25 September 2020

Spinning a Hint into Genealogy Gold

You know those Potential Father, Potential Mother suggestions on Ancestry.com? The ones so many people find ridiculous? I decided to check one out today.

I was randomly viewing my tree on Ancestry. I wanted to see how many people could fit on the screen at once. I wish I could see thousands of them at a time.

The results weren't good, but a pair of bright green potential ancestors caught my eye, so I had a look. I didn't realize at the time that they were potential 7th great grandparents for me.

I usually ignore hints, but this one's from the 1700s. I had to investigate.
I usually ignore hints, but this one's from the 1700s. I had to investigate.

Their last names told me they were from Grandpa Iamarino's hometown. The hometown for which I have the most awesome genealogy book in the world. A book that tells me everyone who lived there in the year 1742.

Antonio Zeolla and Maddalena Pilla were the potential parents of my 6th great grandmother, Libera Zeolla. There were no sources for them in the family tree of my possible cousin. His tree was the source of the hint.

So I turned to my book, "Colle Sannita nel 1742." There's an index that helped me quickly find every household in town with the name Zeolla. There were 19 households with a head-of-household named Zeolla. Household #17 was the one I needed.

In the home of 71-year-old Pietro Giorgio Zeolla, the name Maddalena Pilla jumped out at me. I looked closer and saw she was the wife of Antonio Zeolla. That's the potential couple from Ancestry! But, were they the parents of my Libera Zeolla?

This was a big household with a very long listing in the book. Antonio and Maddalena had 3 young children living there. Their oldest child was 9-year-old Libera.

It's her! My 6th great grandmother Libera Zeolla is in this most wonderful book with lots of relatives. Now I've learned the names of her:

  • parents
  • two younger sisters
  • paternal grandfather
  • uncle
  • two aunts
  • two first cousins (one of whom was already in my family tree)

I now know much more about this family than my possible cousin who's the source of this wonderful hint. Now MY find will become a hint for HIM.

I never expected such a vague hint to be so fruitful.
I never expected such a vague hint to be so fruitful.

Behold the power of an early, detailed census of your ancestral hometown.

This past Wednesday I reviewed every family in the book with my maiden name. Then I began filling in their missing documents in my document tracker spreadsheet.

Now I'm thinking…I need to find more Potential Fathers and Potential Mothers to investigate. I routinely ignore hints, but I may have some early ancestors hiding there. The key is simple: Do your own research to prove a hint right or wrong.

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22 September 2020

Imagine a Register of Your Entire Ancestral Hometown

I love when people tell me they aren't Italian, but my advice helps with their genealogy research. I try to keep my articles generic. But since I'm all Italian, I have to use Italian examples as illustration.

I've avoided writing about my new favorite genealogy treasure. It makes my heart swell every time I use it. But it's so specific. Not only to Italian ancestry, but to my grandfather's hometown. (Oh boy, here she goes again with Colle Sannita.)

Indulge me, though, because you will wish you had one of these for your ancestral hometown. And some of you may. At the bottom of this article are 46 Italian towns with a similar book.

Years ago a man found my post on an Italian message board devoted to my grandfather's hometown. That man, Dr. Fabio Paolucci, came from Grandpa's town, and is a local historian. He told me my maiden name of Iamarino is one of the original names from the town of Colle Sannita. Sometime later, he gave me my paternal family tree, dating back to the year 1690.

At that time, Italian vital records were not online. And Italian church records (from my area) are still not online. So Fabio provided me with something that was impossible for me to get on my own.

He pored over the oldest records from the town, piecing together hundreds of families. I knew he was writing a book, but I didn't know what it would contain. Until I finally got my hands on "Colle Sannita nel 1742" (nel means in).

Like a census, Italian towns produced a register (catasto) of every person in their town. This register lists the assets owned by the head of household. From individual plots of land to the number of sheep and mules. Based on their assets, the town calculated each household's tax.

This register also lists the names, ages, and occupations of each member of the household. In the book, I have the names, ages, and assets of each family living in my grandfather's hometown in the year 1742!

This detailed description of each household in my ancestral hometown is the best genealogy tool ever!
This detailed description of each household in my ancestral hometown is the best genealogy tool ever!

