21 September 2021

How to Be a Family Tree Myth Buster

I've been building a robust family tree for my son's girlfriend since August. She lost her father in late July, and my son told her, "I'll bet my mom can build your tree for you."

It's been easy because her family has been in one corner of Pennsylvania for centuries. To someone like me, whose first immigrant ancestor set foot in America in 1892, that's amazing.

Proving or disproving family lore should be a fun challenge for any genealogy fan.
Proving or disproving family lore should be a fun challenge for any genealogy fan.

At first I struggled with how big I wanted to make this family tree. There's so much documentation, and each couple seems to have had ten children. To get this done, I shifted my focus to her direct line. I especially wanted to identify the country of origin for each immigrant ancestor.

She doesn't know what (as in, what nationality) her last name is. I can't imagine not knowing. I discovered her last name was originally French—possibly with a different spelling. Plus she has Austrian, Irish, and English ancestors.

I've generated a few large family trees and descendant reports so far. Then I remembered a memory she shared with me.

Myth #1: This Acclaimed Artist is My Relative

As a student, she visited a local museum and saw a painting by a man with her last name. She pointed to it and said, "That's my family." The tour guide or teacher gave her a look that seemed to say, "Sure, kid. Whatever you say." But her mother had told her that this famous artist was her relative.

I set out to discover the artist's relationship to her family. Wikipedia told me who his parents were, and Ancestry helped my find the rest. Now I can prove this artist is her 2nd cousin 5 times removed. Interestingly, his death certificate says he poisoned himself due to "melancholia."

As I worked to place the artist in the family tree, I saw that his parents were not yet in there. But this Quaker family left behind many records. The artist's grandfather, who was already in the family tree, had 10 children listed on a church record. The 9th child was the father of the artist.

Myth #1: TRUE

It's great when the facts and documents come together. This bit of family lore is TRUE.
It's great when the facts and documents come together. This bit of family lore is TRUE.

Does your family have its own myths about notable relatives?

Myth #2: The Captain of the Titanic is My Relative

My sons' paternal grandfather told us his great uncle was Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic. As a great nephew, he became a member of a Titanic historical society. His mother Lillian felt ashamed that her father's brother was the captain.

Years later, when I caught the genealogy bug, I decided to document my sons' famous ancestor. Immediately I hit a dead end. Not a brick wall. A dead end that made the captain's relationship to my sons impossible.

The captain had no brothers. He had a half-sister and a daughter. The captain was born in Staffordshire, England. He married in Lancashire, and lived with his wife and child in Hampshire.

Meanwhile, the Smith family in my tree is very incomplete. I haven't found Lillian's father Walter Smith's town of origin in England. (To keep things straight, Lillian is my sons' great grandmother who said she was the captain's niece.) But Walter married a woman with a long history in Derbyshire.

I'm not familiar with all the shires in England, so I turned to a map. The captain's place of birth (Staffordshire) is a one-hour drive from Lillian's mother's place of birth (Derbyshire). (One hour on today's modern roads.) I'm going to ignore Captain Smith's professional time in:

  • Lancashire (he moved there because it's a northern port)
  • Hampshire (he lived there because it's a southern port).

I wondered if Walter Smith was Captain Edward Smith's 1st cousin, since he had no brothers. To prove that, I need to trace Walter Smith further back to see if he ever lived in Staffordshire. It won't matter that their name is Smith, will it?

I know Walter Smith sailed to America in 1891 from the northern port of Liverpool in Lancashire. I know he returned to England because he married his wife Elizabeth Merrin in Derbyshire in 1896. I hoped to find his U.S. arrival in 1897 with his wife.

Derbyshire records have helped me a lot with Elizabeth Merrin's family already. Now I see a marriage record for Walter Smith and Elizabeth Merrin. It seems they lived at the same street address in Derbyshire when they married.

Of course I went straight to Google Maps with the address. I wondered if it was a big apartment building. Nope. It's a store with an apartment or two above it. Maybe their families were close (literally).

Looking at the suggested records for Walter Smith on Ancestry, I found an 1871 census. His age and the name of his father are a match, but I need many more documents to prove this is Walter. Right now it seems as if he was born and raised in Derbyshire.

My working conclusion: There's no reason to think Walter Smith from Derbyshire is a close relative of Captain Smith from Staffordshire.

Myth #2: FALSE

This family myth was easily proven false; the belief of great grandma Lillian will forever be a mystery.

When trying to prove or disprove some bit of family lore, be sure to investigate both sides. Gather as many documents as possible on family members. And research the famous person who somehow worked their way into your family's story.

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14 September 2021

Add Context to Your Family Tree With Historic Photos

You might say my family tree is all business and no flavor. The media in my tree are vital records, military records, censuses, and ship manifests. I have a few images of places where my ancestors lived and worked, but not nearly enough.

