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.”

Really?

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.

Sources:

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, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

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

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

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

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

10 “Know Nothing,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org, 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

Lessons From My Father

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

— Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. c. early 1930’s 1

Being a military fighter jet pilot has been such an integral part of my Dad’s life experience that it affects everything he does, did, or ever will do, including the way he parented. My father, Harry W. Roberts, Jr., was sent to Vietnam as the youngest pilot in the 136th Tactical Fighter Squadron just 10 days before I was born, and I didn’t meet him until I was a year old. Dad’s homecoming from the war was something of an adjustment for all of us. Mom jokes that he had no experience with babies or small children, and somehow expected us, his daughters, aged 1 and 2, to shake his hand gravely and say, “How do you do, Father, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”  As an Air Force veteran, Dad was all about order and discipline. My bed had to be made with the sheets pulled so smoothly that one could bounce a quarter off of it.  I was often told to “shape up or ship out,” and “straighten up and fly right” because “prior planning prevents poor performance.” Hard work, competence, and results were valued and expected.  Dad had little patience with people who “didn’t have their s–t together.”

Although I always knew that Dad loved me, he was never comfortable with verbal or physical displays of affection. In all my years of childhood, I can think of maybe two occassions when he kissed me on the forehead after tucking me into bed at night. And my mother tells the story of a time when when my sister and I were about 3 and 4, and she was waiting with us in a checkout line at the grocery store. The gentleman next to her commented on what cute little girls we were, dressed in our matching outfits. He then turned to us and said, “I’ll bet your Daddy calls you his little princesses, doesn’t he?” We smiled and replied happily, “No, he calls us maggots!”  Although I don’t remember that particular incident, I do know that it was some time before I realized that “maggot” was not generally accepted as a term of endearment. It seemed affectionate to me, because Daddy always had a hint of a smile when he told us to, “Line up, maggots!”

Dad used to explain that in the Air Force they insisted on discipline because it could save one’s life. In an emergency, there often wasn’t time to think or reason. One had to rely on practiced behaviors and memorized protocols in order to survive. A prime example of this was the time when the engine seized on Dad’s F-100 Super Sabre and Dad had to bail out over the South China Sea. Although I’d heard the story many times when I was growing up, I had a chance to sit down with Dad this past weekend and take notes while he told it again. He also allowed me to scan the transcript of the radio conversation that occurred between him, the control tower, and his flight lead, Lt. Col. Sydney Johnson. (Thanks, Dad!)

The clarity with which Dad remembers that day never ceases to amaze me. It was December 18, 1968. He and 3 other pilots were headed north from their base in Tuy Hoa on a mission to bomb strategic enemy military targets. Shortly after he took off, he noticed an odd smell inside the cockpit. That in and of itself wasn’t grounds to abort the mission, because sometimes that would happen when the mechanics would change the jet engine oil. However, it was enough to prompt Dad to pay close attention to all the gauges from that time on. The flight continued, and they refueled mid-air without incident, but Dad’s sense that something wasn’t quite right persisted. When they were about 10 minutes from the target, Dad decided to light the afterburner, reasoning that if something bad were about to happen, he’d rather not have it occur when they were right above the target.

Hitting the afterburner is like stepping on the accelerator on a car, and as soon as Dad did that, the plane’s oil pressure plummeted. Dad radioed the rest of the flight and informed them of the situation. Lt. Col. Johnson maneuvered his plane underneath Dad’s and visually inspected the underside of Dad’s F-100. What he saw wasn’t good — bullet holes, with oil pouring out of them. It was later surmised that some Viet Cong sitting offshore in a fishing boat got in a lucky hit with an automatic machine gun as Dad was taking off that morning, causing damage minor enough to be overlooked immediately, but ultimately significant enough to endanger Dad’s life. Lt. Col. Johnson and Dad pulled away from the other two aircraft in the mission at that point. The plan was for the other two pilots to continue to the target while Lt. Col. Johnson escorted Dad back south, where Dad would attempt to land at the base in Da Nang.

There were a couple problems with this plan. First, time was not on their side. The flight manual, which Dad had to memorize as part of his pilot training, stated that once oil pressure is lost, the pilot has between 6-22 minutes before the engine seizes. There was a good chance that they would not make it back to Da Nang. I personally would have been freaking out at this point, but this is where Dad’s military training kicked in and he was able to perform mechanically and methodically all the necessary procedures that would maximize his chances of landing the plane successfully. The first step was to set the power at 89%, which was the optimized power level that had been determined for that aircraft under these circumstances. Next, he jettisoned all his ordnance and external fuel tanks to make the plane as light as possible, minimize drag, and maximize flying time. Unfortunately, when he hit the “jettison all” button, the left drop fuel tank didn’t disengage completely, and was swaying precariously under the wing. Dad knew that would cause some problems on landing, but there wasn’t much he could do about it at that point.

As the minutes ticked by, Dad disconnected his g-suit from the aircraft and tidied up the cockpit, stowing unnecessary gear. He didn’t want any loose objects to come flying out of the cockpit with him in case he had to eject, since they had the potential to hit him or damage his parachute.  However, he knew that luck would play a role as well. A member of his squadron, Capt. Joseph A. “Jake” L’Huillier, had lost his life just a few months earlier after his seat got tangled up with his parachute after ejection from his disabled aircrft.

Exactly 22 minutes after he lost his oil pressure, the jet’s engine started to seize, causing flames to erupt from the tail and nose of the aircraft. Shortly after that the engine stopped completely, while the plane continued to burn. At this point, Dad still had some control of the aircraft, thanks to the Ram Air Turbine (RAT), a device that pops up in the slipstream of the airplane and powers the hydraulics for the flight controls in an emergency, so he could still move the stick.  There was only small comfort in this, however.  The RAT utilizes ram pressure, caused by the speed of the aircraft, but once landing commences and the aircraft’s speed decreases, the RAT is no longer operative and the stick becomes frozen. Partly because of this factor, no one had ever landed an F-100 with a seized engine successfully. Between that, and the dangling fuel tank under the left wing, Dad realized that landing would have been extremely challenging. Under the circumstances, the growing realization that ejection was unavoidable came as something of a relief.

Established protocol for ejecting from the aircraft specifies that the plane should be at an elevation of approximately 10,000-14,000 feet at the time of ejection, and a speed of 250 knots.  Dad spotted two U.S. Navy ships in the distance, so he headed for them in the hope that one of them might pick him up. Immediately prior to ejection, Dad deployed the speed brakes so that the plane would go straight down and not hit anything.  When he reached the specified speed and altitude parameters, he ejected from the cockpit.

