Sunday, August 18, 2013

Connecting with Ursula on the ancestral plane

Some ancestors call out to me more than others. Of course, if I could time travel back to their eras, I would want to meet every single one of them. But there are some I would want to spend a particularly long time with.

To me, the "ancestral plane" is something like a very big party. The guests include family members I knew in this lifetime (my Babcia, my Dad, my aunts and uncles), relatives that I never knew but heard about through them (my great-grandfather Antoni Ruscik, my Dad's youngest sister, Annie), and many, many ancestors whom I've become aware of through family research. Helpfully, those people are all wearing "Hello, my name is ..." badges so I can finally put a face to a name as we introduce ourselves.

But there are a few individuals who need no introduction. We make eye contact across that crowded room, and there is an instant sense of recognition, an affinity of souls. We have always known each other, somehow, across time and space. I yearn to talk with them, to learn more about their lives than I can ever glean from genealogical research.

Who, what, when, where, why, and how

In a family like mine, there is precious little information recorded about any one person's life. In Europe, the sources are for the most part limited to brief entries in church registers of baptisms, marriages, and deaths, and in occasional church or civil censuses. In the United States, for our 1890s-1914 immigrants, there is little beyond the standard official records (passenger lists, military registrations, citizenship papers, and such).

From their arrival in this country through the 1920s, at least, there is almost no documentation or description of their lives. Most of our immigrants were young, in their late teens and twenties; most were single. All were looking for work, trying to get a foothold in a country where they could not speak or read the language (at least, not much). What they did, who they did it with, where and when they did it, and why—I wonder about this endlessly.

I have found almost nothing about any of my Polish immigrant ancestors in the English-language newspapers of the cities they lived in. And I have spent many, many hours reading through microfilmed copies of the old dailies published in Worcester, Boston, Pawtucket, Lowell, Springfield, etc.

In search of wedding news

So I didn't have very high hopes for finding anything when a fourth cousin and I recently spent the day in Maynard, Massachusetts, a town where our shared Bogdan-Przyjemski family lived in the early twentieth century. What I really, really wanted was to find some newspaper mention of the September 26, 1915, marriage of Urszula Przyjemski to Jozef Szlachciuk. In July 2012, I wrote about Urszula's marriage in "Discovering Julian Prokopowicz's Bogdan family in America," which features the group portrait made for the wedding.

Had that portrait not been inscribed on the back, had it not come down to me, I most likely never would have known about my grandfather Julian's relatives in Maynard. Urszula's wedding was the key that unlocked a room full of family history. Would newspaper coverage of the event perhaps unlock more? I really hoped so.

The Maynard weeklies

In 1915, two weekly newspapers served Maynard (population then about 6,500) and environs: the Maynard News and the Maynard Enterprise. The Maynard Public Library has both on microfilm; the reference librarian noted that some issues were missing (a situation not uncommon with century-old newspapers).

We started our search that day with the Maynard Enterprise; unfortunately, the issue that would have been published in the week following the wedding was not on the microfilm. We checked the subsequent issue, but weren't surprised to find no mention there.

As we scanned the pages—those good old-fashioned broad pages with nine columns of tiny type—we could not help noticing the almost complete lack of any coverage related to Maynard's Polish population. Even the English-speaking Irish Catholics of St. Bridget's Parish got little attention. Among the town's diverse ethnic groups, only the Finns seemed to merit a few inches of print.

An electric sign, a whist party, a wedding

We moved on to the Maynard News, whose content mirrored that of the Enterprise. The News was published on Fridays, so we zeroed in on the October 1, 1915, edition, printed just five days after Urszula's Sunday wedding. Eight pages, small font, much of the newsprint faded long before it was reproduced on microfilm.

Typical of the era, the News consolidated most of its local coverage under town headings: "Maynard," "Sudbury," "Acton." A sentence reporting someone's weekend trip to Boston might be followed by a death notice, which might in turn be followed by an announcement of a concert or a runaway dog.

By the time we reached page eight, our hopes were dim. But there at the bottom of page eight, in a "Maynard" potpourri that told of a "new electric sign" in town, a meeting of the Knights of Kaleva, a family's houseguests from Vermont, and a whist party at the Masonic Hall, there it was: a two-sentence announcement of Urszula's wedding.

"There was a wedding on Thompson street, Sunday, when Rev. Francis Jablonski joined in wedlock Miss Ursula Pryjenski and Joseph Szlacheink. The usual festivities followed," the newspaper reported.

Some information, some questions

Twenty-five words, no more. Surnames misspelled, no surprise. The announcement didn't say much, yet it spoke volumes.

We might have hoped for some mention of other members of the wedding party, if there were any besides the two witnesses (one being my grandfather, Julian Prokopowicz). Or perhaps a description of the bride's gown (once upon a time, many newspaper inches were lavished upon detailed descriptions of veils and lace and trains and beads and fabrics).

What did it tell us? I was surprised to learn that the wedding took place at the family home rather than at church, which would have been St. Bridget's, since St. Casimir's Polish Catholic church was still a decade away from being built in town. I would guess it was a noon or afternoon wedding, since Rev. Jablonski would have been busy with Mass on that Sunday morning.

What "usual festivities" followed the wedding? I can imagine lots of food, lots of music, lots of guests. For Kazimierz and Elena Bogdan Przyjemski, the marriage of their first-born child, their 17-year-old daughter (18, according to the town record), would certainly have been cause for celebration. And Sunday would have been the one day of the week when friends and family living in Rhode Island and elsewhere in Massachusetts might have been able to travel to Maynard to share in the joyous occasion.

Who did the reporting?

Perhaps most significantly, the write-up told us that, despite the dearth of news space devoted to Maynard's Polish immigrants, this event made it into print. How did that happen? Who took the initiative to report the event? We'll never know.

I'm intrigued by the different possibilities raised by the spelling, wording, and details in the announcement. If the family reported the wedding, surely the bride's and groom's surnames would have been spelled correctly, at least at the outset. It's not inconceivable that the errors might have been made at the newspaper, either in copying the information, or typing it, or typesetting. If a reporter assigned to town hall dutifully recorded all the marriages for the week, it might have become a tidbit in the community news column that way. That's quite possible.

