Ancestry’s New ThruLines Utility Needs More Work

Last week, AncestryDNA® unveiled a new utility called ThruLines.™ You can read more about getting and using ThruLines™ from Ancestry’s article, here. Like many of you, I was anxious to play with it and see what, if anything, it did for me. I must say, I’m underwhelmed. Granted, the tool is still in Beta testing, so hopefully improvements will be made to the accuracy of the matching algorithm as time goes by. But as it is now, my concern is that ThruLines™ will only add to the existing confusion and misunderstanding of fledgling genealogists. Let’s walk through this utility to see what it offers and where the problems lie.

This shows my new Ancestry DNA home screen. I can access ThruLines™ on the right, and there’s a link at the bottom to click if I choose to continue using DNA Circles.

ThruLines first screen

The second screen gives me a portal to each of my ancestors to explore.

ThruLines second screen

When I first scrolled down on this screen, before I began to write this article, Ancestry highlighted a Potential Ancestor named Marianna Kozłowska, and informed me that she was my great-great-grandmother. Intrigued, I clicked on this person to examine the evidence for this assertion. On the next screen, Ancestry informed me that Marianna Kozłowska was the mother of my great-grandfather, Joseph Zielinski, and that she was mentioned in the family tree of a particular Ancestry member. If we take the information in the family tree at face value, Marianna Kozłowska was the daughter of Antoni Kozłowski and Tekla Stępkowska, born 1863 in Nowy Garwarz, Mazowieckie, Poland, near Glinojeck. (Antoni and Tekla were also reported to be my potential ancestors.) Marianna was married to Stanisław Zieliński, who was born 1863 in Wkra (also near Glinojeck). That fact is apparently the basis on which Ancestry’s algorithm determined that Marianna Kozłowska was my ancestor. I, too, have a great-great-grandfather named Stanisław Zieliński, who was born in 1863 and was married to a woman named Marianna.

The problem is, I have good documentary and DNA evidence that proves that my great-great-grandfather Stanisław Zieliński was born in Mistrzewice, Mazowieckie, Poland, not Wkra, and was married to Marianna Kalota, not Marianna Kozłowska.1 Moreover, my Marianna Kalota was the daughter of Roch Kalota and Agata Kurowska of Budy Stare, Mazowieckie, she was not the daughter of Antoni Kozłowski and Tekla Stępkowska. Marianna Kalota’s parents’ names and grandparents’ names are stated in my online tree, so it’s not as if there’s anything to suggest to Ancestry’s algorithms that I’m uncertain about the identifies of those ancestors. Closer examination of the tree which mentioned “my” ancestor, Marianna Kozłowska Zielińska revealed that the tree owner really has no good evidence for her claims about Marianna Kozłowska’s place of birth. For example, the passenger manifest that was supposed to document Marianna Kozłowska’s emigration to the U.S. was for a woman whose husband’s and children’s names did not match the data in the tree. Furthermore, the Marianna in the manifest was from Eckardtsfelde, Prussia, which is some 230 km west of Glinojeck.

There’s no shame in being confused about the origins of one’s ancestor, and everyone makes mistakes when they’re starting out in genealogy, so I’m not using this example merely to criticize the research of the woman who posted this tree. But I thought that surely there must have been some other basis for Ancestry’s conclusion that Marianna Kozłowska was my ancestor. Since this tree owner was clearly confused about where her Marianna Kozłowska was born, was it possible that she’s nonetheless a distant cousin of mine who simply made a few wrong turns while tracing her tree?

I checked out the profile of the woman who posted the family tree in question. If you’ve never done this before, you can access the profile of any Ancestry member with an online tree by clicking on the username found at the top left corner of the screen showing their tree. That will bring you to the screen shown below.

Ancestry Member Profile page

If that person is a match to you, or if any of the kits that (s)he manages are a match to you, it will be noted here. Additionally, if you manage other DNA results besides your own, you can use the drop-down menu, “Select DNA Test,” circled here in red, to compare this particular Ancestry user with any of the kits you manage.

To my surprise, she was not a DNA match at all. Not only did she not match me, she did not match my mother, the great-granddaughter of Stanisław and Marianna Zieliński. At this point it was pretty clear that the only basis for the assignment of Marianna Kozłowska Zielińska as my ancestor was her marriage to a man with the same name and year of birth as my great-great-grandfather. Never mind that Zieliński is the 8th-most popular surname in Poland, so there were undoubtedly quite a few Polish men named Stanisław Zieliński who were born in 1863. Sigh.

There is a bright side to this story, however. Ancestry requested feedback on my experience with ThruLines,™ via a little popup window, so I gratefully obliged them and expressed my concerns about their algorithm. Ancestry responded with lightning speed, such that when I returned to the site a few hours later to grab some screen shots for this blog post, there was no longer any mention of Marianna Kozłowska or her parents among my Potential Ancestors. Whew! Kudos to Ancestry for taking such prompt action in response to critical feedback. If nothing else, it underscores their desire to do the right thing by their customers.

Let’s examine another Potential Ancestor and see how that one shapes up. To quickly find these, I sorted my results according to this “Potential Ancestors” option using the drop-down “Filter by” menu at the top left. Once filtered, the results are shown below.

Potential Ancestors

Mary Cebulska intrigued me because there is a Maria Cebulska in my family tree, although she’s on my husband’s side. I also have Cybulskis in my tree since they married into the Zieliński family in Poland. However, examination of the family tree from whence this data came reveals that this is a reference to a fictitious Mary Cebulska who was purportedly married to my great-great-grandfather, Józef Grzesiak. This case was a bit trickier, since there was actual documentary evidence from a U.S. marriage record which stated that Józef’s wife’s name was Mary Cebulski. It turns out to be incorrect, and I wrote about this evidence previously. However, it was at least an honest mistake that any researcher might make if they were to base their case only on U.S. records instead of examining the evidence from Polish records. I won’t fault Ancestry for that one.

Next up, we have Walburga Meinzinger. I was a little surprised to find her in the list of “potential” ancestors because she’s an actual ancestor identified in my family tree on Ancestry. When I click on her name in this list, I arrive at a screen that tells me a little more about the connection.

Thrulines Walburga Meinzinge3r

Ancestry’s proposal of Walburga Meinzinger as my 4x-great-grandmother is based on her appearance in a tree posted by my paternal aunt, with whom I collaborate. Clicking on the “10 DNA Matches” brings me to a screen which may be the best part of the ThruLines™ utility, thanks to the clear graphic depiction of the relationships between me and my DNA matches who are also descendants of my great-great-grandparents, Wenzeslaus Meier and Anna Goetz.

Meinzinger tree

Is this new information for me? No, I had already discovered my connection to these folks by clicking on “shared matches” and either examining their online trees (where available) or writing to them. And the information about number of shared DNA segments and centimorgans of shared DNA is no more useful now than it was previously, in the absence of a chromosome browser which would allow me to paint these shared segments onto my chromosome map. Moreover, it’s misleading for Ancestry to highlight Walburga Meinzinger as the common link between me and all of these matches, since the most recent common ancestral couple isn’t Walburga and her husband, Christoph Meier, but rather Walburga’s grandson, Wenzeslaus Meier and his wife, Anna Goetz. At this point we have no evidence that Walburga is necessarily the ancestor “thru” whom I’m related to these 10 DNA matches, since it’s entirely possible that none of the DNA that we share came from her, but instead came from (for example) the Goetz side.

Finally, let’s take a look at Ancestry’s suggestion of Elisabeth “Lizette” Christina Gross as another one of my potential ancestors. This time, Ancestry informs me that Elisabeth was the mother of my 3x-great-grandfather, Carl Goetz. According to the tree which was supposed to be the source of the information, Elisabeth was born 2 February 1833 in Heilbronn, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany. She married Carl Wilhelm Friedrich Goetz, and they were the parents of one Carl Wilhelm Christian Goetz who was born 5 October 1853 in Bavaria (Bayern), Germany and died 19 March 1933 in Buffalo, New York. 

My Carl (or Charles, in English) “coincidentally” also died on 19 March 1933 in Buffalo, New York,2 and equally “coincidentally,” was born on 5 October 1853 in Leuchtenberg, Neustadt an der Waldnaab, Bayern, Germany.3 However, he was the son of Ulrich Goetz and Josephine Zenger, as evidenced by his death certificate (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Death certificate of Charles Goetz (Carl Götz), 19 March 1933, with parents’ names underlined in red.2Charles Goetz death 1933 marked

Moreover, there’s no evidence that my Carl ever used the middle names Wilhelm and Christian. While the birth dates quoted by this tree owner for her Carl Wilhelm Christian Goetz are a match for the documented birth and death dates of my Carl Goetz, the parents’ names and place of birth are clearly not a match. So this tree owner is erroneously conflating my Carl Goetz with her Carl, who may or may not have been the son of parents named Elisabeth “Lizette” Christina Gross and Carl Wilhelm Friedrich Goetz. It’s not clear to me precisely how she came to the conclusion that my Carl belonged in her family tree, beyond indiscriminate borrowing from online trees, but it’s very clear that he does not. Once again, I thought perhaps there was DNA evidence linking me to this tree owner through some other line, that might have been the basis for Ancestry’s identification of Elisabeth “Lizette” Christina Gross as my Potential Ancestor. Once again, I was disappointed. This tree owner isn’t a match to me, or to my father (Carl Goetz’s great-great-grandson).

The point here isn’t that there are inaccurate family trees online; we all know that already. But I think Ancestry’s ThruLines™ tool exacerbates the problem. Since ThruLines™ are accessed through the “DNA” tab and not the “Search” tab, it suggests that the highlighted “Potential Ancestors” are proposed on the basis of DNA matching rather than being based solely on the existence of trees containing individuals with the same names as one’s own ancestors. Unfortunately, in all the cases I examined, the DNA matches were too far “downstream” for them to be useful in drawing any conclusions about my potential relationship to more distant ancestors. The fact that I share DNA segments with my mother, my sister, and my four children cannot be used as evidence of our common descent from someone purported to be my great-great-grandmother. So if these “Potential Ancestors” are being identified solely on the basis of online family trees, then it would be more honest to have them suggested under the “Search” tab rather than the “DNA” tab.

If beginning genealogists are going to use these ThruLines,™ they need to understand that the the “Potential Ancestor” designations are no more reliable than the record hints or “shaky leaf” hints which Ancestry provides. While I love Ancestry for the convenience it offers in allowing me to locate and download documents pertaining to my family online, in the comfort of my home, at 2 am, I do wish they would leave well enough alone. I think it would be much better to put the records online, put the family trees online, and put the DNA data online, and then leave it to genealogists to connect the dots between those data sets themselves.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to hope that, in time, the usefulness of tools like ThruLines™ will increase. There seem to be plenty of people who are raving about this tool in the various Facebook genealogy forums, but so far, my personal experience with it has not been positive. As Blaine Bettinger wrote in the “Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques” Facebook group, “As a community, we need to decide whether we want automated tools that will unavoidably perpetuate mistakes, or whether we want NO automation. Those are the only two options.” Call me a Luddite, but I don’t think automation like this is doing us any favors. I look forward to the day when Ancestry proves me wrong.


Roman Catholic Church, Młodzieszyn parish (Młodzieszyn, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie,” unknown dates, 1885, marriages, #21, record for Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota, 15 November 1885.

2 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1933, no. 1688, certificate for Charles Goetz, died 19 March 1933.

3 Roman Catholic Church, St. Margaret’s parish (Leuchtenberg, Neustadt an der Waldnaab, Bayern, Germany), Band 6, Taufen 1848 – 1869, p. 26, no. 38, birth record for Karl Götz, Bischöfliches Zentralarchiv Regensburg, St.Petersweg 11-13, D-93047 Regensburg, Germany.

4 Blaine Bettinger, “Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques” Facebook group, post on 27 February 2019, ( : 3 March 2019).

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz  2019

DNA Testing for the Scientifically Challenged

Autosomal DNA testing has become an increasingly popular tool in everyone’s genealogy toolbox these days, but I’ve noticed that there are many everyday family historians who are still bewildered by their DNA test results and aren’t really sure what to make of them. For many genealogists, high school biology classes are a distant memory, so the language of genetic genealogy is foreign. Comments like, “What’s the point of DNA testing? I already know I’m 100% Polish-American,” remind me of how far we need to go in educating people about the value in looking beyond those ethnicity estimates so that they can really make use of their test results. With all that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to review some of these basic concepts in genetic genealogy and present some strategies for the absolute beginner to use when confronted with a list of autosomal DNA matches. If you’re already comfortable working with your DNA match lists, and you’re looking for a blog post with cutting-edge information written by an acknowledged expert in the field of genetic genealogy, then this post is not for you. But if you’re one of those people who’s scratching his head wondering how all these people could show up in the match list when they’re not in the family tree, then keep reading.

Going Beyond the Ethnicity Estimates

Biogeographical analyses, also known as admixture analyses or “ethnicity estimates” are a big draw these days, and are the primary motivation for DNA testing for many. Eager to learn whether they should trade in their lederhosen for a kilt, many people pore over their ethnicity breakdowns, and don’t pay much attention to their lists of DNA matches. That’s a shame, because the real value of DNA testing lies in those lists of matches, which offer evidence that will allow you to extend and support your documentary research. The underlying assumption of DNA testing is that the people on your match list are your genetic cousins, whether or not you know at this point how you are related to them. There’s a significant caveat, which we’ll get to in a moment. However, generally speaking, if you match a particular individual to whom you have a known relationship, and if the amount of DNA you share is consistent with the known relationship, it suggests several things:

  1. That the paper trail is correct from you to the most recent common ancestral couple that you share with this DNA match.
  2. That the paper trail is also correct from your DNA match to that same most recent common ancestral couple. 
  3. That the matching segments of DNA shared between you and this person were passed down to each of you from that most recent common ancestral couple.

To illustrate, let’s say that I have a maternal first cousin once removed named Fred. (I do, actually, and I have his permission to use his name in this post.) Fred is the son of my maternal grandmother’s brother, Leon. Fred and I share 544 centiMorgans of DNA across 28 segments, according to Ancestry. A centimorgan (cM) is a unit of genetic linkage that is commonly used to express genetic distance, so the more DNA you share with a match in centimorgans, the more closely you’re related. Since 544 cM of DNA is within the range that first cousins once removed can be expected to share, we can say that the DNA evidence supports the documentary evidence. That is, the proposed, documented parentage shown in Figure 1 is also borne out by DNA evidence, so there are no misattributed parentage events in my line back to my great-grandparents, Jan/John Zażycki and Weronika/Veronica Grzesiak, and there are no misattributed parentage events in Fred’s line back to that same couple.

Figure 1: Relationship chart showing documented relationship between me and cousin Fred.relationship chart to fred zazycki

Misattributed parentage events (also known as non-paternity events, or NPEs) can occur in a family for a number of reasons, such as informal adoption, illegitimacy, marital infidelity, surname change, etc., and they can sometimes come as quite a shock to people who test their DNA and suddenly discover that their lineage isn’t what they thought it was. Similar discoveries can also be made with documentary research, of course, so anyone who is considering DNA testing or genealogy research should be prepared for the possibility of such surprises. However, in the example above, no NPEs were found (whew!), so now we have both genetic and documentary evidence to prove that cousin Fred and I are first cousins once removed.

If we download the raw data from Ancestry and upload it to a site that offers a chromosome browser, such as GEDmatch, we can visualize where each matching segment is located on each chromosome, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Matching DNA segments (shown in blue) between me and Cousin Fred, courtesy of GEDmatch Genesis. Only data from Chromosomes 1, 2 and 3 are shown here. 

first three chromosomes showing matching segments

Each of those blue segments is presumed to be identical by descent (IBD). That is, Cousin Fred and I each carry those specific DNA sequences because we inherited them from a common ancestor. Based solely on these data, it’s not possible to know which of these segments was inherited from Jan Zażycki and which was from Weronika Grzesiak, but we know they had to come from that ancestral couple. Now let’s say we identify a hypothetical third cousin, Joe. Let’s suppose that we have documentary evidence to prove that Joe descends from Weronika Grzesiak’s brother Tadeusz. Moreover, let’s say that Joe matches Fred and me on Chromosome 2 along that segment shown in blue. If that were the case, we would call it a triangulated segment, and we could state confidently that the common ancestor from whom Fred and I inherited that bit of DNA was Weronika Grzesiak and not Jan Zażycki. 

Chromosome Mapping with DNA Painter

Analysis like this supplies the foundation for creating chromosome maps like the ones that can be generated quickly and easily at DNA Painter. Each time you use documentary evidence to verify your relationship to one of the genetic cousins from your match list—assuming you also have segment data for the match—you can paint the segment(s) onto your chromosome map. Currently, all of the major test companies except Ancestry offer chromosome browsers and segment data that can be used for chromosome mapping. So if you test with Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, or 23 & Me, you’re good to go. However, if you determine your relationship to a cousin found in your match list at Ancestry, you cannot paint the match onto your chromosome map unless you can persuade that person to download his or her raw data from Ancestry and upload to Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, or GEDmatch Genesis. (23 & Me does not currently accept uploads from other companies.) So although it’s intellectually satisfying to document your relationship to a DNA match found on Ancestry, the lack of segment data is a serious drawback, and these matches are useless for chromosome painting. My current map is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: My chromosome map, generated by DNA Painter.

dna painter screenshot

If you look closely at the map, you see that each chromosome is represented by two bars that appear next to the chromosome number on the left. The upper bar is lightly shaded in blue and represents the copy of that chromosome which I inherited from my father. The lower bar is lightly shaded in pink, and represents the copy of that chromosome which I inherited from my mother. Superimposed on those base colors are darker-colored segments which are defined in the key on the right. For example, there’s a dark pink color that indicates DNA I inherited from my great-grandparents, John Zazycki and Veronica Grzesiak. I know I inherited this DNA from them because all of those dark pink segments represent DNA shared between me and my late grandmother, their daughter. I tested Grandma before she passed (thank you, Grandma!), and these are the segments where she and I matched. This is important information, because it implies that the segments of my maternal (light pink) chromosomes that are not shaded in dark pink must have been inherited from my maternal grandfather. The entire light pink chromosome came from my Mom, and all of her DNA came from either her mother or her father. So if I know from empirical evidence which segments came from her mom, I know by deduction which segments came from her dad. 

Those dark-pink segments inherited from Grandma can be further refined, since all of her DNA was ultimately inherited from her mother’s ancestors and her father’s ancestors. You’ll notice that chromosomes 1, 4, and 13 show red bars superimposed on that dark pink. These red bars indicate DNA segments that I inherited from Grandma’s great-great-grandparents, Maciej Dąbrowski and Barbara Słońska. Maciej was born about 1775, and Barbara was born circa 1781, and I find it utterly amazing and fascinating that I can pinpoint at least some of the bits of my own DNA that were inherited from one or the other of them. Figure 4 shows a close-up of a portion of my chromosome map, where the red bar indicating DNA inherited from Maciej and Barbara is especially visible on Chromosome 4.

Figure 4: Closer view of my chromosome map showing red segment on maternal Chromosome 4, corresponding to DNA inherited from 4x-great-grandparents Maciej Dąbrowski and Barbara Słońska, indicated by black arrow.

dna painter crop

DNA Painter offers the additional option of a closer look at each individual chromosome. If we focus on Chromosome 4, we can see the breakdown of Grandma’s dark-pink segments as I’ve been able to map them to date (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Expanded view of Chromosome 4 showing underlying ancestral contributions to each dark-pink segment inherited from Grandma.chromosome 4

I’ve removed the names of my living DNA matches to protect their privacy. However, each of those red bars represents a match to a 5th cousin who is a documented descendant of Maciej Dąbrowski and Barbara Słońska. The orange bar represents a match to a second cousin once removed (2C1R) who is a documented descendant of Maciej and Barbara’s great-granddaughter, Józefa Grzesiak (my Grandma’s aunt). This means that the segment of DNA which Grandma inherited (pink bar) which overlaps with the segment of DNA inherited by my 2C1R (orange bar) came from either Maciej Dąbrowski or his wife Barbara, and was passed down to at least two of their great-granddaughters—both my great-grandmother, Weronika Grzesiak, and well as her sister Józefa Grzesiak—who ultimately passed it down to me and my 2C1R. There may be other descendants who share this bit as well, who haven’t yet tested their DNA. 

Ultimately, this bit of DNA, or any of the other bits of Grzesiak DNA carried by documented Grzesiak descendants, might someday be the key to identifying unknown cousins from Poland. Weronika and Józefa had at least one sister, Konstancja, who remained in Poland, married, and had at least two children whom I’ve identified through documentary research. Thanks to a fortuitous marginal note on a baptismal record, I know that one of these children married in Lower Silesia in 1927. Unfortunately, it’s not currently possible for me to know if there were any children from that marriage, because Polish privacy laws protect birth records for a period of 100 years. However, if a descendant from that marriage were to test his or her DNA, it’s quite likely that he or she would show up as a match to me or one of those other Grzesiak descendants. With any luck, that hypothetical cousin might be interested in collaborating to confirm the match, through documentary research. As next-of-kin, Polish law would permit him to request the recent birth, marriage or death records to which I have no access. 

These segment data also illustrate how matches to more-distant cousins can refine our understanding of matches to closer relatives. My match to Grandma tells me that the DNA underlying that pink bar in the middle of maternal Chromosome 4 comes from one of her parents, John Zażycki or Veronica Grzesiak, but it doesn’t tell me which one. My match to my 2C1R tells me that the subset of that Zażycki/Grzesiak DNA, underlying the orange bar, comes from Veronica Grzesiak because I’m related to that cousin through the Grzesiaks and not through the Zażyckis. This suggests that the DNA on either side of that segment, represented by the pink tips that extend past the orange on the left and the right, might have been inherited from John Zażycki. However, it’s impossible to know that definitively at this point, because some future DNA match might prove me wrong.

If I only had data from Grandma and that 2C1R, I would know that the DNA segment represented by the overlap between the orange and the pink bars had to come from either Józef Grzesiak or his wife, Marianna Krawczyńska, but I would not know which one contributed it. However, thanks to those DNA matches to my fifth cousins (a set of siblings), I know that the DNA segment represented by the overlap in pink, orange and red bars must have been inherited from Józef Grzesiak and not Marianna Krawczyńska, because those fifth cousins are related to me through Józef Grzesiak’s grandparents, Maciej Dąbrowski and Barbara Słońska, and not through the Krawczyński side. The more DNA matches you can identify, the deeper you can drill down into your DNA, because every bit of DNA in your body, no matter how small, had to come from one ancestor or another. Theoretically, you should be able to go through your list of DNA matches and identify the ancestors responsible for passing along even the tiniest fragments of DNA shared between you and a match, right?

IBD or…Not?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. It may not be possible to determine your relationship to every single one of your DNA matches. It’s not a perfect world and I don’t know anyone who has his family tree traced back to 6x- or 7x-great-grandparents on every single line. Moreover, there’s always the possibility of an NPE or two (or more!) in each person’s tree, which would throw a monkey wrench into the analysis. Furthermore, some of the DNA matches who show up in our match list may not be related to us at all through common descent in the genealogical time frame.  This is that caveat I mentioned earlier, and it’s true regardless of the company you test with. Although DNA testing is predicated on the assumption that your matches share common ancestry with you due to inherited DNA segments that are identical by descent (IBD), not every DNA segment that is identified as a match by the test company’s algorithm is IBD. What else could they be?

Any DNA match that is not IBD is sometimes described as IBS, “Identical by State.” However, IBS is something of a catch-all term, because it encompasses matches that are Identical by Population (IBP), as well as Identical by Chance (IBC). Let’s take a closer look at these two possibilities. There are some segments of DNA that you will share with people just because your ancestors and their ancestors came from the same endogamous population, meaning a community in which intermarriage between distant (or not-so-distant) cousins was common. These are typically small segments of DNA (<10 cM) that will not be possible to assign to a particular ancestor within the genealogical time frame—that is, within the time frame in which it’s possible to find documentary evidence to confirm the relationship. Such segments are often referred to as Identical by Population (IBP). The other possibility is that the DNA segment identified as a match by the test company is a false positive, also known as a pseudosegment. To understand how this can happen, we need to take a closer look at the methodology behind DNA testing.

The Nuts and Bolts of Autosomal DNA Testing

Autosomal DNA testing focuses on the tiny differences in our genetic makeup that make us unique. Most of our genetic code is identical, of course, but there are places in the human genome where slightly different forms of the same gene can exist. These different forms of the same gene are called alleles. DNA is made up of chemical units called  nucleotides, and each nucleotide in the DNA is referred to by a letter (A = adenine, T = thymine, G= guanine, C = cytosine), and each time one letter is substituted for another at a particular place in the DNA sequence, it’s called a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism, or SNP (pronounced “snip”). There are 4-5 million SNPs in the human genome, and each of the DNA test companies samples between roughly 630,000-700,000 of them.1 Figure 6 shows an extract of my raw DNA data file (called a genotype) as downloaded from Ancestry.

Figure 6: Extract from my genotype from Ancestry showing SNPs on Chromosome 2.

raw dna data

The raw data file includes some additional columns which I’ve omitted, and I’ve obscured the data in the column that identifies the precise position on Chromosome 2 where these SNPs are located. The letters to the right of the position column indicate the nucleotide found at that position on each copy of my Chromosome 2. Note also that only half the DNA is shown here. If you remember from high school biology class, DNA exists as paired strands, so every time there’s an A, it’s paired with a T, and every C is paired with a G. However, this report only provides information on one strand from each parent.

The sequence of the data looks nice and neat, and one might assume that the left column represents data from maternal alleles while the right column represents data from paternal alleles. However, the reality is that the test cannot distinguish between maternal and paternal alleles at any given position. The data in the genotype are intermixed, and therein lies the problem. Although all of the test companies use algorithms which can successfully sort out the data and identify matching segments of DNA between individuals, the accuracy of the matching algorithms decreases significantly when they attempt to identify smaller segments of DNA as matches. The result is that a large percentage of small “matching” segments (less than 7 cM) reported by the test companies are not IBD, they’re Identical by Chance (IBC), or false positives. Roberta Estes offers a more detailed discussion of these types of matching (IBD, IBS, IBC, and IBP),2 and if you really want to delve into the nitty gritty, you can read Ancestry DNA’s Matching White Paperwhich explains how their matching algorithm works in technical terms.

The Big Problem of Small Segments

So how big a problem is this? Genetic genealogist Tim Janzen estimates that there is only a 5% likelihood that a shared segment of 6-12 cM indicates a common ancestor within the last 6 generations for you and your DNA match.4 You can see his full table here. That same article states that, “False positive matching rates of between 12% and 23% have been reported for Family Finder data [Family Finder is the autosomal DNA test offered by Family Tree DNA], and up to 34% at Ancestry using their current algorithm.” 5 Yikes! So how can we know if a match is real or not? One possibility is to test not only yourself, but both your parents. Since all your DNA must come from either one parent or the other, any DNA match who matches you, but who does not also match one of your parents, cannot be your genetic relative. If both parents aren’t available for testing, the safest thing to do is to avoid basing genealogical conclusions on evidence from small segments. Consider restricting your analysis to segments larger than 10 cM.  This is good advice even if you do have phased data—that is, data which have been compared to both your mother’s data and your father’s data using a tool such as the Phased Data Generator, available as a Tier 1 utility at GEDmatch Genesis. 

To illustrate the problems with small segments, consider the following example. Figure 7 shows a 9 cM segment on Chromosome 22 which is shared by a DNA match, “Czesław C.” along with my mother (EZR), my grandmother (Helen Zielinski), my sister (AW), and me. 

Figure 7: Matching segment (shown in blue) shared by Czesław C., my mother, my grandmother, my sister, and me, courtesy of GEDmatch Genesis. chromosome 22

The segment is clearly IBD, identical by descent, because it was passed from Grandma to mom to my sister and me. However, thorough comparison of Czesław’s genealogy and Grandma’s offers no good clues regarding common surnames or places of origin. At best, this segment could be IBP, identical by population, since Grandma’s documented ancestry was entirely Polish and so was Czesław’s. However, I had the opportunity to discuss this example with genetic genealogist Blaine Bettinger over the summer, and he pointed out that the segment is still untrustworthy. Even though it’s IBD on my side, it’s possible that it’s still IBC, identical by chance, on Czesław’s side, and therefore a false positive. Of course, DNA evidence is always just one piece of the puzzle. If further documentary research turns up evidence of a shared surname or common place of origin between Grandma’s ancestors and Czesław’s, we might want to reevaluate this segment in that light. However, at present there’s no reason to believe there is any connection at all between my family and Czesław’s, so an exhaustive effort to seek documentary evidence is unwarranted.

Hopefully this discussion has helped at least a little bit with demystifying some of the concepts and terms used in genetic genealogy discussions, and explaining why autosomal DNA testing is such a powerful research tool. There are so many great resources out there to help educate budding genetic genealogists, including the list of some of my favorite blogs and Facebook groups included below, and with just a little effort, you, too, can grow comfortable with looking beyond your ethnicity estimates and incorporating DNA evidence into your research methodology. In my next post, I’ll offer some specific suggestions for working with your DNA match list at Ancestry so you can make the most of the information that’s provided there. Happy researching!


1 Tim Janzen, “Autosomal DNA Testing Comparison Chart,” International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki, ( : 14 January 2019), licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Roberta Estes, “Concepts – Identical by…. Descent, State, Population, and Chance,” DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy, posted 10 March 2016 ( : 14 January 2019).

3 Catherine A. Ball, Matthew J. Barber, et. al, “Ancestry DNA Matching White Paper,” AncestryDNA, ( : 14 January 2019).

Tim Janzen, table relating “Length of Shared Segment” to “Likelihood You and Your Match Share a Common Ancestor Within 6 Generations,” “Identical by descent,” International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki, ( : 14 January 2019), licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

5 Identical by descent,” International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki, ( : 14 January 2019), licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

For further reading:

The ISOGG Wiki (online encyclopedia of genetic genealogy, hosted by the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, or ISOGG) has articles on pretty much any topic of interest in the field of genetic genealogy and is highly recommended. 

Blaine Bettinger’s blog, The Genetic Genealogist.

Kitty Cooper’s blog, Musings on Genealogy, Genetics and Gardening.

Roberta Estes’ blog, DNAeXplained.

Leah Larkin’s blog, The DNA Geek.

CeCe Moore’s blog, Your Genetic Genealogist.

Of interest to Polish-speakers is Eryk Jan Grzeszkowiak’s blog, Genealogia Genetyczna

An even more comprehensive listing of popular genealogy blogs is found here

In addition to these blogs, some of my favorite genetic genealogy Facebook groups are Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques, DNA Detectives, User Group, and AncestryDNA Matching. Be sure to also check Katherine R. Willson’s index of genealogy-related Facebook groups. At present, the list includes several pages of Facebook groups, although not all are focused on autosomal DNA testing.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019




The Many Wives of Józef Grzesiak

Veritatem Temporis filiam esse dixit.” (Truth is the daughter of time.) — Aulus Gellius

Conflicts in documentary evidence happen all the time. The logical resolution of such conflicts is one of the hallmarks of sound genealogical research that separates the professionals and experienced family history researchers from the novices. A perfect illustration of this is the story of my great-great-grandfather, Józef Grzesiak, and his many (?) wives.

Growing up, I used to ask my maternal grandmother to tell me about her mother’s family in Poland, and my desire to document those stories inspired my early family history efforts. Grandma’s mother was Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki, but Grandma never knew the names of her grandparents, because “people didn’t talk about those things back then,” as she told me time and again. Nevertheless, Grandma knew a few details, such as the fact that her mother’s parents owned the grain mill that I wrote about previously. She told the story of how “Veronica’s mother died when Josephine was born, so at age 18, Veronica came to America. She found employment working in the kitchen of a restaurant.  She spoke no English, so her employers called her Mary and they communicated through signs and gestures.  She saved her money and sent it to her two brothers, Władysław (“Walter”) and Tadeusz, (Thaddeus), and her sister Józefa (Josephine), so they could come to America.”1 Grandma also told the story, shared previously, of how Walter married an actress in Poland who didn’t want to leave her career, which ultimately ended their marriage.

When I started my research, I didn’t know whether or not I’d ever be able to document some of these details, but I figured that it should be easy to answer the question, “Who were Veronica Grzesiak’s parents?” And in fact, it was pretty easy. On her marriage record to John Zazycki in 1901, Veronica reported her parents’ names as Joseph Grzesiak and Marianna Krawczynska (Figure 1).2

Figure 1: Marriage record for John Zazycki and Veronica Grzesiak, 5 August 1901.2Jan &amp; Weronika Zazyki Marriage 1 marked

This document also told me which partition of Poland Grandma’s parents were from (Russian), and Veronica’s age reported here, 22, allowed me to estimate that she was born circa 1879. So far, so good.  However, when Veronica’s brother Thaddeus was married to Mary Gorski, he reported his parents’ names as Joseph Grzesiak and Mary Cebulska (Figure 2).3

Figure 2: Extract from marriage record for Thaddeus Grzesiak and Mayme (Mary) Gorski, 20 April 1910.3

Tadeusz Gresiak &amp; Marya Gorska marriage record 1 marked

Now this was interesting, and it seemed like just the kind of detail that those family stories were likely to gloss over, since “people never talked about these things back then.” Okay, I concluded, no big deal, apparently Veronica and Thaddeus were half-siblings, sharing a father, but different mothers.

However, their sister Josephine named yet a different mother on her marriage record. When she married Joseph Cymerman in 1902, she stated that her parents were Joseph Grzesiak and Anna Nowacka (Figure 3).4

Figure 3: Extract from marriage record for Joseph Cymerman and Josepha Grzesiak, 5 August 1902.4

Jozefa Grzesiak &amp; Jozef Cymermann marriage record 1 marked

Well, okay, maybe Joseph Grzesiak was very unlucky and lost two of his wives, so he married for a third time. It happened. But then there is yet another wife’s name reported on the death record for the oldest Grzesiak sibling, Walter (Figure 4).5

Figure 4: Extract from death record for Walter Grzesiak.5


On this document, Walter was reported to be the son of Joseph Grzesiak and Maryanna Szafron. Now, most genealogists consider death records to be less accurate sources for information about an individual than some other types of records (e.g. marriage records) since the informant is probably grieving, possibly in shock, and may not be well-informed about the early life of the decedent, including parents’ names.  However, in this case, the informant was none other than Thaddeus (signing himself here as Theodore) Grzesiak — Walter’s brother.

So what do we make of this?  We have four siblings, all children of Joseph Grzesiak, but four different mother’s names reported on four different documents by three of the siblings.  Were they all half-siblings, each with the same father but a different mother?  I ran this theory past Grandma while she was still alive, and she didn’t buy it.  She had never heard of Walter, Thaddeus and Josephine being half-siblings to her mother, but she had no explanation for the discrepancies on the documents.  The maiden names reported for the mothers — Marianna Krawczyńska, Marianna Szafron, Marya Cebulska, and Anna Nowacka — weren’t even phonetically similar, apart from the fact that the siblings more or less agreed on a first name of Marianna. And was it grief that caused Thaddeus to change his story, reporting on his own marriage record that his mother was Maria Cebulska but then deciding 36 years later that her name was Marianna Szafron? Was it possible that the Grzesiak siblings did not even know their own mother’s name?  Perhaps there was an explanation:  Grandma said that Veronica’s mother had died (shortly?) after the birth of the youngest sibling, Josephine. Since Thaddeus and Veronica were only 7 and 5 when Josephine was born, maybe none of the children knew her well?

The only way to answer this question was to examine evidence from Polish records. The birth records for Walter, Veronica, Thaddeus and Josephine should tell us who their mothers were. If Joseph had several wives who died in succession, there would be death records for those wives and marriage records to tell the tale.

Polish Records to the Rescue

A very robust paper trail consisting of naturalization records (Figure 5),6 passenger manifests,7,8 and draft registrations,9 in addition to a personal recollection shared with me by Tadeusz Grzesiak’s son, Arthur Gray,10 all pointed to the Grzesiaks’ place of origin as the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo in Słupca County, which was at that time located in the Kalisz gubernia (province) of Russian Poland.

Figure 5: Władysław Grzesiak’s petition for naturalization, 23 January 1917, showing place of birth “Kowalewo, Poland, Russia” on 17 September 1867.Walter Grzesiak Petition

In the church records of Kowalewo, birth records were discovered for each of the immigrant Grzesiak children. Władysław Grzesiak was born 20 September 1867, fairly consistent with the birth date he reported for himself on his naturalization petition (Figure 6).11 

Figure 6: Polish-language birth record for Władysław Grzesiak, born 20 September 1867, with names of parents and child underlined in red.11OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In this document, Władysław’s parents are reported to be Józef Grzesiak, age 26, a farmhand (parobek) residing in Kowalewo, and his wife, Maryanna née Krawczyńska, age 20. Similarly, the birth record for Tadeusz Grzesiak was discovered, and his parents, too, were reported to be Józef Grzesiak and Marianna née Krawczyńska (Figure 7).12

Figure 7: Russian-language Birth record for Tadeusz Grzesiak, born 27 March 1874, with names of parents and child underlined in red.12Tadeusz Grzesiak birth record marked

It’s evident that there’s a language change between these two records. Władysław’s birth record was written in Polish, while Tadeusz’s birth record was written in Russian. This was one of the punitive measures imposed by the Russian Government on Polish territories as a result of the failure of the January Uprising of 1863. Prior to 1867, the use of the Polish language was permitted in official record-keeping, but starting in 1868 (earlier in some areas) official records and even church records were required to be kept only in Russian. Tadeusz’s birth date, 27 March 1874, is a few years off from his date of birth as he reported it on his World War II draft registration — 24 March 1878. However, it was not unusual for people to report their dates of birth inaccurately in an era when there was no reason to know this information precisely, as there is today. In this document, Józef Grzesiak was reported to be a 33-year-old “master of the house” (хозяин), while his wife, Marianna, was age 31. The age difference between Józef and Marianna, which was 6 years in the first record, has magically diminished to 2 years, but again, such discrepancies are very common in these records.

Next, we have the birth record for my great-grandmother, Weronika Grzesiak, who was born 27 December 1876 (Figure 8).13 

Figure 8: Russian-language birth record for Weronika Grzesiak, born 27 December 1876, with names of parents and child underlined in red.13Weronika Grzesiak birth marked

Once again, parents were recorded as Józef Grzesiak, “master of the house,” of Kowalewo, age 37, and his wife, Maryanna née Krawczyńska, age 33.

Finally, the birth record of Józefa Grzesiak was discovered.14 Józefa was born 6 March 1881, and yes, her parents were none other than Józef Grzesiak and Marianna née Krawczyńska (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Russian-language birth record for Józefa Grzesiak, born 6 March 1881, with names of parents and child underlined in red.14Jozefa Grzesiak birth record

This time, Józef Grzesiak was recorded as “master of the house,” age 40, while his wife, Marianna, was age 37. Ultimately, Józef’s and Marianna’s dates of birth can only be known accurately when their birth records are discovered — and I discovered those a long time ago, but that’s another story for another day.

As if this weren’t sufficient evidence to put to rest the notion that the immigrant Grzesiak siblings were half-siblings, the icing on the cake was the search in marriage records and death records for any marriages for Józef Grzesiak or death records for previous wives. The only marriage record discovered was his marriage in Kowalewo in 1865 to Marianna Kawczyńska (sic) (Figure 10).15

Figure 10: Polish-language marriage record from Kowalewo for Józef Grzesiak and Maryanna Kawczyńska (sic), 31 October 1865 with names of the groom and bride underlined in red.15Jozef Grzesiak and Marianna Krawczynska marriage

The fact that this is the only marriage record found for Józef Grzesiak in Kowalewo is unsurprising, given that all of his children’s birth records name the same mother, Marianna Krawczyńska. The date of the record makes sense — they were married about 2 years before Władysław’s birth in 1867, not an unusually long period of time to be married prior to the birth of an eldest child. Józef was described as a 25-year-old bachelor, born in Cienin Zaborny but residing in Kowalewo with his parents, Stanisław and Jadwiga, at the time of his marriage. Marianna was noted to be age 22, born in Zagórów and residing in Kowalewo, daughter of Antoni and Wiktoria.

So at the end of the day, there is absolutely no evidence in Polish records for any wives of Józef Grzesiak other than Marianna Krawczyńska, whom he married in 1865 and with whom he had 6 children: the four immigrant Grzesiak siblings, as well as two daughters, Konstancja and Pelagia, who remained in Poland, and whose story I touched on a bit previously. There was no Maria Cebulska, no Anna Nowacka, no Marianna Szafron. They didn’t exist. Grandma Veronica was the only one of her siblings who accurately reported her mother’s name on a document in the U.S. So where did Tadeusz and Józefa come up with those names? Maybe Grandma was right all along — “people just didn’t talk about those things back then.” Maybe Tadeusz and Józefa really had no idea what their mother’s name was. One thing is certain, though: Marianna Grzesiak did not die when Józefa was born, or even shortly thereafter. No, Marianna Grzesiak died in Russian Poland in 1904, when her youngest daughter Józefa was 23 years old and married.16 So isn’t it a little odd that at least two of her children didn’t appear to know her name, and that the story was handed down that she died before Veronica and her siblings left Poland for America? I have some speculations about that, but it’s another story for another day.

Genealogists usually find that the best strategy for handling conflicting evidence is to keep gathering data until the truth emerges. Sometimes some analytical skill is required to interpret the data, but at other times, it’s just a question of perseverance to find the right records to settle the question. In this case, one could look at the data from U.S. records and conclude that Józef Grzesiak had three or four wives, or one could dig deeper, find the Grzesiak children’s birth records and Józef and Marianna’s marriage record from Poland, and know the truth.


1 Helen Zielinski, interviews by Julie Szczepankiewicz, circa 1986-1998; Notes from interviews privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, 2018.

2 City of Buffalo, Bureau of Vital Statistics, marriage record for John Zazycki and Veronica Grzesiak, 5 August 1901, certificate no. 202, Buffalo, Erie, New York, Erie County Clerk’s Office, 92 Franklin Street, Buffalo, New York.

3 New York State Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, marriage record for Thaddeus Grzesiak and Mayme (Mary) Gorski, 20 April 1910, certificate no. 9051, Buffalo, Erie, New York, Erie County Clerk’s Office, 92 Franklin Street, Buffalo, New York.

City of Buffalo, Bureau of Vital Statistics, marriage record for Joseph Cymerman and Josephine Grzesiak, 5 August 1902, certificate no.198, Buffalo, Erie, New York, Erie County Clerk’s Office, 92 Franklin Street, Buffalo, New York.

New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, death certificate for Walter Grzesiak, 25 April 1946, no. 2600, Buffalo, Erie, New York.

Wladyslaw Grzesiak, Petition for Naturalization, No. 4950, 23 January 1917, Supreme Court of New York, Buffalo, Erie, New York.

7 Maryland, Baltimore Passenger Lists, 1820-1948 (image), Veronika Grzesiak, S.S. Willehad, April 1898,, accessed 25 February 2018.

Maryland, Baltimore Passenger Lists, 1820-1948 (image), Jozef, Kazimira and Jozefa Grzesiak, S.S. Rhein, May 1900,, accessed 25 February 2018.

World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942, Draft Registration Cards for Fourth Registration for New York State, 04/27/1942 – 04/27/1942; NAI Number: 2555973; record Group Title: Records of the Selective Service System; Record Group Number: 147, record for Tadeusz George Grzesiak,, subscription database, accessed 25 February 2018.

10Arthur Gray, interview by Julie Szczepankiewicz, circa 1998; Notes from interview privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, 2018.

11 Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1867, births, #39, record for Władysław Grzesiak, accessed in person at the archive by Zbigniew Krawczyński, Archiwum Państwowe w Poznaniu. Oddział w Koninie, 3 Maja 78 Konin, Poland.

12 Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki), Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1874, births, #17, record for Tadeusz Grzesiak, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach,, accessed on 25 February 2018.

13Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki),  Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1876, births # 72, record for Weronika Grzesiak, accessed on 25 February 2018.

14 Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki) (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1881, births, #15, record for Józefa Grzesiak, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach,, accessed on 25 February 2018.

15Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki), Księga urodzeń, małżeństw, i zgonów, 1865, marriages, #10, record for Józef Grzesiak and Maryanna Kawczynska, 31 October 1865, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach, , image 20.jpg, accessed on 25 February 2018.

16 Roman Catholic church, Zagórów parish (Zagórów, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1947, Akta zgonów 1891-1906, 1904, #52, death record for Marianna Grzesiak, DGS 8018016, Image 383, accessed on 25 February 2018.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018

Where Were Your Ancestors in 1857?

Genealogists often think in terms of family timelines, tracing one particular family line through many generations. However, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to examine my family tree in cross section. That is, what was happening in each of my family lines in the year 1857? I chose that year because I wrote recently about my 3x-great-grandparents’s marriage in Roding, Bavaria in 1857, and that got me wondering what my other ancestors were doing in that same year, and where they were living around the world. It turns out this is a pretty useful (and fun!) exercise. I gained new insights into each family group, and it also served to point out deficiencies in my research, and families that I’ve neglected, that I should perhaps plan to spend more time on in 2018. Here, then, is a summary of my ancestral couples who were alive at that time. Although the map in the featured image is not “clickable,” you can use this link to explore that map in greater depth, if you’d like.

Maternal grandfather’s line

In 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents, Michał Zieliński and Antonia (née Ciećwierz) Zielińska, were living in the village of Mistrzewice in Sochaczew County in what was at that time the Królestwo Polskie or Kingdom of Poland, which officially had some autonomy, but was in reality a puppet state of the Russian Empire. They’d been married about four years, although I don’t know the precise date of their marriage because 19th century records for Mistrzewice prior to 1859 were largely destroyed. Michał and Antonina had one daughter, Zofia, who was about 2, and Michał supported his family as a gospodarz, a farmer who owned his own land.1

Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Budy Stare, Sochaczew County, my 3x-great-grandparents Roch Kalota and Agata (née Kurowska) Kalota welcomed their (probably) oldest daughter, my great-great-grandmother, Marianna Kalota, who was born circa 1857. Again, the destruction of records has been a problem for researching this line, but available records tell us that Roch Kalota, too, was a farmer.2

In the south of Poland in 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents on my Klaus line had not yet married. Jakub Klaus was the son of Wawrzyniec (Lawrence) Klaus and Anna Żala or Żola. He was a young man already 27 years of age, but he did not marry his wife, Franciszka, until 1860.Franciszka Liguz was the daughter of Wawrzyniec Liguz and Małgorzata Warzecha, age 21 in 1857. Both Franciszka and her husband-to-be, Jakub, lived in the village of Maniów in Dąbrowa County in the Galicia region of the Austrian Empire, and Jakub was described as a famulus, or servant.

