Thursday, November 30, 2023

Searching for John and Agnes


Felix Aktabowski's 1905 death certificate in New York City said his parents were John and Agnes, but you can be fairly sure this American immigrant's parents did not really go by those names. And while that same document stated that Felix came from Russia, that information conflicts with other records found in New York City. Let's just say searching for my Uncle John's father-in-law has been a quest riddled with surprises.

Take this one discovery, tossed my way by's hints department: an eighteen year old immigrant arriving in New York City on August 7, 1883, reported to be from Russia. Included in the arriving passengers and crew list for the Fresia, the corresponding German record drawn up when Anton "Achtabowski" sailed from Hamburg on July 25 added one more detail: Anton was a former resident of "Plock, Russland." 

While I can't yet say whether this was our Anton—a.k.a. Felix—I do know that at about the time our Anton would have been born, the partitioned part of Poland including Płock was under Russian occupation. Thus, it would make sense to see this Polish-born man listed in government documents of the time as coming from part of Russia.

While this Anton "Achtabowski" may have resided in Płock before starting his travels, there were certainly no families documented by that surname—including its many spelling variations—in the Masovian province where Płock is located. However, records for the province to the northwest—Kujawsko-Pomorskie—where we've been looking show different results.

So what about our Felix Aktabowski's supposed parents, John and Agnes? If they were Polish residents of the area surrounding Płock, despite Russian occupation, rather than John and Agnes, their names were more likely to be Jan and Agnieszka. Add Felix's mother's maiden name—Derkowska, for the feminine version—and we might actually be able to find some information.

While the search results at Geneteka showed no one by the name Felix or Anton Aktabowski, I was able to locate four daughters of a couple by that exact name, Jan Aktabowski and Agnieszka Derkowska. There was Anna born in 1852, Weronika born in 1855, Rozalia born in 1857, and Apolonia born in 1859. While only two of the daughters were born in the same place—Wałycz—all four were born in nearby villages within the county of Wąbrzeźno.

That there was no listing for Anton or Felix could have been the result of many factors. Of course, these may not have been the right parents, despite having the same names—though I have failed to find any other provinces containing these names among their residents. Or the website Geneteka may not yet have transcribed his baptismal record. The family may have moved once again to another province, which I have yet to locate. The spelling of the surname—or the handwriting used to record it—may have been so abysmal as to mangle the entry entirely.

And yet, though I can trace no generation previous to Jan Aktabowski, Agnieszka Derkowska is a different case. For her own baptism, I've found a possible date in 1828, showing her as a daughter of Jan Derkowski and Katarzyna Unijewska. This discovery leads again to a full listing of siblings whose records are also transcribed at Geneteka in that same province.

The research project that started at the beginning of this month with a doubtful attempt at exploring the roots of Uncle John's wife, Bronisława Aktabowska, did indeed burst farther that I thought possible through some long-standing brick walls. I'm certainly not finished yet, but this month's exercise demonstrated that if we are patient and willing to revisit past research failures, a fresh look at a later date can indeed surface new material. 


Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Going—Surprise!—Straight to the Source


Searching for any information on Uncle John's immigrant father-in-law was difficult. Not only was the man's surname incredibly easy to mis-spell, but he seemed to switch between two very different given names, as well. In all the birth records I've been able to find for his children, he was identified as Anton or Antoni Aktabowski. But for the few official census records in which I've been able to spot him, he went by the name Felix Aktabowski.

Confusing the issue—and any hope of finding him in his homeland before immigration—was the fact that some of those records stated he was from Poland, and others from Russia. In fact, while the 1900 census stated his country of origin was Poland, tagged along with that answer was the abbreviation "Russ," possibly indicating that was the actual language he spoke. 

Missing from the records I've been able to access, either on or at, was the actual copy of Felix Aktabowski's death certificate. Ancestry provided a transcription which gave his date of death as December 6, 1905, and the place as the old Kings County, New York, former name of the New York City borough now known as Brooklyn.

Of course, transcriptions never provide all the information on a document—and usually the missing part is the very detail we want to know about more specifically. Keep in mind, I had already located one province in Poland which had several Aktabowski families listed in baptismal and marriage record transcriptions at the Polish genealogy website Geneteka—but without confirmation of Felix's parents' names, that discovery is meaningless. I needed to find a way to see the actual death record—the whole record.

When I find transcriptions at or, I like to look at the notes for the record set to glean information on the source upon which the transcriptions were based. Going back to the notes for the Ancestry source—the New York, New York, U.S., Extracted Death Index 1862-1948—and scrolling down the page to "Source Information," I could see the original data was provided directly from the New York City Department of Records.

Even better, scrolling farther down the page to the "About" section, I spotted this note on obtaining records:

Visit the Department of Records/Municipal Archives website, (click on family history research) for information and instructions on how to view and/or obtain copies of death records identified in the index....

Notice those instructions included the phrase, "how to view." Yes, view—as in, possibly, actually, you know, see the document for myself. Right now. No stamped, self-addressed envelope. No waiting six weeks. And best of all: no tap dance to send some type of special check because the twenty-first century convenience of using a credit card would be future shock to government officials.

For those of you who have kept up with the victories on behalf of genealogists by the nonprofit organization, Reclaim the Records, you already know that New York City was one of their first projects. (For those who relish reading the blow-by-blow of this judicial victory, see here for the recounting.) The outcome of that effort was the release of city records up through the mid-1900s.

Including Felix Aktabowski's death certificate.

Though I had known about the victory gained by Reclaim the Records on behalf of all of us researching our roots in New York City, what I didn't realize was that, strangely prompted by the court experience, the New York City Department of Records and Information Services decided to set up their own website to share the wealth. It was there, on their own website set up for this purpose, that I was able to search for Felix's death certificate.

Though parents' names given on such documents are only as reliable as the memory of the bereaved reporting party suddenly tasked with recalling such information, I'll take the answers as a clue to guide me in further research. With that, I'm off to discover what I can find, back in Poland, for a couple by the name of John Aktabowski and Agnes Derkowski.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Code-Switching for Polish Genealogy


I know, I know: code-switching is a current buzz word for far more than the example I want to examine today, but bear with me. Researching Polish roots becomes an exercise in code-switching, once you realize the geo-political implications inherent in the country's history.

I'm thinking in particular of the fallout of what was once called the policy of Germanisation. In addition to changes impacting the very face of Polish cities through colonization policies and cultural changes, the names of Polish towns and cities were changed in the wave of language policies. In other words, a form of code-switching existed for Poles during that time in their history which still affects how we do genealogical research today. 

I had already realized that quite some time ago when I stumbled upon the recording error revealing Aunt Rose's foreign origin. At first, when I read the name of Rose Kober's home town in the 1920 census—"Schwartzwald"—I had taken the translation literally as the famed Black Forest region in southwestern Germany. It took me quite some time to realize that Schwarzwald was the politically correct term (at the time) for the tiny town of Czarnylas, as it is now called in Poland, which Rose once called home.

Now that I'm searching for any sign of Felix Anton Aktabowski, Uncle John's father-in-law, back in his native Poland, I'm being reminded of that need to geographically code-switch once again. Looking over the towns and church parishes I had found yesterday via the website Geneteka, I'm learning that the place names now showing in the website are not the same names that were used when government and church officials drew up the documents I'm interested in seeing from the mid-1860s. Why? It was again time to code-switch.

So Wąbrzeźno, site of one parish in which Aktabowski names appeared among baptismal and wedding records at Geneteka, would not be the name I would seek, if looking for microfilmed records at Rather, I should look for a place called Briesen.