You may recall that I'm building an extensive family tree for my son's girlfriend, V. Her family has been in one part of Pennsylvania for centuries.

I decided to browse the Historic American Buildings digital collection from the Library of Congress. I was focusing on V's part of Pennsylvania. As I browsed the collection online, I saw some buildings I know from my years of living there.

Then I noticed the Friends Meeting House and Cemetery that played a huge role in her family history. I downloaded a few images from the website for free. The plan is to use these images in the large family trees and book I plan to create for her.

Historic photos of a factory helped me identify an old family photo.
Historic photos of a factory helped me identify an old family photo.

When I visit my ancestral hometowns in Italy, it's very moving for me to visit my ancestors' churches. It was also moving for me to visit the railyard in Hornell, New York, where my great grandfather worked.

Why not add some historic photos of places from your ancestors' lives to your family tree? Start by going to the collection on the Library of Congress website.

Select a state or county from the list on the page, then narrow down your search. When you find a subject you want, view the images and download your favorites. I recommend downloading the jpeg format in the largest size available. It's still a relatively small file size.

I found old photos taken inside a steel plant where my grandfather worked in Youngstown, Ohio. One photo shows eight smokestacks that seem to match an old photo from my aunt's collection. I found photos of a silk mill where my great grandmother's relatives worked in Western New York State.

It adds another layer to your family tree to show the family homes then and now.
It adds another layer to your family tree to show the family homes then and now.

If your family lived in New York City, also try the New York Public Library's digital collection of photos.

Even better for my ancestors are the 1940 property tax photos of addresses in the Bronx. I've added photos of each of my parent's childhood apartment buildings to my family tree.

Don't forget to search Google for an ancestor's place of work or street address. First search for the place, then click Images to show only pictures in your results. Don't forget to also view the address on today's Google Maps. Is the building still there? How much has it changed?

I searched for a San Francisco address where my husband's relative was a private cook in 1917. I found a one-of-a-kind house on an upper-class street. My search showed me that Zillow.com values the house at almost $10 million. Seeing the house helps put this relative more firmly in context.

You can add context to your family's story. Search for and add old images of the places they lived, worked, and worshiped.

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07 September 2021

3 Little Fixes for Your Family Tree

In 2019 the worst possible scenario happened to my family tree. A routine synchronization with Ancestry.com corrupted my Family Tree Maker file. For whatever reason, the file became damaged at a particular person.

My only option was not a great one. I had to download my existing tree from Ancestry to FTM as a new file. Mind you, I do all my work in FTM, and Ancestry handles a few things differently than FTM.

This new tree wasn't bad, but:

  • All my carefully crafted source citations "blew up"
  • My thousands of media files were no longer assigned to categories.

Those citations and media categories were important to me!

Ever since then, I've been fixing my citations and adding back those media categories.

I'll bet you have a handful of things you'd like to fix. Here are 3 different fixes that will strengthen your family tree.

1. Find and Replace

My family tree is about 95% 19th century Italians. When I record a person's occupation from an old Italian vital record, I enter it in Italian. For example, falegname. I have an Excel spreadsheet with 910 Italian occupation words and their translations. I've memorized some (falegname = carpenter), but I have to look up many others.

I decided it'd be better to include the word in both languages in my family tree file. To do this, I used Family Tree Maker's Find and Replace function. I searched my tree for a word like falegname and replaced it with this: falegname (carpenter).

If you find a typo or want to update what you call something, use Find and Replace.
If you find a typo or want to update what you call something, use Find and Replace.

Once in a while I'll see a typo as I begin typing something and the program offers suggestions. I saw one typo where a word (I couldn't remember which word) had a double letter a instead of a single letter a. I used Find and Replace to search for "aa"—skipping over a couple of men named Aaron until I found the word I wanted. Then I replaced that double a with a single a.

Do you have any inconsistencies in your tree notes that you'd like to fix up?

2. Make Your Media Easier to Find

FTM lets you assign a category to each media item in your family tree. These categories were all erased when I downloaded my tree from Ancestry. I'd been fixing them as I found them, but it's been a long time, and they weren't done.

Then I found the shortcut. You select multiple images in FTM's media library, right-click and choose "Categorize Media." Then you choose the right category from your list and you're done.

Categories make it easy to (for one thing) make all your family photos private.
Categories make it easy to (for one thing) make all your family photos private.

Did you know you can create custom categories? In the window where you select a category, you can click the Add button and create a custom category. My family tree has a handful of documents from the Japanese "internment" camps of World War II. I never knew how to categorize these, so I created a new category called Internment.

