I’m Still Here

Just wanted to say a quick hello and let you all know I have some exciting and frustrating news to share soon!  As a teaser, the stories involve a gravestone, a birth certificate, and a case of mistaken identity, sort of.  Stay tuned.  


Given and Chosen Names: The Kornbergs

As some of you may have guessed, I live in the Frozen North.  And up here we have something called “January” which is usually a mix of freezing temperatures, low humidity, and lots and lots of snow.  I prefer at this time of the year to think of my homeland as a “White Desert”.  And this January has more than lived up to the reputation.

Even though it’s now halfway through February, the White Desert still persists, and I find that I have little to no motivation to do any genealogy work.  But, even in this lull, I did find out some interesting things about my Scandinavian great-great-grandparents.  And I’ve discovered that just because you think you know someone’s name in your family tree, you may still come across a surprise or two when you’re doing research.

The Kornbergs

My great-great-grandparents are known to me as Hannah Olsdotter and Gunder Kornberg.  Now, if you know anything about the Swedes and Norwegians, you know that they had very different naming conventions than we do today.  Hannah’s last name is a combination of the first name of her father, Ole, and the Swedish word for “daughter”.  Now, I’m not exactly sure how to spell her last name, Olsdotter comes from a sign I saw in the American Swedish Institute.  But maybe she spelled it “Olesdatter”, “Olesdottir”, “Olsdatter”…you can see why this becomes a problem.  I have yet to find any record of her before she was married because of her strange last name, a name that up here is rather common, and spelled various ways.

Gunder Kornberg is an entirely different matter along the same vein.  We know that his last name in Norway was not Kornberg.  But I have no idea what his name really was!  Kornberg may have come from a farm, his profession, some random change made when he came to America, perhaps through Ellis Island or Boston.  I have yet to find his immigration record.  This may be because the name on the ship manifest and the name he took in America could be completely different.  Top that by the census records I’ve found that state that his date of immigration was anything between 1879 and 1890.  Well, you can bet I’ll keep looking but so far he’s been another dead end.

Now, I do some faith that year of their marriage is accurate since almost all the census records point to the year as 1887.  But I’m not sure where they were married.  My grandmother thinks they were married here, but I have yet to find a record that corresponds.  I’m not sure if they were married in Minnesota, in Wisconsin, or somewhere else in the US.  I’m hoping that perhaps the record is just not yet digitized and it will magically appear one day in my Ancestry account, or on the Minnesota History Center website.

Another thing I do know is that, after they were married and had two children, they took the family back to Norway for a “visit”.  Gunder apparently wanted to stay there, but Hannah put her foot down and they did eventually come back here (good thing they did or I would not exist!).  While they were away, their third child, Howard, was born in 1892 either on the ship to Norway, or in Norway itself.  Ever the comedian, my grandmother says Howard used to love to say how he “remembered Norway so clearly” even though he was just an infant when he was there.  Since I know that the next child, Alma Florence, was born in Minnesota in 1894, so they must have come back here between 1892 and 1894.  But…can I find a record?  Not yet.  Very, very frustrating indeed.

Which takes me to the next item (or back to it): Census records.  In Minnesota there were Territorial Censuses taken in 1895 and 1905, along with regular US census records.  So far I have not been able to spot them on the 1895 census.  In the 1900 census they show up under the name “Cornberg”.  In 1905, the same spelling.  And in 1910 they switch over to the “Kornberg” spelling.


So, what do I do now?  Start searching for variations of Cornberg!  Cornberg, Cronberg, Cornberger, Corn.  And what do I find?  Nothing more.  *sigh*

BUT, and here’s where everything starts to get even more strange, I do start getting hits on birth records for the family.  Do they have the same names as they do on the censuses?  NO.  Edward, it turns out, was born “Einer Oliver Kornberg” on 11 Jun 1888 in Minnesota, with parents named as Gunster and Hanna.  And Alma Florence?  Was born as “Emily Vendla Cornberg” on 8 Sept 1894 in Minnesota, parents are listed as Gunder and Hanna Cornberg.  Why didn’t the family continue to call these two children Einer and Emily?  No clue!  Census records show them as Edward and Alma going forward.  This may be a mystery I never solve.

