I'm a family historian with 20 years of experience in researching my family's origins in Poland, Germany, the U.S. and Canada. You can find me on Facebook, where I'm an administrator for the groups "Polish Genealogy,""Polish Culture, Food and Traditions," and "Genealogy Translations." I'm a member of the Polish Genealogical Society of America, the Polish Genealogical Society of New York State, the Polish Genealogical Society of Massachusetts, and the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Southeast. I also enjoy sharing research strategies and resources via genealogy lectures and webinars, which I've given for the PGSMA, PGSNYS, Central Massachusetts Genealogical Society, New England Historic Genealogical Society, and Massachusetts Society of Genealogists.
We genealogists love finding our ancestors’ signatures, right? Of course we do.
Well, recently I found what I believe are the authentic signatures of both my great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Roberts, and his son, my great-great-grandfather, Michael Frank (a.k.a Frank Michael) Roberts. Let me set the stage with a brief introduction to these gentlemen.
Michael Roberts (1834–1895)
It was the winter of 1894 when Michael Roberts lost his wife. It had been almost 37 years since Michael wed the former Maria Magdalena Causin in the beautiful Roman Catholic church of St. Joseph in Detroit, Michigan on 12 May 1857.1 The details of how they met, and whether it was a happy marriage or not, have been lost to time, but it is known that Michael was a German immigrant, born in the village of Heßloch in the Rhenish Hesse region of the Grand Duchy of Hesse (commonly known as Hesse-Darmstadt) to Franz Ruppert and Catherine, née Schulmerich.2 In 1853, he immigrated to Detroit, Michigan with his parents, his 17-year-old brother, Arnold, and his 15-year-old sister, Catherine.3 Although there is no notation on the manifest to reflect this, the family believed that Catherine died at sea, as explained in the following letter (Figure 1), written by Michael’s sister, Mary Roberts Standfield, to his grandson, John Frank Roberts.4
The letter also confirms that the family’s original surname, Ruppert, was changed to Roberts upon settling in Detroit, and that Michael’s oldest brother, Johann Georg, or George, as he was known in the U.S., arrived in Detroit before the rest of his family, settling there in 1851.4
Following his marriage, Michael worked as a carpenter to support his family.5 Michael and Mary had eight children, of whom the oldest four have living descendants. The family data are summarized below (Figure 2).
Michael Frank (aka Frank Michael) Roberts (1858–1930)
Although I have no photographs of Michael Roberts, his oldest son, Michael Frank (known in later life as Frank Michael), is the stalwart Victorian gentleman shown here (Figure 3).
In that winter of 1894, when his mother died, Frank was a 35-year-old architect living in Buffalo, New York;7 married, with four children. Frank had married Mary Elizabeth Wagner back in their hometown of Detroit, but they relocated their family to Buffalo about nine years earlier, in 1885.8 Mary Elizabeth was home, raising their four sons: 15-year-old Harry, 10-year-old John, 7-year-old George, and 3-year-old Bert.9
And so it was that on 27 February 1894, Mary Magdalene Roberts died intestate (without having written a will) in Nankin Township, Michigan. Her husband, Michael, petitioned the court for administration of her estate (Figure 4).10
According to this petition, Mary Roberts was in possession of an estate valued at approximately $800, which would be the equivalent of about $25,396 in today’s dollars.11 Since she died without naming an executor to handle her financial affairs following her death, her husband had to formally request this authority from the court. The document identifies Mary’s heirs at law, who were her children and husband, as
Michael F. Roberts, son, 36 years old, resides in Buffalo, N.Y.
Catherine Hecker, daughter, 34 years old, resides in Nankin, Wayne Co., Mich.
Mary P. Stanfield [sic], “, 32 ” ” ” ” Detroit, Wayne Co., “
Anna Carlston [sic], “30 ” ” ” ” Nankin, Wayne Co., “
and your petitioner, husband of deceased, who resides in Nankin, Wayne County, Michigan.
These children were named in birth order, and their ages and places of residence are reasonably consistent with prior evidence. It’s worth noting that Mary’s and Anna’s married surnames were misspelled as “Stanfield,” rather than “Standfield,” and “Carlston,” rather than “Carlson,” which underscores the variability in surname spellings that exists in historical records.
The handwriting throughout the document is fairly uniform, and the formation of the M’s and the R’s where they appear in “Michael” and “Roberts” is consistent, suggesting that the document was written by a single person; namely, the notary public. However, the handwriting in the signature is distinctly different, which suggests that it was written by Michael Roberts himself (Figure 5).
Included within that same probate packet is a second petition for administration of an estate, this time written by Frank M. Roberts (Figure 6).
This petition similarly identifies the children of Michael and Mary Roberts, but goes on to state, “…that Michael Roberts, husband of said deceased and her survivor and administrator of said estate, has departed this life,” and therefore Frank M. Roberts requested that administration de bonis non of the estate be granted to his sister, Mary P. Standfield. Presumably it was a matter of convenience for Mary (or any of his sisters) to handle the estate rather than Frank, since they were still living in the Detroit area, but this is somewhat speculative. In any case, Frank’s distinctive signature included at the bottom of the document (Figure 7), in addition to his father’s signature, made this probate packet an exciting find for me.
1 Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s parish (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, USA), “Marriages, 1835-1866”, 1857, no. 15 (?), marriage record for Michael Ruppert and Magdalena Causin, Burton Historical Collection microfilm no. 1286, reel 32A, Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward Ave, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
2 Roman Catholic Church (Heßloch, Kr. Worms, Hesse, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1715-1876,” 1834, unnumbered entries in chronological order, baptismal record for Michael Ruppert, 1 February 1834, FHL microfilm no. 948719.
3 Manifest, SS Wm Tell, arriving 4 March 1853, p 9, lines 49-51, and p 10, lines 1-2, Franz Rupard family; imaged as “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 26 August 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication M237, 1820-1897; List No. 146.
4 Mary Roberts Standfield (1862–1946), undated letter to her nephew, John Frank Roberts, Roberts family documents; privately held by Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
4 Manifest, SS Vancluse, arriving 30 May 1851, p 5, line 23, Geo. Rupert; imaged as “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 24 August 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication M237, 1820-1897; List no. 599.
6 1860 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, Detroit Ward 6, page 142, dwelling no. 1066, household no. 1148, Michael Roberts household; digital image, Ancestry (http://ancestry.com : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 566 of 1,438 rolls; and
1870 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, Detroit Ward 6, page 476B, dwelling no. 998, household no. 1114, Michael Robert household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 713 of 1,761 rolls; and
1880 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, city of Detroit, Enumeration District 298, page 123A, dwelling no. 92, household no. 92, Michael Roberts family; database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 613 of 1,454 rolls.
8 George Whitcomb, compiler, Buffalo City Directory (Buffalo: The Courier Company, 1885), p 751, Roberts, Frank; browsable images, New York Heritage Digital Collections (https://nyheritage.org/ : 24 August 2021), image 763 of 1076.
9 1900 United States Federal Census, Erie County, New York, population schedule, Buffalo Ward 23, Enumeration District 190, Sheet no. 5B, house no. 439, family no. 127, Frank M. Roberts household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 24 August 2021), citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm publication T623, 1854 rolls, no specific roll cited.
For a genealogist, any day that brings three new death certificates in the mail is a good day.
Back at the end of April, I wrote about my discovery of my great-great-granduncle, Alexander Dodds, who disappeared from documentary evidence in Canadian records after the 1881 census. Thanks to clues provided by DNA matches, I was able to determine that Alexander migrated to Buffalo, New York where he married Hazel Jean (or Jennie Hazel) McCarroll and had two children, Della and Spencer, prior to his death in 1899. While searching for his death record in the Buffalo, New York Death Index, I serendipitously came across the entry for the death certificate of his brother, Gilbert M. Dodds, who died in 1898. Then, since I was already writing to the Buffalo City Clerk to request those records, I decided to add in a request for the death certificate of their older sister, Isabella (née Dodds) Smith. I’d known previously that Isabella died in Buffalo, but I’d never gotten around to requesting a copy of the record, so this seemed to be a good time to do it. After a long wait, those death certificates finally arrived, so let’s analyze them here, in the context of my existing research into my Dodds family.
My burning questions regarding my Dodds family concern the origins of my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine Dodds, whom I’ve written about previously. Evidence points pretty consistently to a birth circa 1817 in England for Robert, and possibly a specific date of 28 January 1817 as was reported (probably by Robert himself) in the 1901 census.1 Less is known about Catherine’s place of birth, however, and there’s even some doubt about her maiden name, since it has been reported as both Irving2 and Grant.3 In that regard, the death certificate for Isabella (née Dodds) Smith was most informative, since it was the only one of the three death certificates to mention a maiden name for Catherine. (Figure 1).
Unpacking the other details from the certificate first, we can see that Isabell [sic] H. Smith of 381 Rhode Island Street in Buffalo, died on 22 September 1917 due to a cerebral hemorrhage which she suffered about 6 weeks previously. A contributing cause of death was chronic myocarditis. Isabella was noted to be a widow, born 4 November 1844 in Canada, and she lived in the U.S. for 24 years prior to her death, spending all of that time in Buffalo. That suggests an arrival in 1893, which is a few years off from the arrival in 1897 which she reported in the 1910 census, but still in the same ballpark.5 No immigration record can be sought to confirm her arrival date since the U.S. did not begin documenting Canadian-born immigrants until 1 October 1906.6 Isabella was laid to rest in the Buffalo Cemetery on 25 September 1917, and the informant on the death certificate was her oldest daughter, Margaret (née Smith) Moorhouse, who lived with her. Margaret reported that Isabella’s parents were Robert Dodds and Catherine Grant, which lends further support to the hypothesis that Catherine’s maiden name was Grant and not Irving. However, Margaret identified both Robert and Catherine as having been born in Canada, and this is almost certainly incorrect in Robert’s case, in light of the substantial body of evidence supporting the assertion that he was born in England.
Next up, we have the death certificate for Alexander Dodds (Figure 2). The image I received is of rather low quality due to faded ink and darkened paper, but it’s nevertheless possible to read that Alexander Dodds died on 13 April 1899 due to pulmonary phthisis, which is more commonly known as tuberculosis. He was buried at Lakeside Cemetery on a date in April that’s difficult to make out, possibly the 23rd. Alexander was reported to be age 49 years, 1 month, and 25 days at the time of his death. Running that information through a date calculator points to a birth date of 19 February 1850, consistent with the expectation that he was born circa 1849-1850 based on his age reported in census records. He was a married laborer, born in Canada, who had been a resident in the U.S. for 15 years, and living in Buffalo for that entire time period. This suggests that he arrived in the U.S. circa 1884. Alexander’s parents’ names were reported to be Robert and Catherine, but no maiden name was given for his mother. Moreover, both parents were reported to have been born in England—a statement which is unlikely to be true in Catherine’s case. Alexander’s last place of residence was decipherable as Auburn Avenue, although the house number (212, perhaps?) is harder to read.
