26 April 2022

Simple Tips for Understanding Italian Death Records

In a recent article I showed you how to read Italian birth records without speaking the language (See Simple Tips for Understanding Italian Birth Records.) In a nutshell, you only need to know which keywords to find, and the info you need will be there.

I suggested you bookmark FamilySearch's Italian Genealogical Word List. This is critical until you're comfortable translating numbers, months, and several keywords. Go to the Genealogical Words section of the page to learn keywords like:

  • anni—years, to show a person's age
  • anno—year, to show the date
  • figlio/figlia—son/daughter
  • marito—husband
  • matrimonio—marriage
  • mese—month
  • moglie—wife
  • morte—death
  • nata/nascita—birth
  • nome—name
  • sposo/sposa—spouse
  • vedovo/vedova—widow

Today let's take a look at Italian death records. As you saw with the birth records, these documents follow a certain format. Once you recognize the format, you can jump straight to the facts you want for your family tree.

Example 1: A Short Death Record

Knowing what to expect, and where to find it, will help you overcome bad handwriting and a foreign language.
Knowing what to expect, and where to find it, will help you overcome bad handwriting and a foreign language.

Our first example is an 1810 death record from Santa Paolina in the Italian province of Avellino.

First, find the date. The document will begin with the date on which the clerk wrote the information. That's not necessarily the date of death, but it will be very shortly after the death.

This document begins with the pre-printed words:

Oggi (today) che sono le (it is)

A handwritten number follows these words. It tells you the day of the month. This one says diciannove (19). It's followed by del mese (of the month), and a handwritten month: Gennaio (January). Next is the year written out in words. This one says dell'anno (of the year) mille (1,000) ottocento (800) dieci (10).

It also tells us the hour the clerk wrote the document, but that doesn't matter to your family tree, does it? This one says ad ore (at the hour) diciannove (19, or 7:00 p.m.).

All those words boil down to: 19 January 1810. That's all you need.

The next section has the names of two male witnesses who may or may not have anything to do with your family. You'll see a name (Tommaso Papa), age (anni settantacinque [75 years]), occupation (bracciale [laborer]), and where they live. Unless you see zio (uncle), avo (grandfather), or cugino (cousin), the witnesses are probably townspeople, not family members.

Second, look for the word morte (death). After the witnesses are the pre-printed words li quali hanno sottoscritta la dichiarazione della morte di (who signed the declaration of the death of). This means the witnesses are testifying about someone's death. Morte is the only word you must find. It's good to know the word dichiarazione or the variant dichiarato. Those words signal to you that the witnesses are declaring whatever follows.

After the word morte is the name of the deceased. The usual format is:

Name of the deceased, age, date and time of death, their parents, their spouse, and where they died.

In this case we see:

  • Maria Antonia Censullo (the person who died)
  • di giorni due (age 2 days)
  • morta nel suddetto giorno (died on the same day [as written above])
  • ad ore diciotto (at the 18th hour [6:00 p.m.])
  • figlia di (daughter of) Domenico and Angela deMarco (the parents)
  • domicilianti in detta Comune (living in this town)
  • ed abitanti la stessa strada (and living on the same street)

If we look above at the witnesses, the first lives on Strada Ponticello. The 2nd witness lives on la stessa strada (the same street). We can assume the Censullo family also lives on Strada Ponticello.

The rest of the document is boilerplate legal stuff. All you need from the entire page is this:

On 19 Jan 1810, Maria Antonia Censullo died in her home on Strada Ponticello at the age of 2 days. Her parents were Domenico Censullo and Angela deMarco.

I'm surprised to see this document does not mention the name of the town. This is an unusual oversight that I'd attribute to the date. This document dates back to less than one year after the town began keeping civil records.

Focus on the keyword morte to find the meat of this document.

Example 2: A Longer Pre-Printed Form

This type of death record makes it a lot easier to find those critical foreign keywords.
This type of death record makes it a lot easier to find those critical foreign keywords.

In later time periods you'll find death records with more pre-printed words. Pre-printed means easier to read. Here is an example from the same town in 1838.