I haven’t yet found the other children.  I’m dying to see what their names were though!  Was my g-grandmother Edith really “Edna”?  Was Leonard really “Lars”?  Well, that remains to be seen.

OK, but I digress.  I write about this today to demonstrate how strange genealogical research can be, and how you absolutely have to keep your eyes open for things that do not seem to fit at first.  And also be ready to hit dead ends with grace.  While I have been frustrated for years by this family, I’ve also been rewarded by being patient and waiting for the right record to come along.  Gunder and Hannah, Einer/Edward and Emily/Alma were real people who lived real lives, regardless of their names.  They live in my grandmother’s memory, as well as in mine because she told me about them.  And I know someday I will finally discover their origins and know where my family came from in Norway and Sweden.  I just need to have a little patience.  And luck.  And patience.

Clutter in the Family Tree

I wanted to post a quick hello to my followers old and new, and assure you that I have not dropped off the map.  I’m currently in the middle of some pretty exciting research into my Sicilian and Czech lines respectively, and hope to have some good information to share about these latest adventures.

In the meantime, here’s something to think about while I’m off in research mode: Clutter in the Family Tree.

When you are a new family tree researcher, or perhaps even after years of research experience, it is sometimes tempting to enter some information into your tree that you’re just not quite sure about.  You hope someday you’ll return to clean it up, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t always happen.  If you’re anything like me, you’re guilty of this.  And it’s bad.  And I’ll tell you why.

Clutter in the family tree is the same as in your home.  In my house every flat surface has something on it.  It’s almost as if I cannot leave a flat surface bare!  If I don’t stay on top of it, the flat surface soon hosts a pile of mail, shopping bags, kitty toys, mittens (it gets cold where I am baby!).  Soon when I come home I can’t find a spot to set down my purse!  And I really need to set that purse down because it is heavy!  And necessary!  And proven to be the real deal!  And it’s cute!  It has proven itself to be worthy of a flat surface to rest upon.

The same principle applies to your family tree.  If you allow the clutter to accumulate, soon you will not be able to find a flat surface to set the correct information on.

I have this issue in my own tree.  A long time ago I put down the name of a woman who I thought was my ancestor’s husband.  Soon I added children to the marriage because I knew they were her children but not really sure if they were his.  Now, going back it turns out that this woman was not married to my ancestor at all!  And now I have managed to put this bad information into my own tree, but also am truly not sure where else this bad information may have been posted!  It is going to take a heroic effort to clean up this “pile” of bad information.  And unlike some who may just let it be, I feel the obligation to go back and try my best to correct this bad data as best I can.  What a mess.

Now that I’m more experienced, do I still allow clutter to be added to my tree?  I try not to, but certainly I am guilty of wanting to add people or connections to my tree that may not be proved.  But now what I do is I create an “alternate” tree starting with the clutter and when I confirm that this is correct, I can add it back into my main tree.  And my main tree is hopefully, going forward, the source of my truth on the subject.

When in doubt, do not add.  Leave names, dates, places, anything blank until you have proven the fact to yourself through good primary sources and good research.  It’s OK to leave a blank surface.

Oh, and go clean off your kitchen table while you’re at it.

The Short Bartender

I recently updated the blog header with a picture taken at a bar in Hopkins, MN.  In the photo my grandfather, Frantisek Seraphim Kaspar (called Frank) stands back a bit behind the bar, glass in hand, with a look of  wariness and concern aimed at the photographer.

We believe this picture was taken at what was called the “908 Bar” sometime before Prohibition.  And it’s one of the few photos I have of my grandfather Frank.


It’s photos like these that tell a story.  I know at one point my grandfather owned a bar with another man who was related to my family through marriage.  But he also worked at other bars as a bartender both before and after his years as an owner.  I’m unsure at this point which of the two situations is pictured here, is he the owner or a bartender?  We believe the man standing to the right in the photo was either my grandfather’s business partner or a fellow employee.  The three men who are most likely customers at the bar are unknown to us.  Also to the left of my grandfather you can see the face of another bar patron reflected in the mirror behind the bar.

