Saturday, April 25, 2015

When the Fallout of Email
Rocks Your Research World

Every so often—at least, if you’ve been at this genealogical paper chase long enough—you’ll get one of those email letters that starts out tentatively enough, but by the time you finish reading it, it has changed everything.

That was the way it was when a certain stranger—I’ll just call him Louis—contacted me, years ago, about the identity of my paternal grandfather. If you could read between the lines at the beginning of Louis’ letter, it would have started out,

Also not on the page—but flashing through my mind as I read his note—were all sorts of incredulous thoughts. Since it’s the beginning of baseball season, I’ll borrow some phrases:
            Out of left field…
            Threw me a curve…

What he did, this stranger called Louis—who, incidentally, ended up being an outlaw to one of my father’s cousins—was to suggest that my father’s surname wasn’t actually his real name.

For those of you who, like Far Side, are astute readers, you may have already picked up on that. You see, when I was struggling over whether Sophie’s brother Michael was really the same Michael Lasko from Brooklyn who married Mary Hecker, I used a census record to identify the Laskowskis’ address in 1910. While Michael had already moved out of the Laskowski apartment, his sister Sophie’s husband had moved in.

The only problem is: Sophie was married to a guy whose surname wasn’t the surname I grew up with. So…was this my paternal grandfather? Or not?

Thanks to what looks like an ink blot on the 1910 census, the surname appears to be Pukalski. I know, from other documents I’ve been able to obtain for both my father’s and my aunt’s birth, that the name should actually read Puhalski—or, if you want to be particularly Germanic about it, Puchalski.

When Louis first crashed my world, it was well over twenty years ago—back before easy access to digitized records. That was the time when documents only came to us via snail mail.

I’ve tried my best to discover the narrative to explain away this oddity, but anywhere I tried to get any feedback on this quandary—especially on those old genealogy forums—the consensus was: Sophie remarried.

Somehow, deep inside, I can’t convince myself that that is what happened. For one thing, the accuracy of census enumerators—especially when coming face to face with Polish immigrants—leaves much to be desired. While the 1910 census is a case in point—writing Pukalski when the name should have read Puhalski—even the 1905 New York State census came up with a different result. For that one, the surname was written Puhalaski.

But even there, we can spot other discrepancies. Notice, for one thing, that Sophie’s husband shows as Thomas in the 1905 record, while in the 1910 report, he was Theodore J. Applying the kind of logic offered by my forum respondents—different name means different man—would that mean Sophie married a brother of the man she was married to in 1905? I don’t think so; it was likely an enumerator error.

Notice, also, the children listed in the 1910 census. We’ve spoken about my aunt, Anna—and there she is in the 1910 census, listed as granddaughter to the head of household, Anton Laskowski. Along with her is her brother, my father, Valentine. How often do you run across a name like that?

While Anna was too young to have been in the 1905 state census, my dad was there. Because he was born that year, his age was given as a fraction, 4/12. Since the census was taken in June, 1905, that would mean he was born in February—which he was.

So, if we know we are talking about the right children, and since we know we have the right Sophie—she was, after all, living in her parents’ home—then what about this guy, Theodore a.k.a. Thomas?

I’ve been trying to answer that question for well over twenty years. Of course, with the research advantages we have now, this time, I may find a way around this brick wall. Considering how secretive the family seemed to be—at least, those of that generation—perhaps I may never figure it out.

At any rate, it’s a new season of research, and I’m game.


  1. This sounds like my great-grandmother's sister who was first enumerated as Columbia Ann only to become Leanna Alice later. Unless they were twins and the enumerator left one out and then one died, they have to be the same person. And if the same person, what's up with that name change? At least Theodore and Thomas start off with the same letters. Perhaps the enumerator wrote "Th" as shorthand and completed the name later but forgot the real name.

    1. That's crazy, Wendy. Always makes me wonder what the story was when I see an enumerator error like that. In my grandfather's case, it may well be as you suspected: the first name was filled in later, in a different handwriting. I'll include some examples in a post, soon, so everyone can see.

  2. I can see why this "family situation" bothers you and is so aggravating! I mean, you can trace part of your family lineage back 8-10-more generations, but your own grandparents are so mysterious!

    1. Precisely. And, no matter how I try, there doesn't seem to be any approach to get around this roadblock. That doesn't mean I won't keep trying, of course...


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