Would’ve, Should’ve, Could’ve: Lessons Learned from the Search for Magdalena Causin

In my last post, I wrote about my recent confirmation of the parents of Mary Magdalene (Causin/Cossin) Roberts and the discovery of their place of origin in Pfetterhouse, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France. Although this was a thrilling breakthrough for me, in hindsight, I’m frankly amazed that it took me this long to find them. Let’s unpack the process and see what can be learned from it.

1. Thorough Documentary Research is Always Key

Although this was definitely a stubborn research problem, it’s probably overstating the case to call it a “brick wall” because the documentary research was far from complete. The Genealogical Proof Standard requires “reasonably exhaustive” documentary research, and it’s up to the researcher to identify all collections that are potentially relevant to the research problem and add them to the research plan. Although I’ve been chipping away at research in onsite collections in Detroit as time and money (and the pandemic….) permit, I had not yet examined all of the relevant birth, marriage and death records from the Roberts’ parish in Detroit, Old St. Mary’s, either in person or by proxy. Similarly, my local Family History Center has not been open for quite a while due to the pandemic, making it difficult to research digitized collections with restricted access, such as the church records from St. Louis in Buffalo, where I might have found death records that offered a transcription of “Cossin” that would have been more recognizable. So, it’s entirely possible that this problem could have been solved solely through documentary research, given enough time and focused effort.

2. Don’t Overlook Online Family Trees

Even if I had accepted immediately that the Maria Magdalena Gosÿ who was baptized at St. Louis church in Buffalo, was my Maria Magdalena Causin, I would have had to rely on FAN research for the identification of their ancestral village, since the baptismal record did not mention the parents’ place of origin. So, finding those family trees that mentioned Anna Maria/Maria Anna Hentzi was a critical clue. One of the things I find most surprising is that searches for “Anna Maria Hensy” did not turn up results for Anna Maria/Maria Anna Hentzy Schneider, given the number of family trees in which she appears. Even now, when I repeat those searches to see if I can tease her out of the database, using only the search parameters I knew previously (before the trees from the DNA matches gave me her married surname), she is not readily found. I like to think I’m not a rookie when it comes to database searches, and I certainly tried a variety of search parameters, based on what I knew for a fact, and as well as what I could speculate.

Assuming that the godmother was actually present at the baptism of Maria Magdalena “Gosÿ,” I knew that “Maria Anna Hensy” was living in Buffalo in 1832, was most likely born in France, and was probably between the ages of 16 and 60 when she served as godmother, suggesting a birth between 1772 and 1816, although I suspected that a narrower range from 1800–1816 was more likely. I guessed that she was also probably living in Detroit by 1857 when Maria Magdalena was married, so I set up parallel searches with either Buffalo or Detroit specified as her place of residence. I tired varying the specificity of the search, leaving out some information, such as approximate year of birth, and I also tried making the search more restrictive by specifying “exact search” for some parameters, such as her place of birth in France. I used wild card characters to try to circumvent problems with variant spellings in the surname, and I performed all these same searches at FamilySearch, since they offer a different assortment of indexed databases. Despite all that, no promising candidates emerged for further research until DNA matches permitted me to focus on particular family trees.

Why might this be? Good question. One thing I did not do was try drilling down to the Public Member Trees database, specifically. It’s standard research practice among experienced researchers to drill down to a particular database where the research target is expected to be found, e.g. “1870 United States Federal Census,” or “New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” especially when the desired results don’t turn up readily in broader searches of all the databases, or within a sub-category of databases, like “Immigration & Emigration” or “Census & Voter Lists.” So, although I searched for “Maria Anna Hensy,” in specific historical records databases (e.g. 1840 census, 1850 census, etc.), my research log indicates that I never drilled down to the Public Member Trees to look for clues. I suspect this reflects some unconscious bias on my part—mea culpa! I’m so accustomed to frustration over all the inaccuracies that I find in so many online trees, that I failed to give these trees the consideration they deserved in generating good leads. When I repeat those searches for Maria Anna Hensy in the Public Member Trees database, the correct Maria Anna/Anna Maria Hentzy Schneider shows up in the first page of search results.

3. Analyze the Surname Hints from DNAGedcom

Had I also dug deeper into Aunt Betty’s DNA matches using some of analytical tools out there, I might have found my Cossins sooner. Several weeks ago, I ran a Collins-Leeds analysis at DNAGedcom on all of Aunt Betty’s matches at Ancestry that were within the 20–300 centiMorgan (cM) range, and the results included an enormous cluster with 36 members, whom I realize now are all related through the Hensy line (Figure 1). I’ve written a little previously about DNAGedcom, and more information can be found on their website. However, the purpose of autocluster analysis tools like this is to sort your autosomal DNA match list into clusters of people who are related to each other through a common line of descent.

Figure 1: Detail from Collins-Leeds analysis of Aunt Betty’s Ancestry DNA matches ranging from 20–300 cM showing Cluster 7. The pink/green shaded squares to the right are part of a supercluster between this group and the adjacent Cluster 8 (colored in green, not shown in this image), indicating matches in common between these two clusters, which implies related lines of descent.

The really cool thing about DNAGedcom for these analyses is the amount of information that is provided—assuming you take the time to dig into it, which I had not done previously. For that cluster shown in Figure 1, you’ll notice that some of the pink squares are marked with a green leaf. Those leaves mark the intersections of two DNA testers who have family trees linked to their DNA tests, and hovering the cursor over those squares will reveal the names of individuals found in both trees. You can even go one better and tap on any colored square (marked with a leaf or not) to see the option to “View Cluster,” or “View Chromo[some] Browser,” as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The “View Cluster” and “View Chromo Browser” options that appear for viewing more information about a particular cluster identified via autocluster analysis at DNAGedcom.

The data used for this autocluster analysis came from Ancestry, and much to the dismay of pretty much everyone interested in genetic genealogy, Ancestry does not offer a chromosome browser or any sort of segment data. So, the “View Chromo Browser” option will not work here, although it would work if these data were gathered from another source like 23&Me. However, clicking on “View Cluster” brings up the chart shown in Figure 3. Names of testers have been redacted for privacy.

Figure 3: Details about Cluster 7, obtained by selecting “View Cluster” option in autocluster matrix generated at DNAGedcom.

Clicking on the name of anyone in that list will take you to the DNA match page for that person at Ancestry. Tree icons on the left indicate those matches with linked family trees. Nice information, but if you keep scrolling down, it gets even better. After identifying the individuals with whom DNA is shared in each cluster, DNAGedcom goes one step further, identifying individual ancestors who appear in the family trees linked to those matches (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Ancestors mentioned in family trees linked to autosomal DNA tests for individuals from Cluster 7, as identified by DNAGedcom.

The names of the DNA matches who own each family tree are listed in the column on the far right, and have been redacted for privacy, but the chart indicates that Nicolaus, Johann Anton, and Servatius Thelen all appear in 4 different family trees of individual members of Cluster 7, as do Anna Maria and Andrew Schneider and Peter Simon. As it happens, the most recent common ancestral couple between Aunt Betty and these matches—Dionisy Hentzy and Agnes Antony— is not mentioned in this top part of the list. However, if we were to scroll down a bit, we would find them (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Dennis (Dionisy) Hanzi in ancestor list generated by DNAGedcom for ancestors identified in family trees of DNA matches in Cluster 7.

Admittedly, this is still a “Some Assembly Required” type of tool. The ancestor list for a given cluster identified by DNAGedcom does not immediately identify the most recent common ancestral couple. However, in conjunction with a list of ancestral FANs, and with guidance from the public member trees, which explain the relationships between individuals mentioned in the list, this is a powerful tool, indeed.

4. Use All the Information in Each Historical Record

The mistake that galls me the most in all of this is that I failed to fully examine the death record for Mary M. Roberts until I sat down to write that first blog post about this discovery. (Actually, had I blogged about my “brick wall” with Maria Magdalena earlier, I might have found my answers faster, since writing about something always forces me to review, organize, and reanalyze my information.) When I looked at my evidence for her date of death, I noticed that I had her probate packet and cemetery records, but I was still citing the index entry for her Michigan death certificate, which I had obtained years ago, and not the original record, which is now readily available online. Duh! One of the cardinal rules of genealogy is to always go to the original source, rather than trusting the information in an index, because so often there is additional information in the original, or there are transcription errors that are caught after viewing the original. Such was the case here, as well. The index entry, shown in Figure 6, only states that Mary M. Roberts was born “abt. 1833.”1

Figure 6: Index entry from Ancestry’s database, “Michigan, U.S., Deaths and Burials Index, 1867-1995” for Mary M. Roberts.

However, the entry from the death register contains more information than was indexed regarding her precise age at the time of death.2 The death register states that she was 61 years, 6 months, and 10 days old when she died, as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 2: Detail of death record for Mary M. Roberts, showing age at time of death as 61 years, 6 months, 10 days (boxed in green).

When I ran this through a date calculator (such as this one), it points to a birth date of 17 August 1832. This is almost an exact match to the birth date of 14 August 1832 that was noted on the baptismal record for Maria Magdalena “Gosÿ” from St. Louis Church in Buffalo.

Facepalm.

Had I made this connection sooner, I would have been much more confident in accepting that baptismal record as the correct one for Mary Magdalene Causin/Casin/Curzon/Couzens. I guess this is why we have Genealogy Do-Overs. All of us start our research by making rookie errors, so at the very least, it’s important to periodically step back and re-evaluate the search to see what is really known, and to make sure that nothing has been overlooked. Better still, consider a full-blown, Thomas MacEntee-style Do Over, which I have never yet had the courage to do.

Not all breakthroughs are the result of elegant or sophisticated methodology. Sometimes, you just keep hacking away at a problem, and you get to the answer in the end, and that’s what happened here. While the origins of the Causin family could possibly have been discovered, in time, using thorough documentary research in church records from Detroit and Buffalo, the process was expedited when the focus switched from the Causin surname to the Hentzy surname of one of their FANs. With the addition of insight gained from examination of DNA matches, the process was expedited still further. The combination of cluster research, autosomal DNA matching, and standard documentary research, is so powerful that it can even overcome a flawed research process. So, while this may not have been a pretty victory, it was a victory nonetheless. I’ll take it.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources:

1 “Michigan, U.S., Deaths and Burials Index, 1869-1995,” database, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 17 November 2021), Mary M. Roberts, died 27 February 1894, citing Family History Library film no. 1377697.

2 “Michigan Deaths and Burials, 1800-1995,” database and image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FHH5-3XW : 17 November 2021), Mary M. Roberts, 27 February 1894, citing Wayne, Michigan, Deaths, v. 13-17 1893-1897, no. 3598.

From Curzon to Gosÿ: Finding Maria Magdalena Roberts

Recently, a long-standing “brick wall” came tumbling down, and I’m still reveling in the victory. I was finally able to definitively identify the parents of my great-great-great-grandmother, Maria Magdalena (Causin) Roberts, and establish their place of origin. This has been a research problem for nearly a decade, so it’s an especially sweet victory. Here’s how it unfolded.

