Monday, August 29, 2016

That Elusive
Eastern European Documentation

Discovering the Poznań Project has brought me hours of delight in researching my paternal grandmother's Polish roots. Since mentioning what I found last week, I've been busy poking and prodding the website to see what else I might be able to reconstruct from the Laskowski and Gramlewicz family constellations in and around Żerków, the town of their Polish origin.

My delight is due to one simple fact: I've found a way around the research bottleneck that keeps most of us homebound armchair researchers stymied. If you have been deluded into thinking all you have to do to research your foreign rootsand almost all of us have ancestors who originated in a different location than that of our current residenceis to sign on to the international offerings at or, think again. The offerings for those seeking their Polish roots at Ancestry are fragmented by time periods and ethnic focuses. For FamilySearch, the options are limited, even when including the browse-only collections.

Granted, those two organizations are digitizing records at an amazing speed. It's just that, when you need to have the entire world at your fingertips, it's hard to make headway at any one location.

Patience may be a virtue, and I've learned that waiting often rewards the researcher who checks back regularly. Right now, though, I'm not primed for the waiting game.

Discovering the Poznań Project reminded me there are other websites which can provide the documentation we seek for those difficult eastern European locations. A good place to start in finding those other resources, much as it was when I started online researching over twenty years ago, is Cyndi's List, which has ample selections of websites for not only Polish but other countries in the region.

Just on the Poznań Project itself, though, I'm provided with another resource for further information. We may be spoiled in this Internet-based research era and forget our genealogical-researching roots, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded that much of what we seek may still be patiently waiting for us to discover our answers in those old fashionedand slightly nauseatingmicrofilmed records.

In searching my family the other day, the project provided me two clickable links. One explained where I could get further documentation at the National Archive at Poznań. The other, an information page on the specific parish in which I was interestedŻerków, a church of "4260 souls" in 1888, the year before my great grandmother left home to bring her three young children to Americalisted the towns which are included in that specific parish, and showed how I could access further documentation at the state archive. Plus, it provided the specific microfilm numbers to access further records from the LDS Family History Library.

Now that I'm getting used to researching these Polish ancestors, keeping a tab open to Google Translate, I'm ready to take on some of these less user-friendly interfaces on foreign websites. Like any other challenge, it calls for diligence in mounting a learning curve, and patience while we run the research gauntlet on the digital school of hard knocks. But if we don't attempt these challenges, we don't make the headway we're hoping for. Sometimes, brick walls are in our minds, not in reality. The information is out there, somewhere. It just might be in a language we don't understand, locked in a website for which we simply need to acquire the knack of navigating.

Above: The Flower Bed in the Garden, 1891 painting by Polish artist, Władysław Podkowiński; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Never-Ending DNA To-Do List

Stumbling upon one sure-to-be-confirmed DNA match this past week reminded me of all the work yet to be done. To be sure, I've been chipping away at details in many directions, and my stats have helped buoy my enthusiasm, thankfully. In other ways, though, it sometimes seems I am making no headway.

In reveling in my recent Falvey connection, I've been reminded of tasks yet to do which will help make more connections, now that Family Tree DNA has updated its online capabilities. There are tools to help discern which matches belong on the maternal side and which belong on the paternal. But those tools do me no good, so long as I haven't uploaded an updated GEDCOM to my accounts there.

So, in these past two weeks, rather than race through the family trees, adding more collateral lines and sprucing up hint-laden pages, I've been working on the two trees that have been most neglected in the past few months: the paternal lines for both myself and my husband. Rather than the hundreds of individuals you may have seen me add in prior bi-monthly episodes, I seem to be crawling along, inching up to the end of August.

For instance, on my maternal line, I only added forty four to reach the total of 8,518 in that tree. On my husband's maternal side, I added another forty four to total 8,374. But in sprucing up records on my father-in-law's line in anticipation of determining that Falvey match, for the first time in months, I added thirteen to bring the total in his tree to 1,035. And, rocketing through my recent online finds for my own father's Polish roots this month, I was able to add forty seven individuals to his tree of, now, 275 names. Baby steps, but significant discoveries.

Sales at DNA testing companies always make me glad, for with only a lag time of about six weeks, I start seeing the results trickle in, in the form of additional matches. Matches on my maternal side jumped by thirty in the past two weeks, bringing the total at FTDNA to 1,302 matches. I gained an additional twelve matches at Ancestry DNA, as well, bringing my total there to 355.

DNA matches picked up for my husband, as well. Though I hadn't seen any new matches since July 28, by the second half of August, things picked up, bringing twenty four new matches at FTDNA (grand total there now 810), and another four at Ancestry DNA (to total 150). I was able to make two contacts with matches there, confirming one.

