Monday, November 30, 2020

Ahead in December:
A Research Capstone


It certainly has been helpful, taking the last month of a year and outlining research goals for the upcoming year. December: that's when I take stock of my research progress for the past year and decide where the "pain points" are which need attention in the next year's work. From that, I formulate the upcoming year's "Twelve Most Wanted."

Now that I've wrapped up as much as could be found on November's challenge, locating the parents for my paternal grandfather—and then being able to press onward for another generation—I've familiarized myself with one Polish genealogy website, including tactics for dealing with terms not translated on site into English.

That, as it turns out, may be a good thing, as my task for December—in addition to taking a look backwards to review what I've learned from this year's research experiences and formulating my plan for next year's Twelve Most Wanted—is to find any more details on yet another Polish ancestral family.

This week, we'll be looking at the Gramlewicz family from the small town of Żerków in the former Prussian province of Posen. Just being able to pinpoint the origin of this immigrant family may have been challenging, because the borders and political affiliations kept changing over the years. Just this fact itself may reveal a potential motivation for the family's decision to leave home for New York, but it certainly does not help me see what made one branch of the family decide to return to Poland, which they did after the first World War. It is only because of this very change in that family's history that I still have a cousin in Poland—one who has been as keen to learn her family's history as I have been.

With increased confidence over handling data from websites in languages other than my native English, this month I want to revisit my Gramlewicz research—and a totally different set of Polish websites for a different region—and see whether I can glean a fuller picture of the entire family constellation, perhaps enough to push back another generation. Though those Polish websites don't necessarily provide, in one document, clear affirmations of relationships among collateral lines, by gleaning all the baptismal and marriage details for that surname in that specific village, I may be able to propose a possible family tree, one generation beyond where I am currently stuck. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Afterwards: The Messy Clean-up


When the dust settles after a big event, those who assume hosting duties know what comes next: time to clean up. Whether it's a big Thanksgiving dinner at home or a big meeting at work, no matter how exciting the event, restoring order is essential so we can move on to the next big plan.

With the decision to accept what multiple DNA tests were telling me about my great-grandmother's true identity, I've been in the process of a messy clean-up, myself. Identifying immigrant "Anna Krauss" as Anastasia Zegarska—her name at birth in Poland—was not just a matter of changing her entry in a family tree database. Just like the rest of us, Anastasia came with family attachments. The record of her baptism provided a listing of the names of her parents. With that knowledge came the ability to discover the names of her siblings. And through the prompts of DNA matches, those siblings became identified as founding ancestors for other lines of immigrants to America, as well.

Over eight hundred of them, in fact—and that's just how far I had gotten before I conjured up enough confidence to decide to plug Anastasia Zegarska's family into my own tree.

Now comes the long process of moving all the Zegarski family's many branches over to my own family tree. Yes, step one was to change Anna's name to her name at birth, with appropriate documentation to help piece together that paper trail for anyone else who is questioning the abrupt change. But from that point onward, I couldn't just copy from my private, unsearchable tree with the DNA-linked families. I have a conceptual difficulty with the way that gets represented at Ancestry. I don't want my "footnote column" to merely say, "Ancestry Trees." I want documentation.

And so, I hand enter all that work, once again. Just in time for my bi-weekly count, I'm nearly halfway done. That means my combined tree now has grown another 325 names to total 23,941. 

Because I had already created this combined tree—adding what previously had been separate trees for each of my parents—it had experienced such sudden leaps in the past. The main thrust behind the change in the past was to identify DNA matches on one combined tree at Now, once again, I'm combining trees—only this time, while it's actually a part of my father's line, it is an entire branch I knew nothing about before receiving those DNA test results.

The next step, once this branch of the tree is laid out in its entirety, will be to link DNA matches to their place in the tree. This, of course, will take time, as I don't just copy the match's own tree, but cross-check it with documentation, all of which gets uploaded to the tree. There will be well over a dozen DNA matches pinned in that manner, and I wouldn't be surprised to see, once that groundwork is laid, that other "mystery" matches suddenly become clearly linked to sections of this new branch of the family.

That said, all my focus is on the integration of this new branch in my now-combined tree (both paternal and maternal in one tree). Meanwhile, absolutely no progress has been gained for my mother-in-law's tree, nor my father-in-law's tree—other than knowing that, come next year, the same process will need to be repeated for them, as I administer DNA tests for three people in my husband's family, as well.

As with any clean-up following a big event, it is work. But when I think back to the events that created this pile of work, the resulting chores are still worth the effort.     

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Reflections on this Research Journey


Sometimes, a research challenge is straightforward: you have a specific research goal, you formulate a plan, you execute the plan, everything goes exactly as predicted, and you file the answer for future reference.

That's not how this past month went. My goal—for finding two out of my "Twelve Most Wanted" ancestors for 2020—was to locate something, anything, about my paternal grandfather's origin. 

Yes, that's right: this family history fanatic did not even know the most basic details about my own grandfather. A pretty sorry state of affairs for someone who can trace her maternal line all the way back to the Mayflower.

Along the way, while piecing together the vaguest of hints about the woman called "Aunt Rose" by my father and his sister, and finding details about the tragic death of her mother, it became apparent that these were clues pointing me back to a small town in Poland called Czarnylas. A constant stream of DNA matches helped confirm the fact that not only did my paternal grandfather re-invent himself with a new identity in New York City, but his own mother changed her name, in a way, during her immigration process. The woman whose name I knew as Anna Krauss apparently began life with the name Anastasia Zegarska.

I've talked about all the discoveries along the way, the disappointments, the twists and turns—and the amazement at the awesome power of DNA to give us connections where we thought we'd never find any. Even though the paper trail is now pieced together in a coherent way, the corollary I still need to get off my chest is the metaphysics of the experience of having to go find all that stuff.

I wondered things like: why did my Anna end up in New York City, if all her relatives immigrated to Milwaukee? Some of her relatives even made the trip the same year she arrived in New York. Why didn't she stick with family?

Surely, I thought, she would have kept in touch with her fellow immigrants from her small village back in Poland. But where were the letters? Or at least the oral tradition of sharing with one's children about occurrences in the lives of one's siblings.

The thought occurred to me: could it be that Anna didn't even know how to write? When I researched my husband's Irish roots, if an ancestor needed to send a letter to family, but didn't know how to write, he found someone who could help him compose the message that was needed. Why was there seemingly no awareness in my family of a large group of relatives living in Milwaukee?

There is, of course, a simple way to answer that question—simple, of course, but not complete. We can see what the census records tell us about who can write and who cannot. The trick, of course, was to find Anna in the census for those earlier enumerations. "Aunt Rose," at the time, would have been married to a Miller, but the closest I can find for a possible household in 1910 has Anna's surname written as "Kusfkr"—perhaps an enumerator's ineffective translation of that mysterious Kusharvski surname which didn't surface again until Anna's unfortunate death. Sure enough, that record shows that Rose, the daughter, could read and write English, but her mother could not.

But what about her relatives in Milwaukee? Could anyone there write? As it turns out, my Anna's youngest sister, who also went by the name Anna—my Anna being born Anastasia—arrived in Milwaukee about a year after her sister's arrival in New York. According to the 1900 census there, Anna and her husband, Thomas Gracz, were both listed as being able to read and write. And so it was with the others of Anna's relatives in Milwaukee.

I wonder about the lack of connection. Was there a story buried deeper, behind this apparent need to disassociate themselves from the identity of their past? Is there more to be discovered? I have known other immigrants from war-torn areas of Europe whose parents did not fare well in the transition to a new home, despite the relative safety of the new location. Back then, there may not have been a name for it, but post-traumatic stress without a scientific name is still a devastating burden.

While we can now find so many records to document the overt facts of our ancestors' existence, without that personal narrative, we can't always read between the lines of a disjointed life story. We can approximate, but not certify intangibles like motivation or disappointments. Those who have ancestors who kept personal journals or wrote letters which family preserved well beyond their lifespan indeed have a treasure, for perhaps they are the only ones who can say with certainty that they have documented indications of how an ancestor felt about what befell her in life.

