22 June 2021

Don't Believe Everything Your Ancestors Told You

When someone asks me to research their family tree, I pick out the key facts from what they've told me, and go to the available documents.

As an Italian-American, I know our ancestors "Americanized" their names to fit in. And I know many of us heard our ancestors came from Naples. It's my job as an Italian ancestry researcher to see past the changed names and look beyond Naples.

It was common for our immigrant ancestors to never speak of the old country. If your elders didn't mention their hometown by name, you likely don't know where they were born.

Genealogy documents hold the clues you need. Your ancestor's immigration record may name their hometown. If not, you can search for naturalization records. Also check World War I and II draft registration cards. While one of these may tell you only the country of birth, the other may have the exact town name.

I can plot ALL my ancestors on a thin strip of a souvenir map from Italy. It took a bunch of documents to make this happen.
I can plot ALL my ancestors on a thin strip of a souvenir map from Italy. It took a bunch of documents to make this happen.

But Where, Exactly?

My Sarracino and Saviano ancestors are a perfect example of using documents. My grandmother and her sister told me their family came from two places: Pastene and Avellino. When I began to research, those two specific places became a problem.

Looking at Google Maps, I found Pastena, which is what I thought I heard. And there was a big Sarracino family from the town. After adding the wrong family to my tree, I learned they were not my family. And when I looked for Avellino on the map, I found it was both a city and a province. Imagine if you knew your family was from New York, but you didn't know if that meant the city or the state. Big difference!

It was the documents that set things straight. I found the 1899 ship manifest for my Sarracino and Saviano great grandparents. The hometown written on the manifest was Sant'Angelo a Cupolo. Checking the map again, I found a hamlet within Sant'Angelo a Cupolo called Pastene. Pastena/Pastene—a one-letter difference. The two places are in different provinces, which makes a world of difference. They store the vital records for each province separately. And they're filed separately online.

Having solved the Pastene mystery, I didn't know where Avellino came into play. If both my great grandparents were from Pastene, who came from Avellino?

Another genealogy document to the rescue! My great granduncle's World War II draft registration card had the answer. They misspelled the town, but the map made it clear. He was born in Tufo, a small town in the province of Avellino.

I followed the document trail in Tufo and found a surprise. My 2nd great grandmother Colomba wasn't from Tufo. She was from the neighboring town of Santa Paolina. She and her father's ancestors all came from Santa Paolina. One more document, a death record for Colomba's mother, held another surprise. My 3rd great grandmother was from Apice, a town in the Benevento province.

Think about that for a moment. The oral history said my family was from Pastena and Avellino. The documents showed me this part of my family actually came from:

  • Pastene (part of Sant'Angelo a Cupolo in Benevento)
  • Santa Paolina in Avellino
  • Apice in Benevento.

You've got to follow the documents.

Grandma didn't lie. But your family's word-of-mouth history is a lot like a game of "telephone".
Grandma didn't lie. But your family's word-of-mouth history is a lot like a game of "telephone".

Two Proud Grandpas and One Strong Accent

Two of my ancestral hometowns were always a given. My two immigrant grandfathers were proud to say where they were born. I've known this all my life: one was from Baselice and the other was from Colle Sannita, both in Benevento.

There was only one more hometown I needed to identify. My Caruso great grandmother met my great grandfather in upstate New York. I didn't know where she was born. I connected with my Dad's first cousin June who grew up with her grandmother. She said my great grandmother was also proud of her hometown. With my great grandmother's Italian accent, the hometown sounded like Pisqualamazza.

First I checked the map. Pisqualamazza is not a town. Then I had an idea. I checked Ancestry.com for immigrants named Caruso. Yes, that's a common name. But I was searching for a hometown that looked something like Pisqualamazza.

It hit me like a thunderbolt. I found a Caruso from the town of Pescolamazza. I can totally understand how Pesco could sound like Pisqua. There was only one problem. Pescolamazza also isn't on the map.

A regular Google search for Pescolamazza explained it all. The name of the town evolved over the centuries:

  • Pesclum
  • Pesco
  • Piesco
  • Lo Pesco
  • Lo Pesco de la Macza
  • Pescolamazza
  • and in 1947: Pesco Sannita

At last I found my great grandmother's hometown: Pesco Sannita, also in Benevento.

You can't find your immigrant ancestor's birth record if you don't know their town. Use the documents you can find to pin down the town of birth. Identifying the towns and accessing their vital records is why my family tree has 30,000 people.

So, keep the oral history in mind, but follow the documents!

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Let Me Build Your Italian Family Tree

If you want to find all your Italian ancestors but you need help, let's talk! Find out more at Italian Ancestry Services.

15 June 2021

Tackling Several Genealogy Projects on the Fly

I have several genealogy projects I bounce between every day. But I'm always open to whatever comes my way. This week I helped 3 distant cousins with their family trees—for their benefit and mine.

Project 1: Italian Emigrants to Brazil

First there was a man from Brazil. He found my website that's devoted to my grandfather's hometown: Baselice, Benevento, Italy. He wrote to ask if I could help him discover more about his Italian heritage.

We started with his great grandfather Giuseppe. He was born in Baselice in 1887 to Antonio and Concetta. They left for Brazil the following year.

If I built this family for my Brazilian friend, I'd know why they disappeared from town.

I began by finding Giuseppe's birth record and seeing his parents' ages at the time. Then I found his father Antonio's 1860 birth record. Antonio's parents were already in my family tree. That meant that BOOM! I had 6 generations ready and waiting for my new friend.

The only problem was Giuseppe's mother, Concetta. The clerk wrote the wrong last name for her on his birth record. That made her a dead end. What could I do to discover her real name? The marriage records available for the town end around the year she was born.

To learn this missing name, I could check the birth record of every Concetta born in town at the right time. If I were lucky, the right record would mention who she married. But the birth records around 1860 rarely have a marriage notation in the column.

Luckily this couple had another child, and his birth record had Concetta's real last name. I found her birth record and discovered 5 generations of her ancestors waiting in my family tree.

Project 2: New-found Family Members

My ancestry is like strong espresso coffee. Very concentrated! Most of my people come from 5 neighboring towns. Because my family tree represents these towns so well, I get the same comment all the time. "Your tree keeps showing up in all my hints."

One woman who said that to me has been trying to discover her birth father through DNA matches. She kept matching people with names familiar to me. They were all from my other grandfather's town—Colle Sannita. (Find out how to Harvest Clues from Your DNA Matches.)

On Friday, she had a breakthrough. Instead of hard-to-place 3rd cousin matches, she finally got a very close cousin. Her new match is her birth father's nephew.

I soon found her birth father's uncle and ancestors were already in my family tree. The reason the uncle was there was pure serendipity. In 2018, I photographed lots of graves in Colle Sannita. When I got home, I searched the town's vital records to learn whose graves I had captured.

The birth father's uncle had married my 2nd cousin 4 times removed. Not only that, but her birth father's grandmother was my 4th cousin 3 times removed.

I built out the family with vital records from the town and U.S. census records. In the end, this friend (who is not on my DNA match list) is my 7th cousin.

Project 3: Tying Up Loose Ends

After working on those families, I found a 3-month-old email from a man I learned is my 6th cousin twice removed. He had given me a lead on one of his branches, and I knew I could expand that branch.

It was his grandfather's brother's wife I needed to explore. I found her birth record and discovered a connection. Her maternal grandmother was my 4th great grandmother.

So, the great uncle of my 6th cousin twice removed married my half-1st cousin 4 times removed. Only in genealogy, right?

Handle multiple projects without losing your place—or losing your mind.
Handle multiple projects without losing your place—or losing your mind.

What's the Trick?

The key to being able to shift gears and handle new projects is keeping notes. I have a text file that's always open on my computer. I keep notes on exactly where I am with my genealogy projects when I quit for the day. I made a note to add specific birth record images for my friend in Brazil. I made a note to add census records for my new 7th cousin. And I made a detailed note about where I left off with my own, very complex project.

I'm trying to add as many cousins as possible from one of my ancestral hometowns. Here's that note:

Working on children of Emanuele Ricciardelli and Giovanna Consolazio:

  • down to Samuele's son Ponziano Ricciardelli's son Ruggiero's children who married
  • but 1st look for kids of Marino Ricciardelli

I'd be so lost without that note. Set yourself up for success and pure luck. Keep notes so you can:

  • be ready to pounce on unexpected genealogy projects
  • jump back to your own project without missing a beat.
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Let Me Build Your Italian Family Tree

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08 June 2021

How to Find Your Exact Relationship to Any Cousin

I've recently identified hundreds of my cousins from Santa Paolina, Avellino, Italy. I found them in the town's thousands of 1809–1945 vital records. Now I want to find some living cousins.

