Ancestry DNA has opened up a whole new world in my genealogy research. The most exciting part has been finding relatives on my dad’s side that I didn’t know we had.
All four of my dad’s grandparents were Polish immigrants. They came to America through Ellis Island .
While I can trace my mom’s ancestors back to the Mayflower, I’ve had trouble tracing my paternal side any further than my great-grandparents.
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My Ancestry DNA results proved even more exciting than I’d hoped. Unfortunately, I didn’t find many matches on my dad’s side. After a few months, I made contact with a woman named Vanessa whom Ancestry DNA said was a cousin.
What followed was several months of back and forth between us, trying to figure out how we’re related.
The First Clue
Vanessa told me her grandfather’s name and said that she’d been told that he’d changed his last name to that of his sponsor family. I noticed right away that his middle name was the same as my great-grandmother’s maiden name, but with a different spelling.
Because of the name and the Ancestry DNA relationship, we suspected that Vanessa’s grandfather, Joe, was a brother of my great-grandmother, Mary.
My dad had no knowledge of his grandmother having any siblings in America. As far as he knew, any relatives of his grandmother remained in Poland.
Vanessa and I began researching heavily on Ancestry.com and contacting relatives to ask questions. After several months of searching, my mom put me in touch with someone who gave me the email address of someone else in the family – a first cousin of my dad’s.
I emailed her and struck gold. She knew that her grandmother (my great-grandmother) had a brother who lived where Vanessa’s paternal grandfather, Joe, lived. That confirmed for us that Mary and Joe were brother and sister – and that they were in touch with each other.
Some mysteries still remained, though. Why didn’t more people in the family know about Joe?
He was my dad’s great uncle, but Dad had no idea that the guy existed. My dad has a great memory, so he’d remember if he had a Polish great uncle hanging around. He saw his grandparents frequently when he was a kid, and Mary lived until I was a small child. Joe was several years younger than Mary and died about 10 years after she did.
I was also confused about the last name. I’d never heard of any of my Polish ancestors taking a different last name, other than changing or shortening the surname to sound more American. Joe’s last name was completely different than his Polish last name.
The Old Letter
Vanessa doggedly continued her investigation, checking with relatives who might have answers and eventually hitting the genealogy jackpot.
She discovered an old letter her mom had written in the 1980s after doing some investigation into Vanessa’s dad’s genealogy. What she discovered is like something out of a novel.
Most of us know something about World War I. According to Britannica, about 4.3 million U.S. soldiers fought in WWI, and 116,516 lost their lives, which is roughly a 2.6 percent death rate. About 200,000 more were injured.
Prior to WWI, Poland was divided into parts that were controlled by Russia, Germany/Prussia, and Austria-Hungary. Mary and Joe were from a region called Galicia, which was part of Austria-Hungary at the time. Austria-Hungary ended up sending 7.8 million soldiers to WWI, around half of whom were killed or injured.
The Big Reveal
According to Vanessa’s mom’s letter, Joe’s mother saved up enough money to have friends of hers smuggle Joe out of the country when he was 17. The couple used forged documents claiming that Joe was their son. Joe took their last name, since he was supposed to be their son. He continued using that last name throughout his life, and passed it down to his descendants.
The letter says that Joe’s mom could see that war was coming and knew that her teenage son would soon be drafted, which she likely saw as a death sentence. Every male citizen of the country was required to serve three years of military service.
That probably wasn’t the whole reason she sent her son away, though. The same couple who took Joe seem to have also taken one of Joe’s sisters at the same time and in the same manner. Women were in no danger of being conscripted into the military.
The sister also took their last name and used it throughout her life, since she never married. Joe’s mother must have had tremendous foresight to see that there was a long and bloody conflict ahead. She knew enough to save her money so she could send as many of her children as possible to the U.S., in whatever way she could possibly arrange.
By the time WWI started in 1914, Joe’s sister Mary, my great-grandmother, and her husband and the two children they had at the time had also immigrated to the U.S. They went on to have three more children, including my grandmother, and ended up living in Pittsburgh. Vanessa’s letter lists Mary by her first and last name as a sister of Joe.
The letter says that Joe was always very secretive, apparently not wanting anyone to know his real age or his background, or anything about him. He must have lived for years in fear of being discovered and sent back to Poland. He was little more than a boy when his mom sent him away forever, to save his life.
This might explain why hardly anyone in the family knew that Mary had a sibling in the U.S. She must have kept mostly quiet about Joe being her brother, even though evidence shows that they were in touch with each other. Another of Vanessa’s relatives confirmed that Joe used to visit a sister in Pittsburgh.
Through unraveling this Ancestry DNA mystery, I’ve not only found a 2nd cousin 1x removed. I’ve also opened up a whole new branch of my paternal family tree. Here are the steps we took to resolve this family mystery.
- It all started with Ancestry DNA tests, but having a DNA test doesn’t automatically bust through genealogy brick walls on its own.
- I checked my Ancestry DNA matches periodically and looked for shared matches that showed who was related to me on my dad’s side.
- I contacted some of my DNA matches, including Vanessa, and she wrote back to me.
- I connected some dots based on knowing Mary’s maiden name and Joe’s full name, including his middle name. Because Joe’s middle name was a variation of Mary’s maiden name, I concluded that Joe and Mary were probably siblings. We still lacked any way of confirming this, other than the Ancestry DNA saying that Vanessa and I were approximately related as third cousins. The service treats 2nd cousin 1x removed the same as 3rd cousin because DNA testing shows the same types of similarities for both relationships.
- Meanwhile, my mom bought Ancestry DNA kits for herself and my dad, and more of Vanessa’s relatives also had Ancestry DNA testing. All of Vanessa’s relatives showed up as shared DNA matches with my dad, on his maternal side.
- Vanessa and I continued querying various relatives to find out if anyone knew about Mary and Joe being siblings. Eventually, a relative of mine put me in touch by email with another relative. She confirmed that Mary had a brother who lived in the city where Joe lived, thereby providing enough confirmation for me that Joe and Mary were siblings.
- Both of us continued poking around, hoping to find more information. Then, one of Vanessa’s relatives sent her the letter describing how Joe left Poland with friends of his mother’s, probably along with a sister.
We’ll continue to research this branch of the family tree. Vanessa has already provided me with the names of Joe’s other siblings. We also know from the letter that Joe and Mary were from a village near Lancut, Poland.
Vanessa requested her grandfather’s Social Security application and recently received it. It lists the names of Joe and Mary’s parents – another exciting discovery.
She’s also gone through old boxes of family letters and pictures, searching for more clues about her grandfather’s relatives in Poland and the U.S. We both realize that time is limited. As time passes, memories fade, more people die, and photos and letters become lost or destroyed.
I went back over some of the records I have attached to Mary and her family in Ancestry.com. I found that their immigration records list the Polish hometown of her husband, my great-grandfather, also named Joseph. That could help with further research into locating his parents and other family members.
Any new information on my dad’s side of the family is a breakthrough for me, given how long and hard I’ve searched for relatively few results.