For the rest of us, it can only be conjecture. Research can reach only so far. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Finding Family — A Thanksgiving Gift


I guess it is no surprise that the girl who grew up resenting the loneliness of Thanksgivings is now the mother of a woman who traveled over three thousand miles, just to spend her Thanksgiving week with cousins—second cousins, once removed, to be specific. With a family as small as ours, the reach for relationships can extend to unusual lengths.

Thanksgiving is for family, no matter how distant. And yet, when I didn't even know much about my own grandparents, the possible reach for relatives was limited. Until now.

With the opening, today, of the official winter holiday gift-buying season, perhaps your mind is now beyond the kitchen labors of cooking your turkey-for-two (as one of my relatives—a first cousin once removed, if you must know—put it). But having endured yet another Thanksgiving, it occurred to me that I won't have to wait until Christmas to open up my gift for this year. It was a Thanksgiving gift that bestowed this year's blessing.

Thanksgiving this year became the culmination of a year in which I connected with more family than ever before. With my father's line, my patriline, reaching back no farther than his own father and his false identity, I really didn't know much at all about his roots. 

DNA changed all that. I now can point to records from my paternal grandfather's homeland linking him with extended family from both sides of his family. Some of those collateral lines have descendants who also emigrated from their birthplace, and eventually took a DNA test. Others—perhaps some whom I'll soon find, still living in Poland—may represent DNA matches I've yet to connect to my family's story.

It wasn't until the eve of this Thanksgiving when, sitting at my computer and composing an email to one of the earliest of these DNA matches I had found, that I realized what a gift I had received. I had first corresponded with this match four years ago. Our conversation had gone something like this: "I don't know how we match, do you?" 

"No, I can't figure it out, either. But we must match somehow!"

It wasn't until this Thanksgiving when I could write back and tell her, yep, I know now! We're third cousins, twice removed. Talk about strong genes over long distances.

This year, it took Thanksgiving to help me realize I've connected with more family than ever before—an ironic twist to the life story of someone who grew up wistful about never celebrating Thanksgiving with family.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Have a Zooming Thanksgiving


Today is Thanksgiving. A very unusual Thanksgiving if you, like so many others, opted not to spend it with family. In fact, this entire year has been a very different year.

Here in our sunny state, no more than two additional households may gather with a Thanksgiving host—and they'd better get back home before 10:00 p.m. Oh, and be sure to leave the windows open while you feast. After all, it should make it up to the sixties by the time dinner is served.

Perhaps that is why some folks will just decide to remain home this Thanksgiving—a lonely-sounding thought which reminds me of the perennial Thanksgiving angst from my childhood which I blame as instigator of my lifelong obsession with learning more about family. There is something deep inside which impels us to want to connect. More. 

No matter the situation, there are still ways to find moments of gratitude on this day set aside for giving thanks. As ironic as it seems, now that we are all separated from each other, the gulf has prompted some to reach out and connect in other ways—not only that, but to connect more often than ever before. Why is it that, despite having online conveniences like FaceTime or Facebook Messenger or a kazillion other options, the world never woke up to video calls like it did when COVID-19 stuck us all in quarantine? Suddenly...Zoom!

Whether you are planning to make a Zooming Thanksgiving your family's newest tradition, or whether you are throwing all caution to the winds of change and opting for a clandestine gathering, I wish you a safe, pleasant and meaningful celebration. We all need something to brighten this waning year.

Above: "Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels," oil on wood by Flemish still-life artist Clara Peeters, circa 1615; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Playing the Wildcard


What do you do when the surname you're seeking comes in too many shapes and sizes to track online? You become best friends with the wildcard: the asterisk symbol, used in many search engines to signify an unknown letter or string of letters.

Granted, by now I'm fairly certain about the various surnames pinned on my paternal grandfather. I've seen him listed as Puhalski. And Puchalski, for those whose German background lends them proper understanding about that pronunciation. I've even seen one census enumerator get carried away and list my grandfather as Puhalaski. But when I jump across the ocean from those American records to the paper trail back home, the name was most likely Puchała.

Yes, that name came with the diacritical mark on that last syllable. But don't count on even Polish records getting that correct. As I explore the transcribed records online at the Pomeranian Genealogical Association, I've found some entries of that name with the diacritic, others without, and some—apparently to make up for past discrepancies—receiving a double dose.

Searching all those possibilities could be wearying, which is why I opted for the wildcard approach. Now that I've found what is the likely record of my grandfather's parents' marriage—Anastasia Zegarska to Thomas Puchała in Czarnylas in 1868—I thought I would try to push back another generation and find any sign of a family constellation anywhere in the historic region of Pomerania.

To stake out the territory as widely as possible, I calculated an earliest and latest possible birth year for Thomas Puchała, considering his wife was born in 1848. Then, I searched the entire region, rather than limiting the results to one parish, despite already establishing that Czarnylas was likely where the Zegarski family lived. There is always the possibility that Anastasia's fiance came from another village. 

Then, I searched only by surname, not given name, in case the priest in attendance decided to go against custom and record the name by traditional Polish spelling, rather than Latin. Besides, I wanted to see who else might have been in the family, if any patterns emerged.

Finally, rather than just searching for Puchała, I used the wildcard and searched for "Pucha*a" for the entire region of Pomerania. For that, I fervently hoped Puchała was not Poland's equivalent of Smith.

What I found was, shall we say, interesting. Here are the results for the years 1840 through 1875.

First, of course, I was ecstatic to see how the results fell into patterns. The results for some of the parish records fell clearly into family groups, with the preponderance of results falling to a village called Lubichowo. Checking Google Maps, I could tell the distance from that village to Czarnylas—Zegarski home base—was seven kilometers, a reasonable ninety minute walk.

More importantly, the Lubichowo Puchałas, Johann and Susanna, had a son named Thomas. The only baptism for a Puchała son named Thomas, I might add. From the top of the list above, with a baptism in 1842, we can count on that first listing for Marianna being Thomas' older sister, and we can also infer that Andreas in 1851, Franz in 1855, and Catharina in 1857 comprise the rest of Thomas' family.

From that point onward, extending beyond the time frame of this chart, the Puchała baptisms in Lubichowo reveal Thomas' own children, including (beyond this chart) my paternal grandfather Theodor in 1876.

Could it have been any easier? I had no idea "just trying" could actually yield an answer. Granted, in many cases, it doesn't. And after so much struggle to figure out who my paternal grandfather actually was—his identity changed so much, once he arrived in New York City—I was certainly primed for the worst, as far as research difficulty goes.

DNA matches—if we are fortunate enough to have those unknown distant cousins decide to test—can reach beyond the breach of paper trails and at least point us in a reasonable direction.

Of course, I have much more work ahead of me, in order to confirm my tentative conclusion. All those branches of the Zegarska sisters' families which led to successful DNA matches with descendants need to be documented—and added to my main tree, where I can pin the DNA tests to the right descendants. All those matches' centiMorgan counts need to be cross checked to see if they yield statistically reasonable relationships. And everything needs to be examined yet another time to make sure there is no alternate explanation for why I match all these Zegarska descendants.

As for the Puchała side of the family, I would love to find someone willing to participate in DNA testing, just to confirm our connection. That, however, is an unlikely scenario. Since 2014, I've waited for a Y-DNA match to my brother on this, our patriline, with no one even coming close. Of course, now that I can build out the tree, I can look for eligible descendants, but unless they, too, emigrated from Poland, there may be complications to obtaining a willing test participant.

Family history unfolds itself bit by bit in revealing to the researcher her hidden roots. At one time, it seemed inconceivable to me that I didn't really even know my own grandfather, much less where he came from. With the development of online resources with historic relevance—not to mention the powerhouse of genetic genealogy—what we presumed could never be knowable now lies behind a door which we have the power to actually open.


