Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Origin of the Names Jasaitis and Juknevicius

 In the search for clues to my Lithuanian connections I found two highly credible sources, LITUANAS Magazine and Lithuanian Heritage Magazine, along with several online history and genealogy sites. I learned that until the late 18th century when Lithuanians had need of formal documents like passports most of the villagers did not have patrilineal surnames, that is, last names in common with their fathers and grandfathers. Instead a man might be called by his first name followed by a second name, that of a saint or the area where he lived or who his brother was. His first name was a nickname given to him when he was young which differentiated him from others, such as Rudis for red-haired or Kalvis for blacksmith. With the addition of a Christian name Rudis might become Rudis alias Antanas (St. Anthony) then shortened to  Rudis Antanas. Or he might be Rudis brother of Rimgaudo written Rudis Rimgaudo brolis.

 Now what does all this have to do with my search for the Jasaitis and Juknevicius families, you might ask. For me it means these names are not very old, probably won’t be found in old Lithuanian records prior to the mid 1800s. In fact, before 1861 when serfdom was abolished in Lithuania there may be no written records of my family, not unless their local Catholic church recorded baptisms and marriages and that same church survived decades of occupation by Russians and Poles and Germans.

 Jasaitis is a form of the name John, based on the Polish or Belorussian root Jaś with the Slavic diminutives or terms of endearment adding the “aitis”. At the time surnames were added the official government language in Lithuania was a Slavic language, a combination of Belorussian and Polish. That means Jasaitis is not even a true Lithuanian name. It means “Johnny”.

 Juknevicius  derives from the Belarussian _Jukneviy_ which is a diminutive form of
Eufemiusz [Greek: "good" + "prophecy" or "well" + "spoken of"], according to my source David Zincavage writing on a genealogy website. No wonder there are so many Jukneviciuses in
Lithuania! Joe Good Guy would be preferable to most other options.

 By the time my Lithuanian relatives were settled in Westville, Illinois around 1900 they were no longer Jasaitis and Juknevicius. Instead they were Sites and Uknavage. Fortunately I have found documentation linking them to the old names and feel confident that the names in Lithuania were Jasaitis and Juknevicius despite many other spellings I’ve encountered. The ship’s manifest dated June 28, 1889 spells the names Jeschaitis and Juchnewicz. A church baptismal record for their child born in Pittston, PA in 1891 spells the names Jasaitis and Juchniewicz. An obituary in 1937 confirms the Jasaitis name change to Sites.

 There are many other spellings of those names that appear in records across this country such as Jesaitis, Josaitis, Yasaitis, Yukenavage, Juknevic, etc. but they are not my direct relatives. The “J” sound in Lithuanian is much like our “Y” sound which explains how customs officials may have misspelled the names upon arrival in this country especially since most of the newcomers were illiterate. The Juknewicz name was probably Polisized or Germanized before immigration and may be a clue to which region the family was from, but maybe not. On the 1889 ship’s manifest, the mother’s last residence was shown as Langenberg, a German city between Lithuania and the port of departure in Bremen, Germany, so the name may have been Germanized while they were there. But she's the only one listed with that residence. The husband, Josas Juchnewicz and their children have "Russia" as last residence so maybe it was a clerical error that linked them to Langenberg. How long they were in Germany before they left for the United States is anybody’s guess. And why "Russia" rather than a city or province in Russia? There is always the possibility they were running, hiding, burning their bridges behind them, figuratively speaking, of course.

 In summary, the names themselves offer few clues to my relatives’ lives in Lithuania. Unless I can find a document linking them to a town or region in that country my research may be stalled. However, I still have hope that on the Jasaitis branch I will find a naturalization record or death certificate which gives me that much-needed clue leading to an old Catholic village church.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My Ties to Lithuania

