Sunday, October 31, 2021

'Til the Night Before Thanksgiving


The holiday DNA kit shopping season is already upon us. I spotted sales for 23andMe first, but it wasn't long until followed suit. To be sure, there will be others. And they may disappear just as prematurely as they made their initial appearance.

I realize this is the last day of October, but somehow my mind is still set in summer—or at least only reluctantly placing one foot on autumnal turf. To spring into the winter festivities I am not yet prepared. However, having noticed warnings that mail and delivery services anticipate delayed shipping, I can see the reasoning behind the early arrival of DNA kit shopping ads.

It used to be that I looked forward to the winter DNA sales. That meant more matches sure to come my way by the beginning of the new year. But I had to snicker at finding a recent article this weekend characterizing DNA testing as all the rage. Not so much now. In fact, my DNA match numbers dropped off once the conversation about privacy in the face of the Golden State Killer case surfaced.

Still, I keep focused on building out my trees to include descendants of my ancestors' collateral lines. Is it any surprise that I've now got 26,723 individual profiles in my family tree? True, my research goal from the beginning of this month through the end of the year was to focus on my father's ancestors, so it's to be expected that the past two weeks brought an increase in that tree of 167 individuals. But even on my in-laws' tree, just reviewing new DNA matches can prompt the building out of another branch; witness the 324 individuals loaded into that tree, just from identifying some DNA matches in the past two week. That tree now stands at 23,962.

With each passing two-week period, I barely see new matches added to either my test or those of my husband's family members now, no matter which testing company I look at. Numbers at Ancestry DNA dribble in—only two new matches for me and five for my husband in this biweekly count, not much different than it's been over the past year. Family Tree DNA garners a bit more, approaching ten for each of us in the past two week period. Don't expect those numbers to jump much, even with the holiday hype.

For holiday shoppers who still would like to try their hand at exploring their family history via genetic genealogy—or at least get a glimpse at the latest guess about their ethnicity—don't blink. I hope some of them turn out to be my family's distant cousins. However, while the holiday sales I've seen have begun early, they'll apparently wrap up just as prematurely. The offer, for instance, is good through midnight eastern time on the night before Thanksgiving, not Christmas. Even high-tech gifts can sometimes experience old-fashioned shipping delays.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Connecting with Someone Else's Past


As often happens when we approach holiday seasons, is currently opening up their collection of death records to view for free through November second, as a nod to Halloween. While I don't personally care to acknowledge that day—not to mention, "free" is not an alluring offer to me, since I'm already a subscriber—I thought their ad campaign had a clever way to frame genealogy for the season: "Connect with your ancestors from beyond the grave."

Since advertising runs in our family—a brother whose bread and butter was acting in television commercials, and a brother-in-law with a lifelong career in the business—I can appreciate a clever turn of phrase in marketing. That, however, was not the reason my thoughts turned to this aspect of genealogy today. What I'm really pondering is what to do with a month of research when I've just discovered that my well-laid plans have fallen through. What's next for November?

Ever since I received that wonderful message from a local high school student who found Marilyn Sowle Bean's photo collection in a nearby antique store, I've spent weekends sharing scanned images from the rescued set. As I post the pictures, I've shared the details I remember from her family stories, augmented by some quick checking online when facts needed to be verified.

It occurred to me, as I've revisited Marilyn's family tree, that it's been quite a while since I last worked on those ancestral lines. Perhaps November would be the perfect time to catch up on some work in honor of a family whose every immediate member is no longer with us. If everyone deserves to be remembered somehow—even if only in a small way—the Sowle and Bean families and their related lines could use an opportunity to have their stories shared. We'll reserve some time during this upcoming month to revisit the stories I've heard from Marilyn and her extended family.

Friday, October 29, 2021

A Month's Goal in One Day


When I planned my research strategy for 2021 at the end of last year, I selected twelve ancestors whom I knew very little about, and determined to pursue signs of their existence, one ancestor per month. With the arrival of October, it became clear that there was one limitation to my plans to turn my attention to my paternal roots in Poland: access to records from the early 1800s.

So much for my hopes to determine the parents of my second great-grandfather, Franz Jankowski. All I was able to glean were the years of his birth (by extrapolation) and death. Granted, I did find the name of yet another daughter for Franz and his wife Franziska—and, to make up for other limitations, I did hoard names for that daughter's children, even though it appears none of them chose to make the trek to America like their cousins.

As for Franz's wife, though, I had the opposite situation. While I found Franz's dates—1829 to 1911—I have located nothing for Franziska. Yet, even though I couldn't find the names of Franz's parents, his wife's parents were possibly within reach—if, that is, someone in the same village of Żerków by the name of Bartholomew Olejniczak was her brother. His was a family which remained in Poland up through his death in 1899, and his parents' names can be gleaned from the town's civil and church records. But were Bartholomew and Franziska connected to the same family line? Besides naming one of his daughters that very same name—Franziska—I can't really tell.

Thus I'm left with a stub of a branch in my family tree. Despite searching for Franziska Olejniczak alongside my October goal of discovering more about her husband Franz Jankowski, I've come up with very little more than I knew before. Only as a matter of faith can I believe that future months may bring more digitized records to help with this search.

In the meantime, next week we'll jump ahead and explore what can be achieved while tackling December's research goal.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

A Look at the Positive Side:
What I Did Find


When we embark on that journey of discovering something new about our ancestors, the chance is always there that we may return from the research adventure empty-handed. As deflating as such an experience may seem to be—especially if we've invested time and money into traveling to a promising major repository, for instance—it is helpful to take a moment to recap not just the negative searches, but the positives, as well.

While those pluses may turn out to be dwarfed in searches such as my goal to find my second great-grandfather Franz Jankowski, it can be encouraging to identify those winnings, no matter how small. For instance, this past month encouraged me to experience major exposure to the background history and geography of the region in Poland—the former Prussia—where my paternal grandmother's ancestors originated. The search also presented me with plenty of opportunities to trawl through—document by document—the records held in two Polish websites, and introduce me to the holdings at the Polish archives, far removed from my familiar research turf at and

There are a lot of resources we otherwise might not discover—until by process of elimination, they remain the only viable options.

Then, too, in paging through those Polish records this past month, I discovered a second sibling for my great-grandmother, Marianna Jankowska, Franz's daughter. Unlike Marianna and her sister Stanisława, this younger sister Antonie—alternately called Antonina—remained in the family's hometown in Żerków, married, and raised a family of at least seven children. Between her 1898 marriage to Josef Karcz and the birth of the last of their children on record, son Wictor in 1913, the consistent reappearance of the Karcz and Jankowska parental names over the years showed that this family remained in Poland, rather than following the older sisters to New York. A helpful detail I might otherwise have missed was discovering the year of her father's death, 1911, still in the same small town where he had lived all his life.

Though I can't yet accomplish the next step, someday I will follow through and build the lines of descent of these seven Karcz children. Who knows? Perhaps it will be their great-grandchildren who will turn out to be the mystery matches in my DNA accounts at, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, or even Living DNA.