Introducing Mary Magdalene Roberts

Mary Magdalene (or Maria Magdalena) Roberts has been quite the mystery for me, but it’s not as if she left no traces whatsoever in the historical record. On the contrary, her life is well-documented from the time of her marriage until the time of her death. I knew that Mary was born in New York about 1833–1834 and that she died on 27 February 1894 in Dearborn, Michigan.1 She married Michael Roberts (formerly Michael Ruppert), a German immigrant from the village of Heßloch in Rhineland-Palatinate, and together they became the parents of eight children, four of whom outlived her. However, her family’s origins prior to her marriage were considerably less clear. The record of Mary’s marriage to Michael Ruppert from Old St. Mary’s (Roman Catholic) Church in Detroit is shown in Figure 1.2

Figure 1: Marriage record for Magdalena Causin and Michael Rupert from Old St. Mary’s Roman Catholic church (Greektown, Detroit, Michigan) 12 May 1857.

The record is in Latin, and states that Michael Rupert married Magdalena Causin on 12 May 1857, and names Michael’s brother, Arnold Rupert, as a witness, along with Maria Brant (?). Unfortunately, the record does not provide the names of the parents of the bride and groom, and neither were Maria Magdalena’s parents identified on her death record.3 However, the death record stated that her parents were born in Switzerland, and the 1880 census reported that both her parents were born in France.4

Mary’s place of birth was identified as Buffalo, New York, on baptismal records for her children from Old St. Mary’s, and these records provided additional evidence for her maiden name. Figures 3a and b show the baptismal record for Franc. Henricus (Franz Heinrich, or Francis Henry) Ruppert in 1866.5

Figure 3a: Left page of baptismal register from Old St. Mary’s Church showing baptismal record for Franc. Henricus Rupert boxed in red.

In this image, the mother’s name in the column at the far right, slightly cut off in the photo, appears to be “Magdalena Causin.”

Figure 3b.

Figure 3b: Right page of baptismal register from Old St. Mary’s Church, showing baptismal record of Franc. Henricus Rupert boxed in red.

The first column on the left in Figure 3b is the mother’s place of birth, which was identified as Buffalo, New York. The godparents, recorded in the next column, were Franciscus (Frank) Rupert and Catherine Rupert, the baby’s paternal grandparents.

Similarly, Buffalo was identified as the Mary Magdalene’s place of birth in the baptismal record for her son, Franz Georg, in 1871 (Figure 4b), but the mother’s name looks more like Casin or Cosin than Causin (Figure 4a).6

Figure 4a: Left page of baptismal register from Old St. Mary’s Church in Detroit, showing baptism of Franz Georg Rupert, boxed in red. The mother’s name, Magdalena Casin, appears in the column on the far right.
Figure 4b: Right page of baptismal register from Old St. Mary’s Church in Detroit, showing baptism of Franz Georg Rupert, boxed in red.

The godparents noted here were Franz Rupert, again, and “Charl.” (presumably Charlotte) Braun, and again, Magdalena was reported to have been born in Buffalo.

To further complicate the issue of Mary Magdalene’s maiden name, it was recorded as Couzens on the death record for her daughter, Katherine “Kitty” Hecker (Figure 5).7

Figure 5: Death certificate for Katherine “Kitty” Hecker, reporting mother’s name as Mary Couzens.

Moreover, Mary’s maiden name was reported as Curzon in the brief biographical entry about her son, Frank M. Roberts, which appeared in the Buffalo Artists’ Register published in 1926 (Figure 6).8

Figure 6: Detail from entry for Frank M. Roberts in the Buffalo Artists’ Register.

The Search for Causins in Buffalo

With no hard evidence for her parents’ names, but pretty good evidence for a birth in Buffalo, New York, circa 1833, my Aunt Carol and I hoped to find a baptismal record for Mary Causin/Casin/Couzens/Curzon in the church records from St. Louis parish in Buffalo. St. Louis was the only Roman Catholic church in Buffalo at that time, having been established by immigrants from Germany, France and Ireland in 1829, and records are available from the Family History Library, originally on microfilm (currently digitized).9 Aunt Carol had a chance to review them first, and was disappointed to discover no good matches for a baptismal record for Maria Magdalena Causin. Her best guess was an 1832 baptismal record for Maria Magdalena Krauter, daughter of Matthias Krauter and Anna Eva Knab, but she conceded that this was a shot in the dark. I took a look at the film myself, and similarly struck out. Broad searches in indexed databases at Ancestry and FamilySearch for “C*s*n” living in Buffalo in 1832 produced plenty of results for Casin, Cassin, Cushion, Cousin, etc. but many of the individuals identified were Irish or English, arrived in Buffalo too late, or were ruled out for other reasons. A History of Germans in Buffalo and Erie County, New York, published in 1898, contains a list of the German heads of household of St. Louis parish in 1832, but there were no surnames similar to Causin.10 We had no knowledge of any siblings that Maria Magdalena might have had, and no evidence for the family’s whereabouts from the time between her birth in Buffalo circa 1833, and her marriage in Detroit in 1857. Whoever Mary Magdalene’s parents were, they seemed to have left no trace of their time in Buffalo.

Hoping to get some new perspective on the problem, I posted in the Facebook group for the Western New York Genealogical Society back in 2013, wondering if there might be some other places besides St. Louis church that Mary might have been baptized.11 Admin Nancy Archdekin came through with an interesting suggestion: a birth record from St. Louis parish that Aunt Carol and I had overlooked, for Maria Magdalena Gosÿ, daughter of Joseph Antonius Gosÿ and Maria Agatha Hensy (Figure 7).12

Figure 7: Baptismal record from St. Louis church in Buffalo, New York, for Maria Magdalena Gosÿ, 14 August 1832.

According to this record, Maria Magdalena Gosÿ was born on 14 August 1832 and baptized (“renata vero”) the same day, with godparents Joseph Lang and Maria Anna Hensy. I was intrigued. I could see how “Gosÿ” might be a phonetic approximation of “Causin,” if the latter were pronounced with a nasal French ending. Could Gosÿ be the “correct,” original version of the surname, and all the subsequent records got it wrong? Searches for Gosÿ in Buffalo in 1832 were negative, suggesting that the name was a misspelled version of something. Could it be Causin?

I put that record on the back shelf, thinking that we had not yet exhausted documentary research which may still produce some leads or insights. I searched the 1840 census in both Detroit and Buffalo, the Buffalo, New York, Death Index, and Buffalo city directories, chasing down every Cousin, Cossin, Causin, Cassin, Curson, Cozzens, and any other surnames that seemed remotely similar phonetically. I checked probate records from Wayne County, Michigan, for any references to Mary as an heir, and although Mary was not mentioned specifically, I came up with one promising reference to “Pierre Casson (Coussin),” that was at least close to the right name. However, subsequent searches suggest that he may have been French Canadian rather than Alsatian. Still, it was a lead that I could have pursued further. I checked probate records in Buffalo, as well, but found nothing. Church records from Old St. Mary’s might still be revealing. Perhaps they have records of premarital investigations, which sometimes provided more information about the bride and groom than is found in the actual marriage record? Furthermore, church records (deaths, in particular) from both St. Louis in Buffalo and St. Mary’s in Detroit had not yet been examined. There was—and still is—work to be done.

I also had some nagging doubts. What if Mary was never baptized? There was some evidence that the Alsatian community in Buffalo in the 1820s was “not unduly devout;” might her parents have omitted that rite?13 This hypothesis might have been more likely had Mary been born in Buffalo prior to 1829, but if a Catholic church was already in existence by about 1833 when she was born, it seemed probable that she would have been baptized there. But then another concern presented itself. In my research experience, many immigrants approximated their place of origin to the closest big city. What if Mary was not born in Buffalo, but near it? I’d found evidence in my research for Alsatian families farming in rural communities throughout the Western New York area, from Buffalo to Rochester. Maybe she was born in one of those communities?

Clues from the Causins’ Cluster

Since cluster research (also known as FAN research, research into an ancestor’s Friends/family, Associates, and Neighbors) has been so fruitful for me in the past, I decided to take a closer look at Maria Brant (or Brandt) and Charlotte Braun, two of the Roberts family’s FANS who were noted on church records, and were not known family members. Again, nothing jumped out at me; surveys of indexed records did not produce any good candidates who were born in France, Alsace, or Switzerland and who might have been connected to Mary. I kept coming back to that baptismal record for Maria Magdalena Gosÿ: the mother and the godmother had the same surname, Hensy, and I suspected that they were at least cousins, if not sisters. Searches for “Hensy” in Buffalo and Detroit suggested that this surname, too, may have been misspelled, and I quickly discovered a plethora of German surname possibilities from indexed records, including Hintse, Hantz, Hense, Hentzi, Hentz, Hentzy, Hans, and even Hohensee. There were no obvious matches for Maria Anna Hensy, however. Something more was needed to shed light on this research problem, and I hoped that something would be DNA.

DNA to the Rescue

Although I could have used my own DNA match lists, I have in my arsenal DNA match lists for both my Dad and his paternal aunt. Aunt Betty is two generations closer to Mary Magdalene Roberts than I am, and she should have inherited roughly 12.5% of her DNA from this particular ancestor. With so much “Causin” DNA, I expected that it would not be too difficult to identify matches in Aunt Betty’s match list that are related to us through Mary Magdalene Causin. Nonetheless, it took some time to get to the point where I had identified enough matches that were probably related through the ancestors of Mary Magdalene Causin—and not one of our other German or Alsatian ancestors—that I could try to compare family trees and look for common surnames and places.

And that’s when it happened.

I was looking through Aunt Betty’s DNA matches one evening for something completely unrelated to Causin research. I was examining the public tree associated with one of her matches, when a name jumped out at me: Anna Maria Hanzi, who was married on 8 October 1838 to Moritz Schneider at Old St. Mary’s church in Detroit. It suddenly dawned on me that this must be the Anna Maria “Hensy” of the baptismal record! Shared matches for this person included people I’d previously identified as having probable Causin ancestry, and several of them had public trees. All of them had Mary Ann (Anna Maria) Hanses/Hanzi/Heinze in them, and Ancestry reported that this same Mary Ann (Anna Maria) Hanses/Hanzi/Heinze appeared in 326 trees, quite a number of which cited a birth in 1814 in “Vaterhunn,” Alsace, France—information which was supposed to have come from the church record of Anna Maria’s marriage at Old St. Mary’s. Furthermore, Anna Maria’s parents were identified as Dionysius/Dennis Hanzi and Agatha (__), both of whom also immigrated to Michigan. The fact that this Mary Ann/Anna Maria had the same name as Mary Magdalene’s godmother, was also married in Detroit, and was showing up in the family trees of multiple DNA matches to Aunt Betty, could not possibly be a mere coincidence. This was the key to the whole problem!

