29 March 2022

How to See Your Cousin Connections More Clearly

My 1st cousin Nick tested with AncestryDNA and appears in my match list as my 1st cousin. He's in my mother's match list as her nephew—exactly as expected. My mother and Nick's mother are sisters.

But Nick found someone very unexpected in his DNA match list. My dad! Hearing this, I checked Dad's match list. There was my maternal cousin Nick, listed as Dad's 5th–8th cousin.

How on earth is my maternal-side cousin connected to my dad other than by marriage? I know Nick's paternal grandmother Carmela came from the same town as my paternal grandfather. There must be some connection in the town of Colle Sannita.

This has been a mystery for a few years now. I've done extensive research on Nick's paternal family tree. But I never found a blood relationship to my dad. I couldn't catch a break in solving this mystery.

Until now.

Two weeks ago, the NYC Municipal Archives put their vital records collection online (see 'How to Make Your Own Genealogy Correspondence Database' for the link). The majority of my relatives in America lived in New York City. So I had plenty of documents to gather.

As I worked through my NYC relatives, one document held a big surprise for me. It was the 1927 death record of Raffaele Cocca. Raffaele is Nick's great grandfather—the father of his paternal grandmother Carmela.

This newly available NYC death record rewrote my cousin's ancestry.
This newly available NYC death record rewrote my cousin's ancestry.

The surprise on this death record was Raffaele's mother's name. I expected it to be Carmina, but it was Bellangela. We know death records can be unreliable because the informant may not know the right details. But I had to investigate.

I have all available vital records from Colle Sannita on my computer. I renamed the files to make them searchable (see 'Make Your Digital Genealogy Documents Searchable') by a person's name. Did I have a Bellangela Cocca in my records? I did, and she was the only person with this name. I had her marriage documents.

My mistake was instantly clear. It all came down to one wrong choice I made a long time ago. I had given Nick's grandmother Carmela the wrong father! Carmela's father (Nick's great grandfather) was not Giovanni Raffaele Cocca. He was Raffaele Luigi Cocca. That's who died in the Bronx in 1927. That's who was the son of Bellangela Cocca.

This correction completely altered the ancestry of Nick's grandmother Carmela. Could I find that mysterious DNA connection between Nick and Dad now?

Using the Relationship Calculator

One of my favorite features of Family Tree Maker is the Relationship Calculator tool. FTM shows the relationship of every person to the root person beneath their name. But sometimes there's more than one relationship. The Relationship Calculator spells out all possible relationships.

I used the calculator to see who had more than one relationship. I started with Nick and myself, but it showed only the expected 1st cousin relationship. Next I compared Nick's father to my father. Gasp! There were 2 relationships. It showed their brother-in-law relationship. But there was a 2nd, more complicated relationship.

FTM's Relationship Calculator, and especially the Relationship Chart, are crucial for understanding complex relationships.
FTM's Relationship Calculator, and especially the Relationship Chart, are crucial for understanding complex relationships.

Granted, this doesn't sound like the relationship I was hoping to find. Nick's father is the 1st cousin 3 times removed (1C3R) of the wife of my father's 3rd great uncle. Clear as mud.

When you see a crazy relationship like that, you need a visual. Click the "View Relationship Chart" button in the Relationship Calculator. The chart helped me follow the path from Dad to my uncle. It showed me that:

  • My father's 3rd great uncle was Onofrio diPaola, born in 1807.
  • Onofrio's wife was Donata Viola, born in 1815.
  • Donata's aunt, Carmina Serafina Marinaro, was the grandmother of Raffaele Luigi Cocca who died in 1927.

This still sounds like more of an in-law connection and not a blood relationship. But when I look at Onofrio and Donata in my family tree, things come into focus.

Onofrio is my 4th great uncle. And we've seen his wife Donata's relationship to Raffaele Luigi Cocca. That means Onofrio and Donata's children are cousins to Dad and me, and cousins to Nick and his father.