Still further south in what is now Poland, my 3x-great-grandparents Jakub Łącki and Anna Ptaszkiewicz were 4 years away from their eventual wedding date.4 In 1857, Jakub was a 22-year-old shoemaker from the village of Kołaczyce in Jasło County in the Austrian Empire, and Anna was the 23-year-old daughter of a shoemaker from the same village.

Maternal grandmother’s line

Heading further north again in Poland, back into Sochaczew County in Russian Poland, my 2x-great-grandparents Ignacy and Antonina (née Naciążek) Zarzycki were about 8 years into their marriage, raising their family in the village of Bronisławy. By 1857, they had three children for whom birth records have been discovered, Marianna,5 Paulina,and Tomasz.7 Ignacy was a land-owning farmer who was born in the nearby village of Szwarocin,8 but his wife Antonina’s place of birth remains a mystery.

Moving west now, in 1857 my 3x-great-grandparents Stanisław and Jadwiga (née Dąbrowska) Grzesiak were living in Kowalewo Opactwo, a village that was located in Słupca County at the far western edge of the Russian Empire, within walking distance of the border with Prussia. Ages 51 and 41, respectively, they were already parents to 12 of their 13 children. Stanisław was usually described as a shepherd or a tenant farmer.9

In the nearby town of Zagórów, my 3x-great-grandmother, Wiktoria (née Dębowska) Krawczyńska was living as a 53-year-old widow, having lost her husband Antoni Krawczyński 10 years earlier.10 Antoni had been a shoemaker, and he and Wiktoria were the parents of 8 children, of whom 4 died in infancy. By 1857, the surviving children ranged in age from 27 to 14 — the youngest being my great-great-grandmother, Marianna Krawczyńska.

Paternal grandfather’s line

Meanwhile, in Detroit, Michigan, my 3x-great-grandparents Michael Ruppert and Maria Magdalena Causin were newlyweds in 1857, having married on 12 May of that year.11 Michael had immigrated to the U.S. just four years earlier, at the age of 19, with his parents and siblings.12 The Rupperts were from the village of Heßloch in the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, or what is now Alzey-Worms district in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.13 Michael was a carpenter, and he and his family had already begun to use the surname Roberts.14 His wife Maria Magdalena Causin/Casin/Curzon is a bit of a mystery, and will likely be the subject of future blog post, because she doesn’t show up in the records until her marriage in 1857, and her parents’ names are not on her marriage or death records.

In 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents Henry and Catherine (née Grentzinger) Wagner and were also living in Detroit, had been married for 2 years and were parents to their first child, John Wagner.15 Henry was a teamster who had arrived in Detroit about 3 years previously along with his parents and siblings, all immigrants from the village of Roßdorf in the Electorate of Hesse, a state within the German Confederation.16  This was a first marriage for Henry, but a second marriage for Catherine, since she was a young widow after the death of her first husband, Victor Dellinger or Dalmgher.17 In addition to burying her husband some time between 1850-1855, it appears that both of Catherine’s children from that first marriage 18 also died young, since they were not mentioned in the 1860 census in the household of Henry and Catherine Wagner. Catherine herself was an immigrant from Steinsoultz, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, who came to Detroit with her parents and siblings some time between 1830 and 1834.

Across the border and some 225 miles to the east, my 3x-great-grandparents Robert and Elizabeth (née Hodgkinson) Walsh made their home in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. In 1857, Elizabeth Walsh was a 39-year-old mother of 5, pregnant with her 6th child, Ellen, who was born in December of that year.19 Elizabeth was the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of United Empire Loyalists, so her family were among the first settlers in St. Catharines. Her husband, Robert Walsh, was a 49-year-old tailor from Ireland whose family origins have proven to be more elusive than his wife’s.

Also living in St. Catharines were my 3x-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine Dodds. In 1857, Robert was a 40-year-old immigrant from England, usually described as a laborer or farm laborer. Nothing is known about Robert’s family of origin. He married his wife, Catherine, circa 1840, and by 1857 they were the parents of three daughters and three sons.20 Catherine’s origins, and even her maiden name, are unclear. There is evidence that she was born circa 1818 in Martintown, Glengarry, Ontario to parents who were Scottish immigrants or of Scottish extraction, but no birth record or marriage record has yet been discovered for her.

Paternal grandmother’s line

Jacob and Catherine (née Rogg or Rock) Böhringer, my 3x-great-grandparents, were German immigrants from the Black Forest, having lived in the village of Gündelwangen in the Grand Duchy of Baden21 prior to their migration to Buffalo, New York in 1848.22 By 1857, Catherine and Jacob had already buried three of their seven children, including oldest daughter Maria Bertha, who was born in Germany and apparently died on the voyage to America. Jacob was a joiner or a cabinet maker.23

In 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents Joseph Murre and Walburga Maurer were still about 5 years away from their eventual wedding date. They were born and married in Bavaria, Germany, although I have yet to discover their specific place of origin. I don’t know the names of the parents of either Joseph or Walburga. Joseph was a woodworker who was employed in a planing mill in Buffalo, New York in 1870 24 and was later listed as a carpenter in the Buffalo city directory in 1890. He and Walburga arrived in New York on 3 April 1869 with their children Maria, Anna and Johann.25

In October 1857, my 3x-great-grandparents Johann Meier and Anna Maria Urban were married in the parish church in Roding, Bavaria.26 Their first child, Johann Evangelista Meier, was born out of wedlock two years previously although the father was named on the baptismal record with a note that the child was subsequently legitimized. Johann and Anna Maria would go on to have a total of 10 children, 3 of whom migrated to Buffalo, New York.

In 1857, my 4x-great-grandparents, Ulrich Götz or Goetz and Josephine Zinger, were living somewhere in Bavaria and raising their 4-year-old son, Carl Götz, who was my 3x-great-grandfather. Almost nothing is known of this family, including where they lived in Bavaria or the names of Carl’s siblings. Carl grew up to be the second husband of a much older wife, Julia Anna Bäumler, who was already 19 in 1857. Julia had at least one child from a previous relationship, a son, John George Bäumler, who was born in 1858. Julia and Carl married in Bavaria circa 1875, a development which may or may not have influenced John Bäumler’s decision to emigrate from Bavaria to Buffalo, New York in 1876.28 Julia gave birth to her only child with Carl, Anna Götz (my great-great-grandmother), in 1877, and the Götz family eventually followed John Bäumler to Buffalo in 1883. Julia Götz’s death record states that she was born in “Schlattine, Bavaria,” which suggests the village of Schlattein in Neustadt an der Waldnaab, Bavaria, but further research is needed to confirm this location.

So there you have it: a summary of where my ancestors were in the world, and in their lives, in the year 1857. But what about your ancestors? Where were they living, and what were they doing? Is there a more interesting year for your family than 1857? Choose a different year, and tell me your ancestors’ stories!

Selected Sources:

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Mistrzewicach, Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne,, 1875, Małżeństwa, #2, record for Zofia Zielińska and Piotr Malinowski, accessed on 10 November 2017.

2 Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Mlodzieszynie, Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne,, Księga zgonów 1889-1901, 1895, #59, death record for Wojciech Kalota, accessed on 10 November 2017.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Mary Magdalene parish (Szczucin, Dąbrowa, Małopolskie, Poland), Księgi metrykalne, 1786-1988, Akta małżeństw 1786-1988, Maniów, 1860, 16 September, marriage record for Jacobus Klaus and Francisca Liguz, Family History Library film # 1958428 Items 7-8.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Anne’s Parish (Kołaczyce, Jasło, Podkarpackie, Poland), Śluby, 1826-1889, Stare Kopie, 1861, #11, marriage record for Jacobus Łącki and Anna Ptaszkiewicz.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), Księga urodzeń 1845-1854, 1850, #48, baptismal record for Maryanna Zarzycka.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), Księga urodzeń 1845-1854, 1853, #60, baptismal record for Paulina Zarzycka.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), Księga urodzeń, 1855-1862, 1856, #48, baptismal record for Tomasz Zarzecki.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), 1828, #34, baptismal record for Ignacy Zarzycki.

Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. słupecki), 1832, marriages, #14, record for Stanisław Grzesiak and Jadwiga Dąbrowska, Szukajwarchiwach,, accessed 17 November 2017.

10 Roman Catholic Church, Zagórów parish (Zagórów (Słupca), Poznań, Poland), Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1947, 1843, #137, death record for Antoni Krawczyński.; FHL film #2162134, Item 1, Akta zgonów 1844-1849.

11 Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s parish (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, USA), “Marriages”, 1857, #15, marriage record for Michael Ruppert and Magdalena Causin.

12 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (index and image), record for Franz, Catherine, Michael, Arnold, and Catherine Rupard, S.S. William Tell, arrived 4 March 1853,, subscription database, Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 123; Line: 51; List Number: 146, accessed 17 November 2017.

13 Roman Catholic Church (Heßloch (Kr. Worms), Hesse, Germany), Kirchenbuch, 1715-1876, 1834, baptismal record for Michael Ruppert, FHL film #948719.

14 1860 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, p. 142, Michael Roberts and Frank Roberts households,, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

15 Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1940, database, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, FamilySearch, (, database with images, 1855, #11, record for Henry Wagner and Catherine Dellinger, accessed 17 November 2017.

16 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image and transcription), record for Henry, Cath., August, Johnny, Gertrude, and Marianne WagnerS.S. Erbpring Luidrich August, arrived 29 September 1853 in New York,  Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 132; Line: 12; List Number: 1010,, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

17 Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1940,  (images and transcriptions), Wayne County, marriage certificates, 1842-1848, v. B, #1733, marriage record for Victor Dellinger and Catherine Grenzinger, 3 February 1846,  FamilySearch,, accessed 17 November 2017.

18 1850 U.S. Federal Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, page 156B and 157, Victor Dalmgher household,, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.  

19 Census of 1861, database, Library and Archives Canada, St. Catharines, Lincoln, Canada West (Ontario), Robert Walsh household, item number 2721097, accessed 17 November 2017.

 20 Census of 1861, database, Library and Archives Canada, Grantham, Lincoln, Canada West (Ontario), Library and Archives Canada, Robert Dodds household, Item number 1884852, accessed 17 November 2017.

21 Roman Catholic Church, Gündelwangen parish (Gündelwangen, Waldshut, Freiburg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany), Kirchenbuchduplikat, 1810-1869, 1847, baptisms, #4, record for Maria Bertha Rogg, p. 165, with addendum on page 171, Family History Library film #1055226.

22 Passenger and Immigration Lists, 1820-1850,  record for Jacob Behringer, Catherine, and Marie Behringer, S.S. Admiral, arrived 4 November 1848 in New York,, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

23 1860 United States Federal Census (population schedule), 7th Ward Buffalo, Erie, New York, p. 77, Jacob Barringer household,, accessed 17 November 2017.

24 1860 United States Federal Census (population schedule), 7th Ward Buffalo, Erie, New York, p. 73, Joseph Murri household,, accessed 17 November 2017.

25 Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image and transcription), record for Joseph, Walburga, Anna, Marie, and Johann Muri, S.S. Hansa, arrived 3 April 1869 in New York,  Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 308; Line: 38; List Number: 292., subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

26 BZAR, Roman Catholic Church, St. Pancrus parish (Roding, Cham, Oberpfalz, Germany), Marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857, Vol. 27, page 3 MF 573.

271900 United States Federal Census (population schedule), Buffalo, Erie, New York, E.D. 107, Sheet 16B, Charles Goetz household,, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

28 1900 United States Federal Census (population schedule), Gainesville, Wyoming, New York, E.D. 122, Sheet 9A, John Baumler household,, subscription database, accessed 17 November 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

A Tale of Two Zagóróws

For the past two weeks I’ve been on a hiatus from genealogy due to a family health crisis. Today, I’m celebrating both the end of that crisis, and a new DNA match. The DNA match isn’t that new, actually, but I think I’ve figured out just how my new cousins and I are related.

The story began last August, when I wrote to some new matches that appeared in my list at Ancestry.  The matches were siblings, and Ancestry predicted with high confidence that my match to both of them was in the 4th-6th cousins range, spanning 30 centimorgans (cM) across 2 chromosomes.  Both of my matches responded to my messages and suggested that I get in touch with their sister, Carol, who had not yet tested her DNA but who was the more avid family historian in the family. As can happen with all of us, life can get in the way of genealogy research, so I didn’t hear from Carol until a few days ago, when we began comparing notes to see if we could determine how we might be related.

Carol told me that her family had roots in Prussian, Russian and Austrian Poland, which suggested a match on my mom’s Polish side. This was supported by the fact that her sibings matched me, but not my Dad’s sister. However, there was also no match between Carol’s siblings and either my mom’s maternal first cousin, or my third cousin on my mom’s maternal side. Although there were no surnames in Carol’s family tree that jumped out at me, I noted with interest that her father’s paternal line was from Zagórów. Unfortunately, this appeared to be a red herring:  although I, too, had family from Zagórów, my ancestors were from Zagórów in Słupca County, Wielkpolskie province, while Carol’s tree stated that her ancestors were from Zagórów in Limanowa County, Małopolskie province, nearly 300 miles away.

However, as Carol and I messaged back and forth, she commented that her father had cousins living in Poland in Konin and Poznań, both of which are located in Wielkopolskie County. Moreover, she mentioned that she had found documents for her family at the Słupca Genealogy site, a fantastic resource which contains indexed vital records specifically from Słupca and Kalisz Counties in Wielkopolskie province, but not from anywhere else in Poland. Finally she mentioned that the name of the church that her father’s family attended in Zagórów was Sts. Peter and Paul the Apostles, which is definitely the name of the parish for the Zagórów in Wielkopolskie province, and not the one in Małopolskie province. By this point the evidence was clear:  Carol’s family was from the same Zagórów that my ancestors were from, in Wielkopolskie province.  It’s not an uncommon error for a newcomer to Polish genealogy to make, to confuse two locations with the same name, and it makes a big difference

Having cleared up that misconception, the game was now afoot. A common point of geography would be a logical place to begin looking for our connection. I took a closer look at her family tree, paying attention to the surnames that were from Zagórów. It’s been a while since I did any research on my Wielkopolskie lines, and by “a while,” I mean about a decade, so I was a little surprised to find that the answer had been staring me in the face since last August:  Celia Przystańska.

According to her family tree, Carol’s paternal grandparents were Jan Myśliński, and Celia Przystańska, who was born about 1870 in Zagórów.  I had forgotten that I had the Przystański surname in my own family tree — but lo, and behold, my tree includes one Cecylia Przystańska, born 1863 in Zagórów! Cecylia was the daughter of Marcin Przystański and Katarzyna Tuzik. Here’s her birth record (Figure 1):

Figure 1:  Birth record from Zagórów for Cecylia Przystańska, 1863:1Cecylia Przystanka 1863 birth crop

The record is in Polish and reads,

“#278, Zagórów. This happened in Zagórów on the twenty-second day of November in the year one thousand eight hundred sixty-three at four o’clock in the afternoon.  He appeared, Marcin Przystański, shoemaker residing in Zagórów, having twenty-four years of age, in the presence of Walenty Łukomski, carpenter, age thirty-eight, and Ignacy Michalski, glazier, age twenty-seven, residents of Zagórów, and showed us a child of the female sex, born in Zagórów on the fourteenth day of the current month and year at four o’clock before day of his wife, Katarzyna née Tuzik, age twenty. To this child at Holy Baptism, performed today, was given the name Cecylia, and her godparents were Walenty Łukomski and Balbina Michalska. This document was read to the declarant and witnesses, who are illiterate, and was signed. [signed] Fr. Mikołaj Wadowski, pastor”

Katarzyna Tuzik was married to Marcin Przystański in 1862 in the nearby village of Kowalewo-Opactwo.  Their marriage record is also found online (gotta love Szukajwarchiwach!) and describes the bride as, “Miss Katarzyna Tuzik, having twenty years of age, daughter of Michał and the late Maryanna; born in Wierzbno and living in that same place with her father….” Although Maryanna’s maiden name is not mentioned here, there is substantial evidence available which indicates that she was Marianna Agata Dąbrowska, daughter of Maciej Dąbrowski and Barbara Słońska. This is where the DNA match comes in — Maciej and Barbara were my own great-great-great-great-grandparents. I’m descended from their daughter, Jadwiga Anna, who married Stanisław Grzesiak.

Here’s the relationship chart (Figure 2), which demonstrates that Carol and I are 5th cousins (her maiden surname is used with permission).

Figure 2:  Relationship chart showing relationship between me and cousin Carol.

Relationship Chart

I’ve discovered that these charts can be a little confusing to the uninitiated.  The couple at the top are our common ancestors, Maciej and Barbara Dąbrowski, but after that, the chart shows our lines of descent, not married couples.  Thus, Carol descends from Maciej and Barbara’s daughter, Marianna Agata, whereas I descend from their daughter Jadwiga Anna.  Marianna Agata married Michał Tuzik (not shown in the chart) and their daughter, Katarzyna Tuzik, carries on the line of descent on Carol’s side. On my side, Jadwiga’s husband Stanisław Grzesiak is not shown, but their son Józef Grzesiak carries on the line of descent. The last generation shown on this chart is my Mom and Carol’s late father — Carol and I would run onto a second page of the chart, but I think the general idea is clear.

So, this is a promising lead to the possible connection between Carol and me.  A couple things still need to be ironed out, of course. We don’t yet have the marriage record for Cecylia Przystańska and Jan Myśliński, which is necessary to verify Cecylia’s parents’ names. However, the marriage has been indexed at Słupca Genealogy, (Zagórów, 1886, #42), and although records from this year are not available online, they’re on microfilm from the Family History Library. If the marriage record shows that Cecylia’s parents were, in fact, Marcin Przystański and Katarzyna Tuzik, then the documentary evidence would fit nicely with the DNA evidence.

None of my new cousins have uploaded their DNA to GEDmatch yet, so it’s unfortunately impossible to get a good sense of which chromosomes and what locations are involved in the match. Moreover, without an upload to GEDmatch, I can’t compare their DNA to that of my late grandmother, whom I tested with FTDNA and not Ancestry. That will be a key comparision to make, because Carol’s siblings, Grandma, and I, will all have to share some overlap in the matching regions. It’s not possible for me to match these cousins according to this pedigree if they do not also match Grandma, because she must be the source of my matching DNA.

The amount of shared DNA itself, as reported by Ancestry, is acceptable for this match and would support the predicted relationships.  According to this chart by Blaine Bettinger (Figure 3), 5th cousins share on average 17 cM, with a range of 0-42 cM.  This relationship — 30 cM across two chromosomes — is at the high end of the range, but still plausible.

Figure 3:  Shared centimorgans (cM) for documented genealogical relationships. Data compiled by Blaine T. Bettinger.2 “C” = cousin and “R” = times removed, so “1C1R” in this chart means “first cousin once removed.”SharedcMProject20March2017

The fact that it’s perfectly possible for 5th cousins to share NO DNA (0 cM) also explains another facet of this puzzle that I mentioned in the beginning. One of the first steps I take when evaluating a DNA match is to check to see what matches exist in common with the new match.  In this case, my Myslinski cousins did NOT match a documented and genetic third cousin to me on our common Grzesiak line, nor did they match my mother’s first cousin on her maternal Zazycki line. How can this be?

Let’s examine each of those situations separately. My cousin Valerie descends from my great-grandmother’s sister, Józefa Grzesiak. Józefa would have inherited half of her DNA from her father, Józef Grzesiak, and a quarter of her DNA from her father’s mother, Jadwiga Dąbrowska.  Jadwiga inherited all her DNA from her own parents, Maciej Dąbrowski and Barbara Słońska, who are the common ancestors in this puzzle. Remember that these numbers are averages — the amount of DNA that one inherits from such distant relatives can vary a bit, due to the genetic recombination that occurs in each generation. Similarly, my great-grandmother, Weronika Grzesiak, would have inherited a quarter of her DNA from Jadwiga Dąbrowska — but although the proportion of inherited DNA is roughly the same as what her sister Józefa would have inherited, the content can be quite different — there’s no guarantee that the same genes from their great-grandparents Maciej and Barbara were inherited by both Weronika and  Józefa.

So it’s perfectly possible for the same bit of DNA to have been passed down from common ancestors Maciej and Barbara to me and to cousin Carol, but not to cousin Valerie. (At this point we don’t know which one of my 4x-great-grandparents, Maciej or Barbara, contributed the matching segment that is carried by me and by my Myslinski cousins.) Similarly, it’s possible for me to have inherited this bit through my maternal Grandmother, even though my mother’s maternal cousin did not inherit it.  Mom’s cousin, Fred, is 4th cousin once removed to cousin Carol. According to the above chart, fourth cousins once removed share an average of 20 cM, with a range from 0- 57 cM. So it’s possible that Grandma inherited that crucial bit of DNA from Maciej or Barbara that her brother (Fred’s father) did not inherit. Therefore she was able to pass it on to me, resulting in a match between me and Carol, that is not shared by Fred.

All of this demonstrates the fact that DNA evidence can support a documented relationship, but when it comes to ancestors as far back as this, a lack of DNA evidence cannot disprove a documented relationship. It’s actually quite remarkable to me to think that the same tiny bit of DNA was passed down from parents Maciej and Barbara to both of their daughters (Jadwiga and Marianna) who in turn managed to pass that bit down through several additional generations, so that cousin Carol and I show up as matches at all. Hopefully this helps to illustrate what a powerful weapon DNA testing can be in your arsenal of genealogy techniques.  If you have any recent discoveries that have come about through DNA testing, please let me know about them in the comments — I’d love to read your stories!  Happy researching!


Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Zagórów (pow. slupecki), Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, Szukajwarchiwach, 1863, births, #278, record for Cecylia Przystanska, accessed on 22 March 2017.

SharedcMProject20March2017.png, by Blaine T. Bettinger, is licensed under C.C. BY 4.0.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

10 Tips for Finding Your Family on Passenger Manifests

Those of us with ancestors who immigrated to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries know how valuable passenger manifests can be, as they often provide the name of the immigrant’s place of birth. We also know how frustrating it can sometimes be to find those immigrants in indexed databases such as Ellis Island and AncestryToday I’d like to review some basic concepts regarding passenger manifests, and then share a few tips for finding your ancestors in those databases.

Types of Manifests:  Embarkation vs. Arrival

It helps to begin with an understanding of the manifests themselves and how they were created. There’s a persistent myth in American culture that names were changed at Ellis Island. This article explains more fully why that isn’t true, but the short version is that the manifests were recorded at the port of embarkation, and Ellis Island officials were merely working from those original lists. Many of these manifests recorded at ports of embarkation did not survive. For example, most of the Bremen lists were destroyed due to lack of space in the Bremen Archives. However, the Hamburg emigration lists recorded between 1850-1934 have largely survived, and sometimes it’s possible to find both the outgoing Hamburg manifest and the incoming Port of New York manifest for the same immigrant.

Types of Errors:  Original vs. Transcription

There are undoubtedly errors in spelling and transliteration that occurred on these passenger manifests, but most of the name changes that people attribute to “Ellis Island” were adopted by the immigrants themselves as part of their efforts to assimilate into American culture. In my experience, far more dramatic spelling errors were created during the process of transcribing and indexing the passenger manifests to create a searchable database, than occurred during the original recording of the manifests. I don’t want to place too much blame on the indexers here, as they’re faced with a formidable task. Anyone who’s ever looked at a passenger manifest knows that the handwriting can be cramped and illegible, the manifest might have been torn, taped, or faded, and the microfilmed image might be blurry or grainy. Combine this with the fact that you might see on the same page immigrants from a variety of different countries, each with its own language and maybe its own alphabet, and it’s immediately clear that indexers are brave and hardy heroes, indeed.

Faced with all these obstacles, how do we find our immigrant ancestors on those manifests?

1. Use wild-card searches.

If you have a subscription to Ancestry (or can access it at your local public library or Family History Center), you can search their immigration database using wildcard characters. Ancestry‘s directions state,

“An asterisk “*” replaces zero or more characters, and a question mark “?” replaces exactly one character. For example, a search for “fran*” will return matches on words like “Fran,” “Franny,” or “Frank.” A search for “Johns?n” matches “Johnson” and “Johnsen,” but not “Johnston.”

2. Try leaving off the surname entirely.

In cases where I suspect a surname has been butchered in the transcription, I sometimes omit it entirely, and search for the immigrant based on other identifying information.  For example, I could search for my great-grandmother, Weronika Grzesiak, by looking for a female passenger named Weronika, born about 1876, stating Polish ethnicity, arriving about 1898.

3. Play with the search parameters.

If your parameters are too specific, you get too few hits, but if they’re too broad, you get too many, so try tinkering with them one by one. Sometimes male passengers are marked as female and vice versa, sometimes first and last names are reversed, and that “race/nationality” box is tricky for Poles, who might be marked as Polish, Russian, German, or Austrian. Be flexible.

4. Determine your ancestor’s name at the time of immigration before you search.

I’d bet a million dollars that a Polish ancestor named “Walter Cherry” will not be listed under that name on his passenger manifest. There’s a good chance you’d find him under “Władysław Wiśniewski,” though. That’s because many of our ancestors adopted new given names, or new versions of their surnames, as part of their efforts to assimilate into American culture. Some common name changes among Polish-Americans were Władysław to Walter, Stanisław to Stanley, Czesław to Chester, Bronisław to Bruno, and Wojciech to Albert or George. For women, common changes include Jadwiga to Ida or Hattie, Władysława to Lottie or Charlotte, Pelagia to Pearl, and Bronisława to Bertha. These are generalizations, and it’s important to recognize that there were no hard and fast rules. You need to do research into your own family history to determine the names that your immigrant ancestors used. (See here for my story of my challenge in finding the passenger manifest for an immigrant who used Edward in the U.S. when his real name was Stanisław!) For Polish ancestors who settled in the U.S., try checking church records from the parish they attended here, as those are frequently a good clue to their original names.

5. Familiarize yourself with spelling and pronunciation rules in your ancestor’s native language.

In Polish, “Szcz” is a common combination of two digraphs (sz and cz), and there are a lot of surnames that start this way. In contrast, surnames that start with “Lz” are quite rare (I found exactly one example, Lzarewicz, which belonged to exactly 1 person in Poland as of 1990, in this database). So when your search results at Ellis Island or Ancestry include results for passengers with names like “Lzczerba,” “Lzcrepaniak,” and “Lzcsepansky,” you can bet that those names are misspelled and actually start with “S.” In these examples, when I checked the original image of the manifest, those names were clearly Szczerba, Szczepaniak, and Szczepansky.

6. Databases index differently, so if you can’t find your ancestor in one database, check another.

My husband’s great-grandfather had a sister named Marcjanna Szczepankiewicz who was indexed on Ellis Island as “Marcyanna Sezezefsankiewiez” and on Ancestry as “Marcyanna Sczezyoankiemg.” On the manifest, the surname is clearly “Szczepankiewicz,” so this is a case of the indexers having no familiarity with Polish surnames. Even better, in looking up those examples, I came across one poor guy who was indexed on Ancestry as a 24-year-old Ruthenian woman named  “Fazel Lzczzvca.” I took a look at the actual manifest, and the passenger was a 24-year-old Ruthenian man named Józef Szczyrba. I didn’t have the heart to see how he was indexed on Ellis Island, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

7. Give Steve Morse’s site a try.

If you’re not familiar with Steve Morse’s website, you’re missing out. He’s got a variety of very helpful tools for genealogists, including resources for translations, DNA, searching census records, and a search portal for the different immigration databases (both free, like Ellis Island and Castle Garden, and paid, like Ancestry). I used to use his search portal all the time back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, because it was far superior to Ellis Island‘s search portal for the same data. But to be honest, a lot has changed since then, and both Ancestry and Ellis Island now offer fairly powerful, flexible search parameters that are comparable to Steve Morse’s. However, you may find that his search page is laid out in a more intuitive fashion, so it can’t hurt to try if you’re not having luck with the other search engines.

 8. If you already know your ancestor’s hometown but you still can’t find his manifest, try searching according to place of origin.

This technique is not only useful for finding missing manifests, but also can sometimes be used to gain insight into the family groups in your ancestral village. For example, one of my ancestral parishes is Młodzieszyn in Sochaczew County, Poland. Records for Młodzieszyn were largely destroyed in World War II, leaving only records from 1885-1908. So, my understanding of my family history there is very incomplete. However, I’ve discovered that passenger records can offer a surprising amount of information to help fill in some of these blanks. Manifests for emigrants from Młodzieszyn have given me their names, approximate birth dates, and the names and relationships of contacts in the new world (often family members), as well as the names and relationships of family members still living in their former home town. Many of these emigrants were born before 1885 when existing birth records for Młodzieszyn begin, so their passenger manifests are incredibly useful in constructing family groups. Of course, one problem with this is that the hometown is just as likely to be misspelled as the passenger’s name, but it’s still worth a shot.

9. If your ancestor has a common name but he immigrated with other family members, try searching for the manifest using the family member with the least common name.

For example, “Nowak” is the most common Polish surname there is, so if your great-grandfather was Jan Nowak, you’ll probably have to wade through a lot of manifests to find the right one.  But if you have reason to believe that he emigrated at the same time as his wife, Pelagia, try searching for her instead.

10. If your ancestor naturalized after 1906, get his naturalization papers first, then try to find his manifest.

I was really stuck trying to find a manifest for my husband’s great-grandfather Joseph Bartoszewicz. He was supposed to have come in with a large family group, and I’d tried pretty much all the tips I mentioned here, but I just couldn’t tease the data out of the search engines. However, he naturalized in 1914, and after 1906, Petitions for Naturalization included questions about the person’s arrival date in the U.S., the port of entry, and the name of the ship. I obtained Joseph’s naturalization petition, which told me that he arrived on 12 October 1890 in the Port of Philadelphia on the ship Pennsylvania. Great! Only I still couldn’t find him, using that date as an exact search term. Further investigation revealed that Joseph reported his arrival date inaccurately — the Pennsylvania did not arrive in Philadelphia on 12 October 1890, but rather on the 13th. I finally found Joseph and his family by browsing through the manifest page by page.

If you’ve been struggling to find the right passenger manifests for your family, know that you’re not alone. It can certainly be frustrating sometimes, and we’ve all been there. But persistence and flexible search strategies will usually pay off. As always, I’m happy to hear from other researchers, so if you try some of these strategies and they work for you, or if you’d like to offer other suggestions, please leave a note in the comments.  Happy researching!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016






Overview of Vital Records in Poland: Part III: Additional Examples and Observations

In my previous two posts, I gave some historical background about the evolution of vital records keeping in Poland, and about the implications of those practices for researchers today, seeking records of their ancestors.  Today, I’d like to provide some examples of the kinds of records you might expect to see from the various partitions and from different time periods, to give you an idea of what you might expect to encounter in your own research.

Examples from Prussian Poland

I’ll start off with a couple of examples from the Prussian partition, and a little confession: Although my husband has ancestors from Prussian Poland, and although I have every intention of researching those ancestors at some point, I haven’t done much research in this area yet.  Therefore, I don’t have a huge wealth of examples to offer, but here are a couple.  Figure 1 shows a Catholic baptismal record from 1858 for Stanislaus (Stanisław in Polish) Lewandoski,also known as Edward Levanduski, my husband’s great-great-grandfather, about whom I wrote previously.

Figure 1:  Baptismal record from Gąsawa parish for Stanislaus Lewandoski [sic], born 29 October 1859.1stanislaus-lewandowski-1859-p-1-crop

The record is in columnar form, and column headings, from left to right, tell us the number of the birth record, the year, day and month of the birth, the place of birth, date of baptism and child’s name, the name of the priest who baptized the child,  the parents’ names, father’s occupation, and then additional information on godparents’ names (cut off in this image).  The record is written in Latin.  Unfortunately, no information is given on the parents’ ages.

Figures 2a and 2b show a civil marriage record from Kucharki from 1890 for my husband’s great-great-grandparents, Augustyn and Agnieszka Drajem.2

Figure 2a:  Civil marriage record from Kucharki for August Drajem and Agnieszka Jamrozik, 1 February 1890, p. 1.2august-draheim-and-agnieszka-jamrozik-1890-p-1

Figure 2b:  Civil marriage record from Kucharki for August Drajem and Agnieszka Jamrozik, 1 February 1890, p. 2.2augustyn-draheim-and-agnieszka-jamrozik-1890-p-2

As we would expect, the record is in German, and the translation, kindly provided by Johann Kargl in the Facebook group “Genealogy Translations,” is as follows:

“Kucharki 1st February 1890
1. Before the undersigned registrar appeared the farm servant August Draheim, personally known, Catholic, born on 25 July 1866 in Mielno, county Mogilno, living in Kucharki, son of the deceased master tailor Josef Draheim and his wife Marianne, nee Kaszynska, living in America
2. the unmarried maiden Agnes Jamrozik, personally known, Catholic, born on 9 January 1865 in Kucharki, county Kleschen, living in Kucharki, daughter of the innkeeper Johann Jamrozik and his wife Rosalie, nee Juszczak, living in Kucharki.
As witnesses appeared:
3. The innkeeper Jakob Tomalak, personally known, 60 yers old, living in Kucharki
4. the innkeeper Adalbert (Wojciech) Szlachetka, personally known, 48 years old, living in Kucharki

read, approved and signed
August Draheim Agnieszka Draheim, nee Jamrozik
Jakob Tomalak
Wojciech Szlachetka
The registrar
signed Grzegorzewski

Kucharki, 8 February 1890

Notice that the record was created on a fill-in-the-blank form, with all the standard boilerplate text preprinted, so translating these civil records becomes a matter of learning to read a relatively small amount of German script.  In contrast to the brief church book entry, this record contains a lot of wonderful genealogical details, including the precise birthdate and birth place of the bride and groom, occupations and ages of the witnesses, and more.

For those of you who might be panicking and thinking,  “But I can’t read German!” help is on the way.  The very best translation guides that I have found for genealogy are written by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman.  Their “In Their Words” series of genealogical translation guides encompasses 3 volumes to date, Volume I:  Polish, Volume II:  Russian, and Volume III:  Latin.  Volume IV:  German is currently in the works and will hopefully be out very soon.  I cannot praise these books highly enough.  These are the books that are constantly lying around the house, never making it back to the bookshelf, because I’m always referring to one or another of them for something.  I can’t wait for their German book to be published so I can learn to read these records for myself.  In the meantime, there’s always the Genealogy Translations group on Facebook, if you (or I) need assistance.

Examples from Russian Poland

In Russian Poland, the standard Napoleonic format existed from 1808-1825, followed by a modified format that was used from 1826 through the 20th century. So a civil death record from 1936 (Figure 3) looks much the same as a civil death record from 1838 (Figure 4).

Figure 3:  Death record from Budy Stare for Marianna Zielińska who died 4 April 1936.3marianna-zielinska-death-1936

Translation:  “Budy Stare.  It happened in Młodzieszyn on the 4th day of April 1936 at 8:00 in the morning.  They appeared, Stanisław Wilanowski, age 40, farmer of Mistrzewice, and Kazimierz Tomczak, farmer of Juliopol, age 26, and stated that, on this day today, at 5:00 in the morning, in Budy Stare, died Marianna née Kalota Zielińska, widow, age 79, born and residing with her sister in Budy Stare, daughter of the late Roch and Agata née Kurowska, farmers.  After visual confirmation of the death of Marianna Zielińska, this document was read aloud to the witnesses but signed only by us.  Pastor of the parish of Młodzieszyn actiing as Civil Registrar.”

Figure 4:   Death record from Kowalewo-Opactwo for Wojciech Grzeszkiewicz [aka Grzesiak], who died 25 April 1838.4Wojciech Grzeszkiewicz death.jpg

Translation:  “Kowalewo.  It happened in the village of Kowalewo on the 15th/27th day of April 1838 at 10:00 in the morning.  They appeared, Stanisław Grzeszkiewicz, shepherd, age 31, father of the deceased, and Jan Radziejewski, land-owning farmer, age 40, both of Kowalewo, and stated to us that, on the 13th/25th of the current month and year, at 4:00 in the afternoon, died in Kowalewo, likewise born there in house number two, Wojciech Grzeszkiewicz, son of the aforementioned Stanisław and Jadwiga née Dąbrowska, having one year of age.  All persons mentioned in this Act are of the Catholic religion.  After visual confirmation of the death of Wojciech, this document was read aloud to the witnesses and was signed.”

Since records from all villages within a parish were kept in the same book in Russian Poland, we see the name of the village where the event took place inscribed in the margin, next to the record number.  So in Figure 4, the death occurred in Budy Stare, but was recorded by the priest in the Catholic parish in Młodzieszyn.  When you compare the translations of these two records, you see that there’s not much difference in the format.  It’s pretty stable across 102 years and 120 miles in these examples.  That’s even true during the period from about 1868 until 1918, when records from Russian Poland were required to be kept in Russian.  Take a look at this death record from Mistrzewice in 1897, for my 3x-great-grandmother, Antonina (née Ciećwierz) Grzegorek (Figure 5):5

Figure 5:  Death record from Mistrzewice for Antonina Grzegorek, who died 21 March 1897.5antonina-grzegorek-death-1897-crop

Translation:  “Mistrzewice.  It happened in the village of Mistrzewice on the 11th/23rd day of March 1897th year at 12:00 at noon. They appeared, Józef Grzegorek, farmer, age 47, and Wawrzyniec Wilanowski, farmer, age 38, residents of Mistrzewice, and stated that, on the 9th/21st day of March of the present year, at 1:00 am [literally, “in the first hour of the night”], died in the village of Mistrzewice, Antonina Grzegorek, farm wife, age 59, born in Mistrzewice, daughter of Jan and Katarzyna, the spouses Ciećwierz. She leaves after herself her widower husband, Ludwik Grzegorek, residing in the village of Mistrzewice. After visual confirmation of the death of Antonina Grzegorek, this document was read aloud to those present and was signed.”

The style of this record is very much the same as in the previous examples.  This is good news for those who are interested in learning to translate vital records, and it suggests a potential research strategy:  If the prospect of translating Russian records is intimidating,  try to trace back before 1868, and work on the records written in Polish first.  This worked really well for me.  My first foray into vital records from Poland occurred when I began researching the family of my great-grandmother Weronika Grzesiak.  She was born in 1876 in a village within Russian Poland, so her birth record was written in Russian, along with the birth records for most of her siblings. I took one look at the page and thought it was hopeless. However, I knew her parents were married about 1865, back when the records were still written in Polish.  I decided to look for their marriage record first, and then research earlier generations of the family tree.  Starting out with those Polish records gave me a chance to familiarize myself with the grammatical structure of Slavic languages and the format of the vital records, and eventually I gained enough confidence to tackle that Russian cursive.

There are some good translations aids out there, some of which I shared previously.  However, if you’re going to get serious about learning to translate Polish and Russian vital records comfortably, then you really need to get copies of Shea and Hoffman’s translation guides that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I know quite a few people — native English speakers — who never studied Polish or Russian formally, but have nonetheless taught themselves to read vital records in those languages, and it’s thanks to Shea and Hoffman.

Examples from Austrian Poland

In contrast to the relatively stable format found in records from Russian Poland, Austrian records seem to become progressively more informative throughout the 19th century, to a greater extent than is true for the other partitions.  In this first example (Figure 6) from 1843, we see the typical columnar format that was prescribed for both church and civil records at this time:6

Figure 6:  Marriage record from Kołaczyce for Franciszek  Łącki and Magdalena Bulgewiczowa, 3 August 1834.6franciscus-lacki-marriage2

Column headings, from left to right, tell us the month and date of the wedding, the house numbers of the bride and groom and who is moving in with whom.  In this case, “de 33 ad 84” suggests that after the marriage, the groom will be moving from his house, number 33, to the bride’s house, number 84.  The groom’s name and occupation (“figulus,” i.e. potter) is given, and check marks in the appropriate columns tell us that he was Catholic and a widower.  The “Aetas” column tells us that he was 46 years old.  Similarly, the bride was a 35-year-old Catholic widow named Magdalena Bulgewicz, widow of the late Dominik.  Although the standard nominative form of Magdalena’s married name was Bulgewicz, the form used here, “Bulgewiczowa,” describes a married woman of the Bulgewicz family.  Her maiden name is not provided.  Additional information includes the names and social position of the witnesses, and the name of the priest who performed the marriage.

In contrast, this slightly later record from 18617 in the same parish (Figure 7) includes all the same information as the earlier record, but also includes the names of the parents of the bride and groom (boxed in red) and provides a bit of a description about them (“oppidario,” meaning “townsperson”).

Figure 7:  Marriage record from Kołaczyce for Jakub Łącki and Anna Ptaszkiewicz, 26 November 1861.7jacobus-lacki-marriage2

Disappointingly, this early marriage record from Kołaczyce from 17507 (Figure 8) shows relatively little information.

Figure 8:  Marriage record from Kołaczyce for Stanisław Niegos and Teresa Szaynowszczonka.8stanislaw-niegos-and-teresa-szajnowska-1750

In translation, this reads, “On this same day, I who am named above, blessed and confirmed a marriage contract between Stanislaus Niegos and Teresa Szaynowszczonka, having been preceded by three banns and with no canonical impediments standing in the way, in the presence of witnesses Casimir Rączka and Joannes Dystanowicz, all of Kołaczyce.”  The form of the bride’s name used here, “Szaynowszczonka,” indicates an unmarried woman of the Szaynowski family, which would be rendered “Szajnowska” in modern Polish.

It helps to remember that this record predates the requirement for church records to perform double-duty as civil records for the Austrian authorities.  Therefore, the priest’s only purpose in keeping it was to fulfill the obligations imposed upon him by the Roman Ritual.  Since the Church had no interest in the addresses, ages, or occupations of the individuals mentioned in the record, that kind of information does not appear.  In any case, finding a marriage record from 1750 for one’s Polish ancestors is actually pretty respectable, which brings us to my next point.

A Word About Early Records…..

Don’t expect too much from early records, and by “early,” I’m referring to Polish vital records for peasants, late-1600s to about 1750 records.  As is evident from the history, recognition of the importance of vital records developed gradually.  Perhaps this is why I have frequently found church records to be somewhat “spotty” in the late 1600s and early-to-mid 1700s.  By “spotty,” I mean that records that “ought” to be found in a particular parish in a given year just aren’t there.  It’s impossible to say for certain why this is, and in some of these cases, the event may have occurred in Parish B, despite evidence from other documents stating that it occured in Parish A.  But for whatever reason, it seems that priests became more conscientious about over time, as their responsibilities as record-keepers for the civilian authorities increased.  If you’re able to locate those early vital records, that’s a victory, but understand that there’s a chance the record will just not be there.

Poland’s complicated geopolitical history is reflected in her record-keeping practices, which can be confusing to the uninitiated.  The different languages in which the records are kept might be challenging, too.  However, the payoff comes in the satisfaction of being able to locate and read your ancestors’ story for yourself, as preserved by their paper trail.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the history of Polish vital records, with some examples from each partition.  As always, I welcome feedback, including observations and insights based on your own research, so feel free to leave a note in the comments.  Happy researching!


Roman Catholic Church, Gąsawa parish (Gąsawa, Żnin, Poland), Księgi metrykalne, 1782-1960, Akta urodzeń 1847-1860, 1859, births, #73, record for Stanislaus Lewandoski.; 1191249 Items 1-3.

“Urzad Stanu Cywilnego Kucharki,” Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, Szukajwarchiwach (, Akta malzenstw 1874-1909, 1890, #13, marriage record for August Draheim and Agnes Jamrozik, accessed on 1 October 2016.

Urząd stanu cywilnego gminy Młodzieszyn, Sochaczewski, Mazowieckie, Poland, 1936, #16, death certificate for Marianna Zielińska.

 “Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki),” Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach (, 1838, Zgony, #5, record for Wojciech Grzeszkiewicz, accessed on 1 October 2016.

“Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Mlodzieszynie, ” Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne,  Projekt Indeksacji Metryk Parafialnych (, 1897, Zgony, #3, record for Antonina Grzegorek.  Accessed on 1 October 2016.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Anna’s Parish (Kołaczyce, Jasło, Podkarpackie, Poland), “Śluby, 1826-1889,” Stare Kopie, 1834, record for Franciscus Łącki and Magdalena Bulgewiczowa, Archiwum Archidecezjalne w Przemyślu, Przemyśl, Poland.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Anna’s Parish (Kołaczyce, Jasło, Podkarpackie, Poland), “Śluby, 1826-1889,” Stare Kopie, 1861, #11, marriage record for Jacobus Łącki and Anna Ptaszkiewicz, Archiwum Archidecezjalne w Przemyślu, Przemyśl, Poland.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Anne’s parish (Kołaczyce, Jasło, Podkarpackie, Poland), “Księga małżeństw parafii Kołaczyce 1748 – 1779,” 1750, marriage record for Stanislaus Niegos and Teresia Szaynoszczonka,  Archiwum Archidecezjalne w Przemyślu, Przemyśl, Poland.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016

Walter Wed Where? Wow! A Genealogical Breakthrough

The sweetest victories are the ones that took the longest time in coming.  A couple days ago, I happened upon some documents that fundamentally changed my understanding of my Grzesiak family history, documents I’ve been seeking for many years.  So there is some major happy dancing going on in the Szczepankiewicz house today, albeit limited to just one of its residents.

The Grzesiaks of Kowalewo-Opactwo and Buffalo, New York

In a previous post, I wrote a little about the family of my great-grandmother, Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki.  Veronica immigrated from the little village of Kowalewo-Opactwo in Słupca County to Buffalo, New York, where she was eventually joined by three of her siblings:  Władysław (“Walter”), Tadeusz/Thaddeus, and Józefa/Josephine.  Regarding Veronica’s oldest brother, Grandma told me that Walter had married an actress in Poland, whose name Grandma remembered as “Wanda,” but she didn’t want to leave her career, so he left her and came to the U.S. without her. There were no children from this marriage.

