This is the second part of my research on finding family roots in Poland.
Read the first part: Where Did I Come From?

The Gift of Family

Part 2. Research in the USA

"Anything will give up its secrets, if you love it enough."
~ George Washington Carver

I began my search by pestering everyone in my family for photographs and information. I wrote letters to cousins whom I had not seen in 25 years and made trips to see the oldest family members, hoping they would have information about relatives who had died before I was born. Repeated efforts (some would say nagging!) paid off in the number of old family pictures I was given to copy and anecdotes shared.

I went to the Town Hall in Massachusetts where my grandparents had lived and requested birth, marriage, and death records. Some that I expected were not there at all, but others were a complete surprise. I learned that my paternal grandmother had 10 children, and although the first five had survived to adulthood, of the last five only my father had lived, and he had not been the youngest. I am not sure that my father himself knew that. On the other hand, I did not find the expected records for all of the maternal aunts and uncles that had been born in the USA. Where had they been born? Didn't my grandparents always live in the same place?

I visited local libraries where I found city directories, which provided the addresses of the heads of household as well as their place of employment. The library archive of newspapers contained obituaries of some relatives, and the collection of books documenting the town's history offered insight into the social history as well as providing a few relevant bits of information. Each of these sources revealed a small glimpse into my ancestors' lives, and often I learned some new fact about them. I was able to piece together a year-by-year account of where my grandparents had lived and what their occupations had been.

Because not all of the information I needed was in the town records, I moved on to the Massachusetts state archives. I started with the birth year of the oldest known sibling in each family and worked backwards until I found the marriage records for both maternal and paternal grandparents. In addition to demonstrating that each couple had been married in the United States (contradicting my supposition that they had married in Poland), this record gave the first names of their parents.

One of my uncles had died in 1932 at the age of 24, and if I had only thought to look up his death certificate at the state archives, I would have learned the names of the villages where my maternal grandparents had been born many months before I actually did. The lesson I learned is that by tracking down all of the available information, not only about your primary ancestor but also about their children or siblings, you may find important relevant information.

Federal census records provided a wealth of information about both families. US census records begin in 1790, but the only ones that were of interest to me were 1900, 1910, and 1920. I went to a local NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) office http://www.archives.gov/index.html where these and other federal records can be viewed for free. Today you can purchase a subscription at a website such as Ancestry.com and have easier "at home" access to the census.

Sometimes the census taker did not get the information exactly right. For example, my Uncle Julian, who was called Julie, was always listed as female... good thing I knew him personally and knew that this "fact" was wrong! Surnames were often misspelled, but this was not surprising if the census taker was Irish- or French-American and was working through a neighborhood of Polish-speaking immigrants. Perseverance and patience paid off for me, and I eventually found all the census records for my immediate family.

Immigration records and naturalization records are an excellent source for finding the names of ancestral villages, although naturalization records before 1906 don't give specific birth places. The ship manifests also can be very helpful, but many times the Polish names and village names are very badly misspelled. When I found the manifest for one of my grandfathers, I learned his occupation, his physical description, and that he had traveled with a younger brother. You can search for immigration records at http://www.ellisislandrecords.org/ but a much more efficient way today is through hhttp://www.stevemorse.org/index.html..

My paternal grandfather was naturalized in 1906. He had carefully preserved the certificate he was given, which gave the name of his village. An official at the NARA office I visited told me that these documents, issued by the local Police Court, were extremely rare, and he was very impressed that my family had preserved it so carefully.

Procedures were different in the 1920s, when my maternal grandfather Jacob Karas was naturalized. In one wonderful moment, one of my California cousins sent me Dziadieu's official Certificate of Naturalization. That Certificate carried a number on it, and that number led to other documents associated with his naturalization, including his Declaration of Intention and Petition for Naturalization. The last two documents had the names of the villages where he and my grandmother were born.

Jacob Karas' naturalization certificate:

 

Now I had the names of three villages. I looked them up on http://www.jewishgen.org/ShtetlSeeker/ and also here) only to learn that in every case there was more than one village with the same name. I could rule out the villages in the north of Poland, and concentrate on the ones in the former Galicia, but how far would I get, since I do not read or speak Polish? This was not so much the proverbial brick wall in front of me, but a “what do I do now?” situation.


Read the next part of the essay entitled: Research in Polish, Research in Poland (3)

written by Nancy Maciolek Blake
2005, revised January 2006
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