They illustrate the shared DNA that put Dad on Nick's match list. But they are not the answer.

Using Color-Coding to Visualize Connections

To visualize these family connections, I turned to Family Tree Maker's color-coding feature (see 'Using Color to Understand Your Family's Last Names'). I've been using colors to highlight my direct ancestors for a long time. I use four colors to tell me which of my grandparents is someone's descendant. I know that yellow=Pietro, magenta=Lucy, green=Adamo, and cyan=Mary.

I added a 5th color, orange, to Nick's father's (my uncle's) direct ancestors. Then I filtered my tree's index to show only my direct ancestors. I wanted to see if any of them now show orange. They do not.

Next, I made my way up to my uncle's earliest known ancestors from Colle Sannita. I color-coded all their descendants dark blue. No one—not a single one—was one of my direct ancestors.

What I did find was two blue or orange color-coded people who married a cousin of mine. One of these people was Donata Viola whose relationship I explained above. The other is Nick's 2nd great grandfather Giuseppe. His 1st wife was my 2C5R. But her children have no direct connection to my cousin Nick.

Then I noticed an unusual case: Maria Teresa Iacobaccio. She is a direct descendant of the same Marinaro ancestor as Donata Viola. She carries only the blue color-code, so she is not Nick's ancestor, but she is his 2C5R. Maria Teresa married the son of Nick's 4th great grandfather. All 6 of their children have the blue color-code, so they all have a connection to Nick's ancestors.

Here's the unusual part. Of Maria Teresa's 8 great grandparents:

  • 6 are my 7th great grandparents
  • 2 are Nick's 6th great grandparents

Without the color-coding, I may not have found this.

Some extra color-coding in FTM is the only way I was able to find the unusual case of Maria Teresa.
Some extra color-coding in FTM is the only way I was able to find the unusual case of Maria Teresa.

Maria Teresa is not THE missing link between Nick and Dad because she isn't either one's ancestor. But she is a textbook case of how a long family history in one town can turn our DNA into a stew (see 'The DNA Problem We Aren't Talking About').

Drawing a Conclusion and Making a Plan

I've wondered for years what sort of relationship Nick and Dad have. The answer is: distant. They are, after all, a 5th–8th cousin match. They share only 11 cM, or less than 1% of their DNA. So it always made sense that if they shared a common ancestor, that person might be from the 1600s or earlier. Without access to church records, I can't document that type of relationship.

But I can document relatives who might pass along some of the common ancestor's DNA. With deep roots in one town, countless Colle Sannita descendants share some amount of DNA. Families in that southern Italian town intermarried for centuries. One person in my family tree had 36 different relationships to Nick's grandmother. Every single one of them was an in-law connection.

The unusual case of Maria Teresa Iacobaccio is the best I can do for now—but I'm not finished trying. I've been working on my genealogy masterpiece to connect EVERYONE from Colle Sannita in one family tree (see 'Why My Family Tree is Exploding in Size'). I may find fresh facts that point to a closer relationship between Nick and Dad.

With new color-coding in place, the next unusual connection won't get lost in the shuffle. Can this type of highlighting help you spot hidden relationships?

22 March 2022

How to Make Your Own Genealogy Correspondence Database

One of my genealogy dreams came true on March 16, 2022. The New York City Municipal Archives put all their vital records online for free! I've visited the archives 3 times to view my family documents. I had to pay a small fee for a hard copy of the most important ones.

For years I've been making note of the document numbers for dozens of New York City records that were not online. Look for the numbers when you see the NYC vital records indexes in your Ancestry.com search results. Using those numbers, I've downloaded 88 vital records so far.

A New Family Tree Research Tool

And that brings me to today's topic. I downloaded documents for relatives who I knew were part of a conversation I'd had with someone in the past. It may have been someone who emailed me or who contacted me on Ancestry. But who was it? How can I share this important document with them?

I knew it was time for yet another spreadsheet!