In the following transcript, Dad is Litter 54 (Lit 54), Lt. Col. Sydney Johnson is Litter 53 (Lit 53), LC is the Local Control tower in Da Nang, and Pedro is the search-and-rescue helicopter dispatched from the base in Da Nang.2harry-roberts-plane-crash-transcript-p-1

Dad recalled that the rationale for heading to the sea was that it was much easier for him to be found and rescued by friendly forces that way, rather than bailing out over the jungle and risking being found by the Viet Cong first.  At this point in the transcript, it’s clear that the intent was still for Dad to land the plane.  However, things changed very quickly.harry-roberts-plane-crash-transcript-p-2

Within that same minute, 7:48 am, as the cockpit filled up with smoke, the decision was made to forego the landing attempt and bail out. Note that there appear to be two errors in the second page of the transcript (above).  Dad’s final line is “And here goes.”  The two quotes after that, which are attributed to Dad, are clearly from Lt. Col. Johnson.  harry-roberts-plane-crash-transcript-p-3

In reading this, I never fail to be impressed by the calm, cool, professionalism of all the servicemen involved.  For my family, this was a day that could have meant disaster.  For the USAF Air Traffic Control staff in Da Nang, it was just another Wednesday in Vietnam. Notice how they’re anxious for the rescue helicopter, Pedro, and Lt. Col. Johnson to find some other channel for communication, so they don’t tie up the current radio frequency?  Although the transcript mentions that “The pickup was made approximately 0830 GMT on 282.8,” it neglects to explain that Dad wasn’t out of the woods once he’d bailed out of his plane. There were still some remaining hazards to negotiate.

Things got off to a good start with the ejection. The seat of the aircraft was designed with a “seat-man separator” function which is intended to ensure that the pilot is clear of the seat before his chute opens. There is a manual override that can be utilized in case this function fails, but by the time Dad had the presence of mind to assess the need for it, he was already separated  from the seat and his parachute was successfully deployed. Although Dad was relieved to discover this, he had some new concerns to address. His parachute was equipped with a quick release system underneath a durable cover.  The cover was intended to prevent unintentional triggering of the quick release, and Dad realized that the cover on the left side had blown off during the ejection, exposing the mechanism.  As a precaution, Dad grabbed onto the left side riser lines of the parachute to be sure that they were secure, and gripped them tightly for the duration of his fall.

The next problem was that the parachute’s design was trapping air, causing him to oscillate back and forth under the chute rather violently, like the clapper in a bell.  To remedy this, there were four lines that were identified with red tape that could be cut to stop the oscillation by opening up two panels in the parachute canopy.  Dad’s G-suit was equipped with a switchblade knife with a special hook on the end designed for cutting these cords. Needless to say, cutting cords on the parachute which was the only thing standing between him and death took some resolve, and he checked several times to be sure he was cutting the right cords. However, the nauseating effect of the oscillation was enough to persuade him of the necessity of doing it.

The time between ejection and touching down in the South China Sea was perhaps the longest 15 minutes of Dad’s life.  It seemed to take forever to fall to earth, to the point that Dad wondered if he were caught in some kind of updraft. He was concerned about disconnecting his parachute as he hit the water. This was necessary to ensure that it didn’t drag him down, or act as a sail, catching the breeze and carrying him over the water at whatever rate the wind was blowing.  However, he obviously didn’t want to release the parachute prematurely. After falling for what seemed like a long time, he decided to drop his oxygen mask as a test, and was astonished when he couldn’t even see it hit the water. He was still far too high up. A few more minutes passed and he decided to try again, this time dropping his clipboard. Again, Dad couldn’t even see the splash it made. He resolved to look straight ahead and not think too much about the seemingly slow pace of his descent. He decided that he would release his parachute only when he felt his feet hit the water.

During all this time, Dad’s flight lead, Sydney Johnson, was continuing to monitor his descent. Dad knew Sydney pretty well, and knew that he was an avid videographer. Dad correctly guessed that Sydney was filming the whole episode, flying with the stick between his knees so his hands were free to hold the video camera. Unfortunately, each time Sydney flew past at 500 knots, Dad’s fragile parachute would shudder, threatening collapse. Although Dad smiles when he tells the story now, it’s easy to see how alarming that would have been at the time.

As Dad continued to fall, he prepared for his eventual landing in the water. His survival kit, which was attached to his parachute, contained a raft on a 20-foot lanyard. He inflated the raft, along with his LPUs (Life Preservers Underarm). When Dad’s feet finally made contact with the ocean, he released his parachute which immediately blew away. Still attached to his raft by the lanyard, he swam over to it, climbed inside, and waited for rescue. Overhead he could see the Search-and-Rescue helicopter Pedro, an Army UH-1 helicopter, and the forward air controllor‘s plane, along with Sydney Johnson in his F-100, still filming. (When asked why there were so many aircraft, Dad quipped, “It was a slow day for the war.”) He knew he wouldn’t be in the water long, but while he was waiting, Dad began to rummage through his survival kit to see what was in there.  He found a saw, which he discarded, and then found some shark repellent tablets, which had already gotten wet and were getting dye everywhere. In those days, shark repellent consisted mainly of a potent dye that turned the water so inky black that the sharks became confused. Dad threw that into the water as well. Finally he found what appeared to be a cellophane-wrapped Rice Krispy bar left over from World War II. He took one bite, but then Pedro began lowering a rescue strop (also known as a “horse collar”) to get Dad out of the water.

During Sea Survival School, Dad had been taught how to be rescued by a helicopter. It wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Helicopters can generate a static charge of up to 25,000 volts while flying, which could be transmitted to the rescuee via the horse collar. Therefore it was important to be ground the horse collar by alllowing it to contact the water first before touching it, to prevent the delivery of a nasty electric shock. Dad had also been instructed to keep his flight helmet on in case of water rescue. This particular instruction didn’t make sense to Dad, so he had removed his helmet — a decision he regretted as soon as his head hit the underside of the helicopter as they attempted to reel him in. When he was finally on board the helicopter, the chief master sargeant took a long look at Dad’s lips and fingers, which were stained blue from handling first the shark repellent and then the Rice Krispy bar. Eventually he asked, “If you don’t mind my asking, Lieutenant, how cold was that water?  We’ve picked up guys out of the Arctic who looked better than you!”

