You know that old saying, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes”? It’s true for family historians as well. I’m reminded of this as my daughter’s high school graduation is looming large, and she still has no baby album.
My beautiful, cherished, Catherine was not only our fourth child, she was also a very high-need baby, wanting to be held all the time, not content to play in her baby seat or bat at the toys hanging from her baby gym. And as comedian Jim Gaffigan quipped, ““Do you want to know what it’s like to have a fourth [child]? Just imagine you’re drowning, and then someone hands you a baby.” My life was filled with carpools, swimming lessons, after-school Spanish classes, preschool pickups, parent-teacher conferences, play dates, and more. Catherine entered the world at 6:29 am on a Saturday, and it’s a good thing she got here early, because my husband had to leave to coach our 9-year-old’s iceless hockey game a few hours later.
Despite all that we had going on, I had the best of intentions for preserving her babyhood. I lovingly recorded all her “firsts” in her baby calendar, just as I did with her brothers. I took the time to cross-stitch a baby bib with her name on it, just as I did with each of the boys. And I took so many photographs. In those days when digital photography was really starting to come into its own, I was slow to make the switch from my 35 mm camera. I feared that digital photography would lead to a bunch of computer images that would never be looked at, never be made into albums. So instead, I opted for photo prints that take up more space—and still were not made into albums.
It’s not like I never made photo albums. I was just slow. I wanted to do it right, and make personalized, scrapbook-style albums that included a bit of journaling and notes about each event. I made each of my sons a baby album that encompassed his first year, and then I made family photo albums as well, spanning the early years of our marriage and family life. By early 2007, when Catherine had just turned four, I think I’d gotten up to Christmas of 1999 in our family photo albums. I felt like I was starting to have more time to myself again, so getting caught up on those photo albums seemed like a very reasonable goal. I was only eight years behind, after all!
Then my husband was laid off from his job in northern Illinois, and we made the decision to move our family a thousand miles away so that he could start his dream job in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Between packing and moving and getting settled and decorating a new house and keeping up with all the children’s activities and my own volunteer commitments, the years kept flying by. Catherine’s non-existent baby album became something of a family joke. By the time she was six, she decided she should stipulate a deadline: she’d really like that baby album by the time she graduated from high school. Moreover, she didn’t just want a Shutterfly-type album like the one I eventually created for my Grandma’s 90th birthday, with uploaded photos and a nice leather cover. She wanted an album just like the ones I’d made for the boys—covered in soft fabric, trimmed with eyelet around the edges, with grosgrain ribbons to tie it closed, and an eyelet-edged photo frame on the cover, personalized with her name. (I’d been pretty crafty back in the day.) I agreed, of course. It seemed like I had such a long time to get the job done.
At some point, it became overwhelming, all those boxes of photographs — even though they were all neatly organized by date—not to mention all the school report cards, award certificates, sports team photos, and special school projects that were deemed worthy of assignment to the family’s “sentimental archives.” I love discovering family stories, and the stories of generations past always seemed so urgent. There’s always tomorrow, I thought, to tell my own family’s stories, to preserve my children’s heritage. So the eight-year lag in the family photo albums somehow became fourteen years, and in all those years of soccer games, play practices, music lessons, homework, summer vacations, graduations, softball practices, Buffalo trips, driving lessons, and caring for aging parents, my baby girl has grown into a beautiful young woman in front of my eyes, who graduates from high school next weekend. Suddenly, I’m out of time.
I certainly do appreciate the irony in this situation. A few weeks ago, I was bemoaning the fact that my parents saved so much stuff for me to sort through in order to sell their house. Now, I have become my parents. I’ve been feeling a little panicky as I go through boxes in the the basement, trying to find my 8×10″ copies of her 3-month, 6-month, 9-month, and 12-month portraits to go along with all the snapshots, and I can’t believe how much dust has accumulated on those boxes in the storage area, almost as if they’d been sitting there for years. But how can that be? The days are long, but the years are short, indeed.
I’m finally making good progress, I think. After some quality time spent with my hot glue gun, I should have the album itself done by the end of the weekend. Filling it with all the photos from my baby’s first year might take a little longer, but with her typical grace and good nature, Catherine is cutting me some slack in that regard. Having gained some momentum with the project, I’m confident that I can get this finished in a timely fashion, because I’ve gained a new sense of urgency. Tomorrow is not promised, and suddenly I feel as though I’ve neglected my immediate family history for long enough. My dead ancestors aren’t going anywhere. Right now it’s time to celebrate the living.
Yesterday was a bittersweet day for me. We closed the sale of my parents’ home, the home they custom-built in 2004 with an in-law apartment for my Grandma, Helen Zielinski, so she could live with them after Grandpa died. There were a lot of memories in that home, although (mercifully) not so many as there would have been had they lived there all their married lives. Nonetheless, cleaning it out prior to the sale was an enormous task, and one that fell entirely to my husband and me, since my mother passed away last October, my Dad was unable to participate due to his own health concerns, and my only sibling was unable to travel due to the pandemic. Since Mom and Dad’s home was located in Western New York, it was a solid 440 miles away from where I live in Massachusetts, necessitating a dedicated trip and a week of vacation days to go back and deal with the clean-out. Fortunately, my husband still has family in that area as well, so my sisters-in-love, Kristi and Kerri, generously made time to help with the sorting, shredding, donating, unpacking, and repacking that go with the job.
If you’ve ever cleaned out a house before, you know how overwhelming the task can seem. Mom and Dad had a very large basement that was packed with furniture, antiques, holiday decorations, unused home furnishings, and family treasures, all carefully organized in plastic storage bins and cardboard boxes. Mom had all of the boxes neatly labelled regarding their contents, but she and Dad saved everything. Pretty much every greeting card ever received, every report card, college notebook, every drawing made by a grandchild—it was all down in that basement, in rows of boxes stacked along the walls around the perimeter of the basement. It reminded me of that final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it wasn’t just Mom and Dad’s stuff. There were things in that basement from my grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family, as well as my Mom’s maternal uncle, Joseph “J” Zazycki, whom she cared for in his final years. Grandma and Grandpa Zielinski’s entire bedroom set was there, with bed, mattress and both dressers, along with Grandma’s sewing machine, which I have vivid memories of watching her use when I was a child. There were the paintings that used to hang in their living room, the glider that once stood in front of their garage, the photo album that Grandma made with all the photos from her honeymoon, and the lamps that I remembered from the spare bedroom where my sister and I shared a bed during sleepovers at Grammy and Grandpa’s house. There was the old greeting card box that Grandma repurposed for storing crayons so my sister and I could color pictures when we came to visit. Grandma was from the generation that wasted nothing, so the box included some of the free crayons given out by restaurants so small diners could color their paper menus—crayons that were not discarded after the meal, but carefully and lovingly preserved by Grandma. The smell from that box of crayons immediately took me back to Grandma’s kitchen table circa 1973. Love, care, and memories were packed into every box and every corner.
It wasn’t just the basement that needed going through. Although I’d moved some of their furniture and belongings out of the house when I moved Mom and Dad into an assisted living apartment near me, there were living areas that remained untouched, including Dad’s office. My mother was a first-rate bibliophile, and she had at least a thousand books, many of which were beautifully bound, gilt-edged, hardcover editions of literary classics that were precious to her, still filling the shelves on either side of the fireplace. I wish I could have kept all of it, but where? My own attic and basement are already full from the accumulation of treasures that accompanies years of raising children, and we don’t have as much storage space as my parents did. What does one do with all this stuff? As the old saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” I had to get in touch with my inner Marie Kondo and make some hard choices.
Some things ended up being easier to let go of than others, like the school desks. My mother had gone to elementary school at Our Lady of Częstochowa in North Tonawanda, New York, and at some point in the 1970s when the school was modernizing, they sold off the old-fashioned student desks. My parents decided to purchase two pairs of the desks, and Dad painstakingly refinished the wood, painted the metal legs, and mounted them on wood runners, after which my parents displayed them in the family room of our home in Cincinnati when I was growing up. My sister and I used to sit at them and play “school” when we were little, but I can’t see where they’d fit into my home today. Similarly, my Great-Grandpa John Boehringer’s fishing tackle box didn’t even make the “donate” pile, as it was all full of rusted fishing hooks and lures that seemed like a bad case of tetanus waiting to happen.
As a family historian, I hoped to balance the need for getting the job done quickly and efficiently, with the need for careful preservation of the family history. I’m not sure I was entirely successful in that regard, and I may live to regret some of the things that were donated, discarded, or sold at the estate sale. I prioritized saving photographs and any documents with historical value, although I decided to let go some of the newspapers they saved over the years, such as the last issue of Buffalo’s newspaper, the Courier-Express that was printed in 1982. (Probably half the population of Buffalo has a copy in their basement.) I saved the oak porch swing that Dad made that used to hang in front of the rose trellis at their house on Patton Place, but I said goodbye to the old Cardinal phonograph that my parents bought when we lived in Cincinnati.
Our old Fisher-Price toys had to go, as did the cedar chest, but I saved the afghans made by my Mom and by Nana Boehringer, my mother’s journals, and my Dad’s flight log books from when he obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 1971. Many of the documents from my Dad’s youth, such as his old report cards, were charred by the house fire that largely destroyed my paternal grandparents’ home in 1978 while they were vacationing in Florida, and I discovered all the documentation—insurance records, building receipts—related to rebuilding that house after the fire, which had been carefully saved by my grandfather.
As I sifted through the ephemera of half a dozen lifetimes, I was struck not only by what people chose to save, but also by how these things were saved. The heart-shaped wreath of roses that adorned her father’s casket was preserved by my mother with such care that not a petal was lost. All of her school report cards were organized into neat little packets. Uncle J’s wallet, address book, check registers, and vital records were all boxed together with his collection of family photos. My Dad, on the other hand, had a whole pile of letters and postcards from family, stashed in the bottom of his duffel bag from Vietnam, buried underneath his boots and flight suit. His Air Force dress uniform, on the other hand, was hung neatly in a wardrobe box, with all of his medals and ribbons still attached to the coat. My paternal grandfather’s wallet was intact, with all his credit cards, driver’s license, and precisely $37 in cash, exactly as he left it when he passed away in 1996. The money is worth less now than it was then, thanks to inflation, and one wonders why it was never removed. The wallet was tucked safely within a steel lockbox that previously belonged to his father-in-law (Grandpa John Boehringer), which also contained stock certificates from the 1930s from companies which no longer exist, and property tax receipts dating back to the 1950s for my grandparents’ home on Grand Island.
Such careful preservation serves as a silent testimony to each person’s values and circumstances. We come to know and understand our loved ones better through the cherished things they left behind.
Here are a few additional photos of some of my favorite finds:
It’s going to take me quite a while to sort through all the boxes of photos, papers and sentimental artifacts which I brought home from New York. Nothing is promised, but I hope to live long enough to organize the photos and documents in such a way that my kids will have a cohesive family history collection to preserve and pass on, or to dispose of as they see fit. Although family history is my passion, I don’t know if any of my kids will eventually take up the torch, and I know first-hand how material goods can quickly become burdensome if they were precious only to someone else. In the end, our greatest legacy is the love we show to our families, and the memories we make with them. The “stuff” is secondary; yet within those collections, there are stories waiting to be told.
Discoveries on my Dodds line are coming thick and fast these days, thanks to hints found in my paternal aunt’s DNA match list. This past week, I discovered the fate of one John H. Dodds, the fifth child of my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine (Grant or Irving?) Dodds. I’ve written about my Dodds family recently, and the question of Catherine’s parentage is one of the brick walls in my research, which was summarized here.
Introducing John Dodds
Like his brother, Alexander, who was the subject of my last blog post, John Dodds was first found to be living with his family in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1861 (Figure 1). John was seven years old, suggesting a birth year circa 1854. His father, Robert Dodds, was a laborer, born circa 1822 in England, and a W[esleyan] Methodist. His mother, Katherine [sic] Dodds, was born in Upper Canada circa 1830, according to this document, but that year is suspect since their oldest child, Hannah, was recorded as being 19 years of age, which would imply that Catherine gave birth to her at the age of 12.
By 1871, the family had moved to Yarmouth Township in Elgin County (Figure 2). John H. Dodds was reported to be 18 years of age, which suggests a birth year circa 1853. He was born in Ontario, was employed as a laborer, and was reported to be of English origin through his father, but of the Presbyterian faith, along with his Scottish mother. Despite the family’s varying religious practices, the names and ages of the family members confirm that this is the same Dodds family found in 1861. This census also suggests a more reasonable birth year of 1820 for John’s mother, Catherine Dodds, since she and her husband were both noted to be 51 years of age.
After this census, however, John H. Dodds seemed to disappear. There were no good matches for him living anywhere near other members of his family, and his name was sufficiently common that chasing down each John Dodds living in North America after 1871 seemed like a thankless task. As was the case with Alexander, the trail grew cold in absence of better clues.