Another task I am going to need to tackle soon is to find specific relatives who would be willing to volunteer for DNA testing. It is so vital to have targeted matches to help draw similar matches in one direction or the othermaternal or paternal. Otherwise, those hundreds of matches become one mass of hopelessly inseparable results. Only when we can figure out which category to place all those third and fourth cousins can we make any headway in connecting missing ancestors to the right branches on our tree. I'll be ecstatic if my husband's distant Falvey cousin from New Zealand leads me to a sibling of our Johanna Falveyor even to the next generation upfor then I can understand how to handle those other results which come up as "in common with."

I'm well supplied with test packetshave DNA test, will travel, I suppose. Upcoming trips to visit relatives back home will likely include the question: "Can you spit for me?" If not, at least I'm hoping to find some relatives willing to take a minuscule toothpick-sized brush to the side of their cheek. Oh, the strange things a genetic genealogist might do on a family vacation...

Above: "Landscape Near Rosia," 1903 work by Polish modernist painter Jan Stanisławski; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

DNA Connections and
Another Surprise Email

As excited as I was to get our DNA test resultsboth my husband and I tested at not one, but two different companiesI've found it to be quite tedious to uncover the verification, on paper, of just how we relate to these hundreds of distant cousins. Still, there can be breakthroughs.

Mostly, in all that grunt work, I find myself the one who makes the contact, sends the emails begging for more informationa posted family tree would be a nice touch hereand follows through with further correspondence. It can get wearying.

How nice it was, just the other day, to be the recipient of an email, this time asking me about my tree.

Actually, correct that. The fellow researcher contacting me was inquiring as to my husband's tree. A specific part of it, in fact. One about which I knew I'd never be able to find anything further.

To explain, I'll have to review some details. Back in 2013when we first got word that our daughter might have an opportunity to study abroad in IrelandI had started preparing for the possibility of doing hands-on research in the homeland of my father-in-law's roots. All eight of this man's great grandparents had come from Ireland, and I already had a pretty good idea of where these ancestors had been born.

Some of those "eight greats" I knew better than others, of course, so the challenge was to study up on the weakest links. One of those was the Kelly family from County Kerrythe last of my father-in-law's ancestors to immigrate to the United States.

Anyone who has researched the surname Kelly realizes how common a name it is in Ireland. Add to this the great misfortune of our man being given the name John, one of the most favored names for sons in many countries, including Ireland.

Since John Kelly seemed a daunting research challenge, I decided to focus on his wife's maiden name, which I thought might be somewhat easier to locate. Though I quickly discovered that Johanna Falvey's surname was also quite common in County Kerry, I did find some material on her, but not much.

Some of the most helpful hints in the search for Johanna came from the newspaper obituaries after her passing in Fort Wayne in 1903. There, I found mention of "several sisters and brothers in Ireland"that was from one newspaperor "several sisters living in Ireland and one in New Zealand."

A sibling in New Zealand? How was I to find that? It was a tempting call for more research, but clueless as to how to begin, I did nothing. Well, I did take a peek at the surname distribution, internationally, and discovered that New Zealand had its fair share of Falveys. But that made the task seem even more hopeless. I didn't pursue it any further.

Enter DNA testing. Specifically, enter a DNA test salewhich, by the way, ends next Wednesdayand only three days ago while the digital ink was still wet on the emailed page, I received a message from the administrator for the DNA test results of one gentleman living in New Zealand. Surname? Falvey!

While this Falvey match to my husband falls in that all too often used slot labeled second to fourth cousin, the numbers are some of the strongest of all his matches. We are certain this is not one of those IBS flukesIdentical By State, where genetic matches are merely coincidentalbut a connection through the line of a surname we've already researched.

The problem, of course, is to locate the most recent common ancestor. What is encouraging is the administrator of this match has done research in Ireland, as well, and has some idea of where the family originated. Working together, we hope to unravel the mystery and gain an idea of this family's originat least the place from which Johanna headed to Fort Wayne and this other Falvey ancestor headed to New Zealand.

Above: View of Bebek near Constantinople, 1872 oil on canvas by Polish artist Jan Matejko; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Could This Be Seeing Double?

In a country like mine, filled with Smiths and Browns and Joneses, a surname like Olejniczak just might stick out a bit. Still, a researcher has to resist the urge to rationalize that same name equals same person. After all, I've already discovered in researching my husband's Irish ancestors that Falvey was not as rare a name in County Kerry, Ireland, as I assumed it was in Fort Wayne, Indiana. There might be a similar discovery awaiting me, now that I'm trawling through unfamiliar waters in the region of Poznań, Poland.

