Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why I Recorded More Than 30,000 Documents

In 2007 I started ordering Italian vital records on microfilm from The films were from the hometown of one of my grandfathers.

My first goal was to find birth records for my great grandparents and find out their parents' names. But so many people in the town had similar names, and sometimes I wasn't sure I was looking at the right family.

There was only one solution. Record every single fact and plug them into my family tree software.

More than 90% of the town is related to me!
I did this for five years. Once or twice a week I spent a handful of hours with a computer open on my lap beneath the microfilm viewer. I developed my own shorthand: b, d, wed, bap, and Italian words like di and fu. I became incredibly fast at typing names like Mariantonia, Angelamaria, Francesco Saverio, Giuseppe, Giovanni.

Did I mention I'm Italian?

This work was invaluable. I shared it online with anyone who may have ancestors from my grandfather's town of Basélice. I documented about 16,000 people, and about 15,000 of them are relatives by blood or marriage. Yeah.

Today Italian descendants are gleefully finding their ancestor's documents on or the Antenati website. Maybe you've been lucky and found your grandfather's birth record. Maybe you found your great grandparents' marriage record. But are you overlooking entire generations?

This year I used a simple app to download every document available from my ancestral hometowns. Now the organized images are on my computer (and a backup drive) awaiting my analysis.

I'm focusing on my mother's mother's branch first. Despite having grown up with cousins from this branch, I have the least information about them. I cannot get beyond my third great grandparents.

From my 2005 visit to Pastene.
So here's the dilemma. The hometown of the families in this branch is Sant'Angelo a Cupolo, and specifically the smaller frazione within that town called Pastene. Only a limited amount of documents is available to me from the town. And one set of my great great grandparents was born in another town whose documents are not online.

The solution is going to be extensive, possibly exhaustive documentation of each birth, marriage and death record.

I've begun by finding every child born to my great great grandparents. I'm also documenting the children of my great great grandfather's brother.

The holy grail is that one magical document. The one that includes a baby's grandfather's name. The one that has a baby's maternal uncle as a witness. The one that names the father of a baby's grandmother who is reporting the birth.

I've got to look at each marriage record, too. There may be a marriage between a man and woman whose names I don't recognize. But maybe one is the grandchild of my ancestor. And maybe my ancestor's death record will be included.

Hopefully you enjoy the hunt as much as I do. Perusal of all available documents is the bare minimum.

Complete documentation…priceless.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Finding the Story Behind an Intriguing Family Photo

UPDATE: Publishing this story drew the attention of several of my relatives. We're now feeling a bit confident that my Uncle Army was in the Army Air Corps. His nickname had nothing to do with this. "Ame", which sounded like "aah may", is what my grandmother called him. It was short for Amelio (aah MAY lee oh). We kids thought it sounded like army.

My "Uncle Army", the photographer.
My earliest memory of my grandmother's brother—who we kids called Uncle Army—is posing for his camera. It was a large format camera that used glass plate negatives. It had a drape under which the photographer hid himself and his lens from the light.

I sat on a long upholstered bench in my great grandmother's home with my two siblings and my three first cousins. He took our portrait.

Uncle Army was a professional photographer in the Bronx. He took our communion photos, our confirmation photos, and our wedding photos.

He was a portrait photographer par excellence. Everyone acknowledged him as a true artist.

Serafina & Amelio Sarracino
So I was surprised to learn that Uncle Army, born Amelio Sarracino, enlisted in the army in 1943 at the age of 38. He was a married man with a gorgeous young wife, but he may have had a bit of wanderlust.

Due to his age, Uncle Army (that nickname is so ironic now) didn't fight for the military. He took photographs during his two-year stint.

None of my living relatives knows where Uncle Army was deployed or what he saw and photographed.

I found a book about the Signal Corps called "Getting the Message Through—A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps," by Rebecca Robbins Raines.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Chief Signal Officer felt he needed "a variety of specialized companies to meet the needs of radio intelligence, operations, photographic duties, repair, depot storage, construction, and so forth."

I hope someday to find evidence of my uncle's World War II photography. Meanwhile, Uncle Army will always be the standard by which all other photographers are judged.

This story didn't give you any concrete family tree tips, but maybe you'll feel inspired. My inspiration was a genealogist's tweet about the stories our family photos can tell us.

Go take a look at your family photos.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How the Scientific Method Can Help You With Your Family Tree

Biology. Anthropology. Archaeology. They're all sciences, and lots of sciences end in -ology: "the study of". Genealogy is the study of lines of decent or development. Another science.

