Off the Beaten Path: Finding Vital Records in the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek

For most genealogists, vital records create the backbone of a family tree, so it’s important for us to be able to locate the ones we need for our research. As a general rule, those of us researching Polish ancestors expect to find vital records in local registry offices, parish offices, state archives, and diocesan archives. However, it’s important to remember that sometimes, we find them in libraries or other repositories that are further from the beaten path. Once such library that’s recently come onto my radar, thanks to a tip from my colleague in Germany, Marcel Elias, is the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek, located in Herne, Germany.

Why Should I Care About This Library?

The Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek offers unique collections which can be accessed online, as well as those which must be accessed in person. As their website states,

“The collections of Martin-Opitz-Library, founded in 1948, cover the history and culture of Germans in East Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe. An emphasis of the collection is the historical eastern provinces of Prussia. It is the largest scientific library of this kind in Germany.”

The library holds church books—both Roman Catholic and Protestant—as well as a few civil registers, for a number of locations that may be of interest to those researching Polish ancestors. Locations include places in Warmia-Masuria, Silesia, Pomerania, Greater Poland, Galicia, and Volhynia, and online collections include both digitized scans (original sources) as well as abstracts and transcriptions (derivative sources). Many of the transcripts are found in the 62-volume collection known as the Hipplersche Kirchenbücher (Hippler’s Church Books). Dr. Erich Hippler (1892–1969) made complete transcripts of all the baptisms, marriages and deaths recorded from a number of parishes in the northern Warmia area, which encompass the period from 1485–1882. In some cases, the original books no longer exist, making these transcripts invaluable as a genealogical resource.

In many cases, the collections found in the Martin-Opitz-Library are complementary to those found in other repositories. For example, Roman Catholic parish books for Samoklensk in Kreis Schubin, known today as Samoklęski Duże in gmina Szubin in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship, are available in several collections which span the period from 1750–1830. These records predate the collections available from FamilySearch, which are images of original records held by the Archiwum Archidiecezjalne w Gnieźnie (Archdiocesan Archive in Gniezno) and include vital records from 1831–1951. (The end date of that collection is nominal; in practice, birth records are protected by Polish privacy laws for 100 years, and marriage and death records are protected for 80 years, which might explain why the more recent collections have not yet been digitized by FamilySearch.) For the parish of Giedlarowa in gmina Leżajsk, Subcarpathian Voivodeship, in the former Galicia region, the Martin-Opitz library has a collection of baptisms from 1787–1827. In contrast, FamilySearch has no vital records for this parish, and the Archiwum Państwowe w Rzeszowie (state archive in Rzeszów) only has 19th-century records starting in 1852 (plus some 20th-century holdings). Although the Archidiecezjalne w Przemyślu (archdiocesan archive in Przemyśl) can often be counted on to have collections of Roman Catholic church books for parishes in this area, even they only have records for Giedlarowa dating back to 1826, at least according to the Ekstrakty Metrykalne w Archiwum Diecezjalnem Przemyskiem, which is an old catalog of the holdings of this archive created by Fr. Dr. Jan Kwolek and published in 1928. Besides the vital records, the Martin-Opitz-Library offers an interesting collection of postcards from Łódź with a focus on 20th-century images prior to World War I; a Galicia-German Archive, a collection focused on Volhynian Germans, assorted maps, and so much more.

Since this is a German library, you’re likely to find places referred to by their German names, and you may be wondering how to convert those names to their current Polish equivalents. There are two good options for that. The first is Kartenmeister, where you can search Uwe-Karsten Krickhahn’s database of locations according to their German names, and the results will include alternate names for each place in Polish, Russian, or Lithuanian. The second option is the Meyers Gazetteer, where you can search for a German place name, then view the results on the map, varying the transparency so that the default, historical map fades into the modern map, revealing the current place name.

How Do I Search the Holdings of This Library?

You’ll probably want to search both the digital offerings and also the library’s catalog. I found it worthwhile to browse to the genealogy collections from the main page, since that method permits a bit of an overview of some of the different collections along the way. The library’s homepage is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Homepage of the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek.

Although the site offers options for English and Polish as well as German, those translation features are a little glitchy, as of this writing. For example, if you’re viewing a page other than the home page and you select “English,” the site kicks you back to the home page, rather than translating the current page. Nonetheless, if you click on “More Collections” (boxed in green), and then choose “Digitale Sammlungen” (digital collections), as shown in Figure 2, you can eventually get to the site’s “Familienforschung” (Genealogy) page.

Figure 2: The library’s Collections page. Digital collections are highlighted in the green box.

At any point during this process, you can always cheat and machine translate the page using Chrome as your browser. Right-click anywhere on the webpage, and the box shown above the blue arrow in Figure 3 will pop up, offering you the option to Translate to English. Alternatively, stick with German and click on “Familienforschung” (Genealogy), boxed in green, or browse first to some of those other collections that may be of interest.

Figure 3: Location of “Familienforschung” (Genealogy) in drop-down menu of digital collections.

Figure 4 shows the machine-translated version of the Genealogy page. You can also shortcut the process by navigating to this page directly.

Figure 4: The library’s “Familienforschung” (Genealogy) page, machine-translated to English.

Once you’re on the Genealogy page, you’ll probably want to view “Church records,” unless your ancestors happened to be from Reinswalde/Złotnik or Rogsen/Rogoziniec, both in Lubusz Voivodeship, or Zimdarse/Siemidarżno in West Pomeranian Voivodeship, as these are currently the only locations for which civil vital registrations are available online.

When you select “Church records” (or “Kirchenbücher,” if you’re continuing in the German original), you’ll have options to view the special collection of Hippler’s Church Books from the Warmia-Masuria region, Warmian church book films, or further parish registers. The Warmian church book films include digitized vital records from two locations, Mehlsack/Pieniezno in the present-day Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, and Tiefenau/Tychnowy in the Pomeranian Voivodeship. The further parish registers (“weitere Kirchenbücher”) consist of church books from 44 parishes (mostly Protestant) located throughout Poland today (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Subcategories within the Kirchenbücher collection, machine-translated into English.

Hippler’s Church Books and the Warmian church book films are really the highlight of this library’s digital offerings, in terms of vital records, because Dr. Hippler seemed to be intent on creating accurate transcriptions.

On Abstracts and Rabbit Holes: A Word of Caution

In contrast, one should exercise caution in using some of the books from the “weitere Kirchenbücher” (further parish registers). As an interesting example, I chose to examine the library’s collection of Roman Catholic church books, identified as being from Kazimierza Wielka from 1802–1845 (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Collection of church books from Kazimierza Wielka from the “weitere Kirchenbücher” (further parish registers) collection at the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek.

This collection consists of typed abstracts of the church books, as well as a 109-page alphabetized index of the individuals whose vital events are recorded in those books. Apparently, these abstracts are not complete, but were created selectively, aimed at identifying individuals of German descent, so the record numbers are not continuous, going from 4 to 6 to 54 and 55, as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7: Abstract of births for 1827 from the Roman Catholic parish of Kazimierza Wielka, from the collection of the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek.

Unfortunately, I hit a snag when I tried to find the original records that were abstracted here. Roman Catholic books from Kazimierza Wielka (located northeast of Kraków in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship) are digitized at GenBaza, which has images from the duplikat books (1810–1939), held by the state archive of Kielce (Archiwum Państwowe w Kielcach), as well as the unikat books (1690–1868) held by the diocesan archive in Kielce (Archiwum Diecezjalne w Kielcach). The duplikat books were created from the original church records (unikat) at the end of each year and stored in the archives of the district court, and for Kazimierza Wielka, many books from both the unikat and duplikat collections have survived. (More information on the practice of creating vital records books can be found here.) Unikat scans from the diocesan archive from 1690–1870 can also be found in Metryki, which makes them slightly more accessible than the scans in GenBaza since Metryki does not require a login. Moreover, records from Kazimierza Wielka are indexed at Geneteka (1670–1874).

With all those resources available online, it was easy to look up birth record number 4 from 1827 for Kazimierza Wielka from the unikat records of the diocesan archive in Kielce, and this is shown in Figure 8. That birth record was clearly not a birth record for Karoline Wilhelmine Emilie Bohr, as suggested by the typed abstract from Figure 7, but rather one for Błażej Czupierda, son of Kazimierz and Franciszka née Wrześniak.

Figure 8: Original church records from the Archiwum Diecezjalne w Kielcach for Kazimierza Wielka from 1827, showing birth record no. 4 with names of the parents and child underlined in red.

Figure 9 shows the duplikat version of this same record from the state archive in Kielce, and it, too, confirmed that the fourth birth recorded in 1827 in Kazimierza Wielka was that of Błażej Czupierda, not Karoline Wilhelmine Emilie Bohr.

Figure 9: Duplikat church records from the Archiwum Państwowe w Kielcach for Kazimierza Wielka in 1827, showing birth record no. 4 with the names of the parents and child underlined in red.

Since both of those original records agreed, the only logical explanation was that the parish had been misidentified. Mapa.szukacz.pl identifies 14 places within the borders of Poland today called Kazimierz. So which Kazimierz was the source of the abstracts held by the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek?

Closer examination of the other abstracted records in Figure 7 revealed references to other local villages that were presumably located within the parish, such as Krzywiec in no. 54, Rąbień in no. 55, and “Konst.,” in no. 4, where Karoline Bohr herself was born. Already deep inside the rabbit hole, I checked out Krzywiec and Rąbień in Mapa.szukacz.pl. There’s only one Rąbień in Poland and it’s near Łódź. Similarly, there’s a village called Krzywiec near there, and “Konst.” must be Konstantynów Łódzki. Lo, and behold, “Kazimierza Wielka” must be Kazimierz, presently located in gmina Lutomiersk, within Pabianice County, Łódź Voivodeship (Figure 10).

Figure 10: Map showing location of the parish of Kazimierz and nearby villages mentioned in birth record abstracts shown in Figure 7. Google Maps.

Having come thus far, I felt the need to confirm this location by finding the scan of the birth record for Karoline Wilhelmine Emilie Bohr, which was available online at Metryki (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Birth record no. 4 from 1827 for Karolina Wilhelmina Emilia Bohr, baptized in the parish of Kazimierz, which is presently located in gmina Lutomiersk, Pabianice County, Łódź Voivodeship (Figure 10).

If nothing else, this exercise really underscored for me the richness and abundance of historical records that are now available online, thanks to the efforts of volunteers from Polish genealogical societies and Polish archives. It also underscored the need for careful evaluation and understanding of source material for genealogical research.

Using the Catalog of the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek

As is true for most other libraries and archives, the digitized offerings available at the website of the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek represent only a small fraction of their holdings. To see what else they have that might be relevant to one’s research, it’s necessary to check the catalog. This can be accessed from the search bar at the top (“Suchen und Finden”) of the home page shown in Figure 1. Since this is a German site, I like to use correct German spellings for my search terms, as a rule. However, the search engine does not seem to be particularly fussy about diacritics. A search for “Kirchenbucher” came up with the same 1,779 results as a search for “Kirchenbücher,” and a search for “Krakow” returned results for “Kraków.” One thing that does not seem to be readily available is a complete list of parishes for which the library holds original books, whether digitized or not. Most librarians and archivists are extremely helpful, however, so a quick email is probably all that will be required in order to confirm the availability of collections that may be of interest.

Knowing where to find collections of historical documents that are relevant (or potentially so) to our research is important for all genealogists, and sometimes those collections may be found in places that are a bit off the beaten path. Poland’s tumultuous history and changing borders can make it even more challenging to locate records, and metrical books can sometimes turn up in surprising places, after being hidden from—or confiscated by—invading armies. When in doubt, professional, onsite researchers can be invaluable allies in our quest to locate records. In cases where originals no longer exist, derivative sources can help fill in the blanks. However, it’s important to evaluate them carefully, making an effort to understand why they were created, and by whom, and what originals were used in their creation. Hopefully some of you readers will be able to find your ancestors in these records from the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek. If you do, be sure to let me know in the comments. Happy researching!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Myth-Busting: What We Don’t Know About John Hodgkinson

In my last post, I summarized the basic vital data about John Hodgkinson, United Empire Loyalist (U.E.), that I believe is supported by evidence from the historical record. However, there are quite a few family trees out there that make some unusual claims and connections to this family, and offer no evidence to support those assertions. Today, I’d like to discuss a few of the common claims regarding the origins and immediate family of John Hodgkinson.

Let’s begin with a few of the most popular statements found in family trees pertaining to John Hodgkinson, U.E.:

  1. John Hodgkinson was born 29 November 1750 in London, England.
  2. John Hodgkinson was born 29 December 1753 in Mansfield, Nottingham, England to John Hodgkinson and Sarah Godley.
  3. John Hodgkinson was married to Sarah Carey Marle on 6 June 1781 in St. Leonards, Shoreditch, London, England.
  4. John Hodgkinson died on 26 October 1826.
  5. John Hodgkinson had other children besides the ones discussed previously (namely, Samuel, Ellender, Francis, and Robert).

Let’s examine these individually.

Statement 1: John Hodgkinson was born 29 November 1750 in London, England

Records from the Hodgkinson Family Burying Ground indicate that John Hodgkinson, U.E., was born in 1750 and died in 1832,1 but there is no specific birth date suggested by Canadian records, nor do we have any definitive evidence for where he might have been born. Certainly, as a Loyalist, he was living in the American Colonies prior to the start of the Revolutionary War, but that’s about all we know for sure. The lack of promising matches for John’s birth or baptism in indexed collections of American Colonial records suggests that there might be some merit to the hypothesis of a birth in England, however. Moreover, the Greater London area was something of a hotspot for this surname in 1881, based on the surname distribution map shown in Figure 1.2 Unfortunately, data for years prior to 1881 are not available, but assuming it’s safe (?) to extrapolate these data to the previous century, then we can infer that the Hodgkinson surname was also quite prevalent in Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, and Staffordshire at the time of John Hodgkinson’s birth. (The popularity within those counties varies based on the the specific parameter in consideration—incidence, frequency, or rank within the area.)

Figure 1: Geographic distribution of the Hodgkinson surname by counties in England in 1881. Darker colors represent higher surname densities.

Unfortunately, geographic surname distributions are not especially helpful at predicting a family’s origins when it comes to relatively popular surnames. It doesn’t matter if there were only nine Hodgkinsons living in Northumberland in 1881; if you can definitively trace your ancestry back to them, then you don’t care that the surname is relatively rare in Northumberland. So, while it’s entirely possible that John Hodgkinson, U.E., was born in London on 29 November 1750—and plenty of people seem to believe this to be true, based on all those online trees out there—there needs to be some evidence for this assertion, because that’s certainly not the only place he could have been born. In fact, a quick search of indexed records on FamilySearch for “John Hodgkinson” born in London, England in 1750, produces a slew of possible vital records from all over England. “Hodgkinson” is just not an especially unique surname, so it’s not clear to me how a certain percentage of the Genealogical Community at Large decided that this information was reliable.