Finding the Poznań Projectthat wonderful website made possible by volunteers who are transcribing the nineteenth century marriage records of the now-defunct Province of Posenopened a door through the brick wall keeping me from my Polish roots. With this tool, plus the knowledge that my father's maternal grandparents came from the small town of Żerków in that same province, I felt like a child in my newfound genealogical playground.

I set to work searching all the Laskowski and Gramlewicz surnames I could find in the region. I was elated to see confirmation of my great grandfather's parents' names. Even though I had set the website to its English translation, the rendering of Anton Laskowski's parents as Matthias and Elisabeth was understandable. For one thing, Catholic Church records, often entered in Latin rather than the national language of the local people, would show Anton's parents' names that way. Besides, putting the two given names through a reverse translation processtaking the English version and bringing it back to its likely Polish formgave me exactly the names that had been provided on Anton's death certificate at his passing in New York City in 1935.

On a roll at this point, I decided to see what I could find for Anton's parents' parents. What about finding the marriage record for Mateusz and Elzbieta? After all, she was the one linking me to that Gramlewicz familyand somehow connecting me to my Polish cousin.

Done! Within less than a minute, up came this result for "Matthaeus Laskoski" and "Elisabeth Gramlewicz." I was ecstatic.

Even better, I thought: what about checking out the newfound maiden name of Anton's mother-in-law? Mostly, I was hoping to find a record that included her parents' names. Like an ever unwinding chain, I could see myself rolling back through the generations, unimpeded by the necessity of travel or hands-on research in dusty archives. I was really beginning to like this site.

I entered the surname Olejniczakthe one I mentioned finding, yesterdayand hit the search button to see what would come up. Sure enough, there was a result here, too. Was there anything this search engine couldn't find?

And there it was! Like a yellow brick road, seductively winding its way through the genealogical mystery of my family's generations, the entry included not only the names of Marianna Jankowska's parents, but their parents, as well.

Just as I was beginning to wonder whether this genealogical genie might grant me a full three wishes, something stopped me in my tracks. Despite this website containing only records of the region in which my family originated, the parish for this marriage record was not the one I was expecting. Rather than showing the name I was expectingŻerkówthis was a record from Jaraczewo, wherever that was.

I took a look on the map.

The parish of the wedding in question is circled at the bottom left of this map inset. In contrast, Żerków is at the opposite corner. According to Google Maps, that would be a trip of about fifteen miles. Perhaps a young man in 1854 might travel that distance to find a bride. Perhaps.

There was one other item concerning me, though. As unusual as the surname seemed to my English-reading eyesto say nothing of how it might sound to my American earsmight I be presuming a bit too much in thinking that the Francisca Oleyniczak of this 1854 entry would be one and the same as the Franziska Olejniczak I had found mentioned in their daughter's marriage record in Żerków in 1879?

Besides, based on birth records for their children, I noticed this 1854 marriage record postdated their daughter's June 1853 birthdate. Perhaps this wasn't the right couple, after all.

Yet, that same trend occurred on the other side of the family as well, if records are correct. Not only did the possible parents of Marianna get married after her arrival, but her husband's parents were married two years after Anton's arrival in 1842.

So, do I assume the surname Olejniczak is phonetically the same as Oleyniczak? And that a marriage occurring fifteen miles from Żerkównot to mention, a year after their daughter's birthis just telling me not to sweat the small stuff?

Or is Olejniczak just the Polish way of saying, "Hi, my name is Smith; what's yours?"  

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A New Home for Old Stories

They may just be old pieces of paper, but they tell the stories of people long gone from a place no longer in existence. The papers are marriage records from well over one hundred years ago. The place was once known as the Province of Posenat least to those who took over the territory. To the natives in that area, at least those claiming a Polish heritage, the region was called Poznań.

Poznań was where my father's maternal grandparents were born, and wheresometime after their 1879 weddingthey bid goodbye to their extended family and headed for America.

Finding any proof of that sequence of events had been difficult, until I located the mention of at least Anton's wife and children in a passenger list for the Wieland, arriving in New York in 1889. The ship's document indicated that Marianna Laskowska had reported her last place of residence to be in a small village in Poznań. That place was called Żerków.

Now, knowing the town and the province, one would think I would be equipped to launch out into the wide research world and capture my prize: documents proving the existence of my ancestors. Think again. Not in the international collections at Not at the far-ranging collections offered for free at

My only alternative was to launch out into the deep and brave the international waters, rife with the risks of undecipherable, handwritten notations in languages I cannot read. After all, learning to speak my grandmother's mother tongue is not a genetic propensity.

