Friday, June 15, 2018

Genealogy is the Joy of Names

Yesterday I used a set of 1819 marriage records to make a big discovery. An acquaintance I assumed is my relation to me is in fact my 6th cousin.

He and I share a set of 5th great grandparents. I know their names, their approximate years of birth, and some of their children's names. But that's all.

A word cloud of my closest relatives.
A word cloud of my closest relatives and the frequency of names.
My ancestors all came from little hilltop towns in rural Southern Italy. I visited their towns last month and got a better feel for these places. My ancestors lived simple lives that were basically undocumented and unexceptional.

That means I'm not going to find a letter from my ancestor to the king. My ancestor wasn't the mayor of the town or instrumental in a revolution. My ancestor's name and exploits weren't in the newspaper.

Without the possibility of a direct line of ancestors leading to the King of England, why do I do it?

Why do I spend countless hours gathering the documents that tie me to such distant cousins?

For me, it's the sheer joy of names. I adore all the names I find in my vast collection of birth, marriage and death records. They're repeated over and over because of the Italian tradition of naming children after their grandparents.

Although each of my ancestors' towns are close to one another as the crow flies, each town has a core set of surnames. For example, my maiden name barely exists in my grandfather's hometown anymore. But people in the town recognized it and responded to me warmly.

It's some of my closest last names that enable me to assume someone is my relative. If their name is Pozzuto, for example, and their ancestors came from the town of Colle Sannita, we've got to be cousins. It's an exciting challenge to try to find that exact relationship.

Some purists may look down on me as nothing more than a "name collector". But I love collecting those names. I've learned a little bit about life in my ancestral hometowns in centuries past. I can't expect to find much more.

Here are two specific things I learned about my ancestors' lives in Italy:
My grandfather's one-page military record told me volumes.
My grandfather's one-page
military record told me volumes.
  1. My grandfather told us he was a prisoner of war with the Italian Army during World War I. He had to eat rats to survive. Last month I photographed his military record at the archives in his home province.

    Now I know:
    • when he was captured
    • the name of the battle
    • where he was imprisoned
    • how long he was imprisoned.
    That's a lot of detail in a few lines on a page.
  2. My great grandfather was rumored to be an Episcopal minister. An usual thing in a Roman Catholic country. It was only by visiting my cousins in Italy (his granddaughters) that I learned the story.

    This is not written anywhere. And even my cousins have never seen a photograph of their grandparents.

    My great grandfather Francesco and his brother-in-law were living and working in the Bronx, New York. It was one of Francesco's many trips to America to earn money. One day he passed by a church in the Bronx. He heard singing and loud voices, and he felt drawn to go inside.

    This was the type of church where people are so overwhelmed, so deeply moved by the presence of God, they begin speaking in tongues.

    Francesco brought his new faith back home to Colle Sannita and started his own church. His great grandchildren hold prayer services and follow Francesco's teachings to this day.
Those two stories won't get me on TV, but they're all I have so far.

Meanwhile, I'm more than happy to indulge my love of Italian names. I collect the siblings of my ancestors and their spouses and children. I love seeing the names get passed down. My 4th great grandfather was Francesco Iamarino. My great grandfather was Francesco Iamarino. My father is Frank Iamarino.

So call me a name collector. I am a name collector. These names "are" my ancestral hometowns, and I love them dearly.


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