As with all documents, this one begins with the date the clerk wrote it:

L'Anno mille ottocento trentotto (the year 1838) il di diciotto (the day 18) del mese di Marzo (of the month of March) alle ore sedici (at the 16th hour [4:00 p.m.]).

All you need to know is that it's 18 March 1838.

Next we see the name of the town. It says del Comune di (in the town of) San Paolina (actually Santa Paolina) Distretto di Avellino (in the province of Avellino).

After this we see the witnesses' names, ages, occupations, and that they live in the same town. Neither one appears to be a relative because there are no relationship words.

Next we can find the word dichiarato (declared) which leads us into the facts we want.

The witnesses declared that:

  • nel giorni diciasette (on the 17th day [the day before the clerk wrote this document])
  • del mese di Marzo (of the month of March)
  • anno mille ottocento trentotto (in the year 1838)
  • alle ore tre della notte (at 3:00)
  • é morta (died)

There's that word morte/morta, telling us that the facts about the death will follow.

So far we know when the death happened: 3:00 on 17 March 1838. Now let's find out who died.

The document says é morta nella propria casa. You will see this often. It means the person died in their own house.

The name of the deceased is Marina Giusti, and she has the abbreviated title Donna before her name. The word after her name is moglie (wife). She is the wife of Don Carlo Ciampi. After the large amount of white space we get more details.

Marina was 47 years old (di anni quarantesette). She was born in Napoli. Her profession was proprietaria (owner), and she lived in Santa Paolina. Find the word figlio (son) or figlia (daughter) to see who the deceased was the child of.

Marina was the daughter of Don Luca Giusti, an owner living in Napoli, and Donna Marzia Caso, also living in Napoli. (They've used the word ivi, meaning therein, and referring back to Napoli.)

Once again, the rest is boilerplate. All you need from the entire page is this:

Donna Marina Giusti, a 47-year-old owner, died on 17 March 1838 in Santa Paolina. She was born in Napoli to Don Luca Giusti and Donna Marzia Caso. She married Don Carlo Ciampi.

Example 3: A Completely Handwritten Death Record

A completely handwritten foreign death record shouldn't scare you. Just spot those keywords.
A completely handwritten foreign death record shouldn't scare you. Just spot those keywords.

In the 1870s in my ancestral hometowns, the death records were completely handwritten. There was no pre-printed information. Sure, it can seem overwhelming. But the truth is, you're still going to look for the keywords and skip over the parts that don't matter.

This example is the death record of my 1st cousin 6 times removed, Aganice Consolazio. Let's dissect it.

Each death record still begins with the date the clerk wrote the document. This one says:

L'anno mille ottocento settantatre (1873) il di quattordici (the 14th) Gennaio (January) in Santa Paolina, alle ore sedici (at the 16th hour, or 4:00 p.m.).

This document has a lot of formalities. We can skip down 6 lines to find the word comparsi (appeared) followed by details about the two witnesses.

After the witnesses, look for more words about the date. This will be the actual date of death. On this document we see del giorno quattordici del corrente mese di Gennario (the 14th day of the current month of January).

Now we know when they died. Let's see who died and where.

Right after the date of death we see in questo Comune di (in this town of) Santa Paolina. And there is a street/neighborhood address of Contrada Ponticelli. Immediately after that are the words é morta. That's our key to finding out who died.

Aganice Consolazio was sessantasette (67) years old, nubile (never married—that's a great bit of detail), living in Santa Paolina.

Then there's the keyword figlia (daughter). My cousin Aganice is the daughter of Federico Consolazio and Vincenza Ciampi. But we have another important clue before her parents' names. It says figlia dei furono, which tells us both her parents are already dead. If only her father were dead, it would say fu Federico, meaning that Federico is dead. But furono is plural, so both parents are dead. Fu means was, furono means they were. They are past tense now. They have died.

After Aganice's mother's name is the profession medico (doctor). While you might expect this to be Aganice's profession, it is masculine (medico), not feminine (medica). This profession belongs to her late father, my 5th great granduncle, Federigo Consolazio. Aganice's profession would be closer to her name. In this case, there is no profession; only the word nubile to tell us she never married.

The final sentence tells us the witnesses are analfabeti (illiterate). They made their testimony, but they cannot sign the document.