So it makes sense to use the well known Scientific Method in genealogy.

But how would that work? Well, the Scientific Method—principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge—includes these steps:

1. Ask a Question. When were my great great grandparents married?

2. Construct a Hypothesis. Get very specific by looking at the genealogy facts you have. Do you know what year your great grandmother was born? Do you know when her parents were born? Were they old enough to have an earlier baby?

3. Test Your Hypothesis. When it comes to family trees, your research is your experiment. You can search available records for the answer to your question. I know my great grandmother was born in 1856. I know her parents' names and ages. My test is to search for other babies in 1855, 1854, 1853, etc., until the couple was too young to have children.

4. Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion. Let's say you found more babies and then they stopped. You may conclude that your great great grandparents married at least nine months before the birth of their first child.

Let's see the Scientific Method in action on my family tree.
My first clues led to my question and hypothesis.

Ten years ago a friend in Italy went to the town hall in my ancestral hometown on my behalf. He requested a few birth, marriage and death records for me.

The town hall typed some of the important facts onto new forms. My friend sent copies of these forms to me.

I learned that my great grandmother, Marianna Iammucci, was born on January 1, 1856. Her parents names were not included.

A few years later I spent an extraordinary amount of time in a Family History Center poring over microfilmed vital records from this town. I went to the 1856 birth records and found Marianna Iammucci. I learned her parents were Antonio Iammucci born in 1814 and Annamaria Bozza born in 1815.

My question was, "How many brothers and sisters might she have had, and when was the first one born?"

Her parents were ages 41 and 40 in 1856. I hypothesized that there could be several more children born before my great grandmother. Since women in Italy at that time went well into their 40s bearing children, there might be some brothers or sisters after her, too.

Time to test my hypothesis. I checked the indexes of each year before 1856. While looking for babies born to Antonio Iammucci and Annamaria Bozza, I found:
  • Luigi Maria born in November 1852
  • Giovannangelo born in July 1849
  • Leonardo Antonio born in December 1846
  • Leonardo Antonio born in August 1845 (who died in February 1846)
  • Mariangela born in March 1843

The babies seemed to stop there.

Analyzing these births, I concluded that Leonardo and Annamaria could have gotten married as late as June 1842.

Now we've come full circle! My conclusion about their June 1842 marriage became my next hypothesis. I went straight to the 1842 marriage index.

I found them. They were married on June 12, 1842. Success!

I've spent many a weekend jumping from person to person in my tree. It's unstructured fun. But it's the Scientific Method that gets me focused and produces excellent results.

Start thinking of your genealogy research as the science that it is. My hypothesis is you'll be very pleased you did. (And my conclusion is that sentence was horribly corny.)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Find Those Stubborn Genealogy Documents with Creative Searches

When you're researching your family tree and trying to find a family's missing document, what do you do?

You probably go to your favorite genealogy website and enter as much information as you know about the family. Everyone's full names, when and where they were born, and where you think they lived at the time.

But what if your search finds nothing?

Try using no last name for your search.
You could try the "less is more" approach. Go against your instincts and leave out key information. This can help you get past the census taker or the document indexer's errors.

Last night I was trying to find the 1940 census record for a particular family. I'd already found plenty of other documents for them. I had the names and approximate birth years for the parents and all the children. And I knew they lived in the Bronx.

I was sure a search for a family with these eight specific names had to get me the results I wanted. But no.

This is the time to try a creative search. Use several combinations of information until you find your document. Try searching with:
  • No last name.
  • No first name for the head of household.
  • No birth year for the head of household.
  • No place of birth for the head of household.
  • No spouse's name.
  • Fewer kids names.

When I couldn't find the Moylan family in the Bronx in 1940, I let their first names be the main search factor. I searched for them with no last name.

And it worked! I found a family with the correct first names living in the Bronx. Somehow the census taker wrote down the wife's maiden name instead of the family name. So the entire group was wrongly listed as Cunningham, and indexed as Cunningham.
Right people, wrong last name! Did Mary forget she was married? :-)

I was sure I had the right family. Yes, I knew the wife's maiden name was Cunningham. But even if I didn't, I had a match on eight first names, and everyone's age and place of birth.

This search technique won't locate all your missing documents, but keep it in mind.

Use a "less is more" search and you may find more and more of those missing genealogy treasures.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Your Family Tree Needs Your Ancestor's Passport Application

Did your immigrant ancestor travel back to the old country to visit his family? You may be able to find his U.S. passport application—complete with passport photo.

The Robison family of Westchester County, New York, planned to visit England, France, Italy, Egypt and Palestine in 1924. Their passport photo includes the entire family. The application provides everyone's name, date of birth and birthplace. Plus it includes Mr. Robison's father's name and place of birth, and his wife's maiden name.
A single passport application provided important genealogy facts for eight people.

This single document provides key facts for eight people! That is a fantastic find for any genealogist.

Mr. and Mrs. Walter Smith traveled to the British Isles in 1922 to visit family, and apparently to help me find the needle in the Smith haystack. With their passport application information, I was able to find the right Smith family for my family tree.
Faces to go along with the names!

U.S. government-issued passports date back to 1789. Passports were required for foreign travel during the Civil War and World War I. The rules eased for a while, but the requirement became permanent once World War II began.

If your ancestor went back to the old country to visit his parents, he might not be allowed back into the United States without a passport.

The National Archives in Washington, DC, holds passport applications from 1795–1925. They are available to some extent on and elsewhere.

Finding your ancestor's passport application can give you many facts, including the applicant's:
  • Birth date or age
  • Birthplace
  • Residence
  • Father's and/or husband's:
    • name
    • birth date or age
    • birthplace
    • residence
  • Wife's name
  • Date and place of immigration to the U.S.
  • Years of residence in the U.S.
  • Naturalization date and place
  • Occupation
  • Physical characteristics
  • Photograph—which may include other family members

Whichever resource you use, first check the description of the collection to see if it may include your ancestor.

Hopefully you'll find a thorough application with a photograph. That is certainly worth your ancestor's ticket price.

Stay connected! Follow me on Twitter or Facebook and know the moment a new article comes out.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

What To Do When Your Last Name Is So Common

All my direct ancestors had Italian last names. I'm lucky to know in exactly which small towns they were born. And that's the key to everything.
My name of Iamarino comes from
only 10 towns.

Some of my Italian last names (or cognomi, in Italian) are rare. They're specific in origin to a small geographical area. The name Iamarino barely existed outside of my ancestral hometown of Colle Sannita.

But some of my Italian last names are about as rare as Smith or Brown in America. According to an Italian surname search site I like to use, you can find my family names of Leone and Caruso EVERYWHERE.

It would be impossible to identify my Leone or Caruso lines without knowing where my great grandparents were born.

There may not be a word strong enough to emphasize how important it is to know your ancestor's hometown. Critical. Crucial. Imperative. Nope—it's more important than that.

If your foreign ancestors emigrated to the U.S., Australia, the U.K., etc., cross your fingers and hope they arrived at a good time. Early ship manifests didn't capture much information about the passengers.

My name of Leone comes from a couple more places.
If your ancestor arrived at Ellis Island, which was open to immigrants from 1892 to 1954, you're in luck. If you find your ancestor, you should be able to learn the name of their hometown.

I may tell you I'm from New York City, but that's because I'm pretty sure you've never heard of suburban Monsey, New York. But my grandfathers never said they were from Naples.

They were very proud of their small towns of Basélice and Colle Sannita. Both towns are in the middle of nowhere, about a 90-minute drive from Naples.

So before you begin chasing the wrong family, you must nail down that hometown.

Read about other ways of finding your ancestor's hometown in Where Did Grandpa Come From?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Finding Your Ancestor's Lost Babies

When I began documenting my grandfather's Italian hometown—every single birth, marriage and death record between 1809 and 1860—one thing saddened me time and time again.

So many of the babies died within days, months, or a couple of years. I mourned for each one of them. It seemed even sadder that the next baby born was given the same name as the one who died.

Trying to be an optimistic genealogist, I focused on the upside. I was finding previously unknown children. Here's an example. I found that my great great grandparents Antonio and Colomba tried three times to name a child after Antonio's father: Raffaele.

My great uncle Raffaele was the third sibling named after his grandfather.

The first Raffaele died as a child, so none of my cousins were aware of him. Last night I found another baby! This time it was a girl they named Raffaella. She died, too, leaving that name to the great uncle we know: Raffaele Saviano.

When you're researching a family in the 1800s, expect to find a child born almost every year beginning a year after a marriage.

If an ancestor's family has several years between births, keep looking. There's a strong chance that other babies were born who didn't grow up.

My great great grandfather Nicoladomenico Leone married twice and fathered 12 children. About half of them survived to adulthood. See When I'm Sixty-Four (I'll Still Have Only Two Children).

I don't know about you, but I want to know about and appreciate all the lost babies.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Organize Your Genealogy Research By Choosing Your Style

Develop and stick to your own style and naming conventions to achieve better organization.