Above chart obtained by searching "Pucha*a" with dates 1840 through 1875 for baptisms in all parishes at Pomeranian Genealogical Association. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Always, Always, Always:
Read the Document


It wouldn't be possible—if you know me, you will realize this—for me to wind my way through such a rabbit-trail-laced research project as this saga of the Zegarska sisters, and not stumble across at least one beguiling detail. The one I want to talk about today, as our story winds to a close, is a powerful reminder that if you wish to find a family history story, you must always—and I repeat, always—look at every document you find about those ancestors.

Let's rewind to the beginning of this saga. It was the appearance of one single DNA match, then a few more, then several from multiple family lines, which pointed me to the possibility that my mystery grandfather's mother—a woman whose name I was told had been Anna Zegars—might actually have been born Anastasia Zegarska.

I've spent the better part of a year—and an especially focused month—of intense research both in American and Polish databases to compile what appears to be a reasonable argument concerning that identity. The last of those DNA matches, however, led me to a different line in this same family constellation: not to the descendants of one of the Zegarskis, but directly to what may have been their mother's sister (or at least a cousin). 

As I do with all my DNA matches, I fill in the branches of the family tree with all collateral lines. Working on the descendants of this Anna Wojtaś linked to that last DNA match, I finally came to the youngest of her children, one of the three Krzewinski brothers who emigrated from Poland to America. Andrew—or Andrzej, the name he left behind when he left his home in Czarnylas—was only nineteen when he arrived in Milwaukee, and he waited another ten years before marrying another Polish immigrant, Monika.

What I hadn't mentioned, while writing about those three Krzewinski brothers, was that Andrew's story of married life had its own pathos. Yet, I wouldn't have spotted it, if I hadn't opened up a file at and actually looked at all the details it contained.

Thanks to those ubiquitous "shaky leaf" hints at Ancestry, I found—and opened up—a document which was supposed to show the death record for Andrew's wife, Monika. One glance at the heading, though, and I realized it wasn't just something about Monika. The header said, "Certificate of Death," sure enough, but the line after "full name of deceased" wasn't Monika. It read, "Child of Andrew Kzenski."

Perhaps genealogists are a heartless lot. When I realized what I was seeing—besides wondering if that were just a misspelling of Andrew's surname rather than a document for the wrong family—I scrolled down the readout only to see what the child's name might have been, and whether I had already accounted for that child in the family group record. It wasn't until I reached the bottom of the page that I was able to recoup my humanity.

It was an unnamed daughter for whom the document had been drawn up. She was born—and died—on April 20, 1902. The primary cause of death was listed as "death of mother before delivery."

That, of course, interjected yet another question as my eyes silently scanned the rest of the page: what had happened to the mother? Almost as if to answer my unspoken question, and yet in a way, not answer it at all, line #25 inquired, "Other important facts not above stated," and the response followed: "one of triplets."

The scenario painted—a frantic attempt in the Milwaukee household at 746 Second Avenue to save at least the newborn children, if not their mother—was sadly broadcasted not only in the local newspaper, but picked up by wire services and reprinted in newspapers across Wisconsin, throughout neighboring states, and even as far away as Arkansas and Mississippi. The three children were buried with their twenty five year old mother in a single grave at Saint Adalbert's Cemetery a few days later.

While it was only a matter of a few lines in a document, the story hidden between those lines would most certainly have been lost to me, but for one well-entrenched research habit: always, always, always read the document. 

Don't just accept a website's offer of a "hint" and blindly plug it into your database. Make the commitment to inspect the whole document, not just the "punch line" of names, dates, and locations. Include all the other lines of the document—lines which most certainly would not have been included in the typical indexing project at genealogical websites. If there's ever a story to tell about your ancestors, that's where you are most likely to uncover the opening lines.

Above: Excerpt from unidentified Milwaukee newspaper clipping regarding Monika Blynska Krzewinski shared online by an subscriber.


Monday, November 23, 2020

Pulling the Trigger on the Family Tree


News flash: three more days and, at least in the United States, Thanksgiving will be upon us. Following that event—assuming we all survive the weekend which brings consumer-oriented Americans an extended "Black Friday"—there is only one more weekday left to the beleaguered month of November. That means—for those who have been counting this year—I have precious few days left to get back on track with my research plan for my "Twelve Most Wanted" ancestors for 2020.

In other words, for my great-grandmother Anna—whoever she was—I need to decide whether to pull the trigger and add a pile of DNA matches to my family tree, or defer the decision yet another year.

The preponderance of DNA fingers pointing to a blood relationship with the Zegarska sisters of Czarnylas in historic Pomerania—now part of present-day Poland—seems convincing. And yet, I hesitate. Why, for instance, did all the Zegarski relatives of "Anna" head to Milwaukee while my great-grandmother ended up in New York? There are just too many loose ends in Anna's own story leaving me in doubt. Untraceable subsequent marriages for Anna and a death certificate riddled with "unknown" responses don't inspire any confidence in a paper trail. Then, too, what if there was a missing other explanation for why all those Zegarska descendants connect to my DNA test?

Perhaps I am waiting for "evidence" which is non-existent. If there is no paper trail, what else can be said for the family in a proof argument?

And yet, I promised myself I'd spend a month each on twelve of my brick wall relatives. Sometimes, we gather all the information we can find, and then...wait. There are always new databases coming online, new record sets digitized and uploaded to genealogical websites, and other ways to reach out and connect with relatives who might have private collections, as well. While I wish for the smoking gun to clinch the genealogical argument, I have to remember that, first, I need to pull the trigger on the loaded apparatus I'm already holding.

With that, I will hold my breath, cover my eyes, and click whichever button it takes to upload my private, unsearchable DNA match tree to my main DNA-linked tree on Ancestry. That means that combined family tree will increase by 840 individuals, all somehow related to my Milwaukee DNA matches in that private stash I've been growing on the dark side of Ancestry.

In the meantime, in the remaining few days left in this month of November, I've got a small bit of unfinished business to attend to on the other half of this Zegarska partnership: the husband of Anna, er, Anastasia, who came into the family's picture with his 1868 marriage to Anastasia, and somehow disappeared after the last recorded birth for the couple in 1876. 


Above: Entry for the 1868 marriage of Thomas Puchała and Anastasia Zegarska in Czarnylas, Poland; transcription of original records provided by the Pomeranian Genealogical Association.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Jiu-Jitsu for Genealogy


Perhaps everyone knows, in the world of family history, that local genealogical societies are small organizations with limited resources—but then again, maybe they don't. Genealogical societies of the local sort are gatherings of people who share the same enthusiasm for researching their roots. Sometimes, that enthusiasm reaches altruistically beyond that, to thoughts of preserving records so others can find their family, too. Or maybe even to helping others learn how to find their family's history.

No matter what, exactly, a local genealogical group claims as the specifics of their mission, it's safe to say those county or city groups are small. Sometimes, very small. Definitely not adequately equipped to take on the giants of adversarial systems. These volunteer-operated organizations are sometimes run by unproven "Davids" in the face of system Goliaths.

At least, that's the way it seems for us when we are unequipped for the next crisis that comes our way. And for this one local society I'm involved with, that armored opponent made its appearance in the last month in the guise of a seemingly invincible—or at least impersonal—system through the anonymity of the Internet.

We got labeled as spam.

It appeared our handy-dandy website-based email system—now a lifeline to our membership during this Zooming year of social isolation—had been flagged as impresarios of junk mail, our correspondence summarily dismissed to recipients' trash bins. Unbeknownst to our members, our regular dispatches—the monthly newsletter, or key announcements of the link to attend the next online meeting—were now rerouted to members' spam boxes. How to tell members to look for our communication there? Another email certainly wouldn't do the job. And the task of having to make nearly one hundred phone calls when our volunteer board was already stretched too thin was hardly achievable.

