Back in 2016, I wrote up a quick list of search tips for beginners in the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook, to give some direction to our group members who were just getting started with their genealogical research. Recently, we’ve had some comments from members who pointed out that these search tips are now a bit outdated, since they reference things like microfilm rentals from the Family History Library, which have been discontinued by the FHL in light of the increasing scarcity of raw microfilm and the emphasis on offering digital images of genealogical records. So, this seemed like a good time to give the whole list an overhaul and a bit of reorganization. Bear in mind that although these search tips were originally written specifically for research into Polish ancestors, many of the same principles apply no matter what ethnicity your immigrant ancestors were.
Tracing your family back to Poland is as easy as one, two, three
There are three basic steps involved in tracing your family back into Polish records:
- Gather evidence from U.S. records to establish the place of birth of your immigrant ancestor. This assumes your Polish ancestor migrated to the U.S., but of course if he did not, then you use records from the country in which he settled.
- Use one or more gazetteers to determine the parish or registry office which served that village.
- Identify the repositories that hold records for this parish or registry office. These repositories might include state archives, diocesan archives, the parish itself, the local civil registry office (urząd stanu cywilnego), or most likely a combination of all of these. These records may or may not be digitized or microfilmed, but you can always hire an onsite researcher to access records for you if they are not available any other way, and it might not be as expensive as you think (see “Tips for Hiring a Professional Researcher in Poland”).
Even experienced genealogical researchers often need help with steps 2 and 3 if they are not experienced with research in Polish records in particular. For that reason, it’s wise to join one of the Polish genealogy groups on Facebook, such as Poland & Genealogy, the Galicia Family History Group, etc., and we can assist with those questions. However, for the purpose of this guide, I’ll focus on just the first step, which is gathering evidence from U.S. records to establish the birthplace of your immigrant ancestor.
Interview family members
Now, if you’re scratching your head and asking yourself, “Was it Dziadzia who was born in Poland, or was it his father?,” then the first step might be to make a few phone calls to older family members and see what they remember. Gather all the information you can, because you never know how some small detail might become relevant at a later point in your research. (For one example of this, see my story about “The Old Mill.”) Additional hints for interviewing older family members can be found here. If all your older family members are deceased, don’t panic. Their paper trail is still there, and that’s what we all use to document those family stories anyway. However, you should still write down your own memories and stories about earlier generations of your family, and talk with any cousins who are still living to see what they remember. Armed with this information, it’s time to go online!
Check out sites for “one-stop shopping”
There are a number of great sites that can help you begin to gather documentation for your family. My two favorites are FamilySearch and Ancestry, but additional sites like Fold3, My Heritage, Heritage Quest, GenealogyBank, etc. can all be used quickly gather some basic documentation like census records, passenger manifests, military records, possibly vital records and naturalization records, and more. FamilySearch is free and can be accessed from any computer; you only need to register to use the site. Many of the other databases (including Ancestry) can be accessed at your local public library (if you’re in the U.S.) or at a LDS (Mormon) Family History Center. Another common strategy for using the subscription-based sites is to sign up for a free 2-week trial, locate and download as many records as possible in that 2-week period, and then cancel the subscription before the two weeks are up so there is no charge on the credit card.
Please note that the information available on these sites represents only the tip of the iceberg for what’s out there. Many of the documents you’ll need are still sitting in churches, courthouses, archives, and libraries, waiting for you to discover them. In this era of immediate gratification via the internet, people sometimes begin with the unrealistic expectation that somewhere, someone out there has done all the work for them. While this might be true (to a point) if your ancestors have been living in the U.S. since Colonial times, it’s much less likely to be true if your ancestors arrived here from Poland just a generation or two ago. Don’t forget that genealogy still requires patience, persistence, time, and good-old fashioned research done with letter-writing, phone calls, and personal visits, if possible.
Do your homework in U.S. records before attempting to trace your family in Poland
It’s a common mistake for people to find one document with a place of birth on it (most likely misspelled) and to try to use that to begin tracing their family in Poland. Be patient. In many cases, there are multiple towns and villages in Poland with the same name — think of researching a U.S. place called “Springfield.” So it’s a good idea to obtain several documents with information about an immigrant’s birthplace so you can compare them before trying to research in Poland. It’ll save you time (and maybe money) in the long run. It’s also advisable to be suspicious of family stories that an ancestor came from a large city, like Warsaw, Kraków, or Poznań. Most of our ancestors came from small villages, but it was common for an immigrant to approximate her place of birth to the closest large city when describing her hometown to an American audience that was unfamiliar with Polish geography (see “Grandma Said She Was From Poznań: Decoding Stories About Ancestors from Poland”). Don’t worry too much at this point if there are apparent conflicts between the place of birth as it’s recorded in different documents. It may be that one document refers to the village, another refers to the gmina (an administrative level similar to a township, composed of several villages) and a third refers to the county. A good gazetteer can help you make sense of all of this, or you can get additional assistance in one of the Facebook groups.
Which types of documents are most useful for identifying an immigrant’s place of birth?My personal top three go-to sources for this information are church records, passenger manifests, and naturalization records. However, it’s important to think broadly here and leave no stone unturned. Place of origin might be recorded in a newspaper death notice (especially a newspaper published in the immigrant’s mother tongue, like the Dziennik dla wszystkich from Buffalo, New York, or the Dziennik Chicagoski from Chicago, Illinois), on a grave marker (see “The Final Clue: Tracing the Wagners Back to Germany”), on a draft registration, in a Social Security application, in an application for a life insurance policy, in a letter or some other document handed down through the family, etc. For now, let’s take a closer look at those top three sources.
The vast majority of ethnic Poles were Roman Catholic, and Roman Catholic church records are often very good about including specific place of origin for Polish immigrants, beyond just something broad like “Russia,” “Prussia,” “Austria,” “Galicia,” or “Posen.” (If you’re not sure why an ethnic Pole would be likely to be recorded as being from one of those places, please see “Those Infamous Border Changes: A Crash Course in Polish History”). While church records can’t be guaranteed to contain that all-important place of origin, they come through often enough that it’s worth the extra effort to obtain them. Moreover, these places were probably recorded by a Polish priest, so they’re likely to be spelled more or less correctly. In addition to obtaining marriage and death records for Polish immigrants who married in the U.S., you should also obtain baptismal records for the U.S.-born children of your immigrant ancestors. These frequently contain an “ex loco” portion that will tell you where the parents came from. It’s important to be thorough, since the priest may not have recorded precise place of origin on every record pertaining to your family. So for example, if you know that your great-grandmother’s sister also immigrated from Poland and married in the U.S., get her church marriage and death records, as well as your those for your great-grandmother. Similarly, get copies of all the baptismal records, not just for your own direct line of descent. Documents from collateral lines can often provide that critical breakthrough you need.
If you don’t know what parish your ancestors attended, you can usually determine this based on their address(es) as reported in census records and city directories. Parishes had defined geographic boundaries (and they still do!) and people were less likely to “shop around” for a parish they liked, as is often the case today. Group members in the Poland & Genealogy group can often assist with identifying the correct parish, so ask if you need help. Before you write to a parish, check the Family History Library catalog to see if records for that parish are available. A small percentage of U.S. Catholic church records have been microfilmed/digitized by the LDS, but it’s definitely worthwhile to check first.
If you do need to write to the parish, keep in mind that the primary function of the parish staff is to meet the spiritual needs of their congregation, not to fulfill genealogy requests. Make sure to enclose a donation for the parish, and be prepared to wait a while. It’s best to request only a few records (1-3) at a time, keep your letter brief, and be as specific as you can. If you’re requesting a marriage record, for example, obtain the civil equivalent first – that way, you already know the exact date of the event. Be sure to ask for a clear digital photo or photocopy of the parish register, rather than a typed extract, which Catholic parishes sometimes provide as proof that a sacrament was administered in their parish. Explain that the original record may contain information that’s vitally important to your search, so you need the full, original record. If they hesitate due to “privacy concerns” suggest that they cover up the other entries on the page with a sheet of paper, so that only the key entry (and the column headings, if there are any) are showing. Be polite and respectful — churches are under no obligation to provide copies of their records, so it’s an act of kindness if they choose to do it. It’s okay to follow up with phone calls, e-mails or letters if a decent interval (4-6 weeks) has gone by and you still have not received a reply. When you do receive your records, remember to send a thank-you note.