My family tree already contained a good number of people born in the 1700s. But this book is helping me form their families and nail down each person's year of birth. That's invaluable! I'm also getting a better idea of life in these early years. Many of the households owned several plots of land, including many vineyards. Most families owned their own home. Several households included a man and his immediate family, his widowed mother, and his siblings and their families.

There were 560 households in town in 1742. I'm up to #343, looking for each family in my tree. If I find a match:

  • I add the names, ages, and occupations of each member of the family.
  • I give each fact a source I created for the book, including a photo of the book cover.
  • I make the book cover the profile photo for each person, unless they already have a document as their photo. In that case, I add the book cover to their collection of images.

This makes it easy to track everyone I found in the book. In Family Tree Maker, I can view the image and see that I've identified 406 people from the book so far.

This past weekend I followed my own advice to make one thing perfect in my family tree. I worked my way through everyone in my tree with the last name Basile (bah-ZEEL). I found each person's available vital records within my collection of the town's records.

Then I turned to my new favorite book and found 13 people named Basile to document in my family tree. (There are more, but I can't fit them into my tree yet.)

It was such a rewarding weekend. I chose Basile because it was the first Colle Sannita name early in the alphabet that came to mind. Halfway through I thought, "why didn't I start with my maiden name?" So that's what I'll do next. I'll find all the available vital records for everyone name Iamarino in my family tree. And I'll use the Colle Sannita book to find even more details about those alive in 1742.

I worked through everyone in my family tree with one name, and completed their records and source citations.
I worked through everyone in my family tree with one name, and completed their records and source citations.

If you do have Italian ancestry, check the list below for your towns. I found these by searching for "catasti" on the publisher's website. I bought my book online using PayPal, and they shipped it quickly. The books sell for 30 Euro, but with shipping, it was more than $60. Still, the best money I ever spent.

Town registers available from the same publishing company are:

Acerra
Aiello Casale di Atripalda
Altavilla
Apice (I need that one!)
Atripalda
Avellino
Bonito
Caggiano
Calabritto
Carovigno
Caserta
Castelpagano
Castelvolturno
Cervinara
Colle Sannita
Conza
Foiano
Gesualdo
Guardia
Itri
Lapio
Lentace
Marzano
Massa Lubrense
Monteforte
Montefusco
Montemiletto
Monteverde
Mugnano
Nereto
Pellezzano (part of Salerno)
Pertosa (part of Caggiano)
Pietrastornina
Ponte Cagnano Faiano
Praiano
Prata Sannita
Ravello
Quaglietta
San Cipriano
San Giorgio della Montagna
San Pietro di Scafati
Santa Maria Capua
Scafati
Tavernola Casale d'Atripalda
Torrioni
Vico Equense

These books are a dream come true for someone like me, with deep roots in one or more of these towns.

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18 September 2020

Make One Thing Perfect in Your Family Tree

Don't just tidy up your family tree. Get it ready for inspection.

I don't like a messy house. But I don't obsess over cleaning it unless company is coming. Then I spend hours cleaning floors, vacuuming crevices, and polishing every surface.

You know what? I've been treating my family tree the same way. It's in fine shape.

Sure, it's neat and tidy. But it isn't ready for a critical eye.

Since 2020 is a lost cause, I've abandoned the genealogy goals I set in January. This year calls for something different.

Your family tree will always have flaws. But you can make many parts of it shine.
Your family tree will always have flaws. But you can make many parts of it shine.

Finding a New Way to Scrub-up the Family Tree

I hit on a new idea this week. I heard from a man with roots in one of my ancestral hometowns. He's written to me many times with links to my relatives' records from the town. He inspired me earlier to spend time building out my Santa Paolina family.

Even after that, he sent me a new link to my 7th great aunt's death record. That made me realize how incomplete my tree is because, let's face it, we've all got thousands of ancestors.

I had this desire to finish up branches, or family units, or at least individuals. I was updating my document tracker with a new-found marriage record when it hit me.

Each line in my document tracker is an item to complete, to dust and polish, to make ready for inspection.