When a reader at A Family Tapestry passed along the welcome word that there was a website in which I might be interested, I was primed to brave those waters. When I followed the link shared by Patrick Jones, it led me to this site called Geneteka. That became an open doorway to a cache of Polish genealogical records.

There was, of course, one drawback: even in the English language version, it was hard to get around the siteor even to understand exactly what the collection contained.

One bright spot in that struggle, though, was finding a note at the bottom of the website's landing page. It was headed "other databases," followed by clickable links labeled in Polish.

As confusing a language as Polish might seem, with its interminable strings of consonants and its unfamiliar diacritical marks, it does render some words recognizable to English-speaking people, probably because so much of our own lingual heritage is owing to old German words.

Right away, in that list of databases, I spotted the words, "Wielkie Księstwo Poznańskie." I recognized Poznań in that phrasesure enough, Google Translate confirmed that hunch when it told me the phrase means "Grand Duchy of Poznań"and I was headed in a direction sure to yield me my heart's genealogical desire.

I clicked on that link, and it brought me to the website of the Poznań Projecta site made possible by volunteers dedicated to transcribing the nineteenth century marriage records of the historic Province of Posen and ordering them in a free to use, searchable database.

The Poznań Project began in 2000. As of this past June, volunteers from several countries have transcribed 1,389,141 marriage recordsan impressive feat, considering the population of the region was only two million total by 1900. The project's coordinators estimate that number of transcribed records covers about seventy five percent of the total records currently accessible for the time frame they have chosenthe entire nineteenth century. Of course, some documents have been destroyed by ravages of war and other hazards, but for those still in existence, this becomes a wonderful resource, especially for those unable to travel to Poland for research.

An impressive cast of players coalesced to make this genealogical dream possible. The idea started with current coordinator, Łukasz Bielecki who, himself, brings an impressive resume to the table. The computer programming enabling the project to materialize is the work of Maciej Glowiak, who created the search engine. The website itself is hosted by the Poznań Supercomputing and Networking Centre. But the numerous names catalogued in the project itself are there, thanks to the efforts of "dozens" of dedicated volunteer indexers. They even have a Facebook page, albeitof coursemostly in Polish

Just as I've already mentioned about my own ancestorsand their relatives who also emigrated from the regionmost people who find themselves fortunate to have discovered their ancestors were from "Posen" turn out to descend from residents from the region, not the city. There is more to do to locate the actual residence of an ancestor whose documents indicate, simply, "Posen." This website helps researchers drill down to the locale where further documents may be located.

There are success stories, of course. The website includes a brief summary of what one researcher did to locate the roots of a high profile U.S. governmental official, using the Poznań Project. I found another victory report of a more common sort in an article posted at HubPages.

While these may be heartwarming stories, there's nothing like being able to tell about your own victory. And so, putting the Poznań Project through its paces, I looked for any sign of my great grandparents, Anton and Marianna.

Without much trouble at allI did have to ditch my original approach of searching for all Laskowskis and drill down to first names, as wellI found what I was looking for: Anton and his bride were married in 1879, with records found both at the local parish and the civil registry.

Above: Image of the search results for marriage records related to the terms Anton Laskowski and Marianna Jankowska, courtesy of the Poznań Project. Bonus gift from the civil registry: confirming Anton's parents' names (which I already knew) and correcting those for his bride (specifically, her mother's maiden name as Olejniczak, instead of Aktabowski).  



Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tracing Places No Longer on the Map

It's one thing to research your forebears when they come from a recognizable location like France. Or Spain. You know, those places you can find on a map.

When it comes to finding the records to verify your family's origin in a country no longer in existence, that search presents a new question: how do you find the repository for records from such a place?

For most of the census enumerations conducted since my great grandparents arrived in the United States before 1890, the entry made on their behalf was usually "Germany." And for the decades in which that was noted, it would be correct. At that timewhether it was 1900, 1910, or 1930, the last census conducted before they diedthe region Anton and Marianna Laskowski once called home had changed hands from one set of rulers to another.

If you had paid attention to reports of their origin in the earlier census records, you might have thought Anton and Marianna immigrated from Germany. It wasn't until that slip up in the reporting ritual for the 1920 census that I discovered not the country but the region they once considered their home.

That place was enumerated as Posen.

In trying, now, to go back and locate records of their family's births, marriages and deaths, the key is to find the repository for a political jurisdiction which has long since ceased to exist.

In retracing those steps, the first thing I wanted to do was familiarize myself with not only the history of that region, but the current events of the time frame in which the Laskowski familyand their relatives, the Gramlewiczeschose to leave their homeland.

