Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biuletyn Korzenie, the newsletter of the Polish Genealogical Society of Massachusetts. It is reprinted here with permission.
If you’ve been researching your family tree for more than five minutes, you’ve probably discovered that name changes and variant spellings are commonly found in historical records for our ancestors. Whether those changes happened because our ancestors were illiterate or semi-literate, or because they wanted to assimilate into an American culture that didn’t appreciate “foreign” sounding names, or because people just weren’t as particular about names back then, it’s a problem that most family historians will face at one time or another. It’s particularly important to resolve this issue, and have some evidence for the original version of a family’s surname, before attempting research in records from Europe. So, how does one go about determining the original form of a surname? Let’s consider the following case study.
Helen Bittner of Buffalo, New York
My brother-in-law, Hank Nowak, had a grandmother named Helen (Bittner) Nowak, and he was aware of a family story that her maiden surname, Bittner, had been changed from something else. Hank asked me to do a little research into his family history to see if I could determine when the surname was changed, and what the original surname had been. To answer these questions, I started with the 1925 New York State census, and confirmed with my brother-in-law that the names, ages, and place of residence matched with known facts for his family. That census is shown in Figure 1.1
In 1925, Helen Bittner was 19 years old, living with her 56-year-old mother, Victoria, and her 17-year-old sister, Władysława, at 162 Marion Street in Buffalo. Helen was employed at a box manufacturing factory, and Władysława’s occupation, “enameling,” suggested that she was employed in some aspect of the porcelain enamel coatings industry. Both Helen and Władysława were born in the U.S., while their widowed mother, Victoria, was born in Poland. Victoria’s age suggested a date of birth circa 1869, and she was noted to have been living in the U.S. for 20 years, which suggested an arrival date of about 1905. According to this census, Victoria was still an alien in 1925, and if this is correct, then it’s unlikely that she petitioned to naturalize, since she died in 1928.2
The Bitner Family in 1920
Having identified Helen Bittner and the members of her household in 1925, the next step was to locate the family in the 1920 census, shown in Figure 2.3
In 1920, the Bitner family—spelled with only one “t” this time—was living in Clarence, New York, rather than within the city of Buffalo. However, careful examination of the data for each family member allowed me to be certain this was still the same family. Once again, Victoria Bittner was reported to be a widow, whose native tongue was Polish and who was born in Galicia circa 1866. In this context, “Galicia” refers to the Galicia region of the Austrian Empire, a region which spans what is now southeastern Poland and southwestern Ukraine. Although Victoria’s age (and therefore her predicted birth year) are a few years off from our expectations based on the 1925 census, the data are nonetheless well within the typical margin of error observed in records for Polish immigrants of this era. She reported an immigration year of 1904, and—in contrast to the 1925 census—this record states that she was naturalized, although the exact year of naturalization was not recorded.
Naturalization records can often provide answers to questions about name changes, since immigrants who naturalized after 1906 were required to provide a certificate of arrival along with their petition for naturalization.4 These certificates were intended to verify the length of time that an immigrant had been living in the United States. In addition to documenting the date of arrival and name of the ship on which the immigrant traveled, they also include the name under which the immigrant traveled, if different from the name that person was using at the time of petition. A thorough research into the Bittners’ family history would include an attempt to obtain naturalization records for family members born in Poland. However, this step was ultimately unnecessary in order to simply answer the question about the family’s original surname.
In 1920, Victoria’s household included a son, John K. Bittner, who had presumably moved out by 1925. He was reported to be a naturalized citizen who had arrived in 1904 and was 22 years old in 1920, suggesting a birth year circa 1898. Another daughter, 17-year-old Viola V. Bittner, was also living with the family, born circa 1903, and arriving circa 1904. Rounding out the family group in 1920 were Helen J. Bittner and Lottie J. Bittner, whose ages and places of birth are consistent with the Helen and Władysława described in the 1925 census. As an added bonus, the final member of this household was the children’s grandmother, indexed as “Thressa Blagek,” but identified through further research as Teresa Klocek, Wiktoria’s mother. Teresa was widowed, arrived in 1915, and was reported to be 80 years old, which implies a birth year circa 1840.
