Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Getting Negative


Sometimes, taking a look at the negative side can be rewarding—and not just when we're making lemons into lemonade. Advice ranging from "learn from your mistakes" to "turn negative into positive" shines a light on the research process and reminds us that sometimes, we find something other than what we thought we were looking for.

I've spent the last month pondering the records—at least the ones currently accessible online—for the tiny Polish town of Żerków. My hope was to find something—anything—more on my second great-grandfather, Franz Jankowski.

In an ideal world, I would have found what I was really looking for: the identity of his parents. Did I find that? You already know that answer. But I didn't find nothing. I actually found a few very useful details. At least now, I have a clearer picture of what records are currently available for that region, and how to access them online. I've also gleaned a list of possible related lines—not the original purpose of my research quest, but details which may become useful in future attempts. I'll note these in my research logs and refer back to them the next time I attempt this same project.

But can I call that "negative evidence"? Not really. According to Thomas W. Jones, a genealogist with decades of accolades to his research credit, it's important to differentiate between two similarly-named concepts: "Negative Evidence" versus "Negative Search." 

Dr. Jones defines Negative Evidence as "Evidence arising from an absence of specific information in extant records where that information could be expected and where that absence suggests an answer to a research question." Negative Evidence can play an important role in our family history dilemmas, as Dr. Jones details in a RootsTech presentation. In contrast, he characterizes a "Negative Search" as, simply, "a search that yields no useful evidence."

I think we can all see into which category my experience of the past month falls.

In other words, nothing I didn't find can be used to ascertain a conclusion that Franz Jankowski wasn't in Żerków. There were too many gaps in the sequence of digitized records at the two websites I used. A more useful next step might be to determine why there were gaps in the holdings at BaSIA and the Poznan Project. Were the records missing because they have yet to be properly formatted and added to the collection? Or were they permanently lost through some casualty suffered in the past—fires, floods, or destruction of war?

All is not lost at the end of a negative search. And that's what helps us turn that negative into a possible future positive. Though not right now, sitting at my laptop in California, someday I may still be able to find my answer to the question of my Polish second great-grandfather Franz Jankowski's parents.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Double Indemnity


Now I've gone and done it. With less than a week to go before the close of this month, I've barely scratched the surface on my goal to find more information on Ancestor Number Ten of my Twelve Most Wanted for 2021. I'm literally drowning in Polish finding aids—lists of online resources to help me locate digitized records in Poland, or more accurately, Posen in Prussia, the land where my second great-grandfather Franz Jankowski once lived.

When the tedium of endless genealogical searching brings up little in the way of fascinating stories—or even helpful research tips—one tactic might be to fast-forward to the next month's goal. After all, it's only six days until the new month's arrival. But that's where my accidental research death doubles my dilemma: why, oh why, did I choose to couple the search for Franz's forebears with that of his wife?

Granted, though I have hardly another word to say about discoveries on Franz's background, there are a few details that can be wrung from Franziska Olejniczak's own story. That hardly will add up to a month of scintillating discussion, though. Time to look for Research Plan B—another research challenge worth enough discoveries to double for the two possibilities which, so far, have landed just beyond our grasp. In the meantime, though, it would be worth our while to reflect on the state of not finding what we hoped to find.

While I look through these Polish websites—wonderful resources I'm grateful to have in the dearth of records on our go-to American genealogical websites—I can't help but notice the section called "Last Added" at BaSIA. Just during the past twenty four hours, that section indicated almost five hundred records were uploaded. Granted, that dwarfs the ten thousand records added just the day before that. The key, though, is that while I may not be able to find the record I'm seeking this month, give it a year and maybe the picture will be much clearer then.

Patient researchers remember to revisit promising websites. I may not have found what I hoped to see concerning Franz Jankowski. I may not be able to find much more on his wife, Franziska Olejniczak, either—this time around. I'll discuss a bit about what I've found on her in the coming days, but then I'll be ready to pivot. Genealogical research always has another branch to attend to on the ever-growing family tree. 