As I've mentioned before, Posen was how the Germans referred to a city the Polish called Poznań. Learning about Poznań brought up many fascinating details. For instance, it is one of the oldest of Poland's cities, dating back to the tenth century. It is also home to Poland's first cathedral. Political struggles over the centuries meant that the city changed hands often. It also meant the area was often war-torn. By the time my ancestors were ready to flee the area, the cityby then under Prussian rulehad begun building a series of new fortifications in response to all the turmoil.

Knowing that about the city of Poznań was informative, but it missed one crucial point: that name was not just used to designate the city by that name, but also the region surrounding it. Similar to my own circumstancesin which, when I say I'm from New York, I could be indicating either the city or the statewhen my great grandparents told that census enumerator in 1920 they were from Posen, they meant the region, not specifically the city.

That region of Poznań had a history of its own, as well. Established in 1815 following the Napoleonic Wars, it was to be a semi-autonomous part of the Kingdom of Prussia. Designated the Grand Duchy of Posen, it turned out not to be, in practice, the theoretical haven of rights for its Polish residents as had been promised with the Congress of Vienna.

With changes in Prussian governmental dictates, Poles saw increasingly difficult times, which eventually led to revolution in 1848. The main result of the fighting was that Posen lost some autonomy, though it continued, as part of the Prussian domain, to be referred to as the Province of Posen, up through the year 1918.

Of course, with the conclusion of the Great Warnot to mention, the war that followed the War to End all WarsPrussia as a political entity ceased to be. By that point, my direct line ancestors were thankfully long gone from the region of Poznań. But because they once called that region homeand the place where they married and raised their childrenI wanted to retrace the steps of their lives and see what documentation could be found to verify their stay in Poznań.

But where do you look for records from a country no longer in existence?

As it turned out, at least in this case, an intrepid cadre of genealogical volunteers have found a way to help people like me find those records I've been desiring to see. In a website primarily set in the Polish languagebut fairly easily negotiated, thanks to translation servicesI've found (and can't wait to share) the digital home for at least the marriage records of what was once the Prussian Province of Posen.     

Above: Charge of Poznań Cavalry during November Uprising; 1886 oil on canvas by Polish historical painter Juliusz Fortunat Kossak; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Giving Those Online Translators
a Workout

In order to find and put to use those foreign online databases promising to help discover my Polish roots, it wasn't just a matter of clicking "translate this page" and jumping in. Before I could track down those Polish roots of my Gramlewicz relatives, I had to do some foundational preparation.

For one thing, websites like the one recommended in a recent comment by fellow genea-blogger Patrick Jones included clickable icons signifying on-site translation services. Those were, however, abysmal in my opinion.

There was another option. As I've mentioned before, Google Translate has become my friend. I got quite handy at popping back and forth between the open window for my Polish webpage and the window for the Google translation service.

Still, there were problems with this option. If it had been a translation from a language often used in the U.S.—Spanish comes to mind here—results would likely have been far more satisfying in their accuracy than the results I got, moving from Polish to English. There were far too many sentence results that seemed to make no sense whatsoever in the target language—results like "lack of position" or "crawl your Świerczyńska." Obviously, someone needed to head back to the drawing board on these.

There are more options in my translation bag of tricks, obviously. The main tool turned out to be an outright switch from one browser to another. I'm generally a habitual user of Firefox and never opted to make the move to Chrome when it was developed. However, I'm aware of the translating powers of Google Chrome, so when faced with these sticky translation messes, I simply cut and pasted the URLs into a different window, using the Chrome browser.

I have several websites that I've stumbled upon, now that I'm researching my Polish roots, and it helps immensely to be able to understand what those jaw-breaking, consonant-packed multi-syllabic words are saying to me. Between Google Translate for shorter phrases, and Chrome to handle the heavy lifting of entire webpages, I've made some research headway. And even if those failed to provide understandable results, I found that if I just googled the actual website name—or even a portion of what I was trying to find—it would sometimes produce leads to other websites which provided translations in a more intact state.

Still, in researching my roots in a very specific part of Poland, I needed to add yet another step to my preparatory work. Because my family left Poland back in the late 1800s when national borders in that part of Europe were very different than they are today, getting up to speed on which part of Poland would be the correct geo-political location for that time frame became essential. 

Part handiwork in using what translation services were available online, part detective work via search engines themselves, and part putting resultant Polish websites through their paces, all of these steps required yet another process: the work of discovering the very history of a region now no longer in existence: the region the Germans used to call Provinz Posen, and the Polish referred to as Prowincja Poznańska.

Above: "Four-in-Hand," 1881 oil on canvas by Polish artist Józef Chełmoński; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
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