28 December 2021

Create an Ancestor Profile from Vital Records

How much can you ever know about your peasant ancestors? I spend all my time reading 19th-century vital records from a handful of rural Italian towns. Most records contain X's instead of signatures because almost everyone was illiterate.

In places like these, you can't expect to find your ancestors in the local society pages. No one could read, so there wouldn't be a need for such newspaper coverage. All you have are birth, marriage, and death records. Well, almost.

You can find some general local history about your ancestral towns. Last week I wrote about using Google Books to learn more about the places where your ancestors lived. You may find a good reference book in a library, too.

Without published stories, what can you learn about your family from vital records and a book or two? Here are examples from my extended family tree.

Successful Man Suffers Many Losses

When you find every available vital record for a family in your tree, you'll begin to see a snapshot of their lives.
When you find every available vital record for a family in your tree, you'll begin to see a snapshot of their lives.

Nicolangelo Nista was born in 1788 in my ancestral hometown of Colle Sannita, Italy. Piecing together the vital records for his immediate family, I discovered:

  • His first wife and two of their daughters died on August 2, August 7, and August 9, 1834. The dates make it reasonable to think a sickness was going through the town at the time. That year saw many more deaths than the surrounding years.
  • Four of his other children had already died before 1834.
  • His wife's death left Nicolangelo with six children to raise, ranging in age from 18 to two years old.
  • He married a younger widow the following year.
  • They had four children together, two of whom died in infancy.
  • His sister Nicolina was luckier in life, despite dying at the age of 46. She had at least two children who grew up, married, raised a family, and outlived her.
  • His brother Giovanni became a priest and lived to be 78 years old.
  • Nicolangelo lived to be more than 72 years old. The available death records for the town end in 1860, and Nicolangelo was still alive.
  • He was a proprietario—an owner of property or a business. Despite his losses, Nicolangelo is likely to have lived a comfortable life.

Earthquake Hits Home

The same town of Colle Sannita has suffered several earthquakes. The 1962 earthquake damaged my grandfather's childhood home so badly, they had to demolish it. On my second visit to Grandpa's town, my cousins showed me the stone front doorstep. It was all that remained of his home.

I have a list of the 40 victims of an earthquake in Colle Sannita way back on 26 July 1805. Civil records for the town begin in 1809, yet I've managed to place a few of the victims in my family tree. One of them was my 38-year-old 5th great grandaunt, Libera Nigro.

See how one piece of local history from your ancestral hometown can add very real context to your family tree.
See how one piece of local history from your ancestral hometown can add very real context to your family tree.

Libera and her husband Giovanni had three daughters that I've found. Sadly, Libera and two of her daughters, ages four and five, died in the 1805 earthquake. Without that list of victims, I would have no record of little Grazia and Anna Maria, my 1st cousins 6 times removed.

Suffering and Serendipity

I love to put entire families together from my ancestral hometowns. In doing so, I often see cases of several children dying young in the same family. It's so sad to see a couple name their baby Giuseppe, for example, only to have him die so soon. They name the next son Giuseppe, and he dies young. Then they name the next one Giuseppe. Each time I see this happen, I say, "That's a doomed name for them."

It also makes me sad to see a husband and wife die on the same day or a few days apart. These death records don't include a cause of death, but we may assume they died of the same cause. Maybe they both caught the flu or had some sort of accident.

One thing I noticed years ago always makes me laugh. You see, most of the old-country Italians in my family tree were poor. They usually gave their children one or two first names. For example, my 5th great grandparents named one son Angelo, and the other Tommaso Antonio.

Sometimes I find a well-to-do family. What's funny is that these richer families often give their children four or five first names. One such family named their children:

  • Angela Maria Lorenza
  • Maria Luisa Barbara Margarita
  • Maria Amalia Carmela Camilla
  • Domenico Maria (he got short-changed)
  • Francesco Saverio Gaetano Achille
  • Carolina Maria Vincenza
Pay attention to each detail from vital records. You may find common patterns like this.
Pay attention to each detail from vital records. You may find common patterns like this.

Their father had the honorary titles of Don and Baron. At different times his occupation was landowner (proprietario), gentleman (galantuomo), or well-to-do (benestante). I always joke that these families were rich enough to afford more names for their babies.

The keys to developing a profile from vital records are:

  • Find every available vital record for the immediate family.
  • Notice the timing of events.
  • Search for historical points of interest, like earthquakes, famine, disease, and war.

What stands out about your ancestors' vital records?