The fact that Alexander was buried at Lakeside Cemetery is new information for me. Lakeside is an old, historic cemetery located in Hamburg, New York, about 10 miles south of Buffalo. Lakeside is managed by the Forest Lawn group of cemeteries, and they happen to have a fantastic website where one can search burials and even download cemetery records, such as this burial card for my great-great-grandmother, Martha Dodds Walsh, another sibling of Alexander, Isabella and Gilbert. Unfortunately, the information for Alexander which is offered on the website is much more limited. The service card (Figure 3) barely confirms the information on the death certificate, inasmuch as there is a burial record for an Alexander Dodds, but it offers no details about date of death, or parents’ names.
Alexander’s age at the time of death, 40, is also in conflict with the information on the death certificate, which stated that he was 49 years old at the time of death. However, it may have been a transcription error, and in any case, the funeral director, “Geo. J. Altman,” is a match to the George J. Altman who was reported on Alexander’s death certificate as the undertaker.
Gilbert M. Dodds
Last, but not least, we have the death certificate for Gilbert M. Dodds (Figure 4).
The image quality here is only slightly better than that for Alexander’s death certificate, but the record states that Gilbert died on 4 January 1898 of pernicious anemia, a form of anemia caused by a deficiency in vitamin B12, with which he had been diagnosed five years previously. He was buried that same month in St. Catharines, Ontario, but the name of the cemetery was not provided, nor is the exact date of burial legible. Gilbert was reported to be age 42 years, 3 months and 25 days at the time of his death, suggesting a birth date of 11 September 1855. Estimates for his year of birth as suggested by census records and other documents ranged between 1855–1860, but the earliest records (e.g. the 1861 census)10 pointed to a birth year of 1855, so this certificate is in excellent agreement. He was married at the time of his death, and employed as a driver. As expected, Gilbert was born in Canada, but had been living in Buffalo for five years prior to his death, which implies an arrival in the U.S. circa 1893, so his arrival coincided with that of his sister, Isabella Smith. His last residence was at 408 Massachusetts Avenue, in close proximity to the final residences reported by his siblings (Figure 5). Finally, the certificate identifies Gilbert’s parents as Robert Dodds, born in England, and Catherine Dodds, born in Canada.
Experienced genealogists know how valuable death records can be, especially when they identify the parents of the deceased. They’re also relatively easy to obtain, with just a letter and a check in the mail, so I’m always amazed by the fact that so many family historians only mention them in their trees when the scans are available online. The most significant drawback is that the information on a death certificate was not provided by the individual himself or herself, but rather by a family member or some other individual who was more or less acquainted with the deceased. Thanks to these death certificates, I was able to discover exact dates of birth for Dodds siblings Alexander, Gilbert, and Isabella Smith, as well as an exact date of death for Alexander. I identified Alexander’s final resting place as Lakeview Cemetery, which opens up the possibility of further research in cemetery records, in case they might have anything that’s not online. I obtained corroborating evidence for a number of previously-known facts in my family tree. And, although these certificates did nothing to dispel the confusion over Catherine Dodds’ place of birth, the certificate for Isabella Smith added to the growing body of evidence in support of the hypothesis that Catherine was a Grant by birth. All in all, that was a pretty good day, indeed.
11901 Census of Canada, Ontario population schedule, Lincoln and Niagara district no. 85, St. Catharines sub-district K, division no. 6, household no. 117, James Carty household; database with images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/ : 17 August 2021), item no. 2026840, image no. z000079820, citing microfilm T-6480, RG31.
2 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1935, vol. 820, no. 4549, Martha Dodds Walsh, 11 August 1935; Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.
3 “Ontario Deaths, 1869-1937 and Overseas Deaths, 1939-1947,” database, FamilySearch, (https://familysearch.org/ : 8 May 2021), Hannah Carty, 3 June 1914; Deaths > 1914 > no 19125-22410 > image 370 of 1638; citing Registrar General. Archives of Ontario, Toronto.
4 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1917, vol. 273, no. 6001, Isabell H. Smith, 22 September 1917, Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.
5 1910 United States Federal Census, Erie County, New York, population schedule, Buffalo Ward 21, Enumeration District 206, Sheet 7A, house no. 18 1/2, family no. 27, William Smith household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 18 August 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 947 of 1,178 rolls, FHL microfilm 1374960.
7 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1899, Vol. 34, no. 258, Alexander Dodds, 13 April 1899; Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo NY 14202.
8 Forest Lawn Cemetery Group, burial records database, Forest Lawn (https://forest-lawn.com/ : 18 August 2021), service card for Alexander Dodds, buried Lakeside Cemetery, block one, grave 142.
9 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1898, vol. 21, no. 71, Gilbert M. Dodds, 4 January 1898; Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo NY 14202.
10 1861 Census of Canada, population schedule, Canada West, Lincoln, Grantham, Enumeration District 4, p 80, lines 1-9, Robert Dodds household; digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 19 April 2021 ), Item no. 1884852, citing Microfilm C-1048-1049.
If you’re reading this, you probably know how time-consuming genealogy can be. The supply of historical documents and individuals to research is endless, so before sitting down for a research session, it’s important to always be asking ourselves, “What is it I want to know?” Having a specific question in mind can help drive you toward the sources of information that are most relevant to the problem.
When I’m researching a DNA match, for example, my essential question is, “How am I related to this person?” I’m not interested in fully documenting that person’s family history; I just want to get to the documents that will allow me to connect him or her to my family tree. I think of this method as “quick and dirty genealogy,” but “goal-focused genealogy” might be a more accurate description. During or after the research session, I’m still careful to create source citations for each document I find, extract each piece of information from each document (e.g. name, date and place of birth, place of residence, etc.), and attach those source citations to each fact I create in my family tree. Nonetheless, keeping my focus on the goal permits me to ignore a lot of “low-hanging fruit”—documents that turn up quickly in a search of historical records databases (e.g. Ancestry or FamilySearch), but aren’t likely to give me the information I need to solve the problem. For example, if the 1940 census and the 1920 census both turn up in a database search for a given research target, I’m likely to ignore the 1940 census and investigate the 1920 census result. Why? Because the 1940 census didn’t ask questions about year of immigration or year of naturalization, while the 1920 census did ask those questions, and the information provided by that census record about immigration and naturalization is relevant to the process of tracing immigrant ancestors back to the Old Country. Recently, staying goal-focused enabled me to discover, in about 20 minutes, how a DNA match was related to me, and it made me so happy that I want to share that story with you today.
Introducing Fred Kowalski
Since this is a story about our Polish origins, I’ll call my DNA match Fred Kowalski (not his real name). Fred appeared in my list of autosomal DNA matches at 23&Me, and we were reported to share DNA in a single segment consisting of 51 centimorgans (cM, a unit for measuring genetic distance) on Chromosome 15. Shared matches gave me no clues regarding how we might be related; I didn’t recognize a single name in the list. In his profile on 23&Me, Fred reported that all four grandparents were born in Poland, and he gave me six family surnames to work with, including one that was familiar to me: Słoński. Painting the match onto my chromosome map at DNA Painter revealed that the segment shared with Fred falls into a larger segment of DNA which I inherited from my maternal grandmother, consistent with my preliminary hypothesis that our relationship might be through the Słoński family. Fred’s real surname is not especially popular, so a quick internet search turned up an online obituary for his father. From there, I used the subscription database at Newspapers to find an obituary for his grandmother. I’ll begin the story with her.
The Bengier Family of Steubenville, Ohio
Fred’s grandparents were Peter J. and Constance A. Bengier of Steubenville, Ohio. Constance’s obituary was very informative, but for the sake of this narrative, the most important information was that she was born in Poland on 6 April 1889 to Joseph and Anna Kujawa, and that she married Peter Bengier on 4 February 1907.
Constance’s Social Security application (Figure 2) provided somewhat different information about her parents’ names, in that her father’s name was reported to be Stanley, rather than Joseph. Since Constance would have provided the information for this form herself, rather than another family member providing it after her death, we can consider the information from the Social Security Applications and Claims index to be more reliable than the obituary in this regard.
The 1930 census (Figure 3) provided additional details relevant to tracing the family back to Poland. Although the information on the entire family group is important when documenting the family history, my focus was on tracing the family back to Poland, and the data that was most germane to that issue is contained within the red box.
According to the census, Constance Bengier was age 41, suggesting a birth year circa 1889, nicely consistent with previous data from the Social Security application and her obituary. The census record offers enough additional evidence (such as names of other family members) for us to be certain that this Constance Bengier is a match to the Constance Bengier in the obituary. Once we establish that fact, then the most important piece of new information found in this record is her year of immigration, 1910, and the fact that her husband and oldest daughter also reported immigrating in that year. We would expect to find all of them on the same passenger manifest, or possibly on two different manifests, if Peter came over first to secure employment and lodging before sending for his wife and child.
The critical pieces of information that are required at minimum in order to locate an immigrant in records from his or her home country are the person’s name, approximate date of birth, parents’ names, and specific place of origin. With Constance Kujawa Bengier, I was nearly ready. The missing piece was evidence for her place of origin.
The Bengier Family of Wola, But Which One?
Since the 1930 census provided information about the year of arrival, I decided to seek a passenger manifest next. The Hamburg emigration manifest popped up first, revealing that Konstancia (or Konstancja, modern Polish spelling) Bengier departed from the port of Hamburg on 29 September 1910 at the age of 21, along with her 3-month-old daughter, Walerya (or Waleria, in modern Polish; Figure 4).
The ages matched well with my expectations based on previous data. Given the propensity of immigrants for adapting their given names to sound more “American,” I was not surprised to find that the original name of the daughter, “Voila” (or Viola) from the 1930 census, was actually Waleria. If additional confirmation were required before concluding that this was the correct passenger manifest, the corresponding Ellis Island arrival manifest could also be located. In those days, it took about 2 weeks for a steamship to cross the Atlantic. Assuming no manifest turned up with a search of indexed records, one could browse the manifests in Ancestry’s database, “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” and look for the arrival of the Cleveland at the port of New York some time in mid-October 1910. However, as it happens, Ancestry’s database is incomplete, and there are instances such as this where the arrival manifest is not found. If this happens, Ellis Island arrivals can be searched directly at the Ellis Island site, or via Steve Morse’s more sophisticated One-Step search form. (Konstancja’s Ellis Island arrival manifest is here. It confirms and extends the information found in the Hamburg emigration manifest, but I won’t discuss it in detail since it was not part of my original research process.)
