Monday, September 30, 2019

Getting the Lowdown on Lofty Ideals

Almost exactly two years ago, a blogger at wrote about the benefits of pursuing one's family history. Included in that encouraging list were positives like compassion, resilience, and connection. The benefit of relationships was key.

The following March, FamilySearch's CEO, Steve Rockwood, opened RootsTech 2018 with a keynote address delving further into that sentiment. The bottom line to fascination with genealogy, he noted, is human emotion, the "primary element that engages people with their family history." For the first time, RootsTech 2018 debuted with a theme: "Connect. Belong."

The promotional hype over a super-sized conference like RootsTech might leave the more skeptical among us wincing at descriptors like "powerful" for the Rockwood presentation, but even though I only experienced it via YouTube, I can vouch for such an assessment. We hold a powerful key to human relationships when we come to grips with the reality of what he was saying. And the route to such experiences is the very research skills we love to put into practice for ourselves, and to share with others.

It's all well and good to buy into such lofty ideals and pat ourselves on the back for the nobility of what we do. I'm concerned, however, that it is so much easier to apply lofty ideals to high-minded generalities, while missing the rubber-meets-the-road practicality of the matter in real life.

Let me give you an example. Only a week ago, after sending out an email to the membership of the local genealogical society where I serve as president, I received an unexpected reply. The return note was from the husband of a member, asking me to remove this woman from our membership rolls. The reason: she had passed away earlier this month.

Shocked to hear such news so unexpectedly, I tried to run through my mind all the members I've met through several years involvement in the group, and vainly attempted to place her face, or any details about this woman. I don't recall ever meeting her, but knew she had to have some connection or reason for joining us—but who? Or what? Curious, I pulled up her obituary on the local newspaper's online site.

Have you ever gone to a memorial service out of courtesy for the living? For someone else whom you knew—a grieving relative of the decedent—despite not even knowing the person who had just died? I have, from time to time—the mother of a neighbor, or the relative of a coworker. I may have known absolutely nothing about the person who died, other than that connection to the living, but when it comes time for the reading of the eulogy, I sometimes find myself falling in love with a total stranger, and wishing I had had the chance to know that person.

That's how it was when I read the obituary for our recently-deceased fellow member. The article was certainly not one of those boiler-plate obituaries, but a memorial lovingly crafted by a family member. Yes, obituaries and eulogies can wax eloquent and make the departed more "dearly" than he or she might have been in real life. But not only did this statement reveal the love her family held for her, but told me of an accomplished woman known widely for not only her keen interest in genealogy, but a number of other pursuits, including widespread acclaim for her artwork.

I never even knew.

Moments like this can slap a person in the face and awaken us to new realizations. In this case, it showed me how genealogy is not only about connecting to our family's past—as well as helping knowledge of that past become relevant to those descendants who will be in our family's future—but it is also a way for us to connect with those other researchers on this journey of discovery with us. Coming together as members in a genealogical society is one way to express that yearning to connect, even if it is not about connecting with blood relatives; it is about connecting with others who have a passion to preserve our personal micro-histories as families. We may not be related by descent, but we are related by passion. We belong because we share that keen interest.

It seems so self-evident why we share that urge to find our third cousins twice removed, and yet we miss the sense of why we can benefit from connecting with other, unrelated, family history researchers. Yes, we get giving back, or paying it forward, or exchanging lookup services, but we need to add one more sparkling reminder to our repertoire of belonging and connecting: reaching out and getting to know the others on this same journey, the ones who take as much delight in finding their missing ancestors as we do. Connecting around our mutual interest, yes, but also stopping our research for a moment to get to know the person behind the researcher. We can become each other's best research cheerleaders. More than that, though, our mutual interest can become the impetus to help us reach beyond to connect with each other, person to person.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Learning by Doing

Have you ever sat down in a classroom, after months of learning, to discover you forgot every answer you had memorized for the big test? Enough teachers have experienced that very sinking-pit-of-the-stomach feeling as former students, themselves, that it has apparently inspired them to find new ways to assess how well their students are learning.

Fortunately for the world of genealogy, one of those innovative teachers was a speaker at last week's APG conference, and I just happened to sit in on his class. The instructor was genetic genealogist Paul Woodbury of Legacy Tree Genealogists, who, in addition to being a fellow APG member, has also earned a master's degree in instructional design and educational technology.

The take-home part of this information, at least for me, was the instructional design component of the presentation Paul offered at the APG conference. Like many others attending his session, I spend a great deal of time teaching genealogical concepts for various classes, and I wonder how much those lectures "stick" with students. Even though I teach in a computer lab, the learning part is not necessarily followed by the doing part until long after the student finishes the course.

The main portion of Paul's session at APG became a hands-on learning lab, where attendees formed teams and participated in what he describes as a "gamification" approach to learning. That, in itself, became our learning by doing demonstration. In less than one hour's time, we were transformed into participants in an escape room, and our keys to escape came to us through the carefully parceled out clues awarded to team members who arrived at correct answers to a series of research tasks.

As we expected, considering the instructor's forte, the subject matter for this "exam" involved not only genealogy, but DNA testing, specifically. We all had a lively time racing the clock and figuring out the correct answers to each of seven serially-issued packets of clues. It was a fun—exhilarating—time, but once out the door (in real life), I hadn't given the technique much further thought. The syllabus included a carefully thought-out explanation of why such new approaches are so necessary in education—including in the field of genealogy—but I told myself I'd read the serious academic stuff later.

Early this morning, though, I woke up to a thought: even though I'm not currently teaching a genetic genealogy course, I can put that same technique to good use in the class I am teaching now. That concept transposes quite conveniently to other genealogical scenarios. Since my current course—how to use the website—is coming to a close, what better way to wrap up the series than to put class members through hands-on participation in such a learning competition?

My mission right now—between today and Tuesday afternoon—is to come up with a research puzzle about a challenging family tree issue which can be readily researched via Ancestry.  With all the stories embedded in my family's history, there are plenty of sample scenarios to chose from. All that's left is to assemble the packets of graduated clues and line up the starting point of the sample trees to use.

The final step of this feedback loop is not really the question of whether students can demonstrate that they've learned the material in class. The final step is when the students show, through this demonstration, that the instructor has adequately covered the topic in a way that students can put to practical use. For that, I think I'll add one more step to Paul Woodbury's instructional idea: a debriefing session once everyone has escaped from the escape room. What worked? What could become clearer? These are questions that will hone the experience for the next class, as well. We all can benefit from learning by doing, but it also helps to quality check the aftermath of the doing. Just like the classical feedback loop, the system takes on more of a shape of learning by doing by learning by...well, you get the idea: a continual fine-tuning of the feedback loop by both teacher and learner.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

A New Season

While fall may signal the closing of the year, for our American culture, it brings us new beginnings—on television series, that is. For those of us in the genealogy world, there's quite a bit of buzz lately about the return of a family history favorite and the addition of a new series to love.

The family history favorite is PBS's sixth season of Dr. Henry Louis Gates' Finding Your Roots, which returns on October 8. An army of professional genealogists distill the family history of two to three celebrity guests into documentary-sized bites. Twenty two celebs are lined up for this season.

Coming up one week from this morning, a new series will air on NBC: A New Leaf, with Daisy Fuentes. The program, developed in partnership with, will "join families as they learn the importance of appreciating and understanding their family history and ancestors in order to make important life decisions." As sponsor Ancestry explained to their audiences in a September 24 blog post, "We heard your feedback" about favorite show Who Do You Think You Are?, and noted the many requests they received "to see everyday people embark on journeys of personal discovery, too." A New Leaf is their response to those requests.