Monday, October 25, 2021

When the Trail gets Rougher


In trying to break through the brick wall ancestor Franz Jankowski from my paternal grandmother's roots, let's just say the going is getting rough. It might have been my attempt at cheering myself up over dismal prospects by adopting the outlook, "It's the journey, not the destination," but right now, the forest I'm trudging through is getting thicker and darker—as in, lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

I had thought it might be helpful to try out the new interface at, in which I could search images by place name. Entering "Zerkow," I discovered to my horror that there is more than one Żerków on the map. Besides the place where I'd been exploring records, there was another town by that name in a southwestern part of Poland which once belonged to Germany, and a third town far in the south of Poland, as well. These are details to be aware of at the beginning of a search. Thankfully, I had already found indicators that the historic province of Posen, whose capital city now is known as Poznań, was the right location for the town of my ancestors.

For the brave of heart, the search revealed ten digitized collections containing nearly four thousand images, all of births, marriages, or deaths pertaining to my specific Żerków. The drawback? They are browse only—and once I took a closer look, it appeared that the records actually refer to a different region of Poland. Granted, I don't understand Polish—even with cheat sheets—and need to brush up on my Polish geography. But hundred-year-old Prussian handwriting doesn't help the matter. Yet, the records are there, somewhere, according to FamilySearch.

That search choice, for me, would be the genealogical equivalent of the nuclear option—a last-ditch act of desperation. Remember, FamilySearch also provided some other suggestions for links to Polish resources. It's time to explore our other options.   

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Ever-Expanding DNA To-Do List


DNA testing has become a game-changer for those of us grappling with brick wall ancestors in our family trees. And as more researchers experiment with ways to manipulate that DNA data, it benefits all of us with tools to help unlock some ancestral puzzles.

If you have recently visited GEDmatch—or read Roberta Estes' recent post on the changes there—you know that GEDmatch has recently added an AutoSegment Triangulation Cluster Tool. DNA may be a powerful tool for building our family trees, but it requires us to know how to coax it to reveal those genetic secrets. Tools such as this set developed by Evert-Jan Blom of Genetic Affairs can be a game changer.

Like so many others, though, my DNA to-do list includes plowing through the thousands of matches I've accumulated at the five companies at which I've tested—and at which I've had family members test, as well. Let's just say that alone has kept me quite busy.

Admittedly, starting out, my initial response to viewing those thousands of names of matches was, "Who are all these people?" But like those dominoes lined up in a queue, with the slightest push, the rest of them eventually come tumbling down. The more matches I can link to my tree, the more their "shared" matches at Ancestry DNA follow suit.

Just that simple process of confirming just one match, then seeking "shared" relatives and working through the record-keeping update has kept me quite busy. Of course, the advanced work of building out my working tree to include descendants to the level of fourth cousin has also streamlined the process.

Still, it has been interesting to spot those distant cousins with whom I share only one segment—and a segment of a decent size—and know there is only one ancestral couple who could possibly have been responsible for the nexus. Those are the ones whom I'd like to paint onto my records at DNA Painter and, now, analyze through the new tools at GEDmatch. 

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Sam and Satan


When it comes to discussing in-laws, I've heard people use descriptors ranging from the positive all the way to the very negative. When I browse through the rescued collection of Marilyn Sowle Bean's family photographs, it is clear her opinion of her brother-in-law Sam Bean was firmly on the positive side.

Not that Sam was an agreeable, plain vanilla kind of guy. Besides his lanky frame and exceptional height—courtesy of the family's inherited susceptibility to Marfan Syndrome—Sam seemed to have his own style. Granted, being a poodle trainer for the Shipstads and Johnson Ice Follies was not an everyday job—which certainly made for a fun uncle to visit on the job. But before there were angelic white poodles to occupy his every waking moment, there was Satan.

Before the Ice Follies, Sam was a horse trainer. Up in the hills above his home city of Alameda, California, there was a horse ranch where Sam spent much of his time. I never really knew about this past life obsession for Sam. Although Marilyn did tell stories about Sam and the Ice Follies, she never mentioned this other calling of her brother-in-law. Her pictures, now that I've found them, tell me a different story.