Two years ago, Ancestry was rolling out an update to its messaging system. People who already had the new system didn't like it. So I began copying my earliest conversations into a Word document. The idea was to make all my conversations easily searchable. I hadn't finished copying when the new messaging format arrived.

This database is a simple way to find out who wrote to you about which branch of the family tree.
This database is a simple way to find out who wrote to you about which branch of the family tree.

This time I'll make things simpler. Instead of copying entire conversations, I'll categorize the messages in a spreadsheet. I'm calling mine "genealogy-correspondence.xlsx." My spreadsheet has 6 column headings:

  • Surname—the main last name(s) we were discussing
  • Town—this helps me keep our possible connection straight
  • Correspondent—their name, email address
  • Date—when the conversation began
  • Facts—important facts to help identify who we're talking about
  • Platform—where the conversation took place

Building and Using the Database

Whenever I launch a new genealogy practice like this, I don't let the size of the task overwhelm me. I'll start by adding my most recent Ancestry conversations. Then I'll look for ones I need—like the person who wrote to me about a cousin who died when her stove caught fire. (I have her death certificate now.) Then I'll add more and more whenever I have time.

The beauty of this database is you won't lose track of old connections that your family tree needs today. I'm sure as you review your messages, you'll find forgotten connections you made long ago.

When I found this death record, I knew I had to share it with the person who remembers this story. But who was that?
When I found this death record, I knew I had to share it with the person who remembers this story. But who was that?

Can you remember all the genealogy conversations you've had with potential relatives? I can't! I know you'll rediscover a lot of forgotten clues as you build your database.

And the best thing about this spreadsheet is you can sort by any column and search for every mention of a name or place. The next time you find something that makes you wonder who else should know about it, check your correspondence database.

My focus with this genealogy blog is on applying business practices to genealogy. That type of discipline pays off for me every single day. This is bound to be one more tool that will be indispensable to us all.

15 March 2022

Without Vital Records, What Can You Do?

Last week I told someone we can't expand her family tree. She knows a lot about the relatives born in the 1890s, but their mother will remain a mystery for one reason. The vital records for her town are not available.

To discover your Italian ancestors, you must know exactly where they were born. Only then can you check which birth, marriage, and death records are online. In this woman's case, we know the town, but almost no records have survived.

Missing Records Create Bricks Walls

I have a similar situation with my Grandma Mary's ancestors. I discovered exactly where they came from. It's a section of the town of Sant'Angelo a Cupolo called Pastene. Pastene is very small, and there are a lot of vital records available. The problem is, there are no records before 1861.

A few years ago I hired a pair of researchers based in Naples, Italy, to take a ride to Pastene. I last visited the town in 2018, but I found the church doors locked. I'm not sure how far I would have gotten even if I had made it inside. I asked the Italian researchers to give it a try.

They found a surprising lack of records. They said the town didn't keep pre-1861 records. Even the church records were scarce. The researchers did find a few scraps that helped my family tree. I was able to take Grandma's paternal line back 4 generations beyond her father. The paternal line of the Sarracino family goes back to the 1740s in my tree. I wish all her branches went that far!

This unexpected find proves exactly where my ancestors lived. I can walk right up and see their houses on my next visit.
This unexpected find proves exactly where my ancestors lived. I can walk right up and see their houses on my next visit.

About 2 years later—and 2 years after my latest visit to Italy—I found a very interesting map online. This 1825 map of Pastene contains numbered tracts of land and houses. It highlights only 3 specific areas by name:

  • the center of town containing the church and the piazza, labelled Pastene
  • a cluster of houses labelled Saraceni
  • a much smaller group of houses labelled Molli

I don't know why the map only calls out the names Saraceni and Molli. But I felt sure they referred to my Sarracino and Muollo ancestors.

What Other Documents Exist?

Now I have proof that I was right. While revisiting one of my genealogy bookmarks, I found the website with the Pastene map I'd found. I decided to explore the rest of the site to see what might be useful to me. To my surprise, I found a census of Sant'Angelo a Cupolo, including Pastene. I recognized all the last names on the pages.

My Italian historian friend explained this was part of a census of the entire Papal State. On the last page of the 60-page census of Sant'Angelo a Cupolo is the date 23 July 1825. The map has a long inscription with the exact same date. Clearly the map and the census go together.

As I paged through the census, I found quite a few families named Saracino. Each listing is nothing more than a person's name, their father's name, and a house or property number. I'm convinced one entry (Domenico Saracino, son of Giovanni) is my 4th great grandfather. The census tells me he lived in house 209 and/or 222. On the map, 209 and 222 are in the Saraceni cluster of houses.

My ancestors' town is small enough for me to believe I found their home in 1825!
My ancestors' town is small enough for me to believe I found their home in 1825!

Pastene is a one-road town. The Saraceni section of the map is at a noticeable bend in the road. That bend helped me find it on Google Maps and go in for a closer look.

Now I know exactly where to walk on my next visit there.

I'm at a dead end with Grandma's family due to a lack of records. At least now I may know why. Pastene ignored Napoleon's decree to document their people because it was church property. They started keeping records in 1861 because that year they belonged to the state.

The town's website says, the Church passed ownership of the town to the Kingdom of Italy in September 1860. My Pastene became part of the newly established Province of Benevento in 1861. And then the record keeping began.

Knowing exactly where my ancestors lived, down to the house numbers, is wonderful. I can't trace them back any further, but I can walk among their homes. That's my consolation prize.

I'll continue to explore the 1825 census for more clues. What unexpected historical documents might you find for your town?

08 March 2022

How DNA Can Help Find Your Ancestral Hometown

Some people think seeing your DNA pie chart is a waste of time and money. When I saw my first DNA results in 2012, I'll admit, I was very disappointed. But in 10 years, the number of DNA testers and the technology used for analysis have grown.

AncestryDNA updated their DNA Communities recently. I checked the results for my parents, my husband, and me. My first thought was, "Yeah, you got that right." The communities matched exactly what I know based on the paper trail.

It's amazing to see how specific our results are as compared to 10 years ago.

Mom and I have the South Benevento & North Avellino Provinces community. That's exactly how I always describe where our ancestors came from. When I zoom into our communities on AncestryDNA, the locations of my direct ancestors begin to pop up. They form a corridor that stretches from northern Avellino up through southern Benevento. That's the cradle of my genetic matter right there.

The updated AncestryDNA communities are too accurate to ignore.
The updated AncestryDNA communities are too accurate to ignore.

This is all very nice to see. Only later did the true value of these communities hit me. What if you don't know exactly where your people came from? What if family lore tells you nothing more than a country of origin? I know that's true for so many descendants of immigrants. What if that country's borders have changed over time? How can you get anywhere in your family tree research on such slim information?

One answer is your DNA Communities. AncestryDNA compares your DNA results to those of millions of other test-takers. They form clusters of people based on your matches and your matches' matches. If your DNA matches have identified their ancestral hometowns, or if they match the population there today, it becomes clear. Your people must have come from the same area.

My husband's updated community is also very accurate. His test results have always said nothing more than 100% Japanese. That's awesome in itself, to be 100% of anything.

But his new community has the names of 5 cities, and the first 2 happen to be exactly where his family came from. His dad's side is from Hiroshima, and his mom's side is from Yamaguchi. I can verify this with his ancestors' immigration records. It's amazing that all his history, from 300 years ago to his grandparents, rests in a small slice of Japan.

And my family history is very similar. Civil records put my ancestors in that thin corridor of southern Italy since the late 1600s. Church records show my maiden name existed in my Grandpa's hometown since at least the 1400s.

Let Your Communities Narrow Your Search

Let's say your ancestor emigrated too early for their hometown to appear on a ship manifest. And you can't find any other record for them that states a specific town of birth. Check your DNA Communities! One of them may narrow down your search to a handful of towns.

In many countries, you must know your ancestor's town of birth or you may never find their records. If you can narrow down your search to a short list of towns, you may find your ancestor faster.