But here's how I imagine it: Ursula took the initiative to go to the newspaper office, perhaps with the marriage certificate in hand as documentation. After all, she had come to this country in early childhood; she would have been educated in Maynard schools, probably equally fluent in English and Polish by the time she was a teen-ager, and comfortable in her community. She may well have been more fluent in English than Joseph, who, though a few years older than her, had immigrated more recently. Or maybe the newlyweds went to the newspaper office together, if they were able to squeeze in time before or after their jobs at the American Woolen Company mill.

Why did it matter?

Why would it have been important to share their news in an English-language publication that perhaps few of Maynard's Polish immigrants might have read? Well, people generally like to share happy news. (Facebook is full of it, announcements and photos and thumbs-up "likes.")

Beyond that, maybe Ursula and Joseph wanted to create a more public record of their marriage than the listing in Maynard's 1915 annual town report would have afforded them.

Or maybe Ursula sensed somehow that she wouldn't have many opportunities ahead to let the world know she was here. In fact, her time was limited. She would live long enough to give birth to her only child in 1916, when her name would appear as "Celia" in the town records. When her husband, by then known as "Joe," registered for the World War I draft in 1917, she would be referred to only as "wife."

When Ursula died suddenly at the height of the influenza epidemic in October 1918, just nine days after her third wedding anniversary and a few months after her 20th birthday, there would be no obituary; newspapers could not keep pace with the volume of deaths that fall. When she was buried in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, her gravestone identified her as "Celia Scluck."

Feeling her presence

What if Joseph and Ursula had not moved to Rhode Island in that final year? What if they had stayed in Maynard? Would she have escaped the flu? Would she and Joseph have had other happy events to announce in the Maynard News in decades to come?

I wonder about that.

I felt Ursula's presence so strongly during that day in Maynard. Not only did my cousin and I find the wedding announcement, we found the house on Thompson Street where Joseph and Ursula were married in 1915. Sitting in the car, parked in the pouring rain, we spent some time talking about the Przyjemski family's years there, wondering about their lives, imagining "the usual festivities" that must have filled the house and yard on that September afternoon so long ago.

We have a lot to talk about with Ursula on the ancestral plane.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Re-examining the records: Aleksandr and Józef

Look, and look again. No matter how many times you've pored over some genealogical resource, whether it's a document, or a photograph, or some random bit of memorabilia connected to an ancestor's life, there is always the chance that you've missed something.

I can attest to that. Since 1996, I have spent countless hours re-reading passenger lists and census pages line by line and column by column. I've studied maps and photos inch by inch, corner to corner. I've used a gamut of Polish, Russian, and Latin dictionaries to ferret every possible translation of a word.

No matter how much you knew (or thought you knew) at some earlier point in your research, "You don't know what you don't know," as the saying goes. If a big breakthrough today reveals a new family surname, it just might be the same name you glossed over yesterday.

A couple weeks ago, I came upon evidence that redefined the relationship between my maternal grandfather Aleksandr and his "half-brother" Józef. In fact, they were first cousins. In 1900, Józef provided his parents' names for a 1900 premarital examination that was conducted by a Catholic parish priest in the presence of three witnesses.

My mother's family had always referred to the men as brothers or half-brothers. In my previous post, I described what records I had used, and what records were unavailable to me, in trying to clarify Aleksandr and Józef's relationship.

What did I miss? Had I previously overlooked some tiny but telling detail in the data I had compiled on these men? I had to take a fresh look at it all.

There is not much, at least not in the way of documents that link these men.

I have found my grandfather Aleksandr's parents, Kazimierz Prokopowicz and Paulina Zubrzycki, identified on four records: Aleksandr's 1878 baptismal record and Kazimierz's 1881 death record, both in Iszczolna parish; my grandparents' 1900 marriage record in Szczuczyn parish; and Aleksandr's 1937 Social Security application in the United States.

For Józef, I have the 1873 baptismal record naming his parents as Jerzy Prokopowicz and Marianna Badziuk, and Jerzy's 1880 death record, both in Iszczolna parish; and his (newly found) 1900 premarital exam questionnaire in Żołudek parish.

When it's laid out like that, it looks so obvious that Aleksandr and Józef were not brothers or even half-brothers. Except, of course, that my family said they were, so I played devil's advocate with the church records:

● Just because Jerzy and Marianna had a son named Józef, did not mean that Kazimierz might not also have fathered a son named Józef, either with his first wife, Katarzyna, or his second wife, Paulina.
● Just because Kazimierz's death record identified a surviving daughter named Józefa, did not mean that the priest might not have made an error in the entry, writing Józefa instead of Józef. I have found numerous errors in the metryki, some far more egregious than misidentifying a son as a daughter.

Both of those are legitimate considerations, especially given the gap in church records available on microfilm (no records for 1870, 1872, 1874-1876).

Records of immigration and settlement in the United States did not help to settle the half-brother question:

● Both Aleksandr and Józef were married when they immigrated, so passenger list references were to their wives, not their parents. (See Immigration Time Line: Aleksandr & Stefania Prokopowicz and Extended Family).
● Written physical descriptions offered no insight. Ship manifests: 1910, Aleksandr, 5'7", fair hair, blue eyes; 1911, Józef: 5'4", fair hair, blue eyes.
● The men's World War I draft registrations similarly focused on their status and relationships in America, not Europe.
● When Józef, by then known as Joseph, died in 1927, his obituary named his parents as "Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Prokopovich" (wrong!) and his widow as "Mary Bunekevich." There was no mention at all of siblings, though he likely had surviving sisters.
● Joseph died years before the 1935 Social Security Act was passed—the upshot being no SS-5 application form recording his parents' names.

One thing nagged at me, though: the 1873 birth year on Józef's baptismal record and on the 1918 draft registration. That seemed like too much of a coincidence. The red flag was flying.

