Accepting Uncertainty

Genealogical evidence isn’t always as neat or clean as we’d like it to be. Even when we’re working with original sources, errors can be introduced if the informant or recorder has imperfect knowledge of an event or its participants. Our job as genealogists is to analyze the evidence in an attempt to determine the truth, so the best remedy for resolving conflicting evidence is to gather more evidence. In this way, we hope that discrepancies can be explained and truth will emerge. In fact, the Genealogical Proof Standard requires that our research be “reasonably exhaustive.” But “reasonably exhaustive” means different things, depending on the country, time period, and research in question. Sometimes we have to live with a measure of uncertainty in our conclusions or consider them to be preliminary or tentative, until further evidence emerges.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve been preparing a list of vital records to order from the Diocesan Archive in Łowicz. This archive is a veritable goldmine of church records for ancestors from my Zieliński and Ciećwierz families, whose earlier generations lived in villages belonging to the parishes in Sochaczew and Mikołajew. All (?) existing church records and civil vital records from Sochaczew and Mikołajew have been digitized thanks to the generous efforts of a few volunteers, and many of these digitized records have also been indexed, where they are searchable via Geneteka. This makes research in these records remarkably easy, especially in cases where the indexer included a substantial amount of information from the original record in the “remarks” available through the “i” infodot. (For a complete explanation of the use of Geneteka, please see this tutorial.)

The Kalisiak Family of Strugi and Starpiączka

Despite the ease with which we can find the information, some interpretation of the results is still required. As an example of this, I’ve been researching the family of my 6x-great-grandparents, Andrzej (1760-1813) and Marianna (abt. 1755 – 1825) Kalisiak of Mikołajew. Most family historians realize early on that consistency in spelling of surnames just didn’t exist in Polish records (or German, or American, or Canadian….) until perhaps the 1930s, so it should come as no surprise that we need to look for Andrzej and Marianna’s family under spellings besides “Kalisiak.” The phonetically-similar “Kaliszak” is an obvious choice, so we can begin by choosing “wyszukiwanie dokładne/exact search” (i.e. wildcard search) for  births in Mikołajew for surname “Kal*” with given names Andrzej and Marianna. To minimize extraneous results, we’ll search as a pair (“wyszukaj jako para/relationship search”) to identify children with father’s name Andrzej and mother’s name Marianna. That produces the following result:

Children of Andrzej and Marianna Kalisiak

Upon closer examination of these results, it’s clear that two separate Kalisiak/Kaliszak families are represented. The first set of births from 1788-1810 are children of one Andrzej and Marianna, while the second set of births from 1841-1846 must be for a different Andrzej and Marianna. We know this based on biology: even if Marianna were as young as 15 when she gave birth to Kazimierz Grzegorz Kaliszak in 1788, she would be 68 in 1841 when Jan Kalisiak was born. Since that’s not possible, there must be two distinct families.

Focusing on the first family, we can see that births are generally spaced every 2-3 years, with the exception of two larger gaps. The first of these gaps occurs between the births of Franciszka in 1798 and Antoni in 1803, and the second is between the births of Grzegorz in 1805 and Antoni in 1810. This suggests that Andrzej and Marianna may have had a couple more children who are not mentioned in this list, but were perhaps baptized in another local parish. If we then expand the search to include indexed parishes within a 15-km radius of Mikołajew, we discover an additional birth that fits neatly into the first gap:

Dorota Kalisiak birth

In 1802, Andrzej and Marianna had a daughter, Dorota, who was baptized in the parish of Szymanów.

Now that we’ve identified most or all of the children of the children of Andrzej and Marianna Kalisiak/Kaliszak, we can attempt to discover what became of each of them. If we click on the “deaths” tab to view results in death records for these same search parameters, we see the following:

Mikolajew deaths

Hovering over the “i” infodot under the “Remarks” heading, we learn that the Antoni Kalisiak who died in 1845 was only a year old, so he must be the Antoni Kalisiak who was born in 1844 to the “other” Andrzej and Marianna (née Studzińska) Kalisiak, and not “our” Antoni Kalisiak, who was born in 1803. Józef and Antonina were not mentioned in the list of births for children of “our” Andrzej and Marianna Kalisiak, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore them just yet. If there is evidence to suggest that one of them was born in that second gap in births, between 1805 and 1810, then perhaps they were, indeed, children of our target couple, who were baptized in another parish that has not yet been indexed in Geneteka. Thankfully, the indexer included the age at death of each of them, so we know that Józef died at the age of 1, and Antonina died at the age of 7. From this we can conclude that Józef and Antonina could not be children of our target couple. However, Franciszek died at the age of 66, which suggests a birth year circa 1789. This is in the right ballpark for him to be “our” Franciszek Benedykt Kalisiak who was born in 1792. Can we be absolutely certain this is the same person? Not based on this evidence. It’s certainly close enough that I’m going to order a copy of this death record and tentatively claim it as being the death record of my 6x-great-uncle, but in an ideal world, it would be nice to obtain corroborating evidence. Locating such evidence is another project for another day, so for right now, we’ll have to accept some uncertainty and continue to examine the evidence from vital records that’s presently available.

