Polish Genealogy: 4 Steps to Find Your Family History

Researching your Polish genealogy may seem a little intimidating at the start. Read these get-started tips from a Polish genealogy veteran at Legacy Tree Genealogists. Then you’ll know how to dive right into your Polish family history–and where to turn if you need a little help.

Polish genealogy

Thanks to Legacy Tree Genealogists for supplying this guest blog post. Legacy Tree employs researchers with a wide range of expertise. They asked their Polish expert, Julie, to share tips for finding Polish ancestors, based on her decades of experience.

If you’re an American researching your Polish ancestors, you aren’t alone. Polish Americans make up the largest Slavic ethnic group in the United States, second largest Central and Eastern European group, and the eighth largest immigrant group overall. So how do you begin tracing your roots in Poland?

Get Started: 4 Polish Genealogy Tips


1. Get to know the basics of Polish history.

Probably every Polish-American family has heard mention of the “border changes” that were supposedly the reason why Grandpa’s papers say he was from Austria, although everyone knew he was Polish. What many people don’t realize is that Poland did not exist as an independent nation from 1795 until 1918. Historically, Polish lands were partitioned among the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires, and ethnic Poles were citizens of one of those three nations. This is why you might see your Polish ancestors stating Russian birth on the 1910 U.S. census, but Polish birth on the 1920 U.S. census, after Poland was reestablished as an independent nation.

By Rzeczpospolita_Rozbiory_3.png: Halibuttderivative work: Sneecs (talk) – Rzeczpospolita_Rozbiory_3.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, click to view on Wikipedia.

2. Determine your Polish ancestor’s religion.

Buffalo, New York. Children of the Polish community leaving church with baskets of food on the day before Easter. Library of Congress photo; digital image via Wikipedia. Click to view.

Although we in the U.S. are accustomed to the separation of church and state, this was not the case in many places. In Poland, it was common for priests, ministers, or rabbis to act as civil registrars, blending ecclesiastical and government authority as they recorded births, marriages, and burials. Although this was the protocol in all three partitions for the majority of the 19th century, the exact span of dates in which this was true vary based on the partition in which your ancestors lived, and greatly affects where you should be searching for the records you need. In “Russian Poland,” for example, civil record keeping began in 1808 with Roman Catholic priests acting as civil registrars for people of all faiths (not just Catholics). Beginning in 1826, each faith was allowed to keep its own civil records using a paragraph-style format that remained relatively stable through the 1930s. Civil registration that was independent of any religious organization did not begin until 1945.

The fact that civil copies of church records were made increases the likelihood that records survived for your ancestor’s town. There’s a persistent myth that “all the records were destroyed in the wars,” but that’s simply not true in most instances. Existing records for some locations date back to the 1600s, but in other places surviving records are sparser.

3. Use U.S. records to determine your ancestor’s precise place of origin.

Grandma may have said that her father came from Warsaw, but most of our ancestors came from small villages, not large cities. It’s more likely that her father was using Warsaw as a point of geographic reference to give people a rough idea of where he lived, since others are unlikely to recognize the name of a small village. This means that you most likely won’t find his birth record by looking for it in Warsaw, but it also leaves you in the dark about where to look instead.

What kinds of records are most likely to indicate a precise place of birth? Passenger manifests and petitions for naturalization (if dated after 1906) are great sources for this information. If your Polish ancestors were Catholic, church records from the parish they attended in the U.S. are much more likely to contain specific place of birth than their civil equivalents. These include marriage records for immigrants who married in the U.S., baptismal records for U.S.-born children of immigrants, and church death/burial records.

Click here for an article about a woman who found her Polish Catholic grandparents’ church marriage record–and with it their overseas birth place–at St. Stanislaus parish in Buffalo, NY. You’ll also learn tips for finding Catholic church records in the U.S.

If your ancestors were Jewish, check cemetery records for mention of any landsmannschaft to which they might have belonged. Landsmannschaften were fraternal aid societies organized by immigrants from the same town in Europe, and they frequently purchased large burial plots for their members.