In the end, it was Maryanna Baniukiewicz's name appearing all along the paper trail that I could not overlook. The Józef Prokopowicz she married in 1900 was undeniably the same Józef who was born to Jerzy Prokopowicz and Marianna Badziuk in 1840, the same Józef who was later to make immigration plans with his cousin, my grandfather Aleksandr.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

My grandfather Aleksandr and his half-brother Józef who was really his cousin

My grandfathers' lives and relationships continue to surprise me. Almost exactly one year ago, I discovered that my paternal grandfather, Julian Prokopowicz (1895-1951), had fellow-immigrant cousins in New England that I had never heard about. Last week I discovered that Józef Prokopowicz, the half-brother of my maternal grandfather Aleksandr Prokopowicz (1878-1939), actually was not his brother at all, but his cousin.

Julian in Worcester, Massachusetts, and his cousins in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, lived about forty miles apart—not all that far, but maybe just far enough to limit their visits. Aleksandr and Józef, on the other hand, were close throughout their lives. They grew up in the same small village (probably in the same small house) in Russian Poland and jointly planned their immigration to the United States. Their wives and children sailed together when the time (and money) arrived for steerage tickets to a new life.

Aleksandr's and Józef's families settled within a quick walk of each other in Worcester, Massachusetts. Aleksandr and wife Stefania, and Józef and wife Maryanna referred to themselves as in-laws, as uncle and aunt to each others' children; those sons and daughters were cousins, and friends in their early years. When Aleksandr died, he was buried in Józef's family plot in Worcester.

"Not full brothers"

My mother, who outlived the rest of her family, was always quick to note, however, that her father and her uncle were "half-brothers, not full brothers." She knew no more than that. Did the men have the same Prokopowicz father, and different mothers? Or different Prokopowicz fathers, and the same mother? When I asked newfound second cousins (Józef's grandchildren) a few years ago, they knew as little as I did.

Using microfilmed church records from Iszczolna parish in what is now western Belarus, I have tried to document Aleksandr's and Józef's origins. However, there are no films for 1870, 1872, and 1874-1877, a significant gap, especially for their parents' child-bearing years. Lacking access to six years' worth of records, I know I am missing information that is vital for my genealogical research. The records I have found make me certain of that.

Trying a new research strategy

A few nights ago, I approached The Half-Brother Question from a new angle, using a really wonderful resource: ePaveldas, a portal representing several archives, libraries, and museums in Lithuania. These distinguished institutions collaborate in making much of the nation's cultural heritage accessible by digitizing their holdings. A fairly recent addition is numerous metryki and censuses from Żołudek parish. This is somewhat surprising because today's national boundaries place Żołudek, long a part of the old Roman Catholic Diocese of Wilno, in Belarus, not Lithuania. To my knowledge, Żołudek is the only parish in my ancestral Lida region whose records (an incomplete set, from the 1670s to the early 1920s) appear on ePaveldas.

Particularly because some very important records from Iszczolna parish elude me, I hoped I might find hints in Żołudek parish records to solve the half-brother mystery. This seemed possible because Józef Prokopowicz had married a young Żołudek parishioner, Maryanna Baniukiewicz of Łopaty village. (A 1913 baptismal record from Our Lady of Częstochowa Parish in Worcester for the couple's youngest child identified their parishes of origin in Europe: Iszczolna for Józef, Żołudek for Maryanna.) Based on their oldest daughter's birth in March 1901, I guessed that Józef and Maryanna had married in 1900.

Premarital exams and marriage banns

In the ePaveldas collection of text documents labeled Rankraščiai (Manuscripts), I found two relevant Żołudek parish books: 1895-1901 premarital examination questionnaires and 1897-1906 marriage banns announcements. I began with late 1899 banns, and quickly found Józef and Maryanna's three readings listed for 30 January, 2 February, and 7 February 1900. Couples' names and reading dates were in fact the only information the banns books provided.

Knowing the banns dates, I quickly located Józef and Maryanna's questionnaire, which the Żołudek parish priest had filled out with them on 7 February 1900. I have not yet located 1900 Żołudek marriage records on ePaveldas, if they are there, but I can theorize that Józef and Maryanna were wed soon after the questionnaire was completed and by 27 February 1900. Many weddings took place on the same day as the third reading of the banns. Ash Wednesday was 28 February, and Polish Roman Catholics traditionally did not marry during Lent.

Who Józef's parents really were

What I hoped, from either a questionnaire or a marriage record, was to learn the names of Józef's parents—whether, as half-brothers, he and Aleksandr shared the same father, or the same mother.

What the questionnaire (shown at right) instead revealed was that they shared neither. They were not brothers at all. They were first cousins. According to the questionnaire, Józef's parents were Jerzy Prokopowicz and Marianna Badziuk of the village of Kozarezy in neighboring Iszczolna parish. My grandfather Aleksandr's parents were Kazimierz Prokopowicz and Paulina Zubrzycki, also of Kozarezy. Jerzy, born in 1840, and Kazimierz, born in 1845, were both the sons of Stefan Prokopowicz and Anna Piwowarczyk, who had nine children in all.

What I do (and don't) know for sure

This is the point at which I have to explain what documentation I have for some of these family relationships, what documentation I do not have, and what questions arise from the lack of records. That mix serves as the backstory for scenarios that I can honestly only imagine, by way of explaining how and why Aleksandr and Józef came to be described as half-brothers. For good measure, I'll add the Polish language into the mix, since it is replete with vocabulary terms for all manner of family relationships.

Documentation of Józef's family of origin

Żołudek parish metryki record the marriage of Jerzy Prokopowicz and Marianna Badziuk in October 1866. I have found baptismal records for six children born to them between 1867 and 1879: Rozalia, Michalina, Marianna, Józef (born in 1873), Stefania, and Magdalena. All were born in Jerzy's home village of Kozarezy and baptized in Iszczolna parish. Jerzy died at the age of 40 on 24 December 1880, survived by his widow and all of the children except Michalina and Marianna, who died earlier.

Documentation of Aleksandr's family of origin

My grandfather's family is less well documented. What I have found in church metryki is spotty at best, due to that lack of microfilmed records for six years in the 1870s. Wasiliszki parish reports a marriage between Kazimierz Prokopowicz and Katarzyna Leonowicz in May 1869. The groom's age, village, parish, and parents' names all agree with the details in Kazimierz's 1845 Iszczolna parish baptismal record. The bride's data are equally clear, so the record seems straightforward and accurate. However, I have found no further references anywhere to Kazimierz and Katarzyna as a couple. Most likely because of that unavailability of six years of church records, nine years pass before Kazimierz plays a documented role in another sacramental event.