The first clue as to a date for this photo includes the date on the State Bank calendar just above my grandfather’s head.  It’s very difficult to blow up the digital photo, the dates become pixellated and I can’t make them out.  But using a magnifying glass on the original it looks as if the calendar has FRI on the top above the date, and SEP on the bottom.  Googling dates on which Friday, September 18th occurred after 1910 when my grandfather arrived in Hopkins, I get the years 1913, 1919, 1924, 1930, and 1936.  We can eliminate 1924 and 1930 as Prohibition was from January 1920 until December 1933.  My grandfather died in 1939 at the age of 54.  He looks a lot younger than 50 in this photo (as compared to another photo we have of him sometime in the 30s where he was quite grey-haired), so I am left with the dates of 1913 and 1919.

Another clue in this photo is the banner hanging above the men that says “Smoke Martellus Cigar”.  I tried Googling Martellus to see when the company or brand was in operation, but other than a few cigar boxes offered on eBay, so far I haven’t had much luck finding out anything.  If Martellus was only in production for a short period, or perhaps went out of business before 1919 we could settle on a 1913 date for this photo.  But this clue will have to hang tantalizingly until I can do more “on the ground” research, perhaps at the local historical society.

Personally, I’m leaning towards the 1913 date for this photo.  My grandfather was an immigrant from Drahobudice, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic.  He was born in 1885 and came to America around 1904.  We think we found him in Cleveland, Ohio for the 1910 census.  He came to Hopkins soon after this, so 1913 wouldn’t be unreasonable for a date for this photo.  He does look quite young and he would have been about 28.  He was also, as you can see, short.  According to his naturalization papers, he was only 5’4″ (which means he and I would have been the same height!).   Frank went on to marry a young woman named Mary Holy, the daughter of the boarding house owners where he was living.

Frank and Mary had 9 children between 1918 and 1937, all of which I knew as the most wonderful aunties and uncles!  Unfortunately, as I said before, Frank passed away in 1939 so I never had the opportunity to meet him.  Listening to the accounts of his children though, he was a most generous and loving father, often bringing back candy for the younger children, and taking the older ones to the local ice cream shop  during the Prohibition years for a root beer.

By using the clues found in this photo, I hope someday to know exactly when it was taken, who the men in the photo were, and ultimately learn more about my grandfather in the process.  He stands there as if challenging me to find out more, and I accept the challenge!

Brooklyn to Sicily: A Case of Reverse Immigration

Sometimes you run across a document that not only fills in dates and names, but also is a snapshot into a person’s life at a specific moment.  The Passport Application of my great-great aunt, Francesca Sancetta, is a perfect example of such a document.

Francesca was born in the New York in 1892.  When her mother, Rosa, died in 1905, her father made the decision to travel back to Sicily.  I knew through family stories that his oldest child, John, traveled back with him, and I suspected more of the six children went as well.  Two of them, my g-grandmother, Jennie, and her married sister, Mary, did not return to Sicily (and that’s why I’m here today!).  It was a mystery to me what happened to the other children from the years between about 1905 to the 1930s.  Did they go back to Sicily and then return to the States?  Or did they stay here?  It just wasn’t clear.  Especially because ship logs going from the U.S. back to the “old country” are so scarce!

Because I already knew that three of the remaining four mystery children, Jim, Tom and Francesca, were in MN or NY in the 1930s, I started searching for clues online for the missing years.  For years I searched for the family in Sicily with no luck.  Then one day that little “hint” leaf appeared next to Francesca’s name on Ancestry.com.  While sometimes these hints amount to nothing, when I clicked on the link, I discovered it was Francesca Sancetta’s application for a U.S. Passport…from Salaparuta, Sicily in 1920!  I started jumping up and down and had to chill myself out before I could read the document.  Finally had something to work with!

Francesca Top


This document is a gold mine of information about what happened to Francesca and her family.  First, she states that her father Joseph Sancetta lived in the U.S. for 16 years, from 1890 to 1906.  She states that she left the U.S. in April of 1906 and lives in Salaparuta “temporarily” with her parents.  She affirms that was born in the U.S. in 1892 and she is a U.S. Citizen.