Statement 2: John Hodgkinson was born 29 December 1753 in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, England to John Hodgkinson and Sarah Godley

This second hypothesis is perhaps even more popular than the first, and what makes it so intriguing is that some evidence is offered for this assertion. Several Hodgkinson trees online cite birth records for John Hodgkinson, William Hodgkinson, and a purported sister, Mary Hodgkinson, all baptized in Mansfield, and all of whom were recorded as children of John and Sarah Hodgkinson.3 Moreover, there’s a marriage record for John Hodgkinson and Sarah Godley, who are assumed to be the parents of these children.4 John’s “birth record” is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: John Hodgkinson in Ancestry’s database, “England and Wales Christening Index, 1530–1980.”

On the surface, these data fit the research problem nicely, and it’s very appealing to hope that this hypothesis might be true. Mansfield in Nottinghamshire lies squarely within that “Hodgkinson surname hot zone” shown in Figure 1. Although no maiden name was reported for the mother on the baptismal records of John (baptized 29 December 1753), Mary (baptized 6 April 1755), and William (baptized 10 April 1759), it’s logical to suppose that they might be siblings since the parents’ names are the same in all cases, and they were all baptized in the same place. The marriage of John Hodgkinson “Senior” and Sarah Godley in Mansfield England on 25 June 1752 would fit nicely with the timing of the children’s births, suggesting that this groom and bride might be the same John and Sarah Hodgkinson that were identified in the baptismal records. But how does this family group compare with existing data for the Loyalist Hodgkinsons?

Well, John’s baptism in 1753 is sufficiently close to his documented birth date of 1750 as to make this plausible, especially since the birth date recorded in the Hodgkinson Burying Ground records may have been calculated from his supposed age at the time of death, which may have been “off” by a few years. The structure of this family group is consistent with Canadian evidence indicating that John Hodgkinson was older than his brother, William, as well. It’s also possible that the Mary Hodgkinson identified in the baptismal record could be the “Mary Huskinson” who was recorded as the godmother to Ellender “Huskinson” in the records of the Dutch Reformed Church in Schaghticoke.5 However, if this hypothesis is correct, then William was baptized quite a long time after his birth on 12 August 1751, which is the date cited by the transcript of grave markers from the Hodgkinson Family Burying Ground.6 Could it be that he was actually born in 1751, but baptized as late as 1759? That seems unlikely, in light of existing evidence that the vast majority of babies were baptized within a week after birth in 16th- and 17th-century England.7 Nonetheless, exceptions did exist, and some families were more lax than others in baptizing their children soon after birth. Furthermore, if this were true for the Hodgkinson family of Mansfield, it would also help to reconcile that discrepancy between John’s date of birth according to his grave marker (1750) and his date of baptism.

Any time we find an “index only” record, such as these records for the baptisms of the Hodgkinson siblings and the marriage record for John Hodgkinson and Sarah Godley, it’s useful to go to the source and view the original documents from which the indexed information was taken. John Hodgkinson’s birth record was found in Ancestry’s “England and Wales Christening Index, 1530–1980” database, and the marriage record for John Hodgkinson (“Senior”) and Sarah Godley was similarly found in Ancestry’s “England and Wales Marriages, 1538–1988” database. As the source for the information in both these databases, Ancestry cites the British Isles Vital Records Index, 2nd Edition, published by the Genealogical Society of Utah (the progenitor of FamilySearch) as the source. So in this case, the source of the information is an index citing another index.

A similar situation occurs when searching for these individuals at FamilySearch. William’s and Mary’s birth records can be found in the database, “England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” and I suspect that John must be in there as well, although he was curiously absent in searches of the database, both broad and narrow. Mary’s search result is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Search result for Mary Hodgkinson, born 1755, in the “England Births and Christenings, 1538–1975” database at FamilySearch.

This particular database is one of FamilySearch‘s “Legacy” databases. Unlike collections of indexed historical records from one particular place, FamilySearch‘s Legacy collections are compilations of records obtained from a variety of sources, including user-contributed (i.e. unverified) data previously published in the International Genealogical Index (IGI). As FamilySearch cautions on their Wiki article about this database, “As this is an index of records compiled from various sources, it is strongly recommended that you verify any information you find with original records.

Where to find those original records? An easy way to do that is to click on the drop-down arrow for “Document Information.” This displays important information about the original source, as shown in Figure 4, including the digital folder number and the microfilm number.

Figure 4: Document information, boxed in red, for the baptismal record of Mary Hodgkinson, indexed in “England Births and Christenings, 1538–1975.”

FamilySearch has recently made some updates to their website, and that may be why some of the search features and links seem “glitchy” to me. You’d think, for example, that clicking on the microfilm number shown in Figure 4 would take you to the catalog entry for that film number. Unfortunately, it links instead to a “No Results Found” page in the Records search. That means we have to take matters into our own hands and navigate to the FamilySearch Catalog, and from there, choose “Search for Film/Fiche Number,” and then paste in (or retype) the film number, 503789. That brings up the page shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Result of the search for Film/Fiche Number 503789 in the FamilySearch Catalog.

This tells us that Film number 503789 contains Bishop’s transcripts from two different parishes in Nottinghamshire, Linby and Mansfield. Since the indexed entry stated that the Hodgkinsons were from Mansfield, we can assume it’s that second collection, “Items 2–3: Bishop’s transcripts, Mansfield (Nottingham), 1598–1903” that must contain the images of the baptismal records for John, William and Mary Hodgkinson. (In fact, as an alternative to looking up the film number contained in the Document Information, we could also search according to Place [Mansfield] in the FamilySearch Catalog and find the original images that way.)

Following through with either one of those methods will bring us to the page shown in Figure 6, which contains details on the available Bishop’s transcripts from the parish of Mansfield.

Figure 6: Detailed description and film/digital notes for the FamilySearch collection, “Bishop’s transcripts, Mansfield (Nottingham), 1598–1903.”

At last, our efforts are rewarded with the information that items 2–3 on film 503789 contain “Baptisms, marriages, burials, 1598–1760,” which is right where we would expect to find the three Hodgkinson baptismal records and the parents’ marriage record. Since the images are not available for home viewing, I had to visit my local FamilySearch Affiliate Library in order to obtain copies. Unfortunately, the original images contain no additional information beyond what was indexed. William Hodgkinson’s birth is shown in Figure 7 as an example.8

Figure 7: Baptismal record for William Hodgkinson from the Bishop’s transcripts of the parish church in Mansfield, 10 April 1759.

So what does this do for us in evaluating the hypothesis that John Hodgkinson, U.E., was baptized in Mansfield on 29 December 1753 and was the son of John Hodgkinson and Sarah, whose maiden name was probably Godley? As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out. Reasonably exhaustive research is one of the criteria required by the Genealogical Proof Standard before we can consider this hypothesis to be proven. While evidence from Canadian records may well have been exhausted, there may still be some insight that can be gained from deeper research in British records. Do John, William and Mary Hodgkinson “disappear” from British records, or can potentially relevant marriage or death records be found, which might imply that these individuals did not emigrate? Do the original parish vital records (not bishop’s transcripts) contain any information not found in the copies? Can evidence for the departure of John, William and Mary Hodgkinson be found in parish chest records from Mansfield? Can probate records be discovered for John Senior or Sarah (Godley) Hodgkinson, which mention children living in the American Colonies? Until answers are found to these questions, I think it can only be said that this is an interesting—and plausible—hypothesis in need of further research.

Statement 3: John Hodgkinson was married to Sarah Carey Marle on 6 June 1781 in St. Leonards, Shoreditch, London, England.

Moving right along, there are a number of family trees that contain the claim that the Sarah Hodgkinson who was married to John Hodgkinson, U.E., was in fact, Sarah Carey Marle (1782–1854). According to these trees, Sarah was the mother of Samuel, Robert, and Francis Hodgkinson of Grantham, Upper Canada. These claims originate with this marriage record for John Hodgkinson and Sarah Carey from St. Leonard’s Church (also known as Shoreditch Church) in London (Figure 8).9

Figure 8: Marriage record from Shoreditch Church, London, for John Hodgkinson and Sarah Carey, 6 June 1781.

This marriage record can be considered as solid evidence that a John Hodgkinson, widower, married Sarah Carey on 6 June 1781 in the presence of Mary Stoneley and William Burgess at Shoreditch Church, but it’s an obvious case of mistaken identity to assume that this record has anything at all to do with John Hodgkinson, U.E.. Sarah Spencer was clearly identified as the wife of John Hodgkinson in his land petition, and in 1781, John was presumably in active service with Butler’s Rangers, since they did not disband until 1784.10 It’s unlikely that he took a quick jaunt back to England to enter a bigamous marriage with Sarah Carey. Sorry, folks, you’ve got the wrong John Hodgkinson.

Statement 4: John Hodgkinson died on 26 October 1826.

John’s grave marker stated that he died in 1832, with no specific date given.11 He does not appear in the index of wills for Lincoln County, Ontario (1796-1918), which is good evidence that he did not leave a will, which might have been helpful in narrowing down a date of death.12 Barring the discovery of any previously-unknown church death records or newspaper obituaries, the date on that grave marker seems to provide the best estimate for John Hodgkinson’s date of death. So where does the date of 26 October 1826 come from? I suspect that this error stems from confusion with the date of death of John’s wife, Sarah Hodgkinson. There’s good evidence that she died in 1826; her death notice was published in the Farmer’s Journal and Welland Canal Intelligencer on Wednesday, 1 November 1826, stating, “Died…In Grantham, on Tuesday last, of dropsy, Mrs. Sarah Hodgkinson, wife of Mr. John Hodgkinson, at an advanced age. The funeral will take place at his residence tomorrow, at 12 o’clock, at noon.”13 Although “Tuesday last” seems to suggest the previous day, 31 October 1826, it could be argued that perhaps the previous Tuesday, 24 October, was meant. Regardless of which date you prefer, it was clearly Sarah Hodgkinson who died in October 1826, and not John, since the wording of the death notice strongly suggests that he was still alive and would be present at his wife’s funeral on 2 November.

Statement 5: John Hodgkinson had other children besides the ones discussed previously (namely, Samuel, Ellender, Francis, and Robert).

There are quite a few family trees out there that attach additional children to John Hodgkinson, U.E., and either of the two wives, Mary Moore and Sarah Spencer, who are supported by evidence from historical documents. Some assert that John had a son, William James Hodgkinson, or a son, Spencer Hodgkinson. Others claim that he had a daughter, Rebecca, or a daughter, Sarah. No sources are cited for these claims, and I believe that’s because there aren’t any to cite. Let’s remember that there was an important monetary advantage to being the son or daughter of a Loyalist in Upper Canada in the late 18th- and early 19th centuries, since each son or daughter of a Loyalist was entitled to a free land grant (typically 200 acres) from the British Crown. It would be unusual for any children of John Hodgkinson who survived to adulthood to neglect this opportunity for free land, and no other land petitions exist for children of John Hodgkinson except for those already cited, for Samuel, Francis and Robert. You don’t have to take my word for that; consider evidence from William D. Reid’s book, The Loyalists in Ontario: The Sons and Daughters of the American Loyalists of Upper Canada, in which he, too, identifies only these children of John Hodgkinson (Figure 9).14

Figure 9: William D. Reid’s list of children of John Hodgkinson, U.E., who were granted land by Orders-in-Council (O.C.)

Of course, one could argue that William James, Spencer, Sarah, or Rebecca were nonetheless children of John Hodgkinson, but that they died before reaching an age at which they could petition for a land grant. After all, there is no land petition for Ellender Hodgkinson, yet I’m of the opinion that she was a child of John Hodgkinson and his first wife, Mary Moore. However, the difference is that there is a baptismal record identifying Ellender as a child of John and Mary “Huskinson,” as discussed in my last post, whereas I can find no evidence that these other putative children actually do belong in this family group. It’s not enough to say, “Hmm… I’ve got a Rebecca Hodkginson who was supposed to have been born in Canada in the right time frame for her to be the daughter of John Hodgkinson, U.E… I guess she must be his daughter!” Essentially, that is proposing a hypothesis, and it’s perfectly okay to do that, as long as your online tree indicates in some way that this is your own, unproven, pet theory. To avoid confusing newbies, however, it’s probably more prudent to keep those trees private, so that you can provide appropriate cautions about the hypothetical relationships in your tree when curious people write to you for more information.

Although the Hodgkinson family presents just one example, the issue of hasty, careless, or poorly-reasoned research is pervasive in the world of genealogy. I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to “name and shame” anyone. In fact, I deliberately avoided citing specific online trees where these errors are found. Instead, my hope is to encourage family historians to be a bit more critical and discerning when evaluating evidence from historical sources, rather than jumping on the “same name” bandwagon. We all make mistakes, and in our enthusiasm for pushing back just one generation further, it can be easy to overlook pesky facts that don’t fit our hypotheses very well. However, we owe it to ourselves and to our ancestors to get their stories right, to the best of our ability.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources:

1 Maggie Parnell, Hodgkinson Family Burying Ground, (St. Catharines, Ontario: Niagara Peninsula Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society, 1998), p 2.

2 “Hodgkinson Surname Distribution Map,” Forebears (https://forebears.io/surnames/hodgkinson#place-tab-1881 : 10 October 2021), showing distribution for England in 1881.

3 “England and Wales Christening Index, 1530–1980,” database, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com/ : 10 October 2021), John Hodgkinson, baptized 29 December 1753, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, England; and

“England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NVHB-VVZ : 10 October 2021), William Hodgkinson, baptized 10 April 1759; and

“England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JSF3-JJ2 : 10 October 2021), Mary Hodgkinson, baptized 6 April 1755.

4 “England and Wales Marriages, 1538–1988,” database, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com/ : 10 October 2021), John Hodgkinson and Sarah Godley, 25 June 1752, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, England.

5 “U.S., Dutch Reformed Church Records in Selected States, 1639-1989,” database with images, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : 10 October 2021), Ellender Huskinson, baptized 23 November 1778; citing Holland Society of New York; New York, New York; Deer Park, Vol II, Book 11.

6 Parnell, p. 2.

7 Sally Brush, “Research Note: When Were Babies Baptized? Some Welsh Evidence,” Local Population Studies (http://www.localpopulationstudies.org.uk/PDF/LPS72/Article_Note_Brush_pp83-87.pdf : 10 October 2021); and

Stuart Basten, “Birth-Baptism Intervals for Family Historians,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Birth-Baptism_Intervals_for_Family_Historians : 10 October 2021).

