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Yesterday I posted my round-up of all of my posts from the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge. “Challenge” was the key word – what sounds like a simple concept proved to be rather challenging. I participated because I knew the challenge would “force” me to post at least once a week. It wasn’t mandatory to post every week, but that was part of the personal challenge for me. I discovered that it was an incredibly creative exercise – much more creative than I originally thought. All of the submitters each week almost always had a different idea about what represented a particular letter, and I found that some of my original ideas fell by the wayside as a new letter approached and I came up with a new idea instead.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile exercise. If you are looking to make a commitment to yourself to post to your own blog, I highly encourage you to try something similar. For something even more daring, you could post a different letter each day and go through the entire challenge in less than a month. Or for a more relaxed pace, try one per week (as I did) or even one per month. Eventually you will make your way through the alphabet!

As I said, I found this challenge to be a good creative outlet. I’ve come up with some other ways to use the A through Z method to highlight other areas of family history:

  • Surnames or first names in your family tree through the alphabet
  • Family Photographs through the alphabet
  • Place Names from your family tree through the alphabet
  • Highlight record sources from A to Z
  • Highlight research techniques from A to Z
  • Favorite websites used for genealogy from A to Z
  • Family Memories through the alphabet
  • Your genealogical “bucket list” through the alphabet

The possibilities are as endless as your own creativity. I’m still pondering which A to Z series I will challenge myself with next!

A collage of the images I’ve used each week during the Family History through the Alphabet challenge!

For the last twenty-six weeks, I have participated in the Family History through the Alphabet Challenge promoted by Gould Genealogy. It was more challenging than I thought it would be, and I feel a sense of accomplishment that I completed all 26 letters! Here is a round-up of all of my posts. Tomorrow I will share some of the things I learned from participating in this challenge. Thanks for reading and commenting on these posts for the last six months!

Żyrardów coat of arms

Completing the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge… Z is for Żyrardów! There was never any doubt what I would use for the letter “Z” – Żyrardów is a town in the Mazovia region of Poland from which my Pater great-grandparents came. It was also the very first town in Poland that I “discovered” in my family history research, so it holds a special place in my heart. In addition, it is the very first ancestral town in Poland that I visited!

I’ve written about Żyrardów before, most notably in my post entitled Żyrardów: Birth of a Modern Town. Although the town is rather modern by European standards with a “birth date” of around 1831, I’m fascinated with the town’s history.  The history is interwoven (pun actually intended) with the textile industry – an industry with which I now work indirectly. My ancestors helped Żyrardów become the largest producer of linens in the entire Russian Empire by the end of the 19th Century.

Spinning cotton in the Żyrardów linen factory (date unknown)

This weekly challenge has been wonderful and I’d like to thank Alona Tester of Gould Genealogy for creating this challenge. Later this week I will post more about what I learned from participating and some ideas I have as a result of participating.

[Written for the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

Y is for Y-DNA

Winding down the Family History Through the Alphabet series, Y is for… Y-DNA! Only men are born with the Y chromosome, so Y-DNA traces the patrilineal line. I personally have not had any of my male relatives tested for Y-DNA, but I wondered if iI could trace the Y-DNA from each of my great-grandparents’ lines. Is that even possible? Here’s  look at my great-grandparents (numbered with their ahnentafel numbers) to see if it could be done:

8. Piątkowski – yes – My father, brother, and nephews could all have a Y-DNA test to determine the origin of our patrilinal line.

9. Kizoweter – maybe – My great-grandmother had a brother, Jozef Kizoweter. He was living in Warsaw at the time of her immigration, and I’ve found records for his mariage and the birth of some children. Did the male line survive in Poland?

10. Bergmeister – yes – My father has two male first cousins, I have at least two male second cousins, and there is another male generation that all bear the Bergmeister surname and are descendants of my great-grandfather.

11. Echerer – maybe – My great-grandmother had a brother, Karl Echerer, who was married in Munich in 1908. It is unknown if he had any sons or if the male line has survived to today.

12. Patermaybe – Of the three Pater sons that immigrated to this country, only my great-grandfather had sons. Of the five sons, only two had sons. I have not yet been able to find those two male cousins of my mother, Larry Pater and Louis Miller (although Pater is the “correct” surname). There were also numerous Pater relatives left in Poland, but it is not known if any male descendants are left after the wars.

13. Millermaybe – My great-grandmother had a brother who had one childless son. However, I think she had other brothers and I’ve recently found information about one, Alfred Miller. I am trying to determine if his male line still exists today.

14. Zawodnyyes – I’m in touch with at least one male cousin of my mother’s and he has a son. This Y-DNA line could be traced.

15. Ślesińskidoubtful – My great-grandmother apparently had one brother, Feliks, but I have been unable to determine if he had any sons. More research is needed.

If I was able to convince my male relatives to submit to Y-DNA testing, I would get a good idea of my own genetic makeup. Have you had any Y-DNA testing done on yourself or male relatives?

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

X is for Xavier

St. Francis Xavier, missionary, saint, and eponym!

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet series… X is for Xavier. While Xavier as a first name has gained popularity in the last decade or two, for centuries it was used as a middle name combined with Francis. Why? The first-middle name combination of “Francis Xavier” comes from the man first known to use it, St. Francis Xavier.

Francis Xavier was a Catholic missionary priest and co-founder of the Jesuits who lived from 1506 to 1552. Although he was born Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta in Navarre (present-day Spain), he came to be called Francisco Xavier because of his family castle named Xavier (or Javier, or Xabier). The name is derived from the Basque word etxaberri, which means “new house.” While studying in Paris, Francis met Ignatius Loyola – they and five others founded the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as “Jesuits,” in 1534. He was ordained a priest three years later. He is remembered for his years as a missionary in India, Indonesia, and Japan where he brought Christianity to thousands.