And yet, perhaps there was an easier way. In martial arts, when faced with an overwhelmingly powerful opponent, such as the samurai in Japan's feudal history, the weaker side learned that the most effective way to take on such a powerful opponent was to use the attacker's energy against him, rather than to directly oppose it—the origin of, and concept behind jiu-jitsu.

How does a tiny organization like a genealogical society take on a nameless, faceless "enemy" like electronic mail systems? Of course, we are working through channels to resolve the issue on many fronts, but in the meantime, one way to marshal assistance is to "crowdsource" the answer. 

Finding the momentum which works in our favor leads easily to seeing that our own members have a vested interest in hearing in advance about activities we are offering on their part. Why not have those who already receive emails, despite the current difficulty other members are experiencing (sometimes without their own knowledge), take the email they do receive from us and hit "reply" to send us a quick response? From that, for instance, with one click on their part, we automatically let our members do the heavy lifting of building a mirror mailing list—those who do still get our emails—and then by process of elimination, determine who among that smaller group needs to be contacted.

In the online genealogy world, we already see examples of companies which are using crowdsourcing to have others provide the muscle to get the work done for their organization. For example, any time you see a poorly indexed newspaper article, due to the failures of optical character recognition, and you submit a correction to that service provider, you are participating in crowdsourcing efforts to improve that company's labeling of news articles. 

Shared actions like this make the resource even more helpful for the next customer if the organization learns from our input and passes it on to benefit the next person—a win-win situation for both company and customer. Rather than turn customers into opponents, irate over details which don't seem to work correctly, these companies have learned how to make their customers their allies in improving their services. That's the beauty of crowdsourcing: using the energy of positive momentum to face what otherwise might have been the difficult, overwhelming problem of an OCR system which is less than impressive.

In our tiny organizational worlds, we can use that same mindset to overcome our system obstacles, as well. Adopting the mindset of jiu-jitsu—going with the flow of the problem's energy in a way that changes it to our benefit—and combining it with a win-win philosophy, small organizations like genealogical societies can leverage the power of forces beyond us to work in our favor.


Saturday, November 21, 2020

Instead of Indexing, Trying Something New


Usually, I try to spend one Saturday a month "giving back," as I call it, for all the helpful genealogical resources which volunteers have shared online over the years. We often forget, now that we benefit from subscription services to aid our family history quests, that for many years, it was only thanks to volunteer efforts that we could find many of the records to piece together our family's story.

Now, besides volunteering for my local genealogical society, I try to focus some of that "giving back" time through what is likely the largest volunteer genealogical organization in the world: the people behind the website we know as That's where you'll generally find me doing that monthly project called indexing.

Today, however, when I went on the FamilySearch website to index records, I spotted this button on the landing page:

I decided to check it out. After all, I do have a weakness for rabbit trails, and this one looked intriguing—not to mention, my latest foray into Polish geography already had me warmed up for this exercise. With Google Maps and Wikipedia, I was ready to tackle anything!

When I clicked the button labeled "Try It," unlike Alice in her adventures chasing the White Rabbit, I didn't shrink to microscopic size, nor grow to gargantuan heights. In fact, my adventure was quite tame and even predictable.

The first page that tentative click led me to was a list of simple instructions, explaining that I would be shown a "user-entered place" from the FamilySearch family tree. Along with that would be some examples of related lifetime events which might also contain that same place name. My mission was to identify which of several standard place names might represent the name listed in that user's part of the universal family tree. Decision made, click the choice and move to the next in a short series of entries needing verification.

To start the process, I could exercise the option to select a location to work on, mainly by country. I opted for the tame route today, and selected United States for my choice. It's been a rough research week in Poland, and I just needed to stay closer to home for this maiden volunteer voyage.

Jumping into the program itself, it was clear some of the examples came from headings on census pages—you know, the type which lists not only the city of Toledo, for instance, but the specific ward in the city. Some entries mentioned lesser-known places—like Pigeon Roost, Kentucky. A quick search via Google led me to the Wikipedia page for Clay County, Kentucky, where a subheading under the Communities section showed a listing of historic place names used in previous census enumerations—including Pigeonroost, spelled all in one word, solving the puzzle for that one entry. Easy.

All told, I think the batch of place names to verify included about ten. I was done with the set in no time, even including detours to double check place names via Google and Wikipedia. Hopefully, FamilySearch will keep offering these quick and easy volunteer options, giving willing volunteers bite-sized pieces to dispatch in a matter of moments. And the genealogical community will find ways to fit in these easy-to-complete tasks in their own personal "giving back" profile.


Images above: First, the "Try Me" button from the home page at; below, John Tenniel's illustration of "Drink Me" in the Lewis Carroll children's story, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.


Friday, November 20, 2020

Almost a One-in-a-Million Name


With all these Polish surnames dancing in my head (but not like visions of sugar plum fairies), it's time to take a step back and reassess just what it is I'm seeking. The one constant in this assortment of DNA matches linked to my paternal grandfather's mother is her mother's maiden name. Sometimes, it was spelled Woitas. In other documents, it included the Polish diacritical mark to look like Woitaś. Still other times, the "i" was substituted by a "j" to render Wojtas. What can we learn about a surname like that?

When I plugged that name into the Google search engine, one result mentioned the name was the 52,389th most common name on earth. That means it's a one in 746,063 chance that I'll come up with a Woitas somewhere in the world.

That's almost a one-in-a-million chance of finding someone with the surname I'm most interested in, genealogically speaking, right now. Of course, that's the assessment of one website, assuming I don't search using the Polish version, Woitaś. For plain ol' Woitas, we can see a wide distribution of that surname around the world—not unsurprisingly, using that very spelling in countries with languages based on the Latin alphabet.

If we move to Polish spelling, Woitaś results in a much more limited distribution as a surname: other than two outliers in England and one in Ireland, the rest can be found—at least, as of 2014—in, you guessed it, Poland.

Perhaps that tells us nothing more than that if you wish to continue writing your name as your countrymen did back in Poland, you'd better plan on staying close to home.

Many Woitas descendants did, apparently. Looking at Ancestry's examination of the surname in the United States, only records from the 1920 census could be used to extrapolate information. In 1920, there were only eighteen households in the entire country with the surname Woitas—and only four in Wisconsin, despite so many of my DNA matches' ancestors settling there. If you search by the spelling Wojtas, oddly enough the number of families in the U.S. increases to fifty one, with Illinois having the largest percentage of that surname.

While it is nice to know that the surname Woitas was likely derived from the given name Wojciech, it is unlikely that I'll stumble across a close relative by searching American records for that surname at Ancestry. What I really need to find is some way to demonstrate just how Anna Wojtas, wife of Jan Krzewinski and ancestors of my DNA matches, was related to Marianna Wojtas, likely maternal grandmother of my own grandfather.

Once again, I turn to the only online resource which might provide answers: the site of the Pomeranian Genealogical Association. There, searching for variations on the maiden name Woitas, I find these marriage results from the entire region of Pomerania between 1830 and 1850:

Just looking at this listing, we can observe a few details which might turn out to be helpful. First of all, other than the one outlier of a parish called Lignowy Szlacheckie, the rest represent transcriptions of documents from Czarnylas, where my own family originated, or documents from a village called Pączewo

Since I have no idea where those villages were located in Poland, I check Google Maps to get oriented to possibilities. Other than noticing that the other village names are repeated in the readout, we learn that the sole entry for Lignowy Szlacheckie represents a location which was nearly thirty kilometers away from Czarnylas—today, a half hour's drive. Putting it in the perspective of that time frame, it would have been nearly a five hour walk. I'd say it is less likely that the Woitas woman who married in that village would be related to my Woitas ancestor.

