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.


  1. Replies
    1. Yes! I'm just elated with all these recent discoveries.

  2. The name Pelagia would definitely be troublesome for someone who is not polish, and I can see it getting mangled into both Blanch and Pleshia. How it ended up as Pauline is beyond me, tho (unless that's how it was reported, choosing a more "westernized" name for this census)

    1. That's what I was wondering as well, Per: Pauline became that westernized moniker for a teenager self-conscious about having a foreign sounding name. Now that I have a target individual to research further, I'm hoping to unearth some family stories to explain.


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