You're desperate to discover more about your family's roots, so you're researching a new-to-you location, perhaps the homeland where your immigrant family originated. For documents, records, or simply the history of this new place, where do you go first? What's the best way to get yourself oriented to the location of reliable information resources?
Seems like I'm continually in that research dilemma. Last month, in pressing behind that 1870 brick wall for African American lineages, it took a week of instruction to give me hope that I can, indeed piece together a family tree for King Stockton using available documents. As for this month's research challenge—finding more details about the family of my godmother Genia Melnitchenko—I am once again in the same predicament. I have never before tried my hand at researching the type of ethnic heritage her parents claimed.
Well, let me amend that: I only knew what they claimed as it was reported to me in my childhood by my own mother, Genia's friend from those early years of her dance career in New York City. For a child, remembering all those details may seem hard, but actually, there wasn't much to tell. Genia's folks, I was told, were Russian, but they fled their homeland during some catastrophic time in history. All I knew was that they ran away to France, where Genia was born and raised.
I knew, also, that Genia's dad had been a sailor. I presumed, in my childhood simplicity, that meant he worked on sea-going vessels. In fact, my mother figured that perhaps his occupation was what enabled the couple to escape their homeland in the midst of crisis.
Those few details, however, were all I had to work with. There is no one left to ask—they are all long gone now. And how was a child to know whether the language those people spoke was indeed a bona fide dialect of Russian? I had to take their word for it.
So now, I start where I always start. First, I like to get a feel for the origin of a surname by using a few online resources specifically designed for that purpose. Then, I move on to resources which would provide an overview of researching that area; Cyndi's List for general direction, and the FamilySearch Wiki for pertinent guidance are most helpful there. As I compile my list of promising resources and begin the task of familiarizing myself with the basics of a region's history, I begin to get a sense of where to take my research next.
Let's see what can be found about Genia's birth surname, Melnitchenko. While many people use Ancestry.com on a regular basis, it may not be widely known that they do offer an overview of surname histories. I find these by googling the surname, rather than searching directly on the website. This time, when I searched for the surname Melnitchenko, however, I was dismayed to see Ancestry's response:
Sorry, indeed. This was not a promising sign.
The website did redeem itself, though, with a clickable lead to a listing of all people in the Social Security Death Index filing a claim containing the surname Melnitchenko. Thankfully, there were a few of them listed, including some from the New York City area where Genia and her parents once lived. That's a start.
Moving to another favorite website I use for a research overview on surnames, the Forebears site on surname meaning and distribution regretfully noted, "The meaning of this surname is not listed." Fortunately, they did provide a distribution listing and map. From that, I could see that the most likely place in all the world to find someone with that surname Melnitchenko would be...right here in the United States.
What happened to Russia?
Perhaps yet another go-to website has failed me. The Forebears website only listed one solitary entry for Melnitchenkos in Russia. There weren't even any spectacular entries for the eastern European countries—eight mentions for Estonia, and just one for Ukraine. That was it.
At that point, I needed to rewind back to the most basic of basic steps. I headed to Google to do a simple search on the surname itself. What should I find there, but a suggestion for an alternate spelling: Melnichenko, omitting that "t" ending the second syllable.
Retracing my steps with that spelling variation vastly improved the reply on the Forebears distribution readout. Now, there were thirteen thousand families showing with that surname in Russia, and fourteen hundred in Belarus. There were entries for Melnichenkos in several other countries now emerged from the former Soviet Union, as well as an entry for a place I never even heard of—Transnistria.
Suddenly, my research world got a whole lot bigger.
I took a moment to see how many other spelling variations I could collect. Frankly, Ancestry's feeble attempt at providing options was laughable—including Mitchener and Pellicano—but I also knew that Wikipedia often has information on specific surnames. That turned out to be a great lead, providing yet another way to reformat the spelling of that surname I knew as Melnitchenko: why not substitute a "y" for the "i" in that same second syllable?
According to Wikipedia, the surname Melnychenko is one often seen as a spelling variant not only in Russia and Belarus, but in Ukraine. In fact, it is attributed as a surname of origin in the Ukrainian language. While my godmother's surname might well have indicated her Russian origin, as I had been told in childhood by my mother, this opened up another possibility. The Wikipedia article handily even provided me with the Ukrainian version of writing that name: Мельниченко.
I was already getting in the mood to delve into this newfound ethnic possibility when I recalled yet another unsubstantiated prompting. This one was dragged out of the deep recesses of my memory-of-useless-trivia, but one which I had tied to my godmother's name when I first saw it. During the most recent of news reports of the controversy involving Russia and the Crimean peninsula they dispute with the Ukrainian government, I had discovered a book written about the history of the Ukrainian struggle for independence. While I had had no compelling reason to be interested in the intricacies of eastern European diplomacy—well, let's just come out and call it brute force—there was one little detail that did catch my eye when I ran across that book.
The author's name was Melnitchenko.
Have you ever bought a book, simply because the author's name matched an unusual surname that belonged in your family's history?
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