Fortunately, guided by results from Google searches, I discovered an entry at a website called, which provided a way-finding list of microfilm numbers for specific entries in church records for Briesen—now Wąbrzeźno. Sure enough, film number 7947667, as the website mentioned, delivered just what I was looking for: records of the Katholische Kirche Briesen. Added bonus: as long as "tauten" means baptismal records, the film for the dates I'm seeking is not limited in viewing privileges at this date. I can start searching through the documents now, as soon as I set aside a chunk of time to do so.

Remembering that ever-present code switching requirement as I work my way through my Polish ancestors' history will help me identify which towns might have been their place of origin—called, back then in their lifetime, by their German place names rather than the names traditionally and currently used by their Polish families.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Will Those Wriggling Borders
Ever Stop Moving?


What do you do when you only have a few days left to find the answer to a family history mystery? 

No, I won't panic, but I do feel like I'm striking out into the deep, or as if I'm searching for a needle in an enormous haystack. What I'm looking for is any indication of where Uncle John's father-in-law might have been born. In the process, I've already discovered there is one thing working against me: those wriggling, squirming European borders, which make it hard for me to pinpoint in time just where an American immigrant may have originated.

Uncle John's father-in-law had a surname which I thought would surely stand out in the field of Polish possibilities: Aktabowski. Of course, I needed to keep aware of all possible spelling permutations. I had found Achtabowski—a variation which seemed favored by those of this surname who emigrated to Chicago area—as well as Aktaboski, without the "w," and even Aktaba, dropping the typical -ski suffix.

On top of that search issue, Uncle John's father-in-law also appeared in various records with either the name Felix or Anton. Plus his country of origin was sometimes said, in American census records, to be Poland, while other times it was noted as Russia.

Yet, looking for any actual records produced nothing, even when I took the cue from that 1940 census error for his widowed wife Aniela, telling me she was originally from "Plotz." Checking the Polish website Geneteka, there were no births, marriages, or deaths for any residents with that surname for the province which included that city, Płock.

Still, I thought perhaps I could put the search engine at Geneteka through its paces, and struck out—this is the needle-in-haystack part—looking for the surname Aktabowski in each individual province. I wanted to see whether there were any regions in which the surname seemed to congregate.

There was, indeed, one province where I found several Aktabowskis listed, from the time period beginning about 1830--for possible marriages of Felix Anton's as-yet-unknown parents—through 1899, just in case some siblings remained behind when he made his immigrant leap across the Atlantic. That province, according to Geneteka, was called Kujawsko-Pomorskie—or, as we might say in English, the Kuyavian-Pomeranian province.

Or maybe that's not entirely so. Looking up the history of the province—you know I always need to do that—I discovered that it was formed by political edict on the first day of January, 1999. Not very long ago, to say the least. Certainly not back when Felix Anton was born. Now what?

I went back to Geneteka to check on the Catholic parishes listed on the readout for Aktabowskis in that province. For births—more likely, these were baptisms, despite the website's labeling as births—the page included not only the name of the church parish, but also the specific place where the parish was located.

That helps. Now I can consult a map and see where the town might have been situated, back when the borders were more like the political geography for 1863—when Felix Anton was likely born—than for 1999, when the currently-named province was established. I want to know a bit more about this region rich in possible Aktabowski kin. I certainly need to know just where the borders settled—if only for a moment—at the point at which Felix Anton's family acknowledged his birth.

Unfortunately, this needle-in-haystack method will not tell me much more than whether I have a high or low probability of finding any Aktabowskis in one province over another. Right now, at least according to Geneteka, the only province showing records for that surname would be the current-day Kujawsko-Pomorskie. But knowing that may point me in the right direction for my next step in discovering more about Felix Anton Aktabowski, and where he came from to arrive in New Jersey and raise his family in New York City. 

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Oh, the Things You Can Do . . .


This weekend, while taking care to stay far from any urban shopping magnets, I spent some time working on my family tree. My primary focus has been to build out the branches containing descendants of collateral lines, since my firm belief is that siblings of our brick wall ancestors can grant us the end run around our chief genealogical tackle.

Enter genetic genealogy, and that discovery not only fuels the raison d'être for collateral lines (at least in my opinion), but it opens my eyes to possibilities I'd never have dreamed possible, as far as discovering my family history might have gone. Consider DNA testing and my mind lights up with possibilities. Oh, the things you can do when these technology-driven tools become your research assistant.

I'm thinking first of all of an email I received just before Thanksgiving Day, inviting me to express some thankfulness for the many people sharing their discoveries on the universal family tree at Top of the customized list featured someone FamilySearch claimed was my tenth cousin, researching someone named Marianna Wojtaś, who just happens to be my second great-grandmother. 

Marianna, being my father's father's mother's mother, would not be the type of discovery which an mtDNA test might lead me to, nor someone for whose male relatives my brother's Y-DNA could uncover. Her genetic legacy lies smack in the messy middle of what we can only hope autosomal DNA might uncover—if, in fact, I inherited any of her genetic legacy at all and any of her other descendants tested their DNA as well.

Looking at one particular record this FamilySearch contributor shared shows me that, indeed, there are several scanned documents among those mentioned that I should review, the next time I head to a FamilySearch center or, for that matter, the main library in Salt Lake City. For that lead, I am definitely grateful.

That is the result of the work of only one of many contributors mentioned in that personal email to me. Inspired to discover what new program might have prompted this correspondence, I found an entry posted on the FamilySearch blog, describing a new feature on their website called "Your Impact." If you have a free account with, you can log in and see this new option on the drop down menu under the "Get Involved" tab.

Those who have done volunteer indexing for FamilySearch—even contributions going back ten years ago—can see examples of how their work has helped other researchers answer some of their family history questions.

As for this fresh discovery of possible digitized Polish records for my mystery grandfather's roots, you can be sure I'll be exploring that further. Researching these Polish ancestors, once I managed to discover them—not an easy proposition, given my grandfather's reticence to reveal his roots—has been a slow process in these last two monthly projects in my yearly Twelve Most Wanted

Granted, I managed to add 261 names to my family tree in the past two weeks, but other than a very few Polish-American cousins, the bulk of those identified relatives came to me owing to a separate DNA project of mine, ongoing since the beginning of this year: to chart all my Tilson kin. With that more fertile research field, my tree has now grown to 35,729 individuals. On the flip side, no work on my in-laws' tree means zero progress on their 34,031-person tree—but their turn will come next spring and summer.

No matter which side of the family I turn my attention to, though, the cache of digitized records available, plus the ability of DNA testing to help guide us to kin—known and unknown—still leaves me in awe of what we can do now in the genealogy world.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Lost to Antiquity?


Yesterday, I was reading an intriguing article posted on the BBC website. It was about Tyrian purple—not the color itself, but the entire process of producing the dye that colored materials so remarkably as to remove them to the sole domain of royalty and the powerful (or, as we'd say in our day, the rich and famous). Ever since the fall of Constantinople, the craft of producing the dye—and with it, the entire merchandising of the fabric it yielded—has been lost to antiquity.

The very name itself—Tyrian purple—harkens back to biblical days, with "Tyrian" referring to the ancient Phoenician city-state of Tyre, and calls to mind the saga of the Apostle Paul's journey to the Roman colony of Philippi where he met a woman named Lydia, a "seller of purple." According to the BBC article, Tyrian purple was worth more than three times its weight in gold, making it a pricey commodity, indeed. Yet, for all that notoriety, it seems no one today is quite sure of how it was originally manufactured.

