Friday, September 20, 2019

Grabbing Another Learning Opportunity

\When it comes to researching family history, there is always something more to learn. I took the opportunity this week to fly in to Salt Lake City—not a bad spot for this type of learning—to attend the Association of Professional Genealogists' Professional Management Conference.

This is my second year attending, as I was impressed with the different atmosphere at last year's PMC in Kansas City. Unlike many genealogy conferences, this one is, as I prefer to put it, intimate. It is also focused, considering many of the attendees are longstanding genealogical researchers, coordinating their own business ventures.

However, don't think the only ones attending are those for whom genealogy has been their lifelong vocation; I met several this year in stages of transition. For instance, there are those who are planning career changes, either upon their early retirement from other professions, or as a mid-career move to switch vocational focus. I enjoyed chatting at lunch yesterday with two women who started their career-switching trajectory by taking Boston University's online studies program. Others have been building up to the big jump by diligently attending genealogy institutes around the country, year after year. Yet another group is starting out in their college years, following a course of studies for their bachelor or master's degree in a related field, such as library science. I've spoken with attendees sporting a wide variety of educational and business backgrounds, situated on this wide spectrum of professional timelines.

The variety of training resources offered at this event is also refreshing. I tend to gravitate towards any sessions focused on genetic genealogy—and was certainly pleased to hear Dana Leeds (of Leeds Method renown) present an up-to-the-minute overview of how her color cluster methodology has melded with various other technology-driven assists. But the conference certainly offers information and support on so many other pertinent issues. I was glad, for instance, to be able to catch a brief session on creating instructional videos—something we need to hear more about in this field—by Shaunese Luthy of Untangle Your Roots.

This conference extends through the weekend, and I look forward to not only hearing from more of  such luminaries of the genealogical world as Elizabeth Shown Mills and Thomas W. Jones, but pioneers from the start of the explosion of interest in family history, such as Kory Meyerink, who was there at the formation of what later became What makes the conference refreshing, though, is APG's willingness to introduce bright, fresh faces and voices to the mix, with speakers from other nations, generations, and ethnicities. This weekend will provide plenty of inspiration to carry me forward for a long time. And there's nothing like refreshed enthusiasm to pick up the momentum. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Getting to Know Foreign Nicknames

It's all very well and good to be familiar with nicknames when researching one's family at home. For instance, because of all the experiences I've had in America with names, I've learned by osmosis that Jack can be a nickname for John, for instance. Spend enough time researching those roots in America, and it no longer throws a researcher to see Sally in a document where Sarah should officially have appeared. But Polish nicknames? Ah, that is the start of a new learning curve—and one which I can't escape if I wish to keep track of my Polish ancestors. I'm just glad I'm not tasked with sorting out all the names in a Russian novel.

As it turned out, trying to find Ignatz Giernatowski and his wife—my great-grandfather's sister Agnes Laskowska—as immigrants in New York was not a fruitful search for me. I found candidate families with just enough of a near-miss to cause me to hesitate snatching up the record and plugging it into my tree.

That, however, does not mean we stop searching, of course. Eventually, I came across a couple records, both of which began my education in Polish nicknames. The first was a passenger list transcribed on Castle Garden's website—on which, unfortunately, I'm currently having difficulty accessing, but thankfully had transcribed my own set of notes—showing a woman by the name of Agniska Geirnatowska traveling with a nine year old boy named Ludwig and a six month old girl named Pelagia. They had arrived at the port of New York on 13 August, 1888.

While the woman I was seeking had the name Agnes Giernatowska, what's a little bit of spelling rearrangement among friends? Besides, our Agnes did have a son named Ludwig, who was born in Poland in 1878, which could possibly have still been nine years of age at the time of that August arrival. Even better, our Agnes had a daughter whom she had named Pelagia, according to records found from Żerków dated January, 1888. Almost six months, at least.

So...could Agniska have been a nickname in Poland for Agnes?

The second lesson in my education on Polish nicknames came with her daughter's name, Pelagia. Originally a Greek name, it seemed an unusual choice for a Polish couple to name their daughter. However, since it was the name of a saint, perhaps the connection was through the Catholic Church, of which this family seemed to be connected. One website mentioned that, indeed, besides in Greece, the name was also common in Russian and Polish cultures.

Knowing all that about the name Pelagia, however, did not clue me in to any nickname possibilities. Pelagia simply wasn't a popular name to give a baby on American shores, so perhaps there wasn't much of a chance to shorten it to a nickname.

That, at least, was what I thought when I set aside the puzzle of the three census discoveries of an Ignatz and Agnes Giernatowski—and spelling variations—on account of the three different names for the daughter: Blanch, Pauline, and Pleshia.

Until, that is, I received two particular matches to my own DNA test at not one but two different testing companies. As it turned out, there was a man and what might be a son or nephew who had tested their own DNA, and one of them had posted their family tree. Of course, I had looked at it before—only casually, I admit, because it wasn't a close relationship, and it included absolutely no surnames that matched mine. But eventually, I discovered these two men were related to my father's side of the family, and had shared matches with others whom I had connected with this Laskowski paternal side.

Guesses can be risky policy, when it comes to genealogy, but I did start taking a look around. After all, what if that "Plasha" in the "Gernotwoski" household in the 1920 census was just an ineptly-recorded Pelagia? I built a "what-if" scenario with Ignatz and Agnes and their daughter Pelagia, following links to documents for misspellings like Plashia or Pleska...and eventually reached a New York City marriage record connecting a "Pleska Gernatwaska" with a man by the very same surname as the one in my puzzling DNA match.

So, was baby Pelagia from Poland the same woman as the "Plashia" listed on the headstone bearing the married name I found in New York City records? Apparently—at least if we believe those DNA results—the answer is yes. Pelagia from Poland either preferred her nickname Plashia, or her newfound American community adapted her name to a different format than her parents remembered from the old country.

No matter which the outcome, I'm now more confident that at least the 1920 census in which I found Ignatz and Agnes in New York City pinpointed the right family, and that this one immigrant child became the link between my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski's descendants and the branch that came from his sister, the widow who remarried and, apparently, followed her new husband to a new land.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Gambling With Guesses

One thing about genealogy: the protocol requires us to take things step by step—with documentation for each stop along the way. It would seem there'd be little room for guesses in this type of careful process.

But then, there are brick walls. Immovable, impassible brick walls. I've certainly given up on my fair share of brick walls (or, rather, learned to wait until later, when more digitized records got uploaded to websites). But I've also learned to be brave enough to guess, er, make an educated hypothesis and thoroughly test it out.

When it came to my great-grandfather's unfortunate sister Agnes Laskowska—the one who had lost two of her three children, along with her husband, before remarrying in Żerków, Poland—I had a few things going for me in the guess-making realm. First was that she married a man with a relatively unusual name (Ignatz Giernatowski). Second was that Agnes still had one son from her previous marriage, a boy by the name of Ludwig Szumski, whom I had already discovered was born in 1878. The third detail involved a child from Agnes' second marriage to Ignatz, whom the couple named, in January of 1888, Pelagia Giernatowska.

This is where the guessing comes in. I reasoned—wildly, I admit—that if Agnes' brothers moved to the New World, then perhaps it might not be so far-fetched to assume that Agnes and her second husband might have considered the same thing, as well. After all, my great-grandmother Mary Laskowska brought her three children across the Atlantic in 1889; perhaps her sister-in-law could have done so, as well.

I started pursuing these what-if scenarios to see if I could find any results. The first place I attempted my search was in the New York City area. After all, that is where Agnes' brother Anton headed when he made his start in the New World.

