I spend a fair amount of time each week helping budding genealogists in the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook. Frequently, we assist people by locating collections of vital records for their ancestral parishes in digital archives, but after that, it’s up to the individuals to use those records. And I sometimes get the sense that people aren’t really sure how to make the best use of those collections, after they’ve found a record or two for their family. So I’d like to take this opportunity to explain how I milk a collection of vital records for every drop of usable information.
Verify that this is the correct location for your family.
The first step is always to connect the parish to your family by finding one record — say, your great-grandmother’s birth record — that is unmistakeably correct. If all the U.S. data point to the parish of Gradzanowo Kościelne as her baptismal parish, and you know her parents’ names and her approximate date of birth from U.S. records, then you should be able to find her baptismal record. Note that our ancestors’ years of birth as they were reported in U.S. records are not always correct. Most U.S. records for my 2x-great-grandmother, Mary Klaus, suggested that she was born circa 1872, but her birth record proves that she was born in 1866. Despite the discrepancy in years, the record is unmistakeably hers, because the parents’ names match those reported on her marriage records, the day and month of birth match exactly with what was recorded on her death record, and multiple U.S. records indicate that she was born in Kołaczyce, Austrian Poland, which is where her baptismal record was located. So don’t be afraid to check several years before or after the year that you think your ancestor was born — or in the case of Mary Klaus, make that 6 years.
Skip back to the good stuff, if you can’t resist the temptation….
Using a different example, let’s say that I found the birth record for my husband’s great-grandmother, Helena Majczyk, in the parish records of Gradzanowo Kościelne in 1892 (because that’s true). It was unmistakeably her birth record, since her parents’ names, Stanisław Majczyk and Aniela Nowicka, matched those that Helena reported on her marriage record. I knew that Helena had one sister, Waleria, born circa 1889, and Helena’s death notice also mentioned that she was survived by “brothers and sisters in Poland.” Those siblings are all interesting to me, sure. But the first question in my mind was, “who were the parents of Stanisław and Aniela?” This question could be answered easily by finding their marriage record, but I didn’t know which sibling was the oldest. If Waleria and Helena, born circa 1889-1892, were the oldest children in the family, then the parents were probably married circa 1888. But if those “brothers and sisters in Poland” were older, and Helena was the youngest, perhaps born when her mother was 45, then Stanisław and Aniela might have been married as early as about 1863. I decided to take a chance and start searching marriage records in this parish beginning in 1889. Bingo! I found the marriage record for Stanisław Majczyk and Aniela Nowicka in 1888. In this case, I got lucky. Had Waleria and Helena been among the youngest children in the family, I might have had a longer search.
The marriage record revealed that the bride, Aniela Nowicka, was a local girl born in the village of Bojanowo, just a few kilometers away. She was the daughter of Antoni Nowicki and Jadwiga Krogulska. Her birth record should be found in the records for Gradzanowo parish, so that part would be easy, if I want to skip back and locate that quickly. There’s only one hitch, which is that online records for Gradzanowo at Metryki only go back to 1875. Since Aniela was born circa 1869, I won’t be able to find her birth record from the comfort of my home. However, when I get a chance to get to the Family History Center, I can access the additional records that they have for this parish back to 1808 and find her birth record.
The marriage record further revealed that the groom, Stanisław Majczyk, was the son of Józef Majczyk and Katarzyna Smiadzinska. However, Stanisław wasn’t born in the parish of Gradzanowo Kościelne. He was born in the village of Bronisze circa 1861, based on his age reported in the marriage record. The Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich, or Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries, describes two different places called Bronisze, one in Russian Poland, near Warsaw, and one in East Prussia, neither of which is especially close to Gradzanowo Kościelne. Moreover, mapa.szukacz mentions two contemporary places called Bronisze, as well as three additional places that have “Bronisze” as part of their name, such as “Rutki-Bronisze.” And the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego mentions two places called Bronisze that were both in Russian Poland. It will take some time to sort all this out and determine which Bronisze is most likely to be Stanisław’s. Unfortunately, the priest who created this record didn’t do us any favors, since he neglected to record the name of the parish in which Stanisław was baptized. However, additional clues might be found in the current record collection. Maybe Stanisław had siblings who also moved to Gradzanowo, and records for them would point to the particular village of Bronisze where the family originated. The only way to find those records will be to carefully examine all the records for the parish.
…. but be sure to go back and do a thorough search of all the records, year by year.
Which brings us back to this step. Even if you can’t resist the temptation to skip ahead and find the most exciting records for your direct line, it’s important to take the time to fill in the rest of the family tree. In this case, online records for the parish go up to 1907, so I decided to start with that year, and work my way backwards in time. Initally my surnames of interest were going to be Majczyk and Nowicki, but the discovery of that marriage record expanded my list to include Smiadzinska and Krogulski. Since the Majczyk and Smiadzinski families did not originate in Gradzanowo, I realized that these surnames would probably not be especially prevalent in the records for Gradzanowo, but I planned to keep an eye out for them nonetheless. I began a spreadsheet in which to record information on each person with those surnames that I discovered, including such details as parents’ names, dates of birth, death and marriage, spouse’s name, etc.
At this point in the research, it’s unrealistic to expect to understand how all the people you’ll find will fit into your family tree. However, as you progress further in your research, family groups will begin to emerge from the raw data, and relationships will clarify. At that point, you can move people into your family tree. Is this painstaking work? Sure it is. Is there a better way? Not unless your parish has already been indexed on a site such as Geneteka.
