Final Resting Places of the Last Generation of My Family in Poland

Two of my adult children are in Poland right now, spending two weeks there during the Advent season. I’m so excited for them to have this opportunity to visit the land that was home to three-quarters of their ancestors. Neither of them is especially interested in genealogy, so their tour is focused on sightseeing, and discovering a bit of the history and culture of Poland. Consequently, I have no expectation that my kids will tour the cemeteries where their ancestors were laid to rest. I’ve discovered that visiting cemeteries isn’t really the kind of thing that non-genealogists seem to enjoy, for some odd reason. (Yes, my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek as I write that.) Nonetheless, I started thinking about the most recent generation of our family who lived and died in Poland: the parents of the immigrants. Who were they, when did they live, what churches were they buried from, and in what cemeteries were they buried?

A Word About Polish Cemeteries…

Even if my kids did wish to visit our ancestral cemeteries, there wouldn’t be much to see in terms of ancestral graves, because none of those graves are still marked. Although it seems strange to us here in the U.S.—and particular so here in New England, where we have an abundance of cemeteries with grave markers that date back to the early 1700s—permanent graves are uncommon in Poland. Graves are rented out for a particular term—perhaps 25 years—and at the end of that period, the family must renew the lease in order to maintain the grave. If the cemetery fees are not paid, the grave is resold, and the grave marker is replaced with a new one. For this reason, it’s rare to find grave markers in Poland that are more than 100 years old. In fact, when we visited Poland in 2015, the only grave of a known relative that I could identify in all the ancestral cemeteries we visited, was that of Barbara (née Kalota) Mikołajewska, sister of my great-great-grandmother, Marianna (née Kalota) Zielińska. Barbara was buried in this Mikołajewski family plot, shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Grave of Barbara Mikołajewska in the Młodzieszyn parish cemetery. Photo taken by the author.

Despite the fact that the graves are no longer marked, most of the small, country parishes in Poland have only one Catholic cemetery. So, if a death was recorded in a particular parish, it follows that the deceased was buried in that parish cemetery. Consequently, there’s a feeling of connection for me that comes from visiting an ancestral village—and particularly its cemetery; a connection that comes from the knowledge that, in this place, my family had roots. These are the streets my ancestors walked, and the fields that they farmed. This is the church where they came to pray; where they stood before the congregation to be joined in holy matrimony, and where they brought their babies to be baptized. This is the cemetery where they were laid to rest, and where they returned to dust. This place is a part of my DNA, just as my ancestors’ DNA has become a part of this place.

But how to convey this to my non-genealogist kids? Making family history meaningful and interesting to my immediate family has always been a challenge for me, so whenever I have a family history story to tell—especially one related to a distant ancestor—my husband has always advised me to start with someone he knows.

My kids have nine great-great-grandparents who were themselves born in what is now Poland, and three more who were born in the U.S. of Polish immigrant parents. However, some of those great-great-grandparents who were born in Poland came to the U.S. with their parents. So, we have to go back several generations to uncover the 3x-, 4x-, and 5x-great-grandparents who were still living in Poland when they died. Those connections are pretty distant for non-genealogists to appreciate, so I’ll take my husband’s advice, and frame these ancestors in terms of their relationships to great-grandparents that my children knew personally, or knew from family stories.

Grandma Helen’s Family

My maternal grandmother, Helen (née Zazycki) Zielinski, died in 2015, so all my children knew her well. Her pedigree chart is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Pedigree chart for my maternal grandmother Helen (née Zazycki) Zielinski. Blue squares represent people who died in the U.S., while red squares represent those who died in what is now Poland. Click image to enlarge.

Grandma’s father, Jan/John Zazycki/Zarzycki, was born in 1866 in the village of Bronisławy in Sochaczew County. John died in North Tonawanda, New York, but his parents both died in Poland. His father, Ignacy Zarzycki, died on 8 August 1901 in Bronisławy—a village which belongs to the parish in Rybno. Ignacy was survived by his wife, Antonina (née Naciążek), who died on 14 May 1915 in the Ochota district of Warsaw. She was probably living with her son, Karol, at the time of her death, since he was named as a witness on her death record, and was identified as a resident in Ochota. Antonina’s death was recorded at the parish of St. Stanisław in the Wola district of Warsaw, which suggests that she was buried in the Cmentarz Wolski w Warszawie (Wolska Cemetery in Warsaw), which was established in 1854 and belongs to the parish of St. Stanisław.

Grandma Helen’s mother, Weronika/Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki, was born in the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo in Słupca County in 1876. Her mother, Marianna (née Krawczyńska) Grzesiak, died in the village of Zagórów on 29 May 1904. Curiously, this is contrary to the story I heard from Grandma Helen, that Veronica’s mother was already deceased when Veronica emigrated in 1898, but that’s another story for another day. Grandma Helen had no idea that her father, Józef Grzesiak, ever set foot in the U.S., so she was astonished (and somewhat doubtful) when I discovered a passenger manifest for a family group which included Józef, his daughter, Józefa, and daughter-in-law, Kazimiera Grzesiak. The family arrived in May 1900 and Józef was enumerated in the 1900 census in June, but after that, he disappeared. Oral family history held that Kazimiera was disenchanted with life in the U.S, left her husband, and returned to Poland. I suspect Józef returned as well, since he disappears from U.S. records after that 1900 census, and since his wife was, in fact, still living until 1904.

It’s unclear where Józef went when he returned to Poland, but it is probable that he died in Poland rather than the U.S. His wife’s death record mentioned Józef as a surviving spouse, which implies that he was living in Zagórów when she died in 1904, and that he died between 1904 and 1939 (assuming he lived no more than 100 years). However, no death record was found for him in Zagórów, or in Kowalewo-Opactwo, the parish where he was married and his children were born. The family lived in Warsaw circa 1899, where two of Józef’s children married, and he was named as a witness on the 1899 birth record of his grandson, Marian Cieniewski. Thus far, no death record has been found for Józef in Warsaw, either, but the large number of churches there makes the search difficult. He is not listed in the Buffalo, New York, Death Index, which was searched from 1897 through 1914, so it’s unlikely that he died in Buffalo. Józef Grzesiak’s place and date of death remains a mystery that may one day be solved, as additional indexed records come online.

Grandpa John’s Family

My maternal grandfather, John Zielinski, died on 15 February 2003. My oldest son remembers him pretty well, although he was not quite nine years old when Grandpa died. My other sons have some memories of him, but my daughter knows him only from stories. His pedigree chart is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Pedigree chart for my maternal grandfather, John Zielinski. Blue squares represent people who died in the U.S., while red squares represent those who died in what is now Poland. Click image to enlarge.

Grandpa’s father, Joseph/Józef Zieliński, was born in the village of Mistrzewice (Sochaczew County) in 1892, to Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna (née Kalota) Zielińska. Stanisław died 23 December 1915 in Mistrzewice, a village which once had its own parish church, but which was reassigned to the parish in Młodzieszyn in 1898. I suppose, but do not know with certainty, that Stanisław would have been buried in the old cemetery in Mistrzewice, rather than the cemetery in Młodzieszyn. Both cemeteries are still in use today, but searching burials online (for example, at Mogiły (Graves) does not provide much insight into use of the cemeteries during the early 20th century, since most of the graves from that era have new occupants by now.

Marianna Zielińska died 4 April 1936 while living in the village of Budy Stare with her sister. I wrote about her difficult history here. She was the most recent ancestor to die while still living in Poland, and Grandpa John met her when, as a small boy, he returned to Poland with his parents in 1921 for a visit. That visit was precipitated by the death of Grandpa John’s uncle, Władysław Zieliński, who died on 23 March 1921 at the age of 23, leaving his elderly mother, Marianna, as the sole survivor of the family in Poland.

It’s not clear why Marianna did not emigrate when her son, Joseph, returned to the U.S. with his family. They were already settled in North Tonawanda, and enjoying a good life there. But for whatever reason, she chose to remain in Poland, presumably giving up the family farm that Grandpa remembered. I have yet to discover the location of that farm, or documents pertaining to its sale.

Marianna Zielińska had three sisters whom I have been able to identify to date: Barbara, who married Józef Mikołajewski; Józefa, who married Roch Sikora; and Katarzyna, who married Wojciech Wilczek. Marianna outlived both Barbara and Józefa, which suggests that she was living with Katarzyna Wilczek at the time of her death—a conclusion which is supported by the fact that Wojciech and Katarzyna lived in Budy Stare, the village in which Marianna died. Since the village of Budy Stare belongs to the parish in Młodzieszyn, it’s likely that Marianna Zielińska was laid to rest in the that cemetery—perhaps in a grave that is currently occupied by more recent generations of the Wilczek family.

Grandpa John’s mother, Genowefa/Genevieve (née Klaus) Zielinski, was born in Buffalo in 1898, to parents who were Polish immigrants from the Galicia region, in villages that are located in southeastern Poland today. Grandma Genevieve’s mother was Marianna/Mary (née Łącka) Klaus, who was born in the village of Kołaczyce, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. She emigrated in 1884 with her father, Jakub Łącki, and brothers, Jan and Józef, after the death of her mother, Anna, in 1879.

More research is needed to determine Jakub’s date and place of death, since he disappears from indexed records subsequent to his passenger manifest. Since his daughter, Mary, was married in Buffalo, New York, in 1891, he may have died there. However, the family had ties to the Polish community in Dunkirk, New York, and Find-A-Grave contains a promising match for Joseph Lacki’s grave in St. Hyacinth Cemetery in Dunkirk. It’s possible that Jakub is buried in that cemetery as well, without a marker. Further research is needed here; however, the situation with his wife is more definitive. Anna (née Ptaszkiewicz) Łącka, Mary’s mother and Jakub’s wife, died on 13 November 1879 in Kołaczyce, and was laid to rest in the parish cemetery. Jakub’s parents, Franciszek Łącki and Magdalena (née Gębczyńska) Łącka, were buried in that cemetery as well, after their respective deaths on 12 December 1847 and 17 January 1848.

Grandpa John’s mother, Grandma Genevieve (née Klaus) Zielinski, was the daughter of Andrzej/Andrew Klaus, who was born in the village of Maniów in Dąbrowa county, a village which lies just south of the Wisła/Vistula River, along the modern-day border between the Małopolskie Voivodeship and the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship. Andrew immigrated to the U.S. in 1889, proceeding first to Plymouth, Pennsylvania, according to his passenger manifest, before moving on to Buffalo, where he married Mary Łącka in 1891. His parents were Jakub and Franciszka (née Liguz) Klaus, whose dates and places of death are unknown. Prior to 1981, the village of Maniów belonged to the parish in Szczucin, so they were presumably buried in the parish cemetery there.

And Now, a Map

When it comes to telling family history stories, my husband gave me another piece of sound advice: keep it short, or people’s eyes will start to glaze over. I’m pretty sure that by now, only die-hard genealogists are still reading this, given its length. So, for the sake of my children in Poland, for whom it was also intended, I’ve created the “TL;DR” version. (That’s “too long; didn’t read,” for those of you who aren’t keeping current with your internet acronyms.) Here is a map, showing each of these ancestral burial places.