In October 1878, Iszczolna parish metryki announce the birth and baptism of Aleksandr Prokopowicz, the son of Kazimierz Prokopowicz and Paulina Zubrzycki, residing in Kozarezy. Next documented is Kazimierz's death in Kozarezy on 6 January 1881. Listed as survivors are his widow Paulina, son Aleksandr, and daughter Józefa.

Questions of death, remarriage, and birth

Presumably, Kazimierz's first wife, Katarzyna Leonowicz, died before his marriage to Paulina Zubrzycki, but where and when? I have reviewed the 1869-1871 films for Wasiliszki, Iszczolna, and several surrounding parishes and found no mention of her death. Nor is there any indication that Kazimierz and Katarzyna had any children in the first couple years of their marriage—highly unusual for young Catholic couples in that era. (My search continues, in other parishes.) At this point, I surmise that Katarzyna died sometime during the unfilmed years of 1870, 1872 or 1874-1876. Was Katarzyna the mother of "daughter Józefa" mentioned in Kazimierz's death record? Did Katarzyna perhaps die in childbirth?

When did Kazimierz marry Paulina Zubrzycki? Again, those unfilmed years probably hold the answer, and the marriage record. The Zubrzycki family lived in Iszczolna parish, so the marriage almost certainly took place there. Was Paulina the mother of "daughter Józefa"? Kazimierz's death record offers no clue to his children's birth order, since it follows the traditional pattern of naming surviving sons (in descending order of age) before surviving daughters. At any rate, there seems no reason to think that Kazimierz ever fathered a son named Józef.

Shared households

So how and why did Józef, documented as the son of Jerzy Prokopowicz and Marianna Badziuk, and Aleksandr, documented as the son of Kazimierz Prokopowicz and Paulina Zubrzycki, come to be described as half-brothers when they were in reality first cousins? I have a theory. I may never be able to substantiate it, unless I someday have the opportunity to see an Iszczolna parish census conducted in 1881 or later. But this is it, with a little background on the Prokopowicz family and the village they lived in.

From the early 1800s on, my maternal Prokopowicz family lived in Kozarezy, a tiny village just east of Szczuczyn. The 1795 Russian rewizja (revision list, akin to a census) listed 5 households in Kozarezy; the 1852 parish census, 10 households; and the 1890s-era Slownik Geograficzny, "8 houses, 90 residents." I do not know how many of those houses the Prokopowicz family occupied circa 1880. Probably two. When I visited Kozarezy in 2001, one was still occupied by an elderly Prokopowicz widow (her husband was descended from Michał, the older brother of Jerzy and Kazimierz).

My guess is that the second house (by 2001, uninhabited and used for storage) had been shared by the families of Jerzy and Kazimierz. Large households were the norm in that era, as Slownik's village population tallies point out. Living under the same roof may well have played a part in the deaths, both attributed to "fever," of Jerzy in December 1880 and Kazimierz less than two weeks later in January 1881. (A somber holiday season indeed, with the brothers' deaths on Christmas Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany, respectively.)

Widows and children

If my assumption is correct, the deaths of the two husbands/fathers left a Prokopowicz household of two 30-something widows and six children ranging in age from about 10 months to 13 years. As the only sons, Józef and Kazimierz undoubtedly shared a lot of family responsibilities as they grew up; Józef, older than Kazimierz by five years, might easily have been seen as the "big brother" in this mixed brood of cousins.

It is also possible that one of the widows might have died while the children were growing up, leaving the other to serve as a mother to them all. If that happened, it might have strengthened the children's bonds and blurred the lines somewhat between siblings and cousins.

There may well be several other scenarios that I have not even imagined. I simply do not know the families' living arrangements.

Defining family relationships

How did Marianna Badziuk Prokopowicz and Paulina Zubrzycki Prokopowicz and their children define their connections to one another? The Polish language has very exacting terminology for several categories of family relationships, particularly distinguishing relatives on a mother's side of the family from those on the father's side. For example, wuj is a maternal uncle, and stryj is a paternal uncle.

Brat is Polish for "brother." Brat also is an element in several other family terms. A full brother is a brat rodzony. A half-brother might be called a pół brat, or a brat przyrodni; the latter also signifies step-brother. A male cousin might simply be called kuzyn, or more specifically, brat stryjeczny if he is the son of the father's brother. To a father's siblings, that same son is a nephew, or bratanek. Whether it is used in reference to a male child himself or in reference to his father's relationship to others in the family, brat thus has many applications in the vocabulary of family relationships.

Leaving the homeland, selling the farm

It is fruitless for me to speculate what terms my grandfather's family favored in conversation back in the 1880s, or to speculate how all their lives and relationships evolved over the subsequent three decades. Instead I'll fast forward to the early 1900s. By that time, Józef and Aleksandr had both married and started families of their own. They had experienced the local impact of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War (military conscription for some village men) and the 1905 Russian Revolution (turmoil and plunder). And they had decided to immigrate to America. Aleksandr left first, sailing in March 1910. Józef followed in April 1911. (Their wives and children finally joined them in 1913.)

How did the men finance their journeys? My mother always explained it like this: "My father and his half-brother sold the family farm to their two sisters to get the money they needed. They knew they were never going back there." One sister, my mother had been told, had "a crippled leg, injured in an accident involving a horse," and owning an interest in the farm might improve her chances for marriage, the two men thought.

Many, many times when I was growing up, I heard my mom and her older sister, my Ciocia Paulina, tell that story about Aleksandr and Józef selling the farm. I never questioned any part of it. Like many family stories held up to closer scrutiny, though, it is rather puzzling. Who exactly were these "two sisters"? Józef had three—Rozalia, Stefania, and Magdalena—assuming none had died between 1880 and 1910. Aleksandr apparently had a sister named Józefa (I know nothing about her, but find it interesting that Józefa was my mother's baptismal name). He also had two half-sisters, Malwina and Anna, born to his widowed mother Paulina several years after Kazimierz's death.

