Lessons Learned

Since starting my genealogy, my Great-Grandfather and I have had a bit of a contentious relationship: I hunt for him, he eludes me and snickers from Heaven, and all remains in balance in our worlds. I would like to think there is mutual respect there, and that sometime soon he will give up his secrets.

Ernst Heinryck May was born in 1878 in a small town in Poland called Beizun. According to his sister’s diary, which is in the possession of my cousin in Poland, he lived in a nicer home, and the family were millers, owning two windmills. He immigrated to the United States in 1888 at the age of 10 and resided in Chicago, Illinois for a short period of time before coming to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1899, he met and married my Great-Grandmother, Helena Alberta Gilda. It is noted in his sister’s diary that his family was not pleased with the match (although the reason is not cited), but that the two were very much in love. She emigrated from Poland in 1893, and was, by trade, a seamstress.

In 1904, Ernst applied for Naturalization in Chicago, and then soon after went back to Philadelphia, where he purchased ship’s passage for his immediate family. They arrived in Philadelphia in June, 1904. They spent three months in Philadelphia before relocating the entire family to Chicago, which was, according to my 2nd Great-Grandfather, “the biggest town in America.” The first three of my Great-Grandparents’ children were born in Philadelphia, and the fourth was born in Chicago in 1906.

Helena’s sister, Carolina, married a man named Gottfried (or, Godfrey) Wagnetz in 1892 in Philadelphia. In 1908, Helena and Ernst purchased ship’s passage for Gottfried’s brother, Gustave, to come to the U.S. This transaction was made at the Rosenbaum Bank in Philadelphia, and we can assume that they were back in the Philadelphia area as early as 1908. In 1910, the May Family was living across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey.

At this point, things started unravelling for the May Family. World War I was gearing up, Ernst had made at least two trips back to Poland between 1914 and 1920, and had gotten himself an FBI file, under suspicion of being a German sympathizer. By 1920, Ernst and Helena were living in separate households in Philadelphia. Sometime between 1920 and 1927, they were divorced, and in 1927 she remarried – to her brother-in-law’s brother, Gustave Wagnetz, the man she and her ex-husband sponsored in 1908 to come over from Poland. Helena was obviously a very strong woman. She not only separated but divorced her husband at a time when divorce was socially frowned upon.

This is where I lose the trail of Ernst. I cannot find him in 1930, 1940 or his death record, which I believe was sometime in the 1950’s. Family legend has it that he died destitute in a hospital for the blind in New York.

This is why I “do” genealogy – I want to know the people and their stories, good and bad, respectable and scandalous, because the stories of these people make up who I am. I have come to realize, the more I learn, that he is more of a sympathetic figure than I had previously given him credit for. Maybe that is the lesson he has given me – to give him the benefit of the doubt.



I recently read Amy Crowley’s blog on her 52 Week Challenge, and decided to challenge myself.

So this blog will not only be to refocus on my own ancestors, but to hopefully collect stories and photos from my (very) extended family.


Citing Your Sources

I often preach to my genealogy group the importance of citing your sources. It would be nice if I practiced that as well! So I created a new database and started with myself and the children, and began my “completely cited” genealogy datbase. The software I use is RootsMagic, and one of it’s great features is, in a few quick steps, it writes your sources for you. I know that with Family Tree Maker you can go online and it will pop the source in for you, but it shows the ancestry.com link, not where you would find the original document if you were so inclined to do so. So which is the “right” way? I would rather see where the document is actually housed in my opinion. I believe that genealogical standards now allow for sources from the Internet, which is wonderful when you have great sites such as FindAGrave.com, but I think for the main documents, I’ll stick with writing my sources as where they are literally housed. Just another way that I am stuck in another century!

Not long ago, I was working on a genealogy for a client. I came across a refernce to a book that his ancestor had written. For the fun of it, I “googled” the book and found it was available on Amazon.com for $10. So, as a little surprise with his genealogy package, I included the copy of the book.

It was actually quite interesting, it was a history of the town his ancestor was living in. It was written 100 years ago. That alone I thought made it a gem, a little something extra. It gave a glimpse into this man’s life that otherwise we wouldn’t have had, and made him come alive.

I love finding those types of items that can make people more “real” to us than just names and dates.

Two of the names I am always actively researching, Alligood and Shinn, have genealgies published about them.

The Children of Thomas Alligood by Bardon F. Alligood traces the entire family back to one Elias La Garde, b. 1586 in France. The author includes alternate spellings of the Alligood name and does an excellent job of tracing thier lineage He is a very credible source and I find that my own research aligns with his.

The History of the Shinn Family by Josiah H. Shinn I have found to be less credible. I often have to remind myself that the book was published in 1903. He traces the family back to one Francis Sheene, b. 1525 in England. My understanding is that the book is being re-published. I tried to research part of the Shinn family and found Mr. Shinn’s conclusions on some of the ladies who married into the family simply wrong.

The bottom line is, a published genealogy is someone else’s research — it should be used as a reference point, not taken as fact.  I have been able to find published genealogies through the Family History Libraries and through publishers such as De Wolfe & Wood. Other colleagues have found genealogies on ebay. It’s always fun to find a name you recognize in print, and it may just give you a little insight into your ancestor.

New T2 Group at Ancestry.com

As an addition to my earlier post about my mtDNA results, I got my HRV2 tested this summer. Additional markers (mutations) are: 73G, 263G, 309.1C, 315.1C, 573.1C, 573.2C. According to Family Tree DNA I am still squarely of the T2 Haplogroup. Been doing a lot of reading and research about all of this…and I am still looking for relatives. 🙂 I started a T2 group on Ancestry.com’s DNA site…feel free to join and post! http://groups.ancestry.com/group/publict2


New Year, New Cousins

Thank goodness I started writing this blog. First, let me say this: It is IMPOSSIBLE to keep up with all my activities while going through a divorce! So, that being said, I’ve been lazy with genealogy and getting my certification…but it’s a new year and I have a new lease on life.

I was very happy to hear from a cousin on the Watracz side of my family who found my blog when she started her family research! She didn’t even know I existed. We spoke on the phone for an hour on Friday and have since then traded emails and photos. What absolute fun! I love putting the names with the faces. She even had a picture of my Mom when she was about 4 years old!

Well, I got inspired and re-started my efforts on the Watracz side. I told my daughter that my goal is to meet, either face to face or on email, every cousin who is on my generation in my family tree! I’ll keep you posted on my progress!

Had some free time on my hands this weekend and decided to chase down some Watracz Family information. Sure enough, by researching the collateral Watras line, I found the name of my 2nd Great Grandfather, a piece of information I’ve been looking for the past 14 years or so.
I found it on the Ohio Death Index, compiled on the Family Search Pilot Program, for his son Michael Watras. It simply lists his name as Thomas (or, in Polish, Tomasz) and does not list the mother’s name.
I have to tell you, the Pilot Program has lead me to so much more “new” information, that I encourage everyone to try it out! Now of course if I could find cousins in Poland on that side…! But I guess that will come another day. For now, I am happy with the little bit I have just learned!