Until then, I'll wrap up what I know about Franz Jankowski's wife Franziska Olejniczak. I still need a bit more encouragement before moving on to tackle the next month's research goal.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Getting Negative


Sometimes, taking a look at the negative side can be rewarding—and not just when we're making lemons into lemonade. Advice ranging from "learn from your mistakes" to "turn negative into positive" shines a light on the research process and reminds us that sometimes, we find something other than what we thought we were looking for.

I've spent the last month pondering the records—at least the ones currently accessible online—for the tiny Polish town of Żerków. My hope was to find something—anything—more on my second great-grandfather, Franz Jankowski.

In an ideal world, I would have found what I was really looking for: the identity of his parents. Did I find that? You already know that answer. But I didn't find nothing. I actually found a few very useful details. At least now, I have a clearer picture of what records are currently available for that region, and how to access them online. I've also gleaned a list of possible related lines—not the original purpose of my research quest, but details which may become useful in future attempts. I'll note these in my research logs and refer back to them the next time I attempt this same project.

But can I call that "negative evidence"? Not really. According to Thomas W. Jones, a genealogist with decades of accolades to his research credit, it's important to differentiate between two similarly-named concepts: "Negative Evidence" versus "Negative Search." 

Dr. Jones defines Negative Evidence as "Evidence arising from an absence of specific information in extant records where that information could be expected and where that absence suggests an answer to a research question." Negative Evidence can play an important role in our family history dilemmas, as Dr. Jones details in a RootsTech presentation. In contrast, he characterizes a "Negative Search" as, simply, "a search that yields no useful evidence."

I think we can all see into which category my experience of the past month falls.

In other words, nothing I didn't find can be used to ascertain a conclusion that Franz Jankowski wasn't in Żerków. There were too many gaps in the sequence of digitized records at the two websites I used. A more useful next step might be to determine why there were gaps in the holdings at BaSIA and the Poznan Project. Were the records missing because they have yet to be properly formatted and added to the collection? Or were they permanently lost through some casualty suffered in the past—fires, floods, or destruction of war?

All is not lost at the end of a negative search. And that's what helps us turn that negative into a possible future positive. Though not right now, sitting at my laptop in California, someday I may still be able to find my answer to the question of my Polish second great-grandfather Franz Jankowski's parents.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Double Indemnity


Now I've gone and done it. With less than a week to go before the close of this month, I've barely scratched the surface on my goal to find more information on Ancestor Number Ten of my Twelve Most Wanted for 2021. I'm literally drowning in Polish finding aids—lists of online resources to help me locate digitized records in Poland, or more accurately, Posen in Prussia, the land where my second great-grandfather Franz Jankowski once lived.

When the tedium of endless genealogical searching brings up little in the way of fascinating stories—or even helpful research tips—one tactic might be to fast-forward to the next month's goal. After all, it's only six days until the new month's arrival. But that's where my accidental research death doubles my dilemma: why, oh why, did I choose to couple the search for Franz's forebears with that of his wife?

Granted, though I have hardly another word to say about discoveries on Franz's background, there are a few details that can be wrung from Franziska Olejniczak's own story. That hardly will add up to a month of scintillating discussion, though. Time to look for Research Plan B—another research challenge worth enough discoveries to double for the two possibilities which, so far, have landed just beyond our grasp. In the meantime, though, it would be worth our while to reflect on the state of not finding what we hoped to find.

While I look through these Polish websites—wonderful resources I'm grateful to have in the dearth of records on our go-to American genealogical websites—I can't help but notice the section called "Last Added" at BaSIA. Just during the past twenty four hours, that section indicated almost five hundred records were uploaded. Granted, that dwarfs the ten thousand records added just the day before that. The key, though, is that while I may not be able to find the record I'm seeking this month, give it a year and maybe the picture will be much clearer then.

Patient researchers remember to revisit promising websites. I may not have found what I hoped to see concerning Franz Jankowski. I may not be able to find much more on his wife, Franziska Olejniczak, either—this time around. I'll discuss a bit about what I've found on her in the coming days, but then I'll be ready to pivot. Genealogical research always has another branch to attend to on the ever-growing family tree. 

Monday, October 25, 2021

When the Trail gets Rougher


In trying to break through the brick wall ancestor Franz Jankowski from my paternal grandmother's roots, let's just say the going is getting rough. It might have been my attempt at cheering myself up over dismal prospects by adopting the outlook, "It's the journey, not the destination," but right now, the forest I'm trudging through is getting thicker and darker—as in, lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

I had thought it might be helpful to try out the new interface at, in which I could search images by place name. Entering "Zerkow," I discovered to my horror that there is more than one Żerków on the map. Besides the place where I'd been exploring records, there was another town by that name in a southwestern part of Poland which once belonged to Germany, and a third town far in the south of Poland, as well. These are details to be aware of at the beginning of a search. Thankfully, I had already found indicators that the historic province of Posen, whose capital city now is known as Poznań, was the right location for the town of my ancestors.

For the brave of heart, the search revealed ten digitized collections containing nearly four thousand images, all of births, marriages, or deaths pertaining to my specific Żerków. The drawback? They are browse only—and once I took a closer look, it appeared that the records actually refer to a different region of Poland. Granted, I don't understand Polish—even with cheat sheets—and need to brush up on my Polish geography. But hundred-year-old Prussian handwriting doesn't help the matter. Yet, the records are there, somewhere, according to FamilySearch.

That search choice, for me, would be the genealogical equivalent of the nuclear option—a last-ditch act of desperation. Remember, FamilySearch also provided some other suggestions for links to Polish resources. It's time to explore our other options.   

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Ever-Expanding DNA To-Do List


DNA testing has become a game-changer for those of us grappling with brick wall ancestors in our family trees. And as more researchers experiment with ways to manipulate that DNA data, it benefits all of us with tools to help unlock some ancestral puzzles.

If you have recently visited GEDmatch—or read Roberta Estes' recent post on the changes there—you know that GEDmatch has recently added an AutoSegment Triangulation Cluster Tool. DNA may be a powerful tool for building our family trees, but it requires us to know how to coax it to reveal those genetic secrets. Tools such as this set developed by Evert-Jan Blom of Genetic Affairs can be a game changer.

Like so many others, though, my DNA to-do list includes plowing through the thousands of matches I've accumulated at the five companies at which I've tested—and at which I've had family members test, as well. Let's just say that alone has kept me quite busy.

Admittedly, starting out, my initial response to viewing those thousands of names of matches was, "Who are all these people?" But like those dominoes lined up in a queue, with the slightest push, the rest of them eventually come tumbling down. The more matches I can link to my tree, the more their "shared" matches at Ancestry DNA follow suit.

Just that simple process of confirming just one match, then seeking "shared" relatives and working through the record-keeping update has kept me quite busy. Of course, the advanced work of building out my working tree to include descendants to the level of fourth cousin has also streamlined the process.

Still, it has been interesting to spot those distant cousins with whom I share only one segment—and a segment of a decent size—and know there is only one ancestral couple who could possibly have been responsible for the nexus. Those are the ones whom I'd like to paint onto my records at DNA Painter and, now, analyze through the new tools at GEDmatch. 