It is not uncommon for a surname to become a given name, but what I find amazing is the widespread use of “Francis Xavier” together. The name “Francis” was always popular, and many men (or women) named Francis (or Frances) might be named after another popular Catholic saint, St. Francis Assisi. As popular as St. Francis of Assisi is, however, I’ve never seen “Assisi” – another place-name “surname” – used as a middle name. Likewise, I have many men named “Ignatius” in my family tree in either the German form of Ignaz or the Polish form of Ignacy – but none of these use “Loyola” as a middle name which would imply they were named after St. Ignatius Loyola.

St. Francis Xavier, however, seems to have something rather unique about him in that both of his names are often used together. This would make more sense if perhaps the names were popular in either his home country, present day Spain, or in the countries where he ministered like India. Many names gain popularity in certain areas due to a local saint with the name.  But the names “Francis Xavier” seem to be popular worldwide. The name combination appears as Francisco Javier in Spanish-speaking countries, Francesco Saverio in Italy, Francisco Xavier in Portugal, François Xavier in France, Franciszek Ksawery in Poland, and Franz Xaver in Germany.

A little over two hundred years after St. Francis Xavier lived, his names were used in my family in Bavaria. Franz Xaver Gürtner, my 4th great-grandfather, was born on 04 September 1781 in Reichertshofen, Bavaria. His daughter, Barbara, would grow up to marry Franz Xaver Fischer (born 06 October 1813 in Agelsberg, Bavaria) in 1841. Both men are found in records listed by both “Franz Xaver” or “Fr. Xaver” as well as by just “Xaver.” In German, the name is pronounced as Ksaber.

Another Bavarian 4th great-grandfather, Ignaz Echerer (born 26 July 1765 in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria), had a brother named Franz Xaver Echerer. Although St. Francis Xavier traveled around the world, as far as I can tell he never visited Germany – yet his name is very popular throughout the country centuries later.

St. Francis Xavier had a big impact on the world, especially in the countries he worked like India. However, his name had an even bigger impact in my opinion. I even have a distant cousin living today with the name Francis Xavier. Xavier is one of the only English names beginning with “X” so it stands out as unique despite the centuries of other men named F.X. How many Francis Xaviers (or just plain Xavier) are in your family tree?

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

W is for Warsaw

Ulica Piwna (Beer Street) in Old Town Warsaw. Yes, my great-grandfather lived on Beer Street!

Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series… W is for Warsaw! When I officially began my family history research and my father told me his grandfather, Jan Piątkowski (John Piontkowski) was from Warsaw, Poland, I thought: Yeah, right! Being a native-born Philadelphian, I am familiar with people “borrowing” my city as their place of birth because no one ever heard of the tiny suburban town they were born in. The fakers exclaim: “Well, it’s near Philadelphia!” So when I heard my great-grandfather was from Warsaw, I wondered exactly where he was born. My other great-grandfather said he was from Warsaw sometimes too, but he was from a town 27 miles away. Close doesn’t count when you’re searching for birth records.

But then a funny thing happened…I discovered he really was from Warsaw! Thanks to numerous Warsaw church records that are available online, I found my great-grandfather’s baptismal record that confirmed his birth as he reported on his Declaration of Intention. My Piątkowski family was from Warsaw!

Prior to this discovery, I visited the city in 2001. I unknowingly visited some of the family’s sights such as the Archcathedral of St. John (Archikatedra św. Jana). At the time, I had no idea my great-grandfather was baptized there. Technically, of course, it is not the same church – most of Warsaw was completely demolished in 1944-5. It is estimated that 80% of the old buildings were destroyed, including most of the Old Town area and the churches. Eventually the buildings were rebuilt – some are exact replicas of what once stood, others are not.

There is still a lot of research to do (or more accurately, there is a lot of deciphering Russian to do), but so far I have discovered that my great-grandfather’s father, Stanisław Piątkowski, was in Warsaw by 1863. It was then he married Apolonia Konopka in Holy Cross Church (Kościół św. Krzyża). Neither was originally from the city: Stanisław was from Mogilev (Belarus) and Apolonia was born in Konopki in the Augustów province.

Stanisław was listed in records as a “private official” and a valet. I have yet to determine for whom he worked, but there is one characteristic of Stanisław that sets him apart from EVERY SINGLE OTHER POLISH ANCESTOR – he could write his name. My factory workers and craftsmen – even some merchants – could not. I continue to wonder what a private official did in late nineteenth century Warsaw. At that time, Warsaw was undergoing a population boom – the city’s population more than doubled in twenty years.

Not all church records are available yet, but so far I’ve discovered two other sons of Stanisław and Apolonia, Jan’s marriage record and two children’s baptisms, and several records for the family of the brother of Jan’s wife, Rozalia Kizoweter (aka Kizeweter or Gizeweter). Since the addresses are provided in the church record, on my next visit to Warsaw I can re-visit some of the streets where they lived!

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

Proud descendant of the two gentlemen below coming it at nearly 3′ tall!

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet series… V is for Vital Statistics! Line up your ancestors and check out their vitals!

Definition of VITAL STATISTICS

1: statistics relating to births, deaths, marriages, health, and disease
2: facts (as physical dimensions or quantities) considered to be interesting or important; especially : a woman’s bust, waist, and hip measurements
~ Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When genealogists speak of “Vitals” we are usually referring to the information obtained from Vital Records: Births, Marriages, and Deaths. The term “Vital Statistics” refers to stats relating to these records. Although the second definition is primarily used for a woman’s physical “stats,” I’m using it in a slightly different non-sexist way. For me, Vital Statistics are the information I’ve obtained from genealogical records about my ancestors’ physical descriptions such as their height, hair color, eye color, and more. This information is especially relevant to me for the ancestors for whom I have no photograph – these “stats” are the only way for me to see what my ancestor looked like.

Where does one find such information? If your ancestor immigrated to the United States in 1906 or 1907, the passenger arrival records include the immigrant’s physical description: height, complexion, color of hair and eyes, and identifying marks. Draft registration cards are a great source of physical descriptions for male ancestors. Naturalization records also ask for physical descriptions. Other resources might include military records or employment records.

