PRESERVING YOUR FAMILY HISTORY AND OUR RUSYN GENEALOGY
by Dr. Albert R. Gordon
First appeared in Trembita Vol 3. No 5. (December 1991)
copyright 1991 Albert R. Gordon and The Rusyn Association of Minnesota
Our Rusyn immigrant ancestors broke with the past when they left their small villages, traveled across a wide ocean, and settled in America. In a desire to become accepted, and with time and distance in their favor, their American-born children further cut links when they rejected many of the old ways and customs and espoused new American ideals. To talk with an original immigrant or a first generation Rusyn-American about his knowledge of the "old country" usually brought on an uneasiness and often the response "Why are you interested in the past? It is best gone and forgotten."
Genealogy is a study of our biological lineage and our family history. A main problem we face as Rusyn genealogists stems from a lack of Rusyn identification among descendants born in this country. Several groups consider Rusyns a variant of their larger ethnic groups and many Rusyns who find cultural similarities to these groups "attach" to them. Also unfortunately, the continuity of Rusyn culture was interrupted in the homeland by the forced deportation of many Rusyns from their small villages or the subjugation of their cultural identity after World War II. Today, important records and documents are not being valued and preserved in this country nor in Europe. Much information on our Rusyn family heritage has already been lost forever.
In recent years, we have begun to receive less resistance to our questions as our first and generation American descendants grow older. The television airing of Alex Haley's "Roots" greatly helped increase family history awareness, but by then, the old ones had little to remember or their minds could not do so. As second, third and fourth
generation Rusyn-Americans we can replace our anger and begin to accept our parent's and grandparent's attitudes only when we begin to understand the "old country" environment which our ancestors left and to try to understand the changes and conditions they were forced to accept in the new homeland they embraced for their children.
Living in the Rusyn "old country" during the late 1700's and in the 1800's was not easy by any standard. Death was much more common than we could accept today. Infant and child mortality was very high in most Rusyn villages. If the average age at death is determined from death records for any period from 1787 to 1887 it calculates out below 30 years of age although many individuals still lived into their 80's. We find it difficult to accept the cause of death of so many infants and children as "natural" or "ordinary". Our ancestors were accustomed to accepting death as a "matter of fact". Actually, they had no choice to do_otherwise.
Today we live in a world of medical marvels, but for our ancestors it was not so. Many of our Rusyn forbearers were fatal victims of dysentery, famine, smallpox, tuberculosis, diseases producing coughs and fevers, cholera, unspecified epidemics, and unknown causes (Latin: "morbo ignoto"). Occasionally, we encounter a death by old age (Latin: "senectus"). We appreciate their perils of daily life by noting deaths due to freezing to death, bleeding to death, dying in childbirth or from complications of childbirth, being victims of house fires, committing suicide, or dying as a result of accidents. One cause of death (Latin: "occisus") even suggests being a victim of murder.
Rusyn genealogy is rich in beautiful given names with many that are common, but others that are not common today. All given names appear to have biblical origins although some were obscure. Recorded Latinized names (with variants) such as "Maria", "Anna", "Susanna" and "Joannes" (John), "Petrus" (Peter), "Stephanus", "Paulus", "Andreas" (Andrew), "Michal" and "Theodorus" are common. Among other male names, one frequently encounters "Pantalemon", "Demetrius", "Basilius", "Nicolaus", "Damianus", "Constantinus", and "Maximus". Among females, names such as "Ewa", "Thecla", "Ahaphia", "Parascevia", "Tatiana", "Julianna", and "Anastasia" occur commonly, among many others. A sample of rare female names includes: "Macrina", "Aquilina", "Xenia", "Eufrosia". "Oryna", "Marcula", "Petronella", "Ekaterina", "Matrona", "Eudokia", "Domicella", "Rosalia", "Photinia", "Graphira", and "Melania". Many such rare names did not survive the first generation in this country. Several initially gave rise to Rusyn nicknames (such as Wasko, Panko, etc.) that, for the most part, have also disappeared. Most other names have been Anglicized or are used only rarely.
The first name given to a child was often after an older relative or a recently-deceased relative. If that child died, the next child of the same sex was often given the same first name until one bearing that name survived. When a mother died, she was often followed during the next several weeks by her infant children. Rusyn burial was usually on the second day after the day of death. Mourning periods for younger widows or widowers with young children were very short and remarriage often occurred within weeks after the death of a spouse. It was not uncommon for a man or woman to have several spouses during their reproductive years and to have children with each of the spouses. Women usually bore their first child near the end of the first year of marriage. Some women continued to bear children into their 50's. Many households contained a mixture of surviving children who were related to one another as first-cousins or half-siblings.