One might think that Dad would have earned a little downtime after all of this. However, he was back in the cockpit of a new plane the next day, and Dad would remind us of this fact whenever we were tempted to dwell on some small failure or tragedy. In addition to learning to get back up into that cockpit, Dad learned to be cool under pressure, and to keep his wits about him in a crisis.  Although it wasn’t his choice to go to Vietnam, he opted to make the best of a bad situation, turning what would have been a compulsory draft into the Army into an opportunity to learn to fly with the Air National Guard. He sacrificed his own needs and desires and served his country with honor and integrity, working hard amid stress and danger to earn his paycheck to support his family back home. He also managed to keep his sharp sense of humor through it all. Perhaps his military experience made him a sterner, less effusive father than he might otherwise have been. It’s impossible to know what might have been, but I’m proud to be his daughter. I love you, “Daddy Ramjet.”

pict0036

Sources:

1 English, Dave, Great Aviation Quotes: Safety, Dave English: Aviation Nerd Bon Vivant, http://www.daveenglish.com, accessed 8 February 2017.

V.F. Gardner, Major, USAF, Chief, Flight Facilities, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, USA to Lt. Harry W. Roberts, Jr., Tape Transcript, Litter 54, 18 Dec 1968, Vietnam Memorabilia; privately held by Harry W. Roberts, Jr.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

 

 

 

 

The Siren Song of the BSO

One of the guiding principles of efficiency in genealogy research is to create a research plan and stick to it. We all run across distractions as we research, of course, and we’ve probably all had that experience of heading down a research “rabbit hole” in pursuit of something not directly related to the original goal, and then emerging hours later with little to show for one’s research time, beyond, say, a new appreciation for plants which our ancestors might have used to make clothing dyes.  (Okay, maybe that’s just me.  Anyway.)  In the genealogy community, these distractions are commonly referred to as BSO’s: Bright, Shiny Objects.  The prescribed remedy is to make a note of each BSO as it arises, jotting down where it was found so that it can be explored in detail during another research session, and then move on, in order to achieve the research goals set forth in the initial research plan. This is absolutely sound advice.

And yet, there are times when I am so very glad that I pursued those BSO’s.

A perfect example of this arose last weekend.  My husband and I had a date night planned, but I had allotted some research time in the afternoon prior to that.  My goal was to make a list of distant cousins on my Dad’s paternal line who might be persuaded to donate a DNA sample to address some research questions that have recently cropped up. In reviewing my data on this side of the family, I took a look at my Grentzinger line.

The Grentzingers of Steinsoultz, Alsace and Detroit

Henry and Catherine (née Grentzinger) Wagner of Detroit, Michigan, were my 3x-great-grandparents.  Henry was the son of Johann Heinrich Wagner and Maria Anna Nau, immigrants from Germany who arrived with their family in Detroit in 1853.1 Catherine was the daughter of Peter and Elizabeth (née Eckhardt/Eckerd/Eckert) Grentzinger of Steinsoultz in Ober-Elsaß, or what is now the Haut-Rhin department of France.  It’s not yet clear to me whether Peter also emigrated, or if Elizabeth came to Detroit with her children as a widow, but Elizabeth herself is buried in Assumption Grotto Cemetery in Detroit.2  It is also known that Catherine had at least one sibling who emigrated:  a brother Peter, who was living with Catherine and Henry Wagner’s family in 1870 (Figure 1).3

Figure 1:  Extract of 1870 census showing Henry Wagner household.3henry-wagner-household-1870Note that the family includes not only Henry and Catherine and their two children, John and Mary, but also 16-year-old Mary Meat.  I haven’t yet figured out how she fits in, so that’s another mystery for another day.

In reviewing my notes, I realized that I still didn’t have Henry and Catherine’s marriage record.  Henry and Catherine Wagner should have married circa 1855, based on the fact that their older son, John, was born circa 1857.  Catherine was born in 1828, meaning she would have been 27 at the time of her first marriage.  That’s certainly a reasonable age for a first marriage.  But in a previous round of research, I’d noted the following marriage record in the index at FamilySearch (Figure 2)

Figure 2:  Michigan Civil Marriages, 1834-1974, index-only entry for Catharina Grenzinzer.catherine-granzinger-marriage-index

I’d wondered if it was my Catherine, but there were other Granzinger/Grentzingers living in the midwest at that time and the relationships between them aren’t yet clear to me. I know from experience how easy it is to draw erroneous conclusions based on limited data, so I was hesitant to get too excited about this record.  Although Catherine’s age here suggests a birth year of 1828, which is consistent with what is known for “my” Catherine, this indexed entry did not include parents’ name or any other identifying information that might make it easier to draw firm conclusions. So I put this puzzle piece aside for the time being and moved on.

When I rediscovered this puzzle piece last weekend, it occurred to me that many of the indexed records collections on FamilySearch now have images online.  A great place to see what’s online (indexes and scans) is to visit the “Research by Location” page for your area of interest.  For example, the page for Michigan  shows all these fantastic collections of online images (Figure 3).

Figure 3:  Michigan Research Page at FamilySearch.michigan-research

I noticed that the Michigan County Marriages, 1820-1940 database has been updated since the last time I researched my Grentzingers two years ago.  I looked up that marriage record for Catherine Grentzinger and Victor Dellinger again, and this time, I was able to obtain the image of the record (Figure 4),4 despite the fact that Figure 2 states “no image available” in the upper right corner. Sometimes it seems that the left hand at Family Search knows not what the right hand is doing.

Figure 4:  Marriage record for Catherine Grenzinger and Victor Dellinger, 1846.4catherine-granzinger-and-victor-dellinger-1846-crop

The full record reads, “1733.  State of Michigan, County of Wayne. I do hereby certify that at the City of Detroit on the third day of February A.D. 1846 I received the mutual consent of matrimony between Victor Dellinger, 22 years of age, + Catherine “Grenzinger,”18 years of age, both of the City of Detroit, and joined them together in the bonds of holy wedlock in the presence of Henry “Diegel” [Diezel?] and + John Damm of Detroit, given under my hand this 22nd day of Xbr 1846 (signed) Rev. A. Kopp.”

Unlike that index-only record, this image was a cause for celebration, because it provided a necessary clue that allowed me to conclude that this was, indeed, my 3x-great-grandmother.  The clue was the first witness, Henry Diegel.  When I saw that name, my heart leaped with joy.

Henry Diegel! 

Now at this point, you may be asking, just who is Henry Diegel?