Fortunately, it wasn't long until my searches yielded a possibility. There was, in Brooklyn, according to the 1900 census, an Agnes married to someone named Ignatz, with the understandably-misspelled surname Gernatofski. Close, wouldn't you admit? Their household included three people: Agnes and her husband—who claimed they were married in 1888—and one daughter. According to the enumeration, Agnes had been the mother of four children, only one of whom was still living.

The only downside was that that child was named Blanch, not Pelagia.

Though I could not find any plausible entries in the 1910 census, the 1915 New York State census provided me with a possibility: a couple residing in Brooklyn named Ignatz and Agnes Giernatowsky. They, too, only had one daughter. Only problem: the daughter's name was Pauline. A third close-miss was the 1920 census, in which a Brooklyn couple named Ignatius and Agnes Gernotwoski lived with their daughter...Pleshia.

Did my Agnes and her husband with the ripe-for-misspelling surname even leave Poland and move to New York? I couldn't really tell from these frustrating results. There are, after all, lots of coincidences out there with foreign-sounding names which we think are rare (but turn out to be very common in that country, as we find out much later).

Genealogists are nothing if not plodding and prudent. Considering that, I had no choice but to set all this collection of possibilities aside. I couldn't—yet—be sure I had found the right people.

But then—and you know there will always be a "but then"—along came some surprise discoveries which gave me a research direction to follow. At first, I didn't even realize what had just landed in my lap, unbidden. This summer, though, it finally got impatient and slapped me in the face, waking me up to a different possibility.

Above: Excerpt from 1888 document (file 33 on this page) reporting birth of Pelagia Giernatowska, showing her parents' names to be Ignatz Giernatowski and Agnes Laskowska.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

That Other Sister

It is one thing to find an ancestor to fit on the family tree, when you are working your way backwards in time from the relatives you know now. It is an entirely different thing to commence the search from a hundred years ago and on a different continent. Once I was able to jump "the pond" with my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski, though, a world of Polish online resources showed me the possibility that I could.

The key was finding just one Polish genealogy website. I somehow stumbled upon a volunteer online project dedicated to transcribing old marriage records from that very province which my great-grandparents once called home: Posen, or, as the city at its center is called now, Poznań. That website is called, in English, the Poznan Project. Later, and through a recommendation I found at that first site, I discovered a second resource at the database called BaSIA.

What I did, once I discovered those online resources, was rather tedious: I looked up every instance in which any of my paternal ancestors' surnames showed up, linked to the area around Żerków, their ancestral homeland, the place I had discovered through various passenger records. Each time there was a mention of the surname Gramlewicz, for instance in the Poznan Project marriage transcriptions, I would write down who that person was, who that person was marrying, and names of any parents or witnesses.

Eventually, that mass of names, clustered in groups of surnames like Laskowski or Gramlewicz or the several other affiliated families, sorted itself into logical categories. For instance, since I already knew from my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski's death certificate what his parents' names were, all I had to do was isolate all the marriage records—and later, the birth records from BaSIA—to see who else claimed Mateusz Laskowski and Elzbieta Gramlewicz as parents.

As it turned out, there were four children in that group: Anton, of course, and the sister whom we discovered became the direct line ancestor of Annie Gramlewicz, the one who returned to New York City to marry after her family returned to Poland. And there was the brother I mentioned last week, as well.

There was, however, yet another sibling to account for. Her name was Agnes, and from what I could find in those Polish websites, she was born in 1852 in Żerków. Fortunately for me, I could also find additional records showing me a glimpse of the rest of her life. She was married in 1874, for instance, to Alexius Szumski. Even better, those Polish websites revealed that she and Alexius had at least three children: Victoria, Ludwig, and Joseph.

Life must not have been kind to Agnes, however, for the Szumskis lost their firstborn within six years of her birth, and their youngest—Joseph, born in 1881—lived barely a year. He died the same year as his father, Alexius, leaving Agnes with her then-four-year-old son, Ludwig.

As often happened to young widows in such situations, Agnes eventually married again. This time, it was five years into her widowhood when, in 1887, she married a man from the same village with the impossible-to-spell name of Ignatz Giernatowski.

From that point onward, there was nothing to be found in those Polish websites—not a surprise, seeing they had a limited date range for the collection. This also, however, presented a research dilemma: though the process was tedious to search through those Polish websites, they did, in the end, give me exactly what I was looking for—but nothing more. I could find anything about those surnames I wanted, as long as it was a transcription of a birth, marriage, or death record within a very limited time frame. What became of those people after that point, I couldn't tell. The record set's silence about such answers was reasonable to expect, but frustrating for someone wanting to know what happened to her ancestors' families.

From that point onward, in searching for what became of this family, I had two hopes. One, of course—you knew this would pop up again at some point—was DNA testing. The other, a much less scientific approach, was to take a leap of blind faith.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Not Necessarily a Niece

If you have been following along this past week as I unfolded the story of Annie Gramlewicz, the eighteen year old who lived, for a while, with my great-granparents, Anton and Mary Laskowski, you may have realized, as I did, that there was something squishy about Anton's report that Annie was his niece. After all, in that 1915 New York State census, Anton said he was sixty nine years of age. Annie may well have descended from a sister of Anton, but with that age difference, I wasn't sure Anton's sister would be the one who was Annie's mom.

Still, I was glad for any hint to help me piece together a family constellation for my mystery paternal ancestors. At the point when I first grappled with this family history enigma, there were not many online resources—and certainly no reach as helpful as our current connection to genealogical websites based in other countries.

I did, at that time, what most researchers found helpful: I sidestepped the situation by looking at collateral lines. Anything to find a lead to a homeland in The Old Country.

My most fruitful clue came by seeking what became of Annie's sister Helen. Remember, of that Gramlewicz immigrant family in Little Poland in New York City, almost all of their children had died young—except, during those earlier years, Annie and her sister Helen.

My research breakthrough came when I discovered a passenger record showing Helen's return to New York, after the family had permanently returned to Poland. The passenger list included details such as Helen's ability, as a bank clerk, to read and write not only English and Polish, but German as well. Most important—for my research notes, at least—was Helen's statement regarding where, exactly, her parents remained in Poland. Her answer: Żerków.

Sure enough, Żerków could be considered part of that region of origin that my Laskowski great-grandparents had once claimed as their homeland: "Posen." And by now, I have access to some wonderfully helpful online resources based in Poland. Believe me, I've searched for marriage and birth records showing any connection to the surname Gramlewicz—especially if linked to that other surname of interest, Laskowski.

Line upon line, as the saying goes, I built up my case for the connection between Anton Laskowski and Anna Gramlewicz. In the end, it did turn out that Anton had a sister—Marianna—who married a Gramlewicz. But Marianna and her husband, Lorenz Gramlewicz, were not the ones I found in the census records in New York City with children named Anna and Helen; their parents' names were given—admittedly with a great deal of spelling and handwriting angst among those American enumerators—as variations of Miecyslaus and Josefa.

Besides, Josefa's maiden name, as I later discovered, was Byczyńska (do not attempt saying that without your handy pronunciation guide). That tongue-twisting appearance of yet another Polish surname became good news to me, though, for it provided yet another name to search in those newly-found Polish genealogy websites. And it helped me build that family tree for Anton's mystery sister. That, in fact, was what led me to provide a name for that shadow sister, in the end—and to show me that it wasn't just one sister Anton had, but at least two.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Back to School—for the Rest of Us, Too!

In every way I can think of—at least in my genealogy world—it's been back to school, and it feels so good to be back in the groove again.

Yes, back-to-school is considered the realm of the junior members of society, where kids from kindergarten through college head back to the classroom. We've seen plenty of that type of action in the school districts around here with their various start dates—some as early as the first week of August (and thankfully some traditional holdouts who still stick with the post-Labor-Day opening).

