A Beginner’s Guide to Polish Genealogy, Revised Edition

Back in 2016, I wrote up a quick list of search tips for beginners in the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook, to give some direction to our group members who were just getting started with their genealogical research. Recently, we’ve had some comments from members who pointed out that these search tips are now a bit outdated, since they reference things like microfilm rentals from the Family History Library, which have been discontinued by the FHL in light of the increasing scarcity of raw microfilm and the emphasis on offering digital images of genealogical records. So, this seemed like a good time to give the whole list an overhaul and a bit of reorganization. Bear in mind that although these search tips were originally written specifically for research into Polish ancestors, many of the same principles apply no matter what ethnicity your immigrant ancestors were.

Tracing your family back to Poland is as easy as one, two three

There are three basic steps involved in tracing your family back into Polish records:

  1. Gather evidence from U.S. records to establish the place of birth of your immigrant ancestor. This assumes your Polish ancestor migrated to the U.S., but of course if he did not, then you use records from the country in which he settled.
  2. Use one or more gazetteers to determine the parish or registry office which served that village.
  3. Identify the repositories that hold records for this parish or registry office. These repositories might include state archives, diocesan archives, the parish itself, the local civil registry office (urząd stanu cywilnego), or most likely a combination of all of these. These records may or may not be digitized or microfilmed, but you can always hire an onsite researcher to access records for you if they are not available any other way, and it might not be as expensive as you think (see “Tips for Hiring a Professional Researcher in Poland”).

Even experienced genealogical researchers often need help with steps 2 and 3 if they are not experienced with research in Polish records in particular. For that reason, it’s wise to join us over in the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook and we can assist with those questions. However, for the purpose of this guide, I’ll focus on just the first step, which is gathering evidence from U.S. records to establish the birthplace of your immigrant ancestor.

Interview family members

Now, if you’re scratching your head and asking yourself, “Was it Dziadzia who was born in Poland, or was it his father?,” then the first step might be to make a few phone calls to older family members and see what they remember. Gather all the information you can, because you never know how some small detail might become relevant at a later point in your research. (For one example of this, see my story about “The Old Mill.”) Additional hints for interviewing older family members can be found here. If all your older family members are deceased, don’t panic. Their paper trail is still there, and that’s what we all use to document those family stories anyway. However, you should still write down your own memories and stories about earlier generations of your family, and talk with any cousins who are still living to see what they remember. Armed with this information, it’s time to go online!

Check out sites for “one-stop shopping”

There are a number of great sites that can help you begin to gather documentation for your family. My two favorites are FamilySearch and Ancestry, but additional sites like Fold3, My Heritage, Heritage Quest, GenealogyBank, etc. can all be used quickly gather some basic documentation like census records, passenger manifests, military records, possibly vital records and naturalization records, and more.  FamilySearch is free and can be accessed from any computer; you only need to register to use the site. Many of the other databases can be accessed at your local public library (if you’re in the U.S.) or at a LDS (Mormon) Family History Center.  Another common strategy for using the subscription-based sites is to sign up for a free 2-week trial, locate and download as many records as possible in that 2-week period, and then cancel the subscription before the two weeks are up so there is no charge on the credit card.

Please note that the information available on these sites represents only the tip of the iceberg for what’s out there.  Many of the documents you’ll need are still sitting in churches, courthouses, archives, and libraries, waiting for you to discover them.  In this era of immediate gratification via the internet, people sometimes begin with the unrealistic expectation that somewhere, someone out there has done all the work for them.  While this might be true (to a point) if your ancestors have been living in the U.S. since Colonial times, it’s much less likely to be true if your ancestors arrived here from Poland just a generation or two ago.  Don’t forget that genealogy still requires patience, persistence, time, and good-old fashioned research done with letter-writing, phone calls, and personal visits, if possible.

Do your homework in U.S. records before attempting to trace your family in Poland

It’s a common mistake for people to find one document with a place of birth on it (most likely misspelled) and to try to use that to begin tracing their family in Poland.  Be patient.  In many cases, there are multiple towns and villages in Poland with the same name — think of researching a U.S. place called “Springfield.” So it’s a good idea to obtain several documents with information about an immigrant’s birthplace so you can compare them before trying to research in Poland.  It’ll save you time (and maybe money) in the long run. It’s also advisable to be suspicious of family stories that an ancestor came from a large city, like Warsaw, Kraków, or Poznań. Most of our ancestors came from small villages, but it was common for an immigrant to approximate her place of birth to the closest large city when describing her hometown to an American audience that was unfamiliar with Polish geography (see “Grandma Said She Was From Poznań: Decoding Stories About Ancestors from Poland”). Don’t worry too much at this point if there are apparent conflicts between the place of birth as it’s recorded in different documents. It may be that one document refers to the village, another refers to the gmina (an administrative level similar to a township, composed of several villages) and a third refers to the county. A good gazetteer can help you make sense of all of this, or we can help you in the Polish Genealogy group.

Which types of documents are most useful for identifying an immigrant’s place of birth?My personal top three go-to sources for this information are church records, passenger manifests, and naturalization records. However, it’s important to think broadly here and leave no stone unturned. Place of origin might be recorded in a newspaper death notice (especially a newspaper published in the immigrant’s mother tongue, like the Dziennik dla wszystkich from Buffalo, New York, or the Dziennik Chicagoski from Chicago, Illinois), on a grave marker (see “The Final Clue: Tracing the Wagners Back to Germany”), on a draft registration, in a Social Security application, in an application for a life insurance policy, in a letter or some other document handed down through the family, etc. For now, let’s take a closer look at those top three sources.

Church records

The vast majority of ethnic Poles were Roman Catholic, and Roman Catholic church records are often very good about including specific place of origin for Polish immigrants, beyond just something broad like “Russia,” “Prussia,” “Austria,” “Galicia,” or “Posen.” (If you’re not sure why an ethnic Pole would be likely to be recorded as being from one of those places, please see “Those Infamous Border Changes: A Crash Course in Polish History”). While church records can’t be guaranteed to contain that all-important place of origin, they come through often enough that it’s worth the extra effort to obtain them. Moreover, these places were probably recorded by a Polish priest, so they’re likely to be spelled more or less correctly.  In addition to obtaining marriage and death records for Polish immigrants who married in the U.S., you should also obtain baptismal records for the U.S.-born children of your immigrant ancestors.  These frequently contain an “ex loco” portion that will tell you where the parents came from. It’s important to be thorough, since the priest may not have recorded precise place of origin on every record pertaining to your family. So for example, if you know that your great-grandmother’s sister also immigrated from Poland and married in the U.S., get her church marriage and death records, as well as your those for your great-grandmother. Similarly, get copies of all the baptismal records, not just for your own direct line of descent.  Documents from collateral lines can often provide that critical breakthrough you need.

If you don’t know what parish your ancestors attended, you can usually determine this based on their address(es) as reported in census records and city directories. Parishes had defined geographic boundaries (and they still do!) and people were less likely to “shop around” for a parish they liked, as is often the case today.  Group members in the Polish Genealogy group can often assist with identifying the correct parish, so ask if you need help. Before you write to a parish, check the Family History Library catalog to see if records for that parish are available. A small percentage of U.S. Catholic church records have been microfilmed/digitized by the LDS, but it’s definitely worthwhile to check first.

If you do need to write to the parish, keep in mind that the primary function of the parish staff is to meet the spiritual needs of their congregation, not to fulfill genealogy requests. Make sure to enclose a donation for the parish, and be prepared to wait a while. It’s best to request only a few records (1-3) at a time, keep your letter brief, and be as specific as you can. If you’re requesting a marriage record, for example, obtain the civil equivalent first – that way, you already know the exact date of the event. Be sure to ask for a clear digital photo or photocopy of the parish register, rather than a typed extract, which Catholic parishes sometimes provide as proof that a sacrament was administered in their parish. Explain that the original record may contain information that’s vitally important to your search, so you need the full, original record. If they hesitate due to “privacy concerns” suggest that they cover up the other entries on the page with a sheet of paper, so that only the key entry (and the column headings, if there are any) are showing. Be polite and respectful — churches are under no obligation to provide copies of their records, so it’s an act of kindness if they choose to do it.  It’s okay to follow up with phone calls, e-mails or letters if a decent interval (4-6 weeks) has gone by and you still have not received a reply. When you do receive your records, remember to send a thank-you note.

Passenger Manifests

Passenger manifests can be searched free at the Ellis Island database, which contains manifests from passengers who entered the port of New York between 1892 and 1957. Prior to the construction of the Ellis Island Immigration Station, immigrants who arrived at the port of New York were processed at the Castle Garden inspection station, which was in operation from 1855 to 1892. Access to indexed records in the Castle Garden database is also free, but the manifests themselves can only be obtained via one of the subscription-based sites like Ancestry. Be aware of the fact that some of the later manifests from Ellis Island cover two pages, and an immigrant’s last place of residence might be recorded on the first page, but his place of birth (potentially different from his last place of residence) might be on the second page. In addition to the port of New York, many Polish immigrants arrived in the U.S. via the ports of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, in addition to some more minor ports of entry. Some immigrants may also have arrived through Canadian ports. More information, including links to additional indexes for passenger manifests, can be found here. Digital images of passenger manifests for these other ports of arrival can be found on Ancestry,

Naturalization records

It’s important to note that not every immigrant chose to become a U.S. citizen. Immigration and naturalization are two distinct processes, and naturalization has never been required of those choosing to live and work in the U.S. If your immigrant ancestor naturalized, this will be indicated on U.S. census records. The 1900, 1910, 1930 and 1940 censuses all asked about the year of immigration to the U.S., and whether or not the person was naturalized, and the 1920 census additionally asked for the specific year of naturalization. If your ancestor naturalized prior to 1906, his records are less likely to indicate specific place of birth information, beyond stating the country of which he was formerly a citizen. However, with the creation of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in 1906, changes were introduced in the way naturalization was handled by the various courts, and new, standardized forms were implemented which were much more detailed than the forms that were in use previously.  As a result, naturalization records dated after 26 September 1906 are very likely to tell you precisely where your immigrant ancestor was born., as well as date of birth, date and port of arrival in the U.S., the name of the ship on which he traveled, the names and dates of birth of the immigrant’s spouse and children, and more. Note that prior to the Cable Act of 1922, a woman’s citizenship was a reflection of her husband’s (see this article on women and naturalization for more information).  So if your female immigrant ancestor stated that she was naturalized prior to 1922, it was very likely a derivative naturalization through her husband or father, and you’ll want to check their naturalization records to discover her place of birth, instead of searching for records in her name.

Naturalization records can be found in a variety of ways. Sometimes they’re available online and you can find them on Ancestry or in the FamilySearch catalog. If your ancestor naturalized in a county court, as many of mine did, you can visit, call or write to the county courthouse to obtain a copy of the record. I’ve been able to request many naturalization records through the mail this way, at a very low cost. However, you may need to check other sources, such as the National Archives, or request an index search from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If the 1940 census states that your ancestor was still an alien at that point, then he would have had to register as such when the U.S. began creating alien case files in 1944. You can search for your ancestor’s A-file by entering his name into the search box in the National Archives Catalog.

Using indexed records from Poland

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you may have difficulty in determining your immigrant ancestor’s place of birth. Maybe his church marriage and death records don’t state a specific place of origin, and neither do his civil records. Maybe he immigrated and naturalized early on, and those documents don’t specify his birthplace precisely. Perhaps you know only a general region from whence he came, such as Warsaw or Poznań. In cases such as these, it’s sometimes possible to take a shortcut and locate his birthplace using indexed records from Poland. Thanks to volunteer indexing efforts in Poland, more and more indexed vital records are coming online every day, and these can be leveraged to great advantage to jump-start your research. However, it is still important to gather information from U.S. records first — at minimum, you should know your immigrant ancestor’s name, approximate date of birth, and parents’ names. Parents’ names can usually be determined using a marriage record, death record, or Social Security application (SS-5 form; see here for details). It’s also very helpful to determine at least generally where he was from. Knowing the partition of Poland in which he was born is helpful, but more specific regional information, e.g. West Prussia, “Warsaw,” “Kalisz,” etc., is preferable. The more you know about your immigrant ancestor before you begin, the less likely you are to start barking up the wrong family tree, especially if you’re working with a common surname.

So where can you find indexed vital records from Poland? That depends to some extent on your region of interest, and a more complete list of indexed and digitized records can be found here. But these are a few databases that top the list:

For all of Poland: Geneteka

For the Poznań region: Poznań Project (marriage records only), BaSIA (has births, marriages and deaths)

For Pomerania: Pomeranian Genealogical Society database

For the Lublin area: Lubgens

For Polish records indexed by FamilySearch (as of today, this includes the Tarnów, Radom, and Lublin areas, as well as some BillionGrave and Find-A-Grave indexes): FamilySearch

For the Dobrzyń nad Wisłą region: Szpejankowski and Szpejankowski Family Portal

For the Podlasie area: Projekt Podlasie (Note that you must register with this site — it’s free — before you can search their indexes.)

For the Częstochowa area: Częstochowa Genealogical Society database (Note that you must register with this site — it’s free — before you can search their indexes.)

For Volhynia/Wołyń: Metryki Wołyń


Remember that there is no, single, comprehensive database that includes every birth, marriage or death that ever occurred anywhere in any place that was known to have an ethnic Polish presence historically (wouldn’t that be nice!), so if you don’t find your ancestors in one of these indexes, it doesn’t mean their records were destroyed. It means you need to go back to using the paper trail to deduce exactly where they were born, identify the parish that served that village, and determine where the records are for that parish — those three steps I mentioned at the very beginning.

Hopefully these links, strategies and tips will help you get your research off to a good start. The Polish Genealogy group is also a great asset, and volunteers are ready to help you at every step of the way. So what are you waiting for? Let’s find those ancestors!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018


The Many Wives of Józef Grzesiak

Veritatem Temporis filiam esse dixit.” (Truth is the daughter of time.) — Aulus Gellius

Conflicts in documentary evidence happen all the time. The logical resolution of such conflicts is one of the hallmarks of sound genealogical research that separates the professionals and experienced family history researchers from the novices. A perfect illustration of this is the story of my great-great-grandfather, Józef Grzesiak, and his many (?) wives.

