Sunday, March 29, 2015

When His Ship Came In

Having access to the naturalization paperwork of an ancestor means being able to snatch up several details of that life-changing journey across the ocean to America, all in one place. John Laskowski’s Declaration of Intention, filed in 1916, clearly declared the date of his arrival and named the ship that he arrived on.

I was elated to discover this, not only because the paperwork had yielded me the exact name of his hometown, but because the facts could lead me to a secondary source to verify his—and hopefully, by extension, his family’s—immigration story.

John’s report was straightforward:
I arrived at the port of New York, in the State of New York, on or about the 15th day of February, anno Domini 1889.

In the clear hand that completed the paperwork, the ship was identified as…

…hmmm…Vilont? Perfect! I’ll just hop on over to the website for Castle Garden, the immigration station predating Ellis Island, sometimes also called Castle Clinton, and see what I can find.

Nothing. There was no record for any Laskowskis traveling on a steamship Vilont.

How could this record fail me so soon? I had just begun confirming the details this week. Had John misrepresented himself on a legal document of such importance? Could he have been mistaken?

I tried googling the name, but nothing showed up for a ship named Vilont. Crestfallen, I was desperate for a result, so I played around with other spellings. After all, that V looked like it could have been a U, didn't it?

No luck.

Or…maybe the –ont was really –out? No luck on that variation, either.

Trying to imagine where a ship named Vilont would have originated, I thought perhaps it might have sounded French. But John’s records said the port was Hamburg in Germany. Something was not adding up here.

Sometimes, we are so close to the end of our genealogical trail that we get in a rush to reach the finish line. This was a time to settle back, take a deep breath, and think things all over again. Slowly.

Why were no Laskowskis showing up that matched my family? Did nine year old John travel by himself? All the way from Germany to the United States? Did that seem possible?

Somehow, the voice of reason broke its way through my frustration and reminded me that children likely travel with their mothers. And some of those mothers are being sent for by husbands who have gone on ahead to secure jobs and adequate housing in the new homeland.

If you are not familiar with researching Polish genealogy, you might not be aware that the women—at least in that time period—carried their husband’s (or father’s) surname with one small variation: the final “i” of a surname such as Laskowski would be changed to end in an “a.”

Thus, the name John might have traveled under—as a dependent of his mother, the reporting party—could have been Laskowska.

Of course, that is the logical answer. I was too impatient for that. Instead, I just plugged in a wildcard symbol—an asterisk—and did my second search that way.

The results came up with four possibilities:
            Laskowska, Joh., age 8
            Laskowska, Marianna, age 24
            Laskowska, Miczislaus, age 4
            Laskowska, Sofie, age 11 months

All arrived in New York on February 16, 1889. Every one of the entries indicated a last place of residence in Żerków.

How could I not have realized this? Of course “John” would have been called by a more German version of that anglicized name. And Mary, his mother? It's possible she could have been known as Marianna in her homeland. Miczislaus would likely have been the son nicknamed Michko. And Sofie? Well, that was self-evident.

I clicked through on each of these hyperlinked surnames on the Castle Garden website to see if there was any additional information. There was one thing in particular I was wondering about: the ship Vilont.

Please join me in a good laugh over this one, as we consider how the Germans might have pronounced a name spelled W-i-e-l-a-n-d.

Yep. “Vilont.”

Above: Photograph of the Hamburg America ocean liner S. S. Wieland by John S. Johnston circa 1890; courtesy United States Library of Congress; in the public domain. Handwritten version of ship's name on Declaration of Intention courtesy

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Helpful Declaration

The beauty of finding legal documents regarding the siblings of one’s ancestors is amplified only in proportion to the difficulty of uncovering the details about one’s own direct line. In my case, my grandmother Sophie seemed to make it so difficult to trace her whereabouts that what little could be found was nearly useless. She had changed her name in so many ways—and had, mostly, seemed to not even want to be found.