If I’ve learned one thing in my searches in Polish vital records, it’s that Polish priests were not always especially accurate when it came to recording surnames. It wasn’t just that they made logical phonetic substitutions, such as “Kaliszak “instead of “Kalisiak.” It wasn’t even that they frequently made substitutions based on common etymology, such as recording someone as “Grześkiewicz” instead of “Grzesiak” because both are patronymic surnames deriving from the given name Grzegorz. Sometimes they were just pretty far off-base. Maybe it was the result of long days tending to the spiritual needs of their congregations, which required them to put off making notes about those baptisms until the end of the day, when they couldn’t quite recall what the mothers’ names were. In any case, I’ve learned from experience that it’s wise to cast a wide net when searching in Geneteka, so before moving on to checking marriage records, it occurred to me to search for surnames starting with “Ka*” rather than just “Kal*.” Sure enough, this turns up the following result for death records:

Dorota and Antoni deahts

This shows a Dorota Kasprzak who died in 1811, daughter of Andrzej and Marianna, as well as an Antoni Kasprzak who died that same year. Hovering over the “i” infodots under the “Remarks” heading tells us that Dorota was 9 years of age, while Antoni was one year old when he died, suggesting birth years of 1802 and 1810, respectively. This is perfectly consistent with existing evidence for the years of birth of “our” Dorota and Antoni. Moreover, the deaths occurred in Starpiączka, which is where the family of Andrzej and Marianna Kalisiak was living as of 1810, when Antoni was born.

At this point, the evidence seems to suggest that Dorota and Antoni Kasprzak are the same as Dorota and Antoni Kalisiak, simply recorded under the wrong surname. However, it’s still theoretically possible that there were two families living in Starpiączka at that time, the Andrzej Kalisiak family and the Andrzej Kasprzak family, and the discovery of such an Andrzej Kasprzak family would cast significant doubt on our conclusion that Dorota and Antoni Kalisiak are the same as Dorota and Antoni Kasprzak. A quick check of indexed birth, marriage and death records in the entire present-day Mazowieckie province, searching as a pair for records that mention both Andrzej Kasprzak and Marianna, dated between 1770-1812, produces zero results for births and marriages, and only the two death records we’re interested in, for Dorota and Antoni. Since the parish of Mikołajew is only about 9 miles (15 km) from the border with the present-day Łódź province, it makes sense to check for a Kasprzak family in indexed records from that province, too. As it turns out, indexed records from the Łódź province show the marriage of an Andrzej Kasprzak and Marianna in 1797, as well as birth records for 5 of their children, born between 1798 and 1808. However, all of these records were from the parish of Leźnica Mała, which is about 100 km west of Mikołajew.

Kasprzaks of Bronno

The distance alone does not preclude the possibility that the Dorota and Antoni Kasprzak who died in Mikołajew are actually children of Andrzej and Marianna Kasprzak of Leźnica Mała parish — there’s plenty of evidence for people relocating over such distances. However, one of the children born to the Leźnica Mała couple was a daughter named Kunegunda who was baptized on 31 October 1802, which conflicts with existing evidence that Dorota Kalisiak was baptized on 2 May 1802 in Szymanów. There are similar conflicts with children born in 1798 and 1805, and taken all together, this can be construed as clear evidence that the family of Andrzej and Marianna Kasprzak of Leźnica Mała parish is distinct from the family of Andrzej and Marianna Kalisiak of Mikołajew parish. Since no evidence can be found for any other Kasprzak families in the area, we can conclude with reasonable certainty that the death records for Dorota and Antoni “Kasprzak” from Mikołajew are actually for Dorota and Antoni Kalisiak.

Of course, I still need to order these records from the diocesan archive in Łowicz, and ultimately, my hope is that they will contain additional information that was not included in the infodots within the indexed entries. Civil registration began in this part of Poland in 1808, and a civil death record from 1811 — the year that Dorota and Antoni died — would include the names, ages and occupations of two adult male witnesses who might be related to the deceased. If the information reported for those witnesses suggests that one or both might be known relatives, perhaps one of Andrzej Kalisiak’s brothers, then that would bolster our case even further. However, it appears that the civil copies of the death records for Mikołajew for this time period may not have survived, since the infodots report that the information in these death records comes from the Latin church books, rather than the Polish-language civil equivalents. In my experience, the Latin records from this part of Poland are much less informative than their civil counterparts, and may not mention witnesses at all. So it may be that there no further evidence can be found to support our conclusions about the identities of Dorota and Antoni Kalisiak/Kasprzak.

Genealogy is a process of discovery, and sometimes we have to draw preliminary or tentative conclusions based on scant evidence. Over time, additional evidence may turn up which causes us to rethink our original conclusions, and that’s perfectly fine. However, if “reasonably exhaustive” research fails to turn up further evidence, then we just have to get comfortable with qualifiers such as “maybe,” “probably” and “perhaps.”  In my next post, I’ll describe another foray into the indexed records in Geneteka in which I’ll examine the case for the legitimacy of the birth of Marianna Panek. Stay tuned!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz