Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Collateral Chaos Calling

What do you do when you try to do an end run around your latest research brick wall using collateral family lines, only to discover you are in a bigger mess, pursuing those collateral lines?

I've had great results with this technique in the past when following, say, my mother's nicely colonial lines back through the generations in the familiar research territory of America. Not so, my father's side. Of course, my paternal grandfather is the stumbling block here, with his adamant refusal to reveal much—if anything at all—about his roots.

The gift I received last summer of six DNA matches who seem to point to no one else in my heritage than that same mystery grandfather tells me I need to pay attention to the roots of those six people's Michalski and Czechowska lines in Czarnylas, Poland. So I dug as far back as I could, until I found both Czechowska lines ended with a mother whose maiden name was Zegarska. I looked further, using the website for the Pomeranian Genealogical Association, to discover this woman's parents' names: Johann Zegarski and Marianna Wojtaƛ.

Thankfully, that same Polish website contained transcriptions for baptisms, and I searched for every child listed in Czarnylas naming these same two parents. Then, I composed a quick family tree for this Zegarski family, and started working my way down from the oldest—a daughter named Paulina, the one we've already met as mother of the two Czechowska daughters who immigrated to Milwaukee—and ended up with the youngest, a woman named Anna.

One by one, I considered each of these children of Johann and Marianna. I looked for any who were listed in the marriage records, twenty years later. I looked to see if any were listed as parents of children in the next generation. I composed as much detail on each of the next generation's family as possible. And looked especially to see if there was any corresponding immigration information that correlated, in other online resources, with this record set.

The youngest Zegarski daughter, Anna, was an easy one to spot. Anna married Tomasz Gracz in 1879. Their marriage took place in Czarnylas. According to baptismal records for that same village, the couple had a daughter they named Rosalia in 1880, followed by a son, Tomasz, in 1882, and another daughter, Helena, in 1883. After that, I could find no further transcriptions with their name in the village of Czarnylas.

Switching the search from the Pomeranian website to Ancestry.com, I picked up the trail with a passenger list in Hamburg which seemed to match the same couple—although not the exact listing of children. While the surname was rendered with a more German-sounding Gratz, rather than Gracz, there was one encouraging note: their former place of residence was listed, in German style, as Schwarzwald—the Germans' preferred label for Czarnylas, as we've already discovered.

It was 29 March, 1884, and Anna and Tomasz and their three year old daughter Rosalie were departing from Hamburg for "Nordamerika" via Liverpool. Only problem with this record was that there was no sign of their son Tomasz, nor their baby daughter Helena. Instead, this family included an infant they called Angelka.

Whether this was one and the same family as the Gracz family I had found in Czarnylas, I couldn't yet be sure, but I continued the search to see what else could be associated with this immigration journey. Two weeks later on 14 April, 1884, a Canadian document recorded the arrival of a ship from Liverpool at Halifax in Nova Scotia, showing the exact same family constellation: Thomas—surname again spelled Gratz, not Gracz—along with his wife Anna and two daughters, Rosalie and Angelka.

From there, the travel itinerary went dark, keeping us from seeing the rest of the trail from Poland to Milwaukee, but by the time of the 1900 census, an enumerator with impeccable handwriting recorded a Thomas and Anna Gracz family in Milwaukee. Only trouble was, now, the oldest daughter showed as a seventeen year old Helen, and all the children born after that point arrived once the family had settled in Wisconsin. Where was Rosalie?

Tracing every document from that point onward revealed one reassuring note about the surname aberration: it would be alternately rendered as Gracz or Gratz. In fact, some future generations succumbed to the inevitable and just claimed the latter spelling as their true surname. And yet, after one record spelled as Gratz, a later one would surface with the spelling as Gracz.

And then, there was the case of Rosalie. She, herself, went by an alternate name—but for good reason: she had made her first vows in 1901 to become part of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and was known as Sister Mary Atalia to her pupils at Saint Casimir school in Milwaukee. Because she was born in Poland, by the time of the second world war, she must have found reason to complete naturalization papers.

Although those records do not include the name of her parents, her Petition for Naturalization does provide her birth name: Rosalia Gracz. We also glean her date of birth—September 1, 1880—and receive the bonus of her actual place of birth and last residence in Poland, a place called Pelplin.

Pelplin, of course, is not Czarnylas, so I rushed to find out just how close the two might have been to each other. Reassuringly, it was in the same historic region as Czarnylas—Pomerania—and was a much larger town (currently having a population of eight thousand). Could it be that Sister Mary Atalia had given this larger town name as her birthplace, simply because more people would be able to locate it on a map than tiny Czarnylas? Or does this reveal a clue about where else to look for records on her family before they left Poland?

This tiny piece of information may turn out to be useful for another record set: that of death records. Remember, we are still missing Rosalia's baby brother Tomasz, and we are also lacking any explanation of why the baby sister was sometimes called Helena, and other times Angelka. And yet, returning to the Pomeranian Genealogical Association's website, I find that the repository for many of the death records are coupled with names of locations other than Czarnylas. I'm not yet familiar enough with geographic designations—or the record-keeping customs in this foreign-to-me country—to know whether this was the Polish equivalent of Americans' habit of filing death certificates in the county of the occurrence, not the actual city where it occurred.

Bit by bit, I'm learning the ropes for researching these Polish ancestors—and being eyewitness to the contortions imposed upon Polish surnames in their English-speaking adopted homeland. To be sure, I'll need a lot more information on the extended Zegarski family before I feel confident that I'm following the right collateral lines, so I'll see what else can be found about any of Anna Zegarska Gracz's siblings who chose to follow the same path to Wisconsin.

Above: Insertion of details on Thomas Gratz family from Hamburg passenger list for British steamship Argo provided courtesy of Ancestry.   


  1. This really is a research project. I am learning a lot about searching Polish records.

    1. So am I, Miss Merry! There is so much more to learn...

  2. Wow you are really searching...good luck!

    1. Thanks, Far Side! Here's hoping this search turns up an answer.


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