Joseph Zawodny, age 22

 When my great-grandfather Joseph Zawodny filled out his WWI draft registration card in 1918, he was  38 years old. The cards were not very specific, and he listed his height and build as “medium” with brown eyes and dark hair. But what was considered medium height and build back then? The more specific information requested for his Declaration of Intention four years later in 1922 might answer that. He lists his height as 5’7-1/2″ and his weight as 164 pounds. He had a fair complexion, brown hair, and brown eyes – which fits with the black and white photograph I have of him.

Louis Pater, age 54

Then again, the records may not always be correct or consistent. Take, for example, my other great-grandfather, Louis Pater. When he arrived in the U.S. in August, 1907, he was only 14 years old. He was only 5′ tall with blond hair and blue eyes. On his WWI draft card at age 23, he said he was “tall” and “slender” with brown hair and green eyes. Four years later on his Declaration of Intention, he lists his height as 5’10” and weight as 150 pounds. He has a “dark” complexion, “dark brown” hair, and “grey” eyes. Finally, on his WWII draft card at age 48, he seems to have shrunk to 5’9″ and put on a few pounds at 190. He has a “ruddy” complexion, “brown” hair, and “brown” eyes! So, were his eyes blue, green, gray, or brown? Likely gray – that was the color of the eyes for the entire Pater family and he passed them on to his son!

I don’t have any photograph of my great-grandmother Rose Piontkowski. But because she arrived here in 1906, I know from the passenger list that at the age of 41 she was 5’3″ with brown hair and blue eyes. It’s not much, but at least it gives me some idea of what she may have looked like. I don’t have a photograph of her husband John either. He was too old for either draft, but he filed his Declaration of Intention in 1920 at the age of 49. He was 5’8″, weighed 150 pounds, had a dark complexion, brown hair, and gray eyes.

Sometimes the descriptions on the passenger lists aren’t very flattering! Take my great-great grandmother Antonina Pluta Pater. Thanks to her passenger arrival record, she will forever be known as having a “sallow” complexion and a “wrinkled forehead” in addition to her 5’2-3/8″ frame, brown hair, and blue eyes!

Vital stats such as height or eye color are obviously not as useful as actual vital statistics like birth and death dates. But, it does give us a nice “look” at our ancestors. It is also fascinating to create family trees that show things like eye color – biology class in high school suddenly becomes more interesting. So as your family tree grows, take some “measurements” along the way and see which ancestors you most resemble!

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

Doors of Faith

“Do not be afraid! Open, in deed, open wide the doors to Christ!” ~ Blessed Pope John Paul II, October 22, 1978, homily at the Mass beginning his pontificate

In honor of the Catholic Church’s “Year of Faith” which opens on October 11, 2012, genealogy bloggers whose ancestors were members of the Catholic Faith are celebrating by showing some of the churches that inspired or comforted our ancestors or were otherwise part of their lives. Since the majority of my ancestors were Catholic (and so am I), there are a lot of churches in my family’s history. For this celebration, I chose to highlight one because I had the opportunity to walk through these doors of faith on a trip to Poland in 2001. The photos below are from that journey.

St. John the Baptist ( św. Jana Chrzciciela) church in Mszczonów, Poland

My great-great grandmother, Antonina Rozalia Pluta, was from the town of Mszczonów, Błoński Powiat, Warsaw Gubernia, Kingdom of Poland. She was baptized in św. Jana Chrzciciela (St. John the Baptist) Church in 1863 and married Józef Pater there in 1885. Antonina’s parents, Ludwik Pluta and Franciszka Wojciechowska, were also baptized there (1843 for Ludwik and 1840 for Franciszka) and married there in 1862. The earliest record I have found for an ancestral sacrament at the church is the baptism of my 4th great-grandfather, Jan Wojciechowski (Franciszka’s father), in 1816 – although, as you will see below, the church in 1816 was not the same as the church in 1863 through today.

The church has a very long history, as does the town. From the town’s website, I learned that the first church on the grounds was erected at the turn of the Twelfth Century and made from wood. In the years 1430-1440 Prince Ziemowit IV built a brick church, which was completely destroyed in the fire of the city in 1603. It was rebuilt 1660, but  burned down again in 1800. For many years after this fire, church services were held in a wooden chapel. The current brick church was built between 1861-1864. The cornerstone was blessed by the Archbishop of Warsaw on 11 May 1862 and the church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist.

A plaque on the church listing the names of the pastors from 1658-1982.

[Written for the “Doors of Faith” celebration at The Catholic Gene]

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet series… U is for Unusual Resources! I already devoted a whole post to my Uncles, so in looking for a “U” term I decided to take a look at some of the more unusual resources that are available for genealogical research. The “usual suspects” include birth, marriage, and death records, quickly followed by records related to the census, immigration and naturalization, or the military. But sometimes fantastic genealogical information hides in the most unusual places…here are some of my favorite unusual resources:

Bank records - Ancestry.com has an interesting collection of immigrant bank records. Sometimes immigrants would open an account at a bank specifically for the amount of money needed for relatives to immigrate to this country. These can serve as an alternate resource for finding immigration records. They also may provide clues to the name or address of other relatives.

Fraternal organizations – Many immigrants belonged to fraternal organizations, and some of these provided things like insurance policies – which, if available, are an alternate source for death records. I found my great-grandfather’s life insurance policy through the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA) on the Polish Genealogical Society of America’s (PGSA) website. Recently I noticed that Ancestry has a similar collection of enrollment and death benefit records for Pennsylvania chapters of the Order of the Sons of Italy.

Employment records – I haven’t yet found any of my ancestors’ employment records, but I know that they exist for many companies. Sometimes these records can be found in special collections at libraries. If you’re not sure exactly where your ancestor worked, try getting a copy of their SS-5 application for Social Security, and for male ancestors try their draft registration cards.