In contrast to the situation in my family, five of my husband’s Polish immigrant great-grandparents came to the U.S. with their parents. So, it takes a little longer to dig back to the last generation buried in Poland. I’ll discuss them in my next post. As for my kids, I love you, and I hope you’re having a wonderful time in the land of your ancestors!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2022

A Catholic Genealogist’s Spiritual Bouquet for All Souls’ Day

November 1 and 2 are two important days in the Roman Catholic tradition—the feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. On All Saints’ Day, November 1, we celebrate the Church Triumphant—all the faithful deceased, known and unknown, who are now saints in heaven with God. On All Souls’ Day, November 2, our focus shifts to the Church Penitent—all the faithful departed whose souls must undergo purification (Purgatory) in order to enter the joy of heaven. We, the living, are the Church Militant, and together with the Church Triumphant and the Church Penitent, we make up the Communion of Saints. The basic premise of the Communion of Saints is that we’re all in this together: the prayers of the living can benefit those in purgatory, and the intercession of the saints can aide those of us who are still struggling through life.

This act of praying for others is so important, that the Catholic Church designates praying for the living and the deceased as one of the seven Spiritual Acts of Mercy. So, on All Souls’ Day, especially, we are encouraged to remember and pray for our deceased family members. Praying for the faithful departed can certainly be done in a general way, but many of us like to remember our family members by name. Consequently, All Souls’ Day is a holiday that Catholic genealogists can really embrace in a big way, since genealogy is all about the identification of our ancestors by name.

While the Rosary is a popular Catholic devotion for prayer and meditation, it occurred to me that its structure could also lend itself to use in offering a spiritual bouquet for All Souls’ Day. For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, a spiritual bouquet is “a collection of private devotional acts and prayers chosen and performed by one person for the benefit of another.”1 For those who might be unfamiliar with the Rosary, it’s a set of prayers that are recited, using a special string of 60 beads as an aid in keeping track of the progression through the prayers. A Rosary consists of opening prayers, then five sets of prayers called “decades,” followed by closing prayers. Each decade consists of an Our Father, followed by the Hail Mary (repeated ten times), and then the Glory Be. While it’s common to meditate on one of twenty Mysteries—events that took place during the life and death of Jesus and His Mother, Mary—while praying the Rosary, it’s also acceptable to focus on the words of the prayers themselves. I think that approach is easier if one is offering each prayer for a different ancestor or ancestral couple.

There are many ways that the Rosary can be adapted to pray for one’s ancestors, depending on where one begins with the family tree. In my Rosary, I wanted to include the souls of deceased members of both my family, and my husband’s. Since my mother is the only one of our parents who is deceased, I decided to offer the “Hail, Holy Queen” prayer (one of the closing prayers) for her, and offer the ten Hail Mary prayers of each decade for the souls of our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents, as shown below in Version 1. Praying one decade each for my father-in-law’s family, my mother-in-law’s family, my father’s family, and my mother’s family, leaves one extra decade, which I decided to offer for all souls who have no one to pray for them.

As an alternative, I also set up a version focused only on my family (Version 2). In this version, the first decade is again offered for those souls who have no one to pray for them, followed by a decade each for my paternal grandfather and his family, my paternal grandmother and her family, my maternal grandfather and his family, and my maternal grandmother and her family. It’s a little easier to follow when using an example with names, so I’ve created examples for both Version 1 and Version 2, below. However, please note that in both versions, grandparents’ names have been redacted to protect the privacy of the living (my husband’s parents and my dad).

If you, too, are a Catholic genealogist, you can easily adapt one of these strategies to fit your own family tree. I made it easier for myself by printing out a “cheat sheet” with the names on it, but more power to you if you can do this from memory! Since it takes a little more focus, this is the sort of Rosary that lends itself to a quiet time and place, rather than a “Rosary on the run,” that you might say while you’re out walking or in the car.

May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

All Souls’ Day Rosary: Version 1

Opening prayers: As usual.

First decade: All souls who have no one to pray for them.

Second decade: My father-in-law’s family

  1. Husband’s paternal grandfather
  2. Husband’s paternal grandmother
  3. Paternal grandfather’s father, Michael Szczepankiewicz
  4. Paternal grandfather’s mother, Agnes (Wolińska) Szczepankiewicz
  5. Paternal grandmother’s father, Stanley Skolimowski
  6. Paternal grandmother’s mother, Helen (Majczyk) Skolimowski
  7. Parents of paternal grandfather’s father, Wojciech and Anna (Augustyniak) Szczepankiewicz
  8. Parents of paternal grandfather’s mother, Joseph and Tekla (Bogacka) Wolinski
  9. Parents of paternal grandmother’s father, Tadeusz and Marianna (Kessling) Skolimowski
  10. Parents of paternal grandmother’s mother, Stanisław and Aniela (Nowicka) Majczyk

Third decade: My mother-in-law’s family

  1. Husband’s maternal grandfather
  2. Husband’s maternal grandmother
  3. Maternal grandfather’s father, Joseph Ferdinand Bartoszewicz
  4. Maternal grandfather’s mother, Katherine (Levanduski) Bartoszewicz
  5. Maternal grandmother’s father, Albert Drajem
  6. Maternal grandmother’s mother, Mary (Kantowski) Drajem
  7. Parents of maternal grandfather’s father, Szczepan and Joanna (Olszewska) Bartoszewicz
  8. Parents of maternal grandfather’s mother, Stanisław “Edward” and Mary (Woźniak) Levanduski
  9. Parents of maternal grandmother’s father, Augustyn and Agnes (Jamrozik) Drajem
  10. Parents of maternal grandmother’s mother, John and Mary (Kończal) Kantowski

Fourth decade: My father’s family

  1. My paternal grandfather
  2. My paternal grandmother
  3. Paternal grandfather’s father, John Frank Roberts
  4. Paternal grandfather’s mother, Katherine Elizabeth (Walsh) Roberts
  5. Paternal grandmother’s father, John Sigismund Boehringer
  6. Paternal grandmother’s mother, Anna Julia (Meier) Boehringer
  7. Parents of paternal grandfather’s father, Michael Frank and Mary Elizabeth (Wagner) Roberts
  8. Parents of paternal grandfather’s mother, Henry and Martha Agnes (Dodds) Walsh
  9. Parents of paternal grandmother’s father, John G. and Anna Franziska (Murri) Boehringer
  10. Parents of paternal grandmother’s mother, Wenzeslaus and Anna (Goetz) Meier

Fifth decade: My mother’s family

  1. My maternal grandfather
  2. My maternal grandmother
  3. Maternal grandfather’s father, Joseph Zielinski
  4. Maternal grandfather’s mother, Genevieve (Klaus) Zielinski
  5. Maternal grandmother’s father, John Zazycki
  6. Maternal grandmother’s mother, Veronica (Grzesiak) Zazycki
  7. Parents of maternal grandfather’s father, Stanisław and Marianna (Kalota) Zieliński
  8. Parents of maternal grandfather’s mother, Andrew and Mary (Łącka) Klaus
  9. Parents of maternal grandmother’s father, Ignacy and Antonina (Naciążek) Zarzycki
  10. Parents of maternal grandmother’s mother, Józef and Marianna (Krawczyńska) Grzesiak

Hail, Holy Queen: For my mother

All Souls’ Day Rosary: Version 2

Opening prayers: As usual.

First decade: All souls with no one to pray for them.

Second decade: My paternal grandfather and his family

  1. Paternal grandfather
  2. Paternal grandfather’s father, John Frank Roberts
  3. Paternal grandfather’s mother, Katherine Elizabeth (Walsh) Roberts
  4. Father of person in 2, Michael Frank Roberts, in my case
  5. Mother of person in 2, Mary Elizabeth (Wagner) Roberts
  6. Father of person in 3, Henry Walsh
  7. Mother of person in 3, Martha Agnes (Dodds) Walsh
  8. All other deceased members of the Roberts family (Surname from 2)
  9. All other deceased members of the Wagner family (Maiden name from 5)
  10. All other deceased members of the Walsh and Dodds families (Surname from 6, Maiden name from 7)

Third decade: My paternal grandmother and her family

  1. Paternal grandmother
  2. Paternal grandmother’s father, John Sigismund Boehringer
  3. Paternal grandmother’s mother, Anna (Meier) Boehringer
  4. Father of person in 2, John G. Boehringer
  5. Mother of person in 2, Anna Franziska (Murri) Boehringer
  6. Father of person in 3, Wenzeslaus Meier
  7. Mother of person in 3, Anna (Goetz) Meier
  8. All other deceased members of the Boehringer family (surname from 2)
  9. All other deceased members of the Murri family (maiden name from 5)
  10. All other deceased members of the Meier and Goetz families (surname from 6, maiden name from 7)

Fourth decade: My maternal grandfather and his family

  1. Maternal Grandfather
  2. Maternal grandfather’s father, Joseph Zielinski
  3. Maternal grandfather’s mother, Genevieve (Klaus) Zielinski
  4. Father of person in 2, Stanisław Zieliński
  5. Mother of person in 2, Marianna (Kalota) Zielińska
  6. Father of person in 3, Andrew Klaus
  7. Mother of person in 3, Mary (Łącka) Klaus
  8. All other deceased members of the Zielinski family (surname from 2)
  9. All other deceased members of the Kalota family (maiden name from 5)
  10. All other deceased members of the Klaus and Łącki families (surname from 6, maiden name from 7)

Fifth decade: My maternal grandmother and her family

  1. Maternal Grandmother
  2. Maternal grandmother’s father, John Zazycki
  3. Maternal grandmother’s mother, Veronica (Grzesiak) Zazycki
  4. Father of person in 2, Ignacy Zarzycki
  5. Mother of person in 2, Antonina (Naciążek) Zarzycka
  6. Father of person in 3, Józef Grzesiak
  7. Mother of person in 3, Marianna (Krawczyńska) Grzesiak
  8. All other deceased members of the Zazycki family (surname from 2)
  9. All other deceased members of the Naciążek family (maiden name from 5)
  10. All other deceased members of the Grzesiak and Krawczyński families (surname from 6 and maiden name from 7)

Hail, Holy Queen: For my mother

Sources:

1 “Spiritual bouquet,” Collins Dictionary (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/spiritual-bouquet : 31 October 2022).

Featured Image: Pixabay, “Holding String of Beads,” Stockvault (https://www.stockvault.net/photo/216640/holding-string-of-beads#, uploaded 22 November 2016, accessed 31 October 2022), Creative Commons license CC0 1.0 Universal.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2022

Celebrating My Blogiversary!

It’s hard to believe it, but I started this blog six years ago today as a way to share my family history discoveries and my enthusiasm for genealogy with fellow genealogists, distant cousins, research collaborators, and everyone in between. For six years, you’ve celebrated my successes with me and commiserated with my stumbling, offering encouragement for all those “brick walls.” I’ve shared my musings, insights, resources, and strategies, and you’ve shared your own tips, kind remarks, and research challenges. I’ve gotten to know new living cousins, and discovered dozens of “new” ancestors and deceased relatives to add to my family tree.

