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.

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