Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in Family History, Part 1

Background Research
I grew up believing a legend about my Polish ancestors. The story was that my great grandparents (parents of my maternal grandmother) were both Polish orphans who met on the boat coming over to America. Only a bit of this is true. My uncle (well, my mom’s cousin) Craig La Clair’s research tells quite a different story. Both great grandparents were Polish, but they did not immigrate to the US on the same boat. Josephine Chudy née Kotwicki immigrated at the turn of the 20th century, and Frank Chudy arrived later, in 1906. They met and married in Michigan.

Warning: the rest of this blog entry is long-ish & contains detailed information about our Polish family history, thus it may be boring to non-relatives. See below for a more user-friendly blog on Warsaw, and check back soon for the most exciting blog to date!

Craig La Clair compiled a book reporting his research and I used this book as the basis for my own research last week. His book contains much more information about my great grandmother’s family, the Kotwickis, than it does about my great grandfather, so I decided to try to find out more about the Kotwickis and maybe visit the area where they came from.

At first I was stumped, because Craig wrote that the Kotwickis were from a small town in Poland named "Wocupielsk." However, a Google search for "Wocupielsk" returned zero results. I fared no better when trying to decipher the town name from the original documents he had in his book, so I turned to and found the 1901 boat manifest shown below. This manifest shows that Franciszek (Frank) Kotwicki, age 17, and Józefa (Josephine) Kotwicki, age 9, emigrated from Poland (part of the Russian Empire at that time) to the US via Antwerp, Belgium on the ship “Southwark.” (Note that this Frank is Josephine’s older brother, not her husband-to-be.) On this manifest, the Kotwickis home town is listed as “Wompielsk,” Poland. Wompielsk is probably also what is written on the paperwork in Craig’s book, but it’s just difficult to decipher the handwriting.

I’m fairly certain these are the right people, because the manifest also reports that they are were immigrating to Alpena, Michigan to meet up with their older brother John Kotwicki (which conforms to other information in Craig’s book). These names are compatible with our family members and we also know that they ended up, at least temporarily, in Alpena.

Wompielsk is not a town in Poland, but another Google search revealed that this is how the town Wąpielsk was written on other immigration documents (probably because the spelling Wompielsk is close to the pronunciation of Wąpielsk). This town is not located exactly where Craig placed “Wocupielsk” on the map in his book, but it is not too far from it. The closest major town to Wąpielsk is Toruń (supposedly where Copernicus was born!). Here's a map showing Toruń with respect to Warsaw:

View Larger Map

Looking back at the documents in Craig’s book, it seems clear that Wąpielsk is the right town because, first of all, one of these documents lists the county (or “powiat” in Polish) as “Rupin,” which corresponds pretty closely to Rypin county where the town of Wąpielsk is located. Second of all, Craig reports that Josephine’s aunt (her mother’s sister) Teresa Hoppe née Kotwicki married her husband in Toruń and her husband was from the nearby town of Bydgoszcz (which is just further evidence that Kowickis resided in this general area).

The boat manifest is incongruous with some of the information Craig received. He wrote that Josephine left Poland immediately upon her mother’s death in 1895 when she was 6 years old. However, Josephine was not 6 years old in 1895 since she was born in 1891 (or 1892). Thus she would have been only 3 or 4 years old when her mother died. What appears to have happened is that Josephine did not leave Poland immediately after her mother’s death, but rather stayed in Poland and emigrated later, in 1901, with her 17-year old brother Frank.

Evidence that Josephine was born in 1891 comes from her age on the boat manifest (9 years old in 1901) and also from her age in the 1930 US Census form below (39 years old). (On this census form she reports immigrating to the US in 1899, not 1901, but it is likely that she is estimating this date, having been only 9 years old when she immigrated.)

I decided to try and visit the village of Wąpielsk to see where our ancestors are from. I'll report the real adventure in the next blog.

Also, just for fun, here’s a pronunciation guide to how names of family members & towns are pronounced (roughly) in Polish:

Warszawa ≈ Var + SHAH + vah
Toruń ≈ TOE + rune (the “n” is soft like the first “n” of onion)
Wąpielsk ≈ VAWM + pyelsk (the ą is nasalized, like some French vowels)
Chudy ≈ WHO + dih (dih like in dip)
Kotwicki ≈ Ko + TVI + tski (or maybe Ko + TVI + chki)
Franciszek ≈ Fran + CHI + shek (CHI like in chicken; became “Frank” in the US)
Józefa ≈ You + ZEF + uh (became “Josephine” in the US)


iwanagain said...

This blog gets more exciting by the day. I can't wait to read what happens next. You are a very thorough researcher. Way to go!

Also, please describe the taverns, as I'm sure our ancestors spent a good amount of time there.

cg said...

wow. you are a regular Nancy Drew. Or should I say, Nancy DrewSKI. ;)

Julia M. said...

I've seen a lot of drinking going on in parks, beer gardens, and hostels. But I don't suppose our ancestors hung out in hostels much. But a lot of them probably hung out on the stoops of stores, houses and such and imbibed. Anyway, taverns for another time!