If I didn't already know my ancestral hometowns, these results would have pointed the way.
If I didn't already know my ancestral hometowns, these results would have pointed the way.

I checked my DNA results on MyHeritage, and they have what they call Genetic Groups. I have far less confidence in these groups. They're not very specific, and they include Ohio because my dad and his cousins were born there. His family had only recently moved there. My Ohio roots are very shallow.

My 2 other Genetic Groups are better than Ohio, but nowhere near as specific as AncestryDNA. They are Italy (Bari) and Italy (Campania). I know my roots are 100% in Campania, but that's an entire region of the country. That wouldn't help me find my ancestors. MyHeritage has a "Low" confidence level that I'm even from Campania!

My 23 and Me results are way off in so many ways. What they tell me would be of no use whatsoever in helping me find my ancestors. But I didn't buy their test kit. I don't know if the results would be more specific if I had.

Have you tested with AncestryDNA? Do you still have some mysteries about your places of origin? Check out your updated communities! You can even see which of your DNA matches belong in the same communities. If you haven't found your town of origin, maybe one of your closest matches has.

01 March 2022

Using Obituaries to Find Missing Cousins

I can never find obituaries for my ancestors. No marriage notices, no social events, nothing! Even so, when Newspapers.com had a membership sale, I signed up so I could do research for others.

But first I remembered an event in my life I wanted to look up. Of course the right local newspaper isn't available on Newspapers.com. I was off to a terrific start! Switching gears, I started looking for U.S. obituaries of anyone who came from my Grandpa's town in Italy. I did that by searching for his exact town name.

When names won't work, try an obituary search for your ancestral hometowns.
When names won't work, try an obituary search for your ancestral hometowns.

You know how genealogists joke about their love of cemeteries? Well, this ghoulish game is perfect for us. The idea is to see if you can take a total stranger's obituary and find their place in your family tree.

After a couple of misses I found Mary. She was born in Colle Sannita in 1880 and died in Pennsylvania in 1970. Her obituary includes both her parents' names. It also says her husband Tony (also from Colle Sannita) had died only 3 weeks earlier. Of course I looked up his obituary, too.

Now comes the challenge. Could I fit this couple—both completely unknown to me—into my family tree?

I started with Mary whose maiden name they misspelled in the obituary. I knew it was wrong because I know the names from Grandpa's town like the back of my hand. I searched my collection of the town's vital records and found her birth record. I soon realized she was already in my tree with a complex in-law type of relationship to me. I even had her husband Tony's name in my tree based on 2 things:

  • their son's 1914 birth record from the town, and
  • a marriage notation in the column of her birth record.

Mary's Italian birth record had Tony's full name written in the column. I'd expected to find his birth record with her name on it. But there was no record for any Tony with Mary's name on it. So he's been a dead end for some time.

To figure out which birth record was his, I searched for the parents mentioned in his 1970 obituary. I had to be careful that I had exactly the right parents in this town where names repeat a LOT. So I searched for all the children born to a couple with the right names, Damiano and Maddalena. Finally I found a child born at a time when the birth records were far more detailed. This one record included the names of Damiano and Maddalena's fathers. That was the clue I needed to be sure I'd truly found the right couple.

I had no idea what became of the 1880s–1890s babies in my family tree.
I had no idea what became of the 1880s–1890s babies in my family tree.

In the end, Tony became my 5th cousin 3 times removed. He was a dead end until I happened upon his wife's obituary. Now he's a distant cousin who shares my 7th great grandparents. Recently, I've been using the earliest records from Grandpa's town to fit more families together. But when I get to the later documents, many people will become dead ends for me. I can't know who left for another country or who they married.

A targeted search for your ancestor's town may tie together lots of loose ends in your family tree. For me, this is a great tool for discovering who left Italy, who they married, and what kind of life they lived.

Don't have access to a website like Newspapers.com? Prepare yourself to play this game the next time they offer a free weekend. Maybe this Memorial Day!