DNA Shows the Way, Again
However, buoyed by my recent success with tracking down Alexander Dodds, I went back to Ancestry DNA to see if I could use my paternal grand-aunt’s match list to find any additional clues to illuminate my Dodds research. Although I most often use the “shared matches” feature for this, this time around I did a search of the match list for any matches which mentioned the surname Dodds in their family tree. A match came up to a woman whom I’ll call B.Y. (again, not her real initials) whose public, linked tree featured a great-great-grandfather named John Dodds. Although the parents of this John Dodds were not known, there was some promising evidence in the tree that suggested that this might be “my” John Dodds, son of Robert and Catherine. For starters, the 1900 census showed that John Dodds was born in February 1860 in English Canada, i.e. Ontario (Figure 3).
A birth year of 1860 would make him a few years younger than “my” John Dodds ought to be, given previous evidence that suggested a birth year circa 1853-1854. However, this census also notes that his wife, Lena Dodds, was born in January 1874, so it may have been that John was fudging a bit to minimize the 20-year age difference between him and his wife. The Dodds family was living in Pike township, Potter County, Pennsylvania—a rural area about 125 miles due south of Rochester, New York. Without this clue from DNA evidence, it’s safe to say I never would have thought to look for “my” John Dodds there, nor would I necessarily have recognized him as the same John Dodds, even if he did turn up in a search of this census. According to this census, John Dodds’ father was born in Canada and his mother was born in England, while the reverse is true for “my” John Dodds. Between that, and the discrepancy in his age, it would have been easy to dismiss any connection, based solely on this one document. But just wait.
By 1900, John had been married to his wife, Lena, for eight years, suggesting that they married circa 1892. John was employed as a farmer who owned his own farm. He was further reported to be an alien who had been living in the U.S. for 19 years, following his arrival in 1881. The year of arrival would explain his absence from the 1881 census of Canada. Lena Dodds was born in Pennsylvania, as were both of her parents. She was noted to be the mother of two children, both of whom were living at that time and appear in this census. Those children were Flossie H. Dodds, born February 1895, and Robert L. Dodds, born August 1897.
The death certificate for John and Lena’s son, Robert L. Dodds, confirmed the information in B.Y.’s linked tree, that Lena Dodds’ maiden name was Frazier (Figure 4).4
We can be certain that the Robert L. Dodds described in this death certificate is the same Robert L. Dodds as the son who appeared in the 1900 census because the date and place of birth, 20 August 1897 in [West] Pike, Pennsylvania, are a match.
John Dodds’ own death certificate confirmed that his father’s name was Robert Dodds (Figure 5).
According to this document, John Dodds died on 24 June 1941 in Ulysses, Pennsylvania—a borough in Potter County, the same county in which John was living in 1900. He was married, and his wife’s name was given only as Lena M. Dodds, no maiden name indicated. He was reported to have been born on 24 February 1860 in Canada, a data consistent with the date of February 1860 reported on the 1900 census. The day and month of birth may well be correct, even if the year is off. His father was identified as Robert Dodds, born in England, and his mother’s place of birth was identified as Canada, although her name was not known by the informant, Mrs. William Straitz of Coudersport, Pennsylvania.
So far, so good. Based on the preliminary evidence from these three documents, we can hypothesize that John Dodds of Potter County, Pennsylvania, who was the husband of Lena Frazier Dodds and was born in Canada circa 1860 to Robert Dodds and an unknown mother, is the same as the John H. Dodds in my family tree. If this hypothesis is correct, then B.Y. would be a second cousin twice removed (2C2R) to my Dad’s aunt. The amount of DNA shared between them, 51 centimorgans (cM), is consistent with this relationship, although other relationships are also possible, including 1/2 2C2R, which is statistically more probable than 2C2R. (That’s another question for another day.) At this point, I figured we could really use a marriage record for John Dodds and Lena Frazier, indicating parents’ names, to tie all this together.
You know those late-night research sessions where you’re on a roll, and things are moving fast, and in the heady excitement of the moment, you’re not making notes about the process as carefully as you should? If you’re reading this, of course you do. Well, that happened to me when I made the breakthrough discovery on my John Dodds research, and for the life of me, I can no longer recall exactly what it was that inspired me to look for the record of his marriage to Lena Frazier in New York, rather than in Pennsylvania. But for some reason, I did just that: I checked the Allegany County, New York pages of the New York GenWeb project. If you’re unfamiliar with the USA GenWeb Project, you should definitely check it out, drilling down to your particular counties of interest, because it’s a fantastic resource that has been a favorite of mine since its inception in the late 1990s. In this case, the Allegany County page offers vital records transcriptions, including a page of marriage transcriptions from the town of Willing, New York, covering 1849-1920 (Figure 6).
And there it is! Smoking-gun evidence that John Dodd [sic], the 34-year-old farmer residing in Potter County, Pennsylvania, who married Lina [sic] Frazier, was the son of Robert Dodd [sic] and Catherine Grant. John’s age suggests a birth year of 1857, a bit closer to the probable reality of 1853-1854, and he was born in Canada, as expected. One wonders if this was perhaps a second marriage for him, since a “1” was recorded in the “No. of marriage” column for Lena (indicating this was her first marriage) but there is no notation in the corresponding column for the groom. Of course, it may be that this information was merely omitted from the transcription. In a column on the far right, which does not appear in this image, it states that the marriage took place on 20 April 1891, which is an approximate match to the information from the 1900 census that they were married in 1892. In fact, when I wrote to the Willing town clerk to request a copy of the actual marriage record, she informed me that the marriage date according to their records was 20 April 1892, not 1891, so mistakes do happen. It may be that the original record is exceptionally faded or illegible, which impacted the indexer’s ability to read both the marriage date, and any information that may have been recorded in the “no. of marriage” column for the groom.
Of course, there’s quite a bit more research that can, and should, be done to tell this family’s story. Nonetheless, by this point I was so excited that I emailed my Aunt Carol to tell her I’d found our John Dodds, after which a busy week ensued with little time for additional research. However, Aunt Carol took up the cause and was able to fill out the family tree quite nicely with loads of additional documents. Among her discoveries were two documents that I found to be especially noteworthy. The first was an entry in the 1880 census from Foster Township in McKean County, Pennsylvania, for the household of Gilford [sic] and Jno. [sic] Dodd [sic], two laborers who were lodgers at a boarding house run by David and Caroline White (Figure 7).
The township of Foster is located just south of the New York-Pennsylvania border, and about 50 miles west of Willing, New York, where John Dodds would eventually marry Lena Frazier. “Jno” is an old-fashioned abbreviation for “John” commonly found in genealogical documents. John was reported to be single, and age 24, which suggests a birth year circa 1856. We’re inching ever closer to the years 1853-1854 reported in the earliest documents, which are likely to be the most accurate. He was born in Canada, to Canadian-born parents. A residence within the U.S. in 1880 would be fairly consistent with the immigration year of 1881 which John Dodds reported in the 1900 census.
John and “Gilford” Dodd were enumerated as their own household, separate from the household of the boarding-house owner and the other tenants, which might be construed as evidence for a family relationship, rather than John and “Gilford” being two random boarders who happened to share a surname. In fact, “Gilford” is likely to be Gilbert M. Dodds, John’s brother, who was age 15 in the 1871 census, suggesting a birth year circa 1856. Gilbert does not appear in the 1881 census of Canada, and this record does a nice job of explaining why that might be. According to this census, “Gilford” was single and age 22, which points to a birth year circa 1858. He, too, was said to have been born in Canada of Canadian-born parents. Gilbert would eventually marry Annie Mann on 11 November 1885 in Port Stanley, Elgin County, Ontario8 and I’m pretty sure he died in Buffalo, New York,9 but that’s another story for another day. (I’m still waiting for his death certificate to arrive in the mail!)
The second neat bit of evidence that Aunt Carol found was the World War I draft registration card for John’s son, Robert Lawrence Dodds—the same Robert L. Dodds whose death certificate is shown in Figure 4. The subject of the draft card (Figure 8) resided at 504 Sullivan Street in Elmira, New York. He was born on 20 August 1897 in West Pike, Pennsylvania—information which matches that found on the death certificate for Robert L. Dodds exactly. His nearest relative was noted to be Lena Dodds, living in Ulysses, Pennsylvania, and a further identification of “mother” was written to the right of her name. Although his father’s name was not mentioned on this document, the form included a space for the father’s birthplace, and here it was noted that Robert Lawrence Dodds’ father was born in Port Stanley, Canada.
Port Stanley, Ontario, no longer exists as an independent municipality today. It’s a small place that was amalgamated with the village of Belmont and with Yarmouth Township—where the Dodds family was known to be living in 1871—to form the municipality of Central Elgin in 1998.11 Since the earliest document found to date for John Dodds was that 1861 census in which the family was living in St. Catharines, Ontario, the information from this draft card, if accurate, suggests a different timeline for the family of Robert and Catherine Dodds than the one I’ve been envisioning for them. If the family were living in Port Stanley circa 1853 when their son John was born, then perhaps Robert and Catherine started their marriage in Elgin County and then moved to St. Catherines, rather than the reverse. Of course, this is all speculative, and there are still many questions which have yet to be answered about the early life of the Dodds family, their migrations, and about the identities of Robert’s and Catherine’s parents. But little discoveries like the ones I’ve made this week give me hope that maybe, if I keep chipping away at it, those brick walls will eventually crumble.
1 Census of Canada, 1861, population schedule, Canada West, Lincoln, Grantham, E.D. 4, p 80, lines 1–9, Robert Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), Item no. 1884852, citing Microfilm C-1048-1049.
2 Census of Canada, 1871, population schedule, Ontario, East Elgin, Yarmouth, David Parish, division no. 2, p 73, lines 2–8, Robert Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), item no. 454129, citing Microfilm:C-9898, Reference:RG31.
3 1900 United States Federal Census, Potter, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Pike Township, enumeration district (ED) 107, sheet no. 2B, dwelling 35, family 38, John H. Dodds household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : 8 May 2021); citing NARA microfilmT623, 1854 rolls, no roll specified.
4 “Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates, 1906-1967,” database, Robert L. Dodds, 13 April 1968, certificate no. 040689-68; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 8 May 2021), certificate no. range 039901-042750, image 804 of 2909; citing Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906-1968. Series 11.90 (1,905 cartons). Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
5 “Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates, 1906-1967,” database, John Dodds, 24 June 1941, certificate no. 7817, digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 8 May 2021), certificate no. range 005251-008250, image 3142 of 3654; citing Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906-1968. Series 11.90 (1,905 cartons). Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
6 Charlie Barrett, “Historic Records – Willing, Allegany Co., New York, Marriages, 1849-1920,” database, John Dodd and Lina Frazier, 20 April 1891, “Allegany County, New York,” NYGenWeb (http://allegany.nygenweb.net/index.html : 8 May 2021).
7 1880 United States Federal Census, McKean County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Foster Township, Enumeration District (E.D.) 77, Sheet 51A, household no. 787, Gilford and Jno. Dodd, digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : 8 May 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 1153 of 1,454 rolls.
8 “Ontario Marriages, 1869-1927,” database, 1885, no. 2663, marriage record for Gilbert M. Dodds and Annie Mann; digital image, Family Search (https://familysearch.org : 8 May 2021); citing Registrar General of Ontario, Archives of Ontario; Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
9 Buffalo, Erie, New York, Death Index, 1897-1902, p. 206, Gilbert M. Dodds, Vol. 21, no. 71, 1898, and Alexander Dodds, Vol. 34, no. 258, 1899, digital images, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/ : 17 April 2021), image 225 of 1140, citing Index to Deaths, in Buffalo, New York, 1852-1944, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.
10 “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch, (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 8 May 2021), Robert Lawrence Dodds; Pennsylvania > Potter County; A-R > image 1017 of 3424; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
In the days before direct-to-consumer autosomal DNA testing, my Dad used to joke, “Maternity is a fact; paternity is an opinion.” Despite this assertion, we sometimes find conflicting evidence in historical documents that raises questions about the identity of an individual’s mother. Recently, I was able to resolve such a conflict, identify the great-grandparents of a DNA match, and discover how that DNA match was related to my family.
An Unknown Cousin
The DNA match, whom I’ll call S.C., was not known to our family, yet we share a significant amount of DNA in common. With my Dad’s paternal aunt, S.C. shares 158 centimorgans (cM, a unit of genetic linkage) across 4 segments, and he shares even more DNA with my Dad—172 cM across 7 segments. He also shares DNA with a number of documented cousins who are also descendants of Dad’s great-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine (__) Dodds. S.C. has an online tree which indicates that his grandfather was named Spencer Alexander Dodds, so this seemed to be a promising start. Spencer’s Canadian Expeditionary Forces personnel card is shown in Figure 1.
The card states that Spencer Alexander Dodds was born in Buffalo, New York, on 7 September 1895, a fact which was immediately intriguing. Although my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine Dodds, lived in St. Catharines, Ontario, and Yarmouth township, Ontario, several of their children were known to have migrated to Buffalo, including my great-great-grandmother, Martha Agnes (née Dodds) Walsh. The name Alexander was also familiar to me, as one of Martha’s brothers was named Alexander Dodds.
The first documentary appearance of Alexander Dodds is in the 1861 Canadian Census, where he was found to be living with his parents, Robert and Catherine Dodds, in St. Catharines. He was their fourth child, and first son, born in Upper Canada about 1850 (Figure 2). His family’s religion was noted to be Methodist.