The Woitas women from the other two villages, however, are a different case. For instance, take a look at the first entry in that chart: Johann Zegarski and Marianna Woitas. Those are my ancestors, parents of the Zegarska sisters I've already written about, from the village of Czarnylas. And yet, Marianna Woitas was married in Pączewo. Perhaps the Woitas household was in Pączewo, and the Zegarski couple established themselves in nearby Czarnylas to raise their family—a likely scenario, considering the two villages are three kilometers apart, easily walked in less than an hour.

Taking a closer look at the readout for the Woitas marriages, we notice a few other details. One is that there is more than one Marianna in that listing. Both weddings were in the same village, one in 1833 and the other in 1839, but I already know from other documentation that the same Marianna wasn't married twice. Could this indicate two Woitas families in Pączewo? Could these two women be cousins? Is there a way to sort out which Woitas children belong to which of the two families?

Another detail to spot in that readout: although there was an Anna Woitas who married in the same town as our Marianna, there was another marriage for an Anna Woitas—that one in Czarnylas, the one with the Krzewinski man whose three sons and one daughter left for far away Milwaukee. 

Can we infer from that 1848 marriage of Anna Woitas and Johann Krzewinski in Czarnylas that Anna followed her older, married sister Marianna to Czarnylas? Or would it be the 1836 marriage back in Pączewo which represents the more likely sister to Marianna? It's still too soon to determine any relationships without more details, so we're back to sorting through all the records we can find online. 

Above chart from the website of the Pomeranian Genealogical Association via search for marriages for women surnamed Woitas, limited to dates 1830 through 1850.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

My (New) Constant Research Companions


What do you do when your need to research family history takes you to new locations—and even new languages? That's when I keep three tools close at hand at all times: Google Maps and Google Translate, plus Wikipedia.

While these tools may seem the most basic of services, when research leads us into unknown territory, I find myself constantly checking these tools with one question in mind: "Is that true?"

Take this Krzewinski family I'm following from Pomerania in northern Poland to the American city of Milwaukee in Wisconsin. When taking a multi-generational view—from baptisms to marriages to deaths, and then all over again—it seems the family jumps from one location to another. Concerned that I'm still following the right family, I've learned to check distances from one documented residence to another.

Take this one Krzewinska sister, Marianna—the one who, in Milwaukee, was sometimes recorded as  Marie. To make sure I was following the right person, I traced her from her baptism to her marriage and the birth of her first children in Poland until she arrived in the United States. Transcriptions of those records at the Pomeranian Genealogical Association's website showed Marianna marrying a man by the name of Stefan Czaplewski in Czarnylas—the same location as so many of the DNA matches who align with the family of my second great grandmother.

No surprise there, but when I go looking for baptisms for their children, the only ones I can find are located in a place called Piaseczno. Where on earth is that? Of course, I have no idea, so I head to Google Maps, which brings me to a location south of Warsaw.

If you are as uninformed about Polish geography as I am, you can see the utility of this tool. At first, it caused me to think perhaps I had, amazingly, found another couple with precisely the same names during that exact time period. But looking more carefully, Google Maps pointed me to a second option, a location listed as Piaseczno k Gniewa. 

And what might Piaseczno k Gniewa actually mean? That's where the second handy tool at my fingertips comes in. Checking with Google Translate, I  quickly see that Polish phrase means "Piaseczno near Gniew." Google Maps tells me that location is only a half hour drive from Czarnylas, so much more reasonable to assume I've got the right couple than if they really had lived four hours away past Warsaw.

It was tools like these which I used to muddle through the puzzle about Stefan Czaplewski's supposed mother-in-law. In trying to determine whether American Marie was the same person as Polish Marianna, some trees on Ancestry gave her mother's maiden name as Julianna Wesotowska. This, of course, causes me trouble, because the only DNA connection I can see to the descendants of "Marie" would be through the mother I had found listed for Marianna Krzewinska. Remember, my theory is that Marianna's mother was sister to my second great-grandmother, so I really needed to find out who this Julianna Wesotowska was.

This is where we cue the entry of an admittedly jealousy-inducing document. As proof of that mother's maiden name, some Ancestry subscribers had posted this record from the collection, "Eastern Prussian Provinces, Germany, Selected Civil Vitals 1874-1945."

Just taking a look at this excerpt from the register below, we can immediately see one depressing detail: it's in a language I don't speak.


Not only is it in German, but we'd have to decipher handwritten German, as well—not a task I have any appetite to devour at the moment. Still, with Google Translate, plus a cameo appearance by Google Maps, I could determine a few pertinent clues. 

For one thing, the location mentioned Marienwerder, which was a historic region in West Prussia. Included in that region were many cities which, in historic maps, were labeled with their German names. Not to make things any easier for us, those German city names are not what those places are called today. For instance, a sample map of the region clearly shows a port city of Danzig—a place we now call Gdansk. This is the same difficulty I first encountered when I discovered my father's "Aunt Rose" declared she was born in "Schwarzwald"—the German name for Czarnylas.

The capital city of that Marienwerder region, just to keep it easy, was also known as Marienwerder—but only back then, to the Germans. Now, the Polish call it Kwidzyn. How close might that be to Czarnylas? About a forty five minute drive in our current times, according to Google Maps. So—maybe this document has something to it.

But of the other details for which I could ferret out details (thanks to Google Translate), I also noticed what appears to be a date some time in the early 1900s, not the 1800s. It also seems to be a document regarding someone named Catharina Lettke, born Krzewinska. It was apparently she who was the daughter of a Krzewinski man whose middle name—possibly—was Johann, and whose mother was this mystery Julianna "Wessolowska." Oh, if only the entire document had been printed, rather than the key points written in.

Could this Catharina have been a sister of the Marianna we know immigrated to Wisconsin? If so, unless they were half-sisters, we have contradicting information on the name of Johann's wife. Yet, given the distance between the town where I found Marianna's marriage record and that of this German document, we could be talking about two separate identities. Of course, questions yet to be asked involve whether the city where the records were kept would always be one and the same as the city where the reporting parties actually lived. Then, too, if the Germans called their place names by entirely different terms, could they also have "Germanized" Polish surnames, as well?

Clearly, it would be helpful to obtain a reliable translation of this entire document, just in case. I may find myself chasing after another rabbit trail to see just who this Catharina Lettke was, and whether her family led back to the Krzewinskis I have been researching. But I also need to maintain my focus on one research question in particular: if Anna Woitas was in the picture in this DNA match's ancestral line, how did she relate to my line's Marianna Woitas?  


Above image excerpt from the collection, "Eastern Prussian Provinces, Germany, Selected Civil Vitals 1874-1945," courtesy


Wednesday, November 18, 2020

. . . and Maybe a Sister, Too


Don't you just love it when DNA test matches seem to all align in unison and point the weary researcher in a hopeful direction? After years of testing and waiting—and coming up empty-handed—this past year has finally yielded some results for my patience. Remember, it takes two relatives to make a match. No distant cousins who tested, no resultant matches. Simple as that.

The flip side of that scenario is that asking the cousins we know to test won't necessarily provide us any further clues. We already know how we relate to those cousins. And discovering an unknown close cousin—or ruling out the cousins we thought we knew—may include an unexpected surprise we hadn't anticipated. It's the distant cousins, in my opinion, who provide us with the most helpful genealogical direction to build out the branches of our family tree.

Kerwin-surnamed DNA matches whose Milwaukee-based family line traces back to the decidedly Polish-sounding Krzewinski family were not the only ones who descended from those three immigrant brothers we discussed yesterday. There may have been one more immigrant addition from that same family: a sister.

How do I know? Because another DNA match is pointing me in that direction. The only problem is: that particular match's family tree attributed a different mother to that Krzewinski daughter—plus it claimed a variation on her given name, as well.

So: sister? Or cousin? How was this woman related to those three Krzewinski brothers who left home to move to Milwaukee?

If sister, that particular Marianna Krzewinska, baptised in Czarnylas in 1859, was also daughter of a woman I suspect might have been sister to my second great-grandmother, Marianna Woitas. If cousin, her name does not show up in the baptismal transcriptions I can find for the region of Pomerania in northern Poland, entering another knot in this ever-expanding family tangle.