It’s worth noting that Polish immigrants often changed their given names, as well as their surnames, in their efforts to assimilate into American culture. Neither “Victoria” nor “Viola” is a Polish spelling since the Polish alphabet lacks the letter “v.” Although a direct translation of Viola in Polish would be Wiola, research experience suggests that her name was more probably Waleria in Polish. Since “Władysława” is an unfamiliar name to American ears, many women with this name chose to go by the nickname “Lottie,” which was popular at the time and bears a vague phonetic resemblance to the original Polish name. When in need of a more formal version, the name “Charlotte” was often used, although it’s important to remember that neither “Lottie” nor “Charlotte” can be considered a translation of “Władysława” in an etymological sense. So, when looking for records from Poland for this family, we may expect to see them recorded as Wiktoria, Jan, Waleria (or Wiola), Helena, Władysława, and Teresa.
Still the Bittner Family in 1915
Continuing the move backwards in time, the 1915 New York State census was examined next (Figure 3).5
In 1915, the Bittner family was living in Clarence, New York, as they were in 1920. This census offers an introduction to the Bittner family patriarch, Joseph (or Józef in Polish), who was described as a 51-year-old farmer, born in Austria and a naturalized citizen who had been living in the U.S. for 12 years. This information suggests an arrival circa 1903 and a date of birth circa 1864 in Galicia. Victoria’s age, 48, is consistent with a date of birth circa 1867, comparable with existing evidence. Like her husband, she was reported to have been living in the U.S. for 12 years. However, it’s evident that the family did not all travel to the U.S. together, based on the length of U.S. residency reported by each of the children.
“Thresa” (sic) Klocek was identified here as Joseph Bittner’s mother-in-law, and her birth year (1845) and arrival date (1913) are sufficiently consistent with the data reported in the 1920 census that we can be sure she is identical to the Theresa “Blagek” described therein. In 1915, the Bittner family included a married daughter, 25-year-old Rose Kieta, who reported an arrival in the U.S. circa 1905. Her husband was not identified in this record, but her two sons, 4-year-old Joseph Kieta and 2-year-old Walter Kieta, were living with her and her parents. Rose would be known as Rozalia in Polish records, and although her sons were born in the U.S., it is likely that “Walter” would be identified as Władysław in any Polish-language documents, while Joseph would be Józef. Names and ages of the remaining family members—John, Viola, Helen, and Lottie—are consistent with previous evidence.
The “Watkawitz” Family in 1910
Locating the family in the 1910 census proved to be a bit of a challenge. Broad searches across all indexed databases at Ancestry for Joseph Bittner, born 1864 in Austria, wife Victoria, residing in Erie County, New York (which should pick up residences in both Clarence and in Buffalo) did not produce results from the 1910 census. When this happens, it’s usually helpful to drill down directly to the desired database by selecting “Census and Voter Lists,” “1910s”, and then, “1910 United States Federal Census.” This method permitted comparison of all 97 search hits produced by Ancestry’s algorithms in response to these search parameters. When the search hits were examined, it was evident that there were no good matches for the family of Joseph Bittner. However, that was an indication that I was zeroing in on the research question: what was the original name of the Bittner family? I repeated the search in the database, “1910 United States Federal Census,” without any surname for the family, searching only for given name “Joseph,” born 1864 in Austria, wife Victoria, living in Erie County, New York. The top search result for the family of Joseph “Watkawitz” was definitely the target family (Figure 4).6
In 1910, the “Watkawitz” family was living at 77 Chandler Street in Buffalo. Examination of the family group reveals the same cast of characters we’d found on other census records, with a few new details. In this census record, “Viola” was, indeed, recorded as Valeria, and the family group included three daughters not identified previously—19-year-old Katie, 16-year-old Annie, and 15-year-old Maria. In Polish records, we might expect them to be recorded as Katarzyna, Anna, and Marianna. All of them must have been married or deceased by 1920, since it would have been atypical in Polish-American culture for unmarried girls to be living independently. The grandmother, Teresa Klocek, is absent from this record, as expected based on prior evidence that she immigrated circa 1913.
Both Joseph and Victoria were reported to have arrived in 1902, a bit earlier than the estimates found previously. A clearer picture of the family’s immigration has now emerged, with evidence that the family members came over in four waves: Joseph and Victoria first, followed by Rose about two years later, circa 1904. Katie, Annie, Maria, and John came next, circa 1906, and finally, their maternal grandmother Teresa joined the family in America circa 1913. All of those passenger manifests should provide ample evidence for discovering the family’s place of origin in Poland.
