So Many Questions I Should Have Asked

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on

I suppose I was always a bit too busy to be interested in my ancestry. It was not until my mother-in-law began tirelessly working to fill in the blanks of her family tree that I even thought about who might have come before my parents and grandparents in the long line of history before my birth. I was so busy living in the present and looking toward the future that I never looked back in time. It was not until I had to conduct an oral history interview for a class that I was taking that I finally began to ask my grandfather questions about the family. By then both of my grandmothers and my maternal grandfather had all died so Grandpa was my only source for finding my roots.

What I found from my grandfather is that even he knew very little about his background. His mother died from complications within days of his birth and he ended up being raised by a woman that he called his grandmother. At the time I took down the information I was more interested in his treasure trove of stories about characters he had known than nailing down the exact information about those who were supposedly his relatives. I learned that his father’s name was James Mack and his mother was Marion Rourk. The grandmother who took care of him from infancy until he was thirteen was Sarah Reynolds. When she died my grandfather had to choose a guardian and he picked Lieutenant John Little who was supposedly an uncle and from whom Grandpa took his last name, officially becoming William Mack Little. 

When I really became interested in hardcore genealogy I found out quickly that my grandfather was virtually untraceable. After over ten years of serious sleuthing I have been unable to find any records on his parents, his grandmother or his connections with John Little. His story stops with those names and it is as though he actually just appeared in a cabbage patch one day. I have reached out to descendants of John Little hoping to find the missing link through them but they know nothing about my grandfather and nobody on Lt. Little’s family tree leads to any of the people who were part of Grandpa’s life.

My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, has a history that I have traced all the way back to Vikings like the infamous Rollo. Her ancestors roamed, and no doubt pillaged, areas along the North Sea including Normandy and what eventually became England. My lineage includes the Dukes of Normandy and minor members of royalty in England. Eventually Grandma’s people came to the new world and became some of the first settlers in Virginia. When the American Revolution broke out they served on the front lines of the battles and then quietly carved out lives in the new nation. My great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, fought with the Union army and settled in Arkansas after the war in an area that is now a national forest. There he had a large family that included my grandmother, Minnie Bell.

Since I was never able to find out anything about my Grandpa Little’s family history I assumed that learning about my mother’s parents would be impossible. Her mom and dad were immigrants from what is now Slovakia. Grandma Ulrich spoke no English by the time I came along and my grandfather had died shortly before I was born. The stories that my mother and aunts and uncles told about their lineage were contradictory and confusing. One version said the my grandfather, Paul D. Ulrich, was born in Cleveland, Ohio and sent for my grandmother, Maria Bartakovich, who was living in the Slovakian region of Austria-Hungary. Another version insisted that they were both immigrants. Unraveling the mystery took years and a few excellent hints from one of my cousins.

After a bit of detective work I learned that my grandfather had indeed been born in Austria-Hungary. His birth name was Pavel Uhrik and he came to the United States on a steamship that departed from Bremen, Germany. His port of entry was Galveston, Texas and he arrived in 1912. I have actually seen a copy of the ship’s manifest with his name and information. A year later my grandmother arrived and the two of them began their story in America. Obviously my grandfather changed his name to one that he must have thought sounded less foreign and my grandmother became known as Mary.

I was eventually able to find my grandfather’s naturalization papers in which he swore allegiance to the United States and denounced all loyalty to Austria-Hungary thus proving that he was indeed an immigrant and had not been born in Cleveland, Ohio. In an interesting twist my mother’s eldest brother kept his father’s original last name but spelled it a bit differently. He was William Uhrick while all of his siblings went by Ulrich.

A couple of years ago I was going through some family paperwork that had been stored in a dusty old cardboard box for who knows how many years. I learned a great deal about my Slovakian grandparents from the documents and receipts. Hidden among the piles of paper was a single slip of paper on which one of my uncles had named his great grandparents. I excitedly recorded that tip on my Ancestry family tree and got a few more hints almost immediately, but I was still tentative regarding the accuracy of my discovery so I posted something to that effect on Facebook. Within minutes my phone rang and it was another of my cousins informing me that she had hired a genealogy detective in Slovakia to track down our family. He had sent her information on our paternal and maternal great grandparents and great great grandparents but she too had been worried that he was just a charlatan peddling false information that we would never be able to verify. The information that I had found in that old box was the key to learning that she indeed had the names and birth information of two more generations of our family. She even had baptismal dates for my grandparents and the names of the churches where they had been christened. It was a stunning revelation. 

I spend hours from time to time attempting to unlock the mystery of my paternal grandfather. He was an only child who grew up in an isolated part of Virginia. It is possible that nobody ever bothered to travel into the hills to gather a census from his people. It is also possible that those that he called “Grandma” and “Uncle” were not even related to him. His life was so informal that his birth does not even seem to have been recorded. The first official record of his existence does not appear until he was well into his thirties. The story of his family may begin with him unless I get very lucky or pay an expert to do some real digging into his past. 

For now I am happy to know as much as I do. I have a row of Jim Shore Santas on a shelf that represent the many lands of my ancestors. From my DNA I now know that my lineage has deep roots in both western and eastern Europe and that the story of how I came to be is far more interesting that I ever imagined. I only wish that I had become more interested in finding my roots when my grandparents were all still alive. There are so many questions that I should have asked.


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