Place Names – More Important Than Surnames

by Fred Hoffman 

This article is from the July 2006 issue of Gen Dobry!, and is used with permission. Website URLs have been updated to be current as of May 2019.

I think lately I’ve been irritating people who write to me for information on their surnames. I keep saying things like “Focus on the family, not the name,” and “Where they came from is more important than their name.” They probably think I’m nuts, but I’m convinced there’s truth in what I’m saying. Let me see if I can explain.

Surnames are, of course, a great help in tracing your ancestors. I think inexperienced researchers rely on them too much, however. Surnames are rarely distinctive enough to tell you where your people came from. They’re subject to constant misspelling and misreading, and sometimes they were changed outright when immigrants started trying to “fit in” and realized their names were getting in the way. Yes, you need surnames to get back to Poland; but I’m coming to think the place name is what really matters. If you can establish which village your ancestors came from, you can then get a look at the local records. In those records you may spot your family, even if the surname has changed, just by comparing first names and dates and places.

On the other hand, if all you know is your ancestor was Kowalski and he came from Poland, you’re out of luck! There’s simply nowhere to start. If there were some central repository of all records for every person who ever lived in Poland, maybe you’d have an outside chance. But most records were kept locally. So a surname gets you nowhere unless you also have the name of a town or village where you can look for it.

Let me give you a practical example from my recent experience.

I was contacted by a gentleman who knew the original Polish form of his surname, but he’d discovered this name was widespread all over Poland. So, wisely, he kept digging, and on the Ellis Island Website he found the passenger manifest entry that documented his grandfather’s admission to the U.S. It said his grandfather came from “Kosfarovd,” and he was Austrian-Polish. The gentleman explained he’d looked all over for a Kosfarovd and came up empty. He was going to visit Poland in a few weeks, and would love to visit this place his grandfather came from, if he could just find it. He wondered if I had any ideas.

Bless his soul, he provided a direct link to the specific entry in the Ellis Island database, so I could go right to it and take a look. I knew “Kosfarovd” couldn’t be right, and hoped I could do a better job deciphering the handwriting than the indexing volunteer had done. I looked closely at the name and thought, “Well, it looks to me like Kosterowce. I’ve never heard of such a place, but let’s do a little searching.”

I checked Brian Lenius’s Genealogical Gazetteer of Galicia, since a person described as “Austrian- Polish” surely came from Galicia. There was only one name close: Kostarowce, in Sanok powiat, served by the Roman Catholic parish church in Strachocina and by the Greek Catholic church in Czerteż. I thought “Bingo!” A quick look at the Słownik geograficzny (Vol. 4, page 474) confirmed this information was valid, at least as of the late 1800s. You can see the Słownik entry online at and there’s also a link to this page near the bottom of the Polish Wikipedia entry for Kostarowce at

I took another look at the manifest, and confirmed that “Kostarowce” was almost certainly the correct reading of the name. I felt we were starting to get somewhere.

To make sure I knew exactly where this place was, I went to At the upper right, under the red box saying “Znajdź I Pokaż,” is a box labeled “Miejscowość” (Locality). I typed in KOSTAROWCE, then clicked on “Pokaż.” If there’s more than one place by the name you’re looking for, you get a map showing all those places, and a list on the right where you can click on individual links. Obviously, in that case you’ll need to dig up some info that helps you establish which of those places is the one your ancestors came from.

In this case, there’s only one Kostarowce, so the search took me right to a map of it, way down by the southeastern tip of the country. With this map, with a red outline showing the location of Kostarowce, you can zoom in (“Zbliż”) or out (“Oddal”).

Now that I was reasonably certain there was no other place with a similar name to confuse us, and I knew where Kostarowce is, I could try to establish what parish would have the records for this place. Normally I check the FamilySearch site first, Just to be sure, I did check it, drawing a blank, as I expected. Kostarowce is in southeastern Poland, and the Family History Library has generally not been allowed to film church records in that area; for various reasons, Roman Catholic authorities have refused to cooperate.

Which means the parish church is probably the place to start.

My correspondent’s ancestor had a Polish name, not Ukrainian, so I figured his family probably went to the appropriate Roman Catholic church to register births, deaths, and marriages. In the late 19th century the parish church that served Kostarowce was in Strachocina; I needed to know if that’s still true. I checked my copy of Lidia Müllerowa’s Roman Catholic Parishes in the Polish People’s Republic in 1984, and established that there was no mention of a church in Kostarowce, but Strachocina still had a Roman Catholic parish church, in Sanok-West deanery of Przemyśl Archdiocese. That could have changed since 1984, but this gave me a decent notion what diocese to look in.

Next I visited one of the most useful sites I know of, the “Finding Parish Addresses” page at I clicked on the first link to get a map of the dioceses of Poland, to see which diocese Strachocina would be in today, in case it’s changed since 1984. The map showed it would still be in Przemyśl Archdiocese, so I scrolled down and clicked the link to that Website, Once there, I clicked on “Parafie” (Parishes). I had to search a little before I found Strachocina listed, under Jaćmierz deanery; but it wasn’t too hard to find. It used to be the web page provided the parish address, but that has changed. So instead, I searched the Internet for “parafia Strachocina,” or “parish Strachocina.” That search found the site for the church św. Katarzyny, of St. Catharine, website The main menu on the home page includes a page with the tag Kontakt. It provides the postal address and email addresses for the parish:

Parafia Rzymsko-katolicka
Strachocina 1
38-507 Jurowce
[POLAND] or>

Let’s sum up. The gentleman who wrote to me knew his ancestor’s surname, but it was too common and widespread to provide any real clue where to look. If that had been all he knew, I couldn’t have told him anything useful. But because he had a place name—even though it was mangled—I could help him. He was smart enough to give me the link to the Ellis Island index page, and it didn’t take long to figure out “Kosfarovd” was actually “Kostarowce.” This information let me locate the parish serving that village, which led to the Przemyśl Archdiocese Website, which verified the parish exists. A web search for “Strachocina parish” brought up the website for the parish, complete with addresses. Elapsed time since I started reading his note: approximately ten minutes, including time to go refill my coffee cup.

I’m not trying to show you how smart I am; I’m trying to show you how quickly you can make progress if you have the right information. In a matter of minutes I went from “Who knows?” to “Try contacting the parish at Kostarowce, and here’s the address.” Now that this researcher knows exactly where to look, he has a very decent chance of tracing his family there. And the key was not the surname; it was the place name.

So a word to the wise: surnames are important, but if you really want to make progress, get a place name! Until you do that, you’re spinning your wheels. The instant you figure out where to look, however, your odds of success start climbing.

Addendum, 2019:

Since I wrote this article, online sites to help find parish records have expanded dramatically. Now you can search for parishes at Geneteka, or at, or at numerous other sites. As I write this, Geneteka offers nothing for Strachocina. A search for that term at Szukajwarchiwach brings up numerous matches, although no digitized parish records appear. In fact, there are very few digitized records of any sort available. But that is likely to change as time passes. And I’ve only mentioned a few of the sites that can help you with this quest.

For those just starting out, I recommend some very helpful files connected with Facebook’s Polish Genealogy Group, which you can see here:

Notice there are tabs for Polish Civil Registry Offices, Polish State Archives, and Polish Church Archives, as well as Polish letter-writing guides and info on wire transfers of money (essential if you want to order copies of records from many archives in Poland). While you’re at it, don’t overlook another page on this site, “Internet Tools”:

These are files put together by people with lots of experience doing Polish genealogy. Take advantage of their expertise!

Good luck with your research.