Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Stupid Research Tricks

Do you ever get so desperate for answers that you strike out and try something so crazy, it's guaranteed to not work?

The other day, frustrated with the lack of any forward momentum on the search for my Puchalski roots, I decided to see what I could find by just entering the name of my paternal grandfather in the search bar at Ancestry.com. My thinking was, if I could find a tree where someone else was working on those same names, perhaps their work could guide me back to the place where the Puchalski family originated.

Laughable idea, I know; that was how desperate I was to play around with the possibilities. However, I found one tree which happened to contain a Theodore Puchalski.

The idea is not really all that far-fetched, after all. Unlike modern-day America, where people move from place to place—sometimes even criss-crossing the continent—our ancestors from a century ago were more content to stay put in one village. For generations.

Indeed, there is a Polish record set which I learned about decades ago. Back then, when I was participating in a Polish genealogical forum on the old Prodigy system, I remember Fred Hoffman mentioning a website called Herby. The concept behind it was to gather all the surnames of people living in Poland in 1990 and organize the data by province. The hope was that your particular surname would be one—unlike the American Smith or Jones—in which the family was resident in a cluster of just a very few provinces.

Herby—and even that original explanation by Fred Hoffman—is still there to search. You have to keep Google Translate close at hand, of course, for the whole thing—with the exception of the site where Fred Hoffman's explanation is posted—is in Polish. And the site demands proper use of all diacritical marks, a challenge for those who haven't memorized the codes to conjure up all those ł and ń and ż characters necessary to navigate our way through these foreign-sounding names.

Unfortunately, the predictable happened when I entered Puchalski into the Herby website. My search resulted in the information that Poland had—at least in 1990—well over seven thousand people using that very surname. Worse, they were scattered all over the country. So much for staying put in the ancestral village.

My silly research trick at Ancestry wasn't much more profitable. I was tempted when I noticed that one particular family tree which had a Theodore J. Puchalski showed that his father's name was Joseph. That, in fact, was my own father's middle name. Knowing that there were several ethnic European cultures which tended to name children after their elders, I wondered whether this Ancestry researcher might have any connections to my own line. She was researching a family from the greater New York City area, after all.

I sent her a message. I confessed my stupid research trick and admitted that we probably have absolutely no blood connection, but that I was curious about one detail. On her tree, she had posted the baptismal certificate for her Joseph Puchalski. It was all in Polish. Did she know where her family came from in Poland?

The answer came back just the other day, down to the village—a place near Białystok which today has a population of only ninety residents.

Meanwhile, it was back to Herby to play around with all the new surnames I had discovered with the clue of all those Michalski DNA matches. This attempt seemed more productive. Though Michalski is apparently a surname widespread in Poland—not quite the Polish Smith, but well over fifty thousand throughout many of the provinces—the Herby search engine brought up a funny detail which I had noticed when examining the family trees of my Michalski DNA matches. That detail happened to be a surname variant which, on Herby, zeroed in on a mere twenty two people living in just one location: the province of Łódź.

Those are numbers I can play with.

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