Funeral home records – Sometimes funeral home records can provide additional information about family members that aren’t found on a death certificate. Obviously the type of information that was requested – and kept on file – varies with the funeral home. Some are available online (Ancestry has been posting more of these collections lately), but most probably reside with the funeral home itself if it’s still in existence.

Other unusual records I’ve used include consular records, coroner’s reports, police records, ethnic press newspapers, and church jubilee books. Each of these has the potential to provide some small nugget of useful information about your relatives. The key, of course, is actually finding where these unusual resources are hidden.

“Unusual” doesn’t have to just apply to the type of record or resource, but it can also describe the “out of the box” thinking that helps a researcher find information and solve research problems. Genealogist Steve Danko applies the scientific method to his research. I’ve found inspiration from a television show and use the Castle “murder board” approach. My “Pointer Sister” Caroline Pointer often takes a techno-approach to problem solving. If your usual method of problem-solving doesn’t work, try a method that is unusual to you!

Here’s to all the unusual means, methods, and records that help us find all the usual information we seek for our ancestors! What records have you used that would be described as “unusual”?

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet challenge]

History:  gossip well told.  ~ Elbert Hubbard

Partners in crime: Nancy and I, probably up to no good, at National Honor Society induction during junior year (fall, 1983).

I was a teenage car thief.

Or so the story goes. That isn’t quite exactly true, but it seems to be how the story is told years later!

In my girls-only Catholic high school,my friend Nancy and I were probably known more for what we didn’t do than what we did. We didn’t smoke. We didn’t drink. We didn’t cut class, hike our uniform skirts halfway up our thighs, and we didn’t even wear makeup.

Nancy and I were good, polite, studious young ladies who got mostly straight A’s. Boring? Well, maybe to some, but we both also happened to have a great sense of humor and a mischievous streak, so we certainly weren’t bored. And, after all, the great thing about a devious mind in a goody-two-shoes body is that you rarely ever got blamed for your own mischievousness!

In junior year, we both had the good fortune to have Mrs. Campbell for history class (we called it “World Cultures”). Not only was Mrs. Campbell very smart (little did we know then that she was a future Jeopardy contestant) and an excellent teacher, but she was fun, too! Mrs. C had a sense of humor and a mischievous streak that rivaled ours in addition to a penchant for really bad puns. Let’s just say that Nancy and I learned a lot from her.

One day Mrs. Campbell broke off into an off-topic tangent about a student who attempted a  practical joke on her and failed. With a daring twinkle in her eye, she declared, “NO ONE has ever fooled me!”

Seated on the left side of the room, I immediately turned to Nancy a few rows to my right and raised my eyebrow. Nancy discreetly caught my gaze and nodded. The game was afoot! With a silent shared glance and only the faintest hint of a smirk, Nancy and I were thinking the same exact thing: “We’ll see about that, Mrs. C!”

After class, we wondered what joke we could play on her. We quickly realized it had to involve her car in some way, for the car had become a frequent detractor from our daily lesson plan. The Campbell’s bought a brand new car, and it was a complete lemon. Never in the history of American car production had a brand new car had so many mechanical failures. They were at their wits’ end in trying to get help from the dealership.

“We should steal it,” I said.

Nancy looked slightly shocked, yet amused, and gave me a questioning look.

“Well, not really steal it…just, you know – move it. If her car wasn’t where she parked it, she’d think it was stolen!”

Nancy smiled, “That’s perfect!”

Yes, perfect, until it dawned on us, both National Honor Society scholars, that neither of us could drive yet. Our friends who could drive thought we were absolutely insane and wanted nothing to do with our devious plans.

Time for Plan B! In the end, Plan B doesn’t sound like much at all – but, history is more about how things are remembered than what actually happened. Our classmate, Deena, worked in the main office during our class period. She would enter our room with a (forged) note for Mrs. Campbell that would tell her to call the dealership about her car – urgently! That’s right, kids, there were no cell phones in the mid-80’s!

This simple message was merely meant to invoke her ire – at the car, not us – and send her into a brief tizzy of humorous car-related stories which would have the side effect of getting us off the day’s lesson plan for the rest of the period until we revealed the joke.

See, we were not quite comedic geniuses yet, just lazy history students.

On the appointed day (my fuzzy memory thinks it was possibly April Fool’s Day) and the designated time, the note arrives. Mrs. C read it and looked quite distressed. She then did something we didn’t expect – she said she’d be right back and bolted out of the room!

When our note-delivery girl returned with the second note that said something to the effect of “just kidding”, Mrs. C still wasn’t back yet. Deena saw her in the hallway talking on the pay phone. Those who knew of our plan asked us what was going on: “Who’s she calling?” Others laughed and said, “You’re both dead!”

She couldn’t possibly be calling the dealership, could she? Maybe moving her car was a better idea after all.

She returned to the room, breathless – not from the short walk to the classroom, but from all the talking she had just quickly done on her call. She was about to explain what happened when she noticed that Deena standing in the front of the room. Deena handed her the second note while backing towards the classroom door and simultaneously trying to give a death-stare to Nancy and me on our different sides of the room.

That second or two while Mrs. Campbell read the note seemed longer than waiting for the bell to end Sr. Cherubim’s class.

Then… she laughed! And then said, “Oh my God, I have to call my husband!” and ran out of the room. She quickly returned and was dismayed that his line was busy. She explained that she called him about calling the car dealership because something else was wrong with the car. By the time she finally did get in touch with him – before our class was over – he had called not only the car dealership but also the Vice President of General Motors to discuss the lack of quality of their new vehicles and their poor customer service.

Fortunately, Mr. Campbell was as easy-going as his wife and they both actually laughed at our little prank. They thought the car dealership needed to be told off anyway, and we just prompted them to do it a little faster.

My memory has faded on the detail of how Nancy and I were identified as the perpetrators, but either we openly bragged about it or she immediately guessed from our sheepish grins. I think she actually admired us after that for our brave initiative. Mrs. C was so cool that by the end of junior year, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell agreed to chaperone four friends and me on a trip to Rome after we graduated – and she kept her word!

No cars were harmed or even touched in the prank, yet forevermore Mrs. Campbell called Nancy and I her car thieves. And that is how I got my class out of a history lesson one day and went down in Archbishop Ryan High School for Girls history as a teenage car thief.

How Mrs. Campbell signed my yearbook in senior year: Dear Donna, You have a great future as a car thief.

Our prank made it into our senior yearbook as a caption on a photo of Mrs. Campbell teaching class!

Left: Nancy and Mrs. C at our friend Mary’s graduation party, June 1985. Right: Mrs. C and me expressing our dissatisfaction with the hotel in Rome, July 1985.

[Written for the 122nd Carnival of Genealogy: School Humor]

T is for Towns

My ancestral towns

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet Series… T is for Towns! When I first started researching my family history, I did not know the names of the towns from which my great-grandparents came. Now I have a plethora of exotic-sounding foreign town names from Aichach to Żyrardów and Aschau to Zelów!

I always want to learn more about each place: What’s the history of the town? What was the town like when my ancestors lived there? What does it look like today?

Gazetteers are great for a historical perspective of your ancestral town. For Germany, I’ve used the Meyers Gazetteer of the German Empire (Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs) and for Poland, the Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavonic Countries (Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i Innych Krajów Słowiańskich).But an easy way to learn more about a town is to “Google it”! I’ve found that most towns – even some tiny ones – have websites. With the help of some online translators, you can even learn more about the town’s history from their website. Many towns even have pages that provide information in English.

Once you know the names of your ancestral towns – consider visiting in person. There’s nothing like walking in your ancestors’ footsteps to get a sense of what family history is all about.

Read past posts about some of my ancestral towns: Żyrardów, Mszczonów, and Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm.

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

S is for Signatures

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet series… S is for Signatures! Yes, my name is Donna, and I am an Ancestor Autograph Collector. Other than a photograph, nothing makes an ancestor seem “real” to me like seeing their names written in their own handwriting. A signature is very personal – from the cautious, large, sprawling script of someone just learning to write to the stronger, more defined flourish of an adult to the smaller, diminishing scribble of the elderly, our signatures, though changeable with time, are unique.

For ancestors living in the 20th Century, there are multiple documents that they may have signed such as marriage licenses, social security applications, passports, and insurance applications. Immigrant ancestors may have signed declarations of intention, naturalizations, or alien registration forms. Male ancestors may have signed draft registration forms or military service forms. I assume you can find signatures on wills or estate files, but I have no experience with these records.

Prior to the 20th Century, my ancestors were either in Bavaria or Poland. In Bavaria, couples signed the civil marriage record similar to marriage licenses today. In Poland, signatures of the relevant parties or witnesses were often annotated on the church books, which doubled as civil records, for births, marriages, and deaths. However, nearly all of my Polish ancestors were illiterate – including those that came to the United States, but they eventually learned to write by evidence of their signatures later in life. The oldest signature I found was from my great-great grandfather, Stanisław Piątkowski, from his marriage record in 1863. I am still curious to know why he, among all of my ancestors, was literate. His occupation was “private official”.

Signature of my 2nd great-grandfather on an 1866 baptismal record from Warsaw: Stanisław Piątkowski, ojciec (father)

In order to display my ancestor autograph collection, I put together the following charts to show my great-grandparents and grandparents on both sides. I’ve been wanting to do this since footnoteMaven posted something similar back in 2008 in Sign Here Please!  As she so astutely points out, signatures have a way of making genealogy “interesting” to family members not usually interested in family history! Case in point – I showed my mother these images, and she asked if she could have a copy!

My paternal signature family tree (click image to enlarge)

My maternal signature family tree (click image to enlarge)

 Happy Autograph Hunting!

 

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet challenge]

R is for Religion

Procession of First Communicants, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Philadelphia, PA, May 11, 1941.

Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series… R is for Religion! The faith of our fathers (and mothers) is important to genealogical research, because often times your ancestors’ places of worship kept records before the state or civil authorities did. Or, in the years after civil vital registration was mandatory, church (or synagogue, or other religious institution) record books can serve as an alternate record source to verify birth dates and other important data like parents’ names. But besides all of the wonderful record-keeping, religion can be important to family history on a much more personal level, especially if you share the faith that your ancestors handed down. Visiting the churches where your ancestors worshiped is a wonderful way to “connect” your family history from the past to the present!

My family is Roman Catholic. In records, it is hard to ascertain a person’s actual belief. In other words, just because they were baptized or married in a particular faith doesn’t mean they were devout. In my own research, I discovered that my one great-grandfather, Joseph Zawodny, probably was a faith-filled Catholic – he was a founding parishioner of St. Adalbert’s in Philadelphia, a “Polish” church for all the immigrants in the Port Richmond section of the city. The parish jubilee book also lists him as president of one of the charitable societies.  For other ancestors, I have no idea how active they were in the church – or not. I know that my maternal grandfather was a self-declared atheist at one point, regardless of his baptism in the Church.

As my research progressed, I discovered that not all of my ancestors were Catholic after all. My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Miller Pater, was Baptist. In researching her family I discovered that she descends from a unique group of individuals called the Unity of the Brethren, also called the Czech or Bohemian Brethren. The group was a Christian denomination that followed the works of the pre-reformation priest Jan Hus.

Around 1620, the counter-reformation was in full swing in Bohemia, and members of this faith were given the choice of leaving the country or practicing in secrecy (or, presumably, the choice to convert back to Catholicism). The sect continued despite persecution. In 1803, a group of these Brethren decided to leave Bohemia and they immigrated to Poland where they purchased a large amount of land and founded a new town called Zelów. It is in this Polish town that my Czech great-great grandparents were born. A sizable group of Czechs from Zelów, all textile workers, migrated north to two other Polish towns, Łódź and Żyrardów. My great-grandmother was born in Żyrardów in 1890…which explains why there are no records of her birth/baptism in the Catholic records of the town.