The final tally

To sum up two families' worth of siblings and cousins: Neither my grandfather Aleksandr nor his cousin Józef had any brothers at all. They chose to describe themselves as half-brothers for reasons that I can only guess at, but that suggest a deep bond. Józef had five sisters, three of whom outlived their father. Aleksandr had one sister and two half-sisters. How these women came to be recast in family lore as "two sisters" is another small mystery. Perhaps all but two had married, or had died, by the time the family farm changed ownership circa 1910? I would very much like to see the deeds and documents detailing that sale, if it is ever possible to access them through some archive in Belarus or Lithuania. If I am very lucky, maybe someday records from Iszczolna will appear on ePaveldas.


Next: Re-examining records of Aleksandr's and Józef's lives from Wilno to Worcester. Did I miss some important clues? Did I ignore some red flags?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Belarus-Lida Region and Prokopowicz surname Family Tree DNA projects

One benefit of testing with Family Tree DNA is that it hosts thousands of projects—7,620 at last count, devoted to surnames and geographic areas large and small. Joining a project allows you to view your test results in relation to those of people with whom you may share some factor in common, such as ancestry in the same part of the globe. By putting your results in a bigger context, a DNA project can offer insight into your origins that you might not otherwise discover. Quite simply, it can help you figure out how and where you fit in.

A number of excellent Family Tree DNA projects focus on eastern European ancestry. Some broadly relate to countries of origin. Some concentrate on dynasties, nobility lines, or clans; others, on ethnicities. Some are quite large: the Polish project currently has 3,330 members. All projects are overseen by volunteer administrators. These projects are well worth joining. Through my own mtDNA test results, I joined the Cossack DNA, Lithuanian DNA, Lituania Propria, Polish, RussiaDNA, and Russia-Slavic DNA projects.

And because I have a particular interest in the Lida region and in the Prokopowicz surname, I submitted proposals to FTDNA to create projects focusing on those two themes.

About the Belarus-Lida Region geographic project

My justification for the Belarus-Lida Region project was that this area has had a complicated history, evident in the ever-changing national borders that have encompassed it; and that its population has similarly comprised several distinct ethnic groups. Belarus-Lida Region is a dual geographic project, meaning that it accommodates both Y-DNA and mtDNA test results. The goals are twofold:

To help members identify a common male ancestor and/or a common female ancestor in the Lida region.
To help identify relationships between family branches that in recent generations may have become separated or estranged due to emigration, war, deportation, resettlement, etc. These upheavals have scattered people with Lida roots throughout the world.

About the Prokopowicz project

My original rationale for the Prokopowicz surname project was that this was a common patronymic surname in my particular region of interest, the lands of the onetime Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—today's Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. It is also common in Ukraine, Russia, and other Slavic nations; variant spellings of Prokopowicz appear throughout eastern and central Europe. And emigration, war, deportation, and resettlement have carried it worldwide, far from its families' places of origin.

Because a primary goal of this project is to help determine which families bearing this surname may share a common male ancestor at some point in the past, Y-DNA testing is required for membership.

Both the Belarus-Lida Region and the Prokopowicz projects are small. I welcome and encourage anyone with relevant ancestry to join them.

Monday, July 29, 2013

75% Eastern European DNA? Sounds about right to me

I am 99.9% European. I would have guessed that, even if I had never spit into tiny vials for autosomal DNA analysis. Test results from 23andMe confirmed it, though, and took me a step further with its website's Ancestry Composition feature, presenting several different scenarios of what that 99.9% signifies.

Ancestry Composition basically enables you to consider your own DNA heritage in relation to the world's geographic/ethnic populations, which 23andMe has assigned to 22 different groupings. The data "includes DNA you received from all of your ancestors, on both sides of your family. The results reflect where your ancestors lived 500 years ago, before ocean-crossing ships and airplanes came on the scene," the website says.

The primary element is a table that tallies up the percentages of the various world populations reflected in your DNA. A resolution option allows you to see those percentages in three different breakdowns. Here are mine:

Global resolution: 99.9% European + 0.1%miscellaneous = 100% Barbara
Regional resolution: that 99.9% more specifically signifies 75.5% Eastern European, 4.2% Northern European, 0.2% Ashkenazi, 0.2% Southern European, and 19.8% nonspecific European
Subregional resolution: the 0.2% Southern European is more exactly described as representing the Iberian, Italian, and Balkan peninsulas and Sardinia

How does 23andMe define these categories? Eastern Europe encompasses Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and Hungary, and is "bordered on the east by the Ural Mountains." Northern Europe extends "as far west as Ireland, as far north as Norway, as far east as Finland, and as far south as France."

It is unclear to me where Lithuania and Belarus fit into the mix. As one of the Baltic countries, I'm guessing Lithuania falls into the Northern European classification. But what about Belarus? It is bordered by both Slavic countries (Poland, Ukraine, and Russia) and Baltic (Lithuania and Latvia). The population samples cited with these classifications do not include Belarus.

The regional resolution resonates with me. The 75.5% Eastern European DNA makes sense, in terms of my paper-trail genealogical research. Since the 1790s at least, my ancestors are documented as Polish Roman Catholics. I'm comfortable basically attributing the 24% of Northern and nonspecific European DNA to my maternal grandmother's H27 mtDNA, my paternal grandmother's mother's T2b mtDNA, and my paternal grandfather's mystery-man father's unknown but very likely Lithuanian roots. If this doesn't seem completely logical or mathematically accurate, I'm okay with that.

The 0.2% Southern European DNA holds little interest for me. If a stray Sardinian ever shows up in one of my family's marriage records, I will rethink this.

The best-fitting estimate

Another approach to examining the population percentages is via three different estimates: conservative, standard, or speculative.

Personally, I don't feel a need to spend much time mulling the conservative option, which labels 56.5% of my DNA as Eastern European and 42% as nonspecific European with a smattering of other populations contributing 1.5%. All four of my grandparents came from the same small geographic area, an arc that sweeps across western Belarus up into southern Lithuania. I have done reasonably extensive genealogical research on their ancestors—or at least 7/8 of them, my paternal grandfather's paternal line being that one brick wall. And judging from that line's Y-DNA test results, even that great-grandfather fits comfortably into the ethnic populations of the Grodno-Lida-Vilnius region (probably closest to Vilnius).

