Wednesday, April 4, 2012
OFF-HAND QUERY LEADS TO AMAZING FAMILY TREE FINDS
MISSING LINKS--If this reads like a plug for Ancestry.com, the genealogy e-business, it’s because the popular web site helped me find at least FIFTY living and hundreds of ancestors. But, I never would have known about ancestry.com if it were not for an off-hand question from a baseball buddy.
A couple of years ago, while car pooling to play in a senior 55+ mens baseball game near my home in San Diego, one of my teammates was filling out the line up card and asked the ethnic derivation of my surname. “Depends,” I remember saying and added that my West Coast cousins spell it Shess; Midwest relatives spell it Szczech and East Coasters have gone by Chess for as long as I can remember.
My teammate, I later learned is a Mormon and he told me his faith reveres ancestry. He asked how my grandfather spelled my name. “There’s the problem,” I said, “I really don’t know for a fact. I don’t even know his first name much less how he spelled the last name.” I knew the names of all my aunts and uncles, but not my grandparents.
I went on to explain how my grandparents were reportedly victims of the flu pandemic of the early 20th century. My dad was orphaned at three years of age and the family scattered all over the country. Plus, like so many, who lived through tough times like the Depression and World War II, talking about the past was not a favorite topic around my parents dinner table—even during the holidays. Dad never spoke of his childhood—ever.
So, for most of my years, I went about my writing career as a magazine editor and newspaper reporter, focused on articles from hither and yon, except the story of how my father’s family ended up with FOUR last names.
After the baseball game, teammate Ron Monks emailed me later that evening saying he found my grandfather, grandmother and at least six aunts and uncles by checking the 1910 U.S. Census for the village of Sharon, PA. Before I could ask--he volunteered their names, including the clincher: Felix Chess. How many kids have uncles named Felix?
“How you do it?” I asked.
He said he went to Ancestry.com and punched in S-h-e-s-s and within a few seconds the website’s computers searched five billion name files and came up with Joseph and Anna Thess in Sharon, PA.
“Great, but Thess is not Shess even with Uncle Felix as the kicker,” I said.
“No, but everything else fits, right?” Ron explained that Thess was probably a misunderstanding by the census taker to my grandparents Polish accents. I didn’t know my grandparents name much less if they spoke broken English.
“Some things you need to take on faith,” Ron said.
I agreed that it was too much of a coincidence that me and the Thess family had grandparents named Joseph and Anna including the first names of all my aunts and uncles born before 1910.
Definitely intrigued, I went onto Ancestry.com and accepted their 14-day free offer. I found it easy to navigate. Gleefully, I started checking the 1900 U.S. Census, the 1920 U.S. Census and discovered zero hits for Joseph and Anna Shess. Next, checked my father’s name Tom Shess (I was named for him).
Bingo. I found him in the 1930 U.S. Census under the name Chess. He was living with my Uncle Felix Chess in Farrell, PA.
Now, I knew my dad (born 1921) was living with his older brother Felix (born 1903). In 1920 and 1930 U.S. Censuses, my father’s name went from Thess to Chess. How did it get to be Shess?
Every investigative reporter instinct came into play.
On the first night of my ancestry.com membership, my wife entered my home office at 4 am wondering what on earth I was up to.
“I found my grandparents!”
All my life, occasional phone calls and letters to known cousins had yielded no clues to my grandparents names, much less what they looked like. But after a few long hours on a genealogy website I knew for sure their names, the confirmed names and birthdates of my nine aunts and uncles.Eventually, I exhausted my free two week trial and signed on as a regular member for $29 per month.
I’ve become an ancestry buff ever since.
Now, after 2 plus years, I’ve amassed more than 2200 persons on the family tree, plus I’ve downloaded more than 500 family photos. I have located more than a dozen living first and second cousins. Ten of us never knew we existed. One first cousin was a Catholic nun early in her life. Another was a U.S. Army guard at the Tomb of the Unknown soldier. Others are a real estate broker, civil engineer and a school principal.
Within a week of starting with Ancestry.com I called all my known first cousins and after explaining why I hadn’t been in touch since Eisenhower was president, we got down to comparing notes.
A second cousin, reported hearing her grandmother (my aunt Eleanor Shess Diegan) that the reason some members of the family spelled the name C-h-e-s-s was the fact many of my uncles were miners in Western Pennsylvania. Back in the 1920s, the mines would hire day workers off an alphabetized list of potential workers. It didn’t take my uncles long to figure out if they changed the name to Chess from Shess that their chances of getting picked for a day job soared. That’s a reason I can live with. And, explains why the non-miners in the family still spelled the name Shess.
But there was still the other name: S-z-c-z-e-c-h.
To solve that family riddle, I had to go to the attic and locate the old suitcase, where my late father kept his Army discharge papers and old family notes. Combing through the suitcase I found pictures of folks, who I didn’t know, plus an insurance policy that my grandmother had taken out. I never had seen that policy before. On the policy she spelled the family name Szczech. The policy was sold to her by the Polish Woman’s Alliance of the United States, Canonsburg Chapter.
By this time, my friend Ron praised my diligence and reminded me that as good as Ancestry.com was many answers were in family attics or State Capitol archives. Try as it may Ancestry.com’s five billion files is still a small percentage of what’s out there yet to be catalogued.
Another feature of Ancestry.com is the search methodology for locating immigrants arriving in the United States. Early on, our government required ship owners to accurately log all passengers. Those records exist and I located my grandfather’s arrival in the U.S. in 1891 from Poland. He came alone—so I figure my grandmother was still in the U.S. or the old country. Eventually, I did find her in the 1920 U.S. Census and she arrived in 1901 from Poland. Thanks to a note my dad had written on loan documents I learned his mother’s maiden name. Thank you whoever thought of asking mom’s maiden names as part of the ID process.
Soon, I was part of a cadre of newly introduced cousins that began swapping files and photos on a regular basis. Thanks to Ancestry.com making downloading photos on to my family tree as easy as working with Facebook, I had images to go with names.
But, I still didn’t know when or where my grandparents were from 1910 on. Or did I know when they died.
What I did know was my father claimed he was born in Canonsburg, PA. We knew he was orphaned by the time he was four. If he was born in 1921 that means my grandparents died on or about 1925.
My newly created first cousin club had little to go on.
But the best news of all, came three months into my searching. Ancestry.com has a feature where its members can ask questions of other members. I noticed someone was asking about my uncle Felix. I immediately contacted postee Amy Rybacki in Canonsburg, PA. I discovered she had family info on the Chess family because she was distantly related to the wife of my oldest Uncle Joseph Chess, Jr.
Just before contacting Amy, a younger cousin checked in with me. She saw my efforts on Ancestry.com to document my family tree with some photos. Terri Czapla turned out to be married to the grandson of my Uncle Joseph Chess, Jr. She and I began sharing family photos, specifically of Uncle Joe’s wedding to my Aunt Cecelia Ogrowdowski. I didn’t know Uncle Joe and she didn’t know me or my dad. She was also amazed that I was still alive.
I explained that there was a generation between my Uncle Joe’s birthday and my father’s. I am one of the youngest of the remaining first cousins. I informed her there were still several of my first cousins still ticking.
When I posted a wedding picture of my Uncle Joe and Aunt Cecelia’s wedding in 1921, there were six other persons in the photo. Amy Rybacki pointed out that in her hallway she had a family picture of her great grandparents wedding in 1915. She pointed out that one of the women in Uncle Joe’s wedding picture was also in her great grandparents wedding photo.
The link meant the Rybacki’s of 1915 might have been friends with the Shess/Chess/Szczech/Thess’s of 1910. Were my grandparents in the wedding photo? To me, the men were too young and the women looked like bridesmaids.
By Christmas, Amy sent my family three dozen handmade cookies. Immediately making her my favorite new cousin. With the treats came a note that she had found a newspaper clipping in the Canonsburg newspaper of the day. I could feel she was a bit hesitant in giving me what she had found, later explaining that some people are sensitive to cheering about finding an obituary.
Frankly, I cheered. The 1923 obituary ran for four inches on the front page. My departed grandfather spelled his name S-h-e-s-s. The obit stated that he was survived by his wife Anna (followed by names of my aunts and uncles, including my father). It also listed that my grandfather was a member in good standing at various lodges in the town and he was disabled from a career as a miner. No cause of death was listed. I also read that he had a mother and brother in Poland and a sister in Milwaukee. To this day, I’m still searching for records on my great, grandparents in Poland.
After the holidays, the hits came coming. Cousin Terri found the death certificate of my grandfather in Pennsylvania’s state records. My grandfather did not die of influenza. Grandfather Joe died of liver cancer and we’re still searching for the death certificate of my Grandmother Anna. I now know I have a family history for cancer on my paternal side. Knowing that medical history might serve me well someday. I did locate the 1925 date when she died from the insurance policy that she took out. It took my dad 30 years for the Polish Woman’s Alliance to track him down to pay him his share. He netted $16. I netted valuable pieces of information.
After reading, my grandfather’s death certificate closer it shows both my grandparents were born in Austria. But in the 1920 Census it says my grandparents were born in Poland. So are we Polish or Austrian? Searching back into the 19th century parts of what are now Poland, were originally in Austria. The world wars changed the borders of Eastern Europe more frequent than Hollywood marriages. Thus the confusion.
But, I have to thank, my cousin Amy of Canonsburg, who also searched her attic and found a cache of old wedding pictures. We both assumed that good friends, the Shesses and the Rybacki shared wedding photos because in Amy’s possession was a beautiful wedding portrait of a young couple dressed to their nuptial nines.
Now, we had proof positive.
On the back of the photo was written, Joseph and Anna S-H-E-S-S. I immediately cried when Amy sent an email of the photo she had scanned. A few months after my 60th birthday, I glanced for the first time on the faces of my grandparents. They were so young that I assumed in looking at earlier photos that they were bridesmaids and groomsmen. Little did I think they were mother and father of the groom! I cried again when she mailed me the original photo.
Last summer, I visited Cousin Annie and her family in Canonsburg for the first time. We arrived in time to catch the annual Canonsburg, PA Fourth of July Parade, the longest and oldest parade in Pennsylvania.
The Rybacki’s made our visit to PA special. Remember these are folks I didn’t know existed a few years earlier. Now, I’m feeling like a Canonsburg local.
And, one more postscript, I thank my baseball buddy Ron Monks for insisting that genealogy was not daunting. And, thanks to baseball and ancestry.com, I found my grandparents. I can’t begin to describe the warmth I feel toward the family I never knew.
BOTTOM LINE: I can now share the old found photos with my grandchildren and at the same time thank in my prayers Joseph and Anna Shess for raising such a clan in their new country. Thanks to these immigrants, I can boast I’m an American. Classic stuff not for me, but the fact this long story you’ve just read can be repeated in millions of different ways across the U.S. Our linked immigrant heritage is one of the strong bonds that makes this nation as great as it is. Do yourself a favor. Go climb your family tree!
Images: Canonsburg, PA Fourth of July Parade, 2011 edition. Shess family photo of Joseph and Anna Shess of Canonsburg, PA on their wedding day in 1901.