At that moment, I was adding an entry for the 1834 marriage of Antonia Viola. The majority of people in my family tree are Italians from the 1700s and 1800s. The most I can find for them is a birth, marriage, and death record. Since I had Antonia's birth and marriage records, I felt the need to complete her line in the spreadsheet. All I needed was her death record.

Coloring my "complete for now" lines shows my progress and highlights work to be done.
Coloring my "complete for now" lines shows my progress and highlights work to be done.

I determined that she died outside the range of available death records. (In this case, she died after 1860.) I have a rule I follow when this happens. In the Need to Find column of my document tracker, I type:

  • out of range: death,
  • out of range: birth, or
  • out of range: marriage.

That tells me precisely what to search for if they ever publish more documents online.

Since Antonia Viola's line was as complete as I can make it, but one document is out of range, I colored her line blue. If I had found her death record, I'd type "n/a" in the Need to Find column, and I'd color the line green. Complete and ready for inspection.

Completing her line made me so happy, I completed everyone named Viola in my document tracker.

This is where all my over-the-top efforts pay off. I have every available vital record from my ancestral hometowns on my computer. I'm working my way through the towns, renaming each document image to include the person's name. That makes the entire town searchable.

My Viola people are from Colle Sannita, and that town is 100% searchable on my computer. A program called Everything is fantastic at finding anything on my computer instantly.

I'm inspired to complete and color more and more lines in my document tracker. I'm inspired to rename more and more files from my other towns. I'm inspired to finish up that one family before my collaborator sends me another link to a great aunt!

You can't make your family tree 100% complete and ready for inspection. But you can pick one aspect of your work and make it as perfect and squeaky-clean as possible.

Which untidy aspect of your family tree is calling out to you today?

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15 September 2020

A Fun Byproduct of Genealogy

I watched a TED Talk on the idea of everyone in the world being related. The speaker was AJ Jacobs, a humorist and author for Esquire Magazine.

He became interested in genealogy when a stranger wrote him to say they were 12th cousins. The way AJ describes it, I'll bet they sourced little to nothing in their 80,000-person family tree. But it was fun for him to be able to claim distant relationships to:

  • famous actors
  • politicians
  • royalty
  • Albert Einstein, and
  • a serial killer.

None of these famous people had a blood relationship to the speaker. Instead, they had the type of relationships I see in my family tree a lot, like:

  • 2nd great grandfather of husband of 1st great aunt of husband of my 1st great aunt Eva Leone, or
  • brother-in-law of sister-in-law of 1st cousin of husband of my 3rd great aunt Mariarosa Bozza

There's a reason why I have these complicated relationships in my family tree. My ancestors come from a few small, rural, neighboring towns in Italy. I discovered the populations of these towns in the 1800s was almost 100% related by blood or marriage.

I wanted to document all the relationships because these towns are me, and I am made from them.

Inspired by that TED Talk, I invite you to play along and find your connection to a few famous people. I hope none of you practice genealogy simply to find a famous connection. But, as a sort of parlor game, let's give it a try.

I do have 2 actors in my blood-relations family:

  • One is my straight-up 3rd cousin, but we've never met. Josh Saviano played Paul, the bespectacled best friend of the main character on TV's "The Wonder Years." Every time I saw his Saviano name in the credits, I wondered if we were related. And we were!
  • The other is my mother's 2nd cousin, Ralph Lucarelli. I've been lucky to get to know Ralph over the past 10 years or so. Ironically, both actors have appeared on TV's "Law & Order."

To find other celebrities, I had to branch out further:

  • Singer Gwen Stefani is my 5th cousin. I'd heard she had roots in my grandfather's hometown in Italy. So I did a little digging to place her in my family tree. As a bonus, the father of her children is one of my musical idols, Gavin Rossdale. (Hello, ex-5th cousin-in-law!)
  • Actor Charles Robinson, played Mac on TV's "Night Court." More recently, I've enjoyed him on "Mom." He is the husband of the niece of the husband of the sister-in-law of the niece of the husband of my aunt Stella Leone. That sounds like one heck of a reach, I know. But in reality, Charlie is the son-in-law of a beloved family friend—my mom's bridesmaid. This was just a fun fact until I learned there was a relationship in there.
  • War hero John Francis Basilone is my distant cousin. As with Gwen Stefani, I'd heard "Manila John's" father came from my grandfather's town. One day I tried to work out his connection to me. Now John is the 1st great grandnephew of the wife of my 5th great uncle Giovannantonio Palmiero.