If sister to the Krzewinski brothers, our most recent common ancestor would point to my third great-grandmother, making this sole DNA match from that sister my fourth cousin. Since that woman's descendant and I, as DNA matches, share twenty eight centiMorgans, it is quite possible for us to be fourth cousins. However, at that same shared amount, it is also possible for us to have been fifth cousins, as well—meaning the count alone cannot guide us in determining how Marianna (or Marie) Krzewinska was related to those three immigrant Krzewinski men in Milwaukee.

Let's turn from DNA numbers for a bit and consider what can be found of family records in Czarnylas. Remember, we've already learned that brothers Isidor, Peter, and Andreas were sons of Johann and Anna (Woitas) Krzewinski. Each of those brothers was baptised in Czarnylas at about the same year in which subsequent records in America claim.

In addition to those three brothers, parents Johann and Anna had several other children listed in those transcribed baptismal records, as well. Among them were daughter Anna (1848), son Johann (1850), son Joseph (1853)—all before the birth of the oldest of the immigrant sons, Isidor, in 1855. In addition to Isidor's younger brothers Peter and Andreas, there was another son, Franz (1857), and another daughter, Marianna (1859).

It just so happens that the tree of my DNA match claims that same baptismal date for his direct line Krzewinski relative, despite listing her name as Marie and giving a different name for her mother. For that other mother, I cannot locate entries for any Marie or Marianna who was daughter of Johann (or Jan) within a reasonable latitude of that birth year, not even if I extend the search to all records still existing for the entire region of Pomerania.

Of course, the name change could have occurred following immigration—and one quick glance at records in her adopted home in Wisconsin revealed her headstone recording her given name as Maryanna. In this case, yet another member of the family of Johann and Anna Krzewinski arrived in Milwaukee—and provided a descendant whose DNA matched mine.

Check: Krzewinski sibling, not cousin.

That still leaves me with a research question, though. Now that we know Isidor, Peter, Andrew, and Marianna all share a claim in Anna Woitas as their mother, what can we find about that mother to reveal her own roots? How close a relative was she to the woman in my own direct Zegarski line, called Marianna Woitas? That is, after all, the only genetic connection I can find between our two family lines.

The unfortunate difficulty, so far, is that I cannot find any records among the Pomeranian transcriptions to give me any further direction on that Woitas question. The challenge now is to see whether there are any other resources to answer that question.  

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

There Were Three Brothers . . .


Why is it American immigrant stories always seem to start with that same opener? Perhaps there was some truth in that stereotypical "three brothers" line.

No matter whether it was always so, in today's case, it did turn out that way. How do I know? I was led there by yet another DNA trail pointing to the ancestors of my mystery grandfather, the man who showed up in New York City but refused to divulge anything of his past.

This trail, however, is a much weaker lead. Of the DNA matches who trace back to these three immigrant brothers, the strongest match shares with me a modest sixty six centiMorgans, and the weakest—at least of those who know this immigrant surname is in their family history—holds a token twenty five centiMorgans. Distant matches, indeed—at best, perhaps fourth cousins.

But it is those distant matches which can prove most helpful in building out our family tree. When we collaboratively pool our family history intel, we make so much more progress than what we, alone with our lack of personal resources, could accomplish. And that is exactly what I am hoping, as I message these DNA matches and invite them to compare notes.

All those DNA matches—there are a key eight matches I'm most interested in pursuing—claim as their ancestor two of those three immigrant brothers. All three brothers brought to American shores the rather unwieldy Polish surname Krzewinski—perhaps explaining why some of their descendants opted for the more Anglo-friendly version, Kerwin.

Thanks to our online genealogical resource back in Poland—the Pomeranian Genealogical Association—we can pull up the baptismal details for these three Krzewinski brothers. The oldest of the three, Isidor, was baptised in Czarnylas, Poland, in 1855. His younger brothers Peter and Andreas were welcomed into the family in 1861 and 1866.

Like my other Czarnylas relatives, the oldest of the three brothers—Isidor—headed for Milwaukee, arriving there in 1884. He did not, however, travel alone. Apparently, by that point, Isidor had married (in 1880) and was now the proud father of two daughters, one of whom made the trans-Atlantic journey as an infant. Interestingly, listed right after Isidor's family on the outbound passenger listing from Hamburg was another family whose descendants have proven to be DNA matches—I spotted them right away by the German listing for their homeland, "Schwarzwald."

Isidor may actually have followed in his brothers' footsteps. His brother Peter arrived in Milwaukee about 1880, although he did not settle down to family life until 1887—that marriage bringing Peter a very large family of fifteen sons and daughters, most of whom lived to adulthood. Isidor's youngest brother, Andreas, born in 1866, arrived in Milwaukee in 1885, shortly after his older brother's family—at least, according to his report on the 1900 census. And like his brother Peter, Andreas—or Andrew, as his records in Wisconsin dubbed him—arrived in America a young, single man and didn't marry until he was established in his trade as a tailor.

Though all three Krzewinski men married and had children, as far as I can tell, I only have DNA matches with descendants of two of the brothers. Of course, there may be others whose trees do not yet reach back far enough to reveal the connection—or for whom surname changes, like Krzewinski to Kerwin, have caught them unawares.

That, however, is what we know now. The question is: how do we push back farther in time? And the key is this: Isidor, Andreas, and Peter have one particular connection to my family's own story, but it is one I have yet to figure out.

The key rests with one clue: their mother's maiden name was something like Woitas. In all its spelling permutations throughout online transcriptions of Pomeranian records, it matches one particular name in my theoretical family tree, as well. That name Woitas is shared by the Krzewinki brothers' mother Anna and my Zegarska sisters' mother Marianna. But how were the two Woitas women related? For this is the only link I can find that would merit a DNA match between the Krzewinski family and mine.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Taking Another Step Backwards


DNA testing has done much to introduce into the pursuit of family history unexpected surprises. Not all of them are negative, of course. That's precisely why so many of us spring for those pricey tests: we're hoping to uncover a clue that will give us an end run around our intransigent brick wall ancestor. Those stubborn ancestors can refuse to reveal their secrets no longer.

Yet, the answer still does not come easily. Take that tight-lipped paternal grandfather of mine—the one who refused to tell his adoring grandchildren any stories of his origin. His own children, even as grown adults, would not divulge any details, themselves. But DNA can tell, at least part of his story.

After testing at five different DNA companies—and convincing my brother to do so, as well—I now have multiple indicators that my paternal grandfather's roots led back to the region around the Polish port city of Gdańsk known as Pomerania. I didn't learn any of that from my grandfather, of course, but from the several DNA matches who eventually appeared in my accounts at three of those companies.

All of the matches I've discussed so far descend from two brave sisters who, shortly after their marriages in Czarnylas, Poland, emigrated with their husbands to Milwaukee. I've traced those matches' trees from the present, backwards in time to their baptismal records in Czarnylas. Those sisters' mother was likely herself a sister to my grandfather's own mother, the "Anna Krauss" who showed up in New York with her two children.

There are, however, another set of DNA matches who somehow relate to this same root in Czarnylas, but whose pedigree does not point to the sisters of my Anna, but tantalizingly to someone who might lead us to a previous generation. To find more about this woman will require us to step back even farther in time to a woman whose maiden name was the same—well, if you don't mind a liberal hand with Polish spelling variations—as my Anna's own mother. Could it have been Anna's aunt? Or an even farther-removed relative?

For the next few days, we'll consider the story of an immigrant family surnamed—at least before they gave up on the challenges of Polish spelling—Krzewinski. Hopefully, we will press through the roadblock of unavailable Polish documentation to see what can be found about that founding Krzewinski ancestor's wife's birth name—but be prepared to face several iterations in this search as we look for a woman baptised Anna Woitas, or Wojtas, or Woytas, or Wojtasz, or.... Well, you get the idea. Whether you add in any of the Polish diacritical marks or not, we have our work cut out for us, this time. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Focus on Growth Potential


If, in talking about the buildup of water pressure behind a dam, we were to put the situation in euphemistic terms, we could have said we were examining its "growth potential"—but that would only be an accurate assessment if the dam were flexible enough to accommodate the added pressure. Most dams are not.