Absent from all the fall season promotion is any mention of the program which inspired such a request. Although press releases back in May announced the return of Who Do You Think You Are? to its originating channel, NBC, and promised a thirteen-episode season to come, there has been no announcement yet to reveal when that season's premiere will occur.

One positive ripple effect from all this genealogical programming is a palpable uptick in interest in family history. Classes I teach at local libraries draw more attendees after the start of a new season, as do my beginning genealogy courses. And, of course, I get a significant increase in the number of hits visiting A Family Tapestry. Not only does genealogy programming offer us some compelling human interest stories, it inspires an "I can do this too" attitude among thousands of people who might otherwise never have considered delving into the mysteries of their own roots.

Friday, September 27, 2019

What the Future Looks Like

Nobody can really tell, of course, but we can always speculate about what the future holds. When it comes to the topic of genealogical societies, I think the best way to assess how the society of the future will take shape is to look at the next generation of people who are already involved in genealogy.

We can garner a snapshot of that, right away, thanks to a group which had its beginning in 2013. That group of founding members is now known as the NextGen Genealogy Network. A nonprofit organization by and for young genealogists, it sports a current leadership which seeks to "provide resources to promote the next generation's engagement in the genealogical community and offer innovative, virtual opportunities for development."

They are not kidding when they speak of "virtual" opportunities. The NextGen Genealogy Network is seemingly everywhere online. Besides their social media presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, NextGen is not shy about putting their best face forward in a series of videos on their YouTube channel. This bunch is active and engaged and sporting a can-do attitude that long-term genealogical societies would benefit from emulating.

If we want to know what the possibilities are for what the genealogical society of the future might look like, we wouldn't be far off track to imagine it would be somewhat like the energy emerging from the many projects taken on by the NextGen Genealogy Network. While they claim a worldwide membership, they have still managed to find ways to keep connected.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

On Becoming Useful

There is no doubt that the genealogical society of the 2020s will be vastly different than that of the 1960s—if, that is, we still find value in collectively pursuing our family history passion.

I've certainly been giving that situation much thought in the past weeks, especially upon receiving the news of the merger of an organization dedicated to the service of genealogical societies with another organization, founded with the individual genealogist in mind. I am concerned that those local societies still remaining in the next decade will be treated, in that merger, much like the proverbial red-headed step-child.

At the same time, several instances in my local area popped up in such a way, over these same past few weeks, to point me to examples of how local genealogical societies could still shine. There are many opportunities for an upgraded and modernized society to remain pertinent to the changing world of genealogy today. Here are a few of those examples.

First, as you've probably noticed, I make a practice of rescuing abandoned family photographs and attempting to return them to family. This takes quite a bit of research to connect the names affixed to the back of a hundred-year-old cabinet card with someone in the twenty-first century who cares enough about their ancestors to want to receive their photograph.

Among those pictures which I have yet to connect with family is a baby picture linked to an extended family which has lived, for at least one hundred years, in the same county as I do. I managed to determine one connection to that family—a woman who owns a gift shop in the city where I live. Only problem is: every time I've tried to make contact, I miss her.

It just so happens that a newsletter article recently caught my eye: this shopkeeper will soon be celebrating her store's thirtieth anniversary. What better time than that to gift her with this hundred-year-old memento? And bring out the point of anniversaries and other mile-markers that recognize the longevity of families and their daily activities—an excellent task for a genealogical society in giving back to the community while drawing attention to the very services we do best.

Another recent serendipity came to me, thanks to one of our society's board members. While this board member does not live in our area, she has been a dedicated part of our board. She is also widely traveled and deeply cares about history. Apparently, she is a subscriber to a private emailed newsletter on history in the Sierras. This newsletter happened to run a story about the graffiti left on a rock near the Emigrant Trail, in which the author traced some of the names left on that rock from the 1850s Gold Rush era. One of those names belonged to the progenitor of a significant family which, by 1852, had settled in our city. It just so happens that this is the same family which, while I was doing my own family research, had discovered was a very distant cousin in my Broyles line—and since one member of that family is a business associate of my husband, he passed along the word that we are cousins. Wouldn't it be great to take that a step forward and honor that family's history with a First Families certificate? After all, our society has such a program. It would help call attention to the history we all have, just by learning more about our ancestors.

I know of inventive projects other societies have taken on. One southern California society designed a special, local version of the television program, "Who Do You Think You Are?" In this case, the county society featured local celebrities in a special dinner event. I remember such a program also being incorporated into the schedule of the Fort Wayne FGS conference a couple years ago, and noticed how tangible the response was among the local celebrities as they experienced learning about their own roots.

When we reach out and pursue such community-related projects, we bring our societies to the forefront. I can't help but wonder, if more people knew about what we do as societies, whether more would be interested to support our projects and, ultimately, be willing to join us as part of our membership.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Genealogy Societies:
So What are They Good For?

A distant relative of mine (by marriage), upon learning that my husband was a "cop," once called him on his personal cell phone because she needed him to get her spared from receiving an impending ticket. When he explained to her that such a tactic would not only be frowned upon by the department, but that he would be unable to do so for her, her only response was, "Well, what are you good for, anyway?"

With all the changes in the genealogy world—everything from the trend toward solo research to the click-of-a-mouse access to digitized records—one wonders what, if anything, our previous collective genealogical efforts might any longer be good for. If we no longer need the strength in numbers afforded by group effort to gather and preserve records, or crowdsource research solutions, or even bring in special speakers to train us in advanced research techniques, what's the point of banding together as genealogical societies?

I couldn't help notice the irony in such thoughts formulating in my mind as I sat in various sessions of a genealogy conference I just attended. It took coming together as a group—listening in class, yes, but also networking and even reaching out to inspiring speakers—to spark those ideas. There is something about people getting together which brings out those new thoughts. When we expose ourselves to others' ways of thinking, or doing things, or explaining stuff, that something gets triggered in our own minds. We start seeing how others do things, noticing how others do "different." It brings on the "what if" pondering that opens our own mind to possibilities.

Anyone who is bursting with the urge to share their latest family history discovery understands the need to find someone to tell that news to. Likewise, anyone who has been stumped so long on their mystery ancestor that they can't stand the stand-still any longer. Genealogy societies are, in one way, a sounding board for fellow researchers. We discuss new research plans, check out new resources, pass along tips, chat about family. Yes, we can do this over the phone, or by texting our research partners, or posting the latest victory on a Facebook genealogy group or page, but the conversation is more dynamic and continuous when it is live than when it is asynchronous and flowing through a keyboard (or worse, those tiny keypads on cell phones).

Societies become the brain trust for local researchers. There is always someone who knows the best way to find a document, or connect with the local history expert, or get the local oral history; societies become the ready-access go-to place for a wide variety of "stuff."

Granted, I have my own ideas for the vital role societies can continue to play, and you have yours. They may be entirely different, but I guarantee that, if we were to come together, face to face, something about our joint presence would trigger something creative in our thought processes and augment any ideas either you or I could have come up with on our own. And, watching what unfolds while we engage in such a process, we'd observe even more reasons for people to come together over this joint passion of ours.

Meanwhile, with every passing development pulling us away from face-to-face or person-to-person, we lose the chance to stand up as advocates for our collective strength. It wasn't more than a month ago, remember, when the national representative for local genealogical societies announced that they were passing their baton to the national organization for genealogists. Why unnecessarily duplicate effort, right? But we forget that the original mission of that national consortium of societies was to serve societies, not individual genealogists.

Hopefully, in this latest process, we have not lost our collective voice.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019


There was a time when the pursuit of family history research was community-driven: I help you find your family who passed through California, knowing full well that someone else will be willing to help me by looking for the document which shows my great-grandfather's passing in New York. We traded. We paid it forward. We crowdsourced our research solutions.


