Many of us who engage in genealogical research are motivated in part by the intellectual thrill of the research process itself. While it can be satisfying to help people with any research question, I find it especially enjoyable to help people make the leap from the U.S. to Poland by finding documentary evidence in Polish records for their immigrant ancestors for whom they only have evidence from U.S. records. Many Polish vital records are now available online, so if an immigrant’s place of origin is known, it may just be a matter of identifying the parish or registry office that served that village, and then checking the appropriate databases to locate a vital record. If all the steps are followed logically, the hunt is successful. Yet every now and then, something goes awry, and things don’t fall into place the way they should. Such setbacks can be great learning experiences, however, so I want to share one of those stories here today, since it illustrates so nicely some of the pitfalls that can be encountered with Polish genealogy, even when those logical steps are followed.
This particular story unfolded in the Poland & Genealogy group on Facebook, where I currently volunteer as administrator, and group member Josh Wilberger gave me his permission to share the details. Josh came to the group, eager to begin research in Polish records on his great-grandfather, Jan Pudło, but unsure of where to start. Josh had already done significant research in U.S. records, so he was well-prepared for the jump across the ocean. Most importantly, he knew his great-grandfather’s date and place of birth and parents’ names, which are the critical pieces of information required for definitive identification of one’s ancestor in foreign documents. From Jan’s petition for naturalization, Josh knew that Jan/John Pudło was born 17 April 1891 in “Stara Wies, Lublin, Russia.” Similarly, the record of Jan’s marriage to Anna Gil in Perry, New York, in 1912, stated that Jan was the son of Paul (Paweł in Polish) Pudło and Agnes (Agnieszka) Ciesliak.
From this point on, one might expect the process of finding Jan Pudło’s birth record to be pretty straightforward. Knowing the birthplace, it’s necessary to determine the parish that served that village. Knowing the parish, it’s just a matter of checking various repositories to see if records from that parish are readily available from a state or diocesan archive, or if onsite research is required to find the baptismal record. Since the research target, Jan Pudło, was born in the Lublin region, it should be even easier to track down the birth record since this area is so thoroughly indexed in the Lubgens database, and many scans are online (e.g. at FamilySearch, Szukajwarchiwach, etc.). Piece of cake, right?
Which Old Village is Which?
The situation was complicated somewhat by the fact that “Stara Wieś, ” which means “Old Village,” is a very popular place name found throughout Poland today, as well as in territories that were historically Polish. Just how popular is it? Mapa.szukacz (“Map Searcher”) identifies 639 places called Stara Wieś that are within the borders of Poland today. It’s one of those place names like “Wola” (848 places by that name) and “Dąbrowa” (420 places) that makes even experienced researchers cringe, knowing how many parishes might have to be checked before the right location is finally determined. The fact that the particular Stara Wieś in question was known to be in the Lublin region helped to narrow the field somewhat. However, there were still seven unique places called Stara Wieś located in the Lublin gubernia (province) of the Russian Empire, according to the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego (Index of the Kingdom of Poland, fondly abbreviated by me as the SKP), published in 1877.
As the name suggests, this two-volume gazetteer provides an index to places that were located within the former Kingdom of Poland, also known informally as Congress Poland or Russian Poland. My decision to consult this gazetteer was part of my modus operandi for tackling research questions like this. Whenever I’m faced with the task of identifying a village in Poland with a very common name, I usually begin by selecting a gazetteer that focuses on the particular partition of Poland (Prussian, Russian, or Austrian) in which the village was located circa 1900. (This assumes, of course, that the documents which provided the place name are from that era.) For Russian Poland, the SKP is my top choice, although the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, which identifies places in the second Polish Republic (interwar Poland) is also useful for eastern borderlands locations that were in the Russian Empire in the 19th century, but were not located within the Kingdom of Poland. For the Prussian partition, I like Kartenmeister, which is currently down due to server problems, but will be back up soon, according to site owner Uwe-Karsten Krickhahn. For the Austrian partition, Brian J. Lenius’s Genealogical Gazetteer of Galicia is a great resource, although it’s not online, while several editions of Jan Bigo’s Galicia gazetteer (e.g. this one from 1904) can be found in the holdings of one or more Polish digital libraries. All of these gazetteers require the correct spelling of the location. Additional gazetteers, as well as phonetic gazetteers that can be used for place names that were misspelled in U.S. documents, can be found here.