You'll find a lot of similarities among documents across many years. No matter the format, Italian death records will contain the same basic information. The only time you may need to ask for help is an extra paragraph is explaining something unusual.

Bookmark that FamilySearch word list, get used to the look of month and number words, and dive in. You absolutely can do this!

19 April 2022

Why and How to Harvest Draft Card Facts

I had a profound family tree breakthrough thanks to a WWII draft registration card. My grandmother and her sisters used to tell us the family came from Avellino. But Avellino is both a city and a province in Italy. Where did the family come from?

The answer came from an unexpected source. Grandma's uncle, born in 1877, was among the oldest men registered for U.S. military service in World War II. It's known as the Old Man's Registration. They weren't called to service, but the government wanted to be able to do so.

My great granduncle Semplicio's 1942 draft card put an end to the mystery of my family's origins. I was happy enough to have found a birth date for him. Then I saw the Place of Birth field on his registration card. It said "Tofo" along with the unusual addition of "Province Avilino."

"Avilino" is clearly a misspelling of the Avellino province I always knew he came from. But is "Tofo" a town? A quick look at Google Maps gave me the answer. The town is Tufo, Avellino. An answer at long last!

I went on to find Semplicio's Tufo birth record, along with that of an unknown brother who died as a child. Then I discovered I had much deeper roots in the neighboring town of Santa Paolina. Today I can tell you the names of my 7th great grandparents from that town.

You never know which standard genealogy document will be a complete game-changer.
You never know which standard genealogy document will be a complete game-changer.

Widen Your Search

Not every draft registration card will be this fruitful for your family tree. But the possibility of a breakthrough is always there. Don't stop your draft card search at your grandfathers and great grandfathers. You never know what you might learn from your great granduncles.

Here are the critical pieces of information you can hope to find on World War I and II U.S. draft registration cards.

1. Name. You may discover a full name you didn't know. His friends called Semplicio Sam, but his cards spell out Semplicio. One even gives his middle initial.

2. Place of Residence (or Permanent Home Address for WWI). Semplicio had a ton of kids and a wife who died young. His address changed often. During World War I, he's living in the building he co-owned with my great grandfather at 603 Morris Avenue. During World War II, after his wife died, he's living with his sister at 260 E. 151st Street. What a surprise it was to learn those 2 addresses are different entrances to the same building. I knew 603 as a commercial building and 260 as the house where my family lived.

3. Date of Birth. This may be your first sighting of a relative's birth date. Remember that your older relatives weren't always aware of their actual birth date. You may see variations. My grandfather Adamo's birth date on his WWII draft registration card gets the day and year wrong. Only the month is correct. And it says he's from Naples. He's not from Naples.

4. Name and Address of Person Who Will Always Know Your Address (or Nearest Relative for WWI). You may learn a spouse's name from this card. Semplicio's 1942 card proves he was living with his sister (my great grandmother). I can overlook the misspelling of her last name.

5. Employer's Name and Address (plus Occupation for WWI). Semplicio had no job in 1942, but I found a surprise on his WWI card. In 1918, he was a Special Patrolman for the City of New York at the 45th Precinct in the Bronx. Semplicio had many jobs over the years, but this one is the biggest surprise to me.

6. Description of Registrant. This is a terrific bonus for relatives you didn't know personally. Height, weight, color of eyes, hair, and complexion. Then there's the "obvious physical characteristics" section. Semplicio had an artificial left eye. I asked my mom if she thinks that's why she was so afraid of her great uncle as a little girl. She said, "I'm sure it was!"

7. Citizenship. The World War I draft registration card can tell you the citizenship status of your relative. One version asks, "Of what country are you a citizen?" Another version asks if they are a native born or naturalized U.S. citizen. If they're not a citizen, it asks if they are a declarant.

Plus, there's a signature!

Any one of these categories could prove to be a valuable lead for your family history research.

My great granduncle had a number of surprises for me in his draft registration cards.
My great granduncle had a number of surprises for me in his draft registration cards.