In the world of college sports, my brother Jay is well known as a sports conference commissioner. To connect to him, I just had to be born.

A little fame and fortune may stir new interest in your family tree.
A little fame and fortune may stir new interest in your family tree.

I tend to go very far on my distant branches, and my family tree has more than 25,000 people. But with all my roots in poverty-stricken towns, I won't find anyone famous by going backwards. Italian records won't lead you to royalty if you're a peasant. Before I could connect to these celebrities, someone had to tell me:

  • their ancestors came from Grandpa's town, or
  • there was a distant family relation in there somewhere.

In my early days of genealogy, I tried to connect to famous singer Enrico Caruso. But Caruso is such a common name, and he came from a different part of Italy. And then there was a family myth. We had long thought my sons were great grandnephews of the captain of the Titanic. A few minutes into researching, I discovered it was all a mistake.

If you find a celebrity connection, you can use it to get your family more interested in genealogy. If you do happen to find a true blood-relationship to someone important, congratulations! You're building the family tree they never knew they had.

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11 September 2020

Finding Your Family's Fallen War Heroes

Once in a while I revisit my list of genealogy website bookmarks. When I saved each link, it either inspired me or seemed like a useful resource.

Today I decided to squeeze the value out of one of these bookmarks. It's a database of Italian war dead—both World War I and II. I'm sure we all have people in our family trees who disappeared from the records. If they were the right age at the right time, they may have died in the war.

An Italian Example

To explain how to use these databases of war dead, I'm going to focus on an Italian casualty website. But there are other databases below that may work better for you.

I know many of these fallen heroes belong, or are already in my family tree.
I know many of these fallen heroes belong, or are already in my family tree.

At the website www.cadutigrandeguerra.it:

  • I clicked Richerche (research).
  • This page has a form with a ton of boxes.
    • I filled in only one: Comune in Albo. Since the bulk of my relatives came from one town, I entered that town into the field: Colle Sannita.
    • Instead of a town, you can enter a name in the 1st box: Nominativo e paternit√†. Enter only a last name, or a full name, but last name first, like Russo Giovanni.
  • My search produced a list of 96 men from the town who died in World War I.
  • Almost every last name in the list is familiar to me, so I started down the list, searching for each man in my family tree.

It took a while to find one, but when I did, I knew he was the right man because:

  • The database includes the name of each man's father, and that was a match.
  • The database include each man's birth year, and that was a match.

I already knew that Giorgio Gentile, son of Innocenzo, was born in Colle Sannita on 4 September 1877. He married Maria Concetta Pilla on 2 June 1902, and they had a son, Innocenzo, on 13 April 1903. Now I've learned that:

  • Giorgio died in 1918 at home in Colle Sannita from disease.
  • He was a soldier in the 67th battalion.
  • A link to a printed list of war dead confirms his birth date. (The link says Mostra Pagina—Show Page.)
  • The linked page provides his exact death date: 13 December 1918. It also confirms his exact birth date.
  • Giorgio was 41 years old and fulfilling his military service when he died.

Now I have all the vital information for Giorgio: birth, marriage, and death. I felt sure Giorgio and Maria Concetta had more than one child. So I searched the available vital records.

There are no birth records available for 1905 through 1909. But I found his children Paolo, born in 1910, and Lucia Rosa, born in 1915. Lucia Rosa's birth record has a note written later in the column. It says, "The father [of this child] died in the national war as per communication from the Ministry of War dated 1920."

Giorgio's records are as complete as they can be. That couldn't have happened without this database. I'll continue down this list of 96 war dead from my Grandpa's town. Then I'll search my handful of other towns.

With online databases of the war dead, I can identify the men named in their hometowns' monuments.
With online databases of the war dead, I can identify the men named in their hometowns' monuments.

Search Other Countries

To search for your fallen family members, try these databases:

Need more? Search online for "database of world war dead," or make that more specific to what you'd like to find.

