Monday, February 27, 2017

What To Do When You Have No Birth or Death Record

I've made it clear in my welcome message that I never trust someone else's family tree if they don't show their sources and I can't reproduce their facts. So even if I'm given facts by someone I trust, I will still do my due diligence and search for factual proof.

A good resource to use when you don't have access to someone's birth or death record is the Find A Grave website. If you're lucky, you may get to see an image of the headstone with full birth and death dates. A genealogist's giddy dream!

Here's an example of a situation where I wanted to verify the birth and death dates I'd been given for one relative, but you can also try this not when you're trying to prove someone else's work, but when you're trying to fill in missing dates.

I knew from census records that this man lived in Cleveland, Ohio and was alive in 1940. So I used the search form in Find A Grave to find an Edward Byrne who was born after 1855 and died after 1940 in Cleveland.


The search yielded five Edward Byrnes, but as my yellow highlighting shows, only two are buried in Cleveland. Focusing on those two, I see one was born in 1863 and died in 1941—that fits. The other, as it happens, is the son of the man I'm looking for.




When I click his name, I am not given an image of his headstone, but there are several facts recorded by someone I do not know. Once again, it's up to me to determine how many of these facts are trustworthy. But there is truly an abundance of facts, and I'm grateful for that.

I know from the census forms I've collected that he was a grocer. That fits. I know his street address in 1940. That fits. I have the names of many of his relatives, and I see them listed here. Short of seeing his birth and death certificates myself, this looks like credible data. And based on this information, I could attempt to purchase a copy of either his birth or death record from the state of Ohio.

Remember, the more resources you use to corroborate the facts about someone in your tree, the stronger your tree will be.


Friday, February 24, 2017

This Expanded Resource Provided an Elusive Maiden Name

Somewhere along my genealogical travels I found out that my great grandmother's mother—who never came to America—was named Maria Luigia. But I didn't know her last name. I did a little research to see if Luigia was her last name, but it was inconclusive.

Flash forward several years as Ancestry.com's resources continue to grow and grow. Now there is a resource called "U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1935-2007" which the ancestry.com website describes as picking up where the Social Security Death Index leaves off. If you're lucky enough to find an ancestor in this collection, you may learn things like:
  • Their father's name.
  • Their mother's maiden name.
  • A woman's married name.
  • Their date and place of birth.
I happened to find the record for my great grandmother's brother, Giuseppe (Joseph) Caruso, and it featured one heck of a bad transcription for his place of birth (there are no images available). For his mother's name it said Maria L. Gilardo. Another sibling's record listed their mother's last name as something very not-Italian, like Girandiu. I also discovered the actual death certificate for Joseph Caruso, which Americanized his mother's last name to Gerard.

So, weighing all of these alternatives, I felt the most logical last name was Girardi (like Joe Girardi, the New York Yankees' manager). I did some research to find out if anyone named Girardi had come to America from their town of Pescolamazza, and they had.

This was enough to make me about 85% confident that I had the correct name.

Then I discovered the unbelievably valuable (to any descendant of someone from the Province of Benevento, Italy) Benevento State Archives. There I managed to find the actual 1840 birth record for my great great grandmother, Maria Luigia Girardi.

So the moral of the story is to keep checking for new resources that can help you fortify your family tree.


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Monday, February 20, 2017

Why Did They Come to America?

When I first started researching my Italian ancestors after spending my honeymoon in Italy, I couldn't understand how they left such a beautiful place to come and work for the railroad or live in a cramped city apartment.

If you're wondering the same thing about your ancestors, no matter where they came from, you can gain a lot of insight by reading a bit of history about your ancestors' homeland at the time they came to America. They may have come here because it was their only option for steady work. They may have been fleeing an oppressive regime or hoping to avoid a war.

My entire family came from rural Southern Italy where poverty was extreme and advancement was all but impossible. In the late 1800s it became difficult to grow crops, and waves of cholera and other diseases were increasing the death rate. America offered steady work for healthy men.