The key piece of information found in this manifest that permitted me to advance the search was her place of residence, which was recorded as “Wola,” in Russia. (If you’re wondering why a woman who said she was Polish in 1930 might have been coming from Russia in 1910, there’s an overview of those border changes here.) Now, if this were an ordinary research process, and not one guided by DNA, I would have needed a time-out here to fall back and regroup, and seek additional sources of documentation for Konstancja’s place of birth. That’s because “Wola” is one of those Polish place names that’s so common that it strikes fear into the hearts of even seasoned Polish genealogists. Just how common is it? Mapa.szukacz.pl, which is an interactive Polish map site, reveals that there are 848 places called Wola, or containing Wola in the full name, within the borders of Poland today. And that’s not counting all the additional places called Wola that were previously part of Poland, but are outside of Poland’s current borders.
The situation would have been ameliorated somewhat by the fact that Konstancja’s Wola was recorded as being located in the Russian partition, so we could safely ignore all the places called Wola that were within the German and Austrian partitions. Nonetheless, that would still leave us with a lot of places called Wola to check, unless we could find some additional documentation (naturalization records, church records, military records, etc.) that might provide some geographic clues to help us narrow the field. However, this was not an ordinary research process; it’s a genetic genealogy story, and one with a happy ending.
The Missing Link
Since my hypothesis was that I was related to Konstancja Kujawa Bengier through the family of her mother, Anna Słońska, I immediately suspected that “Wola” might be Wola Koszucka, a village belonging to the Roman Catholic parish of Kowalewo-Opactwo, where I’d found records for my Słoński ancestors. This Wola was in the Russian Empire in 1910, so it would fit the description found in the passenger manifest. Records for this area are indexed in a number of different databases, including Geneteka, BaSIA, the Poznan [marriage] Project and Słupca Genealogy. Each of those databases has its strengths and weaknesses, and there’s a fair amount of overlapping coverage between them. I decided to cut to the chase and search for a marriage record for Stanisław Kujawa and Anna Słońska first, since that would tell me Anna’s parents’ names, rather than searching for a marriage record for Piotr Bengier and Konstancja Kujawa, or a birth record for Konstancja. I plugged in my search parameters at the Słupca Genealogy site, and there it was, bada boom, bada bing! The marriage record for Stanisław Kujawa and Anna Słońksa which connected the dots (Figure 5).
The record is in Russian, and here’s how I translate it:
This happened in Kowalewo on the first/thirteenth day of November in the year one thousand eight hundred eighty-two at three o’clock in the afternoon. We declare that in the presence of witnesses Antoni Zieliński, age fifty, and Józef Buczkowski, age forty, both owners* of Wola Koszutska, on this day was celebrated a religious marriage between Stanisław Kujawa, bachelor of Wilczna, born in Cienin Kościelny, 27-year-old son of the laborers Łukasz and his deceased wife, Wiktoria née Przybylska Kujawa, and Anna Słońska, single, born and residing with her parents in Wola Koszutska, daughter of Antoni and Marianna Słoński née Kowalska, age twenty-two. The marriage was preceded by three announcements published on the eighth, fifteenth, and twenty-second days of October of this year in the local parish churches of Kowalewo and Cienin Kościelny. The newlyweds declared that they had no prenuptial agreement between them. This Act was read to the illiterate newlyweds and witnesses, and was signed by Us only. [Signed] Fr. Rzekanowski.”
*хозяева, a word which can mean hosts, landlords, owners, proprietors, or masters. In my experience, it’s used to describe the same individuals who were described in Polish-language records as gospodarze, peasant farmers who owned their own land.
The record stated that Anna was the daughter of Antoni Słoński and Marianna Kowalska, and her age at the time of her marriage 22, suggested a birth year circa 1860. I checked my family tree, and there she was, quietly sitting there the whole time, waiting to be rediscovered. Many years ago, I had added Anna to my family tree when I found her birth record, but I had never gone further with seeking a marriage record for her, or birth records for her children. Anna was born on 14 July 1860,6 and she was in my tree because her father, Antoni, was the son of Bonawentura Słoński and his second wife, Marianna Muszyńska, as evidenced by both Antoni’s birth record7 and the record of his marriage to Marianna Kowalska.8 But wait, there’s more! Bonawentura Słoński was the brother of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Barbara (nee Słońska) Dąbrowska. Barbara and Bonawentura were both children of Wojciech Słoński and Marianna Duras,9 and it is they who are the most recent shared ancestors between me and this DNA match, whom I can now state is my documented fifth cousin once removed. Wojciech Słoński and Marianna Duras are the genetic and documentary link that connects me to the Bengier family of Steubenville, Ohio.
1 “Deaths and Funerals: Mrs. C.A. Bengier,” The Weirton Daily Times (Weirton, West Virginia), 3 August 1970, p. 2, col. 1; Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com/ : 8 August 2021).
2 “Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007,” database, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : 8 August 2021), Constance Anna Bengier, born 6 April 1889, SSN 268447885.
3 1930 United States Federal Census, Harrison County, Ohio, population schedule, Geman township, E.D. 34-10, Sheet 7B, dwelling no. 174, family no. 175, Pete Bengier household; database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : 8 August 2021), citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm publication T626, 2,667 rolls, no specific roll cited.
4 Manifest, SS Cleveland, departing 29 September 1910, p 2226, lines 288 and 289, Konstancia Bengier and Walerya Bengier; imaged as “Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 8 August 2021), citing Staatsarchiv Hamburg; Hamburg, Deutschland; Hamburger Passagierlisten; Volume: 373-7 I, VIII A 1 Band 226; Page: 2222; Microfilm No.: K_1815.
DNA Painter is one of the coolest websites out there for genetic genealogy, offering an arsenal of tools to help genealogists visualize and understand their DNA matches through chromosome mapping. Let’s face it, there is tremendous aesthetic appeal in generating chromosome maps with neat little color-coded segments indicating specific chunks of DNA that can be traced back to a particular ancestor. But beyond just the aesthetics, it’s very useful to be able to predict how one must be related to an unknown DNA match, based on the location of the matching segment(s). In order to generate a useful chromosome map, however, there are decisions that must first be made about which matches to paint, so today I’d like to offer a few tips on how to do that, based on my own experience with using DNA Painter.
Getting Started with DNA Painter
DNA Painter is the brain child of Jonny Perl, a web developer and genealogist based in London, UK. He has created a very user-friendly site with a host of linked blog posts, webinars, videos, and instructions right on the site, making it easy for beginners to get started with chromosome mapping. Nonetheless, chromosome mapping isn’t exactly intuitive, and some thought is required to produce a good map. Therefore, there are some questions you should ask yourself before you begin.
What is My Goal?
For many of us, it’s inherently cool to be able to visualize a segment of DNA, lurking in nearly every cell of one’s body, and know that it was inherited from a particular ancestor who lived decades or centuries ago. If you’re content with knowing in a general way that your DNA was inherited from previous generations in your family, and you really don’t care about pinpointing a 46-centiMorgan segment on Chromosome 12 that you inherited from your great-great-great-grandfather, then maybe chromosome mapping isn’t your thing. But if you’d like to use a chromosome map to better understand your DNA match list, then your initial goal should be to create a map that identifies segments you inherited from each of your four grandparents.
On average, 25% of a person’s DNA was inherited from each of the four grandparents, but this number can vary a bit due to the randomness of genetic recombination. If you can identify on each chromosome the specific segments of DNA that were inherited from each grandparent, you can use this as a first step toward understanding unknown DNA matches.
Once you’ve established this goal, then you can decide which of your DNA matches to paint onto your chromosome map, based on the criterion of whether or not painting this match will bring you closer to your goal. The thing is, just because you can paint a match doesn’t mean you should paint it, as some of them will not be especially informative.
For example, if you have DNA test data from a parent, you could paint that on your chromosome map. But there’s no point in doing so, because you already know that you have inherited one of each of your 22 autosomes from your mother, and one from your father. By painting your DNA matches with a parent, all you’ve done is change the color of the canvas on which you’re painting your matches. Not sure what I mean by that? Figure 1 shows the blank canvas you start with, courtesy of DNA Painter.
Now let’s say I’ve tested my mother, and I want to paint that DNA match onto my chromosome map. Figure 2 shows how that looks.
You can see that all I’ve done here is to change those pink bars to lavender, which is not very informative. As a side note, you will see some regions on certain chromosomes where the lavender color does not “paint” all the way to the tip of the chromosome. That’s because those tips correspond to regions which exhibit a low density of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, or “snips”). Family Tree DNA does not test those SNP-poor regions, and since the segment data used in this map came from Family Tree DNA, we see those “unpainted” regions.
Similarly, some close matches, such as a full-blooded aunt or uncle, don’t help you identify the segments of DNA you inherited from each of your four grandparents. Why? A full-blooded aunt or uncle, let’s say on the paternal side, will have inherited a mix of DNA from your paternal grandparents, just as your father did. But painting these segments only tells you which bits of DNA were passed down from your grandparents to both the paternal aunt or uncle and to you. It doesn’t bring you any closer to knowing which paternal grandparent provided those segments. Additionally, painting DNA matches from a sibling onto your chromosome map isn’t particularly useful, because it only identifies segments that you both inherited from your parents. It doesn’t help you to assign those segments to either parent, or any grandparents.
Note that there are other great reasons for testing one’s siblings, and the data that comes from those tests can be very useful. For example, if you have data from three siblings, but none of their parents, you can do visual phasing, which will assign segments of DNA to each grandparent. Blaine Bettinger offers a 5-part tutorial on visual phasing here, and Andy and Devon Lee of Family History Fanatics offer a tutorial on visual phasing using only two siblings here. Note that visual phasing as described in these tutorials is not for the faint of heart; DNA Painter is much easier.