Getting back to Stara Wieś and the search for Jan Pudło, Figure 1 shows the seven options (boxed in red) for places called Stara Wieś that were located in the Lublin gubernia.
Figure 1: Entries for Stara Wieś in the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego. Places within the Lublin province are boxed in red. Each entry provides the administrative assignments for that place; column headings (left to right) are place name, followed by the gubernia (province), powiat (county), gmina (community or township), and Roman Catholic parish to which each village belonged. Where two parishes are indicated, the place designated as “r.l.” was the location of the Roman Catholic parish, while “r.g.” was the location of the Greek Catholic parish.
Although two of the villages in that list were noted to have Greek Catholic residents as well as Roman Catholic, Josh knew that his family was Roman Catholic, so the focus was on the Roman Catholic parishes. That meant seven unique parishes to check for the birth of Josh’s great-grandfather, circa 17 April 1891.
I say, “circa,” because it’s not at all uncommon to discover that a Polish immigrant was actually born on a different day than the one reported as his date of birth on U.S. records. People often believe that their ancestors lied about their dates of birth, but I think it’s dangerous to ascribe motives to people who lived in another time, place and culture. Moreover, it’s not necessary to assume an intent to deceive if we merely wish to reconcile a discrepancy in the dates of birth reported on two different documents. It seems more generous—and equally plausible—to attribute the discrepancy to something more innocuous, such as the fact that many immigrants did not know their birth dates precisely. They might know that they were born during the potato harvest, for example, or near the feast of Corpus Christi, but that’s it. Errors in reporting may also result from the Polish preference for celebrating imieniny, the feast day of one’s baptismal patron saint, rather than celebrating birthdays. In some cases, a child might be named after the saint on whose feast day he or she was born, but adherence to this practice was not always strict.
The net effect of these cultural differences is that I tend to take 19th-century birth dates reported by Polish immigrants on U.S. records with a grain of salt. In my research experience, both the date and the year of birth may be off by as much as 5–6 years, but if all the other evidence is consistent (place of birth, parents’ names, known siblings’ names and approximate dates of birth) then the birth record can safely be considered a match. It was from this perspective that I approached the search for Jan Pudło’s birth record. Sure, the petition for naturalization might state that Jan was born 17 April 1891, but I was very open to the possibility—or likelihood, even—that a birth record might be found which indicated that he was born on some other date in that ballpark.
The search for a birth record was greatly facilitated by the fact that Lublin-area vital records are so thoroughly indexed in the Lubgens database. A broad search for Jan Pudło’s birth between 1885 and 1897 in all indexed parishes produced 15 hits (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Results of search in Lubgens database for birth records for Jan Pudło, born between 1885 and 1897.
The parish in which each of these births was recorded is stated in the “Parafia” column. Since we know that Josh’s great-grandfather was born in the village of Stara Wieś, and we know from the gazetteer that the seven Lublin-area villages called Stara Wieś belonged to the parishes of Łęczna, Końskowola, Frampol, Surhów, Targowisko, Puchaczew, and Nabróż, we can quickly scan this list for those parish names and eliminate any search hits that were not from one of these parishes. The result? There was exactly one birth for a Jan Pudło who was baptized in Targowisko, one of those seven parishes, and it just so happens that he was born precisely in 1891! Time for a Genealogical Happy Dance? Not so fast. The matching birth record is shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Birth record for Jan Pudło from the parish of Targowisko.