As I mentioned earlier, Catherine’s mother, Elizabeth (née Eckerd) Grentzinger, is buried in Assumption Grotto Cemetery in Detroit.  The last time I was working on this line, I’d made a phone call to the cemetery office to see what they could tell me about Elizabeth’s burial. The receptionist was very informative.  She told me that the burial record is in Latin and in translation it reads,”1 August 1854 Elizabeth Eghart (sic) age 54. Henry Diegel.” She commented futher that Henry Diegel was probably the one who paid for the grave, and was presumably Elizabeth’s husband, based on the way the records are structured.5

Immediately I took a look at the other burials in Find a Grave in Assumption Grotto Cemetery with the surname Diegel to see if I could gather additional clues.  There were a couple hits for men who were born in the mid-to-late 1800s, who were therefore unlikely to have been Elizabeth’s husband.  When I broadened the search to include any Diegels buried in that cemetery, however, there was quite a list of them, including one John Henry Diegel, born in 1798, who seemed like the most plausible candidate for a connection to Elizabeth Grentzinger. But why was she not buried as Elizabeth Diegel, if they were married?  Perhaps one of the other Henry Diegels was a son-in-law who paid for her grave, since her husband Peter Grentzinger was already deceased?  There were too many questions and too few answers, and more pressing matters pulled me away from further research on this line.

Until last weekend.  Last weekend, it became clear that Henry Diegel was connected to the Grentzinger family in some important way, even if that connection is still unclear.  Not only did he pay for Elizabeth’s grave, but he also witnessed the marriage of Elizabeth’s daughter, Catherine. More importantly, I now had clear evidence that Catherine Wagner was married prior to her marriage to Henry.  Armed with that information, it was a matter of minutes before I located her civil marriage record to Henry Wagner in 1855 (Figure 5).6

Figure 5:  Civil marriage record for Henry Wagner and Catherine Dellinger, 1855.6henry-wagner-and-catherine-dellinger-1855-crop

The witnesses named here are Henry’s siblings, August and Gertrude Wagner, providing further confirmation that this is the correct marriage record for my ancestors.  It’s also worth mentioning that although this is the civil marriage record — meaning the one created by the civil authorities for Wayne County, Michigan — this does not imply that they were not also married in a religious ceremony.  In fact, the column heading on the last column (cut off in this image) indicates the name of the officiant at each marriage in the register, and the column heading states, “Ministers of St. Mary’s Church.”  The church record should also be sought because it is likely to contain information beyond what is mentioned on the civil version of the record.

After realizing that Catherine Grentzinger was married to Victor Dellinger in 1846, my next step was to look for them in the 1850 census (Figure 6).7  Bingo!

Figure 6:  Victor Dalmgher household in the 1850 U.S. Census.7victor-dalmgher-household-p-1-crop

They were indexed under Victor Dalmgher, and it doesn’t look like a transcription error, but rather a spelling that’s true to what was recorded in the census.  At this point I don’t know which version is closer to Victor’s true surname, but as my undergraduate research mentor used to tell me, “Keep gathering data, and truth will emerge.”  What’s really exciting about this record is the fact that there are two children living with the parents, previously unknown to me. Also listed with this household, but appearing at the top of the next page, is Catherine’s brother, Peter, recorded here as “Gransan” (Figure 7).

Figure 7:  Peter Gransan in the household of Victor Dalmgher, 1850 U.S. Census.7victor-dalmgher-household-p-2-crop

That was as far as I got with my pursuit of the BSO that afternoon before my husband came looking for me, wondering why I wasn’t dressed and ready for our date yet.  (Have I mentioned that he’s a saint?)  While it’s true that my journey down the rabbit hole kept me from finishing the task I’d assigned for myself, I was still able to complete that research task the next day.  And I’m absolutely thrilled with the fascinating new insights into my Grentzinger ancestors that resulted from one little dalliance with a BSO.

 Sources:

New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (image), Henry Wagner family, S.S. Erbpring Luidrich August, 29 September 1853, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed January 2017.

2 Assumption Grotto Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan (image and transcription), Elizabeth Eckert Granzinger headstone, 1800 – 5 August 1854, Memorial #108389561, http://findagrave.com, accessed February 2017.

3 1870 U.S. Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, 1st precinct, 6th ward, page 11, Henry Wagner household, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1940,  (images and transcriptions), record for Victor Dellinger and Catherine Grenzinger, http://familysearch.org, accessed February 2017.

Assumption Grotto Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan to Julie Szczepankiewicz, Notes from telephone conversation, 15 January 2015.

Michigan, County Marriages, 1820-1940, (images and transcriptions), record for Henry Wagner and Catherine Dellinger, http://familysearch.org, accessed February 2017.

7 1850 U.S. Federal Census (population schedule), Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, page 156B and 157, Victor Dalmgher household, http://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017.

“Grandma said she was from Poznań”: Decoding Stories About Ancestors from Poland

Most of us use family stories as the starting point for our genealogy research. However, the truth can sometimes get distorted, and it’s our job as family historians to sort out the historical fact from the fiction.  With that in mind, I’d like to offer some suggestions based on common misinterpretations, to help you decode those family stories and understand what Grandma really meant.

Story:  “Grandma said she was from Poznań.”

Analysis:  Most of our ancestors were from small villages, not big cities, so in all likelihood, Grandma didn’t mean she was from the city of Poznań proper.  Often an immigrant would generalize her place of birth to the closest big city under the assumption that her listener wouldn’t recognize the name of whatever small village she was actually born in.  We still do this today:  if I’m talking with someone who’s not familiar with Western New York, I might say, “I’m originally from Buffalo,” although it would be more accurate to say that I used to live in Williamsville, a village about 12 miles east of the city of Buffalo itself.  When I’m talking with another Western New Yorker, I can be more specific. In my family history, the Great-Grandma who said she was from Poznań was from the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo, about 48 miles east. Looking for her in records from the city of Poznań itself would be an exercise in frustration and a waste of time.

Story:  “On Great-Grandpa’s World War I draft registration, he stated that he was from Płock, but on his passenger manifest he said that he was from Bieżuń.  Which one do I trust?”

Analysis:  Both.  Sometimes our ancestors referenced a larger administrative division rather than the smallest one, just as I might sometimes say I was born in New York, rather than Buffalo.  Gather all the bits of evidence for your ancestor’s place of origin, then check a gazetteer to see if they can be reconciled.  In this example, the village of Bieżuń was the seat of gmina Bieżuń within the Sierpc powiat and the Płock gubernia of Russian Poland.  (A gmina is an administrative division similar to a township, serving multiple small villages, but smaller than a powiat, which is comparable to a county.  A gubernia is like a province.)  Consequently, any reference to Bieżuń, Sierpc, or Płock on documents pertaining to Great-Grandpa’s place of birth might be consistent with the same location.  Not sure which gazetteer to use?  Check out the section entitled “Maps, Phonetic Gazetteers, and Period Gazetteers” in this previous post.