Along came the advent of online resources, when digitized records could be accessed remotely by anyone who had a computer and a connection to the Internet. When that collection of documents reached a critical mass—both in the number of digitized records that could be found online and in the number of people clamoring to use this new style of genealogical research—the imperative to find some kind soul to do a volunteer lookup faded away. Collective efforts such as those put forth by genealogical societies, where countless volunteer hours were devoted to indexing and otherwise preparing books to help the lookup process, became redundant. Who needs to purchase a local society's book on the transcriptions of headstones, or the compiled index of bride's names from the county's marriage licenses, when the actual document can be pulled up, right on a subscriber's own computer screen?

Budding business concerns like became a game changer in the family history community. Even, in taking that first step to provide an online transcription of the 1880 census, radically altered the process for securing documentation of research assertions.

The corollary to that, of course, was the diminishing need for avocational genealogists to rely on each other to accomplish their research goals—and thus the decreasing desire to join together in groups to work on their family history. In the wake of that sea change was the altering of the local genealogical society, as well.

In sharp contrast to that online dynamic has been the typical mode of operation of such societies. In that previous era of people-helping-people, everything was done either for free or for very little cost. Membership fees were small, as were the charges for the amateur publications providing vital access to records before the computer age. Pay-it-forward was the mantra of many a researcher willing to help out in exchange for future good will.

And the management of those nonprofit societies? It was likely as volunteer-driven as the friend-helping-friend services of that time. People who helped other researchers with their genealogy were now helping run associations for genealogists. Elected officers for genealogical society boards were often those who most loved the realm of genealogy—not necessarily candidates with professional credentials in accounting, or legal processes, or public relations.

Out of that bygone era came a book—The Peter Principle—which took a look at what went awry in employee promotions in business settings. While the main premise was that, in a hierarchy, employees tended to rise to their "level of incompetence," there was a second principle in operation. That principle was that employers, when considering staff promotions, often selected their star employees for those higher positions.

That, of course, is not unlike selecting the most talented genealogist for a position on the board of a genealogical society. Those folks are, after all, the ones most likely to care deeply for the organization. However, those promoted candidates can sometimes turn out to find themselves in a bind not unlike that in the business world where the Peter Principle rears its head.

The question is, of course, whether that dynamic can be changed. Is it possible to equip boards of small nonprofit organizations such as local genealogical societies to be more effective as a business operation? Can we find a way to equip these small groups of volunteer directors with the business know-how to support a thriving association in the changing world of genealogy?

That is the wayfinding I'm pondering. "The task ahead," as Seth Godin noted in his blog post recently, "is not quite the same" as what we've done before. People are not joining genealogical societies for the same reasons as those who joined in the 1980s—or even in 2010. People don't even have the same expectations for collective action in general as they did in previous decades. The tools we now use have changed many of our expectations—as well as our approaches. In many ways, before we can even ask the question, "How can we upgrade genealogical society boards?" we need to tackle the question, "Will society boards even survive the many changes in the world of family history in the next decade and beyond?"

Those are the types of questions I ponder as I take stock of the possibilities for re-inventing society boards. Examining those answers—and inspecting even the preliminary questions to ask—becomes my task of wayfinding for the future of collective effort in the pursuit of family history.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Finding the Common Threads

Conference time is always a time of self-reflection for me. Having just returned from the Association of Professional Genealogists' 2019 Professional Management Conference, I have a lot to ponder. Plenty of input leads to plenty of output...eventually. But first, the thinking part.

It just so happened that, in another blog I follow (and not one in the field of genealogy), a post yesterday seemed to align perfectly with that pondering mood in which I found myself at the close of the APG conference. The post, written by marketing guru Seth Godin, touched briefly on what he calls wayfinding: what you need to do when "the task ahead is not quite the same as what you've done before."

His advice: find "the common threads." In other words, look for the analogies, but discern how the differences can impact the outcome.

In our family's business—a multi-faceted training company—I've lately been exploring the possibility that some of the skills our company brings to the table for other businesses could possibly cross-apply to the struggling non-profit entities we know in the family history world as genealogical societies. I spent the past week exploring that very thought with other attendees at the conference, seeking input from key people there.

The trouble with this idea is: it hasn't really been tried before. There are many gaps between what is needed and what has been provided in the past. And there certainly are drawbacks, as well. Seth Godin's blog post struck a chord with me there: the task calls for what he labels "wayfinding." And in this matter, I'm definitely having to find my way.

The comparison to developing the skill of "finding the common threads," though, quite comfortably resonated with me. And that's encouraging. There are several familiar, "common" threads to be grasped and gently coaxed through the weave of this new material. There may yet be a way found to take the concepts of the business world and distill them to aptly apply to the nonprofit world of organizations as local and focused as our genealogical societies. And that's a good thing, at least for those forward-thinking societies which wish to evolve with the changing times and see themselves become pertinent to future generations of researchers. No matter what the times, each generation's goal in finding their roots—and organizing to help each other do so—does contain common threads. We just need to identify which ones make the difference for those who are willing to face the changes ahead for societies. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Keeping Track Until I'm Back on Track

It's time to see just how much gets done when one is off, having fun at conferences. As it turns out, not much—but it was at least better than zero progress on the research front for the past two weeks.

I've been keeping track of my research progress for a few years now, and even though it doesn't necessarily mean I'll keep my nose to the grindstone during special events like conferences, my charts show me that, whether quick or slow, my work does move me ahead toward my family history goals. That is all the encouragement I need.

This past week, I've been in Salt Lake City, attending the Professional Management Conference of the Association of Professional Genealogists. That meant a few days ahead of the trip, I was busy packing, as well as working ahead on other projects so I could be "free" to enjoy the event I was attending. Here's what happened during the remainder of that two-week period.

As far as adding more names to the four main family trees I'm currently working on, I added sixty eight new individuals to my mother-in-law's tree, mostly owing to discovery of another recent obituary for one of her distant cousins. Yes, those families are big, but one obituary can provide names from three or more generations, so now her tree includes 16,979 people.

Though not as dramatic an increase, my father's tree managed to see a modest increase of eight names, bringing his total to 620. That progress, though small, came thanks to information discovered in the process of tracing my newly-found DNA matches which link to my paternal side. No matter how slowly this tree advances, I'm still elated, because this family was such an enigma—until DNA.

While those two trees came with successes, the other two stood stock still over these past two weeks. My father-in-law's tree still remains at 1,551. My mother's tree—the one I want to focus on in preparation for the Virginia research class I'm taking at SLIG next January—is now stuck at 19,123.

No matter; I'll be back home and back to work in no time.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Mix and Match:
Presentation Styles and Learning Styles

It's been a blast observing speakers trying cutting-edge presentation styles at this week's APG conference. If there would be any place suited to experimenting with new teaching approaches for genealogy, it should be the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Since the beginning of the Professional Management Conference this Thursday, I've particularly enjoyed the "gamification" approach utilized by Paul Woodbury of Legacy Tree Genealogists. While he, as a speaker, provided a thorough handout in the syllabus, explaining models of instructional design—particularly focusing on the design element of evaluation—when it came to class time, we all jumped right in to the "Genetic Genealogy Mystery Escape Room." Providing each team in the class with a puzzle to solve, including additional clues unlocked for teams whose members completed preparatory tasks, the race was on to beat the clock and arrive at a final answer. While teams answered a series of questions based on what was previously learned in class, of course the instructor could also see whether students had actually grasped the information in a meaningful—and usable—way.

The APG conference provided venues for a variety of learning modalities. Besides the traditional lecture format, there were opportunities for engaging in round table discussions, question and answer sessions in panel discussions, and free-ranging "poster sessions" where everyone, on our feet, moved from display to display and listened to brief, informal presentations given in a small group format.