The record is in Russian, as expected, but the underlined text was not expected. The text underlined in blue in the margin is the village in which the birth occurred, and it reads “Тарнавка” (Tarnawka), rather than mentioning the expected village of Stara Wieś. I took a look at the map, which shows two villages called Tarnawka—Tarnawka Pierwsza and Tarnawka Druga—that are adjacent to each other and just north of the parish of Targowisko. The villages of Stara Wieś Pierwsza and Stara Wieś Druga (“Old Village One” and “Old Village Two”) can be seen just north of the pair of Tarnawkas (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Position of the village(s) of Tarnawka relative to the parish of Targowisko and the target village(s) of Stara Wieś.
The text underlined in blue in the record itself (Figure 3) goes on to state (in translation) that the child “was born in Tarnawka on the 9th/21st day of May.” The second date, 21 May, is the date of birth according to the Gregorian calendar that we use, and it’s certainly not problematic, given how close it is to the expected date of 17 April 1891. It’s entirely reasonable to think that a Polish immigrant of this era might report his date of birth as 17 April 1891 if in fact he was born 21 May 1891. But more problematic is the fact that the father’s name was recorded as Piotr Pudło, while the mother’s name was recorded as Marianna Milanoska. Based on our evidence from Jan’s marriage record, the parents’ names ought to be Paweł Pudło and Agnieszka Cieślak or Cieslak (the two most probable surnames suggested by “Ciesliak”—a surname which exists in Polish records in that form, but is very rare).
So, what’s going on here? Could this still be the right birth record for Josh’s great-grandfather? In cases like this, it can be difficult to be certain, since there’s such a limited amount of data. As improbable as it may seem, I’ve seen cases where a Polish immigrant reported his own mother’s name incorrectly on documents in the U.S. (see here). Could it be that Jan Pudło did not know his own mother’s name, and the priest happened to record his father’s name incorrectly as well? Maybe, but the odds of both names being in error, as well as the village name being different from expected, made this scenario seem highly implausible, despite the fact that the date of birth was approximately correct. But if this record was not the birth record for Josh’s great-grandfather, Jan Pudło, then where was that birth record?
Back to the Drawing Board
Searching for scraps of information that might help explain this situation, I noticed that on the map shown in Figure 4, the villages of Stara Wieś Pierwsza and Stara Wieś Druga are approximately equidistant between Targowisko to the south and another village, Bychawa, to the north. Bychawa was also mentioned in the search results in Figure 2. Moreover, I noticed that the Lubgens database includes indexed vital records from a parish called Stara Wieś in gmina Bychawa that was not mentioned in the SKP (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Information on the parish of St. Stanisław, Bishop and Martyr, found in the Lubgens database.
The fact that the earliest records indexed in the database are from 1930 explains why this parish was not mentioned in the SKP—it didn’t exist in 1877. A quick internet search revealed that the parish of Stara Wieś was erected in 1932 and included villages that formerly belonged to the parishes of Bychawa and Boże Wola.
Right Church, Wrong Pew
At this point, it dawned on me: the information in the SKP must be incorrect. Much as I love gazetteers and rely on them to be guideposts in my genealogical journey, pointing the way to the correct parish for each village, it’s important to remember that no gazetteer is 100% accurate—or at least, I have yet to find one that is. When things don’t add up, it’s advisable to check a second gazetteer, so in this case, I checked the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, published circa 1933. Lo, and behold, the parish for the Stara Wieś that was located in Krasnystaw county and gmina Zakrzew—the same Stara Wieś that was noted in the SKP as belonging to Targowisko parish—was noted in this gazetteer to be in Bychawa (Figure 6)!
Figure 6: Entry for Stara Wieś in gmina Zakrzew, Krasnystaw county from the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej.
