Showing posts with label Brooklyn NY. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brooklyn NY. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Giving Back Again

We often hear about “The Gift that Keeps on Giving.” While such a thought sounds dreamy at first, in the end, I am not sure how valid that saying is.

However, I can think of one gift that, at first, seems like the genealogist’s dream—but then, turns around and starts kicking and tormenting the very person who once welcomed it.

While I’m sure you can think of several examples of such a “gift,” I’ll cut to the chase here and explain what I’m talking about: the “gift” of a box of old photographs—usually from a deceased relative—which turn out to be pictures without labels.

Think of it: staring into the eyes of the long-departed, despairing at the thought that you could save their memory for posterity…if only you knew their names!

When that happened to me—I inherited a box loaded with snapshots from dear departed Uncle Bill—I wasn’t so creative with my solution. I just stuck the box back up on a shelf in the closet for oh, say, twenty years. Not that those twenty years worked any wonders on my memory. They still are faces of people I never knew, so how can I remember them?!

Some people are more creative with their mystery photo boxes: they sell them to antique stores. At least, that is what appears to be happening, judging from the proliferation of blogs on photos and other vintage ephemera.

My first and most favorite blog on these orphan photos is Forgotten Old Photos. If you’ve been following along here, you realize that I am indebted to the writer of that blog for inspiration to give it a try, myself: post those old photos and see if anyone in the Great Internet Beyond stumbles upon a recognizable face.

That is one way of giving back that I rather favor.

Think of it: a photo from seventy or one hundred years ago, reunited with progeny of the picture’s own, now-long-gone subject. I always wish someone like that blogger would stumble upon the missing photos of my own families!

People are finding other ways to give back, when it comes to these vintage photographs. Another one of my favorite bloggers—journalist Paul Lukas, a fancier of all things ephemera—once mentioned on his blog, Permanent Record, an artist who not only saves these tossed treasures from destruction, but gives them a new lease on life as her own artistic creations. This Brooklyn, New York, artist—Lauren Simkin Berke—has made a project of sketching old photos she finds at flea markets. After a successful studio exhibit of her work, she launched a Kickstarter project to fund publication of a book containing her work. All this has become one artist’s way of giving back. Regarding the rescue work she does on these pictures from the past, she does this “in order to give them a new, longer life.”

We have others in the genealogy community online who wish to do the same. Whether simply passing these photos along, or using them as springboards for further inspiration, these bloggers regularly post their discoveries for the world to find.

Whether doing their work anonymously, as does “The Archivist” for Family Photo Reunion, or shyly and partially-named like the writers behind Grandma’s Picture Box and Unclaimed Ancestors, these people are, in their own way, giving back to the genealogy—and broader—community.

In a gift-giving season, these are the givers I most appreciate.

Above left: cover for the sheet music of "Santa Claus Galop," by Charles Kinkel, published by J. L. Peters in New York, 1874; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Birthday Time

John T. and Sophie Laskowski McCann
As they used to say in the days of limited info/edu/entertainment media access, “We interrupt this regularly scheduled program to bring you this important announcement:” It’s someone’s birthday today.

Well, it is—and it isn’t. First of all, if my father were alive today, he would be celebrating his 107th birthday.

Or not.

It all depends on where you hang your proof hat.

Before I had that need to document everything, I was a blissfully ignorant but quite dutiful daughter who always remembered her father’s birthday came on February 8th. I remembered that February 8 was the date, that is, until someone came along to disabuse me of that notion.

And not only that notion, but the whole idea of what my father’s name actually was.

It happened this way:

Not long after deciding to get serious about my genealogy research (as in, actually writing this stuff down somewhere so I could remember it), I purchased what was then the FamilyTreeMaker database product of a company called, once upon a time, Banner Blue. Within the FamilyTreeMaker universe was a system which allowed customers to see which other customers were also researching the same family lines. By contacting the company, one customer could retrieve the contact information for those other customers following the same relatives.

Although I’m sometimes convinced that I am the only one in the world researching my family lines (try finding other researchers seeking Gramlewicz—or Aktabowski), I do occasionally find the rare like-minded researcher. One day, in working on my father’s line, I did find such a match.