I'm sure you'll agree it's worthwhile to find out what became of some of the men in your family tree. Many towns in Italy have monuments to their fallen soldiers. I photographed the memorials in my ancestral hometowns. Now I should have enough information to tie names on the monuments to people in my tree.

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08 September 2020

Why Did Your Ancestor Leave Home?

Someone asked me why our ancestors left Italy when it's so beautiful there. I knew the answer, but I remember when I thought the exact same thing.

Then I read a bit of the country's history. Southern Italians faced overwhelming poverty while those in the north fared much better. The young men from the south could have taken factory jobs in the north. But there was too much competition.

Many made their way to the United States of America after hearing that jobs were plentiful. They were hard jobs in steel mills, railroad yards, and coal mines. But it was steady work and decent pay. My grandfathers seized the opportunity and applied for citizenship as soon as possible.

Being an immigrant is not easy. Why did your ancestors choose to leave?
Being an immigrant is not easy. Why did your ancestors choose to leave?

What was going on in your ancestral homeland when your ancestors emigrated? The FamilySearch website is a great place to begin your search. For instance:

  • Germans left their country at many points in their history. The main reasons were poverty and religious persecution.
  • Many early English emigrants went to America to improve their business prospects. Some were prisoners, sent to other countries. Some military personnel received land or money to stay in the place where they had served.
  • The Irish fled famine and poverty. They were also suffering from religious persecution. Some sought political asylum, and others were prisoners sent to America.
  • Italian emigration skyrocketed from 1870 to 1914. Young men sought the steady work they couldn't find at home.

A real-life library, or an online catalog search, can tell you why your ancestors moved. One thing is very clear. There has always been a ton of moving going on.

A table on Wikipedia shows the number of foreign-born people living in the U.S. by decade. Based on each census from 1850–2000, the table breaks down the numbers by country and region. (Note: The table is missing 1930 and 1940, and it ends a full 20 years ago.)

The table shows who was leaving their homeland in large numbers at certain times in history. One or more of these trends may apply to your ancestors. For instance:

  • German immigration ranged from a half million and 2.7 million people each census year since 1850. It's never let up. In fact, the largest ethnicity in the USA is German at 14.7%*.
  • The British Isles and Ireland ranged from nearly 1 million (1990 and 2000) to 4 million (in 1890) people. The English make up 7.8% of America, and the Irish are 10.6%.
  • Italian immigration surged to 484,000 people in 1900, and a high of almost 1.8 million people in 1950. After that, quotas forced some of my relatives to go to Canada. Italians are 5.5% of Americans.
  • French immigrants peaked at 153,000 in 1920. Relatively speaking, those are low numbers. In fact, the French comprise only 2.6% of Americans.
  • Canada has ranged from almost 150,000 in 1850, to 1.3 million in 1950.
  • The former Soviet Union hit its peak of more than 1 million people from 1910–1950.
  • The former Czechoslovakia topped out at almost a half million people in 1950.

Some countries are seeing a dramatic rise in emigration:

  • Mexico surged from 103,000 in 1950 to 9 million in 2000, with a big increase starting in 1980. Mexicans are 10.9% of Americans. That's now the 3rd highest percentage of Americans. First are Germans and second are non-Hispanic Blacks or African Americans.
  • The Caribbean Islands began their surge in 1970 and reached almost 3 million strong in 2000.
  • Chinese immigrants had many bans and restrictions in the 1800s. But they nearly doubled from 530,000 in 1990 to 989,000 in 2000. This ethnicity represents 1.2% of Americans.
Statistics paint a picture of nationalities fleeing oppression.
Statistics paint a picture of nationalities fleeing oppression.

While I adore Italy, and I feel at home in my ancestral hometowns, I know it is not the Italy my ancestors left behind.

I encourage you to learn a bit of the history of your "old country". You'll discover a new-found appreciation for your immigrant ancestors' sacrifices.

*The percentages of ethnicities in the U.S. comes from a 2019 article on the WorldAtlas website.

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04 September 2020

One Man's Big Impact on My Family Tree

Revisiting a clean-up project instantly added dozens of relatives to my family tree.