If further confirmation is desired from a gazetteer more contemporaneous with the birth of Jan Pudło, the Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich (Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries) can be checked. This gazetteer, published between 1880 and 1902, contains five pages of entries for villages named Stara Wieś that were located in all three of the Polish partitions (Russian, Prussian and Austrian). Although entries are organized in a logical fashion (explained on pages 5-6 of Volume 1), it can still be a lot to wade through, which is why I didn’t check this gazetteer immediately. Nonetheless, our Stara Wieś is cataloged in entry 27 on page 226 of Volume 11, which clearly states that this village belonged to the parish in Bychawa (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Beginning of entry for Stara Wieś in gmina Zakrzew, Krasnystaw county, in the Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich, underlined in red.
Once the correct parish was firmly established, it was a simple matter of using the links in the Lubgens database (Figure 2) to check the scans from the parish in Bychawa and find the correct birth record. As luck would have it, my concerns about potential inaccuracy in Jan’s reporting of his date of birth were completely unfounded, as the record indicates that he was born on 29 April 1891, pretty darn close to when he thought he was born. The correct birth record is shown in Figure 8.
Figure 8: Birth record for Jan Pudło, born 29 April 1891 in Stara Wieś.
In translation, the record states,
“No. 121, Stara Wieś. This happened in the suburb of Bychawa on the 17th/29th day of April in the year 1891 at 5:00 in the afternoon. Paweł Pudło appeared, a peasant residing in the village of Stara Wieś, age 52, in the presence of Tomasz Makowski of Stara Wieś, age 37, and Józef Janczarek of Bychawa, age 27, peasants; and showed us a child of the male sex, stating that it was born in Stara Wieś on the 17th/29th day of April of the current year at 3:00 in the morning of his wife, Agnieszka née Cieśla, age 35. At Holy Baptism, performed today, the name Jan was given, and his godparents were Tomasz Makowski and Antonina Josikowa. This document was read to the declarant and witnesses, and because of their illiteracy it was signed only by Us. [signed] Fr. Wojciech Makara, Acting Civil Registrar”
That’s a Wrap
The matching parents’ names, place of birth, and date of birth confirm that this, at last, is the correct birth record for Josh’s great-grandfather. The irony in this situation is that the process of “doing it right” created obstacles to the research because the information in the SKP was incorrect. If no attempt had been made to identify the parish for the village of Stara Wieś, this birth record might have been discovered more quickly by using the “brute force” method of reading through all the search hits in the Lubgens database one by one. Even despite the broad search range (1885-1897), which was employed based on previous research experience, there were only 15 birth records to check, and if only the births from 1891 were considered, there were only three records to check. The correct birth record would have been found in any case, but as it played out, this was a perfect storm, a Murphy’s Law scenario in which everything converged to create research havoc. Really, what were the chances that the SKP would misidentify the parish, but that there just happened to be another Jan Pudło born in that incorrect parish in the same year as the target Jan Pudło?
I’m also amused by the multiplication of villages called Stara Wieś in the area where Jan Pudło was born. All the gazetteers mentioned only one Stara Wieś that belonged to the parish in Bychawa, yet the modern map indicates four such villages: Stara Wieś, Stara Wieś Pierwsza, Stara Wieś Druga, and Stara Wieś Trzecia—Old Village, Old Village One, Old Village Two and Old Village Three (Figure 9).
Figure 9: Four Old Villages, courtesy of Google Maps.
In fact, an advanced search of Mapa.szukacz reveals 103 places called Stara Wieś that are within the borders of the Lublin province today. This is a considerable increase from the seven villages called Stara Wieś that existed in the Lublin gubernia in 1877 according to the SKP, an increase which is surprising even despite the fact that the current Lublin province covers a larger area than the former Lublin gubernia (9712 square miles vs. 6499 square miles). Couldn’t they make the lives of genealogists a little easier by coming up with more creative names for the villages, at least?
So what take-home lessons can be gained from all of this?
- Despite occasional inaccuracies, gazetteers are still an invaluable asset for your research. In absence of any gazetteers or indexed records to fall back on, one would have to approach this project by locating an old map of the Lublin gubernia with sufficient scale to show tiny villages, looking for every village called Stara Wieś, and then investigating all the surrounding villages to see which ones had Catholic parishes that were in existence in the time period in question. After that, one would have to check the records from each of those parishes for the target baptismal record. Who has time for that?