Sophie, however, had a brother. And that brother John was too settled, too steady, too reliable to have had his whereabouts hidden—at least in his adopted homeland. New York City being what it is, though, access to personal records was something best arranged in person—or at least through snail mail. Online records hadn’t yielded me what I sought—at least, not until now.

This week, however, looking at John’s naturalization records, I no longer have to guess about his origins. His Petition for Naturalization, which finally was wrapped up in 1923, clearly indicated I was looking at the records for the right person. He had mentioned his wife Blanche—in two different places, so intent was he on insuring that she be included in the proceedings—as well as the six children still living with them in the Queens borough neighborhood of Elmhurst: Elizabeth, Severa, Frances, Walter, Rita and three-year-old daughter Blanche.

In addition to confirming the names of his children and his address, the record attended to the tracing of the naturalization paperwork, since John had begun the process while living near the rest of the extended family, back on Berry Street in Brooklyn. This necessitated overseeing the transition of the 1916 paperwork from the original jurisdiction in Kings County, New York, to Queens for the completion of the process in 1923.

What was priceless to me, though, was discovering John’s assertion of where he was born. This had been a piece of the puzzle that had eluded me for the decades in which I had been pursuing my paternal line. Although their ethnic origin had been kept a secret over the years—the cousins of my generation not really knowing the full story, and even now not understanding what happened during those times—we had eventually agreed that the family’s heritage was Polish, contrary to our elders’ insistence that they were really Irish.

The city of origin, however, I couldn’t quite figure out—even after having discovered a clue through the slip of an enumerator’s pen during the 1920 census. Posen—the place indicated in that census record—was not necessarily only a city or town, however, but could also have referred to a region.

I still didn’t know, for sure, where the Laskowski family had originated, when I received one of those contacts every genealogist dreams of getting: a message from a distant cousin.

Despite the amount of sniveling I’ve done over the years about how other researchers get these fabulous contacts while I get nothing, that is not entirely true. Though I’ve only experienced such chance connections a few rare times, I do have to admit, the quality makes up for the quantity.

Several years ago, someone emailed me because of a post I had made to an online genealogy forum about an unusual surname linked to my Laskowski relatives. I had counted on the tactic of using this more unusual name to help zero in on solid connections, but the name had seemed so rare that it yielded no results at all—for a long time.

All that can change with just one email. For me, that change was the beginning of a longstanding communication with a Polish relative—a distant cousin—who was happy to share what she knew of the family since that point of John’s naturalization paperwork in New York.

To tell the rest of this story, I need to insert a bit about this distant cousin’s family story. Her ancestors, John’s cousins, had at one point lived with his and Sophie’s parents in Brooklyn. Sometime after the first World War but before the advent of the following war, part of that family had decided they liked life better in the Old Country, and returned from New York to Poland. Of course, that decision inserted them right into one of the worst episodes of modern history.

Long story short, in order to survive the devastation, this distant cousin’s ancestors moved from the city where they had settled in Poland to another, safer haven. Once the war was over and they were able to do so, some of that family chose to move again. Whether it was to return to an ancestral home or to remove to yet another, more favorable location, this younger cousin didn’t know. This was all before her time.

She did mention where that part of the family moved, however. It was to a small place called Żerków—a town now boasting only two thousand residents.

I tried discovering what I could about Żerków but my go-to online resources, like Wikipedia, didn’t have much to say about the place. One thing I did learn, though, was that Żerków is located thirty three miles east of a place called Poznań.

Poznań, if you’re wondering, is the Polish name for the place the Germans used to call Posen.

Fast forward to this past week. I am sure, by now, you are guessing I told you this incident for a reason. You are likely right.

In both John Laskowski’s Declaration of Intention and again in his Petition for Naturalization, he stated that the place of his birth was none other than the town of Żerków.

I should have known.

Above excerpt from the Declaration of Intention, signed by John Laskowski in Brooklyn, New York, on August 10, 1916, courtesy

Friday, March 27, 2015

First Papers

It was the tenth day of August, 1916, when John Laskowski got around to filing the first of his immigration papers. He had surely been in the United States for twenty six years by then—at least, that was what the 1900 census had indicated. I could never find the actual documents to reveal when he really arrived in America. Until now.