The beauty of such presentation variety is two-fold. First, it breaks the mold from the traditional lecture format, a teaching style which, overused, may have signaled the downfall of the conference model of gathering together within interest groups. Secondly, on behalf of the learners, such variety begins to address the many different learning modalities present in any group, allowing material to be absorbed in such a way as to engage those who take in information in one of many different learning approaches. Those of us who learn better by hands-on action will process new ideas differently than those who learn better by listening rather than reading, for instance. Not only does each learner need to grasp new material in his or her own way, but to be able to demonstrate that the learning process has come full cycle: to demonstrate that, when it comes to new information, they have "got it."

A venue such as the APG conference has made its mark as a place for speakers to experiment with different types of instructional design—a good thing, considering how much of the field of genealogy involves training not only professionals in new skills, but avocational researchers in these new concepts, as well. It's been an enjoyable time for me, watching these training experiments unfold—certainly providing inspiration for my own adaptation of new presentation concepts. The overarching goal, after all, is to see that our students are equipped with the very concepts they've come to us to learn. More capably matching that instructional style to the learning styles of those in our audiences will be a plus for our efforts as trainers.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Grabbing Another Learning Opportunity

\When it comes to researching family history, there is always something more to learn. I took the opportunity this week to fly in to Salt Lake City—not a bad spot for this type of learning—to attend the Association of Professional Genealogists' Professional Management Conference.

This is my second year attending, as I was impressed with the different atmosphere at last year's PMC in Kansas City. Unlike many genealogy conferences, this one is, as I prefer to put it, intimate. It is also focused, considering many of the attendees are longstanding genealogical researchers, coordinating their own business ventures.

However, don't think the only ones attending are those for whom genealogy has been their lifelong vocation; I met several this year in stages of transition. For instance, there are those who are planning career changes, either upon their early retirement from other professions, or as a mid-career move to switch vocational focus. I enjoyed chatting at lunch yesterday with two women who started their career-switching trajectory by taking Boston University's online studies program. Others have been building up to the big jump by diligently attending genealogy institutes around the country, year after year. Yet another group is starting out in their college years, following a course of studies for their bachelor or master's degree in a related field, such as library science. I've spoken with attendees sporting a wide variety of educational and business backgrounds, situated on this wide spectrum of professional timelines.

The variety of training resources offered at this event is also refreshing. I tend to gravitate towards any sessions focused on genetic genealogy—and was certainly pleased to hear Dana Leeds (of Leeds Method renown) present an up-to-the-minute overview of how her color cluster methodology has melded with various other technology-driven assists. But the conference certainly offers information and support on so many other pertinent issues. I was glad, for instance, to be able to catch a brief session on creating instructional videos—something we need to hear more about in this field—by Shaunese Luthy of Untangle Your Roots.

This conference extends through the weekend, and I look forward to not only hearing from more of  such luminaries of the genealogical world as Elizabeth Shown Mills and Thomas W. Jones, but pioneers from the start of the explosion of interest in family history, such as Kory Meyerink, who was there at the formation of what later became What makes the conference refreshing, though, is APG's willingness to introduce bright, fresh faces and voices to the mix, with speakers from other nations, generations, and ethnicities. This weekend will provide plenty of inspiration to carry me forward for a long time. And there's nothing like refreshed enthusiasm to pick up the momentum. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Getting to Know Foreign Nicknames

It's all very well and good to be familiar with nicknames when researching one's family at home. For instance, because of all the experiences I've had in America with names, I've learned by osmosis that Jack can be a nickname for John, for instance. Spend enough time researching those roots in America, and it no longer throws a researcher to see Sally in a document where Sarah should officially have appeared. But Polish nicknames? Ah, that is the start of a new learning curve—and one which I can't escape if I wish to keep track of my Polish ancestors. I'm just glad I'm not tasked with sorting out all the names in a Russian novel.

As it turned out, trying to find Ignatz Giernatowski and his wife—my great-grandfather's sister Agnes Laskowska—as immigrants in New York was not a fruitful search for me. I found candidate families with just enough of a near-miss to cause me to hesitate snatching up the record and plugging it into my tree.

That, however, does not mean we stop searching, of course. Eventually, I came across a couple records, both of which began my education in Polish nicknames. The first was a passenger list transcribed on Castle Garden's website—on which, unfortunately, I'm currently having difficulty accessing, but thankfully had transcribed my own set of notes—showing a woman by the name of Agniska Geirnatowska traveling with a nine year old boy named Ludwig and a six month old girl named Pelagia. They had arrived at the port of New York on 13 August, 1888.

While the woman I was seeking had the name Agnes Giernatowska, what's a little bit of spelling rearrangement among friends? Besides, our Agnes did have a son named Ludwig, who was born in Poland in 1878, which could possibly have still been nine years of age at the time of that August arrival. Even better, our Agnes had a daughter whom she had named Pelagia, according to records found from Żerków dated January, 1888. Almost six months, at least.

So...could Agniska have been a nickname in Poland for Agnes?

The second lesson in my education on Polish nicknames came with her daughter's name, Pelagia. Originally a Greek name, it seemed an unusual choice for a Polish couple to name their daughter. However, since it was the name of a saint, perhaps the connection was through the Catholic Church, of which this family seemed to be connected. One website mentioned that, indeed, besides in Greece, the name was also common in Russian and Polish cultures.

Knowing all that about the name Pelagia, however, did not clue me in to any nickname possibilities. Pelagia simply wasn't a popular name to give a baby on American shores, so perhaps there wasn't much of a chance to shorten it to a nickname.

That, at least, was what I thought when I set aside the puzzle of the three census discoveries of an Ignatz and Agnes Giernatowski—and spelling variations—on account of the three different names for the daughter: Blanch, Pauline, and Pleshia.

Until, that is, I received two particular matches to my own DNA test at not one but two different testing companies. As it turned out, there was a man and what might be a son or nephew who had tested their own DNA, and one of them had posted their family tree. Of course, I had looked at it before—only casually, I admit, because it wasn't a close relationship, and it included absolutely no surnames that matched mine. But eventually, I discovered these two men were related to my father's side of the family, and had shared matches with others whom I had connected with this Laskowski paternal side.

Guesses can be risky policy, when it comes to genealogy, but I did start taking a look around. After all, what if that "Plasha" in the "Gernotwoski" household in the 1920 census was just an ineptly-recorded Pelagia? I built a "what-if" scenario with Ignatz and Agnes and their daughter Pelagia, following links to documents for misspellings like Plashia or Pleska...and eventually reached a New York City marriage record connecting a "Pleska Gernatwaska" with a man by the very same surname as the one in my puzzling DNA match.

So, was baby Pelagia from Poland the same woman as the "Plashia" listed on the headstone bearing the married name I found in New York City records? Apparently—at least if we believe those DNA results—the answer is yes. Pelagia from Poland either preferred her nickname Plashia, or her newfound American community adapted her name to a different format than her parents remembered from the old country.

No matter which the outcome, I'm now more confident that at least the 1920 census in which I found Ignatz and Agnes in New York City pinpointed the right family, and that this one immigrant child became the link between my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski's descendants and the branch that came from his sister, the widow who remarried and, apparently, followed her new husband to a new land.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Gambling With Guesses

One thing about genealogy: the protocol requires us to take things step by step—with documentation for each stop along the way. It would seem there'd be little room for guesses in this type of careful process.

But then, there are brick walls. Immovable, impassible brick walls. I've certainly given up on my fair share of brick walls (or, rather, learned to wait until later, when more digitized records got uploaded to websites). But I've also learned to be brave enough to guess, er, make an educated hypothesis and thoroughly test it out.

