28 November 2017

How to Find Errors in Your Family Tree

Update: Family Tree Analyzer is now available for Mac.

The mission of this blog is to encourage genealogists to improve their family trees. To fortify your family tree means to:
  • Use the best sources for your facts.
  • Locate as many pieces of documentation as possible.
  • Analyze your tree for errors and fix them.
  • Add thorough, consistent, provable facts throughout your tree.

This one report shows me how many great grandparents I've found for my family tree.
This quick report lets me see the oldest direct ancestors in my tree.

The more your tree grows, the harder it can be to find its errors. Maybe you added lots of facts when you were first building your tree and didn't add any sources. Maybe you borrowed from someone else's tree and later realized they were wrong. Or maybe you accidentally transposed the numbers in a bunch of birth years.

Family tree errors can happen to a professional genealogist as well as an excited newcomer.

How can you find the errors when your tree is big and you've been working on it for years? How do you find a handful of needles in a haystack?

Reporting Software

Reporting tools can point out all kinds of family tree errors, showing you exactly where to jump in and start fixing.

I've written about the free software tool called Family Tree Analyzer (FTA) twice this year. (See Why You Should Be Using the Free "Family Tree Analyzer" and Run This Genealogy Report To Help Clean Up Your Dates to download the software and see what it's about.)

Get the latest version from the source: http://ftanalyzer.com. Go to the Software.Informer website for free GEDCOM analyzers that work on Mac or Windows.
I knew I'd barely scratched the surface of what FTA can do. Now I'm using it to identify a variety of errors I can fix in my family tree.

The first step is to run your family tree software and export a standard GEDCOM file. This is the agreed-upon standard that makes your family research transportable and sharable.

Then run FTA and import your GEDCOM. The first thing you'll see is a long summary of the types of facts found in your tree. My favorite part is this list:
  • Direct Ancestors: 189
  • Blood Relations: 1,451
  • Married to Blood or Direct Relation: 541
  • Related by Marriage: 12,452
Click the Data Errors tab. You might see a long list of errors. Some are more important than others, so click the Clear All button. Now click to select one type of error, such as Birth before father aged 13.

My tree has nearly 20,000 people, and I discovered the majority of them in old Italian vital records. Some of the documents had errors. Others had conflicting information. In tons of cases, I had no age or birth year for parents, so I chose to make them 25 years older than their oldest child.

For Maria Giuseppa Verzino, shown in this error report, I have evidence that she was born in 1799. But her father Paolo has a birth year of "About 1791".
An example of an error report showing something that's easy to fix.
Error report for seriously under-aged fathers.

I try to be very consistent in my family tree. Whenever I see "About" for someone's birth year, I know that I subtracted 25 from the birth year of the person's oldest child. But maybe I found more of their children later. Maybe when I found Maria Giuseppa and her birth year of 1799, I forgot to update her parents' birth years. Maria Giuseppa probably has a sibling born in 1816. When I recorded that sibling, I subtracted 25 from 1816 and marked the parents as being born "About 1791".

This is easy for me to fix. I can go to Paolo Verzino in my tree and see if I've found any children born before Maria Giuseppa in 1799. If not, Paolo and his wife's birth years should be updated to "About 1774".

That's one less needle in the haystack of errors.

Now uncheck that error and select another one, like Marriage after death. I have one of these errors. My family tree says that Giuseppe Antonio delGrosso was married on 11 December 1859. But I have his death recorded as "Before Dec 1859". That needs to be looked at.

Work Through the Errors

You can work your way through the errors and correct them one by one.

FTA contains a lot of tabs and menus. Click them to see what may be useful to you. The Facts tab can show all of your direct-line ancestors in a list. Choose only Direct Ancestors in the Relationship Types section. Then choose any fact, such as Birth. Click Show only the selected Facts for Individuals.

The resulting table shows me at a glance that I've identified two sets of my 9th great grandparents born in the early 1600s! I can click any column to sort by relationship, last name, date of birth, etc.

That isn't an error to fix, but it is a way to double-check my ancestor chart where I'm keeping a list of all direct-line ancestors. (See How to Visualize Your Ancestor-Finding Progress.)

So take a break from finding new ancestors, and make the time to fix the errors in your family tree. After you've fixed a bunch of them, export a new GEDCOM. Open it in Family Tree Analyzer and see how much shorter your errors lists are.

Fixing errors is every bit as important as finding that missing census file or death record.