A quick internet search revealed that “Vaterhunn” does not exist. It may have been a phonetic misrendering of whatever village name was provided orally to the priest, or it may have been a mistranscription by whomever tried to decipher the handwriting in the church record, or a combination of these. My first thought was that I needed to write to the church to request a copy of the marriage record. Although these records have been microfilmed and are available for research as part of the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, the Collection is temporarily unavailable (as of this writing) due to major renovations at the library. Obtaining the record from the church so I could see the handwriting myself seemed like the fastest way to discover what the real village name ought to be.

In the meantime, I decided to take a shot at guessing what the town name should have been. Lacking a good gazetteer for Alsace, I approximated one by searching the FamilySearch catalog for “France, Haut-Rhin,” and then drilling down to “Places within Haut-Rhin” for a list of about 400 locations for which FamilySearch has microfilmed/digitized records. I have no idea how complete this coverage is, but it seemed like a good start. Since many vital records for Haut-Rhin are online, I started searching for a civil birth registration for Maria Anna/Anna Maria Hentze in 1814, to confirm the location. I thought perhaps that the “-hunn” in “Vaterhunn” might be “-heim,” instead, so I checked records from Waltenheim, Wettolsheim, Battenheim and Bartenheim for a few years around 1814, but did not find Anna Maria’s birth, nor even evidence for the existence of the Hentze surname in these locations.

Not feeling especially patient at this point, I switched gears and searched the Alsace & Lorraine Genealogy Facebook group for “Vaterhunn.” If there are 326 family trees out there that mention Anna Maria Hanzi in them, and a large percentage of them repeat this information about “Vaterhunn,” then I figured it was quite possible that someone before me had sought help in trying to identify this village. Lo, and behold, I discovered an old post from 2014 in which a group member (whom I’ll call “OP”) had asked about this very same question, for the very same reason.14 The comment thread was incomplete; it looked as though some comments had been deleted, but it appeared that a baptismal record had been located by a member of the group. A second search of the group’s history for OP’s name produced a second thread in which she requested a translation of a birth record which had been found by a group member previously—a birth record for Anna Maria Hentze.15 The record came from a collection of civil birth registrations for the village of Pfetterhouse—the elusive “Vaterhunn” mentioned in the oft-cited marriage record for Anna Maria Hentze. I quickly looked up the original birth record, which confirmed that Maria Anna Hensÿ was born 29 April 1814 to Dionisÿ Hensÿ, a 34-year-old laborer, and his wife, Agnes.16 Having nailed down the location, I started searching marriages records for Pfetterhouse for the marriage of Joseph Antoine “Gosÿ” and Maria Agatha Hensÿ, and voilà! I discovered their civil marriage record on 8 September 1829 (Figures 8a and 8b).17

Figure 8a: First page of the marriage record for Joseph Antoine Cossin and Marie Agathe Hentzÿ from the civil registry office in Pfetterhouse, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France, 8 September 1829.
Figure 8b: Second page of marriage record for Joseph Antoine Cossin and Marie Agatha Hentzy, showing signatures of groom and witnesses.

My transcription is as follows, with thanks to Margaret Fortier, CG, of the Genealogical Translations Facebook group who volunteered a bit of editing.18

“No. 6, Cassin, Joseph Antoine Avec Marie Agathe Hentzÿ, Le 8 Septembre 1829

L’an mil huit cent vingt neuf le huit septembre à quatre heures après midi pardevant nous Jacques [Hemis?], maire et officier de l’etat civil de la commune de Pfetterhausen, canton d‘hirsingen, arrondissement d’altKirch département du haut-rhin, sont comparus le sieur Joseph Antoine Cossin, cordonnier né le douze thermidor l’an neuf de la republique constaté par l’extrait de naissance de la commune de Seppois le bas domicilié à Pfetterhausen fils majeur légitime de feu Jacques Cossin cultivateur et de feu Barbara Maker en leur vivant domicilié à Seppois le bas, le père décedé le dix avril mil huit cent quatorze constaté par l’extrait mortuaire du dit lieu, et la mère décedé la quatorze germinal an onze de la republique constaté par l’extrait de décé de Seppois le bas, et quant aux aieuls, le dit Cossin s’est présenté avec quatre habitans de la commune de Seppois le bas, les nommés François Joseph Wendlinger cultivateur âgé de soixante sept ans, Joseph Waller cultivateur âgé de cinquante sept ans, Moritz Cossin cultivateur âgé de cinquante six ans, et Antoine Martin marschal ferrant âgé de cinquante trois ans tous les quatre nous ont déclaré qu’ils n’ont point de connaissance et ne savent pas ôu les aïeul du dit Joseph Antoine Cossin sont décedés et d‘aprés la lettre de M. le maire Colin de Seppois le bas qui est àjointe, il parait et justifie qu’ils ne sont pas no plus inscrits dans les archives de la commune, et la demoiselle Marie Agatha Hentzy journalliere née le vingt sept mars mil huit cent onze constaté par l’extrait de naissance de Pfetterhausen fille mineure de Thienisy Hentzy cabaretier et d’Agnoise Antony ses père et mère tous les trois domiciliés au dit lieu à présent et consentant les quels nous ont requis de procéder à celebration du mariage projété entre eux, dont les publications ont été faites devant la porte principale de notre Maison commune, savoir, la première le dimanche vingt trois aôut et la seconde le dimanche trente même mois de la présente année, chaquefois à l’heure de midi, et aucune opposition au dit mariage ne nous ayant été signiffiée [?], faisant droit à leur requition et après leur avoir donné lecture de toutes les pièces ci dessus mentionnées du chapitre six du titre cinq du code civil intitule du mariage, nous avons demandé aux future Epoux et Epouse, s’ils quelent se prendre pour mari et pour femme chaqu’un d’eux ayant repondu séparement et affirmatisement Déclarons au nom de la loi que le sieur Joseph Antoine Cossin et la demoiselle Marie Agatha Hentzy sont unis par le mariage, de tout quoi nous avons dressé acte en presence des sus dits quatre habitans de Seppois le bas témoins, dont aucun n’est pas parentes ni alliés de l’un ni de l’autre des deux Epoux, les quels aprés lecture et interprétation en allemand faites, ont signé avec nous et les parties contractantes, dont aite, la mère Agnoise Antonÿ a déclaré ne savoir écrire. [Signed] Joseph Antonÿ Cossin, Frantz J. Wendlinger, Joseph Waller, Moritz Cossin, Antonÿ Martus, J. Hemis [?], maire.”

I’ve translated the record below:

“The year one thousand eight hundred and twenty nine on the eighth of September at four o’clock in the afternoon. Before Us, Jacques [Hemis?], mayor and civil registrar of the commune of Pfetterhausen, Canton of Hirsingue, District of Altkirch, Department of Haut-Rhin, appeared Mr. Joseph Antoine Cossin, shoemaker, born on the twelfth [day of the French Republic month of] Thermidor of the year nine of the Republic, according to the birth record of the commune of Seppois-le-Bas; residing in Pfetterhausen, son of legal age of the late Jacques Cossin, farmer, and of the late Barbara Maker in their lifetime residing in Seppois-le-Bas, the father deceased on the tenth of April eighteen hundred and fourteen according to the mortuary extract of the said place, and the mother died on the fourteenth [day of the French Republic month of] Germinal [in the] year eleven of the Republic, according to the extracted death record of Seppois-le-Bas, and as for the grandparents, the said Cossin presented us with four inhabitants of the commune of Seppois-le-Bas, by name, François Joseph Wendlinger, farmer, age sixty-seven years; Joseph Waller, farmer, aged fifty-seven; Moritz Cossin, farmer, aged fifty-six years, and Antoine Martin, blacksmith, aged fifty-three years; all four declared to us that they have no knowledge and do not know where the grandparents of the said Joseph Antoine Cossin are deceased and according to the attached letter of Mr. Colin, the mayor of Seppois-le-Bas, it appears and can be judged that they are no longer registered in the archives of the of the commune; and the Miss Marie Agatha Hentzy, [female] day laborer, born on March twenty-seventh, eighteen hundred and eleven, as verified by the extract of birth of Pfetterhausen, minor daughter of Thienisy Hentzy, cabaret owner, and of Agnoise Antony; her father and mother all three domiciled in the said place at present and consenting, who have required us to proceed to the celebration of the marriage planned between them, of which the publications were made in front of the main door of our common House; namely, the first one on Sunday, August twenty-third, and the second one on Sunday, the thirtieth [day of the] same month of the present year, each time at the hour of noon; and after no opposition to the said marriage [was found], and after having read them all of the documents from Chapter Six of Title Five of the Civil Code pertaining to marriage, we have asked the future spouses, if they want to take each other as husband and wife [and] each of them having answered separately and affirmatively, We declare in the name of the law that Mr. Joseph Antoine Cossin and Marie Agatha Hentzy are united in marriage, of which we have drawn up an Act in the presence of the above-mentioned four witnesses of Seppois-le-Bas, none of whom is related to either of the two Spouses, who after reading and interpreting in German, have signed with us and the contracting parties; the mother Agnoise Antonÿ declared [that she does] not know how to write. [Signed] Joseph Antonÿ Coſsin, Frantz J. Wendlinger, Joseph Waller, Moritz Coſsin, Antonÿ Martus, J. Hemis [?], Mayor.”

The groom’s name was recorded as Joseph Antoine Cossin, with a “long s,” (Figure 9), and the names of the bride and groom are an exact match to the names of the parents of Maria Magdalena in the baptismal record from St. Louis church in Buffalo, eliminating any further doubt that the “Gosÿ” of the baptismal record was intended to be something closer to the “Causin” more commonly found on records pertaining to Mary Magdalene Roberts.

Figure 9: Detail from marriage record for Joseph Antoine Cossin and Marie Agatha Hentzy showing Joseph’s name written with a long s.

Joseph’s parents were identified as Jacques Cossin and Barbara (née Maker) Cossin, both deceased—a brand-new ancestral couple for me to research! I even got a bonus ancestral signature on the second page, where Joseph himself signed the record. The record is packed with genealogical gold, including the dates of birth of both the bride and groom and the dates of death of both of the groom’s parents. Some of the dates are given according to the old calendar of the French Republic, created after the French Revolution. Steve Morse offers a handy tool for converting old French Republic dates into their modern Gregorian calendar equivalents, and after conversion, we see that Joseph Antoine Cosson was born 28 July 1804, and his mother, Barbara, died 1 April 1806, when Joseph was just two years old.

The Cossin family was from the nearby village of Seppois-le-Bas, shown on the map in Figure 10, and the two villages are just a stone’s throw away from the Swiss border.

Figure 10: Locations of Pfetterhouse and Seppois-le-Bas within France. Google Maps.

