Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Can Genealogy Research Be Painful?

You bet. Last night I went with my husband and his sister to an exhibit at the FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. It was a wonderful exhibit (see the virtual tour), and we were treated to a guided tour by the curator and a docent who were very knowledgeable.

But the subject was an extremely painful part of my husband's family history: the shameful incarceration of all west-coast Japanese and American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.

Before I met my husband I visited a similar exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. At that time I didn't know any Japanese Americans personally, but I was moved to tears by the images of American citizens being forced out of their homes, losing their businesses and possessions, their farms and houses, and sent to the middle of nowhere indefinitely under armed guard.

Last night, seeing images of the very camp where my in-laws were kept and where my husband's great grandfather died made me cry and made me sick to my stomach. But this is an enormous part of my husband's family history and worth preserving. The experience certainly shaped my late father-in-law's character, and that was not lost on his children.

I may spend countless hours gathering names and expanding my tree, but an exhibit like this provides so much insight into the character and experience of our ancestors. It is priceless.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

When You Can't Agree to Disagree

When working on your family tree, there will be times when you have conflicting information about someone. I had two documented birth dates for my grandfather.

When you know they can't both be true, which one do you believe?

I follow a couple of rules here. Rule #1: The earliest recorded date is probably correct. When I'm dealing with very old documents from the old country (in my case, Italy), I know that my rural ancestors had lives nothing like our own, and it was entirely possible to lose track of your own age. Imagine that!

So if I'm comparing birth records from the 1800s for several siblings, and the parents' ages never match up, I put more faith in whichever number was recorded the earliest.

You're more likely to know your birth year when you're 20, and your widow is less likely to remember it when you die at a ripe old age.

Here's an example: An 1840 birth record shows the mother is 30 in 1840, so you write down that she was born in 1810. An 1842 birth record says the same woman is 35 years old, meaning she was born in 1807. Then the same woman's 1880 death record states that she was 65, which would mean she was born in 1815. That's when the earliest record is most likely to be correct.

Getting back to my grandfather, the family always believed his birth date to be May 30, 1891, and that's what we put on his tombstone. But after he passed away I found his World War II draft registration card, and he must have said his birth date was May 28, 1894. I don't see how someone could misunderstand if he spoke aloud—even in his heavy accent—May the thirtieth, 1891.

Once I found this draft registration card, I was left with the task of hopefully finding his birth record someday. Thankfully, someday came along recently, and I have my proof. Rule #2: Some documents are more official than others.

Don't believe every bit of information you find. You need to weigh the value of one document versus another. My grandfather's birth record clearly overrules his World War II registration card. It actually follows both rules because it was recorded much earlier, and it is an official, certified document.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Let YouTube Tell You What You Don't Know

When I've attended genealogy seminars and joined local genealogy clubs, it was apparent that more than half of amateur genealogists are retirees who have enough time to devote to such a time-intensive hobby. Maybe it's because they're retirees that most of the genealogy enthusiasts I've met are very unwilling to pay for resources.

If you do not have a paid membership for—a resource I simply cannot live without—you can still gain an endless amount of genealogy knowledge from this company for free. Simply go to YouTube for free and subscribe to the Ancestry channel for free. If you hadn't noticed, it's free.

You will find groups of videos including Ancestry's Desktop Education Series, featuring titles such as "Ways To Clean Up Your Family Tree", "Documenting the Enslaved in Your Family Tree", and "What Does That Say? More Paleography Tips & Tricks" designed to help you decipher difficult old-style handwriting.

Search within the Ancestry channel on YouTube for whatever you need.

Use the search tool to find videos on a subject of particular interest to you, such as census forms. Or search for the very likeable and extremely helpful Crista Cowan, an expert genealogist who's lucky enough to work for

There is a very good chance you'll find a valuable free video on any subject that's important to your genealogical research. Be warned: These fabulous videos will show you how much you're missing by not subscribing to, but so do shows like "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "Long Lost Family". I'm not trying to sell you on anything, but if wants to hire me, and I can work from home in New York, I'm in!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Why Did They Die?

If you go through your family tree, you probably have some individuals who died for reasons unknown to you. They were not old, and you have no reason to believe they'd been sickly. If you can't get a copy of their death certificate to learn the cause of death, you may want to turn to history.

A good place to start if your ancestor died in the U.S. is the List of disasters in the United States by death toll on Wikipedia. The page lists many notable disasters and may be sorted by year, type and location. It also provides links to articles explaining each disaster in detail. As I browsed the list I found the location of Connellsville, Pennsylvania and an article about the 1903 Connellsville train wreck.

I know that many people from one of my ancestral Italian hometowns worked for the railroad in Connellsville, and it is quite possible that my great grandfather Francesco Iamarino worked there at that time. At the bottom of the Wikipedia article I clicked a link to a source for some of the information (it's very important to go to the sources in a Wikipedia article to find out if the info is valid), and there was a list of the dead.

From a Wikipedia article
While carrying out my obsessively exhaustive documentation of every vital record from my grandfather Leone's hometown of Basélice between 1809 and 1860, I noticed that some years the death toll was much higher than others. For example, in this town of roughly two thousand people, about 100 would die each year. But some years that number spiked above 200. This makes me wonder about epidemics and earthquakes.