So what does six years of blogging look like, by the numbers? Like this:

My favorite discoveries from the past six years, in no particular order:

  • The origins of my immigrant Causin/Cossin ancestors from Alsace.
  • The marriage record of my great-grandmother’s brother, Władysław/Walter Grzesiak, who unexpectedly married in Warsaw, 150 miles from his birthplace, which opened the door to additional new discoveries for my Grzesiak family.
  • The marriage record from Buffalo, New York, for my great-great-grandparents, Marianna/Mary Łącka and Andrzej/Andrew Klaus, and the baptismal records of Mary’s first two sons, which finally disproved the family myth that the Klaus family ever lived in Texas.
  • The identification of distant cousins on my Klaus, Słoński, Wilczek, Panek, Dodds, Zarzycki, and Causin lines, made through DNA testing, which led to a clearer understanding of the migrations and dispersions of those families.
  • The discovery of a baptismal record for Ellender Hodgkinson, which spurred further research into her godmother, Mary Hodgkinson, which in turn led to the discovery of the last will and testament of John Hodgkinson, Sr., which identified previously unknown siblings of my 5x-great-grandfather, John Hodgkinson, and offered direct evidence that his father also immigrated to the U.S. from England.
  • The marriage record for my 3x-great-grandmother, Catherine Grentzinger, and her first husband, Victor Dehlinger, which opened doors into further discoveries into the origins of the Dehlinger and Grentzinger families.
  • The death records from Młodzieszyn for the siblings of my great-grandfather, Joseph Zielinski, which allowed me to piece together a timeline that finally explained why my grandfather returned to Poland with his parents in 1921.
  • The grave marker of Joseph and Gertrude (Wagner) Riel from Mt. Elliott Cemetery in Detroit, which identified Joseph’s place of birth in Germany, which allowed me to leverage the FAN principal and definitively identify the the place of origin of my Wagner ancestors.

Time certainly does fly when you’re having fun! I’m looking forward to further adventures in genealogy, and I’m excited to be able to share my discoveries with you. Thanks for all the positive feedback and encouragement over the past six years. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to have your company on this journey.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2022

Visualizing Challenges to Genetic Genealogy Research Using Leeds and Collins-Leeds Methods

When it comes to genetic genealogy, it’s best to hope that each generation in your family tree was large, with lots of descendants living in countries where DNA testing is popular. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Small families, and families in which many of the distant cousins are living in a place where DNA testing is not as popular (e.g. Poland) make it difficult to find those DNA matches that can lead to breakthroughs in your research. Whether you know, or only suspect, that this is the case for your family, you can visualize the situation using some of the available tools out there, such as Leeds worksheets, and Collins-Leeds matrices.

What is the Leeds Method?

Back in 2018, which is a lifetime ago in the world of genetic genealogy, researcher Dana Leeds described her method for color-coding DNA matches using a spreadsheet, which she developed in order to help a client identify his biological family. Elegant in its simplicity, the Leeds Method took off, and it inspired a number of next-generation automated tools which cluster a tester’s DNA matches based on shared ancestry. Sites which offer autocluster tools include MyHeritage, DNAGedcom, Genetic Affairs, and GEDMatch, and AncestryDNA’s colored-dot grouping tool is also based on this method. With all these automated options available, it’s become a bit passé to create a Leeds Method spreadsheet manually. Nonetheless, I want to share one with you here, because it’s a compact visual aid for illustrating some “structural defects” in my mom’s family tree, and their impact on her DNA match list.

Figure 1 shows a Leeds Method worksheet created from my mother’s list of DNA matches on Ancestry.

Figure 1: Leeds Method worksheet for my mom’s DNA matches on Ancestry. Click image to view larger.

Leeds’ basic goal was to sort a list of DNA matches into four clusters, representing matches who are related to the tester through each of that person’s four grandparents. Individuals to whom we are related through only one of our four grandparents are our second cousins, so second cousins would be ideal test subjects for creating a Leeds worksheet. Thanks to the random nature of DNA inheritance, the amount of DNA shared between any two second cousins can vary, but typically, they share about 200 centiMorgans (cM) DNA, where a cM is the unit used to express genetic distance. (More cM shared = closer genetic relationship.) The exact amount of shared DNA between two second cousins can be as little as 41 cM, and as much as 592 cM, according to data gathered by Blaine Bettinger’s Shared cM Project.

With that in mind, Leeds opted to focus on DNA matches who shared between 90 cM and 400 cM DNA. Using her method, a color is assigned to the first match in the the list who shares between 90–400 cM with the tester, and then that same color is assigned to all the shared matches (or “in common with”) matches. This process is repeated until all the matches who share 90–400 cM have been assigned a color. Ideally, you want to exclude first cousins (1C), and descendants of first cousins (1C1R, 1C2R, etc.), because they will match you on two grandparents, not just one. This can be a little tricky if your family tree is not well-developed, because the amount of DNA shared between two people who are 1C1R, 1C2R, or 1C3R, can fall within that 90–400 cM range. However, the beauty of the Leeds Method is that it works even if you don’t know precisely how you’re related to someone, so having a few “mystery” matches in your worksheet that are 1C1R, etc., shouldn’t throw you off too much.

The 33 matches shown in Figure 1 were culled from my mom’s top 52 matches. Since I do know how most of my mom’s top matches are related to her, I took those first 52 matches and subtracted out all children, grandchildren, first cousins, and their descendants, who would match Mom on more than one grandparent. I removed the names of the DNA matches to protect their privacy, but they’re identified by the documentary relationship (if known), as well as by the amount of shared DNA in both cM and number of shared segments. The next ten columns, labelled 1 through 10, are the result of sorting Mom’s match list according to the Leeds Method. In column 1, the blue bars represent matches to whom Mom is related through one of the ancestors of her maternal grandmother, Veronica (née) Grzesiak. The red bars in column 2 represent matches to whom Mom is related through one of the ancestors of her paternal grandmother, Genevieve (née) Klaus. Columns 3 and 4 represent those matches to whom Mom is related through her paternal grandfathers, John Zazycki (purple bars) and Joseph Zielinski (green bars).

This brings us to the first observation I’d like to make. By looking at those four columns, it’s pretty clear that Mom has substantially more DNA matches who are related to her through the families of her grandmothers (Grzesiak and Klaus, blue and red), than she does through the families of her grandfathers (Zazycki and Zielinski, purple and green). She has exactly one match at this level who is related to her through John Zazycki: a 2C1R who is descended from John’s older sister, Marianna (née Zarzycka) Gruberska. Worse, I have to go all the way down to the level of a 4C2R to find a match that’s related to my mom through her grandfather Joseph Zielinski. The common ancestors between Mom and that match are my 6x-great-grandparents, Stanisław and Urszula Swięcicki, who lived back when there was still a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and who had already finished having children by the time of the final partition of Poland in 1795. (The story of that DNA match can be found here.) In other words, Mom has few-to-no “close” matches, depending on how you define “close,” who are related to her through either of her grandfathers.

So, what factors cause this phenomenon? In the case of the Zielinski family, my mother’s grandfather was the only one of the ten children in his family to survive long enough to marry and have children. This means that my mother has no second cousins who are related to her through her Zielinski family, and second cousins are what the Leeds Method hopes to exploit when developing initial groupings. The situation with the Zazycki family may be similar. My mother’s Zazycki grandfather, John, was one of eleven children, six of whom (including John) had children. John was the only one of his siblings to immigrate to the U.S., however, and it seems that not many of his siblings’ descendants opted to immigrate, either. Research is ongoing, but thus far it appears that only John’s eldest sister, Marianna Gruberska, had any children who immigrated. Presumably, the descendants of the other Zazycki (or Zarzycki) siblings remained in Poland. It may be that more of those Zarzycki relatives from Poland will start showing up in my DNA match lists, as DNA testing becomes more affordable and more popular among Poles. Time will tell. And If there are cousins in Poland who might be testing their DNA, it’s more likely that they’ll be showing up in DNA databases from MyHeritage and FamilyTree DNA, since those sites are are more popular than Ancestry DNA in Poland. So, I keep checking all the databases regularly, but thus far the situation has been similar in all of them, with few matches on the Zazycki and Zieliński sides.

Of course, any time one observes a lack of DNA matches to one particular line, there’s always the possibility of a misattributed parentage event, also known as a non-paternity event, or NPE. I’d be more likely to suspect this if Mom had no matches to a particular line, rather than a few distant ones. I’d be even more likely to suspect an NPE if I could find documentary evidence to suggest that a family was large and had plenty of descendants, and she still had no DNA matches. However, the fact that Mom has DNA matches to documented cousins on her Zielinski and Zazycki lines, and that the amount of DNA shared between her and those matches is within the expected range for the documented relationships, suggests that NPEs are not the issue here. (Or at least, it suggests that there are no NPEs that occurred in the generations between Mom and the ancestral couple shared between her and each DNA match.)

Rather than viewing the glass as half empty, it might be better to focus on all those DNA matches to the Grzesiak and Klaus families. Columns 5 through 10 indicate which matches are descendants of particular ancestral couples. In the case of the relatively close DNA matches shown in Figure 1, all but two of the Grzesiak matches are descendants of mom’s great-grandparents, Józef Grzesiak and Marianna Krawczyńska, as indicated by the light blue bars in column 5. The other two matches near the bottom, which are noted with a dark blue bar but not a light blue one, are not in my tree yet, so additional work is needed to make the documentary connection. However, we know they must be related somehow to the Grzesiak family because of all the matches they share in common with documented Grzesiak descendants. The Klaus matches are even more abundant, and can be broken down into descendants of various couples who were ancestors of either Andrzej Klaus, mom’s great-grandfather, or Marianna Łącka, mom’s great-grandmother.

Autoclusters: The Leeds Method on Steroids

Of course, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and gifted software engineers, we can go one better. Figure 2 shows a screenshot of the top portion of Mom’s autoclusters report at MyHeritage.

Figure 2: Autoclusters report from MyHeritage for Mom’s DNA matches. Click figure for larger image. Typically names of testers appear above the columns and to the left of the rows, but they’ve been removed here for privacy purposes.

This utilizes the same principle as the Leeds Method spreadsheet, except it does the heavy lifting for you, automatically clustering your matches into groups which likely share a common ancestor. Each square on the grid represents a comparison of one of Mom’s DNA matches to another, and colored squares represent two people who match each other, in addition to matching my mom. You’ll note that there are some uncolored squares within each cluster; these occur because it’s possible that two members of a cluster will not match each other (even though they both match Mom) due to the random nature of DNA inheritance. So, I can gain insight into Mom’s relationship to all the members in the orange cluster shown in Figure 2, simply by determining her connection to one member of this cluster.

While it’s sometimes possible (e.g. with DNAGedcom) to vary the parameters for inclusion to create tighter or looser groups, that’s not possible with the autocluster tool at MyHeritage. MyHeritage utilizes an algorithm that automatically adjusts that parameters to yield the best clusters for each kit. Note also that not all of a tester’s matches will appear on the grid. MyHeritage provides a ReadMe file with each autocluster analysis which specifies the parameters that were used, the number of kits included in the analysis, and the names of DNA matches who were not included in the analysis as well. In my mom’s case, 109 DNA matches were used to create 26 clusters; 41 matches were excluded because they did not have any shared matches, and another 127 matches were excluded because, although they met the criteria for inclusion in the analysis, they would have ended up in singleton clusters (matching each other and Mom and no one else).

