Using Gazetteers for Polish Genealogy

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:

  1. Use U.S. records to gather evidence for the name and location of your ancestral village.
  2. 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.
  3. Identify the repositories for those records. Vital records from parishes or registry offices are typically found in four places:
    1. the parish archives
    2. the local registry office
    3. the diocesan archive
    4. 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

Kartenmeister

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).

Figure 1: Search result from Kartenmeister for Lednogora.

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. Kartenmeister informs 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.

Figure 2: Search result from Meyers for Lettberg/Lednogora.

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.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020

6 thoughts on “Using Gazetteers for Polish Genealogy

  1. Hello Julie!! Thank you for this awesome resource guide!!

    I ‘attended’ Prof Jonathan Shea’s “Finding the Missing Pieces of your Polish American Family History”. Excellent!

    Time sure flies when one has a zillion interests and quests!

    Stay well and creative (applies to genealogy too!),

    Maria http://www.rypandesigns.com Blog – rypandesigns.blogspot.com Newsletter Sign up Follow on Facebook & Pinterest Get Downloadable Patterns ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An OUSTANDING description of the gazetteers used in Polish genealogical research. Although I was familiar with all of them and had used them at various times in my research, I have neglected to use them together. My Husbands ancestors are also from Lednogora. I had used Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej for that location. Although I did have some success, there were still a few brick walls. This example was very effective in showing me a few bread crumbs that I had not followed yet. Thank You!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Julie,

    Thanks for the heads up on the blog. It’s a lot of fun to read. So far, I’ve done a pretty thorough search of 1800’s records from Lubowo and found quite a few Koperskis including direct ancestors back to the early 1800’s. I just recently did more review of the Dziekanowice info on FamilySearch and did not find as much.

    But your recommendation to go find the Weglewo records unlocked a number of mysteries for me already and I’ve just gone through Birth Records. I finally found the baptismal record for my great-grandfather who went to Buffalo. I found many other Koperskis with what I believed was his brother who also went to Buffalo. And now I finally found Stephan Koperski’s baptismal record too and to the same parents!! I’m so excited right now as I’ve solved a number of lingering mysteries. That makes all the hard work searching through words in different languages so worth it! And it turns out, you’re so right. I’m not sure I was seeing the closeness of these Weglewo records and therefore wasn’t prioritizing looking through them. Sometimes you need to work smarter to keep going.

    Thanks so much for the nudge and know that you are absolutely helping people!!!

    Mike

    Liked by 1 person

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