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 time—whether it was 1900, 1910, or 1930, the last census conducted before they died—the 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 family—and their relatives, the Gramlewiczes—chose 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 city—by then under Prussian rule—had 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 circumstances—in which, when I say I'm from New York, I could be indicating either the city or the state—when 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 War—not to mention, the war that followed the War to End all Wars—Prussia 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 home—and the place where they married and raised their children—I 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 language—but fairly easily negotiated, thanks to translation services—I'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.