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. 


  1. So happy for your success! Perseverance paid off!!!

    1. Thank you, Miss Merry! It was a rough slog--but so glad it did pay off.


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