This year I am participating in the 2015 edition of the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge. The theme for Week 1 is “Fresh Start” and my ancestor is my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Miller Pater. She was so confusing to research over the years that I needed a fresh start!
I first began researching my family history in 1989. While research methods, family group sheets, and pedigree charts have been the staples of genealogy for a very long time, looking back at when I began my search only twenty-five years ago seems like the dark ages. The first available federal census to research was 1910. No census records were online. No passenger records were online. No vital records were available online. There’s a theme here: nothing was available online, the paper records were difficult to come by, and even the microfilmed records did not cover the vast amount of years or locations that they do today.
After duly interviewing my parents about everything they knew about their immigrant grandparents (which was not much), I began my search. Considering the lack of easily accessible records, I actually did really well – of course, if I began today, I would find exactly the same information, plus a lot more, in a fraction of the time. But in the case of Elizabeth Miller Pater, I did not do very well. In fact, I made the biggest rookie mistake a genealogist can make – I made an assumption, lacked evidence of the genealogical “proof”, and continued researching. If the assumption had been correct, no harm done except for making professional genealogists cringe in horror. But – I was wrong! So for a certain period of time – a few years – I was actually researching the wrong Elizabeth Miller.
I based my research on a few facts from my mother. We assumed my great-grandparents married in Poland, but when I found my great-grandfather coming to the U.S. at the age of 14 – quite single – I realized that she did not come over under her married name. Therein lay the problem – pick a country and I can find you several dozen women named Elizabeth Miller. Whether it was Ireland, England, Germany, Poland, Russia, Autria, Hungary, Slovakia, or anywhere else, there were women named Elizabeth Miller. I limited my search to Polish (or Russian, given that Poland was under Russian rule, but my mother claimed that Elizabeth herself claimed she was Bohemian. Since my grandfather was born in 1912, I knew she immigrated before then, so “Bohemia” would have been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
I don’t remember my rationale at the time, but for some reason I found a teenaged girl with my great-grandmother’s name and thought I found her. The uncle she traveled with was not a name familiar to my family. But I persisted down the wrong research path. If I only knew more about the genealogical proof standard back then! Fortunately, I started fresh and began the research again. This time, things made more sense, names matched, and documents verified my mother’s stories (yes, she was technically Bohemian – she was descended from Bohemian immigrants to Poland). It wasn’t easy, but I finally “found” the only great-grandmother I actually met.
Lesson Learned: Don’t assume! Verify information with sources until you’re reasonbly sure you have the correct person – especially when dealing with a common surname. And if you’re stuck, sometimes it pays to put all of your research aside and get a fresh start!
Elizabeth was born Elżbieta Miller in 1890 in or near the town of Żyrardów in the Mazovia province of Poland (województwo mazowieckie). Although her parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents were born in Poland, they were all of Czech descent. Her parents, Jan Miller and Elizabeth Smetana, were born in Zelów in the Łódź province but moved to Żyrardów as children with their parents. Żyrardów had a large Czech community, and most residents worked in the linen and textile factory that the town was built around in 1833.
Elizabeth was one of at least seven children (research on the family continues). Her family spoke Czech at home, but also knew Polish and Russian. They, and the other Czech families, were all of the Protestant faith – the Czech Brethren or Evangelical Reformed church. Despite the fact that Poland was predominantly Catholic, Żyrardów was a large town with groups of Germans and Czechs and had an Evangelical Reformed Church, a Lutheran church, and a Jewish synagogue in addition to the Roman Catholic church.
Elizabeth’s brother Emil immigrated to the U.S. in 1905; his wife and daughter followed later that year. They settled in Philadelphia, PA, where there was a community of other immigrants from Żyrardów. Emil had two more children in Philadelphia by the time his sister Elizabeth immigrated alone in 1909 at the age of 18. The passenger arrival record provides a physical description: light brown hair, gray eyes, and a height of 4’11”. In 1910, she is living on the same street as her brother and is listed as a border in the household of another family named Miller. Although they are also from Żyrardów, I have not yet found a family connection.
Living just blocks away was another family from Żyrardów, the Pater’s. I can only wonder if Elizabeth Miller and Louis Pater had known each other as children in Żyrardów. Louis had been in the country since 1907. But just sixteen months after Elizabeth arrived, the couple got married. They married in Camden, NJ, rather than Philadelphia – perhaps because Louis had just turned 17 and may have required parental permission in Pennsylvania. Elizabeth was older by almost three years. Her brother Emil and her fellow border, Olga Olczak, served as witnesses. Olga was also from Żyrardów and would eventually become a relative of sorts to the Miller family through marriage.