Know Who Not to Look For

If you haven't found your relative's draft registration card, they may not have fit into the age range. Here are the requirements:

  • World War I Draft (1917–1918): Born between 11 September 1872 and 12 September 1900.
  • World War II Draft (1940–1947): Born between 1896 (44 years old in 1940) and 1929 (18 years old in 1947).
  • World War II Old Man's Registration: Born between 28 April 1877 and 16 February 1897.

My great grandfather Giovanni, born in 1876, was too old for the Old Man's Registration. My grandfather Pietro, born in 1902, was too young for the World War I draft, although he wasn't in America yet. I did find him in the World War II Young Men's Draft at age 39. There was a big payoff on his registration card. It's the one-and-only known use of my grandmother's middle name, Gloria. At last I had confirmation of the mysterious middle initial G on their marriage register.

Be sure you don't waste your time (as I did) searching for someone who won't be there. But do gather up all the men in your family tree who fit the dates, and track down their draft registration cards. Let me know what surprises and treasures you find.

12 April 2022

Simple Tips for Understanding Italian Birth Records

Someone sends you a birth record for your ancestor. You can hardly wait to open it! And then it hits you. It's written in a foreign language.

Don't ever say "I can't read this language." You don't have to read the whole document. You have to pick out names and learn to decipher numbers written in longhand. You can do this!

Most birth records tell you several basic facts. The rest is formal boilerplate language. Do you care who the mayor was on that date? Or do you want to know the name and birth date of the baby and the parents' names and ages?

Here are the must-have genealogical facts on an old Italian birth record:

  • Date. The document begins with the date a father declares his baby's birth. The baby may have been born days earlier. I'll show you how to find that date.
  • Town and Province. These may be different than they are today.
  • Father's Facts. The key facts are the father's name, age, occupation, and address.
  • Mother's Facts. You'll find the mother's name, and it is her "maiden" name. Italian women keep their father's last name for life. You may or may not find her age and occupation.
  • Baby's Facts. You'll find the baby's full name, date, and hour of birth. You may also see the baptism date.

The "boilerplate" I mentioned above has non-critical facts:

  • The name of the sindaco (mayor) or other official.
  • Two male witnesses. Sometimes these men are relatives, so look for words like zio (uncle) or avo (grandfather).
  • Signatures or crosses. The father and witnesses must sign the record, but if they're illiterate, they'll make a cross. The clerk will write their names next to their marks.
  • The mayor's signature.

Let's dissect a few different types of Italian birth records so you know exactly where to look.

Example 1: A Short Birth Record

You don't have to know another language. You simply have to recognize a few keywords.
You don't have to know another language. You simply have to recognize a few keywords.

This 1812 birth record has very few pre-printed words on the page. The printed words help you find the handwritten facts you need.

#1 Get the Date and Town

The first line tells you the date the father declares the birth of the baby. It says:

L'anno milleottocento dodici a due del mesi di Gennaio
The year 1812 on the 2nd day of the month of January

All you need to know:

  • anno = year
  • mille = 1,000, ottocento = 800, dodici = 12, so 1812
  • due = 2
  • mesi = month
  • Gennaio = January

Bookmark this outstanding list of Italian genealogy words, including all-important numbers and months. https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Italian_Genealogical_Word_List

After the name of the sindaco (mayor), look for the words comune (town) and provincia (province). On this record we see names that changed over time. The town of Colle later became Colle Sannita. Its province was Molise, but now it's Benevento.

#2 Find the Father

Next, look for the printed word comparso (appeared). It's followed by the name of the person presenting the baby. It's usually the father, but it may be the levatrice (midwife) or avo/ava (grandparent).

In this case, it says comparso Giovanni Zeolla (the baby's father), di anni quaranta (40 years, or age 40), di professione contadino (profession farmer).

Next is the word domiciliato (domiciled or living in). Giovanni lives in questo comune (this town), followed by the street name (Strada li Tufi).

#3 Find the Date and Time of Birth

The next pre-printed words say, ed ha dichiarato (and he declares). What follows is the gist of what Giovanni has to declare: "on this date, at this time, a baby was born."

Here it says oggi (today) ad ore tredici (at the 13th hour, or 1 p.m.), a baby was born in Giovanni's home.

