31 March 2020

Searching for Family in a New Town Takes Practice

Take your time and you can overcome bad handwriting and unfamiliarity.

I have a DNA match with a connection to the least-explored branch of my family tree. I haven't known about this branch very long. I found out they came from a new-to-me Italian town called Apice (a peach, eh?). But I didn't do much more than look up the immediate family of my 3rd great grandmother.

Meanwhile, my DNA match has been busy adding nearly everyone from this town to his family tree. He's creating a document of the town—piecing together families even if they're not related to him. Thanks to his exploratory tree, I discovered the names of 2 sets of my 6th great grandparents!

I knew I had to start treating this town the same as I treat my other ancestral towns. There are a ton of the town's vital records available on the Italian Antenati website. I've downloaded lots of them, but I haven't finished.

Even before I download all of them, I want to go through the files I have and look for my ancestors' last names:
  • Lomaglio
  • Lorito
  • Mazzarella
  • Montenigro
  • Trancuccio
  • Zullo
So I started renaming the image files from Apice as I viewed them. (By editing the file name to include the name of the person in the document, it becomes searchable on my computer.) From the very start, I had a major stumbling block. The handwriting was awful!

My knowledge of Italian names helps, but I needed to see it written clearly.
My knowledge of Italian names helps, but I needed to see it written clearly.

That's when I remembered my tips for working with a set of hard-to-read documents:
  1. Examine as many records as possible. The more times you see a name written, the greater your chances of seeing it written clearly.
  2. Take your best guess. I renamed the Apice vital records for 1809–1811. When I couldn't quite read a name, I typed my best guess. When I see a guessed name enough times, and I figure it out, I can go back and correct all my guesses.
  3. Find documents with better handwriting. The town clerk won't have kept his job forever. I jumped way ahead to the 1844 death records, and the handwriting was large and clear. A new town clerk was on the job! If you find documents with good handwriting, study them to learn the names of people in this town.

As I rename the files, I keep my family tree open. Each time I find a Zullo document (or any of the other names in my list), I check to see if they can fit in my tree yet. I'm eager to find death records for my 5th great grandparents, Saverio Zullo and Angela Montenigro, so I can learn their parents' names. They may have died before 1809 when Italy began keeping civil records. But there's a chance I'll find them.

Renaming my files made the town's names clearer: Casazza, Caporaso, Licciardi, Iebba...
Renaming my files made the town's names clearer to me: Casazza, Caporaso, Licciardi, Iebba…

I started an alphabetical list of the last names in this town. I'm adding them to an Excel file as I find them. (I can sort it alphabetically in 2 clicks.) That way I can remember what I decided is the proper spelling of each name. This has been tremendously helpful when I find a name that written so badly.

When we've got these endless, entertaining puzzles to play with, who wants to go outside? Seriously, though, get the hell in your house!


  1. Di Ann, This really came in handy. One of the towns (Vittoria in the Province of Ragusa) I am researching in Sicily has records from 1820-1899 on the Antenanti website (which I downloaded thanks to you and the best Genealogy tip I ever received). For some reason these records are locked on the Family Search.org site. What I did not know is that the Family Search site has millions of new records that can be searched by going to the search tab and running a a new Historical Image Search. I was in shock to find there are now death and marriage records for my town from 1927-1945 that are not locked! But oh my goodness, I was very adept at reading the handwriting of the clerks for the older records but the more contemporary clerks take handwriting to a new level of bad. I am just going through many records in order as you suggest to try to get a better grip on what I am seeing. Still missing the records from 1900-1927 which is very important information. Have no idea why more recent records are available and older ones are not. This town has about 60,000 residents and I thought I had a grasp of most of the names but I see many unfamiliar names here (that are hard to read). On to a new adventure which will require a lot of practice and trial and error before I get it right.

    1. Learning about Antenati and downloading the files was the best thing that ever happened to me, too. My ancestral towns hover around 2,000 residents, for which I am so grateful. I logged about 70 last names so far for the town of Apice, and the list is extremely helpful. My town of Colle Sannita also has that same gap from about 1910 till about 1931. I can understand not having those birth records available when people may still be alive, but I don't know if or when they'll release a new batch, like 1910-1920 births. I want them!!