Despite being from the same town, the couple were of two different religions. Louis Pater came from a Polish Catholic family. Elizabeth remained Protestant. It is just an assumption, but since Louis’ parents were also living in Philadelphia, I think it may have been a source of contention. My only proof of this is finding a baptismal record for my grandfather, Louis and Elizabeth’s oldest child, in the Catholic church near the Pater family’s home in Langhorne, PA. But years later when my grandfather went to marry in the Catholic church, he received a dispensation because he himself was not aware that he was baptized Catholic.
Louis and Elizabeth had five boys: Henry (my grandfather), Walter, Louis, Victor, and Eugene. Unfortunately, two of her sons died rather young, both from tuberculosis. Louis was only 24 when he died in 1940. His brother Victor was 31 and died just a few years after the same disease took his 22-year-old wife.
Both Louis and Elizabeth worked in the textile factories in Philadelphia. Elizabeth worked as a hosiery topper from the 1930’s through the 1950’s at Gotham Hosiery, which was located on Erie Avenue. The family lived on Hope Street, then N. Hancock Street, then N. Waterloo Street – all in the same Philadelphia neighborhood.
Elizabeth seemed to be close to her siblings. Her brother Emil went back to Żyrardów sometime around 1910. He was apparently one of the exiles to Siberia around 1915 and died in Russia. His wife and son would later return to the U.S. and were close with Elizabeth. Their sister Mary immigrated in 1912 with her husband, Ludwig Schultz, and they lived in New York City. In 1913, brother Alfred immigrated with his five nieces and nephews, the children of Mary and Ludwig. Alfred lived in New York City and both of his brothers-in-law, Louis Pater and Ludwig Schultz, were witnesses for his marriage in 1921. The Schultz family eventually settled in Metuchen, NJ. In 1920, Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Sophie, immigrated to the U.S. accompanied by their mother, Elizabeth Smetana Miller. Sophie moved to Philadelphia but their mother lived with both Alfred and Mary. Mother Elizabeth died in Metuchen, NJ, in 1944. Elizabeth’s brother Ludwik remained in Żyrardów his entire life and owned a shoestore. The remaining known siblings, Paweł and Karolina, apparently died in exile to Siberia or in Russian prison. More research is being conducted to fill in these blanks on the family tree.
Elizabeth’s husband, Louis, passed away in 1957 at the age of 64. Elizabeth lived on Waterloo Street a few doors away from her sister-in-law, Victoria Pater Koruba. Elizabeth died from congestive heart failure on 28 July 1972 and was buried in Greenmount Cemetery. At the time of her death, she left behind three sons, seven grandchildren, and at least two great-grandchildren (including me). As much information as I’ve been able to gather on Elizabeth’s relatives, I’ve had a problem finding out information about the children of her sons Eugene and Walter (Walter decided that the surname Pater was unlucky and used his mother’s maiden name of Miller instead). Maybe it’s time for a fresh start with that research as well.
Just the Facts
- Name: Elżbieta (Elizabeth) Miller
- Ahnentafel: #13 – my great-grandmother
- Parents: Jan Miller (c.1851-c.1913) and Elżbieta Smetana (1858-1944)
- Born: 21 November 1890, Żyrardów, Poland
- Siblings: Paweł (unk-bef.1919), Emil (c.1881-bef.1919), Mary (1884-1969), Karolina (1885-19??), Ludwik (1894-aft.1977), Ferdinand Alfred “Fred”(1896-aft.1969), Zofia “Sophie” (1903-bef.1969)
- Immigrated: from Hamburg, Germany aboard the SS President Grant, arriving in New York City on April 16, 1909
- Married: Ludwik (Louis) Pater on 27 August 1910 in Camden, NJ, USA
- Children: Henry (1912-1972), Walter (1913-1975), Louis (1916-1940), Victor (1919-1951), Eugene (1920-1979)
- Naturalized: 13 December 1954
- Died: 28 July 1972 in Philadelphia, PA
- Buried: 31 July 1972, Greenmount Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
Written for 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: 2015 Edition – Week 1: Fresh Start