4. Use a gazetteer to determine the parish or registry office that served your ancestor’s village.

Depending on which partition your ancestors came from, some good gazetteers include:

  • The Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich, or Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries, published between 1880 and 1902 in 15 volumes. The SGKP is written in Polish.
  • The Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego, which includes all of Russian Poland (officially known as the “Królestwo Polskie” or Kingdom of Poland) published in 1877. The SKP is mostly written in Polish with some text in Russian.
  • Kartenmeister, an easy-to-use online gazetteer for “German Poland” that covers East Prussia, West Prussia, Brandenburg, Posen, Pomerania, and Silesia. Kartenmeister can be searched using either the German or the Polish name for a town.
  • The Galician Town Locator, offered by Gesher Galicia, is another easy-to-use resource that covers the historic Galicia region, which was a part of the Austrian Empire that is now split between Poland and Ukraine.
  • The JewishGen Gazetteer is a phonetic gazetteer to assist in identifying the correct location in cases where your ancestor’s place of origin is misspelled on U.S. records. It covers areas throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

Once you have correctly identified both your ancestor’s place of birth and the location of his place of worship or civil records office, you’re ready to make the jump back to records in Poland.

Get Expert Help with Your Polish Genealogy Questions

We at Legacy Tree Genealogists would be honored to assist you with any step along the way in your journey to discover your ancestral origins, including onsite research if needed. Our experts have the linguistic and research skills to efficiently find your family. Contact us today for a free consultation.

Exclusive offer for Genealogy Gems readers: Save $100 on a 20-hour research project using code GG100, valid through October 31st, 2017.

 

National Archives Thief Sentenced to 7 Years

Press Release from the National Archives:

Barry Landau Sentenced to 7 Years for Thefts From National Archives, Other Institutions

Washington, DC . . . U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake yesterday sentenced Barry H. Landau to seven years in prison, and three years of supervised release, for conspiracy and theft of historical documents from cultural institutions in four states, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York.

The items stolen from the Roosevelt Library, which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration, were seven “reading copies” of speeches that Roosevelt delivered. They contained his edits and handwritten additions, along with his signature. They have all been recovered.

Landau’s co-conspirator, Jason Savedoff, will be sentenced at a later date.

Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said he was pleased that Judge Blake “recognized the seriousness of this crime and meted out an appropriate punishment that will serve as a warning to others who may contemplate stealing our nation’s history.”

“There is a very special bond that forms between researchers and research institutions. It’s kind of like an insider’s club. We speak the same language, share the same interests, explore the same minute details of historical knowledge that will eventually fill in the fabric of our shared history as a nation,” the Archivist added.

“When a researcher turns out to be a thief and steals the documents that are the very underpinnings of our democracy, our trust and respect for the community is shaken. Barry Landau is just that thief. Dressed in the guise of a scholar, he ingratiated himself with our staff and stole priceless documents from the Franklin Roosevelt Library. In essence he robbed from all of us—our collective history. And he did far worse damage to numerous other research institutions around the country.”

The Archivist said that because of incidents such as those involving Landau, the National Archives and other research institutions around the world have become more vigilant over the last few decades. They have instituted a number of measures aimed at preventing theft, such as closed-circuit cameras, clean research room rules, exit searches, and increased staff surveillance.

“When a theft does occur, we rely on the Office of the Inspector General and the Justice Department to build a case and bring the perpetrator to justice,” he added. “I want to thank them for their hard work.”

Lynn Bassanese, Acting Director of the Roosevelt Library, recalled that when Roosevelt dedicated his library on June 30, 1941, he declared it an “act of faith” in the American people.

“Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff violated that faith by taking advantage of the trust and confidence that the Roosevelt Library’s staff has for its researchers,” she said.”With the successful return of the stolen documents, the Roosevelt Library renews its commitment to protect and preserve the records of the Roosevelt Presidency and to make them accessible to the American people for generations to come.”

According to Landau’s plea agreement, the “reading copies” of Roosevelt’s speeches were stolen when he and Savedoff visited the Roosevelt Library on December 2, 2010.