 I always thought our Lithuanian name, Uknavage, was unique, or if not truly unique then surely rare for I've never found anyone other than a family member with that name. Believing that it was unique, I was not prepared for the response I got at the Lithuanian State Historical Archives in Vilnius in 2001 when I asked for help in finding family records.."Oh, that name is very common here, very common," and then she pronounced it just like we do. They spell it differently in Lithuania, Juknevicius with a little mark over the "c", but the pronunciation was right on making me believe she knew what she was talking about. The archivist went on to explain that before any search could be made in Lithuania I should go home and gather together all records of the family in this country, especially ships' manifests, naturalization papers, and birth certificates, anything that might link them to Lithuania and only then submit them to the Archives for help. So that's what I've been doing for over a decade and I've still not found one record that gives the name of the town or region where the Uknavage family lived in Lithuania before emigrating in 1889.
 Josas Juchnewicz/Juknevicius/Uknavage and his wife Petronella Jasaitis married in Lithuania about 1884 and brought their three small children with them to New York having sailed from Bremen, Germany aboard The Lahn. There were two other adults who travelled with them, a 25-yr. old female Franzka Tokewicz (perhaps a misspelling of Juknewicz) and 21-yr. old male Vinc Jeschaitis (most likely a misspelling of Jasaitis), probably relatives. Online research has shown me that there were Jasaitis relatives here when my family arrived in 1889 and the moves my gr-grandparents made after their arrival in New York down to the coal fields of Pittston, Pennsylvania, then westward to another coal town Westville, Illinois  probably followed the path and reunited them with the Jasaitis relatives, not Juknewicz relatives. Again I learned that Jasaitis is a very common name in Lithuania so here I am looking for the Lithuanian equivalent of Smith and Jones families which is ironic for my husband's Oklahoma grandparents were a Smith and a Jones. As those of you who do genealogy research know common names are more difficult to pin down than unusual names.
 Oh, I've learned much about the Jasaitis family, how most of them changed their name to Sites, where they scattered to, who they married, where they went to church, and where they are buried, but I still have not found the name of the town or region in Lithuania where they lived. I'm about to decide that it doesn't matter to me, that one Smith and Jones family, or in this case Juknewicz and Jasaitis family, is enough like another that I can be satisfied with a possible scenario, a historical novel version of my family's past.
 I discussed this with my brother last week, told him of my frustration, how I've learned so much about those difficult times in Lithuania that forced thousands to flee their homeland, what their exodus must have entailed, why they settled where they did, how they fought with the Polish over the Catholic churches in their communities, determined to hear the liturgy in their own tongue, how they became tailors, coal miners, bartenders, and undertakers. He encouraged me to write it down, mix the known with the supposed, record the story of our Lithuanian relatives as it might have been, knowing I might get it wrong. I'm going to give it a whirl.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Those Old Cottonwoods

There must be an east/west fault line on our place where the water table is higher than usual. How else to explain the presence and vitality of a line of six cottonwood trees north of the granery. The three featured in this article and shown in the photo were tall, healthy trees in 1972 when we moved in. Forty years have passed since then I’m guessing these trees are at least seventy years old, perhaps older, for a woman who lived here as a child in the 1940s, a daughter of August Gross, remembers watching lightning strike near the trees. There is an irrigation ditch that runs along the eastern edge of our property which may provide seasonal water to the roots of the tree closest to the ditch but the other two have also thrived despite years of neglect. I can’t explain that.

The plains cottonwood species is native to Colorado, often seen growing along creeks and ditches out on the plains. The trees usually live to about eighty years of age before succumbing to fire, high winds, or interior rot. The leaves quake with the slightest breeze and the sound of wind blowing through the branches in summer lulls one’s senses like waves on a beach. In early summer the female trees release millions of small brown seeds aloft on fluffy white, cottony parachutes. That cotton sticks to everything and makes our yard look like it’s been TP’d by teenagers. For that reason some Colorado cities insist only hybrid, seedless cottonwoods be planted in town.

I’ve never named these three cottonwoods but think of them as the old cottonwoods. They have become more beautiful with age for their trunks have such character as the bark thickens and crevices open, then widen in uneven furrows.