I’ve always been proud to be Catholic – like my Bavarian and Polish ancestors – but I was very happy to learn about this group of Protestant ancestors. Because of their faith, they took a bold step and left their homeland behind forever. Moving to a new country because of religious persecution in their homeland reminded me of the story of many of the colonial immigrants to the United States. To give up your homeland for your faith is truly a testament to your faith! The town of Zelów, Poland that was founded by the Czech immigrants is still known as the “Czech village”. I found a video online (subtitled in English) that shows the church and the town.

No matter what the religion of your ancestors was, finding out about their faith adds much to your family’s story. Some other family history faith-related posts I’ve written include Faith of Our Ancestors, Praying with My Ancestors, and First Communion, 1941 Style (from which I borrowed the great photo above). I thought religion was so pertinent to family history that I even started a whole blog about it – the Catholic Gene is a collaborative effort that reflects on the Roman Catholic faith and family history. We’ve been quiet lately, but hopefully we’ll be back to posting soon.

[Written for the weekly Family History through the Alphabet challenge]

Q is for Questions

Continuing the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Series… Q is for Questions! My genealogical research would be nonexistent if I hadn’t asked questions. Euripides once said, “Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.” That, my friends, is sometimes what I think genealogy is like because we ask questions, find some answers, and end up with a lot more questions.

As a young teenager, I remember asking my maternal grandmother, who we called Nan, some simple questions. In retrospect, this marked the beginning of my future as a genealogist and family historian. I asked her questions about her parents: What were their names? Where were they born? When did they come here? What were they like? She told me some answers. They weren’t necessarily correct answers, but they were answers! 

After college I began researching my family. My Nan was no longer living, so my questions went right to my parents: When did your parents get married? Did they ever talk about their parents? When did your grandparents die? Where did they come from? I dutifully recorded their answers. Then I researched some records…and I found answers in spite of my parents’ answers, which led to more questions: Why didn’t you tell me you had great-grandparents in this country? Why didn’t you tell me about Aunt and Uncle so-and-so?

Their usual response: “Oh yeah, I forget about that!”

One would assume that genealogical records would provide concrete answers, yet inevitably the records led to tons of additional questions. Why isn’t she with the rest of the family on the census? Why can’t I find him on the passenger list? When did they immigrate? What was her maiden name?

Family history research is all about the questions – and finding some answers. But in some ways the questions are more important, because without them we would have no impetus for research, no reason for the quest. Answers are wonderful, but ironically every nugget of information leads to even more questions! I found you, now who were your parents?

Genealogy can be a greedy quest… Here’s to all the questions, and hopefully one day finding all the answers we can. I will close with one of my favorite quotes from poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The quote has absolutely nothing to do with genealogical research. But since it deals with questions, it is highly appropriate:

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
in Letters to a Young Poet

 [Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

Naturalization Certificate of Elizabeth Miller Pater, who was naturalized on December 13, 1954 at the age of 64.

Of all the great discoveries I’ve made in over twenty years of genealogical research, one of the most amazing was made just this last month! It didn’t add a generation to the family tree or uncover new names, but it brought both a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. Several months ago while finding my ancestors on the 1940 Census, I realized something that I should have realized a long time ago: my great-grandmother Elizabeth Miller Pater wasn’t naturalized, at least not in 1940. Even though her husband (Louis Pater) was naturalized in 1925, wives had to file separately. I searched for her papers in the same court that her husband used, but nothing was found. It finally dawned on me that she would have had to file for the Alien Registration Act in 1940. There were two things I desperately wanted to find regarding Elizabeth: her birthplace and a photograph. Would her alien registration papers help me?

I filed a request with USCIS, and they quickly located her index file. I found out that she was naturalized in 1954. I then sent for a copy of the full file. After many, many months of waiting, it finally arrived. It contained 30 pages of information, some useless and some priceless! Not only did the file include her petition and certificate for naturalization in 1954, but also her alien registration forms from 1940. I could probably write several posts about the complete documentation, but here are the highlights:

What Made Me Smile

I have written before about how difficult it was to find Elizabeth on the passenger arrival records. With a surname like Miller (or Müller), there were plenty of candidates. But I did find her eventually (see the link above). According to her passenger arrival record, she came from Żyrardów, Poland, which I assumed to be her birthplace. In the naturalization file, the first smile on my face was at the fact that the U.S. Government couldn’t locate her – at first – on the arrival records either.

Apparently my great-grandmother wished to apply for Social Security benefits, and she couldn’t get them without either proof of birth or proof of citizenship. She remembered the exact date she arrived – April 16, 1909 – but she could not remember the name of the ship. She mis-identified the port of entry as Philadlphia instead of New York, so the folks at the Immigration and Naturalization Service could not find the record. I guess Steve Morse’s site didn’t exist back then or it might have been easier for them!  The letter said:

Referring to your citizenship application in which you allege arrival at Philadelphia, PA on Apr. 16, 1909 via S.S. unknown, you are advised that all records at the port at which you claim entry have been examined and no record referring to you has been found.

I laughed….yeah, I couldn’t find her at first either! But eventually, they did, once they searched for the port of New York and looked under her maiden name. She was trying to remember an event that took place 45 years before, so her memory was a bit fuzzy on the details.

I also smiled because every paper in the packet identifies her birthplace as Żyrardów, which I assumed, and her birthdate as 21 November 1890, which I knew from other records. This made me smile because more than one researcher has been unable to find evidence of her birth in Żyrardów on that date. I know that should make me sigh, not smile, but my own conclusion based on my extensive research was exactly what she said.

What Made Me Cry

A recurring theme on this site is my desire to find photographs of my ancestors because I have so few. I even entitled one post about Elizabeth “Do you have a photo of my great-grandmother?” I did have one, and I didn’t want to be greedy because one is so much better than none at all. So when I saw Elizabeth’s photo included in the naturalization documents, I cried. It was tears of joy, but it was the first time in my life I found a new photo of a great-grandparent – the few photos of six of my greats have been with me since childhood. This one was new. She’s a bit older, and looking not-too-happy, but it brought me great joy to see her. And also to see a resemblance-she immediately reminded me of my Aunt Joan, Elizabeth’s granddaughter.