When it came to my great-grandfather's unfortunate sister Agnes Laskowska—the one who had lost two of her three children, along with her husband, before remarrying in Żerków, Poland—I had a few things going for me in the guess-making realm. First was that she married a man with a relatively unusual name (Ignatz Giernatowski). Second was that Agnes still had one son from her previous marriage, a boy by the name of Ludwig Szumski, whom I had already discovered was born in 1878. The third detail involved a child from Agnes' second marriage to Ignatz, whom the couple named, in January of 1888, Pelagia Giernatowska.

This is where the guessing comes in. I reasoned—wildly, I admit—that if Agnes' brothers moved to the New World, then perhaps it might not be so far-fetched to assume that Agnes and her second husband might have considered the same thing, as well. After all, my great-grandmother Mary Laskowska brought her three children across the Atlantic in 1889; perhaps her sister-in-law could have done so, as well.

I started pursuing these what-if scenarios to see if I could find any results. The first place I attempted my search was in the New York City area. After all, that is where Agnes' brother Anton headed when he made his start in the New World.

Fortunately, it wasn't long until my searches yielded a possibility. There was, in Brooklyn, according to the 1900 census, an Agnes married to someone named Ignatz, with the understandably-misspelled surname Gernatofski. Close, wouldn't you admit? Their household included three people: Agnes and her husband—who claimed they were married in 1888—and one daughter. According to the enumeration, Agnes had been the mother of four children, only one of whom was still living.

The only downside was that that child was named Blanch, not Pelagia.

Though I could not find any plausible entries in the 1910 census, the 1915 New York State census provided me with a possibility: a couple residing in Brooklyn named Ignatz and Agnes Giernatowsky. They, too, only had one daughter. Only problem: the daughter's name was Pauline. A third close-miss was the 1920 census, in which a Brooklyn couple named Ignatius and Agnes Gernotwoski lived with their daughter...Pleshia.

Did my Agnes and her husband with the ripe-for-misspelling surname even leave Poland and move to New York? I couldn't really tell from these frustrating results. There are, after all, lots of coincidences out there with foreign-sounding names which we think are rare (but turn out to be very common in that country, as we find out much later).

Genealogists are nothing if not plodding and prudent. Considering that, I had no choice but to set all this collection of possibilities aside. I couldn't—yet—be sure I had found the right people.

But then—and you know there will always be a "but then"—along came some surprise discoveries which gave me a research direction to follow. At first, I didn't even realize what had just landed in my lap, unbidden. This summer, though, it finally got impatient and slapped me in the face, waking me up to a different possibility.

Above: Excerpt from 1888 document (file 33 on this page) reporting birth of Pelagia Giernatowska, showing her parents' names to be Ignatz Giernatowski and Agnes Laskowska.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

That Other Sister

It is one thing to find an ancestor to fit on the family tree, when you are working your way backwards in time from the relatives you know now. It is an entirely different thing to commence the search from a hundred years ago and on a different continent. Once I was able to jump "the pond" with my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski, though, a world of Polish online resources showed me the possibility that I could.

The key was finding just one Polish genealogy website. I somehow stumbled upon a volunteer online project dedicated to transcribing old marriage records from that very province which my great-grandparents once called home: Posen, or, as the city at its center is called now, Poznań. That website is called, in English, the Poznan Project. Later, and through a recommendation I found at that first site, I discovered a second resource at the database called BaSIA.

What I did, once I discovered those online resources, was rather tedious: I looked up every instance in which any of my paternal ancestors' surnames showed up, linked to the area around Żerków, their ancestral homeland, the place I had discovered through various passenger records. Each time there was a mention of the surname Gramlewicz, for instance in the Poznan Project marriage transcriptions, I would write down who that person was, who that person was marrying, and names of any parents or witnesses.

Eventually, that mass of names, clustered in groups of surnames like Laskowski or Gramlewicz or the several other affiliated families, sorted itself into logical categories. For instance, since I already knew from my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski's death certificate what his parents' names were, all I had to do was isolate all the marriage records—and later, the birth records from BaSIA—to see who else claimed Mateusz Laskowski and Elzbieta Gramlewicz as parents.

As it turned out, there were four children in that group: Anton, of course, and the sister whom we discovered became the direct line ancestor of Annie Gramlewicz, the one who returned to New York City to marry after her family returned to Poland. And there was the brother I mentioned last week, as well.

There was, however, yet another sibling to account for. Her name was Agnes, and from what I could find in those Polish websites, she was born in 1852 in Żerków. Fortunately for me, I could also find additional records showing me a glimpse of the rest of her life. She was married in 1874, for instance, to Alexius Szumski. Even better, those Polish websites revealed that she and Alexius had at least three children: Victoria, Ludwig, and Joseph.

Life must not have been kind to Agnes, however, for the Szumskis lost their firstborn within six years of her birth, and their youngest—Joseph, born in 1881—lived barely a year. He died the same year as his father, Alexius, leaving Agnes with her then-four-year-old son, Ludwig.

As often happened to young widows in such situations, Agnes eventually married again. This time, it was five years into her widowhood when, in 1887, she married a man from the same village with the impossible-to-spell name of Ignatz Giernatowski.

From that point onward, there was nothing to be found in those Polish websites—not a surprise, seeing they had a limited date range for the collection. This also, however, presented a research dilemma: though the process was tedious to search through those Polish websites, they did, in the end, give me exactly what I was looking for—but nothing more. I could find anything about those surnames I wanted, as long as it was a transcription of a birth, marriage, or death record within a very limited time frame. What became of those people after that point, I couldn't tell. The record set's silence about such answers was reasonable to expect, but frustrating for someone wanting to know what happened to her ancestors' families.

From that point onward, in searching for what became of this family, I had two hopes. One, of course—you knew this would pop up again at some point—was DNA testing. The other, a much less scientific approach, was to take a leap of blind faith.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Not Necessarily a Niece

If you have been following along this past week as I unfolded the story of Annie Gramlewicz, the eighteen year old who lived, for a while, with my great-granparents, Anton and Mary Laskowski, you may have realized, as I did, that there was something squishy about Anton's report that Annie was his niece. After all, in that 1915 New York State census, Anton said he was sixty nine years of age. Annie may well have descended from a sister of Anton, but with that age difference, I wasn't sure Anton's sister would be the one who was Annie's mom.

Still, I was glad for any hint to help me piece together a family constellation for my mystery paternal ancestors. At the point when I first grappled with this family history enigma, there were not many online resources—and certainly no reach as helpful as our current connection to genealogical websites based in other countries.

I did, at that time, what most researchers found helpful: I sidestepped the situation by looking at collateral lines. Anything to find a lead to a homeland in The Old Country.

My most fruitful clue came by seeking what became of Annie's sister Helen. Remember, of that Gramlewicz immigrant family in Little Poland in New York City, almost all of their children had died young—except, during those earlier years, Annie and her sister Helen.

My research breakthrough came when I discovered a passenger record showing Helen's return to New York, after the family had permanently returned to Poland. The passenger list included details such as Helen's ability, as a bank clerk, to read and write not only English and Polish, but German as well. Most important—for my research notes, at least—was Helen's statement regarding where, exactly, her parents remained in Poland. Her answer: Żerków.

Sure enough, Żerków could be considered part of that region of origin that my Laskowski great-grandparents had once claimed as their homeland: "Posen." And by now, I have access to some wonderfully helpful online resources based in Poland. Believe me, I've searched for marriage and birth records showing any connection to the surname Gramlewicz—especially if linked to that other surname of interest, Laskowski.

Line upon line, as the saying goes, I built up my case for the connection between Anton Laskowski and Anna Gramlewicz. In the end, it did turn out that Anton had a sister—Marianna—who married a Gramlewicz. But Marianna and her husband, Lorenz Gramlewicz, were not the ones I found in the census records in New York City with children named Anna and Helen; their parents' names were given—admittedly with a great deal of spelling and handwriting angst among those American enumerators—as variations of Miecyslaus and Josefa.