On a PBS website called Destination America, you can view an interactive map that shows the amount of emigration throughout Europe by decade, from 1851 to 1910. According to this fascinating map, the decades are characterized as follows:
  • 1851–1860: The Potato Famine in Ireland made emigration a matter of life or death.
  • 1861–1870: Prussia and the German states could not provide good jobs to their people.
  • 1871–1880: The German Empire, ruled by Otto von Bismarck, became inhospitable to Catholic Germans.
  • 1881–1890: Skilled laborers throughout the United Kingdom escaped poverty and famine to work in America's industries.
  • 1891–1900: Extreme poverty in Southern Italy, along with malnutrition and disease, led to a massive exodus.
  • 1901–1910: Millions of Jews had to leave Russia to escape anti-Semitic violence, army conscription, and ethnic friction.

With so many millions of people pouring into the United States, some controls were needed. According to an immigration timeline on a Harvard University website, more than three million immigrants came to America between 1891 and 1900, and that includes many of my ancestors. A whopping 5.7 million Italians came to America between 1911 and 1920, including my two grandfathers.

The overwhelming numbers of immigrants led to a series of laws that were intended to stem the flow a bit. In 1917, according to the Harvard website, Congress enacted a literacy requirement for immigrants by overriding President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The law requires immigrants to be able to read 40 words in some language and bans immigration from Asia, except for Japan and the Philippines.

Between 1921 and 1930 more than four million immigrants arrived, but several laws during this decade enforced immigration restrictions:
  • The Emergency Quota Act, 1921 restricted immigration from any country to 3% of the number of people from that country living in the US in 1910.
  • The Immigration Act of 1924 limited annual European immigration to 2% of the number of people from that country living in the United States in 1890.
  • The 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act prohibited most immigration from Asia. That same year the Border Patrol was created to help prevent illegal immigration.
  • In 1929 they really clamped down on Asian immigration: The National Origins Formula institutes a quota that caps national immigration at 150,000 and completely bars Asian immigration, though immigration from the Western Hemisphere is still permitted.

I have cousins who left Italy in the 1950s but simply were not allowed to come to the United States, so they and many of their friends and relatives settled in, and still live in Niagara Falls, Canada. It would require more research, but I suspect that after the 1920s or so, it was never again as simple as getting on a boat, coming to America, and saying you wanted to stay.


Friday, February 17, 2017

How Do I Get There From Here?

Have you ever looked at a document in your family tree, let's say a census sheet, and realized you also need a family that lived on the same block? How do you get back to that census collection online (so you can see the surrounding pages) when all you have is the one document you saved?

You can look at the top of a census sheet and gather enough information to help you get to the general area where you want to look. For example, this 1930 census sheet is from Girard City, Trumbull County, Ohio, enumeration district 78-45, sheet 16B.

Top of a census sheet

With those facts I was able to use ancestry.com to easily drill down to the right link, containing 36 images. Because I knew it was sheet 16B, I was able to go right to image 32 and find the exact page I wanted. I can then go page by page to look for a related family that I believe lived nearby.

Searching for a particular census

But it isn't always that clean and easy. The top of the census sheet might be hard to read or the information incomplete.

Other documents are harder to rediscover, such as a ship manifest. This is the top of my grandfather's ship manifest from 1920.

A ship manifest with no ship name

It tells me that he arrived in New York on 29 November 1920, but what was the name of the ship? I can find a particular ship arriving on a particular day on ancestry.com, but if more than one ship arrived on that day, I may have a lot of images to look at.

To allow myself—and anyone who feels they may have a connection to my tree—to rediscover any of my saved documents, I add enough detail to the image in Family Tree Maker to make that search easy.

For a census sheet I indicate the line numbers to look at, the city, county and state, the enumeration district, sheet number, and image number, which can be a real time-saver.

Adding enough details to enable anyone to locate the original

When I decided to add this information, I spent a whole weekend updating every census sheet in my tree. Now I simply add the information the moment I add the new image. It's a practice that will pay off, and absolutely fortifies your family tree.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Case Study on "How Is That Possible?"