The best matches to paint are the ones with whom you share DNA from only one of your four grandparents, or those with whom you share DNA from generations earlier than that. Therefore, second cousins are ideal, as are any half first cousins you might have. Don’t despair, however, if you don’t have a huge selection of “ideal” matches to paint; you’ve just got to go with what you’ve got. My mom’s paternal grandfather, Joseph Zielinski, was the only one of the ten children in his family to marry and have children; all the rest died unmarried, before the age of 32. This means that every single one of Mom’s paternal second cousins is a match on her grandmother’s side. I have to go back at least one generation, to the level of 3C or more distant cousins, before I can hope to find any matches to her paternal grandfather’s family. Similarly, my paternal grandmother had only one sister who died at the age of 14, so my only paternal second cousins are on my grandfather’s side. If you know you come from a small family, it becomes even more important to research your family tree as thoroughly as you can, in the hope of identifying cousins from whom you can beg DNA samples.
Putting it all together, then, here is my list of tips for creating an ancestral chromosome map, focused on mapping your chromosomes to each of your four grandparents.
Don’t paint willy-nilly. Think before you paint, and ask yourself if painting this match will bring you closer to your goal of identifying (at minimum) segments inherited from each of your four grandparents.
Don’t paint matches to parents, full siblings, half siblings, or full aunts or uncles, as these will not help you identify segments inherited from each of your four grandparents. You can, of course, create separate profiles at DNA Painter for each person you test, and keep track of their DNA matches as well as your own. The ability to create multiple profiles for chromosome mapping is a benefit available with a subscription to DNA Painter; you can create one profile for free with a basic membership.
Similarly, matches to first cousins, and first cousins X-times removed, will not help you identify which portions of your chromosomes were inherited from which grandparent. Full first cousins share both grandparents with you on either your maternal or paternal side. Therefore it’s not possible to identify the grandparent who contributed the DNA from any segments you share, so painting those matches is not informative.
Try the Inferred Segment Generator for additional segments to map. This is a really neat tool that uses deductive reasoning to generate segments. I used it to generate segments from my maternal grandfather to paint onto my chromosome map. The principle here is simple: the chromosomes that I inherited from my mother must be a mixture of DNA she inherited from her mother, and DNA she inherited from her father. Since I was able to test my maternal grandmother before she passed away, I know precisely which segments I inherited from her. So, by deduction, I know that the remaining portions of my maternal chromosomes where I do not match Grandma, must have come from Grandpa.
If there’s good evidence (e.g. through triangulation) to suggest that a segment was inherited from an earlier ancestor (great-grandparent, great-great-grandparent, etc.) by all means, paint it.
If you have test data from a particular relative, additional test data from descendants of that relative will be less informative, so you may want to skip painting it. Figure 3 illustrates this. The blue bars represent DNA segments which I share with a documented third cousin (3C), and the red bars represent the DNA that I share with her daughter, my third cousin once removed (3C1R). I’ll definitely want to paint those blue segments onto my chromosome map at DNA Painter, because those segments represent DNA which I inherited from one of the great-great-grandparents that I have in common with that cousin. However, my 3C1R cannot inherit any DNA from our common ancestors unless it came through her parent (my 3C). The only exception to this would be in cases where her parents are related. So, the red bars will necessarily be fewer and shorter than the blue bars, and painting those segments of DNA onto my chromosome map will not provide any new information about regions of my own chromosomes that can be assigned to particular ancestral couples. Of course, you may choose to paint them anyway, if you just want to keep track of all of your DNA segment data this way, and you would definitely want to paint the matches to a 3C1R if you don’t have test data from your 3C.
At the end of the day, how you map your chromosomes is really a personal choice. Maybe you just want to create one heck of a colorful map, including data from your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and all your first cousins, and if that’s the case, then go for it! After some trial and error, I’ve found that this mapping strategy works best for me, because it focuses on quality of information, rather than quantity. Maybe it will help some of you, too. Happy mapping!
Like many of the genetic genealogists out there, I’ve come to love DNA Painter as a tool for getting the most out of my DNA test data. So, today I want to share how I use it to help me better understand my DNA matches.
In order to keep this post fairly short and sweet, I’m going to assume that anyone reading this will have some familiarity with the basic concepts in genetic genealogy. If you don’t, you might want to read about using your match list at Ancestry, or check out some of my advice for beginners, relating to DNA testing, or visit one of the many other blogs or Facebook groups out there that are geared toward genetic genealogy.
DNA Painter is a fantastic tool for many reasons, but I especially love it because it gives me one place to keep all my segment data from the various test companies (Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, and 23&Me) or third-party applications (GEDmatch) that provide it, visually identifying which segments were inherited from which ancestors. Why is this helpful? Here’s an example.
Let’s say I have a match at 23&Me who is entirely unknown to me. We’ll call him K.C. (All initials of living individuals have been changed in this post.) He has no information in his profile on 23&Me regarding where he lives, when he was born, or any surnames he’s researching. Half his ancestry is Northwestern European, and the other half is Ashkenazi Jewish, so we’re almost certainly related on the Northwestern European side. His breakdown within that category isn’t especially helpful; we’re both a mix of British & Irish, French & German, and Broadly Northwestern European in varying proportions, which represents my paternal side. I don’t know where he lives or when he was born, and his name is sufficiently common that standard internet search techniques (e.g. searching for death notices in which he’s named as a surviving relative, or searches of databases such as Ancestry and Newspapers) don’t offer any clues. He’s pretty much a mystery.
An examination of Relatives in Common offers some insights, however. 23&Me reports that K.C. and I have relatives in common, which include E.T., E.S., and K.M., and that we all share DNA overlap, which is typically an indication that a particular segment of DNA was passed down to each of us from a common ancestor. Unfortunately, the situation with the latter two matches is not much better than it is with K.C. There’s not much information to go on in their profiles, and I don’t know how I’m related to them. However, I do have one glimmer of hope that I can leverage: E.T. is my second cousin. In “View DNA Details” at the 23&Me site, I select, “Compare with More Relatives,” and take a closer look at Chromosome 7, where we all share DNA, using myself as the base comparison (Figure 1).
In the diagram above, the underlying gray represents my paternal Chromosome 7. The purple segments are where my second cousin, E.T., shares DNA with me on that chromosome. As per the key, the orange segment represents shared DNA that I share with K.C., the yellow is shared DNA with E.S., and the blue is shared DNA with K.M. The areas where the colored regions stack on top of each other are areas of triangulation, where we all match each other, presumably because we share a common ancestor. But which ancestor might that be?
While my match list at 23&Me doesn’t provide any clues in that regard, my ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter does. My ancestral chromosome map represents a visual summary of all of my known DNA match data from any test company or third-party application which provides segment data. Each time I’m able to document a genealogical relationship between myself and a living relative whose DNA data are found at one of those websites, I can “paint” the segments of shared DNA onto my ancestral chromosome map, and assign those segments to the common ancestral couple from whom that DNA match and I both descend. The more complete I can make my map, the more useful it is at informing my understanding of unknown DNA matches.
Let’s take a look at my paternal Chromosome 7 on my map from DNA Painter (Figure 2).
The map consists of a number of colored bars of varying lengths. Each bar represents a segment of DNA shared between me and a living DNA match. I’ve removed the names of the matches in most cases, although the colored bars that are relevant to this discussion are identified by black bars on the right, labelled with the pseudo-initials of the DNA match.
The key tells us that my ancestral map of my paternal Chromsosome 7 consists of DNA segments that can be traced to one of three ancestral couples: Wenzeslaus Meier and Anna Goetz (my great-great-grandparents), Katherine Walsh and John Frank Roberts (my great-grandparents), and Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson (my great-great-great-grandparents). Figure 2a shows a family tree, for reference.
We know that my paternal copy of every autosome (Chromosomes 1-22) will contain DNA inherited from both my dad’s mother, Marie Boehringer, and my dad’s father, Harry Roberts. We can take this a step further. Any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandmother, Marie Boehringer, must have been given to her by either her father, John Boehringer, or her mother, Anna Meier. Similarly, any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandfather must have come from either his father, John Frank Roberts, or his mother, Katherine Walsh. So each and every one of my paternal autosomes could be said to be a mixture of Roberts, Walsh, Boehringer, and Meier DNA. Bear in mind that the same pattern would be true for the chromosomes I inherited from my mom; those chromosomes must represent the four surnames of her grandparents.)
Going back now to the chromosome map, the map gets further refined as I am able to identify DNA matches with whom I share more distant ancestry. As mentioned, there’s a green segment on the map that represents DNA inherited from my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. They were the grandparents of Katherine Walsh, so it makes sense that this green segment of DNA would necessarily overlap with the royal blue DNA segment that I share with a Walsh/Roberts descendant. If it somehow overlapped with the light blue of the Meier/Goetz line, it would be an indication that I’d made some errors in assigning segments to ancestors. That green segment now helps me refine my understanding of my DNA in that region. When I only have the royal blue segment to consider, I know only that either John Frank Roberts or Katherine Walsh contributed that DNA. However, thanks to the additional data—that green segment—I know that the portion of the royal blue “Roberts/Walsh DNA” that overlaps with the green “Walsh/Hodgkinson DNA” in Figure 2 must have come from Katherine Walsh and not John Frank Roberts.
Now let’s see how this map can give me a starting point for understanding how I’m related to those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. As mentioned, E.T. is the only one of these DNA matches shown in Figure 1 to whom I know how I’m related; she’s my second cousin. So let’s start by focusing only on the segments of Chromosome 7 where I match her (Figure 3).
Since there’s a lot going on, visually, in the ancestral chromosome map shown in Figure 2, I’ve marked with stars those three segments where E.T. matches me, so it’s a little easier to focus on them (Figure 4).
As you can see in Figures 1 and 3, there’s a break between the segments of DNA that I share with E.T., represented as that gray region disrupting the purple regions, that runs from (approximately) position 32,356,335 to position 55,601,336. This represents DNA that E.T. and I do not share. This break is highlighted in the zoomed-in, side-by-side comparison of the chromosome map from 23&Me with the ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter (Figure 5).
Notice that the first half of that gap corresponds to that 13 cM segment of DNA, colored in green, that I share with I.N., whose common ancestors with me were Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. So, this tells me that in the first part of the gap region where I don’t share DNA with E.T., I inherited my DNA from the Walsh line. That’s important, because when we go back to Figure 1, the first part of that gap is where I share DNA with those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. So this tells me that it’s very likely that the common ancestors from which all of us descend are from the Walsh/Hodgkinson line (Figure 6).
At this point, you may be saying, “Who cares?!” But I think it’s incredibly cool and powerful that I can go from having no information at all about three of my DNA matches on 23&Me, to suddenly knowing that we must be related through some common ancestor of either Robert Walsh or Elizabeth Hodgkinson, even when I have no matches in the 23&Me database to cousins with whom Robert and Elizabeth are the most recent common ancestral couple. Thank you, DNA Painter!