As MyHeritage states in their explanatory ReadMe file, “Everyone in a cluster will be on the same ancestral line, although the most recent common ancestor between any of the matches, and between you and any match, may vary. The generational level of the clusters may vary as well. One may be your paternal grandmother’s branch, and another may be your paternal great-grandfather’s branch.” This can be illustrated using the red cluster shown at the top left in Figure 2. This cluster represents 10 testers who are related to Mom through her grandmother, Weronika Grzesiak. I know how we’re related to eight of them: five of the matches share Weronika’s parents, Józef Grzesiak and Marianna Krawcyńska as the most recent common ancestral couple, and three share Józef Grzesiak’s maternal grandparents, Maciej Dąbrowski and Barbara Słońska, as the most recent common ancestral couple. Descendants of this couple were highlighted in light blue in Figure 1. So, the remaining two mystery matches in that red cluster shown in Figure 2 might be related to to Mom through a bit of DNA inherited from any of the ancestors of Weronika Grzesiak; we can’t really claim to know anything more definitive than that from these data.

The beauty of the autocluster option is that it eliminates the necessity of going through a match list by hand and tagging each match with a colored dot based on shared matches. Although the clusters themselves are extremely informative, it’s also worth noting the DNA matches who were omitted from the cluster analysis. In Mom’s case, one of the matches who was omitted due to lack of any shared matches was a 5th cousin who matches her through her Wilczek line. Since Mom descends from the Wilczeks through her paternal grandfather, it’s disappointing, but unsurprising, that there are no shared matches between Mom and her Wilczek 5th cousin, given the general lack of DNA matches who are related to Mom through either of her grandfathers.

Extrapolating to Other Surname Lines

For want of a better term, I’ll call the relative lack of DNA matches to Mom through either of her paternal grandfathers the “Small Family/International Family Effect.” Unfortunately, it seems to be at work on my Dad’s side of the family as well. I had high hopes that DNA testing might provide some clues regarding the birthplace in Ireland of my great-great-great-grandfather, Robert Walsh. Despite the fact that I’ve identified DNA matches with whom Robert Walsh and his wife, Elizabeth Hodgkinson, are the most recent common ancestors, DNA has not provided any strong leads to Walsh relatives in Ireland as of yet. I’ve even tested my father’s 100-year-old paternal aunt, whose great-grandfather was Robert Walsh. She would be expected to have more numerous and genetically closer DNA matches to this line than I would, since she inherited a greater percentage of Robert Walsh’s DNA. One might have expected that some of her matches would include Walshes from a particular location in Ireland, or even that one region of Ireland might stand out as an area from which a preponderance of DNA matches originated. However, no great leads have turned up yet. Similarly, DNA has not been especially illuminating as of yet with another brick wall ancestor, Maria Magdalena (née Causin/Casin/Couzens/Curzon) Roberts, who also seems to have come from a very small family which left few descendants. Does that mean that my DNA test results can’t help me? No, it just means that there’s nothing obvious to leverage, no low-hanging fruit to harvest.

There is hope, of course. By identifying “autoclusters of interest” that seem to share common ancestors on my brick-wall lines, I can examine their family trees of DNA matches within those clusters, or attempt to build family trees for them if none are available, and search for common surnames and ancestral locations. It should be noted that some sites (e.g. DNAGedcom) even have automated tools for identifying common ancestors based on GEDCOM files (family tree files) that are associated with DNA test kits. Another possible approach is to use research into an ancestor’s social network of friends, associates and neighbors (i.e. his “FAN club”) to identify putative parents for a brick-wall ancestor, trace their descendants forward to the present day, and then do autosomal target testing on individuals who would be predicted to share DNA, based on this hypothesis. Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way.

It can be incredibly rewarding to connect DNA matches to your family tree. Thanks to DNA matches, I’ve been able to discover and connect with distant cousins that I never knew I had, some of whom have even been willing to share old family photos. I’ve been able to track down a number of “lost” siblings of my ancestors who disappeared from the records. And DNA is an especially powerful tool when leveraged for tracking migrations of relatives with popular surnames. However, small families with few descendants can produce “lopsided” DNA match lists, which can be readily visualized using Leeds and Collins-Leeds clustering techniques. While these analytical methods won’t fix “structural defects” in your family tree, they can help you make the most of the matches you do have.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Gaining Insights From DNA Painter

Like many of the genetic genealogists out there, I’ve come to love DNA Painter as a tool for getting the most out of my DNA test data. So, today I want to share how I use it to help me better understand my DNA matches.

In order to keep this post fairly short and sweet, I’m going to assume that anyone reading this will have some familiarity with the basic concepts in genetic genealogy. If you don’t, you might want to read about using your match list at Ancestry, or check out some of my advice for beginners, relating to DNA testing, or visit one of the many other blogs or Facebook groups out there that are geared toward genetic genealogy.

DNA Painter is a fantastic tool for many reasons, but I especially love it because it gives me one place to keep all my segment data from the various test companies (Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage, and 23&Me) or third-party applications (GEDmatch) that provide it, visually identifying which segments were inherited from which ancestors. Why is this helpful? Here’s an example.

Let’s say I have a match at 23&Me who is entirely unknown to me. We’ll call him K.C. (All initials of living individuals have been changed in this post.) He has no information in his profile on 23&Me regarding where he lives, when he was born, or any surnames he’s researching. Half his ancestry is Northwestern European, and the other half is Ashkenazi Jewish, so we’re almost certainly related on the Northwestern European side. His breakdown within that category isn’t especially helpful; we’re both a mix of British & Irish, French & German, and Broadly Northwestern European in varying proportions, which represents my paternal side. I don’t know where he lives or when he was born, and his name is sufficiently common that standard internet search techniques (e.g. searching for death notices in which he’s named as a surviving relative, or searches of databases such as Ancestry and Newspapers) don’t offer any clues. He’s pretty much a mystery.

An examination of Relatives in Common offers some insights, however. 23&Me reports that K.C. and I have relatives in common, which include E.T., E.S., and K.M., and that we all share DNA overlap, which is typically an indication that a particular segment of DNA was passed down to each of us from a common ancestor. Unfortunately, the situation with the latter two matches is not much better than it is with K.C. There’s not much information to go on in their profiles, and I don’t know how I’m related to them. However, I do have one glimmer of hope that I can leverage: E.T. is my second cousin. In “View DNA Details” at the 23&Me site, I select, “Compare with More Relatives,” and take a closer look at Chromosome 7, where we all share DNA, using myself as the base comparison (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Relative positions of DNA segments on Chromosome 7 shared between me and five DNA matches.

In the diagram above, the underlying gray represents my paternal Chromosome 7. The purple segments are where my second cousin, E.T., shares DNA with me on that chromosome. As per the key, the orange segment represents shared DNA that I share with K.C., the yellow is shared DNA with E.S., and the blue is shared DNA with K.M. The areas where the colored regions stack on top of each other are areas of triangulation, where we all match each other, presumably because we share a common ancestor. But which ancestor might that be?

While my match list at 23&Me doesn’t provide any clues in that regard, my ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter does. My ancestral chromosome map represents a visual summary of all of my known DNA match data from any test company or third-party application which provides segment data. Each time I’m able to document a genealogical relationship between myself and a living relative whose DNA data are found at one of those websites, I can “paint” the segments of shared DNA onto my ancestral chromosome map, and assign those segments to the common ancestral couple from whom that DNA match and I both descend. The more complete I can make my map, the more useful it is at informing my understanding of unknown DNA matches.

Let’s take a look at my paternal Chromosome 7 on my map from DNA Painter (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Paternal Chromosome 7 in my ancestral chromosome map, courtesy of DNA Painter.

The map consists of a number of colored bars of varying lengths. Each bar represents a segment of DNA shared between me and a living DNA match. I’ve removed the names of the matches in most cases, although the colored bars that are relevant to this discussion are identified by black bars on the right, labelled with the pseudo-initials of the DNA match.

The key tells us that my ancestral map of my paternal Chromsosome 7 consists of DNA segments that can be traced to one of three ancestral couples: Wenzeslaus Meier and Anna Goetz (my great-great-grandparents), Katherine Walsh and John Frank Roberts (my great-grandparents), and Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson (my great-great-great-grandparents). Figure 2a shows a family tree, for reference.

Figure 2a: My family tree. Click image for larger view.

We know that my paternal copy of every autosome (Chromosomes 1-22) will contain DNA inherited from both my dad’s mother, Marie Boehringer, and my dad’s father, Harry Roberts. We can take this a step further. Any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandmother, Marie Boehringer, must have been given to her by either her father, John Boehringer, or her mother, Anna Meier. Similarly, any DNA which I inherited from my paternal grandfather must have come from either his father, John Frank Roberts, or his mother, Katherine Walsh. So each and every one of my paternal autosomes could be said to be a mixture of Roberts, Walsh, Boehringer, and Meier DNA. Bear in mind that the same pattern would be true for the chromosomes I inherited from my mom; those chromosomes must represent the four surnames of her grandparents.)

Going back now to the chromosome map, the map gets further refined as I am able to identify DNA matches with whom I share more distant ancestry. As mentioned, there’s a green segment on the map that represents DNA inherited from my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. They were the grandparents of Katherine Walsh, so it makes sense that this green segment of DNA would necessarily overlap with the royal blue DNA segment that I share with a Walsh/Roberts descendant. If it somehow overlapped with the light blue of the Meier/Goetz line, it would be an indication that I’d made some errors in assigning segments to ancestors. That green segment now helps me refine my understanding of my DNA in that region. When I only have the royal blue segment to consider, I know only that either John Frank Roberts or Katherine Walsh contributed that DNA. However, thanks to the additional data—that green segment—I know that the portion of the royal blue “Roberts/Walsh DNA” that overlaps with the green “Walsh/Hodgkinson DNA” in Figure 2 must have come from Katherine Walsh and not John Frank Roberts.

Now let’s see how this map can give me a starting point for understanding how I’m related to those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. As mentioned, E.T. is the only one of these DNA matches shown in Figure 1 to whom I know how I’m related; she’s my second cousin. So let’s start by focusing only on the segments of Chromosome 7 where I match her (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Relative positions of DNA segments on Chromosome 7 shared between me and E.T. as depicted by 23&Me.

Since there’s a lot going on, visually, in the ancestral chromosome map shown in Figure 2, I’ve marked with stars those three segments where E.T. matches me, so it’s a little easier to focus on them (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Paternal Chromosome 7 in my ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter, highlighting segments shared with second cousin E.T.

As you can see in Figures 1 and 3, there’s a break between the segments of DNA that I share with E.T., represented as that gray region disrupting the purple regions, that runs from (approximately) position 32,356,335 to position 55,601,336. This represents DNA that E.T. and I do not share. This break is highlighted in the zoomed-in, side-by-side comparison of the chromosome map from 23&Me with the ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Side-by-side comparison of chromosome maps from 23&Me, highlighting gap in shared DNA between me and my second cousin, E.T., with ancestral chromosome map from DNA Painter.

Notice that the first half of that gap corresponds to that 13 cM segment of DNA, colored in green, that I share with I.N., whose common ancestors with me were Robert Walsh and Elizabeth Hodgkinson. So, this tells me that in the first part of the gap region where I don’t share DNA with E.T., I inherited my DNA from the Walsh line. That’s important, because when we go back to Figure 1, the first part of that gap is where I share DNA with those unknown DNA matches, K.C., E.S., and K.M. So this tells me that it’s very likely that the common ancestors from which all of us descend are from the Walsh/Hodgkinson line (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Conceptual representation of location of Walsh DNA (with segment data from DNA Painter) in comparison with unknown DNA matches from 23&Me.

Ta da!

