Friday, September 20, 2019

Grabbing Another Learning Opportunity

\When it comes to researching family history, there is always something more to learn. I took the opportunity this week to fly in to Salt Lake City—not a bad spot for this type of learning—to attend the Association of Professional Genealogists' Professional Management Conference.

This is my second year attending, as I was impressed with the different atmosphere at last year's PMC in Kansas City. Unlike many genealogy conferences, this one is, as I prefer to put it, intimate. It is also focused, considering many of the attendees are longstanding genealogical researchers, coordinating their own business ventures.

However, don't think the only ones attending are those for whom genealogy has been their lifelong vocation; I met several this year in stages of transition. For instance, there are those who are planning career changes, either upon their early retirement from other professions, or as a mid-career move to switch vocational focus. I enjoyed chatting at lunch yesterday with two women who started their career-switching trajectory by taking Boston University's online studies program. Others have been building up to the big jump by diligently attending genealogy institutes around the country, year after year. Yet another group is starting out in their college years, following a course of studies for their bachelor or master's degree in a related field, such as library science. I've spoken with attendees sporting a wide variety of educational and business backgrounds, situated on this wide spectrum of professional timelines.

The variety of training resources offered at this event is also refreshing. I tend to gravitate towards any sessions focused on genetic genealogy—and was certainly pleased to hear Dana Leeds (of Leeds Method renown) present an up-to-the-minute overview of how her color cluster methodology has melded with various other technology-driven assists. But the conference certainly offers information and support on so many other pertinent issues. I was glad, for instance, to be able to catch a brief session on creating instructional videos—something we need to hear more about in this field—by Shaunese Luthy of Untangle Your Roots.

This conference extends through the weekend, and I look forward to not only hearing from more of  such luminaries of the genealogical world as Elizabeth Shown Mills and Thomas W. Jones, but pioneers from the start of the explosion of interest in family history, such as Kory Meyerink, who was there at the formation of what later became What makes the conference refreshing, though, is APG's willingness to introduce bright, fresh faces and voices to the mix, with speakers from other nations, generations, and ethnicities. This weekend will provide plenty of inspiration to carry me forward for a long time. And there's nothing like refreshed enthusiasm to pick up the momentum. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Getting to Know Foreign Nicknames

It's all very well and good to be familiar with nicknames when researching one's family at home. For instance, because of all the experiences I've had in America with names, I've learned by osmosis that Jack can be a nickname for John, for instance. Spend enough time researching those roots in America, and it no longer throws a researcher to see Sally in a document where Sarah should officially have appeared. But Polish nicknames? Ah, that is the start of a new learning curve—and one which I can't escape if I wish to keep track of my Polish ancestors. I'm just glad I'm not tasked with sorting out all the names in a Russian novel.

As it turned out, trying to find Ignatz Giernatowski and his wife—my great-grandfather's sister Agnes Laskowska—as immigrants in New York was not a fruitful search for me. I found candidate families with just enough of a near-miss to cause me to hesitate snatching up the record and plugging it into my tree.

That, however, does not mean we stop searching, of course. Eventually, I came across a couple records, both of which began my education in Polish nicknames. The first was a passenger list transcribed on Castle Garden's website—on which, unfortunately, I'm currently having difficulty accessing, but thankfully had transcribed my own set of notes—showing a woman by the name of Agniska Geirnatowska traveling with a nine year old boy named Ludwig and a six month old girl named Pelagia. They had arrived at the port of New York on 13 August, 1888.

While the woman I was seeking had the name Agnes Giernatowska, what's a little bit of spelling rearrangement among friends? Besides, our Agnes did have a son named Ludwig, who was born in Poland in 1878, which could possibly have still been nine years of age at the time of that August arrival. Even better, our Agnes had a daughter whom she had named Pelagia, according to records found from Żerków dated January, 1888. Almost six months, at least.

So...could Agniska have been a nickname in Poland for Agnes?

The second lesson in my education on Polish nicknames came with her daughter's name, Pelagia. Originally a Greek name, it seemed an unusual choice for a Polish couple to name their daughter. However, since it was the name of a saint, perhaps the connection was through the Catholic Church, of which this family seemed to be connected. One website mentioned that, indeed, besides in Greece, the name was also common in Russian and Polish cultures.

Knowing all that about the name Pelagia, however, did not clue me in to any nickname possibilities. Pelagia simply wasn't a popular name to give a baby on American shores, so perhaps there wasn't much of a chance to shorten it to a nickname.

That, at least, was what I thought when I set aside the puzzle of the three census discoveries of an Ignatz and Agnes Giernatowski—and spelling variations—on account of the three different names for the daughter: Blanch, Pauline, and Pleshia.

Until, that is, I received two particular matches to my own DNA test at not one but two different testing companies. As it turned out, there was a man and what might be a son or nephew who had tested their own DNA, and one of them had posted their family tree. Of course, I had looked at it before—only casually, I admit, because it wasn't a close relationship, and it included absolutely no surnames that matched mine. But eventually, I discovered these two men were related to my father's side of the family, and had shared matches with others whom I had connected with this Laskowski paternal side.

Guesses can be risky policy, when it comes to genealogy, but I did start taking a look around. After all, what if that "Plasha" in the "Gernotwoski" household in the 1920 census was just an ineptly-recorded Pelagia? I built a "what-if" scenario with Ignatz and Agnes and their daughter Pelagia, following links to documents for misspellings like Plashia or Pleska...and eventually reached a New York City marriage record connecting a "Pleska Gernatwaska" with a man by the very same surname as the one in my puzzling DNA match.

So, was baby Pelagia from Poland the same woman as the "Plashia" listed on the headstone bearing the married name I found in New York City records? Apparently—at least if we believe those DNA results—the answer is yes. Pelagia from Poland either preferred her nickname Plashia, or her newfound American community adapted her name to a different format than her parents remembered from the old country.

No matter which the outcome, I'm now more confident that at least the 1920 census in which I found Ignatz and Agnes in New York City pinpointed the right family, and that this one immigrant child became the link between my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski's descendants and the branch that came from his sister, the widow who remarried and, apparently, followed her new husband to a new land.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Gambling With Guesses

One thing about genealogy: the protocol requires us to take things step by step—with documentation for each stop along the way. It would seem there'd be little room for guesses in this type of careful process.

But then, there are brick walls. Immovable, impassible brick walls. I've certainly given up on my fair share of brick walls (or, rather, learned to wait until later, when more digitized records got uploaded to websites). But I've also learned to be brave enough to guess, er, make an educated hypothesis and thoroughly test it out.

When it came to my great-grandfather's unfortunate sister Agnes Laskowska—the one who had lost two of her three children, along with her husband, before remarrying in Żerków, Poland—I had a few things going for me in the guess-making realm. First was that she married a man with a relatively unusual name (Ignatz Giernatowski). Second was that Agnes still had one son from her previous marriage, a boy by the name of Ludwig Szumski, whom I had already discovered was born in 1878. The third detail involved a child from Agnes' second marriage to Ignatz, whom the couple named, in January of 1888, Pelagia Giernatowska.

This is where the guessing comes in. I reasoned—wildly, I admit—that if Agnes' brothers moved to the New World, then perhaps it might not be so far-fetched to assume that Agnes and her second husband might have considered the same thing, as well. After all, my great-grandmother Mary Laskowska brought her three children across the Atlantic in 1889; perhaps her sister-in-law could have done so, as well.

I started pursuing these what-if scenarios to see if I could find any results. The first place I attempted my search was in the New York City area. After all, that is where Agnes' brother Anton headed when he made his start in the New World.

Fortunately, it wasn't long until my searches yielded a possibility. There was, in Brooklyn, according to the 1900 census, an Agnes married to someone named Ignatz, with the understandably-misspelled surname Gernatofski. Close, wouldn't you admit? Their household included three people: Agnes and her husband—who claimed they were married in 1888—and one daughter. According to the enumeration, Agnes had been the mother of four children, only one of whom was still living.

The only downside was that that child was named Blanch, not Pelagia.

Though I could not find any plausible entries in the 1910 census, the 1915 New York State census provided me with a possibility: a couple residing in Brooklyn named Ignatz and Agnes Giernatowsky. They, too, only had one daughter. Only problem: the daughter's name was Pauline. A third close-miss was the 1920 census, in which a Brooklyn couple named Ignatius and Agnes Gernotwoski lived with their daughter...Pleshia.