By 1871, the family had moved to Yarmouth Township in Elgin County (Figure 3). By this time, the older daughters had married, and Alexander was reported to be 21 years of age, which again suggests a birth year circa 1850. He was born in Ontario, was employed as a baker, and was reported to be of English origin through his father, but of the Presbyterian faith, along with his Scottish mother. Despite the family’s varying religious practices, the names and ages of the family members confirm that this is the same Dodds family found in 1861.
At first glance, this might not appear to be the correct marriage record for Alexander Dodds, since his given name was recorded as Abraham, not Alexander. However, “Abraham” was noted to be a resident of Aylmer, which is only 7 miles from Yarmouth Centre, where the Dodds family was living when the 1871 census was enumerated. His age, 21 years, points to a birth year of 1850, which is the consistent with the year of birth of Alexander Dodds. The parents’ names, Robert and Catherine, are the same; he was born in Ontario, and he was a Methodist. Check, check, and check. However, Abraham was noted to be employed as a a teamster, rather than a baker. Taken together with the different name, this might be construed as evidence that Abraham and Alexander Dodds were two different individuals. However, if that were true, then we should be able to find an 11-year-old Abraham Dodds in the 1861 census, living with parents Robert and Catherine. A search of the entire 1861 census for Ab* Dod* at the Library and Archives Canada site results in a negative find—no good matches. Of course, one could argue that Abraham might have been missed by the census taker, or was living outside of Canada in 1861; there’s still room for doubt.
The 1881 census helps to resolve that doubt, however. Back in St. Catharines, where many of the Dodds children returned following the death of their mother in 1872, Alexander Dodds was found to be living with his wife, Elizabeth (Figure 5).
Alexander’s age points to a birth year of 1849 in Ontario. His religion, Church of England, falls under the broad umbrella of Protestantism that would be consistent with the Dodds’ religious practices. Alexander was employed as a teamster, his wife’s name was Elizabeth, and her ethnic origins were noted to be Dutch— consistent with a maiden name of Ostrander. In light of the entire body of evidence, it seems clear that Alexander and Abraham are the same individual, and that “Abraham” was recorded on the marriage record either by mistake, or because it was a middle name which he used occasionally.
The 1881 census was the last time that Alexander/Abraham appeared in a census of Canada. Searches for either Alex* or Ab* Dod* in the 1891 census produced no unequivocal matches for “my” Alexander Dodds anywhere in Canada. Neither were there any unequivocal matches for him in databases of U.S. or Canadian death records, or U.S. census records. The name is sufficiently common that the trail grew cold, in absence of better clues.
Connecting the Dodds
In light of this DNA match to S.C., a new hypothesis began to emerge. What if Spencer Alexander Dodds were the son of Alexander Abraham Dodds? The timeline works—Alexander would have been 45 years old when Spencer was born, not too old to father a child. If this proposed relationship is correct, it would mean that S.C. and my Dad’s paternal aunt would be second cousins once removed (2C1R). According to the Shared Centimorgan Project Tool, the amount of DNA shared between “Aunt Betty” and S.C., 158 cM, is extremely typical for a 2C1R relationship. The amount of DNA shared between S.C. and my Dad (172 cM) would also fit their proposed relationship (3C), according to this hypothesis, although it is on the high side. However, this hypothesis required some additional documentary research before it could be accepted. S.C.’s tree did not offer any clues about the father of Spencer Alexander Dodds. There was only that Canadian Expeditionary Forces personnel card that stated his mother’s name as Hazel Grand. Who was she, and what happened to Elizabeth (née Ostrander) Dodds?
To solve this mystery, I turned to the paper trail for Spencer Alexander Dodds. Since Spencer was born in Buffalo in 1895, I first sought him in the 1900 U.S. Federal census. He was not there. However, there was exactly one search result for Spencer Dodds in the 1901 census of Canada, living in the village of Lucknow, Bruce County, Ontario (Figure 6).
In this document, Spencer A. Dodds’ date of birth was reported as 27 August 1895, and it was noted that he was born in the U.S. Both of these facts are reasonably consistent with the information found on the military personnel card, which stated that he was born 7 September 1895 in Buffalo. Combined with the fact that there were no individuals named Spencer Dodds who were found to be living in the U.S. in 1900, it is very likely that this is the same Spencer Dodds who was described in that personnel card. The census further identifies Spencer as the son of 28-year-old Jane Dodds, born 21 March 1873 in Ontario. Significantly, Jane was noted to be a widow, and (less significantly) a Presbyterian of Irish extraction. In addition to her son, Spencer, Jane Dodds had a daughter, Della Dodds, born 8 October 1892 in the U.S. Both Della and Spencer were noted to be of Scottish extraction, which must have been a reference to their late father’s heritage.
Jane Dodds and her children were identified as the daughter and grandchildren of head-of-household Christiana Boland, a single, 47-year-old woman who was a Presbyterian of Irish extraction, born 15 July 1853 in Ontario. One suspects that the census-taker may have intended to record her as a widow since it would have been unusual in those days for a single woman to have four children living with her. However, there may have been some communication difficulties between Christiana and the census-taker, since Christiana’s native language was reported to be Gaelic, rather than English. (This fact is noted on the second column from the right in the census record, not shown in Figure 6.) The family group included Christiana’s sons, Alex, David, and Charles, as well as her 45-year-old brother, Michal [sic].
Jane, Hazel, and Elizabeth
From this information, we can infer that Jane and her husband, the putative Alexander Dodds, lived in Buffalo circa 1892–1895 when their children were born; that Alexander passed away some time between 1895 and 1901, and that Jane took her children back to Ontario to live with her family of origin after her husband’s death. However, the names are a problem. If Jane Dodds was the daughter of Christiana Boland, then her maiden name should have been Jane Boland, not Jane Grand. So then, if this theory is correct, how do we go from Jane Boland to Hazel Grand, and what happened to Elizabeth Ostrander?
A search of the 1900 U.S. Federal census produced a likely match for Jane Dodds (Figure 7).
She was living as a boarder in Buffalo, New York, at 145 East Ferry Street, in the household of William and Anna Watson. William Watson was reported to be a 45-year-old Scottish immigrant, born in September 1854, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1883. He was working as an electrician, and had only been married to his wife, Anna, for 2 years. Anna was William’s junior by 10 years, born in New York in May 1865, and the couple had no children. Their boarder was Jennie Dodds, a 28-year-old widow, born in “Canada Eng[lish],” i.e. Ontario, in March 1872—a date which agrees well with Jane Dodds’ date of birth as reported in the 1901 census. Jennie was the mother of 2 children, both of whom were still living, although neither one of them was living with her at the time of the census. This implies that they must have been living with other family members elsewhere, and in light of the 1901 census, it seems probable that these two children were Della and Spencer, already living with their grandmother in Lucknow, Ontario. Jennie reported that she immigrated to the U.S. in 1889. If this date is accurate, and if we assume that she and Alexander were married for about a year before Della’s birth in October 1892, then it suggests that they were married in Buffalo, rather than Ontario. The fact that Jane was already a widow by 1900 narrows down the timeframe for Alexander’s death, so we can now assume that he died between 1895 and 1900.
Dodds in the Death Index
My next step was a search of the Index to Deaths in Buffalo, New York. A search of the volume that covers 1895–1896 produced only one match for Dodd (Lillian H. Dodd) and no matches for Dodds. The volume that covers 1897–1902 was also searched, browsing all the D’s, which covered pages 189–228; pages 197 and 211 were noted to be missing. I was pleasantly surprised to find the death record for Alexander Dodds’ brother, Gilbert M. Dodds, in 1898, since he was previously believed to have died somewhere in Canada. In addition to Gilbert, this volume contained index entries for five additional individuals with the Dodd or Dodds surname: Catherine Dodds and Clara F. Dodd, both of whom died in 1898; Mary Ethel Dodds and Charles V. Dodds, both of whom died in 1900; and—drumroll, please!—Alexander Dodds, who died in 1899.8 I have no idea if, or how, those other Dodds may be more distantly related to me, but the death certificates for Gilbert and Alexander were ordered from the City of Buffalo and I’m waiting with bated breath for their arrival in the mail.
Banishing the Elephant
Although this evidence of Alexander Dodds’ death in 1899 lends further support to my hypothesis about the relationship between S.C. and my family, it does nothing to banish the elephant in the room—the conflicting evidence for the name of Spencer’s mother, Hazel Grand/Jane Boland. Even if we assume that she was a second wife following the death of Elizabeth, it’s imperative that we obtain some sort of resolution to this discrepancy. Since the Canadian Expeditionary Forces personnel card noted that Spencer’s mother, Hazel Grand, was living in the town of Bracebridge in the Muskoka District in 1918, I sought evidence for her there. Lo, and behold! Her death certificate provided the key to this mystery (Figure 8).
The death certificate states that Hazel Jean Grant died in Muskoka Township on 7 December 1936 at the age of 67. She was born in Ontario on 21 March 1869, consistent with prior evidence indicating a date of birth of 21 March 1872 or 1873. She was reported to have been living in the township where the death occurred (Muskoka) for 33 years, which suggests that she moved there circa 1903, two years after her residence in Lucknow in 1901. Her husband was Chas. [Charles] H. Grant. Her father’s name was recorded as “Robt. A. McCarrol,” born in Scotland, and her mother was Christina Borland, born in Canada. The informant was her husband, Charles H. Grant, of Bracebridge, Muskoka.
I just love this death certificate for the instant resolution it brings to the problem. Jane, Jennie and Jean are all versions of the same name,10 and she had an additional given name of Hazel. The surname Grant (i.e. “Grand”) became her surname upon her remarriage after the death of Alexander Dodds. Her mother’s maiden name was Christina Borland, which confirms that this document pertains to the Jennie Dodds described in the 1901 census. Possibly due to that same language barrier, noted previously, Christina gave the census-taker her maiden name and not her married name (McCarrol). Spencer Alexander Dodds’ mother, Hazel Grand, was really Hazel Jean (or perhaps Jane Hazel) McCarrol Dodds Grant.
But Wait, There’s More!
As if this weren’t enough, a search for Jane McCarrol turned up a delightfully informative birth record for Charles Grant, Jr. (Figure 9).
This birth record reveals that Jennie H. McCarrol and Charles H. Grant had a son, Charles Grant, who was born in Bracebridge, Muskoka, on 26 October 1912. There was no house number available, but the family was living on Concession 13, Lots 7–8. The father, Charles H. Grant, was a farmer, and he and Jennie McCarrol were married on 7 January 1902 in Barrie (Simcoe County), Ontario. The birth record states that Jennie had been married previously, to Alexander Dodd [sic], and the birth was reported by the baby’s half-sister, Della Dodd—information which just wraps up the whole problem nicely with a big, shiny bow on top.
Of course, my research is not yet finished. (Is genealogy research ever finished?) There are still questions that need to be answered in order to have a more complete understanding of this family’s history, and there’s even some low-hanging fruit (such as baby Charles Grant’s death certificate) that I’m not going to take the time to harvest via analysis here. A death certificate for Elizabeth (Ostrander) Dodds, a marriage record for Alexander Dodds and Jennie McCarrol, and birth records for Della and Spencer Dodds, will provide further confirmation of the facts in this case, and those items have been added to my research plan. However, the DNA evidence, in combination with a growing body of documentary evidence, makes it clear that Alexander Dodds, son of Robert and Catherine (__) Dodds of St. Catherines and Elgin County, Ontario, is undoubtedly the same Alexander Dodds who married Jane/Jennie/Jean McCarrol and became the father of Della Dodds and Spencer Alexander Dodds before his death in Buffalo in 1899.
1 “Canada, World War I CEF Personnel Files, 1914-1918,” database, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 28 April 2021), 12 M.D., 1st Depot Battalion, Saskatchewan Regiment, Regimental no. 3355666, Spencer Alexander Dodds, digital images, images 2157-2176 of 2726, citing Library and Archives Canada; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; CEF Personnel Files; RG 150, Volume: Box 2558 – 44, Box 2558 (Dodds, Harry – Dods, Thomas Edward).
2 Census of Canada, 1861, population schedule, Canada West, Lincoln, Grantham, E.D. 4, p 80, lines 1–9, Robert Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), Item no. 1884852, citing Microfilm C-1048-1049.
3 Census of Canada, 1871, population schedule, Ontario, East Elgin, Yarmouth, David Parish, division no. 2, p 73, lines 2–8, Robert Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), item no. 454129, citing Microfilm:C-9898, Reference:RG31.
4 “Ontario Marriages, 1869-1927,”, database and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : 28 April 2021), Abraham Dodds and Elizabeth Ostrander, 28 December 1871, citing Marriages – registrations, 1869-1927; original index, 1869-1876; index, 1873-1927; and delayed registrations, 1892-1919, Vol. 15, Parry Sound District, Ontario, Perth, Bruce, Elgin, Grey, and Huron counties, p 265, image 270 of 399.
5 Census of Canada, 1881, population schedule, Ontario, Lincoln District no. 145, St. Catharines Sub-district A, Division no. 1, p 21, lines 6–7, Alexander Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), item no. 3788256, citing Microfilm:C-13254, Reference:RG31.