The reason she gave as to why she resides in Salaparuta, she stated, “My oldest brother was in the Italian Army and due to the fact that he remained in the Army for ten years it was impossible for me to return to the U.S. unaccompanied.  So I remained in Italy waiting for my brother.”  She goes on to state that she maintained ties with a sister and uncle in the U.S.  Then on the “Opinion of Officer Taking Affidavit” section of the application, the officer wrote, “…she was brought to Italy by her parents.  She adds that domestic troubles arose in her family and that the parents have no intention of going to the United States…”

Francesca's Affidavit, 1920

Francesca’s Affidavit, 1920

With this one document I learned so much, and now have so many more questions!

1. Francesca states she is waiting for her “oldest” brother.  An assumption can be made that this would be John.  Jim and Tom were younger, but where were they in 1920?

2. Francesca states that she is living with her “parents”.  We know that Rosa is dead, so is there a new step-mother?

3. If there is a new step-mother, did Joseph marry here in America or Sicily?  Are there half-siblings to discover yet?

4. What were the “domestic troubles” that were causing a rift in her family?

5. The oldest brother (most likely John) had to serve in the Italian Army from 1909 – 1919, the years covering WWI.  Are there records of his service somewhere?

6. We know her older sister and younger sister were already in the U.S.  Who is the “uncle” she mentions?

7. Is Salaparuta the original point of origin for the family in 1890?

8. If Francesca returned, did John come with her and stay in the U.S.?  What happened to John?

9. It seems that Joseph is still alive in 1902.  What happens to him after this?

10. Looking at this from a 21st Century point of view, Francesca would have been about 28 years old when she applied for this passport.  What social norms were in place that a grown woman could not travel unaccompanied in 1920?

These are the next questions I hope to answer.  The road won’t be easy though.  Salaparuta was destroyed in 1968 by the Belice Earthquake and the entire town moved to a nearby location.  (see http://www.protezionecivile.gov.it/jcms/en/terremoto_belice.wp;jsessionid=4AA7C520FCB8B341AA29DE85BE270976)  I haven’t yet tried to get in touch with anyone there, but I’m hoping that some parish records survived, and perhaps city records as well.  The good news is the name Sancetta does not seem to be very common, so hopefully I’ll have some luck doing research.

For those of you who lost track, rest assured Francesca did make it back to the U.S. at some point, where she lived in Minnesota until her death in 1989 (she was 97!).  I doubt Francesca would even guess that someday her g-g-niece would be fascinated by the story she told the consulate officer in Palermo on that September day in 1920.  I’d like to think that by doing this research, I honor her unique experience and thank her for being so honest in her passport application all those years ago.

Francesca Pic

Francesca Sancetta, 1920

One more mystery remains from Francesca’s life, one that someday I’ll tell if I can get some facts straight.  Apparently the sons of Francesca and her husband, Peter DiGiovanni, were caught up in a plot to assassinate Benito Mussolini sometime around the years of WWII.  There is come confusion as to where Francesca was at this time, here or in Italy again. Somehow the boys or the family made it to Morocco where they were evacuated with the help of another Sicilian family here in MN, the Piazzas.  I think Francesca’s life might be worth exploring further!

DNA Testing: Real Science or Reality Show?

Let’s talk briefly about DNA testing for ancestry research.  Briefly mainly because I need to get to bed early tonight, but also because what I know about DNA testing could only fill up a brief blog entry.

My ancestors were apparently world travelers!

I think I mentioned before that I have taken multiple DNA tests for ancestry research purposes.  It all started back around 2001 when the National Geographic’s Genographic project was begun (see https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/).  Being a longtime subscriber, I think I saw an ad for the project in their magazine.  Being partial to redheads with brains, I immediately developed a crush on the lead scientist Spencer Wells, and managed to pull together the fee to buy a kit for both myself (for mt DNA) and my Dad (Y Chromosome).

Current number of participants in the Genographic Project.