Did my Agnes and her husband with the ripe-for-misspelling surname even leave Poland and move to New York? I couldn't really tell from these frustrating results. There are, after all, lots of coincidences out there with foreign-sounding names which we think are rare (but turn out to be very common in that country, as we find out much later).

Genealogists are nothing if not plodding and prudent. Considering that, I had no choice but to set all this collection of possibilities aside. I couldn't—yet—be sure I had found the right people.

But then—and you know there will always be a "but then"—along came some surprise discoveries which gave me a research direction to follow. At first, I didn't even realize what had just landed in my lap, unbidden. This summer, though, it finally got impatient and slapped me in the face, waking me up to a different possibility.

Above: Excerpt from 1888 document (file 33 on this page) reporting birth of Pelagia Giernatowska, showing her parents' names to be Ignatz Giernatowski and Agnes Laskowska.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

That Other Sister

It is one thing to find an ancestor to fit on the family tree, when you are working your way backwards in time from the relatives you know now. It is an entirely different thing to commence the search from a hundred years ago and on a different continent. Once I was able to jump "the pond" with my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski, though, a world of Polish online resources showed me the possibility that I could.

The key was finding just one Polish genealogy website. I somehow stumbled upon a volunteer online project dedicated to transcribing old marriage records from that very province which my great-grandparents once called home: Posen, or, as the city at its center is called now, Poznań. That website is called, in English, the Poznan Project. Later, and through a recommendation I found at that first site, I discovered a second resource at the database called BaSIA.

What I did, once I discovered those online resources, was rather tedious: I looked up every instance in which any of my paternal ancestors' surnames showed up, linked to the area around Żerków, their ancestral homeland, the place I had discovered through various passenger records. Each time there was a mention of the surname Gramlewicz, for instance in the Poznan Project marriage transcriptions, I would write down who that person was, who that person was marrying, and names of any parents or witnesses.

Eventually, that mass of names, clustered in groups of surnames like Laskowski or Gramlewicz or the several other affiliated families, sorted itself into logical categories. For instance, since I already knew from my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski's death certificate what his parents' names were, all I had to do was isolate all the marriage records—and later, the birth records from BaSIA—to see who else claimed Mateusz Laskowski and Elzbieta Gramlewicz as parents.

As it turned out, there were four children in that group: Anton, of course, and the sister whom we discovered became the direct line ancestor of Annie Gramlewicz, the one who returned to New York City to marry after her family returned to Poland. And there was the brother I mentioned last week, as well.

There was, however, yet another sibling to account for. Her name was Agnes, and from what I could find in those Polish websites, she was born in 1852 in Żerków. Fortunately for me, I could also find additional records showing me a glimpse of the rest of her life. She was married in 1874, for instance, to Alexius Szumski. Even better, those Polish websites revealed that she and Alexius had at least three children: Victoria, Ludwig, and Joseph.

Life must not have been kind to Agnes, however, for the Szumskis lost their firstborn within six years of her birth, and their youngest—Joseph, born in 1881—lived barely a year. He died the same year as his father, Alexius, leaving Agnes with her then-four-year-old son, Ludwig.

As often happened to young widows in such situations, Agnes eventually married again. This time, it was five years into her widowhood when, in 1887, she married a man from the same village with the impossible-to-spell name of Ignatz Giernatowski.

From that point onward, there was nothing to be found in those Polish websites—not a surprise, seeing they had a limited date range for the collection. This also, however, presented a research dilemma: though the process was tedious to search through those Polish websites, they did, in the end, give me exactly what I was looking for—but nothing more. I could find anything about those surnames I wanted, as long as it was a transcription of a birth, marriage, or death record within a very limited time frame. What became of those people after that point, I couldn't tell. The record set's silence about such answers was reasonable to expect, but frustrating for someone wanting to know what happened to her ancestors' families.

From that point onward, in searching for what became of this family, I had two hopes. One, of course—you knew this would pop up again at some point—was DNA testing. The other, a much less scientific approach, was to take a leap of blind faith.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Not Necessarily a Niece

If you have been following along this past week as I unfolded the story of Annie Gramlewicz, the eighteen year old who lived, for a while, with my great-granparents, Anton and Mary Laskowski, you may have realized, as I did, that there was something squishy about Anton's report that Annie was his niece. After all, in that 1915 New York State census, Anton said he was sixty nine years of age. Annie may well have descended from a sister of Anton, but with that age difference, I wasn't sure Anton's sister would be the one who was Annie's mom.

Still, I was glad for any hint to help me piece together a family constellation for my mystery paternal ancestors. At the point when I first grappled with this family history enigma, there were not many online resources—and certainly no reach as helpful as our current connection to genealogical websites based in other countries.

I did, at that time, what most researchers found helpful: I sidestepped the situation by looking at collateral lines. Anything to find a lead to a homeland in The Old Country.

My most fruitful clue came by seeking what became of Annie's sister Helen. Remember, of that Gramlewicz immigrant family in Little Poland in New York City, almost all of their children had died young—except, during those earlier years, Annie and her sister Helen.

My research breakthrough came when I discovered a passenger record showing Helen's return to New York, after the family had permanently returned to Poland. The passenger list included details such as Helen's ability, as a bank clerk, to read and write not only English and Polish, but German as well. Most important—for my research notes, at least—was Helen's statement regarding where, exactly, her parents remained in Poland. Her answer: Żerków.

Sure enough, Żerków could be considered part of that region of origin that my Laskowski great-grandparents had once claimed as their homeland: "Posen." And by now, I have access to some wonderfully helpful online resources based in Poland. Believe me, I've searched for marriage and birth records showing any connection to the surname Gramlewicz—especially if linked to that other surname of interest, Laskowski.

Line upon line, as the saying goes, I built up my case for the connection between Anton Laskowski and Anna Gramlewicz. In the end, it did turn out that Anton had a sister—Marianna—who married a Gramlewicz. But Marianna and her husband, Lorenz Gramlewicz, were not the ones I found in the census records in New York City with children named Anna and Helen; their parents' names were given—admittedly with a great deal of spelling and handwriting angst among those American enumerators—as variations of Miecyslaus and Josefa.

Besides, Josefa's maiden name, as I later discovered, was Byczyńska (do not attempt saying that without your handy pronunciation guide). That tongue-twisting appearance of yet another Polish surname became good news to me, though, for it provided yet another name to search in those newly-found Polish genealogy websites. And it helped me build that family tree for Anton's mystery sister. That, in fact, was what led me to provide a name for that shadow sister, in the end—and to show me that it wasn't just one sister Anton had, but at least two.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Back to School—for the Rest of Us, Too!

In every way I can think of—at least in my genealogy world—it's been back to school, and it feels so good to be back in the groove again.

Yes, back-to-school is considered the realm of the junior members of society, where kids from kindergarten through college head back to the classroom. We've seen plenty of that type of action in the school districts around here with their various start dates—some as early as the first week of August (and thankfully some traditional holdouts who still stick with the post-Labor-Day opening).

But there are others of us who have had back-to-school on our minds, as well. Anyone who is fortunate to have continuing learning programs in their community will know what I mean. In our city, we have two series of learning opportunities: one which is familiar to residents of many cities, known as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which focuses on "the joy of learning," and a second version which is homegrown and specific to our local residents.

I have taught genealogy topics for mature learners in each of these organizations, and it is indeed a joy to help launch others into their personal pursuit of family history. This semester in our city's program, for instance, I am team-teaching a beginner's course on using with my genealogy mentor, Sheri Fenley, after which I'll teach a brief series on how to use DNA testing in family history.

Even the libraries are gearing up for the return of learners of all ages. Our fall semester program for two local library systems is just now starting, and today brought in a new group of people interested in chasing their elusive ancestors. What is encouraging to see is that these classes bring in not only those who, after a long hiatus thanks to Life's detours, are returning to their love of family history, but also young adults who have always wanted to take up genealogy, but haven't yet learned just how to get started. Attendees like the young woman in my library class today remind me of myself, those many decades ago when I wanted to work on my family tree, but had no idea how to begin—or even what names would go in those slots on the pedigree chart. I love to have a part in launching young people on that path of discovery.

Learning comes in all forms, of course, and some people are quite happy to learn on their own, through books, websites, blogs (remember, I'm the genealogy guinea pig who hopes others learn by watching me stumble into uncharted territory in my own blundering way). Other people have benefited from the growing number of webinars now available via trendsetters like Geoff Rasmussen who, next Friday, presents Legacy Family Tree Webinars' 1,000th program. Still others are opting for the personal touch in a more advanced way, through genealogy institutes like the upcoming Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy where, next January, I'll be learning more about my Virginia ancestors.

No matter which version of "classroom" suits your learning style, I hope you are making plans for some way to expand your knowledge horizons—especially now, during this particular season when everyone is in the mood to get back to school.

Disclaimer: While I am certainly honored to be designated as an Ambassador for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy 2020—and have shared about their impressive offerings for several years now—this year's designation comes to me with receipt of a modest discount to their registration fee. Nevertheless, my focus is on objectively sharing what aspects of the Institute readers at A Family Tapestry would likely find helpful, and I welcome the opportunity to continue serving as eyes and ears on site during this event for the benefit of my readers.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Off the Shelf:
Tracing Your Female Ancestors

Not too long ago, a woman from our county's Commission on the Status of Women approached me to ask if our genealogical society was planning any special event to commemorate the hundred year mark for this country's passage of the nineteenth amendment granting women's right to vote. Immediately, what flew into my head was the many ways women have proven to be nearly invisible to family history researchers, juxtaposed with the voter records we've resorted to in seeking information on any of our ancestors. There are so many classes we could offer to genealogists on how to find those invisible women, voting being only one aspect in which they began to show their faces in public.

Just before some society board members and I met with this Commission representative to plan our role in the special commemorative events for 2020, I happened upon a newly-offered book from Great Britain: Adele Emm's Tracing Your Female Ancestors. The source for this introduction was John D. Reid's book review in his blog, Canada's Anglo-Celtic Connections. Though I can't say his review was a glowing endorsement, I considered myself forewarned and bought the book anyway. I wanted to see what insights I could glean from this new resource.

Given that recent discovery of such a new resource, you can't exactly say, as would be noted of most other books featured in this column, that this one had been languishing on my bookshelves for decades. It is fresh off the press and barely cracked open. But it is timely, and I am racing the clock. Landmark anniversaries don't happen just any day, you know.

The basis for this commemorative push is the year in which the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, granting women the right to vote. The final state, of the bare minimum required, to ratify the amendment did so on August 18, 1920. Of course, that is a moot point for those of us living in California, where our state government had given women the right to vote, back in 1911. Still, in solidarity with the rest of the nation, we'll celebrate like it's 1920.

And so, I go buying books like Adele Emm's tightly-packed two hundred twenty pages on everything a family historian would want to learn about how to find their frustratingly invisible female ancestors. Ms. Emm goes far afield of what might have been expected for a genealogy guide. She covers every aspect of the feminine experience of prior centuries, giving the reader a solid grounding in what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth century (or earlier) Great Britain. Of course, in many situations, that will not be what a woman in America might have experienced—talk of governesses or the "cotton famine" seeming somewhat removed from life in California, for instance—but in so many other aspects, her examination of the minutiae of women's experience seems enlightening.

Yet, being a book produced in England—it was published this year by Pen and Sword Books of Yorkshire—the style of presentation is much more sedate than an American reader might expect. I find myself reacting to the tone of this book much as I did when reading another of the publisher's titles—Tracing Villains and Their Victims—seeking the will to complete the material, rather than the joy of being led along by a fascinating narrative. On the other hand, the life of a woman in prior centuries, no matter how pampered or deprived, gave enough reason to consider the less pleasant aspects of reality. (Literate women of childbearing age, for instance, would sometimes compose a "fond farewell letter" to their husband, in the event the birthing experience claimed her as one of the daunting statistics of childbirth in those earlier years.)

Likewise, this book delves into many aspects of life in the British Isles for women that we might not have considered as we wonder whatever became of our beloved female ancestors. The guide includes sections on education of women, occupations taken up by women, daily life experiences for a wide variety of classes of women, and even provides a chapter on crime and punishment and the shadier aspects of the female experience.

I can't say the book will help me find my mystery female ancestors—I don't really have roots in England—but the narrative serves to open the researcher's mind on what life was really like for those ancestors, especially the women who came before us. For a family historian with the overarching goal of going far beyond the routine reporting of BMD—birth, marriage, death statistics—this is the type of examination of the nitty gritty of daily life which transforms our great-greats from mere names and dates to real, living, breathing people.

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