Thursday, January 26, 2012

I've Been Ignoring Some of My Ancestors

Caroline Nunge and Frank Walleck with their children
It's true. I've been ignoring some of my ancestors.  My whole maternal line, in fact. Well, that's not quite true. It's mostly my Mom's paternal line. I know it seems blasphemous. They were more recent immigrants. And, well, with having so many ancestors on my Dad's side that go back to the 1700s and even 1600s it was pretty easy to avert my eyes.

This line is a family called Walleck. Growing up I always believed they were Ellis Island immigrants. One of my ancestors who married a Walleck was an Ellis Island immigrant and that was fun to find. No, these Wallecks came from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and they arrived probably in the 1860s.  As an adult I traced as much of them online as I could through census records, city directories and what not. Early census records showed them coming from "Bohemia."

My mother always talked about this family speaking German. I grew up believing that they were of German heritage. I heard the word Czech thrown around but I thought that was mostly in reference to my uncle was definitely Czech.

Well, this past weekend I got to spend some time with the Walleck side of my family. My uncle happens to be a family historian and has put much more effort into tracing these Wallecks than I have. In addition, he grew up in Pittsburgh with these family members and was exposed to the family history.

My uncle took out a paper napkin and started drawing the old time neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. He explained all the family groups, which neighborhood they were from and what their ethnic background was. There were three surnames that he discussed - Wallecks, Roemers and Nunges. Surprisingly, my uncle explained to me that the Wallecks were Czech. They lived up on the hill with the other Czechs (don't ask me which neighborhood that was at the moment). The Roemers were German. And the Nunges (my Ellis Island immigrants) came from Alsace-Lorraine.

The ethnic groups and the neighborhoods they lived in were critical for understanding their history and where they came from. Listening to my uncle, I realized, was also pretty critical for me to understand where they came from.

If I hadn't taken the time to listen to my uncle at that moment, I may have been left with erroneous ideas about my Pittsburgh ancestors.

I think the time has come for me to stop ignoring my difficult, ethnic ancestors and start getting some of this down on paper. If I collect as much as possible now from my uncle, perhaps I will slowly be able to work through verifying the information and learning the particular local history behind Pittsburgh and Allegheny City. Maybe I'll even become brave enough to try to track them back across the sea to Europe.

Thank goodness I made this realization before it was too late. While oral history is not the whole story of any family history, the information passed down from your family members can be critical to understanding your ancestry. The stories could mean the difference between having the right information to get started versus no information at all.

If you have any older family members that you can talk to about your family history, get started now. Don't wait for when it's too late.


  1. Ignore away. I tend to dig where the loam is deepest, meaning where I can access it. I've run into a brick wall with my mother's father's family, so...

  2. Go for it Marian, it could be an interesting journey for you and it will definitely give you more to write about and to teach the rest of us.

  3. The biggest lesson we could learn, interview the living!! I also have German ancestors from Alsace-Lorraine. I didn't find my German ancestors all that difficult to research, my Irishmen still are my brick wall. With regards to ignoring some families, I think we family historians tend to have our favourites...gasp!

  4. My slovak ancestors from Pennsylvania are on my paternal side whereas my New England ancestors are maternal--so we are opposites. I've traced my Slovak ancestors back to the 1700s in all lines. I'm sure you can do as well with your Czech, German, and Alsace ancestors. The records in Europe, when you finally get them, are a gold mine and make American vital and church records look paltry. Bone up on your German and Latin and you'll be fine. I wish you dobry nahoda. (Good Luck).

  5. Collect ALL the info you can from the living, Marian. I did just that 30 years ago. Those notes I have taken are tucked away and waiting for review when I'm ready. My regret is in not gathering as much information as I should have from those who are no longer here... Thanks for reminding us of these things.

  6. The ethnic neighborhoods are SO important - as are the churches and social clubs. Given how creatively spelled immigrant names were I've had more luck finding newspaper articles by searching for church names.

    Enjoy! It's a joy to decode a record in a language and alphabet one doesn't know....

  7. If your ancestors are from Alsace, specifically the Bas-Rhin portion of Alsace, you are in luck. The Department of Bas-Rhin has parish registers and civil registration images online. As part of the civil registrations, they have Tables Decennales which are tables of births, deaths, and marriages that occurred during a 10-year period. It works like a charm if you know the town. Check out My understanding is the Department of Haut-Rhin (also Alsace) has similar info, but the website isn't supposed to be as good. I don't know anything about what's available online for Lorraine, unfortunately.

  8. Oddly, it's my mother's paternal line that I'm most obsessed with - and what's behind that obsession is that it's the least researched of my 4 grandparents' lines (small wonder, with names like Moore and Lewis). My straight paternal line has lots of larger-than-life characters (not to mention criminals) and a what became a uniquely spelled name in the early 1800s, so it gets lots of attention, so I focus instead on his paternal grandmother, a Smith and, of course, a brick wall. For ethnic fun, though, I study my husband's ancestors - Italian, German, and Romanian Jewish. I think you will really enjoy researching your "difficult, ethnic ancestors."

  9. I recently realised that I have also been ignoring some of my ancestors. I filtered the name list in my genealogy program to produce a report restricted to my ancestors and there were two names I didn't recognise! They turned out to be spouses I had added in after finding a marriage record and whose own ancestry I had not pursued at that time. Very excited to have two new lines to research now!

  10. Marian, I was discussing this very topic with a friend last night. What compels us to research certain lines vs. others? One picture spawned my research into my maternal grandmother's maternal lines. I spent so much time getting to know these ancestors and have "bonded" to them. It's logical though, as I was very close to my grandmother. For some reason, though, I've never felt the same compulsion to work on her father's line. There were plenty of mysteries, plenty of pictures to garner my attention, and while I've done a fair amount of research on those lines, nothing has ever really "grabbed" me. In contrast, there's simply some mysterious quality, some connection, some compulsion, that keeps me seeking out more details on my Wasgatt and Stanwood lines. When I'm back in New England, in the towns where they were born, lived and died, I feel I'm where I belong...and where I spend the remaining 50 weeks of the year longing to be...

  11. You are so blessed to have your uncle! While I am focusing my research on my husband's Free Persons of Color ancestry, I have much prepared for me by my Mom...the child of a first generation American (Russian Jewish roots) and a ninth generation American (Mayflower ancestry, etc.). She has been writing down family stories and recollections for me for some years now, and shares via telephone chats. I know that when I complete this phase of my research and writing that I will then look to Mom's line. Thank you for sharing! This is something that many of us deal with! I hope you'll stop by my blog as I post about my progress in Lynn Palermo's The Family History Writing Challenge.

  12. Your post is so right on the mark. I find myself doing the same thing that so many of you have done, focusing on one or two lines and ignoring the others. My research seems to have stalled with my other obligations getting in the way, and I am trying so hard to make just a little time to work it back in. I have found that my father's paternal line is now the one that I am the most interested in because of his ties with the Republic of Texas, and I have a lot gathered on him that I can put together. But for some reason I drag my feet on continuing the research. The Richards originally came from Scotland and Wales. I am afraid I am in that generation now that the younger ones need to be interviewing me! Thank goodness I do have stories and interviews from older family members, but as Cathy said, I regret not having gathered more.

    But I have been ignoring my father's maternal Homsley or Holmsley line that is from England, probably because my father had a book that was written about them and in which our name appears, so I guess I thought it had already been researched. But then I realized when distant-cousins found my blog and started asked me questions that I didn't know anything about the Homsley family. Sorry for being so wordy, Marian, but your post has been very thought-provoking! Thank you!