The standard estimate mirrors the regional resolution detailed above.

The speculative estimate considers my DNA as 87.1% Eastern and Northern European; 1.3% British and Irish (ah, could that account for my love of Celtic music?), 1.2% French and German: 6.1% nonspecific Northern European; and 4.2% a mix of Southern European, Ashkenazi, and general nonspecific European. It is intriguing, and it seems possible, but I have no records to document such fine distinctions, so I'll stick with the standard estimate.

The graphic here displays my standard estimate/regional resolution autosomal DNA analysis, indicating my ancestry is at least 75% Eastern European. It also highlights one aspect of the 23andMe website that I particularly like: it has a visually appealing, colorful, user-friendly design that is accessible even to a nonscientist like me.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

My grandparents' haplogroups: N1c1 & R1a1 Y-DNA; T2b & H27 mtDNA

There is a lot to be said about all the DNA tests my family members and I have taken over the past three years. I am certain of this from all the probing questions and insightful answers that other people post daily on the DNA-Newbie list. They are analyzing shared cMs, mulling relationship ranges, discussing STRs and SNPs …

Mutations and matches and markers, oh my!

I'm clueless.

Not entirely clueless. I kinda sorta get the really basic basics here, just like I kinda sorta get the precession of the equinoxes, and I am committed to learning as much as my boggled little right brain can hold because DNA completely fascinates me. I want to understand as much as I possibly can about what these tests reveal about my family's past.

I also want to share some of our FamilyTreeDNA findings, and expand upon my prior post's quick list identifying my two grandfathers' Y-DNA haplogroups and my two grandmothers' mtDNA haplogroups. It may seem like I'm overthinking things, but I've been a bit hung up on how to do this. Obviously, I'm ill-equipped to offer a presentation that is even remotely scientific. (I prefer not to make a complete fool of myself on The Internet, Where Everything You Post Remains Online Forever.)

If you want to know more about how, when, and where any of our particular haplogroups fit into tens of thousands of years of human migration, you would do well do simply Google them, for starters; there are many resources online.

I'm keeping it simple: an overview of the tests, a few screen shots, a couple of observations, a couple of disclaimers, and some relevant names, dates, and places from my family tree. All of the villages and parishes referred to are in the Lida region of western Belarus. Szczuczyn is about 30 miles east of Grodno; Radun is about 60 miles farther east, and about 45 miles south of Vilnius, Lithuania. Unlike the men, the women take on new surnames in each generation as the result of marriage. I mention those names in my eternal hope of connecting with long-lost relatives through this blog.

Paternal ancestry

Grandfather Julian Prokopowicz — Y-DNA haplogroup N1c1 (also known as N-M231)

I know nothing about my paternal great-grandfather, Kazimierz Prokopowicz. After 17 years of research, I have not found even one single record documenting his life. No surprise, then, that I have been so interested in gleaning what information I can from the Y-DNA he passed down to his male descendants. Thanks to my paternal uncle's willingness to be tested, I have learned at least that my paternal Prokopowicz men belong to haplogroup N1c1, which is widely found in northern Europe among the western Siberian Yakuts and Nenets, the Finnic and Baltic peoples, the Saami, and some Russians.

The surnames I see among my uncle's 230 Y-DNA matches are overwhelmingly Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Finnish, and Latvian. The closest matches report geographic roots in Lithuania, sweeping southward from Vilnius into the Lida region of Belarus. Some bear surnames that I recognize from the parish records of Radun (where my grandfather was born) and Nacza and Ejszyszki (where several Prokopowicz families are documented from the late 1700s on).

These matches are not recent; the likelihood of sharing a common male ancestor within the last 4 generations is about 61 percent; within the last 8 generations, about 85 percent; and within 12 generations, about 94 percent. Estimating 4 generations per century, those percentages suggest a likelihood of connection sometime in the 1700s.

At 24 generations, or 600 years, the probability of connection jumps to 99.66 percent. Does this mean that my paternal Prokopowicz ancestor was living somewhere in the Wilno/Vilnius region circa 1400? Could it mean that he was part of a tribe or group that migrated there in that time frame? Could it mean something else entirely? I don't know. I would dearly love to test some male Prokopowiczes with roots in the village of Poleckiszki or okolica Mongieliszki, two locations (both on the Lithuania-Belarus border) where I've found numerous Prokopowicz records. Or Turgeliai, Lithuania (in Polish, Turgiele), another Prokopowicz village area that I have not researched at all.

Because the text box accompanying the white push-pin icon representing my uncle would have covered most of Lithuania and Latvia on the map of his matches, I removed it. Imagine it in the northwest corner of Belarus.

Grandmother Anna Blaszko — mtDNA haplogroup T2b

While Y-DNA can suggest relationships within a few hundred years, mitochondrial DNA is more an indication of "deep ancestry" and human migration over thousands of years. It lends itself to "Daughters of Eve" analysis more than to hopes of discovering a cousin (though the latter is possible too). The main insight I have gained from my family's two mtDNA tests is that my grandmothers were descended from two different tribes of women. (If you had known my grandmothers, that would actually come as no surprise.)

Since it was administered in April 2013, the FTDNA mtHVR2toMega test (HVR1, HVR2, Coding Region) has yielded 228 matches for my paternal grandmother's T2b mitochondrial DNA. There are 45 matches at zero steps removed, 67 at 1 step (a prominent African American genealogist and university professor among them), 70 at 2 steps, and 46 at 3 steps removed. Frankly, I don't know what "steps" mean (some sort of mutations, maybe).

At any rate, among the 27 closest matches who identified their maternal line's country of origin, 6 claim Germany, 4 Ireland, 3 each Finland and England, 2 Switzerland, and 1 each Austria, Estonia, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US. The screen shot (at right) of the closest matches shows my grandmother's maternal line with a white marker and her few exact matches in red. She appears alone in western Belarus, but that may be the result of fewer people with roots there having done the mtDNA test.