Here's a lesson that supports my earlier post, "How Is That Possible?" When my recent post about Italian marriage records led me to discover a mistake I had been making, I spent three solid days correcting my tons of such records in my enormous family tree.

The work was tedious, but after a while I realized that this change I was making—reclassifying certain dates as "marriage license" rather than "marriage"—provided the answer to a question that had come up a number of times.

I had quite a few men (these are small-town Italian men in the 1800s) who had gone through the process of posting their intention to marry a woman and then seemed to marry her, but went through the same process with another woman a month later.

What was going on? Divorce was not a thing, and the first woman had not died. In fact, I had proof that the first woman then went through the process with another man and married him.

Once I learned that they had not gotten married, but had merely obtained consent to marry, it became clear: The first couple intended to marry but something prevented the marriage. Each of them was then paired with someone else whom they did marry.


I feel this corrected and more logical information makes my family tree even more solid. So I ran Family Tree Maker's built-in error report and uncovered a page full of birth date discrepancies. Some people had two birth dates from conflicting resources, while others had an original placeholder date that had been superseded by documented facts. So I was able to clean up all of the errors.

I even figured out and fixed the error I highlighted in How Is That Possible? where I had two Michele Leone's with the same birth date. The date belongs to my grandfather's first cousin; the other Michele Leone is a more distant relative born a different year.

Now I'm itching for other discrepancies to fix!

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

How to Read a Free-form Italian Death Record

So far I've shown you some birth, death and marriage records from the Napoleonic era in Italy. These were somewhat easy to read because they used a fill-in-the-blanks form. But your ancestral hometown may not have used the same form—or any form at all. What then?

Here is a record of the 1789 death of Francesco Colasanto, written as a single paragraph in 1851. It was part of the 1851 marriage packet of his grandson, Francesco Saverio Colasanto. I have underlined parts of the image and underlined the text that corresponds with those sections to show you how to read this type of document. Granted, the handwriting can be difficult. Practice and exposure to many documents written by the same priest or town official can get you used to reading it.

Handwritten death record prepared for the 1851 marriage of the decedent's grandson

Extract of the death of Francesco Colasanto. It begins with words to the effect of "In faith the priest of the Church of San Leonardo Abbate of Basélice," and goes on to mention where the original death record is found: Volume VIII, folio 41(?), document number 5. In that book of death records was found Francesco Colasanto, son of Giovanni and Donata Ruggiero, husband of Errica Pettorossi, died at 23 January 1789 and was buried in the same church. It states that this record is being written only for matrimonial purposes on 15 August 1851. It is signed by the priest, Giuseppe Maria DelVecchio, and by the mayor of the town. It bears a stamp from the church and from the town.

After viewing many handwritten documents just like this, I became familiar with their format and was able to quickly pull out the pertinent facts. Don't forget to let Google Translate be your friend.

OK. I promise to leave Italy for a while and return to U.S. documents.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

How to Read Italian Marriage Records

Writing this blog and explaining my logic is actually teaching me a few things. I had something totally wrong about Italian Marriage Records, so this revised blog entry is corrected.

When I was documenting every birth, marriage and death record from the Italian town of Basélice between 1809 and 1860, I was thrilled with the massive amount of information you could glean from marriage documents. In this town there was a whole packet of papers about the wedding itself. But if, say, the groom's father was dead, you would also get his death record. And if his father was also dead, you'd get his death record, which includes the name of his parents. So suddenly you've gone back three generations from the groom.

During this period of time a couple had to publicly post a notification of their intent to marry—twice—usually two weeks apart. These two posting dates were recorded by the town. After that an official document gave them the ability to be married.

Then the couple was married in the local church. The town would have one record for the first banns, another for the second, another for the finalization, and on the next page a place to record the church wedding date. Then there was a separate document that combined all of this information.