24 November 2017

Time-Management Tips for Genealogists

Make these four lists and you will fortify your family tree.
The first item: Make This List!

You have so many tasks on your genealogy to-do list. So many threads to follow and weave together.

How can you manage your genealogy research so you're
  • always making progress and
  • never dropping the ball?
The answer seems like a contradiction. It's a combination of concentration, flexibility, focus, and spontaneity.
  • Concentration to stay on-task and set aside temptations that don't help you with your goal.
  • Flexibility to jump from one branch to another when a cousin asks for your expertise.
  • Focus to complete large tasks that need to get done.
  • Spontaneity to respond to a potential relative and collaborate on their research.
Making progress on each of these tasks helps you make strides in your family tree research.

Here are some time-management tips to keep you on track so you never feel overwhelmed by the hobby you love.

Set High-Level Goals

Make a list of the most important goals for your research. At a high level, what do you want to accomplish?

For example, DNA testing tells me that my parents are 4th to 6th cousins. One of my top goals is to find that set of 3rd to 5th great grandparents they share. In all the research I do from now on, finding that couple has to be my top goal.

You may have a handful of high-level goals. Put them all in a list and glance at it each time you sit down to do more research.

Break Big Goals into Easier Chunks

Your list of high-level goals can seem like a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, and not something you can do. Break each goal down into logical, manageable chunks. These individual tasks will look more realistic. And achieving each one will get you closer to that high-level goal.

For example, I keep a chart of every direct-line ancestor I've identified. (See How to Visualize Your Ancestor-Finding Progress.) The chart contains a good number of my parents' 3rd to 5th great grandparents. To achieve my high-level goal of finding my parents' connection, I can:
  • Work to identify more great grandparents, one set at a time. I have tons of Italian vital records I need to search through.
  • Examine the last names of the great grandparents I have identified. Do I recognize any names on Dad's side as belonging on Mom's side?
  • Check the marriage records for some of these couples. My ancestors all come from neighboring towns in Italy. Do any of these couples have a husband or wife who was born in one of those towns but married in another? The out-of-towner may be connected to another branch in my family tree.
Keep a Task List

In addition to your high-level goals and each goal's individual tasks, you have plenty of other work to do on your family tree. You may need to:
  • Clean up your source citations.
  • Annotate the images in your tree.
  • Attach documents, like census forms, to each person in your tree who's named in the document.
  • Find sources for facts in your tree that you forgot to document.
  • Gather the documents that are missing but you know you can find if you keep trying.
  • Untangle and fix the mistakes you know are in your tree.
For this list, you need to put aside your flexibility and spontaneity for a stretch of time. Focus on completing or making significant progress on one of these important tasks. You know your family tree will be better for the effort. You want to get these tasks out of the way. So whenever possible, put your blinders on and get to it.

Keep a Contact List

Is your family tree online? Have you had a DNA test? If so, you may have had people contact you trying to find a connection. Make a list of these contacts and a description of their family details.

I have people who are trying to find a connection based on one last name, or one ancestral hometown. If I have that list handy, I can contact them when I make a new discovery.

Don't lose track of those potential relatives.

Here's your challenge:
  1. Write down your high-level goals. These will change over time. You may add a bunch more before you cross any off your list.
  2. Break down each high-level goal into the steps that can help you achieve those goals. Keep the list updated. Each time you learn something new, this list may change.
  3. Examine your family tree and write a list of the clean-up tasks you've been meaning to do someday. The more you do, the more valuable your tree becomes.
  4. Go through your email and online contacts with fellow genealogists. Did someone write to you three years ago about a brick wall you just broke wide open? Get back to them! Maybe you're related and can give each other's tree a big boost.
Finally, do what works best for you. Some people like a hand-written or printed list. Some like post-it notes on their computer monitor. I'm the type who'll go totally digital. Lately I've added tasks to my tree so they're the first thing I see when I launch Family Tree Maker.

Your hours of family tree research are your legacy. Make your family tree a thing of beauty. Like tending a garden, the more work you put into it, the better the harvest.

22 November 2017

Celebrating My Peasant Ancestors

The church where my ancestors were baptized and married.

It happened again. One of those well-produced ancestry TV shows we all love traced not one, but two actresses back to European royalty.

Is that what it takes to be an actress? Royal blood?

I've gone pretty far back in my ancestry. I know the names of some of my sixth great grandparents on two lines, fifth great grandparents on another line, and fourth great grandparents on the fourth.

They're all from poverty-stricken southern Italy. They're from five rural, tiny, neighboring towns.