But there are others of us who have had back-to-school on our minds, as well. Anyone who is fortunate to have continuing learning programs in their community will know what I mean. In our city, we have two series of learning opportunities: one which is familiar to residents of many cities, known as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which focuses on "the joy of learning," and a second version which is homegrown and specific to our local residents.

I have taught genealogy topics for mature learners in each of these organizations, and it is indeed a joy to help launch others into their personal pursuit of family history. This semester in our city's program, for instance, I am team-teaching a beginner's course on using with my genealogy mentor, Sheri Fenley, after which I'll teach a brief series on how to use DNA testing in family history.

Even the libraries are gearing up for the return of learners of all ages. Our fall semester program for two local library systems is just now starting, and today brought in a new group of people interested in chasing their elusive ancestors. What is encouraging to see is that these classes bring in not only those who, after a long hiatus thanks to Life's detours, are returning to their love of family history, but also young adults who have always wanted to take up genealogy, but haven't yet learned just how to get started. Attendees like the young woman in my library class today remind me of myself, those many decades ago when I wanted to work on my family tree, but had no idea how to begin—or even what names would go in those slots on the pedigree chart. I love to have a part in launching young people on that path of discovery.

Learning comes in all forms, of course, and some people are quite happy to learn on their own, through books, websites, blogs (remember, I'm the genealogy guinea pig who hopes others learn by watching me stumble into uncharted territory in my own blundering way). Other people have benefited from the growing number of webinars now available via trendsetters like Geoff Rasmussen who, next Friday, presents Legacy Family Tree Webinars' 1,000th program. Still others are opting for the personal touch in a more advanced way, through genealogy institutes like the upcoming Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy where, next January, I'll be learning more about my Virginia ancestors.

No matter which version of "classroom" suits your learning style, I hope you are making plans for some way to expand your knowledge horizons—especially now, during this particular season when everyone is in the mood to get back to school.

Disclaimer: While I am certainly honored to be designated as an Ambassador for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy 2020—and have shared about their impressive offerings for several years now—this year's designation comes to me with receipt of a modest discount to their registration fee. Nevertheless, my focus is on objectively sharing what aspects of the Institute readers at A Family Tapestry would likely find helpful, and I welcome the opportunity to continue serving as eyes and ears on site during this event for the benefit of my readers.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Off the Shelf:
Tracing Your Female Ancestors

Not too long ago, a woman from our county's Commission on the Status of Women approached me to ask if our genealogical society was planning any special event to commemorate the hundred year mark for this country's passage of the nineteenth amendment granting women's right to vote. Immediately, what flew into my head was the many ways women have proven to be nearly invisible to family history researchers, juxtaposed with the voter records we've resorted to in seeking information on any of our ancestors. There are so many classes we could offer to genealogists on how to find those invisible women, voting being only one aspect in which they began to show their faces in public.

Just before some society board members and I met with this Commission representative to plan our role in the special commemorative events for 2020, I happened upon a newly-offered book from Great Britain: Adele Emm's Tracing Your Female Ancestors. The source for this introduction was John D. Reid's book review in his blog, Canada's Anglo-Celtic Connections. Though I can't say his review was a glowing endorsement, I considered myself forewarned and bought the book anyway. I wanted to see what insights I could glean from this new resource.

Given that recent discovery of such a new resource, you can't exactly say, as would be noted of most other books featured in this column, that this one had been languishing on my bookshelves for decades. It is fresh off the press and barely cracked open. But it is timely, and I am racing the clock. Landmark anniversaries don't happen just any day, you know.

The basis for this commemorative push is the year in which the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, granting women the right to vote. The final state, of the bare minimum required, to ratify the amendment did so on August 18, 1920. Of course, that is a moot point for those of us living in California, where our state government had given women the right to vote, back in 1911. Still, in solidarity with the rest of the nation, we'll celebrate like it's 1920.

And so, I go buying books like Adele Emm's tightly-packed two hundred twenty pages on everything a family historian would want to learn about how to find their frustratingly invisible female ancestors. Ms. Emm goes far afield of what might have been expected for a genealogy guide. She covers every aspect of the feminine experience of prior centuries, giving the reader a solid grounding in what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth century (or earlier) Great Britain. Of course, in many situations, that will not be what a woman in America might have experienced—talk of governesses or the "cotton famine" seeming somewhat removed from life in California, for instance—but in so many other aspects, her examination of the minutiae of women's experience seems enlightening.

Yet, being a book produced in England—it was published this year by Pen and Sword Books of Yorkshire—the style of presentation is much more sedate than an American reader might expect. I find myself reacting to the tone of this book much as I did when reading another of the publisher's titles—Tracing Villains and Their Victims—seeking the will to complete the material, rather than the joy of being led along by a fascinating narrative. On the other hand, the life of a woman in prior centuries, no matter how pampered or deprived, gave enough reason to consider the less pleasant aspects of reality. (Literate women of childbearing age, for instance, would sometimes compose a "fond farewell letter" to their husband, in the event the birthing experience claimed her as one of the daunting statistics of childbirth in those earlier years.)

Likewise, this book delves into many aspects of life in the British Isles for women that we might not have considered as we wonder whatever became of our beloved female ancestors. The guide includes sections on education of women, occupations taken up by women, daily life experiences for a wide variety of classes of women, and even provides a chapter on crime and punishment and the shadier aspects of the female experience.

I can't say the book will help me find my mystery female ancestors—I don't really have roots in England—but the narrative serves to open the researcher's mind on what life was really like for those ancestors, especially the women who came before us. For a family historian with the overarching goal of going far beyond the routine reporting of BMD—birth, marriage, death statistics—this is the type of examination of the nitty gritty of daily life which transforms our great-greats from mere names and dates to real, living, breathing people.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Cousin Bait Connects Again

In an era now, in which genetic genealogists bemoan the lack of responses from their own DNA matches, it may be hard to believe that only a few short years ago, there was a community of family history enthusiasts who thrived on their online connections. In the online forums of the 1990s and early years of this century, genealogists were quite eager to share those troublesome research details which stumped them. There would be notes from people trying to locate information on ancestors who seemed to disappear from the paper trail, requests for death certificates, marriage records, or even wills. Folks seemed quite happy to share what they could find for each other, all thanks to online connections.

At some point during those halcyon days, I must have posted a comment about the hard-to-find surname Gramlewicz on one of those genealogy forums—which was a good thing, because I had just found a puzzling record concerning Annie Gramlewicz, the niece who had been living with my great-grandparents, Anton and Mary Laskowski. Though Annie had reported in the 1915 New York State census that she was born in the United States, the record I found was a passenger list reporting her arrival in New York from Poland.

Anna, sailing from Bremen, Germany, aboard the SS Friedrich der Grosse, arrived at the Port of New York on December 3, 1913. In the passenger records, Anna gave as her date of birth June 24, 1897. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she was returning to an address at "Grenpoint" on Long Island. This would not be a surprise to anyone who knows that Greenpoint, a neighborhood in Brooklyn known for its concentration of Polish immigrants, was once nicknamed "Little Poland." It was not long after her arrival in New York that Anna showed up in the 1915 state census, not in her parents' household, but in the Laskowski household.

Just why she ended up there—or came there from Poland instead of the more reasonable location in one of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn—would have remained a mystery to me, except for one fortunate connection. Because I, as had many other researchers before me, had taken advantage of online resources for genealogists and posted my questions about the Gramlewicz family, someone else had spotted my questions and decided to get in touch.

You can imagine my surprise when I received a message from someone with the surname Gramlewicz, writing me from Sicily, claiming to be a possible distant cousin from a family in Poland. But as we discussed over the course of a very helpful correspondence, there was a reason for Anna's passage, though a U.S. citizen, from Poland in 1913. At some point after the Gramlewicz's disappearance from American census records—I couldn't locate them after the 1910 census—they had decided to give up the immigrant struggle in the rough and tumble neighborhoods of New York City and return to their homeland. The whole family left; the only one who requested to return was Anna. That 1913 passage was what must have been the result of her very difficult decision.

Her parents and sisters, however, also faced some difficult times: that family split happened on the eve of a brutal war. Yet, the family fared well enough to welcome into their home a new son, Hieronim, born in Żerków, Poland, in September of 1912. That new son eventually became the grandfather of the woman who had contacted me, thanks to the cousin bait I had posted on one of those genealogy forums, years ago.

Annie—the one who came back to America—herself went on to marry and have a family of her own. Thanks to other connections from those now-outdated forums, I've been able to connect with relatives from this branch of the Gramlewicz family, as well. And the cousin who originally contacted me from Sicily mentioned remembering the older relatives exchanging letters in English with the sibling who went back to America—until one day when the letters no longer came, and, remembering, she always wondered what became of her American relatives.

Cousin bait, in the end, brought each of us together, and gifted us with the answers we were seeking.

Above: Line from a 1913 passenger record reveals that sixteen year old Anna Gramlewicz returned alone from Europe to live, once again, in Brooklyn, New York; image courtesy

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Sister Where a Shadow Used to Be

It may have been a surprise to discover that my great-grandfather, Anton Laskowski, had a brother, but it wasn't a surprise to learn he had any siblings at all. That clue came to me early in my quest to uncover my paternal origins. And though it was an unexpected discovery, it occurred in the very regular process of checking all documents which contained the names of my grandparents and their family.

My habit, as I work through each person in my pedigree chart, is to attach every document pertinent to that individual in the individual's "sources" column at, where I keep my online version of each family tree. That would mean, for Anton and Mary Laskowski, for each year they appeared in the census, I would link that digitized image to their individual profile.

In Anton's case, since he arrived in the United States sometime in the 1880s and died in 1939, that means I have a link to his entry for the 1900 census as well as that for 1910, 1920, and 1930. Then, too, because that Polish immigrant family settled in New York City, it also meant having the additional reference of each New York State census—for those available in 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925.

It was in those state enumerations that I discovered most of the surprises for my father's family. It was there, for instance, that I discovered my father's original surname was something like Puhalaski, not the surname I grew up claiming. It was also in those state records that I learned about a possible sibling for Anton.

In Anton's household on North Eighth Street in Brooklyn, long after his daughter—my grandmother—and her young family had moved out, there appeared in the 1915 census another woman by the name of Annie Gramlewicz. Gramlewicz was a name similar to a surname I had already seen mentioned concerning this family: on Anton's 1939 death certificate, his mother's maiden name was written as Granlewicz.

The census also reported that Annie was eighteen years of age, born in the U.S., and was working as a saleslady. Most importantly, I learned from that census that Annie was Anton's niece. Of course, it could be possible that Annie was related to the Laskowskis through Anton's wife Mary, rather than through Anton, himself, but technically, census instructions indicate that relationships are to be designated in relation to the head of the household.

If Annie was single—and there was no way of telling from this state enumeration—with a surname different than her uncle's, that would mean she was related to him through a sister, not a brother. Somewhere, then, there was a Laskowski daughter in the previous generation who had married a Gramlewicz. Though I didn't yet know her name, at least now I knew there was such a relative.

The chase was on to find any record of a Gramlewicz family related to a Laskowski family—or at least a Gramlewicz daughter born in the United States around 1897. Almost all references, on at least, seemed to point to one family: that of Mecislaus and Josephina—or similar spelling variations, depending on the year of the enumeration. In that household, Annie was listed as having been born in June of 1897, according to the 1900 census, and though her age seemed to vary unevenly with each subsequent census, the family constellation remained mostly the same.

Miecyslaus—or, as he was listed in the 1905 state census, John—and his wife actually had at least seven children during their years in New York City, though several of them died in childhood. The constants among those names listed in census records were four daughters: Anna and her older sister Helen, and then two very much younger daughters named Wanda and Marta.

Identifying that potential family unit helped me locate more information on the Gramlewicz connection between Annie and her uncle Anton Laskowski, though I didn't find documentation until many years after this initial discovery of Annie in her uncle's household. All I could figure, at that point, was that Annie must have been related to a sister—as yet unnamed—of Anton.

Long before I discovered those online resources in Poland to help pinpoint names and dates for my ancestry in Żerków, however, I got a surprise online message from someone who had found some of my cousin bait, and wrote to tell me the rest of the story about the Gramlewicz connection.

Above: Just when I wasn't expecting it, I stumbled upon a clue implying another branch of my mystery great-grandfather's family tree through a niece living in his household, according to the 1915 New York State census. This is the entry that got me started searching for any clues about Anton Laskowski's implied sister. Image courtesy

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Proper Pronunciation

When it comes to understanding just how our ancestors might have pronounced their name back in The Old Country, there is no shortcut. If you want to say those names correctly, you simply must learn the phonetics of that language. And when it comes to languages that use more—or less—than our twenty six letters of the English language, you've just got to know there are some adaptations to be learned.

That's the way it was, back when I was researching my father-in-law's Irish roots—with names in a language replete with eighteen letters (upgraded to twenty four in the last century), there had to be some awkward combinations and linguistic conventions to yield a name such as Sean, looking so very different than it sounds, at least to an English-speaker's sensibilities. Now researching my own Polish roots, how could I not delve into the reasons why the Polish handled their names as they do?

So when I discovered that, back home in Poland, my great grandfather Anton Laskowski had a brother who married a woman with a distinctly Polish-looking maiden name—Blaszczynska—I had to learn more. Hidden within what looked like a string of redundant consonants, there had to be a reason why those letters all made their appearance in that exact order.

Sure enough, pronunciation keys for the Polish language were there to bear out my suspicion—which is good, considering it makes genealogical research all the easier when the researcher can actually, you know, say the words having to do with one's roots. For instance, now I know how to pronounce the town where the Laskowskis once lived: words with a Ż—yes, there is a dot on top of that letter—are spoken much like the French would pronounce the name Jacques, with a voiced "zh" as in "Doctor Zhivago." So Żerków would be pronounced "Zherkoov" (at least, best I can tell from the pronunciation guides here and here).

What about Blaszczynska? That will take a bit more 'splainin'. With all we need to take into consideration, it may be a relief to learn the "Bla" beginning of that name can be handled much the same as in English, with the "a" sounding like the same letter in "cat."

For the next section of letters, we need to divide and conquer. The first "sz" is a letter combination which is pronounced much the same as "sh" in the English word "shy." The second letter combination—that of the "cz"—is pronounced with a harder attack, like the "ch" in the English word cherry. While that may seem almost redundant—after all, each of those sounds are quite similar—what probably happened is that the first set was pronounced entirely separate from the second set, with the first syllable rendered as "Blash," followed by that second syllable, "chin." And, of course, the "-ska" was the ending provided for women's surnames.

What is interesting about my very uninformed guess—after all, I have absolutely no knowledge about the Polish language other than what I've found here—is how I found Anna's maiden name repeated in some of her children's records. For the New York State Affidavit for License to Marry for Anna's daughter Harriet, the handwriting actually had a break in between that first and second syllable, almost as if to signify the precise way it was pronounced—separating that soft "sh" sound of the first syllable from the very similar, but distinctly delineated "ch" beginning the next syllable.

When I found that document, I was elated to see that that very Polish spelling was replicated entirely correctly—something I found odd for a state which surely had become very impatient with the flood of immigrants bursting upon its shores. I would have thought the more likely candidate for perfect replication of Old World spelling would be an immigrant community, such as might have been seen at an ethnic church congregation.

And yet, when it came time to baptize their youngest child, Lawrence and Anna Laskoski made the sixty mile trip from their home in Stony Point, New York, to a Catholic church in Plainfield, New Jersey—where mama Anna's maiden name was rendered with the mangled spelling, Blashinski. True, all we have available for our scrutiny is a transcription of the actual record, and perhaps that included a typo. But even there, it is possible that this is the rendering obtained from the original document. It is easy to see how an untrained ear, being told that foreign-sounding name by a stranger, would have picked up on the first consonant sound—the soft "sh" sound of the leading sz—and missed out on the differentiation of the second sound of the trailing cz.

Either way, obtaining a guide to pronunciation of the language of one's roots helps us to not only understand how to say those impossibly long strings of consonants, but to gain insight on how others might have mistakenly entered them in the documents we so desperately seek for verification.

Above: Entry of Harriet Laskoska's mother's maiden name—spelled entirely correctly—in her 1915 marriage application, with a barely perceptible break in the handwriting after the first syllable; image courtesy

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

About That Other Brother

Pulling those threads—tugging, actually, and rather firmly, too—to follow the line of my great-grandfather's newly-discovered brother in the Laskowski tapestry has not been easy. Yes, I could find his marriage record back in Poland, but had no idea to look for him in New York—until, that is, I received news of a DNA match with a "Laskoski" ancestor in her tree.

Other than that one missing "w," everything else seemed to match up. Mostly.

I had traced the rudiments of Lorenz Laskowski's family tree in Poland—a place where Laskowski was still spelled that way in the majority of records I found on the extended family. I had found his 1878 marriage record to Anna, she of the impossibly long maiden name Blaszczynska. And I had found a transcription reporting the birth of a son, Joseph, in 1885. And then, nothing more.

That was on the Polish side of the search. On the New York side, once I discovered this DNA cousin, things were different. Gone was the surname spelling of Laskowski; it was now Laskoski. Gone also was the first name spelled as Lorenz; the head of this family opted for the more American-looking Lawrence. And in the 1900 census, it was easy to trace just about when the family arrived in the New World: the child born after their son Joseph had her place of birth listed as "at sea."

Yet, no passenger records for any of them, neither at their likely port of entry (New York City) nor from their likely point of departure (Hamburg, Germany). Not singly for Lawrence, despite many immigrant men traveling first to prepare the way, then sending for the wife and children to follow. Nor could I find any passenger record for Anna or their son Joseph. Those I could find turned out to have problems with dates or details—wrong name of husband or several other children whose names didn't align.

Because this Lawrence Laskoski was the ancestor of my DNA match, though, I could trace that line forward in time. Though Lawrence and Anna undoubtedly had another child before the birth of the one I could find in documents (Joseph, born almost seven years after their marriage), the first American record I could find them in was the 1900 census. No trace in the 1892 New York State census, and of course, no recourse to the loss of the 1890 U.S. census. And 1880 would tell us nothing—it would be too early for their arrival on our shores.

Still, moving forward from that point did provide assurances. The most encouraging was to find records showing entries of Anna's maiden name. Remember that impossible-to-spell name? This is when that unusual string of Polish consonants made me nearly jump for joy. We'll take a look at that discovery tomorrow.

Above: Entry in the 1900 U.S. Census for Lawrence and Anna Laskoski and household in Rockland County, New York, including the notation that daughter Hattie was born in September 1886 "at sea," helping to approximate the date of the family's arrival in the United States. Image courtesy

Monday, September 9, 2019

"There Were Two Brothers"

Most times, when a genealogist runs into a phrase like that—"there were two brothers"—in an oral history of the family's origin, we've been conditioned to take that in with a considerable dose of doubt. There have been so many examples of family lore that began with such a line which turned out, after serious examination, to be just that: a story.

In this particular case today, though, I can't say that I've ever been offered such a line. But in this case, if I ever had run across such a story, it would have turned out to be true. And that's why, if it weren't for DNA testing, I'd never have realized there was that second brother who came to the United States from Europe.

The one brother—and the only brother, as far as I could tell—was named Anton Laskowski. He was my great-grandfather. It took me many years of research to even learn the place of this New York immigrant's origin, and even then, the first clue came to me as a mistake entered on a census enumeration. From that point, I eventually was able to zero in on the tiny town—Żerków—in the historic province the Prussians once called Posen.

Finding all that information came only by learning the history of the region through the 1800s, including following the shifting of borders, and noting variations in spelling of names, due to who kept the records (civil or church). But the real breakthroughs came when I discovered two websites hosted not by some genealogy giant in North America, but by a consortium of diligent (and technologically savvy) volunteers in Poland. The first of those websites I discovered is called the Poznan Project, the indexing project for the historic region's marriage records from 1800 through 1899. The second website is called BaSIA, "Database of Archival Indexing System."

Exploring all I could find, on these two databases, for Laskowski family members from Żerków, I pieced together as much of an extended family tree for my Laskowski line as I could find. From that effort, I learned that my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski had a brother. (He also had two sisters, but we'll get to that point another day.)

That brother was named Lorenz—at least from the marriage record I found at the Poznan Project. Of course, that marriage record also let me know that in 1878 in a town fifteen miles to the southeast, Lorenz Laskowski married a woman by the name of—pay attention to this spelling, please—Anna Blaszczynska. (Yes, those letters all mean something. But we'll get to that another day.)

That Polish website BaSIA also provided the tip that Lorenz and Anna had a son in 1885, whom they named Joseph. Born in tiny Żerków, the record of his arrival, I could be sure, belonged to this very couple, for his mother's maiden name was—yes, you guessed it—Blaszczynska. (To give you an idea how tiny this town was, the very next entry in the database for Żerków happened to be for the birth of my own paternal grandmother.)

The problem was, I had no idea to look for this family anywhere other than in Poland. Yes, I knew that my paternal grandmother and her two older brothers, born in Żerków, eventually made the long journey with their mother to join their father in New York. But remember, this is the family which never talked about their origins. They never talked about any other relatives, either, so how was I to know that my grandmother had an uncle who followed his brother to the New World?

It took the discovery of a DNA match with a family tree containing the similar surname Laskoski to piece the story together. Otherwise, I'd still be assuming those distant cousins still lived back in Poland, instead of fifty miles north of where my great-grandparents settled in Brooklyn, New York. Thanks to the DNA match, I was able to add an entire branch of the Laskowski family to my tree. And yes, in this case, should there have been any family lore about "there were two brothers," now I'd know that story was true.

Above: Example of readout provided from a search at the BaSIA database; entry details 1885 birth of Joseph, son of Lorenz Laskowski and Anna Blaszczynska.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Still Doing the Same Detour

Some detours take longer than others. When I mentioned, two weeks ago, that some sudden discoveries required me to veer from my research plan, don't think I was staring down an easy fix. On the contrary, those very welcome "interruptions" have turned into my constant research focus for the entire two weeks between then and now.

The first one was in response to some well-laid cousin bait, in which a distant cousin on my mother-in-law's Gordon line reached out to connect, inadvertently gifting me with an entire missing branch of that part of her family. Ever since then, I've been plugging away, adding all the descendants—and their descendants—from that line to my mother-in-law's tree.

To give you an idea how many new names that includes, my mother-in-law's tree bumped up 107 names in the last two weeks, and now stands at 16,911 individuals. Oh, by the way, I'm not anywhere near done yet. This is just one branch of a typical Catholic family of the past centuries, and that missing branch led back to a woman who was born in 1851.

The other detour occupying my time these past weeks has included that recent DNA discovery on my father's side. Another work in progress, so far that lead has added thirty eight names to my dad's family tree, which now totals 612 people. While I realize that 612 is a far cry from the 19,123 in my mom's tree, I'm ecstatic to have made any further progress at all on this brick wall line. What I haven't been able to discover through traditional means and documentation, I've been led to, thanks to revealing results in DNA testing.

Of course, when detours budge me from my stated research plans, some other items stand still—such as my father-in-law's tree, which is still stuck at 1,551. But that's okay; it was only a month ago when an unexpected report from a subscription service had shown me an obituary that allowed me to add to that tree.

While there is no way to predict when a distant cousin is going to spring for a DNA test—or when an equally unknown distant relative's name will appear in an obituary—these are part of my research system for filling in all the blanks in those pedigree charts. In the meantime, when no other surprises pop up, you know I'll be back to business as usual, sticking to that long-term research plan, and adding to my mother's tree, the one with the count which hasn't budged at all these past two weeks. But it's fun to throw a little genealogical confetti around and celebrate those unexpected finds when they happen. I enjoy them when I can; that regularly-scheduled program will be back to normal in no time.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Now Indexing:
More Draft Registration Cards

Every month, I try to set aside time to do some volunteer work on indexing digitized records which are part of the collection at Indexing is the process whereby the pictures of those many pages of genealogically significant documents are translated into searchable terms—the gold standard that makes them so valuable to family history researchers. Without the process of indexing, all we would otherwise have would be thousands and thousands of pictures; we could browse through them, but we'd have no way to pinpoint our search efforts to get to just the right document.

Lately, I've been working on the draft registration cards filled out by countless young American men, once our country became involved in what later was called World War I. I like to focus on the cards completed in New York because that's where my father's family lived at the time. Of course, I keep hoping it will bring some of my distant cousins to light, but barring that type of serendipity, at least my small effort will help others find their ancestors' records more easily.

This weekend's effort didn't go as smoothly as hoped. For some reason, I ended up choosing short batches to index—apparently, batches that someone else had worked on before me. The record sets were previously organized as if there were information on two pages, when each record gleaned all the data needed in the first page—thus, leaving a second page blank. But you couldn't say that second page was blank—and I could find no way to go back and correct the previous entry to indicate that there was only one page of information per record. So I had to come up with a work-around...and I'm sure my choice wasn't the correct way to handle it, but what could I do? The many pages of instructions at my fingertips spoke not a word about such a dilemma.

Since the batch was such a short batch, I opted, as usual, to do a second batch. This one didn't go so well, either, for right before the final record, I got a phone call. It must have lasted longer than the website granted for my downtime permission, for when I returned to wrap up that last record, all that remained was an error message that the website had retracted my batch and I'd have to call up another entire set if I wished to do more work.

Though such quirks—especially those I've never run across previously—can be annoying, I know there is real value in being part of the vast army of volunteers that makes these digitized documents available for all to use freely. If you've ever looked up a census record, or marriage document, or any other genealogical record from around the world on FamilySearch, you've benefited from the indexing work of a volunteer. Anyone willing to follow the process is welcome to become a volunteer. For the most part, instructions are straightforward and available, any time you wish to refer back to them. The work is served up to volunteers in batches, and each batch is small enough to handle in a minimum amount of time. I've heard people mention that they'd do a "batch before dinner" or during other brief waiting times.

The effort illustrates the beauty of the saying, "Many hands make light work." The results are something every genealogy practitioner appreciates, made possible by the multitude of small, achievable tasks done by many willing people.

I just keep waiting for the moment when I end up indexing a missing record for one of my own family members. But even if that never happens—after all, what are the chances?—it feels good to know that the effort will eventually help someone else.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Grappling with Foreign Phonics

Early in my public school years, I began what ended up being five years of Spanish. By that last year of high school, I could read it, I could write it, but I couldn't speak it. Not really. The phonics were easy—a, e, i, o, and u were just that: exactly what they said they were. But grasping the meaning behind the proper pronunciation? Let's just say foreign languages are not my forte.

You'd think I'd get a clue. Sometime at the close of my undergraduate years, I took the notion to spring into learning French. After surviving my first year of that attempt, a brilliant instructor took the approach of teaching the rationale of the phonics behind those useless unpronounced strings of letters at the end of so many French words. Once I understood that the French handle their phonics—and the history behind those phonics—much differently than do the English, at least I could tackle pronunciations with a bit more ease.

That point, I believe, can be credited with opening up a whole new world of seeing foreign words: even if I didn't know what those words mean, at least I could learn how those people pronounce them. When it comes to learning how our surnames might have been pronounced in The Old Country, it can go a long way to helping us make genealogical connections.

Take this latest DNA match I found. It's been over five years since I arranged for that first DNA test to solve the mysteries on my father's undocumented side of the family history. Almost the entire time has been spent doing one thing: waiting. And then, this year, all of a sudden there come not one, but several matches to shed light on just where my paternal grandparents came from. The wait used to seem like it was telling me I wasted my money, but I've learned it takes two to make a match. Waiting for that match can lead to some priceless answers.

This match, the one showing up this week, was for my paternal grandmother's line, though that wasn't apparent at first. The name of my grandmother, as I had it in my records, was Sophie Laskowski. Of course, I had already learned that, in Poland, a surname is varied to adjust for whether the person being spoken of is a man or a woman, so in Sophie's case, the surname would be written as Laskowska—as was the record for the entire family when young Sophie came to America with her brothers and her mother, but not with her father. The entire household was listed, by the German shipping line, as Laskowska, following her mother's stated name.

Once they arrived in New York—and met up with Sophie's dad, who would have given his surname as Laskowski—all records continued to agree with that correct information. Why would it ever have been recorded differently?

Apparently, there was a possibility for that name to be recorded differently: by someone basing the spelling on how it sounded to English-speaking ears, rather than to Polish or German sensibilities. Think about it—especially if you, unlike me, had opted to learn German for your high school foreign language classes. How would a German (or Polish) person have pronounced a name containing a "w"? Like it was a "v," of course.

When a Laskowski arrived in America and pronounced his name like one would expect in The Old Country, an American might hear it as "Laskovski."

That would be if that record-keeping American were being careful and attentive. More likely than not, those American ears might have missed the "v" sound in "Laskovski" and just assumed this poor immigrant was reporting his name to be Laskoski.

Much differently than the "ow" in Laskowski, the pronunciation handed down to us two generations later. And so, I never gave it a second thought when scouring the Internet to find documentation on my grandmother's family: of course it would be spelled Laskowski.

It just so happened that some DNA matches had no matching surnames to mine, other than this oddly-spelled Laskoski. Should I take it?

What do you think I did?

Of course, I checked out far more than the alternate spelling. And that is another story. But for now, finding this new DNA match—and the surnames listed on her 23andMe account—have helped me tie up some loose ends on a couple I could identify in Polish marriage records as one of the siblings in my great-grandfather's Laskowski line, but didn't know much about when it came to that man's descendants.

It has been experiences like this that have convinced me of the utility of learning the phonics of the language of my family's origin. As foreign as it is to me, it will serve me well to be able to understand just how those names were originally pronounced, and what could possibly go wrong, once that name met its international interface in the immigration process. We'll see, next week, how some of those names could have gotten mangled, and how DNA is helping me piece these details back together again.

Above: Entry for my grandmother Sophie Laskowska, along with her mother Marianna and her brothers Johann and Miecyslaus, from the Hamburg passenger records for the steamship Wieland (remember, think German pronunciation here); image courtesy

Thursday, September 5, 2019

When in Doubt, Head to Poland
(Figuratively Speaking, of Course)

I'm stymied by lack of response from any family members descended from the Samuel and Annie Tucker whose family portrait I found in a northern California antique shop. I'd love to return the photos to someone in their family, of course, but who that candidate would be or how I could send the photos homeward has yet to make itself known.

