You’re Nowak? I’m Nowak, too! We might be related!

Ok, ok, *I* am not a Nowak. But if you do carry that last name keep in mind that so do 183,355 Poles in present day Poland (according to 2018 report from Polish Ministry of Digital Affairs). That’s a bit less than a number of people living in Salt Lake City, Utah! *I* do have, however, last name Kowalski in my family tree. In 2018 some 126,000 people in Poland carried that last name. That’s more than population of Hartford, Connecticut! Would any of us go to Salt Lake City or Hartford and ask every person met on a street if they are related to us just based on last name?

Novák is also the most popular last name is Czech Republic and, to my surprise, Novak is the most popular last name in Slovenia. Oh, why so many Nowaks/Novaks! Why is it the most popular?! Well, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovenia do have Slavic roots and so do their languages. In all those languages “Nowak/Novak” means a newcomer, a new person. And last names did for many people originate from nick names. Imagine you’re living in a small village and suddenly a new person arrives at the village. His name is Jan (Polish version of John). He’s not the only Jan in the village. So you talk to your neighbor about situation at the village and it goes something like:

-Hey, there, neighbor! How are you? How are your kids? How’s moonshine making going?

-Oh, good, good. And yours?

-Good. Good, too. Say, what do you think about this Jan fella?

-Jan who?

-Jan the newcomer.

-Ah, him? Helped me with a roof and he has good head for drinking! He’s a good fella!

So Jan who just arrived at the village just got a nickname to distinguish him from all the other Jans’ in the village. And, as you can imagine, Jan the newcomer is not the only one with the nickname in the village. There’s Jan the smith (Kowal), Jan a son of Marcin (Marcinkowski), Jan a son of Piotr (Piotrowski), Jan a fat one (Gruby)… Can you see where I’m going with this?

Oh, and your village is not the only one where there’s newcomer Jan and Jan the smith and Jan a son of Marcin and so on. Same situation occurred in multiple villages across the land. So in two neighboring villages you might have Jan the newcomer but those two Jans’ are not related. They just happen to both be new to their villages.

At some point in history government said people can’t just have different nicknames for each generation and each kid in the family. They have to stick to one nickname/last name that will be carried over. And so last names for all in the population got developed.

Yes, I just shortened the history of last names, but if you are interested in knowing more I recommend you pick up William F. Hoffman’s book “Polish Surnames:Origins & Meanings”

But lest get back on track. Reason I write this entry is that I am an admin for one of the Polish genealogy groups of Facebook and as happy I am it is a growing group I also see more and more posts that go something like “I’m looking for [last name]” with no additional details given.

Those posts have very small chances of success. Reason being that, while your last name might seem strange and unusual to you it most likely is not strange and unusual in Poland. Would you ask “I’m looking for Johnson in US” on US genealogy group?

I would like to share 3 examples of why posts “looking for [last name]” makes little sense.

1) My last name, Cwynar, is very popular in 3 small villages in Podkarpackie Voivodeship. To a point where Cwynar marries Cwynar. I am not related to ANY of them. At least not in last 250 years – that is proven by paper trail. My Cwynars come from small village near Lwów. All Cwynars on all forums I found so far are NOT my family. We share the last name, not common ancestors. And if you were to search for my last name on it won’t show Lwów area, since that is in present day Ukraine. It won’t give proper distribution of MY family, since a lot changed after WWII.

2) In my tree I have Marcinkowski last name. Actually, I have it twice – I have it in my maternal line and my paternal line. My maternal line and paternal line never crossed each other, never lived near each other, not until my parents met. Marcinkowski is a patronymic last name coming from given name Marcin. It “popped up” as a last name in multiple places around Poland because many people, at the time when last names became a thing in Poland (late 1700s-early 1800s) were children of Marcin – different Marcins. My maternal Marcinkowski come from area of Zduńska Wola in Łódz area, while my paternal Marcinkowski come from Ostrów Mazowiecka. Those families are DEFINITELY not related to each other. It is a sheer coincidence, but at the same time there is around 38 million Poles and only limited amount of last names to use. If you were to ask me about my Marcinkowski I would have to know about which village Marcinkowski you speak about.

3) This example is rather complicated. I have Orchowski last name in my tree. I traced it back to Orchowski in late 1700s-early 1800s from around Zduńska Wola. My ancestor Michał Orchowski gives that last name to all his children. But he himself was married Orkowski. It was most likely a priest who changed the family last name and Michał stayed with it. So did all his children and later descendants. Michał’s brother, Maciej, is married as Orkowski but most his children are baptized and get married as Workowski or Beutel. Maciej married a German Lutheran woman and his children attended Lutheran church. Priest there was German and translated Workowski into Beutel. It stuck. So Michał’s and Maciej’s grandkids, while 2nd cousins, were using either Orchowski, Workowski or Beutel last names. Here comes a twist! Michał’s and Maciej’s father, Marcin, was German. He moved with his family from Czarnków (Polish/German area) to Zduńska Wola area (heavily Polish) and priest in Zduńska Wola area used Orkowski for them, but in Czarnków Marcin was known as Beutel and his children were baptized Beutel. That is a reason why I was never able to connect other Orchowski families to my family – my Orchowski is fairly fresh last name! And thanks to paper trail I was able to figure out that Workowski, Orkowski, Orchowski and Beutel are all descendants of Marcin Beutel! But if I were to only post “I’m looking for Orchowski” I would have been stuck on a brick wall for years.

I hope this gives some lesson that only paper trail (with support of DNA) can lead you all down the correct line of ancestors, without any of us barking up the wrong tree. I am sure no one would want to do extensive research into a line to only find out years later they jumped the gun in the beginning and chased after wrong family.

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