Breaking Down Those Brick Walls

Oct 12, 2011

Ironically, working for a genealogical society doesn't afford much time for one's own personal genealogy. (Even though it's really terrific being able to help others uncover theirs!) Fortunately, with the help of our PGM editor, Aaron Goodwin, I had some time this past week to revisit the research I've done on my father's side of our family. My grandmother came from a village in Poland called Lodyna, (at the time of her immigration, a part of the Austrian Empire), spoke Ukrainian, and was identified as Ruthenian on her ship's passenger list. Today, she most likely would be considered Carpatho-Rusyn. Language barriers and constantly shifting borders have made research into her and her family challenging at best, but after having put the project aside for a bit, then taking it out again and reviewing it, I've learned a few lessons that I think might be helpful to anyone trying to break down their own brick walls.

1. Sometimes taking a step back and turning one's focus elsewhere brings a breakthrough. When I first started researching my grandmother's line, the only information I had was her name. (She died when my father was young, and no one in my immediate family knew much about her history.) Finding her on a passenger list and in the census was very exciting, but at the time I didn't know where to go much beyond there. Taking a break and focusing on other lines, as well as continuing to expand my knowledge and research skills, allowed me to go back this time and see things I'd missed before (more about that, below).

2. Remember that surname variations are the rule, not the exception. Until I started doing genealogy, I never realized how fluid surname spellings could be. My last name (Homan) was a large part of my identity. Never was that feeling more extinguished than when I began to research my grandmother's surname (Jacynycz/Yacynych). To date, I've found multiple variations of the spelling, and I'm sure there are many more to find. Having that particular revelation created a shift in my affinity for my particular surname to a broader sense of ethnic identity, and an openness to finding many cousins with a variety of surname spellings!


Keep an open mind when searching, and your results will be much more fruitful.

3. A tip from Aaron: Extract all of the information from the records you find, and write it down. (Quote: "The act of writing is an act of learning.") There's a wealth of information there you may be overlooking when you're just browsing through. One of my potential ancestors had been back and forth between his country of origin and the US multiple times, but my eyes missed the column on the passenger list that asked that question. Realizing that gave me another piece of the puzzle, and gave me more avenues to search.


4. When you've hit a dead end, go back and look at census and passenger lists again. Are there friends or neighbors you can find and/or follow? One of our speakers for our upcoming Pennsylvania Family History Day, Lisa Alzo, reminded us at FGS that "People lived in communities." On one passenger list I searched, several different people with different surnames had left Lodyna or environs, all heading for Johnstown, Pa. Follow those types of connections, and you may find your relatives.


5. Read, read, read. Learn about the history and culture of your ancestors. What pushes and pulls them from their home country to the US? What experiences and world events shaped their choices for work, religion and residence? Having that larger context may offer new directions to explore.


6. And it's been said in so many places, but remember to document your sources. The style and formatting isn’t nearly as important as simply telling people exactly where to find what you spent so much time looking for. You (and future generations that use your research!) will be glad you did. --j.h.