There are many aspects of the ancient world lost to us, but it doesn't take antiquity for items we consider precious to be lost. I'm thinking now of a footnote affixed to a transcribed index of original deeds and land grants of the Watauga Purchase, in the region which included what became Washington County, Tennessee. According to that explanation at the very end of the index, page 112 of the original Deed Book A included this handwritten note:

The chrystian name of the grantee in ye Deed from Robison to fitzgarald appears to be lost by the wearing of ye paper....

Makes me wonder what else might have been lost "by the wearing of ye paper" over time. I'm thinking particularly of my Tilson ancestors, who likely moved to the area after those original deeds were drawn up, but certainly by the earliest years of the 1800s. Or for their earlier forebears, who settled in the pioneer regions of southwest Virginia long before that time. For that matter, what about all of us whose genealogical losses over time might have involved those oft-mentioned courthouse fires or other disasters?

Just like the inquisitive researcher featured in the BBC article on re-discovering a craft lost to antiquity such as the making of Tyrian purple, we are seeing inventive researchers come up with ways to discover our roots which in the past we may have felt were lost to time. Genealogical "archaeologists" are digging up past records which were once inaccessible, or illegible, or otherwise considered irreplaceably lost, and piecing together stories we thought we'd never learn. It's an exciting time for those of us yearning to discover more about our ancestors and their past. 

Friday, November 24, 2023

Entering Bah Humbug Season


Normally, I simply adore the Christmas season. There is one exception though: Black Friday. For that least of holiday pleasures I take my cue from Ebenezer Scrooge and say bah humbug! I stay as far away from that day as I can—whether online or in town. In other words, you can count on me to stay hunkered down in my own cozy home for the next twenty four hours or so.

What do I do in the meantime? Pull out all the holiday decorations, of course. There is much work to be done in the next few quiet days before the December schedule is in full force.

Not to say that is all that I will be doing. One bright side to Black Friday sales has been the ever-decreasing prices on DNA kits. In fact, it was during a Black Friday sale that I snuck online once—years ago—to snag a good price on an autosomal test kit because one of my mtDNA matches asked me to take that test everyone else does first. Seems I always do things backwards.

In memory of taking that first autosomal test for myself nine years ago, perhaps as I hunker down for this Black Friday, it would be so appropriate to spend my time in seclusion, reviewing all my DNA matches. After all, there are still a lot of unsolved mysteries out there. And this would be just the season to see some of them resolved.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Sticking With the Traditional

After spending the past two months pondering over my Polish roots, the thought occurred to me: what are the traditional Polish foods that I've been missing out on? After all, most "hyphenated" Americans still talk about the comfort foods of their childhood. All the Italian-Americans I've known since growing up in my neighborhood wax rapturous about their grandmother's top-secret recipes. The same seemed to go for any of the other neighbors from recent immigrant status. My family? Not a peep about favorite foods from their childhood. Of course not; they were flying under the radar, trying to look like traditional Americans.

So for my childhood, despite having an undercover Polish-American father who loved to cook, events like Thanksgiving were, well, traditional. Taking great care to prepare a delectable turkey dinner, my parents included the dressing, the gravy, the cranberry sauce, the mashed potatoes, the candied yams much like I suspect all our neighbors did on that same day.

This year, after delving deeper into my Polish roots, I began wondering just how a Polish-American might put a twist on the traditional meal, so I took a look online for suggestions. There were indeed others whose musings on the same topic translated into interesting recipes. One online source provided some "Polish-inspired ideas" for a twist on the traditional Thanksgiving meal. Another writer who actually is Polish, but married an American, was inspired to introduce her relatives back home in Szczecin, Poland, to the American custom—then thought of fifteen different recipes which would "Polish" the traditional Thanksgiving fare.

Though the photos accompanying such articles make me hungry to try them, as for this most traditional of American holidays, I think I'll remain close to the same recipes I've repeated year after year. These, too, have become a tradition of their own as we re-invent them to suit our own purposes and taste buds.

No matter which way you choose to celebrate this day of giving thanks, I hope you enjoy it with loved ones who bestow meaning to the season for you—and in remembrance of those whose choices have brought you to where you are today. Whether we ever learn their full story or whether they kept the secret to themselves until the end, they are part of what makes us what we are.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Filling in the Blanks


Searching for Uncle John's mother-in-law has been only a partially successful effort. While I've found some records on Aniela Zielinska and the family she and husband Felix—or Anton—Aktabowski raised in Jersey City and New York City, there are large gaps in that paper trail. Filling in the blanks has become harder than I would have expected, even given the opportunities for misspelling a surname like theirs.

For instance, while I could find transcriptions of birth records for the older Aktabowski children and a digitized copy of the 1900 census after their move from New Jersey to New York, Aniela disappeared from federal census records beyond that point until the 1940 census—and then, once again, from any mention from that time forward. Indeed, if it weren't for widowed "Nellie" Aktabowski's appearance in New York State enumerations with her remaining children in the interim, she would have vanished from my view entirely.

Vanished, that is, except for one strange detail: a New York City municipal marriage license index in 1908 for one Aniela Aktabowska and a man whose name was carefully written as Joseph Sadzriewicz.

The curious thing about a surname such as this is that I have not been able to locate it in any records digitized in a number of online resources. Instead, I've found records for Sadziewicz, or Sadzewicz, but not with that "r" inserted in the middle of the surname. In fact, though I looked in a number of newspaper archives, the only version in which I could find that surname in that time period was in a Lithuanian newspaper, Lietuva, located through the Old Fulton New York Post Cards website.

Yet, in state census records after that supposed marriage date in 1908, I could find Aniela in the enumeration for 1915, still under the name Aktabowski. Without being able to locate anything more on that 1908 marriage, I had no way of knowing the ages of the bride and groom to guide me in guessing whether this might be our Aniela, or someone much younger. This was, after all, New York City where a population of that size was sure to present many opportunities for name twins.

Still, I wasn't able to find any death record for Aniela under the name Aktabowski, either. I was stuck, not knowing whether to believe that marriage record was for our widowed Aniela or for another bride.

That's when I remembered that odd entry on the Social Security Application completed by her son Gustave. 

The form had shown Gustave's mother's name to be Nelly Sagwit—an odd entry, given that Aniela was likely born in Poland, a place where a name like "Sagwit" didn't seem to fit.

Deconstructing the information on the transcription, I already knew that some of her sons had changed their name from Aktabowski to Hark, supposedly because they were trying to market themselves as stage performers. Gustave was already using that shortened, Americanized surname by the time of the 1930 census, and certainly when he completed his World War II draft registration card in 1942. So Gustave Hark was certainly Aniela Aktabowski's son. Despite Gustave's father's surname being spelled with a "u" instead of a "w," that was not a problem, and seeing his father's name given as John instead of Felix—his dad died when he was eleven years of age—can be overlooked.

But Nelly Sagwit?? That was a puzzle—until I considered how Polish pronunciations might sound to American ears. The American treatment of the suffix "wicz," for instance, has easily been misunderstood as "witz"—which if omitting the "z" could end up as "wit." 

That's the easy part. The "Sag" might seem a bit more of a stretch. What the "dz" in Sadziewicz might have sounded like—to a less careful ear—could have been a soft "g," somewhat like the word "judge." Could some clerical worker have heard the name pronounced and interpreted the first syllable to sound like "Sadge"—but compound the problem even further by writing only the "g," which we then read as a hard consonant, literally like sag-wit?

While I considered that possibility, I popped over to FamilySearch which, as one reader has already commented here, sometimes provides more complete transcriptions of retracted documents. Sure enough, there was the typewritten version of Aniela's 1946 death record from Brooklyn, filed under the surname Sadzewicz—close enough to convince me that it was our Aniela who had married Joseph "Sadzriewicz" back in 1908.

