The Robert Spencers of Canajoharie and Stamford, Upper Canada

Happy May!  The past few weeks have been really busy, and it seems like forever since I’ve had a chance to sit down and write. However, I’m seizing the day, and taking this opportunity to share a little bit more about my Canadian Loyalist ancestor, Robert Spencer (Sr.). Robert Spencer is a reasonably prominent individual in early Canadian history, being a Loyalist and all, and he has quite a number of proud descendants. So in sharing these records, I don’t mean to suggest that any of these discoveries are new — just that I find old documents like this to be especially cool.

As noted previously, Robert’s grandson, Adam Spencer, wrote his memoirs concerning his grandfather, and these recollections provide some wonderfully fertile ground for record-seeking. Adam recalled that his grandparents “settled on a farm of 200 acres at Schoharie beside the Mohawk,”and that

 “….grandfather joined the British standard, as a member of a volunteer corps, which company were noted for their daring bravery. Robert’s action in joining the British incensed his neighbors, many of whom were in sympathy with the Rebels (as they were called), that in his absence the family was robbed, and sadly dispoiled of their goods….his farm at Schoharie was confiscated to the state….” 1

This particular bit of the story can be documented with a manuscript recently digitized by the New York Public Library, entitled, List of loyalists against whom judgments were given under the Confiscation Act, 1783 which was first compiled in 1802.2 This manuscript contains two references to Robert Spencer (Figure 1)

Robert Spencer indictment & judgment closeup page marked
Figure 1:  Entries for Robert Spencer in the List of Loyalists against whom judgements were given under the Confiscation Act, 1783.2

In both entries, Robert Spencer is reported to be from Canajohary (sic) in Tryon County. In the first entry at the top, he is reported to be a farmer, whereas in the second entry, he is recorded as a yeoman. The date of indictment, located in the next column, is recorded as “10th October 6th Indepen,” which is a reference to the 6th year of American independence, i.e. 1780. The judgement was signed on 15 July 1783 (Figure 2).2

Figure 2: Excerpt from manuscript showing indictment and judgement dates for Robert Spencer, farmer (line 1).2

The second entry for Robert Spencer, yeoman, indicates a different date of indictment, “14 June 5th Indepen” but with the same date of judgement, 15 July 1783 (Figure 3).2

Judgement 2
Figure 3:  Excerpt from manuscript showing indictment and judgement dates for Robert Spencer, yeoman (blocked out in red).2

How do we interpret these two different entries? That’s a good question. Robert Spencer was known to have a son, also named Robert Spencer, whose birth circa 1772 was recorded in the Dutch Reformed Church in Fonda, New York (Figure 3).3

Robert Spencer Jr birth 1772
Figure 3:  Birth record for Robert Spencer, son of Robert Spenser (sic) and Catrina Sternberg, born 10 August 1772 baptized 30 August 1772.3

The reason I say “circa” with reference to Robert’s birth is that the original record book seems to have been falling apart, so the original pages were apparently taped into a new notebook (shown above), but also recopied into yet another notebook (Figure 4), such that Ancestry offers three different “original” sources — with different dates —  for the same event (Figures 4 and 5).4,5

Robert Spencer Jr birth 2
Figure 4: Birth record for Robert Spenser (sic) son of Robert Spenser and Catrina Sternberg, born 10 August 1770, baptized 30 August 1772.4
Robert Spencer Jr birth 3
Figure 5:  Birth record for Robert Spenser (sic), son of Robert Spencer and Catrina Sternberg, born 10 August 1773, baptized 30 August 1773.5

In fact, if you’ll notice, Figures 5 and 3 are both clearly images of the same original, although the image in Figure 3 is a little nicer and more legible. However, Figure 3 was from “The Archives of the Reformed Church in America; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Reformed Church of Fonda, Baptisms, Marriages, Members, Consistory Minutes, 1758-1839,” whereas Figure 5 was from a collection with a slightly different title, “The Archives of the Reformed Church in America; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Fonda Church, Baptisms, Marriages, 1797-1872,” all of which just goes to show you how important it is to understand the original source and its history as much as possible.

In any case, these “different” sources make it clear that Robert Spencer, Jr., was born circa 1772, which would have made him about 8 years old in 1780 at the time of the first indictment, or 7 years old in 1779 at the time of the second indictment. Could it be, then, that Robert Spencer, farmer, and Robert Spencer, yeoman, are father and son? Might a boy have had property in his name, and thus be subject to having the property confiscated due to his family’s Loyalist sentiments? Might the two indictments be referring to two different parcels of land, both owned by the same Robert Spencer, presumably the father? Could this be evidence of two different adult Robert Spencers, both Loyalists and both living in Canajoharie? Evidence from later Canadian sources does not seem to favor this last theory, but clearly, I’m going to have to dig deeper into the social and legal history of that time and place in order to understand this document.

The next part of Robert Spencer Sr.’s land story, as told to us by his grandson Adam, is that,

“….at the close of the war, the British government gave to the sufferers land in Canada in lieu of their losses as well as a reward for their services. When Robert got his discharge from the army, he went direct to Niagara and wrote this family to join him there…. In a short time he drew 200 acres of land, situated at the summit of the Whirlpool, where the united family settled, and soon succeeded in making a comfortable home.” 6

Loyalist Land Petitions are available online via the Library and Archives of Canada site. There are several databases in which these records might be found, based on date and location. Robert Spencer’s land petition was found in the database, “Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865),” which can be searched here. Robert’s petition (Figure 6) supports many of Adam’s recollections about his grandfather.

Robert Spencer Land Petition page 3 cropped
Figure 6: First page of Robert Spencer, Sr.’s petition for land, dated 1797.7

As the document states, the petitioner, Robert Spencer Sr.,

“Respectfully Shews —

That your petitioner served His Majesty last War in Colonel Butler’s late Corps of Rangers, and as only received 100 acres of land, which he has cultivated and improved — That your Petitioner brought in his family from the States in the Year 1785, which then consisted of a Wife and Six Children — That your Petitioner lost his wife four years ago, but hopes your Honor will be pleased to consider him as having served His Majesty during the late War, and having a large family to provide for will be pleased to grant him his residue as a reduced soldier, and such further grant for himself his family, as your Honor may think proper, and your petitioner will as in duty bound ever pray —  Robert [his mark, X] Spencer

Niagara, 27th Jany ’97”

This wonderful document verifies Robert’s service in Butler’s Rangers, which was the “volunteer corps” alluded to by Adam Spencer. It also verifies the year of the family’s arrival in Upper Canada, the number of his children, the date of his wife Catherine’s death, and their place of residence in the Niagara district.

The file also contains evidence that Robert’s petition was successful.  A second page states that,

“The Petition of Robert Spencer — 143 [was] rec’d 27th Jany 1797 [at the Executive Council Office] Read [in Council] on 11 Mar 1797. Ordered 200 acres to complete his Military Lands and 350 acres family lands if not granted before.” 7

Robert Spencer Land Petition page 2 crop
Figure 7:  Second page of Robert Spencer, Sr.’s petition for land, dated 1797.7

Although a period map showing Robert Spencer’s land grants is not available online, the Niagara Settlers site offers a database in which one can search for settlers’ names on early maps. According to their database, Robert Spencer’s land grants are shown on two maps:

On an undated map of Township No. 2—Stamford (Mount Dorchester) in the Surveyor General’s Office, probably drawn in the mid to late 1780’s, Robert Spencer was named on Lots 16 and 17 Concession 2 from the Niagara River a short distance north of Niagara Falls. The lot was later renumbered.

On a map of the Township of Stamford by Surveyor Thos. Ridout, dated December 22, 1813, Robert Spencer was named on Lots 74 and 119 Stamford Twp.”

The site offers links to versions of these two maps, which were redrawn in 1983 by Maggie Parnall from her publication, The Mini Atlas of Early Settlers in the District of Niagara, which is currently out of print. The undated Stamford map is found here, and the 1813 map is found here.

As you can see from those maps, the location of Robert Spencer’s land is consistent with Adam Spencer’s recollection that his grandfather’s lands were “situated at the summit of the Whirlpool.”  Note that these particular maps are oriented “upside down” with South at the top of the compass rose, but it’s clear that Robert’s lands were pretty much opposite the bend in the river where the whirlpool is located. If you examine the modern map at that location, you can see that this land is more or less where the Whirlpool Golf Course is located now (Figure 8).

Whirlpool golf course
Figure 8: Whirlpool Golf Course, Niagara Falls, Ontario, courtesy of Google Maps.

Someday I look forward to tracing the property records more thoroughly so I can understand how the lands granted to my ancestor from the British Crown became a golf course, but that’s another research project for another day.