Please note that DNA Painter also offers the option to paint segment data from unknown matches directly into one’s chromosome map, so I could have made this same observation about my relationship to K.C., E.S., and K.M. that way. However, my personal preference is to keep my chromosome map “clean” and not add segment data until I determine how the match is related to me. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much how we make these observations; the point is that we have the tools that make the observations possible. Going forward, I can write to these matches to see if they’ll give me further information about their family trees, I can look for clues in the family trees of additional shared matches, and I can play the long game and see what other matches are added to the test company databases over time that might shed some light on the situation. Ultimately, DNA matches can offer fantastic clues to help answer genealogical questions and identify unknown ancestors, so it’s worth taking the time to explore those matches.
You know that old saying, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes”? It’s true for family historians as well. I’m reminded of this as my daughter’s high school graduation is looming large, and she still has no baby album.
My beautiful, cherished, Catherine was not only our fourth child, she was also a very high-need baby, wanting to be held all the time, not content to play in her baby seat or bat at the toys hanging from her baby gym. And as comedian Jim Gaffigan quipped, ““Do you want to know what it’s like to have a fourth [child]? Just imagine you’re drowning, and then someone hands you a baby.” My life was filled with carpools, swimming lessons, after-school Spanish classes, preschool pickups, parent-teacher conferences, play dates, and more. Catherine entered the world at 6:29 am on a Saturday, and it’s a good thing she got here early, because my husband had to leave to coach our 9-year-old’s iceless hockey game a few hours later.
Despite all that we had going on, I had the best of intentions for preserving her babyhood. I lovingly recorded all her “firsts” in her baby calendar, just as I did with her brothers. I took the time to cross-stitch a baby bib with her name on it, just as I did with each of the boys. And I took so many photographs. In those days when digital photography was really starting to come into its own, I was slow to make the switch from my 35 mm camera. I feared that digital photography would lead to a bunch of computer images that would never be looked at, never be made into albums. So instead, I opted for photo prints that take up more space—and still were not made into albums.
It’s not like I never made photo albums. I was just slow. I wanted to do it right, and make personalized, scrapbook-style albums that included a bit of journaling and notes about each event. I made each of my sons a baby album that encompassed his first year, and then I made family photo albums as well, spanning the early years of our marriage and family life. By early 2007, when Catherine had just turned four, I think I’d gotten up to Christmas of 1999 in our family photo albums. I felt like I was starting to have more time to myself again, so getting caught up on those photo albums seemed like a very reasonable goal. I was only eight years behind, after all!
Then my husband was laid off from his job in northern Illinois, and we made the decision to move our family a thousand miles away so that he could start his dream job in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Between packing and moving and getting settled and decorating a new house and keeping up with all the children’s activities and my own volunteer commitments, the years kept flying by. Catherine’s non-existent baby album became something of a family joke. By the time she was six, she decided she should stipulate a deadline: she’d really like that baby album by the time she graduated from high school. Moreover, she didn’t just want a Shutterfly-type album like the one I eventually created for my Grandma’s 90th birthday, with uploaded photos and a nice leather cover. She wanted an album just like the ones I’d made for the boys—covered in soft fabric, trimmed with eyelet around the edges, with grosgrain ribbons to tie it closed, and an eyelet-edged photo frame on the cover, personalized with her name. (I’d been pretty crafty back in the day.) I agreed, of course. It seemed like I had such a long time to get the job done.
At some point, it became overwhelming, all those boxes of photographs — even though they were all neatly organized by date—not to mention all the school report cards, award certificates, sports team photos, and special school projects that were deemed worthy of assignment to the family’s “sentimental archives.” I love discovering family stories, and the stories of generations past always seemed so urgent. There’s always tomorrow, I thought, to tell my own family’s stories, to preserve my children’s heritage. So the eight-year lag in the family photo albums somehow became fourteen years, and in all those years of soccer games, play practices, music lessons, homework, summer vacations, graduations, softball practices, Buffalo trips, driving lessons, and caring for aging parents, my baby girl has grown into a beautiful young woman in front of my eyes, who graduates from high school next weekend. Suddenly, I’m out of time.
I certainly do appreciate the irony in this situation. A few weeks ago, I was bemoaning the fact that my parents saved so much stuff for me to sort through in order to sell their house. Now, I have become my parents. I’ve been feeling a little panicky as I go through boxes in the the basement, trying to find my 8×10″ copies of her 3-month, 6-month, 9-month, and 12-month portraits to go along with all the snapshots, and I can’t believe how much dust has accumulated on those boxes in the storage area, almost as if they’d been sitting there for years. But how can that be? The days are long, but the years are short, indeed.
I’m finally making good progress, I think. After some quality time spent with my hot glue gun, I should have the album itself done by the end of the weekend. Filling it with all the photos from my baby’s first year might take a little longer, but with her typical grace and good nature, Catherine is cutting me some slack in that regard. Having gained some momentum with the project, I’m confident that I can get this finished in a timely fashion, because I’ve gained a new sense of urgency. Tomorrow is not promised, and suddenly I feel as though I’ve neglected my immediate family history for long enough. My dead ancestors aren’t going anywhere. Right now it’s time to celebrate the living.
Yesterday was a bittersweet day for me. We closed the sale of my parents’ home, the home they custom-built in 2004 with an in-law apartment for my Grandma, Helen Zielinski, so she could live with them after Grandpa died. There were a lot of memories in that home, although (mercifully) not so many as there would have been had they lived there all their married lives. Nonetheless, cleaning it out prior to the sale was an enormous task, and one that fell entirely to my husband and me, since my mother passed away last October, my Dad was unable to participate due to his own health concerns, and my only sibling was unable to travel due to the pandemic. Since Mom and Dad’s home was located in Western New York, it was a solid 440 miles away from where I live in Massachusetts, necessitating a dedicated trip and a week of vacation days to go back and deal with the clean-out. Fortunately, my husband still has family in that area as well, so my sisters-in-love, Kristi and Kerri, generously made time to help with the sorting, shredding, donating, unpacking, and repacking that go with the job.
If you’ve ever cleaned out a house before, you know how overwhelming the task can seem. Mom and Dad had a very large basement that was packed with furniture, antiques, holiday decorations, unused home furnishings, and family treasures, all carefully organized in plastic storage bins and cardboard boxes. Mom had all of the boxes neatly labelled regarding their contents, but she and Dad saved everything. Pretty much every greeting card ever received, every report card, college notebook, every drawing made by a grandchild—it was all down in that basement, in rows of boxes stacked along the walls around the perimeter of the basement. It reminded me of that final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it wasn’t just Mom and Dad’s stuff. There were things in that basement from my grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family, as well as my Mom’s maternal uncle, Joseph “J” Zazycki, whom she cared for in his final years. Grandma and Grandpa Zielinski’s entire bedroom set was there, with bed, mattress and both dressers, along with Grandma’s sewing machine, which I have vivid memories of watching her use when I was a child. There were the paintings that used to hang in their living room, the glider that once stood in front of their garage, the photo album that Grandma made with all the photos from her honeymoon, and the lamps that I remembered from the spare bedroom where my sister and I shared a bed during sleepovers at Grammy and Grandpa’s house. There was the old greeting card box that Grandma repurposed for storing crayons so my sister and I could color pictures when we came to visit. Grandma was from the generation that wasted nothing, so the box included some of the free crayons given out by restaurants so small diners could color their paper menus—crayons that were not discarded after the meal, but carefully and lovingly preserved by Grandma. The smell from that box of crayons immediately took me back to Grandma’s kitchen table circa 1973. Love, care, and memories were packed into every box and every corner.
It wasn’t just the basement that needed going through. Although I’d moved some of their furniture and belongings out of the house when I moved Mom and Dad into an assisted living apartment near me, there were living areas that remained untouched, including Dad’s office. My mother was a first-rate bibliophile, and she had at least a thousand books, many of which were beautifully bound, gilt-edged, hardcover editions of literary classics that were precious to her, still filling the shelves on either side of the fireplace. I wish I could have kept all of it, but where? My own attic and basement are already full from the accumulation of treasures that accompanies years of raising children, and we don’t have as much storage space as my parents did. What does one do with all this stuff? As the old saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” I had to get in touch with my inner Marie Kondo and make some hard choices.
Some things ended up being easier to let go of than others, like the school desks. My mother had gone to elementary school at Our Lady of Częstochowa in North Tonawanda, New York, and at some point in the 1970s when the school was modernizing, they sold off the old-fashioned student desks. My parents decided to purchase two pairs of the desks, and Dad painstakingly refinished the wood, painted the metal legs, and mounted them on wood runners, after which my parents displayed them in the family room of our home in Cincinnati when I was growing up. My sister and I used to sit at them and play “school” when we were little, but I can’t see where they’d fit into my home today. Similarly, my Great-Grandpa John Boehringer’s fishing tackle box didn’t even make the “donate” pile, as it was all full of rusted fishing hooks and lures that seemed like a bad case of tetanus waiting to happen.
As a family historian, I hoped to balance the need for getting the job done quickly and efficiently, with the need for careful preservation of the family history. I’m not sure I was entirely successful in that regard, and I may live to regret some of the things that were donated, discarded, or sold at the estate sale. I prioritized saving photographs and any documents with historical value, although I decided to let go some of the newspapers they saved over the years, such as the last issue of Buffalo’s newspaper, the Courier-Express that was printed in 1982. (Probably half the population of Buffalo has a copy in their basement.) I saved the oak porch swing that Dad made that used to hang in front of the rose trellis at their house on Patton Place, but I said goodbye to the old Cardinal phonograph that my parents bought when we lived in Cincinnati.
Our old Fisher-Price toys had to go, as did the cedar chest, but I saved the afghans made by my Mom and by Nana Boehringer, my mother’s journals, and my Dad’s flight log books from when he obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 1971. Many of the documents from my Dad’s youth, such as his old report cards, were charred by the house fire that largely destroyed my paternal grandparents’ home in 1978 while they were vacationing in Florida, and I discovered all the documentation—insurance records, building receipts—related to rebuilding that house after the fire, which had been carefully saved by my grandfather.
