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Going Home: A Guide to Polish American Family History Research

Finding your ancestral village

The most important step in researching your family in Halychyna/Eastern Galicia is to locate your ancestral village(s).

There are several sources which you can use to find your ancestral village. Some are better than others. In any event, a good genealogist should check all of these sources. If one does not yield enough information, check the others.

One should always keep in mind NEVER to restrict one's search for direct ancestors when it comes to tracking down an ancestral town/village.  Check each and every sibling of your direct ancestor, check close friends of the immigrant (who had been friends for a long time since first coming over to North America). 


Family Interviews

Start right at home by asking all of your relatives about either their own childhood or what they remember being told be their parents and grandparents. Ask even distant relatives. don't just rely on your closest relatives.

When you ask questions, let the person talk. don't interrupt. Often by letting them talk, they'll start to remember things. Also, don't coax the person with answers. If they start to say something that you disagree with, let them talk it through awhile to see where it leads to. Never challenge the person or their stories. This may be taken offensively, they may become defensive and may not wish to continue or be or in the future.

Bring a tape recorder and pen/paper. Ask if you can tape the conversation. Taping will allow you the freedom to pay complete attention to the narration since you won't be forced to write things down. You then have the liberty to listen to the entire conversation later at which time you can make a full transcription. However, if the individual is shy or not willing to speak in front of a tape recorder, don't pressure. This will only hinder the interviewer and might keep him/her from expounding on details. Then you should resort to pen and paper. don't rely on your memory! You'll only forget the details later on...and remembering the details is the most important part.

Prepare for your interview ahead of time. Always come prepared with follow-up questions in the event you get good results. And also bring along a wide variety of questions in the event the interview doesn't go so well in the direction you initially intended.

During the interview, you'll have to be clever in your questions. If asking "So, what's the name of the village parents come from?" doesn't work, try something like this:

  • Do you remember where your mother or father were born?
  • Do you remember your parents telling you about their childhood: did they live on a farm or in a city?
  • Did you ever receive any mail from the "old country"?
  • Tell me some stories your parents told you about the "old country"? (This will certainly get the interview talking and may jog his/her memory.)

Ask about what type of church did your ancestors attend and the language (or languages) they spoke. For us Eastern Galician/Western Ukrainian genealogists, the question of religion and language is an important one.

If they're not sure of the languages they spoke, ask them then name of some of the foods they ate growing up. Such a simple question can lead to important results.
  • Do they say pierogi or pyrohy/varenyky?
  • Do they say gołąbki or holupchy?  

During the interview, ask the person if they own something that originally belonged to the immigrant, such as a bible, prayer book, military records, naturalization papers, letters from Europe, or prayer cards (even if they don't contain a specific place of birth, the people about whom the card was written could be from the same village and therefore can be used in researching the various sources described on this page).


Church Records

Often our immigrant ancestors came to North America and settled in areas with their own ethnic/religious groups. (Often with people from the same village or region, which is a real bargain!) Their main connection to their ethnicity here in North America, even after they started adopting English in the home, was the ethnic church. These ethnic churches can lead to a great wealth of information. Priests kept record books of births, marriages and deaths which took place in his parish. The advantage of these ethnic church records is that the priest was fluent in either Polish or Ukrainian. This means that there is a good chance that the names of places found in these record books were spelled least phonetically correct. This is certainly not always the case with records made by American officials in the city/town hall.

Personal Note:  The only record containing my father's ancestral parish was a church record.  Out of a family of 5 children, only one of the children's marriage record contained a parish name which eventually led me to find the specific village.  None of the other siblings' marriage, birth or death records contained such detail.


U.S. Vital Records

One can often find information on a place of birth on vital records created here in the U.S.   Each state has had different rules and procedures and now have different archival policies.  One should track down more vital record information for the particular state of interest.  The easiest way is to search the internet.

As always, our Galician place names are often misspelled by the town clerk or medical personnel filling out the form.  Gazetteers should be consulted when a place name is not familiar or obviously incorrect.