Though the death record had provided her burial place as Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, I have yet to find any confirmation of that information—but I'll keep looking. As death records go, I'll also keep in mind that the names given for her parents—Felix and Anna Zielinski—might have mistakenly swapped the reporting party's father for that of the decedent's. But I now have far more than I did when I began this search a month ago.

And that's a start.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Just Passing Through?


Today is one of those days when looking—and then looking again—produced nothing of note. Now that I've found a possible birth entry for Uncle John's mother-in-law Aniela Zielinski near the Polish hometown she revealed in the 1940 census, I can't find anything further on her parents. It is almost as if they had stopped in Radzanowo to have their baby, then picked up as if they were just passing through.

You know I'd be game to search further for this Aniela's possible siblings—if, indeed, her parents were Josef Zielinski and Anna Kwiatkowska, as the transcription at Geneteka seemed to indicate. After all, finding such a cache of information only required that I repeat the search steps using the two surnames of her parents to find any likely siblings. From that point, I could fast forward a couple decades to explore census records in Jersey City where Aniela had settled after immigrating to the United States.

Search results: nothing.

Just in case this Aniela Zielinska was not our baby, I double checked this mysterious absence of any siblings by looking in the readout for deaths, both hers or possible siblings. Nothing. about marriages for any couples named Zielinski and Kwiatkowska? Nothing related to her supposed parents, Josef and Anna.

On and on it went, conjuring up any possible searches which might reveal anything about the extended family. Any clues. Anything.

At the close of the session, besides becoming frustrated, I gained nothing...except a list of where I already had looked and what I had tried to find. That, I suppose, is valuable, if only to prevent me from repeating those searches again in the future. Or maybe trying again might work to my benefit on another day.

At least for today, I can say I may have broken out of the research rut where I had been stuck. I do have a possible family grouping for Aniela. Why the family disappeared, I can't say. I can guess that maybe the family moved somewhere else in Poland, or possibly all moved to America, or maybe all died except orphaned Aniela. There are so many possibilities, it is hard to say at this point.

However, there is one more research question I need to attempt: the question of where Aniela's husband was born. Aniela married a man whose given name has been listed alternately as Felix or Anton. The fact that his surname was unusual—Aktabowski—was counterbalanced by the difficulty of rendering that name in writing. Sometimes, the "w" was there, sometimes not. The first syllable was sometimes spelled "Ak" and sometimes "Ach." Lots of variables to play with mean that finding his roots will present another challenge—one I hope to work on in our last remaining week of this month's research project.

Before we grapple with that puzzle, though, there was one other detail about Aniela herself that I need to confirm: the possibility of a second marriage. We'll take a look at what I've found—and what's still missing—tomorrow, before heading into the Thanksgiving holiday. 

Monday, November 20, 2023

Try it Again


I knew this before, but it took a bit of research difficulty to remind myself that this is useful to practice: if at first you don't—yeah, I know you are saying it along with me—try, try it again.

That's what I ended up doing when I couldn't find any birth records for Aniela Zielinski, Uncle John's Polish-born mother-in-law. I couldn't tell from American records—probably gleaned without the help of a fluent translator—whether her maiden name was Zelinski or Zielinski. I couldn't tell what her year of birth might have been, since the only two census records in which I could find her didn't agree (born in 1861 versus 1869). And looking at the only Polish website I could find which offered any records for the region where she might have lived—Geneteka—gave me no options.

So I went back and looked again. 

Of course, I had inspiration. I looked at for the very microfilmed record set which Geneteka had mentioned for Płock, and realized once again how much I need to take a vacation to Salt Lake City—or at least my nearest FamilySearch Center. Finding what I thought might be the records of birth, marriage, and death for Płock—or, more specifically, the akta urodzeń, małżeństw, zgonów—I scrolled through the search results to locate Catholic Church records.

What I found was that the record set was actually, according to the notes, a civil transcription of Roman Catholic parish records. Further notes warned me that, rather than having to gear up for deciphering handwriting drawn up in Latin, the transcriptions were written in Polish—and, after 1868, handwritten in Russian.

Not to worry: scrolling down the listing of each individual microfilm, I quickly saw that lock and key icon. I couldn't have looked at the files, even if I could understand Polish or Russian.

But keeping my new mantra "try again," I kept scrolling down the list of film numbers. As I scrolled, the key icon magically gave way to several camera icons without any sign of restriction. I was free to look!

Since Aniela's death record gave her year of birth as 1871, that was the first film I took a peek at. What I saw might have been beautiful handwriting, but it was clearly not in Latin. I was pretty sure it wasn't even in Polish. I've never seen a handwritten version of Russian, but that was what I thought I was viewing. I closed the window and tried something else: thinking again. There just has to be another way.

That's when it struck me: go back and try the Geneteka website again. And I did, thankfully. First, I learned that, when a website offers the button labeled "clear," take them seriously, even if it seems redundant. Then, I tried several different ways to search the collection. I experimented with Zelinski versus Zielinski—hint: there weren't any entries for that first variation. I broadened the search to a fifteen kilometer radius. I played with the date option. I even tried looking at Aniela's married surname Aktabowski, to see if her husband had come from the same region (apparently not). 

After several iterations—and I have no explanation for this—returning to my original search terms of Zielinski and then the feminine form, Zielinska, the website gifted me with two pages of results. Why it was so generous with this iteration, I can't say, but I'm glad I tried it again. This time, out of all the entries, there was one—and only one—line containing the given name Aniela.

Born in 1865, this Aniela was the daughter of Józef Zieliński and Anna Kwiatkowska. They were from a small town called Radzanowo. Northwest of the city of Warsaw by what today would be considered a moderate commute distance, the village was within the fifteen kilometer (or nine mile) radius of Płock designated in the search terms at Geneteka.

Could this be our Aniela? I can't say for sure yet. At least on this one of many tries, it was the only option, but perhaps that is my warning to try it all again another time. However, it certainly is worth taking a closer look.


Sunday, November 19, 2023

Staring Down the Holidays


For someone who is still wondering whatever became of October, I'm afraid I can't cope with facts like the fast-approaching holidays. What? Is it Thanksgiving already? I'm not sure I can run fast enough to outpace the calendar pages as they flip from today's date to the start of a new year.

And "Black Friday"? In the constant effort to outsell each other, companies are pre-selling their pre-holiday sales. The day after Turkey Day, I'll be helping my husband prepare his traditional turkey broth to stock our freezer, but even if I weren't busy that day, I'm certain I'd be staying far from the center of town.

Used to be, I'd look forward to the annual genealogy-related sales, such as price reductions for DNA test kits—the more in the family who test, the better—but now, I'd much rather have those family members' company than their DNA sample. It's the people and their stories that count the most for me.

In hopes that the harried pace of life can slow for just these few weeks, I'm looking forward to recalling the traditions our families valued at this time of year—the kind of rituals which were passed down through the generations because they meant something to the people we loved. While those loved ones may be gone now, we can still keep their memories with us whenever a moment sparks that recollection of what our they appreciated the most about the holidays when they were still with us. The stories, the songs, the smells of pies baking or the scent of freshly-cut pine branches: each of them becomes a messenger reminding me of memories of the people who once made the holidays so special to me.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Emerging From Post-Pandemic Paralysis


Yes, I know the pandemic is long past and seemingly far behind us, but sometimes I wonder if we still haven't shaken off its effects, at least as far as our local genealogical society meetings have gone. In the case of our own local organization, we retreated early, once the lockdown had been trumpeted, and began holding our meetings online within that first month. Now, almost four years after the news broke about a strange disease with worldwide implications, our group is still mostly conducting its meetings online.  