You can also delete standard categories that you don't want to use.

3. Put Your Places on the Map

I've spent a lot of time fixing the place names in my family tree. Long ago I saw how FTM creates a hierarchy with every address or place in your tree. There's a folder, if you will, for each country. You can expand each one to see:

  • folders for states or regions
  • then counties or provinces
  • then towns, and
  • each place you've entered.

If the program can't find a place on the map, it will have a question mark on it. This means something is wrong and needs your attention. I have three question marks at the top level of my list, but they're on purpose. I also have a couple of towns that FTM's mapping system does not recognize. Those street names are loose in a province folder, instead of being in their own town folder.

Imagine seeing at a glance all the relatives who lived at one address.
Imagine seeing at a glance all the relatives who lived at one address.

I recently updated a list of very old street names from my grandfather's hometown in Italy. Those old names don't exist anymore. Luckily, I have a reference book that helped me translate those old names into streets I can find on today's map. I keep a list handy that tells me what to enter in FTM when I see one of the ancient names on a document. Now I can find these places on my next visit.

Which of these family tree fixes resonates the most with you? I do have a fourth fix I need to do, but there is no shortcut. Downloading my tree from Ancestry wrecked my source citations by separating them. If I had one source for a census form that and shared it with six different people, I now have six separate citations. That's not how I want it to be.

That particular crisis led me to change and improve how I make source citations. Because it's an overwhelming task, at first I fixed only my direct ancestors. I fix others as I find them. Did I mention my family tree has more than 30,000 people and almost 15,000 vital records? It's a big task.

For more clean-up tasks for your family tree, see "Your All-in-One Family Tree Clean-up List."

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If you want to find all your Italian ancestors but you need help, let's talk! Find out more at Italian Ancestry Services.

31 August 2021

How to Find Distant Cousins on Facebook

I belong to a Facebook group devoted to my Grandpa's hometown of Colle Sannita, Italy. Once in a while someone will post an old photo of their ancestor. With a little bit of information, I can work that ancestor into my extended family tree.

I also belong to a Facebook group devoted to my parents' childhood neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. Some people in the group have last names I recognize as being from my Grandpa's hometown. Three of these group members have each led me on day-long research quests. Each one of them is now in my family tree and excited by their newfound family trees.

This is my favorite hobby right now! In one case, the person from my parents' old neighborhood turned out to be my 7th cousin. In other cases, the relationship was more distant, but added more depth to my family tree.

With your genealogy skills, Facebook can expand your family tree.
With your genealogy skills, Facebook can expand your family tree.

Find Some Groups

If you know your ancestors' hometown in the "old country," search Facebook for the town name. Search for the old neighborhoods, or your family's old church or synagogue.

With our ability to dig up the past, we genealogists need to tread lightly. Don't announce that you want to investigate everyone's family. Be subtle and let things evolve.

Last week a person in the Bronx Facebook group posted a photo. I mentioned that his family must be from Colle Sannita because of his last name. He responded, yes, you're right! He offered a few more of the last names in his family. I knew they were all from that same town.

When he asked me how I knew his family was from there, I told him about my Grandpa and posted his 1927 wedding photo. Then the man with the Colle Sannita last name told me something very surprising. My grandparents were his godparents! He said he visited them often.

This started a conversation in the group. A couple more people said their parents came from Colle Sannita. I offered to build a tree for one, which I did. The conversation continued, and I learned enough to identify the first man's ancestors. I didn't pry. I let it evolve.

Love it or hate it, Facebook has a lot to offer your family tree.
Love it or hate it, Facebook has a lot to offer your family tree.

Pay Attention to Your Cousins

If you can't find a group for the old neighborhood or the old towns, keep your eyes open. I spotted a response to a photo from my distant cousin (we're friends who interact a lot). I gathered that the man who posted the photo is her cousin. I picked up clues and fit my cousin's cousin into my family tree. He turned out to be my 7th cousin once removed.

Since I don't know this man, I'll reach out to the cousin I know and tell her what I've found. She can introduce me to him so I don't come off as a crazy stranger.

Where to Start

When the 1950 U.S. Federal Census is released in April 2022, we won't need to reach quite as far back to begin this type of search. But for now, we can start by finding the right family in the 1940 census.

Let's take the case of the man with the Colle Sannita last name. He mentioned his parents' names, and I knew he lived near my parents. That helped me find him as a little boy in the census.

When you've identified the family, keep climbing. If the parents are immigrants, look for a ship manifest or naturalization papers. World War I and II draft registration cards are a great help. They give you a reliable birth date, and sometimes a town of birth.

With a bit of work, I found the man's parents' birth dates in U.S. naturalization papers and a draft registration card. Then I found birth records for his grandparents in Italy. Next, I worked to fit everyone into my large family tree.

In the end, I found 11 different relationships to this man. All 11 are weird, like "nephew of wife of 3rd cousin 3x removed." But I'd guess my Grandpa knew this man's parents back in the old country.

I have an ace-in-the-hole that makes this hobby more fun. I've put in the time to make all available Colle Sannita vital records searchable on my computer. Because I have this awesome database—something no one else has—I'm eager to put it to good use. You can still tackle a project like this without such a database. It'll just take longer.

What's in it for you? Well, I found out a lot of Grandpa's neighbors from Italy lived in his neighborhood in the Bronx. Without these U.S. people I found on Facebook, I wouldn't know their ancestors ever left Italy. They would be dead ends in my database.

Facebook is a great place for genealogy clues. Look around for good groups and keep your eyes open for people reminiscing about family.

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Let Me Build Your Italian Family Tree

If you want to find all your Italian ancestors but you need help, let's talk! Find out more at Italian Ancestry Services.

24 August 2021

Provide the Proof and Change Their Minds

It's funny when a family tree on Ancestry uses my cropped Italian birth record as a person's profile image. I didn't get that idea from anyone. I did it for myself so I'd know I have a proof document for the person.

I laughed out loud when I saw a tree using a photo I took of the rare book some information came from. If I see that photo, it's a sure sign I need to investigate that family tree.

Unrelated Relatives

If you've been doing this for a while, I'll bet you've found a tree that gets part of your family all wrong. I found one when a Potential Father / Potential Mother hint appeared on Ancestry. A branch of my family comes from a tiny Italian town that wasn't documented before 1861. I even hired a pair of Italian researchers to find anything more for me. My dead ends are in that town due to lack of records.

One DNA cousin thought she found the parents and siblings of my 3rd great grandmother. That's why I had a hint. But the supposed parents and siblings came from a different province than my family. They lived 3 hours away by car on paved roads. Imagine how far that was in a mule cart on dirt paths.

The reason I found this clear mistake was because of an email. A woman who found that same DNA match's tree was lead to believe that my family was her family. She bought into the Potential Father / Potential Mother hint, too. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Genealogy takes practice.

Family tree mistakes can spread like wildfire. Track down the proof, and they'll want to fix their errors.
Family tree mistakes can spread like wildfire. Track down the proof, and they'll want to fix their errors.

Setting the Record Straight

Does it bother you when people borrow your research and put it in their family tree—incorrectly? Are you unhappy they've copied your photos—especially if you recently made your photos private?

Long ago I told a new genealogist that my grandfather is not part of her family. It took a while, but she removed him from her family tree. Most of the time we aren't this lucky.

Writing a "cease and desist" message usually won't solve the problem. If you want to set things straight, there's only one way to handle it. Document their real family.

So, when a woman wrote to me with a proposed connection that made us 4th cousins, I had to do the work. I wanted to find out from actual documents who her great grandparents really were.

I began with a 1902 ship manifest for the wife, sailing to Boston with her son to meet her husband. Their names and the husband's U.S. address told me this was the right family. The manifest said the woman and child last lived in Pietrabbondante, Isernia, Italy. That's also a 3-hour car ride from my ancestral hometown.

I searched the Pietrabbondante vital records on the Antenati website. I discovered the husband, wife, and child were not born there. I thought at least one of them would be.

Since I was stuck, I looked at Pietrabbondante on Google Maps. I randomly chose the town on its eastern border. It's called Poggio Sannita now, but it used to be Caccavone. I went to the Poggio Sannita records on the Antenati website and straight to the 1897 marriages. That's the year my not-cousin believes they married.

Sure enough, I found their marriage record! Here I discovered that the husband was born one more town to the east, but he and his parents now lived in Caccavone. The wife was born in Caccavone and still lived there with her parents.

This one document was proof that the woman who wrote to me had been seriously led astray. I went on to find the birth records for her great grandparents and their first-born child. Thanks to those records, I could tell her the names of four of her 2nd great grandparents, and some of their fathers.

Finally, I told her how I would proceed to build the family tree further back. Work backwards from the year before her great grandparents were born. Search year-by-year for their parents' marriage records. Then find the 2nd great grandparents' birth records. And maybe their parents' marriage records. She was overjoyed by the news.

Prove the truth to the owner of an incorrect family tree, and they'll want to delete your people from their tree. Plus, you've helped turn their tree into a good clue for someone else.

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Let Me Build Your Italian Family Tree

If you want to find all your Italian ancestors but you need help, let's talk! Find out more at Italian Ancestry Services.

17 August 2021

Stay True to Your Genealogy Discipline

I dream about transcribing old Italian vital records. That's how much I love it. In fact, I don't enjoy U.S. censuses anymore. I'd much rather be working with my old Italians.

But a new project has come up. My son's girlfriend (let's call her V) lost her father. My son told her I'd want to do her family tree for her since she didn't know her ethnic background. V said she would like that.

I began with facts from her father's obituary. I had his parents' full names and his wife's maiden name.

I found V's grandparents right away. I discovered they had been in the same Pennsylvania county for many generations. This is the same county where V grew up. The same county where I raised my kids. The same county where V and my son live today.

Then I tapped into a few local histories that featured V's last name. In one document from the county's historical society, I found generations of V's family. As I dug into it, entering names into V's family tree, I found exactly what I was looking for. Her paternal immigrant ancestor!

Her 9th great grandfather (NINTH!) had come to America from France in 1715. He was a French Huguenot who joined the Quaker religion that was so common in his new homeland.

Let's step back a second. In my first session, I climbed all the way up to V's 9th great grandparents born in the late 1600s.

Did I feel joy about this rapid success? No. I mean, I was happy to find the unexpected source of V's Italian-sounding last name. But I was a little angry that it was all so easy to find.

I know the names of five of my 9th great grandparents. They came after years of research, and the help of an Italian historian from my Grandpa's hometown. But after very little time, I know the names of eight of V's 9th great grandparents.

What I really felt was jealousy. Is this how easy it can be for white people with deep, deep roots in America? My direct ancestors came to America between 1899 and 1920. That missing 1890 census never bothered me because my people weren't here yet! With V's family tree, I'm seeing for myself how far back you can go with records on Ancestry.com. For the first time, I'm looking at the early censuses with no names, just tick marks.

My first day working on her tree, I racked up ancestors so fast my head was spinning. I had to stop myself from going further.

Make sure all your family tree work reflects your best genealogy practices.
Make sure all your family tree work reflects your best genealogy practices.

Why stop? Because I want to give V a family tree that shows all I've learned. I started this blog to encourage us all to be more professional with our genealogy research.

I've spent years developing a strict and thorough genealogy discipline. I want to give V the benefit of all I've learned. I want us all to apply the same discipline to someone else's family tree as we do to our own.

That's why I went back to the beginning. In this case, the beginning is the documentation I found for her grandparents.

  • I downloaded each genealogy document as I found it.
  • I gave it a logical file name and added pertinent facts to its file properties.
  • I placed the image in Family Tree Maker and added the date of the document.
  • I assigned it to a media category.
  • I entered facts from the document into the tree and created the source citation.
  • I shared the document, facts, and source citation with everyone mentioned in the document.
  • I verified addresses from the documents by finding them on Google Maps.

In short, I used all my family tree-building discipline on someone else's family tree.

I love helping people find their ancestors among the Italian vital records. I treat their documents and family trees with as much discipline as I do my own. When I send them a batch of files, I want each jpg's file properties to include a file name and where the image came from.

It makes perfect sense to keep up your genealogy discipline for every family tree you work on. You're creating something for the ages. You're going to want people to pass it down—and rely on it. That's why you must take the extra steps to produce high-quality work every time.

As I said, I felt anger and jealousy over how easily V's family tree is coming together. But those aren't the only emotions I felt.

I felt gratitude when the genealogy community on Twitter solved a problem for me. One of V's great grandparents was an immigrant. On one census he said he was Austrian. On two other censuses he said he was German. But his World War II draft registration card said he was born in "Kofedesh" Hungary. So now he's Hungarian? I wanted to see Kofedesh on the map, but it didn't exist. At least, not with that spelling.

I put out the call to Twitter. Does anyone know what town sounds like Kofedesh? To my delight, @sosonkyrie found it almost immediately. He sent me a Wikipedia link about Kohlfidisch, Austria, that included a spoken pronunciation. What does Kohlfidisch sound like? Kofedesh!

As for the shifting nationality of V's great grandfather, that isn't surprising. His town was in Hungary when he registered for the WWII draft. It's in Austria now. And V's great grandfather was part of its German-speaking population. (Where are you from? It depends on the year.)

I feel one more emotion as I work on V's family tree. Guilt. I do some genealogy work every single day. I'm always advancing my project to document all the relationships in my ancestral hometowns. Now I feel guilty about not working on my own family tree.

Sometimes it feels as if I'm doing something wrong. Something bad. I'm ignoring my family tree. When those feelings take over, I take a "break" by working on my Italian vital records database. When U.S. census after U.S. census for V's family got to be too tedious, I went to my happy place. I renamed more downloaded Italian vital records to make them searchable.

I know my genealogy discipline will produce a robust family tree for V. And if she ever winds up creating my grandchild, guess who will inherit my work?

Keep the future in mind as you work on any family tree. Stay true to your strong genealogy discipline knowing it will always pay off.

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Let Me Build Your Italian Family Tree

If you want to find all your Italian ancestors but you need help, let's talk! Find out more at Italian Ancestry Services.

10 August 2021

Which Part of Your Ancestry Needs to Be Private?

The genealogy world is up in arms due to an extreme overreach by Ancestry.com. No one ever pays attention to a website's policy updates. And they were counting on us to ignore this latest change.

But the Legal Genealogist Judy Russell sounded the alarm for us all. Ancestry says they're claiming full rights to the photos in our online family trees. Your favorite family photo of Grandma might wind up in Ancestry's advertisements. And you would have no legal right to stop them.

What were they thinking? They thought they'd get away with it, that's for sure. Can you imagine the corporate meeting where they decided to own our photos?

Before the September 2, 2021 deadline, people are removing photos from their Ancestry trees. From now on, the discoveries we make in other people's family trees will be a lot more bland. No more finding photos of the 3rd great aunt you just discovered.

I do all my family tree work on my desktop in Family Tree Maker. I didn't have to "delete" my photos. I went through them in the FTM Media Library and clicked a checkbox to make them all private. Then I synchronized my tree with Ancestry.com, which removed 444 photos from the website—not from my tree.

This works fine for me. The vast majority of my people have no photos anyway. They have vital records from the 1800s. I don't own those records, so I'm happy to share them along with their URLs.

Today I remembered the large family tree I created for my sister-in-law. I don't update it anymore. I went to the tree on Ancestry and went to the Media Library. I removed every photo (not cemetery photos or documents). These photos were mostly given to me by a distant cousin of my sister-in-law, so they are not mine. I have a duty to protect their property as well as mine.

Removing or making images private in the Media Library is faster than viewing profiles one at a time. That goes for your family tree on Ancestry or your desktop tree.

Take the time right now to safeguard your family tree photos from other uses.
Take the time right now to safeguard your family tree photos from other uses.

Does It Matter to You?

What do you think needs to be private? I'm always surprised by people who won't take a DNA test because of a perceived threat to their identity. It isn't your bank account PIN. How would someone profit off knowing you're 55% Irish? And if I have a serial-killer cousin, I want them to get caught.

I've never had a problem with my family tree being "out there," and I still don't. But I did take back my photos.

After doing that, I realized I did have my family tree in one place I'm very unhappy about. Geni.com is a free-for-all, "one world tree" type of site. People can merge your family members with theirs. They can edit your people. When I uploaded my large GEDCOM file in 2008, I thought it was MY family tree.

I wanted to delete my tree long ago, but strangers have put their hooks into it. They have made themselves managers of my closest family members—with no rhyme or reason.

I decided to delete as many people as I could from my geni.com family tree. I had to do it one at a time, which took lots of clicks and was murder on my right arm. It took me hours. You cannot delete someone if they will break your tree. For instance, someone has added to the family of my other sister-in-law's ex-husband. I can't delete his family without breaking the tree someone else built onto him. So I can't delete my sister-in-law, and I can't delete my husband. I have this type of situation in a few places.

Since I can't delete some of my closest relatives, I made sure their profiles are private. I deleted two men who made themselves "managers" of MY people. I found that one of these mystery men had a relationship to a branch of my ex-husband's tree on his English/Irish side. But why glom onto my whole family (all Italian) and my current husband's family (all Japanese)? That's insane and as much of an overreach as Ancestry.com is making.

I'm glad my photos are private. And I'm very glad I reined in my geni.com tree. But I need my Ancestry family tree to be public. It's of great value to anyone with ancestors from a handful of Southern Italian towns.

If you have a family tree on Ancestry.com, you've got a decision to make. Don't wait until the September 2 deadline. It's time to take action.

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03 August 2021

What Do You Think You Are?

When Suni Lee won her gold medal in gymnastics at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the press touted her as the first Asian American to do so. As the wife of an Asian American, I was curious to see which type of Asian she is.

Reading that Lee is Hmong was confusing. I'd heard of it before, but I wondered where the Hmong people come from. I read that Hmong is an ethnic group found in parts of China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. That's a very large geographic region.

The difference between ethnicity and nationality should be important to genealogists. As shown by the Hmong people, an ethnic group can extend beyond national borders. Likewise, you can have more than one ethnic group within a nation.

Ethnicity is important when reviewing your DNA results. I'm mostly Southern Italian, which is a different ethnicity than Northern Italian. All my traceable roots come from a very small part of Southern Italy. That's why my "community", according to Ancestry DNA, is Campania and Molise—two neighboring regions in Italy.

I looked at the DNA results of my friend (who turned out to be my 6th cousin). Her core ethnicities are Central Ireland and Southern Italian. Her Central Ireland communities are specific to quite a small geographic footprint. Her Southern Italian community is the same as mine.

Remember that your DNA is oblivious to national boundaries.
Remember that your DNA is oblivious to national boundaries.

How do you self-identify? Getting into genealogy has made me identify as Italian more than ever. Yes, I'm American, but my cultural and genetic heritage is Italian. We're an Italian family that happens to live in America and speak English.

Growing up in suburban New York, my classmates were Italian, Irish, Polish, German. I didn't call them American because that was a given. We were all Americans, but Americans are always something else, too. We even called it a nationality (e.g., "What nationality are you?" "I'm Irish.").

Focus on your ethnicity, not your family's country of origin, and your DNA pie chart may make more sense. My pie chart also contains some Greece and Albania, and a bit of Northern Italy. It's clear to me that Greeks, Albanians, and Italians have a shared ethnic origin. People from these areas are very similar. I can imagine we can trace our ancient roots to the same place.

My cousin's adopted daughter has 13% "Germanic Europe" in her DNA profile. Ancestry DNA says this is mostly in Germany and Switzerland, but it reaches into several countries. If you have this ethnicity, but none of your ancestors came from Germany, it would be easy to think this was an error.

She also has 11% Middle East. My first DNA results showed 44% Middle Eastern, which was confusing. But my cousin's daughter's Middle East DNA comes from a specific part of Lebanon. Having Lebanese ethnicity is quite different than the much broader "Middle East". And it's easier to understand.

The best example I've seen of an ethnic group that spans nations is "European Jewish". This ethnicity reaches back to huge amounts of people who had to move from place to place. It's a perfect example of how ethnicity is not tied to nationality.

Ancestry DNA says, "We estimate your ethnicity by comparing your DNA to DNA samples from groups of people whose families have lived for a long time in one place." I can prove my ancestors stayed in their little corner of Italy for centuries. So did their neighbors. This makes us a strong, condensed ethnic group.

So, what do you think you are? I always thought I was Italian and DNA bears me out. Do you belong to an ethnic group that comes from many countries? Did large groups of your distant ancestors migrate from one region to another?

If you have ethnicities that span countries, you may need to adjust your thinking. There's nationality (especially during the Olympics). And then there's ethnicity. Perhaps your roots are deeper ethnically than nationally.

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27 July 2021

Which Genealogy Documents Are You Missing?

Working on your family tree gets more exciting each time you discover something new. Maybe you discovered your great grandfather's brother and followed his paper trail. Maybe you went off on interesting tangents and built out several branches. Once your new discoveries run their course, you may find your family tree is a lot bigger.

How do you get back on track? How can you make sure you collect every available document for everyone in your family tree?

For me, the answer is simple. My document tracker is a 4,870-line spreadsheet that shows each document I've added to my family tree. It lists people from my tree in alphabetical order—but only people for whom I have documents. (Download a document tracker file you can use for yourself.)

This inventory of which genealogy documents you have and which you need will help you make your family tree more complete. (Never finished, but more complete.)
This inventory of which genealogy documents you have and which you need will help you make your family tree more complete. (Never finished, but more complete.)

Most of my documents are very old Italian vital records. I do something special for those lines in the document tracker.

  • If I've added all available documents for a person to my tree (birth, marriage(s), and death), I color their line green. That tells me that person is complete.
  • In a completed person's "Need to find" column, I enter n/a for not applicable.
  • If I can't get one or more of a person's vital records because they aren't online, I color their line blue.
  • In an incomplete person's "Need to find" column, I enter what is missing, like this:
    • out of range: birth
    • out of range: marriage
    • out of range: death

Lately I've been working to make my collection of Italian vital records searchable. Since they are searchable, I should be able to complete all my Italians' "Need to find" columns.

This is such a fulfilling task! The documents are waiting for me to get them and add them to my family tree. So why wouldn't I chase them down?

I started at the top of my document tracker, but for now, I'm focusing only on those Italian documents. I'll skip over all the people with U.S. or other documents.

One at a time, I search my computer (using a free PC program called Everything) for a person. The document tracker tells me which documents I'm missing. Now I can definitively say if a person was born, married, or died "out of range" of the online documents. And if I find a missing document, I crop it in Photoshop and add it to both my family tree and my document tracker. I also create a source citation for each fact I learn from each document.

So many lines are now colored either green for complete or blue for out of range. Some day, if I gain access to church records, I may find many of the out of range documents. My document tracker will make it easy to see which church records I want.

This level of completeness makes me really happy. I always have a bunch of genealogy projects going on at the same time. One involves identifying all my relatives from one town, Santa Paolina, Avellino, Italy. For that fast-paced project, I'm adding facts only, not documents or citations. Not yet.