Passenger Lists

One of the most rewarding experiences of a Galician researcher is to search and find an ancestor on a Passenger List!  This paper document (or microfilm in our case!) is testament of our ancestor's courage and hope to leave his/her native home to find a better life in North America.  In order to tone down the drama, one must remember that not all of the immigrants came to North America initially thought of staying.  Often their plan was to come to this land to find work, make money, and return home.  And in fact, many of our new immigrants did exactly that. 

Of course, the biggest news in recent times in the world of genealogy is the Ellis Island website with searchable index for the years 1892 to 1924.  Although Ellis Island and the Port of New York was the most popular entry point for Galician immigrants and have the easiest searchable index being right on the world wide web, one should never forget the other ports.  Here are the popular ports and the years for which there are searchable indexes which can be obtained at your local Family History Center.

  • Baltimore, 1820-1952
  • Boston 1848-91, 1902-20
  • New Orleans 1853-1952
  • New York City, 1820-46, 1897-1943
  • Philadelphia 1800-1948
  • Minor ports, 1820-74 and 1890-1924

Information on the actual Passenger List Manifest varies from year to year.  The general rule being more recent years' list contain more information.

Visit my Passenger List page for a detailed look into the Lists, as well as instructions and hints useful for searching specifically for our Galician ancestors!



One should consult newspaper obituaries that may have been written about any and all deceased immigrants in the family.  In particular, local ethnic newspapers written in that immigrant's native language have a better chance of listing the specific town, village or region, than an English language newspaper would.


Naturalization Papers

Many of our immigrant ancestors applied for citizenship in the U.S.  The immigrant often applied through the county court house, though in some states, it was done at the federal court house or state supreme court house.  One should check the particular state's rules and regulations for such information.  The records might be kept in that State's Archives.  In addition to checking these places, one may find a microfilm copy of the forms at the Regional National Archives of that region.

Applying was a two part process.  The first step was filling out a Declaration of Intent (also commonly known as First Papers).  After a certain period of time, the immigrant could fill out a Petition for Naturalization.  The information changed on both of these forms from time to time.  A general rule is that papers filed after 1906 contain much more information that earlier ones.  Earlier forms might only include a country of birth, whereas later forms asked for specific information on the subject of place of birth.

Remember that our immigrant ancestors were not forced to apply for Naturalization.  Likewise, even if you know for a fact that an ancestor did not become a citizen, that person may have still applied for either the Declaration of Intent.

I've found Naturalization Papers after 1906 to be excellent sources for determining an ancestor's home town/village.  But keep in mind the great possibility of copying errors, misspellings, and the americanization of foreign place names.  One may need to consult a gazetteer when finding such a place.

For more information on this valuable subject, please visit the website created by the National Archives and Records Administration


U.S. Social Security Death Index and the Original Social Security Application

Many of our ancestors applied for social security in the U.S.  You can search the U.S. Social Security Death Index right on the world wide web.  (Actually, this way is better than the CD ROM versions since the web sites are continually updated with new names.)   You can find the Index in many places through the web, either for pay (if you belong to such a service) or for free.  Here is a link to the Rootsweb site which offers the Index search for free:  The Index does not contain the names of all deceased people, nor all deceased people who once applied for the benefits.  And, as with all other secondary sources, the information may be incorrect.  I've found such inconsistencies (which can be reported to the agency). 

The information provided in the index includes the full name, birth date and death date (sometimes only the month/year or just the year is provided), state in which issued the application and state of residence at time of death as indicated in the agency's records.  The real information, however, is found on the original application filled out in the bearer's own handwriting.  One can order a copy of the original application for a fee from the Social Security Administration.

Social Security Administration
OEO FOIA Workgroup
300 N. Green Street
P.O. Box 33022
Baltimore, Maryland 21290-3022


Tracking down fellow villagers

An excellent exercise for the more advanced genealogist is to track down information on your own family by searching and studying all other surnames popular in your village. Use this methodology when studying all other resources:
City Directories
U.S. Census records
Cemetery gravestones and records
Church and Civic Vital Records
Naturalization Papers
Passenger Lists

Of course, this advanced method takes time to develop.  One must first become extremely familiar with all of the surnames from the ancestral village.  Keep in mind that there are some common names that could be found in nearly all villages across the region, such as Kuchma/Kuczma,  Kozlowski,  Majewski,  Nowak.  These names are so popular that it is difficult to weed out which people really come from your region and which do not.  It's always a best idea to start tracking immigrants with not-so-common names first.