Spencer, Adam.  “OId Time Experiences In the Bush and On the Farm”.  Canadian Friends Historical Association 19 (March 1977):  p. 5-6, transcribed from “At Rest:  Adam Spencer Called Home,” Norwich Gazette, 29 August 1889, p. 3, col. 5.

2 List of loyalists against whom judgments were given under the Confiscation Act, 1783, compiled 1802; Image 25, entries for Robert Spencer, farmer, of Canajohary, Tryon County, and Robert Spencer, yeoman, of Canajohary, Tryon County, accessed on 10 May 2017; Thomas Addis Emmet collection; Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, New York, NY., U.S., Dutch Reformed Church Records in Selected States, 1639-1989 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations, Inc., 2014),, The Archives of the Reformed Church in America; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Reformed Church of Fonda, Baptisms, Marriages, Members, Consistory Minutes, 1758-1839, record for Robert Spenser, accessed on 10 May 2017., U.S., Dutch Reformed Church Records in Selected States, 1639-1989 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations, Inc., 2014),, The Archives of the Reformed Church in America; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Fonda Church, Baptisms, Marriages, 1797-1872. Record for Robert Spenser, accessed on 10 May 2017., U.S., Dutch Reformed Church Records in Selected States, 1639-1989 (Provo, UT, USA, Operations, Inc., 2014),, The Archives of the Reformed Church in America; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Fonda Church, Baptisms, Marriages, 1797-1872. Record for Robert Spencer, accessed on 10 May 2017.

Spencer, Adam, “OId Time Experiences In the Bush and On the Farm,”  Canadian Friends Historical Association 19 (March 1977):  p. 6, transcribed from “At Rest:  Adam Spencer Called Home,” Norwich Gazette, 29 August 1889, p. 3, col. 5.

7“Upper Canada Land Petitions (1763-1865)”, Government of Canada, Library and Archives of Canada (, Niagara, 1797, Land Petition for Robert Spencer, Volume 449, Bundle S-2, Petition 143, Reference RG 1 L3, Microfilm C-2806, digital images 994- 997.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

The Sad Tale of the Zieliński Family of Mistrzewice

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Stanisław Zieliński was born on 6 April 1863, the third child and oldest son of the known children of Michał Zieliński and Antonina Ciećwierz. He married Marianna Kalota, daughter of Roch Kalota and Agata Kurowska, circa 1885, probably in Marianna’s home parish of Młodzieszyn. Unfortunately, most vital records for Młodzieszyn were destroyed, including all marriage records prior to 1889, which likely explains why their marriage record has not been found.  The Zieliński family were ethnic Poles living in historically Polish lands that were at that time part of the Russian Empire. Like his father, Michał, Stanisław Zieliński was a gospodarz, which Shea and Hoffman define as a “farmer (one fairly well off, owning his own land), landlord.”Stanisław and Marianna made their home in Mistrzewice, where his parents were living, rather than in the nearby village of Budy Stare, where Marianna was born.

On 16 September 1886, Stanisław and Marianna welcomed their first child:  a son, Franciszek.  A second son, Antoni, was born on 6 May 1889. However, he only lived for 5 months before passing away on 5 October 1890.  Families were all too accustomed to high infant mortality in those days, so perhaps it was some consolation to Marianna and Stanisław that she was already pregnant with their third child as they buried little Antoni.  Their third son, Piotr, was born on 4 May 1891, but his death was recorded in the parish books of Mistrzewice only one week later.

Little Franciszek had already turned six years old when his brother Józef was born on 10 October 1892. Two years later, on Christmas Eve, another brother, Szczepan, joined the family. Stanisław and Marianna welcomed two more sons, Władysław and Jan, on 20 March 1897 and 20 March 1899, respectively, and then three daughters were born:  Władysława, on 25 June 1901, Marianna, on 14 September 1903, and Zofia, on 25 November 1907.  Sadly, little Marianna lived for just two and a half months2 before she joined her brothers Antoni and Piotr in the parish cemetery.

In March of 1907, Franciszek decided to head out into the world and seek employment opportunities in America.  A young man, 21 years of age, he had already completed three years of compulsory military service in the Russian infantry, which was a distasteful obligation for most Poles. It’s not clear what factors influenced him in his decision to leave his homeland, but at the end of March in 1907, Franciszek departed from the Port of Bremen, arriving at Ellis Island on 7 April 1907. He was bound for Buffalo, New York.

There is some evidence to suggest that Frank’s younger brother, Joseph, joined him in the U.S. circa 1909 and then returned to Poland prior to his “official” arrival in the U.S. in 1912. The best match for Frank Zielinski in the 1910 U.S. census was to a man who was boarding with Anthony and Mary Lapinski in Buffalo, New York, along with another boarder, Joseph “Rzolek,” — and one Joseph Zielinski, all immigrants from Russian Poland. In this document, Frank and Joseph Zielinski are reported to be ages 26 and 20, respectively, suggesting birth years of 1884 and 1890, making them both exactly two years older than expected for my relatives. Frank reported arriving in the U.S. in 1906, while Joseph reported arriving in 1909. (No good match for his passenger manifest circa 1909 has been located as of yet.) Both men were working in a foundry (possibly Lackawanna Steel Company), Frank as a molder and Joseph as a core maker.  These occupations are interesting in light of the fact that Joseph reported his occupation as molder on the record of his 1915 marriage to Genevieve Klaus. Nonetheless, Zielinski is a very common Polish surname — so much so that the 1925 New York State Census shows a 35-year-old boarder named Joseph Zielinski living with the family of my great-grandparents Joseph and Genevieve Zielinski in North Tonawanda. When I asked my grandfather, John Zielinski, about that boarder, he remembered the man and insisted he was not a relative, it was just a crazy coincidence.

There is no evidence to suggest that Frank returned to Poland after his arrival in the U.S. in 1907. However, if the Joseph in the 1910 census is my great-grandfather, then he must have gone back to Poland some time after April 27, 1910 and then returned to the U.S. on 3 September 1912 on the S.S. Grosser Kurfürst, which is the date which corresponds to his arrival per his naturalization papers. The passenger described on this manifest is an incontrovertible match to my great-grandfather. On line 3, “Josef Zelinski” is reported to be a 20-year-old Pole from Russia whose last residence was “Mestanice,” and whose father, Stanisław Zelinski, was living in “Mistrzewice, Warsaw.” Joseph was headed to North Tonawanda, New York, and the second page reveals that he was specifically headed to his brother, Franciszek Zielinski at 7 Sawyer Avenue. His place of birth was recorded as something vaguely akin to “Mistrzewice.” Interestingly, Joseph’s answers to the questions about any previous travel to the U.S, support the idea that he was not in the U.S. previously, and it’s difficult to state with certainty that the Joseph Zielinski in the 1910 census is indeed the same man.

By 1915, Frank was boarding with the family of Joseph and Mary Brodowski at 65 7th Avenue in North Tonawanda and working as a laborer in the steel mill.  His brother Joseph was similarly working in the steel mill while boarding down the street with the family of Peter and Bronisława Kwiatkowski at 44 7th Avenue in North Tonawanda — but not for long.  On 5 October of that year, Joseph married 18-year-old Genowefa (Genevieve) Klaus.

Figure 1:  Józef Zieliński and Genowefa Klaus, 5 October 1915, North Tonawanda, New York.Genowefa Klaus and Jozef Zielinski wedding.jpg

Joseph’s brother, Frank, seated on the bride’s left, was his best man (Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Wedding party of Józef Zieliński and Genowefa Klaus, 5 October 1915. Genevieve Klaus & Joseph Zielinski wedding party

Genevieve was born in North Tonawanda to Andrzej and Marianna (née Łącka) Klaus, Polish immigrants from the Galicia region of the Austrian Empire. As Józek and Genia (Joe and Jenny, as they were called in English) settled into married life, however, his family in Poland was experiencing dark days. World War I was raging in Europe, and Mistrzewice, situated in the path of the advancing German army on its way to Warsaw, found itself in the midst of battle. The period from December 1914 through July 1915 witnessed the harshest devastation at the hands of both the Germans and the Russians.  German soldiers stripped homes and farms in Mistrzewice, Młodzieszyn, and the surrounding villages of whatever materials they could repurpose for the building of fortifications and trenches. As the Germany army advanced, many Polish peasants became refugees, fleeing eastward in the hope of survival.  However, as the Russian army retreated, they were ordered to “expel the ‘enemy’ nations within,” killing Poles, Jews, and other ethnic groups in keeping with the Tsarist policy of ethnic homogenization. It is estimated that 70,000 soldiers were killed on both sides during this battle of the Rawka-Bzura, some of whom were buried in the cemeteries in Mistrzewice and Młodzieszyn, and there are no good estimates for the number of civilian peasants from this area who were casualities of the war.