Story:  “Grandpa was Polish, and he was born somewhere near the Russian border.”

Analysis:  As discussed in a recent post, Poland didn’t exist as an independent nation from 1795 until 1918.  So statements like this one, which presuppose that Grandma was born in Poland near the border with Russia, are immediately suspect.  In most cases, “near the Russian border” means somewhere in Russian Poland – either the Kingdom of Poland or the Kresy (the eastern borderlands that were part of Poland between the world wars). Similarly, “near the German border” suggests Prussian Poland, and “near the Austrian border” suggests Galicia.

In my experience, these “border” stories were an attempt to reconcile the apparent conflict between the fact of someone’s Polish ethnicity and his documented Prussian (for example) nationality.  Grandpa may have come from someplace solidly within Prussian Poland, not particularly close to the actual border with Russia, but nonetheless the “border” stories persist.  Since ethnicity has more to do with language, culture, and religion than with citizenship, even if Grandpa was a citizen of Prussia, we should not infer that he was ethnically German, for the same reason that I would not suddenly become an ethnic Mexican if Mexico were to invade the U.S. tomorrow.

Story:  “Great-Grandma’s passenger manifest from 1900 says she was 20, but the 1930 census says she was only 45. Therefore she must have lied about her age on the census.”

Analysis:  I always cringe when I hear accusations that ancestors lied about their age. Unless it’s something really egregious, I like to give Grandma the benefit of the doubt and assume that any discrepancy was an innocent mistake, rather than assuming an intent to deceive. In rural, agrarian society it just wasn’t necessary to know one’s birthdate precisely, and many of our ancestors didn’t know their exact birthdate, or they might remember the day, but not the year.  When evaluating records for your Polish ancestor, it’s not uncommon for someone’s reported age to be off by a few years in either direction.  This is as true in records from Poland as it is in U.S. records.  For example, many parish priests had a tendency to round the ages of declarants and witnesses, which is evident when all the key participants just happen to be 30, 40 or 50 with nary an odd-numbered age in the bunch.

Story: “Great-Grandpa Albert must have lied about his birthdate.  He said it was in April, but I found his baptismal record from Poland and he was actually born in September.”

Analysis:  This is a corollary to the situation described above, but with a twist.  Many Americans don’t realize that in Polish culture, name days were traditionally more important than birthdays.  Name days (imieniny) are the designated feast days dedicated to canonized saints within the Roman Catholic church.  For example, the feast of St. Adalbert is celebrated on April 23, so men named Albert/Adalbert or Wojciech (the equivalent of this name in Polish) would be celebrated on that day, regardless of when their actual birthdays were.  In practice, the feast day calendar sometimes influenced the choice of names given to a child, with parents naming their child after a saint whose feast day was on or close to the child’s actual date of birth.  However, your mileage may vary with this.  In some cases, multiple saints bore the same name throughout history, e.g. St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist, St. John Kanty, St. John of God, St. John Nepomucene, etc., so the same name might have multiple feast days associated with it throughout the year.  In this case, there’s really no way of knowing just which Saint John was your ancestor’s patron unless it is specified in his baptismal record.

Story:  “I’d love to find Grandma’s birth record in Poland, but I’ve heard it’s no use, because all the records were destroyed in the wars.”

Analysis:  This misconception has prevented many a family historian from trying to explore his roots in Poland.  I’ll be honest — at one point, I fell for it, too.  Back in the earlier days of my research, I determined that my great-grandfather, Józef Zieliński, was born in the village of Mistrzewice, in Młodzieszyn township.  Thanks to the old Rootsweb genealogy mailing lists, I found another researcher who was also interested in the Zieliński surname in Młodzieszyn.  He’d been to Poland, visited the parish, and assured me that all records prior to 1945 were destroyed.  This was about 12 years ago, before it was easy to check online for availability of records in the Polish State Archives, and back before anything much was online, so I don’t blame that researcher at all.  He was going on the best information that he had, but it’s up to each of us to do our own due diligence.  At that point, I assumed that I would never learn anything more about my Zieliński family in Poland, and with a heavy heart, I moved on to other lines of research.

It wasn’t until 2012 that I discovered that some records for Mistrzewice and Młodzieszyn did survive the war, and were indexed on Geneteka. (If you’re interested, that story is told here).  Admittedly, the range of years covered by the surviving records is limited, but between these documents and some letter-writing to the local civil registry office (Urząd Stanu Cywilnego, or USC) in Młodzieszyn, I was able to add another 1-3 generations of ancestors (depending on the line) to my Zieliński family tree.  If I’d believed the story that all the records were destroyed and had stopped looking, I’d have missed out.

These are a few examples of common misunderstandings that I’ve heard from people as they begin to research their Polish ancestry.  What about you?  What are some misunderstandings that you had when you began your research?  What are the stories in your family that you’ve discovered weren’t quite accurate, once you dug a little deeper?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments!  In the meantime, happy researching.

Featured photo credit:  Detail of map, “Posen 1905”, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Niagara River Stories

Rivers seem to run through my blood.  I was born in Western New York, and my first home was on Grand Island, in the middle of the Niagara River.  I have no memory of living there, because we moved to Omaha, Nebraska before I turned three, and then to Cincinnati, Ohio when I was four, but we would often return to Buffalo to visit family, and eventually moved back to Western New York when I was ten.  Even as a child I was impressed by how the narrow, muddy Ohio River just couldn’t compare to the blue depths of the mighty Niagara.

My Dad grew up on the Island, surrounded by the River.  His family moved there from Buffalo when he was about eight. As a teenager, he and his brother Peter played the dangerous game of going down to the water’s edge in winter and jumping from ice floe to ice floe to see how far out they could get, away from the shore.  As a young man, he would borrow Peter’s boat to court my mother, who lived on the other side of the river in North Tonawanda.  And at the age of forty-three, he survived a plane crash into the Niagara, when the water was only thirty-eight degrees and he had to save the pilot’s life and start swimming to shore while hypothermia was setting in.  But that’s another story for another day.