#4 Find the Mother

After the time and place of birth, we see who the baby was born to. It says: born to Maria Isabella Palmiero, sua moglie legittima (his legitimate wife), d'anni trenta (age 30), una femmina (female baby) che ci ha presentato (that he presents to us).

All that matters is: the mother of the baby girl is Maria Isabella Palmiero, age 30, Giovanni Zeolla's wife.

#5 Find the Baby's Name

No matter now many words may follow, find nome (name). This record says they give the baby the name Maria Vincenza.

Finally we have 2 witnesses (names, ages, occupations, addresses) and signatures or crosses.

To sum up:

  • find the date
  • get the father's facts
  • see when and where the baby was born
  • get the mother's facts
  • find the baby's name

I hope you've noticed that some words are very similar to their English equivalents. You could have guessed what professione, legittima, femmina, and presentato mean, right?

Example 2: A Longer Pre-Printed Form

Some birth records are more verbose. Find those keywords to get to the good parts.
Some birth records are more verbose. Find those keywords to get to the good parts.

This 1837 birth record contains a right column that tells you where and when they baptized the baby.

The left column contains a lot more pre-printed words than our first example, but it's the same drill.

  • It begins with a date (1837, 1st of January)
  • After the word comparso comes the father: Francesco Saverio Pilla, a contadino (farmer) who lives in this town
  • He presents a female baby who was born to Brigida Verzino, his wife, age 23
  • The father's age comes in the next sentence. After the word dichiarante (declarant) we find his age: anni ventitre (23 years)
  • The baby was born nel giorno primo (on the first day) del mesi di Gennaio (of the month of January) anno corrente (this year) alle ore dieci (at 10 a.m.)
  • The baby was born nella casa di propria abitazione (in the father's home) at Strada li Tufi
  • They name the baby Anna Maria Filomena

The baptism column of this type of record can be tricky. The format is, "On date #1 the parish states that on date #2 we recorded the fact that we baptized this baby on date #3." Yikes, right?

With this format, the date closest to the baby's name is the baptism date. If you see 3 different dates, remember, they can't record the baptism before they perform it.

Example 3: A Completely Handwritten Birth Record

A completely handwritten foreign-language birth record? You know the drill!
A completely handwritten foreign-language birth record? You know the drill!

This type of document may have seemed overwhelming before. But now you know how to pick out the facts you need.

Once again, this document begins with a date (1867, 19th of January). Find the word comparso, and there's the father, Vitangelo Pozzuto. I love this type of document because it names the baby's 2 grandfathers. It says Vitangelo Pozzuto di Pietro Giorgio. That means Vitangelo's father is Pietro Giorgio Pozzuto. We also know Pietro Giorgio is still alive (the word di tells us that).

Look for anni (years) to find the father's age and occupation. In this case we see anni trentotto (38 years old), contadino. Now look for words to tell you when the baby was born and its sex. Here we see the bambino di sesso maschile (male baby) was born on il giorno diciotto (the 18th day) at ore ventuno (the 21st hour, or 9 p.m.).

Now look for the mother's name. You may see the words lui moglie (his wife) before her name. Here we see Giovannangela Basilone fu Fedele. The word fu (as opposed to the word di) is very important. It tells us that Giovannangela's father Fedele Basilone is already dead. I would record his death date as Bef. 18 Jan 1867. Giovannangela is 38 years old and lives in the town at Contrada Piano. (A contrada is a neighborhood.)

Finally, look for nome (or nomi, in this case) to find the baby's name: Onofrio Antonio.

I chose this record because it has a priceless bonus in the column. On 20 October 1890 in the same town, Onofrio Antonio Pozzuto married (find the word matrimonio) Maddalena Zeolla. If you find Maddalena's birth record, it should have the same note. This confirms you've connected the right people—even if there is no marriage record.

I hope you see that you don't need to be able to read every word on a foreign-language birth record. All you need to find are some keywords (comparso, anni, moglie, femmina/maschile, nome) and proper names. And keep FamilySearch's Italian genealogy word list handy!

Focus on the keywords, and the handwriting itself will be the only thing to slow you down. Then, all you need to get over that hurdle is practice. Or as they say in Philadelphia, "We're talkin' practice!"