There was only one problem: this researcher had my father listed as a girl.

I can’t say I blame him. He had entered my dad’s name as Vallie. That must have been some distant relative’s remembrance of what my father might have been called as a little child. After all, his full first name was Valentine. Just the right name for a February birthday. But not the kind of name that lends itself well to playing out on the ball field.

So I contacted this researcher who, after all, seemed to know more about my family history than I did. I set him on the right path with corrected information on my father. We struck up an ongoing email correspondence, and from time to time, exchanged additional informational tidbits. He was what my family liked to call “outlaws”—in other words, he was related to the in-laws of some more distant relatives. Most of what he had gleaned on my branch of the extended family was through nearly-forgotten remembrances and previous-generation connections—until the bombshell he threw my way one day.

“Say,” he queried, “Any chance your surname was Puhalski?”

Okay, I can allow that Puhalski is a do-able surname. There are such people in the New York City vicinity where my grandparents settled after emigrating from Poland.

The only problem was: I didn’t know my paternal family line was supposed to be Polish. Not at that time. We had a very Irish–sounding surname, and very limited knowledge of any family roots, other than that nearly-forgotten pesky little detail that my paternal grandmother Sophie’s maiden name was actually Laskowski.

Sophie in her parents' Brooklyn household in the 1892 NY State census

So when this guy sprang that kind of question on me, I responded as reasonably as any other researcher would have done. I told him, “Show me.”

Sure enough, here came the proof. A 1905 New York State census for the household of Anton and Mary Laskowski, with newlywed daughter Sophie and her husband, “Thomas” Puhalski—proud parents, by the June first census date, of four-month-old Valentine.

Newlywed daughter Sophie in her parents' household in the 1905 NY census

A 1910 Federal Census, again showing the Brooklyn Laskowski household, with both Valentine and his younger sister, Anna Mae. There was that same Puhalski surname again—only this time, Sophie’s husband’s name seemed to change to Theodore.

The Laskowski household in the 1910 Federal Census

And then came our researcher’s crowning glory: the double-barreled smoking gun of birth certificates for both Valentine and Anna Mae.

Granted, the spelling variations for the Polish surname (listed as “German” as the seasonal fluctuations of political spheres of influence shifted) were all across the board: Puhalski, Puchalski, Puhalaski. But try this little experiment with me, and you’ll see there is very little difference in the delivery:

Say “Puhalski.” Then say “Puchalski.”

That’s right, go ahead and say each one out loud. Listen to your results.

Now, try that again—but first, put on your very best German accent. Better yet, make it your very best Yiddish accent.

Say “Puhalski.”

Then say “Puchalski.”

No, no…I mean Puchalski. Think chutzpah. Or challah. That kind of Puchalski.

I noticed that when Dr. William J. O’Brien signed my father’s birth certificate, he was not equipped linguistically to imagine something sounding like that to be spelled “Puchalski.” So he spelled it “Puhalski.”

When my aunt came along, attending physician, Dr. S. Haushler seemed linguistically better equipped to maneuver the phonetics for his Polish-American patient.

Other than the surname, everything else fell right into place: mother’s maiden name, ages of parents at the time of each child’s birth, father’s occupation, even the 1905 address on birth certificate and state census record. All, that is, except that one little detail: surname.

Oh. There was one other discrepancy: the day of my father’s birth. It was a few—only a very few—days off.

And so I have to say that this may be his birthday. Or not.

As for his name—his real name—I guess I’ll never really know the story behind that mystery, although it sure explains why my dad never did seem to get excited about a corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Happy 107th, Daddy. That sure is a long time to keep a secret.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Little Mistake That Went a Long Way

© Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy
Nobody likes to make a mistake. I certainly don’t. But I’m glad for one solitary government worker 91 years ago who didn’t quite follow official instructions.

If I can read his writing correctly, his name was John J. V. McGuigan. His title, according to the papers he carried, was Enumerator. Like those many who have served in the same capacity for the nine times since he took up his post, he was walking the streets of Brooklyn, New York, with the license to ask nosy questions.