The marriage record tells the story of Joseph Cossin’s process of fulfilling the legal requirements of the Napoleonic Code for marriage by rounding up four witnesses to accompany him to the mayor’s office. The Code specified that, in cases where the parents of a bride or groom of legal age for marriage were deceased, the permission of the grandparents was nonetheless required, until the age of 30 for grooms and 25 for brides. Article 155 further states,

“In case of the absence of the ancestor to whom the respectful act ought to have been made, the celebration of the marriage may be proceeded in, on producing a judgment given declaring absence, or in default of such judgment that which shall have directed an inquiry, or if such latter judgment shall not yet have been pronounced, an act of notoriety delivered by the justice of the peace of the place where the ancestor had his last known domicil. This act shall contain the deposition or four witnesses officially summoned by the justice of the peace.”19

So, in order to avoid possible fines and imprisonment, Messieurs les maires of the communes of Seppois-le-Bas and Pfetterhouse had to carefully document that Joseph’s grandparents were deceased and that he had no family members whose consent was required for the marriage. Although the record states that none of the witnesses were related to either the bride or the groom, the fact that one of the witnesses, Moritz Cossin, shares a surname with the groom and was from the same small village, suggests that he may, in fact, have been a distant relative, although they were apparently unaware of any relationship.

On the bride’s side, the record states that she was the daughter of “Thienisy” Hentzy, cabaret owner, and of Agnoise Antony, which are reasonable phonetic matches to the Dionisy and Agnes Hentzy who were reported to be the parents of Maria Anna Hentzy Schneider, according to numerous family trees on Ancestry. This confirms that Mary Magdalene’s godmother, Anna Maria Hensy, was in fact, her aunt.

While many genealogical research questions remain, this is such a satisfying breakthrough for me, and I look forward to growing my family tree in this fertile ground of records from both the U.S. and France. From Causin to Curzon to Gosÿ and back to Cossin; from Pfetterhouse to Buffalo to Detroit to “Vaterhunn,” this has been quite a journey of discovery. And yet, in hindsight, I’m frankly amazed that it took me this long to find them. In my next post, I’ll share all the missteps I made, the things I wish I had done differently, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Selected Sources:

Featured image: The author at the grave of Mary Magdalene Roberts, Mt. Elliott Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan. Photo credit, Valerie Koselka.

11860 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, Detroit Ward 6, page 142, dwelling no. 1066, household no. 1148, Mary Roberts in household of Michael Roberts; 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, Magdalena Robert in household of Michael Robert; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 6 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication M593, roll 713 of 1,761 rolls; and

Wayne County Probate Court (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan), Probate packet no. 19856, Mary M. Roberts, died 27 February 1894; digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org : 28 June 2021), “Probate estate packets, 1797-1901,” FHL Film no.967194, path: Wayne > Probate packets 1894 no 19805-19856 > images 975-984.

2 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. Photo credit Valerie Koselka.

3 “Michigan Deaths and Burials, 1800-1995,” database and image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FHH5-3XW : 31 October 2021), Mary M. Roberts, 27 February 1894, citing Wayne, Michigan, Deaths, v. 13-17 1893-1897, no. 3598.

4 1880 United States Federal Census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, city of Detroit, Enumeration District 298, page 123A, dwelling no. 92, household no. 92, Mary Roberts in household of Michael Roberts; database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 1 July 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 613 of 1,454 rolls.

5 Roman Catholic Church, St. Mary’s parish (Greektown, Detroit, Michigan, USA), “Baptisms, 1866-1919,” 1866, no. 194, Franc. Henricus Rupert, born 29 August 1866, Burton Historical Collection microfilm no. 1286, reel 32, Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward Ave, Detroit, Michigan. Photo credit Valerie Koselka.

6 Roman Catholic Church, St. Mary’s parish (Greektown, Detroit, Michigan, USA), “Baptisms, 1866-1919,” 1871, line 188, Franz Georg Rupert, baptized 8 October; Burton Historical Collection microfilm no. 1286, reel 32, Detroit Public Library, 5201 Woodward Ave, Detroit, Michigan. Photo credit Valerie Koselka.

7 “Michigan, U.S., Death Records 1867-1952,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 30 October 2021), Katherine Hecker, died 13 June 1942, file no. 293521, citing Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics; Lansing, Michigan.

8 Lee F. Heacock, The Buffalo artists’ register : a general review of the activities of representative organizations of Buffalo, N.Y. … related to … the creative and interpretive arts (Buffalo, New York: Heacock Publishing Company, 1926), pp 381-382, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, 1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, New York.

9 “St. Louis Roman Catholic Church,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Louis_Roman_Catholic_Church : 1 November 2021).

10History of Germans in Buffalo and Erie County, New York (Buffalo, New York: Verlag und Druck von Reinecke & Zesch, 1898), p. 38; e-book, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 1 November 2021).

11 “Western New York Genealogical Society (WNYGS) Discussion Group,” discussion thread from post by Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, 23 November 2013, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/WNYGS/posts/10152032075711041 : 1 November 2021).

12 Roman Catholic Church, St. Louis parish (Buffalo, Erie, New York), Church records, 1829-1910, Baptisms 1829-1881, 1832, unnumbered entries in chronological order, Maria Magdalena Gosÿ, 14 August 1832.

13Andrew P. Yox, “The Parochial Context of Trusteeism: Buffalo’s St. Louis Church, 1828-1855,” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 76, no. 4, Catholic University of America Press, 1990, pp. 712–33; JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org/stable/25023400 : 1 November 2021).

14 “Alsace & Lorraine Genealogy,” Facebook Group, Facebook, discussion thread from post on 26 October 2014, poster’s name omitted for privacy, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/alsace.genealogy/posts/10152755337639754 : 4 November 2021).

15 Ibid., discussion thread from post on 28 October 2014, poster’s name omitted for privacy, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/alsace.genealogy/posts/10152760909764754/ : 4 November 2021).

16 Officier de l’état civil (Pfetterhouse, Altkirch, Haut-Rhin, France), “Naissances, 1793-1862,” 1814, no. 6, birth record for Maria Anna Hensÿ, 29 April 1814, accessed as browsable images, Archives départementales du Haut-Rhin, (https://archives.haut-rhin.fr/ark:/naan/a011455803237L7WIvz/e408e21f4f : 4 November 2021), image 194 out of 391.

17 Officier de l’état civil, Pfetterhouse, Altkirch, Haut-Rhin, France, “Mariages, 1793-1862,” 1829, no. 6, Joseph Antoine Cossin and Marie Agatha Hentzÿ, 8 September 1829; browsable images, Archives départementales du Haut-Rhin (https://archives.haut-rhin.fr/ark:/naan/a0114558031560HCYzb/5e563166a7 : 4 November 2021), image 192 of 338.

18 Genealogical Translations Group, Facebook, discussion thread from post by Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, 29 October 2021 (https://www.facebook.com/groups/GenealogicalTranslations/posts/908406220105478/ : 3 November 2021).

19 “French Civil Code, Book 1: Of Persons, Title 5: Of Marriage,” The Napoleon Series (https://www.napoleon-series.org/research/government/code/book1/c_title05.html : 4 November 2021).

A Trio of Death Certificates

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.

Isabella Smith

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).

Figure 1: Death certificate for Isabell [sic] H. Smith.4

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.

Alexander Dodds

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.

Figure 2: Death certificate for Alexander Dodds.7

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.

Figure 3: Service card for Alexander Dodds from Lakeside Cemetery, Hamburg, New York.8

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).

Figure 4: Death certificate for Gilbert M. Dodds.9

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.

Figure 5: Map showing last residences of Dodds siblings Alexander, Gilbert, and Isabella Smith on Buffalo’s West Side. Google Maps.

Conclusions

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.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources:

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.

6 Marian L. Smith, “By Way of Canada,” Prologue Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Fall 2000), National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2000/fall/us-canada-immigration-records-1.html : 18 August 2021).

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.

Goal-Focused Genealogy, or, Connecting to a DNA Match in 20 Minutes

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.

Figure 1: Newspaper obituary for Constance A. Bengier.1

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.

Figure 2: Information from Social Security Applications and Claims Index for Constance Anna Bengier.2

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.

Figure 3: Image extracted from the 1930 census for German township, Harrison County, Ohio, showing the Bengier family.3

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).

Figure 4: Detail from the Hamburg emigration manifest of the SS Cleveland, departing Hamburg on 29 September 1910, showing passengers Konstancia Bengier and her 3-month-old daughter, Walerya.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).

Figure 5: Marriage record for Stanisław Kujawa and Anna Słońska from the parish of Kowalewo Opactwo.5

The record is in Russian, and here’s how I translate it:

“No. 12

Wola Koszutska

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.

I love a happy ending.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources:

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.

5 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo” (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1882, marriages, no. 12, Stanisław Kujawa and Anna Słońska; digital image, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/71, scan 27 of 37.

6 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo” (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1860, births, no. 27, Anna Słonska; digital images, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/49, scan 6 of 24.

7 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo” (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1823, births, no. 16, Antoni Jan Słoński; digital image, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/13, scan 4 of 25.

8 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo” (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1845, marriages, no. 8, Antoni Słoński and Marianna Kowalska; digital image, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/34, scan 17 of 28.

9 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Ladek,” (Lądek, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Ksiega malzenstw, 1819–1820, 1819, no. 24, Bonawentura Słoński and Jagnieszka Wilczewska; digital images, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/776/0/-/46, scans 13 and 14 of 14; and

“Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki),” Akta urodzen, malzenstw i zgonów, 1845, deaths, no. 5, Barbara z Slonskich Dabrowska; digital image, Szukajwarchiwach (https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/ : 8 August 2021), Sygnatura 54/771/0/-/34, scan 23 of 28.

6 Tips for Selecting DNA Matches to Paint in DNA Painter

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.

Figure 1: Top portion of the page of a new, “unpainted” profile at DNA Painter, showing maternal (pink) and paternal (pale blue) copies of Chromosomes 1-10. If you were to scroll down the page, you would see the remaining chromosomes.

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.

Figure 2: Top portion of the page showing Chromosomes 1-10 after I “paint” that blank canvas with segments of DNA shared between me and my mom.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
Figure 3: Chromosome browser from Family Tree DNA, showing segments of DNA I share with one of my third cousins (blue) and her daughter (red).

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!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Using Gazetteers for Polish Genealogy

Every so often, I get feedback from readers of this blog. Sometimes people have general comments about the blog, or they’re interested in recommendations for onsite researchers in Poland. At other times, people have very specific research questions, or questions about methodology or resources. Recently, I received such a query from researcher Mike Cooper, who gave me permission to mention our discussion in this article. Mike wrote,

“So I feel like I tend to be more of a brute force style where I sort of randomly search until I find something.  I know there has to be a better way.

I know part of my family is from Lednogora which is outside of Gniezno.  I tried searching by place with that village name in FamilySearch and it’s not there.  I sort of looked under Wielkopolskie on Geneteka and don’t see it.  I’m guessing that the church was in a city close by.  I feel like I’m struggling to connect the Places in Poznan Project with the Provinces/Locations in Geneteka or with Places in FamilySearch…. Do any of your past blogs help unravel this mystery of how to more effectively use these tools?  I’ve read a bunch but still seem stuck.”

