Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Fit to a "T"


It is the "T" that has always been the question—what did it stand for? My paternal grandfather, the man who somehow arrived in America as a child but never let on what became of his family, was always remembered by my cousins and older siblings by the name John T. McCann. As it so happens for those of us with gnarled branches on our family trees, that name—John T. McCann—was not his real name. For whatever reason, he never wanted anyone to know what it had been before he became John T.

Fast forward to this digitized age of family history research, when, at a click of a button, we can view a gamut of records covering the nations of the world and an expanse of at least two centuries of data, and we begin to see family secrets outed—including, apparently, John T.'s real identity.

If we have it right—and I've checked my cousin's discovery in as many ways as I could devise—our paternal grandfather, in addition to pulling a new surname out of thin air, reversed his first and middle names. Witness this 1910 U. S. Census report, taken at the Brooklyn, New York, household of my paternal grandmother's parents: the father listed for my young dad and aunt went by the name Theodore J. Puhalski. Not much later, he was going by an entirely different name: John McCann.

Of course, it helped to find his naturalization records, spelling out that middle name for the former Theodore Puhalski. But lining up the date of immigration with any such passenger's arrival in New York City has been futile, up to this point.

What if we do a presumed close and leap across the ocean to see what can be found back home in Poland? What if we also presume that the mystery Anna Krauss, who kept on the periphery of family memories, along with that Aunt Rose, were actually John T.'s blood relatives? And what if, based on the DNA matches I've since found, that Anna was actually sister to the two Zegarska ancestors of those matches? That's when I start finding records


On dates that seem to align just right with what I know about Theodore, er, John T., this record from the registry office at Lubichowo—a mere ten kilometers distance from the Zegarski family's origin in Czarnylas—fingers a woman by the name of Anastasia Zegarska as mother of not only "Theodor" but also "Rosalia." John T.? Aunt Rose? Yes, the Puhała is not quite Puhalski, but that is not the first time this family has been slack about strictly precise identification.

It all seems to line up just right—until we realize we can find no corresponding details in any ship's records arriving in New York City. Not, at least, around the date when John T. asserted he had arrived in 1884. Nor can any records be found to explain why Aunt Rose's mother was known—well, at least before her final record divulged a different identity—as Anna Krauss. And adding that unexpected surname Kusharvski to the list helped not one bit.

It would be helpful if we could unravel the mystery, starting from John T. in New York, then moving, step by step, backwards in time until we crossed the Atlantic and rewound our way back to that 1868 wedding in Czarnylas.

Perhaps that is why I am so hesitant to just plug those DNA matches into my father's family tree. Discoveries are verified by data, and in this case, the paper trail is missing. I'd like to start traveling that trail anew, beginning with Anna's most recently-discovered name, but who has a name like Kusharvska? Maybe this time around, with freshly digitized documents being constantly added to genealogical collections, the doors will open to us a little wider than the last time we traveled this line.


Above excerpt from baptismal indices obtained by search at the Pomeranian Genealogical Association. 


  1. Wishing you good luck in finding a paper trail, even if it’s a small one. Family secrets - like John T hiding his real identity - are such frustrations for those coming along later. My mother was the family genealogist and spent decades trying to track down missing relatives, but left behind secrets of her own. Like the brother I didn’t know about until 10 years after she died.

    1. How ironic that is about your mother, Sara. I can certainly identify. Whether through an actual paper trail or through newer methods like genetic genealogy, we are beginning to learn more than, sometimes, we even bargained for.


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