Besides, Josefa's maiden name, as I later discovered, was Byczyńska (do not attempt saying that without your handy pronunciation guide). That tongue-twisting appearance of yet another Polish surname became good news to me, though, for it provided yet another name to search in those newly-found Polish genealogy websites. And it helped me build that family tree for Anton's mystery sister. That, in fact, was what led me to provide a name for that shadow sister, in the end—and to show me that it wasn't just one sister Anton had, but at least two.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Back to School—for the Rest of Us, Too!

In every way I can think of—at least in my genealogy world—it's been back to school, and it feels so good to be back in the groove again.

Yes, back-to-school is considered the realm of the junior members of society, where kids from kindergarten through college head back to the classroom. We've seen plenty of that type of action in the school districts around here with their various start dates—some as early as the first week of August (and thankfully some traditional holdouts who still stick with the post-Labor-Day opening).

But there are others of us who have had back-to-school on our minds, as well. Anyone who is fortunate to have continuing learning programs in their community will know what I mean. In our city, we have two series of learning opportunities: one which is familiar to residents of many cities, known as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which focuses on "the joy of learning," and a second version which is homegrown and specific to our local residents.

I have taught genealogy topics for mature learners in each of these organizations, and it is indeed a joy to help launch others into their personal pursuit of family history. This semester in our city's program, for instance, I am team-teaching a beginner's course on using with my genealogy mentor, Sheri Fenley, after which I'll teach a brief series on how to use DNA testing in family history.

Even the libraries are gearing up for the return of learners of all ages. Our fall semester program for two local library systems is just now starting, and today brought in a new group of people interested in chasing their elusive ancestors. What is encouraging to see is that these classes bring in not only those who, after a long hiatus thanks to Life's detours, are returning to their love of family history, but also young adults who have always wanted to take up genealogy, but haven't yet learned just how to get started. Attendees like the young woman in my library class today remind me of myself, those many decades ago when I wanted to work on my family tree, but had no idea how to begin—or even what names would go in those slots on the pedigree chart. I love to have a part in launching young people on that path of discovery.

Learning comes in all forms, of course, and some people are quite happy to learn on their own, through books, websites, blogs (remember, I'm the genealogy guinea pig who hopes others learn by watching me stumble into uncharted territory in my own blundering way). Other people have benefited from the growing number of webinars now available via trendsetters like Geoff Rasmussen who, next Friday, presents Legacy Family Tree Webinars' 1,000th program. Still others are opting for the personal touch in a more advanced way, through genealogy institutes like the upcoming Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy where, next January, I'll be learning more about my Virginia ancestors.

No matter which version of "classroom" suits your learning style, I hope you are making plans for some way to expand your knowledge horizons—especially now, during this particular season when everyone is in the mood to get back to school.

Disclaimer: While I am certainly honored to be designated as an Ambassador for the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy 2020—and have shared about their impressive offerings for several years now—this year's designation comes to me with receipt of a modest discount to their registration fee. Nevertheless, my focus is on objectively sharing what aspects of the Institute readers at A Family Tapestry would likely find helpful, and I welcome the opportunity to continue serving as eyes and ears on site during this event for the benefit of my readers.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Off the Shelf:
Tracing Your Female Ancestors

Not too long ago, a woman from our county's Commission on the Status of Women approached me to ask if our genealogical society was planning any special event to commemorate the hundred year mark for this country's passage of the nineteenth amendment granting women's right to vote. Immediately, what flew into my head was the many ways women have proven to be nearly invisible to family history researchers, juxtaposed with the voter records we've resorted to in seeking information on any of our ancestors. There are so many classes we could offer to genealogists on how to find those invisible women, voting being only one aspect in which they began to show their faces in public.

Just before some society board members and I met with this Commission representative to plan our role in the special commemorative events for 2020, I happened upon a newly-offered book from Great Britain: Adele Emm's Tracing Your Female Ancestors. The source for this introduction was John D. Reid's book review in his blog, Canada's Anglo-Celtic Connections. Though I can't say his review was a glowing endorsement, I considered myself forewarned and bought the book anyway. I wanted to see what insights I could glean from this new resource.

Given that recent discovery of such a new resource, you can't exactly say, as would be noted of most other books featured in this column, that this one had been languishing on my bookshelves for decades. It is fresh off the press and barely cracked open. But it is timely, and I am racing the clock. Landmark anniversaries don't happen just any day, you know.

The basis for this commemorative push is the year in which the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, granting women the right to vote. The final state, of the bare minimum required, to ratify the amendment did so on August 18, 1920. Of course, that is a moot point for those of us living in California, where our state government had given women the right to vote, back in 1911. Still, in solidarity with the rest of the nation, we'll celebrate like it's 1920.

And so, I go buying books like Adele Emm's tightly-packed two hundred twenty pages on everything a family historian would want to learn about how to find their frustratingly invisible female ancestors. Ms. Emm goes far afield of what might have been expected for a genealogy guide. She covers every aspect of the feminine experience of prior centuries, giving the reader a solid grounding in what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth century (or earlier) Great Britain. Of course, in many situations, that will not be what a woman in America might have experienced—talk of governesses or the "cotton famine" seeming somewhat removed from life in California, for instance—but in so many other aspects, her examination of the minutiae of women's experience seems enlightening.

Yet, being a book produced in England—it was published this year by Pen and Sword Books of Yorkshire—the style of presentation is much more sedate than an American reader might expect. I find myself reacting to the tone of this book much as I did when reading another of the publisher's titles—Tracing Villains and Their Victims—seeking the will to complete the material, rather than the joy of being led along by a fascinating narrative. On the other hand, the life of a woman in prior centuries, no matter how pampered or deprived, gave enough reason to consider the less pleasant aspects of reality. (Literate women of childbearing age, for instance, would sometimes compose a "fond farewell letter" to their husband, in the event the birthing experience claimed her as one of the daunting statistics of childbirth in those earlier years.)

Likewise, this book delves into many aspects of life in the British Isles for women that we might not have considered as we wonder whatever became of our beloved female ancestors. The guide includes sections on education of women, occupations taken up by women, daily life experiences for a wide variety of classes of women, and even provides a chapter on crime and punishment and the shadier aspects of the female experience.

I can't say the book will help me find my mystery female ancestors—I don't really have roots in England—but the narrative serves to open the researcher's mind on what life was really like for those ancestors, especially the women who came before us. For a family historian with the overarching goal of going far beyond the routine reporting of BMD—birth, marriage, death statistics—this is the type of examination of the nitty gritty of daily life which transforms our great-greats from mere names and dates to real, living, breathing people.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Cousin Bait Connects Again

In an era now, in which genetic genealogists bemoan the lack of responses from their own DNA matches, it may be hard to believe that only a few short years ago, there was a community of family history enthusiasts who thrived on their online connections. In the online forums of the 1990s and early years of this century, genealogists were quite eager to share those troublesome research details which stumped them. There would be notes from people trying to locate information on ancestors who seemed to disappear from the paper trail, requests for death certificates, marriage records, or even wills. Folks seemed quite happy to share what they could find for each other, all thanks to online connections.

At some point during those halcyon days, I must have posted a comment about the hard-to-find surname Gramlewicz on one of those genealogy forums—which was a good thing, because I had just found a puzzling record concerning Annie Gramlewicz, the niece who had been living with my great-grandparents, Anton and Mary Laskowski. Though Annie had reported in the 1915 New York State census that she was born in the United States, the record I found was a passenger list reporting her arrival in New York from Poland.