05 April 2022

Your Family Tree Checkup/Tune-up List

We've all heard our fellow genealogy fans say it. "I wish I'd written down sources when I first started my family tree." By now I hope we're all being more thoughtful about our family research as we do it.

When I find a new document for my family tree, I follow all the steps to make sure nothing slips through the cracks:

  • Crop or enhance the image if needed.
  • Save it using my preferred file-naming convention (LastnameFirstnameEventYear).
  • Add a title and source information to the image's file properties.
  • Drag it into my family tree and add the source citation to the new facts.
  • Put it in my to-be-filed folder so I can make my weekly backup copies before putting it in its proper folder.

But sometimes we can get too busy or distracted to do a perfect job. That's why we all need a checkup/tune-up list for our family tree.

Keep your family tree healthy with regular checkup/tune-up tasks.
Keep your family tree healthy with regular checkup/tune-up tasks.

Top Tune-up Tasks

Here are several items to review in your tree right now to see where you were going too fast for your own good.

In your desktop software:

  • DATES. Sort your index of individuals by birth date. Scroll to the bottom to see who's completely missing a year or an estimated year (see When to Use Estimates in Your Family Tree).
  • PLACES. View your list of places to see if anything looks wrong. Sometimes I press Ctrl+v to paste in a town, but I paste something else that I forgot I copied.
  • MEDIA. Check your media files for any uncategorized items. If you aren't using categories, they're a big help as your tree grows.
  • SOURCES. See if your list of source titles has unlinked citations at the bottom of the list. This week I found a very surprising 77 unlinked citations. I have to view them one at a time to figure out what happened. In some cases I need to attach the right source to a fact. In other cases, I need to delete the empty citation.
  • NAMES. The other day I found a man in my family tree named Innnocenzo with 3 Ns. If your list of people isn't too long, scan it for obvious typos.
Make it a routine to spot-check these aspects of your family tree.
Make it a routine to spot-check these aspects of your family tree.

In your online tree:

  • NAMES and DATES. Find the "list of all names" feature. On Ancestry.com you'll find it in the Tree Search panel. You may not be able to sort the list, but you can scan it for missing births, missing names, and typos. I found an "unknown" at the top of my list, but when I viewed the person in my desktop family tree, he had a name. It turns out I'd accidentally marked his name Private in Family Tree Maker. The only way I could have discovered this is with the online list of all names.
  • GEDCOM. Export the latest GEDCOM file for your tree so you can use Family Tree Analyzer to give it a proper review. FTA has wonderful error-finding features (see How to Work Out Errors in Your Family Tree).

In your folders:

  • LOOSE FILES. Everyone has their preferred way to store digital family tree files (see 3 Rules for Naming Digital Genealogy Documents). Some people store items by family name, and others use elaborate color-coding. My method is to have a folder for each major type of document, including:
    • census
    • certificates (vital records)
    • draft cards
    • immigration
    • naturalization, etc.
    Do you have any items waiting for you to file them away? I check my to-be-filed folder each Sunday morning before I do my computer backup.

    If you're a paper person, how's that pile of documents on your desk doing?

Use Safeguards

I moved to a new computer a couple of weeks ago and made some changes. I have access to 1 Terabyte of cloud storage on Microsoft OneDrive. All the files I keep on the cloud are also on my hard drive, and they synchronize automatically.

It gives me peace of mind to know all my family tree files uploaded to the cloud all the time. That means my old computer, which I plan to take along when I travel, will always have access to the latest files.

For more safety, I copy my newest files to two external hard drives each Sunday morning (see Quick and Easy Family Tree Backup Routine). It's a ritual.

Upgrade your backup plan to protect your family tree research.
Upgrade your backup plan to protect your family tree research.

Why go to all this trouble? Well, have you ever spent a marathon day adding new info to your family tree? Like a bunch of 1950 census pages? I have those marathon days at least 5 days a week. How would you like to lose your most productive day of genealogy research?

I hope you care enough about the tremendous work of art you're creating to give it all the attention it needs. It may sound like a pain in the neck, but when you make it a routine, it feels natural. And you'll see it's worth all the effort.