The option to connect, if only virtually, seemed a lifeline at the time, back in 2020. It was good to "see" each other, if only in pictures the size of a high school yearbook snapshot. But after the novelty wore off—and the pandemic wore on—it seemed the awkwardness of meeting on camera kept people stilted and formal in their interactions. Conversations on camera just can't handle the give and take of conversations in real life.

Thankfully, it seems like we are finally awakening from our slumber, at least at our own local organization. Bit by bit, we've added in-person events—mostly of smaller groups of members, gathering in person to talk genealogy over coffee, or work alongside each other at the reference section in our downtown library. That's when the magic started happening again. Like perennials emerging from a long winter's reign, we seemed to thaw and get back to the normal give-and-take of just being us, together. We were no longer paralyzed by the interface of technology; we were just us, face to face, being ourselves—not our feeble attempt at looking like a television newscaster on screen.

After the hard work, month after month, of re-introducing the fresh air of in-person meetings, at this week's regular genealogy meeting, while still broadcast online, we were fortunate to have a speaker with inspiring ideas. After the presentation was finished and the question-and-answer session drew to a close, people just seemed to want to mill about, chatting—much like we would have done, pre-pandemic, when we met in person. Someone mentioned an idea inspired by the presentation, which prompted another person to comment further. The conversation evolved, gently, quietly, building through a bit of brainstorming until arriving at a suggestion for another idea for getting together to work on our research together.

While in the past three years, we've offered several online "Special Interest Group" opportunities to members, I hardly can imagine a response occurring during the post-pandemic online season like this after-meeting afterglow at our most recent meeting. Even though we think we are over the pandemic, I don't think we comprehend just how completely everything has changed since that event. Think about it: when was the last time you gave a friend a hug—without thinking twice about it—when you got together?We are all still getting re-acquainted with each other, even though we've seen each other online or even in person for all these months. The specter of what could have been is still with us—is still changing us.

While I certainly have no advice on how to move forward, especially given that we are once again entering winter flu season, I think just being aware of how we've all changed may give us a toehold in standing our ground regarding where we are now, and where we need to move in the future.

Somehow, we need to—people want to—re-integrate with each other in ways that are personally meaningful and allow social interaction beyond just being able to see each others' faces on a screen. We can't just cave to the "convenience" of attending meetings online without an outlet for the personal connection which makes life meaningful. Yes, it represents risk—and calls for extra effort—to get out and meet with people again, but it's in the face-to-face interaction where the magic of interpersonal connection begins. And I think that's what our societies are missing right now, as for our local communities we as genealogy organizations dwindle in membership and meaning.


Friday, November 17, 2023

Exploring a New World


While Uncle John's in-laws may have entered a New World when they immigrated to the United States, as I trace their lines back through time, the Old World they left becomes a new world of research for me. All I have to go by, so far, is a mistaken entry in a 1940 census enumeration which tipped me off that Aniela Aktabowski—back then, known by her maiden name of Zielinska—may have come from Płock in Poland.

When I am entering a new-to-me research location, my first stop is to see what others have found as useful online resources, so to Cyndi's List I went. Indeed, under the heading for Poland's births, marriages, and deaths, I spotted a few possibilities.

While I have used Polish websites for specific branches of my father's family, I've found most of them concentrate their efforts on a specific region of the country we now know as modern Poland. For instance, there is the Poznan Project, where I found transcriptions of Uncle John's own parents' wedding in their hometown of Żerków. Then I needed to use a different Polish website to find genealogical records on my paternal grandfather's own roots in a different part of the country known as Pomerania; for that, I used the Pomeranian Genealogical Association to access transcriptions from a parish in the tiny village of Czarnylas.

Now, however, I was moving into an area I hadn't researched before. I was curious to see which websites might guide me as I looked for records in yet another region of Poland, the city of Płock in what is called the Masovian province. From Cyndi's List, I selected the website called Geneteka, and zeroed in on "Mazowieckie" on the website's map.

Fortunately, the city of Płock is also the name of the Roman Catholic diocese of the area. According to the key at Geneteka, the ample date range for births ran from 1581 through 1891, tempting me to entertain visions of pushing back multiple generations in this Zielinski line.

Not so fast, I discovered. Entering my search terms for either Zelinski or Zielinski—plus double checking with the feminine versions of each of those surnames—I found several birth records, but eleven out of the twelve possibilities were all children of one couple, Ludwik Zielinski and Małgorzata Zaleska. Worse, their most recent child was born in 1864, while our Aniela was reported to have been born closer to 1871. 

The last entry in that listing was for a child born in 1909. Even repeating the search to include nearby parishes within a fifteen kilometer radius didn't add anything pertinent. Painfully, I spotted one child's name: Bronisława, same as Uncle John's wife, but had no way to determine whether that might have been an ancestor.

Though none of the online options I found through Cyndi's List seemed to fit my current search—everything seemed geared to specific regions only, not a nationwide resource—it did require me to make several trips back and forth to Google Translate. While I can't say the steps that finally led me to find this one page—you try your hand at reading legalese in a language like Polish when you can't even understand it in your own native language—by hunting, pecking, and translating, I found a website page specific to archival records which included the city of Płock.

Scrolling down that page, what should I find at the start of the scanned images but the familiar way pointer for the typical microfilm: "Microfilmed by the Genealogical Society, Salt Lake City, Utah."

One hardly needs a translation service for a place card like that. Welcome home. Now to find whether I can locate the same records on a website I'm far more familiar navigating.


Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Hunt and Peck Method


When all the usual research methods yield no answers, what's next? Two options are thinking things through, and making a methodical review of all resources already available. I call that the "hunt and peck" method, going page by page through all the available possibilities.

In the case of Uncle John's mother-in-law Aniela, I was fairly certain her maiden name was some sort of spelling variation of Zielinska. I already knew by her husband's answers to the 1900 census that the couple had been married in 1887. Since their first child, Benjamin, over the years had reported his place of birth alternately as New Jersey or New York, that answer causes us problems in trying to determine just where Felix Aktabowski might have met and married Aniela. However, second-born Bronisława, Uncle John's future wife, was born across the river in Jersey City, New Jersey, as were several others of the Aktabowski family.

I wondered whether there were any family connection to Jersey City. Was it just a job that drew Felix to move the family there, or did either he or Aniela have relatives who lived there?

I have an ulterior motive for asking such a question. If Felix married Aniela after their immigration to the United States rather than beforehand, how—and where—did they meet? The "after" scenario would also mean that Aniela would have been a single woman when she took the long ocean voyage from her native country to the New World. While there have been some exceptions, in that time period, it was far more customary for single women to travel with others, such as family members. Could Aniela have come to New Jersey with other Zielinski relatives?

I started looking in census records for Hudson County, where Jersey City is located. This is where the "hunt and peck" method comes in, because I have no idea who such relatives and traveling companions might have been. I simply entered the surname Zielinski—or, alternately, the spelling as Zelinski—and limited the search to Hudson County, paying particular attention to any families by that name living specifically in Jersey City.

Since Aniela reported arriving in America in 1886 according to the 1900 census, I was delighted to discover that New Jersey did indeed conduct an enumeration in 1895, the closest I was going to get to the date of her arrival. However, searching that record, the only name approximating her maiden name in that 1895 census was that of a Zelinsky family whose ages, best I could decipher from the record, could have made the head of household eligible to be a brother to Aniela, but without further information, it was a very tenuous link. 

The New Jersey enumeration for the next decade provided several more possible connections. There was a Zelinski family whose heads of household could well have been of an age to be Aniela's own parents. A different Zielinski couple could have represented an older brother—as could yet another couple. In fact, with a county population at that time nearing 387,000 people, with a bit over 200,000 belonging in Jersey City alone, searching for any surname by a hunt and peck method might reveal little more than vague clues, if even that.