At this point, you may be saying, “Who cares?!” But I think it’s incredibly cool and powerful that I can go from having no information at all about three of my DNA matches on 23&Me, to suddenly knowing that we must be related through some common ancestor of either Robert Walsh or Elizabeth Hodgkinson, even when I have no matches in the 23&Me database to cousins with whom Robert and Elizabeth are the most recent common ancestral couple. Thank you, DNA Painter!

Please note that DNA Painter also offers the option to paint segment data from unknown matches directly into one’s chromosome map, so I could have made this same observation about my relationship to K.C., E.S., and K.M. that way. However, my personal preference is to keep my chromosome map “clean” and not add segment data until I determine how the match is related to me. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much how we make these observations; the point is that we have the tools that make the observations possible. Going forward, I can write to these matches to see if they’ll give me further information about their family trees, I can look for clues in the family trees of additional shared matches, and I can play the long game and see what other matches are added to the test company databases over time that might shed some light on the situation. Ultimately, DNA matches can offer fantastic clues to help answer genealogical questions and identify unknown ancestors, so it’s worth taking the time to explore those matches.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

You Can’t Take It With You

Yesterday was a bittersweet day for me. We closed the sale of my parents’ home, the home they custom-built in 2004 with an in-law apartment for my Grandma, Helen Zielinski, so she could live with them after Grandpa died. There were a lot of memories in that home, although (mercifully) not so many as there would have been had they lived there all their married lives. Nonetheless, cleaning it out prior to the sale was an enormous task, and one that fell entirely to my husband and me, since my mother passed away last October, my Dad was unable to participate due to his own health concerns, and my only sibling was unable to travel due to the pandemic. Since Mom and Dad’s home was located in Western New York, it was a solid 440 miles away from where I live in Massachusetts, necessitating a dedicated trip and a week of vacation days to go back and deal with the clean-out. Fortunately, my husband still has family in that area as well, so my sisters-in-love, Kristi and Kerri, generously made time to help with the sorting, shredding, donating, unpacking, and repacking that go with the job.

If you’ve ever cleaned out a house before, you know how overwhelming the task can seem. Mom and Dad had a very large basement that was packed with furniture, antiques, holiday decorations, unused home furnishings, and family treasures, all carefully organized in plastic storage bins and cardboard boxes. Mom had all of the boxes neatly labelled regarding their contents, but she and Dad saved everything. Pretty much every greeting card ever received, every report card, college notebook, every drawing made by a grandchildit was all down in that basement, in rows of boxes stacked along the walls around the perimeter of the basement. It reminded me of that final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it wasn’t just Mom and Dad’s stuff. There were things in that basement from my grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family, as well as my Mom’s maternal uncle, Joseph “J” Zazycki, whom she cared for in his final years. Grandma and Grandpa Zielinski’s entire bedroom set was there, with bed, mattress and both dressers, along with Grandma’s sewing machine, which I have vivid memories of watching her use when I was a child. There were the paintings that used to hang in their living room, the glider that once stood in front of their garage, the photo album that Grandma made with all the photos from her honeymoon, and the lamps that I remembered from the spare bedroom where my sister and I shared a bed during sleepovers at Grammy and Grandpa’s house. There was the old greeting card box that Grandma repurposed for storing crayons so my sister and I could color pictures when we came to visit. Grandma was from the generation that wasted nothing, so the box included some of the free crayons given out by restaurants so small diners could color their paper menuscrayons that were not discarded after the meal, but carefully and lovingly preserved by Grandma. The smell from that box of crayons immediately took me back to Grandma’s kitchen table circa 1973. Love, care, and memories were packed into every box and every corner.

It wasn’t just the basement that needed going through. Although I’d moved some of their furniture and belongings out of the house when I moved Mom and Dad into an assisted living apartment near me, there were living areas that remained untouched, including Dad’s office. My mother was a first-rate bibliophile, and she had at least a thousand books, many of which were beautifully bound, gilt-edged, hardcover editions of literary classics that were precious to her, still filling the shelves on either side of the fireplace. I wish I could have kept all of it, but where? My own attic and basement are already full from the accumulation of treasures that accompanies years of raising children, and we don’t have as much storage space as my parents did. What does one do with all this stuff? As the old saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” I had to get in touch with my inner Marie Kondo and make some hard choices.

Some things ended up being easier to let go of than others, like the school desks. My mother had gone to elementary school at Our Lady of Częstochowa in North Tonawanda, New York, and at some point in the 1970s when the school was modernizing, they sold off the old-fashioned student desks. My parents decided to purchase two pairs of the desks, and Dad painstakingly refinished the wood, painted the metal legs, and mounted them on wood runners, after which my parents displayed them in the family room of our home in Cincinnati when I was growing up. My sister and I used to sit at them and play “school” when we were little, but I can’t see where they’d fit into my home today. Similarly, my Great-Grandpa John Boehringer’s fishing tackle box didn’t even make the “donate” pile, as it was all full of rusted fishing hooks and lures that seemed like a bad case of tetanus waiting to happen.

As a family historian, I hoped to balance the need for getting the job done quickly and efficiently, with the need for careful preservation of the family history. I’m not sure I was entirely successful in that regard, and I may live to regret some of the things that were donated, discarded, or sold at the estate sale. I prioritized saving photographs and any documents with historical value, although I decided to let go some of the newspapers they saved over the years, such as the last issue of Buffalo’s newspaper, the Courier-Express that was printed in 1982. (Probably half the population of Buffalo has a copy in their basement.) I saved the oak porch swing that Dad made that used to hang in front of the rose trellis at their house on Patton Place, but I said goodbye to the old Cardinal phonograph that my parents bought when we lived in Cincinnati.

Mom and Dad’s Cardinal phonograph, circa 1920.

Our old Fisher-Price toys had to go, as did the cedar chest, but I saved the afghans made by my Mom and by Nana Boehringer, my mother’s journals, and my Dad’s flight log books from when he obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 1971. Many of the documents from my Dad’s youth, such as his old report cards, were charred by the house fire that largely destroyed my paternal grandparents’ home in 1978 while they were vacationing in Florida, and I discovered all the documentationinsurance records, building receiptsrelated to rebuilding that house after the fire, which had been carefully saved by my grandfather.

As I sifted through the ephemera of half a dozen lifetimes, I was struck not only by what people chose to save, but also by how these things were saved. The heart-shaped wreath of roses that adorned her father’s casket was preserved by my mother with such care that not a petal was lost. All of her school report cards were organized into neat little packets. Uncle J’s wallet, address book, check registers, and vital records were all boxed together with his collection of family photos. My Dad, on the other hand, had a whole pile of letters and postcards from family, stashed in the bottom of his duffel bag from Vietnam, buried underneath his boots and flight suit. His Air Force dress uniform, on the other hand, was hung neatly in a wardrobe box, with all of his medals and ribbons still attached to the coat. My paternal grandfather’s wallet was intact, with all his credit cards, driver’s license, and precisely $37 in cash, exactly as he left it when he passed away in 1996. The money is worth less now than it was then, thanks to inflation, and one wonders why it was never removed. The wallet was tucked safely within a steel lockbox that previously belonged to his father-in-law (Grandpa John Boehringer), which also contained stock certificates from the 1930s from companies which no longer exist, and property tax receipts dating back to the 1950s for my grandparents’ home on Grand Island.

Stock certificate from 1935 for 250 shares of stock in Lakeland Gold Limited, owned by my great-grandmother, Anna (née Meier) Boehringer.

Such careful preservation serves as a silent testimony to each person’s values and circumstances. We come to know and understand our loved ones better through the cherished things they left behind.

Here are a few additional photos of some of my favorite finds:

Small change purse containing pocket watches and rings belonging to my great-grandfather, John Boehringer. I checked with my Aunt Carol, who’s pretty sure that the rings are costume jewelry, since Nana Boehringer’s real engagement and wedding bands were stolen in a burglary in the 1950s.
Undated photograph of my great-grandmother, Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki and her daughter, Antonette (née Zazycki) Topolski.
I’m pretty sure this is a photo of my grandmother’s brother, Roman Zazycki (1902-1926). Uncle Roman was the twin brother of Uncle Bolesław (“Ben”) Zazycki, but he died young, after injuring his leg in a factory accident and subsequently developing tuberculosis in the bone of that same leg. I’d never seen a photo of him before, but from this photo, I’d say that he and Uncle Ben were identical twins, rather than fraternal!
Undated photo (circa 1950s) of my mother, her cousin Fred Zazycki, and Uncle J (the “horse”).
Oldest known photo of my great-great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth (née Wagner) Roberts, circa 1880s. This photo wasn’t in my parents’ things, but was given to me by my Aunt Carol while we were in town. This version was downloaded from MyHeritage after being uploaded there for enhancement and cleanup.

It’s going to take me quite a while to sort through all the boxes of photos, papers and sentimental artifacts which I brought home from New York. Nothing is promised, but I hope to live long enough to organize the photos and documents in such a way that my kids will have a cohesive family history collection to preserve and pass on, or to dispose of as they see fit. Although family history is my passion, I don’t know if any of my kids will eventually take up the torch, and I know first-hand how material goods can quickly become burdensome if they were precious only to someone else. In the end, our greatest legacy is the love we show to our families, and the memories we make with them. The “stuff” is secondary; yet within those collections, there are stories waiting to be told.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, 2021

Grandma Helen’s Letter: How Family Stories Measure Up

My mother’s been holding out on me. For many years, she’s maintained that she’s really not interested in family history. And I can accept that. Although it’s difficult for me to empathize, I do understand intellectually that there are some people who just aren’t enthralled at the prospect of digging up documents pertaining to long-gone generations of the family, and Mom is one of those people. However, while helping to sort and reorganize accumulated papers in her desk recently, I discovered a folder, neatly marked “Genealogy Information.” What?! Curiosity piqued, I sifted through the contents of the folder, and  discovered that most of it was merely stuff I’d given to her over the years, hard copies of emails I’d written to my parents as I made new family history discoveries. However, some of it was pure genealogical gold, including a bridal picture of my great-grandaunt, Wanda, an envelope of prayer cards from family funerals, and—best of all—a letter written by my grandmother, Helen Zielinski, in 1977.

The letter was addressed to my parents, my sister, and me. At that time, my family was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, while Grandma and Grandpa still lived in North Tonawanda, New York. The letter was dated 4 December, and the first page is delightfully chatty. Grandma noted that she’d call on Friday, thanked Mom for some photos Mom recently sent, expressed concern that my other Grandma, Marie Roberts, had been in the hospital, and offered to send Christmas cookies in case my mother did not have time to bake. The next pages, however, are even better: Grandma provided brief biographical information about each of her parents and Grandpa’s parents, as well as some other interesting tidbits of family history.

This part of the letter was written in order to help my sister with a family history project she was doing in school. At that time, my sister was in 4th grade and I was in 3rd grade, and she was working on a “Roots” project, which (sadly) I was not also required to do when I got to 4th grade. The project was aimed at helping the students discover their family history, so it was necessary for them to interview their elders and ask about previous generations of the family, as well as any family traditions or ethnic customs that were still practiced. I remember when this project was taking place, and I knew that Grandma had contributed a great deal of information. It made sense that Mom would have saved this letter; however, I’d never actually seen it or read it previously.

It’s clear that Grandma really enjoyed helping with the project, and she wrote about how she spoke with two of her cousins, Carrie Baginski and Arthur Gray, to help her fill in the blanks. It was really fascinating for me to read this information, recorded in Grandma’s own handwriting. It was especially interesting to see how this information measured up against the documentary paper trail that I’ve been gathering over the years since then. Here, then, is Grandma’s original information, recalled and recorded by her at the age of 57, in collaboration with information from some of her cousins, compared with “the rest of the story.”

