When researching, I sometimes stumble across records that are out of place or badly indexed. I’m usually struck with a feeling of empathy for some poor researcher out there, looking for a particular historical record and being unable to find it, due to this error.
Lost to Posterity
I’ve been researching my husband’s Lewandowski ancestors lately, and was searching in Ancestry’s database, “New York, U.S., Death Index, 1852-1956,” for a death record for yesterday. Anyone researching this popular Polish surname in U.S. records is probably familiar with the plethora of phonetic variants that were adopted by immigrant Lewandowskis. I’ve found that wildcard searching is an effective strategy for locating all possible variants, such as Levanduski, Levindoski, Lavandeski, Levinduskee, etc. All of these variants follow the pattern, L?v?nd?sk*, where ? replaces one character, and * replaces one or more characters. You can even go one step further, and search for L*nd*sk*, in consideration of the fact that some versions of the surname might have retained the original w instead of the English phonetic equivalent, v. This will return results which include the original spelling, Lewandowski, as well as variants such as Lanvondoski, Lawndowski, Lewandorsky, etc. Due to the popularity of this surname, it should go without saying that you’ll want to confine your search to a particular place and time period, to avoid an overwhelming number of search results.
But what about that first letter, L? Frequently, in old documents, the cursive upper case L was mistaken for an S. If the indexer could not read the handwriting on the original document, then Lewandowski and related phonetic variants could be indexed under Sewandowski. In fact, a search in Ancestry’s Passenger Lists database for the exact surname Sewandowski, produces 86 results. And while this number may not seem huge, it might be significant if your ancestor is among those 86 passengers.
Could Sewandowski be an authentic surname? Not likely. A search of nearly 44 million records in Geneszukacz—the search portal for all the databases of the Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne (Polish Genealogical Society)—produces exactly one result for Sewandowski, which includes Lewandowski as an alternate transcription of the surname, provided by the indexer. If the “Sewandowski” surname does not exist in Polish records, chances are good that all of those 86 passengers should have been indexed as Lewandowski.
This brings me back to my search for a Lewandowski death record. Bearing in mind this L-to-S transcription issue, I repeated my search in the New York Death Index, this time for *nd?sk*. Behold, search results included this one for Fanny Sewandoska, shown in Figure 1.
The entry appears with other S entries, so it’s evident that the mistake was made when the original, handwritten index was created from the death certificates. Since Ancestry permits the addition of alternate information to database entries, I added “Levandoska” as an alternate surname for Fanny. I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to the original Polish given name for “Fanny.” However, the fact that her surname was recorded in its feminine form, Levandoska, rather than Levandoski, suggests that she was probably an immigrant from Poland, since feminine surname endings were typically abandoned within a generation or two after immigration.
Conversely, we sometimes encounter “bonus records,” tucked into record books for one reason or another, that become found treasures. Back in 2014, while perusing microfilmed records from Transfiguration parish in Buffalo, New York, I stumbled across this baptismal certificate, shown in Figure 2.
The certificate was included as proof of baptism for a bride, Stella Kapela, who was married at Transfiguration church in 1911. The date on the certificate, 1943, was curious, since it was so much later than the records in the place where this certificate was tucked into the book. Perhaps Stella remarried in the parish in 1943? Her name, and her parents’ names, Jacob Kapela and Frances Kraczyk, meant nothing to me, but I did a double-take when I noticed that her godparents were Edward Levenduski and Veronica Lepkoski. Edward was my husband’s great-great-grandfather, and Veronica was the sister of Edward’s wife, Mary (Woźniak) Levanduski. St. Stephen’s church in Middleport is the parish in which my mother-in-law’s paternal grandparents married, and it’s a good 40 miles from Transfiguration. Seriously, what were the chances that I’d be reading through the baptisms in one parish, for an unrelated family, and find names I recognized from a parish 40 miles away?!
Although my first thought was that Stella must be a relative, a little digging suggested that she is not. Rather, I think it’s likely that her family was connected to my husband’s family simply because they were all Poles from the Prussian partition, and specifically from the Posen province. Maybe if I dig back a few more generations, something more concrete will emerge, but for now, I think it’s time to lay this aside and move onto other things.
That’s enough rabbit holes for one night!
©Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2022