When my husband and I were planning our Italian honeymoon in 2003, my imagination ran wild.

What if I find an old house with my maiden name on it? What if I meet a distant relative who looks like me?

These thoughts propelled me into the obsessive hobby of genealogy.

Early disarray

My first discovery was the Ellis Island website where I found ship manifests for my two grandfathers.

I found other people on other manifests who may or may not be relatives. I began filling a notebook with facts on potential relatives—pages and pages of scribbled, disconnected information.

Taming the chaos

Then I graduated to family tree software and learned some of the recommended conventions. For example, when recording dates:
  • dd Mon yyyy, as in 24 Sep 1959 or 01 Jan 1856, is a versatile format that anyone can understand. If I told someone in England that my brother's birthday is 6/11/1955, they would read November 6, not June 11.
  • When estimating a date you can use Abt. (about), Bef. (before), Aft. (after), Bet. (between). For example, my great great grandfather was still alive at the end of 1860, but he was dead when his grandchild was born on 12 Mar 1870. To record what I know, I've listed his death date as Bet. 1861–12 Mar 1870.
  • If I don't know someone's birth year, but I know when one of their children was born, I use a placeholder date. This helps me see the general time in which they lived. I subtract 25 from their oldest child's birth year (e.g. 1800 minus 25) and record their birth year as Abt. 1775.

This is crucial in a tree like mine where about 10,000 Italians have a combination of what seems like 10 names.

I've also developed my own format for annotating documents such as census forms and ship manifests. For example, in my family tree software I will put a note on a census sheet and include the following:

  • the line numbers for this family
  • City, County, State 1920 census
  • enumeration district #, supervisors district #, ward of city #, block #, sheet #
  • image 3 of 300 (if found in an online collection)
  • a link to the original document on, etc.

This amount of detail allows anyone to verify my facts and see the document for themselves.

Owning the facts

When I first subscribed to, I knew I wanted to have every important document stored on my computer. So I download everything I find.

Almost from the start, I chose my style—how to name the files and where to keep them. I name the files LastnameFirstnameYear.jpg, in general. If it's a census form, it's named for the head of household. If it's a two-page ship manifest, the file names end in -p1.jpg and -p2.jpg. The folder names are simple and clear.

A consistent file-naming style leaves no room for error.

This consistency became second nature. It helps me spot what I'm looking for in no time.

Finally, my document tracker spreadsheet is my ongoing catalogue of every document I have. This spreadsheet tells me at a glance what I have and what I still need to find for any given person.

If genealogy is your obsession, you know how easy it is to go wild gathering facts, photos and documents. Take the time to develop your style.

Your consistency will pay rich dividends.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

How to Avoid Searching for Non-Existent Genealogy Records

Don't waste time searching for an ancestor in a document collection that will not contain their name.

Genealogy is a thriving industry overflowing with documents and databases. If you subscribe to any of the paid ancestry sites, you've got a never-ending supply of databases to browse.

But don't waste time. Learn exactly what a document collection holds before you start your search.
These men in my tree had military records for me to find. But not my grandfather.

Here's a prime example of how I've been wasting time hunting for a document that can't even exist.

My maternal grandfather, Adamo Leone, fought in World War I. He was in the Italian army and became a prisoner of war. Obviously I'm not going to find a United States World War I draft registration card for him.

I do have a copy of his World War II registration card when he was 51 years old. This is called the "Old Man's Draft" and was more a database of skills than prospective soldiers. These men were never intended to go to war.

My paternal grandfather, Pietro Iamarino, was still living in Italy between 1914 and 1918. He was only 16 when World War I ended.

What bothered me was that I had no World War II record for him. I spent too much time examining images of registration cards, one by one. I figured the name "Iamarino" was being misunderstood and misfiled.

Then one day it struck me. Maybe his 1902 birth year excluded him from this set of records.

Here's what I should have researched in the first place.

Men who were drafted for World War II were age 18–35 in 1942. If they were between 35 and 45 and unmarried, they were also eligible for the draft.

Grandpa was 40 years old and married in 1942. He was beyond the cut-off for military service.

Then there was the "Old Man's Draft" where I found my other, older grandfather Adamo. This registration included men born between April 27, 1877 and February 16, 1897.

Grandpa, born in October 1902, didn't fall into this category, either. As an able-bodied 40-year-old man, Grandpa Pietro was left to continue his work and take care of the home front.

This tiny bit of research could have saved me lots of time.