Growing up, I used to ask my maternal grandmother to tell me about her mother’s family in Poland, and my desire to document those stories inspired my early family history efforts. Grandma’s mother was Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki, but Grandma never knew the names of her grandparents, because “people didn’t talk about those things back then,” as she told me time and again. Nevertheless, Grandma knew a few details, such as the fact that her mother’s parents owned the grain mill that I wrote about previously. She told the story of how “Veronica’s mother died when Josephine was born, so at age 18, Veronica came to America. She found employment working in the kitchen of a restaurant.  She spoke no English, so her employers called her Mary and they communicated through signs and gestures.  She saved her money and sent it to her two brothers, Władysław (“Walter”) and Tadeusz, (Thaddeus), and her sister Józefa (Josephine), so they could come to America.”1 Grandma also told the story, shared previously, of how Walter married an actress in Poland who didn’t want to leave her career, which ultimately ended their marriage.

When I started my research, I didn’t know whether or not I’d ever be able to document some of these details, but I figured that it should be easy to answer the question, “Who were Veronica Grzesiak’s parents?” And in fact, it was pretty easy. On her marriage record to John Zazycki in 1901, Veronica reported her parents’ names as Joseph Grzesiak and Marianna Krawczynska (Figure 1).2

Figure 1: Marriage record for John Zazycki and Veronica Grzesiak, 5 August 1901.2Jan & Weronika Zazyki Marriage 1 marked

This document also told me which partition of Poland Grandma’s parents were from (Russian), and Veronica’s age reported here, 22, allowed me to estimate that she was born circa 1879. So far, so good.  However, when Veronica’s brother Thaddeus was married to Mary Gorski, he reported his parents’ names as Joseph Grzesiak and Mary Cebulska (Figure 2).3

Figure 2: Extract from marriage record for Thaddeus Grzesiak and Mayme (Mary) Gorski, 20 April 1910.3

Tadeusz Gresiak & Marya Gorska marriage record 1 marked

Now this was interesting, and it seemed like just the kind of detail that those family stories were likely to gloss over, since “people never talked about these things back then.” Okay, I concluded, no big deal, apparently Veronica and Thaddeus were half-siblings, sharing a father, but different mothers.

However, their sister Josephine named yet a different mother on her marriage record. When she married Joseph Cymerman in 1902, she stated that her parents were Joseph Grzesiak and Anna Nowacka (Figure 3).4

Figure 3: Extract from marriage record for Joseph Cymerman and Josepha Grzesiak, 5 August 1902.4

Jozefa Grzesiak & Jozef Cymermann marriage record 1 marked

Well, okay, maybe Joseph Grzesiak was very unlucky and lost two of his wives, so he married for a third time. It happened. But then there is yet another wife’s name reported on the death record for the oldest Grzesiak sibling, Walter (Figure 4).5

Figure 4: Extract from death record for Walter Grzesiak.5


On this document, Walter was reported to be the son of Joseph Grzesiak and Maryanna Szafron. Now, most genealogists consider death records to be less accurate sources for information about an individual than some other types of records (e.g. marriage records) since the informant is probably grieving, possibly in shock, and may not be well-informed about the early life of the decedent, including parents’ names.  However, in this case, the informant was none other than Thaddeus (signing himself here as Theodore) Grzesiak — Walter’s brother.

So what do we make of this?  We have four siblings, all children of Joseph Grzesiak, but four different mother’s names reported on four different documents by three of the siblings.  Were they all half-siblings, each with the same father but a different mother?  I ran this theory past Grandma while she was still alive, and she didn’t buy it.  She had never heard of Walter, Thaddeus and Josephine being half-siblings to her mother, but she had no explanation for the discrepancies on the documents.  The maiden names reported for the mothers — Marianna Krawczyńska, Marianna Szafron, Marya Cebulska, and Anna Nowacka — weren’t even phonetically similar, apart from the fact that the siblings more or less agreed on a first name of Marianna. And was it grief that caused Thaddeus to change his story, reporting on his own marriage record that his mother was Maria Cebulska but then deciding 36 years later that her name was Marianna Szafron? Was it possible that the Grzesiak siblings did not even know their own mother’s name?  Perhaps there was an explanation:  Grandma said that Veronica’s mother had died (shortly?) after the birth of the youngest sibling, Josephine. Since Thaddeus and Veronica were only 7 and 5 when Josephine was born, maybe none of the children knew her well?

The only way to answer this question was to examine evidence from Polish records. The birth records for Walter, Veronica, Thaddeus and Josephine should tell us who their mothers were. If Joseph had several wives who died in succession, there would be death records for those wives and marriage records to tell the tale.

Polish Records to the Rescue

A very robust paper trail consisting of naturalization records (Figure 5),6 passenger manifests,7,8 and draft registrations,9 in addition to a personal recollection shared with me by Tadeusz Grzesiak’s son, Arthur Gray,10 all pointed to the Grzesiaks’ place of origin as the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo in Słupca County, which was at that time located in the Kalisz gubernia (province) of Russian Poland.

Figure 5: Władysław Grzesiak’s petition for naturalization, 23 January 1917, showing place of birth “Kowalewo, Poland, Russia” on 17 September 1867.Walter Grzesiak Petition

In the church records of Kowalewo, birth records were discovered for each of the immigrant Grzesiak children. Władysław Grzesiak was born 20 September 1867, fairly consistent with the birth date he reported for himself on his naturalization petition (Figure 6).11 

Figure 6: Polish-language birth record for Władysław Grzesiak, born 20 September 1867, with names of parents and child underlined in red.11OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In this document, Władysław’s parents are reported to be Józef Grzesiak, age 26, a farmhand (parobek) residing in Kowalewo, and his wife, Maryanna née Krawczyńska, age 20. Similarly, the birth record for Tadeusz Grzesiak was discovered, and his parents, too, were reported to be Józef Grzesiak and Marianna née Krawczyńska (Figure 7).12

Figure 7: Russian-language Birth record for Tadeusz Grzesiak, born 27 March 1874, with names of parents and child underlined in red.12Tadeusz Grzesiak birth record marked

It’s evident that there’s a language change between these two records. Władysław’s birth record was written in Polish, while Tadeusz’s birth record was written in Russian. This was one of the punitive measures imposed by the Russian Government on Polish territories as a result of the failure of the January Uprising of 1863. Prior to 1867, the use of the Polish language was permitted in official record-keeping, but starting in 1868 (earlier in some areas) official records and even church records were required to be kept only in Russian. Tadeusz’s birth date, 27 March 1874, is a few years off from his date of birth as he reported it on his World War II draft registration — 24 March 1878. However, it was not unusual for people to report their dates of birth inaccurately in an era when there was no reason to know this information precisely, as there is today. In this document, Józef Grzesiak was reported to be a 33-year-old “master of the house” (хозяин), while his wife, Marianna, was age 31. The age difference between Józef and Marianna, which was 6 years in the first record, has magically diminished to 2 years, but again, such discrepancies are very common in these records.

Next, we have the birth record for my great-grandmother, Weronika Grzesiak, who was born 27 December 1876 (Figure 8).13 

Figure 8: Russian-language birth record for Weronika Grzesiak, born 27 December 1876, with names of parents and child underlined in red.13Weronika Grzesiak birth marked

Once again, parents were recorded as Józef Grzesiak, “master of the house,” of Kowalewo, age 37, and his wife, Maryanna née Krawczyńska, age 33.

Finally, the birth record of Józefa Grzesiak was discovered.14 Józefa was born 6 March 1881, and yes, her parents were none other than Józef Grzesiak and Marianna née Krawczyńska (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Russian-language birth record for Józefa Grzesiak, born 6 March 1881, with names of parents and child underlined in red.14Jozefa Grzesiak birth record

This time, Józef Grzesiak was recorded as “master of the house,” age 40, while his wife, Marianna, was age 37. Ultimately, Józef’s and Marianna’s dates of birth can only be known accurately when their birth records are discovered — and I discovered those a long time ago, but that’s another story for another day.

As if this weren’t sufficient evidence to put to rest the notion that the immigrant Grzesiak siblings were half-siblings, the icing on the cake was the search in marriage records and death records for any marriages for Józef Grzesiak or death records for previous wives. The only marriage record discovered was his marriage in Kowalewo in 1865 to Marianna Kawczyńska (sic) (Figure 10).15

Figure 10: Polish-language marriage record from Kowalewo for Józef Grzesiak and Maryanna Kawczyńska (sic), 31 October 1865 with names of the groom and bride underlined in red.15Jozef Grzesiak and Marianna Krawczynska marriage

The fact that this is the only marriage record found for Józef Grzesiak in Kowalewo is unsurprising, given that all of his children’s birth records name the same mother, Marianna Krawczyńska. The date of the record makes sense — they were married about 2 years before Władysław’s birth in 1867, not an unusually long period of time to be married prior to the birth of an eldest child. Józef was described as a 25-year-old bachelor, born in Cienin Zaborny but residing in Kowalewo with his parents, Stanisław and Jadwiga, at the time of his marriage. Marianna was noted to be age 22, born in Zagórów and residing in Kowalewo, daughter of Antoni and Wiktoria.

So at the end of the day, there is absolutely no evidence in Polish records for any wives of Józef Grzesiak other than Marianna Krawczyńska, whom he married in 1865 and with whom he had 6 children: the four immigrant Grzesiak siblings, as well as two daughters, Konstancja and Pelagia, who remained in Poland, and whose story I touched on a bit previously. There was no Maria Cebulska, no Anna Nowacka, no Marianna Szafron. They didn’t exist. Grandma Veronica was the only one of her siblings who accurately reported her mother’s name on a document in the U.S. So where did Tadeusz and Józefa come up with those names? Maybe Grandma was right all along — “people just didn’t talk about those things back then.” Maybe Tadeusz and Józefa really had no idea what their mother’s name was. One thing is certain, though: Marianna Grzesiak did not die when Józefa was born, or even shortly thereafter. No, Marianna Grzesiak died in Russian Poland in 1904, when her youngest daughter Józefa was 23 years old and married.16 So isn’t it a little odd that at least two of her children didn’t appear to know her name, and that the story was handed down that she died before Veronica and her siblings left Poland for America? I have some speculations about that, but it’s another story for another day.

Genealogists usually find that the best strategy for handling conflicting evidence is to keep gathering data until the truth emerges. Sometimes some analytical skill is required to interpret the data, but at other times, it’s just a question of perseverance to find the right records to settle the question. In this case, one could look at the data from U.S. records and conclude that Józef Grzesiak had three or four wives, or one could dig deeper, find the Grzesiak children’s birth records and Józef and Marianna’s marriage record from Poland, and know the truth.


1 Helen Zielinski, interviews by Julie Szczepankiewicz, circa 1986-1998; Notes from interviews privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, 2018.

2 City of Buffalo, Bureau of Vital Statistics, marriage record for John Zazycki and Veronica Grzesiak, 5 August 1901, certificate no. 202, Buffalo, Erie, New York, Erie County Clerk’s Office, 92 Franklin Street, Buffalo, New York.

3 New York State Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, marriage record for Thaddeus Grzesiak and Mayme (Mary) Gorski, 20 April 1910, certificate no. 9051, Buffalo, Erie, New York, Erie County Clerk’s Office, 92 Franklin Street, Buffalo, New York.

City of Buffalo, Bureau of Vital Statistics, marriage record for Joseph Cymerman and Josephine Grzesiak, 5 August 1902, certificate no.198, Buffalo, Erie, New York, Erie County Clerk’s Office, 92 Franklin Street, Buffalo, New York.

New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, death certificate for Walter Grzesiak, 25 April 1946, no. 2600, Buffalo, Erie, New York.

Wladyslaw Grzesiak, Petition for Naturalization, No. 4950, 23 January 1917, Supreme Court of New York, Buffalo, Erie, New York.

7 Maryland, Baltimore Passenger Lists, 1820-1948 (image), Veronika Grzesiak, S.S. Willehad, April 1898, https://www.familysearch.org, accessed 25 February 2018.

Maryland, Baltimore Passenger Lists, 1820-1948 (image), Jozef, Kazimira and Jozefa Grzesiak, S.S. Rhein, May 1900, https://www.familysearch.org, accessed 25 February 2018.

World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942, Draft Registration Cards for Fourth Registration for New York State, 04/27/1942 – 04/27/1942; NAI Number: 2555973; record Group Title: Records of the Selective Service System; Record Group Number: 147, record for Tadeusz George Grzesiak, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed 25 February 2018.

10Arthur Gray, interview by Julie Szczepankiewicz, circa 1998; Notes from interview privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, 2018.

11 Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1867, births, #39, record for Władysław Grzesiak, accessed in person at the archive by Zbigniew Krawczyński, Archiwum Państwowe w Poznaniu. Oddział w Koninie, 3 Maja 78 Konin, Poland.

12 Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki), Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1874, births, #17, record for Tadeusz Grzesiak, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach, http://www.szukajwarchiwach.pl, accessed on 25 February 2018.

13Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki),  Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1876, births # 72, record for Weronika Grzesiak, accessed on 25 February 2018.

14 Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki) (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1881, births, #15, record for Józefa Grzesiak, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach, http://www.szukajwarchiwach.pl, accessed on 25 February 2018.

15Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki), Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1865, marriages, #10, record for Józef Grzesiak and Maryanna Kawczynska, 31 October 1865, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach, http://www.szukajwarchiwach.pl , image 20.jpg, accessed on 25 February 2018.

16 Roman Catholic church, Zagórów parish (Zagórów, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1947, Akta zgonów 1891-1906, 1904, #52, death record for Marianna Grzesiak, DGS 8018016, Image 383, accessed on 25 February 2018.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018

The Devil is in the Details: Finding the Right Adam Krupski

Happy New Year! This past weekend, I spent a delightful New Year’s Eve at a family party, talking with with my niece, Tina, who is newly engaged to her fiancé, Luke. Tina and Luke were interested in discovering Luke’s family history, so we began researching Luke’s ancestry together, starting with information from a preliminary family tree recorded in Luke’s baby book by his mom. The process was really satisfying for me, because it gave me a chance to demonstrate proper methodology, source citations, and critical analysis, so Tina can avoid making some of the sloppy rookie mistakes that I made when I started. Moreover, the research project offered an opportunity to demonstrate the necessity of resolving conflicting information as we sought to distinguish between two men with the same name and approximately the same birth year, living in the same metropolitan area, a problem frequently encountered in genealogy.

Meet William Krupski

Our starting point for the project was Luke’s great-grandfather, William L. Krupski. Luke knew that he died 25 June 1995 and lived in Elma, New York, and that was all he knew. A match for William L. Krupski from Elma, New York with this date of death in the Social Security Death Index, quickly provided William’s date of birth, 7 January 1919. Even better, an entry in Ancestry’s Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, provided his full name, William Leonard Krupski, confirmed his date and place of birth as 7 January 1919 and place of birth as Buffalo, New York, confirmed his date of death, and revealed that his parents were Adam Krupski and Maryann Houchol.

This information led to the 1930 census, in which we discovered the family of Adam and Mary Krupski, living in Elma, New York, with son William Krupski, born 1919, as well as daughters Eva, Genevieve, and Jennie. Oddly, William was marked as “relative,” rather than “son,” and at this point, we didn’t know whether this was merely an error on the part of the census taker, or whether William Krupski might have been an adopted son, rather than Adam and Mary’s biological child. However, at this early stage of the game, this was not something we needed to lose sleep over. As my old undergraduate research mentor used to tell me, “keep gathering data and truth will emerge.” The census revealed that William’s father, Adam, was born circa 1880 in Poland, immigrated in 1907, was a naturalized citizen, and that he was 22 years old at the time of his first marriage. This suggests a marriage year circa 1902, and since the data for his wife Mary suggest the same year of marriage, we have no reason to suspect that either of them was married previously. Their oldest daughter, Eva, was also born in Poland. Strangely, the census-taker chose to record her under her married name, Dubel, but in her father’s household, rather than with her husband and daughter, who appear on the next page. This may have resulted from a miscommunication, which supports the notion that William Krupski’s identification as “relative” rather than “son” may have been another miscommunication.

In the 1920 census, the family was still living in Elma, New York, and was recorded under the name Krupska, rather than Krupski, possibly suggesting that Mary was the informant, since this is the feminine form of the surname in Polish. Adam’s age once again suggests a birth year circa 1880, and his immigration year, 1908, is fairly consistent with the date he reported previously. So far, so good. William Krupski was recorded as “Bolsłew” which is clearly a misspelling of the Polish name Bolesław. It was unfortunately indexed as “Boktev” by both Family Search and Ancestry. This illustrates nicely why it’s a good idea to search for family groups, rather than trying to focus on just one individual, since a researcher focused solely on “William Krupski” is unlikely to pay much attention to a result for “Boktev Krupska.” It’s actually fairly common for Polish men named Bolesław to use the name William in American records. This is because the traditional diminutive for Bolesław is Bolek. From Bolek, they’d go to “Bill,” and then from “Bill,” they’d go to “William.” In this census, Bolesław/William was recorded as “son” rather than “relative.”

At this point, we had two records confirming that Adam Krupski of Elma, New York, was born circa 1880. We still didn’t know his date of death, but the Social Security Death Index reveals that one Adam Krupski, born 4 December 1880, from Erie County, New York, died in May 1970. Seems perfectly plausible, right? That zip code for his last residence, 14218, corresponds to Lackawanna, New York, rather than Elma, but that’s only about 15 miles away. He could have moved, right? Find-A-Grave informed us that Adam Krupski died 3 May 1970 and is buried in Cheektowaga, New York, which also seemed reasonable.

The Plot Thickens

So now we know that William Krupski’s father, Adam Krupski, was born 4 December 1880 in Poland, and died on 3 May 1970.

Or do we?

A little more digging in census records revealed that there was an Adam “Krupsk” in the 1930 census, living in Buffalo, New York, who was born circa 1880, with wife Josephine and children Joseph, Alice, and Henrietta. This Adam immigrated circa 1903, and his two daughters were born in Pennsylvania circa 1913 and 1917, respectively. This same guy showed up in the 1940 census as Adam Krupski, still living in Buffalo, with calculated birth year 1880, wife Josephine, son Aloysius, and daughter Henrietta. From this, we understood that there were two different Adam Krupskis, born circa 1880, living within 15 miles of each other. This told us that we needed to be very careful in evaluating documents so as not to confuse the two Adams.

So which Adam died 3 May 1970 and is buried in Cheektowaga? An easy way to answer this question was to check Find-A-Grave again and search for other Krupskis buried in the same cemetery as Adam. Sure enough, other burials include Henrietta, Aloysius, Joseph, and Josephine, along with a Jane and a Violet (née Smith) Krupski — probably the wife of Aloysius or Joseph. This family may still be related in some way to Luke’s Krupski family, but there’s no guarantee of that, especially since the Krupski surname is sufficiently common that several unrelated Krupski families might have immigrated to Buffalo from Poland independently.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for genealogy rookies to get confuddled when presented with data like this, and it can lead one to the wrong conclusions entirely. We discovered at least one family tree online in which a researcher conflated Adam Krupski 1 (married to Mary) with Adam Krupski 2 (married to Josephine). Ancestry’s database, Pennsylvania, Federal Naturalization Records, 1795-1931, includes a Declaration of Intention dated 26 October 1908 for one Adam Krupski, born 4 December 1881, who arrived in the U.S. on 25 June 1903. His date of birth, exactly one year off from the date of birth for Adam Krupski 2, combined with his arrival date in 1903, and the fact that he naturalized in Pennsylvania, are all consistent with this man being the same as Adam Krupski 2 who was married to Josephine and had two daughters born in Pennsylvania in 1913-1917. Unfortunately, the other Krupski researcher whose family tree we examined, concluded that this was the Declaration of Intention for Adam Krupski 1. Since this document stated that Adam Krupski was from Grodno, Russia, the researcher will be chasing the wrong family if she seeks Adam Krupski 1 in records from Grodno.

So where was the birthplace of Adam Krupski 1, the father of William Krupski, husband of Mary Houchol? That’s easy. He was born in Pobroszyn, Opatów County, in the Radom province of Russian Poland, nowhere near Grodno. How do I know this?

Rather than engaging in an exhaustive analysis of each document discovered let me hit the highlights. The 1940 census suggested a birth year circa 1873 — significantly earlier than the date of 1880 discovered previously. This could have been an error, or it could indicate that Adam really wasn’t sure of his exact date of birth, which was fairly common in those days since knowing this information wasn’t as important as it is today. Unfortunately, none of these census records (1920, 1930 or 1940) indicated the partition of Poland that Adam was from, which was important to discover, since Poland did not exist as an independent nation at the time of Adam’s birth, marriage, or emigration (see here for a crash course in Polish history). It’s very helpful to determine the partition that an immigrant was from because there are so many Polish place names that are not unique. Fortunately, further digging produced Jane Krupski’s birth record, which revealed that her father Adam Krupski and mother Marie Hochol were born in Russia circa 1877 and 1879, respectively. We can be sure that this is the right Jane/Jennie Krupski, because the mother’s maiden name matches the name reported by William Krupski on his Social Security application, and the 1930 census reported that  Adam and Mary’s daughter Jane was born in Indiana.

Putting it all together, I now knew that Adam and Marianna/Mary were from Russian Poland, where they married circa 1902. Adam immigrated circa 1907-1908, while Marianna stayed behind in Poland. Their oldest daugher, Ewa/Eve, was born circa 1907, and Marianna and Ewa came to the U.S. to join Adam circa 1913. Adam’s passenger manifest was the key to unlock the place of origin for the family. According to this document, Adam Krupski (line 27) was a 32-year-old ethnic Pole living in Russia, who arrived in New York on 9 July 1907. He was married, and his age suggests a birth year of 1875. His last permanent residence was Ujazd, Russia, he was headed to New York, and his contact in the Old Country was his wife, Marianna Krupska, living in Ujazd.

There were two places in Russian Poland called Ujazd, according to the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego published in 1877. One was in the Kalisz province (presently in the Łódź province) and belonged to the parish in Tur. The other was in the Radom province (presently in the Świętokrzyskie province) and belonged to the parish in Iwaniska. Both these parishes are indexed in Geneteka for the time period needed to locate the family, and Iwaniska turned out to be the correct parish. Lo, and behold, Ewa Krópska’s birth record was discovered in 1907 and the facts fit perfectly. She was born in Ujazd to Adam Krópski and Marianna Chochoł. Although both of the surnames are spelled a bit differently than they appeared in U.S. records, the U.S. spellings make sense as phonetic transliterations of the Polish versions.

Although there’s no link to it in the Geneteka index, Ewa’s birth record can be found online in the Metryki database.  Adam and Marianna’s marriage record was also discovered in Geneteka in the parish of Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski, about 20 miles north of Ujazd. The record, which appears below, can be found online in the GenBaza database. (To access this database, you need to create a free account, and once your account is active and you are logged in, the link to the marriage record will work.)

Adam Krupski and Marianna Chochoł 1899 marriage crop

Here’s the translation from Russian, as I read it:

“#31. Ostrowiec. Adam Krupski and Marianna Chochoł. This happened in the town of Ostrowiec on the 30th day of May/11th day of June 1899 at 7:00 in the morning. They appeared, Roman Domański, blacksmith, age 40, and Artur Gregor, ???, age 22, residents of Ostrowiec. On this day was contracted a religious marriage between Adam Krópski, bachelor, age 27, son of parents Kazimierz and the late Joanna née Kocznur, born in the village of Pobroszyn, parish Opatów, and now in Ostrowiec residing in the local parish, and Marianna Chochoł, peasant, age 26, daughter of Roch and the late Julianna née Mucha, born in the village of Pęchów, parish Goźlice, Sandomierz district, and now in Ostrowiec residing in this parish. The marriage was preceded by three announcements in Ostrowiec parish church, to wit: on the 14th, 21st and 28th days of May of the current year. The newlyweds stated that they had no prenuptial agreement between them. The religious ceremony of marriage was performed by Fr. Feliks Latalski. This Act was read aloud to the illiterate witnesses and was signed only by Us. [signed] Administrator of the Parish of Ostrowiec, Fr. F. Latalski”

So there you have it. I think we made pretty good use of our New Year’s Eve, successfully tracing the family of Luke’s great-grandfather, William Krupski, through U.S. records, determining his parents’ place of origin in Poland, and discovering and translating William’s parents’ marriage record and his sister Ewa’s birth record, all before the ball dropped in Times Square at midnight. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg for the research that can be done for the Krupski family in both the U.S. and Poland, but Warsaw wasn’t built in a day. The moral of the story is, if you carefully follow the paper trail — not ignoring conflicting evidence, but seeking the truth — you won’t go astray. Here’s to a New Year filled with great genealogical discoveries, for all of us!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018


I Found Records for my Ancestors’ Parish! Now What?

I spend a fair amount of time each week helping budding genealogists in the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook. Frequently, we assist people by locating collections of vital records for their ancestral parishes in digital archives, but after that, it’s up to the individuals to use those records. And I sometimes get the sense that people aren’t really sure how to make the best use of those collections, after they’ve found a record or two for their family. So I’d like to take this opportunity to explain how I milk a collection of vital records for every drop of usable information.

Verify that this is the correct location for your family.

The first step is always to connect the parish to your family by finding one record — say, your great-grandmother’s birth record — that is unmistakeably correct. If all the U.S. data point to the parish of Gradzanowo Kościelne as her baptismal parish, and you know her parents’ names and her approximate date of birth from U.S. records, then you should be able to find her baptismal record. Note that our ancestors’ years of birth as they were reported in U.S. records are not always correct. Most U.S. records for my 2x-great-grandmother, Mary Klaus, suggested that she was born circa 1872, but her birth record proves that she was born in 1866. Despite the discrepancy in years, the record is unmistakeably hers, because the parents’ names match those reported on her marriage records, the day and month of birth match exactly with what was recorded on her death record, and multiple U.S. records indicate that she was born in Kołaczyce, Austrian Poland, which is where her baptismal record was located. So don’t be afraid to check several years before or after the year that you think your ancestor was born — or in the case of Mary Klaus, make that 6 years.

Skip back to the good stuff, if you can’t resist the temptation….

Using a different example, let’s say that I found the birth record for my husband’s great-grandmother, Helena Majczyk, in the parish records of Gradzanowo Kościelne in 1892 (because that’s true). It was unmistakeably her birth record, since her parents’ names, Stanisław Majczyk and Aniela Nowicka, matched those that Helena reported on her marriage record. I knew that Helena had one sister, Waleria, born circa 1889, and Helena’s death notice also mentioned that she was survived by “brothers and sisters in Poland.” Those siblings are all interesting to me, sure. But the first question in my mind was, “who were the parents of Stanisław and Aniela?” This question could be answered easily by finding their marriage record, but I didn’t know which sibling was the oldest. If Waleria and Helena, born circa 1889-1892, were the oldest children in the family, then the parents were probably married circa 1888. But if those “brothers and sisters in Poland” were older, and Helena was the youngest, perhaps born when her mother was 45, then Stanisław and Aniela might have been married as early as about 1863. I decided to take a chance and start searching marriage records in this parish beginning in 1889. Bingo! I found the marriage record for Stanisław Majczyk and Aniela Nowicka in 1888. In this case, I got lucky. Had Waleria and Helena been among the youngest children in the family, I might have had a longer search.

The marriage record revealed that the bride, Aniela Nowicka, was a local girl born in the village of Bojanowo, just a few kilometers away. She was the daughter of Antoni Nowicki and Jadwiga Krogulska. Her birth record should be found in the records for Gradzanowo parish, so that part would be easy, if I want to skip back and locate that quickly. There’s only one hitch, which is that online records for Gradzanowo at Metryki only go back to 1875. Since Aniela was born circa 1869, I won’t be able to find her birth record from the comfort of my home. However, when I get a chance to get to the Family History Center, I can access the additional records that they have for this parish back to 1808 and find her birth record.

