Monday, September 5, 2016

How Common is
Your Uncommon Surname?

In searching for an uncommon surname, I'll grant you it is indeed tempting to assume yours is the only one out therethus providing that needed justification to snag the first viable search result that comes up. If you were searching for a surname like Olejniczak, wouldn't you feel the same way?

Since that turned out to be the maiden name of the mother of my father's maternal grandmother, I decided to see just how many people carried that name, here in the United States. In Poland, I can understand seeing more of that surname than hereand according to Herby, the count of Polish people with that surname was nearly twenty thousand around 1990, with a good many of them still living in the region once considered part of the historic Province of Posen, where my father's family originated.

Still, I guess I wasn't convinced, so I went to and entered one word in their universal search engine: Olejniczak. I checked "exact" to make sure that was all I would get in the resultsalthough it was no guarantee of surname purityand sat back to peruse the twenty some-odd thousand results which were served up.

Judging by the many whose records sported that surname in the 1940 census, there are Olejniczak descendants in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Yorkall the usual spots for northern Europeans to congregate. But there were also results showing for places like California, as well. Iowa, Indiana, even Massachusetts claimed Olejniczak descendants. I was beginning to think I had discovered the new Smith.

If a name like Olejniczak had seduced me into thinking any search result would deserve being claimed as mine, it would have been just the same for the surname I was puzzling over yesterdayJanczak. After all, I had never run into such a surname in all my life. Surely, there couldn't be too many of those. Right?

Finding out what a struggle it was to trace the descendants of my grandmother Sophie's cousins, the children of Sophie's aunt Stanisława Jankowska and her husband Franz Janczak, it was indeed tempting to claim any name which was the same as, say, their son Władysław Janczak, and call it mine.

Researching Władysław Janczak did back me into a tempting corner. First of all, the approximation of his birth year in the two census records I could find wasn't exactly helpful. The 1910 federal census estimated he was born in "Germany" in 1903. The New York State census in 1915 marked him down as having been born in 1900. Which one to believe?

It didn't help that the state census documented his name as Walter. Of course, I can understand the possibility. Picture this scenario:
  • Enumerator shows up at the Janczaks' door and asks for names in the household.
  • The likely only adult at home at the time—housewife Stanisławagives her husband's name as the American-as-apple-pie "Frank" and provides a perky "Stella" for her own name.
  • Enumerator asks, "Anyone else?"
  • Stanisława names her firstborn son, Leonan easy-to-transcribe name.
  • She proceeds to her second-born, telling the enumerator, "Władysław."
  • Enumerator, "Wha--???"
  • Stanisława: "Władysław."
  • Enumerator: "Spell that?"
  • Stanisława: "W-"
  • Enumerator: "Walter?"
  • Stanisława: "Yeah..."
So, I've ended up with Władysław Janczak, alias Walter Janczak. Do I try to trace the man using his given name? Or his assumed name?

This kind of question becomes important when faced with the challenge of coming up empty-handed, despite computer searches. Do I snag the obituarythe only one I could find in Buffalofor a Walter Janczak, died November 5, 1967, and buried in the same New York cemetery in Cheektowaga as my Walter's mother? Or was this just the coincidental juxtaposition of name and location of one of the thousands of Janczaks who are surely out there?

Or should I jump on the hints so handily served up for me by's search algorithms? How tempting it was, seeing four hints for a Władysław who happened to be born in Poland in 1905. After all, that birth year seemed to be a roving number, based on the impression I got from the two records in which I found him. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to move that year of birth a couple notches in the other direction.

Taking a closer look, however, I got the feeling maybe this was too good a match to be true. This Władysław died in Bristol, Connecticut. Although it is not unusual for Americans to move from their hometown to some place new in adulthood, it left me with the choice of Władysław in Connecticut or Walter back home in Buffalo.

There was a naturalization record, which would make sense, seeing our man came here as a young boy from his native Poland. But there was one more detail: a 1944 entry in a record book from a concentration camp in France. I began to mull over the possibility that our Janczak man had either returned to live in his homeland in Poland as had Sophie's Gramlewicz cousinsor that, regardless of nearing middle age, he had enlisted in the U.S. military and subsequently was captured while fighting in Europe.

Somehow, neither of those possibilities seemed plausible to me.

While going back to the original page of hints at Ancestry, I just stared and stared at all these options until finally, one detail popped out for me. It was one single letter. And that one lettera "y"told me I was looking at records for a man who was, yes, named Władysław, but whose surname was spelled Janczyk. Not Janczak.

Granted, government officials sometimes get the spelling all messed up when dealing with foreign-sounding names, but I don't think this was merely a case of spelling error. Whether the Walter in Buffalo ends up being my man or not, I'm pretty sure whoever Stanisława's second-born son turns out to be, it won't be the one who kept the name his mother gave him.

Above: "At the Piano," 1904 painting by Polish artist Konrad Krzyżanowski; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Since I have never heard of either of those names I am surprised that they are so common.
    I have had company, they are gone now and I am tired...but I will catch up with you! :)

    1. Glad to see you back, Connie. Hope your Labor Day Weekend was pleasant.

      Yes, I was surprised at the count, as well. I am sure there are pockets of settlements tucked away in different states, full of a heritage of immigrant surnames we've never heard--unless we happened to live in those areas.


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