Passenger manifests can be searched free at the Ellis Island database, which contains manifests from passengers who entered the port of New York between 1892 and 1957. Prior to the construction of the Ellis Island Immigration Station, immigrants who arrived at the port of New York were processed at the Castle Garden inspection station, which was in operation from 1855 to 1892. Access to indexed records in the Castle Garden database is also free, but the manifests themselves can only be obtained via one of the subscription-based sites like Ancestry. Be aware of the fact that some of the later manifests from Ellis Island cover two pages, and an immigrant’s last place of residence might be recorded on the first page, but his place of birth (potentially different from his last place of residence) might be on the second page. In addition to the port of New York, many Polish immigrants arrived in the U.S. via the ports of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, in addition to some more minor ports of entry. Some immigrants may also have arrived through Canadian ports. More information, including links to additional indexes for passenger manifests, can be found here. Digital images of passenger manifests for these other ports of arrival can be found on Ancestry,
It’s important to note that not every immigrant chose to become a U.S. citizen. Immigration and naturalization are two distinct processes, and naturalization has never been required of those choosing to live and work in the U.S. If your immigrant ancestor naturalized, this will be indicated on U.S. census records. The 1900, 1910, 1930 and 1940 censuses all asked about the year of immigration to the U.S., and whether or not the person was naturalized, and the 1920 census additionally asked for the specific year of naturalization. If your ancestor naturalized prior to 1906, his records are less likely to indicate specific place of birth information, beyond stating the country of which he was formerly a citizen. However, with the creation of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in 1906, changes were introduced in the way naturalization was handled by the various courts, and new, standardized forms were implemented which were much more detailed than the forms that were in use previously. As a result, naturalization records dated after 26 September 1906 are very likely to tell you precisely where your immigrant ancestor was born., as well as date of birth, date and port of arrival in the U.S., the name of the ship on which he traveled, the names and dates of birth of the immigrant’s spouse and children, and more. Note that prior to the Cable Act of 1922, a woman’s citizenship was a reflection of her husband’s (see this article on women and naturalization for more information). So if your female immigrant ancestor stated that she was naturalized prior to 1922, it was very likely a derivative naturalization through her husband or father, and you’ll want to check their naturalization records to discover her place of birth, instead of searching for records in her name.
Naturalization records can be found in a variety of ways. Sometimes they’re available online and you can find them on Ancestry or in the FamilySearch catalog. If your ancestor naturalized in a county court, as many of mine did, you can visit, call or write to the county courthouse to obtain a copy of the record. I’ve been able to request many naturalization records through the mail this way, at a very low cost. However, you may need to check other sources, such as the National Archives, or request an index search from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If the 1940 census states that your ancestor was still an alien at that point, then he would have had to register as such when the U.S. began creating alien case files in 1944. You can search for your ancestor’s A-file by entering his name into the search box in the National Archives Catalog.
Using indexed records from Poland
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you may have difficulty in determining your immigrant ancestor’s place of birth. Maybe his church marriage and death records don’t state a specific place of origin, and neither do his civil records. Maybe he immigrated and naturalized early on, and those documents don’t specify his birthplace precisely. Perhaps you know only a general region from whence he came, such as Warsaw or Poznań. In cases such as these, it’s sometimes possible to take a shortcut and locate his birthplace using indexed records from Poland. Thanks to volunteer indexing efforts in Poland, more and more indexed vital records are coming online every day, and these can be leveraged to great advantage to jump-start your research. However, it is still important to gather information from U.S. records first — at minimum, you should know your immigrant ancestor’s name, approximate date of birth, and parents’ names. Parents’ names can usually be determined using a marriage record, death record, or Social Security application (SS-5 form; see here for details). It’s also very helpful to determine at least generally where he was from. Knowing the partition of Poland in which he was born is helpful, but more specific regional information, e.g. West Prussia, “Warsaw,” “Kalisz,” etc., is preferable. The more you know about your immigrant ancestor before you begin, the less likely you are to start barking up the wrong family tree, especially if you’re working with a common surname.
So where can you find indexed vital records from Poland? That depends to some extent on your region of interest, and a more complete list of indexed and digitized records can be found here. But these are a few databases that top the list:
For all of Poland: Geneteka
For Pomerania: Pomeranian Genealogical Society database
For the Lublin area: Lubgens
For Polish records indexed by FamilySearch (as of today, this includes the Tarnów, Radom, and Lublin areas, as well as some BillionGrave and Find-A-Grave indexes): FamilySearch
For the Dobrzyń nad Wisłą region: Szpejankowski and Szpejankowski Family Portal
For the Podlasie area: Projekt Podlasie (Note that you must register with this site — it’s free — before you can search their indexes.)
For the Częstochowa area: Częstochowa Genealogical Society database (Note that you must register with this site — it’s free — before you can search their indexes.)
For Volhynia/Wołyń: Metryki Wołyń
Remember that there is no, single, comprehensive database that includes every birth, marriage or death that ever occurred anywhere in any place that was known to have an ethnic Polish presence historically (wouldn’t that be nice!), so if you don’t find your ancestors in one of these indexes, it doesn’t mean their records were destroyed. It means you need to go back to using the paper trail to deduce exactly where they were born, identify the parish that served that village, and determine where the records are for that parish — those three steps I mentioned at the very beginning.
Hopefully these links, strategies and tips will help you get your research off to a good start. Genealogy groups on Facebook are also a great asset, and volunteers are ready to help you at every step of the way. So what are you waiting for? Let’s find those ancestors!
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018