Mike is correct in thinking that there’s a better way to find records besides “brute force searching,” or guessing at the parish which served a particular village. The key is gazetteers, which I think are the most underutilized resource out there among North American researchers who are trying to trace their Polish ancestry. Gazetteers play an important role in the process of locating records from Poland for one’s family, a process which involves three steps:

  1. Use U.S. records to gather evidence for the name and location of your ancestral village.
  2. Use one or more gazetteers to identify the parish and/or registry office that served that village. This part is key, because records were not created in each individual village, they were created at higher administrative levels, e.g. parish, powiat (county), or province.
  3. Identify the repositories for those records. Vital records from parishes or registry offices are typically found in four places:
    1. the parish archives
    2. the local registry office
    3. the diocesan archive
    4. the regional state archive. 

The first step of this three-step process is described in more detail here, so today I’d like to use Mike’s question as a opportunity to examine Step Two more closely.

Choosing a Gazetteer

There are essentially two types of gazetteers for Polish genealogy: phonetic gazetteers, and period gazetteers. Phonetic gazetteers are those which offer some leeway in terms of spelling, and are useful when attempting to identify a place whose name was more or less mangled in the source document. How do you know if the place name was mangled or not? The Google Test will usually tell you that: do an internet search on the place name as it’s spelled in the source document, and see what turns up. If places with that name exist, then you know it’s a valid spelling. If nothing shows up, then a phonetic gazetteer can help you make educated guesses about what the place name should be.

There are two phonetic gazetteers that I use regularly, the JewishGen Gazetteer and the Baza Miejscowości Kresowych [Database of Towns in the Kresy]. The latter is useful if you suspect that your village was located in the Kresy Wschodnie—the eastern part of the Second Polish Republic (interwar Poland), which was excluded from the borders of Poland after World War II and became part of Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania. (For a brief overview of Polish border changes, see here.) The JewishGen Gazetteer is more generally useful, since it includes locations throughout Central Europe. Both gazetteers will allow you to input a misspelled place name, and will return possible phonetic matches, based on various Soundex options.

Period gazetteers were published in a particular time period, and are useful for determining the administrative assignments of a particular location during that time. Administrative assignments include the gubernia [governorate or province), powiat or kreis (county), smaller administrative divisions such as gmina or gemeinde (an administrative level similar to a township, consisting of a number of small villages), as well as local parishes or religious communities, all of which are important to know because the source documents we need for genealogical research were created at these various administrative levels. Some examples of period gazetteers are the Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i i innych krajów słowiańskich [Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries], which was published between 1880–1902; the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego, Volumes I and II, an index of places in the Kingdom of Poland (i.e. Russian Poland), published in 1877; the Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs, which is useful for Polish places that were previously located in Germany; and the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, [Index of Towns in the Republic of Poland] which was published circa 1933. In addition to these, there are some gazetteer databases such as Kartenmeister (for Eastprussia, Westprussia, Brandenburg, Posen, Pomerania, and Silesia) and the Gesher Galicia Town Locator, that contain information extracted from historical sources, but which don’t link directly to the original source material for each entry.

You’ll probably find that some gazetteers are easier to use than others, especially if your foreign-language skills are limited. Many of the search engines for the period gazetteers online will require you to know the exact spelling of the place name, including diacritics. It’s also important to realize that no gazetteer is perfect. Errors exist in (probably) all of them, so you may want to use more than one gazetteer to cross-check the information you find, perhaps in conjunction with a good internet search. (When searching the internet, try Wikipedia.pl for information, as you’re more likely to find articles about small Polish villages written in Polish, rather than English. Despite these caveats, gazetteers are an ideal starting point for locating information about a place. A more complete list of useful gazetteers, with a brief explanation of each, can be found here.

Using a Gazetteer

Kartenmeister

Now let’s see how we can use gazetteers to help Mike determine where records would have been kept for villagers living in “Lednogora.” In this case, his place name passes the Google Test, as there is a place in Poland today called Lednogóra. This means that we don’t need to utilize a phonetic gazetteer, so we can move on to identifying the correct parish and registry office for this location. Since Lednogóra was in the Prussian partition, the first gazetteer I’d consult would be Kartenmeister. Searching for “Lednogora” (diacritics not required) in the “Polish City Name/Ortsname” category produces a number of matches, but drilling down in the results reveals that all of these are alternate names or spellings for the same place, which was previously known as Lettberg (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Search result from Kartenmeister for Lednogora.

Mike mentioned that his ancestors from Lednogóra were Catholic, and this fact is also very important. Civil registration began in Prussia in 1874, but prior to that, church records were recognized as legal documents. As good genealogists, we want to leave no stone unturned, so our initial research plan should include examination of both the Catholic church records and the civil records. Kartenmeister informs us that circa 1905, there were two parishes to which parts of this village were assigned, Dziekanowitze, which is presently known as Dziekanowice, and Wenglewo, which is Węglewo. This situation of having two parish assignments is somewhat unusual, but not unheard of, and it may be that further research into the history of the village reveals some explanation. The entry also notes that the civil registry office was located in Libau/Łubowo. Therefore, Łubowo, Węglewo, and Dziekanowice, not Lednogóra, are the places that one would seek in Geneteka, BaSIA, the Poznań Project, etc. 

The Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs

You could also check the Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs [Meyer’s Gazetteer and Directory of the German Empire] rather than Kartenmeister, in order to identify the parish. A search for “Lednogora” produces a brief entry that directs one to the entry for Lettberg. but it should be noted that this trick does not always work, as this gazetteer typically requires one to search according to the German place names. There are a few different websites that can help with determining former German names of places in Poland today, including this index by Anna Sluszkiewicz, this list, and this additional list, for places in East Prussia, and it might be worthwhile to bookmark them. However, none of these lists are complete, and in this case, none of them are especially helpful since they don’t include Lednogóra. This is where Kartenmeister really shines, since it permits searching according to either the Polish or German place name, depending on what you find in your source documents. The Meyers search results are shown in Figure 2.

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

The Meyers gazetteer offers two especially nice features which can be accessed from the menu bar at the top, and are circled in red in this image. The first is the Maps feature, which pinpoints the location on an old historical map (Figure 3). As an added bonus, you can use the “Toggle Historical Map” feature to vary the transparency between the historical map and the modern map. Better still, there’s an option to select administrative jurisdictions, surrounding Standesämter (civil registry offices), Catholic parishes, Protestant parishes, and Jewish synagogues, and any or all of those will be pinpointed on the map for you.

Figure 3: Historical map from the Meyers gazetteer showing Lettburg/Lednogóra and the location of local Catholic parishes (yellow pins marked with “C”) and registry offices (red pin marked with “R”).

Similarly, the “Ecclesiastical” tab will display a list of parishes in tabular form, indicating approximate distance in miles from each parish to the target location (Figure 4). Common sense would suggest that the closest parish was always the one to which a village was assigned, but there are exceptions to every rule, including this present example.

Figure 4: Ecclesiastical assignments for the village of Lettberg/Lednogóra from the Meyers gazetteer.

The Meyers site will often include information about the parish assignment for a village as it’s suggested by the catalog entries in FamilySearch. However, some errors may exist, as in this case, since the Meyers entry correctly states that the Catholic parish for Lednogóra was Wenglewo/Węglewo, but omits the fact that this village was assigned in part to Dziekanowitze/Dziekanowice as well, as evidenced by the “Notes” in the FamilySearch catalog entry for Dziekanowice. (This oversight in the Meyers gazetteer website was probably caused by the historical use of two spellings for the village name, Lednagóra and Lednogóra.)

The Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego

The granddaddy of all Polish gazetteers is the Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich [Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries], published between 1880–1902. The Słownik geograficzny is renowned for its incredible size—15 volumes— and the wealth of historical information it provides for many of the entries. The entire publication is now searchable online, and you must use Polish spellings with diacritics when you search. In this case, the entry for Lednogóra refers you to the entry for Lednagóra, which suggests that this latter spelling may have been more prevalent in the late 19th century, although the former spelling is the one used today.

Unfortunately, the Słownik may be a bit off-putting for researchers not fluent in Polish, as the entries are filled with abbreviations as well as archaic terms for land measurement, social status, legal arrangements (e.g. krowa żelazna) and more. Fear not, however, because resources are available to assist. The Polish Genealogical Society of America offers a dictionary of unfamiliar terms encountered in the SGKP, a list of commonly-used abbreviations, some translated entries, and more. Similar resources are offered at the Polish Roots website, including a different set of translated entries, located in the drop-down menu under “Geography and Maps.” Armed with these tools, you’ll be able to discover that “krowa żelazna” was an arrangement in which a cow was fed and kept by its owner, while its milk was donated to another designated party. Who knew?

Despite the relatively lengthy entry for Lednagóra provided by the Słownik geograficzny, there is no mention of the reason why the village was divided between two Catholic parishes, nor, in fact, is there any reference to the parish for the village at all. This underscores the importance of checking multiple gazetteers in the course of one’s research: sometimes you just might strike out with the first one you check, but that’s no reason to give up. A more typical entry from the Słownik which indicates the parish is shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Entry from the Słownik geograficzny for the village of Kuznocin, which describes two unique places called Kuznocin. The first was located in powiat sochaczewski (Sochaczew County), gmina Kozłów Biskupi, and belonged to the parish in Sochaczew, and the second was in powiat piotrkowski (Piotrków County), gmina Bogusławice, and belonged to the parish in Wolbórz.

The Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej

One final gazetteer I want to mention today is the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej z oznaczeniem terytorjalnie im właściwych władz i urzędów oraz urządzeń komunikacyjnych (Index of place names of the Republic of Poland with corresponding governmental agencies and offices, including communication facilities), published circa 1933. This gazetteer is especially useful for identifying places that were located in the Kresy Wschodnie, but are presently located in Belarus, Lithuania, or Ukraine. However, it is also obviously useful for obtaining information about places located anywhere within the borders of Poland between the World Wars, as in this example with Lednogóra (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Entries from the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej for Lednogóra.

One advantage of this gazetteer is its ease of use, thanks to the simple columnar format. The handful of abbreviations which it employs are defined on page 24 of the digital version, within the introduction. From this, we can tell that the “st. kol.” in the top entry for Lednogóra refers to the stacja kolejowa (train station) which was located in Lednogóra, as opposed to the wieś (village) of Lednogóra itself. As one might expect, both the train station and the village of Lednogóra were noted to be located in gmina Lednogóra, the powiat (county) of Gniezno, and the województwo (voivodeship or province) of Poznań. Besides the parish information provided in the last column, these first three columns are the most useful from a genealogical perspective, since it was not uncommon for our immigrant ancestors to reference a larger administrative division (e.g. Gniezno or Poznań) in response to the question, “Where were you born?” In this particular gazetteer, the only Roman Catholic parish (denoted with r) indicated for villagers of Lednogóra is Dziekanowice, suggesting that the village was no longer divided between the parishes of Dziekanowice and Węglewo by 1933. There was a Lutheran parish (denoted with e for ewangielicka) located within the village of Lednogóra itself, which corroborates information found in Kartenmeister and Meyers.