8 “Bishop’s transcripts, Mansfield (Nottingham), 1598-1903,” Baptisms, marriages, burials, 1598-1760, 1759, Baptisms, William Hodgkinson, son of John and Sarah Hodgkinson, 10 April 1759; browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 7 October 2021), FHL film no. 503789/DGS no. 7565515, image 551 of 566.

9 “London, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1936,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 10 October 2021), John Hodgkinson and Sarah Carey, 6 June 1781; citing London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P91/LEN/A/01/MS 7498/12.

10 Government of Canada, “Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865),” 1797, no. 32, Land Petition of John Hodgkinson, Vol. 224, Bundle H-3, Reference RG 1 L3, Microfilm C-2043; browsable images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/microform-digitization/006003-110.02-e.php?&q2=29&interval=50&sk=0&PHPSESSID=rgi7t06a60or2jdheocn6v65f4 : 10 October 2021), Microfilm C-2043 > images 766 and 767 out of 990; and

Ernest Cruikshank, The Story of Butler’s Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara (Welland, Ontario: Tribune Printing House, 1893), p. 113; ebook, Project Gutenburg Canada (https://gutenberg.ca/: 10 October 2021).

11 Parnell, p 2.

12 Lincoln County (Ontario) Registrar of Deeds, “Will Index, 1796–1918;” browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 10 October 2021), surnames beginning with “H,” images 55–68 of 160.

13 Farmers’ Journal and Welland Canal Intelligencer (St. Catharines, Upper Canada), 1 November 1826 (Wednesday), p 3, col 4, death notice for Sarah Hodgkinson; online images, Google News (https://news.google.com/ : 10 October 2021).

14 William D. Reid, The Loyalists in Ontario: The Sons and Daughters of the American Loyalists of Upper Canada (Lambertville, NJ, USA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1973), p 150, Hodgkinson, John of Grantham; ebook, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 10 October 2021).

A New Look at the Old Hodgkinsons

Lately, I’ve been exploring some DNA matches on my Dad’s side of the family that have me pondering the murky origins of my Hodgkinson ancestry. In comparison with my maternal Polish ancestors, the Hodgkinsons have been very well-researched, as they were United Empire Loyalists and early settlers of Upper Canada (what is now Ontario). Yet despite this fact, there are a number of basic genealogical research questions which remain unanswered, due to the general difficulty of research in relatively sparse early Canadian records. Of course, difficult research problems inspire all sorts of speculation and theories, and that’s not a bad thing. Proposing hypotheses, and then testing them against evidence from the historical record, is an integral part of genealogy. However, some of the assertions made about this family seem to be so unfounded, that I wonder if there isn’t more data out there that isn’t cited in these family trees, and that I’m somehow overlooking. So today, I’d like to explore some of the evidence for John Hodgkinson, U.E.—my 5x-great-grandfather—that is found in historical documents.

What We Know About John Hodgkinson, U.E.

The most basic version of the narrative asserts that he was born circa 1750 and died circa 1832, and that he was a United Empire Loyalist (U.E.) who served during the American Revolutionary War as a private in Butler’s Rangers, and was married first to Mary Moore, with whom he had his oldest son, Samuel Hodgkinson. At some point she died, and he remarried Sarah Spencer. Sarah was the daughter of Robert Spencer, U.E., who had served alongside John in Butler’s Rangers. The date of Mary’s death is unknown. One can speculate that she may have died as a result of harsh conditions in the Loyalist refugee camps,1 but it’s also possible that she died after 1784, when the Hodgkinsons and other Rangers’ families were settled on land grants from the Crown in Grantham township on the Niagara Peninsula. John had two additional sons besides Samuel, Francis and Robert, who are generally believed to be from his second wife since they were born circa 1790 and 1792, respectively.

I believe all of these facts to be true. John Hodgkinson’s original grave marker provided a birth date of 1750 and a death date of 1832, although this marker no longer exists, as the original Hodgkinson Family Burying Ground was moved in November 1913 to make way for the Welland Ship Canal, and all human remains were relocated to Victoria Lawn Cemetery in St. Catharines.2 There is good evidence that both John Hodgkinson and his brother, William, served in Butler’s Rangers.3 Evidence for John’s marriage to Sarah Spencer includes the fact that his land petition stated that he was “married to Sarah the daughter of Robert Spencer, a Loyalist U.E.,”4 and Sarah’s death notice further identifies her as “Mrs. Sarah Hodgkinson, wife of Mr. John Hodgkinson” of Grantham (Figure 1).5

Figure 1: Newspaper death notice for Sarah Hodgkinson, published Wednesday, 1 November 1826.

John Hodgkinson’s sons were all identified as such in their land petitions. Samuel’s petition stated that he “… is the Son of John Hodgkinson of Grantham/is on the U.E. List…” (Figure 2).6 The phrasing used here could possibly be construed to mean that Samuel Hodgkinson himself was on the U.E. List, not just his father, which is perhaps a hint at his birth in the U.S., although Samuel would have been a child and not a Loyalist per se at the time of his family’s arrival in Upper Canada.

Figure 2: Detail from land petition of Saml Hodgkinson, dated 16 August 1806.

Francis’s petition from 26 November 1815 similarly stated that “your Petitioner is the son of John Hodgkinson of the Township of Grantham in the District of Niagara, a U.E. Loyalist….” and that “he is of the age of Twenty-five Years,”7 which suggests a birth year circa 1790. Last, but not least, Robert’s petition, dated 24 November 1815, two days earlier than his brother’s, uses the same wording, stating that he “is the son of John Hodgkinson of the Township of Grantham in the District of Niagara, a U.E. Loyalist….” and that “he is of the age of Twenty-three Years.”8 This implies that he was born circa 1792, which is consistent with other evidence.

“Schaghticoke Samuel” or “Burlington Samuel”?

The statement that John Hodgkinson’s first wife was Mary Moore, who was the mother of his oldest son, Samuel, is where things start to get interesting. There is only one piece of evidence that is commonly cited for this assertion, which is a baptismal record for Samuel “Hadgkinsson” found in the records of the Reformed Dutch Church of Schaghticoke (New York), 1750–1866, which were recopied by Rev. Abraham H. Meyers between 3 December 1878 and 4 March 1879 (Figure 3).9

Figure 3: Baptismal record for Samuel Hadgkisson, son of John Hadgkisson and Mary Moore, 22 February 1776.

It’s entirely plausible to me that the Samuel “Hadgkisson” described in this record is the same Samuel Hodgkinson described in that land petition. Schaghticoke, New York, is a small town located in the Hudson River Valley near Albany, and a number of Loyalists from Butler’s Rangers originated in that area. The sponsors were Wm. Hadgkisson and Mary Moore, consistent with the fact that John Hodgkinson, U.E., had a brother named William. So far, so good.

However, there’s another birth record for a Samuel Hodgkinson that is often referenced to substantiate claims that the Hodgkinson family was originally from New Jersey, and that is the record shown in Figure 4 from the register of St. Mary’s (Episcopal) Church in Burlington, New Jersey, which was published by the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania back in 1903 (Figure 4).10

Figure 4: Baptismal record for Samuel Hodgkinson from the register of St. Mary’s Church, Burlington, New Jersey.

According to this record, Samuel, son of John and Mary Hodgkinson, was born 22 September 1775 and baptized 12 November 1775 in Burlington, New Jersey. Mary’s maiden name is not specified. Since the birth dates of “Schaghticoke Samuel” and “Burlington Samuel” are reasonably close in time, either one of them could be the Samuel Hodgkinson of Grantham, Upper Canada. More evidence is needed before anything could be stated definitively about the place of birth of Samuel Hodgkinson, U.E. However, one theory that I do not subscribe to, is that these records represent the same Samuel Hodgkinson, whose baptism was recorded twice, first in New Jersey and then in New York. It’s also not possible that “Schaghticoke Samuel” was a second son of the same John and Mary Hodgkinson, named after “Burlington Samuel” died in infancy, because “Burlington Samuel” was still alive in November 1775 and “Schaghticoke Samuel” was already born and baptized only three months later, in February.

As crazy as this may sound, I think it’s much more plausible that there were actually two distinct couples named John and Mary Hodgkinson, who lived concurrently in the American Colonies and had sons named Samuel. The records from St. Mary’s Church in Burlington contain multiple references to Hodgkinsons, including a baptismal record for another son of John and Mary Hodgkinson named Peter Aris Hodgkinson, who was born 2 June 1769, as well as a burial record for a Mary Hodgkinson on 26 March 1808, and a burial record for John Hodgkinson on 19 April 1814.11 While there’s no guarantee that the John and Mary from the burial records are the same John and Mary who were the parents of Peter and Samuel, it’s certainly possible that this is true, and this would imply that the Burlington Hodgkinsons were still living in New Jersey long after the Loyalist Hodgkinsons had settled in Upper Canada. Furthermore, there’s a marriage record for a Samuel Hodgkinson and Elizabeth Frankfort on 30 November 1803 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is just 21 miles from Burlington, New Jersey,12 and also a death record for a Samuel Hodgkinson who died 28 November 1841 in Philadelphia at the age of 68, suggesting a birth circa 1773.13 Although further evidence is needed before we could conclude definitively that it was “Burlington Samuel” who first married Elizabeth Frankfort and then died in Philadelphia in 1841, the existence of any evidence for a Samuel Hodgkinson who continued to live in this vicinity after 1784 (when the families of Butler’s Rangers had settled in Upper Canada), argues against the hypothesis that “Burlington Samuel” is Samuel Hodgkinson, U.E.

Enter Ellender Hodgkinson

Although it’s difficult to imagine that there could be any “new” discoveries with a family so well-researched as the Hodgkinsons, there is one additional family member that I have never seen mentioned. The records from the Dutch Reformed Church in Schaghticoke contain a record which seems likely to pertain to this same John and Mary Hodgkinson: the baptism of Ellender “Huskinson” on 23 November 1778 (Figure 5).14

Figure 5: Baptismal record for Ellender Hodgkinson, 23 November 1778.

Between the fact that these records were recopied, and the usual lack of consistent surname spellings in documents from this era, I’m not too bothered by the fact that John’s surname was recorded as “Huskinson” rather than “Hodgkinson,” and Mary’s was recorded as “More” instead of “Moore.” The sponsors were noted to be Mary Stephenson and Mary Huskinson, and it’s possible that “Mary” Stephenson’s given name was recorded in error. The typical custom was to have a godfather and a godmother, rather than two godmothers, and that pattern is noted in this book as well, with the godfather’s name recorded first in all the other entries. For that reason, I suspect that a man’s name should have been recorded in place of “Mary” for the Stephenson godparent. The child’s unusual given name, Ellender, is supposedly derived from a German word meaning “foreigner” or “stranger.”15 No further references to John and Mary Hodgkinson/Huskinson appear in the records of the Dutch Reformed Church in Schaghticoke, which is consistent with the hypothesis that they were Loyalists and would probably have left New York at some point after the British defeat at the Battle of Saratoga.

The name Ellender (or Elender) is not a name I’ve encountered much in my research, but I’ve seen it exactly twice before. In the 1881 census, there is an “Elender M. Walsh” (indexed as “Elenden”), age 24, living with the family of Robert and Elizabeth (née Hodgkinson) Walsh (Figure 6).16

Figure 6: Detail from 1881 census showing Elender M. Walsh, age 24, and Elender Walsh, age 6 months, in the family of Robert and Elizabeth (née Hodgkinson) Walsh.

“Elender’s” age makes it clear that she is Robert and Elizabeth’s daughter, more commonly recorded as Ellen or Nellie (née Walsh) DeVere (1856–1906). Ellender Hodgkinson would have been Elizabeth (née Hodgkinson) Walsh’s grandaunt (or great-aunt, if you prefer that terminology), so it’s possible that Ellen/Nellie/Elender was intended to be the namesake of Ellender Hodgkinson. This theory may be a bit of a reach since this 1881 census was the only time Nellie was recorded as Elender. In 1861 and 1871, for example, she was Ellen;17 she was baptized as Eleanor Margaret,18 and she was married and buried as Nellie.19

And yet, this family contains not one, but two Elenders, in a census for which there were only 13 examples in the entire country of given names beginning with “Elend-.” Who is the second Elender? By 1881, Robert and Elizabeth’s second son, Henry (my great-great-grandfather) was married to Martha Agnes Dodds, and they were the parents of two daughters, Marion and Clara Ellen. Marion (or Marian) was born 8 October 1878,20 which corresponds well with the two-and-a-half-year-old “Mary Ann” recorded on the census, and Clara’s birth on 19 September 1880 makes her an obvious match for 6-month-old “Elender.”21 Perhaps I’m guilty of attaching too much significance to what may have been two simple errors on the part of the census-taker. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to interpret the duplication of this unusual given name as evidence that the Ellender “Huskinson” who was baptized in Schaghticoke in 1778, was in fact a daughter of John Hodgkinson, U.E., and that his granddaughter, Elizabeth Walsh, was aware of Ellender’s existence, and that Ellender’s name was deliberately preserved in the Walsh family. (It may have been that the “honorees” themselves, Nellie and Clara, were not especially thrilled with the name, and that’s why we only see this one reference to it.)

Returning now to John Hodgkinson, the next time his family is mentioned in historical records is in the “Return of distressed unincorporated Loyalists that are Victualed by the bounty of Government in the Province of Quebec, Agreeable to His Excellency the Commander in Chief’s orders, 24th March 1783,” contained within the collection known as the Haldimand Papers. These returns documented families of Loyalists who lived in refugee camps in Quebec and received public assistance from the Crown. I’ve discussed this refugee list previously, along with the one dated 24 July 1783, in which the family of John Hodgkinson was also enumerated.22 In both of those refugee lists, the Hodgkinson family was said to consist of one woman, no men or male children, one female child over age six and one female child under age six, for a total of three persons. John himself seems to be absent from this tally since no men were recorded with the family, but perhaps this is explained by the fact that Butler’s Rangers did not disband until June 1784, so John was not yet reunited with his family. The two children who have thus far been identified as having been born to John and Mary (Moore) Hodgkinson, Samuel and Ellender, would have been about ages seven and four, respectively, if we assume that the baptismal dates reported in the church records from Schaghticoke were roughly equivalent to their birth dates. Those ages line up with those of the children described in the refugee lists, although one inconsistency is that Samuel was misrecorded as female.

