Monday, July 25, 2011

Mystery Monday - Austrian? Polish? Russian? Ukrainian? Something else?

Ethnicity.  We often take great pride in the mother country of our ancestors.  One of the interesting things about genealogy research is you can uncover that some family history which is has been passed down is untrue or riddled with mistakes.

This is a story of one of those instances that makes you to rethink your family origins.

I had always been told that my maternal grandmother's family came to the US from Russia.  The family name was Gula and it sounded like it could be Russian to me, so I never had any reason to question it.

The Research

My great-grandfather, George Gula, lived in Scottdale, PA for most of his life. He passes away on May 21, 1967.  George died before I was born and evidently my mother and his daughter believed that he had been born in part of Russia.

The first records I reviewed to find out his origins were the 1930 US Census. The census records indicated that he was born in Austria.

Austria? No one had ever said anything about Austria. In addition, the census records indicated that the language spoken at home was Russian and that he was born abt 1889. Also, it stated that he arrived in 1906.

Lots of great data.

Next, I uncovered a copy of George's obituary. See post June 21,2011. This, too, stated he was born in Austria, but the obituary gave the name of the town of his birth, Wolowitz. Great! His hometown! Perfect! This should be easy. However, there isn't a Wolowitz, Austria.

I was aware that country borders in Europe moved around a lot over the last few hundred years, but i didn't know of any period where Russia was a part of Austria.

I expected that if I could get a copy of George's naturalization records, that may help be a key piece of the puzzle to his origins. I requested copy of George Gula's naturalization records from Westmoreland County, PA   The naturalization records revealed that he was born on March 12, 1889 in the town Wolowiec, Austria. The slight change in spelling of the name of the town made a big difference. Even more importantly, the naturalization records revealed that George arrived at NYC on the ship the Oldenburg on November 21, 1906.

Next, I went to the Ellis Island Immigration records looking for the original passenger list records. This was a jackpot of information. First, I found that George's birth name was "Jewka" Gula and that he was from Austrian Galicia (a region that included part of Poland). Second, it gave his race as "Ruthenian". This was a new one to me and I thought that this might have been an error or another way of referring to Russian ethnicity.

Google search of Wolowiec and Austria Galicia revealed that Wolowiec was no longer part of Austria, but was in extreme southern Poland in the Carpathian Mountains.  Here is a picture of the Byzantine Catholic church which still stands in Wolowiec, Poland.

Does this mean I was Polish?  But what was this "Ruthenian" people? Was that a clue?

I checked "Ruthenian" and found a Wikipedia entry which stated that essentially Ruthenians were Eastern European Slavic peoples specifically Lithuanian, Ukrainian or Belarussians. When I did some additional searches on Wolowiec and on Ruthenian...I eventually found a great website called the Carpatho-rusyn knowledge base. On this website, I discovered that the Greek or Byzantine Catholic residents of Wolowiec were part of an ethnic group called Carpathian Rusyns or just Rusyns. It is interesting to note the Ukraine does not recognize this group and believes they are Ukrainians and not a separate sub-group.

Some famous Rusyns include:  Andy Warhol (famous painter), Robert Urich (actor), and Tom Ridge (former Governor of Pennsylvania).

But, in the end, I found out my Great-grandfather was born in modern day Poland and that he was ethnically a Ukrainian/Rusyn...not Russian.

It is amazing how a few weeks of research can result in having you rethink everything you thought you knew about your family origins.


  1. As soon as I saw the name Gula, I thought "Rusyn" - the "-ula" ending is common among the Rusyns. Since your great-grandfather was from the Polish part of "Greater Ruthenia," he would probably be identified as a "Lemko Rusyn" (Boyko Rusyns = Slovakia, Hutsul Rusyns = Ukraine). Most likely he attended an Eastern Catholic church here in the US, though some Rusyns ended up in Roman Catholic or even Orthodox churches.

  2. You are right. He attended a Byzantine Catholic Church. A distant cousin told me that they spoke "Little Russian" which is explained was a dialect of Ukrainian. Before coming upon his Rusyn origins, I had no idea this group of people existed.

  3. What a fascinating tale of twists and turns. Amazing how a little research can fill a beloved family tale full of holes. Very interesting.

  4. On my husbands great grandmother it first listed Bohemia, Austria and then Germany. What I found is that they were ethnic Germans living in Bohemia which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (it was a huge Empire---probably part of Poland where you ancestors came from).

    In 1918 the ethinc Germans were expelled and now the area is Western Czech Republic.

  5. Those borders really did move around a lot! There was a period where Poland didn't exist it had just been carved up between Russia and Austria.

  6. This sounds like my mother-in-law's grandfather! In the various censuses between 1900 and 1930, he is listed as being born in Austria (1900), Russia (1910), Austria (1920) and Poland (1930). I am working on a blog post about this at

  7. @Elizabeth. Wow! I thought I had it tough, but that sounds extremely confusing.

  8. That amazed me when you shared it with me yesterday, b/c my dad always said our great-grandfather was from the Ukraine (or our great-grandmother, actually I think he said both were & they met over here in the U.S.).

  9. @Karen. Both the Korba and Gula families were both from a similar area of present day Poland.

  10. Dear Mr. Gula, I believe that our great grandparents were brother and sister. Her name was Anna Gula from Wolowiec, Poland. She married Dimitri Pregon from the same village. Same church as pictured on your blog. Kathy Kasich Gallagher

    1. Hi Kathy, Very interesting. Do you have anything you can share about Anna Gula and anything you might know about Wolowiec? Thanks!

    2. Hello,
      Also looking for info on my last name, Gula. Did George have any brothers? My great grandfather was Harry Gula. 1940 Census lists him as 52 at the time. Birthplace Austria 1888. Cant find a match to the first name on Ellis Island site. He was married to Eva (maiden name Margura also lists birthplace as Austria). They had 6 children (Frank Anna Alex Robert Jean Dorothy). Figuring he may have changed his first name. They lived in Ohio. Going to search for his naturalization record next.

    3. My great grandfather, George Gula had several cousins who lived in the same area, one named Stefan (Steve) and one named Nat. Nat had a son named Harry Gula that lived moved to Ohio. I am sure Harry would be an adaption of a Rusyn name, but don't know what it would be.

  11. I see that from his Obit he just had a brother John and Sister. So doesnt seem like Geogre was my Great Grandfathers brother. Very similar search though. I was always told they were from Ukrania and was interested to see birthplace of Austria in the census.

  12. My family name is Gula, father's name George, grandfather Peter. This branch of Gulas hails from Krajná Bystrá, Slovakia which is about 20 miles SE of Wołowiec. My grandfather Peter, emigrated in 1909 to Sharon, PA via NJ.

    My wife and I visited the village this fall. It is very beautiful and Gula families represent perhaps 1/3 of the village. These Gulas are Rusyn. Their church is Eastern Rite Catholic. You can see photos at: It would be interesting to know about connections to the Gulas in Poland.


  13. George's birth name was "Jurko", not "Jewka"