The marriage record further revealed that the groom, Stanisław Majczyk, was the son of  Józef Majczyk and Katarzyna Smiadzinska.  However, Stanisław wasn’t born in the parish of Gradzanowo Kościelne. He was born in the village of Bronisze circa 1861, based on his age reported in the marriage record. The Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich, or Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries, describes two different places called Bronisze, one in Russian Poland, near Warsaw, and one in East Prussia, neither of which is especially close to Gradzanowo Kościelne. Moreover, mapa.szukacz mentions two contemporary places called Bronisze, as well as three additional places that have “Bronisze” as part of their name, such as “Rutki-Bronisze.” And the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego mentions two places called Bronisze that were both in Russian Poland. It will take some time to sort all this out and determine which Bronisze is most likely to be Stanisław’s. Unfortunately, the priest who created this record didn’t do us any favors, since he neglected to record the name of the parish in which Stanisław was baptized. However, additional clues might be found in the current record collection. Maybe Stanisław had siblings who also moved to Gradzanowo, and records for them would point to the particular village of Bronisze where the family originated. The only way to find those records will be to carefully examine all the records for the parish.

 …. but be sure to go back and do a thorough search of all the records, year by year.

Which brings us back to this step. Even if you can’t resist the temptation to skip ahead and find the most exciting records for your direct line, it’s important to take the time to fill in the rest of the family tree. In this case, online records for the parish go up to 1907, so I decided to start with that year, and work my way backwards in time. Initally my surnames of interest were going to be Majczyk and Nowicki, but the discovery of that marriage record expanded my list to include Smiadzinska and Krogulski. Since the Majczyk and Smiadzinski families did not originate in Gradzanowo, I realized that these surnames would probably not be especially prevalent in the records for Gradzanowo, but I planned to keep an eye out for them nonetheless. I began a spreadsheet in which to record information on each person with those surnames that I discovered, including such details as parents’ names, dates of birth, death and marriage, spouse’s name, etc.

At this point in the research, it’s unrealistic to expect to understand how all the people you’ll find will fit into your family tree. However, as you progress further in your research, family groups will begin to emerge from the raw data, and relationships will clarify. At that point, you can move people into your family tree. Is this painstaking work? Sure it is. Is there a better way? Not unless your parish has already been indexed on a site such as Geneteka.

Assuming your parish has not been indexed in a digital database, does that mean you have to read through every record in the book? Maybe, maybe not. Vital registers from this era in Russian Poland typically contain indexes created by the priest after each section (births, marriages or deaths), for each year, and you can begin by looking for your surnames of interest in those. Of course, errors sometimes do exist in these indexes, so ultimately you may still need to check each and every record if you can’t find what you’re looking for. And in cases where the priest did not create such an index, you have little choice but to skim through each record.

This is the point at which many fair-weather family historians seem to get cold feet. “Where are the census records for Poland,” they ask, “so that I can identify the names and birth years of the children in this family, and only search vital registers from the years when they were born?” For reasons discussed previously, census records from Poland aren’t as generally available as they are in the U.S., although there are definitely places that one can look for them. However, a thorough analysis of vital records in this manner is arguably preferable to only checking for individuals named in census records, anyway. U.S. census records offer us decennial “snapshots” of the family group over time, but it’s entirely possible (probable, even) that there are children in any given family who were born and died in between census years. Those children were more likely to be recorded in the birth and death records, however. By working my way back through the records like this, year by year, I can be certain that I’m not going to miss a birth or death for my family, assuming that the parish priest/civil registrar did, in fact, create records for these events.

Since it’s such time-consuming work — a true labor of love — it’s very important to keep a research log, indicating the date of research, which records you searched, and for what surnames, and what the findings were. That way, if life gets in the way as you make your way through the indexes and you have to stop researching, you’ll know where you left off. It’s a good idea to make a note of additional surnames that appear in the index that are similar to your target surname. Surname spellings were not consistent until the 1930s, approximately, so you might see a number of different variants used for your ancestors in old records.

Sometimes, it makes sense to go as far back as you can on your direct line so that you’re aware of the primary surnames for your family in a particular town or parish. In the present example with my research in Gradzanowo Kościelne, let’s say that I want to trace Aniela Nowicka’s direct line as quickly as possible. The key is to find her birth record, and then see how old her parents were at the time of her birth. In reality, finding Aniela’s birth record is still on my research to-do list for 2018, but for the moment, let’s suppose that we find a birth record for Aniela in 1869 which states that her mother, Jadwiga née Krogulska, was age 32 at the time of the birth, and her father, Antoni, was age 38. (Remember that this is completely hypothetical.) We can use this information to predict when Jadwiga and Antoni would have been married. In the 19th century, based on my personal research experience, Polish women were typically married around age 18-23, although in rare cases I’ve seen brides as young as 15. The woman’s age is usually more useful for estimating a marriage date than the man’s, since (in my experience, at least) there was more variability in a man’s age at the time of his first marriage. Therefore we can guess that Jadwiga was born circa 1837, and was married circa 1855-1860. Her marriage record will tell us her parents’ names, and once we know those, we’re all set to go looking for her birth record. Of course, we could also look for her birth record circa 1837 without knowing her parents’ names, but there may have been more than one Jadwiga Krogulska born circa 1837 in that parish, so it’s safer to determine her parents’ names first, if at all possible. Once we find Jadwiga’s birth record, we can guess what year her mother was born, and then repeat the process of finding marriage and birth records for Jadwiga’s mother. Using this strategy, it’s sometimes possible to skip back through several generations in a family quite quickly.

An exhaustive search of vital records is a useful strategy for pretty much any vital records collection (church or civil) in a place where your ancestors lived. Civil marriage records for my ancestors in Buffalo, New York are not online, but both the indexes and the records themselves (1878-1935) are available in the basement records room of the Erie County Clerk’s Office, and these records can be immensely helpful in establishing family groups for immigrants with a particular surname of interest. For example, when I began my research into my husband’s Szczepankiewicz ancestry, his grandfather Steve told me that his own father, Michael Szczepankiewicz, immigrated from Poland along with four brothers: Joseph, Bernard, Alexander, and Felix. While one might think that Szczepankiewicz is such an uncommon surname that all the immigrants to Buffalo with this name are related, that’s not the case. By searching marriage records, it was immediately apparent which Szczepankiewicz immigrants to Buffalo were siblings of Michael Szczepankiewicz, and which ones were unrelated. (It also turned out that Grandpa’s memory  was only partially correct, as the immigrant brothers of Michał Szczepankiewicz were Władysław, Józef/Joseph, Bronisław/Bernard, Adam, and Aleksander/Alexander. A sister, Marcianna, was also discovered on a passenger manifest, traveling with Bronisław to their brother Władysław in Buffalo, but she was not found in the marriage index. Felix turned out to be a brother of Grandpa’s mother, not his father.)

But wait! There’s more!

So now let’s say you’ve gone through a particular collection of vital records, as far back as they go, and you’ve successfully identified all your direct ancestors, as well as their siblings, and you’ve also found marriage records for all of those siblings who remained in the same locality and whose marriage records were therefore present in this same collection. Congratulations! At this point, you will have identified many new surnames that you weren’t aware of when you began the research — married surnames of sisters of your ancestors. If you really want to be thorough, you need to go back through those vital records again, looking for all those new surnames. Creating an expansive family tree in this manner is highly recommended, especially in this era of genetic genealogy, when we’re all trying to understand how our DNA matches relate to us. If you focus only on surnames in your direct line, you’ll be less able to work out relationships with matches whose trees don’t go back as far as yours.

Good research in vital records isn’t especially difficult, but it is time-consuming and requires some patience and perseverance. When researching in Polish records, other types of documents may be more difficult to come by, so it’s especially important to wring every last drop of information from a collection of vital records. The good news is that your hard work will be rewarded with the satisfaction that comes from creating a soundly researched, well documented family tree. So what are you waiting for? Get in there and start digging!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017






Frequency Analysis of Given Names in My Family Tree, Part 2

In my last post, I discussed the frequency of given names on my side of the family tree that I tabulated because I’m interested in that sort of thing. Today I’ll report on the frequency analysis of given names on my husband’s side of the family.

The first thing I realized when I sat down to review my data is that I’ve really been slacking off on research into my husband’s family in recent years, a fact which I hope to remedy in 2018. Moreover, I never finished updating my tree with some research sent to me by a couple of his cousins. However, this close to Christmas, that seems like a better project for January than for tonight, so I’m just going to use the data that I currently have in my spreadsheet.

My husband Bruce’s family is 100% Polish, by which I mean that all of his immigrant ancestors reported their ethnicity as Polish, and all of them were born within the borders of Poland today, as far back as I’ve traced. Consequently, we don’t need to develop any particular rules for dealing with German given names, or given names from any language other than Polish, for that matter. So the rules of the game are pretty similar to last time:

  1. Equivalent versions of the same name in different languages (e.g. John, Jan, and Joannes) were counted in the same category.
  2. In Polish culture dating from the mid 20th-century and earlier, the name “Maria” was revered as the name of the Mother of God, and it was considered inappropriate for parents to aspire to use this name for their daughter. Consequently, the name  Marianna, meaning, “like Mary,” was used instead. For the purpose of this analysis, Mary, Marie, Maria, and Marianna were all treated as equivalents and counted together.
  3. Polish immigrants with names that were foreign to American ears often chose to use different names in the U.S. in their efforts to assimilate into American culture. Often they used the English version of the name of their baptismal patron saint, and for that reason, Polish men named Wojciech often became Albert or Adalbert in the U.S. However, some traditional Slavic names such as Stanisław, Czesław, Władysław, etc. do not have a precise English translation. While many men named Stanisław chose to use the name “Stanley” in the U.S., there was no requirement to do so, and some men chose very different names. In the case of Bruce’s family, his 2x-great-grandfather, Stanisław Lewandowski, chose to use the name “Edward” in the U.S. For the purpose of this analysis, I counted him under his baptismal name, Stanisław, rather than his adoptive name.
  4. Only direct ancestors were counted.

The Results

The data included 48 men and 48 women born between about 1732 and the 1940s. In the category of male names, there was a marked deviation from the expected result, in that Albert/Adalbert/Wojciech was the most popular name in Bruce’s family, rather than John/Jan. In fact, John/Jan was only in third place, where it was tied in popularity with the name Stanisław. The name Joseph/Józef took second place. The names Anthony/Antoni and Stephen/Szczepan were tied for fourth place, and there was a four-way tie for fifth place between the names Andrew/Andrzej, Jacob/Jakub, Martin/Marcin, Michael/Michał.

Frequency Distribution Male Names Bruce's Side

Additional male names which each appeared once in the family tree were Augustine/Augustyn, Denis/Dionizy, Francis/Franciszek, Gary, Henry, Lawrence/Wawrzyniec, Louis/Ludwik, Matthew/Mateusz, Matthias/Maciej, Peter/Piotr, Simon/Szymon, Thaddeus/Tadeusz, Valentine/Waleny, and Vincent/Wincenty.

For female names, Marianna/Mary was the winner by a huge margin over second-place Catherine/Katherine/Katarzyna. Third place was a three-way tie between the names Agnes/Agnieszka (which didn’t even make the top 10 in my family), Anna, and Elizabeth/Elżbieta. Finally, the names Angeline/Aniela, Apolonia, Christine/Krystyna, Frances/Franciszka, and Joanna, came in with two votes each, creating a five-way tie for fourth place.

Frequency Distribution Female Names Bruce's Side

Additional names which appeared once each among Bruce’s female ancestors were Antonina, Dorothy/Dorota, Hedwig/Jadwiga, Helen/Helena, Josephine/Józefa, Justine/Justyna, Caroline/Karolina, Magdalena, Margaret/Małgorzata, Petronella, Thecla/Tekla, Theresa/Teresa, Rosalie/Rozalia, and Veronica/Weronika.

Putting the data together, I came up with this comparison of the top names in each family (those that appeared more than once). Names that appear in color are tied for the frequency with which they appeared; in other words, in my family, there were equal numbers of Andrews and Josephs.

Top 10 Given Names for Boys

Seven of the top names were the same in both families: John/Jan/Johann, Joseph/Józef, Michael/Michał, Jacob/Jakub, Andrew/Andrzej, Stanisław, and Wojciech. Robert, Henry, George/Georg and Frank/Franciszek made it into my list, whereas Anthony/Antoni, Stephen/Szczepan, and Martin/Marcin were more popular in Bruce’s family.

For the women, the names Marianna/Mary, Catherine/Katherine/Katarzyna, Anna, Elizabeth/Elżbieta, and Christina/Christiana/Krystyna/Christine made the list for both families, and beyond that, there were quite a few names that were more popular on one side of the family or the other.

Top 10 Given Names for Girls

What does all this mean? Not much, really, although it might shoot down my theory about the relative popularity of the name “Catherine” in my own family, versus the general population, since that name was the second-most popular in both families. However, whereas in my family, there were 19 women named Marianna/Mary and 16 named Catherine/Katarzyna, in Bruce’s family there were 11 women named Marianna/Mary, and only 4 named Catherine/Katarzyna, so it still seems to be relatively more popular in my family. Although it’s not possible to draw too many conclusions based on such a small sample, it’s certainly interesting to take a look at the names that our ancestors chose for their children. I can imagine all the new mothers in my family and Bruce’s, raising their children in small villages or larger towns in what is now Poland, Germany, France, Canada, or the U.S., cradling their newborns in their arms and bestowing on those children the most beautiful, noble, saintly, or strong names they could think of, and dreaming of the men and women these little ones would become.

And if nothing else, I will be well-prepared for that casual inquiry about popular given names in our family tree, the next time someone in the family is having a baby!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

What’s in a Name?: Frequency Analyis of Ancestral Given Names in My Family Tree

Many years ago, when she was pregnant and thinking about baby names, my sister-in-law Ainslie asked me for a list of given names of ancestors on the Szczepankiewicz side of the family. Little did she know how well this simple question would play into my lifelong fascination with given names. Given my obsession with genealogy, I wasn’t about to jot down ancestral given names for a few generations and call it a day. Nope, I decided to develop a spreadsheet that included given names on both sides of the family, and the frequency with which each name appeared. As my research has progressed over the years, I’ve continued to add to this spreadsheet, each time a new generation of ancestors is discovered. Today I’ll discuss the data from my own family, and another day I’ll delve into the data from my husband’s side.

Determining the frequency with which given names appear in the family tree isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Relatively few of my ancestors’ given names are in English, since most of my ancestry is Polish or German. And German ancestry opens the door to the question of how to count German double names like Johann Heinrich or Maria Magdalena. According to German custom, the second name is the rufname, or call name, by which the person is known. So it’s not uncommon to see an entire family of boys with the first name Johann and different middle names. Common first names for girls are Maria or Anna, again used in combination with different rufnamen. However, the waters are muddied because Johannes can be used as a call name, usually for an oldest son.

The Rules of the Game

With all this in mind, here are the ground rules I developed for assessing the popularity of  given names in my family tree:

  1. Equivalent versions of the same name in different languages (e.g. John, Jan and Johann) were all counted in the same category.
  2. In Polish culture dating from the mid 20th-century and earlier, the name “Maria” was revered as the name of the Mother of God, and it was considered inappropriate for parents to aspire to use this name for their daughter. Consequently, the name  Marianna, meaning, “like Mary,” was used instead. For the purpose of this analysis, Mary, Marie, Maria, and Marianna were all treated as equivalents and counted together.
  3. If existing data suggest that a German man with the first name “Johann” used a different call name, he is recorded under that call name. If there is no known call name, I assumed he used the name Johann (or some diminutive thereof) in daily life.
  4. In cases where a woman seemed to use two names equally (e.g. Margaretha Elisabeth) or was equally likely to be recorded under her first name or her middle name (e.g. Maria Magdalena, who was sometimes recorded as Mary and sometimes as Magdalena) I used her first name for the popularity ranking.
  5. The names Maciej/Matthias and Mateusz/Matthew were counted separately, even though they have the same ancient etymological orgin, because the distinction between these names dates back to the New Testament.
  6. Similarly, although the name Harry is a traditional diminutive of Henry, it was not used that way in my family, so I counted those names separately.
  7. German immigrants named Walburga often chose to use the name Barbara in America. However, in the single instance in my family where this was the case, I counted her under her baptismal name, Walburga, since St. Walburga and St. Barbara are two different patron saints.
  8. Christina and Christiana were counted together (same etymological origin).
  9. Only direct ancestors were counted.

The Results

The data covered 96 women and 95 men who were born between about 1670 and the 1940s. Some of the results were as expected. Just as John and Mary were the most popular given names in the U.S. throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, they were the most popular names in my family tree as well. However, those same data from the U.S. indicate that William was a close second to John throughout this time period, even overtaking it in some time periods, and this name does not appear at all among my male ancestors.

Male name frequency

Additional names which appeared in the family twice each are Anthony/Antoni, Casimir/Kazimierz, Christoph/Krzysztof, Harry, Matthias/Maciej, Peter/Piotr, Thomas/Tomasz, and Lawrence/Wawrzyniec. Names which appears once each in the family are Carl, Fidel, Gregory/Grzegorz, Ignatius/Ignacy, Lucas/Łukasz, Martin/Marcin, Matthew/Mateusz, Nicholas/Niklaus, Paul/Paweł, Phillip/Philipp, Roch, Sebastian, Simon, Ulrich, and Wenceslaus/Wenzeslaus.

My family’s Catholic roots are very evident in the large number of saints’ names in the list, especially saints popular in central Europe, (unlike poor St. William). Among male names, the top three names (John, Francis, Michael) comprised about 33% of the total, whereas the top three female names (Mary, Catherine, Anna) comprised nearly half the total (47%). Interestingly, there were exactly 34 “different” names (as defined in the Rules of the Game, above) in each data set (male and female), indicating less overall variability among female names. Additional female names that appeared once each in the family tree are Agatha/Agata, Cecilia/Cecylia, Dorothy/Dorota, Elaine, Felicia, Frances/Franciszka, Genevieve/Genowefa, Joanna, Josephine, Julia, Clara/Klara, Constance/Konstancja, Leonora, Martha, Regina, Salomea, Sarah, Ursula/Urszula, Veronica/Weronika, and Victoria/Wiktoria.

Female Given Names

Among female names, I was unsurprised by the popularity of Mary and its variants, but I was somewhat surprised by the popularity within my family of the name Catherine, since its ranking is relatively higher than one might expect based on a comparison with U.S. data. The name was consistently found in the top 10 U.S. girls’ names here, but was never as high as #2, and the U.S. Social Security Administration’s list of the top names over the last 100 years ranks Catherine at #43. However, this list treats the names “Catherine” and “Katherine” separately, and “Katherine” came in at #41. Obviously if the two names were taken together, they would appear much higher on the list.

I admit, I was intrigued by this for personal reasons. I’ve loved the name Catherine since I was a little girl. I named almost all my dolls Catherine Elizabeth or Catherine Marie. When my husband and I were dating and beginning to talk about marriage, I told him that if ever we had a daughter, she had to be named Catherine, and that fact was pretty much non-negotiable. (He married me despite the ultimatum.)  To me, the name is elegant, musical and lovely, and apparently, many of my ancestors agreed with me. It almost makes me wonder if there’s some weird genetic predisposition for name preferences, just as there’s a gene that makes cilantro taste like soap for some people, or a gene that makes some people find broccoli to be bitter. Whether or not that’s the case, it was nice to compile the data and demonstrate to my daughter Catherine that she’s in good company. I think I simultaneously demonstrated to her that her mother is a huge geek, but I think she knew that already.

So how about you? What are the most popular given names for your ancestors? Which names were the most fascinating to discover, or most unusual? Did you name your children after any particular ancestors? Let me know in the comments! Happy researching!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz

Where Were Your Ancestors in 1857?

Genealogists often think in terms of family timelines, tracing one particular family line through many generations. However, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to examine my family tree in cross section. That is, what was happening in each of my family lines in the year 1857? I chose that year because I wrote recently about my 3x-great-grandparents’s marriage in Roding, Bavaria in 1857, and that got me wondering what my other ancestors were doing in that same year, and where they were living around the world. It turns out this is a pretty useful (and fun!) exercise. I gained new insights into each family group, and it also served to point out deficiencies in my research, and families that I’ve neglected, that I should perhaps plan to spend more time on in 2018. Here, then, is a summary of my ancestral couples who were alive at that time. Although the map in the featured image is not “clickable,” you can use this link to explore that map in greater depth, if you’d like.

Maternal grandfather’s line

In 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents, Michał Zieliński and Antonia (née Ciećwierz) Zielińska, were living in the village of Mistrzewice in Sochaczew County in what was at that time the Królestwo Polskie or Kingdom of Poland, which officially had some autonomy, but was in reality a puppet state of the Russian Empire. They’d been married about four years, although I don’t know the precise date of their marriage because 19th century records for Mistrzewice prior to 1859 were largely destroyed. Michał and Antonina had one daughter, Zofia, who was about 2, and Michał supported his family as a gospodarz, a farmer who owned his own land.1

Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Budy Stare, Sochaczew County, my 3x-great-grandparents Roch Kalota and Agata (née Kurowska) Kalota welcomed their (probably) oldest daughter, my great-great-grandmother, Marianna Kalota, who was born circa 1857. Again, the destruction of records has been a problem for researching this line, but available records tell us that Roch Kalota, too, was a farmer.2

In the south of Poland in 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents on my Klaus line had not yet married. Jakub Klaus was the son of Wawrzyniec (Lawrence) Klaus and Anna Żala or Żola. He was a young man already 27 years of age, but he did not marry his wife, Franciszka, until 1860.Franciszka Liguz was the daughter of Wawrzyniec Liguz and Małgorzata Warzecha, age 21 in 1857. Both Franciszka and her husband-to-be, Jakub, lived in the village of Maniów in Dąbrowa County in the Galicia region of the Austrian Empire, and Jakub was described as a famulus, or servant.

Still further south in what is now Poland, my 3x-great-grandparents Jakub Łącki and Anna Ptaszkiewicz were 4 years away from their eventual wedding date.4 In 1857, Jakub was a 22-year-old shoemaker from the village of Kołaczyce in Jasło County in the Austrian Empire, and Anna was the 23-year-old daughter of a shoemaker from the same village.

Maternal grandmother’s line

Heading further north again in Poland, back into Sochaczew County in Russian Poland, my 2x-great-grandparents Ignacy and Antonina (née Naciążek) Zarzycki were about 8 years into their marriage, raising their family in the village of Bronisławy. By 1857, they had three children for whom birth records have been discovered, Marianna,5 Paulina,and Tomasz.7 Ignacy was a land-owning farmer who was born in the nearby village of Szwarocin,8 but his wife Antonina’s place of birth remains a mystery.

Moving west now, in 1857 my 3x-great-grandparents Stanisław and Jadwiga (née Dąbrowska) Grzesiak were living in Kowalewo Opactwo, a village that was located in Słupca County at the far western edge of the Russian Empire, within walking distance of the border with Prussia. Ages 51 and 41, respectively, they were already parents to 12 of their 13 children. Stanisław was usually described as a shepherd or a tenant farmer.9

In the nearby town of Zagórów, my 3x-great-grandmother, Wiktoria (née Dębowska) Krawczyńska was living as a 53-year-old widow, having lost her husband Antoni Krawczyński 10 years earlier.10 Antoni had been a shoemaker, and he and Wiktoria were the parents of 8 children, of whom 4 died in infancy. By 1857, the surviving children ranged in age from 27 to 14 — the youngest being my great-great-grandmother, Marianna Krawczyńska.

Paternal grandfather’s line

Meanwhile, in Detroit, Michigan, my 3x-great-grandparents Michael Ruppert and Maria Magdalena Causin were newlyweds in 1857, having married on 12 May of that year.11 Michael had immigrated to the U.S. just four years earlier, at the age of 19, with his parents and siblings.12 The Rupperts were from the village of Heßloch in the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, or what is now Alzey-Worms district in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.13 Michael was a carpenter, and he and his family had already begun to use the surname Roberts.14 His wife Maria Magdalena Causin/Casin/Curzon is a bit of a mystery, and will likely be the subject of future blog post, because she doesn’t show up in the records until her marriage in 1857, and her parents’ names are not on her marriage or death records.

In 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents Henry and Catherine (née Grentzinger) Wagner and were also living in Detroit, had been married for 2 years and were parents to their first child, John Wagner.15 Henry was a teamster who had arrived in Detroit about 3 years previously along with his parents and siblings, all immigrants from the village of Roßdorf in the Electorate of Hesse, a state within the German Confederation.16  This was a first marriage for Henry, but a second marriage for Catherine, since she was a young widow after the death of her first husband, Victor Dellinger or Dalmgher.17 In addition to burying her husband some time between 1850-1855, it appears that both of Catherine’s children from that first marriage 18 also died young, since they were not mentioned in the 1860 census in the household of Henry and Catherine Wagner. Catherine herself was an immigrant from Steinsoultz, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, who came to Detroit with her parents and siblings some time between 1830 and 1834.

Across the border and some 225 miles to the east, my 3x-great-grandparents Robert and Elizabeth (née Hodgkinson) Walsh made their home in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. In 1857, Elizabeth Walsh was a 39-year-old mother of 5, pregnant with her 6th child, Ellen, who was born in December of that year.19 Elizabeth was the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of United Empire Loyalists, so her family were among the first settlers in St. Catharines. Her husband, Robert Walsh, was a 49-year-old tailor from Ireland whose family origins have proven to be more elusive than his wife’s.

Also living in St. Catharines were my 3x-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine Dodds. In 1857, Robert was a 40-year-old immigrant from England, usually described as a laborer or farm laborer. Nothing is known about Robert’s family of origin. He married his wife, Catherine, circa 1840, and by 1857 they were the parents of three daughters and three sons.20 Catherine’s origins, and even her maiden name, are unclear. There is evidence that she was born circa 1818 in Martintown, Glengarry, Ontario to parents who were Scottish immigrants or of Scottish extraction, but no birth record or marriage record has yet been discovered for her.

Paternal grandmother’s line

Jacob and Catherine (née Rogg or Rock) Böhringer, my 3x-great-grandparents, were German immigrants from the Black Forest, having lived in the village of Gündelwangen in the Grand Duchy of Baden21 prior to their migration to Buffalo, New York in 1848.22 By 1857, Catherine and Jacob had already buried three of their seven children, including oldest daughter Maria Bertha, who was born in Germany and apparently died on the voyage to America. Jacob was a joiner or a cabinet maker.23

In 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents Joseph Murre and Walburga Maurer were still about 5 years away from their eventual wedding date. They were born and married in Bavaria, Germany, although I have yet to discover their specific place of origin. I don’t know the names of the parents of either Joseph or Walburga. Joseph was a woodworker who was employed in a planing mill in Buffalo, New York in 1870 24 and was later listed as a carpenter in the Buffalo city directory in 1890. He and Walburga arrived in New York on 3 April 1869 with their children Maria, Anna and Johann.25

In October 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents Johann Meier and Anna Maria Urban were married in the parish church in Roding, Bavaria.26 Their first child, Johann Evangelista Meier, was born out of wedlock two years previously although the father was named on the baptismal record with a note that the child was subsequently legitimized. Johann and Anna Maria would go on to have a total of 10 children, 3 of whom migrated to Buffalo, New York.

In 1857, my 4x-great-grandparents, Ulrich Götz or Goetz and Josephine Zinger, were living somewhere in Bavaria and raising their 4-year-old son, Carl Götz, who was my 3x-great-grandfather. Almost nothing is known of this family, including where they lived in Bavaria or the names of Carl’s siblings. Carl grew up to be the second husband of a much older wife, Julia Anna Bäumler, who was already 19 in 1857. Julia had at least one child from a previous relationship, a son, John George Bäumler, who was born in 1858. Julia and Carl married in Bavaria circa 1875, a development which may or may not have influenced John Bäumler’s decision to emigrate from Bavaria to Buffalo, New York in 1876.28 Julia gave birth to her only child with Carl, Anna Götz (my great-great-grandmother), in 1877, and the Götz family eventually followed John Bäumler to Buffalo in 1883. Julia Götz’s death record states that she was born in “Schlattine, Bavaria,” which suggests the village of Schlattein in Neustadt an der Waldnaab, Bavaria, but further research is needed to confirm this location.

So there you have it: a summary of where my ancestors were in the world, and in their lives, in the year 1857. But what about your ancestors? Where were they living, and what were they doing? Is there a more interesting year for your family than 1857? Choose a different year, and tell me your ancestors’ stories!

Selected Sources:

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Mistrzewicach, Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne, Metryki.genealodzy.pl, 1875, Małżeństwa, #2, record for Zofia Zielińska and Piotr Malinowski, accessed on 10 November 2017.

2 Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Mlodzieszynie, Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne, Metryki.genealodzy.pl, Księga zgonów 1889-1901, 1895, #59, death record for Wojciech Kalota, accessed on 10 November 2017.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Mary Magdalene parish (Szczucin, Dąbrowa, Małopolskie, Poland), Księgi metrykalne, 1786-1988, Akta małżeństw 1786-1988, Maniów, 1860, 16 September, marriage record for Jacobus Klaus and Francisca Liguz, Family History Library film # 1958428 Items 7-8.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Anne’s Parish (Kołaczyce, Jasło, Podkarpackie, Poland), Śluby, 1826-1889, Stare Kopie, 1861, #11, marriage record for Jacobus Łącki and Anna Ptaszkiewicz.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), Księga urodzeń 1845-1854, 1850, #48, baptismal record for Maryanna Zarzycka.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), Księga urodzeń 1845-1854, 1853, #60, baptismal record for Paulina Zarzycka.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), Księga urodzeń, 1855-1862, 1856, #48, baptismal record for Tomasz Zarzecki.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), 1828, #34, baptismal record for Ignacy Zarzycki.

Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. słupecki), 1832, marriages, #14, record for Stanisław Grzesiak and Jadwiga Dąbrowska, Szukajwarchiwach, http://www.szukajwarchiwach.pl/, accessed 17 November 2017.

10 Roman Catholic Church, Zagórów parish (Zagórów (Słupca), Poznań, Poland), Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1947, 1843, #137, death record for Antoni Krawczyński.; FHL film #2162134, Item 1, Akta zgonów 1844-1849.

11 Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s parish (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, USA), “Marriages”, 1857, #15, marriage record for Michael Ruppert and Magdalena Causin.

12 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (index and image), record for Franz, Catherine, Michael, Arnold, and Catherine Rupard, S.S. William Tell, arrived 4 March 1853, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 123; Line: 51; List Number: 146, accessed 17 November 2017.

13 Roman Catholic Church (Heßloch (Kr. Worms), Hesse, Germany), Kirchenbuch, 1715-1876, 1834, baptismal record for Michael Ruppert, FHL film #948719.

14 1860 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, p. 142, Michael Roberts and Frank Roberts households, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

15 Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1940, database, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, FamilySearch, (https://familysearch.org), database with images, 1855, #11, record for Henry Wagner and Catherine Dellinger, accessed 17 November 2017.

16 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image and transcription), record for Henry, Cath., August, Johnny, Gertrude, and Marianne WagnerS.S. Erbpring Luidrich August, arrived 29 September 1853 in New York,  Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 132; Line: 12; List Number: 1010,  http://ancestry.com/, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

17 Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1940,  (images and transcriptions), Wayne County, marriage certificates, 1842-1848, v. B, #1733, marriage record for Victor Dellinger and Catherine Grenzinger, 3 February 1846,  FamilySearch, https://familysearch.org, accessed 17 November 2017.

18 1850 U.S. Federal Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, page 156B and 157, Victor Dalmgher household, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.  

19 Census of 1861, database, Library and Archives Canada, St. Catharines, Lincoln, Canada West (Ontario), Robert Walsh household, item number 2721097, accessed 17 November 2017.

 20 Census of 1861, database, Library and Archives Canada, Grantham, Lincoln, Canada West (Ontario), Library and Archives Canada, Robert Dodds household, Item number 1884852, accessed 17 November 2017.

21 Roman Catholic Church, Gündelwangen parish (Gündelwangen, Waldshut, Freiburg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany), Kirchenbuchduplikat, 1810-1869, 1847, baptisms, #4, record for Maria Bertha Rogg, p. 165, with addendum on page 171, Family History Library film #1055226.

22 Passenger and Immigration Lists, 1820-1850,  record for Jacob Behringer, Catherine, and Marie Behringer, S.S. Admiral, arrived 4 November 1848 in New York, http://ancestry.com/, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

23 1860 United States Federal Census (population schedule), 7th Ward Buffalo, Erie, New York, p. 77, Jacob Barringer household, http://familysearch.org, accessed 17 November 2017.

24 1860 United States Federal Census (population schedule), 7th Ward Buffalo, Erie, New York, p. 73, Joseph Murri household, http://familysearch.org, accessed 17 November 2017.

25 Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image and transcription), record for Joseph, Walburga, Anna, Marie, and Johann Muri, S.S. Hansa, arrived 3 April 1869 in New York,  Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 308; Line: 38; List Number: 292. http://ancestry.com/, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

26 BZAR, Roman Catholic Church, St. Pancrus parish (Roding, Cham, Oberpfalz, Germany), Marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857, Vol. 27, page 3 MF 573.

271900 United States Federal Census (population schedule), Buffalo, Erie, New York, E.D. 107, Sheet 16B, Charles Goetz household, https://.ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

28 1900 United States Federal Census (population schedule), Gainesville, Wyoming, New York, E.D. 122, Sheet 9A, John Baumler household, https://.ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

The Meier Family of Obertrübenbach, Bavaria and Buffalo, New York

Recently, I wrote about my first attempt at translating a German marriage record for my great-great-great-grandparents, Johann Meier and Anna Maria Urban. I was getting a little ahead of myself there, since I never really explained my connection to that couple, so I’d like to take this opportunity to remedy that.

Anna (née Meier) Boehringer (or “Nana,” as she was known by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren) was my father’s maternal grandmother, and one of the three great-grandparents whom I distinctly remember from my childhood. All three of them — Nana; her husband, “Grandpa John” Boehringer; and “Big Grandpa” (Joseph Zielinski) appear in this photograph from a family party in 1969. Although I was too young to remember this particular moment, but I love this photo nonetheless because they’re all in it.

My Three Great Grandparents 1969Anna (née Meier) Boehringer, John Boehringer, and Joseph Zielinski, June 1969, Grand Island, New York.

Anna Julia Meier was born 25 April 1895 in Buffalo, New York; the oldest of the 13 children of Wenzeslaus (“Wenzel”) and Anna (née Goetz or Götz) Meier. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a three-generation portrait of Anna with her parents, grandparents, and some of her siblings, taken circa 1903. This version of the photo was retouched by Leslie Utley of the Genealogists Photo Restoration group on Facebook to remove some scratches and flaws. In the front row, left to right, there is my great-great-great-grandmother, Julianna (née Bäumler) Götz (1838-1905). Next to her are her grandchildren, Anna Meier, Julia Meier, Marie Meier, and Frances Meier, followed by my 3x-great-grandfather, Carl Götz (1853-1933). In the back row are Wenzeslaus Meier (1871-1942) and Anna (née Götz) Meier (1877-1949), holding baby Margaret Meier.

Meier 3 generation portrait retouched

One of my most cherished family heirlooms is Nana’s First Communion prayer book, written in German, with her name inscribed in it.


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Here’s one more great photo of Nana, at the age of 17 in 1912, retouched to remove creases and colorized by Lisa Binion of the Genealogists Photo Restoration group on Facebook. I love the confidence on her face here, and the hint of a smile around the corners of her mouth.Anna Meier at 17, retouched and colorized by Lisa Binion

As mentioned, Anna’s father was Wenzel Meier, a German immigrant born in Bavaria. Wenzel is on the left in this photo taken circa 1939, presumably at his home in Buffalo, New York.Wenzel Meier on left with neighbor circa 1939According to the Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, he was born 27 March 1871 in Roding, Federal Republic of Germany.1 He came to the U.S. in 1890, on board the S.S. Fulda, which departed from Bremen and Southhampton and arrived in the port of New York on 8 August.2 The passenger manifest states that his last residence was “Obertrubenbach” (Figures 1a and b).

Figure 1a: Extract from passenger manifest for Wenzeslaus Meier, S.S. Fulda, 8 August 1890, far left side of the page.2Wenzel Meier Manifest left crop

Figure 1b: Extract from passenger manifest for Wenzeslaus Meier, S.S. Fulda, 8 August 1890, far right side of the page.2Wenzel Meier Manifest right crop

These two pieces of information, Roding and Obertrubenbach, were consistent with the location of Obertrübenbach, which is a village in Cham county, Regierungsbezirk Oberpfalz, in the easternmost part of Bavaria, roughly 20 miles from the present-day border between Germany and the Czech Republic, as shown on the map. (A Regierungsbezirk is an administrative division that’s intermediate between a county and a state.) Obertrübenbach has had a Catholic church, Sts. Peter and Paul, since the second half of the 12th century, but this church has been a filial church of the church in Roding since at least 1391.3 Although the entry for Obertrübenbach in the Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs (Meyers Gazetteer of the German Empire) does not specify the relationship between the churches, only mentioning that a Catholic church did exist in Obertrübenbach, the online version of the gazetteer confirms that the village belonged to the parish in Roding (claiming FamilySearch as the source for this information). The church of St. Pancras in Roding is indeed where Wenzel Meier was baptized in 1871, and his baptismal record is shown here (Figure 2).The priest who recorded Wenzel’s baptism really loved abbreviations, so a complete transcription and translation of this record was a joint effort by several contributors in the Genealogy Translations group on Facebook, including William F. Hoffman, Mente Pongratz, Gerardo Cacciari, and Jadwiga Berntsson.

Figure 2: Baptismal record for Wenzeslaus Meier, 1871. Transcription (including full words where the priest abbreviated): “Die 27 Mart[ii] h[ora] 1 noct[is] nat[us] et eodem h[ora] 9na [?] a C. Piendl bapt[izatus] est Wenzeslaus fil[ius] leg[itimus] Joan[n]is Maier, aedic[ularii] in Obertruebenbach Nr. 5 et ux[oris] Mariae c[uius] p[ater] Math[aeus] Urban, aedic[ularius] in Kalsing, Lev[antes] Joseph Urban, aedic[ularii] fil[ius] [son of a Häusler] de Alzenzell c[uius] v[ices] g[erens] Math[aeus] Pongratz. Obst[etrix] Christoph”4
Wenzeslaus Meier 1871 crop

In translation, the record states, “On the 27th day of March at 1:00 at night was born, and on the same day at 9:00 in the morning by C. Piendl was baptized Wenzeslaus, legitimate son of Johann Maier, homeowner in Obertruebenbach [house] number 5, and his wife Maria, whose father is Matthias Urban, homeowner in Kalsing. The godfather was Joseph Urban, son of a homeowner, living in Atzenzell, and acting in his place [as proxy godfather] was Mathaeus Pongratz. The midwife was (Crescentia?) Christoph.”

I had originally read the abbreviation aedc as aedt, for aedituus, meaning “sacristan” or “sexton,” but Mente Pongratz set the record straight that it’s actually aedicularius meaning homeowner, equivalent to the term Häusler in German. Moreover, he added that the Latin term aedic. fil. is equivalent to the German word Häuslerssohn, which is the son of homeowner, as opposed to the idea that the priest was describing Joseph Urban as both as homeowner and a son. William F. Hoffman further clarified that the midwife’s given name was likely to be Crescentia, based on the previous entry on the page, which reads “Obst Cresc. Christoph.” In any case, the birth date on this record matches exactly with the date of birth reported by Wenzel Meier on U.S. records, and his parents’ names, which were recorded as John Meier and Mary Uhrman on U.S. documents, are also sufficiently similar that we can be sure this is a match. The variation in surname spelling, Maier rather than Meier, isn’t a big deal, despite the popularity of the surname.

It was Wenzel’s parents, then, whose marriage record from 27 October 1857 I translated in that previous blog post. And now you know a bit more of their story.


1U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015), Record for Wenzel Meier, 27 March 1871, Social Security number 122106193, Ancestry.com, subscription database, https://www.ancestry.com/, accessed 20 October 2017.

New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (images), (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010), record for Wenzeslaus Meier, S.S. Fulda, 8 August 1890, accessed 20 October 2017.

3 Obertrübenbach,” Wikipedia, https://de.wikipedia.org, accessed 20 October 2017.

4 BZAR, Roman Catholic Church, St. Pancrus parish (Roding, Cham, Oberpfalz, Germany), baptismal record for Wenzeslaus Maier, born 27 March 1871, vol. 6/213, p. 378, MF 273.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017



The Final Clue: Tracing the Wagners Back to Germany

As dead people go, Joseph Riel wasn’t even all that interesting to me. He was just an in-law, the husband of my great-great-great-grandaunt, Gertrude Wagner Riel. He was not even a blood relative, much less a direct-line ancestor, and he and Gertrude died without issue, so I cannot hope to find Riel cousins among my DNA matches. And yet it was Joseph Riel’s grave marker that gave me the final clue to the German place of origin of my Wagner family. Before I explain what was on the grave marker and why it mattered, let me introduce you to my Wagners and summarize the evidence for their place of origin in Germany up to this point.

The Henry Wagner Family of Detroit, Michigan

My great-great-great-grandfather was Henry Wagner, born circa 15 December 1829 in Germany.1 According to the 1900 census, which was recorded when Henry was living as a widower in the household of his son of his son, John, Henry arrived in America in 1855 (Figure 1).2

Figure 1: Excerpt from the 1900 census for Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, showing Henry Wagner in the household of his son, John Wagner.2

Henry Wagner 1900 census crop

On that census, Henry reported his own date of birth as September 1827, and no baptismal record from Germany has yet been obtained to verify the correct date. Henry Wagner’s death certificate reveals that his father was also named Henry Wagner, and his mother was Mary Nau (Figure 2).3

Figure 2: Death certificate for Henry Wagner, 6 February 1907.3Henry Wagner death certificate

Further digging revealed that Henry (Jr.)’s parents, Henry and Mary (née Nau) Wagner also immigrated. The family can be seen in the 1860 census (Figure 3), living in Detroit.Henry himself was already married by that time and living separately.

Figure 3: Excerpt from the 1860 census showing the family of Henry (Sr.) and Mary Wagner with sons John and August, son-in-law Joseph Riehl (sic), and daughter Gertrude Riehl.4Henry Wagner family 1860 census Detroit

Henry Wagner (Sr.) is noted to be a “gentleman”, born circa 1810 in Hessia, whose personal estate was valued at approximately $5,000. Mary, his wife, was also born circa 1810, and their sons John and August were born circa 1832 and 1834, respectively, and were both employed as carpenters. Son-in-law Joseph Riehl was noted to be a blacksmith and he and his wife, Gertrude, were both born about 1835.

The passenger manifest for Henry Wagner (Sr.) and family does not reveal where they were from in Germany, unfortunately (Figure 4).5

Figure 4: Passenger manifest of the S.S. Erbpring Luidrich August, which arrived in New York 29 September 1853, showing the family of Henry Wagner (Sr.).5

Henry Wagner fam Passenger List

The manifest shows the family of Henry Wagner, a 50-year-old male farmer from Germany traveling to the U.S. Henry’s age suggests a birth year of 1803. The name of the passenger below him appears to be “Cath.;” however, the passenger is marked as a 24-year-old male. No trace has yet been discovered in U.S. records for a Catherine Wagner born circa 1829 who belongs to this family, and “Catherine’s” birth year is approximately correct for Henry Wagner (Jr.) who is missing from this manifest. This suggests one of two possibilities: either (a) Henry Wagner (Jr.) immigrated separately from his family, which would explain his absence from this manifest, and Catherine Wagner is a real sibling for whom evidence may yet turn up in U.S. records with further digging, or (b) the name “Cath.” was recorded in error, and the 24-year-old male passenger listed with the Wagner family was actually Henry (Jr.). The names of the other passengers listed below “Cath.” — August, Johnny and Gertrude — are consistent with the known children of Henry (Sr.) and Mary Wagner, although their ages appear to be 20, 22 and 28 (?), suggesting birth years of 1833, 1831, and 1825, which are a bit off from what was reported in the 1860 census. Interestingly, the family matriarch, Mary (née Nau) Wagner is not mentioned with the family group, although there is a good match for her at the bottom of the page — 50-year-old Marianne Wagner. Since she was separated from the family on the manifest, the possibility existed that perhaps Henry (Jr.) was similarly separated, perhaps on the next page after Marianne’s name. However, all pages of the manifest were checked and there was no match for a Henry Wagner of the appropriate age.

The Search for Henry’s Manifest

To examine the possibility that Henry Wagner (Jr.) traveled separately from his family, another search was made for a manifest for Henry Wagner, born circa 1827-1829 in Germany, arriving in the U.S. circa 1855. A possible match was discovered (Figure 5), which shows a single Henry Wagner who arrived on the S.S. General Jacobi on 3 May 1854.6

Figure 5: Excerpt from manifest for the S.S. General Jacobi, arrived in New York on 3 May 1854.6

Henry Wagner passenger record

According to this manifest, 27-year-old Henry Wagner was a German carpenter who was traveling to Buffalo, New York. His age suggests a birth year of 1827, and his occupation, carpenter, matches the occupation reported for John and August Wagner on the 1860 census. While I was excited to see his place of origin reported as “Fritzlar,” I recognized that this information would not help me unless I could be sure that the passenger described here is “my” Henry Wagner. And his destination, Buffalo, is somewhat problematic, since the Wagner family was not known to live in Buffalo. So although this could be the correct manifest, it’s also possible that this passenger was a different Henry Wagner, since the surname is so common.

At this point, we have two hypotheses to evaluate: (a) this is the manifest for “my” Henry Wagner, and he stopped in Buffalo briefly before moving on to Detroit, or (b) this manifest is for a different Henry Wagner who traveled to Buffalo and remained there. If (b) is correct, we should expect to find evidence of a German immigrant named Henry Wagner who matches this passenger, living in Buffalo or thereabouts. Accordingly, census records for Buffalo, New York and adjacent counties were checked, and there is evidence of a Henry Wagner, born in Germany circa 1830, who arrived in the U.S. circa 1852 and lived in Clarence, New York, which would at that time have been farm country on the outskirts of Buffalo. This suggests that perhaps the Henry Wagner who arrived on the General Jacobi is not my Henry after all. So perhaps my Henry really did arrive with his family on the Erbpring Luidrich August in 1853 and was misrecorded as “Cath.”? I think it’s possible, maybe even likely. But with such a common name, we may never know for certain.

Church Records to the Rescue

Since the Wagners’ place of origin in Germany could not be determined from the passenger manifest, other sources had to be checked. In this case, as it often happens, church records proved to be very helpful. As noted on his death record (Figure 2) Henry Wagner (Jr.) and his wife Catherine (née Grentzinger) had only two children, John and Mary (my great-great-grandmother). Both of them were baptized at Old St. Mary’s parish in Detroit, and their baptismal records revealed the place of origin of both their parents.  Shown here is Mary’s baptismal record (Figure 6).7

Figure 6: Extract from baptismal record for Maria Wagner, born 10 July 1860 in Detroit.7

Maria Wagner 1860 page 1 marked

All names in this record are written in Latin. Although the column headings are cut off in this image, the record indicates that Mary Wagner was born 10 July and baptized 15 July 1860, and that she was the daughter of Henry Wagner of “Roßen ChurHessen” and Catherine Granzinger of Oberelsau. Godparents were named as August Wagner and Maria Wagner, and they were probably the baby’s uncle and paternal grandmother.

The baptismal record for Henry and Catherine’s son John (Figure 7) indicates that he was baptized with the name August, although this is the only record discovered to date in which he was referred to that way.8

Figure 7: Extract from baptismal record for Augustinus Wagner, born 3 May 1856 in Detroit.8Augustinus Wagner 1856 p 1marked

The date of birth for “Augustinus” is approximately consistent with dates of birth reported for John Wagner, and since this was the only other birth record discovered for a child of this couple (and since they were known to have only two children), it’s reasonable to conclude that “Augustinus” is really John. It’s customary in parts of Germany to name a child after the same-sex godparent, and since August Wagner was named as this child’s godfather, that might explain the priest’s error in recording the child’s name, if perhaps the priest was from one of those regions. In any case, this record tells us that Henry Wagner was from “Roßdorf, Chur Hessen” and Catherine Grenzinger was from “Steinsolz, Alsatiae.”

“Chur Hessen” in both these records is a reference to Kurhessen, properly called Kurfürstentum Hessen, the Electorate of Hesse, a German state which existed from 1814-1866, at which time its territory was annexed by Prussia. The territory was also known as Hesse-Cassel or Hesse-Kassel. Although the Meyers gazetteer does not reveal any places called “Roßen” that were located in this area, “Roßdorf” turns out to be a better clue, since there were two places by that name that were in Hesse-Cassel. One of these was located in Hanau County, about 2 km north of Bruchköbel, while the other was located in Kirchhain County,  about 5 km southwest of Amöneburg. Based solely on this information, I had no way of knowing which Roßdorf was meant, so I put the Wagner research on the back burner.

The Final Clue

Fast-forward now to last weekend, when I had the opportunity to visit Detroit and present two lectures for the Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan at their annual fall seminar. While in Detroit, I was able to visit Mt. Elliott Cemetery in person. This cemetery is the final resting place of all my immigrant Wagners, as well as some of their descendants, so I was eager to get some photographs. I was somewhat disappointed to find that only two monuments for this family are presently visible, although I was very pleased that one of these was for my great-great-great-grandparents, Henry and Catherine (née Grentzinger) Wagner (shown on the right in the featured image at the top of the page). The other monument is for Gertrude and Joseph Rhiel (sic). As I mentioned in the beginning, I was pleased to find this monument, but not overly excited about it, until I got home and took a closer look at the inscription on it. The inscription states that Joseph Rhiel was “geboren in Mardorf, Kurhessen.” A quick check in Meyers reveals the existence of a village called Mardorf that was located in Kirchhain County. This village is apparently too small to be shown on modern maps, but can be seen in relation to Roßdorf and Amöneburg on this old map of the Kassel region circa 1906 (Figure 8).9

Figure 8: Map showing relative locations of Roßdorf, Mardorf, Amöneburg, and Neustadt, Hesse-Kassel, circa 1906.9Map of Rossdorf and Mardorf

Of course, Meyer’s gazetteer identifies a second location called Mardorf that was in Kurhessen, in Homberg County. How can we be sure that Joseph Riel wasn’t from that Mardorf instead?

Cluster research in genealogy (also known as FAN research, research which focuses on our ancestors’ Friends, Associates, and Neighbors) is based on the principle that our ancestors did not live their lives in a vacuum. One person in a village would decide to move and settle in a new area, and he would be followed by others from the same village — a phenomenon known as chain migration. So it’s more logical to suppose that the Riel and Wagner families were from the same part of Germany, and continued that association in Detroit, rather than supposing that they came from villages that were relatively far apart.

While in Detroit, I also had the opportunity to attend Mass at Old St. Mary’s church — the parish to which my Wagner ancestors belonged. After Mass, I had the good fortune to chat with Randy Bowers, operations manager and archivist at the parish. He gave me a draft of a parish history by John D. Little which states, “In 1830 the first German immigrants — all Catholics and mostly farmers — arrived in Detroit from Neustadt, a small country town of about 2,100.”10 This statement offers further evidence that we’re on the right track in identifying the locations of Roßdorf and Mardorf, since the town of Neustadt can be seen on the map in Figure 8, about 22 km (13 miles) from Roßdorf.

Although the evidence looks pretty good at this point, the identification of the Wagners’  ancestral village must be considered tentative until we find mention of them in the church records for Roßdorf.  There is also a great deal more research that can be done to document the Wagners in Detroit, especially in church records. Unfortunately, I had no time during this visit to utilize the vast genealogical resources of the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, so that research remains on my to-do list for the time being. However, I’m fairly confident that I’m on the right track, since all the clues regarding place of origin for the Wagners and their FANs are pointing to the same location. Joseph Riel may have been just an in-law to my family, and it’s true that he left no descendants. But in retrospect, it turns out that he was a pretty interesting guy after all.


1 Mt. Elliott Cemetery (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan), Grave marker for Henry and Katherina Wagner, photographed 27 October 2017. Inscription: “Hier Ruht in Gott/Henry Wagner/Geboren/D. 15 Dez. 1829/Gestorben/D. 6 Feb. 1906/Katharina Wagner/Geborene/Graenzinger.”

2 1900 U.S. Federal Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, E.D. 23, sheet 24B, John Wagner household, http://ancestry.com/, subscription database, accessed 3 November 2017.

Death Records, 1897-1920, Michigan Historical Center, Seeking Michigan (http://seekingmichigan.org), 1907, #735, certificate for Henry Wagner, died 6 February 1907 in Detroit, Wayne, Michigan.

1860 U.S. census (population schedule), 3rd Ward Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, page 173, Henry Wagner household, https://www.familysearch.org, accessed 3 November 2017.

New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image and transcription), record for Henry, Cath., August, Johnny, Gertrude, and Marianne Wagner, S.S. Erbpring Luidrich August, arrived 29 September 1853 in New York,  Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 132; Line: 12; List Number: 1010,  http://ancestry.com/, subscription database, accessed 3 November 2017.

New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image and transcription), record for Henry Wagner, S.S. General Jacobi, arrived 3 May 1854 in New York, Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 138; Line: 19; List Number: 406http://ancestry.com/, subscription database, accessed 3 November 2017.

Roman Catholic Church, Old St. Mary’s Parish (Greektown, Detroit, Michigan), Baptisms, 1860, #148, p. 359, record for Maria Wagner. “[Record number] 148, [date of baptism] Julii 15, [date of birth] Julii 10, [child’s name] Maria, [father and place of birth] Henricus Wagner Roßen ChurHessen, [mother and place of birth] Cath. Granzinger, Oberelsau [Oberelsass], [[godparents] August Wagner Maria Wagner, [residence] Detroit, [minister] P. Nagel.”

Roman Catholic Church, Old St. Mary’s Parish (Greektown, Detroit, Michigan), Baptisms, 1856, #116, p. 219, record for Augustinus Wagner. “[Record number] 116, [date of baptism] 4 Maji, [date of birth] 3 Maji, [child’s name] Augustinus, [father and place of birth] Henricus Wagner Roßdorf ChurHessen, [mother and place of birth] Catharina Grenzinger, Steinsolz, Alsatiae, [[godparents] Augustinus Wagner et Gertrudis Wagner, [residence] Detroit, [minister] P. Beranek.”

Map, “Kassel” circa 1906 from 3rd Military Mapping Survey of Austria-Hungary, Elte Department of Cartography and Geoinformatics, http://lazarus.elte.hu, accessed 4 November 2017.

10 John D. Little, The History of Old St. Mary’s, p. 4; photocopy to Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, 2017; original held by Randy Bowers, Detroit, Michigan.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Anatomy of a German Marriage Record

In my last post, I wrote about my excitement over my brand-new copy of Hoffman and Shea’s recently published German genealogical translation guide, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin and Russian Documents: Volume IV: German. I decided to test-drive it using a marriage record from the Bischöfliches Zentralarchiv Regensburg that my friend Mente Pongratz obtained for me a while ago. While most of the documents he obtained were in Latin, there were a few that were in German, and I’ve been saving the German-language ones for this moment. These documents pertain to my Meier family from the village of Obertrübenbach, presently located in Cham County, Oberpfalz, Bayern (Bavaria),. I’ll have to introduce you to my Meiers in the next post, but right now, I want to focus on the process I use when I begin to learn to read genealogical records in an unfamiliar language.

The marriage record in question is for Johann Meier/Maier and his bride, Anna Maria Urban, who were my great-great-great-grandparents, and it comes from the Catholic Church in Roding, Bavaria. Let’s start by looking at the entire document (Figure 1a and b).

Figure 1a: Left page of marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857.1 The entry pertaining to them is the second one from the bottom.

Johann Meier & Anna Maria Urban 1857 p 1.jpg

Figure 1b: Right page of marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857.1 The entry pertaining to them is the second one from the bottom.