On Joseph Zielinski (My Great-Grandfather):

Starting off with her father-in-law, Joseph Zielinski, Grandma wrote, “Born in Poland in 1892—lived with his parents on a farm in a village called ‘Sochaczew’ near Warsaw. He arrived in New York City in 1914. He left Poland because he would have had to serve in the Russian Army. Joseph had one brother named Frank who was killed in World War II in America. Joseph died at age 80 in August 1973.”[1]

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 3

Analysis: Grandma was spot-on about Joseph’s birth year in 1892, in spite of census records, a World War II draft registration, and the record from his second marriage, which would all argue that Joseph was born between 1893-1894. Joseph’s birth record confirms that he was born 10 October 1892; however, he was born in the village of Mistrzewice, not in the town of Sochaczew. Mistrzewice is located in Sochaczew County, and the Zieliński family’s deeper roots lie in the parish of Sochaczew itself, since Joseph’s grandfather, Michał Archanioł Zieliński, was born in the village of Bibiampol and baptized in Sochaczew. Therefore it’s actually true, in one sense, that the Zieliński family was “from” Sochaczew, although it would have been more accurate (and would have saved me some time in searching!) if the family history had mentioned Mistrzewice as their more recent place of origin.

It may very well be that Joseph left Poland so he would not have to join the Russian army. Exactly how he managed to avoid the conscription that was mandatory in Russia at that time is unclear, but his World War I draft registration does not indicate any prior service in the Russian army. In contrast, the World War I draft card for Joseph’s brother, Frank, states that he served three years in the Russian infantry. Taken together, these facts seem to confirm the family story that Joseph was able to slip out of the Russian Empire before they could force him into service. It’s also true that Joseph’s brother, Frank, was killed in the war. However, he was killed in World War I, not II. It seems likely that Grandma merely made a recording error when she wrote that Frank was killed in World War II, since the oral family tradition always referenced World War I.

Grandma’s wording does not make it clear if she was aware of other siblings that Joseph and Frank might have had, and one might suspect that she would have identified those siblings by name if she could have. I know now that Joseph and Frank had eight additional siblings—five brothers and three sisters. Five of these siblings (three younger brothers and two younger sisters) were still alive when Joseph left Poland for the U.S., and he arrived in 1912—not 1914. All in all, Grandma was pretty accurate in the information she provided.

On Genevieve Zielinski (My Great-Grandmother):

Next, regarding her mother-in-law, Grandma wrote, “Maiden name—Klaus. Born in 1898 in North Tonawanda, N.Y. Married Joseph Zielinski in 1915. They had five children, John (born Oct. 18, 1916), Frank, Helen, Stanley, and Irene. Genevieve died at age 44 in the year 1942.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 4

Analysis: Grandma was pretty close with Genevieve’s birth year, but Genowefa Klaus was, in fact, born 28 September 1897 in Buffalo, New York, rather than in North Tonawanda. She married Joseph Zielinski on 6 October 1915 at the church of Our Lady of Częstochowa in North Tonawanda, and of course, the names of their children (my grandfather and his siblings) are accurate. She died on 6 May 1942 at the age of 44, so once again, Grandma did pretty well.

On Mary Klaus (My Great-Great-Grandmother):

Things start to get a little bumpy with Grandma’s next report about her husband’s grandmother. Regarding Mary Klaus, Genevieve Zielinski’s mother, Grandma wrote, “Maiden name—Olszanowicz. Arrived in Texas from Poland. She and her husband had eight (in N.T.) children, Anna, Joe, Pauline, Eddy, Genevieve, Walter, Helen and Rudolf. Anna is still alive, living in Chicago. Mary died in N. Tonawanda at age 65.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 5

Analysis: Oh, Grandma. Would that I had never heard that story about Texas. I spent so much time trying to find any possible shred of evidence for our family’s sojourn there. And it wasn’t just you, Grandma. Cousin Julia Ziomek reported that same story, in even greater detail. I wrote about it most recently here, but also here, here, and here. The truth, as near as I can figure, is that the entire story was a fabrication created to avoid embarrassing questions about the circumstances surrounding the births of Mary’s two oldest sons, Joseph and John, who were born out of wedlock in Buffalo, New York, prior to Mary’s marriage to her first husband, Andrew Klaus. Mary’s maiden name was not Olszanowicz, either—it was Łącka. Olszanowicz was the name of her second husband, whom she married after Andrew’s death. That marriage did not last long—only three months, reportedly—which may explain why poor Walter Olszanowicz was so easily forgotten, although his name was still recalled in association with Mary. In total, Mary Klaus had 11 children. In addition to Joseph and John, her children with Andrew included Zofia (who died in infancy), Anna, Pauline, Bolesław (who also died in infancy), Genevieve, Edward, Walter, Rudolf, and Helen. Grandma was right, Anna (née Klaus) Gworek Matysak was still alive in 1977 when this letter was written. However, Mary (née Łącka) Klaus Olszanowicz was quite a bit older than most U.S. records would indicate, and she was actually 75, not 65, when she died in 1942.

On John Zazycki (my great-grandfather):

Grandma wrote the following about her father, John Zazycki: “Born in Warsaw, Poland 1866. Came to the United States and went to Alaska to seek employment. While in Poland he served in the Russian Cavalry and got his apprenticeship as a blacksmith. He died in 1924 at age 58. John’s forefathers were named Zazycki because they lived behind a creek. Za—behind, zekom—creek.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 6

Analysis: As often happened with immigrants, John Zazycki approximated his birthplace to a nearby large city, rather than citing the small village where he was actually born. I now know that John was born 5 March 1866 in the village of Bronisławy, which was located in Sochaczew County in the Warsaw gubernia, or province of the Russian Empire. So in that sense, Grandma’s information that her father was born in Warsaw in 1866 was correct, if not especially precise, since Bronisławy is about 50 miles west of the city of Warsaw. I have not been able to confirm any Russian military service for John, although it’s quite likely that he did serve, since such service was compulsory. Similarly, John died in 1924 at the age of 58, exactly as Grandma reported, and we have documentary evidence that John was apprenticed to a master blacksmith, Józef Gruberski, who was also his brother-in-law. Even Grandma’s Polish surname etymology is approximately correct, although I’ve read that it should be “za rzeka” (“beyond the river”). That leaves the final statement, that John initially went to Alaska to seek employment prior to his arrival in Buffalo, New York.

It turns out that this is a difficult claim to fact-check. John’s naturalization papers state that he arrived in the U.S. on 15 January 1895, and that he resided in the U.S. continuously for 5 years prior to his petition for naturalization in Buffalo on 12 July 1900. Alaska was a U.S. territory, so presumably, John could have traveled to Alaska following his arrival in New York and still count that time toward his 5-year-residency requirement for naturalization. If he did go to Alaska, he was not there for long, and documenting him there, without knowing a specific location, is akin to chasing down my Klaus family in Texas. And we all know how that ended.

On Veronica Zazycki (My Great-Grandmother):

I’ve written previously about some of the interesting statements made by Grandma about her mother, Veronica Zazycki. Grandma wrote, “Maiden name—Grzesiak. Born in the year 1876 in the village ‘Poznan’ near Warsaw. Her parents owned a grain mill. She had a sister Josephine and two brothers—Walter and Thaddeus. They lived near the church and parish house and Veronika’s mother sewed all the vestments for the priest. Veronika’s mother died when Josephine was born so at age 18 she came to America in year 1894. She found employment working in the kitchen of a restaurant. The people could not speak Polish and Veronika could not speak English so they used sign language and called her Mary. She saved her money and sent it to her two brothers so they could come to America. In the meantime, Walter (her brother) married a Polish actress named Wanda and she did not want to leave her career, so he left without her. They say she died of a broken heart.

Veronika married John Zazycki and they had twin boys as their first born, Benjamin and Roman. Wanda was next, then came Leon, Antoinette, Joseph, Angela, and last but not least, their beautiful baby daughter Helen who is sitting here writing ‘Roots.’

Veronika was a seamstress who supported her family after her husband died. She lived to age 62 and was killed in an automobile accident in 1938. Helen’s birthday is Nov. 30th, 1920.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 8

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 9

Analysis: Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki was born 27 December 1876 in the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo. The village is about 50 miles east of Poznań, but “Poznań near Warsaw” doesn’t make a lot of sense since Poznań and Warsaw are nearly 200 miles apart. Nonetheless, the reference to Warsaw is interesting in light of the fact that members of the Grzesiak family were living in Warsaw in the years after Veronica moved to the U.S. Her passenger manifest informs us that Veronica arrived in Baltimore in March 1898, and in June 1898, her sister Konstancja married Julian Cieniewski in Warsaw, while her brother Walter married Kazimiera Olczak in Warsaw two months later. These facts underscore two more points—first, that Walter’s wife was not named Wanda, but rather Kazimiera; and second, that Veronica had additional siblings besides Walter, Thaddeus and Josephine. Polish birth records from Kowalewo-Opactwo revealed two more Grzesiak sisters, Pelagia and Konstancja, whose existence was not known to Grandma.

The part about the grain mill, and the proximity of the family home to the church, was something I wrote about in a previous post, as there may be some evidence for that. The part about Veronica’s mother dying when Josephine was born is utterly false, however, as Veronica’s mother, Marianna (née Krawczyńska) Grzesiak, did not die until 1904, several years after most of her children were settled in America. Grandma was a bit off on the timing of Veronica’s immigration, since Veronica did not immigrate in 1894, at the age of 18, but rather in March of 1898, at the age of 21. I have not been able to document the story about Veronica working in the kitchen of a restaurant and being called Mary. However, it always struck me as a bit strange that they would call her Mary when Veronica is a not a name that is unusual or difficult to pronounce in English.

I have a hunch that this part of the story may have something to do with another Mary whom I discovered through my research, Mary Staszak. When Veronica immigrated, her passenger manifest reported that she was headed to her “brother-in-law” in Buffalo, Michael Staszak. Further research revealed that Michael was not Veronica’s brother-in-law at all. Nonetheless, Michael’s wife, Marianna (née Derda) Staszak, was from the same village as Veronica and they traveled together on the ship, although they were recorded on different pages of the ship’s manifest. Research in records from Poland has not revealed any obvious way in which Veronica Grzesiak and Mary Staszak were related. My guess is that they were merely good friends, or at best, distant cousins. But the association between the name Mary, and this story from Veronica’s early days in the U.S., strikes me as something more than coincidental.

The next part about Walter and his actress wife is probably accurate. Walter and Kazimieria (née Olczak) Grzesiak did meet and marry in Warsaw, and I wrote about their story previously. At this point, I think she probably was an actress when they met. However, she did not die of a broken heart, nor did she remain in Poland while Walter came to the U.S. alone. In fact, she came to the U.S. in 1900, along with Walter’s sister, Josephine, and the Grzesiak patriarch himself, Józef, father of Walter, Veronica, Thaddeus and Josephine. Kazimiera was still in Buffalo and married to Walter in 1905 when the New York State census was conducted, but they were separated by 1910, and subsequent newspaper articles from 1912 indicate that Kazimiera had left Walter for another man.