“Reading copies” are the actual copies of the speeches from which the President read. They contain edits and handwritten additions made by him and bear his signature.

Four of these “reading copies” of speeches were sold by Landau on December 20, 2010, to a collector for $35,000. Three other “reading copies” of inaugural addresses delivered by Roosevelt, valued at more than $100,000 each, were recovered from Landau’s apartment in New York City during court-authorized searches, including the water-stained reading copy of the inaugural address Roosevelt delivered in a steady rain in 1937.

Judge Blake also ordered Landau to pay restitution totaling $46,525 to three dealers who purchased the stolen documents from Landau, not knowing they were stolen. She also ordered Landau to forfeit all the documents recovered during searches of his New York apartment.

The National Archives and Records Administration is an independent Federal agency that preserves and shares with the public records that trace the story of our nation, government, and the American people.

Recalibrating DNA Ethnicity Estimates

Genealogy testing companies have been hard at work recalibrating your ethnicity calculations based on new and better data. Here’s the latest from Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard. 

Family History DNA Pie Charts and Percentages

Remember that the pretty pie charts and percentages are based on fancy math and reference populations. The initial reference populations released by our testing companies were a great start, but many categories lacked sufficiently high numbers of people to represent all of the facets of a population. In the 10+ years since their release, many updates have been made. But the fancy math that is used to produce our percentages can only be as fancy as the numbers you give it. The numbers have been hard at work at Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA and 23andMe in the past couple of months with the result being a major overhaul in the way our ethnicity results are reported.

23andMe chart ethnicity updates

Image 1

23andMe

We recently reported about the update at 23andMe and their increase from 31 reference populations to 150. However, for me, the totally 100% European me, there wasn’t much excitement. As you can see in the 23andMe chart, I had a couple of numbers move up or down slightly, but not anything to write home about. However, I am certain those with South American, or Eastern European ancestry have a much different story. 23andMe added many new reference populations to better represent these underrepresented areas of the world, a move which has likely made a big difference for the ever diversifying pool of individuals who have taken a DNA test.

AncestryDNA

AncestryDNA also released their latest Ethnicity update in September, boasting an additional 13,000 reference samples to their database. They not only upgraded their numbers, but also shifted some of their categories around based on this new data. They seem to not be quite sure what to do with Ireland, as in early 2017 it was its own category, later moving in with Wales and Scotland, and now appears in this latest update as simply Ireland and Scotland. My previous numbers from AncestryDNA seemed to at least loosely reflect my heritage (meaning that I do actually have people in my genealogy chart from a few of these places).

Image 2

But the new DNA numbers? Big Changes.

I have one set of great grandparents from Germany, but it looks like nearly all my German was sucked into England, but miraculously, they seemed to have precisely found my Swedish 2X great grandmother, with the 7% that I should have from that area.

With the new update, though I am sad to see my German go, AncestryDNA is now more fully in line with the results I have received from 23andMe, LivingDNA, and MyHeritage, all of which put my England/British Isles count up around 90%. If I compare my results from various companies and combine any subcategories into one England/British Isles category, indicate Scandinavian, and then lump everything else together, the results from the four companies are actually quite similar (I don’t have my own results at Family Tree DNA, only my parents).

My Family History DNA Results

Company DNA Ethnicity Comparison 2018

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Here’s how my results currently stack up at each of these websites. (Image 3)

Which DNA Testing Company to Choose

So which company is the best at all of this? Well, I usually say that if you test everywhere, your “true” answer is likely somewhere in the middle. But really, you can determine which company is best for you by examining their reference populations, and determining which company is most likely able to meet your goals.

In the end, it is always good to remember two things:

  1. Your DNA does not fully represent your family history, so your ethnicity results can’t possibly tell you everything about your heritage.
  2. This technology is purposefully titled as an estimate. So be sure you treat it that way.

Learn More about Genetic Genealogy

Recommended reading at Genealogy Gems: Understanding DNA Ethnicity Estimates

Get Diahan’s quick reference guides including Autosomal DNA for the Genealogist at the Genealogy Gems store.

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