Surprise!

As I casually read through Elizabeth’s Alien Registration papers (no photo required with those, in case anyone is wondering – I will transcibe the questions on the form in a future post), one little word raised my eyebrows and would have knocked me over had I been standing up.  The question:

13. I have the following specified relatives living in the United States:

Parents: (one, none, or both) _______

Her response? One.

Um, wait… WHAT?  SHE HAD A PARENT IN THE UNITED STATES IN 1940? I had a great-great-grandparent here in the United States! That, my friends, was news to me. When she came to the country in 1909, she came alone (at age 18), and there was never any indication that either of her parents came here.

I have suspicions it was her mother (yet another future post on why I recently had those suspicions). Either way, again the surname of Miller is a bit problematic. I have found one candidate on the 1940 census for her mother, Elizabeth Smetana Miller, and none for her father, John Miller. Both were born in Poland, likely in the town of Zelów in the Łódź province, and lived in Żyrardów in the Mazovia province since before Elizabeth’s birth in 1890 and at least at the time of her immigration in 1909. Much, much more to come on this new development as I track down which parent was here, when they came, and where they lived. And the obvious…that one parent here in 1940 was also required to register as an alien (assuming they hadn’t been naturalized prior to 1940)!

That’s the great thing about genealogy – you’re always discovering and finding something to smile about (or sometimes cry about). And, there’s always the possibility that you’ll be surprised. Here’s to more great discoveries!

[Written for the 121st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Great Discoveries]

Photo by katieb50 under the Creative Commons license (click on image for link to katieb50’s Flickr page for this photo)

It is my pleasure to present the 4th annual Festival of Strange Search Terms – the weird, bizarre, and unusual phrases that folks have entered into search engines…and for some weird, bizarre, and unusual reason they wound up here anyway. Here are some of the best of the strange and odd search terms that have brought visitors here in 2012 – with my comments, of course! Note: these are actual search terms used!

If Only It Was That Easy

how did aunt joan die – Well, I know how my Aunt Joan died. I’m not really sure about yours.

what heritage am i – Who needs a DNA test or all that annoying research? Just Google it!

ww2 my grandpa in his uniform with my grandma – I wish finding photographs was this easy!

my grandmother in 1927 – And they really expected to find her…

find grampa – I’m tempted to Google this to see the search results. Maybe my grampa is there too!

my great great grandparents – Ta Da! I wish my smartphone was that smart. It would have saved me tons of research time.

Things That Make You Go “Huh?”

if only i had shown him my heirlooms – I so want to know the story behind this one! We need to make this a writing prompt for the next Carnival of Fictional Genealogy!

alien skulls – Hmm…

missouri recycling statistics from 2008-2011 – What’s amusing about this one is: 1) it led to my blog, which as far as I know has never mentioned  either Missouri or recycling, and 2) they stayed long enough to view two posts.

worst libraries – Why search for the best of anything when you can search for the worst?

animated obsessive compulsive – Do they mean a cartoon of an obsessive compulsive, or just an obsessive compulsive who uses a lot of hand gestures and facial expressions?

Make Me LOL

did fotomat have bathroom – While I may have wondered that as a kid, I would have never thought to search for the answer online.

if plan a doesn’t work, remember there are 25 more letters in the alphabet – If you need 26 tries to make your plan work, it’s probably not that great of an idea. Just say’n…

cat movie camera – Is this a movie camera that can only be used to film cats or one that can only be operated by cats?

a story from my past – Oh, wait, I’m drawing a blank on that memory so let me search for it online…

i used to have a life then i discovered genealogy – Didn’t we all?

This Sounds Like Fun

fountain of youth birthday party – I’ll drink to that!

time travel pictures 1940 – If they are pictures obtained by traveling back through time to 1940, then I’m all ears!

facebookancester.com [sic] – Because if they only had Facebook back then, we would now know that Grandma was often bored and played FarmVille all day.

“gene kelly’s ass” – Who could ask for anything more?

So there you have it! The next edition of the What’s Past is Prologue search term carnival will include more bizarre, freakish, and unusual ways that bring me more traffic. Until next time, I remain the Queen of Grampa’s Alien Heirlooms and Time Travel Photos of Gene Kelly’s Ass.

[Note: My past crown titles include Queen of Forgotten Unusual Facial Expressions and Dumb Mistake Cake Spelling Roulette, Queen and Super-Finder of Renegade Name-Labeled Regal Dog Portraits and Queen of Ugly Teady Beer Shakespearean Transvestite Marriage Photos. I bet you’re really jealous now.]

P is for Proof

Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series, P is for… Proof! I had a lot of possibilities for the letter “P” such as surnames (including my own) and town names (not to mention the country of Poland, the source of most of my ancestors). But what good is all the information we collect without proof? How do we really prove our family history? Well, there’s an “app” for that – the application of the Genealogical Proof Standard, the measure by which one’s research is credible.

The Board for Certification of Genealogists defines the Genealogical Proof Standard as a conclusion that contains five elements:

  • a reasonably exhaustive search
  • complete and accurate source citations
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion

A conclusion based on all of these standards is proven, genealogically speaking. Of course, true “proof” of who are ancestors were could really only be obtained with genetic testing. But, absent the ways and means to perform such testing, the Genealogical Proof Standard is how our “evidence” is proven to be credible.

I, for one, am often stuck in the (un)reasonably exhaustive search phase – or as speaker and genealogist Warren Bittner refers to it, the “reasonably exhausting search”. Complete and accurate source citations are a continuing challenge for me, but it helps to make my case. Conflicting evidence is perhaps the most challenging part of proving a fact, but isn’t that sort of analysis and detective work what makes family history fun?

Can you prove your family history?