Hopefully this example has illustrated how gazetteers take the guesswork out of finding vital records for your Polish ancestors. With so many great gazetteers readily available online, there’s no need to wonder which local parish might hold the records for your ancestral village, nor will you be puzzled as to why an immigrant from Lednogóra might have said he was from Gniezno or Poznań on various documents. Although this is by no means a complete discussion of every gazetteer that might be useful to Polish research, nor even of every gazetteer that’s useful to those researching Prussian Poles, I hope it’s enough to convince you to add some gazetteers to your genealogical toolbox and use them regularly. In my next post, I’ll walk through Step 3 of the process of finding vital records for one’s Polish ancestors: identifying repositories for records from the parish and registry office which served one’s ancestral village.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020

More Translation Tips: Resources for Surnames and Place Names

In my last post, I offered some tried-and-true tips for learning to translate Polish and Russian genealogical documents. Today I’d like to offer a couple additional recommendations for strategies that I’ve found to be extremely helpful for deciphering surnames and place names found in vital records.

As mentioned previously, vital records are very formulaic. There’s a lot of standard language in them, but the parts that frequently give us the most trouble are the names and places. Unfortunately, these are also the most interesting parts, so when it comes to deciphering this information, it’s important to pull out all the stops, and use every resource at your disposal. For research into Polish ancestors, here are a few of my favorites:

The Słownik Nazwisk database

The Słownik nazwisk database is a searchable database of over 800,000 surnames that were in use in Poland in 1990. William F. Hoffman provides a nice explanation of the database and offers instruction on how to use it here. The capacity for using wildcards to search the database makes it a great starting point when  struggling to decipher a particular surname in a record. If, for example, you’re pretty sure that the surname starts with “Cie-,” followed by some letters you can’t make out, and then ends in “-rski,” you can do a wildcard search for “Cie*rski” and see the surnames that were extant circa 1990 that might fit the bill. The only drawback here may be, “extant circa 1990,” since the database will not pick up surnames that might have died out long before then.

Geneteka

Where would we be without Geneteka? Not only is it our go-to finding aid for Polish vital records, but it can also be used to help decipher surnames when translating. Sometimes it happens that the particular record you’re translating is from a parish that is indexed in Geneteka, but falls outside the range of years that is indexed. For example, birth records for the parish of Wyszyny Kościelne are presently indexed in Geneteka from 1826–1909 with a gap from 1898–1900. (Since new indexes are added to Geneteka all the time, this range of years may be extended at some point.) But let’s say you’re translating a birth record from Wyszyny from 1823, online here. The indexed records are nonetheless useful to you because they can inform you of the surnames that were found in that parish. As with the Słownik Nazwisk, wildcard searches (“exact search”) are your friend when using Geneteka this way. If a surname clearly starts with “Wa-,” you can search within that parish for “Wa*” and use the resulting list of surnames to help decipher the name in the record. Remember, too, that you can broaden the search by adding in indexed parishes within a 15-km radius, or even search indexed parishes within a whole province, to pick up individuals who might have been from another parish originally. Using Geneteka in this manner gets you around the problem of the Słownik Nazwisk being limited to surnames that were in use in Poland circa 1990.

When it comes to deciphering place names, it’s helpful to fall back on both maps and gazetteers, to wit:

Magnificent Maps

This is probably Step 1 in your problem-solving process. When translating a vital record, you presumably know the location of the parish in which the record was created. Pull up a map of that location, and use it to identify other villages in the area. However, you may find that very small villages which were mentioned in vital records no longer appear on modern maps, possibly because they were absorbed by larger towns in the area. In such cases, it’s helpful to check an older map, preferably one from the same period (more or less) in which the record was created. Here are some good online sources for period maps of Poland and historically Polish lands.

Gazetteers are also incredibly helpful when translating vital records because they typically provide information on the administrative hierarchy for a location, as well as parish assignment. It was common for priests to provide some descriptive details, such as the parish or district in which the place was located, when identifying the birthplaces of key individuals in a vital record, and gazetteers can help you make sense of those details.

A good example of this is shown below in Figure 1. This is an extract from the marriage record for Tadeusz Skolimowski and Marianna Kessling, who were married in Wyszyny Kościelne on 28 January 1877. Tadeusz and Marianna were my husband’s great-great-grandparents, and my further research depended on my ability to correctly identify the birthplaces of the bride and groom.

Figure 1: Extract from marriage record of Tadeusz Skolimowski and Marianna Kessling, Wyszyny Kościelne, 28 January 1877, with details about the groom underlined in red.1Tadeusz Skolimowski marriage extract marked

The text underlined in red starts with the groom’s name in Polish instrumental case, “Skolimowskim Tadeuszem,” and then continues in Russian, “тридцати шести лҍтъ отъ роду холостымъ садовникомъ и жителемъ деревни Косинки Капличне уроженцемъ деревни Болешинъ тогожѣ прихода въ прусскомъ королествҍ,” which means, “age thirty-six, a single gardener and a resident of Kosinki Kapliczne, born in the village and also parish of Boleszyn in the Kingdom of Prussia.”

There are two places to identify here, Tadeusz’s place of residence at the time of his marriage, and his place of birth. Although his place of residence looks to me like Косинки Капличне (Kosinki Kapliczne), a quick look at the map tells me it’s got to be Kosiny Kapiczne, a few kilometers west of Wyszyny Kościelne (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Map of Wyszyny Kościelne and surrounding villages, Google Maps.Map of Wyszyny area

Although certain that this is the correct location, I ran my transcription past William F. “Fred” Hoffman, co-author of In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents: Volume II: Russian, to see if he agreed that the place was spelled “Капличне [Kapliczne],” or if perhaps I was just misreading the handwriting and seeing an л where none was intended. Fred gave me permission to quote his reply, in which he wrote,

“I clearly read the name of the village as Kosinki Kapliczne. I’m guessing that may be a local variant of the name. The Kosiny vs. Kosinki is no big deal, that kind of thing goes on all the time with Polish names. But KapLiczne vs. Kapiczne appears to be a mistake, or, maybe, a regional form. I looked this place up in a series on the history of place names, and that name was consistently -picz-, not -plicz-. Russian does sometimes insert an -л- in palatalized situations where we wouldn’t expect it: for instance, the verb for “to love” is любить, but “I love” is я люблю. So perhaps the priest thought Капличне might be a proper Russified form. But I suspect I’m being too clever here. Maybe it’s a simple mistake. For a priest, confusion with kaplica, “chapel,” might explain how that -l- snuck in there where it doesn’t belong. It seems certain Kosiny Kapiczne is the right place. Scholars say the Kapic- part comes from association with a local fellow named Piotr Kapica — no -L-.”

Great Gazetteers

For kicks, I also looked up this location in the Skorowidz Królewstwa Polskiego (T. 1), which is a gazetteer of places in the Kingdom of Poland (i.e. Russian Poland), published in 1877. The Skorowidz tells me that Kosiny Kapiczne, village and folwark (manorial farm), was located in the Płock gubernia (province), Mława powiat (county), and Kosiny gmina (community, consisting of several villages), and that it belonged to the parish in Bogurzyn (Figure 3). The village of Bogurzyn can be seen just to the west of Kosiny Kapiczne on the map in Figure 2.

Figure 3: Entry for Kosiny Kapiczne in the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego.2

Kosiny in SKP

The parish assignment is an important detail, from the standpoint of translations. In situations where the bride and groom were living in different parishes, it was customary for the banns to be read in both parishes, so that anyone with any objections to the marriage might come forward. If we were in any doubt at this point about whether or not we had read the name of Tadeusz’s place of residence correctly, we could use the name of the parish to test our hypothetical identification of the village. In this case, we can predict that the parish of Bogurzyn will be named further down in the record when the banns are mentioned. Sure enough, Figure 4 shows that it is.

Figure 4: Extract from marriage record of Tadeusz Skolimowski and Marianna Kessling, Wyszyny Kościelne, 28 January 1877, with details about the marriage banns underlined in red.Bogurzyn in record

This section states, “Браку зтому предшествовали три оглашенія публикованнъл въ Вышинскоемъ и Богурзинскоем приходскихъ костелахъ,” which means, “This marriage was preceded by three announcements published in the parish churches of Wyszyny and Bogurzyn.” Bingo.

Moving on to Tadeusz’s birthplace, the record tells us that he was born in Boleszyn in the Kingdom of Prussia. An internet search informs us that this is not a unique place name in Poland: there is a village called Boleszyn that’s presently in the Świętokrzyszkie voivodeship, and another village by that name in the Warmińsko-mazurskie voivodeship. A quick look at a rough map of the borders between Russia and Prussia in the late 19th century is enough to suggest that the latter village is the one we want. Nonetheless, this is still a hypothetical identification until we find a record of Tadeusz’s birth in the parish of Boleszyn. In this case, it’s simple to do that. Records for Boleszyn are freely available on FamilySearch, and Tadeusz’s marriage record informs us that he was 36 years old in 1877, suggesting a date of birth circa 1841. A few minutes of searching results in his birth record, shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Birth record from the parish in Boleszyn for Tadeusz Skolimowski, born 17 September 1841.3Tadeusz Skolimowski birth 1841

This record confirms that Thaddeus/Tadeusz was born 17 September 1841 in Słup, baptized on September 26, and that he was the son of Laurentius (Wawrzyniec, in Polish) Skolimowski and Marianna née Zwolińska. Godparents were Mateusz Kalinoski (sic) and Franciszka Winter, wife of the church organist. Although not included in the underlined text in Figure 1, the next section of his marriage record identified Tadeusz’s parents as Wawrzyniec Skolimowski and Marianna (née Zwolińska) Skolimowska, both of whom were already deceased. Since the child’s name, parents’ names, year of birth and the baptismal parish all line up with the body of evidence accumulated for Tadeusz, we can overlook the fact that he was actually born in the village of Słup rather than in the village of Boleszyn as stated on the marriage record.

If this record were not so easy to find—if perhaps these records were only available onsite at the parish, and we’d need to hire an onsite researcher to get a copy of Tadeusz’s birth record—then we might want to take an extra step to confirm the location of Boleszyn before sending someone off on a wild-goose chase. The marriage record provided a small but important detail about the village of Boleszyn with the statement, “деревни Болешинъ тогожѣ прихода,” which indicates that the particular Boleszyn we’re looking for had a Catholic church located right in the village. We can therefore predict that if we look up the village of Boleszyn in a gazetteer of places in the German Empire, the correct village will be the seat of a parish. So what gazetteer should we use? Well, the Meyers Gazetteer is always good, except it requires us to know what the village of Boleszyn would be called in German, and we only have the Polish name (transliterated from Russian) available. We could transliterate again, guess that the village name might be something like Bolleschin, and do a search for that name in the Meyers Gazetteer, and in this case, we’d be right. Even if that weren’t exactly correct, we could do a wild-card search for “Bol*” which will produce all villages starting with “Bol-” and we can sift through the results. But sometimes the German names for places in Poland aren’t simple transliterations (e.g. the German name for the Polish town of Zagórów is Hinterberg), so this method might not pan out.