I don't do waiting well. Nevertheless, I'll have to give the project some time, in case the second person responds affirmatively to my message—but once another week or two goes by without any answer, I do have a third contact to try. In the meantime, waiting doesn't make for scintillating conversation, so let's switch tracks and pick up on another topic we've lately put on hold.

With this latest discovery of yet another DNA match on my paternal side, it looks like this is a good time to delve back in to that paternal Polish heritage. There are many barriers to such research—I am here, while the paperwork is there, for instance (and I have no plans for traveling to Europe any time soon)—but there are still many armchair-researcher tasks that can be accomplished long distance, especially given the number of Polish websites coming online to speak to this research need.

Plus, researching a heritage I've previously been unaware of—my father, and his father before him, were always very reticent to say anything about their ethnic origin—requires an immersion in a history and culture I never grew up knowing. Cues from the broader picture of a national or ethnic heritage can add so much to understanding the experiences of a smaller family unit coming from that background. But before I can benefit from that understanding, I need to learn those basics.

It seems research comes in waves. We find a branch of the tree with many clues, and we rush headlong into the success of finding so many helpful documents, photographs, letters, even ephemera to help us learn more about that family line.

And then, we get stuck. We park our notes in a file, or a box, or within an account in the cloud, and wait. Waiting for the appropriate time to pick up a research thread once again can mean having a sense of timing which relies on stuff that is seemingly invisible. How can we know that now is the time when more documents in our specific line will show up, easily harvested with the click of a mouse? But then the next wave comes in and lifts us higher and then we can see that the time is right.

My wave this time is labeled DNA, and apparently, I have some more matches on this branch of the family. One tiny bit of information can provide the clue to lead to a second answer, and then a third. That is what is happening with this latest DNA match: figuring out this match's family enabled me to spot how that person connected with another DNA match. And then, filling out the pedigree chart in even more detail is leading to other clues. It's a chain reaction, all from one research step at a time.

Let's take a look, tomorrow, at this latest DNA match, and what it tells me about the extended Laskowski family from a little town called Zerkow in Poland—as well as what the differences between DNA testing companies can yield the persistent researcher.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

One of Those Days

Gotta chalk yesterday up to being "one of those days."

Most days, I manage to squeeze in some time for family history research—and a corresponding blog post to catalog my research meanderings—just about as regularly as most people melt into their easy chair to laugh away the stress after a long day at work with their favorite sitcom. I find research—in small doses, but on a regular basis—to be my kind of way to relax and unwind after the day's end.

Not so, yesterday—no, make that the entire weekend. Between the workday ending last week and the one opening up this week, I managed to witness more to-do items checked off than I dreamed would be possible (for me, at least).

Talk about back-to-school: got that checked off the list, sending she-whose-name-must-virtually-never-be-mentioned off to grad school at a hybrid home-plus-campus program based out of Los Angeles. But not before she pre-arranged financing and took the family up north to scope out a possible new-to-her truck to purchase for the twice-per-semester 350 mile commute. Nothing is ever easy, however, so while she returned to work yesterday, her behind-the-scenes crew (that would be me) scrambled to switch all the arrangements so the vehicle was properly insured before the trek down south. And make sure lodging arrangements were properly taken care of (nothing is ever easy). And be on hand, in case the final details of financial paperwork needed to be hand-delivered to the designated parties.

Of course, no way any other work could be done in between all the phone calls, office deliveries, and other necessary connections. So...I did what I could: squeeze in a bit of research. There is always time for a quick lookup. Conveniently, my email alerted me to a new DNA match at one of my less-active testing sites, so I checked it out. That spare moment catapulted into several spare moments throughout the day, so I could squeeze in the several newly-discovered family members tied to this one DNA match, linking names with documents as the hints started pouring in.

A little here, a little there—but it doesn't always add up to something scintillating to share in a post. When I do my biweekly tally next weekend, though, I'll have something to report on my dad's tree, which I'm always excited to see. But not much to report for today's post.

In the meantime, there hasn't been any response to my message to yet another Samuel Tucker descendant, so it's still quiet on that front as well. Some days, it's hurry up and wait. Today was just one of those days.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Challenge of Finding Just One

If that was money, the hundred year old photograph I found of the Samuel Tucker family would have long since burned a hole in my pocket. For some reason, despite having had at least eight children, Samuel and Annie Tucker have descendants who are either hard to find, or just don't answer email. I'm still wishing to find just one who will say "yes" to my offer of mailing these family photograph treasures back home.

If you've been following along with me at A Family Tapestry as I attend to my photo-rescuing project, you've seen how it works. I find an abandoned picture—including enough clues to help with identification—and do the research to find the right person and build his or her family tree. I then look at online genealogy sites to locate a researcher who is a direct descendant of the subject in the photo—although, in some cases, a diligent descendant may find me first through online searches of surnames.

In the Tucker case, despite having posted about several members of that family, I haven't heard from anyone related to that line. So, it's on to searching for direct descendants.

There are always others who include my target person in their tree. Some of those are trees much like my own—numbering in the tens of thousands of individuals—and the person who built the tree is not necessarily a direct descendant of that target person. Once I discover that is the case with a tree I'm reviewing, I set it aside and look for other possibilities among those researchers more closely related to the target person. Sometimes, almost all of the trees fall into this distant-relationship category.

Then there is that one tree which lines up well enough to demonstrate that we are looking at the right person, and that the target person is indeed a direct-line ancestor of the tree's owner. That qualifies as Happy Genealogy Dance Number One. But it sometimes is a dance which doesn't last for long.

In the case of the Samuel Tucker family, I did find one direct ancestor fairly early in the process. Unfortunately, I could tell almost right away that the chances of hearing back from this individual were slim. For Ancestry's "last signed in" category on their messaging page, this researcher was last seen "3-11 months ago." That didn't sound too promising.

Nevertheless, I sent my message. And waited. And heard nothing.

Once my research progress moved on from the parents to eldest son Jim Tucker and then to next oldest daughter Eva, it was encouraging to see that Eva had some grandchildren whose families might have been active in family history research. The only problem now is, if I message a second candidate to receive the photos, Murphy's Law dictates that the first person I had contacted will immediately show up in my inbox, delightedly claiming the photographs. Having two candidates is much more messy than having none.

As of now, that's a moot point, as I await an answer from candidate number two. Hopefully, that person will reply in the affirmative, and I'll send off the Tucker photographs, thus qualifying me to do Happy Genealogy Dance Number Two. In which case, I hope you will join me in the celebration.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Celebrating How Far We've Come

When we look back at all the media and stories of the origin of Labor Day in the United States and elsewhere around the world, we can't avoid the realization of how far we've come in working conditions for our jobs. Though this century's new occupations don't represent the hazards of prior generations—coal mining, for instance, has seen such a reduced demand, once people no longer heated their home in this way—there are certainly more details to address in current, though evolving, workplace issues.

No matter where you work—especially in comparison to where your great-grandparents once worked—I hope you enjoy this closing holiday of the summer season.

Above: Entrance to a West Virginia coal mine; photograph taken in 1908 by American sociologist and photographer Lewis Wickes Hine; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Heigh Ho

With Labor Day upon us tomorrow, I thought it might be interesting to review the occupations claimed by my eight great grandparents. Some of those careers, I figured, would be pedestrian—after all, everyone seemed to be a farmer one hundred years ago—while others might be downright antiquated.

While I was pretty sure none of my eight great grandparents would show up claiming any of the one hundred seventy occupations currently listed as obsolete on Wikipedia, I did run into one puzzler. That, however, might be owing more to miserable enumerator handwriting challenges than esoteric career choices.

