23 October 2020

4 Cornerstones of Genealogy Research

We all know the classic first rule of starting your family tree. "Start with yourself." Think back to your earliest genealogy research, and I'll bet you have a list of do's and don'ts.

I got interested in genealogy the year before my wedding. We were planning a honeymoon in Italy, and I had visions of finding distant cousins on my travels. (I didn't.) All I knew for sure was my grandfathers' hometowns, and that my maternal grandmother's family came from either Pastene or Avellino.

I filled a notebook with facts from ship manifests on the Ellis Island website. I pieced together families on squares of paper, laying them out on the floor. That looked stupid, I'm sure. So my husband bought me a 2002 version of Family Tree Maker software. It came with a basic subscription to Ancestry.com.

Now I had access to census sheets. They helped me piece together my grandmother's generation in New York City. I discovered Grandma's grandfather was my first immigrant ancestor. I finally learned his branch's town of origin from a ship manifest: Sant'Angelo a Cupolo. "Pastene," which I'd heard from my grandmother and great aunt, is a hamlet in the town of Sant'Angelo a Cupolo. Finally, I could find it on a map!

Learning the exact place of origin for Grandma's parents was so important. I realized it's a cornerstone to family tree building.

Cornerstone #1. Learn your ancestor's town of origin before going any further.

You see, I'd been going down the wrong path trying to find Grandma's Sarracino ancestors in Pastene. There's another town called Pastena (a one-letter difference) with a big Sarracino family. After adding the Pastena Sarracinos to my tree, I learned they were all the wrong family.

I struggled to find the hometown of my dad's maternal grandmother, too. A cousin-in-law who found me on a message board in 2006 knew my great grandmother. She often mentioned her town, calling it (phonetically) "pisqua-la-matzah."

Try finding that on a map! Here's how I figured it out. I searched Ancestry's immigration records for anyone named Caruso from a town that might be "pisqua-la-matzah." I found some from Pescolamazza. That's it! My great grandmother had to be from Pescolamazza. But it isn't on the map.

A quick search told me the town changed its name after World War II from Pescolamazza to Pesco Sannita. That is on the map, and it's a beautiful town. I've visited it twice.

The more research I did, the more record images I had piling up on my computer. That's when I realized the 2nd cornerstone of genealogy research.

Family tree research can get out of control in a hurry. Get organized now to lay a solid foundation.
Family tree research can get out of control in a hurry. Get organized now to lay a solid foundation.

Cornerstone #2. Follow logical and consistent document organization.

At first, I put every new document I found into one family tree folder on my computer. Rookie move. How would I know if a file with "1920" in its name was an ancestor's 1920 census or a 1920 ship manifest?

So I created sub-folders for each type of document I was collecting, including:

  • census forms
  • certificates (vital records)
  • draft cards
  • immigration
  • passports

Then I adopted a file-naming format that makes it easy to find everything I have for a person:

  • For census forms: LastnameFirstnameCensusYear. The name is the head of household.
  • For vital records: LastnameFirstnameEventYear. The Event is Birth, Marriage, or Death. Marriage documents get both the groom's and bride's names, like BiancoAntonioCarusoMariaMarriage1818.
  • For draft cards: LastnameFirstnameWW1 or WW2.
  • For ship manifests: LastnameFirstnameYear. I could have included Immigration before the year, but sometimes it's travel, not immigration. If multiple people are traveling, I use the name of the eldest or head of family.

This system works well for me. However, there were too many times when I downloaded a terrific new record, only to find out I had it already. I needed some sort of cheat sheet to keep from doing that again.

Cornerstone #3. Track what you have and what you need.

I created a document tracker spreadsheet. Each column is a different type of genealogy document. Each row is a different person. The last column lists the documents I still need to find for each person.

I think every nationality has the problem of too many people with the same name. I distinguish same-named people in my document tracker by including their father's name.

While I was cruising along, super organized, DNA came into the picture. We're all frustrated when a good DNA match has no family tree to view. But it's just as frustrating when their trees have no sources. They're completely unreliable.

I never want anyone to doubt my family tree. And that leads us to the final cornerstone of genealogy.

Cornerstone #4. Add sources or your family tree is worthless to others.

I support the facts in my family tree with detailed sources and links to the original documents. I'm on my way to having the best family tree on earth for my ancestral hometowns.

If you don't know your ancestor's hometown, ignore that family tree that seems so promising. If those people are from the wrong town, they're not your family.
If you don't know your ancestor's hometown, ignore that family tree that seems so promising. If those people are from the wrong town, they're not your family.

I had these 4 cornerstones in mind when I started this blog in January 2017. If you go back to the beginning, you'll see I outlined them in the first few articles. Each one comes from experience. It would have been better if I knew them from day one. And that's why I spend so much time on this blog. I want to encourage other genealogists, no matter where they are in their journey.

How solid is your family tree foundation?

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