The whole family was “Austrian Polish,” and in 1910, there was clearly a language barrier, because Victoria reported that she was the mother of seven children, all of whom were still living, yet she had eight children. One might suppose that the oldest daughter, Rosa, was Joseph’s child from a previous marriage, except that Joseph and Victoria reported that they’d been married for 21 years, and Rosa was only 20 years old, which implied that they were married when she was born. This interpretation was further supported by the “1” next to the “M” in column 8, indicating that it was the first marriage for both of them. Moreover, in column 17, “Whether able to speak English,” neither Joseph nor Victoria claimed knowledge of this language; Joseph reported that he spoke German, while Victoria reported that she spoke Polish.
From Batkiewicz to Bittner
The 1910 census offered our first clue as to the family’s original surname, but “Watkawitz” is not a valid Polish surname. The ending, “-kawitz,” suggested a phonetic corruption of a surname ending in “-kiewicz.” “Watkiewicz” and “Wątkiewicz” are both valid Polish surnames, however, and might be found in Polish records for this family. However, it’s impossible to state anything definitively on the basis of one record. Sound conclusions in genealogical research must be based upon a body of evidence, so I turned to city directories to see how this family might have been listed there.
I opted to use wild cards in my search to help ferret out different surname spellings. Ancestry permits the use of the asterisk (*) as a “wild card” search term, to replace one or more letters in a word. It can be used at any point in the word, so a search for “Jo*” will return results for Joseph, Josef, Jozef, John, Jonathan, Joachim, Josephine, Joanna, etc. I set up the search in Ancestry’s “Directories and Member Lists” category for given name “Jo*” and surname “*kiewicz,” living in “Buffalo, Erie, New York.” I specified “1910” in the “Any Event” field, and in the “Keyword” field, I added, “Chandler,” which was the name of the street that the family was living on in the 1910 census. The first three search hits that resulted were from Buffalo city directories in 1908, 1909, and 1910 (Figures 5a, 5b, 5c).7
As shown in these images, the same Joseph “Watkawitz” who was recorded at 77 Chandler Street in Buffalo in the 1910 census, was recorded in the city directory under the name Joseph Batkiewicz at that same address that same year. He was similarly recorded as Joseph Batkiewicz in 1909, but in 1908, he was recorded as Joseph Bartkiewicz. This does not necessarily imply that Bartkiewicz is a “more original” version of the surname than Batkiewicz. The fact is, there is no single, true version of any surname. Even in records from Poland, it’s common to see multiple versions of a surname used for the same family, so “Bartoszewicz” might be recorded as Bartosiewicz, or even Bartoszewski, and “Maciążek” might be recorded as Raciążek, Naciążek, and Naciąszek. It’s usually necessary to collect dozens of documents to discover any patterns of surname evolution over time, and it’s important not to place too much emphasis on any one, particular source. As my undergraduate research mentor used to say, “Keep gathering data, and truth will emerge.”
At this point, there was good initial progress with genealogical research for the Batkiewicz/Bittner family in Buffalo. The family group was tracked in census records and city directories from 1908 through 1925, and these records provided an introduction to family members from three generations of the family. Further research should be directed at locating passenger manifests, naturalization records, and church records in order to discover their place of origin in Galicia; tracing the family in Polish records, and gathering additional documentation of their history in the U.S. through newspapers, cemetery records, civil vital registrations, military records, etc. The focus of this initial round of research was limited to gathering evidence for the family’s original surname, however, and this goal was accomplished: at some point between 1910 and 1915, while living in Buffalo, New York, the family transitioned from Batkiewicz/Bartkiewicz/Watkiewicz/Wątkiewicz to Bitner/Bittner.
Steps to Success
Although beginning researchers are sometimes overwhelmed by name changes such as those described here, it’s not difficult to apply this same process to your own family history research if you keep in mind these tips:
- Thoroughly analyze each document you find. Details such as names and ages of family members, occupations, and place of residence will assist in definitive identification of a family group or individual. These facts become critically important when there is more than one person with the same name living in the same town or village at the same time.
- Keep track of all the variant spellings you find, and the date at which that spelling was recorded. Desktop genealogy software such as Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic, Legacy, etc., permit the input of multiple facts for the same field, and a source citation can be attached to each. Figure 6 illustrates this for Joseph Batkiewicz.
