Since I last wrote about my maternal grandmother’s family, I have a few answers, a few new ideas, and even more questions. Here’s some updates on the Yench family, who I’m sure had a history prior to showing up in Oklahoma!
To begin with, I’ve started referring to my grandma Nell’s father as Thomas Jankus / Yench, as he refers to himself essentially interchangeably during the first decades of his life here. His children’s records seem to uniformly use the Americanized “Yench” version of the name, but Thomas vacillates. In fact, by reviewing a rough timeline of Thomas Jankus / Yench’s life, we can arrive at answers to some of the questions I posed previously. But only some, sigh. So with no further ado,
Thomas Jankus: A Life, Part I
About 1877: Born in Kaunas, Lithuania
I could not arrive at a settled birth date, because there is not a preponderance of evidence for one specific date. His funeral card lists 7 March, 1877; his Declaration of Intention to Immigrate declares 11 November, 1877; his Petition for Naturalization states 7 March, 1878. Census records all state about 1877. As tempting as it would be declare one of these dates the “winner,” I think “about 1877” is the most accurate birth date we can assign Thomas.
You’ll also notice that, between filling out one immigration form in 1901 and a second in 1936, Thomas changes his place of birth! He initially identifies his natal town as Kwiedon, Poland, and later as Kauna, Lithuania. Was he intentionally being deceitful? The familial myth around his coming to American was one of literal escape from draft into the Red Army…
On the contrary. It’s simply that in 1901, the country of Lithuania did not exist. I hate to be a slave to Wikipedia, but sometimes the hive mind just states things so nicely:
After the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, most of Lithuania was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The beginnings of industrialization and commercial agriculture based on Stolypin’s reforms, as well as the abolition of serfdom in 1861, freed the peasants and turned them into migrant-laborers. The pressures of industrialization, Lithuanian press ban, general discontent, suppression of religious freedom and poverty drove numerous Lithuanians to emigrate from the Russian Empire to the United States continuing until the outbreak of the First World War. The emigration continued despite the Tsarist attempts to control the border and prevent such a drastic loss of population. Since Lithuania as a country did not exist at the time, the people who arrived to the U.S. were recorded as either Polish or Russian; moreover, due to the language ban in Lithuania and prevalence of Polish language at that time, their Lithuanian names were not transcribed in the same way as they would be today. Only after 1918, when Lithuania established its independence, the immigrants to the U.S. started being recorded as Lithuanians. This first wave of Lithuanian immigrants to the United States ceased when the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 was aimed at restricting the Eastern and Southern Europeans who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s. — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithuanian_Americans
And the city now know as Kaunas, Lithuania, had different names depending on the ruler of the day. The city was generally known in English as Kovno, the traditional Slavicized form of its name; the Polish name is Kowno; the Belarusian name is Koўна, Kowna. An earlier Russian name was Ковно Kovno, although Каунас Kaunas has been used since 1940.
What his life there was like, I have no idea. I still don’t know his parents’ names, nor that of any potential sibling. There are neither family diaries nor memoirs. As I suggested in my introductory post, this is where it gets hard. It is clear that at the time of Thomas’ growing up, young men were compelled to serve in the Russian Army; perhaps there’s something to that famil myyth. Regardless of what the ultimate deciding factor was, the above naturalization documents indicate that Thomas Jankus / Yench came to the United States.
1901 (age 24): Emigrated to the United States
The degree of subterfuge and bribery needed to achieve his departure isn’t clear. Like so many thousands of others, he departed from Bremen, Germany, and arrived via New York. By the end of 1901 he was filing his immigration papers as shown above, and listing his occupation as coal miner in Hartshorne, Oklahoma Territory; Oklahoma was not yet a state. Many Lithuanians, Poles, and other eastern Europeans immigrating at the time were deemed highly suitable for such unskilled labor as coal mining and work in slaughterhouses. Many Lithuanians, in fact, settled more predominantly in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania. So, how Thomas chose Hartshorne, Oklahoma, I have no idea. However, the town itself was established as a coal-mining town, and mine operators were actively recruiting immigrants to work the mines.
The city of Hartshorne is now small with a population just under 2,000. The Catholic Holy Rosary Church, which was established by Russian and other Eastern European immigrants, still exists; this is the church at which my grandmother was baptized.
Between 1901-1908: Marries first wife (assumed)
1908, 1910, 1912: First three children born
These first three children were boys, Joseph, Anthony (who went by Fed), and Peter (who went by Bob). I wish that I could say I had copies of their birth certificates, or even the Yench family’s federal census records from 1910 or 1920, but I just do not. As far as federal census records go, they MUST exist, however who knows what iteration of the last name I should be searching under? Their birth dates and places are verified in other, later documents. However, I have no record of who their mother was or whether she and Thomas married prior to arrival or after. “Well, just pull their birth certificates!” you say.
This is a grand idea–in theory. However. The Oklahoma Department of Health abides by a statute that seals all birth certificates until 125 years after the date of birth! I was able to see that a birth certificate for at least one of the boys does, in fact, exist–and presumably names his mother. However, genealogists requesting a birth certificate from less than 125 years ago must provide (among other things:)
If the subject is alive: a statement signed by the Subject releasing record to the Applicant and a copy of the Subjects ID
If the subject is deceased:
1) a statement signed by a family member, proof of familial relationship to the decedent, and a copy of the family member’s ID [Applicant may also be required to provide proof of death if the death occurred outside Oklahoma] or
2) court order
So close, and yet so very far away.
Between 1912-1914: First wife dies
Again, due to the largely unsearchable vital records of the state of Oklahoma, I got nothin. No name, no death date, nothin. However, there is always hope. As a next step, I plan to:
- Attempt to contact any living descendants of the three boys to see what records they might have. My mother still keeps in touch with some of them.
- Put in a query to the Pittsburg County Genealogical and Historical Society. Most counties have a group who catalogs records and, to varying degrees, makes them available online. Most also will take queries for a modest donation, which are generally researched by a volunteer.
- Attempt to contact the Holy Rosary Church. If my grandmother was baptized there, I’m hoping at least one of the three oldest boys was as well (her half brothers). They may also have funeral records on Thomas’ first wife. The church doesn’t have its own website, so I suspect it is rather small at this point. But it still has a telephone number and address. I hate making cold phone calls, but for the sake of historical accuracy I must get over it!
25 August, 1914: Marries Helen Shareva
Interestingly, they got married in Chicago, but then returned to Oklahoma to reside. Why was this? To answer that question, we must delve into the larger story of the relationship between Lithuanians and Chicago. And that’s a post for another day…
So what do you have to look forward to next? Hopefully results from my three-step plan outlined above. And an interesting look at the history of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago. Hint: Upton Sinclair took notice…
2 thoughts on “Thomas Jankus: Tracing the Mysterious Story of the Yench Family”
To me, it looks like the first declaration of intention actually spells the name “INZSZ”. Also, on the second one it looks like he was only able to make his mark – the wobbly X, and then the clerk notated “his mark” around it. If he was unable to write his name himself, this would certainly explain the variety of spellings, with each clerk basically making his best guess based on the pronunciation alone.
You’re right–that’s what makes it so hard, I think. Whatever clerk was transcribing for whatever document just wrote down what they heard. I’m hoping that those volunteers at the Pittsburg County Genealogical Society come through, or it looks like a road trip may be on the horizon.