Finding my Family

Finding my Family

Mar 30, 2017

by Joan Smatt-Peterson | No. 188, Minot, ND

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in California, I enjoyed attending a class in genealogy and found that I was totally interested in finding out about my great-grandparents. My father enjoyed telling me about his grandmother with whom he had a close relationship. On a Sunday, she would gather her grandchildren and they would listen to classical music.

Knowing that our ancestors kept trying to better their lives and their children’s lives gives me an appreciation for them and their efforts, and one can only hope that we follow in their footsteps.

My mother on the other hand, really wasn’t able to tell me much about her grandparents. I was fortunate to find that many of her relatives remained in the Chicago area. Their lives are more interesting to me as those you may read about in a book -- not fiction, but real people.

Barbora and Josef.

My interest in family started early. When I was about eight years old, my kind uncle gave me a small book which contained every day of the year and a thoughtful gem for a young child to contemplate. This birthday book was my first suggestion that autographs of people could be entered on their birthday.

Later, scheduling my daily work habits seemed logical to me so in the 60’s, with my four children in elementary school, I was able to eke out several hours on a Wednesday to devote to research. It really was like returning to school to master what procedures would be necessary to find the records of my family. A good typewriter was essential in writing letters to government offices, churches, and relatives. There are over 11,500 names in my family tree. In the 60’s when I heard from others who spoke of thousands of names, I decided I would be happy to see just 100. As the generations expanded, so did the ancestors.

My advice is to start with your older relatives and write down all they can give you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions because if they don’t want to give you an answer, you’ll know, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask. Be accurate, there is not much room for supposition, keep the facts as they are, not as you might like them to be.

About 1968, the Soviets, Poland, and a few others invaded Czechoslovakia, which made traveling there almost impossible, and stunted my research. The government had no choice but to capitulate; however, it was the Velvet Revolution that finally raised the curtain so when my sister and I ventured there in 1991, the atmosphere changed from a “no, you cannot” to “yes, you can” and research became easier.

Names of researchers were available from the various Czech genealogical societies and inquiry is all that was necessary. My father also enjoyed a bit of genealogy as he had many letters from Czech relatives who he kept and gave to me as I became interested. I found a lady who would interpret the letters so my research went deeper.

The records I acquired from 1700 and beyond were the births, marriages, deaths, addresses, some plats, and some pictures of my ancestors. When records were researched, there was also the possibility of acquiring miscellaneous information about what was happening with events surrounding these families.

During my research, I learned that my family's earliest emigrants to the United States were my great-grandparents Josef and Barbora in 1857 who were married with a young son of six months. They traveled with another couple with a baby daughter, my great-grandmother’s brother Josef, and his wife Anna. Josef and Barbora went to Chicago, while Josef and Anna went to Wisconsin. Confusion began at this point as my great-grandfather’s surname was different in the record: Zakostelna instead of Holub.

It wasn’t until I researched more of his family that I found surnames were not permanent and could be interchanged. The name Holub was given in his family record so in the name of better interpretation, this was the easier of the two. My own grandfather also changed his name from Smatt to Smart as he also decided that this was more American, which is what he desired to be. His brother remained Smatt throughout most his lifetime.

Josef and Barbora experienced the October 8 Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but did not lose their home. They vacated with what they could carry to reach safer areas, but were able to walk the long walk back home.

When Josef did not receive tax papers and inquired, he found that someone else had paid the taxes and would now own the home and property. However, Josef was wise and had all the necessary papers, so that when he went to court, he was awarded his property. Scams like this were more common at the time, and if they could not produce the proper documents, people would lose their properties to individuals who would take advantage by paying the tax.

In that same month, October 1871, my great-aunt, Barbora’s brother’s wife, also died. It is unknown what effect the great fire had in her death as she gave birth to a son on August 26, 1871 and died shortly after the 8th of October.

I never met my mother’s grandparents though they lived in Chicago, all the pictures of the farm and records were acquired from a researcher. Though the farm was large, the economics of the area were receding. The first two eldest sons, my grandfather and his brother, emigrated and after a few years, encouraged their father to sell the farmlands and bring the rest of the family to Chicago. Did this improve their lot in life? Only they could tell me that. One of my sorrows is that I never knew them as he died in 1907 and she died in 1935.

Knowing that our ancestors kept trying to better their lives and their children’s lives gives me an appreciation for them and their efforts, and one can only hope that we follow in their footsteps.

Category: Czech Connection

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