Although some additional documents exist (e.g. land records) which mention John Hodgkinson, U.E., beyond those mentioned here, they only serve to confirm these basic facts, or to enrich our understanding of his life in Upper Canada. I have yet to discover additional historical records that shed light on John’s early life. Nonetheless, some speculation exists about the identities of John’s parents, siblings, and even additional children beyond the ones mentioned here. In my next post, I’ll discuss them.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources:

Featured image: Extract from Smyth, David William. “A Map of the Province of Upper Canada, describing all the new settlements, townships, &c. with the countries adjacent, from Quebec to Lake Huron. (1st ed.) Compiled, at the request of His Excellency Major General John G. Simcoe, First Lieutenant Governor, by David William Smyth Esqr., Surveyor General. London, published by W. Faden, Geographer to His Majesty and to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, Charing Cross, April 12th 1800. Accompanied with a topographical Description. Price 10s. & 6d,” David Rumsey Map Collectionhttp://www.davidrumsey.com/maps3638.html : 5 October 2021), Licensed for reuse under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

1 Alexander Cain, “The Loyalist Refugee Experience in Canada,” Journal of the American Revolution, 26 January 2015; (https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/01/the-loyalist-refugee-experience-in-canada/ : 5 October 2021).

2 Maggie Parnell, Hodgkinson Family Burying Ground, (St. Catharines, Ontario: Niagara Peninsula Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society, 1998), p 2.

3 A.H. Van Deusen, “Butler’s Rangers,” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 31(1900); online archives, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSVT-6RJM?cat=161380 : 5 October 2021), image 375 of 690. Names were recorded as “Hodgekins,” rather than “Hodgkinson.”

4 Government of Canada, “Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865),” 1797, no. 32, Land Petition of John Hodgkinson, Vol. 224, Bundle H-3, Reference RG 1 L3, Microfilm C-2043; browsable images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/microform-digitization/006003-110.02-e.php?&q2=29&interval=50&sk=0&PHPSESSID=rgi7t06a60or2jdheocn6v65f4 : 5 October 2021), Microfilm C-2043 > images 766 and 767 out of 990.

5 Farmers’ Journal and Welland Canal Intelligencer (St. Catharines, Upper Canada), 1 November 1826 (Wednesday), p 3, col 4, death notice for Sarah Hodgkinson; online images, Google News (https://news.google.com/ : 5 October 2021).

6 Government of Canada, “Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865),” 1806, no. 18, Land Petition of Samuel Hodgkinson, Vol. 226, Bundle H-9, Reference RG 1 L3, Microfilm C-2046; browsable images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/microform-digitization/006003-110.02-e.php?&q2=29&interval=50&sk=0&PHPSESSID=rgi7t06a60or2jdheocn6v65f4 : 5 October 2021), Microfilm C-2046 > image 330 out of 1042.

7 Government of Canada, “Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865),” 1815, no. 77, Land Petition of Francis Hodgkinson, Vol. 227, Bundle H-10, Reference RG 1 L3, Microfilm C-2046; browsable images, Library and Archives of Canada (https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/microform-digitization/006003-110.02-e.php?&q2=29&interval=50&sk=0&PHPSESSID=rgi7t06a60or2jdheocn6v65f4 : 5 October 2021), Microfilm C-2046 > image 1009 out of 1042.

8 Government of Canada, “Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865),” 1815, no. 78, Petition for Robert Hodgkinson; Microfilm C-2046, Bundle H-10, (RG 1 L 3 Vol. 227), digital images, Library and Archives of Canada ((https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/microform-digitization/006003-110.02-e.php?&q2=29&interval=50&sk=0&PHPSESSID=rgi7t06a60or2jdheocn6v65f4 : 5 October 2021), image 1012 of 1042.

9 “U.S., Dutch Reformed Church Records in Selected States, 1639-1989,” database with images, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : 5 October 2021), Samuel Hadgkisson, baptized 22 February 1776; citing Holland Society of New York; New York, New York; Deer Park, Vol II, Book 11.

10 Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, “Register of St. Mary’s Church, Burlington, N.J.: The Register of the Church C. of St. Ann’s at Burlington,” Publications of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (2)3, 1903, pp 241-302; p 278, baptismal record for Samuel Hodgkinson, born 22 September 1775 June 1769; browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 5 October 2021), image 262 of 444.

11 Ibid., p 262, baptismal record for Peter Aris Hodgkinson, 13 August 1769; p 286, burial record for Mary Hodgkinson, 26 March 1808; and p 288, burial record for John Hodgkinson, 19 April 1814.

12 “Pennsylvania, U.S., Compiled Marriage Records, 1700-1821,” database with images, Ancestry ((https://ancestry.com : 5 October 2021), Samuel Hodgkinson and Elizabeth Frankfort, 30 November 1803, citing records from Second Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, 1763-1812, found in Pennsylvania Marriage Records. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Archives Printed Series, 1876. Series 2, Series 6.

13 “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates Index, 1803–1915,” database, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : 5 October 2021), Samuel Hodgkinson, born c. 1773, died 28 November 1841.

14 “U.S., Dutch Reformed Church Records in Selected States, 1639-1989,” database with images, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : 5 October 2021), Ellender Huskinson, baptized 23 November 1778; citing Holland Society of New York; New York, New York; Deer Park, Vol II, Book 11.

15 “Ellender,” Nameberry (https://nameberry.com/babyname/Ellender/girl : 5 October 2021).

16 1881 census of Canada, schedule no. 1 — Nominal Return of the Living, Ontario, Lincoln District no. 145, St. Catharines Sub-District A, Division no. 2, Family no. 140, p 26, Robt. Welsh family; digital image, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca : 5 October 2021), item no. 3790055, image no. e008188289; citing Microfilm: C-13254 Reference: RG31 – Statistics Canada.

17 1861 census of Canada, population schedule, Canada West (Ontario), Lincoln District, St. Catharines Sub-District, p 96, lines 37–47, Robert Walsh household; digital image, Library and Archives Canada, (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/ : 5 October 2021), item no. 2721097, image no. 4391560_00231; citing microfilm C-1049; and

1871 census of Canada, Schedule 1 — Nominal Return of the Living, Ontario, Lincoln District no. 21, St. Catharines Sub-District B, Division no. 2, p 64, Family no. 225, Robert Walsh household; digital image, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/ : 5 October 2021), Item no. 2782126, image no. 4396294_00191; citing microfilm C-9922, RG31 – Statistics Canada.

18 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Parish Registers, 1852-1910, 1857, unnumbered pages, unnumbered entries in chronological order, “Baptism Ellenor Walsh,” accessed as “Ontario, Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org: 5 October 2021), path: Lincoln County > St Catharines, > Cathedral of St Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, marriages 1852-1860 > image 72 of 104. Principal’s name was recorded as “Ellenor” in the margin and “Eleanor Margaret” within the body of the record.

19 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Parish Registers, 1852-1910, Marriages 1858-1910, 1883, unnumbered entries in chronological order, Charles Dolfin and Nellie Welsh, 26 May 1883; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org: 5 October 2021), path: “Canada, Ontario Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” > Lincoln County > St Catharines, > Cathedral of St Catherine of Alexandria > Marriages 1858-1910 > image 30 of 48; and

Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/148014987/nellie-m-de_vere : accessed 05 October 2021), memorial page for Nellie M Welch De Vere (1857-1906), Find a Grave Memorial ID 148014987, citing Victoria Lawn Cemetery, St. Catharines, Niagara Regional Municipality, Ontario, Canada ; Maintained by C (contributor 48635147).

20 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Parish Registers, 1852-1910, 1878, baptismal record for Marian Walsh, born 8 October 1878; browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 5 October 2021), path: “Canada, Ontario Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” > Lincoln County > St Catharines, > Cathedral of St Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms 1860-1906 > image 98 of 177.

21 “Ontario Births, 1869-1911,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : 5 October 2021), Clara Ellen Welch, 19 Sep 1880; citing Birth, St. Catharines, Lincoln, Ontario, Canada, citing Archives of Ontario, Toronto; FHL microfilm 1,845,399.

22 “British Library, formerly British Museum, Additional Manuscripts 21804-21834, Haldimand Paper,” citing John Hodgkinson in, “Return of distressed unincorporated Loyalists that are Victualed by the bounty of Government in the Province of Quebec, Agreeable to His Excellency the Commander in Chief’s orders, 24th March 1783,” LAC reel H-1654, Returns of Loyalists in Canada, n.d., 1778-1787, MG 21, 21826, B-166, accessed as browsable images, Héritage (http://heritage.canadiana.ca : 5 October 2021), images 730-748 out of 1240, Image 745; and

Ibid., refugee list from 24 July 1783, images 749-764 out of 1240, Image 762.

Visualizing Challenges to Genetic Genealogy Research Using Leeds and Collins-Leeds Methods

When it comes to genetic genealogy, it’s best to hope that each generation in your family tree was large, with lots of descendants living in countries where DNA testing is popular. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Small families, and families in which many of the distant cousins are living in a place where DNA testing is not as popular (e.g. Poland) make it difficult to find those DNA matches that can lead to breakthroughs in your research. Whether you know, or only suspect, that this is the case for your family, you can visualize the situation using some of the available tools out there, such as Leeds worksheets, and Collins-Leeds matrices.

What is the Leeds Method?

Back in 2018, which is a lifetime ago in the world of genetic genealogy, researcher Dana Leeds described her method for color-coding DNA matches using a spreadsheet, which she developed in order to help a client identify his biological family. Elegant in its simplicity, the Leeds Method took off, and it inspired a number of next-generation automated tools which cluster a tester’s DNA matches based on shared ancestry. Sites which offer autocluster tools include MyHeritage, DNAGedcom, Genetic Affairs, and GEDMatch, and AncestryDNA’s colored-dot grouping tool is also based on this method. With all these automated options available, it’s become a bit passé to create a Leeds Method spreadsheet manually. Nonetheless, I want to share one with you here, because it’s a compact visual aid for illustrating some “structural defects” in my mom’s family tree, and their impact on her DNA match list.

Figure 1 shows a Leeds Method worksheet created from my mother’s list of DNA matches on Ancestry.

Figure 1: Leeds Method worksheet for my mom’s DNA matches on Ancestry. Click image to view larger.

Leeds’ basic goal was to sort a list of DNA matches into four clusters, representing matches who are related to the tester through each of that person’s four grandparents. Individuals to whom we are related through only one of our four grandparents are our second cousins, so second cousins would be ideal test subjects for creating a Leeds worksheet. Thanks to the random nature of DNA inheritance, the amount of DNA shared between any two second cousins can vary, but typically, they share about 200 centiMorgans (cM) DNA, where a cM is the unit used to express genetic distance. (More cM shared = closer genetic relationship.) The exact amount of shared DNA between two second cousins can be as little as 41 cM, and as much as 592 cM, according to data gathered by Blaine Bettinger’s Shared cM Project.

With that in mind, Leeds opted to focus on DNA matches who shared between 90 cM and 400 cM DNA. Using her method, a color is assigned to the first match in the the list who shares between 90–400 cM with the tester, and then that same color is assigned to all the shared matches (or “in common with”) matches. This process is repeated until all the matches who share 90–400 cM have been assigned a color. Ideally, you want to exclude first cousins (1C), and descendants of first cousins (1C1R, 1C2R, etc.), because they will match you on two grandparents, not just one. This can be a little tricky if your family tree is not well-developed, because the amount of DNA shared between two people who are 1C1R, 1C2R, or 1C3R, can fall within that 90–400 cM range. However, the beauty of the Leeds Method is that it works even if you don’t know precisely how you’re related to someone, so having a few “mystery” matches in your worksheet that are 1C1R, etc., shouldn’t throw you off too much.

The 33 matches shown in Figure 1 were culled from my mom’s top 52 matches. Since I do know how most of my mom’s top matches are related to her, I took those first 52 matches and subtracted out all children, grandchildren, first cousins, and their descendants, who would match Mom on more than one grandparent. I removed the names of the DNA matches to protect their privacy, but they’re identified by the documentary relationship (if known), as well as by the amount of shared DNA in both cM and number of shared segments. The next ten columns, labelled 1 through 10, are the result of sorting Mom’s match list according to the Leeds Method. In column 1, the blue bars represent matches to whom Mom is related through one of the ancestors of her maternal grandmother, Veronica (née) Grzesiak. The red bars in column 2 represent matches to whom Mom is related through one of the ancestors of her paternal grandmother, Genevieve (née) Klaus. Columns 3 and 4 represent those matches to whom Mom is related through her paternal grandfathers, John Zazycki (purple bars) and Joseph Zielinski (green bars).

This brings us to the first observation I’d like to make. By looking at those four columns, it’s pretty clear that Mom has substantially more DNA matches who are related to her through the families of her grandmothers (Grzesiak and Klaus, blue and red), than she does through the families of her grandfathers (Zazycki and Zielinski, purple and green). She has exactly one match at this level who is related to her through John Zazycki: a 2C1R who is descended from John’s older sister, Marianna (née Zarzycka) Gruberska. Worse, I have to go all the way down to the level of a 4C2R to find a match that’s related to my mom through her grandfather Joseph Zielinski. The common ancestors between Mom and that match are my 6x-great-grandparents, Stanisław and Urszula Swięcicki, who lived back when there was still a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and who had already finished having children by the time of the final partition of Poland in 1795. (The story of that DNA match can be found here.) In other words, Mom has few-to-no “close” matches, depending on how you define “close,” who are related to her through either of her grandfathers.

So, what factors cause this phenomenon? In the case of the Zielinski family, my mother’s grandfather was the only one of the ten children in his family to survive long enough to marry and have children. This means that my mother has no second cousins who are related to her through her Zielinski family, and second cousins are what the Leeds Method hopes to exploit when developing initial groupings. The situation with the Zazycki family may be similar. My mother’s Zazycki grandfather, John, was one of eleven children, six of whom (including John) had children. John was the only one of his siblings to immigrate to the U.S., however, and it seems that not many of his siblings’ descendants opted to immigrate, either. Research is ongoing, but thus far it appears that only John’s eldest sister, Marianna Gruberska, had any children who immigrated. Presumably, the descendants of the other Zazycki (or Zarzycki) siblings remained in Poland. It may be that more of those Zarzycki relatives from Poland will start showing up in my DNA match lists, as DNA testing becomes more affordable and more popular among Poles. Time will tell. And If there are cousins in Poland who might be testing their DNA, it’s more likely that they’ll be showing up in DNA databases from MyHeritage and FamilyTree DNA, since those sites are are more popular than Ancestry DNA in Poland. So, I keep checking all the databases regularly, but thus far the situation has been similar in all of them, with few matches on the Zazycki and Zieliński sides.

Of course, any time one observes a lack of DNA matches to one particular line, there’s always the possibility of a misattributed parentage event, also known as a non-paternity event, or NPE. I’d be more likely to suspect this if Mom had no matches to a particular line, rather than a few distant ones. I’d be even more likely to suspect an NPE if I could find documentary evidence to suggest that a family was large and had plenty of descendants, and she still had no DNA matches. However, the fact that Mom has DNA matches to documented cousins on her Zielinski and Zazycki lines, and that the amount of DNA shared between her and those matches is within the expected range for the documented relationships, suggests that NPEs are not the issue here. (Or at least, it suggests that there are no NPEs that occurred in the generations between Mom and the ancestral couple shared between her and each DNA match.)

Rather than viewing the glass as half empty, it might be better to focus on all those DNA matches to the Grzesiak and Klaus families. Columns 5 through 10 indicate which matches are descendants of particular ancestral couples. In the case of the relatively close DNA matches shown in Figure 1, all but two of the Grzesiak matches are descendants of mom’s great-grandparents, Józef Grzesiak and Marianna Krawczyńska, as indicated by the light blue bars in column 5. The other two matches near the bottom, which are noted with a dark blue bar but not a light blue one, are not in my tree yet, so additional work is needed to make the documentary connection. However, we know they must be related somehow to the Grzesiak family because of all the matches they share in common with documented Grzesiak descendants. The Klaus matches are even more abundant, and can be broken down into descendants of various couples who were ancestors of either Andrzej Klaus, mom’s great-grandfather, or Marianna Łącka, mom’s great-grandmother.

Autoclusters: The Leeds Method on Steroids

Of course, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and gifted software engineers, we can go one better. Figure 2 shows a screenshot of the top portion of Mom’s autoclusters report at MyHeritage.

Figure 2: Autoclusters report from MyHeritage for Mom’s DNA matches. Click figure for larger image. Typically names of testers appear above the columns and to the left of the rows, but they’ve been removed here for privacy purposes.

This utilizes the same principle as the Leeds Method spreadsheet, except it does the heavy lifting for you, automatically clustering your matches into groups which likely share a common ancestor. Each square on the grid represents a comparison of one of Mom’s DNA matches to another, and colored squares represent two people who match each other, in addition to matching my mom. You’ll note that there are some uncolored squares within each cluster; these occur because it’s possible that two members of a cluster will not match each other (even though they both match Mom) due to the random nature of DNA inheritance. So, I can gain insight into Mom’s relationship to all the members in the orange cluster shown in Figure 2, simply by determining her connection to one member of this cluster.

While it’s sometimes possible (e.g. with DNAGedcom) to vary the parameters for inclusion to create tighter or looser groups, that’s not possible with the autocluster tool at MyHeritage. MyHeritage utilizes an algorithm that automatically adjusts that parameters to yield the best clusters for each kit. Note also that not all of a tester’s matches will appear on the grid. MyHeritage provides a ReadMe file with each autocluster analysis which specifies the parameters that were used, the number of kits included in the analysis, and the names of DNA matches who were not included in the analysis as well. In my mom’s case, 109 DNA matches were used to create 26 clusters; 41 matches were excluded because they did not have any shared matches, and another 127 matches were excluded because, although they met the criteria for inclusion in the analysis, they would have ended up in singleton clusters (matching each other and Mom and no one else).

As MyHeritage states in their explanatory ReadMe file, “Everyone in a cluster will be on the same ancestral line, although the most recent common ancestor between any of the matches, and between you and any match, may vary. The generational level of the clusters may vary as well. One may be your paternal grandmother’s branch, and another may be your paternal great-grandfather’s branch.” This can be illustrated using the red cluster shown at the top left in Figure 2. This cluster represents 10 testers who are related to Mom through her grandmother, Weronika Grzesiak. I know how we’re related to eight of them: five of the matches share Weronika’s parents, Józef Grzesiak and Marianna Krawcyńska as the most recent common ancestral couple, and three share Józef Grzesiak’s maternal grandparents, Maciej Dąbrowski and Barbara Słońska, as the most recent common ancestral couple. Descendants of this couple were highlighted in light blue in Figure 1. So, the remaining two mystery matches in that red cluster shown in Figure 2 might be related to to Mom through a bit of DNA inherited from any of the ancestors of Weronika Grzesiak; we can’t really claim to know anything more definitive than that from these data.

The beauty of the autocluster option is that it eliminates the necessity of going through a match list by hand and tagging each match with a colored dot based on shared matches. Although the clusters themselves are extremely informative, it’s also worth noting the DNA matches who were omitted from the cluster analysis. In Mom’s case, one of the matches who was omitted due to lack of any shared matches was a 5th cousin who matches her through her Wilczek line. Since Mom descends from the Wilczeks through her paternal grandfather, it’s disappointing, but unsurprising, that there are no shared matches between Mom and her Wilczek 5th cousin, given the general lack of DNA matches who are related to Mom through either of her grandfathers.

Extrapolating to Other Surname Lines

For want of a better term, I’ll call the relative lack of DNA matches to Mom through either of her paternal grandfathers the “Small Family/International Family Effect.” Unfortunately, it seems to be at work on my Dad’s side of the family as well. I had high hopes that DNA testing might provide some clues regarding the birthplace in Ireland of my great-great-great-grandfather, Robert Walsh. Despite the fact that I’ve identified DNA matches with whom Robert Walsh and his wife, Elizabeth Hodgkinson, are the most recent common ancestors, DNA has not provided any strong leads to Walsh relatives in Ireland as of yet. I’ve even tested my father’s 100-year-old paternal aunt, whose great-grandfather was Robert Walsh. She would be expected to have more numerous and genetically closer DNA matches to this line than I would, since she inherited a greater percentage of Robert Walsh’s DNA. One might have expected that some of her matches would include Walshes from a particular location in Ireland, or even that one region of Ireland might stand out as an area from which a preponderance of DNA matches originated. However, no great leads have turned up yet. Similarly, DNA has not been especially illuminating as of yet with another brick wall ancestor, Maria Magdalena (née Causin/Casin/Couzens/Curzon) Roberts, who also seems to have come from a very small family which left few descendants. Does that mean that my DNA test results can’t help me? No, it just means that there’s nothing obvious to leverage, no low-hanging fruit to harvest.

There is hope, of course. By identifying “autoclusters of interest” that seem to share common ancestors on my brick-wall lines, I can examine their family trees of DNA matches within those clusters, or attempt to build family trees for them if none are available, and search for common surnames and ancestral locations. It should be noted that some sites (e.g. DNAGedcom) even have automated tools for identifying common ancestors based on GEDCOM files (family tree files) that are associated with DNA test kits. Another possible approach is to use research into an ancestor’s social network of friends, associates and neighbors (i.e. his “FAN club”) to identify putative parents for a brick-wall ancestor, trace their descendants forward to the present day, and then do autosomal target testing on individuals who would be predicted to share DNA, based on this hypothesis. Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way.

It can be incredibly rewarding to connect DNA matches to your family tree. Thanks to DNA matches, I’ve been able to discover and connect with distant cousins that I never knew I had, some of whom have even been willing to share old family photos. I’ve been able to track down a number of “lost” siblings of my ancestors who disappeared from the records. And DNA is an especially powerful tool when leveraged for tracking migrations of relatives with popular surnames. However, small families with few descendants can produce “lopsided” DNA match lists, which can be readily visualized using Leeds and Collins-Leeds clustering techniques. While these analytical methods won’t fix “structural defects” in your family tree, they can help you make the most of the matches you do have.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

The Signatures of Michael Roberts and Frank M. Roberts

We genealogists love finding our ancestors’ signatures, right? Of course we do.

Well, recently I found what I believe are the authentic signatures of both my great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Roberts, and his son, my great-great-grandfather, Michael Frank (a.k.a Frank Michael) Roberts. Let me set the stage with a brief introduction to these gentlemen.

Michael Roberts (1834–1895)

It was the winter of 1894 when Michael Roberts lost his wife. It had been almost 37 years since Michael wed the former Maria Magdalena Causin in the beautiful Roman Catholic church of St. Joseph in Detroit, Michigan on 12 May 1857.1 The details of how they met, and whether it was a happy marriage or not, have been lost to time, but it is known that Michael was a German immigrant, born in the village of Heßloch in the Rhenish Hesse region of the Grand Duchy of Hesse (commonly known as Hesse-Darmstadt) to Franz Ruppert and Catherine, née Schulmerich.2 In 1853, he immigrated to Detroit, Michigan with his parents, his 17-year-old brother, Arnold, and his 15-year-old sister, Catherine.3 Although there is no notation on the manifest to reflect this, the family believed that Catherine died at sea, as explained in the following letter (Figure 1), written by Michael’s sister, Mary Roberts Standfield, to his grandson, John Frank Roberts.4

Figure 1: Undated letter from Mary Roberts Standfield (1862–1946) to her nephew, John Frank (aka Frank) Roberts, stating in the final sentence that “The daughter Katherine died on the ocean coming over.”

The letter also confirms that the family’s original surname, Ruppert, was changed to Roberts upon settling in Detroit, and that Michael’s oldest brother, Johann Georg, or George, as he was known in the U.S., arrived in Detroit before the rest of his family, settling there in 1851.4

Following his marriage, Michael worked as a carpenter to support his family.5 Michael and Mary had eight children, of whom the oldest four have living descendants. The family data are summarized below (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Family group sheet for Michael and Mary Magdalene (née Causin) Ruppert/Roberts.

Michael Frank (aka Frank Michael) Roberts (1858–1930)

Although I have no photographs of Michael Roberts, his oldest son, Michael Frank (known in later life as Frank Michael), is the stalwart Victorian gentleman shown here (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Michael Frank (aka Frank Michael) Roberts, 1858–1930.

In that winter of 1894, when his mother died, Frank was a 35-year-old architect living in Buffalo, New York;7 married, with four children. Frank had married Mary Elizabeth Wagner back in their hometown of Detroit, but they relocated their family to Buffalo about nine years earlier, in 1885.8 Mary Elizabeth was home, raising their four sons: 15-year-old Harry, 10-year-old John, 7-year-old George, and 3-year-old Bert.9

And so it was that on 27 February 1894, Mary Magdalene Roberts died intestate (without having written a will) in Nankin Township, Michigan. Her husband, Michael, petitioned the court for administration of her estate (Figure 4).10

Figure 4: Michael Roberts’ petition for appointment as administrator of the estate of his late wife, Mary (née Causin) Roberts.

According to this petition, Mary Roberts was in possession of an estate valued at approximately $800, which would be the equivalent of about $25,396 in today’s dollars.11 Since she died without naming an executor to handle her financial affairs following her death, her husband had to formally request this authority from the court. The document identifies Mary’s heirs at law, who were her children and husband, as

  • Michael F. Roberts, son, 36 years old, resides in Buffalo, N.Y.
  • Catherine Hecker, daughter, 34 years old, resides in Nankin, Wayne Co., Mich.
  • Mary P. Stanfield [sic], “, 32 ” ” ” ” Detroit, Wayne Co., “
  • Anna Carlston [sic], “30 ” ” ” ” Nankin, Wayne Co., “
  • and your petitioner, husband of deceased, who resides in Nankin, Wayne County, Michigan.

These children were named in birth order, and their ages and places of residence are reasonably consistent with prior evidence. It’s worth noting that Mary’s and Anna’s married surnames were misspelled as “Stanfield,” rather than “Standfield,” and “Carlston,” rather than “Carlson,” which underscores the variability in surname spellings that exists in historical records.

The handwriting throughout the document is fairly uniform, and the formation of the M’s and the R’s where they appear in “Michael” and “Roberts” is consistent, suggesting that the document was written by a single person; namely, the notary public. However, the handwriting in the signature is distinctly different, which suggests that it was written by Michael Roberts himself (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Signature of my great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Roberts, underlined in red.

Included within that same probate packet is a second petition for administration of an estate, this time written by Frank M. Roberts (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Frank M. Roberts’ petition for appointment of his sister, Mary P. Stanfield [sic] as administrator de bonis non of their mother’s estate.

This petition similarly identifies the children of Michael and Mary Roberts, but goes on to state, “…that Michael Roberts, husband of said deceased and her survivor and administrator of said estate, has departed this life,” and therefore Frank M. Roberts requested that administration de bonis non of the estate be granted to his sister, Mary P. Standfield. Presumably it was a matter of convenience for Mary (or any of his sisters) to handle the estate rather than Frank, since they were still living in the Detroit area, but this is somewhat speculative. In any case, Frank’s distinctive signature included at the bottom of the document (Figure 7), in addition to his father’s signature, made this probate packet an exciting find for me.

Figure 7: Signature of my great-great-grandfather, Michael Frank (or Frank Michael) Roberts.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources

1 Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s parish (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, USA), “Marriages, 1835-1866”, 1857, no. 15 (?), marriage record for Michael Ruppert and Magdalena Causin, Burton Historical Collection microfilm no. 1286, reel 32A, Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward Ave, Detroit, Michigan, USA.

2 Roman Catholic Church (Heßloch, Kr. Worms, Hesse, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1715-1876,” 1834, unnumbered entries in chronological order, baptismal record for Michael Ruppert, 1 February 1834, FHL microfilm no. 948719.

3 Manifest, SS Wm Tell, arriving 4 March 1853, p 9, lines 49-51, and p 10, lines 1-2, Franz Rupard family; imaged as “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 26 August 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication M237, 1820-1897; List No. 146.

4 Mary Roberts Standfield (1862–1946), undated letter to her nephew, John Frank Roberts, Roberts family documents; privately held by Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

4 Manifest, SS Vancluse, arriving 30 May 1851, p 5, line 23, Geo. Rupert; imaged as “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 24 August 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication M237, 1820-1897; List no. 599.

6 1860 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, Detroit Ward 6, page 142, dwelling no. 1066, household no. 1148, Michael Roberts household; digital image, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 566 of 1,438 rolls; and

1870 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, Detroit Ward 6, page 476B, dwelling no. 998, household no. 1114, Michael Robert household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 713 of 1,761 rolls; and

1880 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, city of Detroit, Enumeration District 298, page 123A, dwelling no. 92, household no. 92, Michael Roberts family; database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 613 of 1,454 rolls.

7 The Sun and the Erie County Independent (Hamburg, New York), 22 Jul 1892, Page 7, Col. 7, “Frank M. Roberts, Architect and Superintendent,” advertisement; digital image, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com/ : 24 August 2021).

8 George Whitcomb, compiler, Buffalo City Directory (Buffalo: The Courier Company, 1885), p 751, Roberts, Frank; browsable images, New York Heritage Digital Collections (https://nyheritage.org/ : 24 August 2021), image 763 of 1076.

9 1900 United States Federal Census, Erie County, New York, population schedule, Buffalo Ward 23, Enumeration District 190, Sheet no. 5B, house no. 439, family no. 127, Frank M. Roberts household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 24 August 2021), citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm publication T623, 1854 rolls, no specific roll cited.

10 Wayne County Probate Court (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan), Probate packet no. 19856, Mary M. Roberts, died 27 February 1894; browsable images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 24 August 2021), “Probate estate packets, 1797-1901,” FHL Film no.967194, path: Wayne > Probate packets 1894 no 19805-19856 > images 975-984.

11 “Value of $800 from 1894 to 2021,” Inflation Calculator (https://www.in2013dollars.com/ : 24 August 2021).

A Trio of Death Certificates

For a genealogist, any day that brings three new death certificates in the mail is a good day.

Back at the end of April, I wrote about my discovery of my great-great-granduncle, Alexander Dodds, who disappeared from documentary evidence in Canadian records after the 1881 census. Thanks to clues provided by DNA matches, I was able to determine that Alexander migrated to Buffalo, New York where he married Hazel Jean (or Jennie Hazel) McCarroll and had two children, Della and Spencer, prior to his death in 1899. While searching for his death record in the Buffalo, New York Death Index, I serendipitously came across the entry for the death certificate of his brother, Gilbert M. Dodds, who died in 1898. Then, since I was already writing to the Buffalo City Clerk to request those records, I decided to add in a request for the death certificate of their older sister, Isabella (née Dodds) Smith. I’d known previously that Isabella died in Buffalo, but I’d never gotten around to requesting a copy of the record, so this seemed to be a good time to do it. After a long wait, those death certificates finally arrived, so let’s analyze them here, in the context of my existing research into my Dodds family.

Isabella Smith

My burning questions regarding my Dodds family concern the origins of my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine Dodds, whom I’ve written about previously. Evidence points pretty consistently to a birth circa 1817 in England for Robert, and possibly a specific date of 28 January 1817 as was reported (probably by Robert himself) in the 1901 census.1 Less is known about Catherine’s place of birth, however, and there’s even some doubt about her maiden name, since it has been reported as both Irving2 and Grant.3 In that regard, the death certificate for Isabella (née Dodds) Smith was most informative, since it was the only one of the three death certificates to mention a maiden name for Catherine. (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Death certificate for Isabell [sic] H. Smith.4

Unpacking the other details from the certificate first, we can see that Isabell [sic] H. Smith of 381 Rhode Island Street in Buffalo, died on 22 September 1917 due to a cerebral hemorrhage which she suffered about 6 weeks previously. A contributing cause of death was chronic myocarditis. Isabella was noted to be a widow, born 4 November 1844 in Canada, and she lived in the U.S. for 24 years prior to her death, spending all of that time in Buffalo. That suggests an arrival in 1893, which is a few years off from the arrival in 1897 which she reported in the 1910 census, but still in the same ballpark.5 No immigration record can be sought to confirm her arrival date since the U.S. did not begin documenting Canadian-born immigrants until 1 October 1906.6 Isabella was laid to rest in the Buffalo Cemetery on 25 September 1917, and the informant on the death certificate was her oldest daughter, Margaret (née Smith) Moorhouse, who lived with her. Margaret reported that Isabella’s parents were Robert Dodds and Catherine Grant, which lends further support to the hypothesis that Catherine’s maiden name was Grant and not Irving. However, Margaret identified both Robert and Catherine as having been born in Canada, and this is almost certainly incorrect in Robert’s case, in light of the substantial body of evidence supporting the assertion that he was born in England.

Alexander Dodds

Next up, we have the death certificate for Alexander Dodds (Figure 2). The image I received is of rather low quality due to faded ink and darkened paper, but it’s nevertheless possible to read that Alexander Dodds died on 13 April 1899 due to pulmonary phthisis, which is more commonly known as tuberculosis. He was buried at Lakeside Cemetery on a date in April that’s difficult to make out, possibly the 23rd. Alexander was reported to be age 49 years, 1 month, and 25 days at the time of his death. Running that information through a date calculator points to a birth date of 19 February 1850, consistent with the expectation that he was born circa 1849-1850 based on his age reported in census records. He was a married laborer, born in Canada, who had been a resident in the U.S. for 15 years, and living in Buffalo for that entire time period. This suggests that he arrived in the U.S. circa 1884. Alexander’s parents’ names were reported to be Robert and Catherine, but no maiden name was given for his mother. Moreover, both parents were reported to have been born in England—a statement which is unlikely to be true in Catherine’s case. Alexander’s last place of residence was decipherable as Auburn Avenue, although the house number (212, perhaps?) is harder to read.

Figure 2: Death certificate for Alexander Dodds.7

The fact that Alexander was buried at Lakeside Cemetery is new information for me. Lakeside is an old, historic cemetery located in Hamburg, New York, about 10 miles south of Buffalo. Lakeside is managed by the Forest Lawn group of cemeteries, and they happen to have a fantastic website where one can search burials and even download cemetery records, such as this burial card for my great-great-grandmother, Martha Dodds Walsh, another sibling of Alexander, Isabella and Gilbert. Unfortunately, the information for Alexander which is offered on the website is much more limited. The service card (Figure 3) barely confirms the information on the death certificate, inasmuch as there is a burial record for an Alexander Dodds, but it offers no details about date of death, or parents’ names.

Figure 3: Service card for Alexander Dodds from Lakeside Cemetery, Hamburg, New York.8

Alexander’s age at the time of death, 40, is also in conflict with the information on the death certificate, which stated that he was 49 years old at the time of death. However, it may have been a transcription error, and in any case, the funeral director, “Geo. J. Altman,” is a match to the George J. Altman who was reported on Alexander’s death certificate as the undertaker.

Gilbert M. Dodds

Last, but not least, we have the death certificate for Gilbert M. Dodds (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Death certificate for Gilbert M. Dodds.9

The image quality here is only slightly better than that for Alexander’s death certificate, but the record states that Gilbert died on 4 January 1898 of pernicious anemia, a form of anemia caused by a deficiency in vitamin B12, with which he had been diagnosed five years previously. He was buried that same month in St. Catharines, Ontario, but the name of the cemetery was not provided, nor is the exact date of burial legible. Gilbert was reported to be age 42 years, 3 months and 25 days at the time of his death, suggesting a birth date of 11 September 1855. Estimates for his year of birth as suggested by census records and other documents ranged between 1855–1860, but the earliest records (e.g. the 1861 census)10 pointed to a birth year of 1855, so this certificate is in excellent agreement. He was married at the time of his death, and employed as a driver. As expected, Gilbert was born in Canada, but had been living in Buffalo for five years prior to his death, which implies an arrival in the U.S. circa 1893, so his arrival coincided with that of his sister, Isabella Smith. His last residence was at 408 Massachusetts Avenue, in close proximity to the final residences reported by his siblings (Figure 5). Finally, the certificate identifies Gilbert’s parents as Robert Dodds, born in England, and Catherine Dodds, born in Canada.

Figure 5: Map showing last residences of Dodds siblings Alexander, Gilbert, and Isabella Smith on Buffalo’s West Side. Google Maps.

Conclusions

Experienced genealogists know how valuable death records can be, especially when they identify the parents of the deceased. They’re also relatively easy to obtain, with just a letter and a check in the mail, so I’m always amazed by the fact that so many family historians only mention them in their trees when the scans are available online. The most significant drawback is that the information on a death certificate was not provided by the individual himself or herself, but rather by a family member or some other individual who was more or less acquainted with the deceased. Thanks to these death certificates, I was able to discover exact dates of birth for Dodds siblings Alexander, Gilbert, and Isabella Smith, as well as an exact date of death for Alexander. I identified Alexander’s final resting place as Lakeview Cemetery, which opens up the possibility of further research in cemetery records, in case they might have anything that’s not online. I obtained corroborating evidence for a number of previously-known facts in my family tree. And, although these certificates did nothing to dispel the confusion over Catherine Dodds’ place of birth, the certificate for Isabella Smith added to the growing body of evidence in support of the hypothesis that Catherine was a Grant by birth. All in all, that was a pretty good day, indeed.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources:

11901 Census of Canada, Ontario population schedule, Lincoln and Niagara district no. 85, St. Catharines sub-district K, division no. 6, household no. 117, James Carty household; database with images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/ : 17 August 2021), item no. 2026840, image no. z000079820, citing microfilm T-6480, RG31.

2 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1935, vol. 820, no. 4549, Martha Dodds Walsh, 11 August 1935; Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.

3 “Ontario Deaths, 1869-1937 and Overseas Deaths, 1939-1947,” database, FamilySearch, (https://familysearch.org/ : 8 May 2021), Hannah Carty, 3 June 1914; Deaths > 1914 > no 19125-22410 > image 370 of 1638; citing Registrar General. Archives of Ontario, Toronto.

4 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1917, vol. 273, no. 6001, Isabell H. Smith, 22 September 1917, Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.

5 1910 United States Federal Census, Erie County, New York, population schedule, Buffalo Ward 21, Enumeration District 206, Sheet 7A, house no. 18 1/2, family no. 27, William Smith household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 18 August 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 947 of 1,178 rolls, FHL microfilm 1374960.

6 Marian L. Smith, “By Way of Canada,” Prologue Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Fall 2000), National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2000/fall/us-canada-immigration-records-1.html : 18 August 2021).

7 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1899, Vol. 34, no. 258, Alexander Dodds, 13 April 1899; Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo NY 14202.

8 Forest Lawn Cemetery Group, burial records database, Forest Lawn (https://forest-lawn.com/ : 18 August 2021), service card for Alexander Dodds, buried Lakeside Cemetery, block one, grave 142.

9 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1898, vol. 21, no. 71, Gilbert M. Dodds, 4 January 1898; Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo NY 14202.

10 1861 Census of Canada, population schedule, Canada West, Lincoln, Grantham, Enumeration District 4, p 80, lines 1-9, Robert Dodds household; digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 19 April 2021 ), Item no. 1884852, citing Microfilm C-1048-1049.

Goal-Focused Genealogy, or, Connecting to a DNA Match in 20 Minutes

If you’re reading this, you probably know how time-consuming genealogy can be. The supply of historical documents and individuals to research is endless, so before sitting down for a research session, it’s important to always be asking ourselves, “What is it I want to know?” Having a specific question in mind can help drive you toward the sources of information that are most relevant to the problem.

When I’m researching a DNA match, for example, my essential question is, “How am I related to this person?” I’m not interested in fully documenting that person’s family history; I just want to get to the documents that will allow me to connect him or her to my family tree. I think of this method as “quick and dirty genealogy,” but “goal-focused genealogy” might be a more accurate description. During or after the research session, I’m still careful to create source citations for each document I find, extract each piece of information from each document (e.g. name, date and place of birth, place of residence, etc.), and attach those source citations to each fact I create in my family tree. Nonetheless, keeping my focus on the goal permits me to ignore a lot of “low-hanging fruit”documents that turn up quickly in a search of historical records databases (e.g. Ancestry or FamilySearch), but aren’t likely to give me the information I need to solve the problem. For example, if the 1940 census and the 1920 census both turn up in a database search for a given research target, I’m likely to ignore the 1940 census and investigate the 1920 census result. Why? Because the 1940 census didn’t ask questions about year of immigration or year of naturalization, while the 1920 census did ask those questions, and the information provided by that census record about immigration and naturalization is relevant to the process of tracing immigrant ancestors back to the Old Country. Recently, staying goal-focused enabled me to discover, in about 20 minutes, how a DNA match was related to me, and it made me so happy that I want to share that story with you today.

Introducing Fred Kowalski

Since this is a story about our Polish origins, I’ll call my DNA match Fred Kowalski (not his real name). Fred appeared in my list of autosomal DNA matches at 23&Me, and we were reported to share DNA in a single segment consisting of 51 centimorgans (cM, a unit for measuring genetic distance) on Chromosome 15. Shared matches gave me no clues regarding how we might be related; I didn’t recognize a single name in the list. In his profile on 23&Me, Fred reported that all four grandparents were born in Poland, and he gave me six family surnames to work with, including one that was familiar to me: Słoński. Painting the match onto my chromosome map at DNA Painter revealed that the segment shared with Fred falls into a larger segment of DNA which I inherited from my maternal grandmother, consistent with my preliminary hypothesis that our relationship might be through the Słoński family. Fred’s real surname is not especially popular, so a quick internet search turned up an online obituary for his father. From there, I used the subscription database at Newspapers to find an obituary for his grandmother. I’ll begin the story with her.

The Bengier Family of Steubenville, Ohio

Fred’s grandparents were Peter J. and Constance A. Bengier of Steubenville, Ohio. Constance’s obituary was very informative, but for the sake of this narrative, the most important information was that she was born in Poland on 6 April 1889 to Joseph and Anna Kujawa, and that she married Peter Bengier on 4 February 1907.

Figure 1: Newspaper obituary for Constance A. Bengier.1

Constance’s Social Security application (Figure 2) provided somewhat different information about her parents’ names, in that her father’s name was reported to be Stanley, rather than Joseph. Since Constance would have provided the information for this form herself, rather than another family member providing it after her death, we can consider the information from the Social Security Applications and Claims index to be more reliable than the obituary in this regard.

Figure 2: Information from Social Security Applications and Claims Index for Constance Anna Bengier.2

The 1930 census (Figure 3) provided additional details relevant to tracing the family back to Poland. Although the information on the entire family group is important when documenting the family history, my focus was on tracing the family back to Poland, and the data that was most germane to that issue is contained within the red box.

Figure 3: Image extracted from the 1930 census for German township, Harrison County, Ohio, showing the Bengier family.3

According to the census, Constance Bengier was age 41, suggesting a birth year circa 1889, nicely consistent with previous data from the Social Security application and her obituary. The census record offers enough additional evidence (such as names of other family members) for us to be certain that this Constance Bengier is a match to the Constance Bengier in the obituary. Once we establish that fact, then the most important piece of new information found in this record is her year of immigration, 1910, and the fact that her husband and oldest daughter also reported immigrating in that year. We would expect to find all of them on the same passenger manifest, or possibly on two different manifests, if Peter came over first to secure employment and lodging before sending for his wife and child.

The critical pieces of information that are required at minimum in order to locate an immigrant in records from his or her home country are the person’s name, approximate date of birth, parents’ names, and specific place of origin. With Constance Kujawa Bengier, I was nearly ready. The missing piece was evidence for her place of origin.

The Bengier Family of Wola, But Which One?

Since the 1930 census provided information about the year of arrival, I decided to seek a passenger manifest next. The Hamburg emigration manifest popped up first, revealing that Konstancia (or Konstancja, modern Polish spelling) Bengier departed from the port of Hamburg on 29 September 1910 at the age of 21, along with her 3-month-old daughter, Walerya (or Waleria, in modern Polish; Figure 4).

Figure 4: Detail from the Hamburg emigration manifest of the SS Cleveland, departing Hamburg on 29 September 1910, showing passengers Konstancia Bengier and her 3-month-old daughter, Walerya.4

The ages matched well with my expectations based on previous data. Given the propensity of immigrants for adapting their given names to sound more “American,” I was not surprised to find that the original name of the daughter, “Voila” (or Viola) from the 1930 census, was actually Waleria. If additional confirmation were required before concluding that this was the correct passenger manifest, the corresponding Ellis Island arrival manifest could also be located. In those days, it took about 2 weeks for a steamship to cross the Atlantic. Assuming no manifest turned up with a search of indexed records, one could browse the manifests in Ancestry’s database, “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” and look for the arrival of the Cleveland at the port of New York some time in mid-October 1910. However, as it happens, Ancestry’s database is incomplete, and there are instances such as this where the arrival manifest is not found. If this happens, Ellis Island arrivals can be searched directly at the Ellis Island site, or via Steve Morse’s more sophisticated One-Step search form. (Konstancja’s Ellis Island arrival manifest is here. It confirms and extends the information found in the Hamburg emigration manifest, but I won’t discuss it in detail since it was not part of my original research process.)

The key piece of information found in this manifest that permitted me to advance the search was her place of residence, which was recorded as “Wola,” in Russia. (If you’re wondering why a woman who said she was Polish in 1930 might have been coming from Russia in 1910, there’s an overview of those border changes here.) Now, if this were an ordinary research process, and not one guided by DNA, I would have needed a time-out here to fall back and regroup, and seek additional sources of documentation for Konstancja’s place of birth. That’s because “Wola” is one of those Polish place names that’s so common that it strikes fear into the hearts of even seasoned Polish genealogists. Just how common is it? Mapa.szukacz.pl, which is an interactive Polish map site, reveals that there are 848 places called Wola, or containing Wola in the full name, within the borders of Poland today. And that’s not counting all the additional places called Wola that were previously part of Poland, but are outside of Poland’s current borders.

The situation would have been ameliorated somewhat by the fact that Konstancja’s Wola was recorded as being located in the Russian partition, so we could safely ignore all the places called Wola that were within the German and Austrian partitions. Nonetheless, that would still leave us with a lot of places called Wola to check, unless we could find some additional documentation (naturalization records, church records, military records, etc.) that might provide some geographic clues to help us narrow the field. However, this was not an ordinary research process; it’s a genetic genealogy story, and one with a happy ending.

The Missing Link

Since my hypothesis was that I was related to Konstancja Kujawa Bengier through the family of her mother, Anna Słońska, I immediately suspected that “Wola” might be Wola Koszucka, a village belonging to the Roman Catholic parish of Kowalewo-Opactwo, where I’d found records for my Słoński ancestors. This Wola was in the Russian Empire in 1910, so it would fit the description found in the passenger manifest. Records for this area are indexed in a number of different databases, including Geneteka, BaSIA, the Poznan [marriage] Project and Słupca Genealogy. Each of those databases has its strengths and weaknesses, and there’s a fair amount of overlapping coverage between them. I decided to cut to the chase and search for a marriage record for Stanisław Kujawa and Anna Słońska first, since that would tell me Anna’s parents’ names, rather than searching for a marriage record for Piotr Bengier and Konstancja Kujawa, or a birth record for Konstancja. I plugged in my search parameters at the Słupca Genealogy site, and there it was, bada boom, bada bing! The marriage record for Stanisław Kujawa and Anna Słońksa which connected the dots (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Marriage record for Stanisław Kujawa and Anna Słońska from the parish of Kowalewo Opactwo.5

The record is in Russian, and here’s how I translate it:

“No. 12

Wola Koszutska

This happened in Kowalewo on the first/thirteenth day of November in the year one thousand eight hundred eighty-two at three o’clock in the afternoon. We declare that in the presence of witnesses Antoni Zieliński, age fifty, and Józef Buczkowski, age forty, both owners* of Wola Koszutska, on this day was celebrated a religious marriage between Stanisław Kujawa, bachelor of Wilczna, born in Cienin Kościelny, 27-year-old son of the laborers Łukasz and his deceased wife, Wiktoria née Przybylska Kujawa, and Anna Słońska, single, born and residing with her parents in Wola Koszutska, daughter of Antoni and Marianna Słoński née Kowalska, age twenty-two. The marriage was preceded by three announcements published on the eighth, fifteenth, and twenty-second days of October of this year in the local parish churches of Kowalewo and Cienin Kościelny. The newlyweds declared that they had no prenuptial agreement between them. This Act was read to the illiterate newlyweds and witnesses, and was signed by Us only. [Signed] Fr. Rzekanowski.”

*хозяева, a word which can mean hosts, landlords, owners, proprietors, or masters. In my experience, it’s used to describe the same individuals who were described in Polish-language records as gospodarze, peasant farmers who owned their own land.

The record stated that Anna was the daughter of Antoni Słoński and Marianna Kowalska, and her age at the time of her marriage 22, suggested a birth year circa 1860. I checked my family tree, and there she was, quietly sitting there the whole time, waiting to be rediscovered. Many years ago, I had added Anna to my family tree when I found her birth record, but I had never gone further with seeking a marriage record for her, or birth records for her children. Anna was born on 14 July 1860,6 and she was in my tree because her father, Antoni, was the son of Bonawentura Słoński and his second wife, Marianna Muszyńska, as evidenced by both Antoni’s birth record7 and the record of his marriage to Marianna Kowalska.8 But wait, there’s more! Bonawentura Słoński was the brother of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Barbara (nee Słońska) Dąbrowska. Barbara and Bonawentura were both children of Wojciech Słoński and Marianna Duras,9 and it is they who are the most recent shared ancestors between me and this DNA match, whom I can now state is my documented fifth cousin once removed. Wojciech Słoński and Marianna Duras are the genetic and documentary link that connects me to the Bengier family of Steubenville, Ohio.

I love a happy ending.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources:

1 “Deaths and Funerals: Mrs. C.A. Bengier,” The Weirton Daily Times (Weirton, West Virginia), 3 August 1970, p. 2, col. 1; Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com/ : 8 August 2021).

2 “Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007,” database, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : 8 August 2021), Constance Anna Bengier, born 6 April 1889, SSN 268447885.

3 1930 United States Federal Census, Harrison County, Ohio, population schedule, Geman township, E.D. 34-10, Sheet 7B, dwelling no. 174, family no. 175, Pete Bengier household; database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : 8 August 2021), citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm publication T626, 2,667 rolls, no specific roll cited.

4 Manifest, SS Cleveland, departing 29 September 1910, p 2226, lines 288 and 289, Konstancia Bengier and Walerya Bengier; imaged as “Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 8 August 2021), citing Staatsarchiv Hamburg; Hamburg, Deutschland; Hamburger Passagierlisten; Volume: 373-7 I, VIII A 1 Band 226; Page: 2222; Microfilm No.: K_1815.

5 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo” (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1882, marriages, no. 12, Stanisław Kujawa and Anna Słońska; digital image, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/71, scan 27 of 37.

6 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo” (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1860, births, no. 27, Anna Słonska; digital images, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/49, scan 6 of 24.

7 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo” (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1823, births, no. 16, Antoni Jan Słoński; digital image, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/13, scan 4 of 25.

8 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo” (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1845, marriages, no. 8, Antoni Słoński and Marianna Kowalska; digital image, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/34, scan 17 of 28.

9 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Ladek,” (Lądek, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega malzenstw, 1819–1820, 1819, no. 24, Bonawentura Słoński and Jagnieszka Wilczewska; digital images, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/776/0/-/46, scans 13 and 14 of 14; and

“Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki),” Akta urodzen, malzenstw i zgonów, 1845, deaths, no. 5, Barbara z Slonskich Dabrowska; digital image, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/34, scan 23 of 28.

6 Tips for Selecting DNA Matches to Paint in DNA Painter

DNA Painter is one of the coolest websites out there for genetic genealogy, offering an arsenal of tools to help genealogists visualize and understand their DNA matches through chromosome mapping. Let’s face it, there is tremendous aesthetic appeal in generating chromosome maps with neat little color-coded segments indicating specific chunks of DNA that can be traced back to a particular ancestor. But beyond just the aesthetics, it’s very useful to be able to predict how one must be related to an unknown DNA match, based on the location of the matching segment(s). In order to generate a useful chromosome map, however, there are decisions that must first be made about which matches to paint, so today I’d like to offer a few tips on how to do that, based on my own experience with using DNA Painter.

Getting Started with DNA Painter

DNA Painter is the brain child of Jonny Perl, a web developer and genealogist based in London, UK. He has created a very user-friendly site with a host of linked blog posts, webinars, videos, and instructions right on the site, making it easy for beginners to get started with chromosome mapping. Nonetheless, chromosome mapping isn’t exactly intuitive, and some thought is required to produce a good map. Therefore, there are some questions you should ask yourself before you begin.

What is My Goal?

For many of us, it’s inherently cool to be able to visualize a segment of DNA, lurking in nearly every cell of one’s body, and know that it was inherited from a particular ancestor who lived decades or centuries ago. If you’re content with knowing in a general way that your DNA was inherited from previous generations in your family, and you really don’t care about pinpointing a 46-centiMorgan segment on Chromosome 12 that you inherited from your great-great-great-grandfather, then maybe chromosome mapping isn’t your thing. But if you’d like to use a chromosome map to better understand your DNA match list, then your initial goal should be to create a map that identifies segments you inherited from each of your four grandparents.

On average, 25% of a person’s DNA was inherited from each of the four grandparents, but this number can vary a bit due to the randomness of genetic recombination. If you can identify on each chromosome the specific segments of DNA that were inherited from each grandparent, you can use this as a first step toward understanding unknown DNA matches.

Once you’ve established this goal, then you can decide which of your DNA matches to paint onto your chromosome map, based on the criterion of whether or not painting this match will bring you closer to your goal. The thing is, just because you can paint a match doesn’t mean you should paint it, as some of them will not be especially informative.

For example, if you have DNA test data from a parent, you could paint that on your chromosome map. But there’s no point in doing so, because you already know that you have inherited one of each of your 22 autosomes from your mother, and one from your father. By painting your DNA matches with a parent, all you’ve done is change the color of the canvas on which you’re painting your matches. Not sure what I mean by that? Figure 1 shows the blank canvas you start with, courtesy of DNA Painter.

Figure 1: Top portion of the page of a new, “unpainted” profile at DNA Painter, showing maternal (pink) and paternal (pale blue) copies of Chromosomes 1-10. If you were to scroll down the page, you would see the remaining chromosomes.

Now let’s say I’ve tested my mother, and I want to paint that DNA match onto my chromosome map. Figure 2 shows how that looks.

Figure 2: Top portion of the page showing Chromosomes 1-10 after I “paint” that blank canvas with segments of DNA shared between me and my mom.

You can see that all I’ve done here is to change those pink bars to lavender, which is not very informative. As a side note, you will see some regions on certain chromosomes where the lavender color does not “paint” all the way to the tip of the chromosome. That’s because those tips correspond to regions which exhibit a low density of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, or “snips”). Family Tree DNA does not test those SNP-poor regions, and since the segment data used in this map came from Family Tree DNA, we see those “unpainted” regions.

Similarly, some close matches, such as a full-blooded aunt or uncle, don’t help you identify the segments of DNA you inherited from each of your four grandparents. Why? A full-blooded aunt or uncle, let’s say on the paternal side, will have inherited a mix of DNA from your paternal grandparents, just as your father did. But painting these segments only tells you which bits of DNA were passed down from your grandparents to both the paternal aunt or uncle and to you. It doesn’t bring you any closer to knowing which paternal grandparent provided those segments. Additionally, painting DNA matches from a sibling onto your chromosome map isn’t particularly useful, because it only identifies segments that you both inherited from your parents. It doesn’t help you to assign those segments to either parent, or any grandparents.

Note that there are other great reasons for testing one’s siblings, and the data that comes from those tests can be very useful. For example, if you have data from three siblings, but none of their parents, you can do visual phasing, which will assign segments of DNA to each grandparent. Blaine Bettinger offers a 5-part tutorial on visual phasing here, and Andy and Devon Lee of Family History Fanatics offer a tutorial on visual phasing using only two siblings here. Note that visual phasing as described in these tutorials is not for the faint of heart; DNA Painter is much easier.

The best matches to paint are the ones with whom you share DNA from only one of your four grandparents, or those with whom you share DNA from generations earlier than that. Therefore, second cousins are ideal, as are any half first cousins you might have. Don’t despair, however, if you don’t have a huge selection of “ideal” matches to paint; you’ve just got to go with what you’ve got. My mom’s paternal grandfather, Joseph Zielinski, was the only one of the ten children in his family to marry and have children; all the rest died unmarried, before the age of 32. This means that every single one of Mom’s paternal second cousins is a match on her grandmother’s side. I have to go back at least one generation, to the level of 3C or more distant cousins, before I can hope to find any matches to her paternal grandfather’s family. Similarly, my paternal grandmother had only one sister who died at the age of 14, so my only paternal second cousins are on my grandfather’s side. If you know you come from a small family, it becomes even more important to research your family tree as thoroughly as you can, in the hope of identifying cousins from whom you can beg DNA samples.

Putting it all together, then, here is my list of tips for creating an ancestral chromosome map, focused on mapping your chromosomes to each of your four grandparents.

  1. Don’t paint willy-nilly. Think before you paint, and ask yourself if painting this match will bring you closer to your goal of identifying (at minimum) segments inherited from each of your four grandparents.
  2. Don’t paint matches to parents, full siblings, half siblings, or full aunts or uncles, as these will not help you identify segments inherited from each of your four grandparents. You can, of course, create separate profiles at DNA Painter for each person you test, and keep track of their DNA matches as well as your own. The ability to create multiple profiles for chromosome mapping is a benefit available with a subscription to DNA Painter; you can create one profile for free with a basic membership.
  3. Similarly, matches to first cousins, and first cousins X-times removed, will not help you identify which portions of your chromosomes were inherited from which grandparent. Full first cousins share both grandparents with you on either your maternal or paternal side. Therefore it’s not possible to identify the grandparent who contributed the DNA from any segments you share, so painting those matches is not informative.
  4. Try the Inferred Segment Generator for additional segments to map. This is a really neat tool that uses deductive reasoning to generate segments. I used it to generate segments from my maternal grandfather to paint onto my chromosome map. The principle here is simple: the chromosomes that I inherited from my mother must be a mixture of DNA she inherited from her mother, and DNA she inherited from her father. Since I was able to test my maternal grandmother before she passed away, I know precisely which segments I inherited from her. So, by deduction, I know that the remaining portions of my maternal chromosomes where I do not match Grandma, must have come from Grandpa.
  5. If there’s good evidence (e.g. through triangulation) to suggest that a segment was inherited from an earlier ancestor (great-grandparent, great-great-grandparent, etc.) by all means, paint it.
  6. If you have test data from a particular relative, additional test data from descendants of that relative will be less informative, so you may want to skip painting it. Figure 3 illustrates this. The blue bars represent DNA segments which I share with a documented third cousin (3C), and the red bars represent the DNA that I share with her daughter, my third cousin once removed (3C1R). I’ll definitely want to paint those blue segments onto my chromosome map at DNA Painter, because those segments represent DNA which I inherited from one of the great-great-grandparents that I have in common with that cousin. However, my 3C1R cannot inherit any DNA from our common ancestors unless it came through her parent (my 3C). The only exception to this would be in cases where her parents are related. So, the red bars will necessarily be fewer and shorter than the blue bars, and painting those segments of DNA onto my chromosome map will not provide any new information about regions of my own chromosomes that can be assigned to particular ancestral couples. Of course, you may choose to paint them anyway, if you just want to keep track of all of your DNA segment data this way, and you would definitely want to paint the matches to a 3C1R if you don’t have test data from your 3C.
Figure 3: Chromosome browser from Family Tree DNA, showing segments of DNA I share with one of my third cousins (blue) and her daughter (red).

At the end of the day, how you map your chromosomes is really a personal choice. Maybe you just want to create one heck of a colorful map, including data from your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and all your first cousins, and if that’s the case, then go for it! After some trial and error, I’ve found that this mapping strategy works best for me, because it focuses on quality of information, rather than quantity. Maybe it will help some of you, too. Happy mapping!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Gaining Insights From DNA Painter

Like many of the genetic genealogists out there, I’ve come to love DNA Painter as a tool for getting the most out of my DNA test data. So, today I want to share how I use it to help me better understand my DNA matches.

In order to keep this post fairly short and sweet, I’m going to assume that anyone reading this will have some familiarity with the basic concepts in genetic genealogy. If you don’t, you might want to read about using your match list at Ancestry, or check out some of my advice for beginners, relating to DNA testing, or visit one of the many other blogs or Facebook groups out there that are geared toward genetic genealogy.

DNA Painter is a fantastic tool for many reasons, but I especially love it because it gives me one place to keep all my segment data from the various test companies (Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, and 23&Me) or third-party applications (GEDmatch) that provide it, visually identifying which segments were inherited from which ancestors. Why is this helpful? Here’s an example.

Let’s say I have a match at 23&Me who is entirely unknown to me. We’ll call him K.C. (All initials of living individuals have been changed in this post.) He has no information in his profile on 23&Me regarding where he lives, when he was born, or any surnames he’s researching. Half his ancestry is Northwestern European, and the other half is Ashkenazi Jewish, so we’re almost certainly related on the Northwestern European side. His breakdown within that category isn’t especially helpful; we’re both a mix of British & Irish, French & German, and Broadly Northwestern European in varying proportions, which represents my paternal side. I don’t know where he lives or when he was born, and his name is sufficiently common that standard internet search techniques (e.g. searching for death notices in which he’s named as a surviving relative, or searches of databases such as Ancestry and Newspapers) don’t offer any clues. He’s pretty much a mystery.

An examination of Relatives in Common offers some insights, however. 23&Me reports that K.C. and I have relatives in common, which include E.T., E.S., and K.M., and that we all share DNA overlap, which is typically an indication that a particular segment of DNA was passed down to each of us from a common ancestor. Unfortunately, the situation with the latter two matches is not much better than it is with K.C. There’s not much information to go on in their profiles, and I don’t know how I’m related to them. However, I do have one glimmer of hope that I can leverage: E.T. is my second cousin. In “View DNA Details” at the 23&Me site, I select, “Compare with More Relatives,” and take a closer look at Chromosome 7, where we all share DNA, using myself as the base comparison (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Relative positions of DNA segments on Chromosome 7 shared between me and five DNA matches.

In the diagram above, the underlying gray represents my paternal Chromosome 7. The purple segments are where my second cousin, E.T., shares DNA with me on that chromosome. As per the key, the orange segment represents shared DNA that I share with K.C., the yellow is shared DNA with E.S., and the blue is shared DNA with K.M. The areas where the colored regions stack on top of each other are areas of triangulation, where we all match each other, presumably because we share a common ancestor. But which ancestor might that be?

While my match list at 23&Me doesn’t provide any clues in that regard, my ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter does. My ancestral chromosome map represents a visual summary of all of my known DNA match data from any test company or third-party application which provides segment data. Each time I’m able to document a genealogical relationship between myself and a living relative whose DNA data are found at one of those websites, I can “paint” the segments of shared DNA onto my ancestral chromosome map, and assign those segments to the common ancestral couple from whom that DNA match and I both descend. The more complete I can make my map, the more useful it is at informing my understanding of unknown DNA matches.

Let’s take a look at my paternal Chromosome 7 on my map from DNA Painter (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Paternal Chromosome 7 in my ancestral chromosome map, courtesy of DNA Painter.

The map consists of a number of colored bars of varying lengths. Each bar represents a segment of DNA shared between me and a living DNA match. I’ve removed the names of the matches in most cases, although the colored bars that are relevant to this discussion are identified by black bars on the right, labelled with the pseudo-initials of the DNA match.

The key tells us that my ancestral map of my paternal Chromsosome 7 consists of DNA segments that can be traced to one of three ancestral couples: Wenzeslaus Meier and Anna Goetz (my great-great-grandparents), Katherine Walsh and John Frank Roberts (my great-grandparents), and Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson (my great-great-great-grandparents). Figure 2a shows a family tree, for reference.

Figure 2a: My family tree. Click image for larger view.

We know that my paternal copy of every autosome (Chromosomes 1-22) will contain DNA inherited from both my dad’s mother, Marie Boehringer, and my dad’s father, Harry Roberts. We can take this a step further. Any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandmother, Marie Boehringer, must have been given to her by either her father, John Boehringer, or her mother, Anna Meier. Similarly, any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandfather must have come from either his father, John Frank Roberts, or his mother, Katherine Walsh. So each and every one of my paternal autosomes could be said to be a mixture of Roberts, Walsh, Boehringer, and Meier DNA. Bear in mind that the same pattern would be true for the chromosomes I inherited from my mom; those chromosomes must represent the four surnames of her grandparents.)

Going back now to the chromosome map, the map gets further refined as I am able to identify DNA matches with whom I share more distant ancestry. As mentioned, there’s a green segment on the map that represents DNA inherited from my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. They were the grandparents of Katherine Walsh, so it makes sense that this green segment of DNA would necessarily overlap with the royal blue DNA segment that I share with a Walsh/Roberts descendant. If it somehow overlapped with the light blue of the Meier/Goetz line, it would be an indication that I’d made some errors in assigning segments to ancestors. That green segment now helps me refine my understanding of my DNA in that region. When I only have the royal blue segment to consider, I know only that either John Frank Roberts or Katherine Walsh contributed that DNA. However, thanks to the additional data—that green segment—I know that the portion of the royal blue “Roberts/Walsh DNA” that overlaps with the green “Walsh/Hodgkinson DNA” in Figure 2 must have come from Katherine Walsh and not John Frank Roberts.

Now let’s see how this map can give me a starting point for understanding how I’m related to those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. As mentioned, E.T. is the only one of these DNA matches shown in Figure 1 to whom I know how I’m related; she’s my second cousin. So let’s start by focusing only on the segments of Chromosome 7 where I match her (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Relative positions of DNA segments on Chromosome 7 shared between me and E.T. as depicted by 23&Me.

Since there’s a lot going on, visually, in the ancestral chromosome map shown in Figure 2, I’ve marked with stars those three segments where E.T. matches me, so it’s a little easier to focus on them (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Paternal Chromosome 7 in my ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter, highlighting segments shared with second cousin E.T.

As you can see in Figures 1 and 3, there’s a break between the segments of DNA that I share with E.T., represented as that gray region disrupting the purple regions, that runs from (approximately) position 32,356,335 to position 55,601,336. This represents DNA that E.T. and I do not share. This break is highlighted in the zoomed-in, side-by-side comparison of the chromosome map from 23&Me with the ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Side-by-side comparison of chromosome maps from 23&Me, highlighting gap in shared DNA between me and my second cousin, E.T., with ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter.

Notice that the first half of that gap corresponds to that 13 cM segment of DNA, colored in green, that I share with I.N., whose common ancestors with me were Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. So, this tells me that in the first part of the gap region where I don’t share DNA with E.T., I inherited my DNA from the Walsh line. That’s important, because when we go back to Figure 1, the first part of that gap is where I share DNA with those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. So this tells me that it’s very likely that the common ancestors from which all of us descend are from the Walsh/Hodgkinson line (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Conceptual representation of location of Walsh DNA (with segment data from DNA Painter) in comparison with unknown DNA matches from 23&Me.

Ta da!

At this point, you may be saying, “Who cares?!” But I think it’s incredibly cool and powerful that I can go from having no information at all about three of my DNA matches on 23&Me, to suddenly knowing that we must be related through some common ancestor of either Robert Walsh or Elizabeth Hodgkinson, even when I have no matches in the 23&Me database to cousins with whom Robert and Elizabeth are the most recent common ancestral couple. Thank you, DNA Painter!

Please note that DNA Painter also offers the option to paint segment data from unknown matches directly into one’s chromosome map, so I could have made this same observation about my relationship to K.C., E.S., and K.M. that way. However, my personal preference is to keep my chromosome map “clean” and not add segment data until I determine how the match is related to me. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much how we make these observations; the point is that we have the tools that make the observations possible. Going forward, I can write to these matches to see if they’ll give me further information about their family trees, I can look for clues in the family trees of additional shared matches, and I can play the long game and see what other matches are added to the test company databases over time that might shed some light on the situation. Ultimately, DNA matches can offer fantastic clues to help answer genealogical questions and identify unknown ancestors, so it’s worth taking the time to explore those matches.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

The Days Are Long, But the Years Are Short

You know that old saying, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes”? It’s true for family historians as well. I’m reminded of this as my daughter’s high school graduation is looming large, and she still has no baby album.

My beautiful, cherished, Catherine was not only our fourth child, she was also a very high-need baby, wanting to be held all the time, not content to play in her baby seat or bat at the toys hanging from her baby gym. And as comedian Jim Gaffigan quipped, ““Do you want to know what it’s like to have a fourth [child]? Just imagine you’re drowning, and then someone hands you a baby.” My life was filled with carpools, swimming lessons, after-school Spanish classes, preschool pickups, parent-teacher conferences, play dates, and more. Catherine entered the world at 6:29 am on a Saturday, and it’s a good thing she got here early, because my husband had to leave to coach our 9-year-old’s iceless hockey game a few hours later.

Despite all that we had going on, I had the best of intentions for preserving her babyhood. I lovingly recorded all her “firsts” in her baby calendar, just as I did with her brothers. I took the time to cross-stitch a baby bib with her name on it, just as I did with each of the boys. And I took so many photographs. In those days when digital photography was really starting to come into its own, I was slow to make the switch from my 35 mm camera. I feared that digital photography would lead to a bunch of computer images that would never be looked at, never be made into albums. So instead, I opted for photo prints that take up more space—and still were not made into albums.

It’s not like I never made photo albums. I was just slow. I wanted to do it right, and make personalized, scrapbook-style albums that included a bit of journaling and notes about each event. I made each of my sons a baby album that encompassed his first year, and then I made family photo albums as well, spanning the early years of our marriage and family life. By early 2007, when Catherine had just turned four, I think I’d gotten up to Christmas of 1999 in our family photo albums. I felt like I was starting to have more time to myself again, so getting caught up on those photo albums seemed like a very reasonable goal. I was only eight years behind, after all!

Then my husband was laid off from his job in northern Illinois, and we made the decision to move our family a thousand miles away so that he could start his dream job in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Between packing and moving and getting settled and decorating a new house and keeping up with all the children’s activities and my own volunteer commitments, the years kept flying by. Catherine’s non-existent baby album became something of a family joke. By the time she was six, she decided she should stipulate a deadline: she’d really like that baby album by the time she graduated from high school. Moreover, she didn’t just want a Shutterfly-type album like the one I eventually created for my Grandma’s 90th birthday, with uploaded photos and a nice leather cover. She wanted an album just like the ones I’d made for the boys—covered in soft fabric, trimmed with eyelet around the edges, with grosgrain ribbons to tie it closed, and an eyelet-edged photo frame on the cover, personalized with her name. (I’d been pretty crafty back in the day.) I agreed, of course. It seemed like I had such a long time to get the job done.

At some point, it became overwhelming, all those boxes of photographs — even though they were all neatly organized by date—not to mention all the school report cards, award certificates, sports team photos, and special school projects that were deemed worthy of assignment to the family’s “sentimental archives.” I love discovering family stories, and the stories of generations past always seemed so urgent. There’s always tomorrow, I thought, to tell my own family’s stories, to preserve my children’s heritage. So the eight-year lag in the family photo albums somehow became fourteen years, and in all those years of soccer games, play practices, music lessons, homework, summer vacations, graduations, softball practices, Buffalo trips, driving lessons, and caring for aging parents, my baby girl has grown into a beautiful young woman in front of my eyes, who graduates from high school next weekend. Suddenly, I’m out of time.

I certainly do appreciate the irony in this situation. A few weeks ago, I was bemoaning the fact that my parents saved so much stuff for me to sort through in order to sell their house. Now, I have become my parents. I’ve been feeling a little panicky as I go through boxes in the the basement, trying to find my 8×10″ copies of her 3-month, 6-month, 9-month, and 12-month portraits to go along with all the snapshots, and I can’t believe how much dust has accumulated on those boxes in the storage area, almost as if they’d been sitting there for years. But how can that be? The days are long, but the years are short, indeed.

I’m finally making good progress, I think. After some quality time spent with my hot glue gun, I should have the album itself done by the end of the weekend. Filling it with all the photos from my baby’s first year might take a little longer, but with her typical grace and good nature, Catherine is cutting me some slack in that regard. Having gained some momentum with the project, I’m confident that I can get this finished in a timely fashion, because I’ve gained a new sense of urgency. Tomorrow is not promised, and suddenly I feel as though I’ve neglected my immediate family history for long enough. My dead ancestors aren’t going anywhere. Right now it’s time to celebrate the living.

A work in progress, 18 years in the making.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021