Here are examples using my great great great grandfather Nicoladomenico Leone's second marriage to my great great great grandmother Caterina Pisciotti. (She was almost the same age as his eldest daughter!)

First notification of intention to marry

The year 1842 the 24th day of the month of April at 1 p.m. was affixed to the door of the town hall notification of the solemn promise of marriage between Nicola Leone, son of the late Giuseppe and the late Maria Zarrelli, and Caterina Pisciotti, daughter of Giovanni and Dorodea Petruccelli. Signed by the official.

Second notification of intention to marry

The year 1842 the 12th day of the month of May at 2 p.m., I, Vincenzo Lembo mayor and official of the Comune of Basélice, District of Campobasso, Provine of Molise, testify that on the 24th day of April in this same year, a Sunday, was affixed on the door of this town hall the following notification. … Nicoladomenico Leone, age 43 (I have not figured out what the occupation says) who lives in Basélice, son of the late Giuseppe and the late Maria Zarelli, and Caterina Pisciotti, age 22, daughter of Giovanni, a farmer in Basélice, and Dorodea Petruccelli, living in this town intend to enter into a solemn promise of marriage with this second notice. (That last part is not verbatim.)

Declaration that the couple is free to marry

The year 1842 the 16th day of the month of May at 9 p.m. … the same name and woman appeared before the same mayor, having twice posted their intention to marry, the second time on the 24th of April.

The church wedding date

On the back of the previous document was this paragraph stating that the couple was married in the church on the fourth of June 1842. It includes the priest's name.

The complete marriage record

This all-in-one document includes my great great great grandfather Nicola Leone's signature at the bottom. That's a treasure in itself. The document includes the dates of the posting of the couple's intentions, their church ceremony date on the right, and again their names, ages, occupations, and their parents' names.

In another post I will show some of the other documents in what I call the wedding packets.


Monday, February 6, 2017

How to Read an Italian Death Record

My annotated Italian birth record received a lot of attention on Facebook and LinkedIn, so I'd like to continue with an annotated Italian death record. This is the 1830 death record for my great great great grandfather Giuseppe Leone of Basélice, Italy.


The general format of many such documents from this era is to state the date, the name and position of the official recording the information, describe two witnesses to the facts, state who died and when, and provide the names of the person's parents and spouse. At the bottom is a somewhat generic official statement that everything above is true and here are our signatures to prove it.

Now for more detail. In this particular town the form begins with the words "Death extract" and the decedent's name is handwritten. The documents are numbered in the order in which they are recorded, so this is document 176 for the year.

Next is a long fill-in-the-blanks statement reading (in general): "The year 1830 the day 21 of the month of November at the hour 15 (3 p.m.) before me (Mayor's name) and officials of the state of the Comune of Basélice, District of Campobasso, Province of Molise, appeared …"

Next comes the description of the two witnesses: "Francesco Iampietro, age 49, a farmer who lives in this town, and Michele Marucci, age 50, a farmer who lives in this town, to tell me of the death on the day 21 of the month of November in the same year as written above, of Giuseppe Leone, at his own house, age 60, born in Basélice, whose profession was [missing], who was the son of the late Michele and the late Giovanna Pisciotti, and who was the widow of Lucia d'Abrillo."

That's a lot of information. At the very least you want to key in on the name of the decedent, when they died, their age and place of birth, and their parents' and spouse's names. In this town's records I have often seen "widow the second time", meaning here is the name of his second wife who also died before him. It is particularly helpful that you can tell by the word "fu" or "furono" that the parents have already died. I have seen several birth records for babies in this town whose father died before they were born. The word "fu" tells me this.

Like anything else, with enough practice and a basic knowledge of the key words, you can decipher these documents, too.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

How to Read an Italian Birth Record

I spent about five years viewing microfilm of every birth, marriage and death record from my maternal grandfather's hometown in Italy. Gathering every piece of information allowed me to build his very extended family tree back about seven generations. Spoiler alert: 90% of the town was interrelated!

It also taught me a lot about how to quickly decipher these documents. Let me show you how.

