Don’t stalk dead people. Best to start with the living. The dead want to be left alone and have crappy wifi connections.
I began my research by going online and discovering others researching the same surnames and places as myself. Once I discovered their posts on various message boards, I contacted them directly which led to discovering relatives I had no idea existed. Some did not want to talk to me so I discovered a wealth of information and clues simply by the questions they were asking.
Although my paternal grandfather, Samuel Frank Kuhn, arrived in Canada in 1925, followed by my grandmother to be, Gertrude Klara Thiel in 1927, I discovered that two previously unknown ancestors had laid the groundwork for Samuel’s journey by immigrating to the Rainy River or Kenora area three decades earlier in 1892. Wilhelm Brinkmann (my Great Grandmother’s brother) and Heinrich Weiss had fled conscription in Congress Poland, at that time ruled by Czarist Russia, by bribing soldiers who then allowed them to cross the Vistula River in the dead of night. They eventually made their way to Hamburg where they caught a steamer to England and later another boat to Portland, Maine. I was able to find the shipping manifest online:
Oral history tells us that upon arrival to North America Wilhelm and Heinrich made their way, via the Grand Trunk Railway, to Montreal where they were stranded without the means of continuing their journey onto Manitoba where they had originally intended to join relatives. After money was forwarded to them, Heinrich and Wilhelm continued by train westward and at some point Wilhelm is said to have declared that he had not “come all the way to Canada to live in a hole in the ground”. They both ended up settling in the Rainy River area district of northern Ontario, then known by the lovely name of “Rats Portage” (present day Kenora).
Wilhelm was employed by the railroad and earned enough money to buy land, set-up a farm and begin a brick company. He then began bringing family members, including his wife Annie Weiss and many other fellow Vistula Germans, to Canada. Looking at census records and voter’s lists from the period you see that all these families and individuals settled in and around Wilhelm and Annie’s homestead.
In 1910, on one such journey back to the Mother Country, Annie Weiss and Wilhelm Brinkmann brought back with them a score of Brinkmanns, Kopps and Hofferts; including my grandfather’s sister Emma Kuhn.
I often wonder about the fate of these people had not Wilhelm and Annie brought them back to Canada. We know from personal accounts of other Vistula Germans living in the area east of Warsaw that those left behind probably would have faced exile to Siberia at best, or torture and death at worse.
Passanger lists are quite easy to find and often provide a lot of valuable information. We have several Canadian passenger records for family members that list the address of their nearest living relative in Poland or East Prussia. This, along with some other primary documents from here in Canada (census, voter’s lists, marriage and death certificates, etc.) provide quite an extensive list of place names to work our way back in time.
Researching place names in Poland can be a nightmare. We knew that our relatives came from Augustówek, Pustelnik, and Stanisławów, but there are multiple towns with these names around Warsaw. With the discovery of the Breyer Map we found all these villages situated just north east of Warsaw along the Royal Canal (Kanał Królewski). The Breyer Map was our Rosetta Stone!
Like a laser, we were now able to focus our research on a 10 km radius within which these villages were situated and then proceeded to contact a local expert with a keen interest on the building of the Royal Canal and the history of the area. This local Pole just happened to have a copy of the marriage record of Jan Weiss and Luise Ludowika Kuhn (my Great, Great Aunt)! Not only did this person possess legal documents relating to my ancestors but he was able to confirm that the Kuhn’s were probably brought into the area to assist with the building of the Royal Canal by the local landlord and nobleman “Potocki” who would have utilized my ancestor’s expertise to drain swamp land turning this reclaimed land into productive and profitable farmland.
In addition, our new friend even offered to visit the overgrown cemeteries in the area and take photos of ancient tombstones. He also assisted us in locating online official record resources and then generously offered to translate these documents from Polish once we found them.
My stalking was paying off as I was also able to get the birth record for Eva Weiss (the sister of Jan Weiss from the record above), and the wife of Ludwig Kopp, through a newly discovered Brinkmann cousin in Canada who I now collaborate with on my research.
After years of searching, I was finally able to uncover records of family members myself through the Polish National Archives. We found a birth record for my Great, Great Grandmother Justine Amalia Luise Brinkmann born in Brzeziny located in the Tarchomin Evangelical archives. This showed her parents as Ferdinand “Brynkmann” and Elzbieta Weiss. (Yes, more Brinkmann and Weiss relatives!).
My most recent discovery is the birth record of Anna Kuhn. This is an important find since it lists her parents as Michael Kuhn and Susanna Guildenstern. Susanna Guildenstern was listed as my third great grandmother on several family trees but no one seemed to have any documentation or proof. Guildenstern is not a typical Vistula German or Polish name so uncovering these roots is an important clue. Previously, I was able to find records for Guildensterns living in Stanisławów when the village was first established around 1808 but hadn’t yet been able to find a direct family connection…until now.
One of the mysteries that I wanted to solve is where my ancestors came from before appearing in the newly established villages during the building of the Royal Canal. Because of the birth record of Anna Kuhn, I now know that my Kuhn ancestors came from an area north across the Narew River (a tributary of the Vistula and Bug Rivers), in a small village called Nowaweis.
How long the Kuhn family lived in the area around Nowaweis and where they were generations prior remains a mystery yet to be solved.
The stalking continues!