For these reasons, my first-choice gazetteer in this case would be Kartenmeister, since that gazetteer allows the input of Polish place names. Kartenmeister quickly informs us that the village of Boleszyn was also known as Bolleschin or Bolleßyn, and was the seat of both a Catholic parish and a German Standesamt (civil registry office). Moreover, both gazetteers confirm that there was only one village by this name in the German Empire, so we can be confident that this is the place mentioned in the marriage record.

As you can see, the various surname databases, maps, and gazetteers can be valuable resources to tap into when translating vital records pertaining to your Polish ancestors. Even situations in which village names are misspelled, such as Tadeusz Skolimowski’s place of residence, or misidentified, such as his place of birth, present only minor obstacles when armed with the correct tools for understanding the problem. Hopefully some of these tools will be useful to you, and if they are, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Happy researching!

Sources:

1 Roman Catholic Church (Wyszyny Koscielne, Mlawa, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej Wyszyny powiat mlawski, 1826-1909,” 1877, Małżeństwa, no. 3, marriage record for Tadeusz Skolimowski and Maryanna Kessling, accessed as browsable images, Metryki.Genealodzy.pl (https://metryki.genealodzy.pl/metryka.php?ar=13&zs=0629d&sy=1877&kt=2&plik=003.jpg#zoom=1&x=1976&y=126: 24 June 2020)

2 I. Zinberg, Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego czyli Spis alfabetyczny miast, wsi, folwarków, kolonii i wszystkich nomenklatur w guberniach Królestwa Polskiego, z wykazaniem: gubernii, powiatu, gminy, parafii, sądu pokoju lub gminnego, oraz najbliższej stacyi pocztowej, wraz z oddzielnym spisem gmin podług najświeższej ich liczby i nazwy ułożony, wykazujący: odległość każdej danej gminy od miasta powiatowego i sądu swojego gminnego; czy i jakie znajdują się w gminie zakłady fabryczne lub przemysłowe, szkoły itp. oraz ludność każdej gminy, obejmujący także podział sądownictwa krajowego świeżo urządzonego, Volume 1 (Warsaw: W. Drukarni, I.J. Ałapina 1877), “Kosiny kapiczne w. i fol.,” page 286.

3 Roman Catholic Church, St. Martin’s parish (Boleszyn, Nowe-Miasto, Warminsko-mazurskie, Poland), Taufen 1761-1852, 1841, no. 29, baptismal record for Thadeeus Skolimowski, accessed as browsable images, “Kirchenbuch, 1644-1938,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSZY-H425?i=302&cat=310222 : 24 June 2020), path: Taufen 1701-1759, 1761-1852 Heiraten 1644-1862 Tote 1761-1787, 1789-1845 (DGS no. 7948735) > image 303 of 635.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020

A Perfect Storm

Many of us who engage in genealogical research are motivated in part by the intellectual thrill of the research process itself. While it can be satisfying to help people with any research question, I find it especially enjoyable to help people make the leap from the U.S. to Poland by finding documentary evidence in Polish records for their immigrant ancestors for whom they only have evidence from U.S. records. Many Polish vital records are now available online, so if an immigrant’s place of origin is known, it may just be a matter of identifying the parish or registry office that served that village, and then checking the appropriate databases to locate a vital record. If all the steps are followed logically, the hunt is successful. Yet every now and then, something goes awry, and things don’t fall into place the way they should. Such setbacks can be great learning experiences, however, so I want to share one of those stories here today, since it illustrates so nicely some of the pitfalls that can be encountered with Polish genealogy, even when those logical steps are followed.

This particular story unfolded in the Poland & Genealogy group on Facebook, where I currently volunteer as administrator, and group member Josh Wilberger gave me his permission to share the details. Josh came to the group, eager to begin research in Polish records on his great-grandfather, Jan Pudło, but unsure of where to start. Josh had already done significant research in U.S. records, so he was well-prepared for the jump across the ocean. Most importantly, he knew his great-grandfather’s date and place of birth and parents’ names, which are the critical pieces of information required for definitive identification of one’s ancestor in foreign documents. From Jan’s petition for naturalization, Josh knew that Jan/John Pudło was born 17 April 1891 in “Stara Wies, Lublin, Russia.” Similarly, the record of Jan’s marriage to Anna Gil in Perry, New York, in 1912, stated that Jan was the son of Paul (Paweł in Polish) Pudło and Agnes (Agnieszka) Ciesliak.

From this point on, one might expect the process of finding Jan Pudło’s birth record to be pretty straightforward. Knowing the birthplace, it’s necessary to determine the parish that served that village. Knowing the parish, it’s just a matter of checking various repositories to see if records from that parish are readily available from a state or diocesan archive, or if onsite research is required to find the baptismal record. Since the research target, Jan Pudło, was born in the Lublin region, it should be even easier to track down the birth record since this area is so thoroughly indexed in the Lubgens database, and many scans are online (e.g. at FamilySearch, Szukajwarchiwach, etc.). Piece of cake, right?

Which Old Village is Which?

The situation was complicated somewhat by the fact that “Stara Wieś, ” which means “Old Village,” is a very popular place name found throughout Poland today, as well as in territories that were historically Polish. Just how popular is it? Mapa.szukacz (“Map Searcher”) identifies 639 places called Stara Wieś that are within the borders of Poland today. It’s one of those place names like “Wola” (848 places by that name) and “Dąbrowa” (420 places) that makes even experienced researchers cringe, knowing how many parishes might have to be checked before the right location is finally determined. The fact that the particular Stara Wieś in question was known to be in the Lublin region helped to narrow the field somewhat. However, there were still seven unique places called Stara Wieś located in the Lublin gubernia (province) of the Russian Empire, according to the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego (Index of the Kingdom of Poland, fondly abbreviated by me as the SKP), published in 1877.[1]

As the name suggests, this two-volume gazetteer provides an index to places that were located within the former Kingdom of Poland, also known informally as Congress Poland or Russian Poland. My decision to consult this gazetteer was part of my modus operandi for tackling research questions like this. Whenever I’m faced with the task of identifying a village in Poland with a very common name, I usually begin by selecting a gazetteer that focuses on the particular partition of Poland (Prussian, Russian, or Austrian) in which the village was located circa 1900. (This assumes, of course, that the documents which provided the place name are from that era.) For Russian Poland, the SKP is my top choice, although the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, which identifies places in the second Polish Republic (interwar Poland) is also useful for eastern borderlands locations that were in the Russian Empire in the 19th century, but were not located within the Kingdom of Poland. For the Prussian partition, I like Kartenmeister, which is currently down due to server problems, but will be back up soon, according to site owner Uwe-Karsten Krickhahn. For the Austrian partition, Brian J. Lenius’s Genealogical Gazetteer of Galicia is a great resource, although it’s not online, while several editions of Jan Bigo’s Galicia gazetteer (e.g. this one from 1904) can be found in the holdings of one or more Polish digital libraries. All of these gazetteers require the correct spelling of the location. Additional gazetteers, as well as phonetic gazetteers that can be used for place names that were misspelled in U.S. documents, can be found here.

Getting back to Stara Wieś and the search for Jan Pudło, Figure 1 shows the seven options (boxed in red) for places called Stara Wieś that were located in the Lublin gubernia.

Figure 1: Entries for Stara Wieś in the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego. Places within the Lublin province are boxed in red. Each entry provides the administrative assignments for that place; column headings (left to right) are place name, followed by the gubernia (province), powiat (county), gmina (community or township), and Roman Catholic parish to which each village belonged. Where two parishes are indicated, the place designated as “r.l.” was the location of the Roman Catholic parish, while “r.g.” was the location of the Greek Catholic parish.Stara Wies in the SKP

Although two of the villages in that list were noted to have Greek Catholic residents as well as Roman Catholic, Josh knew that his family was Roman Catholic, so the focus was on the Roman Catholic parishes. That meant seven unique parishes to check for the birth of Josh’s great-grandfather, circa 17 April 1891.

I say, “circa,” because it’s not at all uncommon to discover that a Polish immigrant was actually born on a different day than the one reported as his date of birth on U.S. records. People often believe that their ancestors lied about their dates of birth, but I think it’s dangerous to ascribe motives to people who lived in another time, place and culture. Moreover, it’s not necessary to assume an intent to deceive if we merely wish to reconcile a discrepancy in the dates of birth reported on two different documents. It seems more generous—and equally plausible—to attribute the discrepancy to something more innocuous, such as the fact that many immigrants did not know their birth dates precisely. They might know that they were born during the potato harvest, for example, or near the feast of Corpus Christi, but that’s it. Errors in reporting may also result from the Polish preference for celebrating imieniny, the feast day of one’s baptismal patron saint, rather than celebrating birthdays. In some cases, a child might be named after the saint on whose feast day he or she was born, but adherence to this practice was not always strict.

The net effect of these cultural differences is that I tend to take 19th-century birth dates reported by Polish immigrants on U.S. records with a grain of salt. In my research experience, both the date and the year of birth may be off by as much as 5–6 years, but if all the other evidence is consistent (place of birth, parents’ names, known siblings’ names and approximate dates of birth) then the birth record can safely be considered a match. It was from this perspective that I approached the search for Jan Pudło’s birth record. Sure, the petition for naturalization might state that Jan was born 17 April 1891, but I was very open to the possibility—or likelihood, even—that a birth record might be found which indicated that he was born on some other date in that ballpark.

The search for a birth record was greatly facilitated by the fact that Lublin-area vital records are so thoroughly indexed in the Lubgens database. A broad search for Jan Pudło’s birth between 1885 and 1897 in all indexed parishes produced 15 hits (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Results of search in Lubgens database for birth records for Jan Pudło, born between 1885 and 1897.Jan Pudlo birth results in Lubge3ns

The parish in which each of these births was recorded is stated in the “Parafia” column. Since we know that Josh’s great-grandfather was born in the village of Stara Wieś, and we know from the gazetteer that the seven Lublin-area villages called Stara Wieś belonged to the parishes of Łęczna, Końskowola, Frampol, Surhów, Targowisko, Puchaczew, and Nabróż, we can quickly scan this list for those parish names and eliminate any search hits that were not from one of these parishes. The result? There was exactly one birth for a Jan Pudło who was baptized in Targowisko, one of those seven parishes, and it just so happens that he was born precisely in 1891! Time for a Genealogical Happy Dance? Not so fast. The matching birth record is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Birth record for Jan Pudło from the parish of Targowisko.[2]Wrong Jan Pudlo birth

The record is in Russian, as expected, but the underlined text was not expected. The text underlined in blue in the margin is the village in which the birth occurred, and it reads “Тарнавка” (Tarnawka), rather than mentioning the expected village of Stara Wieś. I took a look at the map, which shows two villages called Tarnawka—Tarnawka Pierwsza and Tarnawka Druga—that are adjacent to each other and just north of the parish of Targowisko. The villages of Stara Wieś Pierwsza and Stara Wieś Druga (“Old Village One” and “Old Village Two”) can be seen just north of the pair of Tarnawkas (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Position of the village(s) of Tarnawka relative to the parish of Targowisko and the target village(s) of Stara Wieś.Targowisko map

The text underlined in blue in the record itself (Figure 3) goes on to state (in translation) that the child “was born in Tarnawka on the 9th/21st day of May.” The second date, 21 May, is the date of birth according to the Gregorian calendar that we use, and it’s certainly not problematic, given how close it is to the expected date of 17 April 1891. It’s entirely reasonable to think that a Polish immigrant of this era might report his date of birth as 17 April 1891 if in fact he was born 21 May 1891. But more problematic is the fact that the father’s name was recorded as Piotr Pudło, while the mother’s name was recorded as Marianna Milanoska. Based on our evidence from Jan’s marriage record, the parents’ names ought to be Paweł Pudło and Agnieszka Cieślak or Cieslak (the two most probable surnames suggested by “Ciesliak”—a surname which exists in Polish records in that form, but is very rare).