And the majority of them worked the land to grow their food and feed their small amount of livestock.

I come from peasants.

My grandmother's first cousin, Vincenzo Sarracino, never left our ancestral hometown of Pastene, Italy.
This Thanksgiving I'm not making any fancy food. I'll stay true to my roots and make simple, real food.

And I'll make sure my sons know where their roots grow the deepest. We'll toast our ancestral province of Benevento.

Celebrate your heritage this holiday. Share some of your more interesting findings with your family. Be proud of where and who you come from.

Happy Thanksgiving!

17 November 2017

When DNA Says You're Related, You Determine How

I've gotten Ancestry DNA tests for myself, my parents, and my husband. If you've been tested or you're thinking about it, expect to do some work.

My DNA ethnicity estimate is different than either of my parents'
The DNA match results will clearly show who is your parent, child, or close cousin. If you don't know your biological parents or close cousins, this may be big news for you.

But if your DNA matches are labelled as possible 3rd or 4th cousins, or 6th to 8th cousins, it's your job to find the relationship.

Your match may have posted their family tree. If so, you may recognize a 3rd or 4th cousin by the names in their tree.

If they haven't posted a family tree, you can write to them to ask about the relationship. Give them a link to your tree, or mention some of your surnames and places of origin.

Recently a woman contacted me, saying her mother's DNA was a match to my mother's DNA. After two messages back and forth, we realized exactly who each other was. But we'd never met. Now we have met, and we brought together our mothers for a third cousins' reunion.

My people are generally from a very concentrated area of Italy.
Yesterday another woman contacted me saying her father-in-law is a distant DNA match to my father. We traded several emails trying to figure out exactly which Iamarino ancestor the two men share.

But she and I must do the legwork to figure it out. We realized our two trees may have a mistake because of an error in an Italian vital record we've both seen. We're each trying to make the correct Pietro Iamarino fit firmly into our tree. Hopefully we'll figure out the facts and find that exact shared ancestor.

An even more exciting DNA task lies ahead of me. Gedmatch.com analyzed my DNA and told me my parents are related! Sure enough, Ancestry DNA says they are 4th to 6th cousins. That means they share a set of 3rd to 5th great grandparents.

I've made great progress on my parents' family histories, but I haven't found that link. I wasn't looking for it before! Matching up their 3rd to 5th great grandparents seems within my reach.

My parent's ancestors came from 4 neighboring towns in a province of Southern Italy. My research shows a lot of marriages connecting these towns. The idea that one of his ancestors and one of her ancestors married is not the least bit surprising.

Finding your DNA match is a pretty reliable lead, but still a lead. Don't expect the connection to be handed to you. It's up to you to follow the lead and find a new set of relatives for your family tree.

14 November 2017

Finding New Cousins on Facebook

Have you ever heard of "trolling for cousins" or "fishing for cousins"?

You can use social media like Facebook to find distant cousins. These cousins may have the key to a family tree branch that has you stumped.

There's nothing sinister about it. It's a simple way of gaining an introduction and making a new connection.

The idea is to post a bit of family history that will interest the cousins you know. Tag those cousins in your post and ask a question.

If they don't have the answer, they may tag their cousins from the other side of their family. Engage those cousins in the conversation. Share what you know, and ask them for any details they can offer.

Example 1

Found by accident, I recognized the names on this gravestone.
Found by accident, I recognized the names!
This week I posted a photo I took of a tombstone. It contains several names I knew—the names of my distant cousins' grandmother's family. Her family is not related to me, but they came from my parents' neighborhood. My dad remembers her fondly. I'm very interested in them, so I've documented them in my family tree.

But there was one name on the tombstone I didn't know. Luckily, one of the cousins I tagged reached out to her cousin from her grandmother's family. He had lots of answers for me, and his elderly mother gave him even more information to share.

Example 2

A while ago I used Google Street View to capture an image of the house in Italy where my grandfather was born. I posted it in a Facebook group dedicated to my grandfather's hometown. My goal was to see if anyone knew who lives there now.

My grandfather's house still stands.
My grandfather's house still stands.

I mentioned my grandfather's last name of Leone. Someone responded that no one with that name lives in town anymore. I replied using the name of a Leone cousin I know, saying that he lives nearby. Then I listed out the names of his siblings. These were names he told me years ago when we first me online.

Two of the siblings I mentioned responded, saying "Here I am!" in Italian. Now I have two more connections to my grandfather's town. I'd like to try to meet them when I visit again.

Facebook is still a place for those dog and baby photos, and that's great! At no other time in history has it been this easy to reconnect with old friends and find unknown relatives.

Remember: Treat any genealogy facts you learn on Facebook, or from someone's own mouth as leads. It's up to you to find the documents that prove the names and dates you may learn from a cousin's cousin.

What documents or photos do you have that someone else can help you better understand?

10 November 2017

Appreciate the Veterans in Your Family Tree

My dad was a USAF jet pilot who did not see combat.
My dad wanted to fight, but missed the war.
"But for him, I wouldn't be here."

That's what producer and writer Tonya Lewis-Lee said after learning about one of her ancestors on PBS's "Finding Your Roots".

It's a heavy concept. Think about all the direct-line ancestors you've added to your family tree. If you've traced your family back several generations, you should have the names of lots of individual people who led directly to you.

Have you ever thought about the many ways things might have gone differently? And how many of your ancestors could easily have taken a slightly different path?

It's like the "butterfly effect"—the idea that some small change in the past could cause a big change in today's world.

If just one pair of your direct-line ancestors hadn't had children, you would not exist!

My mother's brother Johnny died in an airplane crash in World War II. His tragic death left no one to carry on the family name of Leone. If Johnny had come home from the war, he probably would have had a wife and children—children who would be my first cousins.

My grandfather was a soldier in the Italian army in World War I.
My grandfather, standing,
before he was captured.
His father, my grandfather Adamo, was an Italian prisoner of war in World War I. He faced brutal conditions in captivity. Many men imprisoned with him died of starvation and disease. He sometimes ate rats to stay alive. If he had died, I wouldn't be here.

My great grandparents, Giovanni and Maria Rosa, stayed in Italy when the rest of Maria Rosa's family came to settle in America. Fifteen months later, after the death of their first-born child, my great grandparents followed the family to America.

What if their son hadn't died? Would they have stayed in Italy? If they had stayed, their daughter Mary would never have married my grandfather Adamo. My mother wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be here.

This Veterans Day, I encourage you to think of your ancestors who served their country in the military. You should be proud and thankful for their service, of course. But you should also be very grateful that they lived to carry on the line that led to you.

In a college film class years ago I saw the 1974 Vietnam War documentary, "Heart and Minds". The film brought me to tears when I realized my father, a United States Air Force jet pilot, could have been dropping napalm on villages if he'd been in that war.

He wasn't in that war, and the Korean War ended immediately after he graduated flight school. But maybe, in that moment, I saw how fragile our lives are. If my dad had gone to war, he could have died.

And I wouldn't be here to trace his ancestors back to the late 1600s. "But for him, I wouldn't be here."

Here are some FamilySearch.org links that may help you find out more about your military ancestors.

07 November 2017

Trade Up to Better Family History Sources

Check your list of sources. Which ones aren't certified reliable?
Reliable sources make a reliable family tree.
No offense to my third cousin once removed, but I can do better. If my family tree has facts whose only source is my cousin, that's not good enough.

Hearsay—even if it's someone's first-hand knowledge—is not a reliable, reproducible source for your family research.

That's why I'm on a mission to verify every fact in my tree that has a person or someone's online tree as my source. They're good leads, and I appreciate them tremendously. But without evidence, they are only leads. I need to find proof.

Clean-Up Makes Your Family Tree More Reliable

I've been scrubbing my family tree in a bunch of ways lately.
  • For every census form in my tree, I added complete details and a link to where to find it online. (Ship manifests are next!)
  • I cleaned up every address in my family tree to have a consistent format and take advantage of Family Tree Maker's address verification.
  • I attached every census form or ship manifest in my tree to each person named in the document.
  • I beefed up my source citations with more information and weeded out duplicates.
Now I'm going after imperfect sources. I started by picking two sources that are far from bulletproof. I'm not happy at all with one large branch from Virginia that relies on (a) someone else's tree and (b) "One World Tree" as its sources.

Two collections on Ancestry.com have a lot to offer this branch. I found Virginia marriage listings and death certificates for several people. I added the two Virginia source citations to the facts and removed the sources I don't find as valuable.

Now It's Your Turn to Trade Up

Some sources carry much more weight than others.
My reliable sources.

You, too, can fortify your family tree by using the most reliable sources. First, see if your family tree software can show you a list of all the sources you've created or attached to people in your tree.

Family Tree Maker lets me view my sources in a few ways, including by repository. The repository tells others where you found this fact.