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Sam and Satan


When it comes to discussing in-laws, I've heard people use descriptors ranging from the positive all the way to the very negative. When I browse through the rescued collection of Marilyn Sowle Bean's family photographs, it is clear her opinion of her brother-in-law Sam Bean was firmly on the positive side.

Not that Sam was an agreeable, plain vanilla kind of guy. Besides his lanky frame and exceptional height—courtesy of the family's inherited susceptibility to Marfan Syndrome—Sam seemed to have his own style. Granted, being a poodle trainer for the Shipstads and Johnson Ice Follies was not an everyday job—which certainly made for a fun uncle to visit on the job. But before there were angelic white poodles to occupy his every waking moment, there was Satan.

Before the Ice Follies, Sam was a horse trainer. Up in the hills above his home city of Alameda, California, there was a horse ranch where Sam spent much of his time. I never really knew about this past life obsession for Sam. Although Marilyn did tell stories about Sam and the Ice Follies, she never mentioned this other calling of her brother-in-law. Her pictures, now that I've found them, tell me a different story.

Gone, of course, is any story explaining Sam's choice for naming his horse, but a good guess might also reveal the type of horse-handler Sam was known as. Only from newspaper articles did I learn it was from Sam's reputation at the horse ranch that managers of the Ice Follies were able to coax him into trying his hand at more diminutive charges—first, a pony, and then the poodles.

Long after both Sam and his sister-in-law Marilyn were gone, looking at these photographs reminds me that some pictures are much more than personal portraits—they embed stories. Pictures can be a far more useful tool for triggering memories than we give them credit for—a good thing to remember at our holiday family gatherings.


Above: Sam Bean riding Satan at the Skyline Ranch in the Oakland Hills above the city of Oakland, California; undated photographs at about 1950.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Still Browsing


Why does it seem so fun to be invited to browse while shopping at the mall, but considered drudgery when applied to online searches? Perhaps it's because we have become so spoiled in our family history pursuits.

When it comes to browsing, I'd like to propose we adopt the maxim, "It's the journey, not the destination." There is so much we can glean by slowing down and reading through a targeted collection of records. We might actually spot something which otherwise could have been missed by computer-assisted searches.

Right now, I've been undergoing the "tedium" of searching line by line for any sign of my great-grandmother Marianna Jankowska's extended family. I had already learned from her marriage record that the bride of Anton Laskowski was the daughter of Franz Jankowski and Franziska Olejniczak. Born in Żerków, Poland, Marianna's age was extrapolated from other records: that she was born about 1863.

Finding the Polish website BaSIA enabled searches from a wide date range, with the possibility of narrowing the geographical region to as small as a five kilometer radius. From trawling through the results—transcriptions of Polish birth, marriage, and death records—I learned that Marianna had at least two siblings. One, Stanisława, married in Żerków and like her older sister, moved to New York. Finding the other, however, presented some problems.

To locate the youngest of the three sisters mentioned in any records other than her own birth report required several passes through the BaSIA website. Why did I not successfully locate Antonina at first? Many reasons conspired against me. For one, this daughter of Franz and Franziska was reported in the first record I found under the name Antonie. Several others I found contained the same spelling—until I decided to widen my search horizons and go back through the entire set, line by line. Not by using a quick "search" mechanism, but by using my own eyes and watching for spelling variations was I able to piece together a more complete picture.

Then, too—perhaps thanks to the limitation on the nineteenth century date range for the other Polish website I was using—I had not pushed that search to its limits when I jumped over to the BaSIA site. After all, the search page on BaSIA boasts dates from the 1500s to the current century. Why not push it to its limit?

Since "Antonie" was born in 1878 and married Josef Karcz in 1898, any children beyond the couple's firstborn would have arrived in the twentieth century, so I pushed as far as I could go in search of children's names. After all, perhaps that would glean information to identify those mystery DNA matches I'm still puzzling over.

Two passes—first browsing through the records using the surname Jankowska, then trying the married surname Karcz—yielded a family of at least seven children: Stanislaus, Cecilia, Marianna, Johanna, Helena, Wincenty, and Wictor. Not only did that assure me that Antonina did not emigrate to America like her two sisters, but one further record discovery cemented that fact: the inclusion of her name on her father's death record in 1911.

True, my opportunity to browse through the records was abruptly cut off after the 1913 birth of the youngest Karcz child—no chance to catch any glimpse of marriage records in the 1920s or 1930s. Though I can't yet confirm it, it still could be possible that any one of the children made the decision to travel to a new world. There is likely more browsing to be had in my future as, unbelievably, Karcz is not a rare surname, even in America—not to mention all the possible phonetic variations that could be applied to an arriving immigrant's surname.

For now, I'll adopt that traveling theme and remember it's the journey that's important, as I browse through whatever record sets are in my future. In some research cases, we need to remember that we serve as trailblazers when the path isn't laid out for us quite as completely as it is for those with longstanding pioneer heritages. Don't fret over the barriers; enjoy the journey. Along the way, you may discover something you'd otherwise have missed.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Entering the New "Old World"


When our ancestors left their homeland to settle in America, they might have said they were traveling to the New World, but when we trace their steps back home, that "Old World" becomes a new place for our research efforts. Sometimes, we need some processing tips to help handle the information overload.

Sure, gleaning names and dates from baptismal records or marriage certificates may be the same in some ways, no matter where we search. But when the language our ancestors claimed as their native tongue contains some characters not resident on our twenty-first century keyboards, we need some work-arounds. That's what I'd like to interject here, today.

Looking for my paternal grandparents' roots in Żerków, Poland, taught me quickly that I needed to equip myself with the ability to produce such non-English markings, or diacritics. If I were to reside in Poland for any amount of time, the logical step would be to obtain a keyboard which includes those special characters. But here I am, enjoying the last rays of sunshine in a pleasant autumn in California, far from any opportunity for such a purchase. There is, however, a way around that.

Of course, I believe it is helpful, in researching our ancestors in such a country of origin, to first understand the basic pronunciation of that native language, and, along with that, to learn to recognize those special characters of the language which are not familiar to English-language natives. I'm not talking about a Ph.D.-level deep dive here, but a sufficient introduction to the rudiments of the language.

Once undergoing such an introduction, I want to use those characters in my family tree. It's just a personal preference of mine to write, for instance, Elżbieta for another one of my second great-grandmothers, instead of Elzbieta—but in using some Polish search engines, it might be necessary to include the diacritics to conduct a correct search.

My trick is to use a work-around to coax my American laptop's keyboard into talking like Polish is its native tongue. I do that by using Google Translate. Here's how.

First, on the Google search page—or even on gmail, if you use it—look in the top right corner for the nine "tiles" stacked together. 

Click on that icon to open up the many apps available on Google.

Find and select the choice labeled "Translate"—which, depending on your previous use, may or may not be located at the same place as in this example. (If you don't see the choice "Translate," grab the slide bar to scroll down the inset until you locate that choice.) By clicking "Translate," you will now see the generic Google Translate screen, which will look somewhat like this:

Notice two things about the Google Translate screen. The first is that the screen is divided in half, with the left side being the language to be translated from. There are a few language choices listed (your example may show different languages). To the right of the listed languages is a down arrow. If you click on that, you will see a much wider selection of languages. Choose whichever language you want to use for typing special characters.