For the record, in my father's mother's family, these are my direct ancestors:
grandmother — Anna Blaszko, born 1895 in Skladance, Radun parish
great-grandmother — Teresa Bowszys, born 1866 in Skladance, Radun parish
great-great-grandmother — Anna Tumielewicz, born circa 1835 in Narkuny, Żyrmuny parish
great-great-great-grandmother — Katarzyna Komięcz, born circa 1806, probably in Gudele, Żyrmuny parish

Maternal ancestry

Grandfather Aleksandr Prokopowicz — Y-DNA haplogroup R1a1 (also known as R-SRY10831.2)

I'm very fortunate and thankful that my cousin agreed to have his Y-DNA tested. He is the only living direct male descendant of my maternal grandfather. Lacking my cousin's willingness, I would have had to seek out a male descendant of one of my great-grandfather Kazimierz's brothers—not an impossible alternative, and one that I hope to pursue in the future, but it seems optimal to test as close to home as possible.

Compared to my other grandparents' same-sex haplogroup tests, this Y-DNA test has a staggering number of results—931. However, only 5 of them match at more than the 12-marker level, and even those are remote. As I interpret the results, any relationship between this Prokopowicz line and its 931 matches is probably no more recent than the year 1400.

My cousin's test results perhaps serve as an example of the fact that R1a1 is a very large, very common Y-DNA haplogroup, which spread from Eurasia to central Europe and Scandinavia thousands of years ago. The countries with the highest frequency of representation in my cousin's matches are Norway, the central European and southern Slavic countries, and Pakistan.

The screen shot shows the countries of origin claimed by men whose Y-DNA test results most closely match my cousin's. A white push-pin icon, barely visible amid the red and orange icons that cover the map of Europe, represents him, and our Prokopowicz line.

I can't elaborate any further here without stepping into scientific territory where I really don't belong. A graphic labeled "R1a1 Clades (by SNP markers)" on the FTDNA R1a1 and Subclades Y-DNA Project-Background page very clearly illustrates the migration time line of the SNP tree (basically, changes in the DNA sequence at specific locations). To see where the Prokopowiczes fit it, trace the green Central and Eastern Europe/Western Asia Z280 section to the far right column tagged Balts that ends in Z661. If I understand my cousin's SNP test results correctly, the Prokopowiczes represent some subsequent mutation there, yet to be identified.

In my mother's father's family, these are my direct male ancestors:
grandfather — Aleksandr Prokopowicz, born 1878 in Kozarezy, Iszczolna parish
great-grandfather — Kazimierz Prokopowicz, born 1845 in Kozarezy, Iszczolna parish
great-great-grandfather — Stefan Prokopowicz, born 1811 in Kozarezy, Iszczolna parish
great-great-great-grandfather — Ludwik Prokopowicz, born circa 1765, probably in Iszczolna parish
great-great-great-great-grandfather — Stefan Prokopowicz, born circa 1730, probably in Iszczolna parish

My research documenting the descendants of my great-great-great-great-grandfather Stefan Prokopowicz is fairly extensive. Each generation was blessed with sons. It would be wonderful to make contact with any current bearers of the Prokopowicz Y-DNA.

Grandmother Stefania Ruscik — mtDNA haplogroup H27

H27 is a very small (very, very small!), fairly recently identified group. My FTDNA mtHVR2toMega test has yielded just 54 results since 2010. Only one match is zero steps removed, hinting vaguely at a possible common maternal ancestor within the time frame of verifiable, paper-trail research. That tester knows little of her maternal ancestry except that her grandmother was from Poland.

The other 53 matches, 1-3 steps removed, comprise a cluster in eastern England, 3 in Finland, and 1-2 each in Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Norway, Sweden, and Turkey. Looking at continental Europe (excluding Scandinavia), my grandmother's line is actually the farthest east. How the heck did it end up there?!?

These are my direct maternal ancestors:

grandmother — Stefania Ruscik, born 1882 in Gierniki, Szczuczyn parish
great-grandmother — Emilia Nowogrodzki, born 1853 in Kozly, Wasiliszki parish
great-great-grandmother — Krystyna Sobol, born 1821 in Gierniki, Szczuczyn parish
great-great-great-grandmother — Anna Staniejko, born 1799 in Janczuki, Szczuczyn parish
great-great-great-great-grandmother — Theresia Waszczynska, born 1756 in Janczuki, Szczuczyn parish
great-great-great-great-great-grandmother —Anna ?, born probably circa 1730, probably in Szczuczyn parish (or possibly elsewhere)

As the map below illustrates, my maternal H27 mtDNA has only one exact match, somewhere in Poland.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Exactly how Polish is my DNA?

My grandparents, and their parents before them, and their parents before them, all lived in Wilno. In their time, Wilno was one of the western provinces of the Russian Empire; earlier, Wilno was the eastern stronghold of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. For hundreds of years, at least, the Wilno region was a melting pot of ethnicities—Polish, Lithuanian, Jewish, Ruthenian, Tatar, German, Scot, and Italian (not to mention possible Swedish infusion from the devastating Great Northern Wars).

When my grandparents emigrated from Wilno before World War I, they settled in a sizable Polish community in Worcester, Massachusetts. They were members of its Roman Catholic parish of Our Lady of Częstochowa. My mother and her siblings were educated at the parish's St. Mary's School, whose bilingual curriculum steeped them in Polish literature, history, and music. Although the intensive half-day of Polish studies had been phased out by the 1950s, when I received my diploma from St. Mary's High School in the mid-1960s, I was graduated from New England's only coeducational Polish Catholic high school.

My family spoke Polish at home. We ate Polish food—my father's homemade kiełbasa, my mother's gołąbki. Daddy listened to Johnny Libera's polka program on the radio every weekend, and Mom prayed I would marry "a nice Polish boy." (Note: her prayers were not answered. Szkoda!)

It never occurred to me that I was anything less than 100 percent Polish. In 1996, I began researching and documenting my Polish ancestry. In 2002, I stepped off the paper trail to do my first mitochondrial DNA test; Oxford Ancestors identified me as mtDNA H, the most common European maternal haplogroup. Unfazed by the fact that H encompassed about 40 percent of the continent's female descendants, I ordered a "Polish DNA Inside" T-shirt from Café Press.

