Search Tips for Beginners in Polish Genealogy

In the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook, we get a lot of people who are brand-new to researching their family history.  To help keep the regular volunteers from getting burned out by saying the same thing over and over again, I wrote up this quick list of search tips and linked it to the pinned post, so that we could refer newcomers to it and help them get started.  Although I wrote it specifically for Polish research, many of the same principles apply no matter what ethnicity your immigrant ancestors were.  The key to continuing research in the Old Country is to find records from the New Country that mention the immigrant’s specific place of birth.  So if you’re reading this blog and you’re new to genealogy, my suggestions to you are:

1. Get a book.  Researching your Polish genealogy is quite a different thing in some ways from researching one’s U.S. ancestry.  To help you familiarize yourself with the history and geography that are essential to your understanding of researching your family in Poland, it’s a good idea to get a beginner’s guide to Polish genealogy.  There are quite a few books on the subject.  You might want to check Amazon (search “Polish Genealogy”) for reviews.

2. Start with yourself and work backwards.  Interview older family members, if any are still around, and ask them questions about everything they remember about their immigrant ancestors.  If all your older family members are deceased, don’t panic – their paper trail is still there, and that’s what we all use to document those family stories anyway.

3. Check out the sites for “one-stop shopping,” like www.familysearch.org, www.ancestry.com, www.fold3.com, etc.  Family Search is free, and the paid sites can probably be accessed free of charge at your local public library.  These sites are good for gathering census records, passenger records, military records, and other types of basic documentation.  Please note that the information available on these sites represents only the tip of the iceberg for what’s out there.  Most of the documents you’ll need are still sitting in churches, courthouses, archives, and libraries, waiting for you to discover them.  In this era of immediate gratification via the internet, people sometimes begin with the unrealistic expectation that somewhere, someone out there has done all the work for them.  While this might be true (to a point) if your ancestors have been living in the U.S. since Colonial times, it’s much less likely to be true if your ancestors arrived here from Poland just a generation or two ago.  Don’t forget that genealogy still requires patience, persistence, time, and good-old fashioned research done with letter-writing, phone calls, and personal visits, if possible.

4. Do your homework in U.S. records before attempting to trace your family in Poland.  It’s a common mistake for people to find one document with a place of birth on it (most likely misspelled) and to try to use that to begin tracing their family in Poland.  Be patient.  In many cases, there are multiple towns and villages in Poland with the same name (think of researching a U.S. place called “Springfield”).  It’s a good idea to obtain several documents with place of birth information so you can compare them before trying to research in Poland.  It’ll save you time (and maybe money) in the long run.

5.  Absolutely make every effort to obtain vital records from the church your immigrant ancestors attended in the U.S.  I cannot state that strongly enough.  Church versions of marriage and death records are much more likely to contain your immigrant ancestor’s precise place of birth in Poland than are the civil equivalents.  Moreover, these places were probably recorded by a Polish priest, so they’re likely to be spelled more or less correctly.  You should also obtain baptismal records for the children of your immigrant ancestors.  These frequently contain an “ex loco” portion that will tell you where the parents came from.  Not every record will contain that information, so be thorough:  if you know that your great-grandmother’s sister also immigrated and lived in that same parish, get her marriage record as well as your great-grandmother’s record.  Get ALL the baptismal records, not just for your own direct line of descent.  Documents from collateral lines can often provide that critical breakthrough you need.

                    5a.  Don’t know what parish your ancestors attended?  Find their address in the census records.  Parishes had defined geographic boundaries (still do!) and people were not likely to “shop around” for a parish they liked, as is often the case today.  People in the group can often assist with identifying the correct parish, so ask if you need help.

                    5b.  Before you write to that parish, check the Family History Library catalog at www.Familysearch.org to see if records for that parish were microfilmed.  If so, it’s often faster to order the microfilm than to wait for the (tired, overworked) parish secretary to get around to replying to your genealogy request.

                    5c.  If you do need to write to the parish, keep in mind that the primary function of the parish staff is to meet the spiritual needs of their congregation, NOT to fulfill genealogy requests.  Make sure to enclose a donation for the parish, and be prepared to wait a while. It’s best to request only a few records (1-3) at a time, keep your letter brief, and be as specific as you can.  If you’re requesting a marriage record, for example, obtain the civil equivalent first – that way, you already know the exact date of the event. Be sure to ask for a clear digital photo or photocopy of the parish register, rather than a typed extract, which Catholic parishes sometimes provide as proof that a sacrament was administered in their parish.  Explain that the original record may contain information that’s vitally important to your search, so you need the full, original record.  If they hesitate due to “privacy concerns” suggest that they cover up the other entries on the page with a sheet of paper, so that only the key entry (and the column headings, if there are any) are showing.  Be polite and respectful — churches are under no obligation to provide copies of their records, so it’s an act of kindness if they choose to do it.  It’s okay to follow up with phone calls, e-mails or letters if a decent interval (4-6 weeks) has gone by and you still have not received a reply.  When you do receive your records, remember to send a thank-you note.

