07 August 2020

Solving 2 Problems to Find My 6th Great Grandparents

Don't stop your research too soon if the documents aren't crystal clear.

My last article convinced me to make a pair of 5th great grandparents my #1 genealogy priority. I needed to find their Italian death records so I could learn the names of 4 more of my 6th great grandparents.

As I began my search, I realized I had already located what might be both their death records in 1816.

The problem was, neither death certificate mentions the deceased's spouse. I needed to prove I had the right death records. He, 80-year-old Saverio Zullo, had a very common last name in their little town. She, 63-year-old Angela Montenigro, had a very uncommon last name. The town's vital records show there may have been only one Montenigro family in town when she was born. (Their age difference may mean Saverio had kids with his 1st wife.)

Before I set out to prove these were the right documents, I had another problem. The clerk in town at the time had awful handwriting. I cannot read the last names of my newfound 6th great grandmothers!

I kept track of my steps as I solved these 2 problems.

It isn't time to rejoice yet. These documents aren't definitively my 5th great grandparents.
It isn't time to rejoice yet. These documents aren't definitively my 5th great grandparents.

Problem #1: Prove the 1816 Death Records Are for My Ancestors

Here is everything I did to determine if I had the right death records:

I searched the town's marriage records before and after 1816, looking for my 5th great grandparents' children.

  • In 1814, their son Saverio married, and his parents were still alive.
  • In 1815, their daughter Berardina married, and her parents were still alive.
  • In 1817, their son Carlo married, and his parents were dead!

Hurray! Only a genealogist is this happy to see that someone's parents have died.

The marriage records suggest Saverio and Angela died between 1815 and 1817. That supports the two 1816 death records as belonging to my 5th great grandparents.

There may be more proof, though. I searched more marriage records, hoping for a rewritten version of their death records. So far, I've gotten up to 1835 in this search. The supporting marriage documents for these years are mostly missing. But eventually I should find more complete marriage records for their grandchildren. Those records may include a rewritten version of Saverio Zullo's death record.

In the meantime, I was anxious about the other problem with the 1816 death records. What did those documents say?

I used several methods to figure out the bad handwriting in my 5th great grandparents' death records.
I used several methods to figure out the bad handwriting in my 5th great grandparents' death records.

Problem #2: Figure Out My 6th Great Grandmothers' Last Names

Figuring out the last names of Saverio and Angela's mothers took a lot more work. Here's what I did:

  • I took my best guess on each letter in the last names. I compared the writing to the other words in the document, and in other documents written by the same clerk. It was clear that neither name had any ascending letters (b, d, f, t, etc.) or descending letters (also f, g, p, etc.). That helped me rule out many possible names.
  • I wrote down the possible letter combinations. I'm familiar with the common last names in this town from having examined so many vital records. These were not common names from the town.
  • I checked a few resources for the name variations I'd written down.
    • For Italian descendants, the Cognomix website shows where to find a last name in Italy today.
    • You can also search for a name on the Italian White Pages website.
    • I checked my digital copy of a book exploring the origins and variations of Italian last names. (Search online for name origins in your ancestral country.)
    • You can search for a last name on FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com to see where people with that name come from.
  • I searched the town's records again for more documents with the 2 mysterious last names. I compared these to my original document. The clerks wrote the names a bit differently each time.
  • I searched for, and found, a sibling for my 5th great grandmother Angela Montenigro. This document gives me another look at my 6th great grandmother Berardina's last name.
  • The 1816 death records are missing an index. But the index for the year Angela's sister died gives me another look at Berardina's last name.

I took all these steps before making a decision. The evidence shows Saverio Zullo's mother, my 6th great grandmother, was Livia Carosa.

Angela Montenigro's mother, my other 6th great grandmother, was Berardina (sometimes Berarda):

  • Lavorana,
  • Laverono, or
  • Lavorino

It's still not clear which version is correct. But I did narrow it down. I'll continue to search for every Montenigro in town, and anyone with a last name that looks like Lavorana, Laverono, or Lavorino. For now, I'll choose which variation to use and add my 4 new 6th great grandparents to my family tree.

Soon I'll move on to my #2 genealogy priority. That is to find my 8 missing 6th great grandparents from the town of Circello, Italy. I'm so thankful for the Italian Antenati website and all the vital records!

Don't give up when a sloppy, indefinite document is all you have. There are so many tools you can use.


  1. Very informative blog. My grandparents were Slovak and, like you, I have been going through the Slovakia Church Books on Family search til my eyes almost bleed. Unfortunately, for some of the villages there are gaps in the marriage records (of course, the years I need), so it is slow going, but your process gives me hope.

    1. My contact lenses get so dry every night from deciphering old documents. But tonight I did find another record of my 5th great grandfather Saverio Zullo's death, and the handwriting was so much better than the original.

  2. Where are your Zullo's from? One of my branches is Zullo from Montecalvo-Irpino. I believe that my great-grandparents on one side were both Zullo's. (first cousins or more distant is unknown).

    1. Hi, Jonathan! My Zullo family is from almost the neighboring town, just to the southwest. It's Apice, just over the border in Benevento. My closest Zullo is my 3rd great grandmother, but I was thrilled when I traced her roots to a different town. She married in Santa Paolino, Avellino.

  3. If I go back to 4th great-grandfather I have Arcangelo Zullo from Apice born 1769. I’m sure if you are on AncestryDNA we match as 4th cousins or more distant!

    1. Arcangelo Zullo, son of Dionisio and Carmina Marra, married Caterina Zarrillo in 1809 and died in 1839, but I haven't worked him into my tree. On Ancestry I am diann148 or DiAnn Ohama. I don't find you in my match list, or my mother's (Maryann Leone).