Genealogy, on the other hand, always seems flexible enough to absorb the added "volume." There is always room for another branch on the family tree, no matter how many names and corresponding dates suddenly appear on account of our newly-discovered relatives.

That, of course, is good news for me, as I am about to add several hundred names to my father's family tree, all at once. I just need to build up the courage to plug this huge new branch into the right spot in the tree.

In the meantime, work on that one project has slowed all my other research tasks to a near standstill. Work on my mother's 23,616 person tree: zero. For my mother-in-law's 19,334 person tree? Zero. Nothing on my father-in-law's puny 1,813 person tree, either. And if it weren't for discovering another DNA match on my father's side of the family, that tree would have been stuck at zero, as well. As it was, that DNA match led me to nine additional family members I hadn't been aware of, so his tree now has 740 people in it...but not for long.

Where all my work focus has gone in the past two weeks was into building a new family tree, a tree connected to the first few of what has now grown into a dozen DNA matches who all have one thing in common: they are related to ancestors who were apparently siblings of my paternal grandfather's mother. As more and more of them appear in my various DNA accounts (I've tested at five different companies), it becomes increasingly clear that that is the connection.

So, in this past two week period, while I did practically nothing to augment my four longstanding family trees, I've been working to get to know this really big family from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which I had absolutely no clue existed before the age of DNA testing. Over the past two weeks, I've managed to assemble a family tree of strangers, large enough to include 732 names (plus supporting documentation), 341 of which I added only this month.

Of course, I'm nowhere near done yet. But is anyone's family tree ever done? The focus of my goal is all those founding Zegarska sisters from Czarnylas, Poland, the backbone of this family tree, so I can trace each one's descendants down to the present day. Included in that task, of course, will be the main point: flagging each DNA match to demonstrate the route connecting that match with my great-grandmother, the woman known to my family only as Anna Krauss.

That is one woman who took a lot of her story with her to her grave. While I'll likely never find the explanation to many of the details I did uncover for that woman, at least these many DNA tests are serving to confirm the answer to one mystery which the paper trail could never provide: Anna's origin and parentage in Poland.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Trifling with True Believers


When it comes to labels, the term "true believers" may carry baggage. Nevertheless, whether seen negatively or positively, those who are vocally committed to a concept, a cause, or even a product are a powerful force to reckon with.

Over the years in the genealogical community, we've encountered some product-oriented changes which have raised a hue and cry. We depend on the various tools which streamline family history compilation, and when a tool proves useful, the only acceptable change is true improvement. Witness changes to the product lines at Ancestry, especially those for genetic genealogy, and the outcry when such decisions were perceived to be a step backwards.

Lately, another DNA testing company, 23andMe, has been the recipient of the outcry over retracting some product features. Whether genealogists are indeed the majority of the core constituency at 23andMe, I can't tell, but they comprise a committed and vocal customer base—"avid users," as genealogy blogger and speaker Shannon Christmas has graciously called them.

Like a similar decision last summer at Ancestry DNA, 23andMe announced their decision, weeks ago, to cut the maximum number of DNA relatives to an arbitrary 1,500 matches. This, understandably, had some genetic genealogy bloggers—Roberta Estes, for one—concerned about negative impact on customers. Customers had felt their longstanding good will shown toward the company through such actions as voluntary participation in scientific surveys had been violated—not to mention, realized the impact on their main reason for testing in the first place.

Fortunately, as did Ancestry last summer, 23andMe realized the people they serve through the sales of their product are not "just customers," but what can be called "true believers" in not only their product but their mission. A company may not realize—or may have forgotten—who actually comprises their core constituency until a crisis point such as this, but having crossed the line, they know now.

What has been heartening about the latest move by 23andMe—although they are far quieter about this than I'd hoped to see—is their willingness to work to make a compromise which will step closer to a win-win resolution. A recent blog post by Shannon Christmas detailed a brief company statement which appeared early this month in the 23andMe forum. 

To view the statement in the forum, you will need to be signed in to your own 23andMe account, although a facsimile of the announcement may be viewed on "Through the Trees," Shannon Christmas' blog. Basically, if you, as a 23andMe customer, wish to retrieve the data lost upon the reduction in match count, you can contact their customer service through that forum entry. The company is performing a beta test to revise how they handle the issue, and are requesting fifty customers willing to volunteer to work with them on testing that revision.

For better or for worse, customers are becoming an integral part of product development and revision with their feedback throughout this ongoing process. How can it be surprising that products enthusiastically endorsed by that core customer base at their introduction can be revised—or even disappear—without as energetic a response? Once the genealogy community found its voice, we apparently haven't, since  then, been afraid to use it.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Alternate Annas


Theories always seem to wrap puzzles nicely in a box. When a perfect fit, they provide the precise alibi to trick us into accepting as true what might turn out, upon closer inspection, to be a flawed conclusion.

Take my struggles with figuring out the origin of my paternal grandfather's family. Discovering his undocumented name change, sometime after his arrival in New York from his native Poland, it only very slowly led to concluding—once again, without a paper trail—that his mother, listed on paper as Anna Krauss, was more likely a woman by the maiden name of Zegarska.

How do I know this? Only a theory. Yes, it is based on the fact that I now have several DNA matches which point to that Zegarski surname from a small town called Czarnylas in the northern Polish region of Pomerania.

Confounding that tempting theory is the fact that one line of descent from that Zegarski origin was linked to another woman known as Anna Zegarska. If that Anna Zegarska was sister to my Anna, something is obviously wrong with that theory. Could the Anna Zegarska, born in 1859 in Czarnylas, who married Tomasz Gracz and then moved to Milwaukee have had a sister whose full name was shortened to a nickname Anna? There were, after all, three other sisters whose names could lend themselves to such a theory.

One of them, Susanna, was baptised only two years previous to her sister Anna. With that in mind, though, unlike her sisters, Susanna would have married at a younger age: only eighteen at the time of her 1875 marriage to Mathias Machlus, rather than the typical twenty one. 

Could that have been the right Susanna? There was no trace of any Machlus baptismal records in Czarnylas listing a mother with a maiden name of Zegarska. 

There was an answer to that short-lived dilemma, though: soon after, the bride and groom moved closer to the port city of Gdańsk, where they, too, raised a large family of at least fourteen children before Susanna left off childbearing in 1899—or, as I rather suspect, the record set's transcriptions ended.

It is unlikely that, given how well-established the Machlus family became in over twenty years of residence in their adopted hometown of Dzierżążno, Susanna and Mathias would have then chosen to remove to America. Indeed, checking my DNA matches at Ancestry, there were none having the Machlus surname in their direct line. Susanna would not have been my Anna in New York.

Susanna's sister Marianna might also have been an alternate Anna. She, however, married a man by the name of Franz Krocz and, like her sister Susanna, moved from her native Czarnylas to nearby Bobowo, and then in the opposite direction to Skórcz. How do I know that? By following the baptismal records of her many children from 1865 through 1888. Again, an unlikely candidate to follow that with an immigrant journey across half a continent and an ocean. Marianna is not going to be my Anna in New York, either.

The remaining possibility for Anna among the three Zegarska sisters could only be Anastasia—and not just because of the similar name, but also because her husband's surname was so close to the Puchalski originally claimed by my paternal grandfather. Then, of course, there were those baptismal records linking Anastasia and her two children to my Anna in New York and her two children of the same given names, which also helped.

