Nowakowski, Surname, Szczepanski, Tools

Breaking Down a Brick Wall: Finding my Great Grandmother (Mary Nowakowska)

When I first started dabbling in family genealogy, there were certain members of my tree that just felt “easy” to find. In addition to reliably appearing in census data, I had anecdotes and stories to help match names to faces. There was a sense of instant gratification every time I sat down to search.

And then there is my mother’s side of the family…

When I ask my aunt, who is the oldest daughter of my grandparents, I always hear the same refrain. There is absolutely no awareness of my great grandparents’ siblings or their parents. I’m often told, “people just didn’t really talk about their family at that time.” As young children at the time, I know my aunt and my mother probably didn’t hear much about their family, but considering how tightly knit the Polish community was at the time, could it be true that my great grandparents magically showed up in Camden, got married, and started a family without a trace of  where they came from? Did they really have no relatives living in the area?

I had a few basic clues on my great grandmother, Mary (Nowakowska) Szczepanski:

  • Her maiden name was often written down as a variation of Nowakowska (Nowakosky, Nofocuski, etc).
  • While my great grandfather was born in Poland, in every census record she appears in, my great grandmother is listed as having been born in Pennsylvania in 1884.
  • There was a rumor that she may have had a sister.
  • She married her husband Wicenty in 1902 in Camden, New Jersey and stayed in Camden for the rest of her life residing at 1404 S. 10th Street. No one seems to know how they met.

After months of searching and failing, I’m so happy to report that I had a breakthrough. A MAJOR breakthrough. I found her family. And not only did they bequeath their home at 1404 S. 10th Street to Mary and her new husband to help them start their life in 1902, they also moved right around the corner afterwards… They were right under my nose the whole time. Below I wanted to share the process of researching this “Brick Wall,” as people in the WikiTree community like to call it. I wanted to record the process for my own notes, but also share it as an inspiration to others facing down similar walls in their work.

The Process

Polish last names are notoriously difficult to spell and census takers often went the phonetic route. It makes it difficult for the contemporary researcher! I can’t tell you how many times that I typed variations of “Nowakowski” into the search engine. But after so many dead ends, I knew that I needed to change my strategy.

If my great grandmother Mary was born in 1884, that meant that her parents were probably born before at least 1870. If her parents were immigrants, then they had to come to the United States before 1884 as well since she is consistently listed as having been born in Pennsylvania.  And if she had any siblings, it was possible that they were also born in Pennsylvania.  I didn’t know if Mary was living in Philadelphia and then moved to Camden to be with her husband or if her family had been there all along. I couldn’t find the former, so I started with the latter assumption.

Using, I looked for families in the area with the last name Nowakowski / Nowakosky / and any other variation of the name that I could think of in Camden and I started taking notes. Since Nowakowski is often abbreviated to Nowak, one of the more popular Polish names, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I looked for a set of possible parents whose ages and immigration dates seemed to line up. I had my list down to about 5 couples, but not a single pair had a daughter named Mary who was living with them. However, one couple, Anthony and Helen Nowakowski, seemed to fit the bill more than the others. They had one child born in Poland, and another two born in Pennsylvania. A glimmer of hope?

The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 03 Dec 1896, Thu, Page 10.

I starting inputting the names into the Camden Courier-Post and the The Philadelphia Inquirer through looking for an obituary for Anthony and Helen. I didn’t find them, but I did come across a real estate transfer that made me raise my eyebrows. In 1896, a Helen Nowakowska purchased the property at 1404 S. 10th Street in Camden, New Jersey from Michael Paranski for $1250. This was the house that my great grandmother and grandfather built their lives in. I knew I had likely found them, but the evidence was still pretty circumstantial.

I went back to the census records with renewed confidence, but I still didn’t have anything tying the family to Mary. I found records in 1905, 1910, and 1915. The Nowakowski’s were living on Atlantic Avenue, which was just around the corner from both 1404 S. 10th Street and St. Joseph’s Church, the local Polish Catholic parish that my great grandparents belonged to. Anthony and Helen had one son (August) in Poland, and a son Andrew and a daughter Lottie both born in Pennsylvania. Since Mary got married in 1902, I knew that finding the 1900 census was going to be my key.

I deleted the last name from the search box since it was getting me absolutely nowhere. I knew now that I was looking for an Anthony and a Helen, who had a son August, a son Andrew, and a daughter Lottie living in Camden. By not using their last name, I struck gold.

Detail of 1900 United States Census for Camden, New Jersey.

I found a 1900 Census in Camden for a family named “Nora*.”  Yes, you are reading that right. Nora + asterisk. When you examine the original document you can make out the family name below some scribbles. But all of that aside, I had found her. Sandwiched between her brothers August and Andrew was my great grandmother Mary. And the entire family was living at 1404 S. 10th Street!


When I excitedly called my mother to tell her the news, she was speechless. In so many ways, so am I! I can’t wait to share their story with members of my extended family who know very little about our family history.

There is a lot of research that needs to be done from here on out, but I can’t tell you how gratifying it felt to create a profile for these missing family members. And by finding Mary, I now can confirm the identity of my great great grandparents. Going through this prolonged process taught me a lot about the inconsistencies of census data. It took me foregoing the last name entirely in order to make forward progress, which I still find hard to believe. And for me, it raises the ever important reality that people living in these communities depended on one another. Houses often stayed in the family and members fluidly moved in and out. In an ethnic enclave like this area of Camden, finding information about one person can open up new windows and doors to another. We don’t live in a vacuum, after all.

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