Question of the Month – from the Polish Genealogical Society of CT and the Northeast

Question:  I have had limited success in finding family members in passenger lists and naturalization records?? to learn where they were born in Europe. I have read in several places that church records are a good source to unearth this type of geographical information. Can you comment, please?

Answer:  Sacramental records of Polish-American parishes can be an excellent source of this type of information but not always. The presence or completeness of geographical information is totally and wholly dependent on the record keeping practices and attitude of the priests who made the entries in the registers.

Some priests attached great importance in documenting the European origins of their parishioners and if you are lucky you can learn the village, parish, county and province of birth of an ancestor. On the other end of the spectrum you will learn zero as the priest left this part of the register blank.

Keep in mind that in a given register there may be a mix of geographical data. One priest may have recorded villages but his successor did not think this information was important and ceased providing this type of information. It is important to check the entire register to see if and where the geographical data appear.

The greatest chance to discover geography is usually in marriage records. Birth records also may contain the European birthplaces of parents of children baptized in the US. The least geography is usually recorded in death records. Even if the geography is entered it will not always be of the same quality. Some priests only listed the province of birth, some disappointingly listed only the partition.

Our Society did a survey of geographical information in parish records many years ago. In Connecticut the Polish Roman Catholic parishes with partial or nearly complete geography in the early parish registers included Derby, New Haven, New Britain (Sacred Heart only), Meriden, Hartford, Union City, Southington, Terryville and Middletown. Three parishes were not surveyed as the priests refused access to the registers.

From The Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast’s Monthly Bulletin for April, 2019

Question

My great grandparents came to the US in the early 1900s. In the 1910 census it says they were Russian and spoke English. In the 1920 census it says they were from Austria-Poland and they spoke Slavish. In the 1930 census it says they were Austrian and spoke Slavish. Both of their death certificates say they were born in Austria. A cousin said the family had to be German because that was what kind of food the family ate. My grandmother said her family was Polish. What country should I write to get my great grandparents’ marriage record?

Answer

Many researchers are faced with conflicting information of this type when beginning the research process. It would be wise to read a capsule summary of the history of Poland to begin to clarify which of these “facts” are not accurate. Firstly, there is no language called “Slavish” and, in fact, it’s not even a real word. Locally, people (principally American born children) who self-identified as “Slavish” were descendants of Greek Catholics and Carpatho-Rusyns who were not sure of their ethnic identity. As far as the food goes, this is usually not a strong indicator of ethnicity, although in some cases it can provide peripheral evidence of ethnic affiliation, but usually not. (Just because you had cannoli and spaghetti for supper last night does not make you Italian.) Many beginning researchers do not realize that Poland was occupied by its neighbors (the Empires of Russia, Austria and Prussia) in the late 1700s, and it was wiped off the map of Europe as a nation state until re-emerging as an independent nation in 1918. Thus, while our ancestors were ethnically Polish, their countries of citizenship were Russia, Austria and Prussia which confuses people who are unaware of the history of the region. Based on what you wrote, your family was most likely from Galicia in a region where Slovak and Polish speakers lived in close proximity to each other, and you may be a combination of both ethnic backgrounds. To perform any sort of meaningful research, you need an EXACT place of birth which you can obtain in American records such as passenger lists, civil and church records, Social Security applications, applications to ethnic fraternal societies, etc. Only then can you determine in what country your ancestral village is located and begin the research process.