Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Putting Your Name on the Map
As I discuss what became of my paternal grandmother's shirttail relatives in Brooklyn, New York—Anna Gramlewicz and her family—it may have struck you as presumptuous that I decided finding their location in Poland would point me directly to my forebears.
I have a reason for that hunch. It simply has to do with the odds of running into a surname like Gramlewicz. I have lots of support for this conjecture, but of course the support came later. First came that wild assumption. And the rationalization to support it.
My thinking was this: unlike researching Smith, or Jones or any number of unfortunately widespread surnames—hats off to you, for instance, if you are seeking Miller or Brown; I have a few of those, too—a name like Gramlewicz comes with its own set of challenges.
For one thing, a name like Gramlewicz is sometimes difficult to research, not because there are too many of them, but because there are too few. To be of any benefit, rarity needs to strike a happy balance between these two extremes.
If—and that is the key qualifier: if—a surname finds itself nestled in the precise sweet spot of that delicate balance, tools for surname mapping come in quite handy. And that is exactly the position in which I found myself.
On face value, it seemed like surname mapping might work for my Gramlewicz quest. First of all, just looking around—at census records, city directories, newspaper archives and other searchable records—quickly revealed that Gramlewicz was indeed the rare hit I thought it might be.
Though this might be a technique sure to backfire on some, if it would work anywhere, that "looking around" gimmick would work in New York City. At least, that's what I thought at first. After all, that's where the Gramlewicz family landed when they emigrated from Poland; if I was to find them anywhere, their landing spot would make the most sense.
Secondly, since many immigrants arrived in the new country to follow in the footsteps of those they knew from the old village, if Anna's family was joining up with any relatives, Brooklyn would be the place where those other Gramlewicz family and friends would be. Yet, not finding many with the same surname might indicate its relative rarity.
Reversing that examination and realizing that many immigrants came from villages where their parents and grandparents before them might have been born, raised, and died, any point of concentration of that surname might lead me to an ancestral homeland.
Of course, I was willing to try. After all, surname mapping is considered by some genealogical researchers to be "a useful technique" which can "reveal the origin of the family name." That, of course, was precisely my goal.
Starting out in the United States revealed very little, though, if you consider what I found on Ancestry.com's name distribution chart for Gramlewicz: "Sorry, we couldn't find geographic distribution information for the Gramlewicz last name."
Moving out of my secure research cocoon of North American resources, however, yielded much better results. It did, however, require the assistance of people who understood Polish, for one thing—aided, over the years before the advent of Google Translate, by helpful participants in online genealogical forums—and the discovery of international websites with the data I was seeking.
I didn't do all this work over one weekend, of course. And to explain how I got to the details that clinched it for my unsubstantiated hunch will take more than a few moments. So, to share it all with you, with tomorrow's post, I'd like to begin a wandering tour through the process in the hopes that you may find some of this material helpful in your own research quandaries, as well.
Map above on the Gramlewicz surname distribution courtesy Ancestry.com's surname distribution and family history resource; similar mapping and explanation on Ancestry can be retrieved for any other surname by adjusting the URL to substitute the surname you wish to research after the equal sign in the address. For instance, to retrieve Ancestry's information on the Lewis surname, adjust this same address to read http://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=lewis