  1. I have seen a lot of infant mortality in my tree that is indescribably sad. I read that the parents did not name the new baby after the deceased baby. Allegedly the family did not want to lose the name itself. The hope was the name would be passed on to a future generation thus preserving the customary Italian naming scheme.

  2. I was so sad to find death records for siblings of my partner's grandmother that no one knew about because they're not on the headstone. One was Angelo and another was Angelina. His great grandparents really wanted to use that name, but sadly the babies became angels too soon.

  3. What a great idea, using records generated by events (such as the earthquake) to find family records. It makes me wonder about the possibility of finding our family members in hurricane records. I almost lost my husband and oldest son during Hurricane Hugo back in 1989. The ferocious storm caused my husband to have an accident. Also, in my daddy's family, back in I think 1760, part of his family were victims of the Long Cane Massacre in South Carolina. That particular event is decently documented. Thanks for the idea!

    My mother didn't give me and my sister middle names. She figured that when we got married, then we'd have three names. A practical thought, but very annoying to me. I got teased mercilessly. Everyone was sure that I had a horrible middle name and was too embarrassed to share it. I made up for it with our surviving girls. Even though we are nowhere near well-to-do, they have three names each plus the surname. :)

    Barbara Grace is the cursed name in our family. David's paternal grandma's first baby was born at the hospital. Due to questionable practices, the hospital caused the death of that baby at 3 days old. Her name was Barbara Grace. She went on to have 3 more children and birthed them at home and they lived to adulthood (the 2nd daughter is still living). Her youngest son named his daughter Barbara Grace. She has had health issues her whole life (diabetes and I'm not sure what else). I wanted to honor David's aunt and call one of our babies Gracie. Our "Gracie" was stillborn. Though I had planned while I was pregnant to name her Barbara Grace, when she was stillborn, I couldn't do it. I named her Dorian Lee. Our next surviving daughter has Leigh for one of her middle names, in honor of her sister.

    In regards to husbands and wives dying on the same day, I discovered a very sad event while researching a few days ago. The bride and groom left the church in their car, with their families following behind them. The newlyweds were killed in an accident barely 15 minutes after they were wed, with their families seeing it all as it happened. They were in their early 20s, just starting out in life. So very sad.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. Have a blessed day and a happy New Year, DiAnn. :)

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Suzanne. My sister and I have no middle name, and unusual spellings for our first names. I made sure my sons have middle names, both honoring family members. My husband's first cousin and his son were in a car following his wife and their daughter. She got in a fatal crash, and he witnessed the death of his wife and daughter. I discovered this from the death records of the wife and daughter, and my husband told me the story. Heartbreaking.

    2. You're welcome, DiAnn. I am so sorry to hear that happened in your husband's family. That is so very sad.

      Our 2 surviving sons have middle names, too. Our oldest son is named after my maternal grandma's daddy. Our youngest son is named after my husband. He was going to be named after my husband's dad, but I was threatened with harm if I did, by someone who had already used my late FIL's name for her own son. Looking back, I wish I had stood my ground.

      My daddy wanted to name me after his paternal grandma Annie and her sister Susie, so Susie Annie. My mother combined the names to be Suzanne. For years, I was thankful she had intervened. At this point in my life, though, I wish that Daddy had won that one. I sometimes go by the name Annie or Anne. :)

      Was your mom's reasoning for no middle name the same as my mother's? I like the spelling of your name. I love different/unusual names. Our youngest daughter's legal name is Maeghan (we call her Maggie). My husband has been argued with about the spelling of her name. They have even gone so far as to tell him that her name isn't spelled that way, that it is spelled "Megan". Nope, not so. She is named after my great-aunt Mae and my grandma, who was her youngest sister. Our then 4-yr old son chose one of the middle names for their other sister: Shalayna. We have no clue where he heard that name, but I loved it and used it. Names are fun and so are the stories behind them.

      Sorry that I can't seem to respond without writing a book. My comments seem to be longer than my own blog posts. haha

    3. My brother has a middle name, Peter, which made my grandfather Pietro extremely angry. He wanted my brother's first name to be Peter. Instead of that, my parents named my bro after my uncle who died in WWII.

      My sister and I each have a capital Ann in our name, so my mother counted that as a middle name. For a while I wrote my name Di Ann with a space, but that resulted in mail sent to DiAnn Ann Iamarino, so I stopped that.

  4. I have no middle name and never thought to ask my parents why? Given name is Marianna ...... came home from the hospital as Mimi and stayed Mimi until Medicare made my name Marianna.... My sister who was named from my dad's side of the family was Catrina Van Benscoten Grace came home from hospital as Trina and died before Medicare could do their thing.