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Example #1:
Finding the home village by using the Croatian on-line phone book.

Jim wanted to find the home village of his great-grandfather, John Paletak, who immigrated to Jackson, California, around 1885. He knew that John was from the Adriatic coast and was Croatian but that's all he knew. Jim found his g-grandfather's citizenship papers in the Jackson courthouse (Amador County) dated 1891 and the two witnesses were L. Perlenda and L. Budman. Countrymen always hang out together when in foreign places -- these may be Croatian surnames. And, in fact, they may all be from the same area of Croatia. But how can we find out? We can check the current Croatian phone book which is on-line. In Croatia surnames stay in the same villages for generations. There's a good chance (over 80%) that your great grandfather's surname can still be found in the same village he was born in.

(Note: John's U.S. citizenship papers also said he had been a citizen of Austria but Jim knew enough to know that the eastern Adriatic Coast was unwillingly a part of the Austrian Empire at that time -- otherwise he could have wasted a lot of time looking for an Austrian origin. Croatians who immigrated up to 1918 were listed as Austrian citizens but Croats are of another race and another language. Luckily the vital information -- births, marriages, deaths -- was being kept by the churches and not by the government.)

First of all, are the names spelled right? As we all know, strange things can happen to foreign surnames in the States. Well, Paletak might be either Paletac or Paljetak or Paljetac (see spelling rules). And Perlenda might be Parlanda or Perlando or Perljenda or some other such variation. But Budman is probably Budman. So let's see if they fly "as is" in the Croatian on-line phone book ( Remember, this new Croatian phone book is a little "loose" and can give some interesting returns. The English version actually tries to take into account the fact that foreigners don't know how to spell Croatian names. Some of the search algorithms are pretty interesting but their results aren't explained -- you'll just have to play with it. See here for more.

A check in the phone book for all of Croatia gives:

24 returns for Paletak (actually they were all for Paljetak, Paleta or Palatak -- none were spelled Paletak). Eliminating Paleta and the ones in large cities left 7. Four of those were in a village called Poljice and the other 3 were in Gruda. Both these villages are southeast of Dubrovnik, as can be seen if you click on the underlined village name (then click on "Enlarge"). Those maps aren't great but they give some idea.

27 returns for Perlenda (actually Prlenda, the phone book shows). Let's see if we can match the above villages or, at least, the Dubrovnik area. Of those 27, 5 were in Poljice, 3 in Gruda, and 4 in Dubrovnik. Interesting!!

14 returns for Budman. All in area code 020 which is the Dubrovnik area. Eight in Dubrovnik; 4 in a small town southeast of Dubrovnik called Ploc"ice. A check on the map shows that Gruda, Poljice, and Ploc"ice are all within about 5 miles of each other.

These guys undoubtedly knew each other back in Croatia and were now hanging out together in Jackson, California, in 1891.

We still don't know which town John Paletak was from but it was probably Gruda or Poljice and his name was originally spelled Paljetak. And his first name was probably Ivo which is Croatian for John. Here is some information on Croatian first names. It's not organized by English versions of the names but it's better than nothing. You can cheat and just go straight to Ivo. Notice that the Latin version of Ivo is Ivan. This is probably how it is spelled in the original church record. Or if the record was written in Italian, it would be Giovanni.

[To learn how to look for churches for these villages using the Croatian on-line phone book, see Example #3.]

Now let's check another good source for names in this region of Croatia -- a book called Stanovnis"tvo Konavla #2 by Vekaric' and Kapetanic'. (Here is a review of this book.) A check in the index shows 2 Paljetak lines: one in Gruda and the other in Poljice (wouldn't you know?). A quick check of Gruda shows the Paljetak line going back into the 1500s, and the first mention of the surname is in a census of 1673. The head of household in 1842 was Pavo, son of Josip. In 1880 there were 3 heads of household: Petar, son of Pavlo; Josip, son of Luka; and Boz"o, son of Mato.

Checking Poljice shows an Ivan, son of Pero, in 1832; and Pero, son of Ivan, in 1880. This John (Ivan) in California might very well be the son of Pero because they were leap-frogging Peros and Ivans for a few generations there. But only a check of the church records will tell for sure. In this same book it shows that the church for the village of Poljice is in Ploc"ice and Gruda has its own church.

But if Jim writes to these churches with the small amount of information he has (a man named Ivo Paljetak, born maybe 1850 to 1865), will this be enough? Well, he might check the California death records to see the age at death (and, therefore, the approximate birth year) but this may very well do it. Most likely there was only one Ivo Paljetak born in those years; at the most there would be one or two others. And often in the Stanja Dus"a it says in the "comments" section if the person went abroad or not. See here for how to write to these churches.

Naming conventions.
Other inferences might be made from the naming conventions of southern Croatia. The first son was always named after the father's father; the 2nd son after the mother's father; the first daughter after the father's mother; and the 2nd daughter after the mother's mother. This knowledge could lead to the correct Ivo Paljetak if the church records show more than one.

But I must admit that this was a pretty easy problem. If we were dealing with Ivancovichs and Stepovichs (two very common Croatian names) it would be hopeless without other information.