So, what’s going on here? Could this still be the right birth record for Josh’s great-grandfather? In cases like this, it can be difficult to be certain, since there’s such a limited amount of data. As improbable as it may seem, I’ve seen cases where a Polish immigrant reported his own mother’s name incorrectly on documents in the U.S. (see here). Could it be that Jan Pudło did not know his own mother’s name, and the priest happened to record his father’s name incorrectly as well? Maybe, but the odds of both names being in error, as well as the village name being different from expected, made this scenario seem highly implausible, despite the fact that the date of birth was approximately correct. But if this record was not the birth record for Josh’s great-grandfather, Jan Pudło, then where was that birth record?

Back to the Drawing Board

Searching for scraps of information that might help explain this situation, I noticed that on the map shown in Figure 4, the villages of Stara Wieś Pierwsza and Stara Wieś Druga are approximately equidistant between Targowisko to the south and another village, Bychawa, to the north. Bychawa was also mentioned in the search results in Figure 2. Moreover, I noticed that the Lubgens database includes indexed vital records from a parish called Stara Wieś in gmina Bychawa that was not mentioned in the SKP (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Information on the parish of St. Stanisław, Bishop and Martyr, found in the Lubgens database.Stara Wies parish page on Lubgens

The fact that the earliest records indexed in the database are from 1930 explains why this parish was not mentioned in the SKP—it didn’t exist in 1877. A quick internet search revealed that the parish of Stara Wieś was erected in 1932 and included villages that formerly belonged to the parishes of Bychawa and Boże Wola.[3]

Right Church, Wrong Pew

At this point, it dawned on me: the information in the SKP must be incorrect. Much as I love gazetteers and rely on them to be guideposts in my genealogical journey, pointing the way to the correct parish for each village, it’s important to remember that no gazetteer is 100% accurate—or at least, I have yet to find one that is. When things don’t add up, it’s advisable to check a second gazetteer, so in this case, I checked the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, published circa 1933.[4] Lo, and behold, the parish for the Stara Wieś that was located in Krasnystaw county and gmina Zakrzew—the same Stara Wieś that was noted in the SKP as belonging to Targowisko parish—was noted in this gazetteer to be in Bychawa (Figure 6)!

Figure 6: Entry for Stara Wieś in gmina Zakrzew, Krasnystaw county from the Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej.Stara Wies in Second Polish Republic Gazetteer

If further confirmation is desired from a gazetteer more contemporaneous with the birth of Jan Pudło, the Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich (Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries) can be checked. This gazetteer, published between 1880 and 1902, contains five pages of entries for villages named Stara Wieś that were located in all three of the Polish partitions (Russian, Prussian and Austrian). Although entries are organized in a logical fashion (explained on pages 5-6 of Volume 1), it can still be a lot to wade through, which is why I didn’t check this gazetteer immediately. Nonetheless, our Stara Wieś is cataloged in entry 27 on page 226 of Volume 11, which clearly states that this village belonged to the parish in Bychawa (Figure 7).[5]

Figure 7: Beginning of entry for Stara Wieś in gmina Zakrzew, Krasnystaw county, in the Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich, underlined in red.Stara Wies from SGKP

Once the correct parish was firmly established, it was a simple matter of using the links in the Lubgens database (Figure 2) to check the scans from the parish in Bychawa and find the correct birth record. As luck would have it, my concerns about potential inaccuracy in Jan’s reporting of his date of birth were completely unfounded, as the record indicates that he was born on 29 April 1891, pretty darn close to when he thought he was born. The correct birth record is shown in Figure 8.[6]

Figure 8: Birth record for Jan Pudło, born 29 April 1891 in Stara Wieś.Jan Pudlo 1891

In translation, the record states,

“No. 121, Stara Wieś. This happened in the suburb of Bychawa on the 17th/29th day of April in the year 1891 at 5:00 in the afternoon. Paweł Pudło appeared, a peasant residing in the village of Stara Wieś, age 52, in the presence of Tomasz Makowski of Stara Wieś, age 37, and Józef Janczarek of Bychawa, age 27, peasants; and showed us a child of the male sex, stating that it was born in Stara Wieś on the 17th/29th day of April of the current year at 3:00 in the morning of his wife, Agnieszka née Cieśla, age 35. At Holy Baptism, performed today, the name Jan was given, and his godparents were Tomasz Makowski and Antonina Josikowa. This document was read to the declarant and witnesses, and because of their illiteracy it was signed only by Us. [signed] Fr. Wojciech Makara, Acting Civil Registrar”

That’s a Wrap

The matching parents’ names, place of birth, and date of birth confirm that this, at last, is the correct birth record for Josh’s great-grandfather. The irony in this situation is that the process of “doing it right” created obstacles to the research because the information in the SKP was incorrect. If no attempt had been made to identify the parish for the village of Stara Wieś, this birth record might have been discovered more quickly by using the “brute force” method of reading through all the search hits in the Lubgens database one by one. Even despite the broad search range (1885-1897), which was employed based on previous research experience, there were only 15 birth records to check, and if only the births from 1891 were considered, there were only three records to check. The correct birth record would have been found in any case, but as it played out, this was a perfect storm, a Murphy’s Law scenario in which everything converged to create research havoc. Really, what were the chances that the SKP would misidentify the parish, but that there just happened to be another Jan Pudło born in that incorrect parish in the same year as the target Jan Pudło?

I’m also amused by the multiplication of villages called Stara Wieś in the area where Jan Pudło was born. All the gazetteers mentioned only one Stara Wieś that belonged to the parish in Bychawa, yet the modern map indicates four such villages: Stara Wieś, Stara Wieś Pierwsza, Stara Wieś Druga, and Stara Wieś Trzecia—Old Village, Old Village One, Old Village Two and Old Village Three (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Four Old Villages, courtesy of Google Maps.Four Old Villages

In fact, an advanced search of Mapa.szukacz reveals 103 places called Stara Wieś that are within the borders of the Lublin province today. This is a considerable increase from the seven villages called Stara Wieś that existed in the Lublin gubernia in 1877 according to the SKP, an increase which is surprising even despite the fact that the current Lublin province covers a larger area than the former Lublin gubernia (9712 square miles vs. 6499 square miles).[7] Couldn’t they make the lives of genealogists a little easier by coming up with more creative names for the villages, at least?

So what take-home lessons can be gained from all of this?

  1. Despite occasional inaccuracies, gazetteers are still an invaluable asset for your research. In absence of any gazetteers or indexed records to fall back on, one would have to approach this project by locating an old map of the Lublin gubernia with sufficient scale to show tiny villages, looking for every village called Stara Wieś, and then investigating all the surrounding villages to see which ones had Catholic parishes that were in existence in the time period in question. After that, one would have to check the records from each of those parishes for the target baptismal record. Who has time for that?
  2. You may need to check more than one gazetteer before proceeding with the research. In this case, indexed records with linked scans made the research simple. But if records were not available online and it was necessary to hire an onsite researcher to visit the parish in person to obtain records, I would definitely check two or three gazetteers before proceeding with the research.
  3. Evaluate each new piece of evidence in light of the total. Historical research is messy at times, and names and dates might be recorded somewhat differently in different records. But if you have to work really hard to argue that the individual described in a given record is a match for someone in your family tree, consider the possibility that you may be wrong, and keep looking for the right record.

All’s well that ends well. Jan Pudło has been successfully identified in Polish records, and Josh’s research can proceed apace. But it certainly was an interesting journey back to Stara Wieś through a perfect storm.

Sources:

[1] Zinberg, I. Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego czyli Spis alfabetyczny miast, wsi, folwarków, kolonii i wszystkich nomenklatur w guberniach Królestwa Polskiego, z wykazaniem: gubernii, powiatu, gminy, parafii, sądu pokoju lub gminnego, oraz najbliższej stacyi pocztowej, wraz z oddzielnym spisem gmin podług najświeższej ich liczby i nazwy ułożony, wykazujący: odległość każdej danej gminy od miasta powiatowego i sądu swojego gminnego; czy i jakie znajdują się w gminie zakłady fabryczne lub przemysłowe, szkoły itp. oraz ludność każdej gminy, obejmujący także podział sądownictwa krajowego świeżo urządzonego. T. 2, p. 174, “Stara wieś,” Śląska Biblioteka Cyfrowa (https://www.sbc.org.pl/dlibra : 24 October 2019).

[2] “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej w Targowisku, 1876-1917,” 1891, Akta urodzeń, małżeństw, zgonów, births, no. 70, record for Jan Pudło, Szukajwarchiwach (https://szukajwarchiwach.pl : 28 October 2019), image 17 out of 67.

[3]Parafia św. Stanisława w Starej Wsi,” Wikipedia PL (https://pl.wikipedia.org : 28 October 2019).

[4] Tadeusz Bystrzycki, Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej z oznaczeniem terytorjalnie im właściwych władz i urzędów oraz urządzeń komunikacyjnych [Index of place names of the Republic of Poland with corresponding govermental agencies and offices, including communication facilities] (Przemyśl, Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Książnicy Naukowej, circa 1933), 1607, “Stara Wieś,” Wielkopolska Biblioteka Cyfrowa (http://www.wbc.poznan.pl : 28 October 2019).

[5] Filip Sulimierski, et al., Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich [Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Lands] (Warszawa: Nakładem Władysława Walewskiego, 1880-1902), Tom XI, 226, “Stara Wieś,” DIR—Zasoby Polskie (http://dir.icm.edu.pl/pl/ : 28 October 2019).

[6] “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej w Bychawie, 1826-1916,” 1891, Księga urodzeń, małżeństw i zgonów, births, no. 121, record for Jan Pudło, Szukajwarchiwach (https://szukajwarchiwach.pl : 28 October 2019), image 20 out of 75.

[7]Lublin Voivodeship,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org : 28 October 2019); and    “Gubernia lubelska,” (https://pl.wikipedia.org/ : 28 October 2019).

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019