To find descendants of the town, I turned to my Ancestry DNA matches. I like the different options they have for filtering your matches. A handful of last names from Santa Paolina are closely tied to me. I can filter my DNA matches to show only those with a specific last name in their family tree—even if it's a private tree.

Finding a Likely Cousin

I picked one of my family names from the town at random: Ricciardelli. Then I filtered my DNA match list to show only those with Ricciardelli in their family tree. I chose a DNA match who's in the 4th–6th cousin range for me.

I should tell you that my closest relative from this town is my 2nd great grandmother. I would not expect to find any very close DNA cousins—other than the cousins I grew up with.

I took a look at this 4th–6th cousin's family tree and found only one Ricciardelli. But there were quite a few positive things about her:

  • This Ricciardelli woman was born in 1879, which is well in range of the available vital records.
  • My DNA match knows the woman's exact birth date, making her easy to positively identify.
  • My match listed the woman's hometown as Alvelena, Italy. That doesn't exist, but I'll bet this was how her family heard "Avellino" get passed down through the years.
  • The woman died in the U.S., which means I can find immigration and census records for her family.
By pure coincidence, a family I worked on last week belongs to today's DNA match.
By pure coincidence, a family I worked on last week belongs to today's DNA match.

Following a Path to My DNA Match

My recent deep dive into Santa Paolina records taught me a lot. I know which names are common and how to spell them. It was obvious my match had Americanized the woman's first name. And she misspelled her middle name a bit. So I went right after this Ricciardelli woman, using her correct name.

I launched a search program on my PC called Everything. I typed in Maria Diamante Ricciardelli. There were two of them, both born to the same parents. The 1877 baby was actually Diamante Maria, while the 1879 baby was Maria Diamante. Surprisingly, there is no death record for the first baby. Were they purposely trying to mess with future genealogists?

I checked to see if Maria Diamante Ricciardelli's parents were in my family tree. They were! Her father Emanuele is my 1st cousin 5 times removed. His father Samuele is my 4th great uncle, and his father (also Emanuele) is my 5th great grandfather. I can take Maria Diamante back 4 generations to my 6th great grandfather, Saverio Ricciardelli, born about 1741.

Figuring Out Our True Relationship

Maria Diamante Ricciardelli is my 2nd cousin 4 times removed. I saw that when I put her name into Family Tree Maker. She appears to be the great grandmother of my DNA match. So, what does that make us to one another?

Trying to figure this out was worse than trying to split a bill seven ways at a restaurant. Without a calculator. I needed a chart to make it clear how I'm related to a descendant of a person with a known relationship to me. I've published a relationship calculator before. It has its purpose, but it wasn't exactly what I needed now. It doesn't tell me how I'm related to the great grandchild of my 2nd cousin 4 times removed.

I made a new chart you can download called Cousin Connection. I've highlighted all the "full cousin" relationships in green (1st cousin, 2nd cousin, 3rd cousin, etc.). NOTE: If you are unable to download the file, please let me know. I can add it to a different location.

Use this chart to take the guesswork out of distant cousin relationships.
Use this chart to take the guesswork out of distant cousin relationships.

How to Use the Chart

Maria Diamante Ricciardelli is a descendant of my 5th great grandparents. So I'll start at Column G, the 5th Great Grandparent column. She is 3 generations below my 5th great grandparents, so I'll go down the column 3 cells. This cell (G4) places Maria as the great grandchild (look to the left at Column A) of my 5th great grandparents. It says she is my 2nd cousin 4 times removed. So far, so good.

To see how my DNA match is my cousin, I'll move down Column G 3 more cells. That's how many generations below Maria she is (child, grandchild, great grandchild). That puts us at cell G7. That tells me she is my 5th cousin once removed.

Based on our amount of shared DNA, Ancestry DNA said we were in the 4th–6th cousin range. Now I can see exactly what to call our relationship, and it does fall in that range. We are 5th cousins once removed.

After I add Maria's birth record to my family tree and follow up with U.S. documents and facts, I'll write to this DNA match.

Telling her our exact relationship is much better than saying, "Your great grandmother's grandparents are my 5th great grandparents." Don't you agree?