It was on August 13 of that year that Frank and Joseph’s youngest sister, 7-year-old Zofia, died. Her death certificate does not reveal her cause of death. Did she die of some childhood illness like her siblings?  Was her death a direct cause of the war — being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim of a stray bullet? Or did her family try to flee the village, and she perished as a result of the typhus, choleratyphoid, malaria, or dysentery that were prevalent among both soldiers and refugees? What is clear from her death record is that her death was not reported until 31 December 1915 because of the war (Figure 3).

Figure 3:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Zofia Zielińska, 1915.Zofia Zielinska death 1915 cropIn translation, this document states,

“#102. Mistrzewice. This happened in the village of Młodzieszyn on the thirty-first day of December in the year one thousand nine hundred fifteen at five o’clock in the afternoon. They appeared, Piotr Szewczyk, age fifty, and Ludwik Grzegorek, age sixty-eight, farmers residing in the village of Mistrzewice, and stated that, on the thirteenth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred fifteen, at six o’clock in the afternoon, died in the village of Mistrzewice, Zofia Zielińska, a girl having seven years of age, daughter of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna nee Kalota, the spouses Zieliński, land-owning farmers residing in the village of Mistrzewice; born and residing with her parents in the village of Mistrzewice. The delay in the registration of this act happened due to the war. After confirmation of the death of Zofia Zielińska, this document was read aloud to the witnesses but was signed only by Us. [Signed] Fr. K. Kopański, administrator of Młodzieszyn parish performing the duties of civil registrar.”

Just four months after Zofia’s death and two months after his son Joseph’s wedding in North Tonawanda, Stanisław Zieliński passed away on 23 December 1915.3  At the time of his death, his sons Szczepan, Władysław and Jan were 21, 18 and 16, respectively, and daughter Władysława was 14 years old. It’s not clear how, or if, the boys managed to avoid conscription into the Russian Army. Szczepan’s death record in June of 1916 mentions only that he was born in the village of Mistrzewice and was residing there with his mother (Figure 4).

Figure 4:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Szczepan Zieliński, 1916.4Szczepan Zielinski death 1916 cropTranslation:

“#78. Mistrzewice. This happened in the village of Młodzieszyn on the sixteenth day of June in the year one thousand nine hundred sixteen at six o’clock in the morning. They appeared, Piotr Szewczyk, age sixty, and Ludwik Grzegorek, age sixty-two, farmers residing in the village of Mistrzewice, and stated that, on the fourteenth day of June in the current year, at six o’clock in the morning, died in the village of Mistrzewice, Szczepan Zieliński, bachelor, aged twenty, son of Stanisław and Maryanna nee Kalota, the spouses Zieliński, landowning farmers; born in the village of Mistrzewice and residing there with his mother. After eyewitness confirmation of the death of Szczepan Zieliński, this document was read to the illiterate witnesses and was signed only by us.[signed] Administrator of the parish of Młodzieszyn acting as civil registrar, Fr. Kaj. Kopański.”

Although no mention is made of military service, it is nonetheless possible that the Szczepan was fighting in the war.  A genealogist friend in Poland explained that death records would sometimes state that the deceased was a soldier, and indicate what country he was killed in, but that it depended on the priest.  Many priests were afraid to disclose such information. In the parish of Baranowo, he explained, a priest was killed by a Russian officer for singing the song, “Boże, coś Polskę” Many people lived in fear.

Meanwhile, in North Tonawanda, Joe and Jenny welcomed their first child, John Frank Zielinski (my grandfather), on 18 October 1916 (Figure 5).

Figure 5:  John Frank Zielinski, circa early 1917.John Zielinski circa 1916

But while the family in North Tonawanda thrived and grew, the family in Mistrzewice continued to suffer, and on 13 April 1917, Joe Zielinski’s brother Jan died at the age of 18 (Figure 6).5 

Figure 6:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Jan Zieliński, 1917.Jan Zielinski death 1917 crop

Again, no mention was made of the cause of death, and whether it was a direct or indirect result of the war. The record only states that he was born in the village of Mistrzewice in the local parish and was living there with his mother.

On 6 April 1917, the U.S. declared war on the German Empire, and in June of that year, Joseph and Frank were required to register for the draft. As resident aliens, they were supposed to be placed in Draft Class V:  Exempt and Ineligible. However, local draft boards had the authority to assign draft classes on a case-by-case basis, and Frank Zielinski’s status as a single man with prior military experience and no dependents made him a desirable candidate for the draft, regardless of the fact that he was a Russian citizen. The particulars of Frank’s military story are an interesting tale in themselves (and a topic on which I’ve lectured previously), and deserve to be told in depth at another time. But as his service record indicates, Frank was inducted on 24 February 1918, and sent overseas on 7 April 1918 as a member of the 307th Infantry Regiment, Company C. Frank Zielinski was killed in action on 25 October 1918, shot through the head by a sniper’s bullet.6 The oldest son of Stanisław and Marianna Zieliński is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France, although available evidence suggests that he was never naturalized, and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever wished to be an American citizen (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Gravesite of Frank Zielinski.MA-Zielinski, Frank, C-14-10

Joe and Jenny Zielinski’s second child, Frank Walter, was born  on 2 September 1918, named after his uncle who was serving in the war.  The following spring, Joseph Zielinski filed his Declaration of Intent to Naturalize on 18 March 1919. 7 His family in North Tonawanda was growing, and he must have felt that life in the U.S. was good.  As further evidence of Joe’s intentions to remain in the U.S., correspondence with the U.S. Quartermaster General’s office, dated 13 March 1919, indicates that Joe wished to have his brother’s remains returned home for burial in North Tonawanda (Figures 8a and 8b), although he was concerned about the expense of shipping the body.8 

Figure 8a:  First page of letter from Joseph Zielinski to the Quartermaster General’s Office, dated 13 March 1919.Page 23 March 13 1919 Letter from Joseph Zielinski cropped

Figure 8b:  Second page of letter from Joseph Zielinski to Quartermaster General’s Office.Page 24 Letter from Joseph Zielinski p 2

As the family flourished in the U.S., it continued to diminish in Poland. That autumn, on 30 September 1919, Joe’s 17-year-old sister, Władysława, died in Mistrzewice.7 Her death left only 22-year-old Władysław to manage the family farm and care for his aging mother, Marianna. However, eighteen months later, tragedy struck the Zieliński family in Poland once more, as Władysław Zieliński died on 23 March 1921, a few days after his 24th birthday.10  It’s difficult to imagine what a great loss this must have been for Marianna.  She had borne 10 children, and 9 of them preceded her in death, including 8 children who died before the age of 30. Her only surviving son was living in the U.S., leaving her alone in Poland to manage the farm as a 64-year-old widow.

Władysław’s death was almost certainly the impetus for Joe Zielinski’s decision to move his family back to Poland. Although his uncle’s death was not mentioned by my grandfather, Grandpa clearly remembered traveling to Poland as a young boy, and living there for a period of time that he remembered as about 6 months. Their exact departure date is not known, but they were definitely gone by 28 April 1921.  Additional correspondence from Frank Zielinski’s burial records file indicates that a letter sent to Joe Zielinski was returned on that date, marked “undelieverable” by the Post Office in North Tonawanda with the additional note, “Old Country” (Figure 9):

Figure 9:  Copy of envelope returned to the Quartermaster General’s Office by the North Tonawanda, New York post office.Page 31 Apr 28 1921 Envelope to Jos Zielinski marked undeliverable.jpg

When they departed for Poland in the spring of 1921, Joe and Jenny’s family included 4 1/2 year old John, almost-3-year-old Frank, and baby Helen, born 2 August 1920.  Jenny was also newly pregnant with their fourth child, Stanley Joseph (named after his paternal grandfather Stanisław and his father), who would be born on 11 November 1921. The family traveled on board the R.M.S. Olympic — sister ship to the Titanic (Figures 10a and 10b).