Gone, of course, is any story explaining Sam's choice for naming his horse, but a good guess might also reveal the type of horse-handler Sam was known as. Only from newspaper articles did I learn it was from Sam's reputation at the horse ranch that managers of the Ice Follies were able to coax him into trying his hand at more diminutive charges—first, a pony, and then the poodles.

Long after both Sam and his sister-in-law Marilyn were gone, looking at these photographs reminds me that some pictures are much more than personal portraits—they embed stories. Pictures can be a far more useful tool for triggering memories than we give them credit for—a good thing to remember at our holiday family gatherings.


Above: Sam Bean riding Satan at the Skyline Ranch in the Oakland Hills above the city of Oakland, California; undated photographs at about 1950.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Still Browsing


Why does it seem so fun to be invited to browse while shopping at the mall, but considered drudgery when applied to online searches? Perhaps it's because we have become so spoiled in our family history pursuits.

When it comes to browsing, I'd like to propose we adopt the maxim, "It's the journey, not the destination." There is so much we can glean by slowing down and reading through a targeted collection of records. We might actually spot something which otherwise could have been missed by computer-assisted searches.

Right now, I've been undergoing the "tedium" of searching line by line for any sign of my great-grandmother Marianna Jankowska's extended family. I had already learned from her marriage record that the bride of Anton Laskowski was the daughter of Franz Jankowski and Franziska Olejniczak. Born in Żerków, Poland, Marianna's age was extrapolated from other records: that she was born about 1863.

Finding the Polish website BaSIA enabled searches from a wide date range, with the possibility of narrowing the geographical region to as small as a five kilometer radius. From trawling through the results—transcriptions of Polish birth, marriage, and death records—I learned that Marianna had at least two siblings. One, Stanisława, married in Żerków and like her older sister, moved to New York. Finding the other, however, presented some problems.

To locate the youngest of the three sisters mentioned in any records other than her own birth report required several passes through the BaSIA website. Why did I not successfully locate Antonina at first? Many reasons conspired against me. For one, this daughter of Franz and Franziska was reported in the first record I found under the name Antonie. Several others I found contained the same spelling—until I decided to widen my search horizons and go back through the entire set, line by line. Not by using a quick "search" mechanism, but by using my own eyes and watching for spelling variations was I able to piece together a more complete picture.

Then, too—perhaps thanks to the limitation on the nineteenth century date range for the other Polish website I was using—I had not pushed that search to its limits when I jumped over to the BaSIA site. After all, the search page on BaSIA boasts dates from the 1500s to the current century. Why not push it to its limit?

Since "Antonie" was born in 1878 and married Josef Karcz in 1898, any children beyond the couple's firstborn would have arrived in the twentieth century, so I pushed as far as I could go in search of children's names. After all, perhaps that would glean information to identify those mystery DNA matches I'm still puzzling over.

Two passes—first browsing through the records using the surname Jankowska, then trying the married surname Karcz—yielded a family of at least seven children: Stanislaus, Cecilia, Marianna, Johanna, Helena, Wincenty, and Wictor. Not only did that assure me that Antonina did not emigrate to America like her two sisters, but one further record discovery cemented that fact: the inclusion of her name on her father's death record in 1911.

True, my opportunity to browse through the records was abruptly cut off after the 1913 birth of the youngest Karcz child—no chance to catch any glimpse of marriage records in the 1920s or 1930s. Though I can't yet confirm it, it still could be possible that any one of the children made the decision to travel to a new world. There is likely more browsing to be had in my future as, unbelievably, Karcz is not a rare surname, even in America—not to mention all the possible phonetic variations that could be applied to an arriving immigrant's surname.

For now, I'll adopt that traveling theme and remember it's the journey that's important, as I browse through whatever record sets are in my future. In some research cases, we need to remember that we serve as trailblazers when the path isn't laid out for us quite as completely as it is for those with longstanding pioneer heritages. Don't fret over the barriers; enjoy the journey. Along the way, you may discover something you'd otherwise have missed.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Entering the New "Old World"


When our ancestors left their homeland to settle in America, they might have said they were traveling to the New World, but when we trace their steps back home, that "Old World" becomes a new place for our research efforts. Sometimes, we need some processing tips to help handle the information overload.