Despite all those other Annas—except one—remaining in Poland, there was at least one other Zegarska relative who eventually moved to Milwaukee. That I also know, thanks to only one reason: the DNA matches left in this Zegarska's trail. But for that particular woman, we'll need first to take another step backwards to understand how she connects to the bigger family picture.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Coming From a Large
—and I Mean Really Large—Family


I think the prime reason I took an interest in genealogy was owing to the size of my own family: it was small. Like, really small. I often wondered, where are all the relatives? Unlike all my neighborhood friends, I had only one set of grandparents, and since they lived over six hundred miles away, I didn't see them often. My mother's only sister never married. My father's sister had two children, but since she and my father were nearly in their fifties when I was born, their children were old enough to be my parents. It was their children who seemed more like my cousins—and there were only a few of them.

Fast forward several decades until someone gets the brainy idea that we can use DNA analysis to determine family relationships, and suddenly my puny family tree sprouts a new branch. And it's not just an average sized branch; this one is huge. I have no idea how it connects with me, but the DNA tells me it has something to do with my paternal line, and leads me back to one particular person: my paternal grandfather's mother.

That woman, whom I only knew on paper as Anna Krauss, turned out to have many siblings, back in her homeland in Poland. Of course, I never knew anything about that Polish homeland because that fact was well hidden from my family by my paternal grandfather. And yet, that DNA points back to a family named Zegarski from a small town in the region of Pomerania known as Czarnylas.

With the help of another family researcher whom I met online, thanks to DNA-led discoveries, I began exploring a Polish website devoted to genealogical information for that specific region of Pomerania. Just searching for Zegarski ancestors in Czarnylas, I was able to zero in on the family of one couple. That led to discovering that the woman I knew only as Anna Krauss came from a big family. Like, really big. Consider this:


This is the results of a search at the Pomeranian Genealogical Association website for all the children born in Czarnylas to a father named Zegarski and a mother named Marianna. I set the parameters wide for that search between the years 1830 and 1870, and used those specific terms because the father was sometimes entered as "Jan" and other times as "Johann," depending on who was drawing up the record. Likewise, the mother, Marianna, had her maiden name spelled differently, depending on how the various clerks decided to render the pronunciation.

Despite spelling variations—not to mention the size of the family—I feel certain this readout represents just one family unit. This helps guide us as we review yesterday's list of marriages for each of those Zegarska sisters, to confirm their relationship to each other. This is necessary, in sorting out those DNA matches, since those matches lead back to different Zegarska sisters.

For instance, when I started this process, my first match led me to a Milwaukee family with the surname Michalski. That, in turn, connected me with an ancestor's maiden name of Czechowska, which ultimately brought me to the oldest Zegarska sister in the list above, Pauline.

In contrast, another line leading to a Milwaukee DNA connection claimed as their Zegarska ancestor Pauline's youngest sister, Anna. Born in 1859, according to marriage transcriptions at that same Pomeranian website, Anna eventually married a man by the name of Tomasz Gracz. Together, they welcomed their firstborn daughter into the world in Poland in 1880, naming her Rosalia. Two years later, Rosalia was followed by a brother, named after his father, Tomasz.

Just after the next Gracz infant arrived, the family was on their way to a new world—but not via the customary route. Tracing the Gracz family led through a different research route, not only because they traveled first to Canada, but because of the way their surname was rendered on records. Their 1884 crossing to Halifax, Nova Scotia, showed the family under the name Gratz rather than Gracz. That passenger entry also provides the clue that son Tomasz must have died before the family's decision to emigrate, but it also adds the name of a third Gracz child, Angelka.

While the next document in which the Gracz family appeared was not recorded until 1900—thus missing both Rosalia and Tomasz, with no explanation to help us conclude we are looking at the same family—that census record did include the note that, of Anna Gracz's twelve children, two had already died before the enumeration. One was most certainly their son Tomasz. But Rosalia? Perhaps as thanks for surviving whatever befell the family in Poland, plus the long crossing to North America, firstborn Rosalia became Sister Mary Atalia of the Notre Dame Convent in Elm Grove, Wisconsin—likely before 1900.

Those, however, were not the only complications in following this immigrant family through the generations after settling in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As did many other immigrant families from Poland, some of the Gracz descendants chose to default to habitual spelling permutations—such as Gratz—requiring careful attention to tracing each line through to the present era of DNA testing. Other family members have mentioned to me that another surname variation was Grace.

Bottom line, though, is that at least one descendant of Tomasz and Anna turned out to be my DNA match—and for no other reason that I can ascertain than this Zegarska connection. For this match, Anna Zegarska Gracz turns out to be a second great-grandmother, thus leaving her parents to be the most recent common ancestor we share. With that third great-grandparent set in common, that indicates our relationship as fourth cousins, still quite reasonable for the thirty five centiMorgans we share, according to our DNA tests.

The only problem with this particular connection in that Zegarski family was the name of the very woman I thought would be sibling of my great-grandmother: they both claimed the name Anna. However, when I looked through the twelve siblings listed on the family's baptismal records for Czarnylas, I spotted some others whose name could have been shortened to Anna. There was Marianna, Susanna, and Anastasia. The question was: could I trace any of the others to North America as well? And if so, were there any DNA connections leading back to that ancestral "Anna," too? 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Before That Leap of Faith


Do you ever get to the point, despite hours and hours of due diligence in your genealogical research, of doubting that you had done "enough"?

Wrapping my head around the six hundred names I've now added to a new family tree, dubbed "Michalski DNA Link," you'd think I'd feel confident the pedigree has enough built-in support. After all, I'm the one who can't just do "quick and dirty" trees like my Search Angel friends who work with adoptees. I had to make sure each name in that family tree had census records, marriage records, death records and obituaries, and (mostly for those born in the 1900s) birth records attached to the corresponding individual.

The key, though, is the nexus between the originating ancestors in that family tree: sisters from a small town in Poland who all claimed a maiden name of Zegarska. Somehow, those sisters connected to a woman whom I never met, and whose name wasn't quite the same as Zegarska, but close enough. From just one certificate from my own family's collection, I have a paper which claimed her maiden name was Zegar. 

Close. But close enough?

It's at this point I felt the need to retrace my steps from that beginning point, back in the town where the Zegarska sisters originated: Czarnylas, in the Polish region known as Pomerania.

Fortunately, there is a website focused on the genealogy of that region, providing a searchable database with transcribed records from the time period I'm seeking: working from my paternal grandfather's date of birth around 1876 backwards through baptismal and marriage records.

Specifying a broad range of dates, I was able to pull up all records for Czarnylas involving marriages for women whose maiden name was Zegarska.


From that, having the name of each woman's husband, it was easy to recognize some of those married names as surnames I had spotted on the pedigrees of several of my growing list of DNA matches from that corresponding branch of my own family tree. It was, for instance, Czechowski which was the name of two daughters of "Pauline"—who probably was named Apolonia as her Polish name—who immigrated to Milwaukee in the early years of their marriage. Likewise for the tongue-twisting surname Krzewinski, along with Gracz, which I also spotted in some DNA matches' trees.

Likewise, I checked on births recorded (via transcriptions of baptismal records) in that same website, to see which couples welcomed children into their families before beginning that long immigration journey to America. That step helped guide me to ensure that I had located the right families in Milwaukee—especially for those families which later changed their identity (and surname). Thankfully, those oldest of their children still appeared to confirm I was working with the right family constellation.


The DNA link tree I'm building is for one purpose: to connect those present-day descendants who match my own DNA with their Zegarska roots in a well-documented tree...and then to hope that is enough proof for me to steel myself and actually pull the trigger to shoot that whole tree into my father's own tree. And say we are all one big—albeit long-lost—family. Humor me with the patience to retrace our steps on those Czechowski, Krzewinski, and Gracz lines this week while I build up my courage to take that final leap of faith and instantly expand my dad's family tree with an additional six hundred family members I've never met.


Images are courtesy the website of the Pomeranian Genealogical Association, with the first image representing marriages extracted from the database for the maiden name Zegarska, and the second image being of births to women with that same maiden name. 

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