Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Trail to the Past: What I Know Now


Pushing our way back through the generations is the goal of every family historian, but that task is more complicated for some stories. Mine is one of those messier stories.

This month, I'll be reviewing my past progress in discovering the roots of my paternal grandmother, Sophie Laskowska. Because she was born in Poland—but I didn't know that—tracing her roots put my first steps on a huge learning curve.

A second research handicap was a lack of personal knowledge: Sophie died before I was even born. Not only did I never meet her personally, but I never even saw pictures of her. My father never spoke of her. He never even mentioned her name.

While others may be able to dip into a treasure trove of oral history shared by family members, I was not even a penny-pinching genealogist. I started with almost nothing, as far as clues to get me started. So I started my search with my own father; at least I knew his name. That, at least, illustrates a principle in family history searches: start with yourself, and move backwards through the generations incrementally, cementing each step of the way with documentation.

Finding my father in his parents' home, I could then glean information about each of those parents. What I didn't know then—but have learned by now—was that my father's parents, when I first found them, went by an alias. I have yet to find any actual court record permitting a change of identity for my paternal grandfather, but much like before-and-after pictures, I caught glimpses of a family before a certain date going by one surname, then—presto!—after that date, appearing under the surname I inherited in a subsequent generation. I guess, in a way, you could call me nameless, for that surname really wasn't the true family name.

Even though I have yet to find the marriage record for Sophie and her husband, I was fortunate that after her marriage, she and her husband lived in her parents' apartment in Brooklyn, New York. They stayed there long enough to have given birth to my father and his sister before obtaining their own home. Discoveries like these made me a true believer in examining every document on a family's timeline—every line, every detail for every step of the way. Every federal and state census, every newspaper report, every vital record I could find made it into the collection from which I assembled the mosaic of Sophie's story.

I learned from passenger records that Sophie, her mother Marianna, and her older brothers Johann and Miczislaus set sail for New York City from Hamburg, Germany, on February 3, 1889, to meet her father Antoni Laskowski in that brand new world. I found confirmation of that event—plus the detail that Sophie's brother had red hair—from Johann's (now John's) naturalization records. And I eventually learned from Sophie's father's 1935 death certificate that Antoni's parents' names were Mateusz Laskowski and Elżbieta Gramlewicz. Most importantly, I discovered that the Laskowskis came from a tiny town in the Polish region of Poznan called Żerków.

Then came the past few years, when I discovered some online Polish resources. To use them, I had to learn some key words in Polish—and more importantly, learn how the Polish pronounce what to the American eye looks like jaw-breaking consonant combinations.

Despite acquiring these few research tools, there is a long way yet to go on this Laskowski research trail. After all, to have found Mateusz and Elżbieta means that now I know the names of my second great-grandparents. For those researchers who can trace their American ancestors back to colonial times, that is barely a start. For those researching immigrant roots, though, the path to discovery can be an uphill struggle.

My first task, then, will be to review the Polish record sources I've found in past research cycles, then visit those online resources to see whether anything new has been added to their collections. Then, hopefully, we can add to what is already known about Sophie's parents and grandparents. After that point, we'll push into the frontier, so to speak, and see what else might now be available for those of us researching our Polish roots.

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