Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tracing Places No Longer on the Map

It's one thing to research your forebears when they come from a recognizable location like France. Or Spain. You know, those places you can find on a map.

When it comes to finding the records to verify your family's origin in a country no longer in existence, that search presents a new question: how do you find the repository for records from such a place?

For most of the census enumerations conducted since my great grandparents arrived in the United States before 1890, the entry made on their behalf was usually "Germany." And for the decades in which that was noted, it would be correct. At that timewhether it was 1900, 1910, or 1930, the last census conducted before they diedthe region Anton and Marianna Laskowski once called home had changed hands from one set of rulers to another.

If you had paid attention to reports of their origin in the earlier census records, you might have thought Anton and Marianna immigrated from Germany. It wasn't until that slip up in the reporting ritual for the 1920 census that I discovered not the country but the region they once considered their home.

That place was enumerated as Posen.

In trying, now, to go back and locate records of their family's births, marriages and deaths, the key is to find the repository for a political jurisdiction which has long since ceased to exist.

In retracing those steps, the first thing I wanted to do was familiarize myself with not only the history of that region, but the current events of the time frame in which the Laskowski familyand their relatives, the Gramlewiczeschose to leave their homeland.

As I've mentioned before, Posen was how the Germans referred to a city the Polish called Poznań. Learning about Poznań brought up many fascinating details. For instance, it is one of the oldest of Poland's cities, dating back to the tenth century. It is also home to Poland's first cathedral. Political struggles over the centuries meant that the city changed hands often. It also meant the area was often war-torn. By the time my ancestors were ready to flee the area, the cityby then under Prussian rulehad begun building a series of new fortifications in response to all the turmoil.

Knowing that about the city of Poznań was informative, but it missed one crucial point: that name was not just used to designate the city by that name, but also the region surrounding it. Similar to my own circumstancesin which, when I say I'm from New York, I could be indicating either the city or the statewhen my great grandparents told that census enumerator in 1920 they were from Posen, they meant the region, not specifically the city.

That region of Poznań had a history of its own, as well. Established in 1815 following the Napoleonic Wars, it was to be a semi-autonomous part of the Kingdom of Prussia. Designated the Grand Duchy of Posen, it turned out not to be, in practice, the theoretical haven of rights for its Polish residents as had been promised with the Congress of Vienna.

With changes in Prussian governmental dictates, Poles saw increasingly difficult times, which eventually led to revolution in 1848. The main result of the fighting was that Posen lost some autonomy, though it continued, as part of the Prussian domain, to be referred to as the Province of Posen, up through the year 1918.

Of course, with the conclusion of the Great Warnot to mention, the war that followed the War to End all WarsPrussia as a political entity ceased to be. By that point, my direct line ancestors were thankfully long gone from the region of Poznań. But because they once called that region homeand the place where they married and raised their childrenI wanted to retrace the steps of their lives and see what documentation could be found to verify their stay in Poznań.

But where do you look for records from a country no longer in existence?

As it turned out, at least in this case, an intrepid cadre of genealogical volunteers have found a way to help people like me find those records I've been desiring to see. In a website primarily set in the Polish languagebut fairly easily negotiated, thanks to translation servicesI've found (and can't wait to share) the digital home for at least the marriage records of what was once the Prussian Province of Posen.     

Above: Charge of Poznań Cavalry during November Uprising; 1886 oil on canvas by Polish historical painter Juliusz Fortunat Kossak; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Wow you are making progress! I think I would have thrown my hands in the air and given up! :)

    1. Well...truth be told, I did give up on this, for a while, at least. Sometimes, when there is absolutely no way to make any progress, you just have to set things aside. With so much new material coming online every day, though, it pays to check back on dormant projects every now and then.

      Besides, I'm thankful for the hints and leads provided by other researchers. You never know when the site you take for granted is just what someone else really needs to learn about!


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