Here is what that expanded screen would look like (partially):

You can click on any of these languages to use for typing your ancestor's name (or any other details in your ancestor's native language). Obviously, in my case, this is where I've been camping lately to utilize those Polish diacritical marks, but your ancestors may have come from another area of the Old World.

Once you select your target language and are back on the original screen, look for the second item you will need to accomplish this writing task: a tiny icon which, if magnified, looks like a keyboard. This is where you will find it:

In this example, having already selected the language—"Polish"—by clicking on the keyboard icon, it brings up a larger image of the keyboard layout. Once you click on that keyboard icon, enlarged, it will look like this:

Of course, once you see this, you will think, "That's not remarkable at all." Yes, it looks somewhat like an English language keyboard. However, to gain access to the goods you are really seeking, you want to click on the lower left corner of the keyboard, where it is labeled "Ctrl + Alt." Once you do that, it will reveal a second page of characters, like this:

If you wish to use capital letters rather than lower case letters, you simply click on the up arrow in the lower left hand corner of the keyboard, just above the "Ctrl + Alt" key we just used. By doing that, in our Polish example, you will see:

Now comes the fun part. Using your mouse (or slim finger if you are using a touch screen), click each letter you wish to type, and it will enter that character in the translate-from screen. It doesn't matter the order of the words, because for your next step, you will cut and paste each typed word independently into the document where you wish to add it.

Here is an example of my Polish great-grandmother's first name and place of birth:

Now, cut and paste each word into the place you've selected in your target document—a letter, a blog post, an entry in a family tree. In this example, those two words were plugged into this woman's profile page on, and the result looks like this:

Of course, once you have that Google Translate page open for writing all those special characters unique to your ancestors' native tongue, keep it handy for each time you access a foreign website. Even the English-language versions of those Polish websites I've been recommending this week as I explore my great-grandparents' roots can sometimes include sections only available in Polish. I keep my Polish version of Google Translate at my fingertips and, undaunted, play the role of the intrepid researcher.      

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Expanding Your Research Horizons


One drawback to becoming comfortable with relying on old standard resources—such as or—is that we lose the urge to reach out and stretch beyond those familiar sites. This is particularly true when venturing beyond the borders of our own country, and even more so when we explore those regions beyond our own language barrier.

In my search for my second great-grandfather's Jankowski family in Poland, it is true that there were several record sets available to me on both FamilySearch and Ancestry. One glance—no, make that two—at the FamilySearch wiki's listings of specific Polish resources seemed full of options, until I took a closer look. That was when I realized so many of the links provided only pointed back to the same few American-based websites.

True, among those links was one which led me to a tutorial for using the Polish State Archives website. But keep in mind, there are several resources for Polish genealogy in Poland—and that is what I wanted to find. I wanted to broaden my research horizons.

Besides the site I've already mentioned this week—the Poznan Project—there is another site pertinent to the region I've been researching. While the volunteers at Poznan Project dedicate themselves to transcribing nineteenth century marriage records from "the historic Greater Poland"—also known as Poznań, for the city at the center of the region, or Posen—I wanted more than just marriage records. I found that in a website known as the Baza Systemu Indeksacji Archiwalnej, or the Database of Archival Indexing System.

Let's just call that the BaSIA for short.

Though the website's English version still contains much introductory content written out in Polish, it is easy to navigate, and the data we seek are definitely provided in English. The content is free to search, starting with a dialog box on the top right, inviting visitors to "type surname to search for..." and press the search bar.

Following my research trail from yesterday's discovery, I wanted to find any collateral lines from either my second great-grandfather Franz Jankowski or his wife, Franziska Olejniczak. Since Jankowski is a far more common surname, I opted first to enter his wife's maiden name, Olejniczak.

Though all the results were transcriptions, the surname search provided not only records for the identity of the person featured in a document, but searched for the key term within fields for the names of parents and even witnesses. Besides, this website went beyond the focus of the Poznan Project—nineteenth century marriage records only—to include births and deaths as well. With a far more generous time frame—the dates reach back to the 1500s and all the way up to the current century—the only restriction would be if the records were destroyed during the region's turbulent history. The place search can be restricted as narrowly as needed, which was useful for my purposes in examining records specifically from the town of Żerków. Best of all is the clickable link alongside each entry leading to scans of the document held at the Polish State Archives.

While browsing the results at BaSIA line by line by my selected surnames, I opened up the profile page for those two families' surnames in my tree at Ancestry. When I found a record in BaSIA which matched names in my tree, I added the information to the specific person's profile page at Ancestry. Once I complete this process for both the Jankowski line and the Olejniczak line—at least for those names which I already know link to my specific branches of those families—I will have gained usable information on collateral lines.

The next steps will be to see whether any of those families also migrated to the United States like their relatives—a common scenario, as so many researchers have found—and also to see whether the information will shed some light on DNA matches whose ancestors also led them back to Poland. By stretching beyond that research comfort zone, new horizons may indeed provide the extra detail to jettison me over that brick wall, back on the road to finding the next connection in the family tree. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Value of Collateral Lines


One way to accomplish an end run around a research "brick wall" is to study the siblings of the ancestor who has us stymied. While this technique will not always provide the answer we'd hoped for, it can sometimes lead to valuable information.

Right now, I'd really like to find more information on the family of my second great-grandfather, Franz Jankowski. I already know that Franz had married Franziska Olejniczak—but I knew this only because of their mention in their daughter Marianna's own marriage record. I have not yet been able to locate their own record—if, indeed, the names were entered (or transcribed) correctly for their daughter's wedding.

Still, from their daughter's record, we can see that Marianna was likely born about 1862, somewhere in Poland. That, however, was the age given for Marianna in the transcription of the church record, which presented her as a seventeen year old bride. Looking to the civil record presents a different picture. In that record, Marianna was listed as being ten years older, which calculates to a year of birth in 1852.

That earlier date might have been a less problematic issue, had I not discovered a collateral line for my great-grandmother. Scouring the marriage transcriptions listed online at the Poznan Project, I discovered another daughter of Franz and Franziska named Stanisława. This daughter, according to her own marriage record, was not married until 1894. According to the civil record, she was born in 1871.

It was encouraging to find a sibling for Marianna, one whom I could—hopefully—trace through the decades to see whether any further mention might be made about her parents and other family members. And that I did, following Stanisława and her husband, Franz Janczak, from their home in Żerków, part of present-day Poland, to a new home in Buffalo, New York—until research stalled with her early death and some puzzles about her children, of which I had already written.

The problem, though, was in some dates. Noticing Marianna's issue with the disagreeing dates of birth—either 1862 or ten years earlier—made me wonder about a sister born almost ten years after that later date, in 1871. Yes, that large a time span could be possible, especially given larger families of that era. It could also hint at a birth order for Marianna's siblings, possibly putting her at the top of the list. It would be helpful to find any indication of other siblings in the family line.

