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).
Figure 2: Map of Wyszyny Kościelne and surrounding villages, Google Maps.
Although certain that this is the correct location, I ran my transcription past William F. “Fred” Hoffman, co-author of In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents: Volume II: Russian, to see if he agreed that the place was spelled “Капличне [Kapliczne],” or if perhaps I was just misreading the handwriting and seeing an л where none was intended. Fred gave me permission to quote his reply, in which he wrote,
“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!
1 Roman Catholic Church (Wyszyny Koscielne, Mlawa, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej Wyszyny powiat mlawski, 1826-1909,” 1877, Małżeństwa, no. 3, marriage record for Tadeusz Skolimowski and Maryanna Kessling, accessed as browsable images, Metryki.Genealodzy.pl (https://metryki.genealodzy.pl/metryka.php?ar=13&zs=0629d&sy=1877&kt=2&plik=003.jpg#zoom=1&x=1976&y=126: 24 June 2020)
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.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020