Monday, October 18, 2010

Solving the Puzzle

For the past few days I’ve been holed up in front of a microfilm reader at the Family History Library in Utah.  This is my annual trip to do genealogy research in the candy store for genealogists.  The library has many of the records that you would have to travel all over the US to locate.  In one place you can find a wide variety of records: birth, death and marriage records, immigration and naturalization records and countless other documents.  Not only does the library have US records, but they have European vital records. 

As I’ve been at this for many years, the discoveries are less frequent, but I had one exciting discovery on my first day.  For many years I’ve searched for my grandparents’ marriage certificate from the early 1900s.  I’m back to the 1700s in Poland, but I was quite frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find a record that was slightly less than 100 years old in the US. I’ve researched records at the Family History Library in Utah and in NY and never had been able to find it.  There are sites that have developed finding aids, among them the Italian Genealogical Society which has an on-line index for brides and grooms in NY.  When you do research on the Internet, it is important to revisit paths you may have already explored.  As I was researching for a client, I decided on a whim to plug in my grandparents’ names despite the fact that I’d searched there unsuccessfully. To my surprise, the record came up.  Presumably it had been added since my last search.

When I arrived at the library, I made a bee-line to that microfilm.  There was the certificate with my grandmother’s brother-in-law and brother as witnesses.  My grandfather was the only one in his family who came to the US so had no family of his own represented.  Interestingly he indicated he was born in Warsaw even though I have his birth record from Radom, about 60 miles south of Warsaw.  My grandmother indicated that her birthplace was Vilna although she actually was born in a shtetl 75 miles away from Vilna, but in the Vilna gubernia. 

When I interviewed her daughter years ago she told me, “My father was from Warsaw, Radom.  Radom was a province of Warsaw.  My mother was from Vilna which was also a larger development. They were proud to be from large cities that represented more the intelligentsia.  People that came from small towns, they related to them as people coming from a "dorf".  A dorf is a forest, a wilderness, nothing.  In those years it was further to go to a school or to a development.  When my mother would relate (her past) she came from a shetl, a small town.”

In addition to my own records, I’ve been doing considerable searching for several clients and met with some success taking one family back to the client’s great-great grandparents.  It is often satisfying doing someone else’s research where there is still much to be discovered.  I am always fascinated by the process of unraveling the story.  In this case I did a lot of research on-line before I came to Utah.  I was able to find immigration and census records that built out the family tree to her great-grandfather and identified three of his siblings.  From the immigration record we identified the town the family came from.  In Utah I found the death certificate for her great-grandfather that gave his parents’ names giving us a solid base to begin to explore European records and a branch that immigrated to South America. 

The trio of records that I like to begin with includes immigration, census and death records.  Immigration records tell you who the nearest relative was in Europe, who they were going to in the US and the town they were from.  Once I determine the town, I map out all of the family names from that town and then start identifying relationships, frequently finding cousins and siblings.  Census records reveal immigration and naturalization dates and often verify family members with whom they were residing,  With some data points of ages, immigration dates and family members, I can verify death records which take us back one more generation.  My original search years ago was far more random as I had yet to learn the interconnections between the various records.

I often speak with fellow genealogists about what draws us to genealogy.  Solving puzzles is often the entry point.  In my work, I have always been intrigued with understanding the system, how one part interrelates with another and often leverages it.  Systems are a form of puzzle.   Just as a Suduko puzzle or Scrabble board is built on specific interrelationships, genealogy solutions also are derived from interrelationships. When you understand them you can use them as tools to solve the puzzle.

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