Figure 10a: Original postcard from the Zielinskis’ voyage to Poland, showing the Olympic.R.M.S. Olympic postcard

Figure 10b:  Reverse of the postcard.Reverse of postcard from RMS Olympic

Although he was very young, my Grandpa vividly remembered certain experiences from the trip:  tasting bananas for the first time on board the ship, chasing oranges that the sailors would roll across the ship’s deck for the children, and staring at all the soldiers’ helmets still lying in the creek behind his grandmother’s farm, a grim reminder of the recent war. He recalled riding in a horse-drawn wagon to the markets in Sochaczew and Warsaw. And he remembered his grandmother, Marianna, as a rather unkind woman.  This impression was confirmed by Grandpa’s maternal cousin Julia Ziomek, who was three years older than he, and who shared with me her memories of conversations with her Aunt Jenny about that trip to Poland.  Julia’s stories suggest that Joe and Jenny may have considered this as a permanent relocation.  She recalled that Aunt Jenny had shipped packages of household supplies to Poland in advance of their journey, with the expectation that her mother-in-law would keep these things and have them ready for Jenny to set up housekeeping upon their arrival.  Instead, Marianna deemed the items unnecessary, and donated them to the parish priest, which caused some consternation upon Jenny and Joe’s arrival. Cousin Julia also recalled Jenny’s comments about the unkindness of her mother-in-law to her children, scolding them harshly and calling them “dim-witted.” After only a few months, Jenny was ready to go back home to North Tonawanda, and apparently, Joe was persuaded. On 10 August 1921, my American-born grandfather entered Ellis Island with his family to resume the life they’d left behind.

Marianna Zielińska’s remembered harshness seems much more understandable in light of these new death records that tell the whole story of her suffering and loss.  One can easily forgive a lack of patience with the children, given that she had just buried her ninth child when my grandfather and his family arrived in Poland.  Perhaps she was embittered by so much loss and heartbreak, leaving her fearful of becoming emotionally close to her grandchildren. Perhaps Joe and Jenny tried to persuade her to sell the farm and return with them to North Tonawanda, and Marianna’s ill-temper arose from the stress of having to choose between her surviving son and her homeland.  Although those details are lost, it is known that Marianna remained in Poland, moving in with her sister in Budy Stare. She died on 4 April 1936 (Figure 11).11 

Figure 11:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Marianna Zielińska, 1936.Marianna Zielinska death 1936Translation:

“No. 16, Budy Stare. It happened in Młodzieszyn on 4th April 1936 at 8:00 in the morning. They appeared, Stanisław Wilanowski, age 40, farmer of Mistrzewice, and Kazimierz Tomczak, farmer of Juliopol, age 26, and stated that, on this day today, at 5:00 in the morning, in Budy Stare, died Marianna née Kalota Zielińska, widow, age 79, born and residing with her sister in Budy Stare, daughter of the late Roch and Agata née Kurowska, farmers. After eyewitness testimony to the death of Marianna Zielińska, this document was read aloud to the witnesses but signed only by us. Pastor of the Parish of Młodzieszyn acting as Civil Registrar.”

Rest in peace now, Marianna.  Your story has been told.


Where possible, sources are linked directly within the text. Citations for sources not available online appear below.

1 Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman, In Their Words:  A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin and Russian Documents:  Volume I:  Polish, (New Britain, CT: Language & Lineage Press, 2000), p. 305.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1903, #102, death record for Marianna Zielińska.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1915, #101, death record for Stanisław Zieliński.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1916, #78, death record for Szczepan Zieliński.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1917, #20, death record for Jan Zieliński.

Report from Private Henry Davies regarding Frank Zielinski’s cause of death, Records of the Quartermaster General’s Office, 1915-1939, Burial Case File for Private Frank Zerlintski, serial number 1680271, Record Group 92, National Archives Identifier 595318, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

Niagara, New York, Naturalization Records, Declarations of Intent to Naturalize, #4244, record for Joseph Zielinski, 18 March 1919.

8 Letter from Joseph Zielinski to the Quartermaster General’s office regarding disposition of remains of Private Frank Zielinski, dated 13 March 1919, Records of the Quartermaster General’s Office, 1915-1939, Burial Case File for Private Frank Zerlintski, serial number 1680271, Record Group 92, National Archives Identifier 595318, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1919, #75, death record for Władysława Zielińska.

10 Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1921, #24, death record for Władysław Zieliński.

11 Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1936, #16, death record for Marianna Zielińska.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

The Case of the Zombie Bride: Epilogue

In my last post, I mentioned a recent batch of records gifted to me by a friend in Poland, which finally gave me insight into the reason why I have no remaining cousins left in Mistrzewice, which was the ancestral home of my great-grandfather, Józef Zieliński. To briefly recap, I’d been holding out hope that there might be some Zieliński cousins in the village of Bęczkowice, since a marginal note on the baptismal record for my great-grandfather’s sister, Władysława, stated that she married Józef Żak in that parish in 1923. However, I discovered the death record of this same Władysława Zielińska in 1919, suggesting that one of these records was incorrect:  either the priest recorded the wrong name on the death record, or he recorded the marriage notation incorrectly. I had hoped it was the latter — on my first pass through that recent batch of records for Młodzieszyn, I did not see any marriage or death record for my great-grandfather’s sister, Marianna Zielińska. I hoped that perhaps the priest meant to record her marriage in 1923 and recorded it on her sister’s baptismal record by mistake. The only way to know for certain was to call the parish in Bęczkowice or the civil registry office in Łęki Szlacheckie, and request a copy of the marriage record.

This past week, I received my answer, and it was not an outcome I’d anticipated. It was, indeed, Władysława Zielińska from the parish in Młodzieszyn who married Józef Żak in Bęczkowice in 1923. However, it was a different Władysława Zielińska. As you can see from a search of birth records in Geneteka for this parish, there were two girls named Władysława Zielińska who were close in age (Figure 1):

Figure 1: Search result for births in Młodzieszyn of girls named Władysława Zielińska.Geneteka search for Wladyslawa

My great-grandaunt was the one born in 1901, daughter of Stanisław and Marianna Kalota. The marriage record from Bęczkowice specified that the bride’s parents were Władysław and Weronika Nowicka. So the priest recorded the marriage notation on the wrong baptismal record, and Bęczkowice is a dead end for me — there is no hope of finding Zieliński cousins there.

What, then, became of Władysława’s sister, Marianna Zielińska?  A second, more thorough pass through the records produced her death record in 1903.1 What of the other siblings, Szczepan, Władysław, Jan, and Zofia?  I’d like to tell their story in more detail, within the context of the family history, in another post.  So until next time, happy researching.


Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1903, #102, death record for Marianna Zielińska

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

The Case of the Zombie Bride

Genealogy friends are pretty great to have.  Some of them are even so awesome that they remember your parishes of interest and surprise you with a gift of records from that parish, just because they know you’ll be thrilled.  I’m lucky enough to have a friend like that. He happened to have access to some civil registers from my ancestral parish of Młodzieszyn, where my Zieliński and Kalota ancestors were from, and gifted me with some key records for my family.  Since these marriage and death records are more than 80 years old, they’re open to the public.  However, my friend’s generosity saved me from a lengthy wait for the civil registrar to reply to my letter, or from the necessity of hiring a researcher to obtain these documents from the local registry office on my behalf.

The records answered a question that’s been plaguing me for several years now:  why don’t I have any living Zieliński relatives in Mistrzewice?  I rather expected that I would. I’ve been able to connect with cousins in Poland who were still living in another village, Bronisławy, which my great-grandfather Jan Zarzycki left in 1895.  Based on this experience, I expected to find some trace of my Zieliński family in Mistrzewice, the village in which my great-grandfather Józef (Joseph) Zieliński was born, and where he lived as recently as 1921, when he returned to Poland with his American-born wife, Genowefa (Genevieve), and three children, including my grandfather. From what I can gather from family stories, his intention was to stay in Poland and take care of the family farm, after having made some money in the U.S. However, family stories suggest that his wife Genevieve did not get along well with her mother-in-law.  After about six months, Joseph, Genevieve and their children returned to the U.S., and Joseph finally obtained U.S. citizenship.  Although I had little hope that any present-day residents of the village would recall Joseph and Genevieve’s six-month sojourn in their village, I had another reason to suspect that my family might still be remembered in Mistrzewice. During the course of my research, I discovered that Joseph had six younger siblings, who were previously unknown to our family. Surely some of them must have stayed in Mistrzewice, married, and had children there?

However, in 2013, a professional researcher who visited the village and interviewed residents there was unable to locate any Zielińskis who were related to me in a way that could be easily determined.  When I visited the village in 2015, I confirmed his finding.  There are residents of the village with the surname Zieliński who are probably related to me more distantly, but there were no descendants of any of Joseph’s younger siblings. Perhaps it seems obvious that that my Zieliński family is no longer in Mistrzewice because the family either moved away, or died out.  As a genealogist, however, I’d like to know which one it is.  With that in mind, let’s begin by examining the evidence that existed for my Zieliński family prior to this new gift of records from my friend in Poland.