By January 13, 1920, he had made his way to North Eighth Street in the 14th ward. When he called at the household of Anton and Mary Laskowski, he repeated those weary questions he had rehearsed so many times before.

“What is the name of each person whose place of abode was in this family on January first of this year?” Names duly noted.

“What is the relationship of each person to the head of this household?” Anton: head; Mary: wife. Two gentlemen also living at the address, of no relation to the Laskowskis, were listed simply as “boarder.”

“Do you rent or do you own?”

“If owned, free or under mortgage?”

Sex, race, age, marital status: the list of questions went on. The Enumerator was entitled to know all this and more.

When he reached the part of the form labeled “Nativity and Mother Tongue,” however, Mr. McGuigan mercifully forgot his official duties and for this one time let his hand be guided by the dictates of the respondent. What he was supposed to write, for foreign-born residents, was the country of nativity. Above the currently-blank line on this page were several examples indicating his understanding of this requirement: Ireland, Italy, England. Why he wrote in anything more specific, I’ll never know. Regardless of the reason, I’m grateful.

This time, the “country” of nativity had as its entry, “Posen.” Some unnamed supervisor, reviewing the form later on, evidently corrected the mistake by writing in “Ger” for Germany, the region’s geopolitical sovereign of that time period, but the original slip of the pen was still there to glean.

Posen: wherever that was, my great-grandfather was from it. Here was my first tangible proof of my father’s family origin. There was—and still is—a lot to be learned about this, but at least I now knew where to begin the search.

I found out that “Posen” was actually the German designation for the Polish city of Poznan. I later discovered that Poznan indicates a region as well as a city. I’ve got a lot more to learn before I can open any books and hope for just the right historical document to verify the things I want to know about my family.

But at least now I’m on my way.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Barking up the Wrong (Family) Tree

It was during those post-starving-student days—you know, that endless time when the better job you went through all that college education for fails to materialize—that I got an unexpected chance to travel back home. Home, at the time, was on one coast, and I was, unfortunately for my pocketbook, living on the opposite coast. This was an opportunity that had not made itself available for a very long time.

It also happened to be the beginning of revival of my childhood interest in genealogy. With that starving-student mindset of desperation, I figured I would never get the chance to travel that way again, so I needed to snatch up the opportunity and spring into research mode immediately.

After all, what could go wrong? I would be staying free with my sister, at the time renting an apartment right in the midst of Manhattan—next door to the Empire State Building, no less. Can’t get more Big Apple than that.

As for research resources, the New York Public Library, that icon of shushing librarians, was a mere walk down the street. Long, but a walk.

I really wanted to not miss this only opportunity to check into my dad’s roots. I knew he grew up in Brooklyn, and lived in Queens for a while. Though he had a fairly common Irish surname, his first name was Valentine. How many people named Valentine do you know? Not too many, I’m sure.

What could possibly go wrong, I thought as I prepared for a day of cranking through microfilm reels of the U.S. Census. I knew I’d have to put in the time for the grunt work—these were the days before online websites made researching a snap—but I was OK with that.

I never did find my dad in those microfilm collections. It’s not that New York is too big a haystack for finding my little sliver of a pin—it’s just that I had no idea what I was really getting myself into.

We spent some of the week’s visit doing the nostalgia tour. My sister rented a car (no self-respecting New Yorker actually owns a car; monthly parking fees were equivalent to what I was paying for my rental in California at the time) and we went out on Long Island to see old childhood haunts.

On one stop, we visited a cousin. Telling him of our attempt to do family research, he gave a first clue as to why I found nothing. His daughter had done a genealogy report for high school and discovered that the surname might not be Irish after all. As had happened to many immigrants arriving in New York, the name might have been changed, perhaps shortened, from an original ethnic form. Instead of the McCann I was looking for, the name might actually have been something like Macconowitz. It might really have been Polish, he said.