On the BBC website I found an article titled History of deadly earthquakes that lists earthquakes worldwide from 1906 through 2016. Using Wikipedia again I found a List of earthquakes in Italy. Long ago my Italian friend and family historian Fabio Paolucci sent me a list of 41 people who died in my grandfather Iamarino's town of Colle Sannita shortly after he left his family to come to America. The list was dated 26 July 1804. On the Wikipedia page I see that there was an earthquake in Molise on 26 July 1805, so this must be the same one. (Perhaps I misunderstood the year originally.) On the 1805 Molise earthquake page is a list of towns, and it says that 44 people died in Colle Sannita.

This exercise highlights the value of local resources to get to the bottom of a death for unknown reasons. It was a transcription of a local Connellsville, Pennsylvania newspaper that provided the names of the victims of the Connellsville train wreck. And it was local records that produced the names of the Colle Sannita residents killed in the 1805 earthquake. In the case of my family, it was a trip to the New York City Municipal Archives that let me see the death certificate and cause of death for many of my relatives.

Given enough time, more and more things will be digitized, and given enough genealogical networking, more and more things will be shared to the benefit of us all.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Before Grandpa Came Here, How Did He Get There?

In my last post I spoke about how diverse my DNA results are despite having roots only in Italy going back at least to the 1600s. I've also written about why our ancestors may have left their homeland.

Today I found a wonderful Map of Human Migration, courtesy of the National Geographic Society. It supports several other sources I've read about how Italy (and Europe) was long ago populated by people from the Middle East—an area National Geographic refers to as the Fertile Crescent.

Map of Human Migration

It's a useful map for so many ethnicities, and if you choose your ancient ancestors' most likely route (I chose the one pointing to Italy), it also tells you your probable haplogroups. Particular similarities in DNA strands can be inherited together, meaning that they can be passed down generation after generation. Ethnic groups can retain this DNA similarity for so long that you may have markers in common with people who are native to a particular region today.

The National Geographic site tells me that the Middle East to Europe migration path may indicate the following haplogroups: H, J, K, N, T, W, G, E. The Family Tree DNA site provides detailed explanations of each haplogroup. The letters above point to Europe and pan-Eurasia, but G and E are not defined on this page.

Be sure to explore the Map of Human Migration and see who populated your ancestor's homeland.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Making Sense of Your DNA Results

I bought my DNA test from about five years ago, fairly soon after they made it available, and my pie chart was a bit of a shock. I've traced my ancestors back to the late 1600s, and they always lived in southern Italy. So the 44% Middle Eastern just seemed crazy.

My original pie chart and ethnicity estimate from

As time went on and more and more people submitted their DNA, the database became more robust and greater refinements were made. So now my chart is 75% Italian/Greek, and just a bit of other things. The 44% Middle Eastern is now 7%. That's a dramatic difference. So, if you get a DNA test, keep checking back for more information.
My current pie chart from

But if my ancestors were in southern Italy in the 1600s, how do I have any Middle Eastern or European Jewish DNA? Your DNA can have its origins from a thousand or more years ago, and if you think about it, the southern Italians, Europeans, and many other populations did not originate in those places thousands of years ago.

They had to come from somewhere. And what did we learn in grade school social studies? That Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization. That everything began where the Tigris meets the Euphrates. That's modern day Iraq.

If you look at my ethnicity map and see that Italian peninsula, it doesn't seem the least bit far-fetched to think that at some point people migrated from the Middle East to the Mediterranean Sea and up into Europe. And even a little research bears this out.

In the history of things, this area isn't too spread out.

It's important to understand that your DNA can be different than your sibling's DNA because of the somewhat random way in which it's passed down. You have 16 great grandparents, but you will not inherit an equal amount of DNA markers from each of them. That explains why I've got more Italian DNA than my own mother.

I received a great tip at a genealogy seminar that I'll pass along to you.

If you had your DNA tested somewhere, you should be able to download the data. You can upload that data to Family Tree DNA for free and have another way to connect with people who may be your distant relatives. Naturally they gave me different, and less specific percentages! Now I'm looking Turkish again, but hey. The Italians had to come from somewhere originally.

Results from Family Tree DNA

Saturday, March 11, 2017

What's Napoleon Got to Do With Italy?

As I continue downloading thousands of birth, marriage and death records from my grandpa Iamarino's hometown in Italy, I find that the online archive I'm using has each town's documents split into three categories. These are worth explaining to anyone with Italian ancestors.

I live on this website 24/7 now.

From 1806 to 1815 the communities of Italy were required to keep official documentation of births, marriages and deaths. Before this period your best source of such information is handwritten church documents. The requirement was known as the Stato Civile Napoleonico (Napoleonic Civil Registration). During this period of time, Italy and many regions were under the rule of imperial France, so, you know, all hail Napoleon.

The period of time between 1815 and 1865 was known as Stato Civile della Restaurazione (Civil State of the Restoration) when ruling authorities in different parts of Italy also required formal record keeping for births, marriages and deaths. During this time Italy was not a single, united country, but a collection of kingdoms and city-states.