As I sifted through the ephemera of half a dozen lifetimes, I was struck not only by what people chose to save, but also by how these things were saved. The heart-shaped wreath of roses that adorned her father’s casket was preserved by my mother with such care that not a petal was lost. All of her school report cards were organized into neat little packets. Uncle J’s wallet, address book, check registers, and vital records were all boxed together with his collection of family photos. My Dad, on the other hand, had a whole pile of letters and postcards from family, stashed in the bottom of his duffel bag from Vietnam, buried underneath his boots and flight suit. His Air Force dress uniform, on the other hand, was hung neatly in a wardrobe box, with all of his medals and ribbons still attached to the coat. My paternal grandfather’s wallet was intact, with all his credit cards, driver’s license, and precisely $37 in cash, exactly as he left it when he passed away in 1996. The money is worth less now than it was then, thanks to inflation, and one wonders why it was never removed. The wallet was tucked safely within a steel lockbox that previously belonged to his father-in-law (Grandpa John Boehringer), which also contained stock certificates from the 1930s from companies which no longer exist, and property tax receipts dating back to the 1950s for my grandparents’ home on Grand Island.
Such careful preservation serves as a silent testimony to each person’s values and circumstances. We come to know and understand our loved ones better through the cherished things they left behind.
Here are a few additional photos of some of my favorite finds:
It’s going to take me quite a while to sort through all the boxes of photos, papers and sentimental artifacts which I brought home from New York. Nothing is promised, but I hope to live long enough to organize the photos and documents in such a way that my kids will have a cohesive family history collection to preserve and pass on, or to dispose of as they see fit. Although family history is my passion, I don’t know if any of my kids will eventually take up the torch, and I know first-hand how material goods can quickly become burdensome if they were precious only to someone else. In the end, our greatest legacy is the love we show to our families, and the memories we make with them. The “stuff” is secondary; yet within those collections, there are stories waiting to be told.
Discoveries on my Dodds line are coming thick and fast these days, thanks to hints found in my paternal aunt’s DNA match list. This past week, I discovered the fate of one John H. Dodds, the fifth child of my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine (Grant or Irving?) Dodds. I’ve written about my Dodds family recently, and the question of Catherine’s parentage is one of the brick walls in my research, which was summarized here.
Introducing John Dodds
Like his brother, Alexander, who was the subject of my last blog post, John Dodds was first found to be living with his family in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1861 (Figure 1). John was seven years old, suggesting a birth year circa 1854. His father, Robert Dodds, was a laborer, born circa 1822 in England, and a W[esleyan] Methodist. His mother, Katherine [sic] Dodds, was born in Upper Canada circa 1830, according to this document, but that year is suspect since their oldest child, Hannah, was recorded as being 19 years of age, which would imply that Catherine gave birth to her at the age of 12.
By 1871, the family had moved to Yarmouth Township in Elgin County (Figure 2). John H. Dodds was reported to be 18 years of age, which suggests a birth year circa 1853. He was born in Ontario, was employed as a laborer, and was reported to be of English origin through his father, but of the Presbyterian faith, along with his Scottish mother. Despite the family’s varying religious practices, the names and ages of the family members confirm that this is the same Dodds family found in 1861. This census also suggests a more reasonable birth year of 1820 for John’s mother, Catherine Dodds, since she and her husband were both noted to be 51 years of age.
After this census, however, John H. Dodds seemed to disappear. There were no good matches for him living anywhere near other members of his family, and his name was sufficiently common that chasing down each John Dodds living in North America after 1871 seemed like a thankless task. As was the case with Alexander, the trail grew cold in absence of better clues.
DNA Shows the Way, Again
However, buoyed by my recent success with tracking down Alexander Dodds, I went back to Ancestry DNA to see if I could use my paternal grand-aunt’s match list to find any additional clues to illuminate my Dodds research. Although I most often use the “shared matches” feature for this, this time around I did a search of the match list for any matches which mentioned the surname Dodds in their family tree. A match came up to a woman whom I’ll call B.Y. (again, not her real initials) whose public, linked tree featured a great-great-grandfather named John Dodds. Although the parents of this John Dodds were not known, there was some promising evidence in the tree that suggested that this might be “my” John Dodds, son of Robert and Catherine. For starters, the 1900 census showed that John Dodds was born in February 1860 in English Canada, i.e. Ontario (Figure 3).
A birth year of 1860 would make him a few years younger than “my” John Dodds ought to be, given previous evidence that suggested a birth year circa 1853-1854. However, this census also notes that his wife, Lena Dodds, was born in January 1874, so it may have been that John was fudging a bit to minimize the 20-year age difference between him and his wife. The Dodds family was living in Pike township, Potter County, Pennsylvania—a rural area about 125 miles due south of Rochester, New York. Without this clue from DNA evidence, it’s safe to say I never would have thought to look for “my” John Dodds there, nor would I necessarily have recognized him as the same John Dodds, even if he did turn up in a search of this census. According to this census, John Dodds’ father was born in Canada and his mother was born in England, while the reverse is true for “my” John Dodds. Between that, and the discrepancy in his age, it would have been easy to dismiss any connection, based solely on this one document. But just wait.
By 1900, John had been married to his wife, Lena, for eight years, suggesting that they married circa 1892. John was employed as a farmer who owned his own farm. He was further reported to be an alien who had been living in the U.S. for 19 years, following his arrival in 1881. The year of arrival would explain his absence from the 1881 census of Canada. Lena Dodds was born in Pennsylvania, as were both of her parents. She was noted to be the mother of two children, both of whom were living at that time and appear in this census. Those children were Flossie H. Dodds, born February 1895, and Robert L. Dodds, born August 1897.
The death certificate for John and Lena’s son, Robert L. Dodds, confirmed the information in B.Y.’s linked tree, that Lena Dodds’ maiden name was Frazier (Figure 4).4
We can be certain that the Robert L. Dodds described in this death certificate is the same Robert L. Dodds as the son who appeared in the 1900 census because the date and place of birth, 20 August 1897 in [West] Pike, Pennsylvania, are a match.
John Dodds’ own death certificate confirmed that his father’s name was Robert Dodds (Figure 5).
According to this document, John Dodds died on 24 June 1941 in Ulysses, Pennsylvania—a borough in Potter County, the same county in which John was living in 1900. He was married, and his wife’s name was given only as Lena M. Dodds, no maiden name indicated. He was reported to have been born on 24 February 1860 in Canada, a data consistent with the date of February 1860 reported on the 1900 census. The day and month of birth may well be correct, even if the year is off. His father was identified as Robert Dodds, born in England, and his mother’s place of birth was identified as Canada, although her name was not known by the informant, Mrs. William Straitz of Coudersport, Pennsylvania.
So far, so good. Based on the preliminary evidence from these three documents, we can hypothesize that John Dodds of Potter County, Pennsylvania, who was the husband of Lena Frazier Dodds and was born in Canada circa 1860 to Robert Dodds and an unknown mother, is the same as the John H. Dodds in my family tree. If this hypothesis is correct, then B.Y. would be a second cousin twice removed (2C2R) to my Dad’s aunt. The amount of DNA shared between them, 51 centimorgans (cM), is consistent with this relationship, although other relationships are also possible, including 1/2 2C2R, which is statistically more probable than 2C2R. (That’s another question for another day.) At this point, I figured we could really use a marriage record for John Dodds and Lena Frazier, indicating parents’ names, to tie all this together.
You know those late-night research sessions where you’re on a roll, and things are moving fast, and in the heady excitement of the moment, you’re not making notes about the process as carefully as you should? If you’re reading this, of course you do. Well, that happened to me when I made the breakthrough discovery on my John Dodds research, and for the life of me, I can no longer recall exactly what it was that inspired me to look for the record of his marriage to Lena Frazier in New York, rather than in Pennsylvania. But for some reason, I did just that: I checked the Allegany County, New York pages of the New York GenWeb project. If you’re unfamiliar with the USA GenWeb Project, you should definitely check it out, drilling down to your particular counties of interest, because it’s a fantastic resource that has been a favorite of mine since its inception in the late 1990s. In this case, the Allegany County page offers vital records transcriptions, including a page of marriage transcriptions from the town of Willing, New York, covering 1849-1920 (Figure 6).
And there it is! Smoking-gun evidence that John Dodd [sic], the 34-year-old farmer residing in Potter County, Pennsylvania, who married Lina [sic] Frazier, was the son of Robert Dodd [sic] and Catherine Grant. John’s age suggests a birth year of 1857, a bit closer to the probable reality of 1853-1854, and he was born in Canada, as expected. One wonders if this was perhaps a second marriage for him, since a “1” was recorded in the “No. of marriage” column for Lena (indicating this was her first marriage) but there is no notation in the corresponding column for the groom. Of course, it may be that this information was merely omitted from the transcription. In a column on the far right, which does not appear in this image, it states that the marriage took place on 20 April 1891, which is an approximate match to the information from the 1900 census that they were married in 1892. In fact, when I wrote to the Willing town clerk to request a copy of the actual marriage record, she informed me that the marriage date according to their records was 20 April 1892, not 1891, so mistakes do happen. It may be that the original record is exceptionally faded or illegible, which impacted the indexer’s ability to read both the marriage date, and any information that may have been recorded in the “no. of marriage” column for the groom.
Of course, there’s quite a bit more research that can, and should, be done to tell this family’s story. Nonetheless, by this point I was so excited that I emailed my Aunt Carol to tell her I’d found our John Dodds, after which a busy week ensued with little time for additional research. However, Aunt Carol took up the cause and was able to fill out the family tree quite nicely with loads of additional documents. Among her discoveries were two documents that I found to be especially noteworthy. The first was an entry in the 1880 census from Foster Township in McKean County, Pennsylvania, for the household of Gilford [sic] and Jno. [sic] Dodd [sic], two laborers who were lodgers at a boarding house run by David and Caroline White (Figure 7).
The township of Foster is located just south of the New York-Pennsylvania border, and about 50 miles west of Willing, New York, where John Dodds would eventually marry Lena Frazier. “Jno” is an old-fashioned abbreviation for “John” commonly found in genealogical documents. John was reported to be single, and age 24, which suggests a birth year circa 1856. We’re inching ever closer to the years 1853-1854 reported in the earliest documents, which are likely to be the most accurate. He was born in Canada, to Canadian-born parents. A residence within the U.S. in 1880 would be fairly consistent with the immigration year of 1881 which John Dodds reported in the 1900 census.
John and “Gilford” Dodd were enumerated as their own household, separate from the household of the boarding-house owner and the other tenants, which might be construed as evidence for a family relationship, rather than John and “Gilford” being two random boarders who happened to share a surname. In fact, “Gilford” is likely to be Gilbert M. Dodds, John’s brother, who was age 15 in the 1871 census, suggesting a birth year circa 1856. Gilbert does not appear in the 1881 census of Canada, and this record does a nice job of explaining why that might be. According to this census, “Gilford” was single and age 22, which points to a birth year circa 1858. He, too, was said to have been born in Canada of Canadian-born parents. Gilbert would eventually marry Annie Mann on 11 November 1885 in Port Stanley, Elgin County, Ontario8 and I’m pretty sure he died in Buffalo, New York,9 but that’s another story for another day. (I’m still waiting for his death certificate to arrive in the mail!)