When we got back the results, Mom and I were surprised to learn our maternal line was Haplogroup Z and not the more mundane European lineage we expected.  Knowing that my maternal great-great-grandmother was from Varmland, Sweden, we assumed it would be a more “European” result.  Z, or more accurately now Z1a, apparently means that we may actually have been descended from the Sami peoples of the Arctic areas of Europe, or perhaps were descended from Hun invaders.  (Mom tends towards the Sami connection, while I love the idea of being a Hun!)  In fact, this haplogroup has more relation to people in present day Korea and the Kamchatka peninsula in far eastern Russia than to the people of Europe.

My mt DNA results from 23AndMe.com

When new companies started to come out with new tests that purported to trace your overall ancestry using new segments of DNA, I quickly signed up.  I won’t go into too much detail about which companies I’ve used (I’ll go into that in a future post I’m sure though) because what I’d like to talk about here is how can you trust the results you receive?

That’s what it’s about: Trust.  You have to trust the company to test your DNA accurately and scientifically to come up with what your ancestral make up is.  Trouble is, can any company truly test your DNA and predict your ancestry from the results?  I’m not questioning if it’s possible to test DNA for ancestry, I’m questioning if the companies doing the testing are actually doing it right.

Before I go much further, I must say that so far all the tests I’ve done have come back to be mostly what I’ve expected.  I’m mostly European (shocker!), with a little North African, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle Eastern and Jewish tossed in for good measure.  I didn’t expect to find any truly Asian, or for that matter Native American roots in my family tree, and neither did any of the tests.  And, to be clear, all of the tests that also tested my mt DNA results came back with the same Haplogroup Z that the original test pointed to.

My ancestral origins according to 23AndMe.com

What I’m wondering is this: Are we advanced enough in our scientific knowledge of DNA to understand specific locales for specific DNA sequences?  Really DNA for the common masses is a really recent development!  It’s not been that long since we’ve been able to sequence the human genome.  How on earth are we able to accurately test people’s ethnic origins?

I know this entry is full of unanswered questions.  And that’s because I’m no expert.  I want to believe that my results are accurate.  I like the idea that my ancestors may have been Bedouin nomads, or people living in sub-Saharan Africa 500 years ago.  But I have so many questions without answers at this point.  It’s hard to not question whether or not we’re all being sold a bill of goods.

Really, only time will tell.  I just hope that it’ll tell us that the tests were legitimate, accurate, and only expand our knowledge of the Human Family.

Cave Girl say “I’m less Neanderthal than the average European!”

By the way, for those of you wondering I am also apparently 2.6% Neanderthal.  No wonder I was driven in college to write thirty-five page paper trying to debunk some of the myths around Neanderthal lack of speech and lack of culture!  And now research is starting to prove me right!  (I see a Neanderthal post in my future.)

Pilgrims, Pie and Pity: Happy Thanksgiving

Today we are reminded of the Pilgrims who “landed on Plymouth Rock”, suffered terribly due to their complete lack of preparedness and forethought, and were saved from utter destruction by the sheer kindness of “strangers”.  Well, they weren’t really strangers as the Wampanoag people had been dealing with English settlers and raiders for some time, even suffering losses themselves due to plagues of Small Pox and other disease introduced by the English.  Ultimately if it weren’t for the kindness, and cultural values, of the Wampanoag and other groups of Native Americans, the Pilgrims may not have survived at all (think of the original Jamestown colony).

Now, I am not as far as I know a descendant of any of the Mayflower passengers of 1620, although my Grandmother has told me she thinks perhaps we are.  Since I recently discovered a possible connection to a Jamestown colony member, I do wonder if that is really what she was told as a child. (See my post https://livesofserfs.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/the-tale-of-three-john-gibbs/)  But, in the spirit of the day, and the family lore, let’s talk a little about the Pilgrims as I know them after doing a little research.