Johann Meier & Anna Maria Urban 1857 p 2

Remember that I’m starting from the same place as many of you. I have no prior experience with reading, speaking, or writing German, and I’ve never made any serious attempt to decipher records in that language until now. I do have some prior knowledge about the names of my ancestors, and I’m going to leverage that advantage as far as possible. As I looked at this for the first time, my first thought was that learning the cursive letter forms is going to be almost as bad as learning Cyrillic. The letter forms used are an old German cursive script called Kurrent which is sufficiently different from our cursive script that it’s not just a matter of reading bad handwriting. The printed text at the top is in a typeface called Fraktur, which is sufficiently similar to our “Old English” Gothic typefaces that it shouldn’t pose too many problems. That said, one of the first things I should have done when I obtained this document as a hard copy from the archive was was to scan it immediately and open it up on my computer, in order to zoom in on the text, rather than trying to work from the hard copy. Since I didn’t do that, I struggled for a bit with the fact that the Fraktur 𝕭 (B) is almost identical to the Fraktur 𝖁 (V), especially when viewed at a small size. This made it difficult to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary.

Take It From the Top

Let’s start with looking at the column headings on the left page:Johann Meier & Anna Maria Urban 1857 p 1 top crop

The first thing I did was to check Hoffman and Shea’s section entitled, “Marriage Entries and Certificates: Columnar-Form Original Entries in Registers” to see if this exact form was reproduced. Unfortunately, it was not. However, this section provided a good starting point for me to decipher many of the words found in the column headings without having to resort to the glossary in the back every time. The first column reads Trauung-Tag, or wedding date. The second column is Bräutigame Tauf- und Zuname, Bridegroom, given- and surname. Easy enough so far. In the third column, you’ll notice that the Fraktur 𝕾 looks rather different from our S, and the final 𝖉 in the first word looks almost like a 𝖇, and I found myself referring frequently to Hoffman and Shea’s handy German alphabet chart on page 1, where they show Fraktur, Cursive, and Roman letters all side by side for comparison. However, it’s clear from the examples in the book that the first word in the third column is Stand. and then Religion is easy to read.

The glossary at the back of Hoffman and Shea’s book defines “Stand” as “position, class; (marital) status; occupation; state,” making it clear that the word could have multiple meanings. Moreover, there’s a period after Stand. in this document, so I briefly entertained the idea that perhaps this was intended to be an abbreviation for Standesamt, which is the civil registry office. Now, as it turns out, Hoffman and Shea spell it out on page 232 that, “What we see under Stand will usually be occupation.” However, since I was skipping around in the book, I managed to miss that part initially, so I had to prove this for myself. To rule out the possibility that maybe Stand. meant Standesamt, I checked the Meyers gazetteer for Obertrübenbach, which reported that the Standesamt was in Obertrübenbach itself.  I knew I should be able to locate this word in this document, since I knew that Wenzel Meier’s family came from Obertrübenbach. Sure enough, in the entry for the marriage of Johann Maier and Anna Maria Urban (second from the bottom), “Obertrübenbach” appears in the 4th column on the left page. Since the writing in the 3rd column is completely dissimilar, we know that Stand can’t mean Standesamt in this context. 

Further examination of the entries in this third column reveals that only one word was recorded in most cases (sometimes hyphenated), and the word katholisch does not appear to be written in any of the columns. This makes sense; in a register from a Catholic parish, presumably all or most of the brides and grooms would be Catholic, so perhaps religion was recorded only in cases where one party was of a different faith.  I spent a few minutes wondering whether any of the entries in this column could possibly be ledig (single, unmarried), but then I skipped ahead to the column heading a few columns over, and realized that it reads, Ledig oder Wittwer, dessen gestorbenes (geschieden) Weib, or “single, or widower whose wife is deceased (or separated).Although the glossary defines geschieden as “separated,” in this context I think we can understand it to mean “divorced.” This column heading is interesting in light of the fact that this is a Catholic parish register and the Catholic church does not permit remarriage after divorce. Taken together with the previous column heading that mentioned stating the religion of the bridegroom, I wondered if this might imply that this form was created for use by a variety of religions in Germany, in an era when church records were recognized as legal documents, and I made a mental note to look up the date when civil vital registration (independent from church registration) began in Bavaria.

Since marital status was covered in Column 6, I finally arrived at the conclusion that “Stand” in column 3 must refer to the bridegroom’s occupation. After much back-and-forth between the alphabet chart showing the letter formations in Kurrent, and comparison of all the other entries, I concluded that Johann Maier must be a Häusler, which Hoffman and Shea define as, “cottager, peasant with a small house and garden and a livestock (e.g., a goat), but not enough to support a family.”

The next column heading is Landgericht, Aufenthalts-Ort, meaning, “District Court, place of residence.” This is where the word Obertrübenbach was recorded, which helped me determine the context for Stand in the previous column heading. Next comes Eltern. Bei der Mutter auch der Geschlechts-Name. This is translated to mean, “Parents. With the mother, also the Family Name.” So what we should see in this column are the names of the groom’s parents, with his mother’s maiden name specified. I was able to make out Johann’s father’s name, Christoph, and his mother’s name, Walburga gb. (geboren, i.e. née) Meinzinger. Did it help that I already knew what these names should be? Absolutely. But when you’re just starting out, using every scrap of information available to you is fair game.

The next column heading was also discussed previously, as it’s the one that reads, Ledig oder Wittwer, dessen gestorbenes (geschieden) Weib. In this case, Johann Maier was recorded as ledig, single. After that, the column heading is Geboren wann? wo?, which we understand to mean, “Born when? Where?” Apparently the priest saw no need to record any of the wheres, but he did record Johann’s birthdate for us, 27 July 1827.

Here Comes the Bride

The next columns pertain to the bride, starting with the column that reads, Der Braut Vor – und Geschlechts-Name, which is, “The Bride, given and family-name.” In the relevant entry, the bride’s name is recorded as Anna M. Urban, but her Stand doesn’t make sense to me. The first part of the word looks exactly like Häusler as it’s written in the groom’s column, but it looks like it ends in “𝖘𝖙,” i.e., “Häuslerst.” This isn’t possible. Häuslerin would be a female Häusler, but those final two letters clearly aren’t “𝖎𝖓.” I left this alone for a while and moved on, but after further consideration, I’m wondering if perhaps those final letters really are “𝖘𝖙,” and this was intended to be an abbreviation for Häuslerstochter, “daughter of a Häusler.”

Having completed the first page, I anticipated that the second page would be a little easier since many of the column headings are the same for the bride as they were for the groom. The first column on the right page is Landgericht Aufenthalts-Ort, although this time the word bisheriger, meaning “previous” or “up until now” is inserted after Landgericht. Anna Maria’s residence prior to her marriage was noted to be Kalsing. Her parents, described in the next column (identical column headings to corresponding column on groom’s side), were Johann and A. Maria gb. Ederer.  The next column, which reports whether she was single or a widow, states, led. — possibly abbreviated because by now, the priest’s hand was no doubt cramped from the effort of writing such tiny letters with any degree of precision. Anna Maria Urban was noted to have been born on 11 October 1832 in Kalsing.

We’re in the home stretch, with just four columns to go. The next one up has the heading, Pfarrer Stellvertreter, “Parish Representative,” implying that this column should name the priest who performed the marriage (who might not be the pastor himself). At this point, I had no more lifelines, in that I didn’t know in advance what the name should be here. My best guess was that the first letter is a P, and the last two letters are “-it” or possibly “-is.” Poppit? Poppis? The middle two letters that seem to be repeated contain a downward stroke that suggests either the letter p, g, or z; it doesn’t look like y, f, or h. I tried playing with versions of this surname on a German-language surname distribution site, and even on Google. My new best guess was that the surname might be Kappis, but the fact that this surname does not exist in Cham County today doesn’t bode well for that hypothesis. There’s also the fact that the capital “K” in “Kalsing” and in Klessing (3rd entry from the top in the first column on the second page) is formed quite differently from the first letter in the priest’s name. At this point, I decided to move on again and maybe come back to this name.

The next column is for the witnesses, with given name, surname, occupation, and place of residence. Again, I was without a safety net. The first witness was easy, Georg Maier, but the next line was not so easy: F???? m. (?) and then a word that looked like it might be “Obertrübenbach,” but with half the letters randomly omitted from the middle. Sigh. My guess was that the word beginning with F was an occupation, and maybe what looks like “m.” was actually im (in), so this phrase might describe Georg, rather than indicating the name of a different person. The third line in this column appears to be “Math. Pongratz,” and as this realization dawned on me, I realized that the first letter in that priest’s name really must be P, although I still can’t find a valid German surname that seems to fit that pattern.

The next column, Weltliche Heiraths-Lizenz, refers to a secular marriage license. I had no idea what the initials here are supposed to indicate; they seemed to be “L.R.” in most cases. It would be interesting to know if a secular marriage license could be obtained for further documentation of this marriage. I made a mental note to ask one of my friends who is an expert in German genealogy for more information on the entries in this column and their implications for further research.

The final column, Getraut mit oder ohne Dispens in den Graden, mit oder ohne Denunziationen, seemed to translate as, “Married with or without dispensation in degrees, with or without denunciation,” and some Roman Catholic canonical context is needed to understand this. My sense is that it relates to the need, or lack thereof, for a dispensation for the marriage due to consanguinity, since this need is determined by the degrees of separation in the relationship between the bride and groom. Denunciation in this context seems to refer to the reporting of known impediments to the marriage to the priest beforehand, in response to the announcement of the marriage banns (see “Denunciation of impediments,” here.) So in the case of most of the marriages recorded on these pages, there were no impediments to the marriage that were reported, and therefore there was no need for any dispensations. The one exception to this is the 8th marriage record down from the top (immediately above the record for Johann Maier and Anna Maria Urban), for Wolfgang Niklas and Elisabeth Niklas. Given their shared surname, they were probably relatives by blood or marriage, whose marriage would necessitate a dispensation. I considered trying to decipher the script pertaining to the dispensations, but I felt that I’d banged my head on a wall long enough for one day.

That’s a Wrap

So after all this, my best (first) attempt at translation can be summarized as follows:

  • Wedding date:  27 October 1857
  • Groom’s Name:  Johann Maier
  • Occupation:  Häusler (cottager)
  • Place of Residence:  Obertrübenbach
  • Parents’ Names:  Christoph and Walburga née Meinzinger
  • Marital Status:  single
  • Date of Birth:  27 July 1827
  • Bride’s Name:  Anna M. Urban
  • Occupation:  Häuslerstochter (daughter of a Häusler)
  • Place of Residence:  Kalsing
  • Parents’ Names:  Johann and A. Maria née Ederer
  • Marital Status:  single
  • Date and Place of Birth:  11 October 1832 in Kalsing
  • Parish Representative:  Pa??il or Pa??it (?)
  • Witnesses:  Georg Maier, ?? in Obertr???h, Math. Pongratz.
  • Secular Marriage License:  LR (whatever that means)
  • Marriage dispensation with or without denunciation:  Not applicable

I never did come to any resolution with bits of it, but I can always ask a German friend, or post the record in the Genealogy Translations Facebook group to get help with those little bits, and to have them correct my translation. Even without those options, it’s okay to have small bits remain unresolved. I used to do this all the time when I was translating Russian records, before I discovered Facebook genealogy groups. Now, with a few more years of experience in reading Russian records, I sometimes come across those early translations in my research notes and fill in the little bits that I couldn’t decipher the first time around. Now that I have my first German translation behind me, I know that it can only get easier from here!

If I Can Do This, So Can You!

So what are some general tips to keep in mind when learning to translate documents in a foreign language? Here are seven pointers:

Always look at the entire page, not just a single record.

I think this one ought to be obvious, but it’s really critical to familiarize oneself with all the examples of handwriting on the page.

Use the familiar to decode the unfamiliar.

Find something you recognize on the page — any words that you can recognize or predict based on your prior knowledge, or about what you’ve been told the document says (for example, from an indexed entry) — and use these words as your Rosetta Stone to understand the nuances of the handwriting of this particular writer. Since there are multiple forms of the letter “s” that are possible in Kurrent, for example, does the writer consistently use the same form? Or does he use them all interchangeably?

Use maps and gazetteers to help understand the places mentioned.

A good exercise for me will be to go through the list of places of residence mentioned in this document and see if I can translate them based on the names of villages close to Roding.

Formulate hypotheses and test them.

When you think you’ve deciphered a surname found in a record, test your theory by plugging it into a German language surname distribution database. If the surname exists in Germany today, you may be on the right track, and you score bonus points if the surname is also found in your county of interest. Similarly, if you think you’ve deciphered the priest’s name, try Googling the history of the parish to see if this particular priest was mentioned. Note that Google.de will provide different (and more appropriate) results than English-language Google, and for Polish records, Google.pl is the preferred search engine. You may need to translate your search terms first using Google Translate, which is an approach that is always fraught with peril when working with inflected languages, so keep your searches simple.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The more you work with foreign-language records, the more things will start to make sense to you. Especially with different letter forms like Cyrillic and Kurrent, it seems like a certain amount of time has to be spent in the beginning in staring at alphabet charts, committing the letter forms to memory and learning the sounds that each letter makes.  Be patient with yourself. You’ll get there.

Get help when you need it.

Learning to translation foreign-language records is an investment in yourself, but you don’t have to go it alone. The global genealogical community is a very generous one, and there are people who are willing to help you along the way. If you get stuck, you can always post the record and your translation attempt in the Genealogy Translations group on Facebook. Volunteers in that group, or in one of the groups targeted to your ethnic group of interest (German Genealogy, Polish Genealogy, etc.), can usually provide insight into archaic terms and offer historical context to help you understand the record, in addition to merely offering a translation.

Have fun!

Deciphering genealogical records can be quite an enjoyable puzzle, and you’ll gain a useful skill that will help you in your research. I’m really excited to continue my practice with German records, now that Hoffman and Shea’s German genealogical translation guide is here. While you won’t see me offering assistance to others with German translations any time soon, I’m confident that regular practice, the day will come when I can pick up a German document written in Kurrent and read it without having to look up any words in the book. And if I can do that, you can, too!

Note: The first round of edits is in! Apparently I was systematically misreading 𝖇 and 𝖉 in this document, too. I’ve made those changes in the text above. Thank you, Mente. Every correction is a learning opportunity.


1 BZAR, Roman Catholic Church, St. Pancrus parish (Roding, Cham, Oberpfalz, Germany), marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857, vol. 27, pg. 3, MF 573.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017