I added the Repository (ancestry.com, familysearch.org, etc.) to each source citation that's from a website. I added the New York City Municipal Archives as a repository, too. That's where I went to see lots of birth, death, and marriage records for myself.

I can also view the complete alphabetical list of source titles in use in my family tree. That list shows me which sources I want to replace with something better. When I select a questionable source, like One World Tree, I can see exactly which facts are using it as their source.

If you have FTM, or your family tree software acts in a similar way, look for sources that come from another person's tree or a name. (When the source is a cousin, I name it to make that clear, e.g., "Joseph Collins, my cousin".) While you may believe your cousin, other genealogists have no reason to!

Start working through those facts. Search for a recognized, reliable source to back up your cousin's information. You can keep your cousin's name there if you want to, or put their name in your notes.

An online tree is not a good source. It's just a lead for you to investigate.
Zero in on sources that don't carry much weight and trade up to better ones.

The goal is to make every fact in your family tree provable.

Trade up to more reliable sources and you will fortify your family tree.

03 November 2017

Using All Your Tools to Build a Better Family Tree

If you've been enjoying this genealogy hobby for a while, you may have more tools, skills, and knowledge at your fingertips than you realize.

The other day my cousin asked me to track down his grandfather's uncle Pietro who died in World War I.

Suddenly I realized how many online resources I have. I went straight to an Italian website that lists fallen World War I soldiers.

An Italian website lists the fallen soldiers of World War I. This one happens to be an American soldier born in Italy.
Was this the fallen soldier I was looking for?

My cousin's grandfather confirmed that the record I found was the right soldier. Now I had the all-important name of his hometown in Italy (Riace) and Pietro's father's first name (Cosimo).

Until now, I knew this family's province, but not their town of origin.
Finding out your ancestor's hometown
is critical.
I jumped over to the Antenati website of vital records from Italian towns. Hurray! The town of Riace is there.

I felt as if my years of research, my knowledge of Italian, and my long list of genealogy website bookmarks had a greater purpose now. They had the power to help others.

It can be tough to research a family when you don't have first-hand knowledge of them. I'd tried before to build this family's tree, but I'd made a mistake and hit a dead-end. I needed my cousin's grandfather to tell me, "yes, that is my uncle".

What do professional genealogists do? How do they go on if they don't have a relative available to confirm important facts?

Here's what I could have done, and what you can do, too.

Work With What You Have

I could have started with that brief record of the fallen soldier. At first, I assumed he was not our man because I thought Pietro's father's name was Ilario, not Cosimo. But it's a good idea to work with the record you have. See if you can prove or disprove any of it.

Based on that record, I could have looked in the archives of the town of Riace for his birth. Ironically, the fallen-soldier record shows the wrong birthdate for him. But he is in the 1891 index of births. He was born on 9 January 1891.

Compare Your Findings to What You Do Know

Using his birth record, I could have looked for evidence that lined up with what I knew about this family. And his birth record does have what I needed.

Pietro's mother's maiden name was Niceforo. That's a fact I had all along. It was part of the scanty information I'd been told before. If Pietro's birth record showed a mother with any other last name, I would have no confidence that he was the right man.

But there she was. Anna Maria Niceforo was this soldier's mother. With both parents' names confirmed, I could search for all of their babies and see if they had any of the names I knew. And they did!

Build on Your Newly Found Facts

My new list of sibling names helped me find the ship manifest for my cousin's grandfather's mother, Teresa. I learned she'd been held in detention, kept briefly in the hospital because of "tremor of hands". She'd left behind her father Cosimo in Riace, and was to be released to her brother Domenico in Brooklyn.

That's the proof I needed. I had the birth record for her brother Domenico. Later I found Pietro's military record card on Ancestry.com. It said that Domenico in Brooklyn was the person informed of the soldier Pietro's death on 5 October 1918.

Don't Rule Out Less-than-Perfect Search Results

This brief military record holds a clue to this soldier's final battle.
His date of death also tells us which battle he died in.

You might overlook a search result because it isn't a perfect match to your family member. I was ready to toss aside that soldier's record because I didn't recognize his town name or his father's name. But he was the right man.

And Teresa's ship manifest was a bear to find. Ancestry's search only brought me to the page listing detainees. That didn't tell me her age, hometown, or her father's name. I had to comb through the 901-image collection to find the rest of her information.

I had to have her main ship manifest entry to know that I had the right person. And it was worth the trouble.

Now go out there and use your family research super powers for good!