Italy became a unified country in 1861 under the leadership of King Victor Emmanuel, although for several more years a handful of wars resulted in annexations to form the Italy we now know. The country issued a decree at the end of 1865 calling for Stato Civile Italiano (Italian Civil Registration) which continued the practice of keeping meticulous records. And I want to thank them sincerely.

So that explains the excellent documentation and the way they are categorized and stored.

Italy is subdivided into 20 regions, each containing a few provinces (96 total), which contain cities (città metropolitane), municipalities (comuni), and hamlets (frazioni).

You can compare Italy's regions to states, and its provinces and counties. Lucky me. All of my ancestors are from the same county.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Collect the Whole Set!

It's been my experience that anyone who becomes involved in genealogy becomes obsessed with genealogy. We each have our areas of focus. Some people spend years trying to go back another generation in one troublesome branch of their tree. Others concentrate on the males only, climbing the tree one generation at a time. Me? I want everything. Everything!

When I started my tree, all I knew about my mother's father's family were his siblings' names (Eve and Noah to his Adam!) and that his mother might have been named Mariangela (she wasn't). But I wanted to know more. First I wrote to the webmaster for his town's website and he was kind enough to send me my grandfather's parents' names, birth dates and marriage date, as well as the birth dates of his siblings. Then I began ordering microfilm through the Family History Center of the vital records from his hometown in Italy.

Armed with my great grandparents' names and birth dates, I was able to locate their birth records and learn their parents' names. During that search I found other names that may have been siblings to my great grandparents.

That's when I knew I had to document all the records (1809–1860) for the entire town to see exactly how they all fit together. In the end, this long process yielded about 12,000 people for my family tree.

Twelve thousand people.

The whole time I worked on that project, which was about five years, all I kept thinking about was how much I wanted to do the same for my other grandfather's town—the town my maiden name comes from. But work got in the way, and I no longer had the freedom to go view microfilm at my local Family History Center during their limited hours. I kept hoping that my other grandfather's town's records would be digitized and made available on, but it didn't happen.

Then I discovered an Italian website that has the vital records for all of my ancestral hometowns! So now it begins again. I am meticulously downloading every single birth, marriage and death document from the town of Colle Sannita, ranging from 1809–1942 with a few gaps. That's a lot of documents.

As I download them, I make note of two key last names: that of my grandfather (Iamarino) and his mother (Pilla). Once I have them all I will begin:
  • transcribing the basic facts into a spreadsheet,
  • entering confirmed relatives into my Family Tree Maker file,
  • piecing together every relative in the town.
Today my tree has more than 19,000 people. (I told you I'm obsessed.) After this project, I should hit 30,000. That's a great start, don't you think?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What Language Barrier?

I've spent countless hours harvesting information from old Italian vital records. It was a little intimidating at first, but once I became comfortable with the most important genealogical words—and completely memorized my numbers—I stopped seeing these documents as being written in a foreign language. To me they are fairly straightforward documents filled with highly valuable data.

1804 Italian death record

You can achieve this familiarity with foreign languages, too. You can learn the key words you need to identify in a foreign document. And once you look at enough documents to get comfortable with the strange, archaic handwriting, you should be fine.

Here are several free wiki entries from to help you get accustomed to genealogical words in the language of your ancestors:

You can find more languages by clicking the map on this FamilySearch page:

There is much more country-specific information available in the wiki, so if you don't see the language you want here, or if you need to understand how vital records work in another part of the world, start at the world map. My list above is very European focused because I did not find language help for African, Middle Eastern or East Asian countries. But there is plenty of critical information available about how records are kept, marriage practices, and more. Take advantage of it!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

How to Find State-Specific Death Indexes and Records is a compilation of free and subscription resources for finding death records in each U.S. state. The website is owned and maintained by Joe Beine.

If you don't have a subscription to or a membership with another genealogy website, Joe Beine's lists can quickly help you discover exactly the resource you need to locate information on a particular relative. Each link tells you up front whether it takes you to a site that requires payment or provides free access.

Within the individual state pages, links are sorted for you by county. I decided to dive in and look for members of a particular family that lived in Steuben County, New York, and found a link to a website I'd never seen before. In one click, I downloaded a PDF that gave me the names, birth and death years, and cemetery name for every Caruso who died between 1912 and 2016 in that county.

Then I thought about my sister-in-law's distant relatives who lived and died in Broward County, Florida. I found another website I'd never seen before that is the searchable database of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Broward County. I'll need that when I go back to verify all the facts I have about her ancestors.

I didn't expect her to have an obituary.
My favorite find, and I've barely scratched the surface, is a database of the local newspaper where my paternal grandmother's parents lived. A search for the last name Iamarino yielded one result: my great grandmother, Maria Rosa Caruso Iamarino. Apparently they published her obituary, which is a surprise to me. I can see the publication date, the page and column. I think I need to go to their local library to see the obituary, but I am happy to know it exists. also features a Genealogy Records & Resources link to several excellent resources for vital records.

If you have not yet explored this site, I highly recommend you do.