Ask the Right Question

Searching on the internet, in books or reviewing documents will provide you a wealth of family history but at some point you will need to ask someone for help.

Asking questions the right way is important to getting the answers you need. Focus your question on getting one specific result. Think about your objectives: what do you know; what do you want to learn; which people and events is the person you are asking likely to be the most knowledgeable. Do not ask a question seeking everything someone knows about a subject; they may ignore your question because they do not know where to start. Also do not ask a question that can easily be found; do not waste an expert’s time by asking them to do something you should be able to easily find yourself.

The same advice will be true when seeking information from family members. If you ask Uncle Fred to tell you everything he knows, he may side-step you by responding that he can’t remember anything. Ask specific questions that jog the memory. Whenever possible, show old photographs of people and places.

If you write others seeking information, remember your manners. You are asking them for help and it should be easy for them to reply. Ask questions precisely. Include as much information as necessary to identify the individual you are interested in, but don’t include information that will not help or is confusing.

My Polish Ancestors: Peasants or Nobles

When I found the Polish baptismal records for my ancestors, I was surprised to see that they were of “royal birth.”

How could my ancestors be nobility and still be poor farmers? A recent article by Iwona Dakiniewicz helped explain what happened to my ancestors and many more of the nobility. Iwona’s article was titled Time for Nobles and it appeared in the February 2015 edition of the Rodziny published by the Polish Genealogical Society of America.

Iwona explained that at one time all of the children of the nobles had an equal right to inherit the property. The sons received equal parts of the land and the daughters received dowries. This caused rapid subdivision of large estates. If the farm became too small, the landowner had to work the land himself because he could not afford to support serfs or pay laborers. Thus the class of minor nobles (zaściankowa) was born from the heirs who owned small farms but whose ancestors were brought up on large manor estates (folwarks) and had lived privileged lives. Their heirs could not enjoy the right of inheriting equally. After the estates were reduced to sizes that could barely support one family, the laws were changed to giving the right to inherit to only the oldest son.

Iwona’s article also explains that the adjective zaściankowy comes from za, “behind” and ściana, “wall.” This describes the idea that the minor nobles were impoverished and working their own fields but seemed to stand behind an invisible wall that continued to separate them from the peasants who lived nearby.

The mass exodus of the farm laborers from the Polish countryside between 1870 and 1920 was due to their poor living conditions. They needed to emigrate to find a place that could improve their living conditions. This wave of immigration is often called za chlebem or “for bread.” Peasants were not the only class of Polish people included in this wave. It also included many of the children of minor nobles who did not have the right to inherit and had to emigrate to find opportunities for themselves.

The majority of Polish-Americans are descendants of Poles who arrived after 1850. It is estimated that more than 2 million Poles had immigrated by the 1920s. Today, there are over 10 million Americans of Polish descent in the United States. Learn more about your Polish ancestors and enjoy your heritage.

Memories of Dziadka: Rural life in the Kingdom of Poland 1880-1912 and Immigration to America

My new book is about the life of a Polish immigrant from the Russian partition of Poland. It covers his early life in Poland, includes descriptions of his journey to America and his life in his new land. I used my grandfather as the main character but it is not his biography. I included information from accounts from various immigrants to give an example of a complete life and used this format to make it interesting for the reader. My hope is to show what our immigrant ancestors endured to come to America.

Oral History – Fact or Fiction

Our family’s oral history may involve stories of the immigration of the family to America or it may be as simple as saving a family recipe. The information we obtain through conversations with relatives must be taken at face value. But remember that memories often fade and facts get confused with other facts. Some of the facts may not seem accurate but remember that some parts are probably true.

It takes practice to recognize what parts of oral history should be believed but in most cases all portions of the stories should be researched to confirm their validity. Remember that we may never find the complete story because some information simply isn’t available. Also be patient and research the facts thoroughly.

Translate Polish Records

The language used for the records that you find in Polish records will be in Latin, Polish, Russian or German. As you browse the images you should have a list of key words such as dates and relationships to help you select the images that may pertain to your ancestors. You will be able to assemble your list from word lists in the wiki articles at or genealogy books that have glossaries of genealogy terms. Modern translation dictionaries will not normally include the terms that you find in these older documents because many terms have fallen out of use and have been replaced with modern terms.

I have found that translating old Russian records are difficult for those that learned Russian in modern schools because they cannot interpret the old script and are not familiar with the old formal terms. Also the Cyrillic alphabet was changed by Stalin in the 1950s. The Napoleonic format was written in Polish until the Tsar tightened his control over his Polish provenances and required the use of Russian on all records. In 1868, officials and priests began using the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian for vital records Russian was used for this area until after WW I when the language used reverted to Polish.

I hope that my new eBook, Hints for Translating Polish Genealogical Records, will prove help as a quick reference.

Other books that will aid you in understanding Polish records are:

Genealogical Word Lists

Many people have approached me and stated a reluctance to search for the European records of their ancestors because they fear they will have problems translating the documents. I found that translating my ancestors’ records was a challenge but it was not insurmountable or costly to overcome.

Most of the records that I have found were in a tabular format and this allowed me to use the genealogical word lists to easily translate most records. The column heading were typed and therefore easily read. I could then look through the wordlist for the appropriate language and find the translation for each column. The information found in each column was normally a name or a date. If it was not one of these it was the person’s occupation. I was able to find most of the terms found in the documents listed on the word lists. Remember that early Catholic Church records were recorded using Latin and not the native language.

There are various genealogy books that include a word list for their language but the most convenient resource that I use is the wikis found on

Census Records: Your next step after the “shoebox papers”

After you have recorded the oral history and personal documents, I recommend your next step in researching your family history should be finding and recording the information on census records. These records are a snapshot of your family at the time the census was taken and contain a wealth of information that can be used to describe the lives of your family.

When I initially started my research, I used the names to extend my family tree back through the generations. However, the records are much more than a list of names and a head count of the population. I use the information found in the columns that are beyond the names to bring my ancestors alive. Here are examples of using this information:

    • For each address I obtain a picture of the residence and insert the picture into the family history near the narrative listing where my ancestors lived. I feel this gives more insight to the neighborhood where they lived and brings more life to family histories. Early pictures were obtained by traveling to the location and using a camera. My current methods include using Google Maps Street View o find the image of the homes. Printing or downloading this image is not an available option but using the snipping tool program on Windows computers allows me to capture the image and save it for use in my family histories.
  • If the family moved across the continent as the land was settled, I include a map showing the year and the location with connecting lines to show the westward movement.
  • Explore the local and American history for the time period around the census record for events that may have affected your ancestor. This research may uncover reasons for relocations, change of occupation, causes for early deaths or other events in their lives.

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