  • The Pilgrims did not travel to North America to seek religions freedom.  They already had that where they were, in the Netherlands.  They had left England for the Netherlands earlier in the century to gain religions freedom.  But in the Netherlands they didn’t feel they were able to retain their cultural identity as “English”.  So they decided to pack up once more and set their sights on the New World as the place they could go and retain their cultural identity.  Religious freedom was already a reality.
  • They set sail from England in September 1620 and it took them about sixty-six days to cross the Atlantic, thus they arrived in November.  Travelling sixty-six days in a ship the size of a large yacht does not sound like fun to me.  And add to it sailing across the northern Atlantic during fall storm season?  It’s amazing they made it at all.  (I am still a little boggled why so many ships sailed during the colder months of the year.  Perhaps I should look into this more to find out why.)
  • They landed far north of their intended destination, the mouth of the Hudson River.  Instead they landed in Cape Cod Bay.  If you look at a map, this may not seem like a big difference in today’s travel times, but back then it was a huge distance.  The reason they missed their original destination was weather.  And they did make at least one attempt to continue south, but were turned back by rough seas, and so decided to stay put instead of continuing to their original destination.
  • They arrived sick.  Most likely 66 days on board the ship without access to fresh food caused all kinds of diseases, including scurvy which was documented.  Once they decided to stay put, those men who were able to did manage to get off the ship and build houses and other buildings on shore while the sick remained on board.  This probably sealed the fate of those on board.  Knowing what we know now of communicable diseases, I kind of think if they had been able to get off that ship sooner and spread out more on shore, perhaps the death toll wouldn’t have been as high.  But that is, of course, speculation on my part.  As it was, about 45 out of the 102 people on board were dead by March of 1621 and apparently only 4 adult women survived.
  • When they finally went ashore in early spring of 1621, they did apparently had seeds to plant, such as wheat, but because they settled on land not suited to the cultivation of wheat, it was not a successful crop (think seashore…how many wheat fields to you see along a seashore?).  They also had apparently found a store of corn during earlier forays to land in a mounded grave of a Native American, but whether or not they ever used this corn for planting is not clear.  What is clear is they were not prepared for the realities of survival in North America, and perhaps could be criticized for their lack of forethought, or at the very least their optimism.  Of course, as we know, it was not the first, nor last time a colonizing attempt would go wrong, and I can only think of our own attempts at sending people into space, or the people who are crowding boats desperately trying to make it from Africa to Europe as examples of woeful unpreparedness in modern times.
  • What saved the Pilgrims was not just Squanto, as we like to believe.  It was the entirety of the Native American people who lived in that area.  Prior to the Pilgrims arrival, English raiders had captured and enslaved members of the Wampanoag group in the same area!  It seems more likely from this perspective that they would have been more likely to fight the colonists than help them.  And in fact, some of them did fight!  But as the Pilgrims stayed on their ship, and built houses, maybe it became clear to the Wampanoag that these were not raiders and so they chose to let them stay.  After observing the Pilgrims struggling, they even helped them survive their second winter in North America by teaching them planting techniques for the land they occupied.  What ultimately saved the colonists was the most human of emotions: pity.  We can probably guess, but never know, what conversations were like took place in the homes of the Wampanoags and the other groups in the area about these new arrivals.  They must have had some clue that the Pilgrims were perhaps the tip of the iceberg, and making enemies may have seemed pointless.  What I wouldn’t give for a time machine.

What got me thinking about this today was an article posted by the NY Times about the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of New York and what it takes to be recognized as a descendant of a Mayflower passenger.  (See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/28/nyregion/persistence-in-the-genes-connecting-the-dots-to-the-mayflower.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0)  What does it take?  GOOD PRIMARY SOURCES.  Kudos go to them for demanding good primary source research.  It’s one thing for your grandmother to tell you you’re a descendant, and entirely another thing to prove that you are.  Also, with 5 generations of descendants proved by the society already, if you can make it back that far, you open up a wealth of information and history that make it worth the try.

BUT, one last tidbit for thought about the article above: “Historians say there is a dark side to what they refer to as “lineage societies.” Mayflower societies developed, at least in part, as a “reaction to immigration” that was transforming the United States late in the 19th century, said Herb Sloan, a history professor at Barnard College. Membership, he said, conferred the notion that “we’re authentic. We’re better. We were here before. Unlike these unwashed immigrants coming to America.”  I would also like to add here that even today the Society does not include for membership the descendants of the saviors of their own ancestors: the Wampanoag people.  

Something to think about on this Thanksgiving Eve as you eat your turkey, stuffing and pie.

(Please don’t start me on how these three items were NOT on the menu at the first Thanksgiving!)


Some links about the topics from today’s post: