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.


  1. Luckily, most everyone recorded in my census records were farmers and tended to stay in the same place, even same home. They are mostly English, so the nicknames and misspellings make more sense to me. I am amazed by how the names are recorded. One census might have all the children listed by their middle names. Why? The next will be a mix of first and middle names, the next nicknames (Sally for Sarah, Ted for Edward), the next might be completely wrong names with wrong sexes. It's a challenge!

    1. That certainly doesn't make research easy for you, Miss Merry! I wonder if any of these families with first name to middle name switches were southern families? I've seen that in my own southern relatives over the decades.

  2. About "Agniska"... I believe the intended spelling was

    1. Thanks for mentioning that version, Per. I will keep that spelling filed in my notes. Interesting website entry, too.

  3. I also had an aunt with the name Pelagia. Her nickname was Blanche. I found so many other women too with the name Pelagia (Blanche). I can not find a definite source as to why all Pelagias had the nickname Blanche. an educated guess would be that Blanche means pure and that St. Pelagia was suppose to be pure. Would you have any further information or sources? Thanks


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