Thus, back to the Poznan Project to see whether I could locate any other marriage transcriptions listing those same two parents for either a bride or a groom. There was one: a woman by the name of Antonie Jankowska, daughter of Franz and Franziska. Even younger than Marianna's sister Stanisława, she was about to become bride of Joseph Karcz in 1898.

Above inserts: transcriptions of marriage records for members of the Jankowski family in Żerków, Poland, courtesy of the Poznan Project.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Beginning the Tedious Process


It is a good thing genealogy is filled with Bright Shiny Objects. If it weren't for the thrill of the chase, those lulls in the research action—translation: the tedious stuff—would have rebuffed us long ago.

So it becomes, as I tackle my research goal for October: to find something—anything—further on my second great-grandfather, Franz Jankowski. It turns out that Jankowski is a fairly common surname in his homeland, the place which now is known as Poland. Even in the tiny town which my great-grandmother Marianna Jankowska once called home—Żerków—apparently more than one family claimed that surname. Whether all those Jankowskis were related to each other—and if so, how closely—will take some work. Hence, the tedium.

Sometimes, I try to skirt the issue by looking for less-common surnames associated with the family. In the Jankowski case, that would be Marianna's mother's maiden name, Olejniczak. At least, that's how one researcher, encased in an American's mindset, might have seen such a name. After all, I hadn't ever heard of that name before tackling my paternal line's mysteries. But guess what: even a name like Olejniczak has its moments. Considering the surname's ranking as 139th in Poland now, it might be surprising to open up, say, a Buffalo, New York city directory and find over half a column dedicated to entries of residents with that exact surname.

Normally, when I can make no headway in finding information on the members of a previous generation—in this case, that would be Marianna's father, Franz Jankowski—I resort to exploring collateral lines. This will likely be my next step for this week. But first in this process will be to return to the Polish website where I originally found the transcription of Marianna's own marriage record. 

There, I've noticed, are ample records sporting either of these surnames. Especially in using the more recent civil records, I can glean parents' names for both the bride and groom. That's where the tedium comes in. From that point—perhaps—I can find enough records to start sorting those Jankowskis and Olejniczaks into family groupings. Maybe that will help me discover some collateral lines to follow. Or not.

Sometimes, the tedium is worth the try. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Do the Homeless Have Family Trees?


Yeah, I know: strange question.

I've just returned from visiting family back east—a week, incidentally, in which I completed very little genealogical research, despite best intentions. Now that I'm back in my modestly-sized home city of a mere three hundred thousand people, I can't help but compare the differences between, say, California and Connecticut.

One detail that stood out: the complete absence of homeless encampments seen where I was visiting, compared to an entirely different scene near home. Perhaps it is the sunny California weather which makes such differences likely.

No matter the cause, the differences prompted me to wonder what the real stories were that brought such people to their current desperate plight—but more than that, where were their families? After all, at some point, you'd presume someone from the family would intervene by offering that gesture which could prevent stepping over the brink into the downward spiral of homelessness.

Do homeless people have family trees?

Of course they do. Somewhere there has to be a relative. People do not simply spontaneously generate. We are all connected somehow—if by nothing more than our genes, as we've learned from DNA testing. A family tree equals a symbol of our connectedness with specific others.

That is not to say that helping a starving person build a pedigree chart will make life better for him. Of course not. There are far greater needs to be met much sooner. I can't help but wonder, though, whether re-connection might offer a healing balm for those who seem the least connected in our culture.

I have, from time to time, stumbled across a tale of a family member who seemed to disappear—and then, after diligent searching, I've discovered the rest of the story. In some cases, those stories are quite sad, such as the one I shared about a Riley descendant who, dying destitute, was buried on New York City's Hart Island. Why was she no longer connected with family?

Granted, building a family tree which includes each generation's collateral lines leads me to far more chances to stumble upon such stories. After all, I now have 26,556 individuals in the same tree as that lone Riley cousin—growing by ninety five more names in the past two weeks—so that means a lot of connections to be made, at least on paper. Disappearing people have also been a puzzle on my in-laws' tree—no surprise after compiling data on 23,638 family members there, with forty nine in the past two weeks.

It took a lot of looking to piece together those stories. People who disconnect from life as we know it can be very difficult to trace. It sometimes makes me wonder: does no one want to find relatives like that? If they could be found—before it was too late—would it have helped rebuild lost connections?

Saturday, October 16, 2021

When Names and Dates
Were People we Knew


There are times when the dates we noted in our family tree trigger memories. After all, what does a genealogist do with the details tied to those names and dates? Sometimes, those facts are not just notations in a family history database. They take on the shape of memories which come back to visit us.

We save those family heirloom photos, tucking them carefully in archival-quality folders...then pull them out to compare hundred-year-old baby pictures with the latest niece, nephew, or grandchild. Those relatives' memory lives on, just as surely as their genes, in part, become our own. Different than those ancestors of distant centuries, though, those family members who live on in our personal memories—who once were a part of our own life—can come "calling" when we least expect it.

So it has been, while I sifted through those family photos from Marilyn Sowle Bean's collection which I recently rescued from a local antique shop, that I recalled yesterday that it was her daughter's birthday. Of course, just like Marilyn, her parents, her husband, and even her own son, her daughter has now been long gone. That unexpected loss became part of the chain of occurrences which led to Marilyn's photos ending up in an antique shop.

Even after all these years, though, I can't help but remember those important dates like birthdays for each of Marilyn's family members—at least the ones I knew personally. Seeing a date on the calendar—like one so recently passed—brings back memories anew of family members who have been gone for years. In a way, they still live on, preserved in our memories—a small validation for the work we do as family historians.

To remember. And help others remember with us.

Above: Inscribed in Marilyn Bean's handwriting with a note addressed to "Great Aunt Leona," this portrait of Marilyn's children was taken when her daughter Judy was one year of age.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Finding Aids:
Lists of Where to Look for Answers


Face it: when your family history quest brings you into new research territory, it helps to have a guide to walk you through unfamiliar places. That, in a way, is what finding aids are: lists of where to find resources that will help with your specific research goal.

Delving into my paternal grandparents' roots in Poland is indeed, for me, walking into unknown territory. I have already tried my hand at researching one branch of my paternal grandfather's ancestors when I included that relative in my Twelve Most Wanted list for last year. Now, I want to find more information on another branch of my paternal side: my great-grandmother Marianna Jankowska's family.

But where to look? That's where locating finding aids is so important.

When we think of finding aids, one resource that comes to mind might be Cyndi's List, which includes a long list of possible places to check in her section on Poland. Another might be to pull up the catalog at However, even though I have a World Explorer subscription, I found the listings for Poland at Ancestry seem to focus mainly on several record sets from the World War II era—many of them free to access, no matter what type of subscription you have—or they cover a different region of Poland than the area where Marianna's family lived.

When all else fails—and why wait until then?!—one sure bet is to check the wiki at, and that is indeed what I did. My first stop was to check the resources FamilySearch might have pertaining to Catholic church records in Poland, mainly to orient myself to their holdings. I also looked at the FamilySearch wiki for all church records in Poland, since several civil records were derived from church copies.

