For years, I’ve been meaning to do a bit of research on my family history. Not that I really expected to find much of interest.
As I always understood it, we were a family of immigrants – with no real roots in this country and few connections to the old country. I knew that my father’s parents, Alex and Katarzyna Bosakowska Kowal, emigrated from Poland and Ukraine in the early 1910s, back when these were provinces of Austria and Russia. They met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, married and had my father Anton in 1917. Not long after that, they settled in a remote corner of Staten Island and raised a family of seven kids.
On my mother’s side, the family history was a bit of a mystery. My grandparents, Harry and Anna Sabol Agin, had three kids (including my mother Lillian) and lived in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I knew that my grandmother’s parents, Andrew and Mary Sabol, emigrated from Austria in the 1880s and that they were of indeterminate nationality. (My grandmother sometimes said they were “Slavish.”) But no one ever explained the origins of the Agin family. When I asked my grandmother, she would just say they were “a League o’ Nations.”
Apart from Andrew and Mary Sabol, I didn’t know much about my great grandparents or about any ancestors beyond that. Mary Sabol, who lived to be very old, was the only great grandparent I ever met. I remember attending her funeral but, sadly, that’s the only real memory I have of her. I also remember interviewing my grandfather Alex Kowal about his family history for a seventh-grade school project. I remember he told me his grandfather’s name was Philemon and his mother’s was Mary. He also told me the name of the town he lived in but I can’t remember it for the life of me.
Not that much to go on. I had the goal, one day, of doing some digging around to learn a bit more about my ancestors in the Kowal, Bosakowski, Agin and Sabol family lines. But I only got serious about it a couple of months back when my niece, Sarah Tress, had some questions about our family history for her own class project. I told her what I knew but felt the need to double-check some names and dates. So I signed up on ancestry.com and made a few other investigations online and learned some pretty extraordinary things. I also uncovered some mysteries in need of solving.
From old census forms, I learned that Alex and Katarzyna Kowal came to this county in 1912 and married in 1916. That morsel of information allowed me to track down a marriage certificate revealing the names of my great grandparents and towns where they were born – if only I can decipher what it says. Can this be the key to finding my European ancestors in the Kowal and Bosakowski lines?
From census data I was also able to learn that Andrew and Mary Sabol were Slovaks. Turns out I’m one-quarter Slovak and never knew it! But where in Slovakia did they come from and who were their forebears? I’m still trying to track down a marriage certificate which might provide additional clues.
But the biggest surprises came from the Agin branch of the family. From old census forms I learned that my great grandfather was Jacob S. Agin and that he was married to a German immigrant named Tillie. So it turns out I’m one-eighth German and never knew that either! But where did Tillie come from and what was her maiden name?
When my grandfather Harry Agin seemed to be missing from the 1920 census, I turned over a lot of stones before I found him living with a grandmother named Mary Vannote – also born in Germany. This had to be Tillie’s mother but she only married William Vannote, an American, years after the birth of her daughter. So did mother and daughter come to the United States together? But what happened to Tillie’s father? And how did Mary come to marry William Vannote?
Finally, and most amazingly, I was able very quickly to trace the Agin family lineage up to my fourth great grandfather, James Agin, who fought in the Revolutionary War and was the progenitor of generations of Agins in central New Jersey, Ohio and beyond. And through my second great grandfather, Samuel Davis Agin, who fought in the Civil War and came home to marry a woman named Rhoda Wyckoff, I have been able to trace ancestors back more than ten generations – including some of the very earliest settlers of New York and New Jersey back when it was still a Dutch colony. I also learned that the Agin line is a mix of Irish, English, Welsh, Dutch, French and more – so my grandmother was right to call them “a League o’ Nations.”
Already, I’ve uncovered so much information that it’s getting hard to keep it straight. So I’ve started this blog as a record of my research, a chronicle of some wonderful discoveries (more on these in future posts) and, hopefully, a way to connect with others who can shed some light on the forebears I never knew I had (and who might even have a photo or two).