The Zieliński Family of Mistrzewice and Młodzieszyn

My great-grandfather, Józef Zieliński, was the fourth child of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna née Kalota from Mistrzewice, in Sochaczew County.  Originally, Mistrzewice had its own parish church. However, in 1898 the parish was closed and the village was assigned to the nearby parish in Młodzieszyn, so records for this family are found in Mistrzewice until 1898 but in Młodzieszyn after that. Their family included:

No marriage or death records for any of the youngest six children were found in the scans online for Mistrzewice or Młodzieszyn at Metryki. However, scans only go up to 1898 for marriages and 1901 for deaths, so all I really knew was that Szczepan, Władysław, Jan, Władysława, Marianna, and Zofia did not die before 1901.

A lucky marginal note on the baptismal record for one of the daughters, Władysława, gave me an additional clue about her fate (Figure 1):

Figure 1: Polish marginal note on 1901 Russian baptismal record for Władysława Zielińska.116-119

The marginal note states that Władysława Zielińska entered into marriage with Józef Żak on 22 April 1923 in the parish church in Bęczkowice.  There’s only one place in Poland called Bęczkowice, and it’s about 100 miles south of Mistrzewice (Figure 2):

Figure 2:  Geographic relationship between Mistrzewice and Bęczkowice, courtesy of Google Maps.Mistrzewice map

From this we know that at least one of Joseph’s younger siblings survived to a marriageable age, we know her married surname, and we know she had no descendants left in Mistrzewice because she moved to Bęczkowice.  So did the whole family leave the village, then, or just Władysława?

A partial answer to this was found in the death record for the family matriarch, Marianna (née Kalota) Zielińska, which I requested from the local civil records office in Młodzieszyn several years ago (Figure 3):

Figure 3:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Marianna Zielińska, 1936.1Marianna Zielinska death

The death record describes the deceased as, “….Marianna (née Kalota) Zielińska, widow, age seventy-nine, born and residing with her sister in Budy Stare, daughter of the late Roch and Agata née Kurowska, farmers.”  So Marianna, at least, died while residing in a village within the parish of Młodzieszyn, suggesting that the entire family didn’t move to Bęczkowice together. Moreover, the fact that she was living with her sister in Budy Stare, rather than with one of her children on the family farm in Mistrzewice, lends further support to the idea that the other children had also moved out of the village or were already deceased at the time of Marianna’s death.

The Zombie Bride

This was the point to which my research had progressed until this week, when my friend gave me the records I needed to finally understand what happened to each of my great-grandfather’s youngest six siblings.  I’ll have to tell most of this story another time, but suffice it to say that there is evidence in the marriage or death records for all but one of them. However, this evidence wasn’t completely unambiguous.  Among the records I found was this 1919 death record for none other than Władysława Zielińska — the same Władysława whose baptismal record contains the marginal note about her marriage in 1923 (Figure 4).

Figure 4:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Władysława Zielińska, 1919.Wladyslawa Zielinska death 1919 crop

In translation, the record states,

“#75, Mistrzewice. This happened in the village of Młodzieszyn on the second day of October in the year one thousand nine hundred nineteen at ten o’clock in the morning.  They appeared, Piotr Szewczyk, age sixty, and Stefan Kęski, age twenty-eight, land-owning farmers in the village of Mistrzewice, and stated that, on the thirtieth day of September of the current year, at one o’clock at night, died in the village of Mistrzewice, Władysława Zielińska, single, age seventeen, daughter of Stanisław, no longer living, and Marianna née Kalota, the spouses Zieliński, land-owning farmers; born in the village of Mistrzewice in the local parish, living with her mother in the village of Mistrzewice. After visual confirmation of the death of Władysława Zielińska, this document was read to the witnesses, who are not able to write, and was signed by us. [Signed] Administrator of the parish of Młodzieszyn acting as Civil Registrar, Fr. K. Kopański.”

The parents’ names indicated here, Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota, are exactly the same as those on the 1901 birth record for Władysława Zielińska.  The age of the deceased, 17 years, is approximately consistent with what we’d expect for a young woman born in 1901. Technically, she should have been reported to be age 18, but this amount of variation is within the norm for Polish records from this time period. There was definitely only one Zieliński couple living in Mistrzewice with the names Stanisław and Marianna, so it’s not possible that the priest simply recorded the wrong maiden name for the mother of the deceased.  So either we have a zombie bride who died in 1919 and then married in 1923, or there’s some other explanation.

My current hypothesis is that the death record for Władysława Zielińska is correct — she really did die in 1919 — but that the priest recorded the marginal notation about the marriage on the wrong baptismal record.  The only sibling not accounted for in the records given to me by my friend is Marianna Zielińska, born 14 September 1903.  So I think that the priest meant to write that Marianna Zielińska married Józef Żak on 22 April 1923 in the parish church in Bęczkowice. It seems more likely that he would incorrectly record a marriage that took place in a distant parish, rather than the death of a young woman buried from his own parish church, whose funeral he probably conducted personally. Of course, the only way to know for certain is to obtain the marriage record for Józef Żak and his Zielińska bride — whichever sister she was — from the civil registry office in Łęki Szlacheckie, which serves the village of Bęczkowice. Fortunately, Polish privacy laws have relaxed a bit in recent years, and it’s now possible to obtain death and marriage records after only 80 years instead of 100, which was the required interval when I first discovered that marriage notation for “Władysława” Zielińska. (That’s the reason why I didn’t just request a copy of that marriage record right away — they wouldn’t have given it to me because the marriage took place less than 100 years ago.)

Hopefully, the marriage record from Łęki Szlacheckie will tell me everything I need to know. Stay tuned for an update!  In the meantime, I’m going to kick back tonight and raise a glass to my friend in Poland, in gratitude for the gift of family history that he’s given me.  Dziękuję, i na zdrowie!


Sources not available online are cited below. Click links in blog post for documents available online.

1 Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1936, deaths, #16, record for Marjanna z Kalotów Zielińska.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1919, deaths, #75, record for Władysława Zielińska.


© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017


A Tale of Two Zagóróws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The record is in Polish and reads,

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

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

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

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

Relationship Chart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

The New Face of Geneteka: A Tutorial

If you haven’t stopped by the popular Polish vital records database Geneteka lately, you’re in for a real treat. Our friends at the Polskie Towarzystwa Genealogiczne (PTG, the Polish Genealogical Society) have made some significant improvements to the search interface, making a good thing even better. This seems like a good time for a tutorial on how to use Geneteka, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with it. I’ll highlight some of the improvements along the way, for those of you who already have some experience with this database.

What is Geneteka?

So what is Geneteka? As mentioned, it’s a database of Polish vital records that have been indexed by surname, from parishes and registry offices which are grouped according to the contemporary province in Poland in which they lie. Geneteka is part of a family of websites sponsored by the PTG. Each of these “sister sites” is wonderful in its own way, and several of these will probably be discussed in more detail in future blog posts. (One of these, Metryki, was already discussed in one of my previous blog posts.) But today, let’s focus on Geneteka.

At Geneteka’s home page, not much has changed. Here’s the page with English chosen as the language:


This main page offers an interactive map where we can click on the name of a province of interest, as well as a search box near the top right, where we can type in the name of a parish to see if records for that parish have been indexed here. Some indexes for locations in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine are also included. Below that search box, there is a list of Polish provinces. Click the name of a province to search for records from that entire province, as an alternative to clicking it on the map. To the right of the list of provinces, there is information on the number of parishes and civil registry offices that have been indexed for each province, as well as the total number of indexed records. From this we can get a feel for how good the coverage is for each particular area. For example, there are fewer than 300 parishes and registry offices that have been indexed for the Lesser Poland province (województwo małopolskie), with about half a million vital records, whereas there are over 1,700 parishes and registry offices indexed for the Mazovia province (województwo mazowieckie), with close to 6 million records.

It’s important to remember that Geneteka is still a work in progress. New indexes are being added weekly, all created by volunteers, who are the unsung heroes of the genealogy community, and to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. However, many parishes have not yet been indexed at all, or have not yet been indexed for the particular range of years needed for one’s research. Therefore I still recommend that you determine your immigrant ancestor’s place of origin first, using records created in his new homeland, rather than trying to make the leap back to Poland by checking Geneteka first. It’s all too easy to attach spurious ancestors to one’s family tree by haphazard searches in Geneteka, especially if the surname is common, or there is a lack of identifying information such as parents’ names for the immigrant ancestor.

Starting a Search

With that caveat out of the way, we can move on to the nitty-gritty. Let’s take the example of a search for ancestors in Mazowieckie province. We click “Mazowieckie” on the map or in the list of provinces, and arrive at this screen:language

Immediately, a number of changes are apparent to those who have used this resource previously, but let’s start at the top. In the past, if one wished to use the site in English, it was necessary to change the language at the home page.  If a search was begun within records for a province, and one tried to switch to English, one was returned to the home page and all search results were lost. Now it’s possible to switch languages at any time during the search process, which is very convenient for those who might not be completely comfortable with Polish.