6 1901 Census of Canada, population schedule, Ontario, Bruce West District no. 50, Lucknow Sub-district F, Division no. 1, p 9, lines 12–19, Christiana Boland household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), Item no. 2026868, citing Microfilm: T-6462, Reference: RG31.
7 1900 United States Federal Census, Erie County, New York, population schedule, Buffalo Ward 17, E.D. 129, Sheet no. 1B, house no. 145., family no. 23, Jennie Dodds in William Watson household; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 28 April 2021), citing NARA digital publication T623, roll 1029.
8 “Buffalo, Erie, New York, Death Index, 1897-1902,” p. 206, Gilbert M. Dodds, Vol. 21, no. 71, 1898, and Alexander Dodds, Vol. 34, no. 258, 1899; digital images, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/ : 28 April 2021), image 225 of 1140, citing Index to Deaths in Buffalo, New York, 1852-1944, City Clerk’s Office, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.
9 “Ontario Deaths, 1869-1937 and Overseas Deaths, 1939-1947,” database and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ : 28 April 2021), Hazel Jean Grant, 7 December 1936, Muskoka, Ontario, certificate no. 025223; FHL film no. 2426606/DGS no. 4530550, image 1105 of 1796.
11 “Ontario Births, 1869-1912,” database, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 28 April 2021), Charles Grant, 26 October 1912, certificate no. 032677; digital images, FHL film no. 2434985/DGS no 4530279, Births, stillbirths, and delayed registration with indexes > Births, no. 31030-38905 (v. 14-17) 1912 > 358 of 1626.
Every so often, I get feedback from readers of this blog. Sometimes people have general comments about the blog, or they’re interested in recommendations for onsite researchers in Poland. At other times, people have very specific research questions, or questions about methodology or resources. Recently, I received such a query from researcher Mike Cooper, who gave me permission to mention our discussion in this article. Mike wrote,
“So I feel like I tend to be more of a brute force style where I sort of randomly search until I find something. I know there has to be a better way.
I know part of my family is from Lednogora which is outside of Gniezno. I tried searching by place with that village name in FamilySearch and it’s not there. I sort of looked under Wielkopolskie on Geneteka and don’t see it. I’m guessing that the church was in a city close by. I feel like I’m struggling to connect the Places in Poznan Project with the Provinces/Locations in Geneteka or with Places in FamilySearch…. Do any of your past blogs help unravel this mystery of how to more effectively use these tools? I’ve read a bunch but still seem stuck.”
Mike is correct in thinking that there’s a better way to find records besides “brute force searching,” or guessing at the parish which served a particular village. The key is gazetteers, which I think are the most underutilized resource out there among North American researchers who are trying to trace their Polish ancestry. Gazetteers play an important role in the process of locating records from Poland for one’s family, a process which involves three steps:
Use U.S. records to gather evidence for the name and location of your ancestral village.
Use one or more gazetteers to identify the parish and/or registry office that served that village. This part is key, because records were not created in each individual village, they were created at higher administrative levels, e.g. parish, powiat (county), or province.
Identify the repositories for those records. Vital records from parishes or registry offices are typically found in four places:
the parish archives
the local registry office
the diocesan archive
the regional state archive.
The first step of this three-step process is described in more detail here, so today I’d like to use Mike’s question as a opportunity to examine Step Two more closely.
Choosing a Gazetteer
There are essentially two types of gazetteers for Polish genealogy: phonetic gazetteers, and period gazetteers. Phonetic gazetteers are those which offer some leeway in terms of spelling, and are useful when attempting to identify a place whose name was more or less mangled in the source document. How do you know if the place name was mangled or not? The Google Test will usually tell you that: do an internet search on the place name as it’s spelled in the source document, and see what turns up. If places with that name exist, then you know it’s a valid spelling. If nothing shows up, then a phonetic gazetteer can help you make educated guesses about what the place name should be.
There are two phonetic gazetteers that I use regularly, the JewishGen Gazetteer and the Baza Miejscowości Kresowych [Database of Towns in the Kresy]. The latter is useful if you suspect that your village was located in the Kresy Wschodnie—the eastern part of the Second Polish Republic (interwar Poland), which was excluded from the borders of Poland after World War II and became part of Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania. (For a brief overview of Polish border changes, see here.) The JewishGen Gazetteer is more generally useful, since it includes locations throughout Central Europe. Both gazetteers will allow you to input a misspelled place name, and will return possible phonetic matches, based on various Soundex options.
Period gazetteers were published in a particular time period, and are useful for determining the administrative assignments of a particular location during that time. Administrative assignments include the gubernia [governorate or province), powiat or kreis (county), smaller administrative divisions such as gmina or gemeinde (an administrative level similar to a township, consisting of a number of small villages), as well as local parishes or religious communities, all of which are important to know because the source documents we need for genealogical research were created at these various administrative levels. Some examples of period gazetteers are the Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i i innych krajów słowiańskich[Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries], which was published between 1880–1902; the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego, Volumes I and II, an index of places in the Kingdom of Poland (i.e. Russian Poland), published in 1877; the Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs, which is useful for Polish places that were previously located in Germany; and the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, [Index of Towns in the Republic of Poland] which was published circa 1933. In addition to these, there are some gazetteer databases such as Kartenmeister (for Eastprussia, Westprussia, Brandenburg, Posen, Pomerania, and Silesia) and the Gesher Galicia Town Locator, that contain information extracted from historical sources, but which don’t link directly to the original source material for each entry.
You’ll probably find that some gazetteers are easier to use than others, especially if your foreign-language skills are limited. Many of the search engines for the period gazetteers online will require you to know the exact spelling of the place name, including diacritics. It’s also important to realize that no gazetteer is perfect. Errors exist in (probably) all of them, so you may want to use more than one gazetteer to cross-check the information you find, perhaps in conjunction with a good internet search. (When searching the internet, try Wikipedia.pl for information, as you’re more likely to find articles about small Polish villages written in Polish, rather than English. Despite these caveats, gazetteers are an ideal starting point for locating information about a place. A more complete list of useful gazetteers, with a brief explanation of each, can be found here.
Using a Gazetteer
Now let’s see how we can use gazetteers to help Mike determine where records would have been kept for villagers living in “Lednogora.” In this case, his place name passes the Google Test, as there is a place in Poland today called Lednogóra. This means that we don’t need to utilize a phonetic gazetteer, so we can move on to identifying the correct parish and registry office for this location. Since Lednogóra was in the Prussian partition, the first gazetteer I’d consult would be Kartenmeister. Searching for “Lednogora” (diacritics not required) in the “Polish City Name/Ortsname” category produces a number of matches, but drilling down in the results reveals that all of these are alternate names or spellings for the same place, which was previously known as Lettberg (Figure 1).
Mike mentioned that his ancestors from Lednogóra were Catholic, and this fact is also very important. Civil registration began in Prussia in 1874, but prior to that, church records were recognized as legal documents. As good genealogists, we want to leave no stone unturned, so our initial research plan should include examination of both the Catholic church records and the civil records. Kartenmeisterinforms us that circa 1905, there were two parishes to which parts of this village were assigned, Dziekanowitze, which is presently known as Dziekanowice, and Wenglewo, which is Węglewo. This situation of having two parish assignments is somewhat unusual, but not unheard of, and it may be that further research into the history of the village reveals some explanation. The entry also notes that the civil registry office was located in Libau/Łubowo. Therefore, Łubowo, Węglewo, and Dziekanowice, not Lednogóra, are the places that one would seek in Geneteka, BaSIA, the Poznań Project, etc.
The Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs
You could also check the Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs [Meyer’s Gazetteer and Directory of the German Empire] rather than Kartenmeister, in order to identify the parish. A search for “Lednogora” produces a brief entry that directs one to the entry for Lettberg. but it should be noted that this trick does not always work, as this gazetteer typically requires one to search according to the German place names. There are a few different websites that can help with determining former German names of places in Poland today, including this index by Anna Sluszkiewicz, this list, and this additional list, for places in East Prussia, and it might be worthwhile to bookmark them. However, none of these lists are complete, and in this case, none of them are especially helpful since they don’t include Lednogóra. This is where Kartenmeister really shines, since it permits searching according to either the Polish or German place name, depending on what you find in your source documents. The Meyers search results are shown in Figure 2.
The Meyers gazetteer offers two especially nice features which can be accessed from the menu bar at the top, and are circled in red in this image. The first is the Maps feature, which pinpoints the location on an old historical map (Figure 3). As an added bonus, you can use the “Toggle Historical Map” feature to vary the transparency between the historical map and the modern map. Better still, there’s an option to select administrative jurisdictions, surrounding Standesämter (civil registry offices), Catholic parishes, Protestant parishes, and Jewish synagogues, and any or all of those will be pinpointed on the map for you.
Figure 3: Historical map from the Meyers gazetteer showing Lettburg/Lednogóra and the location of local Catholic parishes (yellow pins marked with “C”) and registry offices (red pin marked with “R”).
Similarly, the “Ecclesiastical” tab will display a list of parishes in tabular form, indicating approximate distance in miles from each parish to the target location (Figure 4). Common sense would suggest that the closest parish was always the one to which a village was assigned, but there are exceptions to every rule, including this present example.
Figure 4: Ecclesiastical assignments for the village of Lettberg/Lednogóra from the Meyers gazetteer.
The Meyers site will often include information about the parish assignment for a village as it’s suggested by the catalog entries in FamilySearch. However, some errors may exist, as in this case, since the Meyers entry correctly states that the Catholic parish for Lednogóra was Wenglewo/Węglewo, but omits the fact that this village was assigned in part to Dziekanowitze/Dziekanowice as well, as evidenced by the “Notes” in the FamilySearch catalog entry for Dziekanowice. (This oversight in the Meyers gazetteer website was probably caused by the historical use of two spellings for the village name, Lednagóra and Lednogóra.)
The Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego
The granddaddy of all Polish gazetteers is the Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich [Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries], published between 1880–1902. The Słownik geograficzny is renowned for its incredible size—15 volumes— and the wealth of historical information it provides for many of the entries. The entire publication is now searchable online, and you must use Polish spellings with diacritics when you search. In this case, the entry for Lednogóra refers you to the entry for Lednagóra, which suggests that this latter spelling may have been more prevalent in the late 19th century, although the former spelling is the one used today.
Unfortunately, the Słownik may be a bit off-putting for researchers not fluent in Polish, as the entries are filled with abbreviations as well as archaic terms for land measurement, social status, legal arrangements (e.g. krowa żelazna) and more. Fear not, however, because resources are available to assist. The Polish Genealogical Society of America offers a dictionary of unfamiliar terms encountered in the SGKP, a list of commonly-used abbreviations, some translated entries, and more. Similar resources are offered at the Polish Roots website, including a different set of translated entries, located in the drop-down menu under “Geography and Maps.” Armed with these tools, you’ll be able to discover that “krowa żelazna” was an arrangement in which a cow was fed and kept by its owner, while its milk was donated to another designated party. Who knew?
Despite the relatively lengthy entry for Lednagóra provided by the Słownik geograficzny, there is no mention of the reason why the village was divided between two Catholic parishes, nor, in fact, is there any reference to the parish for the village at all. This underscores the importance of checking multiple gazetteers in the course of one’s research: sometimes you just might strike out with the first one you check, but that’s no reason to give up. A more typical entry from the Słownik which indicates the parish is shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5: Entry from the Słownik geograficzny for the village of Kuznocin, which describes two unique places called Kuznocin. The first was located in powiat sochaczewski (Sochaczew County), gmina Kozłów Biskupi, and belonged to the parish in Sochaczew, and the second was in powiat piotrkowski (Piotrków County), gmina Bogusławice, and belonged to the parish in Wolbórz.
The Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej
One final gazetteer I want to mention today is the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej z oznaczeniem terytorjalnie im właściwych władz i urzędów oraz urządzeń komunikacyjnych (Index of place names of the Republic of Poland with corresponding governmental agencies and offices, including communication facilities), published circa 1933. This gazetteer is especially useful for identifying places that were located in the Kresy Wschodnie, but are presently located in Belarus, Lithuania, or Ukraine. However, it is also obviously useful for obtaining information about places located anywhere within the borders of Poland between the World Wars, as in this example with Lednogóra (Figure 6).
Figure 6: Entries from the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej for Lednogóra.
One advantage of this gazetteer is its ease of use, thanks to the simple columnar format. The handful of abbreviations which it employs are defined on page 24 of the digital version, within the introduction. From this, we can tell that the “st. kol.” in the top entry for Lednogóra refers to the stacja kolejowa (train station) which was located in Lednogóra, as opposed to the wieś (village) of Lednogóra itself. As one might expect, both the train station and the village of Lednogóra were noted to be located in gmina Lednogóra, the powiat (county) of Gniezno, and the województwo (voivodeship or province) of Poznań. Besides the parish information provided in the last column, these first three columns are the most useful from a genealogical perspective, since it was not uncommon for our immigrant ancestors to reference a larger administrative division (e.g. Gniezno or Poznań) in response to the question, “Where were you born?” In this particular gazetteer, the only Roman Catholic parish (denoted with r) indicated for villagers of Lednogóra is Dziekanowice, suggesting that the village was no longer divided between the parishes of Dziekanowice and Węglewo by 1933. There was a Lutheran parish (denoted with e for ewangielicka) located within the village of Lednogóra itself, which corroborates information found in Kartenmeister and Meyers.
