are writing about.  For this edition, three questions about Technology were posed:

What piece of hardware (besides your computer) do you most rely on for your genealogy and family history research?

This may be an unconventional answer, but for me it’s my digital camera.  While I have a fancy digital SLR for vacations and family portraits, it’s my tiny fit-in-your-pocket digital Casio Exilim that gets a genealogical workout.  How can you utilize a camera for family history research?

First, the obvious answer is to take photos of living relatives and current places.  Did you finally meet your third cousin twice removed?  Take a photo!  Visit your ancestor’s old street, church, or town?  Take more photos!  Tombstones of your relatives?  Take a photo and you don’t have to stand around the cemetary taking notes!

Another great way to use your camera for research is to take photos of…photos! Relatives may not want to loan out their treasured original photos of your shared ancestors, and we all can’t travel around with a laptop and a scanner.  But, with some attention to light and camera settings, it’s easy to snap a digital photo of another photograph.  Watch out for glare on the surface of the photo, and use a macro or close-up setting on your camera.

You can also use your camera to take photos of documents, as long as there are no copyright infringement issues.  My camera has a “Macro Mode” specifically for text.  Hold the camera steady!  This also works if you want to take a photo of a record on a microfilm reader.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ll be visiting the Family History Library in Salt Lake City in April.  Since they allow the use of cameras, I’ll keep you posted how this turns out.

What piece of software (besides your internet browser) do you most rely on for your genealogy and family history research?

This one is harder to answer.  Based on my camera answer above, I’ll have to say my imaging software.  I use PhotoImpact by Ulead, mostly because it came with my old scanner and it was easy to use.  It may not have all of the bells and whistles of the newer programs, but it does a fine job of helping me edit my photos.  It’s also useful for editing images of documents, such as snipping a piece to show on this blog or capturing an ancestor’s “autograph” from documents.

What web site/blog (besides your own) is indispensable to you?

Steve Morse’s One-Step site
.  Without it, I would not have been able to find several folks in the Ellis Island passenger lists and many others in Census Records.  Steve Morse’s search tools get around indexing issues or errors by allowing you to search in many other ways and on many different “fields” of the records.  There will always be some ancestor that eludes searches, but Steve’s site makes it easier to find the rest.

What are your favorite genea-tech tools?

[Submitted for the 43rd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Technology Tips for Genealogists]

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An oft-repeated phrase when one enters an old house is “if these walls could speak, the stories they’d tell.” In Germany, it is possible for the walls to speak about the families that lived there for centuries in the form of a book called a häuserchronik.

What would you say if I told you there might be a book that is like a City Directory, only it is listed by street addresses and also records deed transactions of the houses? And, the book also contains some personal information about the residents, including occupations, marriage information, and more? Well, if your ancestors came from Germany, there really may be such a book!

When I first visited the town my Bavarian ancestors came from, I was given a “häuserchronik” as a gift. The full title of the book, published in 1982, is Häuserchronik der Stadt Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm by Heinrich Streidel. It provided tons of genealogical information that was later verified by researching decades of church records. I couldn’t believe that such things existed…and that you don’t hear more about them!

Here is an example of one entry found in the book. The house is currently known in the town as Löwenstraße 14, formerly Judengasse 11. Before that, the house had a number assigned to it. Beginning in 1676, it was 67 II District. From 1810-1861, it was house #55. And from 1862-1927, it was house #79. In old towns such as Pfaffenhofen, houses were numbered as they were built. So, house #10 was not necessarily in between houses #9 and #11 – it could be on the other side of town! Occasionally, the houses were renumbered, probably because by then it became too difficult to find an address! At this particular house, the record begins back in 1614! My ancestors appear in the house’s record in 1746 as follows [translated to English, with my comments in brackets]:

1746, 4 Jan
Eger, Bernhard, shoemaker – purchased (Kaufsumme or “sum”) for “280 fl”
[According to the book’s preface, in 1982 the “fl” or gulden was equal to about 1.71 Marks. Today, that’s roughly 236 Euros! He was about 25 years old at the time.]

1746, 21 Jun
The above marries Arnold, Maria Anna, from Jägern/Edlmünster
[She’s not my ancestor…she dies in April, 1761 at age 35 during childbirth.]

