Research Sources

Finding My Ancestors' Photographs Using Public Records

by James D. Summers

[This article was originally published in the Winter 1995-1996 issue of the Bulletin of the Polish Genealogical Society of America, Vol. IV, No. 1, pp. 1, 3-4]

One of my goals as I pursue my genealogical research is to find photographs of my ancestors. I have succeeded in finding two of my Polish great-grandparents' photographs in public records. This is how I went about it.

I started to trace my father's Polish ancestry in early 1994 with only a few sources at hand. One was a copy of his baptismal certificate from St. Hedwig Roman Catholic church, Chicago, which my sister found among my father's papers after his death in 1993. It gave both his Anglicized surname, Summers, and his Polish surname, Suchomski. Until this discovery, I did not know that I was of Polish background. Two other sources were a rough pedigree chart made by my mother, and a birthday record book into which I had written the marriage date of my paternal grandparents as told to me by my father.

Using U.S. census records for Chicago, I collected information on my paternal grandfather, Edmund Summers (Suchomski), and on his father, John Suchomski. I focused my research on John. I learned from the census that he was a tailor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1880 from Poland and settled in Chicago. Next, I obtained copies of death notices in the Dziennik Chicagoski from the Polish Museum of America Library, Chicago, for John and his wife, Hedwig. I had obtained their death dates using the Illinois Death Index at the Newberry Library, Chicago. Their death notices stated that they had belonged to the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA). Hedwig, who died in 1925, was a member of the Society of the Holy Mother of Czestochowa, No. 53. John, who died in 1933, was a member of the Society of Saints Peter and Paul, No. 34.

I wondered if there were any group photographs of these societies in existence. None of my close relatives had any such photographs. I tried asking at the Library of the Polish Museum of America in Chicago; they referred me to the PRCUA. When I inquired there, they thought I was trying to collect on my great-grandparents' insurance policies! They said they did not have any photographs. I decided to shelve this idea for a while.

Then, in the summer of 1994, I struck up a conversation with a PGSA member at my local Family History Center. I was searching through Polish Roman Catholic church records of my ancestral villages. This member told me that the Polish Museum Library had jubilee books for the various Chicago Polish parishes, and that these books had individual and family portrait photographs.

From my research, I had obtained a copy of my paternal grandparents' marriage record in 1899 from St. Stanislaus Kostka parish, Chicago (I had tried at St. Hedwig but I was unsuccessful), using the marriage date I had recorded. So I knew the Suchomskis were members of this parish in 1899, and I suspected that they were still parishoners when they died, since their funeral Masses had been at that church, according to their death notices. St. Stanislaus Kostka parish had its 50th anniversary in 1917.

I rushed over to the Polish Museum Library, hoping to find two of my great-grandparents in the St. Stanislaus Kostka 50-year jubilee book. Not quite! There were ample numbers of individual and family portraits of the prominent Chicago Polish-American families; my great-grandparents were ordinary. John Suchomski was listed in the back of the book. There were group photographs of some of the societies of the PRCUA. John's society was not there. But Hedwig's was! (click here to see a portion of the photograph; click here to see the entire photograph). Now I was confronted with a photograph of about a hundred women without a caption identifying any of them. Not only that, what if my great-grandmother was sick the day the photograph was taken? How could I be sure that she was even in the photograph?

Using a magnifying glass (the faces were only one-eighth inch wide), I scanned each face and compared it to a photograph of my father taken at about the same age (Hedwig was 62 years old in 1917). I figured there had to be some resemblance. I settled on the woman, third from the left, second full row, with her hands clasped in front. Then I showed the photograph to my sister. She chose another woman. Then I showed it to my niece. She picked still another woman. I thought the whole exercise was futile at this point.

However, a short while later, I found the marriage record of John Suchomski and Hedwig Myslinska at my local Family History Center on a microfilm of the marriage book of the Roman Catholic parish of Lubiewo, powiat of Swiecie, near Bydgoszcz, Poland. They were married on November 10, 1873. Since Hedwig survived to 1925, the couple had to have celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1923. I decided to look in issues of the Dziennik Chicagoski for an announcement.

Not only was there an announcement in the November 14, 1923 issue, there was a whole story with photographs of the pair (see below); and the image of Hedwig matched that of the woman I had scrutinized in the St. Stanislaus Kostka jubilee book!

But this is not the end of my discoveries. I subsequently recovered death notices of some of John Suchomski's children that were published in the Chicagoski. One of the daughters, Frances Suchomska Wojtynek, died in 1950 and had belonged to the same PRCUA society as her mother, according to her death notice. She was thirty years old in 1917. I believe that Frances is the young woman standing to Hedwig's left [viewer's right] in the jubilee book photograph (click here to see the photograph). She somewhat resembles her father. Thus I may very well have stumbled upon a portrait of one of my paternal great-aunts!

Hedwig and John Suchomski [35KB]

Hedwig (left) and John Suchomski

Photographs from the announcement of the Suchomski's 50th anniversary in the 14 November 1923 issue of the Dziennik Chicagoski. From the Polish Museum of America Library.