For the most part, the occupations claimed by my ancestors were predicable and common—or missing entirely from my research grasp. In that latter category fell my paternal grandfather's parents, as I have yet to ascertain exactly who they were. But also stumbling into that same "missing" category were some of the women in the family tree. My maternal grandmother's mother, for instance, had the entry "none" listed for her 1920 and 1930 census record—and not even that much ink was spared for her entry in the 1940 census—yet, because she raised her granddaughter (my mother) during the early 1930s, I know this savvy businesswoman owned and managed her own orange grove in Florida during that same time.

My maternal grandfather's mother, likewise, found herself in a situation after her husband's untimely death in which, by economic necessity, she needed to open up her house as a boarding home. The only way I know this is when I found, among the ephemera inherited when my aunt died, this great-grandmother's calling cards and promotional postcards advertising meals and a room at her address. Yet on the census, nary a word of her enterprising endeavors.

And yet, of the paternal ancestors of whom I know so very little, it turns out that one great-grandmother—my paternal grandmother's mother—was not listed as housewife, but this immigrant woman, in her later years, took a position as an "operator" in a New York City shirt factory. This report in her 1920 census entry caused me immediately to link that mention with the historic disaster at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where one of America's deadliest fires caused the death of over one hundred employees in 1911, most of whom were women. It made me wonder how much progress had been made in the nine years since that event, and what the working conditions were when my great-grandmother took on such a job.

In that same census entry, this great-grandmother's husband claimed an occupation that sent me googling for answers. This great-grandfather claimed to be a "steamer" at what looked to be—here's the challenge of reading handwriting in census records—either a "cook works" or a "cork works." Steamer seemed more likely to be a term associated with cooking, leading me to think he might have worked in a restaurant. Apparently, though, there was such a thing as a cork works—at least according to the entry for one building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Checking further—unfortunately, not on that simple listing of obsolete occupations I had found at Wikipedia—I learned that the familiar cork stoppers we see on wine bottles are made through a process which includes cutting the cork bark away from its tree and boiling it to make it softer and easier to work with.

Boiling? Steamer?

So far, that's six great-grandparents mentioned: two ancestors I have yet to discover, plus a boardinghouse proprietor, an orange grove entrepreneur, an employee at a shirt factory, and a steamer at a cork works, whatever that is. That leaves us with two easy-to-explain others. One is my maternal grandmother's father, the dentist who also served as his small town's mayor, and my maternal grandfather's father, who before his 1911 death was listed simply as a farmer.

There you have it: out of eight greats, three women who did work outside of the role of housewife, plus two predictable occupations and one I've never heard of. And, of course, two mysteries whose names I'm still seeking through DNA matches. Perhaps by next Labor Day, I'll know what their occupations were, too.

How about you?

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Pants on Fire

Used to be, this was the weekend which ushered in the flurry of preparation for "back to school" season. Though that is no longer the case for many—all but one of the schools our business works with are already in session—I thought it might be informative to wind the clocks back and see what "back to school" times might have brought for my ancestors.

Those "ancestors" on my paternal side would have been the first-generation children of immigrants in New York City. On my maternal side, the scene would shift to more rural settings, such as northern Florida or the northeastern tip of Tennessee. What was the first of September bringing for those families? What I could find, from those go-to documents we've come to rely on as family history researchers, was a definitive "it depends."

Checking that 1940 census, the telltale document which asked for "highest grade completed," it appeared my virtuous maternal grandparents had both completed four years of high school—at least, according to the report given to the enumerator by my grandmother. My mother, only fourteen at the time, was in eighth grade, and her younger sister trailed, one grade behind her.

Shifting over to check on the paternal side, the 1940 census revealed that my father's wife, the reporting party for that enumeration, had put him as having completed four years of high school. Nice, except that in that year, according to the Census Bureau, less than half the population of those aged twenty five or older actually had a high school diploma. Even more to the point, though high school graduation peaked at about fifty percent of one's age cohorts just before the war years hit America (see the graph on page 31 of this report), in the era in which my father would have been finishing such an education, the number of those doing so among his peers was far closer to fifteen percent than fifty percent.

Those wives might have thought themselves smart cookies to put such a polish on their claims to the census enumerator, but what they didn't realize was that we can quite easily verify whether their reports were so. And we find, in an era in which women seldom wore pants, theirs were, figuratively speaking at least, on fire.

Take the census in which my dad should have been in eighth grade, himself. That 1920 census in the Queens borough of New York asked simply whether each person had attended school at any time in the year leading up to the enumeration. My dad's entry was left blank. True, so was the entry for his twelve year old sister, but when we double check by looking to the right margin of the form, we see the report that my father was, at fourteen, working as an errand boy for a New York City bank. That, likely not an uncommon situation for that era, most likely also precluded full time attendance at school.

So, that was the truth of the matter for my paternal side in the big city. What about out in a more bucolic setting? Would either of my maternal grandparents have truly attended school to the bitter end? The answer there, if we can believe those earlier census reports, was also more squishy than definitive.

My grandfather, age thirteen at the time of the 1910 census—and living with an older sister who was by then a schoolteacher—was listed as attending school at least some time in the prior year. By the time of the 1920 census, he would no longer have been attending school anyhow, so the problem I have of not being able to locate his name in that census—likely because, by that time, he was out of the country—would not reveal much to help us. How many years after that 1910 census my grandfather continued his school career is something we can't determine from census records alone.

My grandmother, trailing her husband in age by a few years, was also too old to still be in school at the time of the 1920 census; there, her entry showed us she was employed as a telegrapher for Western Union. The 1910 census was too early to provide us an answer to our question, though it did show she was attending school then.

I take this back-to-school detour simply to point out something we all know but sometimes try to conveniently un-remember: that census records are only as reliable as the people providing the reports to the enumerators, and as reliable as the enumerators are at capturing those reports on paper.

There are, however, ways to work around such dilemmas. One obvious way, of course, is to find other corroborating documentation to verify the answer to our questions. That's why I so strongly believe that the reports we compile of our ancestors in their family tree profiles should rather be seen as a mosaic than a snapshot—seeking out the evidence that can be discerned from examining, for instance, collateral lines as well as direct lines of ancestry.

In the case of those of my relatives whose glowing reputation as high school graduates might have seemed tarnished by a closer examination of the truth, I already knew about the educational circumstances for each of them. I learned it by seeking out stories from family members back when I—and they—had the chance to talk about them.

Though in my dad's case—remember, like his own father, he was the one who didn't like to talk about his family or his past—the stories came from my mother's report of what he had previously told her, I remembered the story about how he dropped out of school, making his dad so angry, not because he was forsaking his education, but because, as a young musician in the big band era, my dad was making more money than his own father.

In my maternal grandmother's situation, I learned about the truth of the matter there, both from my mother's stories and from ephemera tucked away in my grandmother's private papers, which I inherited upon her daughter's death. My grandmother's mother kept her from starting school until she was a year older than the customary starting age, so that both she and her younger brother could attend school together; thus, at the other end of her educational career, my grandmother did indeed graduate high school—but she was almost twenty when she received her diploma.

In my maternal grandfather's case, I still have next to nothing to base any guesses upon. Though I couldn't find him in the 1920 census, I do have a record showing his arrival back from Honduras, where he had gone to live with his older, school-teacher sister and her husband. I also know that his childhood residence offered plenty of job opportunities with the railroad, which would have been more tempting than book-learnin' for a teenager in east Tennessee. Perhaps he, as did my dad, opted for a job rather than further education. Though it was partially a family tie that brought him to Honduras, he did also go on account of his work experience.

Of course, not all family stories are gospel truth, either—all the more reason for proceeding with our family history research with a good dose of skepticism and the perseverance to look up supporting references from not just one...or even two...but many different resources. Even if what we started with was a census record.

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