The second neat bit of evidence that Aunt Carol found was the World War I draft registration card for John’s son, Robert Lawrence Dodds—the same Robert L. Dodds whose death certificate is shown in Figure 4. The subject of the draft card (Figure 8) resided at 504 Sullivan Street in Elmira, New York. He was born on 20 August 1897 in West Pike, Pennsylvania—information which matches that found on the death certificate for Robert L. Dodds exactly. His nearest relative was noted to be Lena Dodds, living in Ulysses, Pennsylvania, and a further identification of “mother” was written to the right of her name. Although his father’s name was not mentioned on this document, the form included a space for the father’s birthplace, and here it was noted that Robert Lawrence Dodds’ father was born in Port Stanley, Canada.
Port Stanley, Ontario, no longer exists as an independent municipality today. It’s a small place that was amalgamated with the village of Belmont and with Yarmouth Township—where the Dodds family was known to be living in 1871—to form the municipality of Central Elgin in 1998.11 Since the earliest document found to date for John Dodds was that 1861 census in which the family was living in St. Catharines, Ontario, the information from this draft card, if accurate, suggests a different timeline for the family of Robert and Catherine Dodds than the one I’ve been envisioning for them. If the family were living in Port Stanley circa 1853 when their son John was born, then perhaps Robert and Catherine started their marriage in Elgin County and then moved to St. Catherines, rather than the reverse. Of course, this is all speculative, and there are still many questions which have yet to be answered about the early life of the Dodds family, their migrations, and about the identities of Robert’s and Catherine’s parents. But little discoveries like the ones I’ve made this week give me hope that maybe, if I keep chipping away at it, those brick walls will eventually crumble.
1 Census of Canada, 1861, population schedule, Canada West, Lincoln, Grantham, E.D. 4, p 80, lines 1–9, Robert Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), Item no. 1884852, citing Microfilm C-1048-1049.
2 Census of Canada, 1871, population schedule, Ontario, East Elgin, Yarmouth, David Parish, division no. 2, p 73, lines 2–8, Robert Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), item no. 454129, citing Microfilm:C-9898, Reference:RG31.
3 1900 United States Federal Census, Potter, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Pike Township, enumeration district (ED) 107, sheet no. 2B, dwelling 35, family 38, John H. Dodds household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : 8 May 2021); citing NARA microfilmT623, 1854 rolls, no roll specified.
4 “Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates, 1906-1967,” database, Robert L. Dodds, 13 April 1968, certificate no. 040689-68; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 8 May 2021), certificate no. range 039901-042750, image 804 of 2909; citing Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906-1968. Series 11.90 (1,905 cartons). Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
5 “Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates, 1906-1967,” database, John Dodds, 24 June 1941, certificate no. 7817, digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 8 May 2021), certificate no. range 005251-008250, image 3142 of 3654; citing Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906-1968. Series 11.90 (1,905 cartons). Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
6 Charlie Barrett, “Historic Records – Willing, Allegany Co., New York, Marriages, 1849-1920,” database, John Dodd and Lina Frazier, 20 April 1891, “Allegany County, New York,” NYGenWeb (http://allegany.nygenweb.net/index.html : 8 May 2021).
7 1880 United States Federal Census, McKean County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Foster Township, Enumeration District (E.D.) 77, Sheet 51A, household no. 787, Gilford and Jno. Dodd, digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : 8 May 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 1153 of 1,454 rolls.
8 “Ontario Marriages, 1869-1927,” database, 1885, no. 2663, marriage record for Gilbert M. Dodds and Annie Mann; digital image, Family Search (https://familysearch.org : 8 May 2021); citing Registrar General of Ontario, Archives of Ontario; Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
9 Buffalo, Erie, New York, Death Index, 1897-1902, p. 206, Gilbert M. Dodds, Vol. 21, no. 71, 1898, and Alexander Dodds, Vol. 34, no. 258, 1899, digital images, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/ : 17 April 2021), image 225 of 1140, citing Index to Deaths, in Buffalo, New York, 1852-1944, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.
10 “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch, (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 8 May 2021), Robert Lawrence Dodds; Pennsylvania > Potter County; A-R > image 1017 of 3424; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
In the days before direct-to-consumer autosomal DNA testing, my Dad used to joke, “Maternity is a fact; paternity is an opinion.” Despite this assertion, we sometimes find conflicting evidence in historical documents that raises questions about the identity of an individual’s mother. Recently, I was able to resolve such a conflict, identify the great-grandparents of a DNA match, and discover how that DNA match was related to my family.
An Unknown Cousin
The DNA match, whom I’ll call S.C., was not known to our family, yet we share a significant amount of DNA in common. With my Dad’s paternal aunt, S.C. shares 158 centimorgans (cM, a unit of genetic linkage) across 4 segments, and he shares even more DNA with my Dad—172 cM across 7 segments. He also shares DNA with a number of documented cousins who are also descendants of Dad’s great-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine (__) Dodds. S.C. has an online tree which indicates that his grandfather was named Spencer Alexander Dodds, so this seemed to be a promising start. Spencer’s Canadian Expeditionary Forces personnel card is shown in Figure 1.
The card states that Spencer Alexander Dodds was born in Buffalo, New York, on 7 September 1895, a fact which was immediately intriguing. Although my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine Dodds, lived in St. Catharines, Ontario, and Yarmouth township, Ontario, several of their children were known to have migrated to Buffalo, including my great-great-grandmother, Martha Agnes (née Dodds) Walsh. The name Alexander was also familiar to me, as one of Martha’s brothers was named Alexander Dodds.
The first documentary appearance of Alexander Dodds is in the 1861 Canadian Census, where he was found to be living with his parents, Robert and Catherine Dodds, in St. Catharines. He was their fourth child, and first son, born in Upper Canada about 1850 (Figure 2). His family’s religion was noted to be Methodist.
By 1871, the family had moved to Yarmouth Township in Elgin County (Figure 3). By this time, the older daughters had married, and Alexander was reported to be 21 years of age, which again suggests a birth year circa 1850. He was born in Ontario, was employed as a baker, and was reported to be of English origin through his father, but of the Presbyterian faith, along with his Scottish mother. Despite the family’s varying religious practices, the names and ages of the family members confirm that this is the same Dodds family found in 1861.
At first glance, this might not appear to be the correct marriage record for Alexander Dodds, since his given name was recorded as Abraham, not Alexander. However, “Abraham” was noted to be a resident of Aylmer, which is only 7 miles from Yarmouth Centre, where the Dodds family was living when the 1871 census was enumerated. His age, 21 years, points to a birth year of 1850, which is the consistent with the year of birth of Alexander Dodds. The parents’ names, Robert and Catherine, are the same; he was born in Ontario, and he was a Methodist. Check, check, and check. However, Abraham was noted to be employed as a a teamster, rather than a baker. Taken together with the different name, this might be construed as evidence that Abraham and Alexander Dodds were two different individuals. However, if that were true, then we should be able to find an 11-year-old Abraham Dodds in the 1861 census, living with parents Robert and Catherine. A search of the entire 1861 census for Ab* Dod* at the Library and Archives Canada site results in a negative find—no good matches. Of course, one could argue that Abraham might have been missed by the census taker, or was living outside of Canada in 1861; there’s still room for doubt.
The 1881 census helps to resolve that doubt, however. Back in St. Catharines, where many of the Dodds children returned following the death of their mother in 1872, Alexander Dodds was found to be living with his wife, Elizabeth (Figure 5).
Alexander’s age points to a birth year of 1849 in Ontario. His religion, Church of England, falls under the broad umbrella of Protestantism that would be consistent with the Dodds’ religious practices. Alexander was employed as a teamster, his wife’s name was Elizabeth, and her ethnic origins were noted to be Dutch— consistent with a maiden name of Ostrander. In light of the entire body of evidence, it seems clear that Alexander and Abraham are the same individual, and that “Abraham” was recorded on the marriage record either by mistake, or because it was a middle name which he used occasionally.
The 1881 census was the last time that Alexander/Abraham appeared in a census of Canada. Searches for either Alex* or Ab* Dod* in the 1891 census produced no unequivocal matches for “my” Alexander Dodds anywhere in Canada. Neither were there any unequivocal matches for him in databases of U.S. or Canadian death records, or U.S. census records. The name is sufficiently common that the trail grew cold, in absence of better clues.
Connecting the Dodds
In light of this DNA match to S.C., a new hypothesis began to emerge. What if Spencer Alexander Dodds were the son of Alexander Abraham Dodds? The timeline works—Alexander would have been 45 years old when Spencer was born, not too old to father a child. If this proposed relationship is correct, it would mean that S.C. and my Dad’s paternal aunt would be second cousins once removed (2C1R). According to the Shared Centimorgan Project Tool, the amount of DNA shared between “Aunt Betty” and S.C., 158 cM, is extremely typical for a 2C1R relationship. The amount of DNA shared between S.C. and my Dad (172 cM) would also fit their proposed relationship (3C), according to this hypothesis, although it is on the high side. However, this hypothesis required some additional documentary research before it could be accepted. S.C.’s tree did not offer any clues about the father of Spencer Alexander Dodds. There was only that Canadian Expeditionary Forces personnel card that stated his mother’s name as Hazel Grand. Who was she, and what happened to Elizabeth (née Ostrander) Dodds?
To solve this mystery, I turned to the paper trail for Spencer Alexander Dodds. Since Spencer was born in Buffalo in 1895, I first sought him in the 1900 U.S. Federal census. He was not there. However, there was exactly one search result for Spencer Dodds in the 1901 census of Canada, living in the village of Lucknow, Bruce County, Ontario (Figure 6).
In this document, Spencer A. Dodds’ date of birth was reported as 27 August 1895, and it was noted that he was born in the U.S. Both of these facts are reasonably consistent with the information found on the military personnel card, which stated that he was born 7 September 1895 in Buffalo. Combined with the fact that there were no individuals named Spencer Dodds who were found to be living in the U.S. in 1900, it is very likely that this is the same Spencer Dodds who was described in that personnel card. The census further identifies Spencer as the son of 28-year-old Jane Dodds, born 21 March 1873 in Ontario. Significantly, Jane was noted to be a widow, and (less significantly) a Presbyterian of Irish extraction. In addition to her son, Spencer, Jane Dodds had a daughter, Della Dodds, born 8 October 1892 in the U.S. Both Della and Spencer were noted to be of Scottish extraction, which must have been a reference to their late father’s heritage.
