22 December 2020

Your Ancestor's Location is Critically Important

Q: What's a top reason why people mistakenly put OUR relatives in THEIR family trees?

A: They're not looking at a map.

The first time I saw this happen, someone put my grandfather in her family tree. She took him and gave him different parents, different siblings, and a different wife. MY grandfather! It's not as if his last name was so uncommon that he must belong in her tree. You can find the name Leone in every part of Italy.

You owe it to your genealogy research to learn about:

  • the place where your ancestors lived, and
  • what was happening when they lived there.

Take a look at Germany, Poland, and Prussia in the first half of the 20th century. The borders kept moving. Which country was it when your ancestor was born?

Carefully consider the location when reviewing a promising family tree search result.
Carefully consider the location when reviewing a promising family tree search result.

Research shows that my Italian ancestors barely moved an inch until the 1890s. Remember that woman who stole my grandfather? If she had looked at a map, she would have seen that he was born hours away from his incorrect parents and siblings.

He's not your man, my friend.

Now, I have seen some people from my ancestral hometowns move—to the next town. If a young man met and agreed to marry a young woman from a town or two away, one of them had to move.

It was common for the couple to marry in the bride's town. That's where you should look for the marriage records. But they often lived and raised a family in the groom's town. That's because he was more likely to inherit land and a home.

Check to see if your ancestral town's marriage records include marriage banns. Those are a public notice of the intention to marry. If so, look at the banns in the groom's town. These documents may tell you where the bride comes from, if you don't know. In all the Italian marriage records I've seen, the banns do not have their own index, so you have to page through them. Only the actual marriage records have an index.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. In 1840 when my 3rd great grandfather married my 3rd great grandmother, he moved to her town. But check the map! His town borders her town. They may have lived a short walk apart.

Don't expect your early ancestors to move hours away for the birth of one baby, then go home for the birth of the next. Keep in mind that transportation at the time may have been a mule and a cart. And great grandpa wasn't getting a corporate job transfer.

How times have changed! My parents are from the Bronx, New York, but my dad was born in Ohio. Their first 2 kids were born in Virginia. Then I was born in New York City but spent no more than 6 months of my life there, and not all at once. My family's many moves would shock and dismay our ancestors.

My ancestors stayed close to home. How close to home? Everyone from my 1st to my 8th great grandparents lived and died in neighboring towns. My roots are all from the "Sannio" area of the Campania region of Italy. Many of my family names are still found in the same towns.

Which of these tools will work best for finding your ancestors on the map?
Which of these tools will work best for finding your ancestors on the map?

That brings me to a set of tools I want to share with you. I consult the Cognomix website all the time. I enter an Italian last name in the search box, and I can see every region, province, and town where that name is found. Not only that—it tells how many families with that name you can find in each region, province, and town.

Here are a handful of tools that show last name distribution in different countries:

If you find a search result that looks promising, look up that person's town on Google Maps or whatever you use. Is the town anywhere near the place where your ancestors lived? Was anything happening at that time in history that might have caused your family to move? Was there an earthquake or epidemic?

If your family stayed put for generations, and this search result lived hours away, keep searching. He's not your man.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic advice! I use maps extensively in my research to help me determine if I have the correct family. There are definitely examples of people moving about, but I make sure to trace them properly. I love old maps and surname distribution charts. So useful!

    All that said, one of my lines had been in the same basic place for a very long time, then all the children but one moved to London. Because they did so after England started taking censuses, I was able to trace all of them because they gave the name of their home village on their returns. And, in many cases, more than one sibling was living in the same household.