Keep a detailed log of all of the places you visit and the resources you use.  Although the particular resource could seem limited in its usefulness at the moment, a few months from now you may wish to revisit and reexamine.  See my Case Study below to see how successful this method can be!

Other Resources

Other places to look which do not usually list detailed information on an ancestral village, but which could be checked.  Information found here can help narrow down the field of choices or aid in using the resources listed above.

City Directory
Usually these records do not give specific information to place of birth.  They are, nonetheless, a good resource that should be checked.  One can track family movement within a U.S. city or town, useful for using census records, cross checking with current phone books to find living relatives, or visiting the home for photographs; see members of the family for years for which no census records are available; check occupation for evidence leading to employment records; and much more!

Gravestone. Burial Records
Sometimes you can find the birthplace of someone by checking the actual gravestone.  Through working on the Cemetery Inscription Project with the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast, Inc., I have visited many cemeteries extracting complete information from all gravestones.  My experience shows me that this was rarely done with the Polish cemeteries.  However, I have often seen village names and povit (county) names on gravestones at Ukrainian cemeteries.

Census Records
U.S. census records rarely give such detailed information.  Usually, one will see the place of birth listed as "Ukraine", "Ukrainia" (sounds nice in English, yes?), "Ruthenia" (usually meaning Ukraine, maybe parts of today's southeastern Poland or eastern Slovakia), "Poland", "Galicia" or "Austria".  Such information is usually limited in terms of locating specific places of birth.  However, they are important records containing a great wealth of information that should always be carefully consulted.  For more information on the question of Ruthenia and of Ruthenians, visit my page on the subject.

Internet "Surfing" / Searching
The internet is a great place to search for both specific information on your own ancestors, as well as for general reference material on your ancestral parish, village, town or region.  In order to search the World Wide Web, you must choose a search engine.  Different search engines will yield different results, commonly known as hits.  Therefore, it's a good idea to frequently check your favorite interests on different search engines.

One of many good search engines is  Here you can search many of the most popular search engines all at once.  By putting your search criteria in once on, you'll get results for different search engines, such as Google, FAST, Ask Jeeves, About and others.

Hot Tip!  If you're searching on string of information, say, New York City, put it all in quotes, like this: "New York City".  Most search engines will recognize your search criteria as one unique string or line.  If you don't use the quotes, you'll get pages that contain the word new and the word york and the word city...but not necessarily next to each other.  (Example, you'll get a hit for a new restaurant opening up outside the city of York in England!)

Don't forget to search Polish search engines, as well, in order to look for related sites mostly maintained in Poland.  Popular ones are:

Remember to use Polish diacritic marks (real Polish letters) in order to get the best results.  In addition to searching on the surname Nowinski, try it with the proper Polish letters Nowiński.


A Case Study:  Searching for Ivan Kocan and the village of Ostriv/Ostrów

Perhaps the following case study will help you in your search for your own ancestral village.  Here is an example of a typical search for a village using research techniques and hints I describe throughout HalGal website.

I was interested in learning the place of birth of my great-grandfather, Ivan Kocan.  My first step was to ask living relatives for this and any other related information.  All I was able to learn was that he was Greek Catholic and spoke Ukrainian and Polish fluently, though preferred Ukrainian.  I then tried to locate as many American based records and documents for any information.  One should not get too overzealous and jump to finding resources in Europe.  Start closest to home and work your way out.

The first and best place to find ancestral home information is at the ethnic church.  I obtained an extract of his marriage record.  He was married to Jóyefa Gulka at St. Stanislaus B & M Church on 7th Street in New York City.  Even though I knew he was a member of St. George's Greek Catholic Church a couple blocks away from St. Stanislaus, the marriage took place at the bride's church.  (I learned this information from asking relatives.)  The marriage record listed Ivan Kocan's name as Jan Kocan, and his place of birth as Ostrów.  Now, if you don't know the basics of the Polish and Ukrainian languages, something like this would throw you way off course.  But with basic knowledge of the languages (or access to books on the subject), you can easily see how useful the information is.  Jan is simply the Polish equivalent to the Ukrainian Ivan (which, by the way, is John in English).

As a genealogist, we often must make some generalizations in our research.  Of course, we do not have to stick to these generalizations since they may turn out to be wrong.  But such generalizations allow us to take our research in certain predictable directions.  In this case, since I knew some basic facts about Ivan Kocan, I could assume that he was born in Halychyna/Eastern Galicia, and that his country of birth was probably Austria-Hungary, as opposed to the Russian Empire.

My next step was to find Ostrów.  Using several gazetteers, as described in detail on my gazetteer pages, I learned that there were many places called Ostrów. I also learned that the Ukrainian version of this place name is Ostriv.  This allows me to search both Polish and Ukrainian language resources.  But how was I to know which Ostriv/Ostrów was the right one?  So, I checked other American based documents.  The good news was that I found lots of documents related to him....but the bad news was that they did not provide further detail. 

His cemetery stone is in Ukrainian and stated that he was born в Острові (v Ostrovi).  Again, if you didn't know the language well enough, you might think that there was another village called Ostrovi.  However, this is NOT the case.  The word Ostrovi is NOT the name of a different village, but a form of the word Ostriv.  It happens to be the grammatical form of the locative case, in other words, a special letter mutation and/or ending occurs.  (When you want to say "in a place", you usually use the Ukrainian preposition "v" + the Locative Grammatical Case.)  In this instance, "v Ostrovi" means "in Ostriv".   Although this doesn't help me with details, it does confirm the information found on the marriage record.

Next I found his Naturalization Papers.  As if to prove several research problems associated with Galician genealogy, the place of birth was listed as Lviv, in addition to having a different age and date of birth!  (But since all of the other information matched, such as address, wife's name, and all three children's names, I am convinced that this is the correct record.)  This means that he listed the nearest largest city as opposed to putting down the name of the tiny village he comes from.  New York State and US census records simply listed Austria as the place of birth.

I then went in search of his passenger list records.  Actually, I had done this as one of the first steps.  But since I was not able to find his name in the index, I put off the search for some time.  Then came Ellis Island on the internet.  This way, I was able to use various search techniques. 

For the first name, I tried variations of his name:

  • Ivan
  • Iwan (Polish spelling of Ukrainian name)
  • Jan (Polish variation)
  • Yan (English spelling of Polish variation)
  • Ian (another English spelling of Polish variation)

For the last name, I tried:

  • Kocan
  • Kacan (possible misinterpretation of vowel)
  • Kocon (possible misinterpretation of vowel)
  • Kozan (German spelling of name)

I eventually found his passenger record under the name Jan Kozan.  But looking at the handwritten copy of the record, I could see that it was really written Kocan.  Now, the passenger list record stated that Ostriv was both his last residence and birthplace.  But no details as to which Ostriv.

So, I tried the fellow villager/passenger method of research.  According to this methodology, you search on a particular surname to see if any others with this same name came from the same village. You then study their records and search for any other fellow passengers they were traveling with from the same village. Write these names down. Then study the detailed records looking at other surnames of people they either left behind in Europe or were going to see.  Write down these names as well and study the other names listed.  This method will not only help you identify a particular place both in Galicia as well as other North American locations to be researched, it may lead to other ancestors!

Using this methodology in this example, I saw that Ivan Kocan was coming to America to stay with a cousin named Dmytro Kurylas.  So, I searched for Dmytro Kurylas' passenger record.  Although I couldn't find a listing for this particular person, I immediately found several other people with the surname Kurylas who came from a village called Ostriv.  And on one of these passenger lists I found that a Teodor Kurylas listed his last permanent residence as Ostrów Szczyrzec.  Based on my initial research in the gazetteers, I know that Szczerzec (Ukrainian name Щирець/Shchyrets') was one of the counties of an Ostriv village.  (The spelling Szczyrec is a mix of Polish and Ukrainian variations!)  I had found the right village!  Success!            Questions and Comments to Matthew Bielawa
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