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.
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.