How I Got to Milevsko
By Scott W. Phillips
Reprinted with permission from the Summer 2010 issue of Slovo, the journal of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library
The Vícha family home!
I began my genealogy ‘travels’ when my son and his wife informed us that they were pregnant with our second grandchild and if it was a boy they were going to name the baby after my father, William.
Soon I ‘needed’ to know more than the history of my dad’s name. I accessed every site I could — Ancestry.com, Footnote.com, Myheritage.com, LDS, message boards at Delphi and Roots.com, etc. In my earliest readings I noted every ‘How To’ genealogy article started with the admonition to speak with elder family members for their firsthand information. Thinking I knew better and that the Internet was a powerful tool, I ignored that advice. It was not long before I became so muddled and confused by names, surnames, place names, and dates that I was on the phone to every senior member of our family.
When I told my 90-year-old mother about my efforts she immediately asked me to find out about her grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. Other than his name, that he was Czech, and his wife’s name (Anna Knechtl), all we had was a handwritten note of unknown origin that said simply ‘Joseph Vicha Pisec’. I always loved my Czech heritage, so I gladly dug in.
My first step (naturally) was a Google search and one of my first hits was the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International (CGSI) website. I immediately sent in my membership and contacted them for some help. The Library looked so impressive that I knew I had to get there. My visit with President Ginger Simek at the Library helped me get going on my Knechtl family and moved me along in my quest for my Vicha family. This visit was invaluable as it gave me a firsthand look at what resources were available at CGSI and beyond for my Czech work.
I found significant information on my Knechtl family, but found nothing on Vicha. For months I struggled with only brick walls.
Next I went to the City Directories for Cleveland. I charted every Vicha. I cataloged names, addresses, dates, and jobs along with Census information. Then I contacted every cemetery and funeral home that held a Vicha relative. I called or wrote and meshed these records into my inventory. I found some enticing tidbits, such as two Vicha individuals who passed away in the homes of Knechtl relatives, but nothing that came close to being able to be called proof. Plus only the 1900 US Census lists my Joseph K. with his wife and children.
While I know this may not be the sanest approach, next I used a list of every Vicha, Víchová, etc. currently in the Czech Republic and sent them each a letter in Czech asking them to let me know if they knew of my Vicha family. I sent this to over 200 Vicha households. Heartwarmingly I received 27 responses. Some were email some via the postal service. Alas they all resulted in nothing that provided any information on Joseph K.
I used the CGSI website again for a professional researcher to help me at this point. I used Olga Koliskova who did a marvelous job! She had great success with my Knechtl family, but then again I had the benefit of copies of the birth documents and passport of my great great grandfather, Vaclav Knechtl, and great great grandmother Marie Moucha Knechtl. I provided Olga with all I knew about the Vicha family, but she came up empty. I ran her ragged – checking every Pisek village. Other villages were tried on very weak theories I devised – all with the same result. Only later did I add to my horror by learning there is a whole district named Pisek.
I had several wonderful fellow genealogists helping me out with anything Vicha all along the way. No relation or prior acquaintance, just a willingness to help. Obituaries, newspaper notations, deeds, etc. came to my inbox. I am deeply thankful to each of them for their help, but especially Barbora, John, and Ruth. About this time my cousin sent me a newspaper clipping from 1899 that mentioned Joseph K. Vicha. This was a valuable piece of information as it confirmed the positions I had in my inventory. This pushed me to research the larger Czech community in Cleveland and I attended the biannual CGSI conference in Cleveland, which significantly improved my network and background.
I then attacked Cleveland Czech history with a vengeance. I got a copy of Capek’s Czechs (Bohemians) In America
, Habenicht’s History of Czechs in America
(which contains a reference to my Knechtl relatives being some of the earliest Czech settlers in Cleveland in 1852), and The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
. As I studied these, I also undertook deeper internet searching. I used GoogleBooks for out-of-print and out-of-copyright books and Questia.com, a scholastic reference site, which contained an article by Professor Michael Kukral. I read Professor Kukral’s article, found him via the internet, and we began to share information. In my research I also found a reference to Dr. Gregory M. Stone, who wrote his PhD dissertation on Cleveland Czechs, titled Ethnicity, Class, and Politics Among Czechs in Cleveland, 1870-1940
published in 1993.
Unfortunately, I could not locate Dr. Stone. I discovered he wrote an article for the CGSI publication, Rocenka
, which I ordered. In the footnote at the end of this article I found Dr. Stone’s biography. I sent each institution an inquiry requesting contact
information for Dr. Stone. Dr. Kukral then informed me he had found his copy of Dr. Stone’s dissertation and would sell it to me – a deal I sealed immediately!