Anna, sailing from Bremen, Germany, aboard the SS Friedrich der Grosse, arrived at the Port of New York on December 3, 1913. In the passenger records, Anna gave as her date of birth June 24, 1897. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she was returning to an address at "Grenpoint" on Long Island. This would not be a surprise to anyone who knows that Greenpoint, a neighborhood in Brooklyn known for its concentration of Polish immigrants, was once nicknamed "Little Poland." It was not long after her arrival in New York that Anna showed up in the 1915 state census, not in her parents' household, but in the Laskowski household.

Just why she ended up there—or came there from Poland instead of the more reasonable location in one of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn—would have remained a mystery to me, except for one fortunate connection. Because I, as had many other researchers before me, had taken advantage of online resources for genealogists and posted my questions about the Gramlewicz family, someone else had spotted my questions and decided to get in touch.

You can imagine my surprise when I received a message from someone with the surname Gramlewicz, writing me from Sicily, claiming to be a possible distant cousin from a family in Poland. But as we discussed over the course of a very helpful correspondence, there was a reason for Anna's passage, though a U.S. citizen, from Poland in 1913. At some point after the Gramlewicz's disappearance from American census records—I couldn't locate them after the 1910 census—they had decided to give up the immigrant struggle in the rough and tumble neighborhoods of New York City and return to their homeland. The whole family left; the only one who requested to return was Anna. That 1913 passage was what must have been the result of her very difficult decision.

Her parents and sisters, however, also faced some difficult times: that family split happened on the eve of a brutal war. Yet, the family fared well enough to welcome into their home a new son, Hieronim, born in Żerków, Poland, in September of 1912. That new son eventually became the grandfather of the woman who had contacted me, thanks to the cousin bait I had posted on one of those genealogy forums, years ago.

Annie—the one who came back to America—herself went on to marry and have a family of her own. Thanks to other connections from those now-outdated forums, I've been able to connect with relatives from this branch of the Gramlewicz family, as well. And the cousin who originally contacted me from Sicily mentioned remembering the older relatives exchanging letters in English with the sibling who went back to America—until one day when the letters no longer came, and, remembering, she always wondered what became of her American relatives.

Cousin bait, in the end, brought each of us together, and gifted us with the answers we were seeking.

Above: Line from a 1913 passenger record reveals that sixteen year old Anna Gramlewicz returned alone from Europe to live, once again, in Brooklyn, New York; image courtesy

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Sister Where a Shadow Used to Be

It may have been a surprise to discover that my great-grandfather, Anton Laskowski, had a brother, but it wasn't a surprise to learn he had any siblings at all. That clue came to me early in my quest to uncover my paternal origins. And though it was an unexpected discovery, it occurred in the very regular process of checking all documents which contained the names of my grandparents and their family.

My habit, as I work through each person in my pedigree chart, is to attach every document pertinent to that individual in the individual's "sources" column at, where I keep my online version of each family tree. That would mean, for Anton and Mary Laskowski, for each year they appeared in the census, I would link that digitized image to their individual profile.

In Anton's case, since he arrived in the United States sometime in the 1880s and died in 1939, that means I have a link to his entry for the 1900 census as well as that for 1910, 1920, and 1930. Then, too, because that Polish immigrant family settled in New York City, it also meant having the additional reference of each New York State census—for those available in 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925.

It was in those state enumerations that I discovered most of the surprises for my father's family. It was there, for instance, that I discovered my father's original surname was something like Puhalaski, not the surname I grew up claiming. It was also in those state records that I learned about a possible sibling for Anton.

In Anton's household on North Eighth Street in Brooklyn, long after his daughter—my grandmother—and her young family had moved out, there appeared in the 1915 census another woman by the name of Annie Gramlewicz. Gramlewicz was a name similar to a surname I had already seen mentioned concerning this family: on Anton's 1939 death certificate, his mother's maiden name was written as Granlewicz.

The census also reported that Annie was eighteen years of age, born in the U.S., and was working as a saleslady. Most importantly, I learned from that census that Annie was Anton's niece. Of course, it could be possible that Annie was related to the Laskowskis through Anton's wife Mary, rather than through Anton, himself, but technically, census instructions indicate that relationships are to be designated in relation to the head of the household.

If Annie was single—and there was no way of telling from this state enumeration—with a surname different than her uncle's, that would mean she was related to him through a sister, not a brother. Somewhere, then, there was a Laskowski daughter in the previous generation who had married a Gramlewicz. Though I didn't yet know her name, at least now I knew there was such a relative.

The chase was on to find any record of a Gramlewicz family related to a Laskowski family—or at least a Gramlewicz daughter born in the United States around 1897. Almost all references, on at least, seemed to point to one family: that of Mecislaus and Josephina—or similar spelling variations, depending on the year of the enumeration. In that household, Annie was listed as having been born in June of 1897, according to the 1900 census, and though her age seemed to vary unevenly with each subsequent census, the family constellation remained mostly the same.

Miecyslaus—or, as he was listed in the 1905 state census, John—and his wife actually had at least seven children during their years in New York City, though several of them died in childhood. The constants among those names listed in census records were four daughters: Anna and her older sister Helen, and then two very much younger daughters named Wanda and Marta.

Identifying that potential family unit helped me locate more information on the Gramlewicz connection between Annie and her uncle Anton Laskowski, though I didn't find documentation until many years after this initial discovery of Annie in her uncle's household. All I could figure, at that point, was that Annie must have been related to a sister—as yet unnamed—of Anton.

Long before I discovered those online resources in Poland to help pinpoint names and dates for my ancestry in Żerków, however, I got a surprise online message from someone who had found some of my cousin bait, and wrote to tell me the rest of the story about the Gramlewicz connection.

Above: Just when I wasn't expecting it, I stumbled upon a clue implying another branch of my mystery great-grandfather's family tree through a niece living in his household, according to the 1915 New York State census. This is the entry that got me started searching for any clues about Anton Laskowski's implied sister. Image courtesy

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Proper Pronunciation

When it comes to understanding just how our ancestors might have pronounced their name back in The Old Country, there is no shortcut. If you want to say those names correctly, you simply must learn the phonetics of that language. And when it comes to languages that use more—or less—than our twenty six letters of the English language, you've just got to know there are some adaptations to be learned.

That's the way it was, back when I was researching my father-in-law's Irish roots—with names in a language replete with eighteen letters (upgraded to twenty four in the last century), there had to be some awkward combinations and linguistic conventions to yield a name such as Sean, looking so very different than it sounds, at least to an English-speaker's sensibilities. Now researching my own Polish roots, how could I not delve into the reasons why the Polish handled their names as they do?

So when I discovered that, back home in Poland, my great grandfather Anton Laskowski had a brother who married a woman with a distinctly Polish-looking maiden name—Blaszczynska—I had to learn more. Hidden within what looked like a string of redundant consonants, there had to be a reason why those letters all made their appearance in that exact order.

Sure enough, pronunciation keys for the Polish language were there to bear out my suspicion—which is good, considering it makes genealogical research all the easier when the researcher can actually, you know, say the words having to do with one's roots. For instance, now I know how to pronounce the town where the Laskowskis once lived: words with a Ż—yes, there is a dot on top of that letter—are spoken much like the French would pronounce the name Jacques, with a voiced "zh" as in "Doctor Zhivago." So Żerków would be pronounced "Zherkoov" (at least, best I can tell from the pronunciation guides here and here).

What about Blaszczynska? That will take a bit more 'splainin'. With all we need to take into consideration, it may be a relief to learn the "Bla" beginning of that name can be handled much the same as in English, with the "a" sounding like the same letter in "cat."