1761, 30 Oct
Eggerer (Eger), Bernhard, widower, shoemaker, marries Stainer, Maria Margarete, from Freising
[Note the changing spelling of the surname, which will change one more time in a later entry before “stabilizing” – it was common for names to change over time as spelling became more formal and/or more people became literate. Unfortunately, he dies 17 years later in June, 1778 after they’ve had many children, including my ancestor Ignaz.]

1778, 18 Jul   Eggerer, Maria Margarete, shoemaker’s widow
[This entry shows that changes were made to the records for events such as the husband’s death.]

1797, 10 Jan
Echerer (Eggerer), Ignaz, son, and Maria Anna, born Kaillinger, glassmaker’s daughter
[He was 32 years old; they married on 22 Jan 1797]

1844, 13 Feb
Echerer, Ignaz, son, marries Nigg, Magdalena
[He was 41 years old; they married on 19 Feb 1844]

1847, 12 Jun
He sells to a new family for 1400 fl, or 1200 Euros in 1982 money. Interestingly enough, the new owner sells it three years later for 2400 fl, proving that “house flipping” isn’t such a modern concept.

So, where did the family go? The house had been in the family for 100 years. The answer was also in the book. They moved to a different house, the current address of which is Schulstrasse 5. This house is even older than the previous one, as the records begin back in 1511! What is interesting is the immediate history prior to the purchase by Ignaz. Before I had done research with the church records, I would have only looked for his surname and ignored the rest. But, after complete research, I know the full story of the family relationships, so I will back up a bit in the house’s history.

1784, bought for 420 fl by Höck, Johann, master carpenter

1794, 12 Apr, daughter Therese marries

1794, 26 Apr, Nick, Karl, Town Master Carpenter

1844, 02 May, Nick, Rosalie, daughter, marries Aicher, Christian, master carpenter

It is from this couple that Ignaz and Magdalena buy the house for 3,980 fl. We saw from the previous entry that Nigg is Magdalena’s maiden name. Rosalie is her sister, Karl is her father (so she was born in this house), and the owner back in 1784 was her grandfather! After the couple purchases the house, it remains in the family until 1899. My great-grandmother, Maria Echerer, was born there in 1875 to Karl Echerer, son of Ignaz and Magdalena, and Margarethe Fischer. It appears that the house was owned by my great-grandmother’s brother, Karl, from 1896 to 1899 when he sold it for 10,800 Marks.

As you can see from the above example, there is an extraordinary amount of genealogical data to be found in such books. Other entries were less detailed, but nearly every house’s history had some information on marriages, including where the spouse may have come from if the town was not the same, and occupations. It appears based on the above that a new entry was made after the death of a spouse, a marriage, or the passing of the house to a son or daughter, which is why this sort of history has more in common with deed records than what Americans would call “city directories”.

But, where do you find such a treasure if it exists for your town? Well, it’s not easy. What makes the search even more complicated are the different names that Germans use. For my town of Pfaffenhofen, the book is called a häuserchronik. But similar information might be found in a heimatbuch, or town history. Some towns even have something called a ortssippenbuch or ortsfamilienbücher, which are books containing the genealogical data of an entire town or village. None of these useful resources are maintained in one place, so they are difficult to find.

First, I would try a search at www.familysearch.org for your family’s town – there are some of the above resources that would be listed if they are microfilmed.

Next, simply search on www.google.com for your town name, plus one of the above words.

You can also find success at German bookstores. One useful site that seems to have many “historical” books – and also has an English search page – is www.zvab.de. Put the town name in the subject search and see what you find!

Did you know that there are foreign versions of E-bay? You’re more likely to find a German book on Germany’s E-bay at www.ebay.de. Search for the town name, or even a surname. I found many heimatbucher waiting to be found by genealogists. It does help if you speak the language, though. While ordering via E-bay isn’t that difficult in any language, once you get the book it helps to be able to decipher the contents! I have several German books, but I don’t read German. If I did, or if I tried a little harder with a dictionary, I might know a lot more about my ancestors’ towns by now.

Finally, there is a database available at www.ortsfamilienbuecher.de that has listings of some “town heritage books”. I have not found an online resource that lists “häuserchronik” books specifically, but a local heritage book may also have genealogical information. You may have better luck contacting town or local archives to determine if any exist for your town.

Good luck, and I hope you all find similar genealogical treasures from your ancestors’ towns.

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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!

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