Hopefully this example has illustrated how gazetteers take the guesswork out of finding vital records for your Polish ancestors. With so many great gazetteers readily available online, there’s no need to wonder which local parish might hold the records for your ancestral village, nor will you be puzzled as to why an immigrant from Lednogóra might have said he was from Gniezno or Poznań on various documents. Although this is by no means a complete discussion of every gazetteer that might be useful to Polish research, nor even of every gazetteer that’s useful to those researching Prussian Poles, I hope it’s enough to convince you to add some gazetteers to your genealogical toolbox and use them regularly. In my next post, I’ll walk through Step 3 of the process of finding vital records for one’s Polish ancestors: identifying repositories for records from the parish and registry office which served one’s ancestral village.
My mother and her music have always been with me. As a very small child, one of my favorite things to do was “rock-a-mama.” The term itself was an evolution of the phrase, “Rock with Mama,” which Mom would say to me as an invitation to climb up into her lap in the rocking chair. She would snuggle me in her arms and rock with me and sing to me, and all would become right with the world. I remember being five or six years old, far too big to comfortably fit on her lap anymore, yet squeezing myself in there and somehow making it work, because “rock-a-mama” still felt like the thing to do when I was sad or hurt or tired.
I remember my maternal grandparents singing to me and rocking me as well. One of my earliest memories was of a night spent sitting in the dark in the living room at my grandparents’ house on Fredericka Street in North Tonawanda, rocking first with Grandma, and then with Grandpa, as they sat in two rocking chairs, side by side. I remember looking out over their shoulders at the street lights outside, feeling safe and warm and loved as we rocked together.
The songs they sang were a vehicle for transmitting family culture from one generation to the next. They told the story of who we were, where we came from, and what we valued. Grandma always said she couldn’t sing, so she didn’t sing to me as often as Mom did. But I remember Grandma singing “Immaculate Mary” in both English and Polish, and “You Are My Sunshine,” as well as Elvis Presley’s “For the Heart,” with the words, “Treat me nice, treat me good, treat me like you really should. ‘Cause I’m not made of wood, and I don’t have a wooden heart,” which seemed to be an early lesson in interpersonal relations. My mother had a lovely alto voice, and her repertoire was considerably more varied. Some favorites stood out, though: “Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogan by the Sea,” “Tammy,” “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo Ral,” “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Mockingbird Hill,” and Doris Day’s, “Till We Meet Again.” Interspersed with these were Catholic hymns, including Marian favorites like, “Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly,” “Salve Regina,” and “Bring Flowers of the Fairest,” as well as the occasional Polish folk song like, “Góralu, czy ci nie żal,” which tells the story of a Polish highlander who must leave his beloved homeland in order to earn his living.
Even beyond rock-a-mama, Mom filled my childhood with song. On rainy days, she’d sing, “Pitter Patter on the Windowpane,” and when I was scared of a thunderstorm, she’d sing, “Who’s Afraid of Thunder?” If Mom had to drive in heavy city traffic, or if she got lost, she’d sing, “Blessed be God Forever.” That song, with its refrain, “Whenever we’re together, in warm or stormy weather, oh we can’t go wrong if we sing our song; Blessed be God forever!” was her way of whistling in the dark.
Mom would also playfully adapt songs for other purposes. When it was time for bed, she used to have us “march” to our bedrooms while singing “Marsz, marsz, Dąbrowski, Z ziemi włoskiej do Polski. Za twoim przewodem Złączym się z narodem.” It was decades before I realized that these were the words to the Polish national anthem, and not just a bedtime song. She rewrote “Bringing in the Sheaves” in a similar fashion, changing, “Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we will go rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,” to “Marching along, marching along! Mommy, Anne Shell and Julie, marching along.”
When I was about 6 years old, living in Cincinnati, my parents decided that piano lessons were a priority for us girls. Money was a little tight, and there were certainly other things that they could have spent money on, such as a formal dining table and chairs to fill the big empty space that was our formal dining room. Nonetheless, they bought a beautiful cherry upright piano so my sister and I could each start lessons. Mom would also play sometimes in the evenings, having kept all her old piano books from when she herself was a girl taking lessons. I wasn’t an especially enthusiastic piano student, but Mom was always encouraging. There was one Easter morning when I went to search the house for my basket full of chocolate treats, and discovered that “the Easter Bunny” had hidden it inside a rather obvious “house of cards” made from piano lesson books. Mom observed that the Easter Bunny must be trying to tell me that I should practice more.
When I was about nine, Mom decided that I should learn to sing harmony. She was very fond of the “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” and had a piano arrangement that included vocal harmonies, which she tried to teach me. I remember being very frustrated because the line of harmony didn’t sound right to me, accustomed as I was to always singing melody. Then one day it finally clicked, and I learned to hear the harmonies in my head. As a teenager, I would sing with my mother and sister, returning to our old repertoire of rock-a-mama songs, Broadway show tunes, and music from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, adding in harmonies as we sat and rocked on the porch swing in front of the rose trellis on summer evenings.
Music had a place in times of distress as well as in those happier times. Our last December in Cincinnati, in 1978, was a hectic one. Dad’s work required him to relocate, so he had put in a request for the Buffalo, New York office, which was approved. He had to be in the new office in January, so we were in the middle of selling our house and packing, amid Christmas preparations, and I was also in the hospital for several days before Christmas, following minor surgery on my arm. The night after the surgery, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sleep. Mom stayed by my bed in the hospital all night long, singing the Advent carol, “O Come, Divine Messiah” over and over again.
In her late 30s, Mom developed a progressive, debilitating, metabolic bone disorder for which the doctors could never seem to find an entirely adequate diagnosis, despite consultations with the best medical minds at the Mayo Clinic, Toronto General, Washington University Hospital in St. Louis, and more recently, at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Despite her chronic pain and the frustration of disability, music could still brighten Mom’s day. She loved to listen when my sister and I would play the piano or sing, and when I started dating Bruce (whom I eventually married), she would encourage him to bring his guitar whenever he came over for dinner.
Mom’s music was there as I married and raised my own family. The cherished tradition of rock-a-mama was shared with a new generation, and “O Come, Divine Messiah” became my go-to song through all their ear infections, teething pains, bouts of croup, and other childhood ailments, whether it was Advent or not. Mom loved being a Grandma, and made it a priority to be part of her grandchildren’s lives despite the many miles which separated our family. She was always happy to celebrate each grandchild’s unique talents, interests, and achievements, often through little songs of congratulations which she would sing to them over the phone.
In more recent years, after surgeries in 2016, 2017, and 2019, I found myself singing by Mom’s bedside in the hospital, just as she had done for me so many years ago. Over the past year, when I was with her almost daily, Mom would often ask me to bring her printed copies of the lyrics to songs that were stuck in her head. Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” was one of those songs, and on many occasions, she would ask me to sing that with her. I will also cherish the memory of the evening that Bruce and I spent with her and Dad a couple weeks before she passed, when we played a YouTube game in which they had to guess the theme songs from TV shows of the 50s and 60s. The game brought back so many memories for them both, and although Mom generally hated computers and modern technology, she loved the fact that theme songs from her favorite shows like Petticoat Junction, Maverick, and Sugarfoot could be played again on YouTube.
In her final illness, when Mom was home on hospice, there was music as well. Interspersed with stories and tears and rosaries and parting words, two generations sang her those “rock-a-mama” songs that she once sang to us. We sang those songs that brought her comfort: “On Eagle’s Wings,” “I Am the Bread of Life,” and, “Be Not Afraid.” And we sang, “O Come, Divine Messiah.”
My darling mother has gone home to be with our Lord, but I am so blessed to have had her as my Mom. She taught me by example what it means to be a daughter, wife, mother, and friend. She was my teacher, cheerleader, confidante, and ally. She knew the song in my heart, and sang it back to me whenever I forgot how it goes. For Mom, our Divine Messiah has finally come, and that day has arrived “when hope shall sing its triumph, and sadness flee away.” Until we meet again, rest in peace, Mama.
It’s probably happened to all of us: you get an email from a DNA match, and your curiosity is piqued to figure out the match. Some may think of this kind of research as pursuit of a BSO (Bright Shiny Object); others may think of it as a serendipitous research prompt. Today, I’m thinking it’s the latter, because it was thanks to this kind of spontaneous, drop-everything-and-go-down-the-rabbit-hole research, that I broke through a brick wall and discovered a new generation of names in my husband’s ancestry.
The Party of the First Part
It all started when Karen Benson (whose name I’m using with her permission) wrote to me regarding DNA matches on Ancestry between her family and my family. Specifically, both Karen and her brother were matches to my husband (Bruce), and two of our sons, and she was hoping I might be interested in collaborating to determine precisely how our two families are related. Since Bruce’s family is of entirely Polish ethnicity, she suspected that the connection was through one of her Polish grandparents, Franciszek/Frank Kondzik or Antonina “Anna” (née Kocot) Kondzik, rather than through the Slovak side of her family.
Karen had obtained good evidence that both Frank and Antonina were from the same part of Poland; namely, the area around the town of Różan. To briefly summarize, Frank’s naturalization petition stated that he was born in “Rozan, Poland” circa 9 July 1883 (Figure 1), and on his World War II draft registration card, his birth was reported as 8 June 1883 in “Roziun, Poland” (Figure 2).
Figure 1: Extract from naturalization petition for Frank Kondzik with date and place of birth boxed in red.1
Figure 2: Extract from Frank Kondzik’s World War II draft card with place and date of birth boxed in red.2
Those birth dates are reported to a degree of precision that was typical for Polish immigrants of this era, so it’s okay that they don’t match exactly. There’s only one place within the borders of Poland today called Różan (and no places called Rozuin), so the evidence is consistent so far, and we’re off to a good start. Although vital records from Różan are indexed in Geneteka, coverage doesn’t begin until 1897, so it’s not possible to find Franciszek’s birth record to confirm the location. However, this surname does exist in this parish, as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Search result from Geneteka for birth records from Różan parish with surname Kondzik. “Inne nazwiska Kondzik” means that the father of the person whose birth record was indexed, Franciszka Kłendzik, was noted to go by an alternate surname, Kondzik, in addition to Kłendzik.
Unfortunately, a search of PRADZIAD (the vital records database of the Polish state archives), accessed through Szukajwarchiwach, indicates that no Roman Catholic civil birth records for Różan prior to 1897 are in the holdings of the Polish state archives. It may be that these early records are available onsite at the parish, or in the diocesan archive in Łomża, but for now, we’re at a standstill.
Although Frank’s naturalization declaration stated only that his wife’s name was Anna and that she was born in Poland, Karen had other evidence to help us locate Anna’s family in Polish records. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) for Anna Kondzik provided her date of birth as 21 November 1890 and her date of death as 4 June 1992 (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Entry from SSDI for Anna Kondzik.3
Her grave marker confirmed that this same “Anna” Kondzik was originally Antonina (Figure 5), and her entry in the Social Security Applications and Claims index provided her parents’ names as “Vincent Kocot” and “Rosalie Kacmarchek” (Figure 6).
Figure 5: Antonina Kondzik in Ancestry‘s Find-a-Grave index.4
Figure 6: Anna Kondzik in the Social Security Applications and Claims Index.5
Anna’s parents’ given names are translated, while her mother’s maiden name is transliterated, so we can expect that their names in Polish records will be Wincenty Kocot and something along the lines of Rozalia Kaczmarczak.
Anna/Antonina’s passenger manifest is the final clue needed to locate her family in Polish records. According to the manifest, 20-year-old Antonina Koczot [sic] was a Polish immigrant from Russia. (If you’re puzzled as to why a Pole might be living in Russia in this era, this might help.) She departed from the port of Hamburg in 1913, leaving behind her father, “Vincenti Kocot” in their home village of “Dusababa,” transcribed by Ancestry as Busababa (Figure 7). There’s no place in Poland today or within Polish borders historically that was called Dusababa or Busababa, but the village of Dyszobaba is a good fit, phonetically—and as a bonus, it’s located just north of the town of Różan, where Anna’s husband Frank was born (Figure 8).
Figure 8: Map courtesy of Google Maps, showing relative locations of Dyszobaba and Różan, presently located in the Mazowieckie province of Poland.
The Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich[Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Lands] informs us that the village of Dyszobaba belonged to the Roman Catholic parish in Sieluń, which appears north of Dyszobaba on the map in Figure 8, so we’ll need to start with parish records from Sieluń in order to find records of Antonina’s family.7
Birth records from Sieluń circa 1890 when Antonina Kocot was born are not indexed in Geneteka. Nonetheless, a quick search in the database reveals a number of marriage records for children of Wincenty Kocot and Rozalia Kaczmarczyk (Figure 9).
Figure 9: Results of a search in Geneteka for marriage records from Sieluń with parents’ names Kocot and Kacz*, searching as a pair.