As I stumbled along, trying to find answers from what is already available online, I did discover that the ongoing work of Reclaim the Records might have benefited me in my search for birth and marriage records in New Jersey—except that the earliest date I could find in their cache of Freedom of Information victories in that state was 1901. I'd need to push back a few years before that date to find Aniela's marriage record or Bronisława's birth record.

With that realization, I thought maybe now would be a good time to transfer my hunt-and-peck efforts across the ocean to see if I can find any possibilities in Aniela's theoretical home in Płock, Poland.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Icebergs, Disappearing Ancestors,
and Bright Shiny Objects


What to do when an ancestor seems determined not to be found? That appears to be the case for Uncle John's in-laws, Felix and Aniela Aktabowski.

Times like this remind me of a poster I saw years ago, produced by the California Genealogical Society. It proclaimed, "Internet is just the tip of the iceberg." As the poster stated, most research is accomplished—still—in other places. It's just convenient and fortunate to find online in digitized format the document we are seeking.

Now that I'm looking for some actual paperwork assuring me of the marriage of Uncle John's in-laws, I'm beginning to think I may have to travel to Hudson County, New Jersey. Or maybe even New York City. Somewhere in that vicinity, someone holds the records for the marriage of Felix Anton Aktabowski and his bride Aniela.

Or perhaps I just need to look further online.

I began my search with a record transcription at for the birth of one of the couple's many children. As it turned out, the transcription was for Uncle John's wife, Bronisława, herself—but you couldn't have figured that out from the transcription. The diacritical mark on the "l" was misread as the letter "t" and the "n" must have been written in old-style European handwriting, which appeared far more like a "u"—and, in fact, was transcribed as if it were indeed that other letter. So, only because Aniela's own name was included in the transcription, I realized the birth record was for Bronisława, not "Brouistawa."

Not to nitpick transcribed records—though I do encourage finding the actual written document, not just someone's interpretation of difficult-to-read handwriting—but I bring up this entry for one reason: the identification of the source from which the record was drawn. "FHL Film Number," the last line in the transcription above, refers to the actual identification of the microfilm I'm now seeking, which can be found by going to the catalog page on the website.

That, indeed, was my next step: to see whether that number was still a viable identifier. As it turned out—thankfully—it was, and the number brought me to an entry in the catalog for "New Jersey index to records of births, marriages, and deaths, 1848-1900."

Perfect. Now I'm in business, I thought. Clicking through that catalog entry, I reached a page with further information, including the size of the collection (279 microfilm reels) and the originating repository (the Bureau of Archives and History for the state of New Jersey). 

Right away, red letters above the fold caught my eye: "New Jersey marriages are available online, click here." Being a sucker for Bright Shiny Objects, that is just what I did, and fell down this rabbit hole. End of story: I couldn't find Felix and I couldn't find Aniela, no matter how I searched for their information, modified the spelling of their names, or experimented with wildcard characters. 

I looked further. Perhaps this was an incomplete record set, excluding the very county I was seeking. So I clicked on the box labeled, "How to use this collection" and wound up somewhere else down the rabbit hole—or perhaps whisked away to some other location in the ether. This new strange world was an entry in the wiki, explaining more about this particular record set. Scrolling way to the bottom, I discovered there were other links for marriage records, and tried my hand at clicking away on those other options for results.

For some reason, that approach didn't work, so I retraced my steps back to that original catalog page for the New Jersey births, marriages, and deaths. After all, my original purpose in coming to this resource wasn't to find marriage records, although that would be a possible step; it was to discover a way to find the birth record for Bronisława which had been indicated from that transcription I first found at (And don't say you haven't fallen down such rabbit holes, yourself!)

Wouldn't you know it, but if I had just ignored those red letters and scrolled down to the end of that original catalog entry, I would have found the entire listing for each of those 279 reels in the collection I was seeking. And while each entry bore the lock and key icon, designating them as items only viewable at the Family History Library, an affiliate library, or a nearby FamilySearch Center, it meant that I could eventually get to search through the collection to find what I am seeking on not only the marriage of Aniela and Felix, but also the births of those of their children born in New Jersey—which was most of the family.

While I am not able to get to a FamilySearch Center in the next week or so, there are some other options available to me—and certainly much less of a research wild ride down the rabbit hole. Noticing dates of arrival for this immigrant couple in that same U.S. Census for 1900 which inspired me to look for the Aktabowski marriage record, another approach could be to look for passenger records. Furthermore, since I noticed that Felix arrived in the United States about five years before Aniela did, that could mean that she stayed with relatives after her arrival in New Jersey, before her marriage to Felix. I could look for any sign of possible family members—Bronisława's grandparents, perhaps—who also lived in New Jersey during that time.

Although each of these may seem like small steps—which might also be wrought with the possibility of leading nowhere in this research trail—it is worth a try to see what might come up if I take that approach next.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Retracing Steps


When it turns out that no further information materializes for a brick-wall ancestor, what do you do? In my case, looking now for wedding information on Uncle John's parents-in-law, I've been drawing a blank, so now it's time to review what documents have already provided details on their lives. It's time to retrace my research steps.

One reason for this is the need to confirm Uncle John's mother-in-law's maiden name. Last week, we discovered that Aniela—or Nellie, as she preferred to call herself in later years—may have come from a city in Poland now known as Płock. While that may have been a fortunate discovery, the trouble with searching for birth records in an ancestor's home town is that, at least for searching women, I need to know what the person's birth surname might have been. In other words, I am now looking for a viable maiden name for Aniela Aktabowski.

To find this, there are two research routes I can take. One is to look at the record of Aniela's marriage to Felix Aktabowski. The other is to examine the records left by her children which might include details about Aniela's maiden name.

I can already say that the latter search option has left me with doubts. For instance, the death certificate for Aniela's daughter Theresa—the one who married an Italian immigrant who changed his surname from Cappadona to Captain—reported Aniela's maiden name to be Kordecka. However, I am fairly certain that the reporting party for that death certificate—Theresa's husband Thomas Captain—was not present at Aniela's marriage, let alone her birth, so that response is already in question.

Further convincing me that Kordecka might not have been the right answer—yet creating another puzzle—are the records left behind for Aniela's other children. A transcription from the Social Security Applications and Claims Index entry for Aniela's son Gustave reported her maiden name as Nelly Sagwit. While memory of an aging son may have been impaired if he completed his paperwork for the recently-created Social Security toward the end of his life, I suspect handwriting issues and transcription problems may have conspired to create such an unbelievable response. Thankfully, several other children's records—mostly from their birth—agreed that Aniela's maiden name was more likely to have been something like Zelinska or Zielinska, in its proper feminine form according to Polish tradition.

While I will certainly keep those other two possibilities in mind—both Sagwit and Kordecka—my next quest is to find any confirmation of a Zielinska or Zelinska in marriage records from about 1887, the year indicated in the 1900 census as the possible date for the wedding of Felix and Aniela.     

Monday, November 13, 2023

I Miss 1890 — or Maybe I Don't Have to


Casting about for a way to wriggle past genealogy brick walls to solve a family history research problem, I'm suddenly realizing how much I miss 1890. Not that I ever was around then, of course—my dad's Uncle John might have been, but he was long gone by the time I got here. But it might have been nice to refer to the document, even if I could have questioned Uncle John about his Aktabowski in-laws.

In 1890, John's wife Bronisława would have been a mere toddler, living in Jersey City with her parents, her older brother Benjamin and perhaps even her younger brother John, who was born early that very year. But the main point would have been to see what was said about her father, Felix, and her mother, Aniela. These parents of American-born babies were themselves immigrants from a border-morphing region sometimes described as Poland—but more often labeled Germany or Russia or even the now non-existent Prussia.