So here's the moral of my story. If you're going to search for a particular ancestor in a document collection, stop. Find out exactly what that collection contains. Get the details and decide if your ancestor should be there or not.

On, each collection has its details listed below the search area. On, the descriptions are above the search area.

Simply put, find out what you're looking at before you spend hours looking at it.

I can put an "n/a" in the draft card field of my document tracker spreadsheet for Grandpa.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Take a Genealogy Vacation This Summer

I take the most exhausting vacations known to mankind. There's no sitting by the pool. There's no lying on the beach.

There's tons of sightseeing and a painful amount of walking. But I love it that way.

My major vacation for 2017 ended on Monday. Now I want to map out some shorter-distance, shorter-length genealogy vacations for this summer. And you should, too.

Last summer my husband and I planned a trip to the Finger Lakes of New York, knowing that my grandmother was born in Hornellsville, 45 minutes west of Cornell. So we booked a hotel in Cornell and made our sightseeing, winery-touring plans.

On the way west, we drove past Cornell and went straight to the house where my grandmother lived as a little girl. It's most likely where she and her brother were born. We visited the local library searching for evidence of my great grandfather. And we walked along the railroad tracks by the station where he worked.

Here's what I learned from that side-trip: Plan better!

Using my family tree software, I can find nearby places I should visit.
We discovered that my great grandfather's railroad station is now a museum, but it wasn't open that day. We drove past the church where one of my great grandmother Caruso's brothers got married, but I didn't think to go in. My great grandparents were probably married there, too. I later discovered on that many of my Caruso relatives are buried in that churchyard.

Oh, the horror! I have to go back and spend a couple of days there sometime.

My grandmother's house was almost a five-hour drive away. What can I do that's much closer—that I may be able to do in one long day or short weekend?

Think about your family tree. Which of your ancestors lived or spent any time in a place that's not too far from where you are now?

Is there a graveyard you should visit? Does an ancestor's place of business still exist? Are any of your ancestors' homes still standing? (To find out, see "How to Visit Your Ancestral Hometown at Your Desk".)

If you use family tree software that can plot your ancestors on a map, you've got the basis for planning your genealogy vacation. (See "Mapping Your Ancestors Can Answer Questions".)

In Family Tree Maker, I can drill down from the USA to New York state, to nearby counties. I see lots of houses and cemeteries I want to visit.

Let's get out our calendars. It's genealogy vacation time!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Does Independence Day Make You Think of Your Ancestors?

I never met my Uncle Johnny—my mother's brother. He was a Staff Sergeant, a tail gunner, shot down in battle during World War II.

Growing up we heard nothing more than that Uncle Johnny's plane crashed into a mountain, maybe in Yugoslavia.

Then a few years ago my first cousin found an astonishing video on You Tube. The son of one of my Uncle Johnny's crew mates went to the town of Hum, Croatia. There he interviewed an old man named Nikola Tomic who witnessed my uncle's crash in 1944. Nikola was a boy on July 7, 1944.

Nikola describes what he saw at the site of the crash of the B-17G Bomber shot down by Nazis. The bomber crashed about 1 kilometer from his farm near the border of Hungary and what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Knowing this date of July 7, 1944, it didn't take long to realize Uncle Johnny's mission—flying out of the same Italian airbase used by the legendary Tuskegee Airmen—was part of that summer's Battle of Normandy. The battle famously began with D-Day on June 6.

Johnny's plane was headed north to their bombing site in Austria when they were hit. My mother, a young girl at the time, remembers being told that five men parachuted out and five went down with the plane. She said none of them were ever found.

So on this Independence Day I'd like to honor 10 men who fought for our freedoms—my Uncle Johnny and his crew:
  • 2nd Lt. Carl C. Sorensen, pilot, Wabasha, Minnesota
  • 2nd Lt. Kingsley B. Enoch, co-pilot, Springfield, Massachusetts
  • 2nd Lt. Albert L. Berrie, navigator, Belmont, Massachusetts
  • 1st Lt. Thomas V. Platten, bombardier, Modesto, California
  • T/Sgt. Kenneth E. Sharp, engineer/top turret gunner, Campti, Louisiana
  • S/Sgt. Danny Delio, right waist gunner, Mishawaka, Indiana
  • S/Sgt. Harold R. Kennelley, radio operator, Spring Mills, Pennsylvania
  • S/Sgt. Ernest R. Rossi, left waist gunner, Oakland, California
  • S/Sgt. Donald L. Nye, ball turret gunner, Tiffin, Ohio
  • S/Sgt. John R. Leone, tail gunner, Bronx, New York