The Party of the Second Part
Now that we’ve got a good handle on the region in Poland where both of Karen’s Polish grandparents were from, the question remains as to how they might be connected to Bruce’s family. Since this part of Poland was under Russian control throughout most of the 19th century, my first thought was that the connection must lie within one of Bruce’s family lines which also originated in Russian Poland. The majority of his immigrant Polish ancestors were from Prussian Poland, leaving only three immigrants from the Russian partition for us to consider: Michał Szczepankiewicz, Stanisław Skolimowski, and Helena Majczyk. Michał’s family was from Kleczew and other parishes in what is now Konin County, Wielkopolska—not especially close to the Różan area. Helena Majczyk was born in Rostowa, a village belonging to the parish in Gradzanowo Kościelne, and Stanisław Skolimowski was born in Garlino-Komunino, a village belonging to the parish in Grudusk. These places are shown on the map in Figure 10.
Figure 10: Map courtesy of Google Maps, showing locations of Bruce’s ancestral parishes relative to Karen’s.
Since Grudusk is a little less than 40 miles from Sieluń, I thought perhaps the Skolimowski family was the key. However, as I wrote recently, the deeper roots of Stanisław Skolimowski’s father, Tadeusz, lay in Boleszyn, a village located in Prussian Poland, rather than in the Grudusk area. Maybe then the match was through Stanley Skolimowski’s mother, Marianna Kessling? Could be, but what about those Majczyk lines? It occurred to me that, if the shared DNA came from the Majczyk side, I’d never know, because my research into Bruce’s Majczyk ancestors was fairly shallow. I’d only gotten as far as the marriage record for his great-great-grandparents, Stanisław Majczyk and Aniela Nowicka, who were the parents of his immigrant great-grandmother, Helena (née Majczyk) Skolimowska, when I hit a snag. The marriage record is shown in Figure 11.
Figure 11: Marriage record from the parish of Gradzanowo Kościelne for Stanisław Majczyk and Aniela Nowicka, 17 September 1888.8
The record is in Russian, and states in translation,
“Rostowa and Bojanowo. It happened in the village of Gradzanowo on the fifth/seventeenth day of September in the year one thousand eight hundred eighty eight at seven o’clock in the afternoon. We declare that—in the presence of witnesses, Jan Woźniak, homeowner [хозяин], age forty-four years, of the village of Bojanowo, and Paweł Krogulski, homeowner, age forty-five years, of the village of Gradzanowo Kościelne—on this day a religious marriage was performed between Stanisław Majczyk, bachelor, reserve soldier, twenty-seven years of age, born in the village of Bronisze and residing in the village of Rostowa as a homeowner; son of Józef and the late Katarina née Smiadzinska, the spouses Majczyk; and Aniela Nowicka, single, nineteen years of age, born in the village of Bojanowo and residing there with her parents, homeowners; daughter of Antoni and his wife Jadwiga, née Krogulska, the spouses Nowicki. This marriage was preceded by three announcements before the assembled people on Sundays here in the parish on the seventh/nineteenth [and] fourteenth/twenty-sixth days of August, and the twenty-first day of August/ second day of September of the current year. The newlyweds stated that they contracted a prenuptial agreement with the notary of the town of Sierpc, Domagalski, on the twenty-second day of August/third day of September of the current year, [document] number six hundred sixty-fourth. Permission of the father of the bride, present in person at the marriage ceremony, was given orally. The religious ceremony of marriage was performed by Us. This document was read to the illiterate newlyweds and witnesses and was signed by Us only. [signed] Civil Registrar, Administrator of Gradzanowo Parish, Fr. Julian Kaczyński.”
The part underlined in red states, “урожденномъ въ деревни Бронишъ,” and a bit further down, his mother’s maiden name is written as “Смядзинской.” We’ll revisit that maiden name later, but the first bit translates as “born in the village of Bronisz.” That’s all we get, “born in the village of Bronisz,” before the priest continues by telling us where Stanisław was residing at the time of his marriage, and who his parents were. Normally when the bride or groom was born in a village that was in a different parish from the one in which the marriage was being conducted, the priest would note the parish that the birthplace was in. Similarly, if the birthplace was in a different partition (e.g. Kingdom of Prussia or Kingdom of Austria) that would also be noted. No such clues were provided in this record, however, so we’re left to fend for ourselves when it comes to figuring out where Stanisław Majczyk was born.
Since there’s no place in Poland called Bronisz, it’s probable that the village of Bronisze was meant. The Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego, a gazetteer of places in Russian Poland published in 1877, informs us that there were two such places in Russian Poland (Figure 12).
Figure 12: Extract from the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego showing entries for Bronisze.9 Column headings are place name, gubernia (province), powiat (county), gmina (administrative level comparable to a township), and parish.
The two candidates for the parish in which Stanisław Majczyk’s baptismal record might be found are Żbików and Karniewo, and neither one is especially close to Gradzanowo. Could I have mistranslated the place name? Figuring that a second pair of eyes couldn’t hurt, I ran my translation of the place name past a Polish genealogy colleague, and he read it as Bronisze as well.
I set off to find a birth record for Stanisław Majczyk circa 1861 in records from one of these parishes. I first discovered that marriage record back in August 2014, and at that time, according to my research notes, Karniewo records were online at Metryki GenBaza, but only for a very limited range of years (1884; 1890-1912). Zbików, however, had records online from 1808-1912. I checked birth records from Zbików between 1857–1864 for a baptismal record for Stanisław Majczyk, to no avail. Not only was there no record of Stanisław’s birth, the Majczyk surname did not even appear in the parish records. There were some Maciaks and Marczaks in the parish, but no Majczyks. I took this to mean that he was probably born in Karniewo, and I commented in my research notes that records for Karniewo from 1775-1890 were at the diocesan archive in Płock, along with some earlier records from the 1600s. I wrote to that archive back in September 2014 and never received a reply. (Presently, those records from the diocesan archive in Płock are digitized and available at FamilySearch.) In the meantime, I busied myself with other research, and pretty much forgot about poor Stanisław Majczyk—until Karen wrote to me about that DNA match.
Geneteka to the Rescue, Again!
As I pondered the match, I realized that six years is a long time in the world of internet genealogy, and there are many more scans and indexed records online now, than there were back in 2014, when I first discovered Stanisław Majczyk’s marriage record and hit the snag with Bronisze. Birth records for Żbików are now indexed in Geneteka from 1808–1914, with just a few gaps, and a quick search confirmed my earlier findings: no Majczyks in general, and no Stanisław in particular. That left Karniewo, which also happens to be in Maków County—the same county in which Różan and Dyszobaba are located! That seemed to be a promising sign that things were moving in the right direction toward figuring out this DNA match. Karniewo is also indexed now, with an uninterrupted chunk of birth records from 1843–1875, so I eagerly repeated the search for Stanisław in that parish and found…nada. What the heck? I opened up the search to all indexed parishes in the Mazowieckie province and searched for Stanisław Majczyk, born between 1857–1866…and there it was, in all its glory, the birth record for my husband’s great-great-grandfather! (Figure 13)
Figure 13: Search result from Geneteka for a birth record for Stanisław Majczyk, born in any indexed parish in Mazowieckie province between 1857–1866.
Quite honestly, this one would have been tough to find using old-school methodology, but the index entry states that he was born in 1860, father’s name Józef, and mother’s name Katarzyna, as expected. The mother’s maiden name, Radzińska, is in the same phonetic ballpark as Smiadzinska, if we assume that Fr. Julian Kaczyński was a little hard of hearing. The hypothesis that Fr. Kaczyński was either hard of hearing, or a bit careless, or perhaps tired and overworked, is supported by the fact that Stanisław was actually born in Bromierz, not Bronisze. And apparently this problem plagued the parish priest in Rogotwórsk, as well, because another search for additional children born to Józef and Katarzyna, no maiden name specified, produced yet another variation of her maiden name (Figure 14).
Figure 14: Search result from Geneteka for children of Józef and Katarzyna Majczyk baptized in Rogotwórsk parish.
Birth records for two of Stanisław’s siblings, Jan Majczyk and Marianna Majczyk, report their mother’s maiden name as Śledzieńska, rather than Radzińska, which is somewhat closer to the “Smiadzinska” version recorded on the marriage record. The best part is that when we click over to the “Marriages” tab, Józef and Katarzyna’s own marriage record has been indexed, which provides the names of their parents—another generation back in the family tree! (Figure 15)
Figure 15: Search results in Geneteka for marriage records mentioning Józef Majczyk and Katarzyna in Rogotwórsk parish.
Coming Full Circle
I’ll have a lot of fun researching all these new Majczyks in a brand-new parish in the coming days and weeks, but there’s a bit of irony here. None of these new Majczyk discoveries are likely to help me determine how Bruce and his DNA match, Karen, are related. Although I initially approached the DNA match from the angle of historical records, reasoning that the match was most likely through Bruce’s Russian-partition ancestors since Karen’s immigrant Polish ancestors were from the Różan area in Russian Poland, there was a very basic step I should have taken first. Both of Bruce’s parents have contributed DNA samples for autosomal testing, so what I should have done was first checked to see which of his parents was also a match to Karen and her brother. When I went back and did that, after my heady, rapid progress on the Majczyk line, I realized that Karen and her brother are a match to my mother-in-law, not my father-in-law.
None of my mother-in-law’s immigrant ancestors came from the Russian partition, at least as far back as I’ve managed to research each line. They were all from Prussian Poland. The joke’s on me, I guess! Shared matches suggest that the match is through Bruce’s maternal Bartoszewicz line, which is another line I’ve been neglecting to research due to time constraints. However, preliminary research in U.S. records point to origins in the vicinity of Toruń, some 225 km/140 miles from Karen’s ancestral area of Różan, so this match will definitely take some time and research to figure out.
Even though progress toward understanding the DNA match has currently left me with more questions than answers, I’d say this was a worthwhile rabbit hole to go down, after all. It led to the parish of Rogotwórsk, Stanisław Majczyk’s birth record, and abundant new discoveries to further my understanding of Bruce’s Majczyk ancestry. I’ll take it!
1 Frank Kondzik, declaration of intention for naturalization no. 125740 (10 September 1928); imaged in “Pennsylvania, Federal Naturalization Records, 1795–1931,” database and images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 July 2020), citing Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685–2009; National Archives at Philadelphia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Record Group 21, no specific roll cited.
2 “U.S., World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942,” digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 July 2020), Frank G. (only) Kondzik, serial no. U-2382, no order no., Draft Board 23, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; citing World War II Draft Cards (Fourth Registration) for the State of Pennsylvania, State Headquarters ca. 1942, NARA microfilm publication M1951; no specific roll cited.
3 “U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935–2014,” database, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 July 2020), entry for Anna Kondzik, 1992, SS no. 161-50-9266; citing “U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing).”
4 “U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s–current,” database, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 July 2020), entry for Antonina Kondzik (1890–1992), citing memorial page 62609270, originally created by Margaret Janco; citing Saint Mary’s Cemetery, Lower Burrell, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, USA; maintained by Karen Benson (contributor 49425389).
5 “U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936–2007,” database, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 July 2020), entry for Anna Kondzik, 1992, SS no. 161-50-9266; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Numerical Identification (NUMIDENT) Files, 1936 – 2007, NARA Record Group 47.
6 Manifest, SS Pretoria, arriving 23 May 1913, p 185, line 20, Antonina Koczot; imaged as “New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (Including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820–1957,” database with images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 July 2020); citing National Archives microfilm publication T715, 8892 rolls, no specific roll cited.
7 Filip Sulimierski, et al., Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich [Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Lands] (Warszawa: Nakładem Władysława Walewskiego, 1880-1902), Tom II, 258, “Dyszobaba,” DIR—Zasoby Polskie (http://dir.icm.edu.pl/pl/ : 18 July 2020).
8 “Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej Gradzanowo 1873-1907,” 1888, Małżeństwa, no. 36, marriage record for Stanisław Majczyk and Aniela Nowicka, accessed as browsable images, Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne, Metryki.genealodzy.pl: Projekt indeksacji metryk parafialnych (http://metryki.genealodzy.pl/ : 18 July 2020), Zespół 0619/D, citing 76/619/0 Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej w Gradzanowie, Archiwum Państwowe w Warszawie Oddział w Mławie [Mława Branch, State Archive of Warsaw].
9 I. Zinberg, Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego czyli Spis alfabetyczny miast, wsi, folwarków, kolonii i wszystkich nomenklatur w guberniach Królestwa Polskiego, z wykazaniem: gubernii, powiatu, gminy, parafii, sądu pokoju lub gminnego, oraz najbliższej stacyi pocztowej, wraz z oddzielnym spisem gmin podług najświeższej ich liczby i nazwy ułożony, wykazujący: odległość każdej danej gminy od miasta powiatowego i sądu swojego gminnego; czy i jakie znajdują się w gminie zakłady fabryczne lub przemysłowe, szkoły itp. oraz ludność każdej gminy, obejmujący także podział sądownictwa krajowego świeżo urządzonego, Tom 1 (Warsaw: W. Drukarni, I.J. Ałapina 1877), p 55, “Bronisze,” digital images, Śląska Biblioteka Cyfrowa (https://www.sbc.org.pl/ : 18 July 2020).
In my last post, I offered some tried-and-true tips for learning to translate Polish and Russian genealogical documents. Today I’d like to offer a couple additional recommendations for strategies that I’ve found to be extremely helpful for deciphering surnames and place names found in vital records.
As mentioned previously, vital records are very formulaic. There’s a lot of standard language in them, but the parts that frequently give us the most trouble are the names and places. Unfortunately, these are also the most interesting parts, so when it comes to deciphering this information, it’s important to pull out all the stops, and use every resource at your disposal. For research into Polish ancestors, here are a few of my favorites:
The Słownik Nazwisk database
The Słownik nazwisk database is a searchable database of over 800,000 surnames that were in use in Poland in 1990. William F. Hoffman provides a nice explanation of the database and offers instruction on how to use it here. The capacity for using wildcards to search the database makes it a great starting point when struggling to decipher a particular surname in a record. If, for example, you’re pretty sure that the surname starts with “Cie-,” followed by some letters you can’t make out, and then ends in “-rski,” you can do a wildcard search for “Cie*rski” and see the surnames that were extant circa 1990 that might fit the bill. The only drawback here may be, “extant circa 1990,” since the database will not pick up surnames that might have died out long before then.
Where would we be without Geneteka? Not only is it our go-to finding aid for Polish vital records, but it can also be used to help decipher surnames when translating. Sometimes it happens that the particular record you’re translating is from a parish that is indexed in Geneteka, but falls outside the range of years that is indexed. For example, birth records for the parish of Wyszyny Kościelne are presently indexed in Geneteka from 1826–1909 with a gap from 1898–1900. (Since new indexes are added to Geneteka all the time, this range of years may be extended at some point.) But let’s say you’re translating a birth record from Wyszyny from 1823, online here. The indexed records are nonetheless useful to you because they can inform you of the surnames that were found in that parish. As with the Słownik Nazwisk, wildcard searches (“exact search”) are your friend when using Geneteka this way. If a surname clearly starts with “Wa-,” you can search within that parish for “Wa*” and use the resulting list of surnames to help decipher the name in the record. Remember, too, that you can broaden the search by adding in indexed parishes within a 15-km radius, or even search indexed parishes within a whole province, to pick up individuals who might have been from another parish originally. Using Geneteka in this manner gets you around the problem of the Słownik Nazwisk being limited to surnames that were in use in Poland circa 1990.
When it comes to deciphering place names, it’s helpful to fall back on both maps and gazetteers, to wit:
This is probably Step 1 in your problem-solving process. When translating a vital record, you presumably know the location of the parish in which the record was created. Pull up a map of that location, and use it to identify other villages in the area. However, you may find that very small villages which were mentioned in vital records no longer appear on modern maps, possibly because they were absorbed by larger towns in the area. In such cases, it’s helpful to check an older map, preferably one from the same period (more or less) in which the record was created. Here are some good online sources for period maps of Poland and historically Polish lands.
Gazetteers are also incredibly helpful when translating vital records because they typically provide information on the administrative hierarchy for a location, as well as parish assignment. It was common for priests to provide some descriptive details, such as the parish or district in which the place was located, when identifying the birthplaces of key individuals in a vital record, and gazetteers can help you make sense of those details.
A good example of this is shown below in Figure 1. This is an extract from the marriage record for Tadeusz Skolimowski and Marianna Kessling, who were married in Wyszyny Kościelne on 28 January 1877. Tadeusz and Marianna were my husband’s great-great-grandparents, and my further research depended on my ability to correctly identify the birthplaces of the bride and groom.
Figure 1: Extract from marriage record of Tadeusz Skolimowski and Marianna Kessling, Wyszyny Kościelne, 28 January 1877, with details about the groom underlined in red.1
The text underlined in red starts with the groom’s name in Polish instrumental case, “Skolimowskim Tadeuszem,” and then continues in Russian, “тридцати шести лҍтъ отъ роду холостымъ садовникомъ и жителемъ деревни Косинки Капличне уроженцемъ деревни Болешинъ тогожѣ прихода въ прусскомъ королествҍ,” which means, “age thirty-six, a single gardener and a resident of Kosinki Kapliczne, born in the village and also parish of Boleszyn in the Kingdom of Prussia.”
There are two places to identify here, Tadeusz’s place of residence at the time of his marriage, and his place of birth. Although his place of residence looks to me like Косинки Капличне (Kosinki Kapliczne), a quick look at the map tells me it’s got to be Kosiny Kapiczne, a few kilometers west of Wyszyny Kościelne (Figure 2).
“I clearly read the name of the village as Kosinki Kapliczne. I’m guessing that may be a local variant of the name. The Kosiny vs. Kosinki is no big deal, that kind of thing goes on all the time with Polish names. But KapLiczne vs. Kapiczne appears to be a mistake, or, maybe, a regional form. I looked this place up in a series on the history of place names, and that name was consistently -picz-, not -plicz-. Russian does sometimes insert an -л- in palatalized situations where we wouldn’t expect it: for instance, the verb for “to love” is любить, but “I love” is я люблю. So perhaps the priest thought Капличне might be a proper Russified form. But I suspect I’m being too clever here. Maybe it’s a simple mistake. For a priest, confusion with kaplica, “chapel,” might explain how that -l- snuck in there where it doesn’t belong. It seems certain Kosiny Kapiczne is the right place. Scholars say the Kapic- part comes from association with a local fellow named Piotr Kapica — no -L-.”
For kicks, I also looked up this location in the Skorowidz Królewstwa Polskiego (T. 1), which is a gazetteer of places in the Kingdom of Poland (i.e. Russian Poland), published in 1877. The Skorowidz tells me that Kosiny Kapiczne, village and folwark (manorial farm), was located in the Płock gubernia (province), Mława powiat (county), and Kosiny gmina (community, consisting of several villages), and that it belonged to the parish in Bogurzyn (Figure 3). The village of Bogurzyn can be seen just to the west of Kosiny Kapiczne on the map in Figure 2.
Figure 3: Entry for Kosiny Kapiczne in the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego.2
The parish assignment is an important detail, from the standpoint of translations. In situations where the bride and groom were living in different parishes, it was customary for the banns to be read in both parishes, so that anyone with any objections to the marriage might come forward. If we were in any doubt at this point about whether or not we had read the name of Tadeusz’s place of residence correctly, we could use the name of the parish to test our hypothetical identification of the village. In this case, we can predict that the parish of Bogurzyn will be named further down in the record when the banns are mentioned. Sure enough, Figure 4 shows that it is.
Figure 4: Extract from marriage record of Tadeusz Skolimowski and Marianna Kessling, Wyszyny Kościelne, 28 January 1877, with details about the marriage banns underlined in red.
This section states, “Браку зтому предшествовали три оглашенія публикованнъл въ Вышинскоемъ и Богурзинскоем приходскихъ костелахъ,” which means, “This marriage was preceded by three announcements published in the parish churches of Wyszyny and Bogurzyn.” Bingo.
Moving on to Tadeusz’s birthplace, the record tells us that he was born in Boleszyn in the Kingdom of Prussia. An internet search informs us that this is not a unique place name in Poland: there is a village called Boleszyn that’s presently in the Świętokrzyszkie voivodeship, and another village by that name in the Warmińsko-mazurskie voivodeship. A quick look at a rough map of the borders between Russia and Prussia in the late 19th century is enough to suggest that the latter village is the one we want. Nonetheless, this is still a hypothetical identification until we find a record of Tadeusz’s birth in the parish of Boleszyn. In this case, it’s simple to do that. Records for Boleszyn are freely available on FamilySearch, and Tadeusz’s marriage record informs us that he was 36 years old in 1877, suggesting a date of birth circa 1841. A few minutes of searching results in his birth record, shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5: Birth record from the parish in Boleszyn for Tadeusz Skolimowski, born 17 September 1841.3
This record confirms that Thaddeus/Tadeusz was born 17 September 1841 in Słup, baptized on September 26, and that he was the son of Laurentius (Wawrzyniec, in Polish) Skolimowski and Marianna née Zwolińska. Godparents were Mateusz Kalinoski (sic) and Franciszka Winter, wife of the church organist. Although not included in the underlined text in Figure 1, the next section of his marriage record identified Tadeusz’s parents as Wawrzyniec Skolimowski and Marianna (née Zwolińska) Skolimowska, both of whom were already deceased. Since the child’s name, parents’ names, year of birth and the baptismal parish all line up with the body of evidence accumulated for Tadeusz, we can overlook the fact that he was actually born in the village of Słup rather than in the village of Boleszyn as stated on the marriage record.
If this record were not so easy to find—if perhaps these records were only available onsite at the parish, and we’d need to hire an onsite researcher to get a copy of Tadeusz’s birth record—then we might want to take an extra step to confirm the location of Boleszyn before sending someone off on a wild-goose chase. The marriage record provided a small but important detail about the village of Boleszyn with the statement, “деревни Болешинъ тогожѣ прихода,” which indicates that the particular Boleszyn we’re looking for had a Catholic church located right in the village. We can therefore predict that if we look up the village of Boleszyn in a gazetteer of places in the German Empire, the correct village will be the seat of a parish. So what gazetteer should we use? Well, the Meyers Gazetteer is always good, except it requires us to know what the village of Boleszyn would be called in German, and we only have the Polish name (transliterated from Russian) available. We could transliterate again, guess that the village name might be something like Bolleschin, and do a search for that name in the Meyers Gazetteer, and in this case, we’d be right. Even if that weren’t exactly correct, we could do a wild-card search for “Bol*” which will produce all villages starting with “Bol-” and we can sift through the results. But sometimes the German names for places in Poland aren’t simple transliterations (e.g. the German name for the Polish town of Zagórów is Hinterberg), so this method might not pan out.
For these reasons, my first-choice gazetteer in this case would be Kartenmeister, since that gazetteer allows the input of Polish place names. Kartenmeister quickly informs us that the village of Boleszyn was also known as Bolleschin or Bolleßyn, and was the seat of both a Catholic parish and a German Standesamt (civil registry office). Moreover, both gazetteers confirm that there was only one village by this name in the German Empire, so we can be confident that this is the place mentioned in the marriage record.
As you can see, the various surname databases, maps, and gazetteers can be valuable resources to tap into when translating vital records pertaining to your Polish ancestors. Even situations in which village names are misspelled, such as Tadeusz Skolimowski’s place of residence, or misidentified, such as his place of birth, present only minor obstacles when armed with the correct tools for understanding the problem. Hopefully some of these tools will be useful to you, and if they are, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Happy researching!
2 I. Zinberg, Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego czyli Spis alfabetyczny miast, wsi, folwarków, kolonii i wszystkich nomenklatur w guberniach Królestwa Polskiego, z wykazaniem: gubernii, powiatu, gminy, parafii, sądu pokoju lub gminnego, oraz najbliższej stacyi pocztowej, wraz z oddzielnym spisem gmin podług najświeższej ich liczby i nazwy ułożony, wykazujący: odległość każdej danej gminy od miasta powiatowego i sądu swojego gminnego; czy i jakie znajdują się w gminie zakłady fabryczne lub przemysłowe, szkoły itp. oraz ludność każdej gminy, obejmujący także podział sądownictwa krajowego świeżo urządzonego, Volume 1 (Warsaw: W. Drukarni, I.J. Ałapina 1877), “Kosiny kapiczne w. i fol.,” page 286.
3 Roman Catholic Church, St. Martin’s parish (Boleszyn, Nowe-Miasto, Warminsko-mazurskie, Poland), Taufen 1761-1852, 1841, no. 29, baptismal record for Thadeeus Skolimowski, accessed as browsable images, “Kirchenbuch, 1644-1938,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSZY-H425?i=302&cat=310222 : 24 June 2020), path: Taufen 1701-1759, 1761-1852 Heiraten 1644-1862 Tote 1761-1787, 1789-1845 (DGS no. 7948735) > image 303 of 635.
In my last post, I wrote about the new release of Shea and Hoffman’s Russian translation aid, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents: Volume II: Russian, as an e-book. Today I’d like to offer a few tips to keep in mind when learning to translate Polish or Russian vital records for your family. Some of these tips could apply to translations from any language, but these languages are the ones I feel most comfortable with. Please note I am not a linguist, or a scholar, nor am I conversational in either of these languages. I’m a genealogist who was motivated to learn to read vital records so that I could be more independent in researching my family tree. If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that description might fit you, as well.
Setting the stage
When I started my family history research, I knew nothing of the Polish language, beyond a few Christmas carols, food words, and folk songs. I had never attended Polish Saturday School, neither of my parents speaks Polish, and when I tried to get Grandma to teach me Polish when I was about 10, both of us felt overwhelmed by the task rather quickly and the project was soon abandoned. So the first time I loaded up a microfilm reader at the Family History Center with a reel of parish records from one of my ancestral parishes in Poland and started scrolling through the records, I was frustrated and discouraged. The handwriting was cramped, faded in some places and full of ink blots and smudges in others, and it seemed doubtful that these Polish-language documents were even written with a Roman alphabet, since the style of the cursive was so unfamiliar. I wasn’t at all sure that I could do this. However, vital records are very formulaic, and if I could learn to read them, I think pretty much anyone can, given enough practice and patience.