The other day I found online documents from my paternal grandfather's hometown in Italy, and I quickly found the 1902 birth record for my grandfather himself—Pietro Iamarino.

Here is that birth record with some annotations. (On 5 Feb 2017 I have updated this image to point out the time and day of birth.)


Different towns will use a different form, and that form will change over the years, but there are a lot of similarities. They generally begin with the year, day, month, hour and minute of birth. The year is always written out—never in numbers. So 1902 is millenovecentodue. The next section is an official statement to the effect of "Before me, official's name and title in this town, appeared this man (father of the baby's name, age, occupation, and address), to state that a baby was born to him and his lawful wife (her name, age and occupation)." The baby's name is out in the column of the document, but also below the mother's name.

The next section includes the names, ages and occupations of two people from the town who swear that this man (the father of the baby) is who he says he is, and that they attest to these facts. After this you may see signatures of the father, the witnesses, and the town official. Often in these old documents the father and the witnesses may be illiterate and unable to sign. If that is the case, the official will state as much.

So this document tells me that my grandfather Pietro was born on 10 Oct 1902 in Colle Sannita at 1:30 p.m. to Francesco Iamarino, a 24-year-old farmer, and his wife Libera Pilla. It also says he was born at 36 via Casale, which I'm trying to reconcile with the facts I had previously. I stood on the spot where my grandfather's house once stood, and it was not via Casale, nor can I find a via Casale in modern Colle Sannita. But his father Francesco Iamarino's birth record also includes that address.

Once you become used to the form from the town you are researching, you'll be surprised how quickly you can extract all of the facts you need. To learn the key Italian words from these vital records, see my other blog entry, "Italian Words You Must Know."


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Case Study on "Haven't I Seen You Before?"

This post is about the importance of being fully organized and supports my earlier post, "Haven't I Seen You Before?". I've seen countless articles about how best to file your paper documents and binders and photos, but I have extremely few paper documents. They're in one folder.

On the other hand, I have thousands of digital documents—primarily jpg files. Early on, when I was going gangbusters and grabbing hundreds of census sheets, ship manifests, draft registration cards, and more, I realized it could be difficult to get back to the right jpg file very easily.

So here's what I did:
  1. I named each file using a standard naming convention such as LastnameFirstnameYear.jpg. For a census sheet or a ship manifest containing a whole family, I used the name of the head of household, such as SavianoAntonio1898.jpg.

  2. I placed each type of document into a folder with an unmistakable name, such as census, draft registration, immigration, certificates (that's for birth, marriage and death).
  3. When I import a jpg into Family Tree Maker software, I fill out the properties window as much as possible. I use a standard title (e.g., "1898 immigration record for Antonio Saviano and family"), enter the date on the document (in my preferred standard of day (numerical) month (first 3 letters) year (4 digits)), and click the checkbox for the type of file (including vital record, photo, military, census). Finally, in the description section I state which line number(s) to look at, and enough details to allow anyone else to find the original document themselves (such as the name of the collection, the roll number, and image x of xx on ancestry.com). Sometimes this is handy for me to have, too. For example, if I have a family that I think lived on the same block as another family, but they're not showing up in a census search, I can retrace my steps to the first family's census sheet and start paging through until I find the other family.

  4. documenting an image's properties
    I created my super handy document tracker spreadsheet (download one for yourself) and update it every time I find a new document. Each line has one person on it, lastname first so I can easily sort them all alphabetically. The columns are for the different types of documents, like censuses and ship manifests. Each time I add a new jpg, I mark the proper column with the document's year. So if I have the 1910 and 1920 census for someone, both of those years go in their line, and it's obvious that I do not have 1930. I currently have 1,380 lines, but I think I haven't added the tons of people documented in my Basélice research project.

  5. Every so often I copy these files to another location, like my own website server. I don't have to recopy them all—I just have to upload the ones dated after my last backup.
If you can get this organized, you will find it easier to gather more complete information on families, and your tree will be fortified by excellent sources.