Wednesday, August 3, 2016
Why Checking Collateral Lines
is Not a Waste of Time
If you read my post yesterday about my current research strategy, you may have thought I am about to engage in a colossal waste of time. Despite the relative rarity of the surname—in this case, I'm pursuing the Aktabowski family in 1890s New York and New Jersey—it may not seem I have a strong enough indication that the surname is guaranteed to link to my Laskowski family.
Yet, what are the chances that a name as rare as that would not be related to the people in my family? I already have two instances of the name showing up in my family tree: most recently, with my paternal grandmother's brother's marriage to an Aktabowski from New Jersey, and in the preceding generation, a woman whose mother's maiden name was Aktabowska (the female form of that Polish surname). Since so few Aktabowskis had headed to the New York metro area in that time frame, what would be the chances that there was a connection?
Back in 2002, when I first explored that concept, I felt I was finding some encouraging leads. If nothing else, I was connecting with distant cousins who seemed to affirm the link. Since that was still part of the time period when genealogy forums flourished, I ended up meeting (online) a distant Aktabowski cousin with whom I exchanged a number of emails. We were both earnestly researching that line, and glad to share our discoveries with each other. Genealogy forums, back then, were great for making that sort of connection, and it seemed there were more of those types of researchers readily available and willing to intelligently discuss research possibilities.
Beyond that initial foray into exploration of that Aktabowski connection, I've since run into people, from time to time, who mention that their Aktabowski relatives would tell them they are related to my line. (Handily for me, not only was my father known in New York City circles on account of his being a professional musician, but from that exposure to the world of "show biz," my brother catapulted his own acting career and was well known in the New York City metro area, himself. It was often in reference to that relationship that the older Aktabowski generation would say, "You know, we're related to him...")
However, Aktabowski is not the only collateral line I'm pursuing in hopes of uncovering more about my paternal family history. Besides that confusing name swap on the death certificates for the female side of the Laskowski family, there was another surname that danced around the edges of the male side of the Laskowski line: Gramlewicz.
I first became aware of the Gramlewicz connection thanks to the 1915 New York State census. There, in the Brooklyn household of my great grandparents, Anton and Mary Laskowski, was someone listed as Anna Gramlewicz. She was listed as Anton's niece. She was eighteen years of age at the time, born in the not-very-helpful designation of "U.S." and was working as a saleslady.
As it turned out, since I had also sent for Antoni's death certificate—he died in Kings County in 1935—that very surname had shown up as the maiden name for his own mother. Thus, not only could I connect the Gramlewicz name to the right side of the family—and presume it was a sister of Anton who connected us with the Gramlewicz family—but that instance of the maiden name showed me that there was a likelihood of further intermarriage in the family, too.
Once I pursued that lead, again around 2002, the same sort of thing happened: I ran into a cousin who was also researching that line. Only this connection was a fascinating find. Just as others have found distant cousins interested in the genealogy of mutual family lines by Googling their ancestors' names, this cousin had found me via my posts on genealogy forums. There was one difference to this connection, though: this woman was herself Polish, and at the time was living in Italy. I would never have found her if she hadn't come looking for me!
Based on a few other facts we pieced together through online corroboration, we figured out we were third cousins. I'll share more of the story as to how our families connect tomorrow, but suffice it to say she provided me with information I likely would never otherwise have found through my own plodding research progress.
There was one critical ingredient I had contributed to the discoveries, though: if I hadn't thrown my query out into the researcher's ring, nothing would have been out there for anyone else to stumble upon. If I had focused solely on my own direct lines and never wandered beyond those restrictive confines, I wouldn't have made any public mention of the possibilities of specific connections. And if I hadn't talked it up about how these other surnames might somehow lead me to pertinent discoveries in my own research quandaries, those words wouldn't have been out there on which Google (and other search engines) could work their magic.
Above: New York State census for 1915, showing Annie Gramlewicz in the Brooklyn household of my great grandparents, Anton and Mary Laskowski; image courtesy Ancestry.com.