Know what to expect, and plan for success
I began with the parish of Kowalewo-Opactwo, which was the birthplace of my great-grandmother, Veronica/Weronika (née Grzesiak) Zazycki. I knew that Weronika was born circa 1876, and at the time of her birth, the parish was located in the Kalisz gubernia (or province) of the Russian Empire. (If you’re new to Polish genealogy and are puzzled by the fact that an ethnic Pole would have been born in the Russian Empire, this article may help clarify things.) Parishes in Russian Poland were required to keep records in Russian starting in 1868. Therefore, I knew that Grandma Veronica’s birth record would be in Russian. I also knew that I did not want to start with these Russian records, if I could avoid it. Although the language in which the records were written changed in 1868, the format of the civil birth, marriage, and death records from this part of Poland remained the same from 1826 through the early part of the 20th century. Since Polish and English both use the Roman alphabet, I figured it would be easier to learn to read Polish records first, and familiarize myself with the structure of the records, as well as the grammatical features common to both Russian and Polish, such as a high degree of grammatical inflection.
So I took a look at my family tree again. I knew that Veronica’s older brother, Walter/Władysław, was born circa 1867. That suggested to me that their parents were married before 1867, which meant that their marriage record should be in Polish, rather than Russian. Sure enough, I was able to locate and translate the Polish-language record for Veronica’s parents’ marriage in 1865. This enabled me to trace back further through the records, discover some of Veronica’s ancestry, and get some practice with reading Polish records along the way.
I highly recommend this strategy if you’re able to employ it. Learning to read Russian is sufficiently challenging that you’ll want to set yourself up for success by easing into it. If you’ve already got enough experience with Polish records to know, for example, that the names, ages, and occupations of the witnesses to a baptism come at the beginning of the record, immediately after the father’s name, age, and occupation, and that the names are written in the genitive grammatical case, then half the battle is won. At that point, when you start to examine Russian vital records, you’ll be able to anticipate certain elements of the text and grammar. This in turn will allow you to focus your attention on deciphering the Cyrillic cursive in which the Russian records are written.
Get a good translation guide, and focus on the parts that you feel are most helpful.
With Shea and Hoffman’s Polish guide, I spent a fair amount of time on the first section, which presented the Polish alphabet, phonetics, and the introduction to grammar, and then zeroed in on the pages that included date and time expressions, numbers, months, days of the week, and family relationships. After that I skipped to the transcribed and translated examples of birth, marriage and death records. Even though the records for my family are in the paragraph form, I found it useful to read through the examples presented in the columnar form as well. There’s a fantastic glossary in the back, along with a list of Polish given names and feast days that I found very helpful when I encountered a name that was unfamiliar to me.
Let the boilerplate text be your guide.
As mentioned previously, Polish civil vital records are pretty formulaic. The paragraph-style records from this part of Poland (after 1826) always begin with, “Działo się w…” meaning, “It happened in,” or “This happened in.” Since some words in these documents are always the same, you can use those words to familiarize yourself with the handwriting found in the document. This is especially true when you make the move to Russian records, since there are multiple forms that certain cursive letters can take. For example, the Russian т can be written in such a way that it looks like our lowercase cursive m, or like our lowercase cursive f. If you’re lucky, the priest was consistent with how he formed his letters, so you can apply that knowledge to unknown words in the document.
Take a break if you get stuck.
It happens to all of us that we encounter a word, phrase, or even just part of a word that we can’t figure out. When that happens, avoid the temptation to spin your wheels for too long; sometimes moving on in the document is the best thing you can do. As you proceed further and encounter more of that boilerplate text that is your Rosetta Stone for deciphering the document, you may realize what those mystery letters are that were eluding you. If you find yourself getting really frustrated, it’s probably time to take a break. Coming back to the problem later, with fresh eyes, can do wonders.
Pick up a pen.
While I can’t say I’ve tried this one too often myself, some people swear by the practice of trying to mimic the scribe, recopying the text in an effort to get a feel for his letter formation. Where I think that the practice of writing the letters by hand would be especially helpful, is in learning the Russian alphabet (more on that below).
Although some would argue that Facebook groups like Genealogical Translations eliminate the necessity of studying a foreign language at all, I believe that there’s still value in learning to read documents relevant to your ancestors for yourself. The more competent you become with reading (at least) the basic birth, marriage and death records, the more independent and efficient you will be as a researcher, since you’ll be able to tell immediately from the record itself whether the details confirm that it is relevant to your research, or merely a record of someone with the same name as your ancestor. While you’re learning, however, the Facebook groups can be a great asset, like having the answer key for a practice test. Even after you become comfortable with translating these documents for yourself, the Facebook groups are a great resource if you get stuck on a particular document due to some awful handwriting or unusual phrasing. You may also find that volunteers in the Facebook groups are quicker to offer assistance to those researchers who appear to be trying to learn for themselves, as opposed to those who request one full translation after another of documents with a similar format.
Special Tips for Learning to Read Russian
Once you’ve gained some familiarity and experience with Polish vital records for your ancestral parish, it may be time to tackle those Russian records. Here’s what worked for me.
Clear your calendar
Although I dabbled in learning to read Russian for about a decade, I never got serious about it until December 2012, when I discovered a cache of records on Geneteka, pertaining to the family of my great-grandfather, Józef Zieliński. Not only was Józef’s 1892 birth record included, but also birth records for eight of his siblings who were previously unknown to my family, and many other records besides. I really wanted to learn to read those records. I had no time during the busy holiday season to spend on this project, but the best gift my family gave me that year was the gift of time during our week of family vacation between Christmas and New Year’s, to just sit there and plug away at the records until they started to make sense.
Retrain your brain
No matter how you schedule it in, you will definitely need to set aside some time for this, as there’s an element of retraining the brain that’s involved. Initially I spent a lot of time just staring at each record, trying to make my brain recognize the individual Cyrillic cursive letters within the words, instead of automatically interpreting them as letters in the Roman alphabet. That’s because many of the Cyrillic cursive letters look deceptively like Roman letters, as mentioned previously. It takes some time to learn that what looks like a b is really a Polish w which makes the sound of the English v; the English letter d (д in Russian print) can be written so that it looks like a cursive lower-case g; the cursive Russian letters that look like n, p, c, and m are really the equivalents of p, r, s, and t in English; and that word that looks like “mpu” is really “три” and means “three.” Shea and Hoffman sum this up in a single chart on page 1 which compares printed and cursive forms of the Cyrillic letters with their English, Polish, and Lithuanian phonetic counterparts, with an added bonus chart of some archaic letters which were removed from the Russian alphabet during the Russian Revolution, but which are still used in other Cyrillic alphabets (e.g. Ukrainian). I spent a great deal of time in the beginning just digesting this chart, and this is where I believe in hindsight that the learning process would have been faster had I picked up a pen and started writing these letter forms rather than simply trying to memorize them visually.
Another page that was bookmarked early on was page 9, which focuses specifically on the different cursive forms each letter can take, and offers tips on how to distinguish between letters that may appear similar. These tips will make it clear that the word shown in the “Russian cursive makes me cry sometimes” image at the top of this page is intentionally written to be confusing. This word, лишиться (meaning “to lose”), should be written with a horizontal line under the ш and another horizontal line over the т to distinguish them from the other letters. Written like this, without those clarifying marks, I needed assistance to figure this word out, and fortunately, this is not a word you’re likely to encounter in a Russian vital record. Nonetheless, Shea and Hoffman do provide a definition of the related word лишённый (“deprived,” as in, “лишённый всѣхъ правъ, “deprived of all rights”) in the glossary at the end of the book.
Rethink your АБВ’s
In addition to learning the printed and cursive forms of each Cyrillic letter and their phonetic equivalents in Polish and English, you’ll have to relearn the alphabetical order. Russian throws us another curve ball in the fact that the alphabet is presented in a different order from what we’re used to, which is important to remember when using the glossary in the back of Shea and Hoffman’s book. I can’t tell you how many times I would try to look up a word like землевладелец (meaning “landowner,” often used where the word gospodarz was used in Polish-language records) and instinctively flip to the end of the glossary, only to remember that the letter з which sounds like z comes near the beginning of the alphabet. It may feel like you’re spending an inordinate amount of time with that chart on page 1, but I think it will be time well spent.
In the beginning, it might help to think of your efforts as “deciphering” more than “reading.” It used to take me a long time to make it through each word in a document, identifying each letter individually, and you’ll probably go through this stage as well. By “long time,” I mean that I think it took me a week, chipping away at it in my free time, to fully translate my first Russian vital record. Nowadays, if it’s a record from one of my ancestral parishes where the handwriting, the surnames, and nearby villages mentioned in the record are familiar to me, and there aren’t a lot of uncommon occupations or unusual phrases to look up, I can read a new record in just a few minutes. So the moral of the story is, don’t get frustrated, be patient with yourself, and stick with it. Think of it as a puzzle to solve. Some folks do crosswords or Sudoku; you read 19th-century Russian documents. It really does get easier with time and practice.
 Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents: Volume II: Russian, (New Britain, Connecticut: Language and Lineage Press, 2002), 388.
Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents: Volume II: Russian, (New Britain, Connecticut: Language and Lineage Press, 2002), 388.
For many family historians with Polish roots, the language barrier is one of the most intimidating obstacles to tracing their Polish ancestry. Depending on the specific region from which one’s ancestors originated, genealogical documents may be written in Latin, Polish, German, or Russian, and sometimes in several of these languages, depending on the time period and the source of the documents. However, the good news is that fluency in these languages is not required for successful genealogical research. A good genealogical translation guide, and a willingness to learn, can make it possible to locate and translate the documents needed for building a family tree.
The very best genealogical translation guides I’ve found are those authored by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. “Fred” Hoffman. Shea and Hoffman published a four-volume series, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents, which began in 2000 with Volume I: Polish, and continued with Volume II: Russian, Volume III: Latin, and Volume IV: German, in 2002, 2013, and 2017, respectively. Each volume is packed with multiple examples of every kind of document that a researcher might hope to encounter in the course of her family history research, in addition to broader instruction in the languages themselves, covering phonetics, orthography, handwriting, grammar, personal names, and more. Shea and Hoffman also provide instructions for tracing immigrant ancestors back to Europe, and offer an introduction to the best gazetteers for locating ancestral villages, as well as letter-writing templates to aid in the composition and translation of correspondence with foreign archives. In addition, their glossaries are invaluable for defining the sort of esoteric words that are not in common usage today, that nonetheless may be encountered in genealogical documents. These are just some of the highlights of each book; additional information is available at the authors’ website, including an excerpt from their Polish translation guide aimed at helping researchers decipher correspondence received from archives in Poland.
As one may imagine, these books are pretty substantial, physically. They’re printed at a large, 8.25 x 11 inch size so that images of the documents are adequately displayed for comfortable reading, yet the books range between 384 pages for the Polish volume, up to 665 pages for the German volume. I love having a physical book to hold in my hands and fill with sticky tabs, marking all the sections I refer to most frequently, but it’s not always convenient to lug these books around when I’m on the go. Moreover, the size makes them expensive to ship, which may make the books less affordable for those living outside the U.S. With that in mind, the authors began publishing the series as e-books, and the German, Polish, and Latin volumes have been available for some time now. The Russian e-book is newly available, and I’m thrilled to have it on my computer desktop for easy access. As an added bonus, the e-book format allows me to zoom in on the images of the documents for easy viewing of tiny details in the letter formation without straining my eyes, whereas this was a little more difficult in the print version.
This new, third-edition Russian translation guide is 52 pages longer than my old first-edition book, and updates include expanded sections on records leading back to Europe, gazetteers for the Russian Empire, and dealing with repositories of records in the former Russian Empire. Don’t be intimidated by the volume of information, however. As the authors themselves suggest in the introduction, this is not necessarily the sort of book that one reads cover-to-cover. Polish researcher Cecile Wendt Jensen once compared Shea and Hoffman’s books to the Sears Wish Book for genealogical documents, and I think her analogy hit the nail on the head. Although I might give my eye teeth to locate some of the documents they discuss, not every example will be relevant to all researchers.
Of course, in this era of internet research, there are some online translation aids available for Polish, Russian, Latin, and German genealogical translations. These aids offer a decent introduction to translating records, and you may find that they meet your needs entirely if you’re not interested in understanding every detail of every vital record you encounter. However, if you’re after the whole enchilada, Shea and Hoffman’s books are game-changers. They present multiple examples of birth, marriage and death records—the backbone of our family trees—with a complete analysis of each record, including comments on the handwriting, grammatical or spelling errors, alternate phrasings which are sometimes found, and more. Each document is dissected in a warm, collegial tone, as if the authors were right there in the room with you, to explain, encourage, and share helpful research tips along the way.
In the interest of full transparency, I did receive a complimentary pre-release copy of the Russian e-book, but I have no monetary interest in the sales of these books. I’m simply a huge fan of the In Their Words series because of how helpful these books have been, empowering me to be comfortable and confident in reading for myself the birth, marriage, and death records that tell the story of my family. I’m not a gifted linguist, as anyone who has heard me try to pronounce “Grzesiak” accurately can tell you. (It always comes out sounding like “Grzeszak.”) I couldn’t engage in a conversation in Polish or Russian to save my life. But vital records? I’ve got those covered. And if I can learn to read them, you can, too.
In my next post, I’ll share some strategies that I’ve found helpful to use when translating a new record. Happy researching!