In July I recommended using Family Tree Analyzer to find the unsourced facts in your family tree. For the steps, see Catch and Fix Your Missing Source Citations.

My report seemed to have a lot of false positives. Many facts in the list actually had proper sources in my family tree. Discouraged, I tried another method. I ran the Undocumented Facts report in Family Tree Maker. I exported the report as a massive Excel file. It's huge because I have 25,000 people in my family tree, and I don't add a source for a person's sex. So everyone made it into the report!

I spent time deleting lots of lines from that spreadsheet. Then I decided to revisit the report in Family Tree Analyzer. This time I excluded another fact type (Parental Info) before exporting it to Excel.

With a bit more fine-tuning, the report turned out great.
With a bit more fine-tuning, the report turned out great.

I realized I could cut out all the dates that I left unsourced on purpose. When I don't know someone's birth date, I give them an estimate. In your family tree software, you can type "About" or "Abt" when you're entering an approximate date.

If they are a parent, I make them 25 years older than their oldest child. If I know their spouse's birth year, I estimate they were born about the same year.

Since there can't be a source for my "About" dates, I don't need them in this report. I sorted the report by the Date of Birth column and removed every line where the date begins with "ABT" (for about). Now I'm down to about 114 lines in the spreadsheet. The Undocumented Facts report in Family Tree Maker produced a 45,000-line spreadsheet!

Diving into the New Unsourced Facts Report

The first few lines are for my young cousin-in-law. I have no sources for him, but later I'll see what I can find online.

I'd prefer to work on my 19th century Italian relatives first. The first one in the list is Lorenzo Capozza. In my family tree I see he was born in 1828 in my great grandmother's town of Pescolamazza. He married my 3rd great aunt, Nicolina Caruso, on 19 Apr 1856 in that town.

I must have been rushing along when I found this marriage fact. I didn't save the marriage record to my tree. I didn't chase down Lorenzo's birth date or parents. And I didn't add my sources. Bad genealogist!

Lorenzo was 28 years old when he married my aunt in 1856, so he should have been born in 1828. The marriage record says he was born in the same town, but something's wrong. I have all the town's available vital records on my computer. He isn't in the birth records for 1826 through 1829. I can keep searching each year's birth index, or I can go to the detailed records in the 1856 marriage documents.

Before I do that, the marriage record says Lorenzo's parents are Pietro Capozza and Maria Emanuele Pennuccia. I looked for them in my family tree.

One Man Makes His Mark

They're in there, along with their son Antonio, 5 grandchildren, 5 great grandchildren, and at least 12 2nd great grandchildren! I'd already pieced together a huge family for them from the vital records collection. But I never found Lorenzo.

Feel free to borrow this image.
Feel free to borrow this image.

But that's only part of the story. All the people related to Pietro Capozza and Maria Emanuele Pennuccia in my tree are UNRELATED to me. I've given them all my "No Relationship Established" graphic as a profile picture. (See How to Handle the Unrelated People in Your Family Tree.)

The moment I make Lorenzo the son of Pietro and Maria, all those people will be my relatives. The relationship is through Lorenzo's wife, my 3rd great aunt.

Why did I put this enormous unrelated family in my tree, you ask? It was an out-of-control case of mistaken identity! When my great grandparents married in 1906, a couple from her hometown were the witnesses. The male witness was Nicola Capozza—same last name as our Lorenzo. But he was from a different branch of the family.

I realized too late that all those descendants of Pietro and Maria were an unrelated family.

Until now.

With Lorenzo attached to his parents, all those people are now relatives. I have to remove the "No Relationship Established" graphic from each one. How tedious.

But I have a method I'd like to share with you.

This trick simplifies an error-prone task.
This trick simplifies an error-prone task.

Here's how I handle a big change like that. I have that graphic attached to a large number of people, so finding all the right people in a list wouldn't be easy. What I do is:

  • Click everyone in the family who needs the graphic removed, one at a time.
  • Change their last name to begin with a 1. Capozza becomes 1Capozza. That makes it easy to find the right people in the list of who's attached to that graphic.
  • Go to one person with that graphic and click to detach it.
  • This brings up a list of each person attached to the graphic. I can select everyone whose name begins with 1.
  • Once I remove the image, I rename everyone in my family tree whose name begins with a 1.