Diego was born out of range of available genealogy documents, but I know I found all that's available.
Diego was born out of range of available genealogy documents, but I know I found all that's available.

Right now I want to work through my document tracker, filling in the blanks. Then I'll start adding documents and sources for my Santa Paolina people.

In my first two days of finding missing documents, I added 75 document images to my family tree. Unfortunately, there is a problem with Ancestry.com right now. No one can synchronize their Family Tree Maker file with Ancestry. I don't want to add tons of facts and documents until I get synchronized again. But I can collect and crop the images I need, and save them to add to my tree later.

If your family tree isn't too big, you can go person-by-person and see what you're missing. You may even want to create and fill in your document tracker at the same time.

My family tree has more than 30,500 people right now. I'm so glad I created my document tracker when I had less than 1,000 people. If your tree is too big to consider doing a person-by-person check, keep things close to you. Examine only your direct ancestors to see what's missing. Then branch out to the siblings of your direct ancestors.

Also, each time you view a person in your tree, for whatever reason, take note of what they're missing. As long as you're working on them, you may as well go all the way and search for everything you need.

Yes, those genealogy tangents are fun! But don't forget to double back and fill in the blanks for a more complete family tree.

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20 July 2021

How to Find Value in Your Distant DNA Matches

My DNA matches are very out of balance. My paternal-side matches outnumber my maternal-side matches by more than 2 to 1. To make up for the big difference, I need to squeeze out the value of these matches to benefit my family tree.

My tree contains about 15,000 people (I kid you not) from my mother's father's hometown of Baselice. That's a result of a years-long project where I documented thousands of vital records in a text file. Then I worked the people into my family tree. Thanks to Italy's Antenati website, I have access to the rest of the town's records through 1942.

On Saturday I published a text file and an Excel file with names and links to more than 8,600 Baselice vital records. I've done the same for a few of my other ancestral towns, including Santa Paolina, Avellino.

Having done all this work, I'm as ready as I'll ever be to fit Mom's DNA matches into my family tree.

A Familiar Name

As I scroll down my list of maternal-side DNA matches, I see one with a last name I think I know. It looks like an Americanization of the name Ricciardelli. This name comes from Santa Paolina. That's the hometown of one of my 2nd great grandmothers.

My DNA match's 3-person tree turns out to be all I need. (I didn't see that coming.) The tree consists of her, her father, and her grandfather, Michele Ricciardelli. A quick search for her father shows me that his parents, Michele and Vincenza, are already in my family tree. Michele Ricciardelli is my 3rd cousin 3 times removed. When I add Michele's son and granddaughter to my tree, I see that my match is my 5th cousin once removed.

That was unexpected! My DNA match's 3-person family tree was all I needed to easily connected her to my extended family.
That was unexpected! My DNA match's 3-person family tree was all I needed to easily connected her to my extended family.

I'll add a note to my DNA match list and choose another one to explore.

Another match has the name Ricciardelli in his family tree, too. He also has another name from the same town—Stanziale. I should be able to place this young man in my family tree.

As I view his tree, I see his 3rd great grandparents are in my family tree already. But their connection to me is not close at all. Each one has an in-law relationship to my 5th great uncle. I needed more facts.

I found my match's 2nd great grandparents' marriage documents and added the facts to my family tree. While I can't find a blood relationship with this DNA match, I can see a DNA connection. His 2nd great grandmother's sister married my 5th great uncle. The descendants of both sisters would share some DNA.

Since his tree has 2 generations of private, unnamed family, I won't add him to my family tree. But I made a detailed note on Ancestry DNA about how we may share DNA.

Another Familiar Name

I want to explore one more match whose grandmother Carmela was born in Santa Paolina. Carmela and her parents are not in my family tree. I'm sure I can find their connection by searching the documents.

The Santa Paolina documents, searchable on my computer, helped me place Carmela in my tree. But once again, there is no direct relationship. I'll go ahead and add as many facts as I can about this family. Maybe future research will show a closer relationship.

I've been building my own massive vital records database. Finding my DNA matches' relatives is a slam dunk.
I've been building my own massive vital records database. Finding my DNA matches' relatives is a slam dunk.

It looks as if my ancestors' neighbors and in-laws have descendants who have DNA-tested. And we share a small amount of DNA. Yes, I wish I had more and closer matches from my maternal side. But I can use my DNA matches to piece together extended families and see how far they've come.

Don't overlook the value of your 4th–6th cousin matches. They can extend your dead ends and open up new relationships.

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If you want to find all your Italian ancestors but you need help, let's talk! Find out more at Italian Ancestry Services.