Next, we see that it is now possible to search using both a person’s surname (Nazwisko) as well as his given name (Imię). Note that diacritics aren’t important here, so you can type “Jozef Zielinski” and still find results for Józef Zieliński. Assuming we add no other identifying information, here’s what that search would produce:


As you can see, there are over 25 pages of results, because as it happens, Zieliński is a very common Polish surname. As you look through the results, you’ll notice that the search algorithm is also designed to return not only the target name, but also names that are phonetically similar. This can be very helpful because surname spellings weren’t always consistent until perhaps the 1930s. However, if you only wish to see results for “Zieliński,” you can check the box for “Exact Search”/”Wyszukiwanie dokładne” and only results for “Zieliński” will be returned. Note that you still don’t have to enter correct diacritics even with an “exact” search: typing “Zielinski” will still give you results for “Zieliński.”

It should be noted that the “exact search” feature will also produce gender-specific results in cases where a given name is not specified. For example, if I search for “Zieliński” with no given name specified, I get even more results, but they’re for both Zieliński and Zielińska, as well as approximate phonetic matches. Searching for “Zieliński” with the “Exact Search” box checked will not only eliminate phonetic matches, it will also eliminate results for feminine surnames. Obviously, as soon as I specify a given name, I’m also excluding results for the opposite sex.

Results can be narrowed in other ways as well. At the top near the left, there is an option to narrow the range of years for which results are returned.

Jozef Zielinski 1885-1995.png

So by entering both a given name and narrowing the range of years, we’ve already cut our search results down to a mere 5+ pages.  Progress!  Of course, one of the best ways to narrow results is by using a second surname for the search. In this case, I know my great-grandfather Józef Zieliński was the son of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota. So even if I don’t narrow the range of years at all, if I just enter his mother’s maiden name in the second search box, I can immediately zero in on his family.


Note that I didn’t bother to specify both his parents’ given names, even though I knew them. That’s because making a search too specific can lead you to miss documents that actually are for your family, but might have been recorded incorrectly (e.g. mother’s name written as Anna instead of Marianna). Some priests were much more careful about those details than others, so a good researcher must learn to critically evaluate all the data in a source to determine whether such an error is likely, or whether the evidence points to some other explanation, such as a second marriage.

Understanding the Search Results

Let’s take a closer look at how these results are displayed:zielinski-kalota-closeup

The first thing we notice — another recent improvement to Geneteka’s search interface — is that results for births, marriages and deaths appear on separate tabs, so it’s no longer necessary to search each type of vital event separately. The search algorithm is looking for any vital records which mention both surnames, Zieliński and Kalota, in any of the indexation columns. Note that records which might mention one of these names as a witness or godparents will not be returned, because at present, indexers are not instructed to include those data on the spreadsheet. On the births page, the results consist of baptismal records for the children of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota. The columns report the year and the record number for each entry, as well as both the parish, and the place within that parish, where the vital event occurred. In this case, we see that the first six births were recorded in Mistrzewice, while the last four were recorded in the neighboring parish of Młodzieszyn — even though the next column tells us that each child was still born in Mistrzewice.

So how do we interpret that? Does this change in parishes suggest that our ancestors could pick and choose what parish they baptized their child in, much as we do today?  No. It’s important to remember that Roman Catholic priests were also civil registrars in those days. Each village was assigned to a particular parish, and when a birth or death occurred in that village, villagers were required to report it to the parish in which the event occurred. In this case, it’s a bit of an historical sidenote, but this article explains that the parish in Mistrzewice was closed in 1898 and the village was transferred to the parish of Młodzieszyn. The timing explains perfectly the results we see here, wherein Władysław Zieliński was born and baptized in Mistrzewice in 1897, but his brother Jan was born in Mistrzewice and baptized in Młodzieszyn in 1899. So, if you see a sudden change in parish but the entry indicates that your ancestors’ village has remained the same, you may want to investigate the history of the parishes in that area to detect a reassignment or the establishment of a new parish.

Getting back to the discussion of Geneteka search results, you’ll notice that there are some little yellow “infodots” in the “Remarks/Uwagi” column on the far right.  If you hover your cursor over each of them, additional information is revealed. For example, in the first entry for Franciszek Zieliński, hovering over the “i” reveals his exact date of birth, 16 September 1886.frank-zielinski-dob

Similarly, hovering over the “Z” indicates the name of the archive that holds the original record which was indexed here. In this case, originals are at the Grodzisk branch of the State Archive of Warsaw. This is not to suggest that the copies might not also be found some other way, such as at one of the online repositories, or on microfilm from the FHL. In this case, there is a “scan” button which we can click to obtain a scan of this vital record. Hovering over the “A” reveals the name of the volunteer indexer to whom we owe our debt of gratitude.

Let’s take a look at the results obtained under the “marriages” tab for this same search.zielinski-marriages-closeup

It’s evident here that neither of these marriages pertains to my family. The basic search algorithm looks for the names “Zieliński”and “Kalota” or approximate phonetic variations thereof, in any data field from the original indexing spreadsheet. So in the first instance, it picked out a record for which the groom was Jan Kalot and his mother was Marianna Zielińska, from a marriage that took place in 1839 in the parish of Brzóza. In the second case, the algorithm returned the marriage record from Leszno for a groom named Jan Zieliński and his bride, Apolonia Osińska, whose mother was Franciszka Kalota. This is where another one of Geneteka’s new search options comes in very handy. Suppose you’re looking for a Zieliński groom and a Kalota bride, and you want the algorithm to ignore any results with those surnames in the fields for parents of the bride and groom. In that case, you can tick the box for “skip search in parents column/Nie wyszukuj w rodzicach.” If this search is repeated with that box ticked, there are zero search results, as expected. However, in other cases, it could be used to refine the search hits and reduce the extraneous results that are reported.

Let’s take a look at the results returned under the “deaths” tab before we move on to a further discussion of the new search tools. zielinski-deaths

These results aren’t too different from what we’ve seen previously, but you’ll notice that under the “remarks” column, there’s no “i” column that provides the precise date of death. In fact, as you explore Geneteka in more detail, you’re likely to notice that the content of each index varies quite a bit. Some indexes have scans attached, some do not. Some include only the names of the baptized child, the deceased, or the bride and groom, along with the year, the parish, and the record number, but no other identifying information, such as parents’ names. This is because Geneteka is an evolving entity. In its early days, these digital indexes were created from the year-end indexes that the priests made within each parish register. Presently, there is more of an emphasis on making the indexes as complete as possible, utilizing information from the records themselves.

Obtaining Scans

Having successfully identified some records of interest, how do we obtain those scans? Obviously, we start by clicking the “skan” button, but we also want to make note of the record number for the record of interest. For example, if we want to obtain the death record for Piotr Zieliński from 1891, we note the record number, 5, circled here:

Zielinski deaths

Now we click “skan,” and we’re taken to this screen:deaths 1891 In this case, the index entry is linked to a scan within the Metryki database, although some indexes are linked to scans in Szukajwarchiwach or possibly elsewhere. In the middle of the screen, where it says “Pliki” (“Files”), the scans are arranged according to the record numbers they contain. So for example, the scan entitled “01-02” holds death records 1 and 2 from Mistrzewice in 1891. Since Piotr’s death was #5, we want to click on the next file, circled here, which contains deaths 3-6. Clicking on that file takes us to the next screen, which is the scan of the record book itself.

piotr zielinski death

Since Mistrzwice was in Russian Poland and this death occurred after 1868, all records are in Russian. However, as was typical for vital events in this period, names of key participants were written first in Russian, then in Polish, so the viewable portion of the record shown here includes his given name in Russian, Петръ, as well as his full name in Polish, underlined in red. Two useful icons are circled above, on the left in this image:  the “ladder” icon takes us back to the preceding page, where we can select a file to view, and the “floppy disk” icon on the right will allow us to download a copy of this image.

Searching Within a Specified Parish

Since we know that my Zieliński family was from Mistrzewice before 1898 when the parish switched, it’s possible to choose to view just the records from that parish by selecting the parish from the drop-down menu below the province name. This is not a new feature, but we now have the additional option of changing the province while keeping all the search parameters the same, instead of having to change the province, then retype all the search parameters. Here is the result of a basic search for “Zielinski” just in the parish of Mistrzewice.Mistrzewice

Note that timeline bar that I circled in red. This tells us exactly what marriage records have been indexed for this parish. Although this information was included previously in the “parish” drop-down menu, it’s nice to have the graphic depiction. The bar will change as you select births or deaths if different ranges of years have been indexed for those vital events. It’s very important to pay attention to these ranges of years for indexed records, because more often than not, this explains why we don’t find a particular vital event in Geneteka, even when we know that event took place in a particular parish. In some cases, such as this example for Mistrzewice, all existing records for a parish have been indexed on Geneteka. If a record is not found there, it no longer exists. However, in other cases, the problem is merely that the record has not yet been indexed but is still available if you know where to look.

Sometimes it happened that our Polish ancestors moved around a bit within the general area of the ancestral village we originally identified. To address this issue, Geneteka offers the option to include in the search all parishes within 15 km of a selected parish. For example, records from Mistrzewice told me that my great-great-grandmother Antonina (née Ciećwierz) Zielińska was the daughter of Jan Ciećwierz and Katarzyna Grzelak, and that Jan Ciećwierz was the son of Wojciech Ciećwierz and Katarzyna, whose maiden name was not specified. A search of Mistrzewice plus nearby parishes for surnames “Ciecwierz” and “Grzelak” produces four records for my family in Mistrzewice, but also a marriage record for Jan’s sister, Marianna Ciećwierz, to Karol Grzelak in Mikołajew in

The actual parishes included in this search, as well as their distance from the specified parish, are shown here. Again, remember that there might be additional parishes within a 15 km radius of the target parish, but if they aren’t indexed, they won’t show up here.

These particular search results illustrate another issue to consider when designing search strategies: the earlier records are less likely to mention a mother’s maiden name. Even if you have a hint of a maiden name from one document or another, it’s better to leave it off and search according to given names. So let’s say we want to follow up now on that hint about Mikołajew and search for children of Wojciech and Katarzyna Ciećwierz. When we search in Mikołajew for children of surname “Ciecwierz” and given name “Wojciech” paired with given name “Katarzyna” we obtain the following:mikolajew-ciecwierz

So far, so good. We have 5 children born between 1810 and 1824, a reasonable range of years, to parents Wojciech and Katarzyna, all born in the village of Wyczółki within the parish of Mikołajew. But we have two different maiden names reported for the mother, Pietrzak and Szymaniak. Hmm…. did Katarzyna Pietrzak die after 1820 and did her husband remarry a woman named Katarzyna Szymaniak before 1824? And where is Jan Ciećwierz, my ancestor, the father of Antonina Zielińska?

The answer to the first question is another story for another day, but the answer to the second question offers a nice opportunity to illustrate another search tool offered by Geneteka, which is wildcard searching. A wildcard is a character that can be used to replace other characters in a search string. Geneteka allows the use of the asterisk (*) to replace one or more characters in a search term. (The use of “?” to replace just one letter is not supported, however.) There are definitely times when it’s advantageous to search this way, but understanding when that is requires a bit of a deeper discussion about Geneteka’s search algorithms.

Geneteka’s Search Algorithms and Wildcard Searches

The indexers at Geneteka are instructed to record surnames as they are written in the record, without making an attempt to standardize them according to modern spelling rules.  Consequently certain letter combinations are treated as equivalents, so names with an e/ew, such as Olszeski and Olszewski are equivalent, as are oy/oj names like Woyciechowski/Wojciechowski, and ei/ej names like Szweikowski and Szwejkowski.  Similarly, search results include common phonetic substitutions, such as changing “sz” to “ś” such that searching for “Szczygielski” will include results for “Ścigielska,” and “Szcześniak” will include results for “Sciesniak.” Although “ż” is phonetically equivalent to “rz,” Geneteka does not equate “z” with “rz,” because it ignores diacritics so it “sees” z, ź and ż as equivalents. Consequently, names like “Zażycki” and “Zarzycki” need to be searched separately.

Since the original records indexed in Geneteka might be in Polish, Russian, German or Latin, the indexers must be familiar with those languages, and the search engine must be able to handle transliterations between these languages.   Therefore we find that the German “ü” is interchangeable with “u”, “fitz” with “fic”, etc.  A search on the name “Schmidt,” for example, results in a wide range of phonetic equivalents:  Szmit, Schmiedt, Schmit, Szmitt, etc.  In addition, the search engine truncates names ending in “e”, “y” or “a,” so searching for Mischke will result in Miszka and Mischka.

Going back to our present example, this means that Geneteka’s search algorithm automatically equates “Ciecwierz” with “Ciećwierz” and reports results for each, as in the above example. However, some approximate phonetic matches might nonetheless be missed. So if we repeat the search using “C*” instead of “Ciećwierz,” we find my missing ancestor:jan-ciecwierz

Ta da!  There’s Jan’s birth in 1815, which fits precisely with the year of birth suggested by his death record from Mistrzewice.

What’s immediately apparent here is how many variant spellings of Ciećwierz and related surnames are not returned by Geneteka’s search algorithm, including Czetwirz, Ciecwierski, Cieczwierz, etc. Additional careful research, including full review of the documents themselves from the diocesan archive in Łowicz, is needed before I can state with confidence which of these records pertain to my family and which don’t. But without doing a wildcard search, I would have missed out on finding many of these.

Now suppose I want to find marriages for children of Wojciech and Katarzyna Ciećwierz in Mikołajew or in any of the surrounding (indexed) parishes. If I repeat this search, checking the “search nearby parishes” box, I get the following:marriages search not as a pair

Some of the results returned are marriages for grooms named Wojciech C* and brides named Katarzyna, but results are also returned for marriages in which the groom’s father was Wojciech and the bride’s mother was Katarzyna, or the bride was Katarzyna and her father was Wojciech, etc. — not what we’re looking for. To eliminate these stray hits and help us focus on the results we want, there’s a new feature, “Relationship search/wyszukaj jako para,” which allows us to search using the specified names as a pair.  When we repeat this search after checking this box, the results include only those marriages between a groom named Wojciech C* and a bride named Katarzyna, or those marriages for which both Wojciech C* and Katarzyna were named as the parents of either the bride or the groom.

Marriages search as a pair

Finally, for those of you who find searching in Geneteka to be addicting, there is a new feature which allows you to search only indexes which have been added recently (past day, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 31 days).

Recent additions

In my case, repeating this search with that box ticked indicates that none of these indexes which include my Ciećwierz ancestors have been added recently, so apparently I’m late to the party, just now tripping over these ancestors who have been waiting here for me, deep within the wonder that is Geneteka.

“Ask not what Geneteka can do for you….”

Hopefully this discussion will give you a better idea of how you can search Geneteka effectively to find your ancestors in Poland. Of course, no discussion of Geneteka can be complete without a final word of gratitude to the volunteer indexers and the PTG, and also an appeal to those of you who find this tool as helpful as I do. If you’re competent with reading vital records in Polish, Russian, German or Latin and want to give back to the genealogical community, please consider volunteering to index records for Geneteka yourself.  Most volunteers index records from their own parishes of interest, which is why it’s not possible to submit requests for particular parishes to be indexed. Indexing instructions are provided.. ”

Maybe you don’t feel comfortable with indexing, or don’t have the time?  You can still help out by making a donation to the project.  Although all the records for both Geneteka and its sister site, Metryki, are indexed or photographed by volunteers, the PTG still must pay for server space to host these online, and those costs add up.  If we hope to see this valuable resource remain online and free to everyone, donations are needed, and every little bit helps.  Happy hunting!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Why My Name Wasn’t Changed at Ellis Island (And Neither Was Yours)

One of the most persistent myths in American culture is that our family surnames were changed at Ellis Island.  Just how ingrained is this myth?  Well, when my younger two children were in 5th grade, their school included an Ellis Island simulation as part of a learning module on immigration.  After learning about the “great American melting pot,” the economic and social factors that prompted immigration, and some of the contributions and impact that immigrants had on American society, the students capped off the unit with an Ellis Island Day immigration simulation. Prior to the simulation, students were assigned names and identities (hypothetical, not historical) of various”immigrants” from the late 19th century. They created costumes that would have been typical for their assigned immigrants and when Ellis Island Day came, these “immigrants” were “processed” by teachers and parent volunteers posing as immigration officials.  Processing stations included mock health inspections and checking of documents, and at one station, parent volunteers were instructed to inform some of the “immigrants” that their names were “too foreign-sounding” so, “we’ll call you Mary Smith from now on.”

Although I applaud the idea of an immigration learning module and think that the Ellis Island Day simulation is a fun way for the kids to experience what the process might have been like, I found this particular element of the simulation to be appalling since it reinforces the very myth that so many of us genealogists have tried to dispel. When I attempted to explain this to the teacher, and then to the school administration, I was told, “You’re arguing with History.”


One of my favorite articles that debunks the Ellis Island Name Change myth is this one,1 and one of my favorite passages from that article is this:

The idea that names were changed at Ellis Island raises lots of questions. For instance, if names were changed, what happened to the paperwork? And if inspectors were charged with changing names, why are there no records of this? Where are the lists of approved names? Where are the first hand accounts, of inspectors and immigrants? If immigrants had name changes forced upon them, why did they not simply change their name back when they entered the country? Or, if they could not, where is paperwork describing the roles of Federal officials charged with making sure that names were not changed back?

It underscores the lack of thought that goes into the knee-jerk assertion about those name changes.  The myth of Ellis Island is so easily accepted that most people don’t bother to consider the implications, but if one takes a moment to do that, the myth quickly falls apart.

So what really happened?  How did we end up with so many distorted, truncated, or translated versions of our immigrant ancestors’ surnames?  Here’s one example from my own family history.

My maiden name, Roberts, was originally Ruppert.  My immigrant ancestors were the family of Franz and Catherina Elisabeth (née Schulmerich) Ruppert, who were married in the little village of Heßloch in 1830, in what was at the time the Grand Duchy of Hesse, colloquially known as Hesse-Darmstadt (Figure 1):

Figure 1:  Marriage record from the Roman Catholic parish in Heßloch for Franciscus Ruppert and Catharina Elisabetha Schulmerich, 15 January 1830.2  Translation: “On the 15th day of January is married Franz Ruppert, young man, legitimate son of the late spouses Franz Ruppert and Margaretha née Kron — with the young woman Catharina Elisabeth Schulmerich of Hillesheim, legitimate daughter of Georg Schulmerich and the late Anna Margaretha née Appelmann, in the presence of witnesses Gerhard Kron and Sebastian Eckert, blessed by Fr. [illegible]”franz-ruppert-catharina-e-schulmerich-1830

The Ruppert family included their three sons, Johann Georg, Michael, and Arnold, as well as daughter Catherina Susannah.  Michael was my great-great-great-grandfather.  In 1851, Georg traveled to the U.S.,3 followed by the rest of the family in 1853.4 Their passenger manifest is shown below (Figures 2a and 2b).

Figure 2a:  Passenger manifest from the William Tell, arriving on 4 March 1853, showing parents Franz and Catherine and son Michael Ruppert.ruppert-manifest-crop-and-marked-first-page

Figure 2b:  Passenger manifest from the William Tell, arriving on 4 March 1853, showing Franz and Catherine Ruppert’s children, Arnold and Catherine Ruppert.second-page-of-ruppert-manifest-marked-cropped


To me, the name looks like it’s written as “Rupert,” although the transcriber at Ancestry indexed it as “Rupard.”  The ages of the family members agree well with their ages based on their baptismal records from Germany.  The manifest is not especially informative, which is typical for earlier manifests like this, mentioning only that their place of origin was Württemberg, their destination was the United States, and Franz’s occupation was a brewer.

One might argue that my family surname clearly wasn’t changed at Ellis Island because in the case of my Rupperts, they didn’t enter the U.S. through Ellis Island at all. The Ellis Island inspection station didn’t open until 1892, and its predecessor, Castle Garden, did not open until 1855. In the first half of the 19th century, when the Rupperts came over, immigrants merely landed at docks around South Street in Manhattan. However, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people who purport that their family names were changed at “Ellis Island” probably have no idea at which port or on what date their immigrant ancestors actually arrived in the U.S. When it comes to the myth, the main idea seems to be that the name change resulted from something the immigrants were told by someone in an official capacity when they entered the U.S.

So, my ancestors were Ruppert in Germany, and a reasonable misspelling thereof was recorded on their passenger manifest.  What happened in the U.S.?

By 1860, the family had settled in Detroit, Michigan and had already begun using the name Roberts, as evident from the 1860 U.S. Census (Figure 3).5

Figure 3: Excerpt from the 1860 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing the Michael Roberts and Frank Roberts households.roberts-fam-1860-census

The first part of the Roberts family is the family of Michael and Mary (also known as Maria Magdalena) Roberts, with their children Michael and Catherine.  Below them are the elder Michael’s parents, Frank and Catherine. The younger Michael, also known as Michael Frank, also known as Frank Michael, was my great-great-grandfather.

As anyone who has ever done genealogy for more than five minutes can tell you, names were pretty fluid up until, say, the 1930s. So in 1870, the family surname was recorded as Robert (Figure 4).6

Figure 4: Excerpt from the 1870 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing the Michael Robert and Franz Robert households.roberts-fams-1870-census

In this census, we see that Michael “Robert” was still employed as a carpenter and that two more children had been born to the family, daughters Paulina and Anna and a son, Heinrich. Michael’s wife Mary’s name appears here as Magdalena. Michael’s parents, Frank and Catherine Robert were still living nearby, and the fact that their name was also recorded as “Robert” and not “Roberts” suggests that this was a version of the surname that the family was collectively trying out at that time, rather than simply a recording error on the part of the census-taker. Frank was also recorded as Franz once again.

By 1880, Franz and Catherine were living on Prospect Street and were continuing to use the surname Robert, although Franz was recorded as Frank once again, as shown in Figure 5.7

Figure 5: Excerpt from the 1880 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing Frank Robert family.1880-u-s-census-frank-roberts-household-crop

Frank, God bless him, was still a laborer at age 72, while Catherine continued to keep house. The 1890 census cannot be consulted to see what name they were using at that time, since most of the returns were destroyed in a fire.  Catherine passed away in 1892 at the age of 84, and her funeral card was preserved in the family (Figure 6).8 At that time she was “Roberts” again.

Figure 6:  Funeral prayer card for Catharine (née Schulmerich) Roberts.death-card-for-catherine-schulmerich-roberts-001

As for her widower husband, Frank, by the 1900 census, enumerated a year before his death, he had come full circle and was listed under the name Fran(t)z Ruppert once again (Figure 7).9 At that time he was living with his daughter, Mary, and her husband, Robert Standfield. This final use of the Ruppert surname doesn’t reflect a lasting change, however, as subsequent generations of the family have continued to use Roberts.

Figure 7:  Excerpt from the 1900 U.S. Census for Detroit, Michigan, showing Frantz Ruppert in the Robert Standfield household.1901-census-crop

One might ask why the Ruppert family felt compelled to change their surname upon immigration to the U.S.? The answer might lie in the political situation at that time.  During the mid 1850s in the U.S., precisely when Franz and Catherine brought their family to America, the American Party, also known as the “Know Nothing movement” was gaining in popularity on the U.S. political scene.  This movement arose as reaction against immigrants, mostly Irish and German Catholics, such as Franz and Catherine Ruppert’s family.  Know Nothings believed that these immigrants would subvert traditional American values and ultimately make the U.S. subservient to the Pope.10

Of course, one could also just ask Aunt Mary Roberts Standfield for her version of the story, recorded in a letter to my great-grandfather (Figure 8).11

Figure 8:  Letter from Mary Roberts Standfield to J. Frank Roberts, unknown date.letter-from-mary-roberts-standfield-to-john-frank-roberts

So there you have it. It was the immigrants themselves, or their descendants, who initiated these name changes. Those poor, maligned Ellis Island officials were almost always blameless. Misspellings may have occurred on passenger manifests, but they were nothing more significant than that. So if you have a story in your family about your name being changed at Ellis Island, dig a little deeper and see what you find.


Sutton, Philip,”Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was),” New York Public Library Blogs, 2 July 2013, accessed February 18, 2017.

Roman Catholic Church (Heßloch {Kr. Worms}, Hesse, Germany), Kirchenbuch, 1715-1876, marriage record for Franciscus Ruppert and Cath. Elisabetha Schulmerich, 15 January 1830, Family History Library microfilm # 948719.

3 New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image), Geo Rupert, S.S. Vancluse, 30 May 1851,, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (images), Franz Rupert family, S.S. William Tell, 4 March 1853,, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

5 1860 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, p. 142, Michael Roberts and Frank Roberts households,, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

6 1870 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, p. 126, Michael Robert and Franz Robert households,, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

7 1880 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, E.D. 306, Sheet B, Frank Robert household,, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

Carol Roberts Fischer funeral home prayer card for Catharine Roberts, 1892; privately held by Carol Roberts Fischer, Hamburg, New York, USA, 2017

9 1900 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, E.D 126, Sheet 16B, Robert Standfield household,, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

10 “Know Nothing,” Wikipedia,, accessed February 2017.

11 Mary Roberts Standfield (Detroit, Michigan, USA) to “Frank” (Mary’s grand-nephew, John Frank Roberts), letter, unknown date; after 1901; privately held by Carol Roberts Fischer, Hamburg, New York, USA, 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017