That may not seem like a big deal to you, but it's very helpful. I used to struggle with removing that graphic from the right person. A lot of the townspeople have identical names! I use a 1 so it's at the top of my index of all people—easy to find.

Now comes a much bigger challenge. All those new relatives need their vital records and sources!

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01 September 2020

Make the Most of Each Shiny Genealogy Object

I saw someone in an online genealogy group mention a book about building your family tree. The book said to research and build each of your 4 grandparents' lines one at a time. One at a time!

People in the group (including me) laughed at the idea. How do you choose where to start? How can you ignore information that falls into your lap about another grandparent?

I recommend a much less rigid approach. Genealogy is a hobby, not a requirement. If you're not having fun at it, you're doing it wrong.

When you start out, which branch to follow may depend on:

  • Which documents are available
  • Who's on your mind at the time
  • Whatever you find that interests you.

After you've made some progress, follow your heart. I spent years (about 2008–2012) researching my mom's father's ancestry. Back then, his town's vital records weren't online. Research meant spending countless hours, and a little money, viewing microfilm in a church somewhere.

Those records were the biggest and shiniest genealogy object I could imagine. I set out to learn every possible name in my grandfather's family tree.

Then the Italian vital records started coming online. I jumped into my dad's father's ancestry. Why him? My 2 grandfathers left Italy to come to New York. My grandmothers were born in New York to Italian immigrants. I wanted to know about the families left behind.

You may wonder if you should stick to a plan and ignore the latest shiny genealogy object. Genealogy isn't a race to the finish. Yes, you want to learn about all your ancestry. But you need to have fun, too. It's the fun and joy of new discoveries that'll keep you going.

So, what's the next place for you to focus your attention? It depends.

Many times I launch Family Tree Maker without knowing what I'm going to do that day. This weekend I decided to search for missing documents. I opened my Document tracker spreadsheet and looked at the Need to Find column. I wanted to find missing records for my relatives who never left Italy.

Then one thing led to another. I was going through the spreadsheet alphabetically. I noticed I'd never researched Concetta Basile's husband, Giambattista Martuccio. I found his name written in the column of Concetta's birth record with their marriage date. And that was all I had.

Giambattista became my shiny object. I found his birth record and learned his parents' names. I found his mother's birth record and discovered her parents were already in my family tree.

I found Giambattista's father's birth record, and his parents' marriage records. Giambattista's grandmother was an Iamarino, like me. I found his grandparent's birth records and their parents' marriage records. I wound up taking Giambattista's family back to the early 1700s. Giambattista Martuccio, who started the day as a name, is now my 3rd cousin 3 times removed. He now has a very full family tree. His wife Concetta is also my 3rd cousin 3 times removed.

Following a shiny object sometimes leads to real treasure. It did this time.
Following a shiny object sometimes leads to real treasure. It did this time.

That shiny object took up my whole afternoon. And it was totally worth it.

Strike a balance when you're playing with your family tree. Remember to keep things interesting. Here are some ideas that'll help you make progress and have fun:

  • Check your progress to see which part of your family tree is lagging behind. Give that branch a little attention.
  • Do any of your 4 main branches overlap? (My grandparents were 3rd cousins. My parents have a mystery DNA relationship.) Research that relationship.
  • Make the most of a new set of documents you find. I've been giving more attention to my overlooked ancestral towns lately. I also have an awesome book detailing Grandpa Iamarino's townspeople in the year 1742. You can't ignore these things!
  • Follow any leads you pick up from members of your family. I'm the one who found out exactly where my mom's mother's family came from. The family lore was a bit broad, but I built on it.
  • Plug in the holes you weren't able to plug before. There may be new document collections available to you that weren't there before.

With all these possible priorities, and more, each genealogy session can be a spur-of-the-moment adventure. If it's a dead end, don't get frustrated. Follow a new shiny object and see where it leads.

Genealogy is my escape. My happy place. Balance your research priorities and keep things unstructured. It can be your happy place, too.

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If you like the idea of discovering all your Italian ancestors but haven't got the time, let me do it. Read more at Italian Ancestry Services.