- You may need to check more than one gazetteer before proceeding with the research. In this case, indexed records with linked scans made the research simple. But if records were not available online and it was necessary to hire an onsite researcher to visit the parish in person to obtain records, I would definitely check two or three gazetteers before proceeding with the research.
- Evaluate each new piece of evidence in light of the total. Historical research is messy at times, and names and dates might be recorded somewhat differently in different records. But if you have to work really hard to argue that the individual described in a given record is a match for someone in your family tree, consider the possibility that you may be wrong, and keep looking for the right record.
All’s well that ends well. Jan Pudło has been successfully identified in Polish records, and Josh’s research can proceed apace. But it certainly was an interesting journey back to Stara Wieś through a perfect storm.
 Zinberg, I. 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. T. 2, p. 174, “Stara wieś,” Śląska Biblioteka Cyfrowa (https://www.sbc.org.pl/dlibra : 24 October 2019).
 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej w Targowisku, 1876-1917,” 1891, Akta urodzeń, małżeństw, zgonów, births, no. 70, record for Jan Pudło, Szukajwarchiwach (https://szukajwarchiwach.pl : 28 October 2019), image 17 out of 67.
 “Parafia św. Stanisława w Starej Wsi,” Wikipedia PL (https://pl.wikipedia.org : 28 October 2019).
 Tadeusz Bystrzycki, 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 govermental agencies and offices, including communication facilities] (Przemyśl, Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Książnicy Naukowej, circa 1933), 1607, “Stara Wieś,” Wielkopolska Biblioteka Cyfrowa (http://www.wbc.poznan.pl : 28 October 2019).
 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 XI, 226, “Stara Wieś,” DIR—Zasoby Polskie (http://dir.icm.edu.pl/pl/ : 28 October 2019).
 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej w Bychawie, 1826-1916,” 1891, Księga urodzeń, małżeństw i zgonów, births, no. 121, record for Jan Pudło, Szukajwarchiwach (https://szukajwarchiwach.pl : 28 October 2019), image 20 out of 75.
 “Lublin Voivodeship,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org : 28 October 2019); and “Gubernia lubelska,” (https://pl.wikipedia.org/ : 28 October 2019).
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019
14 thoughts on “A Perfect Storm”
Great lessons to be learned from your article. Nice job.
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Thank you, Paul!
Amazing story of following a thread, my mother would have loved to know this.
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I’m glad you enjoyed the story, Calvin. Best wishes to you and your family, and good luck to Josh with his continued research!
Thank you for your posts. They are fascinating and teach me a lot about genealogical research. And thank you so much for all the links you provide.
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You’re welcome, Barbara! I’m glad that you find the articles useful. 🙂 Good luck with your research!
Thank you for this post. So well-written and informative, as all of your posts are!
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You’re welcome, Mary, and thank you for the kind words. 🙂
Thank you so much. This is a treasure trove of information that I will share with my fellow Polish researchers in the Clark County Nevada Genealogical Society.
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You’re very welcome! Hope your fellow genealogical society members find it useful as well. 🙂
a Polish custom used to be that many Polish people celebrated the day of birth of the baby’s christening/baptism as the birthday rather than the actual birth date,
I haven’t heard that version of it, Dennis, but as I mentioned, it’s common to celebrate the feast day of the child’s baptismal patron saint (imieniny), rather than the child’s birthday.
One thing I have found for some immigrant relatives is that their American records have the date of the baptism/registration listed instead of the date of birth. It is as if they brought in their papers, and an American clerk used the first date they found as a birth date. I has happened regularly enough that it seems to be part of a pattern. Of course, you sometimes have to check adjacent months, or sometimes even adjacent years, to find an original record 🙂
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Yes, I’ve observed that phenomenon a couple times as well. And in this case, the date reported was the date according to the Julian calendar, rather than the date according to the Gregorian calendar, which is interesting.