The Niagara River has been a part of my family history since the late 1700s, when my Loyalist ancestors, Robert and Catherine (née Sternberg) Spencer were granted land overlooking the Niagara River in what is now Niagara Falls, Ontario, in gratitude for Robert’s service in Butler’s Rangers during the American Revolutionary War. Before the war, another river featured prominently in their lives — the Mohawk River in what is now Central New York State.  How do I know this? I’m blessed to know a surprising amount about the lives of these ancestors, thanks to the memoirs written by their grandson, Adam Spencer, which were published after his death as a series of newspaper articles in the Norwich Gazette in 1889.  At present, I have a transcript of these articles published in 1977 in the newsletter of the Canadian Friends Historical Association (Adam Spencer was a member of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers.)1 A transcript isn’t as good as the actual newspaper articles on microfilm, of course, so that’s on my to-do list for needed documents, but this is what I’ve got right now.

canadian-quakers-newsletter1

Most of these memoirs concern the life of Adam Spencer himself, not surprisingly, and my direct line goes through his aunt, Sarah Spencer, who married John Hodgkinson, rather than through him.  So the parts that are most interesting to me are the parts about his grandparents, Robert and Catherine Spencer.  I’ll let Adam tell their story in his own words:

adam-spencer-memoirs-p-1

adam-spencer-memoirs-p-22

I have my doubts about the historical accuracy of certain parts of Adam’s story, particularly regarding Robert Spencer’s birth in Ireland, but that, too, is another story for another day.  Today what impresses me is all the lush detail presented in this passage — so many glimpses into the lives of these ancestors who lived so long ago. I like the image (historically accurate?) of Catherine as a girl of about 10, maybe, rowing across the Mohawk to travel to different parts of her parents’ farm in an era when many girls her age might be stitching samplers.  I can picture her and her young husband Robert as newlyweds, hosting the log-rolling bee to clear the land of timber as they set up their new farm near her parents along the Mohawk.  I honor her courage in packing up her six children and traveling to Montreal to wait out the war, hoping and praying for her husband’s safety. I imagine her affectionate smile as she bundled the child up in warm clothing before climbing into the rowboat on that fateful day as they attempted to cross the river to Fort Niagara.  I like to think that maybe she was watching over her 5x-great-grandsons, my Dad and his brother, keeping them safe when they were jumping from floe to floe in the river in the 1950s.  And maybe she was watching over Dad again on the day his plane crashed, when he was  rescued from the frigid waters of the Niagara before he lost consciousness.

It’s just one river, but it has so many stories to tell.

Sources:

1Spencer, Adam.  “OId Time Experiences In the Bush and On the Farm”.  Canadian Friends Historical Association 19 (March 1977):  p. 1.

2Ibid, p. 7-8.

Cover photo:  Sailboat on the Niagara River in front of Old Fort Niagara, courtesy of MaxPixel.FreeGreatPicture.com, is in the public domain.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Those Infamous Border Changes: A Crash Course in Polish History

Newcomers to Polish genealogy often start with a few misconceptions.  Many Americans have only a dim understanding of the border changes that occurred in Europe over the centuries, and in fairness, keeping up with all of them can be quite a challenge, as evidenced by this timelapse video that illustrates Europe’s geopolitical map changes since 1000 AD.  So it’s no wonder that I often hear statements like, “Grandma’s family was Polish, but they lived someplace near the Russian border.”  Statements like this presuppose that Grandma’s family lived in “Poland” near the border between “Poland” and Russia.  However, what many people don’t realize is that Poland didn’t exist as an independent nation from 1795-1918.

How did this happen and what were the consequences for our Polish ancestors?  At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the story, I’d like to present a few highlights of Polish history that beginning Polish researchers should be aware of as they start to trace their family’s origins in “the Old Country.”

Typically, the oldest genealogical records that we find for our Polish ancestors date back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which existed from 1569-1795.  At the height of its power, the Commonwealth looked like this (in red), superimposed over the current map (Figure 1):1

Figure 1:  Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth at its maximum extent, in 1619.1polish-lithuanian_commonwealth_at_its_maximum_extent-svg

The beginning of the end for the Commonwealth came in 1772, with the first of three partitions which carved up Polish lands among the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires.  The second partition, in which only the Russian and Prussian Empires participated, occurred in 1793.  After the third partition in 1795, among all three empires, Poland vanished from the map (Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Map of the Partitions of Poland, courtesy of Wikimedia.2partitions-of-poland

This map gets trotted out a lot in Polish history and genealogy discussions because we often explain to people about those partitions, but I don’t especially like it because it sometimes creates the misconception that this was how things still looked by the late 1800s/early 1900s when most of our Polish immigrant ancestors came over.  In reality, time marched on, and the map kept changing. By 1807, just twelve years after that final partition of Poland, the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw (Figure 3) was created by Napoleon as a French client state.  At this time, Napoleon also introduced a paragraph-style format of civil vital registration, so civil records from this part of “Poland” are easily distinguishable from church records.

Figure 3:  Map of the Duchy of Warsaw (Księstwo Warszawskie), 1807-1809. 3duchy_of_warsaw_1807-1809

During its brief history, the Duchy of Warsaw managed to expand its borders to the south and east a bit thanks to territories taken from the Austrian Empire, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4:  Map of the Duchy of Warsaw, 1809-1815.4duchy_of_warsaw_1809-1815

However, by 1815, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Duchy of Warsaw was divided up again at the Congress of Vienna, which created the Grand Duchy of Posen (Wielkie Księstwo Poznańskie), Congress Poland (Królestwo Polskie), and the Free City of Kraków.  These changes are summarized in Figure 5.

Figure 5:  Territorial Changes in Poland, 1815 5territorial_changes_of_poland_1815

The Grand Duchy of Posen was a Prussian client state whose capital was the city of Poznań (Posen, in German).  This Grand Duchy was eventually replaced by the Prussian Province of Posen in 1848.  Congress Poland was officially known as the Kingdom of Poland but is often called “Congress Poland” in reference to its creation at the Congress of Vienna, and as a means to distinguish it from other Kingdoms of Poland which existed at various times in history. Although it was a client state of Russia from the start, Congress Poland was granted some limited autonomy (e.g. records were kept in Polish) until the November Uprising of 1831, after which Russia retaliated with curtailment of Polish rights and freedoms. The unsuccessful January Uprising of 1863 resulted in a further tightening of Russia’s grip on Poland, erasing any semblance of autonomy which the Kingdom of Poland had enjoyed. The territory was wholly absorbed into the Russian Empire, and this is why family historians researching their roots in this area will see a change from Polish-language vital records to Russian-language records starting about 1868.  The Free, Independent, and Strictly Neutral City of Kraków with its Territory (Wolne, Niepodległe i Ściśle Neutralne Miasto Kraków z Okręgiem), was jointly controlled by all three of its neighbors (Prussia, Russia, and Austria), until it was annexed by the Austrian Empire following the failed Kraków Uprising in 1846.