The final part of the story, in which Grandma recounts her siblings’ names is, of course, accurate. However, Grandma’s mother died in 1940, not 1938, at the age of 63. The last line is also interesting to me. Grandma’s birth date of record was, indeed, 30 November 1920. However, we always “knew” her birthday was November 25th, and that’s the day we celebrated it. The story was that Grandma was born on Thanksgiving Day, so the registry office was closed. The midwife could not get in to report the birth immediately, and there were penalties for delays in reporting. So, when she finally visited the office on the 30th to report Grandma’s birth, she simply told them that the baby had been born that day. A quick check of a 1920 calendar confirms that Thanksgiving fell on 25 November that year, so I believe that this story is accurate, although I have no way of proving it to be so.

The last page of the letter includes some miscellaneous information about the family. Grandma wrote, “Genevieve Zielinski embroidered the picture in 1940 and gave it to Helen and John in 1941 when we got married. Dad thinks that the name Zielinski was given to the people because they came from Green County. Green is ‘Zielone,’ County would be ‘Miasto.’ Don’t know of any living relatives. I am giving you all the information I could gather after 7 phone calls on Friday. Seems like names and dates were not important. I am happy to give my Granddaughters the enclosed pictures. Perhaps you would want to mention the fact that Daddy’s parents plus John, Frank and Helen went for a visit to Poland in 1921 and stayed for 3 months.”

Letter from Grandma Helen 1977 page 10

The picture that Grandma referenced (below) is now a cherished family heirloom, of course, belonging to my mother. When Grandma Genevieve stitched that picture in the year before she died, she was a patient in the sanatorium, suffering from tuberculosis.IMG_5037 (2)

As for the remaining statements, Grandpa’s theory about the origin of the Zieliński surname is pretty much in line with accepted etymology in that the surname derives in some form from the Polish word for “green.” The lack of (close) living relatives from Poland which Grandma mentioned was always a disappointment to me, but ultimately I’ve been able to connect with distant cousins there who were identified through deeper research. The “enclosed pictures” which she mentioned were unfortunately separated from this letter, although I’m certain that my mother still has them, somewhere. And finally, the comment about Grandpa’s family trip back to Poland in 1921 has since been well documented, and I was even able to discover the reason for the trip—the death of the last surviving Zieliński sibling in Poland, Władysław, who died on 23 March 1921, leaving their elderly mother alone to manage the family farm.

So now we’ve come full circle. The family history stories that Grandma recorded in her letter got me started on my path to discover the past, but they are no longer my only source of information. After years of research, I understand which parts of the stories are accurate and which are not, and I even had the opportunity to share with Grandma some of my findings about her family before she passed in 2015. I’m now nearly the age that Grandma was when she wrote that letter, and I’ve taken on her role of story teller, helping a new generation to know a bit about our family’s origins, identifying the patriarchs and matriarchs whose DNA we carry. I only hope that my stories may be as inspirational as hers.

Source:

[1] Helen Zazycki Zielinski, North Tonawanda, New York, to the Roberts family, Cincinnati, Ohio, letter, 4 December 1977, privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020

 

 

Eight Surnames of My Own

Not so recently, genealogy blogger James Scobbie wrote a post which created quite a buzz in the Facebook genealogy world.[1] He proposed that each of us should know or learn the eight surnames of our great-grandparents, and be able to recite them with ease, since this is a manageable amount of family history for anyone to carry around in his or her own head. Moreover, these surnames convey a more complete picture of who we are—insofar as our identity is determined by the people we come from—than does our surname alone, or even our surname plus mother’s maiden name.

I really liked this idea, and I find myself thinking about it still, long after the buzz has died down. I grew up with a surname, Roberts, that created misconceptions about my family’s origins. The surname is typically British, but in fact, my Roberts forebears were German immigrants with the surname Ruppert, who changed the name to Roberts upon settling in Detroit in the 1850s. Back then, German Catholic immigrants were among the groups targeted by the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” party, so I’m sure it made sense for my Ruppert ancestors to keep their heads down and assimilate as quickly as possible.[2] Despite this German heritage, which was repeated on Dad’s maternal side of the family (Meier/Boehringer), I didn’t grow up with any German traditions. I always believed that was because Dad’s family settled in America much earlier than Mom’s did, but as I look at their immigration dates more closely (Figure 1), I don’t think that explanation is entirely satisfactory.

Figure 1: Timeline for immigration to North America in my family.Timeline for Immigration to North America in my family

As evident from the table, my German ancestors Anna Goetz and Wenzeslaus Meier both arrived in the U.S. around the same time that my Polish ancestors Andrew Klaus and Mary Łącka arrived from Galicia, and just a few years before my Polish ancestors John Zazycki and Veronica Grzesiak arrived from the Russian Empire. Perhaps my German ancestors were simply less sentimental? More likely, anti-German sentiment during World Wars I and II played a role.[3] The result was a loss of German traditions and culture in my family, even despite my mother’s best efforts to give equal time to those traditions by teaching my sister and me to sing “O Tannenbaum” in German along with all the Polish Christmas carols. Even the favorite recipes were lost, for the most part. I have just one of Nana Boehringer’s recipes, for her bread dumplings, but I’ve had to try to recreate her famous fruit kaffee kuchen for myself, based on Dad’s fond recollections.

And so it was mostly the Polish traditions, songs, and foods from Mom’s side of the family that became part of my cultural identity. It could not possibly be Christmas without celebrating Wigilia on Christmas Eve, breaking the opłatek with my family, and feeling the love, peace and contentment that overflowed as we wished each other health, happiness, and all good things. Easter meant Święconka breakfast with ham, kiełbasa, hard-boiled eggs, and Grandma’s placek, with its plump raisins and butter-crumb topping. Spending time at Grandma and Grandpa Zielinski’s house meant visiting with Grandma in the kitchen while hearing Grandpa playing “Góralu, czy ci nie żal,” on the piano in the living room, or listening to the Sunday afternoon polka fest on the radio. The Polish-American traditions were so close to my heart that it felt problematic to have a surname which conveyed no hint of this heritage. Whenever conversations would turn to ethnic traditions and I would enthusiastically mention the Polish customs in my family, people would raise their eyebrows and say, “Roberts? That’s not Polish!”

This dual Polish-German ethnicity comprises the bulk of my eight surnames, but there’s one additional ethnic component that was largely glossed over as I was growing up. I think I was already an adult by the time I realized that my great-grandmother, Katherine Walsh Roberts, was actually born in Canada. I was dimly aware that her ancestry was a mixture of English, Irish and Scottish, but I’d somehow supposed that they were all 19th-century immigrants to Canada. It wasn’t until 2006 that I discovered that Great-Grandma Roberts’ lineage included not only 19th century immigrants to Canada, but also United Empire Loyalists with roots deep in the American colonies. The knowledge of that ancestry seems to have been buried in the family history, perhaps when my great-great-grandfather Henry Walsh decided to move his family back over the Canadian border, to Buffalo, New York.

If little remains of German cultural identity in my family, even less remains of English, Irish or Scottish ethnic identity. Such is the nature of assimilation, I suppose, and the day may come when that Polish ethnic identity which has always been so important to me, is just a distant memory for my descendants, buried as deeply as our ancestral English, Irish and Scottish origins. When my Polish grandparents passed away, the Polish language disappeared from my family as well—an inestimable loss, since shared language is the most fundamental characteristic of a culture. My son Daniel studied the Polish language at the University of Buffalo and even at Jagiellonian University during a summer program in Kraków, so perhaps his efforts will aid in preserving Polish heritage for future generations of my family. Yet I can’t help but wonder what eight surnames will be included in the lists of my great-great-grandchildren, assuming I have any, and what ethnic traditions they’ll celebrate. I won’t be here to meet them, of course. By then, I hope to be “hanging out” in the next life with all those ancestors who are presently my “brick walls” in the family tree, finally getting answers to all my questions.

Here, then, are my Eight Surnames, representing ancestors who may have originated in Poland, Germany, and Canada, but whose descendants are now as thoroughly American as apple pie.

  • Zielinski
  • Klaus
  • Zazycki
  • Grzesiak
  • Roberts
  • Walsh
  • Boehringer
  • Meier

What are your Eight Surnames, and what’s their story?

Sources

[1] James M. Scobbie, “The Theory of Eight Surnames,” Noisybrain (https://noisybrain.wordpress.com : 16 October 2019), posted 28 December 2018.

[2] “Know Nothing,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org : 16 October 2019)

[3] Robert Siegel and Art Silverman, “During World War I, U.S. Government Propaganda Erased German Culture,” All Things Considered, NPR, broadcast 7 April 2017 (https://www.npr.org : 16 October 2019).

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019

Party Like It’s 1899, Continued

In my last post, I wrote about an imaginary visit to the year 1899, prompted by a post in the Facebook group, “GAA (Genealogy Addicts Anonymous)” In that group, Admin Claudia D’Souza recently posed the question to the members of the group, “Imagine you wake up and you are in the year 1899! Who are you going to visit, & what are you going to find out?” I had quite a bit of fun thinking about that question—so much fun, in fact, that I decided to break up my musings into two posts. Since I already discussed my game plan for visiting and interviewing my relatives on my paternal side, I’ll move on now to my plan for visiting my maternal relatives, based on hypothetical time travel to August 31st, 1899. I’ve updated the interactive map to include all the new places I’ll be visiting on my journey.

My Maternal Grandmother’s Family

Many of my Mom’s relatives were already in Buffalo by today’s date in 1899, so I’ll start my journey there. I’ll head first to 25 Clark Street, on Buffalo’s East Side. This is where 22-year-old Weronika/Veronica Grzesiak has been living in Buffalo for a little over a year, boarding with the family of Michał/Michael and Marianna/Mary (née Derda) Staszak.

Figure 1: Wedding portrait of Weronika Grzesiak and Jan Zażycki, 5 August 1901, Buffalo, New York. Left to right, Tadeusz Grzesiak (brother of the bride), Jan Zażycki, Józefa Grzesiak (sister of the bride), Weronika Grzesiak.Veronica Grzesiak & John Zazycki wedding

Veronica, who will be my great-grandmother, named Michael Staszak as the relative she was going to join, and her passenger manifest clearly states “brother-in-law and sister,” which suggests that she must be related to his wife. Interestingly, Polish records offer no evidence that Veronica and Mary were related in any way, much less through a relationship as close as sister or half-sister. However, Mary Staszak was from Kowalewo-Opactwo, the same village in which Veronica grew up, so it’s probable that they were good friends. Moreover, Veronica and Mary traveled together on the S.S. Willehad when they made the journey from Kowalewo to Buffalo, along with Michael and Mary’s two children, 9-year-old Józefa and 7-year-old Franciszek.

I know a lot about Veronica’s ancestry, yet I still have questions about her family. I know that at least two of her siblings, Władysław and Konstancja, moved to Warsaw and were married there in August 1898 and June 1898, respectively. What prompted their move? Did any of the other siblings move as well? What happened to Pelagia, the sister who disappears from the records after her birth in Kowalewo in 1869? I know that Veronica is working hard in the kitchen of a restaurant and saving up her money to bring her father and siblings to the U.S. I also know that one year from now, her father, Józef, and siblings Tadeusz, Józefa, Władysław, and Władysław’s wife, Kazimiera, will join her in Buffalo. Why will her mother, Marianna (née Krawczyńska) Grzesiak, not come as well? Will she merely choose to stay in Warsaw with her daughter Konstancja and Konstancja’s husband, Julian Cieniewski?