No matter how much I'd wish to see that census record which has since been charred beyond recognition, the choice is simply not mine to make. Other than some veterans' records and a few other bits and pieces, most of that extensive record of the expanding United States population at the beginning of that decade is lost, other than—wait for it!—tantalizingly, enumeration of the Jersey City residents of Hudson County, New Jersey, now preserved on roll 3 of the microfilmed surviving fragments.

You're kidding me, right? This is not the supposed only-veterans-records-were-saved message so many people have read. Talk about lucking out: the very city in which the Aktabowskis settled after immigrating here turns out to be the one place in the metropolitan area where a sliver of the lost record of 1890s America still remains. What are the chances of something like that happening?

However, considering that the fragments of the saved general population schedule include only about six thousand names, and that the population of Hudson County at that time was well over two hundred thousand people, it would still be a long shot to find my Aktabowskis within those surviving slivers. Still, it would be worth a lark to grab a copy of the index for the surviving few, itself preserved in a two-roll microfilmed set at the National Archives. Then it would only be a matter of finding a repository holding a copy of the actual microfilm to look for my Aktabowskis.

I think better of such slim chances, though, and revert back to the documents I do have. Though the 1905 New York State census—where the family had moved after those early years in New Jersey—didn't offer much clues about the family's history, the earlier national enumeration did. Reviewing that 1900 document once again, I saw that the couple reported they had been married for thirteen years, giving me a target of 1887 to research for marriage records.

Given that detail, plus the discovery last week of the over-zealous enumerator who included the city as well as the country of birth for Aniela, it's about time to dig further into local records of that time period, both for the supposed New Jersey wedding of the senior Aktabowskis, and the much-earlier birth record for Aniela herself, back in Poland.

Family research is sometimes a bit by bit process, going back to review the little details which had slipped from our view in previous forays, and using those discoveries to push forward yet another tiny step of a very long journey.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Following the Twisted Trail


Delving into the details on the many branches of our family tree may lead us down twisted trails, but what we find can be so helpful in unraveling the mystery of some unexplained DNA matches. Come next March, I will have been puzzling over some of those DNA cousins for ten years now. While some recent developments in tools have made the search easier, it is primarily one specific habit I have instituted which has made a great deal of difference for me: I build out my family trees with all collateral lines, including the descendants of those lines, up to the level of sixth cousin.

With my weekend project of examining all my Tilson cousins, that has been a helpful habit for identifying the multiple matches which I've finally been able to link to that line. While the process still requires confirmation with documentation—and the farther back in time I go, the harder it gets to come by such records—almost all of my Tilson matches have now found their place in my extended tree.

As a corollary, that means those family trees are ever expanding. Since I appreciate celebrating mile markers, every two weeks I've made a note of my progress. By now, after so many years of work on this task, the numbers almost seem mind boggling. I assure you though, each name has been added to its respective tree, one individual at a time, complete with several links to documents to confirm the identity of the right person for that place in the family.

Today, since I've been working on my own family tree (rather than that of my in-laws), I'm celebrating another 318 individuals added to that tree. The tree, combining the weekend work on the Tilson DNA matches with my weekday work on my father's challenging Polish roots, now includes information on 35,468 individuals. Sometimes the progress unfolds excruciatingly slowly—for instance, when I can't find a way to access Polish records—but other times, such as tracing Uncle John's in-laws once they arrived in New York, the work can move along quite quickly.

Finding the right tools for each task can make progress on this research path go much more smoothly. Revisiting my old standby research friend, the Old Fulton New York Post Cards website—how could I have forgotten that?—turned out to be a gift, now that Blanche's Aktabowski siblings have been the focus of my work. At another time, a different resource may rise to the occasion of providing answers to questions which had stymied me. Having a research bag of tricks with multiple tried-and-true resources can help move along the process.

While absolutely nothing was done on my in-laws' tree—it stands frozen in time for nearly a month now, ever since a wedding on that side of the family added a few names in mid-October—that, too, is a healthy tree, with 34,031 documented names.

Eventually, as we close out this year and look forward to new projects for the next year, I'll draw up another "Twelve Most Wanted" list for another year of research, and I'll return to working on that side of the family tree. But for now, reviewing each collateral line on the Aktabowski tree to look for further clues, and exploring new resources for Polish records online with take up the remainder of the time leading up to my next biweekly review.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Getting Along With the Long S


It can be hard enough trying to track down an ancestor in previous centuries without having to consider changes in the everyday customs and conventions we take for granted. Handwriting, for instance, is one of those constants that we presume will always remain the same—but doesn't. In continuing my months-long pursuit of Tilson ancestors for everything from DNA matches to admittance into the Mayflower Society, I've run into a snag regarding that very detail: time-bound conventions of handwriting and what is called the "long s."

This all came to the forefront as I was reviewing the last of my Tilson DNA matches at's ThruLines tool. Less than a month ago, I was close to wrapping up confirmation of those matches descending from my fourth great-grandfather, Peleg Tilson. Having only a few more to review, I was working on the descendants of Peleg's daughter Mercy. According to the 1911 Tilson Genealogy drawn up by Mercer Vernon Tilson, Mercy had been born in Saint Clair, Virginia, and had married someone by the name of James Rigsbey.

Other than the instance of that one name, there were no further details provided in the Tilson book. At Ancestry, however, there was a hint leading to a register of marriages in Washington County, Tennessee, just over the state line from Saint Clair, Virginia, a location to which several of my Tilson ancestors had moved. The problem, though, was that the record for a groom named James Rigsby was coupled with a bride-to-be named "Mapy Gittson."

Looking more closely at the register, I noticed that the format included a preprinted "19—" in the section designated for the officiant's return. In other words, this was not the original document completed at the time of the August 7, 1807, marriage ceremony, but a modern transcription of older records.

I wondered whether handwriting might have been an issue for whoever had transcribed the record to the post-1900 register, and looked for the original document. As it turned out, the FamilySearch collection had several digitized versions of the transcribed record, but I finally found what appeared to be an original version (though labeled "Damaged Document(s)").

At first glance, it did indeed look like James Rigsby had married someone with the unfortunate moniker of Mapy Gitson. That, at least, was what the handwriting on the cover of the Washington County record seemed to read. Again, that could have been drawn up by someone at a later date, set to the task of organizing court records. But looking inside the cover, pulling up the actual document itself, the harried hand which drew up the record caused me to wonder whether something else was at play here.

In completing the document laying out the requirements of a marriage bond for the recently-formed state of Tennessee, the clerk seemed to be in a rush, judging from the scribbled first letter of each of the marriage parties' given names. Then, too, the "s" in the two entries of the surname Rigsby were so scribbled as to be barely distinct from the preceding letter.

Looking at the formation of the capital "T" for both the given name of the other man listed in the marriage bond—Thomas Rigsby—and the bride-to-be, the rounded cross stroke forming the top of the capital "T" in Thomas could have been the same stroke forming what had been interpreted as a "G" in the bride's maiden name. A stray stroke across what might otherwise have been the double "l" in an alternate spelling of Tilson—"Tillson"—could easily have been misinterpreted by a transcriber as "Gittson."

More than that, though, I wondered whether the convention once dubbed the "long s" might have come into play when the clerk filled out the blanks in the marriage bond form. The "long s" had a specific list of rules for usage, especially for typeset documents.