[Written for the weekly Family History through the Alphabet challenge]

Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series… O is for Occupations! Some of the many interesting things I’ve learned while researching my family history are my ancestors’ occupations. What skills, trades, and talents are on your family tree?

I’ve written about my family’s occupations in the past, so for today’s post I’m taking a different approach to the topic of working for a living. Has your own choice of a job or a particular talent been unknowingly influenced by your ancestors?

On the episode of Henry Louis Gates’ Finding Your Roots featuring Martha Stewart, Dr. Gates seemed surprised to discover that many of Martha’s ancestors’ jobs involved such decorative arts as basket-making, iron work, and gardening. These crafts have also played a role in Stewart’s career as a decorator. But when she embarked on that career, she knew nothing of her family’s history in similar fields.

I was not as surprised as Dr. Gates because I have experienced exactly the same thing in my own family history research when comparing some of my ancestors’ occupations to that of my brother and myself.

My brother has some similarities to our great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister. Joseph’s primary occupation in life was a baker – my brother is not. However, we found a curious connection in another earlier occupation of Joseph’s. During his mandatory military service in the Bavarian Army, Joseph served in the Leib Regiment, or the Königlich Bayerisches Infanterie Leib Regiment. This roughly translates to the Royal Bavarian Infantry Life Guard Regiment. This elite regiment protected the royal family, and was headquartered in Munich at the royal palace. Our great-grandfather served in this unit from 1893-95 when he was only 20 to 22 years old.

When my brother was 21 years old, he joined the United States Marine Corps, another elite branch of the military known for their rigorous training and “spit and polish” image, much like the Leib Regiment. While in the Marines, my brother served as an Embassy security guard, which would have had similarities to the Leib Regiment not only in function – as a protection and security unit – but also in form in terms of strict protocol and image.

While these two military jobs were similar, my brother’s later career mirrored Joseph’s Leib Regiment service even more closely. Years later, my brother served in the state police. His time in service included working on the executive protection detail guarding the governor. Coincidentally, the uniform of the Leib Regiment and the state police have one remarkable similarity – they coat/shirt of each uniform are a bright light blue.

As for my own career, I’ve spent the last twenty years as a “civil servant”. I was surprised to discover that the career I stumbled upon by accident is closely interwoven with the careers of multiple ancestors. None were civil servants, but their jobs instead are directly related to the industry that I’ve worked with in my government job – the U.S. clothing, textile, and footwear industry. I’ve worked with this shrinking domestic industry, one that is nearly entirely dependent upon the military, for my entire career.

When I first started my job in 1992, I knew that my maternal grandparents had worked in the textile factories that once populated Philadelphia. But after that, as I spent more spare time researching my genealogy, I began to uncover more generations involved with this industry – a whole collection of weavers, seamstresses, cloth merchants, and shoemakers! Some of these occupations are on both my father’s and mother’s side of the family tree including generations of both Bavarian and Polish shoemakers. My maternal grandfather’s family, all weavers, came from Żyrardów, Poland – a town founded to produce textiles. It soon became the largest textile-producing town in the entire Russian Empire by the end of the 19th Century. I may not weave fabric or make clothes or shoes myself, but thanks to my desk job I know more about these industries than I ever thought possible.

I wondered about other occupational connections in the family. My father worked as an accountant, and while I haven’t found any bean counters in his family’s history, I realized that in his younger days he was quite talented at construction-type jobs around the house. Did that talent stem from his Bavarian carpenter and mason ancestors? My mother also worked as a bookkeeper and a bank teller, but her dream job, and her talent, was designing and making clothes. Did that passion come from her weaving ancestors?

Perhaps we have a genetic memory within us that calls us to certain occupations or pastimes. I’d like to think so, but then again maybe it’s just a matter of some remarkable coincidences. I’d like to know who the historian in the family was… Because I think I inherited that gene!

[Written for the weekly Family History through the Alphabet Challenge]

Continuing with the Family History through the Alphabet Challenge… N is for Napoleon! Napoleon may have been a dictator, but he did a few other things as well – one thing in particular that may even have an impact on your family history research today. In 1804 he instituted the Civil Code, which is now known as the Napoleonic Code. It was adopted throughout many of the lands he conquered, and it remained in effect after his death. The Civil Code granted many things we take for granted today such as freedom of religion and equality. Of course, it stated other things that we wouldn’t necessarily be happy with today like patriarchal power – in other words, husbands rule the household. But genealogically speaking, we have Napoleon and his code to thank for civil registration of vital events such as births, marriages, and deaths. The Roman Catholic church had been keeping records prior to this – in some places for centuries – but the Civil Code made the record-keeping a state function.

The Code spelled out exactly what must be recorded in the vital records, and the information required was more than what was customarily kept in church record books. For example, a religious baptismal record would likely indicate the child’s name, date of birth, date of baptism, parents’ names, godparents’ names, and the location. Napoleonic birth records required the exact time of birth as well as the full names, ages, residences, and professions of the parents and witnesses. Napoleonic marriage records are rather detailed and include the ages, residences, and professions of the bride and groom, their parents, and the witnesses. I don’t think the Napoleonic death records are as detailed as those for birth and marriage because it lacks the cause of death and the birthplace of the deceased. But, the Civil Code required that these events be registered within the community whereas prior to this it was merely a religious function.

The Civil Code was adopted in countries occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars and became the basis of law in Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Romania, and parts of Germany. I gave an example of a Napoleonic birth record in the Baptism of Jozef Piontkowski. Learn more about translating Polish vital records in the Napoleonic format at this link.

[Written for the weekly Family History through the Alphabet Challenge]

This is a great photograph of my mother in 1950. She was only 14 years old yet to me she looks glamorous and sophisticated. But what’s funny about this photo is that my mother always said she never really learned how to ride a bike. I saw her ride one once, but she was a bit unsteady and gave up quickly. Even if it’s not her bicycle, you have to admit it makes a nice fashion accessory!

Posted for Sepia Saturday #138

 

 

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