24 May 2022

Look Past the Misspellings to Find Your Ancestors

My second grade teacher taught us to read by making us "sound it out." I remember my class sounding out a sentence in one voice. "We went to the park" sounded like: wuh ee, we; wuh en t, went; tuh oo, to; thuh uh, the; puh arr k, park." It sounded weird, but it worked.

That lesson from too many decades ago helped me break down a family tree brick wall last week.

There's an Italian-American woman who wants to visit her ancestral hometowns. She wants to identify her ancestors so she might connect with people in the towns. One branch of her tree was giving me problems. I couldn't be sure where this particular husband and wife came from, and my searches were coming up empty.

Then she shared a family history that her ancestor wrote about this brick wall branch. The document had exact birth dates for the couple. It listed 2 or 3 hometowns for both the husband and wife. That was curious. Then again, it could mean that they were born in one town and their parents were born somewhere else.

I focused on the husband first. I checked a website that lists the names of every town in Italy. Of the 3 hometowns in the family history document, only one existed. I did not find him there.

The other 2 towns did not exist, and the spelling didn't look like proper Italian. I figured this was how the town sounded to the family history author when her ancestor said it. This was a phonetic spelling of the town.

Say It, Don't Spell It

With that in mind, I kept saying the 2 misspelled town names aloud, over and over again. I scanned the list of Italian towns as I repeated the sounds again and again. I didn't find them.

You may not know how to spell the name of your ancestor's town. What to do? Sound it out.
You may not know how to spell the name of your ancestor's town. What to do? Sound it out.

One of the best methods for finding a hometown is to find your ancestor on a ship manifest. I knew I wouldn't find the hometown on his ship manifest because he came to America too early. My ancestors were kind enough not to arrive before 1898, giving me a good look at the names of their hometowns.

The family history document had one more good clue about this couple. They got married in Manhattan in about 1888. I went straight to the search page for the New York City Municipal Archives. I knew I should find the marriage document there. I hoped it would have the bride and groom's parents' names. I did not expect it to list a hometown.

My searches failed. I couldn't find this couple, even when I included all the city's boroughs and expanded the years. Then I searched for a variation of the bride's last name. Experience tells me that an Italian last name ending in i usually ended in o at an earlier time. So I searched for her name ending in an o. This produced a long list of possibilities. I looked at the search results, hoping to find one with both her name and his.

That's when I found them. I never thought a clerk would misspell his very common last name. I swear, the NYC clerks in the late 1800s were illiterate. Who spells Italy Ytali? Someone who hears an Italian pronounce Italy and can't spell, that's who.

See How It Sounds

Now I had my couple's parents' names, even though the clerk mangled each one. (Saverio is a first name. Saviero is not.) Since the groom's mother's name was not common, I did an Ancestry search for her. The one search result made me gasp. (I guess I'm a gasper.) It was someone else's family tree that included my groom's entire family—but not him.

Everything about this unsourced tree made perfect sense to me. The parents matched the NYC marriage record. The family history mentioned the groom's sister and brothers, and here they were. I never accept someone's family tree as fact, but I was able to verify what they were showing.

The one thing that made me certain this was the right family was their hometown. Remember those misspelled town names? The ones I kept saying aloud to hear their sound? This tree had one of the town names. When I said it aloud, I knew for a fact it was the misspelled town from the document.

Keep sounding out that foreign town name as you search for something that matches the sound.
Keep sounding out that foreign town name as you search for something that matches the sound.

Now it was time to prove this person's tree right or wrong. I searched the properly spelled town for my groom's birth record. I found him in the year before the date from the family history. (Always assume early ancestors may not know their own birthday.) There he was with the same parents I'd found misspelled on his NYC marriage record.

Knowing the right town, I used vital records to take the groom's family back 4 generations!

Most people would see that other family tree and think, "That's not the town great grandpa used to talk about." But I saw the town name and said it aloud as an Italian would. I heard it as a match for the botched spelling in the family history document.

When you pronounce an R in Italian, it sounds like a D. My grandfather used to call my grandmother Mary something that sounded like Moddy. That wasn't a D sound. It was a rolled R. That's why the family history had the town name so wrong.

What Else Makes That Sound?

My second grade teacher's "sound it out" method is still working for me. Have you heard your ancestor's hometown spoken with a foreign accent but never saw it written? You may not know how to spell it at all.

I used this method in my own family tree once before. (See Case Study on "What If There's No There There?") My great grandmother used to talk about where she came from. Her granddaughter passed that along to me as a phonetic spelling: Pisqualamazza. That's not a town. So I searched passenger lists for anyone around her age with her last name. I looked at each search result to see the hometown. When I saw Pescolamazza, I knew that was it. And that's where I found her birth record. Now I can name her 3rd great grandparents.

If you can't locate your ancestral hometown, keep your mind and ears open. Sound it out as you try to mimic the right accent. If you heard your grandfather say it when you were a kid, try to remember exactly how it sounded. Then see what sounds the same.