Our old cottonwoods have always been popular with crows and squirrels and they now support a swing for the grandkids and provide shade for summer parties. But we know better than to camp beneath them when the wind blows for those heavy branches sometimes let go with no warning and crash to the ground below. I hope they live past their average lifespan of eighty years for that is approaching soon just as I am fast approaching mine.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Our Best Friend, Bill


Bill West has been friends with Bob Russell since the fifth grade when the Russells moved to the Wellington area. That was 1953. Only a few months apart in age, they attended school together, joined the Boy Scouts, and became teenagers interested in cars, girls, and airplanes, not necessarily in that order.
When I came on the scene in 1971 Bill was married to Carol and they had two sons and owned their own home. Bob was married too but I was soon to become wife number two. When we married in January of 1972 Bill and Carol stood up for us at our wedding and hosted a party for us in their home that evening. Their boys became friends with my son, Patrick, and over the next forty years we have shared many experiences together as families.
Just this week Bill spent a few days in the hospital trying to get his erratic heart beat back in sync and it caught me by surprise, reminded me that I take Bill and his friendship with us for granted. I don’t want to do that any more, not with Bill or any of the people I love.
I feel lucky to be accepted by both Bill and Bob as their friend, someone privy to the conversations they often have ranging from astronomy and archaeology, to ham radio and bird migrations. I love the way their intellectual curiosity leads them to study science  and mathematics when a lot of guys are content with TV and beer. Watching them launch off on a new field of study is like watching a couple of Boy Scouts with their first telescope.
So Bill, if you read this, please know this is not written because I think you are on your last legs. Quite the contrary - you have taken very good care of yourself, golf several times a week, probably weigh the same you did in high school, and Lord knows your mind is sharp and your wit keen. I look forward to many more years of life, laughter, and good times with you. No, I’m writing this because I’ve never told you how grateful I am to you for your wonderful friendship. It is a rare gift. Thank you. You’ve done a lot of things really well in your life but none better than being our Best Friend.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Our Trees Are Like Old Friends

Our Trees Are Like Old Friends

In 1972 when we bought our place here in the country the house had not been lived in for many years and those who lived in it last, seasonal Mexican migrant workers, probably did not water the grass or the trees. In fact, there were only seven trees on the three-acre parcel, four fruit trees on the south end and three cottonwoods behind the granery. The first photo shows just how dry and barren the place was when we decided to remodel the house and move in.
Over the next forty years we planted trees, lots of trees, and that was the easy part. Keeping them alive in this arid climate was the hard part and we lost some real beauties, but to date there are over sixty mature trees and many more young saplings on our place. Most of them have a story. Recently as I walked among them with our son and daughter-in-law I talked about where each came from, when it was planted, and what it means to me. They suggested I write it all down, for who will remember if I don't?

I used a map that Bob had drawn years ago to plot the buildings on our acreage; I added the trees. Eventually I'll number all sixty of the mature trees on the map but if I wait until that is done to write my story it will never get done. The first tree I'll tell about is just south and west of the dome - I labeled it with a blue number 1.

Tree number one is a honey locust that I call the Kingsey tree, named after our local weatherman Jim Wirshborn, nicknamed Kingsey. Back in about 1979 or 1980 we were visiting Kingsey at his home in Fort Collins when I spotted some long brown seed pods on the ground by his driveway. I brought them home and started the seeds in pots. One survived my transplanting and grew to be a big beautiful honey locust tree. It is one of the few trees I've grown from seed and that's a big part of why it is so special to me. It shades the yard, overhanging the sidewalk and provides a lovely welcome to those who enter the front gate. In fall the small leaves turn golden and when they fall to the ground they stay there and become a part of the soil, no raking necessary.

I didn't know when I planted the seed that honey locust trees are recommended for our area. They are drought tolerant and not fussy about soil conditions. There are varieties which do not produce thorns but ours is not one of those, unfortunately. That is the only feature of this tree that is "thorny."


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Once I Was a Red Hat Lady
A few years back some lady friends of mine went out to Laughlin, NV, to vacation and came back all excited about Red Hat Ladies and how we all should put on the purple shirts they brought back for us and don red hats of our own choosing and join the ranks of the Red Hat we did.
There were seven of us, all long-time friends close to the same age and willing to look a little silly out in public for the sake of sharing fun times together. We even joined the national society and gave ourselves a name, The Red Hot Hatters, if I remember correctly.

Over the next few years we attended several musicals and plays, ate in good restaurants, toured the Molly Brown House in Denver, and painted ceramic frogs, owls, and tea pots. We wore those red hats and purple shirts at each gathering but after the novelty wore off a few of the ladies admitted they felt conspicuous and a bit silly wearing hats of any kind so we stopped wearing them. I was disappointed but knew it was more important to continue to meet as a group of friends than to wear silly red hats.
Looking back on that time when I was a Red Hat Lady I'm so glad we did that, thankful to the ladies who brought those shirts back from Laughlin, and pleased that most of us still get together occasionally for a good time. I'm also grateful to Jenny Joseph whose poem "Warning" provided the philosophy behind the Red Hat movement. The first two lines of the poem read "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, With a red hat that doesn't go and doesn't suit me." But, truthfully, my friends and I found it difficult to kick over the traces as Jenny Joseph suggests. I know I am not "making up for the sobriety of my youth", or "picking other people's flowers", or "learning to spit." But inside of me I feel more free, less self-conscious when I go to town in my crocs using a walking stick for support. I like to think being a Red Hat Lady did that for me.

Monday, January 21, 2013

There is a place in northeastern Colorado called Pawnee National Grasslands, a sparsely populated, nearly treeless flat plain relieved only by the statuesque Pawnee Buttes, two towers of stone that never eroded as wind and water carved away the land around them. Windswept and arid this part of Weld County was once home to settlers who starved out and moved on leaving the land to birds and small mammals, and to the relentless wind.

Frances Smith Russell grew up on the edge of the grasslands in the tiny community of Purcell, Colorado, and after I married her son Bob she took me out to see what was left of her childhood home. After much fruitless searching, driving back and forth along the county roads she knew so well we saw shiny reflections of the sun out on the empty prairie and walked over to the site. There were “treasures” there, fifty years after the family gave up on farming and moved to Arvada. A small galvanized bucket, dented, holey, and useless, but we could see it had once been used to feed a calf for the rubber nipple was still attached. And we found a brass suspender button from an old pair of men’s overalls. My favorite of the few treasures we found was the remains of a once beautiful yellow and white enamelware bowl, now rusted and missing its bottom. My mother-in-law never stopped talking the whole time we were there, reminiscing about her life out there, about the family, the neighbors, the hardship. I believe that is when I fell in love with those empty plains of eastern Colorado.

When I first moved out to Colorado from Illinois in July of 1970 I was crazy about the mountains and spent my free time, when I wasn’t looking for a job, up Poudre Canyon where the Poudre River splashes across the rock strewn canyon floor. I had dreams of owning a little place up that canyon or maybe up the Buckhorn, but definitely in the mountains. The plains didn’t interest me at all. Then in 1972 I married Bob Russell and he began to indoctrinate me on how “the mountains are for tourists” and the plains are where his heart lay. Then Frances took me over east and told me about her life there. Soon I found myself reading books about the eastern plains, wonderful books like Nell Brown Propst’s “Forgotten People – A History of the South Platte Trail.” When James Michener published “Centennial” in 1974 we went up to Laramie, Wyoming to meet him and participate in a costume party which was part of the rollout out of a new library in Centennial, Wyoming. We loved that book! Then we read the book about how he wrote Centennial and loved it too. Bob and I began to fantasize about retiring in Grover, Colorado, our idea of heaven on earth (at that time in our busy lives), wide open spaces, no people, no pressures.

I worked with a woman who grew up on a small farm in the northeast corner of Colorado and who loved that prairie land and its history. She was adopted by an older couple from Logan County when she was an infant and as an adult tried to find her biological parents. She came to believe she was related to the Iliff family, a prosperous ranching family who came in to eastern Colorado in the late 1800s. One summer day she and I made a day trip over east to explore and imagine what life was like when John Wesley Iliff’s line camps dotted the prairie. She had permission to open gates and cross privately-owned pastures as long as she diligently closed the gates behind us.

That day was extraordinary for me. We hiked across open land to the site of an old line camp where we discovered a crumbling stone spring house straddling a trickle of cold water bubbling up from the ground. We drove to the base of the Pawnee Buttes but decided not to try to climb three hundred feet of steep rocky walls to the top. But from that vantage point we saw many birds’ nests in stony outcrops near the summit and larger birds circling the peaks. We stumbled upon an overhang of sandstone which provided relief from the sun and protection as if in a cave but without the claustrophobia. We took photographs of one another and ate our sack lunch, talked of Barb’s family and growing up in this flat dry country. Then we started the long trek home, back through the gates that had to be opened then closed behind us, back along dirt roads with no names, back toward the Rocky Mountains and Larimer County, our lives.