Sure, gleaning names and dates from baptismal records or marriage certificates may be the same in some ways, no matter where we search. But when the language our ancestors claimed as their native tongue contains some characters not resident on our twenty-first century keyboards, we need some work-arounds. That's what I'd like to interject here, today.

Looking for my paternal grandparents' roots in Żerków, Poland, taught me quickly that I needed to equip myself with the ability to produce such non-English markings, or diacritics. If I were to reside in Poland for any amount of time, the logical step would be to obtain a keyboard which includes those special characters. But here I am, enjoying the last rays of sunshine in a pleasant autumn in California, far from any opportunity for such a purchase. There is, however, a way around that.

Of course, I believe it is helpful, in researching our ancestors in such a country of origin, to first understand the basic pronunciation of that native language, and, along with that, to learn to recognize those special characters of the language which are not familiar to English-language natives. I'm not talking about a Ph.D.-level deep dive here, but a sufficient introduction to the rudiments of the language.

Once undergoing such an introduction, I want to use those characters in my family tree. It's just a personal preference of mine to write, for instance, Elżbieta for another one of my second great-grandmothers, instead of Elzbieta—but in using some Polish search engines, it might be necessary to include the diacritics to conduct a correct search.

My trick is to use a work-around to coax my American laptop's keyboard into talking like Polish is its native tongue. I do that by using Google Translate. Here's how.

First, on the Google search page—or even on gmail, if you use it—look in the top right corner for the nine "tiles" stacked together. 

Click on that icon to open up the many apps available on Google.

Find and select the choice labeled "Translate"—which, depending on your previous use, may or may not be located at the same place as in this example. (If you don't see the choice "Translate," grab the slide bar to scroll down the inset until you locate that choice.) By clicking "Translate," you will now see the generic Google Translate screen, which will look somewhat like this:

Notice two things about the Google Translate screen. The first is that the screen is divided in half, with the left side being the language to be translated from. There are a few language choices listed (your example may show different languages). To the right of the listed languages is a down arrow. If you click on that, you will see a much wider selection of languages. Choose whichever language you want to use for typing special characters.

Here is what that expanded screen would look like (partially):

You can click on any of these languages to use for typing your ancestor's name (or any other details in your ancestor's native language). Obviously, in my case, this is where I've been camping lately to utilize those Polish diacritical marks, but your ancestors may have come from another area of the Old World.

Once you select your target language and are back on the original screen, look for the second item you will need to accomplish this writing task: a tiny icon which, if magnified, looks like a keyboard. This is where you will find it:

In this example, having already selected the language—"Polish"—by clicking on the keyboard icon, it brings up a larger image of the keyboard layout. Once you click on that keyboard icon, enlarged, it will look like this:

Of course, once you see this, you will think, "That's not remarkable at all." Yes, it looks somewhat like an English language keyboard. However, to gain access to the goods you are really seeking, you want to click on the lower left corner of the keyboard, where it is labeled "Ctrl + Alt." Once you do that, it will reveal a second page of characters, like this:

If you wish to use capital letters rather than lower case letters, you simply click on the up arrow in the lower left hand corner of the keyboard, just above the "Ctrl + Alt" key we just used. By doing that, in our Polish example, you will see:

Now comes the fun part. Using your mouse (or slim finger if you are using a touch screen), click each letter you wish to type, and it will enter that character in the translate-from screen. It doesn't matter the order of the words, because for your next step, you will cut and paste each typed word independently into the document where you wish to add it.

Here is an example of my Polish great-grandmother's first name and place of birth:

Now, cut and paste each word into the place you've selected in your target document—a letter, a blog post, an entry in a family tree. In this example, those two words were plugged into this woman's profile page on, and the result looks like this:

Of course, once you have that Google Translate page open for writing all those special characters unique to your ancestors' native tongue, keep it handy for each time you access a foreign website. Even the English-language versions of those Polish websites I've been recommending this week as I explore my great-grandparents' roots can sometimes include sections only available in Polish. I keep my Polish version of Google Translate at my fingertips and, undaunted, play the role of the intrepid researcher.      
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