By May of 1900 when most of the family leaves for America, Konstancja will already be pregnant with her daughter Wiktoria, due in December. Will she simply plead for her mother to stay with her and help her through the birth, until Marianna finally relents and allows her husband and other children to go to America without her? Or was something else going on? Why will Józef report on his passenger manifest that he was a widower, and why will three of her children appear not to know their mother’s name, reporting it variously on U.S. records as Anna Nowacka, Mary Cebulska, and Marianna Szafron? Why will the story be handed down that Marianna Grzesiak was already deceased by the time Veronica left for America, when in fact she will not die until 1904? All these facts seem to suggest that Marianna was estranged from her family for some reason. Was this the case, or am I just over-interpreting the data?

More answers might be found by visiting her family in the Old Country, so I’ll book passage to Bremen or Hamburg, and from there, make my way to Warsaw, where I hope to find Weronika’s oldest brother, Władysław Grzesiak, and his new bride, Kazimiera (née Olczak), living in the Koło neighborhood within the Wola district of the city. I’ll want to ask Władysław where his parents are living, and which of his siblings are also living in Warsaw. I expect I’ll find the youngest sister, Józefa, here, since family stories handed down among her descendants suggest that she, too, may have lived in Warsaw just prior to emigration. It may very well be that the entire Grzesiak family has moved here within the past year. Władysław’s marriage record from August 1898 stated that his parents were living in “Borowo,” although the record failed to specify which place was meant, out of nearly two dozen places by that name located within the borders of Poland today. However, Józef Grzesiak was apparently living in Warsaw by 27 March 1899, since he was named as a witness on the birth record for his first grandson, Marian Cieniewski, son of Konstancja Grzesiak and Julian Cieniewski. Sadly, the record notes that baby Marian was born alive and was baptized with water, but died the same day.

Once Władysław gives me his parents’ address, I will be eager to visit the home of Józef and Marianna (née Krawczyńska) Grzesiak, my great-great-grandparents. They’re a couple shrouded in mystery for me, for reasons already described. It’s speculation, but I’ve often wondered if Marianna might have suffered from some mental illness. In an era when mental illness were poorly understood, it was not uncommon for families to distance themselves from their afflicted loved ones, even going so far as to tell the younger generations that their elder relative was already deceased. It’s difficult to understand precisely why Marianna’s death record from 1904 states that she was a pauper, living in Zagórów, the village of her birth, yet survived by her husband, Józef. Why would she have been a pauper, since she had a husband and at least one adult daughter living in Warsaw, who might presumably be able to care for her? A visit to 1899 won’t tell me where and when Józef will eventually die, and his death record has not yet been discovered. Still, I will enjoy the chance to get to know them a bit, and also to discover whether the unique pierogi recipe handed down in my family—filled with a combination of sauerkraut, potatoes, and onions—originated with Marianna, or was an invention of her daughter Weronika. 

When my visit with the Grzesiaks has ended, I’ll head back to Buffalo, to 44 Lathrop Street to visit Weronika Grzesiak’s future husband and my great-grandfather, Jan/John Zażycki. John is a 33-year-old molder in a factory, who has been living in the U.S. for 4 years and has already declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen. I wonder if he and Veronica have met yet? While I know something of Jan’s paternal ancestry, his mother, Antonina (née Naciążek) Zarzycka, has been a stumbling block for me. Maybe he can tell me where she was born, and where his parents were married. Maybe he can tell me something about her siblings and parents. Was he really the only one of the 11 children in his family who immigrated to America, as present data suggest? What prompted that move?

Antonina herself was still alive in 1899, so when I’ve finished my interview with John, I’ll return to Poland (imaginary travel is cheap, after all!) and make my way to the small village of Bronisławy, about 43 miles west of Warsaw. There I’ll find Antonina and her husband, Ignacy Zarzycki. Ignacy is a 71-year-old peasant farmer who owns his own land—a gospodarz, in Polish. His wife is about the same age, and they are the parents of 11 children, although they have already buried four of them, including a son, Roman, who died 8 years ago at the age of 19. Ironically, their son John will also have a son named Roman who will die an untimely death at the age of 23, but they don’t know this yet. I’m sure they’ll be eager for information about John, and how he’s faring in America. I’ll be equally eager for information on the whereabouts of their son, Tomasz, for whom I’ve not yet been able to locate a marriage or death record. Given the difficulty with obtaining records from parishes in this area, it’s likely that he married and settled in another nearby parish, but which one? 

Mostly, however, I’ll want to hear Antonina’s story. Is my current hypothesis correct, that  her parents were Mateusz Naciążęk and Petronella Trawińska? Who were her siblings? It will be fascinating to meet this woman whose origins have been such a mystery to me, my most recent ancestor about whom so little is known. Antonina won’t be able to tell me where she will die, of course, but I will be sure to ascertain the whereabouts of all of her living, adult children, since she may go to live with one of them when her husband Ignacy passes away in two years’ time. I have evidence that two of her children, Leonard and Karol, moved to Warsaw, while two daughters, Aniela Gruberska and Marianna Gruberska, were living in villages within the nearby parish of Młodzieszyn.  A third daughter, Ewa Klejn, was living in the vicinity of Sochaczew in 1880, but at the present time that’s all I know. 

My Maternal Grandfather’s Family

Having concluded my visits with my maternal grandmother’s family, I’ll book passage back to America to meet my maternal grandfather’s relatives. My journey will take me back to Buffalo once again—back to Clark Street, no less—where my great-great-grandparents, Andrzej/Andrew and Marianna/Mary (née Łącka) Klaus, are living at 43 Clark Street, less than a block away from the home of Veronica Grzesiak.

Figure 2: Wedding photo of Mary Łącka Klaus and her second husband, Władysław/Walter Olszanowicz, 21 November 1916, North Tonawanda, New York. Back Row, left to right: Apolonia/Pauline Klaus Sobuś (Mary’s daughter), holding her son, Edward Sobuś; Stanisław/Stanley Sobuś (Pauline’s husband); Anna Klaus Gworek (Mary’s daughter); Jacob Gworek (Anna’s husband); Genowefa/Genevieve Klaus Zielinska (Mary’s daughter, my great-grandmother).
Front Row, left to right: Julia Sobuś Ziomek (Cousin Jul, daughter of Pauline Klaus Sobuś); Unknown (most probably the groom’s marriage witness, Mary Jedrychanka); Walter Olszanowicz ; Mary Łącka Klaus; Joseph Zieliński (Genevieve’s husband, my great-grandfather); Marie Gworek Glitta (crouching on floor, Anna’s daughter); Helen Klaus (Mary’s daughter)null_00001

In 1899, Andrew is a 33-year-old day laborer and the father of three daughters, Anna, Pauline, and Genowefa/Genevieve (my great-grandmother, Figure 3). He and his 32-year-old wife Mary have already buried two children, a daughter named Zofia/Sophia, and a son named Bolesław. Andrew is also the step-father to Mary’s two sons, Joseph and John, who were born prior to their marriage. On this date in 1899, Mary is heavily pregnant with the couple’s sixth child, Edward, who will be born on September 11th. I know a great deal about both of their families, but there are still missing details.

Figure 3: Genevieve Klaus on her First Communion day, circa 1907.Genevieve Klaus 1st Communion circa 1907

I’ll want to ask Andrew what happened to his brother Michał, who disappears from the records in Poland. I’m also curious to know why he chose to move on to Buffalo, New York, instead of remaining in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, where his brother John Klaus was already living. I’ll be very interested to ask Mary what happened to her father, Jakub Łącki, and her brother, Józef/Joseph, who immigrated with her. Jakub disappears from the records completely after the passenger manifest documenting his arrival in New York in 1884. There’s a family story about a family member who died on the voyage, but it was supposed to be one of Mary’s and Andrew’s children. There’s no evidence that Mary and Andrew knew each other until he arrived in Buffalo circa 1890; could it be that the story got confused, and it was Mary’s father, Jakub, who died on the voyage? Evidence for Joseph Łącki after emigration is also scant. Where is he now? 

After planting a kiss on the forehead of the toddler who will be my great-grandmother, it’s time to return to Sochaczew County in the Russian Empire, this time for a visit to the village of Mistrzewice. Once in the village, I’m sure the locals will be able to direct me to the farm of Stanisław and Marianna (née Kalota) Zieliński, my great-great-grandparents. Stanisław is a 36-year-old farmer (gospodarz) whose father first moved to Mistrzewice from the nearby village of Bibiampol, just a few miles to the south. Marianna grew up in the village of Budy Stare, about five miles to the east. They are the parents of seven sons, although only five of them are currently living: 13-year-old Franciszek, 7-year-old Józef (my great-grandfather), 4-year-old Szczepan, 2-year-old Władysław, and baby Jan, who was just born in March.

Figure 3: Wedding photo of Joseph Zielinski and Genevieve Klaus, 6 October 1915. The best man, Franciszek/Frank Zielinski, seated on other side of the bride, and the woman seated on the other side of the groom is most likely the maid of honor, Josephine Urbaniak.Genevieve Klaus & Joseph Zielinski wedding party

I have a pretty good handle on the deeper ancestry of both Stanisław and Marianna, for at least a few generations. Due to the difficulty in accessing records, I don’t know the names of Marianna’s maternal great-grandparents, but then again, she may not know them, either. Mostly, I’ll enjoy this opportunity to get to know the two of them, observing their interactions with each other and with their children. There are no family stories whatsoever about what Stanisław was like, but the stories that have survived about Marianna, who will die in 1936, don’t paint a picture of a very kind woman. That said, Marianna will experience a great deal of loss in her life, as she will outlive her husband and nine of her ten children. But right now, that’s mostly in Marianna’s future. Perhaps now, in 1899, she is a more cheerful, hopeful woman—a younger wife and mother, still in the prime of her life.

I have one final stop to make before I leave the year 1899, to the village of Budy Stare, to meet Marianna’s father—my great-great-great-grandfather, Roch Kalota. In his prime, Roch was a farmer, but now he’s about 61, and I wonder if he’s starting to slow down and let his sons do more of the hard work around the farm. My understanding of Roch’s family is somewhat incomplete. I know that he married a 21-year-old widow, Agata (née Kurowska) Orlińska, in 1858, and that they had at least seven children together. There are a few gaps in the chronology of their children’s births, however, due to difficulty in accessing church records from their parish, so hopefully Roch can fill those in for me. Agata passed away in 1895, and most of his children are married and have children of their own. The youngest two (that I’m aware of), Katarzyna and Antoni, are still unmarried and living at home, and I’ll enjoy chatting with them as well.

That will wrap up my time-travel to the year 1899. All in all, this was a pretty enjoyable exercise, imagining the life of each of my ancestors in that particular year in their lives. Pondering what is known about each person also helps me to see how much is still unknown in each family’s story. In some cases, this information may yet be discovered without any time machines, so I don’t mean to suggest that every question raised here is necessarily a “brick wall.” It may be that the answers will be found easily, once I make time to do the research, or once I’m able to gain access to the records. So it’s probably time to get back to the present and start looking for the documents that will lead me to the answers I seek. 

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019

 

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.

Sources:

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, (https://www.facebook.com/groups/geneticgenealogytipsandtechniques/permalink/594183891045315/ : 3 March 2019).

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz  2019