I hope this chart will be a useful tool for calculating your relationships to cousins, too.

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Let Me Build Your Italian Family Tree

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01 June 2021

Why My Family Tree is Exploding in Size

This will anger some genealogists, but here goes. I added 500 people to my family tree in a couple of days. It was fun and easy. Here's how it works.

Examining the Documents

I made the entire collection of an Italian town's vital records searchable on my computer. I had already downloaded the town's documents to my computer. I put them in 386 folders—one for each year's birth records, marriage records, and death records, from 1809 to 1945.

Then I viewed every single document image to see who it belonged to. Each file comes with a name like 007859450_00687.jpg. This number helps me recreate the exact URL where anyone can find it for themselves. I use that URL in the source citation. So I kept the numbers, but I added the name of the person(s) in the document.

Why settle for only my 2nd great grandparents' 1871 marriage record when TONS of cousins are waiting for me in this collection?
Why settle for only my 2nd great grandparents' 1871 marriage record when TONS of cousins are waiting for me in this collection?

A lot of people in the town have the same name. So it's extremely helpful to include the name of the person's father in the file name. In Italian, di means of, and it's how they state the name of a person's father. "Vitantonio Egidio di Pasquale" means that Pasquale is the father of Vitantonio Egidio. It's also a handy shorthand for my file names:

  • 007859450_00688 Angelarosa Lombardo di Felice and Pasquale Musto di Carmine.jpg
  • 007859450_00689 Maria Spinelli di Francesco and Saverio Spinelli di Vincenzo.jpg
  • 007859450_00690 Angelo Raffaele Carpenito di Saverio and Paolina deGuglielmo di Antonio.jpg

Finding What's Missing

With all the files renamed, I can search for anyone. I use a free Windows program called Everything. Let's say I want to find all the children born to a particular man. I simply type his last name "di" his first name in quotes—"deGuglielmo di Antonio"—into Everything.

The cousins pile up fast when all their names are at your fingertips.
The cousins pile up fast when all their names are at your fingertips.

Santa Paolina, Avellino, Italy, is the hometown of my 2nd great grandmother and her paternal ancestors. Its population may have peaked at 2,487 in 1951. I want to identify as many Santa Paolina cousins as possible. This can help me connect to distant cousins around the world.

I've already found all my direct Santa Paolina ancestors. Now I'm going sideways. One generation at a time, I'm finding all the siblings of my direct ancestors. Who did they marry? Who were their spouses' ancestors? Who were their children, and who did their children marry? All the answers are in my renamed files.

Just the Facts

The only way I could add 500 cousins so quickly is by taking off the training wheels for a while. Normally I add vital records images to my family tree as I find them, along with a source citation. Right now, for this town, I'm adding only the names and facts and moving on.

There's no risk for me in skipping these important documents and sources. They're only a couple of clicks away. The vital records are easily searchable on my computer. I can find them again whenever I want. If a distant cousin finds my tree on Ancestry.com, I'll add the documents and sources for our mutual benefit.

I would not, and do not, do things this way with census records, ship manifests, or any record I find on Ancestry.com. I gather the document and create a source citation immediately. But the Italian vital records on my computer (and backed up in triplicate) are very easy to put my hands on again.

But right now, I'm owning my Santa Paolina heritage 100%. My grand aunt used to say the family was from Avellino. But she didn't know which town, or which ancestors. I'm so happy I discovered the answers. I'm running with it!

It's amazing to see how this process is working. I choose, let's say, a 3rd great uncle. I find out who he married and add her birth date and her parents' names. Then I find her parents' marriage so I can learn their parents' names. And I can look for their death records and learn their parents' names.

Coming back to that 3rd great uncle, I search for all the children he and his wife had. I search for his death, and his wife's. I search for the marriages and deaths of his children. I follow the children's children as far as the records will take me.

You can see how easy it would be to quickly add 500 people this way.

From what I've seen, the best way to connect to many DNA matches is to have their grandparents in your family tree. I will keep going, harvesting facts from Santa Paolina, and my other ancestral towns. And if anyone finds a hook into my tree? Well, they're going to be in for quite a shock.

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Let Me Build Your Italian Family Tree

If you want to find all your Italian ancestors but you need help, let's talk! Find out more at Italian Ancestry Services.