Created by Administrator Account in 12/23/2009 11:47:41 AM


…I am trying to trace my grandparents. The surname was Furtak. I have found that my grandpa Furtak came from Crcznichow, Austra in 1912. I am sure at the time it was part of Galicia. I cannot find this town. My grandma … came from Czenuiskon Galicia in 1913. I have the Manifest of Alien Passengers but suspect the spelling of the towns are inaccurate. I think they came from Polish Galicia. I would love to know what towns so I can pursue the trace further. I also suspect the towns of the towns they came from have long since been changes as I cannot find anything on the internet. If there is anything you can do to help me, it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

In Polish, Furtak is pronounced much as you'd expect, kind of like "FUR-tock." If you'd like to see 2002 data on its frequency and distribution in Poland, with a color map illustrating the data, look here:


By Polish standards it's a moderately common name, borne by 4,369 Polish citizens as of 2002. They lived all over, with significant concentrations in south central to southeastern Poland, including the area formerly ruled by the Austrian Empire as the Kingdom of Galicia.

The late Polish surname expert Kazimierz Rymut mentioned this name in his book Nazwiska Polaków [The Surnames of Poles], listing it under names that come from the root seen in the Polish noun furta, "gate" (originally from Latin porta, "door, gate"), or in the dialect verb furtać, "to flutter, fly," or possibly from the German name Furt or Fort. He says so far the earliest mention of the name found in Polish records dates from 1678, and he mentions that Furtak can also come from a dialect word furtak that means "scatterbrain, featherbrain."

What this means is that -- as often happens with surnames -- from the name alone we can't tell for sure which meaning applies in a given case. An ancestor may have been "the gate guy," perhaps because he lived near a town gate, or manned the gate, or made gates. Or maybe he was "the flutterer," or maybe he was "the son of Furt," a descendant of one of the many, many Germans who resettled in Poland (including southeastern Poland) over the centuries. But I think the most likely derivation is from that word meaning "one who's scatterbrained." An ancestor was probably kind of flighty and scatterbrained, so people nicknamed him Furtak and that name stuck, being passed on to his descendants.

The only way it might be possible to nail down the exact derivation is by tracing the family history as far back as possible, in hopes of finding a record or document with a comment that sheds light on the name's meaning. The data suggests there isn't just one big Furtak family, but probably a number of separate families that came by the name independently. Maybe one had an ancestor who was connected with gates somehow, maybe another was "the son of Furt," maybe another was "kin of the scatterbrained guy." The last one is the one I'd expect to apply more often than not. But that's just my speculation; I could be wrong, and often am.

The names of places in records were often misspelled, sometimes past recognition. But I think odds are very good the place mentioned in the documents you cite was either Czernichow, Poland, or Czernigow (Russian Chernigov, Ukrainian Chernihiv), now in Ukraine. You can find links with info on these places here:


Brian Lenius's Genealogical Gazetteer of Galicia, a very valuable reference work, lists a Czernichow in Żywiec county, Poland; one in Rudki county (now in Ukraine); and one in Kraków county, Poland. I think one of those is probably what you're looking for. I wouldn't rule out Chernihiv in Ukraine, but the others are better matches. Of course, the problem is, which one?

There's no way to tell except by digging in the records till you find some bit of info that sheds light on the matter. Various records often mentioned additional info that helps nail down which place you're looking for. It might be a marriage record at a parish church in America, or a census entry, or who knows what? Chances are decent you can find this out, but it may take a lot of digging.

One of the best Websites for helping with Galician research is Matt Bielawa's www.halgal.com. Matt has been to southeastern Poland and Ukraine frequently, and knows his stuff. The links to "Finding Your Village" can be very helpful, as well as the link "Vital Records." I don't have much research experience -- I deal mostly with translations, name analysis, and other things I've learned in the course of editing various periodicals. But Matt has lots of experience, and he's tried to make his site a real help for researchers going crazy because English-language info on places in Galicia can be very hard to come by.

Copyright © 2009 W.F. Hoffman. All rights reserved. Used by permission.