Climbing Family Trees: It's All Finnish To Me by Betty Hildebranski

Climbing Family Trees

More great stories, poems, and helpful hints about genealogy and searching for your family's roots from the twin authors of "Climbing Family Trees: Whispers In The Leaves"

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

It's All Finnish To Me by Betty Hildebranski

“It’s All Finnish To Me”
Betty Hildebranski
Naperville, IL
Although most of my discoveries have been the result of time-consuming, methodical research, there are others that have come to me in some strange and inexplicable ways. I have no good explanation as to why I have been so fortunate in this regard, but I do believe that these discoveries have a spiritual quality. I can only surmise that some of these ancestors want to be found, remembered and honored.

I never knew my Finnish grandparents. We lived 500 miles apart and one died before I was born. The other one died when I was five years old. Nor do I remember hearing much about them. I had no intention whatsoever of looking for these grandparents in Finland. I had gathered all of the US documents that I could find and I felt that it would be like looking for "a needle in a haystack" to find their records in Finland. The first obstacle was that I was unsure of what her maiden name might actually be. It was stated on two documents that, as a result of her marriage to her first husband, her surname name was Pitkakangas. Another document stated that her father's name was Samuel Kangas. Her death certificate listed her father as Jako Pitkakangas. This Jako actually turned out to be her first husband and he had taken what had been her maiden name.The second obstacle was the Finnish and Swedish languages (the church records are in old Swedish script). They appeared to me to be languages that would be beyond my abilities to understand. Even the basic vocabulary necessary to review church records would be too difficult for me. I had been unable to find anyone doing Finnish research at the Mormon Family History Center in Naperville to give me any advice or direction. And even if I was willing to attempt it, the records did not include microfilm from either of their towns from the time of their births.The third obstacle was the naming practice in Finland called Patronymics. Their middle names were the names of their father’s given names. It was my basic understanding that their surnames were the names of the farms on which they were born and could later change if they married on a different farm or moved to a different farm. Consistent surnames were not a part of the peasant culture. Consequently, it was common for these surnames to change frequently.

Given all of these difficulties, I figured that any attempt on my part would be a complete waste of my time and I had no desire to frustrate myself.So, that's the background. One night I was just doing some random searching on the Internet. In www.Google.com I happened to type in the name “Pitkäkangas,” using the Scandinavian characters. This name could have been my grandmother's maiden name, the surname of her first husband, or a name that she made up. I also typed in “Evijärvi” (the town in which some documents stated that my grandmother was born. I got 13 hits -- most were in Finnish. I happened to go to one site that had the heading of “Genealogy Data” in the search results. This web page was titled "Amerikan Siiktolaisia" and listed a Juho and a Matti Pitkäkangas who were born in Evijärvi. This web page had no button to the home page, but it did have the creator's e-mail address on the bottom of the page.

At that point, not having much of an idea what I was looking at, I sent an e-mail stating that I knew it was a real "shot in the dark" and gave what little information I had on Anna Sofia Pitkakangas. The following day I received a 24-page report tracing Anna Sofia's paternal side of the family back nine generations! To say that I was overwhelmed would be a gross understatement! As it turned out, this man wasn't even related to my grandmother and he has over 100,000 names in his database from that area of Finland. This wonderful gentleman then put me in touch with another researcher in Finland who sent me a lengthy report tracing Anna Sofia's maternal side of the family back many generations. The story doesn't end there. Just a few days later, I happened to go to a Finnish mailing-list site. It had never been my practice to go to this particular site, but since I had that report, I thought that I would read some of the archived messages.

I happened upon someone who had copies of the Douglas County, Wisconsin 1920 and 1930 census and was willing to do lookups (at that point, I didn't have access to the census images). My grandparents lived in Maple, Douglas County, Wisconsin, and while I knew that there would not be anything on the census that I did not already know, I thought that it would be nice to have a copy. So I asked her to look them up, which she did, and we started exchanging e-mails.

At some point, she mentioned Veteli and some other terms that I did not understand. I sent her a message, asking for clarification of the terms. I had no sooner clicked the send button when I looked down on this 24-page report to notice that my great grandmother was born in Veteli! This woman lives in Elmwood Park, which is about 30 miles from me. Her ancestors came from Veteli, Finland and she has an abundance of information, which she graciously shared with me. She guided me through my own research to verify the accuracy of all the new data that I had received. Due to the records that she has, she determined that we are even related, about four generations back! Now I know that Finland has some wonderful genealogical records! One source stated that they even have some of the best in the world.Through another set of unrelated circumstances, I began communicating with a second cousin of my grandfather's family living in Finland. He is somewhat interested in genealogy and we worked together to try to trace some of my grandfather's family. He even sent me a studio picture of my grandfather as a young man.

Previously I only had a couple of other pictures of my grandfather that were taken at quite a distance when he was much older.With some of this information, I was able to find the dates for births and deaths of both of my grandparent's first spouses. It was like putting all of the pieces of their lives back together. What are the odds of all this happening in such a short period of time (2 months) without my putting in much effort at all? Some may choose to decide that this is just "dumb luck," but I don’t think so.I know that many genealogists strive to go back as many generations as possible; and with all of this help, I have gone back many, many generations. But my biggest thrill was finding out more about the life of this Finnish grandmother. She had such a tragedy-filled life. I figure she probably didn't like the fact that I was questioning her first marriage and morals. On my desk I have a small studio picture of her when she was young. She was so very attractive. I just love looking at that picture. I am totally convinced that somehow, some way, I received help from her. While I am not anxious to check out of this life any time soon, I do look forward to meeting some of these ancestors!

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