A couple of months ago, I discussed 23andMe with a friend. His sister participated in the service to learn more about her genetic make-up, specifically a breakdown of her common DNA traits with ethnicities around the world. For a modest cost (given the the advancement of genetic sequencing), she confirmed rumors and beliefs surrounding her ancestral origins.
While I didn’t care much for receiving a pie chart in exchange for saliva, I was immediately hooked on the question: where did I come from?
In lieu of the gene comparison service, I saw far more value digging into documents, family trees, and stories shared on sites such as Ancestry or FamilySearch. Many libraries, including my own in Savannah, partner with sites such as these to allow free, full-functional searching with a couple paid features available. With this in mind, I placed myself at the heart of my own mystery, eventually identifying all 16 of my great-great-grandparents.
Thanks to parental anecdotes, I possessed a few quips about my ancestry: “oh yeah, my last name means fish in Polish” or “I think I’m Dutch, English, and Irish on my mother’s side”. But in all reality, I didn’t have context of places or names, let alone a narritive of my own. I didn’t know their occupations, addresses, or remotely consider the challenges they faced in immigrating to a new, young country.
What are the reasons people uproot their lives and move elsewhere? How did they transport themselves across the world? And perhaps most importantly, how would my past shed light on my present?
The more I considered these questions, the deeper I dug. And the more I discoverd, the more questions I asked. Both mystery and self-discovery are deeply attractive to me as a way to travel through time and space. And this adventure provided just that, even if just virtually (for now!). Genealogy had me on Google street view in Polish farmlands, dissecting Massachusetts’ property allotment maps, and digging up old passport applications for my Irish ancestors.
Through this process, I discovered distant relatives as my best allies–people with documents and information I’ve seldom heard. As wonderful as it was, I also connected with more immediate family members in a whole new way, extracting information the old fashioned way: word of mouth.
For so much of human history, we’ve relied on the oral passing of information, so it’s no surprise that many average people’s stories are lost to the ages. Yet despite modern advancements in writing and record keeping, I realized much of my own history was on that same track. Therefore, I contacted as many realatives as I could, asked about their personal narrative, corroborated details, and wove it into my own story.
As it turns out, people really enjoy speaking about the past in a nostalgic way. It’s reflective and therapeutic to remember the good times: hunting with my great-grandfather, holding a baby-version of me on their knee, recalling the scent of their parent’s cigarettes or perfume. It’s also a chance for them to see how the world has changed and offer nuggets of life advice too commonly wasted on the young.
I discovered second cousins, long-lost relatives, and aunts have all tried to answer the same question. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I absorbed as much as I could. I scribbled down phone numbers and email addresses of people I vaguely remember from my childhood. Some people retained physical birth certificates or naturalization documents. I requested those scanned and sent to me at their convenience. Every piece helps complete the puzzle.
Others had professional genealogists conduct a search, whereas many simply grew a family tree on Ancestry. During my library research, I discovered a handful of second cousin’s trees all over the internet. My last name was plastered in online forums and quabbled over by people who have too much time on their hands (perhaps that includes me now?).
Throughout this journey, I was able to locate first and last names, including some birthplace and residence information for all of my great-great-grandparents. Doing so provides me with 120 – 150 years of family history on both sides of my family. Before continuing a discussion of my discoveries, it seems logical to disassociate my paternal and maternal lineages.
Journey to the Polish Countryside
My father Leo Ryba (b. 1951) was an only child to Steven Edward Ryba and Felicia Marie Ostrowski. He grew up in the 1950s and 60s in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. My grandmother died when I was one, so the only memories of my father’s family reside in Grandpa.
Stephen was blind from a young age, and lived to 92-years old, spending the last decade of his life alone (on the second floor!) in Livonia, Michigan. He attended a school, possibly Jefferson Intermediate School, for the blind in Detroit.
I fondly remember the smell of Meals-on-Wheels in the air, the look of his 1970’s bathroom (it was hideous to modern taste), and the low-roar of WXYT 1270 AM and Ernie Harwell announcing the Detroit Tiger games in his apartment. Rosaries hung on his walls and stacks of books–in Braille of course–weighed down every shelf. What struck me most was how unchanged it was each time I paid a visit.
Despite his disability, he worked for Ford Motor Company as well as the Burroughs Corporation headquartered in Plymouth, Michigan where he manufactured adding machines. His employment at Burroughs lasted 21 remarkable years.
Stephen’s wife Felicia was extremely visually impaired and required quite a bit of assistance with driving, home-making, and taking care of the family affairs. From a young age, my father assisted with much of this work. They were understandably close-knit.
A majority of my father’s ancestors came through New York and eventually settled in the Polish communities of Metro Detroit, such as Hamtramck, to work for the automobile industry. My great-grandfather Wojciech Ryba was reported to be a Ford employee as well.
Through Ancestry, I traced Ryba and Ostrowski back to the early 1830’s and a region known as Galicia or Galicja in Polish. It was a Kingdom dating back to the Middle Ages which straddled modern-day Poland and Ukraine about one hour southeast of Kraków. Scattered throughout the countryside, I noted cities of Zwiernik, Ryglice, and Sanok in the records.
Following my grandmother’s paternal family name Ostrowski, I find indications of ancestors living in what’s now modern-day Linz, Austria and the village of Rosochowaciec, Ukraine. The latter of which fell within the Kingdom of Galicia. Based on US immigration records, it’s clear this region of the world was commonly referred to as such. However any additional granularity as to the location of my ancestors is lost to the ages.
I’ve been humbled to the complexity of record-keeping in days of kingdoms and geopolitical turmoil, which was observably chaotic from our modern vantage point.
Journey to Cornwall and Cork
My mother Wendy Bryant (b. 1956) was one of three children born to Alwin Lionel Bryant and Helen Ruth Duggan. She grew up in a booming and well-off middle class suburb of Detroit, daughter to a General Motor’s metallurgical engineer. Both of my grandparents lived well into my childhood until their deaths in the mid-2000s. Given my birth year, most memories consist of visits to Suttons Bay, Michigan, where Al and Helen retired.
Thanks to strong public and private record-keeping in northern Europe, this history of my English and Irish heritage are clear and date back centuries. For reasons of time and certainty, I suspended my maternal research after my great-great-great-grandparent’s generation.
The discoveries until then were completed and corroborated against a variety of family trees including the Pratts, McKenzies, and Ipoxs. While the records and confusion multiply with each additional generation, so too does the amount of people in which can help you complete your search. A little give, a little take.
The Bryant side of my maternal lineage was traced back to Cornwall, England via northern Michigan. A few generations (possibly more?) of miners migrated to Iron Mountain, Houghton, and Atlantic Mine, Michigan for work. These upper peninsular towns proved extremely lucrative for iron ore extraction. Recalling my state history from fourth grade, Michigan took the upper peninsula in lieu of Toledo, which was incorporated into present-day Ohio–so sad for them.
Eventually work would dry-up or the Bryants sought higher financial gains. So they relocated to Detroit in the early 1900s, where my mother reports Job Mitchell Bryant Jr. was one of Henry Ford’s first 200 hires becasue of his tool and die experience. His father Job Mitchell Sr. and the preceding generations were undoubtedly from the rocky Atlantic peninsula of Cornwall England, a few hours drive west of London.
My great-great-great-grandparents John Bryant and Margaret Mitchell Berriman resided in the Cornwall cities of St. Ives, Lelant, and Towedneck, all of which still exist today as small beach communities.
My mother’s maternal lineage led me down some fascinating paths converging on Cork County, Ireland. The Duggans (about as Irish as it gets), settled first in the Boston area before migrating to Detroit in the 1900s.
Because of comprehensive city directories in the American northeast, I identified five of thier home addresses in the Boston suburbs of Woburn, Lynn, and Newton. Furthermore, thanks to many advancements in document text recognition, I avoided the arduous task of decoding secretary cursive. Many of the documents have already synthesized this information in an easy-to-read pop-up window.
I was beyond excited to find this municipal map containing my ancestor’s name and property location. With a little Google Map magic, I found the street grid and lot in modern Boston. If they indeed owned or lived in the structures at these addresses, they did well for themselves.
I also made the exciting discovery of old passport applications for Julia and Cornelius Duggan. As it would seem, this half of my mother’s family was affluent enough to afford exotic three-month travels to Europe and Africa. Much of that talk is speculation, but it certainly adds to the mystery.
Further exploration of the Duggans and their Irish history in Cork was obscured by time.
Discovering Your Narrative
Thanks to digital information and the internet, searching records and creating a family history has never been easier. What once took months or years can now be completed in a matter of days. Ancestry outsources the long and tedious professional work of genealogy to the world, for the benefit of all. This article alone is an order of magnitude beyond anything my Polish ancestors could’ve put together only a couple hundred years ago.
Yet regardless of our capabilities, both my ancestors and I probably asked similar questions. We wondered about those before us and those to come, but perhaps more importantly, about our role in the present. I came from a line of farmers, tool and die makers, engineers, miners, stay at home parents, accountants, and world explorers. They were urban and rural, educated and illiterate, fighters and survivors of world wars. To understand world history, is to understand genealogy. I’m not particularly good at either, but I found this exercise incredibly enlightening in both fields.
As I review these photos and piece together (with plenty of imagination) the stories of my ancestors, I immediately see sense a common thread, which transcends all cultures, races, religions, and politics. It’s the hope for a new day in which our children’s lives surpass our own. It’s the desire to take one’s lot and produce capable and resilient individuals to carry on torch of history.
Tracing this trajectory has given me a stronger narrative of who I am, where those before me originated, and ethereally speaking, how I think about the world. I’m more empowered and capable of creating a narrative in which I can leave my children, and grandchildren. And my great-great-great-grandchildren who will download this blog through a port in their brain via some Great Network.
Finally, I view this as an exercise to “memento mori”, latin for remember that you have to die. The medieval Christians and ancient Stoic philosophers have cited reverence for mortality as an important part of one’s life. To meditate on this reality is both practical, sobering, and inspiring. It reminds me of the brevity of existence while encouraging me to continuing improving, growing, and learning. These small discoveries are a part of that journey.
Special thanks to these sixteen people that made me possible: Peter Ryba, Lekla Kamenska, Albert Walenga, Julia Henzel, Frank Ostrowski, Josephine Rzmieniecki, Josef Lomnicki, Tecla Jakoboska, Job M Bryant, Mary Elizabeth Austin, George H Kellow, Elizabeth Green, Patrick F Duggan, Julia A Welch, Arthur M Gage, and Edith Mussen.