Monday, September 5, 2011

Finding Your Family's Ancestral Towns I

One of the most perplexing questions people face when they begin genealogy research is identifying where their family came from.   I have been working with a friend to determine the answer to that for her family and am reflecting on how I first learned of the ancestral towns of my family.  I’ve known them for so long now that I forget there was a time I didn’t.

In the case of my Kishlansky branch, I had a three page history written by my grandfather that told me of Kamenetz-Podolsk as his town of origin.  My mother also told me that she remembered her mother talking of Kamenetz.  She thought she was saying Communist and it was not until much later that she realized it was actually the name of the town of origin.

My Belarussian ancestors are all buried in the cemetery section in New York for people from Dunilowitz.  Many Eastern European towns had burial societies in the US, especially in places like NY.  People from the same shtetl often ended up buried together, recreating their original community beneath the ground.  A cousin of my father’s clued me in to this detail which was later confirmed by immigration records.

My other town is Radom, Poland and I believe family was aware of this town of origin.  I know that my aunt told me of it when I did an oral history with her 25 years ago.  Obviously asking family members is the best place to start with this research.

Having the town made my search for immigration records more focused.  Any family name from those towns was a possible relative.  Even with this advantage, it still took me several months to find all of the immigration records.  Names were spelled a variety of ways and often transcribed incorrectly.  Town names also varied significantly.  When in doubt I input the town name into and went through every person who came from that town.

I was fortunate in some respects in that many family members came over after 1906 when the immigration records began to offer greater information.  After that time they tell you who the nearest relative was in Europe and who the nearest relative was where they were going.  For my more unusual names I built a database of every person who came to the US with that name.  Then I started playing the match game looking for relationships between those two data points of European family and American family.

When I build the database, I use filters so I can sort it easily by different details.  I have a column by year and I code the family names and towns so I can sort them even if they are recorded by a variety of spellings.   I then sort by immigration date and relationships become much more apparent. Often it is a game of tag.  My first intrepid ancestor was my grandmother’s uncle Morris Kishlansky.  He went first to the UK with his wife where they had two children.  In 1898 he came to the US as Morris Kislianski indicating he had no relative at the other end to greet him.  I wonder what that experience was like.  He’d had a few years in London with his family to learn the language, but his mission was to establish a solid foundation for his family in a new country.

He must have succeeded as his wife followed a year later with her two children indicating they were going to her husband.  The record noted they were from Russia and were coming from London, still no ancestral town was recorded.  In 1902 I see a record of a different last name going to the original stalwart immigrant.  Srul Baron was going to his brother-in-law Morris Kislynsky and he gives his home as Kamenik, the first mention of the ancestral town in immigration records.  I knew from my grandfather’s written history that my grandmother had an aunt Sarah Baron.  In 1903 my grandmother’s oldest brother Itzek makes his way to America to none other than Srul Baron, his uncle, followed in 1904 by Srul’s wife and children.  Now Itzek is tagged and his brother Benjamin comes to him in 1906.  It is late in 1906 that the laws change requiring more information in the manifest. Through this point there is no record of the nearest relative in Eastern Europe, but the town of origin is noted as Kamenetz.    But wait, Benjamin is coming from Chotyn.  What’s that about?  I map it relative to Kamenetz and learn that it is 30 miles away.  There was a time when Jews could not live close to the border of the Pale and were displaced from their homes.  Kamenetz Podolsk was close to the border. Perhaps this accounts for the periodic movement I see between Kamenetz and Chotyn. 

In 1911 my grandfather comes to his brother-in-law Itzek giving an address that I can look up in the 1910 census.  He too notes his town of birth as Kamenetz, but most recently was in Czortkow, Austria, a town not far from Kamenetz, perhaps a way station on his path to Rotterdam.   Interestingly he indicates he has no relative in Europe, despite the fact that his wife was still there.  My hunch was that he hoped to start a new unencumbered life.  When I painted this gentleman I called him The Enigma as he remains a puzzle.

In 1912 my grandmother’s brother Frank or Frajina makes his way to Itzek, noting both Kamenetz and his nearest relative in Europe, his father Avriam Kislanski.  A long period passes before further branches of this family immigrate.  There is a war to settle in Europe and a series of pogroms that break out in the region post-war.  In 1921 within a week of each other, my grandmother and her brother and sister-in-law, come to the US.  My grandmother is going to her husband giving his original name, not the one which he later assumed.  The family is back in Chotyn (Hotin) now where her nearest relative is given as an aunt.   I’m wondering if my great-grandfather is still alive.  Yes, I conclude when I find the records of her youngest brother and his wife, also from Chotyn (Hotin).  Her brother has indicated Abram, his father, as the nearest relative in Europe and Frank as the nearest relative in the US.  I’m curious about this aunt who took the place of the father as nearest relative in my grandmother's manifest.  That move to Chotyn, did it come about because of the pograms? All mysteries to which I may never know the answers.

I had an advantage in my research that many others don’t have.  If family came to the US in the early 1900s it is both easier to trace due to more information in records and family members are often more likely to know of the original town. What do you do if family came in the 1800s when records seldom indicated the origin?  Stay tuned and I’ll clue you in on some approaches.

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