Working one's way through a wiki sometimes ends up being a chase through a chain of links. Sure enough, the Poland Church Records wiki advised how to determine your family's specific parish, recommending a visit to the website Kartenmeister to find the church and civil jurisdictions for Marianna's family in the tiny town of Żerków. As promised, the website provided the information I was seeking, including the helpful detail that the town, under German control, was called Bergstadt.

The FamilySearch wiki went on to provide a list of several websites either hosted in Poland or devoted on Polish ancestry. Some of them were already familiar to me. Others focused on specific regions in Poland other than Marianna's homeland. One, for instance, was a site I had heard of before—Geneteka—but had never used. While FamilySearch provides an entry on Geneteka in their own wiki, the website itself provides a tutorial, as well.

Working with resources like the FamilySearch wiki, you will find the website is good for providing information in more ways than one. Sure enough, there was yet another entry in the wiki on finding aids in Poland, this one listing many of the sites mentioned in the previous paragraph, but also listing regional websites, as well as browsable images within their own website.

If that were not enough, the wiki also included a clickable list of websites by record type.

Granted, there are many gaps to contend with in record availability. Not only in the town of Żerków, but also in the greater surrounding region of Poznań, the devastation of World War II destroyed not only buildings but the records housed within—not to mention the staggering number of lives lost.

With this list of lists as our starting point, we will sift through the possibilities to see what can be located on Marianna's relatives in the Jankowski family next week.    

Thursday, October 14, 2021

If you Never Thought
Your Brother was a Brat :
How to Research in Polish
When you Can't SPEAK Polish


Once you've been able to follow your family's generations back to the land where they originated, genealogical research takes on a new challenge: navigating documents filled with words you can't understand. From mąż to żona—and yes, even brat (brother)—Polish terms present challenges to English-speaking researchers, not only in words we'll encounter in genealogical records, but in special characters we never use in English. 

We think nothing of encountering that problem when we speak English and follow our ancestors on their wanderings through England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, the United States—and even Ireland and Canada, for the most part. But going back "home" to places like Poland (or any other country) should not present too much difficulty, either—if you know certain key terms, or at least where to find them explained.

In tracing my enigmatic grandparents' roots, once I discovered their true identity, I needed to grapple with reading documents which could have been written in Polish. Still, Polish history being what it was, that also meant I might encounter church records written in Latin, or even other documents written in the vernacular of the presiding official's native tongue, which in many cases might be German. Not to worry, though, once I located helpful cheat sheets for Polish phonics and research guides for the country's genealogical resources.

Ever increasingly, my go-to resource for delving into unknown research territory is the wiki. In the case of Polish research, there are ample resources available to guide me. One wiki resource delves into the history of the various languages in use due to the partitions of Poland, containing a pronunciation guide and links to genealogical word lists for the four languages in use throughout Poland's history, providing lessons in how to read the various handwriting formats, as well as lists of key words, numbers, dates and times. A more extended list of Polish words—a virtual dictionary of common words you might encounter in government or church documents—can help if the brief overview doesn't handle the less commonly-used term you encounter on this research journey.

Equipped with tools like these, we can more confidently approach such documents in foreign languages—even gain a sense of feeling vindicated over our childhood labels for an errant brother. With these resources in hand, the next step is to discover just where we can find the documents needed to trace this Polish family's generations. While I've already found, from my great-grandmother Marianna Laskowska's marriage record, that her father was Franz Jankowski, I need to rove backwards in time to see what else can be found about this man. My next step is to locate finding aids for documents still in existence from the Laskowski and Jankowski home town of Żerków in the region around Poznań.    

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

So, What About that Surname?


We sometimes are so focused on getting to the next step in our quest to discover our ancestors that we forget all about learning anything further on who those people were. When I research a family line, I have to remind myself to put on the research brakes and take a look around before racing to find the next answer.

Now that I've found more than one record assuring me that my great-grandmother Mary Laskowski's father was named Franz Jankowski, this is one of those points. I may not necessarily stop to smell any literal roses at this juncture, but at least I can spare a moment to discover more about the surname, itself. Sometimes, those discoveries come in handy as we progress through our search process, so let's see what we can learn about the surname Jankowski.

My first stop in such a search is to see what the section on name origins says on the website. In the case of Jankowski, we learn that this is a "habitational" name for people originating in locations bearing a similar name—such as the village of Janków, located somewhat to the northwest of the village, or any of the several other Polish locations sporting that same name. In fact, there are still over thirty locations in Poland with place names derived from the root of my great-grandmother's maiden name. Some help.

That root from which all those Polish towns derive their identity is a personal name known as Janek, a boy's name meaning "God is gracious." It is actually a nickname for the popular Polish given name Jan. Once again, do you get the sense that learning about this surname is not helping me pinpoint any details about my forebears?

One detail I learned about the surname Jankowski was that the suffix -ski was often affixed to the name of the estate with which the founding ancestor was once associated. While that may seem helpful, remember we're dealing with the possibility of upwards of thirty locations in history which could have served as the family's origin.

Still, it was fun—although perhaps the Polish equivalent of trying to trace one's roots back to Charlemagne—to learn that those "-ski" surnames could have originated with a landowner, who in due process had to indicate his connection to the Polish nobility by use of an additional identifier signifying his specific clan—a designation called "herb" (thus giving an entirely different spin to the Polish surname website known as "herby"). I did, thankfully, avoid that glaring Bright Shiny Object bidding me fall down the rabbit hole of Polish privileged social classes and nobility

While I always hope I'm about to enter a research project chasing a surname rare enough to nearly guarantee that those found will be my own relatives, in the case of the Jankowski surname, that is not how it is to be. True, in the worldwide possibility of relative rankings of surnames, Jankowski ranks 5,424th, but in Poland, it is ninth most common among their surnames. Still no edge to help my research.

If it is any help, the Jankowski surname is far less prevalent in the United States, where Franz Jankowski's daughter Marianna settled with her husband and three young children. My next step in trying to discover more on Marianna's family is to inspect her collateral lines to see if anyone else from the family might offer us some useful clues. We'll turn back, tomorrow, to the same Polish websites where I found the transcription of Marianna's wedding record, in search of any other family members.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

How I Knew About Franz


When we take that momentous research leap across "the pond"—as it is so laughingly called in genealogical circles—we enter a different world. A world of many countries and languages, yes, but also a world filled with a history not our own, and presumptions which we are unaccustomed to following.

Picking up the research trail from my great-grandmother Marianna Laskowska, whose 1939 death in New York City gave me no useful clue as to her specific origin in her native land, I had to cobble together, step by step, the resources to not only find answers but to orient myself to the process of finding them.

It was years ago when I sent for a copy of the death certificate for "Mary Laskowski." I had learned from family members what her year of death was, and was not too surprised by the information received when the document finally made its way back to me from New York City. Granted, her married surname was misspelled Laskoska—but for the final "a" designating her gender, a variation I since stumbled upon in other documents without too much concern. And though I knew her given name should have been Marianna, there were several other American records which acknowledged the shorter version of Mary.

My main goal in locating Mary's death record was straightforward: I wanted her parents' names. The question of what good it would do me, I'm not sure I gave a second thought. After all, whoever those parents were, they likely wouldn't have been discoverable in American records—but how to find them in Polish records, back at the time I was unraveling this family history mystery, I wasn't sure. One step at a time, however, and this was my first step toward an unknown generation.

So there it was on the document: the information I was seeking. Mary, seventy seven years before her 1939 death, was supposedly born in "Germany"—the politically correct designation at the time for her Polish homeland. Her father's name? Frank Jankowsky.

Just from brute reasoning, I was pretty sure Mary was not born to anyone—German or otherwise—by the name of Frank. Nor was his surname spelled with a "y"—as in Jankowsky. I took my chances and ran with a more likely version: Franz Jankowski.

Little difference that made for years. I took this first research step nearly thirty years ago. It wasn't until more recently that developments online—which we'll explore throughout the remainder of this month—allowed me to at least look at transcriptions of original Polish records.

That, as it turned out, was a good thing. Remember how I mentioned yesterday that I wasn't entirely sure of the information provided on death certificates for this paternal line? Sure enough, on her death certificate, Mary's mother's maiden name was given as Frances Aktaboska—a surname remarkably similar to the maiden name of her daughter-in-law. Double-checking a second resource, now that we can do so with access to online sites in Poland, told a different tale.

For one thing, I discovered a transcription for Mary's own wedding to Anton Laskowski, formalized in Żółków, a scant mile from their eventual home in Żerków, Poland. Courtesy of that transcription on the Poznan Project, I found confirmation for my guess about Mary's father—and a tip revealing a more likely identity for Mary's mom.


From this second source, I now felt more comfortable about searching for Franz Jankowski as Mary's father—and a bit more confident that her mother wasn't an "Aktaboski" after all, but someone named Franziska Olejniczak.


Above: Search result for a transcription at the Poznan Project for the marriage record of Anton Laskowski with a spouse's maiden name Jankowska, near the town of Żerków, Poland, providing the parents' names for both bride and groom.  

Monday, October 11, 2021

Which is the Right Name?


A lesson hard learned: not to be satisfied with just one document in verifying our ancestor's identity.

Like a hand in a glove—a tip gleaned from genealogy speaker Kathryn Miller Marshall—information on a specific ancestor should provide multiple aspects of that individual's identity. To be satisfied upon locating one document as verification—a death certificate, for instance—is seldom enough to ensure we have located details on the right person.

In the case of my chase to verify my great-grandmother Mary Laskowski's true identity, it is certainly a good thing I wasn't satisfied with one document. The first document I located would have sent me down the wrong research path.

Remember that, in family history research, we start with ourselves and move backward through the generations. In this particular case, that was most important advice. Not only did my paternal grandparents form their own brick wall stopping my progress, but it turned out to be a false wall: their names, as we knew them, were not their true identities.

Nevertheless, I had one thing going for me: the name on my paternal grandmother's death certificate would be listed as that false identity she was known by. The bonus, as any family historian would know, was that her death certificate would also—hopefully—list the maiden name of her own mother. Thus, Sophie's information should produce a viable lead on Mary's own original identity.

That was the theory. This was a death certificate. Whenever we use such records to support our contention about names, or places of birth, or other factors of an ancestor's identity, we need to remember one detail: how the reporting party might be feeling at the precise, unfortunate point when she provides the requested information. Getting the dearly departed's mother's maiden name correct is likely farthest from her mind.

No surprise, then, that whoever bore that responsibility for my grandmother Sophie in early February, 1952, must have been thinking of other pressing details, for the information reported was not, as I later discovered, the precise detail requested. Close, but not completely perfect.

Now, as I think over this research tangle, I want to go back and pull out my copy of that old record, if only to see who the reporting party was. For, if I remember correctly now, that person reported not Sophie's mother's maiden name, but the name of someone from Sophie's sister-in-law's family. The family lines, in someone's head, got switched. That's one minute side effect of extreme grief.

Thankfully, I eventually located Sophie's mother's own death record and gleaned a different surname for further research. Considering the matter of grief in such circumstances, I kept in mind the possibility that this report, too, could have been in error, but also tested it out as a working hypothesis: that Mary, once known as Marianna Laskowska, the sixteen year old bride of immigrant Anton Laskowski, could have been born the daughter of Franz Jankowski.

Franz, as I decided last winter, needed to become one of my Twelve Most Wanted for 2021. This week, we'll explore what we can find on Marianna's father, especially reaching back to records in the family's country of origin, Poland.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Still Off the Shelf:
Why Don't Students Like School?


At the beginning of this year's summer vacation from all things educational, I sat down on the patio of my favorite coffee shop, book in hand, to read up on some psychological tips for educators. Summer vacation is now long over, and I am still mulling over the pages of advice from Daniel Willingham in Why Don't Students Like School?

As I did the last time I mentioned this book, I can't help but apply his advice for K-12 teachers to the world of genealogical education. Forget that; I think even of how I work on my own family trees when I read his explanations of various psychological studies. 

This week, I've finally been heading into the home stretch, in the chapter on how experts function, and why we can't expect rank beginners to think like experts in their field...yet. Willingham began by borrowing a concept from Angela Duckworth's idea of "grit"—that there are two necessary personality components for success, which she labeled as persistence and passion for a long-term goal. The key was not simply to isolate the necessity for long stretches of hard work—that would be the persistence part of the equation—but to have the want-to to do what the student loves.

Having explained Duckworth's concept of grit—persistence and passion—Willingham continues, "Gritty or not, you won't become an expert until you've put in your hours—that's another implication of the importance of practice." From there, he launches into his ode to the practice that yields expert skill.

The capacity for sustained work, the topic of another book I've devoured lately, helps us move from the fumbling practice of novices to the deeper-thinking levels of expertise. At first, we struggle with the basics of our pursuit—whether something as lofty as learning calculus, or the less-traveled path of the family historian—but as we constantly repeat the basic steps, we eventually develop a sixth sense about handling the matters that matter most.

After dozens of repetitions of documenting the facts on a pedigree chart, or fleshing out a family group record, we become more astute at sorting out the name twins among our ancestors' cousins, or reconstituting just what must have happened to cause an ancestor to make the moves he did throughout his life. We get a sense of which episodes might have had an as-yet-undiscovered prelude and hone the knack of uncovering such hidden stories.

When the simpler tasks are practiced so many times that they become second nature to us, freeing up our mind to consider more complicated issues in our ancestry, when our minds begin to take on the "abstract, functional relationships among problems that are key to solving them," as Willingham puts it, we somehow move from the novice level of skills toward that of the expert.

You may have been "doing genealogy" for years but may not think of yourself as "expert." However, at some point in all the hours you've spent chasing your ancestors, there comes a turning point where you reach for more. Some of us negotiate that corner by attending classes—society meetings, conferences, specializing institute programs—while others may even be rigorously self-taught. No matter how we arrive—thanks to that persistence plus passion—we somehow step up onto a plateau where that sixth sense of experience helps us know how to support our proof arguments with solid evidence.

Or, as author Daniel Willingham observed,

Whenever you see an expert doing something differently from the way a nonexpert does it, it may well be that the expert used to do it the way the novice does it, and that doing so was a necessary step on the way to expertise. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it more artfully: "Every artist was first an amateur."

Next time you realize you've been chasing yet another ancestor in your PJs and bunny slippers past three in the morning, take heart. You're not only hot in pursuit of your research goal in a fascinating avocation, you're adding line by line to your level of expertise.


Saturday, October 9, 2021

When Paths Cross


Do you ever wonder whether you've unwittingly crossed paths with, say, a fourth cousin when you are traveling? What are the chances that a descendant of your thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents stood in line next to you at the airport? Or rode the same bus that day, or sat at a table across from you at a restaurant? Will anyone from your spouse's tree, for example, ever cross paths with descendants of your own ancestors?

As I build out the family trees of the various people in my extended family—being careful for DNA purposes to research all the collateral lines as well—I've assembled details on literally tens of thousands of people, many of whom are still alive and living in the same country as I do. Surely the possibility of chance encounters escalates with these increasing numbers.

Despite having that thought constantly in mind, I was surprised this week when I did actually stumble upon one instance when—but for one tragic detail—the life trajectory of a member from one family tree almost did align with that of someone from another part of my family.

Last week I shared the story of the brother-in-law of the woman whose photo collection I had retrieved from a local antique store. This brother-in-law, Sam Bean, had an unusual occupation: in the early 1950s, he was the trainer for the poodles used in an act featured in the Shipstads and Johnson's Ice Follies. As the touring company traveled from city to city across America, Sam's job as a trainer was to make sure his charges were in tip-top shape to perform each night.

During this past week, I also spent time filling in the blanks on my mother-in-law's family tree—the line which settled in central Ohio and, for the most part, remained there for generations. Running down one line of descent from her Snider ancestors, I worked on one family by the name of Longstreth. By the 1900s, this family had moved to Akron, Ohio, most likely on account of the job opportunities available in that larger city.

Step by step, as I do for completing the descendancy records for each ancestral line, I began adding the children of this Longstreth family's generation in the early 1900s. In one line—the family of Richard Longstreth and Clara Stalter—I noticed that their oldest son James had died at a young age. While his headstone indicated his service during World War II, James Longstreth's death in 1951 seemed a bit too late to indicate a war casualty. However, I entered the data into my tree and moved on.

When I found the obituary for James' father—which didn't mentioned the passing of his son, but ominously only listed his son's wife among the survivors—I gleaned the updated information on the rest of the Longstreth children. The oldest daughter, Helen, was listed with her married name, but I eventually discovered that there were other records indicating she had once gone by a previous married name.

Delving into that detail, I noticed Helen's first husband had also died young. In 1951. You might have thought that would be enough of a clue to prompt me to dig further into this seeming coincidence—car wreck, perhaps?—but if it weren't for someone sharing a story on, which in turn was gleaned from a blog post on a skating site, I probably would have missed the story behind those two untimely deaths.

Helen's first husband, Ernest Howard White, was a twenty four year old employee at Goodyear who was also taking flying lessons at the local airport. His part-time flying instructor, who also worked as a detective for the Akron police department, had been approached by a young woman who needed someone to fly her to Milwaukee. She was on a tight schedule but needed to get to her destination quickly.

The flight instructor rented a four seater from the company where he worked. Along with his student Ernest White—who invited his brother-in-law James Longstreth, home visiting family during a college break, to join them—the three men were ready to transport figure skater Helen Fishbeck to her new job in Milwaukee.

A rising star in the figure skating world, Helen Fishbeck had recently auditioned to become part of the show at the Ice Follies touring company. The company was now stopped in Milwaukee, about to begin rehearsals for their opening night on March 29, 1951. Helen Fishbeck had just completed her most recent contract obligation—as a skating coach in Akron—on the morning of March 25, before boarding the private plane that afternoon, anticipated being in Milwaukee in enough time to make her first rehearsal with the Ice Follies the next day.

But for the weather that afternoon, the plan would have worked perfectly. A few minutes after takeoff, heading for clear skies only a few miles beyond, the plane encountered problems in a cloud bank. Witnesses later said the plane dropped from the clouds, tried in vain to level off, ended up shearing through roadside trees for another half-mile along its ill-fated path before a wing and propeller broke loose, landing its occupants at a distance in a twisted mass of metal.

Helen Lois Fishbeck never made it to her first appearance on stage with the traveling Ice Follies in Milwaukee, nor did her three traveling companions return to their respective families waiting back in Akron. While I did learn the explanation for the strange coincidence of the same year of death for the two young brothers-in-law, the discovery was one of those moments which takes one's breath away, even this many years afterwards. I had to stop, in a silent moment of respect, for the losses those families sustained all in a flash so many years ago.

While the thought that, had this not happened, a relative connected to my family tree might have been a fellow employee along with a relative in my mother-in-law's tree would have been a novel discovery, the realization of what actually happened was of such magnitude that it so far eclipsed such a research finding. It certainly transported me, through space and time, ridding me of the role of name and date collector to one of near-witness by proxy to a family's devastating loss.   

Friday, October 8, 2021

Identity of a Woman in the Background


It is so helpful when family members share in the effort to piece together a family history puzzle. One of the older siblings might have memories from childhood not previously shared with any of the younger family members. A cousin might have inherited special family photos. Sometimes, the full story of generations past only comes to light when each descendant shares the sliver of the composite picture that fell his lot to receive.

So it is, now, with our process to discover "Mary"—the one found in the 1910 census who once was called Marianna Laskowska. As I go back through the few old photos shared with me from one of my older cousins and my oldest sister, I begin to wonder about a tiny, frail woman who seemed only to appear in the background. In one photo from my sister's collection, she was drawn outside into the daylight, standing in a grouping with my grandmother, my aunt, and two other people I didn't recognize. In another photo, sitting indoors on what looked like a wheelchair, she was seen cradling what looked like a doll. Was this Mary?

Arriving in New York City from the port of Hamburg, Germany, in 1889, Mary was not quite thirty six years of age. Traveling with her three young children, they had left their home in Żerków, a small village in the western portion of what is now Poland. It is doubtful that Mary spoke anything other than her native tongue, a detail we can verify with a brief glance at the 1920 census. While that same enumeration revealed that, once her family was grown and gone, Mary did take a job outside the home as an "operator" at a shirt factory, chances might have been good that she would have needed little English to carry on her duties there in the heart of Brooklyn.

Perhaps it is little wonder that in her later years, Mary seemed to recede into the shadows. When I pull out the few pictures I have of the Laskowski family and see that unnamed woman in the background, I still wonder, was that Mary? Unless I am able to find an as-yet unknown distant cousin who knows the identity of these unknown connections to my paternal grandmother's family, there are not many people left from that generation to fill in the answer to that question.

Above: Photograph from the collection of a now-gone relative, including two unnamed people plus my grandmother Sophie and her daughter Anna on the right; could the woman second from the left have been Mary?

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