Although men were usually older than women at the time of the first marriage, exceptions are found for older widows, still of child-bearing age, who occasionally married younger men. Some women were married as early as 15 or 16 with most women being married by age 20. Some adults remained single for their entire lives. Old surviving widows and widowers were sometimes joined in marriage late in their lives. Although Rusyn society centered around the Church, there were numbers of illegitimate births recorded, especially during periods when it appears that the number of eligible females outnumbered the eligible males. There seemed to be a tendency for the illegitimate female offspring who survived to later have illegitimate offspring themselves. It is interesting to note that the survival rate of the children of unmarried women was extremely low and many of illegitimate children were given rather rare first names.
The first marriage usually occurred in the church of the home village of the bride. In the village of Dubne, about half of the grooms would be from the same village, the remaining from a nearby villages usually within 20 miles. Initial links between families of two different villages were often reinforced later by further marriages between the children of the two families. When both husband and wife were from the same village they usually made their home in that village. If the groom was from another village their home village would be determined by living circumstances of the couple's parents. Women who were brought to the village by their husband might remain in the husband's household after the husband's death. With remarriage, usually with a recent widower from her husband's village, she might stay in her past husband's household or move into her new husband's household. It was not uncommon for a widower in his thirties to marry a young bride who was not much older than his surviving children by his earlier wife.
Several families, usually related by blood or marriage, often shared the shelter of a single household or group of households which most probably represented the primary economic unit of survival. This extended family was better able to provide for the needs of its members for food, fuel. clothing, and shelter. A number of people were required to learn the survival skills to adequately support the household group. The extended family often cared for younger children when the parents died. Seemingly unrelated family groups living together as a unit seemed to exist for periods of several years in several household instances. When times of famine occurred, death by starvation or malnutrition tended to cluster in several household units and were not distributed evenly among the households of the village.
Compared to the changes that occurred with Rusyn surnames in this country, surnames in our Rusyn homeland were relatively stable after 1800. It was common that a village might have several families with the same last name who were not closely related to one another biologically. Multiple marriages might occur between couples with the same surname, linking the two families repeatedly, but multiple ties between families were common in all small Rusyn settlements. Some Rusyn family surnames show variations in spelling (and perhaps pronunciation) which stabilized over several generations. Other Rusyn surnames were less fixed and individuals from these families might be designated at times by one surname and at other times by an alternate surname. In one case, this has been traced to a situation in which the head of the household had only a surviving daughter who married a man from a nearby village. The records show that the man was identified by his father-in-law's surname even after the death of his father-in-law and his wife (leaving only one surviving son). His many children with a second wife were identified in records sometimes with his original surname and more often with his adopted surname. Occasionally, church records would clarify this situation by recording an individual with an adopted surname and qualifying it with a note giving the original surname. Apparently non-Rusyn male outsiders did occasionally marry a woman in the village, but usually their surname did not persist in the records there suggesting that the couple did not remain there after marriage.
The origins of Rusyn surnames is clouded in the past, but there is some evidence that certain surnames were taken after the names of the settlements in which the early settlers lived. The geographical distribution patterns of certain Rusyn surnames may have been determined by the tendency of men to marry within their villages or to take a wife from a nearby village. Over time, this would produce a regional concentration of certain surnames. For this reason, much more can be learned about Rusyn family history when Rusyn genealogists share surname information using collected information from adjacent villages.
Building a Rusyn genealogy begins with individuals within each descendent family who are willing to research, record, and communicate the history of their family. Here are several pointers for the beginner:
Begin the American portion of your family tree now. Any recording format is better than none, but whatever you do, include as much information as possible. Written records can later be transferred to a quality genealogical computer software program. Primary genealogical records for each individual include birth dates and places, baptism dates and places, marriage names, dates and places, death dates and places, and burial dates and places. Each individual should also be recorded as a members in family group records which indicate information on the paternal and maternal parents and all children of a couple's marriage. Initially, don't be afraid to record probable names or use estimates of dates when necessary, but include a question mark in parentheses after the item of information so that you and others will know that the item of information is not documented.