A few weeks later one of the institutions responded to my inquiry about Dr. Stone. They offered to forward my request to Dr. Stone stating my desire to communicate and my contact information. No promises, just the offer to act as intermediary. I knew I couldn’t ask for more than that.
The ensuing time dragged. I was like a child waiting each day for the postman for my copy of the dissertation and perhaps a note from Dr. Stone.
Finally, the dissertation came. 304 pages of pure Cleveland Czech PLATINIUM! I devoured Dr. Stone’s material. It is great stuff if you haven’t read it. It is exceptional original research and material on the Czech community in Cleveland.
Shortly thereafter an email message from Dr. Stone arrived! He became my greatest asset in my efforts – and has re-energized my desire to learn more about the influence and impact of the Czech community on Cleveland. Dr. Stone provided excellent insights into research in Cleveland, what’s available, what he used, where things are, where there are gaps in data, etc.
As I worked new avenues I learned from Dr. Stone I undertook a complete review of the data I had collected including requested marriage licenses from the Cuyahoga County Probate Court, death certificates from the Cuyahoga County Archives, obituaries from the Cleveland Necrology File of the Cleveland Public Library, real estate deeds from the Cuyahoga County Recorder site, and the Western Reserve Historical Society.
My first huge Vicha-specific break came courtesy of some unknown volunteer in the Cuyahoga County Archive (Cleveland) who went above and beyond. I had discovered a death listing for a woman early on who I believed might be Joseph’s mother. I had forgotten that I had requested this death record when a fat envelope arrived from the Archive. I am sure you know the excitement of getting an envelope that is too thick for the usual one page of information. I received not only the listing for the death of Karolina Pokorny Vicha, but copies of Probate Court documentation for her estate and the sale of the family home. The Application for Letters of Administration included all her heirs-at-law – and there was not only her husband, but all her children, including Joseph Vicha! Finally proof of the family! Not only documented, but notarized.
I returned to my inventory, picked out the correct Vicha family members, and began building their families in my tree. Three sons and two daughters. Frantisek’s family dead-ended after two marriages and one generation of children. Antonin’s family ended much the same way. Son number three is Joseph K. so I knew exactly what I had there. Daughter Thamsin married into a family with a name that was so often mis-transcribed in the census that it was near impossible for me to follow so I went to daughter Mary. Luckily I found that she married a Ptak – another uncommon name in Cleveland.
The Census listed the Vicha children as having been born in ‘Bohemia’. As I traced the first four children I discovered that each was married in Cuyahoga County. However it appeared to me that daughter, Mary, might have been married in Bohemia or at least not in Cuyahoga County like the rest. So back to the sites of Ellis Island, CSGI, Castlegarden, Ancestry, LDS, and Leo Baca’s books looking for any village name. I had no idea about Mary’s groom other than his name being Frank Ptak. I began searching all the Ptak individuals I could find. Lo and behold, I found a Franz and Marie Ptak coming over to the States, with children about the correct ages; however the initials of the children did not fit. On closer review, I saw that this was yet another transcription error and the correct initials did fit the names I had, but no village listing. I began to trace all the Ptak names who said they were destined to settle in Cleveland. I built an inventory of all the Cleveland Ptak individuals as I did with Vicha. I found several who were age-appropriate for siblings, aunts, uncles, or parents to Frank. There, buried in the passenger lists, were the names of two villages in Bohemia from different Ptak families – the first time I had ever
come across any village names for anyone with even a remote possibility of being related to my Vicha family. There finally, in black and white, were names other than simply Bohemia, Czech, etc: Shota Pech and Rukofce. If I wasn’t in heaven, I sure thought I could see it from where I was at that moment! Mapy.cz was my next destination – and to my great dismay I read the messages that neither were place names in the Czech Republic.
As fast as I could, I shared the names with Dr. Stone. He responded not only with corrected names, but information that according to his mapping of where early Cleveland Czechs came from, these were worth investigating. He said he even recalled seeing these village names in his notes and interviews. So investigate I did – or rather a researcher by the name of Martin Pytr in the Czech Republic did. While Pechova Lhota came up empty, lo and behold while checking Rukavec – there it was – the marriage of Frantisek Ptak and Marie Vicha in St. Bartholomew Church in Milevsko on February 3, 1869, very near the year listed in the Census data. In my excitement I contacted Olga and let her know that my Vicha family had been found. She took it upon herself to call Martin on the telephone to verify that; yes indeed he had found the proper family. Martin has now verified the marriage of Josef Vicha and Karolina Pokorny (Joseph K’s parents), the births of Frantisek, Marie, Antonin, Thamsin, and Josef K, and much more.
While the entire picture of Joseph K. Vicha is not yet known …. he still disappears in 1907 without a trace … I can see the smile on my mother’s face!