Jane Dodds and her children were identified as the daughter and grandchildren of head-of-household Christiana Boland, a single, 47-year-old woman who was a Presbyterian of Irish extraction, born 15 July 1853 in Ontario. One suspects that the census-taker may have intended to record her as a widow since it would have been unusual in those days for a single woman to have four children living with her. However, there may have been some communication difficulties between Christiana and the census-taker, since Christiana’s native language was reported to be Gaelic, rather than English. (This fact is noted on the second column from the right in the census record, not shown in Figure 6.) The family group included Christiana’s sons, Alex, David, and Charles, as well as her 45-year-old brother, Michal [sic].
Jane, Hazel, and Elizabeth
From this information, we can infer that Jane and her husband, the putative Alexander Dodds, lived in Buffalo circa 1892–1895 when their children were born; that Alexander passed away some time between 1895 and 1901, and that Jane took her children back to Ontario to live with her family of origin after her husband’s death. However, the names are a problem. If Jane Dodds was the daughter of Christiana Boland, then her maiden name should have been Jane Boland, not Jane Grand. So then, if this theory is correct, how do we go from Jane Boland to Hazel Grand, and what happened to Elizabeth Ostrander?
A search of the 1900 U.S. Federal census produced a likely match for Jane Dodds (Figure 7).
She was living as a boarder in Buffalo, New York, at 145 East Ferry Street, in the household of William and Anna Watson. William Watson was reported to be a 45-year-old Scottish immigrant, born in September 1854, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1883. He was working as an electrician, and had only been married to his wife, Anna, for 2 years. Anna was William’s junior by 10 years, born in New York in May 1865, and the couple had no children. Their boarder was Jennie Dodds, a 28-year-old widow, born in “Canada Eng[lish],” i.e. Ontario, in March 1872—a date which agrees well with Jane Dodds’ date of birth as reported in the 1901 census. Jennie was the mother of 2 children, both of whom were still living, although neither one of them was living with her at the time of the census. This implies that they must have been living with other family members elsewhere, and in light of the 1901 census, it seems probable that these two children were Della and Spencer, already living with their grandmother in Lucknow, Ontario. Jennie reported that she immigrated to the U.S. in 1889. If this date is accurate, and if we assume that she and Alexander were married for about a year before Della’s birth in October 1892, then it suggests that they were married in Buffalo, rather than Ontario. The fact that Jane was already a widow by 1900 narrows down the timeframe for Alexander’s death, so we can now assume that he died between 1895 and 1900.
Dodds in the Death Index
My next step was a search of the Index to Deaths in Buffalo, New York. A search of the volume that covers 1895–1896 produced only one match for Dodd (Lillian H. Dodd) and no matches for Dodds. The volume that covers 1897–1902 was also searched, browsing all the D’s, which covered pages 189–228; pages 197 and 211 were noted to be missing. I was pleasantly surprised to find the death record for Alexander Dodds’ brother, Gilbert M. Dodds, in 1898, since he was previously believed to have died somewhere in Canada. In addition to Gilbert, this volume contained index entries for five additional individuals with the Dodd or Dodds surname: Catherine Dodds and Clara F. Dodd, both of whom died in 1898; Mary Ethel Dodds and Charles V. Dodds, both of whom died in 1900; and—drumroll, please!—Alexander Dodds, who died in 1899.8 I have no idea if, or how, those other Dodds may be more distantly related to me, but the death certificates for Gilbert and Alexander were ordered from the City of Buffalo and I’m waiting with bated breath for their arrival in the mail.
Banishing the Elephant
Although this evidence of Alexander Dodds’ death in 1899 lends further support to my hypothesis about the relationship between S.C. and my family, it does nothing to banish the elephant in the room—the conflicting evidence for the name of Spencer’s mother, Hazel Grand/Jane Boland. Even if we assume that she was a second wife following the death of Elizabeth, it’s imperative that we obtain some sort of resolution to this discrepancy. Since the Canadian Expeditionary Forces personnel card noted that Spencer’s mother, Hazel Grand, was living in the town of Bracebridge in the Muskoka District in 1918, I sought evidence for her there. Lo, and behold! Her death certificate provided the key to this mystery (Figure 8).
The death certificate states that Hazel Jean Grant died in Muskoka Township on 7 December 1936 at the age of 67. She was born in Ontario on 21 March 1869, consistent with prior evidence indicating a date of birth of 21 March 1872 or 1873. She was reported to have been living in the township where the death occurred (Muskoka) for 33 years, which suggests that she moved there circa 1903, two years after her residence in Lucknow in 1901. Her husband was Chas. [Charles] H. Grant. Her father’s name was recorded as “Robt. A. McCarrol,” born in Scotland, and her mother was Christina Borland, born in Canada. The informant was her husband, Charles H. Grant, of Bracebridge, Muskoka.
I just love this death certificate for the instant resolution it brings to the problem. Jane, Jennie and Jean are all versions of the same name,10 and she had an additional given name of Hazel. The surname Grant (i.e. “Grand”) became her surname upon her remarriage after the death of Alexander Dodds. Her mother’s maiden name was Christina Borland, which confirms that this document pertains to the Jennie Dodds described in the 1901 census. Possibly due to that same language barrier, noted previously, Christina gave the census-taker her maiden name and not her married name (McCarrol). Spencer Alexander Dodds’ mother, Hazel Grand, was really Hazel Jean (or perhaps Jane Hazel) McCarrol Dodds Grant.
But Wait, There’s More!
As if this weren’t enough, a search for Jane McCarrol turned up a delightfully informative birth record for Charles Grant, Jr. (Figure 9).
This birth record reveals that Jennie H. McCarrol and Charles H. Grant had a son, Charles Grant, who was born in Bracebridge, Muskoka, on 26 October 1912. There was no house number available, but the family was living on Concession 13, Lots 7–8. The father, Charles H. Grant, was a farmer, and he and Jennie McCarrol were married on 7 January 1902 in Barrie (Simcoe County), Ontario. The birth record states that Jennie had been married previously, to Alexander Dodd [sic], and the birth was reported by the baby’s half-sister, Della Dodd—information which just wraps up the whole problem nicely with a big, shiny bow on top.
Of course, my research is not yet finished. (Is genealogy research ever finished?) There are still questions that need to be answered in order to have a more complete understanding of this family’s history, and there’s even some low-hanging fruit (such as baby Charles Grant’s death certificate) that I’m not going to take the time to harvest via analysis here. A death certificate for Elizabeth (Ostrander) Dodds, a marriage record for Alexander Dodds and Jennie McCarrol, and birth records for Della and Spencer Dodds, will provide further confirmation of the facts in this case, and those items have been added to my research plan. However, the DNA evidence, in combination with a growing body of documentary evidence, makes it clear that Alexander Dodds, son of Robert and Catherine (__) Dodds of St. Catherines and Elgin County, Ontario, is undoubtedly the same Alexander Dodds who married Jane/Jennie/Jean McCarrol and became the father of Della Dodds and Spencer Alexander Dodds before his death in Buffalo in 1899.
1 “Canada, World War I CEF Personnel Files, 1914-1918,” database, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 28 April 2021), 12 M.D., 1st Depot Battalion, Saskatchewan Regiment, Regimental no. 3355666, Spencer Alexander Dodds, digital images, images 2157-2176 of 2726, citing Library and Archives Canada; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; CEF Personnel Files; RG 150, Volume: Box 2558 – 44, Box 2558 (Dodds, Harry – Dods, Thomas Edward).
2 Census of Canada, 1861, population schedule, Canada West, Lincoln, Grantham, E.D. 4, p 80, lines 1–9, Robert Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), Item no. 1884852, citing Microfilm C-1048-1049.
3 Census of Canada, 1871, population schedule, Ontario, East Elgin, Yarmouth, David Parish, division no. 2, p 73, lines 2–8, Robert Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), item no. 454129, citing Microfilm:C-9898, Reference:RG31.
4 “Ontario Marriages, 1869-1927,”, database and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : 28 April 2021), Abraham Dodds and Elizabeth Ostrander, 28 December 1871, citing Marriages – registrations, 1869-1927; original index, 1869-1876; index, 1873-1927; and delayed registrations, 1892-1919, Vol. 15, Parry Sound District, Ontario, Perth, Bruce, Elgin, Grey, and Huron counties, p 265, image 270 of 399.
5 Census of Canada, 1881, population schedule, Ontario, Lincoln District no. 145, St. Catharines Sub-district A, Division no. 1, p 21, lines 6–7, Alexander Dodds household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), item no. 3788256, citing Microfilm:C-13254, Reference:RG31.
6 1901 Census of Canada, population schedule, Ontario, Bruce West District no. 50, Lucknow Sub-district F, Division no. 1, p 9, lines 12–19, Christiana Boland household, accessed as digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 28 April 2021 ), Item no. 2026868, citing Microfilm: T-6462, Reference: RG31.
7 1900 United States Federal Census, Erie County, New York, population schedule, Buffalo Ward 17, E.D. 129, Sheet no. 1B, house no. 145., family no. 23, Jennie Dodds in William Watson household; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 28 April 2021), citing NARA digital publication T623, roll 1029.
8 “Buffalo, Erie, New York, Death Index, 1897-1902,” p. 206, Gilbert M. Dodds, Vol. 21, no. 71, 1898, and Alexander Dodds, Vol. 34, no. 258, 1899; digital images, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/ : 28 April 2021), image 225 of 1140, citing Index to Deaths in Buffalo, New York, 1852-1944, City Clerk’s Office, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.
9 “Ontario Deaths, 1869-1937 and Overseas Deaths, 1939-1947,” database and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ : 28 April 2021), Hazel Jean Grant, 7 December 1936, Muskoka, Ontario, certificate no. 025223; FHL film no. 2426606/DGS no. 4530550, image 1105 of 1796.
11 “Ontario Births, 1869-1912,” database, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 28 April 2021), Charles Grant, 26 October 1912, certificate no. 032677; digital images, FHL film no. 2434985/DGS no 4530279, Births, stillbirths, and delayed registration with indexes > Births, no. 31030-38905 (v. 14-17) 1912 > 358 of 1626.
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:
Use U.S. records to gather evidence for the name and location of your ancestral village.
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.
Identify the repositories for those records. Vital records from parishes or registry offices are typically found in four places:
the parish archives
the local registry office
the diocesan archive
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
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).
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. Kartenmeisterinforms 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.
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.