Why Do We Do Research?

Dr. Branka Lapajne

Why do we do genealogical research? For most people it is a desire to try and find out more about where we came from and what makes up our genetic makeup. While genealogy helps us to identify who our ancestors were, for the most part it only provides us with dates. Dates of birth, marriage and death, attached to the names of those who came before us.

For the last 100 years or so we have at out disposal more information about the kind of people our grandparents or possibly great-grandparents were from letters, diaries, photos and even personal acquaintance with some of these individuals. But what can we do to add to the sparse data we have for our great-grandparents or their grandparents?

If we conduct research for ourselves we can go beyond the bare bones of births, marriages and deaths. If one has the time, the inclination and the knowledge one can explore the other wealth of information contained in the various archives located throughout Slovenia. The National Archives, or Arhiv Slovenije, or the local archives scattered through major towns. In some instances you may find a treasure trove of information to flesh out the bare facts. However, be warned, that such research can take a very long time and may not yield anything or may provide information for an incredible family history. There are no guarantees of success.

Why do some people conduct genealogical research for others? This is a question which is difficult to answer. It is as varied as the people who do this work. In the main there are two kinds of researchers. Those who volunteer their time to help others connect with their roots and those who do the same, but are paid to do so. Among the latter are people, considered by the still uninfected to be slightly nuts, who do genealogical research partly as a living and partly out of the simple enjoyment of the chase.

Regardless, the reason most of us conduct genealogical research is because it is addictive. Better than any mystery novel, because you cannot look at the back of the book to see how it ends. Only time will tell what the results will be. An extensive family tree going back to 1500, if you are very, very lucky, or a brickwall one cannot surmount, right from the outset.

'My grandmother was Maria Adamic, Maria Zupancic, or Anna Znidarsic from Slovenia. Do you have information on her family?' Such queries on the internet are not unusual. However, with no date, place of origin, names of parents, I would suggest staying clear of them. Many descendents of Slovenian emigrants, far removed in time from the arrival of their ancestors, frequently rely on family stories to start their research. Whatever the reason, sometimes these stories are factually incorrect, and can lead them along the wrong path.

If one has a copy from the original church records, the work is relatively easy to begin. However, with only one such copy most likely in existence, many descendents have only verbal information about their ancestor's date and place of birth. While some may only be off by a few days, others can be years off the mark. In the case of one family researched this led to the mistaken assumption that they did not live in the
parish. As the only family with that specific surname not having the right dates meant not finding any members of the family. Even when the entire year, or the years before and after the dates provided were checked, the family could not be located. Only a complete search of the parish records uncovered the various family members. Each and every one of the births was off by several years, in one instance by nearly six years.  

Then there are those people whose only information is that their ancestors were from Ljubljana or its immediate vicinity. To Americans 10, 20 or even 30 miles in any direction from Ljubljana is nothing. In terms of distance, when translated to Slovenian circumstances it can mean an area from Ljubljana almost to the Austrian border in the north, the Italian border in the west, and nearly as far as the Croatian border in the south. This region involves an incredible number of parishes which would make starting research a difficult task indeed. Furthermore, it involves the Archbishopric of Ljubljana, the Bishopric of Koper and, if one travels eastward, the Bishopric of Maribor.

With some surnames it is possible to narrow down the area with the help of the telephone directory. However, with increased mobility in the last century, this can mean that certain surnames can be found in larger towns and cities which, fifty or 100 years ago, were not indigenous to them.

However, luck and a good memory can sometimes cause minor miracles to occur. Here are just a few of my experiences.

Last year I was approached by a woman who had no idea where her ancestors came from in the mid-1800's. The father had given Germany as his place of origin. His daughter and son-in-law gave Austria-Hungary. I was given this daughter's name and surname and something about it rang a bell. I had seen that very same surname a couple of days earlier in my notes. Checking them I found that the names were indeed the same. With dates of birth provided for both husband, wife, and two children, I forwarded this information, saying that it was a long-shot, but this family could just be the one she was looking for. Her reply confirmed that the hunch I had had, was indeed correct. The dates all matched the dates of birth she had for her ancestors, obtained from records in the US. While I had provided information on one child totally unknown to the

This year I met a couple who had nothing more to go on then the name of the husband's grandfather, his age and a possible place of origin from the Ellis Island records. However, he provided as his place of origin Laibach / Ljubljana and what appeared to be a house address. Had one started research here, one could have looked through all the parishes of the city and found nothing on the individual in question. However, there were a few clues which indicated that what appeared to be a street address, was in actual fact the village of Draga. Unfortunately, this village is not one of your rare ones, but one which can be found in many places of Slovenia. At least 14 examples of this place name exist, if not more. The telephone directory would not have helped in this instance, because the surname can no longer be found in the village. Looking at the list of passengers who accompanied this young man, I noticed the name of one whose surname was familiar, together with the same village as his place of origin. The location of this Draga was known to me. Assuming that the two young men were probably friends, travelling together to the U.S., I suggested this place as the most likely place of origin for the grandfather. When informed about where it was, he recalled his grandfather mentioning the Kolpa river as being not far from where he lived. Later research confirmed that the address given was indeed his place of birth. Not Ljubljana, but Draga, miles away near the present-day Slovenian-Croatian border.

One of the biggest obstacles for Slovenian genealogical researchers is trying to convince some people that though their ancestors gave Austria-Hungary as their place of origin, this does not mean they came from the territory of present-day Austria. Some names are distinctly Slovenian in origin. If one has knowledge of them, one does not require records to know that the person in question most likely came from Slovenia. When I contacted an individual, who had submitted a query regarding his family on an Austrian genealogical website, with the information that his ancestor came from what is today Slovenia, he quite adamently replied: 'Yes, the name and family probably originated in Slovenia, further back in time, but my ancestors came from Austria-Hungary!' It would not have been worth the effort to try and convince him that while his ancestors came from Austria-Hungary, at that time the empire included the entire area of present-day Slovenia. He was convinced they came from Austria-Hungary and that was that! To him this meant they had come from Austria. However, in the course of checking my notes I found his surname and the rather unusual name of Felix for the child of another family. This name stuck in my memory. Some months later, a different query on another genealogical site asked for information on this specific individual. Consequently, I was able to inform the person in question, exactly where her ancestors came from.

Other experiences I have had have included finding information showing that two different clients shared the same ancestors 200 years back, being descended from a brother and a sister. In another case, the family of one client served as godparents to the family of the other for quite a number of children, over many years. Then there is the family whose ancestors all came from the same parish, and whose four to five generation family tree was successfully completed in a number of hours. On the other hand, one family keeps disappearing every generation or so, with no indication where they had come from. One branch was found by chance, while researching for someone else and hopefully the same kind of luck will turn up another generation or so.

However, for all the apparent small miracles, there are others which are much harder to solve. One family provided a place of origin for their ancestors, with dates of birth for several siblings. Unfortunately, the surname is not indigenous to the area, but can be found elsewhere. While the youngest sibling had indeed been born in the place cited by the family, no record could be located for the older ones. It was clear they had come from elsewhere, but the question remains where? Looking at surrounding parishes has not yet proven successful in locating the family.

Then there are those people who are convinced that their family is descended from a French soldier who remained behind during the Napoleonic era. Considering the number of French origin stories abounding, Napoleon's entire army would have had to desert and remain in Slovenia. Granted there are a few families who may be descended from just such a soldier, but they are few and far between. The vast majority can be proven to be of Slovenian origin long before Napoleon and his French soldiers ever set foot on Slovenian soil.

In conclusion, anyone contemplating undertaking genealogical research for clients should have a considerable amount of experience in the field. While some family trees are relatively simple, many have roadblocks which hamper the search. Namely: numerous individuals with the same surname and given names in a parish or village. Surnames which can be found throughout Slovenia.

To do proper research, one also has to enjoy the chase and not mind the obstacles of missing records, fading ink, dust and sometimes incredibly poor penmanship. All of these things are just part of what you will encounter in this field of endeavor, whether researching for yourself or for others.