For the next section of letters, we need to divide and conquer. The first "sz" is a letter combination which is pronounced much the same as "sh" in the English word "shy." The second letter combination—that of the "cz"—is pronounced with a harder attack, like the "ch" in the English word cherry. While that may seem almost redundant—after all, each of those sounds are quite similar—what probably happened is that the first set was pronounced entirely separate from the second set, with the first syllable rendered as "Blash," followed by that second syllable, "chin." And, of course, the "-ska" was the ending provided for women's surnames.

What is interesting about my very uninformed guess—after all, I have absolutely no knowledge about the Polish language other than what I've found here—is how I found Anna's maiden name repeated in some of her children's records. For the New York State Affidavit for License to Marry for Anna's daughter Harriet, the handwriting actually had a break in between that first and second syllable, almost as if to signify the precise way it was pronounced—separating that soft "sh" sound of the first syllable from the very similar, but distinctly delineated "ch" beginning the next syllable.

When I found that document, I was elated to see that that very Polish spelling was replicated entirely correctly—something I found odd for a state which surely had become very impatient with the flood of immigrants bursting upon its shores. I would have thought the more likely candidate for perfect replication of Old World spelling would be an immigrant community, such as might have been seen at an ethnic church congregation.

And yet, when it came time to baptize their youngest child, Lawrence and Anna Laskoski made the sixty mile trip from their home in Stony Point, New York, to a Catholic church in Plainfield, New Jersey—where mama Anna's maiden name was rendered with the mangled spelling, Blashinski. True, all we have available for our scrutiny is a transcription of the actual record, and perhaps that included a typo. But even there, it is possible that this is the rendering obtained from the original document. It is easy to see how an untrained ear, being told that foreign-sounding name by a stranger, would have picked up on the first consonant sound—the soft "sh" sound of the leading sz—and missed out on the differentiation of the second sound of the trailing cz.

Either way, obtaining a guide to pronunciation of the language of one's roots helps us to not only understand how to say those impossibly long strings of consonants, but to gain insight on how others might have mistakenly entered them in the documents we so desperately seek for verification.

Above: Entry of Harriet Laskoska's mother's maiden name—spelled entirely correctly—in her 1915 marriage application, with a barely perceptible break in the handwriting after the first syllable; image courtesy

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

About That Other Brother

Pulling those threads—tugging, actually, and rather firmly, too—to follow the line of my great-grandfather's newly-discovered brother in the Laskowski tapestry has not been easy. Yes, I could find his marriage record back in Poland, but had no idea to look for him in New York—until, that is, I received news of a DNA match with a "Laskoski" ancestor in her tree.

Other than that one missing "w," everything else seemed to match up. Mostly.

I had traced the rudiments of Lorenz Laskowski's family tree in Poland—a place where Laskowski was still spelled that way in the majority of records I found on the extended family. I had found his 1878 marriage record to Anna, she of the impossibly long maiden name Blaszczynska. And I had found a transcription reporting the birth of a son, Joseph, in 1885. And then, nothing more.

That was on the Polish side of the search. On the New York side, once I discovered this DNA cousin, things were different. Gone was the surname spelling of Laskowski; it was now Laskoski. Gone also was the first name spelled as Lorenz; the head of this family opted for the more American-looking Lawrence. And in the 1900 census, it was easy to trace just about when the family arrived in the New World: the child born after their son Joseph had her place of birth listed as "at sea."

Yet, no passenger records for any of them, neither at their likely port of entry (New York City) nor from their likely point of departure (Hamburg, Germany). Not singly for Lawrence, despite many immigrant men traveling first to prepare the way, then sending for the wife and children to follow. Nor could I find any passenger record for Anna or their son Joseph. Those I could find turned out to have problems with dates or details—wrong name of husband or several other children whose names didn't align.

Because this Lawrence Laskoski was the ancestor of my DNA match, though, I could trace that line forward in time. Though Lawrence and Anna undoubtedly had another child before the birth of the one I could find in documents (Joseph, born almost seven years after their marriage), the first American record I could find them in was the 1900 census. No trace in the 1892 New York State census, and of course, no recourse to the loss of the 1890 U.S. census. And 1880 would tell us nothing—it would be too early for their arrival on our shores.

Still, moving forward from that point did provide assurances. The most encouraging was to find records showing entries of Anna's maiden name. Remember that impossible-to-spell name? This is when that unusual string of Polish consonants made me nearly jump for joy. We'll take a look at that discovery tomorrow.

Above: Entry in the 1900 U.S. Census for Lawrence and Anna Laskoski and household in Rockland County, New York, including the notation that daughter Hattie was born in September 1886 "at sea," helping to approximate the date of the family's arrival in the United States. Image courtesy

Monday, September 9, 2019

"There Were Two Brothers"

Most times, when a genealogist runs into a phrase like that—"there were two brothers"—in an oral history of the family's origin, we've been conditioned to take that in with a considerable dose of doubt. There have been so many examples of family lore that began with such a line which turned out, after serious examination, to be just that: a story.

In this particular case today, though, I can't say that I've ever been offered such a line. But in this case, if I ever had run across such a story, it would have turned out to be true. And that's why, if it weren't for DNA testing, I'd never have realized there was that second brother who came to the United States from Europe.

The one brother—and the only brother, as far as I could tell—was named Anton Laskowski. He was my great-grandfather. It took me many years of research to even learn the place of this New York immigrant's origin, and even then, the first clue came to me as a mistake entered on a census enumeration. From that point, I eventually was able to zero in on the tiny town—Żerków—in the historic province the Prussians once called Posen.

Finding all that information came only by learning the history of the region through the 1800s, including following the shifting of borders, and noting variations in spelling of names, due to who kept the records (civil or church). But the real breakthroughs came when I discovered two websites hosted not by some genealogy giant in North America, but by a consortium of diligent (and technologically savvy) volunteers in Poland. The first of those websites I discovered is called the Poznan Project, the indexing project for the historic region's marriage records from 1800 through 1899. The second website is called BaSIA, "Database of Archival Indexing System."

Exploring all I could find, on these two databases, for Laskowski family members from Żerków, I pieced together as much of an extended family tree for my Laskowski line as I could find. From that effort, I learned that my great-grandfather Anton Laskowski had a brother. (He also had two sisters, but we'll get to that point another day.)

That brother was named Lorenz—at least from the marriage record I found at the Poznan Project. Of course, that marriage record also let me know that in 1878 in a town fifteen miles to the southeast, Lorenz Laskowski married a woman by the name of—pay attention to this spelling, please—Anna Blaszczynska. (Yes, those letters all mean something. But we'll get to that another day.)

That Polish website BaSIA also provided the tip that Lorenz and Anna had a son in 1885, whom they named Joseph. Born in tiny Żerków, the record of his arrival, I could be sure, belonged to this very couple, for his mother's maiden name was—yes, you guessed it—Blaszczynska. (To give you an idea how tiny this town was, the very next entry in the database for Żerków happened to be for the birth of my own paternal grandmother.)

The problem was, I had no idea to look for this family anywhere other than in Poland. Yes, I knew that my paternal grandmother and her two older brothers, born in Żerków, eventually made the long journey with their mother to join their father in New York. But remember, this is the family which never talked about their origins. They never talked about any other relatives, either, so how was I to know that my grandmother had an uncle who followed his brother to the New World?

It took the discovery of a DNA match with a family tree containing the similar surname Laskoski to piece the story together. Otherwise, I'd still be assuming those distant cousins still lived back in Poland, instead of fifty miles north of where my great-grandparents settled in Brooklyn, New York. Thanks to the DNA match, I was able to add an entire branch of the Laskowski family to my tree. And yes, in this case, should there have been any family lore about "there were two brothers," now I'd know that story was true.

Above: Example of readout provided from a search at the BaSIA database; entry details 1885 birth of Joseph, son of Lorenz Laskowski and Anna Blaszczynska.
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