For Rusyn-Americans, the names of your immigrant ancestor's parents in the old country and the name of their village of origin can be extremely important. When not available, the names of the siblings of your immigrant ancestors here and abroad can be very useful in tracking down your family lines. When you find a family link do not be so anxious to accept it as fact without several independent ties. Remember that common first names and surnames might be shared by several individuals in a particular village at the same time. The ancestral Rusyn family you accept as yours may not be truly yours. You must be cautious.
Make every effort to get information from those who can still recall it firsthand or secondhand or third hand. Make dated notes whenever you want to commit something to memory. Include the circumstances during which the information was obtained and your assessment of its accuracy. Write it down or record the information on a tape recorder for later transcription. Even that information that you think you will never forget will be forgotten with time. Keep good records or you will end up wasting time later.
Do not discard any written document, letter, or photograph that may provide clues to your family genealogy or others who lived at the same time. Save any materials that may have reference to individuals inside and outside of your immediate family. My experience as a genealogist has taught me that everything can be important in solving certain kinds of genealogical problems. Every document or item can have some importance to someone at some future time. Always keep these original materials in a secure place and be sure to make copies which should be kept in a completely different place as insurance against loss.
Individuals who begin to work on a Rusyn genealogy should not be concerned about different name spellings, discrepancies and inaccuracies of names, dates, and other items on official records. There are many reasons why errors and variations appear on these records. Differences may even appear on those "official" birth records that were requested from Europe during the early part of this century, especially if they were "Ukrainianized" by the priest submitting the information. Even today, a Roman priest looking up information may not be particular in providing correct information, even when the record has civil stamps of documentation.
Do not hesitate to share your genealogical records with others. Most genealogists will share any information they may have on your ancestors and you should reciprocate in kind. Always provide copies of information you have to others on request. Never send original documents, but make sure the copy you provide is of good quality. Don't be afraid to ask for genealogical information, but be sure to be specific about the information you are requesting and provide sufficient information to help the researcher locate that information. Record the various "search leads" that you have followed so that you or others in your family don't unnecessarily repeat your efforts at a later time. Don't be discouraged by a lack of information or someone else's refusal to provide information. When you run into blank wall. place the particular problem you have been working on aside for a few months and work on other problems and leads. Be persistent over time. Characteristics that distinguish genealogists from other hobbyists are their long-term commitment and a very humbling patience.
Once you have gained some experience, try obtaining information about your ancestors from various genealogical data bases such as that of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, but do not be discouraged if the information you receive is minimal or absent. Interest in Rusyn genealogy is still young and it may be many years before information on our Rusyn ancestors appears in such places. Information found in the 1900 and 1910 U.S. Census can be valuable in tracing information about your early Rusyn-American family. Ship passenger lists, letters of intent, newspaper obituaries, cemetery records and cemetery headstones will usually provide useful information. In this country, birth records, marriage records, and death records can often be requested from state or county offices or found in church records for a nominal fee and a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Local genealogy organizations will often provide information on resources that may be available to you in your search.
Ensure that any genealogical information you find is passed to following generations of your family. Concise and dated genealogical charts should be prepared every several years and distributed to younger family members. Record or store a copy in your family Bible. The records that each of us preserves are timeless gifts to pass to those who follow us. Place a number of copies where others will find them after you are gone. Encourage any interest in genealogy and family history among the young people in your family, including an interest in their non-Rusyn lineage's. When the young ask, answer their questions as best you can. Teach them to be proud of their Rusyn-American heritage for it is one that we all can be very proud of.
At some point in our lives we focus away from ourselves and come to realize that human life is a continuum that spans hundreds of human generations. One rationale for maintaining a family genealogy is an acknowledgement of the role of our ancestors in allowing for our existence. As we go back in our family history we find an increasing number of men and women who have successfully solved the important challenges in the daily life of their time. They did not give up. Our family ancestors were survivors. You remain a testament in our time of their survival in their time. We believe they deserve our memories and our acknowledgments for their contributions of "life" to each of us. You and any family history acknowledgments are all that remain of them.
Albert R. Gordon
(Dr. Gordon is currently a professor of biomedical sciences at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. His maternal ancestors originated from Dubne, Leluchow and other villages that are now in the southern portion of the Nowy Sacz district of Poland and the northern Stara Lubovna region of Czechoslovakia. He has used translations of rare civil and church records to reconstruct a number of Rusyn family histories from the village of Dubne from about 1787 to about 1890. His genealogical records, which include over 2000 individuals born in the village of Dubne, contain Rusyn surname references to many nearby villages. He welcomes the sharing of information and inquiries by individuals and genealogists who have an interest in the peoples, customs, and history of this particular region.
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