- Familiarize yourself with popular Polish given names, the diminutive versions of those names, and their English etymological equivalents. A good list can be found here, and another great resource is First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins & Meanings by William F. Hoffman and George W. Helon.8 Be aware that not all Polish names have direct English translations, as was the case for Władysława Batkiewicz, aka Lottie Bittner. Immigrants who chose to alter their given name were free to choose whatever name they preferred, and sometimes atypical choices were made such as Mikołaj (Nicholas) becoming Michael, or Jadwiga (Hedwig) becoming Ida or Hattie. Although “Stanley” was a popular choice for men named Stanisław, my husband’s great-great-grandfather Stanisław chose to go by “Edward” in the U.S.! Keep an open mind as you research.
- Wild card searching is your friend. Each site has its own rules regarding the use of wildcards, so familiarize yourself with the capabilities of each site. Both FamilySearch and Ancestry, for example, will permit the use of both the question mark (?) to replace one character, and the asterisk (*) to replace multiple characters.9 However, the popular Polish vital records database, Geneteka, only permits the use of the asterisk, and it can’t be used at the beginning of a surname or given name.
- If you’re struggling to transcribe a Polish surname from a document in which the handwriting is cramped, faded, or otherwise difficult to read, use the Słownik Nazwisk (dictionary of surnames) database to help educate your guesses. The database permits the use of both the question mark and asterisk wild cards, and is very helpful in identifying valid surname possibilities. For example, if you’re pretty sure that a particular surname follows the pattern of “S?????ankie??cz” where each question mark is a letter you can’t make out, you can search for “S*ankie*cz” and obtain a list of Polish surnames that fit that pattern. William F. Hoffman wrote a wonderful tutorial for using this site that’s available from Jewish Records Indexing—Poland.10
If you’re just starting to explore your Polish family history, hopefully these tips will give you the skills and confidence you need to progress with your research. Happy hunting!
1 New York, State Census, 1925, Erie County population census, Buffalo Ward 21, Assembly District 02, Election District 12, p 89, house number 162, lines 5–7, Victoria Bittner household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 16 February 2022), citing data from New York State Archives, Albany, New York.
2 Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/93742468/victoria-bittner : accessed 16 February 2022), memorial page for Victoria Bittner (1869–1928), Find a Grave Memorial ID 93742468, citing Saint Mary’s Cemetery, Swormville, Erie County, New York, USA ; Maintained by Roy Woodruff (contributor 47291486).
3 1920 United States Federal Census, Erie County population schedule, Clarence township Enumeration District 0274, Sheet 5A, family no. 111, Victoria Bitner household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 16 February 2022), citing NARA microfilm publication T625, roll 1110 of 2076 rolls.
4 “United States Naturalization and Citizenship,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Naturalization_and_Citizenship : 16 February 2022).
5 New York, State Census, 1915, Erie County population schedule, Clarence township, Assembly District 09, Election District 02, p 16, lines 19–28, Joseph Bittner household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 16 February 2022), citing New York State Archives, Albany, New York.
6 1910 United States Federal Census, Erie County, New York, population schedule, Buffalo Ward 18, Enumeration District 0178, Sheet 26B, house no. 77, family no. 479, Joseph Watkawitz household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 16 February 2022), citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 946 of 1,178.
7 “U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 16 February 2022), Bartkiewicz, Joseph [indexed as Dartkiewicz], 77 Chandler St., Buffalo, New York, USA; citing The Buffalo Directory (Buffalo, New York: The Courier Company of Buffalo, 1908), p 167; and
Ibid., Batkiewicz, Joseph, 77 Chandler Street, Buffalo, New York, USA, 1909; citing Buffalo, New York, Directory (Buffalo, New York: The Courier Company, 1909), p 170; and
Ibid., Batkiewicz, Joseph, 77 Chandler St., Buffalo, New York, USA, 1910; citing The Buffalo Directory (Buffalo, New York: The Courier Company of Buffalo, 1910), p 171.
8 Hoffman, William F. and George W. Helon, First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins & Meanings (Chicago, Illinois: Polish Genealogical Society of America, 1998). ISBN 10: 092420706X ISBN 13: 9780924207068. Available from the Polish Genealogical Society of America’s bookstore.
9 Phil Dunn and Susan Burleson, “Searching with Wildcards in FamilySearch,” FamilySearch Blog, posted 10 April 2014 (https://www.familysearch.org/en/blog : 16 February 2022); and
“Searching with Wild Cards,” Ancestry Support (https://support.ancestry.com/ : 16 February 2022).
10 William F. “Fred” Hoffman, “The Słownik Nazwisk is Online,” Jewish Records Indexing—Poland (https://jri-poland.org/slownik.htm : 16 February 2022).
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2022