That was just the thing: the Laskowski family seemed to be one of those immigrant families which had slipped through the cracks. Not in passenger records, nor in immigration indices could I find any trace of the right family. It didn’t help that the head of household, John’s father Anton, had shown up in various records with his given name alternating between Anton and Antoni—and his surname actually shortened, just this one time, to Lasko instead of the usual Laskowski. Still, I had always been up to the task of wild card searches. But with no success.

So when that little prompt came my way this week—a reminder that it was high time to recheck online records for the possibility that the Laskowskis’ number was up—it was a timely tip, indeed.

Although the blog tip had pointed in the direction of new additions to the FamilySearch collections, fortunately, I didn’t stop there. I also wandered over to to see what I could find. I’m so glad I did—for there, at almost the first hit I found, was an invitation to view “Selected U.S. Naturalization Records—Original Documents, 1790-1974.”

I have to confess: I had that “yeah, sure” attitude as I clicked through to the hint’s source document. There it was, though: John Laskowski’s own records. Not some other guy by the same name. It was him. For sure.

That, in itself, was astounding to me. Do you know how long I’ve paid the price but come away empty handed? That thought, alone, made me stand still and consider the enormity of it all. These things can make one emotional. There is just something about seeing a document that one’s ancestors once touched that evokes a fervent response. The reason I can spot it in others, as I teach beginners’ genealogy classes, is because I’ve felt it, myself. It is real and it is palpable.

There was something more about this discovery. Make that two somethings. The Declaration of Intent divulged the town where John Laskowski was born, and provided the details about his arrival in New York City. That first detail—his place of birth—was something that had eluded me for all these years of research effort. The second detail—when and how he got here—was the bonus, for it provided the next step in this research chain of events we call genealogy. It provided me the key to lead to yet another set of records.

When John Laskowski walked into the office of the Clerk of the Supreme Court of Kings County, New York, I’m sure he had no idea someone would be peering over his shoulder, nearly ninety nine years later. But now, I can read the signature he affixed to the page, duly sworn before the clerk of the court, “So help me God,” declaring
I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein.

I had waited a long time to discover the family’s secret. Now, I was on my way.

Above excerpt from the Declaration of Intent, signed by John Laskowski in Brooklyn, New York, on August 10, 1916, courtesy

Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Uncle I Never Met

John Laskowski must have been a steady guy. Firstborn son of Anton and Mary Laskowski, he arrived in the family’s Polish household in August of 1880. Along with the rest of his family—his two siblings Michko and Sophia arrived in short order—he made the trip west to a German port and then aboard a ship bound for America. By the time of the 1892 New York State census, he was living with his family in an apartment in Brooklyn.

John seemed to be the solid type who latched on to tradition and held fast. He found and married a Polish girl from the neighborhood where he grew up—“Blanche” Aktabowska—and raised the customary large Catholic family of at least six children.

Unlike either of his siblings, John kept the surname he arrived with. It wasn’t hard to find him in any of the subsequent federal census enumerations, or the available state census records. Working as a common laborer, he lived the rest of his days in his adopted homeland—varying the location only so much as to move from one New York City borough to another. His 1930 death being registered in Manhattan may only be a factor of which hospital he was taken to; his last noted residence was in Queens.

In sharp contrast, my grandmother—his sister Sophia—seemed to want to have nothing to do with her outmoded Polish roots. Though she may well have married a good Polish boy, there was nothing left of that telltale surname sign to alert me to the fact. Gone was the Polish surname. In its place arose a solid, respectable Irish name. Even the “Sophia” was gone—my grandmother opting for the more modern (or at least American) sounding “Sophie.”

Likewise, Sophie’s younger brother shed the telltale “-ski” from his surname, and disappeared into the American melting pot, allegedly under the name of Lasko. The “Michko” nickname showing in the 1892 census evolved into the more acceptable “Michael.”

It took a lot of searching—coupled with futile prying into the sealed family business that the older generation seemed to have vowed never to reveal—to even discover that Sophie had a maiden name, and that it was Laskowska. Even acting upon the hunch that the surname might have been shortened in Michko’s case, I still haven’t been able to locate a reasonable possibility that might have been him.

As for John, thankfully his rock-like resolve to not shed his identity allowed me to at least trace his side of my father’s family. Every step of the way, I kept myself anchored in John’s routine appearance in records, hoping—hoping—he would someday cross paths again with his siblings and alert me to their whereabouts as well.

I don’t know why this happens, but sometimes, chance events can catch our attention and make us remember—and reconsider—tasks long since set aside. I’m sure glad that was the dynamic that occurred when I spotted Randy Seaver’s post on the latest New York City record additions at That post tickled my memory, and I soon found myself playing the “what if” game online with New York City records again.

I didn’t even let myself get frustrated when the usual disappointing lack of results hit me again while trying my hand at either my grandmother’s or Michko’s data. They are simply not there to be found, much as I discovered years ago when trawling through microfilms or even in the earliest years of online genealogy at places like the Italian Genealogical Group (it’s not just for NYC Italians, you know).

When it came to John, however—the one who was always there, leaving me signs of his whereabouts every ten years—I encountered a surprise so stellar, it nearly took my breath away.

I found his immigration records.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Different Direction

Confession: another rabbit trail was calling my name yesterday and…I listened.

Yes, I caved. I took the bait. I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

And I think I will be down at the bottom of a big pile of data for a long time.

Here’s how it happened:

Once upon a time, long, long ago—yes, in fact, back in June of 2009—I took an old family photo that my cousin Skip sent me, scanned it and posted it on my Facebook page. It was probably a little something I did in honor of Father’s Day, even though my father has been long gone, himself. In the photo—a family grouping that included my grandmother, her brother and their parents—my father was peeking over the shoulders of the women in the back row. At the time, he was a teenager. My aunt, all perky in her summer dress, was sporting a big white bow on the top of her little blonde head.

As things sometimes go on Facebook, some friends and family saw it and commented on it, over the next few days. The comments dribbled off after that. Then, some other relatives saw it the next winter and commented, starting the conversation back up again.

And that was the end of it.

Until Monday morning.

I don’t know why Facebook photos resurrect, but they do. And once someone gloms onto a photo—writes another comment—the thing is back in circulation again, as fresh as if it were posted within the past hour.

This time, more relatives shared their memories of the family mystery—the shock is, after being told we were Irish all our growing-up years, it turns out we are actually Polish on my dad’s side of the family—and we got to compare notes on what each of us knew about the “secret.”

Chapter Two: a blogger dangles the bait. I’ll just come out and say it: it wasn’t really blogger Randy Seaver’s fault for leading me astray, but his post yesterday about how has added more New York City records reminded me that I really need to see what’s gone online since the last time I poked around the data at any of the usual genealogical places.

While the records Randy mentioned were all just indices, not digitized images (which I hope will someday be forthcoming, as well), believe me: an index is infinitely better than trawling through miles and miles of microfilm. Take my word for it. The last time I seriously looked at my paternal branch of the family tree, it was when microfilm was the only game in town.

It was time for an update.

Gone was the afternoon, before I knew it. I looked not only at, but at the latest additions at, as well. I kept keying in names of my family, seeing whose documents made the cut in this latest release of genealogical treasures. I can’t say I made stellar progress—there is an unexplained instance of a radical name change—but stumbling upon one single document, I located several key facts about this family. You might say I garnered a genealogical grand slam.

Of course, being a document which captured the reporting party’s assertions, in a way, the record is not providing me anything more than hearsay. But it is the word of a father, reporting such juicy tidbits as the name of the ship he sailed on, the names of the rest of his family, and the date at which he arrived in New York harbor.

Better yet, that one document became the Big Reveal by sharing the name of the town in which my grandmother’s brother was born. If he was born there, let’s say I have a pretty good guess as to where she was born.

You know I can’t stop with just this one document. Every detail on that page becomes a hint to lead me toward another document. Each clue equips me with the tools to ferret out yet more details. It’s the chain reaction of research.

Something tells me I’m going to be on this rabbit trail for a long time.

Above: Photograph of various members of the Laskowski family in or near New York City, circa 1917; photograph in private collection of the author.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In Wonder-land

I’ve found some matching DNA!

It isn’t every day that a dedicated adherent to the tasks of genetic genealogy can make such a celebratory claim.

Actually, the pursuit of distant cousins who share my DNA—either mitochondrial or autosomal—has been quite frustrating. It seems like a process of sifting through haystacks to find the proverbial needle. Sometimes, I wonder what benefit this new technology has provided us. Sometimes, I wonder if someone forgot to insert the needle in said haystack.

Of course, having nearly eight hundred matches on my account isn’t making this any easier. But I try to keep up with the task. I’ve found that many of those matches are people who, for whatever reason, got themselves talked into testing, but didn’t have the fanatic interest in genealogy that you and I share. Some never bothered to post their family tree on the DNA company’s website. Others didn’t avail themselves of the opportunity to even type in the most commonly-occurring of their surnames. Of the limited number of those remaining on my match list, some posted such a minimalist tree that it serves little to no use at all—especially those well-meaning individuals who thought it best to protect their privacy by not allowing anyone to see any of the names in the tree that they did post online.

Of what help is that?

To complicate matters, I am not only searching for the needle in my family haystack, but I’ve convinced both my husband and my brother to have their DNA test done, as well. Part of the deal was that I would serve as administrator of their cases. While their numbers aren’t as daunting—my husband checks in at around four hundred matches as of last Thursday, and my brother trails him by about eighty—I still haven’t been able to find more than a smattering of hits belonging to parties on the other side of the match, willing and able to confirm my guesses.

So, as you can imagine, it was quite an adrenaline rush to see Charlie’s comment here the other day. Apparently, he was as surprised as I was to see my name pop up in the DNA test results for one of the relatives he is monitoring for his family.

Yet, when we each checked the other’s genealogy, nary a surname seemed to connect. What’s up with that?

I realize that, once you edge toward the “fifth to remote” cousin range, you come closer to matching people by sheer coincidence: “Identical By State” results, as they are called. IBS results are those in which there are identical segments or sequences of DNA, but that state did not result from common descent. In other words, it was just a coincidence, not a true relationship. There is no great-grandparent to the nth degree out there, just waiting to be discovered by you and your “match.”

In this case, however, the suspected relationship range was in a safer second-to-fourth cousin segment. That should mean we are keepers. If, that is, we can find a way to connect on paper.

True, I have gaps in my family tree. I suspect this particular match has a tree with gaps in it, as well.

I’ve come close with some other results, as well. I try to keep plugging away at the test results as they come in. Every week or two, I glean the results on my “Family Finder” test at Family Tree DNA, to see what new matches show up. For each new match, I explore the trees that are posted, and then send an email to my new match, introducing myself, sharing the link to my more-thorough tree at—and hoping for a reply in the affirmative.

Meanwhile, I’m furiously hurrying through building my own tree out, generation by generation, for all those relatives in the big murky middle—everything between the patrilineal and matrilineal lines.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder: isn’t there a better way to find the connections that make me and my fellow cousins matches? Isn’t there a more efficient way to trawl through all the surnames?

Short of finding a way to build a better family tree—and a way for the DNA companies to provide more facile search capabilities for those results they provide—I doubt there will be any way to lessen that feeling of impossibility. As amazing as the DNA technology may be, the path to those “match” answers still is paved with lots of hard work and perseverance.

Isn’t that the way it always is with real life?

Above: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, "The Harvesters," oil on panel circa 1565; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Muddling Through "Matrilineal"

In trying to explain to people the DNA testing concept of patrilineal and matrilineal lines, I’ve always been at a loss to succinctly deliver the goods. Short of actually pulling out pen and paper and mocking up a family tree chart—to which I add the line tracing both the patrilineal and matrilineal concepts—I’m often greeted with blank stares. Even by people smitten by the genealogy bug.

How can this be, I often wonder. But it is what it is. Still, it bugs me—just a tiny bit—because I realize the need for the genetic genealogy community to be mindful of good P.R. The DNA world—a world of terms and concepts too “science-y” to emit that user-friendly invitation to partake of its treasures—could use some capable ambassadors to bridge the gap between mind-boggling concepts and the warm fuzzies of customer satisfaction.

Today, while reading fellow blogger Randy Seaver’s week in review, I noticed his suggestion of a DNA blog I wasn’t familiar with. Since I could use all the help I can get in mounting that steep DNA learning curve, I took Randy’s suggestion and clicked on over to Kitty Cooper’s Blog. There, while perusing her archives, the answer to my little DNA PR dilemma slithered out of my subconscious and onto my mental horizon.

Let me try it out here. If you didn’t already know what the terms patrilineal and matrilineal meant, I’d ask you to imagine a world filled with countries having either of only two forms of government. One would be a monarchy. The other would be a democracy.

Now, assuming for a moment that the only ones who could become kings in that monarchy would be men, and the only ones in that democracy who could be elected to represent the people would be women, we have now set the stage for our discussion about patrilineal and matrilineal lines.

You see, the patrilineal concept is like the succession of sons inheriting the throne upon the death of their father, the king. Only “kings” could be in the patrilineal line: the current king now reigning is son of the king who just died. That king was son of the previous king. As far back as the history of that monarchy could go—assuming this was a world without war (and definitely devoid of intrigue)—the line would always pass from a man to his father. That is the patrilineal line: like a monarchy. (Sorry, Queen Elizabeth!)

When I explain what I’m trying to achieve with Y-DNA and mtDNA tests, it seems the patrilineal concept has a slightly better chance of being grasped by the innocent bystanders I am accosting with my testing proposals. So let’s test our political analogy on the matrilineal concept and see if it works as well as the monarchy example for the men.

Our second type of government, as I mentioned, would be a democracy. In other words, each governing position would be filled by election. Now, totally opposite of the monarchy we just discussed in our previous example, imagine that the only ones who could be elected in this other type of country would be women—not men. For every election cycle (in other words, for every generation), another woman would fill the position. One could never be quite sure who the next senator would be, for instance, but one thing you’d know for sure: it would be another woman.

Election cycle after election cycle—in other words, generation after generation—you knew someone would be selected to fill the position, but with each iteration came a woman with a different name. One generation, it could be Susan Smith. Another generation, it might be Jane Jones. Though the names would always change, each elected woman would still always receive the title, Senator.

To trace the history of this government back in time, the challenge would not be to find the most recent Senator, Jane Jones, and follow her surname back through time. It would be, instead, to find the list of senators, and follow that senatorial succession along its historical timeline. It would be the elected role of senator—in genealogy, that would be the role of mother—that is followed in our study. The office, not the person—from senator to senator to senator.

Perhaps that muddies the waters just as much as any other description I’ve heard. I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that when I mention following the genetic line of the mother, people often seem to think of all the women in a family—not just the mother, her mother, and the mother before that one. Or to begin following the ancestors of that woman's surname. But in the case of the mother's line, as we know, each generation presents a different mother's maiden name.

As if in one great big dance—or one historic succession of elections—the female players keep changing position. Without a set surname remaining constant while we trace the family back through time, the only established identity these women have is their title: in my allegory, senator—or, in the case of genetic genealogy, mother.

Maybe, as genetic genealogy testing becomes more prevalent—and, hopefully, the cost continues to come down, making the process more pocketbook-friendly as well—it will suffice all but the most novice among us to simply bandy about the terms, patrilineal and matrilineal. Until then, barring the handy use of pen and paper, perhaps a comparison like this will help clear up the definitions.
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