Fast-forward several years. I’m now researching in the comfort of my own home, thanks to the inter-connectedness of new technology. I’ve bought my FamilyTreeMaker database program, and I’m scanning through all the resources that company had provided online. I find an entry in someone else’s family tree readout that looks like it matches my dad’s family—only the researcher has my dad listed as a daughter with the name “Vallie” instead of Valentine. I contact the guy online, and we chat. He’s related, distantly, by marriage to my dad’s cousin.

And then, one day, I get an email from him. It has an attachment of a birth certificate for a Valentine, son of Theodore and Sophie Puhalski. “Is this yours?” he asks.

Incredibly, it lines up with one a year later, this time for sister Anna Mae, only on this document the German doctor completes the certificate with the more ethnic spelling as Puchalski.

I have to check into this. How did McCann materialize from Puchalski? But it seems to be right. A New York State census from 1905 confirms it. I see the line listing my great-grandfather, who by now I know as Anton Laskowski, and his wife Mary. And then, following down the list of household members, I see my grandmother, Sophie, listed with a husband and her newborn son, Valentine. But the name isn’t McCann. In a nearly-illegible hand is scrawled what looks like Puhalaski.

Spelling back then was not the fine art demanded by (now-retired) English teachers. Puhalaski could have been the best a poor census taker could make of what he heard in a crowded tenement room full of people who didn’t speak his language. Puchalski? Puhalski? Sounds the same to an American ear. But it sure doesn’t sound anything like McCann.

Regardless of how strong the temptation to delve into research may be, remember that it helps to know a few basic facts before you jump into it.

But if you leap before you look, just be prepared for a good laugh when you emerge on the other side of your discoveries. You might not be the Irish you always thought you were, after all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Grandmothers
Part Two: “Hers”

Polish immigrant child in NYC
As much as I know about my husband’s grandmother Bertha, I don’t know about my own paternal grandmother, Sophie. To start with, I never met Sophie. She died a few years before I was born. While I was growing up, my father never talked about her. I never even knew her name until after my father died, when, in conversations with older relatives, I started gleaning bits and pieces.

There seemed to be something mysterious about her—a story one was forbidden to tell. When a cousin of mine tried to ask her own mother about Sophie, her mom nervously changed the subject. That was my own experience, too. Bit by bit, each of us, the descendants, has been working on piecing together what data we could find. As is the case in so many family research attempts, it is mostly, now, a paper chase.

Sophie—or later, as I found out, Sophia—was born somewhere in Poland in 1885. She came to New York City with her family, supposedly, a few years later, about the time of her childhood picture above. I say “supposedly” because I can find no records of her arrival—yet. She obviously made it to New York, because that is where she lived and died. The little “Poland” factoid comes from her family’s declaration on various official papers—census records and death certificates—though she seldom dared to breathe the word to those around her, not even to her own family.

Sophie’s family settled in Brooklyn, one of the boroughs of New York City. Apparently, a few years after she married and had two children, she and her family were able to move up in the world...or at least move up to Queens, which seemed a better situation for her then-prospering family.

That’s where the break in information shows up. In Brooklyn, I could find her under either her maiden name, or in her father’s household, along with her husband, under her new married name. When she and her immediate family moved to Queens, suddenly the surname changed, though all the players remained the same. And, no, it wasn’t due to a divorce.

Asking family members for clues wasn’t helpful. After all, the move occurred sometime between 1910, when the federal census showed them in Brooklyn in her father’s residence, and 1915, when the New York State census indicates a family in Queens with similar data—similar, that is, except for surname. None of the relatives alive now knew about that little paper glitch.

I can’t even be the one to claim discovery of the smoking gun. An in-law of a distant cousin was the one to make the find, posting it to the records of FamilyTreeMaker. At that point, my initiation into Polish research was only just beginning. I had hardly gotten my head around the fact that, in Poland, while the dad may be surnamed Laskowski, his unmarried daughter would carry the name as Laskowska.

But this surname change was not a mere matter of “i” versus “a” but a change from Polish to Irish. Where did the Irish come from?

