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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hiding in Plain Sight

Nicole wrote to me last year with a query that began with
According to the family and the SSDI my great grandfather Stanley Albert Gorleski was born 4/19/1900 in Pennsylvania USA (no county of birth found yet) - he lived in Westmoreland County, PA for the majority of his adult life; well that's all the family ever knew...

Nicole went on to say she could find nothing on Stanley in any census records except for a possibility in 1920 but in the wrong part of Pennsylvania and this Stanley was 10 instead of the expected 20 years old. We exchanged another email where I asked for more details. Nicole provided a bit more including this

Ella & Stanley spent their married life in New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania

I set Nicole's email aside, with good intentions to work on it. But I forgot and it fell to the bottom of my pile of requests. Well, one year later Nicole wrote - a very lovely, polite and gentle email in which she asked if I perhaps had forgotten about her or more likely couldn't answer her question and that was why she never saw it on my Ask Olive Tree blog.

Yes, I said one year. Nicole waited an entire year then wrote to me again. But she didn't demand and she didn't chastise me. I wish everyone would take a lesson from Nicole! I get a lot of angry, demanding emails and all that accomplishes is my blood pressure rises and I delete the question. As my grandmother used to say "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" and Nicole is a great example of that adage.

I was so impressed with her letter that I decided to forgo my usual advice and suggestions for pointing researchers in what is hopefully the right direction. Instead I set about researching Nicole's Stanley Gorleski. Many hours later and with one of the most challenging research puzzles I've ever tackled, I'm pleased to say I have found the family. Because it was such a challenge (poor Nicole, no wonder nothing was found!) I am writing up how I found them, where I found them and the difficulties I had to overcome. I hope this will help other genealogists.

Polish & Other Non-North American Names

One thing I've learned is that Polish names  are often very badly mangled both in transcribing and in recording. Often the immigrant had a thick accent or spoke very little English,  so the census taker or clerk could only record what he heard. So the original record can be different from the name as the researcher knows it. That meant that Gorleski could be very different in the records - such as Gorlesky, Gorlewski, or any other variant. And that's not taking into account transcriber error - the person indexing the records may have had trouble reading the handwriting.

Using Wildcards

So I like to begin with wildcard searches. Since I'm going to focus on census records on, I'm going to start my search using Stan* Go*l*sk* as the first and last name (that will find variations in the surname as well as first name Stanley such as Stanly or Stanislau or Stanislaw... I can't assume that his name as Nicole knew it was his baptismal name)  

Even though Nicole stated Stanley was born in Pennsylvania I'm not restricting my search with a birth location, just a date of birth (1900) plus/minus 2 years. I'm using Pennsylvania in the keyword field as I only want results that include the word Pennsylvania, either as place of residence or birth.

Possible Family in 1920 Census - a Working Theory Begins

My best result was a hit in 1920 census in New Kensington, Westmoreland Pennsylvania  for a  Stanley Gorlewski aged 19, born Pennsylvania. I had a gut feeling this was Nicole's ancestor (Do you get those feelings? I do and I run with them as a working theory while I work to prove or disprove it) so I noted the parents and siblings and details to try to find the family in 1910 and earlier.

Briefly the father was Joseph Gorlewski, age 50 born Poland/Russia (that is how it was recorded), immigration year 1885, not naturalized (as proven by notation AL in the column). Mother Anna age 50 same location of birth, immigration year not known. That was interesting as it may indicate they did not immigrate together. Just something to jot down and keep in mind as I search.

Children were all born in Pennsylvania, another interesting fact as it may mean that Joseph and Anna married in USA. Just another thought to jot down. They were John, 29; Gust 26 (I jotted a note that this could be short for Gustave or Gustaf); Mary 21; Stanley 19, Joseph 19; Esther 17 and Martha 14.  Since nothing jumped out in 1900 or 1910 for the search I'd done for Stan* Go*l*sk* I knew I had to either conduct a less restrictive search or use more wildcards in the surname or search for the parents or another child.

I've got way more clues now but searching under the parents' names turned up nothing that seemed solid. Searching for Stanley was not successful either. At least it wasn't apparent to me that any of the hits I got were for him.xx

Success in 1900 Census when search parameters widened

Bingo! One of the hits for 1900 was for a Golefskey family living in Allegheny Pennsylvania. Parents were Joseph, 35 born Poland and Antonia 30 born Germany as well as children John, 8; Gustav  age 5; Mary 1 and little Stanley 1 month. Dad stated his immigration year was 1888, mom said hers was 1890 and they were married in 1891. This looked really promising as the children matched the 1920 family where expected. And little Stanley's birth was listed as April 1900 which also fit with Nicole's known date of birth for her ancestor.

What added more weight to this being the correct family was that I had earlier found that John, the older brother,  was born in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Feb. 17, 1892. And Pittsburgh is in Allegheny. (The miscellaneous records I found for John were his WW1 Draft Registration, his WW2 records, and his burial in St. Mary's Cemetery, Lower Burrell, Westmoreland)

1910 Census Badly Messed Up

But I still could not find the family in 1910.  That's when I decided to search for Gust, the son who was 5 in 1900 and 26 in the 1920 census. I opted to use this in the name fields: Gus* G*l*sk*  I wanted to widen my search to  possible surname mangling. The only hit that seemed even remotely possible was for a Gustave Godleski age 16 born Pennsylvania, living in Pittsburgh, but the index said his father was John not Joseph. On a hunch I checked the actual image.

Wow, what an indexing mess! John who was listed as the father in the index was actually John, age 18, the oldest brother of siblings Gustave 16; Mary 12; Stanley 10; Joseph 8; Anastasia 6 and Martha 4. They were at the top of the census page so that meant their parents were on the previous page. Sure enough parents were listed as Joseph Godleski 42 born Russia and wife Antonia 40 born Germany. They said they'd been married 19 years so that fit nicely with what I'd found on the other census records.

Census Year 1930 Turns Up More Clues

I decided to hunt for the family in 1930 and using John this time I found the family where expected - New Kensington. This time they consisted of Antoinette Gorlewski age 58, a widow, born Germany, immigrated in 1890, not naturalized, with sons John 38 and Joseph 28.


Don't get me wrong. This was a very frustrating and time-consuming search. I didn't just quickly think of how and where to search, then bingo there the family was. I had many many search results that didn't help at all. I had to keep trying various methods of searching - no last name, no date of birth, no location, and so on. I've tried to summarize the successes in this blog post but genealogists need to realize there were many many failures along the way!

Thankfully I'm pretty stubborn because last night I gave up. I'd only found Stanley in 1920 and was frustrated by my inability to find anyone but his brother John in any other records (including census). But after a good night's sleep I woke up this morning with an "aha!" moment in my head. I figured there were dozens of other methods I could use to find this family wherever they were hiding.

What Did I Learn From the Census? And What Can Nicole Do With This Information?

1. The family surname was recorded as Gorleski, Gorlewski, Golefsky and Godleski. So Nicole will need to use wildcards or creative searching to search for more information

2. Stanley's mother's name was recorded as Anna, Antonia and Antoinette. Wildcards needed for further searching!

3. It appears that Joseph and Anna came over separately so look for Joseph alone or perhaps with sibings or cousins or parents in ships passenger lists 1888 plus/minus 2 years.

4. It appears Joseph and Anna married in USA (possibly in Pennsylvania) so look for their marrage in 1891 plus/minus 1 year

5. All the children were born in Pennsylvania, and John the eldest was most likely born in Pittsburgh in February 1892. Look for his birth record to find out Anna's maiden name

6. Joseph died between the 1920 and 1930 census. There is a good chance he died and is buried in New Kensington. Look for a death record and a grave.

7. We have months and years of birth for both the parents and the children from the 1900 census. Perhaps birth records for all the children can be found

I think this is enough to give Nicole something to keep her busy for a very long time! I really enjoyed this challenge as it forced me to step outside my usual methods of searching. It also forced me to do a lot of studying and analyzing of every bit of information I found, going step by step very slowly as I developed a working theory of the family. I love that!  So thanks, Nicole!


  1. Wow! This is really amazing information! I'm so very excited to have all of this to work from.

    I can't wait to share this with my family who is also interested in genealogy.

    Thank you so much - your time and effort is greatly appreciated!

  2. I love your detective work. I live in Allegheny County and the vital records do not start until 1908. However she could search for the marriages at the City County Building in Pittsburgh or at Carnegie Library in Oakland (Pittsburgh) None of them are indexed on line so you either have to read the logs or the microfilm at the Library.

    If they were Catholic she could get their address in the 1900 census. The Diocese of Pittsburgh has an archives and research center. You could submit a request and they might be able to find the nearest church or one of the Polish Catholic Churches and look for the marriage in their Sacramental Records. It is done by volunteers so it make take about 6 to 8 weeks.

  3. I am Catholic and have had good luck with their records but lots of the Germans were Lutheran & chances are, they have some good German records in PA also. Make sure and check for them too.

  4. Awesome detective work, especially with tailoring the wildcard searches - and to get all 4 censuses!