Finally, on June 12 of 2017, I got the exciting email from Ancestry telling me that the results were ready to view, and I jumped right into the Ethnicity section. I had always thought that I had a Slavic look, in fact my nose looked like my Uncle Nick’s, but now I actually knew for sure. Basically, rounding off the numbers, I am half Eastern European and half Scottish/ Irish. There were a few other low percentages as parts of that: some Baltic States, about a 10% chunk of Scandinavian and oddly, less than 1% Oceania/Melanesia (since then refined away and gone). The Eastern European part covered Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Czechoslovakia, so that was a bit generic.
For some reason, I decided that I was probably Polish, maybe because my adoptive father Lou was, and I knew quite a bit about the country and it’s people. I knew that his father was one of thousands of Poles who came to the US in the late 19th century, specifically to help build railroads in the Northeast US. Many others came to work in the mines of Pennsylvania and the factories of the industrial cities in upstate NY such as Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton, Syracuse, Albany and Massena. Since I was born in Rochester, that all seemed to make sense. I figured that I was probably the son of a child of a Polish immigrant.
But the Irish part caught me completely off-guard. At no time in my life had it ever crossed my mind that I might be Irish, even during St. Patrick’s Day, when everybody wants to claim it. I have brown hair and blue eyes, but blue eyes are extremely common with the Polish, so it didn’t jump out at me. There were certainly a huge number of Irish immigrants to New York City and State, so that made sense as well. So the question became… was my mother Irish or Polish, and same for my father? I had no way of knowing, but the first step in my family tree tracking was to separate the DNA matches who were clearly Polish, from the matches who were clearly Irish. That is the most important first step you must take when you start categorizing your Cousin matches. It actually involves creating two separate research trees, one for each side.
When you know absolutely nothing about your birth family, you have to begin by getting whatever information you can from people with whom you are most closely matched. I have seen a few stories on the local news about people who immediately got close family matches, people who could be parents or siblings. I’m sure that is fairly rare. First cousins would be more common and ideal to start with, if possible. The best that came up for me at first were a few solid Second Cousins. That sounds close, but in fact, what that means most commonly is that you share a Great-Grandparent. Since I was born in 1950, my parents were born in the 1920 range, my grandparents were born in the 1880 range and my great-grandparents were born in the 1850 range. That is a 100 year period, and two things can also be possible. One is that people during that era could have been born outside the US and immigrated. Another is that by then, people in the US were beginning to more commonly leave their hometowns and home states and relocate hundreds, or even thousands of miles from their family roots and records. So don’t underestimate the exponentially increased degree of difficulty between connecting with First Cousins and tying yourself to Second Cousins.
At the start of July, I had 2 Second Cousins and 8 Third Cousins in my list. The first 9 of those were all shared matches with each other. From the very start the Shared Matches feature in Ancestry has been the key tool to create my basic search structure. “Which of these is like the other thing” logic allows you to see patterns and find some structure for your tree. At the very least, it can help you immediately determine what people on on each side of your tree (although you don’t know which parent belongs to which side yet.) It was time to start reaching out to cousins. Ancestry has an internal messaging system with which you can make contact with other accounts, without using email or anything beyond your User Name. My number one match Second Cousin was basically half Irish and half Polish. There was actually a basic family tree posted, which is sadly more unusual than you might think. It contained about 30 people whose names I could read. By default, Ancestry only displays the name of those who have deceased; the living show up as “Private.” The name on the account was M.C. (managed by Thomas C). I felt certain that I was quickly on my way to success. On July 7th, I wrote my first letter.
“Hi! My name is Tom Holowach and I grew up in upstate New York. I did the Ancestry test on a whim, because I was adopted. While I waited endlessly for the results, I had fun tracing my mother’s side of the family back to Plymouth Colony. My father was born in Poland and moved to Oneonta, NY with his parents about 1917. I was actually born in Rochester, NY on December 12, 1950. While my parents lived in Rochester, they adopted me from the Catholic placement folks (Nuns, I assume.) It’s amazing what a good match I was. I clearly have always looked Eastern European, but as I get older I am actually starting to get a nose like my father’s brother. When I got my DNA results, it basically said that I am 50% Polish, 25% Belfast Irish and 25% Dublin Irish. My imagined scenario is that my mother was a Polish Catholic girl in Rochester, who got pregnant by a charming Irishman who wasn’t ready to get tied down. Ancestry says I am strongly possibly a first cousin with M.C. As I look at the tree you made, my assumption is that Mary M(xxxx) might have had a daughter about 1935 who might actually be my birth mother. For my entire life, I’ve never really cared about finding her, but I have to admit that this whole thing is fascinating. Does that scenario make any sense, knowing what you know about your side? Tom”
When you send out these blind messages, you just don’t know how people will respond. You do your best to sound like a normal person, who isn’t a stalker who wants something, but since this was my first, I had no idea how people would react. The good news was that I got a very nice reply the next day.
“Hello Tom, you have quite an interesting background. My name is Tom C(xxxxx) and I live in Massachusetts near New Bedford. My mother was born in 1931, making her 86 years old. She grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts and raised 6 children so I highly doubt she would be your mother. She would be your 2nd cousin according to the DNA match. You could be related on her mother’s side as she was from Poland or you could be related to her father’s side as he was Irish. (snip)
Mary M(xxxx) had a couple of sisters and a couple of brothers. Her husband George G(xxxx) had a full sister and two half sisters. My mother was born in the Brooklyn and Queens areas of NY and was raised there till they moved to Somerville, MA in the late 1930s. She was raised Catholic and attended Catholic grade schools until high school. Thanks for reaching out and I hope what I have told you helps. Tom”
Well, it was nice that I got a pleasant response so quickly. His mother’s mother was actually born in Poland, as were her brothers and sisters. What I did was to create a brand new completely Private family tree which I named M(xxxx) Research Only, and copied over what Tom had already put in his mother’s tree. You do have the option to make any tree completely Public, completely Private, or Private but searchable. In Ancestry, there is no easy way to wholesale copy an entire tree from another user (there is a way to copy a whole one of your own), so I used the “Save to Tree” function to copy his family tree to my new one a person at a time. This method also copies parents, siblings and children at the same time, so the process isn’t as laborious as you might think. It does not copy anyone who is living, so you have to do that by retyping manually. Then, using all the techniques I had already learned from doing my adoptive parents’ tree, I went ahead and basically researched Tom’s family as far as I could go. I discovered how talented I had become at doing this stuff, because from his basic tree of 20, I eventually created one with 720 unique people and over 1600 attached records. I even traced all the Boston addresses where his grandmother’s family had lived and who her siblings had married. Unfortunately, it just didn’t seem to pan out. I wrote him back.
Well, that was the start of an amazing adventure in history and data mining. I have actually gotten really good at using all of Ancestry’s tools. I discovered that if you just click on pop-up fact windows and just accept the data, you can miss a lot of clues. You have to read the original documents very carefully to get all the actual facts available.
Your Mom may be correct that my tie is to her mother’s side. I traced every available fact that I could find, and was able to make some educated inferences, as well. Just dis-ambiguating all the John/Jan M(xxxx)’s who immigrated at about that time is daunting, but I am pretty sure I got it right. I made a chronology spreadsheet to keep the whole picture on one page in front of me. I can email you that if you like. I actually can give you some more accurate info than some of the stuff you already have in your tree. It is possible your Mom may be able to fill in a couple of missing things… like the exact date and ship on which her mother arrived. I can trace Kateryzna and Julia, but not Mary, who seems to have come alone when she was about 8. There are some years of death that are radically different that what is common knowledge.
Anyway, I believe my own personal answers lie in what isn’t documented, with your mother’s uncles. I hope we can collaborate on this. I can invite you to my “hidden” tree if you are interested.
Cheers! Tom Holowach”
I finally realized that although it would have been convenient to find a person who was half-Polish and half-Irish to lead me directly to the answer, I was overlooking the most obvious thing in front of my nose: there were another 8 of my top matches who also matched Tom’s mother. Who were they, and what did they share in common? That was when I made my first combined chart of shared matches. I still have the legal pad on which I first crudely wrote them down.
What this seemed to be telling me is that I might not actually be looking at my Polish side after all, as handy as that might have been. None of these other people had family trees, but they did have ethnicity percentages, and you know what they all shared? Ireland/ Scotland/Wales and Great Britain. My connection to M.C. was clearly through Tom’s mother’s Irish father. Because of her age, born a whole generation before me, I realized that as my second cousin, we might actually be related through her grandparents, but my 2nd Great-Grandparents. That put the tie somewhere in Ireland around 1830 or so. This was quickly, and sadly, becoming a dead-end. On September 20, 2017, I wrote Tom back.
I am trying to be diligent about this search, and I have found some more detailed information about both sides of your mother’s family. I assumed that I would be most connected to the M(xxxx) side, since I am 2/3 Polish, but further research shows a stronger possibility of the G(xxxx) side. I found all the info about the first family that Mary Annie G(xxxx) had in Ireland, married to a man named John Farrell. Her two daughters, Mary Ann Farrell and Nellie Farrell eventually moved here, and Mary Ann married a man named Andrew Morgan and had 4 children. Mary Annie actually lived with them in Framingham after her second husband died. I can’t find what happened to Nellie… yet. The one frustrating, overarching fact is that no matter who I research, I just can’t locate anyone moving to upstate New York. Everyone seems to remain in and around Boston. This weekend, my wife and I are flying back to NY for my 50th HS Reunion. We are going to detour and drive up the coast through Connecticut, Newport and Plymouth, then Boston and Westwood, where I lived for a while when my father worked for Jordan Marsh. In general, the trip is to show my wife a part of my life she has never visited, but I am also visiting places where my mom’s ancestors lived in CT, RI and MA. I have also located the exact street address in Boston’s North End where the M(xxxx) family lived. There is an Italian restaurant there now. Maybe a pizza is in order. Also, I believe that the Andrew K(xxxxxxx) (Katarzyna’s older brother) family and John M(xxxx)’s worked for Heywood-Wakefield Furniture on Canal St. In various censuses, their professions kept bouncing confusingly between basketmaker and furniture laborer. Turns out that the H-W company built the most elaborate and coveted wicker furniture in the USA, so it makes sense now. The general term for their profession became ‘willow workers.’ So I still don’t know exactly where I fit in, but I am learning a lot of Boston history in the process. Tom”
The reason that I left all that info in this excerpt from the message is to show how I was learning to read everything carefully in all the primary sources I could find, especially the US Census. If you just use what Ancestry gives you when it presents you hints, and you blithely click on “Accept”, you will get only what has been transcribed, and sometimes transcribed slightly wrong. You can find so much more data in some of the other fields which can help you learn more information, which can then lead you to logical inferences, like I did there with the wicker furniture. I don’t know for sure if my theories are exactly accurate, but I was starting to look at what was previously just lifeless, raw data, but ask the question “Why?” Why did they move there to live? Who were their friends and family and what was life like for them, right there at that place and time?
We actually met with Tom at his house near New Bedford, and talked for hours. We compared notes and I had a great time meeting my first previously unknown cousin. We just couldn’t understand how his Mom and I are related. To this day (May 2019) we still don’t, but I keep working on it every time we get a new shared match. Someday…
Tom and I keep in touch. Sadly, his Mom passed away shortly after that, and the dementia which had been plaguing her in recent years kept a lot of her family information locked away from her son forever. Tom also had a DNA test done for his Dad, and recently, there was a reunion between his father and a sister he never knew he had. I can tell you that I now personally know that is a wonderful feeling.
By the way, we did visit 93 Salem Street in Boston, the site of the apartment building where Tom’s Polish great-grandfather lived with his children, including Mary, Tom’s grandmother. Unfortunately, the original apartment building is gone, but you can see the contemporary neighbors on that narrow North End street, to feel a bit like what it was like at the turn of the 20th Century. In their honor, we had dinner that night at Antico Forno, and yes, their brick-oven baked pizza is excellent. I will not, however, be foolish enough to opine how it compares to Regina’s, or any of the other classic Boston pizzas. I have too many good friends from Boston, and I don’t want to lose any of them.