Category Archives: English

Parish records – a gold mine of knowledge hidden in plain sight.

Parish records – a register of births, marriages and deaths. Very useful, but providing a bare minimum of information. I used to wonder how I learn more about my ancestors’ lives. How do I go beyond the date and name? I thought that I don’t have enough sources to fill up gaps between born-married-had children-died scenario. And then I discovered a source that I was already using had this depth of easily overlooked knowledge. This post is about my guilty pleasure:)

Kleczanów parish records - akt zgonu - F Stępień 1936

an example of death record – Franciszek Stępień 1936

Back in the early years of my genealogical research, I was slightly obsessed with going back in time as fast as possible.   You can just imagine that it was causing problems. Now when I am older and wiser, I like reading parish registers for fun! I can just see you cringing or looking blankly thinking “Crazy”. Well, not as crazy as it might seem at first. I don’t read random books from a random parish (although I can see benefits of that). What I mean is reading not just entries relating to my ancestors. It all started from a stubborn need of finding my 2nd great grandmother entry of death.

I found:

  • her and my 2nd great grandfather marriage entry;
  • entries of their children birth;
  • my 2nd great grandfather’s death entry – quite young.

But I could not find her death although her son’s marriage entry gave information that his parents were dead. I thought “I am going to find you” no matter what! I started reading every entry in the parish register dated between her husband dying and her son’s marriage. I know that the information in the marriage record of parents being deceased could have been a lie for whatever reason, but I was leaving this option for later.

I read through 3 years worth of data, and I surely found her! She remarried under her maiden name! Knowing about the marriage, it was easy to find the death entry. I was able to finally put all the pieces together, but there was an unexpected bonus of being stubborn. I learned that my 3rd great grandfather from a different branch of my family tree was a village chief.

Most of the descriptive Polish records has witnesses of any vital event noted. Sometimes those witnesses are random neighbours, sometimes family members and sometimes village officials.  There is more to records that just dates and names. I can find a lot of useful information about my ancestors’ lives when I read entries from a few years. Sometimes I can say who was a village official at a certain time, who was close to whom, or what was the name of a blacksmith or a midwife.  I know this because if a child was born illegitimate or to an absent father (for example dead before the birth or in an army what is an interesting fact per se) the birth was recorded by a midwife. So I know the names of midwives working in villages where my ancestors lived!

All this because I like reading old parish registers like a documentary book. There is so much more in there than just names and dates. All you have to do is just pay attention and don’t rush through indexes. Take your time, immerse yourself into this long lost world.

akt urodzenia Walerii Krasula/Waleria Krasula - birth record

Multilingual records of my monolingual family

Multilingual records of my monolingual family

Somebody once asked what I mean by translation of records when I said I had to translate a lot of source documents for my family. Good question. Yes, it is true that I am Polish, so is absolutely everybody in my family and I am yet to find an ancestor who moved abroad. You might then ask yourself: what need is there for Translation? Surely but life is hardly ever normal. I am as Polish as it gets: born and bred there. I come from long line of Polish farmers who quite often never even left a parish, never mind the country, BUT as Poland is situated right in the centre of Europe it was regularly turned into a battlefield.

From the establishment of Poland in the Middle Ages, there was war after war after war. The land was invaded pretty much by any neighbouring nation and some from further afield as well, until the point in the eighteenth century where Poland ceased to exist altogether – on the map of Europe that is. The country was divided between Prussia, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Different laws and prohibitions were in place depending on the region (with Galicja enjoying quite liberal attitudes) but, generally speaking, using the Polish language was discouraged and then by the late nineteenth century, it was replaced by Russian and German respectively. There are many examples of Polish people fighting to save the language and culture. What does it mean for me or any other genealogist searching for Polish roots? It means that records are written in a different language. In my case, every record starting from 1868 is written in Russian (if I am really lucky there is a Polish name in brackets pic.1). Because of politics and geography, a good part of my family records have to be translated even though all the ancestors I found to date lived in one district and spoke Polish.

If you remember that the concept of a civil register was only introduced in Poland at the end of the eighteenth century and the first civil registers were completed by priests alongside parish records then it is reasonable to expect that most older church sources are written in Latin.

I was lucky enough to learn Russian at school although my choice of words here could be problematic as the Russian language and culture, visible everywhere in communist Poland, was hardly a reason for celebration. I also spend long hours learning Latin as a part of my MA in Archaeology, so I consider myself well equipped to deal with what my genealogical research throws at me, but I can just imagine the frustration of other people with Polish roots when they discover that even knowing Polish is just not enough to be able to trace their Polish ancestors.

akt urodzenia Walerii Krasula/Waleria Krasula - birth record, multilingual record

pic.1 Waleria Krasula -akt urodzenia (birth record) 1905