Admittedly, for the preprinted portion of the form, in not one instance was that writing convention included; for American forms of that time period, there was already a shift away from the decidedly British convention. For handwriting of that time period—which had a separate list of rules of usage than that of the typesetting norms—I have seen appearances of the "long s" well into the nineteenth century. Perhaps old habits die hard.

Basically, the "long s" was a letter quite similar in shape to the letter "f." The difference between the "long s" and a regular "f" was that the crossbar of the lower case "f" went entirely through the downstroke, whereas for the "long s" it only protruded from the left side of the letter. In addition, in the cursive format of the "long s" the bottom curve goes to the left, whereas for the regular letter "f" it loops around to the right before ascending to form the next letter in the word to be written.

Considering that, I wondered whether "Mapy" was actually a sloppily-contrived "long s" combined with a second "round s" as often happened in handwriting of that time period. It was already obvious that the clerk who drew up this document was rather rushed in forming the "s" in Rigsby, so it could be possible that he was writing "Massy" for the bride's name, mis-hearing the actual name, "Mercy." Or perhaps the accent of the time might have softened the "r" sound so much as to be less audible than we would pronounce it today, thus leading to a misspelling of the bride's name.

No matter what the cause for this odd rendering of the bride's name—whatever it might have turned out to be—the "long s" in handwritten documents was a convention that I have seen well into the 1800s in court records, long after it was considered outdated for printed formats. Still, that leaves me with the burden of finding records to support such a hypothesis. For any further written material referring to James Rigsby's wife by name, I can find none. So far, I've looked for his will, burial records, and other likely places where the woman's name might have made its rare appearance, without any results, positive or negative.

The only encouraging sign I can find so far is that this couple chose to name their son Peleg, a Bible name which, though not seen often in our current time, did make a showing during that time period. In fact, it was a name which appeared more than once in the extended Tilson family of that generation. More importantly, Peleg just happened to be the name of Mercy's father—an encouraging sign for those of us wondering just who it was that James Rigsby chose to marry in Washington County, Tennessee, back in August of 1807.

Image above from the collection of Washington County, Tennessee, Marriage Licenses, 1787-1950, Bonds 1787-1950, image 1784.

Friday, November 10, 2023

That's Not What it's Supposed to Say


The main reason I've been poking around newspapers and documents this month for Uncle John's Aktabowski in-laws is because I'm trying to determine just where the family originated. Uncle John's wife Blanche was born in New Jersey, but where was her mother born? I've found conflicting information on Aniela—or Nellie, as she was listed in many documents after she moved to New York—so I'm trying to gain some solid confirmation of the true location of her roots.

After retracing my research steps from the first point at which I had found young mother Aniela up until nearly the point of her death in 1946, I could find little more than the conflicting information that she was born either in Poland or in Russian territory. However, it was in the 1940 census that I spotted something. At first, staring at the document, I thought, "That's not what it's supposed to say"—but then I realized how much such clerical errors have turned out to help me in the past. I remembered how I discovered my own grandmother's birth in "Posen," thanks to an error in the 1920 census, and figured it might turn out to my benefit to follow this unexpected error on Aniela in the 1940 census.

The "error" in the 1940 census was in the tiny box where the enumerator was supposed to enter the answer to the question, "In what place did this person live on April 1, 1935?" In no way could I explain why, for so many of the other residents in Aniela's neighborhood, the answer was correctly entered as "same house" and yet, for Aniela's own household, the answer was entered differently. It was almost as if the enumerator had gotten confused with the previous question—place of birth—and had followed through by asking not only the country, but the city or town of birth, as well.

That, as it appeared to be for many immigrants on the street where Aniela lived, was what had happened. There were entries for towns all across Eastern Europe on that page, when I'm fairly certain only a fraction of those respondents actually did live in those far-flung places only five years earlier.

For Aniela's widowed daughter Blanche, the "five years ago" answer was Jersey City—the same place, coincidentally, where Uncle John's wife had been born. For Blanche's unmarried daughter, also called Blanche, the answer was strangely correct: "same house" in Brooklyn, New York. But for Aniela—who was listed as born in Poland this time—the "five years ago" entry became "Plotz."

Yes, I know that's not what it was supposed to say on that line in the census form, but I'll take a mistake like that and run with it. I've already discovered that the place the enumerator referred to as the city of Plotz is actually a city in central Poland currently called Płock. The city's long history included significant roles within the Polish monarchy, annexation into the kingdom of Prussia and, in the 1800s, control by the Russian empire.

Learning that overview of the city's history helped clarify one possible reason why Blanche's parents were sometimes reported to have come from Russia, and other times from Poland. Unlike the "error" I found in the 1940 census, those reports may well have been correct representation of the changing jurisdictions of the city of Aniela's origin.

Whether that turns out to be the correct birthplace of Blanche's mother, there is one other detail about Aniela which may help me move this research project one step further: I have information on her possible maiden name.  

Thursday, November 9, 2023

"But Mom, Everyone's Doing It"


After searching yesterday through archived New York newspapers to find any mention of Uncle John's in-laws using their assumed surname Hark, I decided to go through the whole process once more for the original surname, Aktabowski. After all, I might have missed something.

What I did miss was the sense that far more of the family had chosen to go the name-change route than those who opted to remain with tradition. Even in the families of the oldest of the Aktabowski siblings who had kept their original surname—John's wife Blanche's two oldest brothers—their own sons later decided to go with the more streamlined Hark alternate identity. There were so many who had preferred this sleeker image that I could imagine them all whining, much like complaining teenagers, "But mom, everybody's doing it!"

That, of course, meant that for each descendant, I needed to pinpoint just when the name change occurred. The problem with that plan was that I had seen very few of this family who appeared to have an official sanction permitting such a legal change. I had to go back and double check: just who can change their name, how can they do so, and where would I find such records.

In the process of this inspection, I found plenty of guidance online. There were case studies on difficult-to-trace sources of aliases. Getting closer to the crux of my own research project, I even found an article about the difficulty of tracing name changes among Polish immigrants. I found helpful tips from state archives, such as this article from the Massachusetts Archives on documents in their holdings specific to family history—especially their subheading on documents related to name changes

One way immigrants to the United States can officially change their name is through the naturalization process—but not all of the name-changing members of the Aktabowski family were immigrants. Many of them were native-born citizens, and had made the choice to change their name well into adulthood. The problem was, I just wasn't finding any record of such changes. 

Granted, according to the FamilySearch wiki on the topic, there are a few resources for searching through the court record index in the pertinent county location in New York. Ironically, the only Aktabowski in-law whose name change I could pinpoint to any court record was that of Uncle John's New York native sister-in-law, Theresa Aktabowski, who had married an Italian immigrant—Antonino Cappadona—who asked for a name change to Thomas Captain once his citizenship request was granted.

As for the one legal document I've been able to find referenced for any of the Aktabowskis themselves, it was through a newspaper report, just as an article at GenealogyBank had suggested. A son of the oldest Aktabowski brother had petitioned the court for a surname change to Hark. Gerard Aktabowski made that request in 1945, when he was twenty two years of age. But he didn't make it in the city in which he had been born and raised, but in Palm Beach County, Florida. If it hadn't been for that newspaper being included at—and my subscription linking that service with my Ancestry account—I would never have known to look for such a record in Florida.

The fact that so many of the Aktabowski family had changed their surname made for an interesting readout when the Queens borough Daily Star published the guest list for Uncle John's daughter Frances' wedding in its August 27, 1929, edition. Uncle John's Laskowski relatives' names mixed in not only with Frances' groom's Hanlon family, but with both Aktabowskis and Harks, and even editorially-incorrect "Horks" as well. At least now that I'm working on this branch of the family history, most of those are names I can pinpoint, regardless of the way each relative chose to represent that surname.

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