Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Building Out That Family Tree Branch

Now that I've found a Polish resource ripe with all sorts of records dovetailing with my family's surnames and hometown, I've been able to add siblings to a previously sparse branch in my family tree. I never thought I'd be able to do that to a part of my family that was so foreign and out of reach, but with the right resources, anything is possible.

I've put the Poznań Project through its paces, using all the Polish surnames I could think ofon both my father's maternal side and his paternal side, just in case that mysterious "adopted" John T. McCann (alias Theodore Puhalski) would show up in town, as well. That meant searching for my known Laskowski, Jankowski and Gramlewicz surnames as well as the new ones that popped up in the process: tongue twisters like Olejniczak and Błaszczyk, plus names like Pogłodzinski and the more readable Giernatowski.

There were some surprises as I searched. For one thing, the Aktabowski surname that seemed so intertwined with my Laskowskis was nowhere to be found in the historic Province of Posen. Yet the twin spellings for the surname that my adopted grandfatherlater known as John T. McCannhad used turned out to have one standardized spelling in that part of the country: Puchalski. That revelation, and the fact that there were several people by that name in the province, makes me wonder even more about his insistence that he knew nothing of his parents, and that his unexplained relationship to "Aunt Rose"a woman born in Germanymay have had more to do with whoever did adopt him, if anyone. Relying solely on surnames, there is ample evidence that he could have had roots in Poznań, as well.

The beauty of having this search facility at my fingertips is that I can leaf out (so to speak) this branch of my family tree, in hopes of having some path to identify distant cousins who show up on my DNA test results. I do have a few Polish matches at Family Tree DNA, but I've been hard pressed to come up with any rational explanation of how we might actually relate to each other. Now, at least I have some names of siblings of my great grandparents, and in the case of the females in that generation, not only the name of the men they married, but their parents' names, as well.

Of course, the next step, in trying to determine the surnames connected to this Polish line of my ancestry, is to bring those collateral lines forward, listing their descendants for as many generations as possible. This presents a problem in using a website such as the Poznań Project, owing to the limits of their time framethey extend only to 1899. There are other Polish websites which likely have the material I'm seeking, true, but I cringe to think of having to do that mazurka with those online translation services again.

I pushed my luck on using this project, working as close to the cut off date as I could, trying to find marriage records for the children of the siblings I had found in earlier records in Poznań, and in a few cases, I did find some. But there's only so much that can be done with a finite collection like this.

On a lark, I took some of those very foreign sounding surnames and plugged them into Ancestry.com, to see if anything might show updiacritical marks and all. I confess I wasn't expecting to see anything, especially in records from the U.S. But I did. There were only a few, but not only did they either match the exact spellingminus the distinct Polish mars, of courseor they matched the phonetic rendering of the surname, given in anglicized equivalents. Astoundingly, they also matched given names of the husband and wife, plus approximated the dates of birth and marriage.

It appears my grandmother Sophie had cousins in Americaand not just the American-born Gramlewicz cousins we had already found.

Above: "The Shepherd Boy," 1875 oil on canvas by Polish artist Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I am so happy that you found some records! Those names are real tongue twisters:)

    1. Only once in my life have I ever heard someone speaking Polish (summer job during college, working with a fellow student from the city whose mom called him on weekends to talk--in Polish). From the looks of it--at least what I can understand from those pronunciation charts--Polish has a very different sound than our ears are accustomed to. The names may look like tongue twisters, but the consonants strung together are likely code for a different phonetic sound for which our alphabet doesn't provide any adequate symbol.


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