When I began to look for documentation for these family stories, I realized the situation wasn’t exactly as Grandma had portrayed it.  The 1900 census (Figure 1) shows the Grzesiak family all living on Mills Street in Buffalo, consisting of patriarch Joseph, sons Władysław and Thaddeus, daughter Jozefa, and daughter-in-law Casimira — Walter’s wife of two years.  Clearly, Walter’s wife DID come to Buffalo, rather than staying in Poland while he left without her – but her name was Casimira, not Wanda. The census goes on to state that at that time, she was the mother of 0 children, 0 now living, consistent with family reports.

Figure 1:  Extract from the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, showing the Grzesiak family.1900 United States Federal Census - Kazimira Grzesiak

In the 1905 New York State Census (Figure 2), Walter and Casimira were still living in Buffalo, so the marriage lasted at least 7 years.  Subsequent records (e.g. the 1940 Census) do indeed show Walter as divorced or a widower.

Figure 2:  Extract from 1905 New York State Census showing Walter and Casimira Grzesiak.1905 NY State Census for Walter Grzesiak

Walter’s death certificatereports his ex-wife’s name as “Katarzyna Dutkiewicz (Figure 3), and the informant was his brother, Thaddeus.

Figure 3:  Extract from Walter Grzesiak’s death certifcate.Katarzyna Dutkiewicz

Clearly, Thaddeus made a mistake with the first name, reporting it as Katarzyna (Katherine) instead of Kazimiera/Casimira.   So how much faith should we put in his version of her maiden name, Dutkiewicz?  Death records are often viewed with some circumspection, since someone other than the deceased is providing the information, and that person might be grieving or in shock.  However, it was all there was to go on, and it seemed like it should have been a good start:  Name, Kazimiera Dutkiewicz (or similar), born about 1880 (based on those census records), married to Władysław Grzesiak in Poland circa 1898.

The Hunt Is On!

Since Walter Grzesiak was born in Kowalewo-Opactwo, it seemed logical that he would have married somewhere in that vicinity, although not necessarily in that parish.  Things get a little tricky with the records for Kowalewo-Opactwo in that time period.  Records are not online, or on microfilm from the LDS, so one must write to the Konin Branch of the State Archive in Poznań to request a search.  Moreover, although Walter was baptized in Kowalewo, that parish was temporarily closed from 1891-1910.  Parish operations were transferred to the church in nearby Ląd, but after 1911, the parishes and their records were separated again.   Unfortunately, the archive reported that there was no marriage record in Ląd for Władysław Grzesiak, or for any of his siblings, during this period.

Initially, this finding didn’t concern me too much.  It’s traditional for a couple to marry in the bride’s parish, so this suggested merely that Kazimiera was from some other parish in the area.  So how does one find a marriage in the Poznań region, when one has no idea what parish the couple married in?  The Poznań Marriage Project, of course.   For those who might be unfamiliar with this resource, the Poznań Project is an indexing effort conceived by Łukasz Bielecki, which is intended to include all existing marriage records for the historic Poznań region from 1800-1899.  Currently, the project is estimated to be at least 75% complete, so there was a good chance I’d be able to find Walter and Casimira’s marriage in there. Frustratingly, there were no good matches, so I assumed that their marriage record must be among the 25% of existing records that remain unindexed.  At this point, finding it would be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  I put this on the back burner and went back to more productive research on other family lines.

Until two days ago.

My Breakthrough

It seemed like a perfectly ordinary Wednesday afternoon.  I paid bills, ran some errands, took the cat to the vet, and sat down to check e-mail.   But if you’re like me, some small part of your brain is always thinking about genealogy, and suddenly it dawned on me:  the family story was that Casimira was an actress.  How could she have been an actress in a small village with a couple dozen farms?  She must have been from a big city — Warsaw!

Immediately, I went to Geneteka, my favorite database for indexed vital records from all over Poland.  Normally, I advise people to use documentation from U.S. sources to determine where their ancestors came from before they start randomly searching records in Geneteka, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and I had a pretty specific idea of what I was looking for.  But would the record be there?  Geneteka is not complete — it’s a brilliant, ambitious idea, and new indexes for different parishes and different time periods are constantly being added, but it still represents only a fraction of the vital records available in the tens of thousands of parishes and civil registries across Poland.  In this case, my hunch paid off, and Geneteka came through for me. I was stunned, absolutely stunned, when I saw what had to be their marriage record (Figure 4):

Figure 4:  Geneteka search results for Grzesiak marriages in Warszawa between 1897 and 1899.


I hit “skan” to get a copy of the record itself (isn’t Geneteka great?!) and here it is, in all its glory:Wladyslaw Grzesiak and Kazimiera Olczyk 1898 crop

The record is in Russian, because Warsaw was in the Russian Empire in 1898 when the event took place, so here’s my translation:

“223. Koło. It happened in Wola parish on the eighteenth/thirtieth day of August in the year one thousand eight hundred ninety-eight at five o’clock in the afternoon. We declare that, in the presence of witnesses Adam Franczak and Wincenty Płocikiewicz, both ecclesiastical servants of Wola, on this day was contracted a religious marriage between Władysław Grzesiak, age thirty-seven, miller of Koło residing, born in Ląd, Słupca district, son of Józef Grzesiak, owner, and his wife Maryanna née Krawczyńska, in the village of Borowo residing, and Kazimiera Marianna Olczak, age eighteen, single, with her mother residing, born in Warsaw, daughter of an unknown father and mother Paulina Olczak, seamstress, in Koło residing.  The marriage was preceded by three readings of the banns on the 2nd/14th, 9th/21st, and 16th/28th days of August of the present year.  The newlyweds stated that they had no prenuptial agreement between them.  Permission was given orally by those present at the ceremony.  The religious ceremony of marriage was performed by the Reverend Jan Kowalski.  This document, after being read aloud, was signed by us and by the groom because the witnesses state that they do not know how to write.”2

Let’s break this down a bit.  First, the double dates are often confusing to those who aren’t familiar with the format of Polish civil records, but they’re a result of the fact that Poland and Western Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar  while Russia and the Eastern Europe continued to use the old Julian calendar.  In order to have these records be clear to everyone, both dates were included on legal documents like this.  The second, later date is the date according to the Gregorian calendar, which we would go by.

Second, Kazimiera’s name isn’t Dutkiewicz, as expected — but we’ll worry about that in a minute.  The date of the marriage (1898) is correct, as is the groom’s name, and parents’ names.  His age is a bit off (he should only be 30, not 37), but it’s not unusual for ages reported in these records to be very much “ballpark estimates.”  Walter was actually born in Kowalewo, not Ląd, but if you recall, the parish functions had been transferred from Kowalewo to Ląd at this time, so perhaps this can be interpretted as a reference to that.

Getting back to Kazimiera, her age (18) matches with what we expected based on U.S. records.  The priest doesn’t mention her budding theatrical career, but perhaps her star had not yet risen very far (if it ever really rose at all).  So this is clearly the right marriage record.  But how did we get from Olczak to Dutkiewicz?

The answer lies again in the indexed records of Geneteka (Figure 5):

Figure 5:  Geneteka search results for marriage records with surnames Olczak and Dutkiewicz between 1880 and 1900:


It appears that shortly after Kazimiera’s birth in 1880, her mother Paulina married Tomasz Dutkiewicz.  Whether Tomasz Dutkiewicz ever legally adopted Kazimiera is doubtful, but this certainly explains why she might have at least informally used the name of her step-father as her own.

But Wait, There’s More!

So all this is nice, right?  But why is a marriage record for a great-granduncle really THAT exciting?  As I mentioned, my great-grandmother Veronica emigrated along with three siblings, Walter, Thaddeus and Josephine.  What we didn’t know until I began researching records from Poland, was that there were two additional siblings — Konstancja3 and Pelagia4 — who did not emigrate.  No descendant of the Grzesiak family in the U.S. that I interviewed was aware that these sisters existed.  The Konin Branch of the State Archive in Poznań had no record of marriage for either of them, and I was planning to write again to request a search for their death records, assuming they might have died before reaching a marriageable age.  However, I noticed that there was a marriage record for a Konstancja Grzesiak on the same page of Geneteka search results (Figure 4, result 2) that gave me Walter’s marriage record!  Sure enough, the marriage record5 reveals that Konstancja is the daughter of Józef Grzesiak and his wife, Marianna née Krawczyńska, residing in the village of Ląd.

Unfortunately, I still can’t find a birth record for Pelagia, and it’s still possible that she died before reaching a marriageable age.  But the implications of these new data are tremendous for me.  My great-grandmother arrived in the U.S. in March of 1898,6 and in June and August of that same year, her sister and brother each married in Warsaw, prior to most of her family joining her in Buffalo in 1900, while the one married sister stayed behind in Poland with her family in Warsaw.  Wow!   A little further digging confirmed that Konstancja also had children (Figure 6):

Figure 6:  Geneteka search results for birth records in Warszawa mentioning surnames Cieniewski and Grzesiak:


So I might have cousins in Poland from this Cieniewski line!  However, it’s interesting that there are only two births.  Birth records for this parish, St. Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr, and St. Adalbert, in the Wola district of Warsaw, are indexed from 1886 to 1908 without any gaps.  Therefore one might expect to see more than two children born between their marriage in 1898 and 1908 when the records end.  There is no evidence that they immigrated to Buffalo, no good matches in U.S. census records for this family in Buffalo or anywhere else.  So where did they go?

The Grzesiaks of Kowalewo-Opactwo, Warsaw, Buffalo, and Borowo

One clue, in Walter’s marriage record, might point the way.  It stated that he was the son of “Józef Grzesiak, farmer, and his wife Maryanna née Krawczyńska, in the village of Borowo residing”  Borowo is new to me.  This is the first time this place has been mentioned in connection with my family.  And unfortunately, there are at least 20 places in Poland today by that name.  But if Borowo was where her parents were living at the time of Konstancja’s marriage, maybe that’s where she and her young family eventually went to live.  So which Borowo is correct?

Well, Konstancja’s marriage record, from just two months earlier, states that her parents were residing in Ląd.  That, and the fact that there were no good matches for a place called Borowo that’s very close to Warszawa, suggests that this may be the correct place, Borowo in Konin County, about 22 miles east of the Grzesiak’s previous home in Kowalewo-Opactwo:


According to the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego, a nice period gazetteer of Russian Poland published in 1877, the village of Borowo belongs to the Roman Catholic parish in Krzymów, so that’s where we can look for records.  Records are online and on microfilm, but only from 1808-1884, which doesn’t help us any with finding additional births to Konstancja and Julian Cieniewski after 1900.  However, the Branch Archive in Konin has birth records up to 1911,  so this is an obvious next step to take.

The Old Mill, Revisited

There’s one other really cool connection I’d like to make before I sum things up.  In my previous post about my Grzesiak family, I mentioned my grandmother’s recollection that her mother Veronica’s family owned a grain mill near the parish church.  Try as I might, I couldn’t find any reference to Veronica’s father being a miller.  However, when I visited Veronica’s birthplace of Kowalewo-Opactwo on a trip to Poland last year, I was amazed to see this old windmill, missing its vanes, in close proximity to the church, exactly as Grandma described.  So I found it fascinating that Walter’s marriage record described him clearly as a miller, even though a more general term (“хозяин,” meaning “owner,” but seemingly used as a non-specific synonym for “farmer” or “peasant”) was again used to describe his father, Józef.  This makes me more convinced that the mill in the photo actually was a place associated with Veronica’s family.  Maybe her father didn’t own the mill, maybe he just worked for the miller — but between the existence of this mill where it should be, based on Grandma’s story, and the fact that her uncle Walter was described as a miller, I think there’s good reason to believe that this was the mill that Grandma’s story referred to.  IMG_4542

That’s a Wrap

So what general research insights can be gained from this?

  1.  Once again, my ancestors were more mobile than I expected them to be — and yours might be, too.

When I began my research, I really thought I’d find “the” ancestral village for each surname line and be able to go back for many generations in that same village.  Time and time again, that seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.  I was so blinded by my expectation that Walter would have met his bride some place near to where he was born, that I overlooked obvious resources, like indexed records for Warsaw on Geneteka, because it seemed too improbable.  Logic requires us to search in the obvious places first — those associated with the family.  But when searching in the obvious places doesn’t pan out, it’s time to think outside the box.

2.  Family stories can sometimes hold the key.

If you are among the oldest generation in your family, it’s not too late to write down everything you remember from older relatives, for the next generation.  But if you still have any older relatives remaining, talk to them!  My third cousin and research collaborator, Valerie Baginski, told me that her grandmother always said that the family came from Warsaw, rather than Poznań, which was my family’s version of the story.  Once we figured out that our Grzesiaks’ ancestral village was Kowalewo-Opactwo, closer to Poznań than Warsaw, we dismissed that mention of Warsaw.  Since Warsaw was a bigger city than Poznań, we chalked up this discrepancy to our ancestors’ tendency to paint their place of origin with a broad brush, referencing the closest big city.  Now we realize that it’s quite possible her great-grandmother mentioned Warsaw because she was one of the younger siblings who may have lived there for a time, while my great-grandmother mentioned Poznań because she was the first one to leave Poland, and may never have gone to Warsaw with the others.

3.  Pay your dues.

This last “insight” is a shameless plug for Geneteka, the database for indexed Polish vital records that enabled me to find my Grzesiaks in Warsaw.  For those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, Geneteka is a project sponsored entirely by volunteers from the Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne (PTG, or Polish Genealogical Society), in Poland.  Although all the indexing and photographing of vital records (for Geneteka’s sister site, Metryki, which I wrote about previously) is done by volunteers, funds are still required to pay for servers to host the websites.  If you’ve used Geneteka and found it helpful to you, please consider making a donation to the PTG.  Let’s help them to help us find our ancestors!

Walter’s marriage record was a puzzle piece that’s been missing for a long, long time.  It just goes to show you that you never know when that great idea will hit, or when serendipity will strike, so keep chipping away at those brick walls.  Stay thirsty, my friends.


1New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, #2600, Death certificate for Walter Grzesiak, 25 April 1946.

2“Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej sw. Stanislawa i Wawrzynca w Warszawie,” Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne,  Projekt indeksacji metryk parafialnych (, 1898, Malzenstwa, #223, record for Wladyslaw Grzesiak and Kazimiera Marianna Olczak, accessed on 17 August 2016.

3Roman Catholic Church, Sts. Peter and Paul the Apostles Parish (Kowalewo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1879, 1872, births, #5, record for Konstancja Grzesiak.; FHL #1191028 Items 1-4.

4“Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki)”, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach (, Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw i zgonów, 1869, births, #48, record for Pelagia Grzesiak, accessed on 21 June 2016.

5“Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej sw. Stanislawa i Wawrzynca w Warszawie “, Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne,  Projekt indeksacji metryk parafialnych (, 1898, Malzenstwa, #142, record for Julian Aleksander Cieniewski and Konstancja Grzesiak, accessed on 18 August 2016., Baltimore, Passenger Lists, 1820-1948 and 1954-1957 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations Inc, 2006),, The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Records of the US Customs Service, RG36; NAI Number: 2655153; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group Number: 85, record for Veronika Gresiak, accessed on 21 July 2016.

Featured Image:

Wodzinowski, Wincenty. Wesele. Digital image.Http:// Muzeum Ludowych Instrumentów Muzycznych W Szydłowcu, 18 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.  This painting from 1896 seemed very fitting for my cover photo, since it depicts a wedding celebration very close to the time when Walter and Casimira married.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016


Writing to Archives in Poland

A few days ago, I wrote to the Konin branch of the Polish State Archive of Poznań to request a search for death records for Pelagia and Konstancja Grzesiak, who were two sisters of my great-grandmother.  This is pretty routine for me now, but when I first began researching Polish vital records, I was intimidated by the thought of writing to an archive in Poland. I worried that it would be prohibitively expensive, and I worried about translating their correspondence in an era before Facebook groups and Google Translate.  However, writing to the archives is pretty straightforward, and should be a standard research strategy for anyone researching Polish ancestors.  In this post, I’ll walk you through the process of writing to an archive to request records for your family in Poland.