By the second half of the 19th century, things had settled down a bit.  The geopolitical map of “Poland” didn’t change during the time from the 1880s through the early 1900s, when most of our ancestors emigrated, until the end of World War I when Poland was reborn as a new, independent Polish state.  The featured map at the top (shown again in Figure 6) is one of my favorites, because it clearly defines the borders of Galicia and the various Prussian and Russian provinces commonly mentioned in documents pertaining to our ancestors.

Figure 6:  Central and Eastern Europe in 1900, courtesy of easteurotopo.org, used with permission.6europe_map_large

Although the individual provinces within the former Congress Poland are not named due to lack of space, a nice map of those is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7:  Administrative map of Congress Poland, 1907.7  (Note that some sources still refer to the these territories as “Congress Poland” even after 1867, but this name does not reflect the existence of any independent government apart from Russia.)polska_1907_adm

The Republic of Poland that was created at the end of World War I, commonly known as the Second Polish Republic, is shown in Figure 8.  The borders are shifted to the east relative to present-day Poland, including parts of what is now Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus.  This territory that was part of Poland between the World Wars, but is excluded from today’s Poland, is known as the Kresy.

Figure 8:  Map of the Second Polish Republic showing borders from 1921-1939.8rzeczpospolitaii

During the dark days of World War II, Poland was occupied by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  About 6 million Polish citizens died during this occupation, mostly civilians, including about 3 million Polish Jews.9  After the war, the three major allied powers (the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) redrew the borders of Europe yet again and created a Poland that excluded the Kresy, but included the territories of East Prussia, West Prussia, Silesia, and most of Pomerania.10, 11 At the same time, the Western leaders betrayed Poland and Eastern Europe by effectively handing these countries over to Stalin and permitting the creation of the Communist Eastern Bloc.12

To conclude, let’s take a look at how these border changes affected the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo in present-day Słupca County, Wielkopolskie province, where my great-grandmother was born.  This village was originally in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but then became part of Prussia after the second partition in 1793.  In 1807 it fell solidly within the borders of the Duchy of Warsaw, but by 1815 it lay right on the westernmost edge of the Kalisz province of Russian-controlled Congress Poland.  After 1867, the vital records are in Russian, reflecting the tighter grip that Russia exerted on Poland at that time, until 1918 when Kowalewo-Opactwo became part of the Second Polish Republic.  Do these border changes imply that our ancestors weren’t Poles, but were really German or Russian? Hardly. Ethnicity and nationality aren’t necessarily the same thing. Time and time again, ethnic Poles attempted to overthrow their Prussian, Russian or Austrian occupiers, and those uprisings speak volumes about our ancestors’ resentment of those national governments and their longing for a free Poland. As my Polish grandma once told me, “If a cat has kittens in a china cabinet, you don’t call them teacups.”

Sources:

1Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its maximum extent” by Samotny Wędrowiec, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

Rzeczpospolita Rozbiory 3,” by Halibutt, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

3 Map of the Duchy of Warsaw, 1807-1809,” by Mathiasrex, based on layers of kgberger, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0., accessed 9 January 2017.

4“Map of the Duchy of Warsaw, 1809-1815” by Mathiasrex, based on layers of kgberger, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

5 “Territorial Changes of Poland, 1815,” by Esemono, is in the public domain, accessed 9 January 2017.

6 “Central and Eastern Europe in 1900,” Topgraphic Maps of Eastern Europe:  An Atlas of the Shtetl, used with permission, accessed 9 January 2017.

7 “Administrative Map of Kingdom of Poland from 1907,” by Qquerim, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

8 RzeczpospolitaII,” is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

9 Occupation of Poland (1939-1945),” Wikipedia, accessed 9 Janary 2017.

10  “Potsdam Conference,” Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2017.

11 Territorial changes of Poland immediately after World War II,” Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2017.

12 “Western betrayal,” Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Thank Goodness for Godparents! Researching my Ancestors’ FANS, Part II

In my last post, I wrote about using Elizabeth Shown Mills’ FAN principle with an emphasis on godparents, as a means to extend one’s family history research in the absence of direct evidence.  As Mills defines it, “FAN” is an acronym for Friends, Associates, and Neighbors, and godparents fall squarely into that category. Previously, I had analyzed data from the Polish vital records database Geneteka, and discovered a woman named Marianna (née Naciążek) Kowalska, who might have been a cousin or sister of my great-great-grandmother, Antonina Naciążek.  To gather additional evidence to substantiate this hypothesis, I examined the godparents of Antonina’s children to see if Marianna Kowalska was named among them.  Sure enough, one of the godmothers was a Marianna Kowalska, and even given the popularity of the Kowalski surname, it seems likely that she is the same as the woman I suspect to be my great-great-grandmother’s sister (or cousin, at least), under the circumstances.

This kind of analysis can also be used in reverse, to suggest a possible mother’s maiden name, which is what I’d like to illustrate today.  A few years ago I was working on my Schulmerich line which I had traced back to Hillesheim, Mainz-Bingen, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.  Records are on microfilm from the LDS, but they’re also indexed and searchable online at Family Search.  I had worked my way back to my 5x-great-grandparents, Johann Georg Schulmerich and Anna Margaretha Appelmann, who were married in 1797 (Figure 1):

Figure 1:  Marriage record from Hillesheim (kr. Oppenheim) for Johann Georg Schulmerich and Anna Margaretha Appelmann, 5 July 1797.1j-georg-schulmerich-am-appelmann-1797

In translation, this reads, “July.  On the 5th day of this [month] were married the honorable widower Georg Schulberich, townsman residing in Hillesheim, with the honorable, upright maiden Anna Margaretha Appelmaenn, surviving daughter of the late townsman Michael Appelmann. [The marriage was] blessed by the Most Reverend Pastor of the parish in Hilsheim before the congregation and in the presence of required witnesses.”

As you can see, the parents of Georg Schulmerich are not mentioned.  The record indicates that he was married previously, however, which is a valuable clue.  Perhaps his first marriage record contains his parents’ names?  A search of indexed records at Family Search suggests that Georg’s first wife was Apollonia Weber, as there are a number of birth records for children of Georg Schulmerich and Apollonia Weber that can be found in the parish records for Weinolsheim, just 5 km north of Hillesheim.  Unfortunately, no marriage record for Georg and Apollonia was found in any of the indexed records on Family Search, nor was I able to find one in the microfilmed records for Weinolsheim that the indexers might have missed.

Lacking a marriage record, we can still estimate that Georg Schulmerich married Apollonia Weber circa 1786-1787, since existing birth records suggest that their oldest child was their daughter Anna Maria, and Georg and Apollonia were already “conjuges legitimi” (lawfully married spouses) by the time she was born in October 1787 (Figure 2).2

Figure 2:  Baptismal record from Hillesheim for Anna Maria Schulmerich, born 4 (?) October 1787.2anna-maria-schulmerich-1787

Assuming that Georg was at least 18 when he married, and probably a few years old than that, this suggests a birth year between about 1761 and 1768.  Lo, and behold!  There’s a birth record that fits perfectly for Johann Georg Schulmerich in in the records of Hillesheim in 1766 (Figure 3).

Figure 3:  Baptismal record for Johann Georg Schulmerich, baptized 21 December 1766 in Hillesheim.3johann-georg-schulmerich-1766

In translation, this record reads, “[On] 27th December in Hillesheim was baptized Johann Georg, [son of] the lawful spouses Philipp and Margaretha Schulmerich, [who was] lifted up by Johann Georg Lindhoff.”  The word “levabet” that appears in this record is presumably a misspelling of “levavit,” meaning, “lifted up.”  This is a reference to the child’s godfather, who lifts him out of the waters of the baptismal font during the sacrament of baptism.  The record even includes Johann Georg’s death date, 20 March 1836, in the marginal note.  This is another valuable clue because it suggests that the Johann Georg Schulmerich who was baptized here, remained in the parish until his death, which is consistent with what we know of “my” Johann Georg Schulmerich.

For those who might not be familiar with German genealogy, it’s worth mentioning that the difference in the names used on the marriage and baptismal records, “Georg” on the marriage vs. “Johann Georg” on the baptismal, is not cause for concern.  According to German tradition, it was common for all the boys in a family to be  baptized with the first name Johann, and then called by their middle name (see this article for more details).  So although the names on the records are not a problem, and the date of baptism fits with what we’d expect for “our” Johann Georg Schulmerich, there is still the problem of no maiden name for Margaretha Schulmerich.  Maybe it’s recorded on the birth record of one of their other children?

A search in the indexed records at Family Search for children of Philipp Schulmerich and Margaretha, no maiden name specified, results in four birth records, which are summarized in Figure 4.

Figure 4:  Summary of Information Recorded in Baptismal Records for Children of Philipp and Margaretha Schulmerich.

baptism-summary-table

From this, we can guess that Philipp and Margaretha Elisabeth were married circa 1765-1766, since Johann Georg appears to be their oldest child.  Although the spacing of births is typical, the relatively small number of children suggests that Margaretha died young, assuming that she was in her late teens or early 20s when she began having children.  Once again, a search of the indexed records for the Rhinehessen region on FamilySearch failed to produce Philipp and Margaretha’s marriage record or a death record for either of them, nor were these found in a subsequent search of microfilmed records. However, the fact that Johann Georg remained in the parish, as did his sister Anna Elisabeth, suggests an error or omission on the part of the priest keeping the records, rather than a migration out of the area.

So, is this the end of the line?  Can we learn anything more about this family? Of course we can! Note that two of the godmothers had the maiden name Hausmann, and one was a Schulmerich.  The godmother, Maria Magdalena Schulmerich, might have been either a sister or sister-in-law to Philipp, but the sparsely available records from this time period offer no insight there. However, a search for Anna Elisabeth Hausmann’s birth record turns up a promising candidate:  one Anna Elisabeth Hausmann, born in 1744 in Hillesheim (Figure 5).

Figure 5:  Baptismal record for Anna Elisabeth Hausmann, baptized 30 October 1744 in Hillesheim.7anna-elisabetha-hausmann-1744

In translation, this states, “On the 30th day of October in Hillesheim was baptized Anna Elisabeth, legitimate daughter of the spouses Nicolaus and Christina Haussmann, [she was] lifted up by Anna Elisabeth Schad.”

Nicolaus and Christina Hausmann!  Might there be more records for their children, and might these records include evidence for a daughter named Margaretha Elisabetha?  Since her oldest son, Johann Georg Schulmerich, was born in 1766, we can guess that Margaretha would have been born circa 1746.  And voilà!  The FamilySearch index shows nine births to Nicolaus and Christina Haussmann including the births of daughters Margaretha Elisabetha in 1743 (Figure 6) and Maria Charlotta, who was noted as the godmother of Maria Charlotta Schulmerich.

Figure 6:  Baptismal record for Margaretha Elisab. Haussmann, baptized 2 January 1743 in Hillesheim.8margaretha-elisabetha-hausmann-1743

 

In translation, this record reads, “On the 2nd day of January in Hillesheim was baptized Margaretha Elisab., legitimate daughter of the spouses Nicolaus and Christina Haussmann, [she was] lifted up by Margaretha Rudolf, single.”

Taken all together, this is pretty good indirect evidence that Margaretha Elisabeth Haussmann, daughter of Nicolaus and Christina, was the wife of Johann Georg Schulmerich.  Paying attention to the names of the godparents paid off, and I was able to push the family tree back one more generation.  It should be noted that this information is only available when one views the images of the parish register on microfilm — the FamilySearch index does not include godparents’ names.  This is one of many reasons why one should never rely solely on the information found in an online index, which is a common rookie mistake.  So the next time you think you’ve hit a brick wall with researching your Catholic ancestors, take a look at the list of people they asked to be godparents to their children.  You just might find some clues in there!

Sources:

Roman Catholic Church (Nieder Saulheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1756-1797,” 1797, Marriage record for Georgius Schulberich and Anna Margaretha Appelmaenn.; FHL Film #997333 Item 2.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” Baptisms, 1787, record for Anna Maria Schulmerich.; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1766, Baptisms, record for Johannes Georgius Schulmerich; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” Baptisms, 1768, record for Anna Elisabetha Schulmerich; FHL Film #949088.

5 Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1770, Baptisms, record for Maria Magdalena Schulmerich; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1773, Baptisms, record for Maria Charlotta Schulmerich; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1744, Baptisms, record for Anna Elisabetha Haussman; FHL Film #949088.

Roman Catholic Church (Weinolsheim [Kr. Oppenheim], Mainz-Bingen, Rheinhessen, Germany), “Kirchenbuch, 1740-1876,” 1743, Baptisms, record for Margaretha Elisab. Haussmann; FHL Film #949088.

Featured Image:  Pietro Longhi, The Baptism, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, accessed on 11 January 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017