Lost in a maze of haplogroups

But I began reading books and more books about DNA. I lacked the scientific background to understand much, but the topic intrigued me. My mother had passed mtDNA H along to me, but what did my other ancestral lines contribute to my genetic makeup? What did I receive from my father and my grandfathers, whose Y-DNA I, as a woman, could not inherit? How did my paternal grandmother fit into the scheme of things? What did I share with my cousins? What did I hand down to my children?

Testing had grown increasingly sophisticated in the years since my Oxford Ancestors test. As a woman, I could hope for more detail about my mtDNA heritage through newer, more refined tests. As a woman, I could not be tested to learn my father's Y-DNA haplogroup. I could, however, gain some insight into my ancestry beyond direct male and direct female lines by means of autosomal testing—and perhaps discover some new cousins in the process.

After doing considerable research on genetic testing services, I decided to try Family Tree DNA. (Since then, I have also used 23andMe. I am equally satisfied with both companies, which are recognized leaders in the field.) What I particularly liked about Family Tree DNA was its plethora of projects—geographic, ethnic, haplogroup, surname—that seemed designed to facilitate exploring how and where any tester's ancestry might fit into the big picture of human evolution and migration.

Who to test, and why

I had a goal: to identify the Y-DNA haplogroups of my two grandfathers, and the mtDNA haplogroups of both of my grandmothers (of course, I already knew my maternal grandmother's). The Y-DNA results loomed especially large. Both my father and my mother were born into Prokopowicz families, as I mentioned in one of my early blog posts. My paternal grandfather, Julian Prokopowicz (1895-1951), hailed from Radun parish in the eastern Lida region. My maternal grandfather, Aleksandr Prokopowicz (1878-1939), was from Iszczolna parish, a scant 30 miles to the west. Did Julian and Aleksandr share a common male ancestor at some point in the distant past? No amount of paper-trail research could ascertain that. Only Y-DNA testing could answer the question.

My father and three of his four younger brothers had already died. Only his youngest brother, my one surviving uncle, could provide a genetic sample of my grandfather Julian's Y-DNA as well as my paternal grandmother Anna's mtDNA. (Men inherit their mother's mtDNA but do not pass it along to their children.) I was very apprehensive about asking my uncle to do the testing; he is a very private person. To my grateful delight and relief, he graciously agreed.

I should note that, had my uncle not been willing and available, other testing options were possible in my extended family: five male cousins (my paternal uncles' sons) and one aunt (my father's one surviving sister). One male cousin and one aunt could have provided the haplogroup information I sought, but testing one person instead of two seemed optimal (read: simpler and cheaper).

My mother's family also posed a challenge. Of my mom's three brothers, only one had fathered a son—my cousin and genealogy mentor, who died in 2000, survived by two daughters and one son. That son, my first cousin once removed, was the only living male Prokopowicz descendant of my grandfather Aleksandr, the only possible source of a Y-DNA sample. Without hesitation, and happy to further the family research his father had launched back in the 1980s, he too agreed to testing.

Even though I already knew my maternal grandmother Stefania was haplogroup H, I expected that more current mtDNA testing might augment the information I received in 2002.

With all four grandparents represented, I ordered our kits from Family Tree DNA in March 2010.

The Prokopowicz Question, answered at last

Four months later, the Prokopowicz question was unequivocally answered: Julian Prokopowicz and Aleksandr Prokopowicz did not share a common male ancestor. They did not even share a haplogroup. They were descended from two distinct tribes that migrated to Wilno from different parts of Eurasia sometime during the past few hundreds or thousands of years.

The same proved true of my two grandmothers, who descended from different "daughters of Eve," as human genetics professor Brian Sykes termed the mitochondrial DNA haplogroups in his groundbreaking 2001 book.

Over the past three years, additional tests on our family's DNA samples have added more specificity to the initial findings. For Y-DNA, we advanced from 12 to 67 markers and added on SNP tests. For mtDNA, as new tests became available, we progressed to FTDNA's mtDNAPlus and mtHVR2toMega. To explore our other ancestral lines, we used Family Finder autosomal tests; I have used 23andMe for that same purpose.

My grandparents' haplogroups

What were my grandparents' same-sex haplogroups? Here is what my family's DNA tests revealed:

Paternal grandfather Julian Prokopowicz (via my uncle's test) — N1c1, also described as N-M231 Y-DNA
Paternal grandmother Anna Blaszko (via my uncle's test) — T2b mtDNA
Maternal grandfather Aleksandr Prokopowicz (via my cousin's test) — R1a1, also described as R-SRY10831.2 Y-DNA
Maternal grandmother Stefania Ruscik (via my test) — H27 mtDNA

It's my hope to find appropriate long-lost cousins who might be tested for my grandparents' other ancestral lines: a female descendant of Julian's mother, Anna Bogdan; a male descendant of Anna's father, Adam Blaszko; a female descendant of Aleksandr's mother, Paulina Zubrzycki; and a male descendant of Stefania's father, Antoni Ruscik. I am curious about whether testing those family lines would reveal even more diversity in my heritage.

I need a new T-shirt!

That would be in line with the haplogroups observed to date in the Family Tree DNA Belarus-Lida Region project that I founded a couple years ago. Y-DNA haplogroups represented there are E1b1b1, I1, J2, N1c1, R1a1a, and R1b1a2. Mitochondrial haplogroups are H, H23, H27, I, J1c1, K, N1b1e, R0a, T2, T2b, T2e, U, U7, and W6-C16192T. The project members' range of haplogroups—to some extent, at least—reflects the ethnic mix that characterized Wilno for so many centuries.

It has been eye-opening to me to consider that I am, in effect, a one-person melting pot—a genetic synthesis of at least a few of the disparate human tribes that found their way to Wilno over hundreds or thousands of years. DNA testing answered my first, rather simple question: yes, I am descended from two unrelated Prokopowicz families. But it has raised some other questions and issues, not the least of which is this: I need a new T-shirt, one that correctly proclaims "More than Polish DNA Inside."