6. Obtain other key records to obtain in order to determine place of birth in Poland:

a.Passenger records.  Family Search, Ancestry have these, and you can find records specifically for the Port of New York from www.ellisisland.org (after 1892) and www.castlegarden.org (before 1892)

b. Naturalization records. Pre-1906, they might not give specific place of birth info, but after 1906 they almost certainly will.  My ancestors are from Buffalo (in Erie County) New York, so I have always been able to obtain these records by visiting/calling/writing to the Erie County Court building.  However, you may need to try the National Archives (http://www.archives.gov/research/naturalization/) or the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (http://www.uscis.gov/genealogy)  Post-1906 records can be goldmines.  They often contain not only the place of birth of the man who was becoming a citizen, but also the place of birth of his wife.   Remember that, prior to the Cable Act of 1922, a woman’s citizenship was a reflection of her husband’s (see http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1998/summer/women-and-naturalization-1.html for more information).  So prior to 1922, you’ll want to look for the naturalization records for the husband of your female ancestors.

c. Military records.  World War I draft registration cards will often provide a specific place of birth.

7. Leave no stone unturned.  As family historians, our job is to document the lives of our family members, so be thorough.  Think beyond the basics, and check out additional sources for information about your family.  As an example, the Polish Genealogical Society of America has a database of insurance claim files from the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America.  The application for life insurance often has fantastic medical and personal information about the applicant (number of brothers and sisters still living, age at which parents died, etc.).  Buffalo’s Polish-language newspaper, the Dziennik Dla Wsystkich, published from 1911-1957, provides a fascinating look into the lives of our ancestors.  Even if you don’t read Polish, you can scan through and find stories and photos of your family, and post them here in the group for translation.  If you have ancestors from New York State, also be sure to check out the newspaper archive at www.fultonhistory.com, which contains keyword-searchable newspapers from all across New York State, from the late 1800s until about the 1980s.

8. Join a Polish genealogical society, either nationally (the Polish Genealogical Society of America, http://www.pgsa.org) in an area where your ancestors lived, or where you live now.  Examples include the Polish Genealogical Society of New York State (www.pgsnys.org), the Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan (www.pgsm.org), the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast (www.pgsctne.org), the Polish Genealogical Society of Massachusetts (www.pgsma.org), etc.  Typically their websites have useful databases and resources (i.e. the Polish letter writing guide at the PGSA site) and they have meetings at which you can connect with others researching their Polish heritage in your area.

Hopefully these tips will help you get started in researching your Polish family in U.S. records.  When you’re ready to make the leap into Polish records, the real fun begins. All of us in the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook are looking forward to sharing your joys and frustrations on your genealogical journey, and helping out when we can.  Happy researching, and remember that there’s no such thing as a stupid question – we’re here to help.

© 2016 Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz

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4 thoughts on “Search Tips for Beginners in Polish Genealogy

  1. Thank you Julie. I do have one question. I love your title and do wonder why you named “shoemakers” in the title. Were they common laborers? On my great-grandfather’s papers, it is stated that he is a “sutor”. I was told that is
    Polish for shoemaker. When he emigrated here he farmed and was a butcher. The “shoemaker” identification has always thrown me. Thank you. Sue Shell.

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    1. Hi Sue, when I first began my blog, I wrote, “Most of us family historians seek to understand who we are by understanding where we came from, and what kind of people our ancestors were. I come “From Shepherds and Shoemakers,” but also from farmers, potters, tailors, teamsters, architects, laborers, and others. As I develop this blog I hope to introduce you to them, and to provide some strategies and resources you might employ in your search for your own ancestors.” Shoemakers were craftsmen rather than farmers, and my particular shoemaker ancestors came from the towns of Zagórów and Kołaczyce, which were known to have prominent shoemaking industries. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what shoemakers from those towns did once they came to America, because mine pretty much stayed in Poland and it was their descendants who immigrated. However, it’s not uncommon for our ancestors to look for whatever work they could find in their new country, even outside their original profession. One of my German ancestors was recorded as a brewer on his passenger manifest, but as a laborer in U.S. census records. Even today, career changes aren’t uncommon, and people who start out in one industry might find their real passion in a different one at some point later in life. Obviously, if there are any other discrepancies between the farmer or butcher described on one record and the shoemaker described on another, you need to be careful that they actually ARE records for the same individual. But if it looks like the same person on both records in all other respects except for the profession, it’s probably safe to assume that your great-grandfather was simply an adaptable, hard-working guy who seized upon whatever opportunities came his way.

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