16 March 2018

How to Turn a Hunch into Facts for Your Family Tree

I rarely come up with a hypothesis about my family tree. An idea that might be the truth. But this week I formed a logical theory.

A theory gives you some facts to work with when you have little or none. Then you can do the work to prove your theory true or false.

Here's an example for you. See if this can apply to your family tree research.

Work through the details of your theory to prove it true or false.
Work through the details of your theory to prove it true or false.

In 2008 I discovered the location of several of my third cousins outside Pittsburgh. Soon after my discovery, my husband and I were heading to Pittsburgh for his cousin's wedding. The stars aligned, and my newfound cousin invited me to her home on the day of a big family party.

One of my third cousins is very interested in genealogy. She and I worked together for weeks to build out her portion of the family tree. She gave me facts and photos, and I gave her an amazing tree to print out.

One fact she provided didn't sit right with me. It was her grandmother's name. The family knew her as Louise Villnaci deBellis.

Since she was born in Italy, I was sure her given name was Luisa, not Louise, but that's no big deal.

The part that bothered me was her middle name. Villnaci? That's not a proper Italian name. And it isn't a middle name. Something was wrong there.

Fast forward ten years. Now I have the Antenati (ancestors) website that offers Italian birth, marriage and death records dating back to 1809. I've downloaded every record for my ancestral hometowns.

One of my towns is Sant'Angelo a Cupolo in the province of Benevento and it's smaller hamlet of Pastene. That's where my grandmother's first cousin Giuseppe—Luisa's husband—came from. I began to notice in those records that deBellis was a bit common and Villanacci was a bit common.

Aha! Villanacci. That's a proper Italian name. Surely that's what "Villnaci" was supposed to be.

So I figured Luisa deBellis' "middle name" was Villanacci. That makes sense.

But the concept of a surname as a middle name doesn't fit this period in Italy. So where did Luisa's Villanacci come from?

Luisa was born in 1895, and of course that one year is missing from the Antenati records. Searching records around 1895, I found a baby born to Luigi deBellis and Luigia Villanacci.

Ooooh. Now that sounds like a theory! What if Luisa, who left her family to come to America, wanted to make sure her descendants didn't forget the Villanacci name? What if she was holding onto her mother's last name to preserve it?

Based on my theory that Luisa was the child of Luigi deBellis and Luigia Villanacci, I went through the records to find all their children:
  • Maria Carmela, born 1881
  • Assunta, born 1882
  • Filomena, born 1884
  • Saverio, born 1886
  • Carmine Vincenzino, born 1888
I found no other children for this couple, but they could have had Luisa in 1895.

On most of her children's birth records, Luigia Villanacci's father's name is Angelantonio. Luigia was born around 1862, so I found her birth record on 14 February 1862. Her father was Angelantonio and her mother was Maria Maddalena Sarracino.

Bonus! Luisa's husband—my grandmother's first cousin—was also a Sarracino. It's a small town. I found one sister for Luigia Villanacci named Mariassunta, born in 1864, and their grandfather was Giuseppe Villanacci.

So that is my theory. That "Louise Villnaci deBellis" was Luisa deBellis, born to Luigi deBellis and Luigia Villanacci.

Now, to prove it. Without her birth record!

Where would you begin?

I've added the five children above, Luigi and Luigia, and Luigia's parents and sister to my tree. I included a note that this is a theory under investigation.

I did that yesterday, and today Ancestry.com gave me a hint. It's for Filomena deBellis, the possible sister of Luisa deBellis. Filomena came to America, married Vincent Ragognetti.

I know she's the right Filomena because her Social Security Application and Claims Index names her parents, Luigi de Bellis and Luigia Villanacci. And it calls her Filomena Ragognetti. In the 1925 New York Census, Filomena is in Manhattan with her husband Vincent and their three kids. In 1939 Filomena died in the Bronx.

This is how I will prove or disprove my theory. Now, I could buy Luisa's death or marriage record online and hope they give her parents' names.

But first, I can search for every possible fact about the five people I think are her siblings. Maybe one of them will have a document that ties them to my Luisa.

Luisa married Giuseppe Sarracino in Manhattan in 1918. Maybe she lived with one of her siblings before her marriage. Maybe her immigration record will mention her mother's name.

This is how you can turn a theory into facts.

Take a look at one of the dead-ends in your family tree. Someone for whom you have no parents, no immigration record, no siblings. Can you form a theory?

Maybe it's a theory based on facts from their hometown. Or maybe it's a theory based on where they lived and those who lived near them.

Pick your theory apart, fact by fact. Verify everything you can. Add to the puzzle. Prove or disprove parts of your theory.

Investigating everyone around your ancestor can unlock their mysteries.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! This is exactly the sort of research journey story I love.