It’s been many years since I first found that name change. Several years of searching through documents has turned up little. I did find that one of Sophie’s brothers—Michael, or Michko—had taken the liberty to shorten the decidedly ethnic surname to a more streamlined Lasko. Whether he endured the legal process of making the change official, I can’t tell. I haven’t been able to find much of a trace of him or his own family since he left the Laskowski home in Brooklyn in his twenties, other than a mention in Sophie’s obituary.

But I have yet to piece together the story of what impelled Sophie and her husband to move from their home in Brooklyn and surface in Queens with not only a different surname but a new ethnic identity.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Finding It In The Forum

Some jobs are just too messy for the Lone Ranger. Some jobs require the hunting and pecking of a collective effort—the hundreds of hands and eyes from which minute details cannot escape.

Forums have always been gathering places. Whether the ancient setting of Rome, for whom the term “forum” actually meant “marketplace,” or the town squares of colonial America, these were public places set right in the middle of everything. People came to buy and sell, debate political issues, socialize and gossip. In the online world of genealogy, forums are much the same, though in this case, divided into categories where conversations center on specific topics.

Today, I’d like to take you on a brief tour of the forums which have made research a lot easier for me. Hopefully, you’ll see some sites that pique your interest and bolster your confidence that you can do family history research, too.

One of the first places I started my research was at Rootsweb. As I explained in an earlier post, Rootsweb was a non-profit group founded on the vision of providing people a way to access and share data via the internet.

Rootsweb developed an archived, subscription-based system of mailing lists, divided both by geographical area and surname. Though the hosting is now provided through, the original search page can still be accessed here.

One thing about the Rootsweb lists was that you needed to subscribe—but that was no object, as the subscriptions were free. Once on the list, any time someone posted to that list, you received a copy of the e-mail, either singularly or in digest mode. I started out subscribing to some of my target surnames—for instance, Tully—but soon realized the cumbersomeness of reading every post of every person in the world seeking information on the Tully family. I then switched research strategies and zeroed in on specific counties where I knew family had settled. For my Tully family, it was the Chicago area. For my Flowers and Metzger in-laws, it was Perry County, Ohio.

Whether subscribed or not, anyone could search the archive of any particular list, either by browsing or by entering keywords. I played around with that, searching for the proverbial distant cousin who might also be researching the same families.

Since I had purchased the database management system, FamilyTreeMaker, I also accessed the forum services linked to their company: GenForum. Laid out in a similar manner to Rootsweb, this site gave me an alternate location to post queries when I was stuck on a particular research problem.

I’ve already mentioned how much things change in the corporate world and how it impacts the products we use, and using these lists was no different. Rootsweb entered into a hosting agreement with, which required Ancestry to develop a plan to provide Rootsweb’s mailing lists while also continuing to feature their own message board system. Anyone can post now on Ancestry’s message board system through Rootsweb, with a “gateway” to having that note simultaneously posted on the corresponding Rootsweb mailing list, even if the writer didn’t hold a current subscription to the list. About the same time, the GenForum site became part of, increasing the search capabilities there.

I learned a lot as a subscriber to the original Rootsweb lists for Brooklyn, New York, and Chicago, Illinois. From time to time, depending on where I was “going” in my research, I’d also subscribe to various United States county lists, unsubscribing when I no longer needed the help or could no longer offer my own input. I’m still on the Perry County, Ohio, list, and have run into several of my husband’s distant relatives there. After all this research, I think I know more about his extended family than he does!

Each step of the way was part of an easy, incremental learning curve. For every newbie question I posted, there was usually some kind soul who was willing to help me learn about a new resource or technique for furthering my own research. I’ve learned stuff as widely varied as the few Polish words I picked up while working on my father’s ancestry, to the source of dot-matrix era “ftp” files of death records for my maternal grandfather’s family in the hills of eastern Tennessee.

Getting started is as easy as locating the surname or geographical location of the specific ancestor you want to research. Get on the site, take a look around (“lurk”) until you get a feel for what is happening there, then introduce yourself and ask a research question. Just reading what others have posted is a great start to your own learning curve. And who knows—you may meet a distant cousin in the process!
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