Assuming your parish has not been indexed in a digital database, does that mean you have to read through every record in the book? Maybe, maybe not. Vital registers from this era in Russian Poland typically contain indexes created by the priest after each section (births, marriages or deaths), for each year, and you can begin by looking for your surnames of interest in those. Of course, errors sometimes do exist in these indexes, so ultimately you may still need to check each and every record if you can’t find what you’re looking for. And in cases where the priest did not create such an index, you have little choice but to skim through each record.
This is the point at which many fair-weather family historians seem to get cold feet. “Where are the census records for Poland,” they ask, “so that I can identify the names and birth years of the children in this family, and only search vital registers from the years when they were born?” For reasons discussed previously, census records from Poland aren’t as generally available as they are in the U.S., although there are definitely places that one can look for them. However, a thorough analysis of vital records in this manner is arguably preferable to only checking for individuals named in census records, anyway. U.S. census records offer us decennial “snapshots” of the family group over time, but it’s entirely possible (probable, even) that there are children in any given family who were born and died in between census years. Those children were more likely to be recorded in the birth and death records, however. By working my way back through the records like this, year by year, I can be certain that I’m not going to miss a birth or death for my family, assuming that the parish priest/civil registrar did, in fact, create records for these events.
Since it’s such time-consuming work — a true labor of love — it’s very important to keep a research log, indicating the date of research, which records you searched, and for what surnames, and what the findings were. That way, if life gets in the way as you make your way through the indexes and you have to stop researching, you’ll know where you left off. It’s a good idea to make a note of additional surnames that appear in the index that are similar to your target surname. Surname spellings were not consistent until the 1930s, approximately, so you might see a number of different variants used for your ancestors in old records.
Sometimes, it makes sense to go as far back as you can on your direct line so that you’re aware of the primary surnames for your family in a particular town or parish. In the present example with my research in Gradzanowo Kościelne, let’s say that I want to trace Aniela Nowicka’s direct line as quickly as possible. The key is to find her birth record, and then see how old her parents were at the time of her birth. In reality, finding Aniela’s birth record is still on my research to-do list for 2018, but for the moment, let’s suppose that we find a birth record for Aniela in 1869 which states that her mother, Jadwiga née Krogulska, was age 32 at the time of the birth, and her father, Antoni, was age 38. (Remember that this is completely hypothetical.) We can use this information to predict when Jadwiga and Antoni would have been married. In the 19th century, based on my personal research experience, Polish women were typically married around age 18-23, although in rare cases I’ve seen brides as young as 15. The woman’s age is usually more useful for estimating a marriage date than the man’s, since (in my experience, at least) there was more variability in a man’s age at the time of his first marriage. Therefore we can guess that Jadwiga was born circa 1837, and was married circa 1855-1860. Her marriage record will tell us her parents’ names, and once we know those, we’re all set to go looking for her birth record. Of course, we could also look for her birth record circa 1837 without knowing her parents’ names, but there may have been more than one Jadwiga Krogulska born circa 1837 in that parish, so it’s safer to determine her parents’ names first, if at all possible. Once we find Jadwiga’s birth record, we can guess what year her mother was born, and then repeat the process of finding marriage and birth records for Jadwiga’s mother. Using this strategy, it’s sometimes possible to skip back through several generations in a family quite quickly.
An exhaustive search of vital records is a useful strategy for pretty much any vital records collection (church or civil) in a place where your ancestors lived. Civil marriage records for my ancestors in Buffalo, New York are not online, but both the indexes and the records themselves (1878-1935) are available in the basement records room of the Erie County Clerk’s Office, and these records can be immensely helpful in establishing family groups for immigrants with a particular surname of interest. For example, when I began my research into my husband’s Szczepankiewicz ancestry, his grandfather Steve told me that his own father, Michael Szczepankiewicz, immigrated from Poland along with four brothers: Joseph, Bernard, Alexander, and Felix. While one might think that Szczepankiewicz is such an uncommon surname that all the immigrants to Buffalo with this name are related, that’s not the case. By searching marriage records, it was immediately apparent which Szczepankiewicz immigrants to Buffalo were siblings of Michael Szczepankiewicz, and which ones were unrelated. (It also turned out that Grandpa’s memory was only partially correct, as the immigrant brothers of Michał Szczepankiewicz were Władysław, Józef/Joseph, Bronisław/Bernard, Adam, and Aleksander/Alexander. A sister, Marcianna, was also discovered on a passenger manifest, traveling with Bronisław to their brother Władysław in Buffalo, but she was not found in the marriage index. Felix turned out to be a brother of Grandpa’s mother, not his father.)
But wait! There’s more!
So now let’s say you’ve gone through a particular collection of vital records, as far back as they go, and you’ve successfully identified all your direct ancestors, as well as their siblings, and you’ve also found marriage records for all of those siblings who remained in the same locality and whose marriage records were therefore present in this same collection. Congratulations! At this point, you will have identified many new surnames that you weren’t aware of when you began the research — married surnames of sisters of your ancestors. If you really want to be thorough, you need to go back through those vital records again, looking for all those new surnames. Creating an expansive family tree in this manner is highly recommended, especially in this era of genetic genealogy, when we’re all trying to understand how our DNA matches relate to us. If you focus only on surnames in your direct line, you’ll be less able to work out relationships with matches whose trees don’t go back as far as yours.
Good research in vital records isn’t especially difficult, but it is time-consuming and requires some patience and perseverance. When researching in Polish records, other types of documents may be more difficult to come by, so it’s especially important to wring every last drop of information from a collection of vital records. The good news is that your hard work will be rewarded with the satisfaction that comes from creating a soundly researched, well documented family tree. So what are you waiting for? Get in there and start digging!
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017