Why Write to an Archive?

Although it’s true that more and more vital records from Poland are coming online every day, thanks to the efforts of both the state archives and the various Polish genealogical societies, there are still plenty of records that are not available online or on microfilm from the LDS.  Some of these records can be found in the diocesan archives, some are in the state archives, and some may still be at the parishes themselves.  You might need to rely on multiple sources to find records in the range of years you need to thoroughly document your family history.

As an example, for my Grzesiak’s ancestral parish in Kowalewo-Opactwo, the LDS has both church and civil records available on microfilm.  However, upon closer examination, we see that the civil records only go from 1808-1865, then there’s a two-year gap, after which coverage extends from 1868-1879.  The church records might be helpful in tracing some of my collateral lines forward in time, since they begin in 1916, but they aren’t useful for finding ancestors.  Those records go all the way up to 1979 (with gaps), which is interesting, given that Polish privacy laws typically restrict access to such recent records.

Microfilm is great, but online access is even better, and in the years since I began researching this family, records for Kowalewo have come online for those same years from 1808-1879, including that same gap from 1866-1867.  One might conclude that the records from 1866-1867 were destroyed, since they don’t appear in either the online collection from the Archiwum Państwowe w Poznaniu Oddział w Koninie (State Archive of Poznań Branch in Konin) or on the LDS microfilm.  However, that’s not the case, those records DO exist. How do we know this?

Baza PRADZIAD:  The Vital Records Database for the Polish State Archives

Baza PRADZIAD can be searched quickly, easily, and in English to see what vital records are held by the various state archives for any given parish or civil registry office.  Note that you must know the parish or civil registry office for your village of interest.  If I search for records for Wola Koszutska, which is a village belonging to the parish in Kowalewo, I won’t get any hits.  But I can find records for ancestors born in Wola Koszutska by knowing that their vital events would have been recorded at the parish in Kowalewo.  Although Polish diacritics aren’t supposed to be important when searching this site, I’ve had it happen on occasion that a search without diacritics comes up empty, but redoing the search with diacritics gives good results.  Maybe that was due to cybergremlins, or maybe there are bugs that only affect certain parishes, but it’s something to consider if nothing turns up the first time you search.  There are ways to set up your keyboard to allow for Polish diacritics, but if you haven’t done that or don’t know how, there’s always this site which works in a pinch so you can copy and paste your proper Polish text into the search box.

Now, let’s take a look at what comes up in Baza PRADZIAD for Kowalewo (Figure 1):

Figure 1: Baza PRADZIAD Search ScreenPradziad

Figure 1 shows the search screen, and as you’ll see, I got results only by entering the town name.  There are options for restricting the search by entering the “commune” (i.e. gmina), province, religion, or type of event you’re looking for, but you really don’t need all that, and sometimes simple is best.

Figure 2:  Baza PRADZIAD Results from Search for “Kowalewo”:Kowalewo

Figure 2 shows the top part of the search results; if you were to scroll down, there are a few more entries for “Nowe Kowalewo” below this.  Note that there may be multiple parishes or registry offices with the same name that come up in the search results.  However, when you click “more” at the far right, you can see which place is referenced by looking at the province, as shown in Figure 3:

Figure 3:  “More” information on the first entry (“małżeństwa, 1808-1819, 1821-1890, 1911”) of the search results for Kowalewo:Konin

Let’s consider these search results a bit more carefully.  In Figure 2, we see that there are two collections of marriage records (małżeństwa) for Kowalewo.  The first collection, boxed in red, covers marriages from 1808-1819, 1821-1890, and 1911.  This collection belongs to the Archiwum Państwowe w Poznaniu Oddział w Koninie, as we can see from Figure 3 which comes up when we click, “more.”  The second collection, boxed in green (Figure 2), covers marriages from 1828-1866.  If we obtain more information about that collection (Figure 4), we realize that both collections are for the same Kowalewo, and they’re stored in different archives!

Figure 4:  More” information on the second entry (“małżeństwa, 1828-1866”) of the search results for Kowalewo:Konin 2

These records belong to the Diocesan Archive of Włocławek.  Now, at this point you might be thinking, “Hey, isn’t this site supposed to be for the search engine for the STATE Archives?  What’s a diocesan archive doing in the search results?  And does this mean that I can expect to find all the holdings of the diocesan archives catalogued here?”

Welcome to the murky world of archival holdings in Poland.  It would be great if there were one, central repository for all vital records in Poland, and if those holdings were completely catalogued, and if that catalogue were searchable online at only one website. But as my mother always says, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”  Although you may find that some diocesan archives have their holdings catalogued in Baza PRADZIAD, not all do.  So I generally think of this as a catalogue for the holdings of State Archives, and if any diocesan results come up as well, that’s icing on the cake.

Now let’s go back to Figure 2.  If you compare the boxes in red, blue and yellow, you see that these represent marriages, births (urodzenia) and deaths (zgony) for the same range of years.  This makes sense, because frequently parishes would keep one parish register for each year, divided into three sections.  Looking further at Figure 3, we notice the “dates” and “microfilms” underlined in purple and yellow, respectively, and herein lies the answer to the problem of our two-year gap in microfilmed and online records that exists from 1866-1867.  As you can see from the text underlined in yellow, the archive also has those same microfilms, with the same gap.  But their total collection, underlined in purple, includes years which are not available on microfilm.   Whereas online and microfilmed records end in 1879, the archive also has births, marriages and deaths from 1880-1890, in addition to having births, marriages and deaths to fill that gap from 1866-1867.

How Do I Write to the Archives?

First, you want to make sure that the records aren’t available any other way (e.g microfilm or online), before you write, as archival research is generally slower and more expensive than obtaining records by these other methods.  Popular websites for Polish vital records include Szukajwarchiwach (“Search in the Archives” or SwA), Metryki.GenBaza (or just, “GenBaza”), (or just “Metryki”), Poczekalnia (“Waiting Room,”), Genealogiawarchiwach (“Genealogy in the Archives”, or GwA), the digital collections for Poland available from the LDS, and others (mentioned on this list, starting at the bottom of page 3).  If you’re not familiar with these sites and don’t know how to use them, visit us in Polish Genealogy and we’ll help you out.  To determine whether your parish of interest has been microfilmed by the LDS, check the Family History Library catalog.

If it looks like your records of interest can only be found at one of the archives, you can send an e-mail to the address found in your Baza PRADZIAD search results (see above).  You should write in Polish.  Since this is professional correspondence, this is not a good time to break out Google Translate.  Instead, use one of the letter-writing templates that are available online, either from the LDS or the PGSA.  Alternatively, you can post a translation request in one of the Facebook groups (Polish Genealogy or Genealogy Translations) and a volunteer will probably assist you with a short translation, if you ask nicely.

How Much Will It Cost?

The cost of archival research depends on how many years they have to search, whether or not they find anything, and which archive you’re writing to.  You might think it would be standardized across the country, but that hasn’t been my experience.  I have paid as little as 4 zlotys ($1) to the Archive in Grodzisk for two records found after a search of marriages over a 12-year period, and as much as $30 to the Archive in Konin after a search of marriages over a 9-year period that turned up empty.  (In that case, it’s possible that the girls died before reaching a marriageable age.)  It’s important to have very clear, specific research goals in mind, however.  Sending the archive a request that’s too vague, such as, “please search all your records for Kołaczyce for the surname Kowalski” or too broad, such as, “please search all your death records for Kołaczyce from 1863-1906 for Łącki deaths” is probably not advisable. For that kind of research, it would be better to hire a professional in Poland who can visit the archive for you in person.

What Happens When They Find My Records?

When the archive has completed their research, they will reply to notify you of the results. The letter or e-mail will be in Polish; if you need assistance with translating it, I would again recommend those Facebook groups (Polish Genealogy or Genealogy Translations).  If they found records, they will summarize their findings, but you will not receive copies until you make payment.  If they didn’t find anything, they will still charge you a search fee for the time they had to spend looking.

How Do I Make Payment?

The archives will only accept payment by direct wire transfer to bank account number specified in their correspondence.  They do not accept personal checks, credit cards, cash, or PayPal.   Here’s where it gets tricky:  most U.S. banks charge high fees for international wire transfers.  However, there are alternatives to paying your bank.  You can set up a wire transfer with a company like Western Union or Xoom, where the fees are typically much lower.  If you live in a community with a Polish travel agency, you can often ask them to wire money for you for a small fee.  Or, you can ask a professional researcher in Poland to handle the transaction for you, and you can reimburse him or her via PayPal.  (Be sure to add in a tip if the researcher does not specify a charge for his or her time).

When Will I Get My Records?

Again, your mileage may vary, based on the archive in question, but in general, I’ve gotten results within a week or two after payment has been made.  Be sure to attach your payment receipt to your return e-mail to the archive.  I’ve always received my records in the form of digital images sent via e-mail, but I’ve heard from others who say they’ve always received hard copies.

That’s pretty much all there is to it!  Writing to archives in Poland doesn’t have to be an intimidating process, nor will it necessarily break the bank.  As long as you have clearly defined research goals and a relatively small range of years for them to check, archival research can be quite affordable.  If you’ve been on the fence about writing to an archive, I hope this encourages you to go ahead and give it a try.  And if you do, please let me know how it turns out.  Happy researching!

© 2016 Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz



The Old Mill

My son Daniel left for Poland yesterday.  I’ve been helping him prepare for his trip, and thinking a lot about my own amazing journey through Poland last summer, which included visits to all my ancestral villages that were known at that time.  And after my recent post about the 1791 purchase of a home in Zagórów by my ancestors, Andrzej and Marianna Krawczyński, I’ve been thinking more about that line in particular.

My most recent ancestor with the Krawczyński surname is my great-great-grandmother, Marianna (née Krawczyńska) Grzesiak.  It was Marianna’s daughter, Veronica, who immigrated to the U.S. as a young girl, married John Zazycki, and eventually gave birth to my grandmother, Helen (née Zazycki) Zielinski.  My grandmother died a year ago, but I vividly remember sitting in Grandma’s immaculate kitchen as a young teenager, asking her about her mother’s life in Poland before she came to this country.  I wrote down Grandma’s comments and kept them in mind as I began to document my family’s history.

Among the tidbits of family history that Grandma shared with me was the fact that her mother’s parents owned a grain mill.  They lived near the church and rectory, and Veronica’s mother sewed all the vestments for the parish priests.  Grandma never knew the names of her mother’s parents — it was up to me to find those, by following the paper trail.  And unfortunately, the paper trail didn’t exactly corroborate the story about owning a grain mill.  Polish vital records typically mention the occupation of the father in child’s baptismal record.  In Veronica’s baptismal record, shown below, her father, Józef Grzesiak, is described as, “‘master of the house,’ of Kowalewo, age thirty-seven.”1  The Russian word used to describe Józef’s occupation, “хозяин,” is unfortunately rather non-specific.  Shea and Hoffman  define it as “master of the house, owner; husband, man”2 although they add that, “сельскій хозяинъ” can be used to mean, “farmer.”  Weronika Grzesiak birth marked


Baptismal records for Veronica’s siblings describe Józef Grzesiak as a “parobek,”3 (farmhand), again with the Russian word “хозяин,”4,7,8 and with the Russian word, “наёмщик,”which Shea and Hoffman define as,”hirer, lessee, tenant, lodger.”6  But nowhere do we see the word for “miller,” in Polish or in Russian.  I had pretty much decided that this was one of those inaccuracies in family stories, something that had gotten slightly distorted in the oral history as it was handed down over four generations.  Until I got to Poland.

On August 3rd, 2015, my husband and I and our tour guide, Łukasz Bielecki, visited the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo, where my great-grandmother Veronica was born.  After stopping by the church of Sts. Peter and Paul the Apostles and the parish cemetery, we stopped at the rectory to see if the pastor was home, and inquire if he knew of any parishioners with the Grzesiak surname.  That was when I saw it, right across the street from the rectory, and just down the street from the church and cemetery (on the left side of the street in this photo):IMG_4542

An old windmill, missing its vanes, long abandoned, from the look of it.  Could it possibly date back to Veronica’s youth in Poland in the 1880s and 1890s?  The location was striking — so close to the church and rectory, exactly as Grandma had described it to me.  And yet Veronica’s father was clearly not a miller, based on the available records, nor were her grandparents described that way.  Veronica’s paternal grandfather, Stanisław Grzesiak, was a shepherd from Cienin Zaborny9 and her maternal grandfather, Antoni Krawczyński, was a shoemaker from Zagórów.10  

So how do we reconcile this?  Perhaps Veronica’s family didn’t own the mill — perhaps she only mentioned that they lived near the mill, and my grandmother misremembered the story?  Or perhaps the records which describe Veronica’s father as a “tenant” or “farmhand” could be construed to mean that he was a hired hand, working for the miller?   The village miller held a position of some stature , so perhaps the priest recording the baptismal records would have been reluctant to describe Józef Grzesiak that way if he was only employed by the miller but did not own the mill.  I have no doubt about the truth of the story that Veronica’s mother, Marianna, sewed vestments for the parish priest.   Veronica supported her family as a seamstress after her husband died, and was known for her strong Catholic faith.  So it’s tempting to believe that somehow, that old mill near the church in Kowalewo might really be the one from Grandma’s stories, and might be connected with my family in some way.  What do you think?


1“Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki)”, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach (, Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1876, # 72, birth record for Weronika Grzesiak, accessed on 21 June 2016.

2Shea, Jonathan D., and William F. Hoffman. In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents:  Volume II:  Russian. New Britain, CT: Language & Lineage Press, 2002, p. 430.

3″Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki),” Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1867, births, #39, record for Władysław Grzesiak, accessed in person at the archive by Zbigniew Krawczynski.; Archiwum Państwowe w Poznaniu. Oddział w Koninie, 3 Maja 78, Konin, Poland.

4“Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki)”, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach (, Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw i zgonów, 1869, births, #48, record for Pelagia Grzesiak, accessed on 21 June 2016

5Roman Catholic Church, Sts. Peter and Paul the Apostles Parish (Kowalewo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1879, 1872, births, #5, record for Konstancja Grzesiak.; FHL #1191028 Items 1-4.

6Shea, Jonathan D., and William F. Hoffman. In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents:  Volume II:  Russian. New Britain, CT: Language & Lineage Press, 2002, p. 392.

7“Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo (pow. slupecki)”, Narodowego Archiwum Cyfrowego, Naczelnej Dyrekcji Archiwów Panstwowych, Szukajwarchiwach (, Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów, 1874, births, #17, record for Tadeusz Grzesiak, accessed on 21 June 2016.

8“Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Kowalewo-Opactwo” (Kowalewo-Opactwo, Słupca, Wielkopolskie, Poland), “Ksiega urodzen, malzenstw, zgonów”, 1881, births, #15, record for Józefa Grzesiak, accessed in person at the archive by Zbigniew Krawczynski.; Archiwum Państwowe w Poznaniu. Oddział w Koninie, 3 Maja 78 Konin, Poland.

9“Akta stanu cywilnego Parafii Rzymskokatolickiej Cienin Koscielny (pow. slupecki)”, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, Szukajwarchiwach (, Ksiega urodzonych, malzenstw i zgonów, 1839, births, #4, record for Józef Grzesiak, accessed on 22 June 2016.

10Roman Catholic Church, Zagórów parish (Zagórów (Słupca), Poznań, Poland), Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1947, 1843, Births, #31, record for Marianna Krawczyńska.; 2162128 Item 1.

© 2016 Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz