Wednesday, October 25, 2023

To -ski, to -ska . . . or Not at All


It may seem odd, jumping through the litany of possible family names for Aunt Rose, to be so convinced that her mother was a Zegarska and her father a Puchała. After all, in the few documents in which I've been able to pin down the family identity, Rose's mother was identified as Anna Zegars—with no "-ski" and no "-ska"—and her father as Puchałski. Which one to believe?

Years ago, when it was still possible to do so, I had sent away—the snail mail way—for my grandfather's death certificate. He, being Rose's brother, would have had the same information on his death record as she would have in hers—if, at this point, I still could send away for hers in a timely manner. While we have to remember that, at the point of a loved one's death, the farthest thing on the bereaved's mind would be to recall the deceased's mother's maiden name, genealogists typically look to this record to provide such information.

In my grandfather's death certificate, the answer to that question of mother's maiden name was: Zegars. Note here the absence of any sign of the typical suffix "-ski" which was normally attributed—at least in English-speaking countries—to surnames of Polish origin. Nor was the proper Polish designation of "-ska" for women included. His mother's maiden name was given simply as Zegars.

It took a DNA test, years later, to discover that Zegars was not entirely correct. That name was indeed missing a few letters. When I stumbled upon match after match with people who descended from women named Zegarska, that was an indication that my Anna must have also been part of that family. There was no other possible relationship. But why would the reporting party on my grandfather's death certificate eliminate those three final letters to his mother's name?

Let's look at the other side of this family: Rose's possible father. If, forgetting about those false leads about someone named Julius, we go back to Rose's likely baptismal record in her Polish homeland, we find the surname listed as Puchałła. Double-checking with her parents' own marriage record, her father was listed as Puchała.

And yet, once the family arrived in New York, the only records in which I could find my grandfather listed presented the name as Puchalski or Puhalski. Where did the -ski come from?

My confusion only became amplified when I looked at the history of the evolution of Polish surnames. In a Wikipedia overview of Polish surnames, the suffix "-ski" was used to define affiliation to something, such as a place of origin or a possession of territory. This, of course, was generally reserved for use by nobility. By the 1800s, though, the merchant and even peasant classes began adopting use of the "-ski" suffix—something which occurred during the lifetime of both Anna and the man who eventually became her Polish husband. 

Their two surviving children, Rose and Theodore, born in the 1870s, would have been eyewitnesses to that change. Whether they were aware in their childhood of the significance of that change—or even the fact that it was happening at all—I can't say. That Theodore represented himself, once arriving in America, as Puchalski rather than simply Puchała, as he had been documented in his native land, pummels me with many questions. Yet if he consciously changed his name by adding the "-ski" suffix once in New York, how is it that his family removed that same status symbol from his mother's maiden name at his death? 

Perhaps by that generation, the family had no idea what that change meant.


Image above: Transcription of the 1868 marriage record for Anastasia Zegarska and Thomas Puchała courtesy of the Pomeranian Genealogical Association, which can be searched here.

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