17 May 2022

Genealogists Can Find Shocking Family Stories

Today I want to share a shocking story of discovery about my cousin's grandmother. This blog is about sharing genealogy best practices. I hope the steps I went through to flesh out this story will be helpful to you.

It all started when my mother's 1st cousin asked me if I could research her husband's mother. I've known and loved her husband my entire life. Back in 2007 I found out he didn't know his mother's maiden name. I couldn't imagine such a thing! So I began researching her for myself.

I found his mother's maiden name on her mother Filomena's naturalization papers. Now I knew the name of Filomena's hometown in Italy, and I found her birth record.

I don't remember how far I took my research in 2007, but now it was time to push further. My cousin's key question was, "Did my mother have any siblings?" He and his siblings had a vague memory of 2 uncles who "looked like twins." My cousin even thought he may have met them.

Unknown aunts and uncles told a tragic tale once I found them.
Unknown aunts and uncles told a tragic tale once I found them.

I started by having another look at Filomena's 1874 birth record. In the column of her birth record were 2 annotations for 2 marriages. In 1910 she married my cousin's grandfather, but earlier in 1898 she married another man.

I began looking into the first husband, Tommaso. Filomena and Tommaso married in her hometown and he left for America. She followed him in 1902. At the age of 33, Tommaso died of heart failure in the Bronx in November 1906.

What happened next to Filomena? Her birth record said she married the second time in her hometown. I returned to the vital records for Baiano in Avellino, Italy. Could Filomena have been pregnant with twin boys when her husband died? I checked the birth records in Baiano for each year after Tommaso's death.

In the 1907 birth records, I found more than I expected. Indeed, Filomena was pregnant when her husband died. She gave birth to a daughter, Tommasina, in January 1907. But there was a lot more to see in the 1907 records.

Filomena formally declared the births of her 2 American sons, Bartolomeo and Carmine. As I read the statements, I realized the boys were born a year and a half apart in the Bronx. I jumped over to the New York City Municipal Archives website. They recently made vital records available online. I found the boys' birth records.

The documents told me a very pregnant, widowed Filomena brought her 2 sons home to her family in Italy.

I already knew Filomena would marry in 1910 and come back to America with her new husband. But the boys and Tommasina are not with their mother in the 1915 New York census. Where were they?

When I searched for their names on Ancestry, I found 2 men with the right names living in New Jersey. I had no way to be sure these were my cousin's half uncles. After searching for a while, I wondered, did the 3 kids all die in Italy?

I went back to the Baiano vital records, focusing on death records. I knew all 3 kids were alive in January 1907, so I began in 1907 and searched the death records year-by-year.

The baby girl, Tommasina, named for the father who died before she was born, died in Baiano in early 1908. It was a gamble, but I had to keep looking for any sign of the boys, Bartolomeo and Carmine.

What I found horrified me. In April and May 1914, the boys died in Baiano. This was 4 years after their mother remarried and returned to America. It was 3 years after their half-sister (my cousin's mother) was born in the Bronx. It was the same year that another half-sister was born in the Bronx.

Bartolomeo was 10 years old and Carmine had just turned 9 years old. Italian death records rarely include a cause of death, so I don't know what happened to the boys. I can only imagine that their mother left them with her family members and sailed away with her new husband.

I didn't know these siblings existed until I found them in an unexpected place.
I didn't know these siblings existed until I found them in an unexpected place.

Why hadn't she sent for the boys when she re-settled in the Bronx? Filomena's 5th baby, Carmela, is one year old in the 1915 New York census. She's missing from future censuses, and I can't find a U.S. death record. And someone else is missing after 1915. Filomena's 2nd husband, Domenico. (He's my cousin's grandfather.)

I returned to Filomena's naturalization papers from the 1930s. She declares that her husband died in March 1920 in Naples, Italy. Is this true? Was he returning to Italy to see his family? Filomena and one of her daughters are in the Bronx for the 1925 New York census. But they're all missing from the 1920 census.

We can imagine that the family of 4 took a trip to Italy to see their relatives. Maybe that's when her husband and younger daughter died. But I can't prove that idea with a ship manifest showing Filomena's return to America. And I did not find death records for the husband and daughter in Filomena's hometown or her husband's hometown.

Filomena's story turned out to be a lot more tragic than I could have expected. Her life started out with so much promise and took some very dark turns:

  • She marries and moves to New York.
  • She has 2 sons and is pregnant with her 3rd child.
  • Suddenly, her husband dies.
  • She takes her sons back to her hometown in Italy and gives birth to a baby girl.
  • One year later, the baby girl dies.
  • Two years after that, she marries a man from Napoli and returns to New York, leaving her sons behind.
  • In 1911 she has a baby girl with her 2nd husband in the Bronx.
  • In 1914 she has another baby girl, but her 2 sons die in Italy, one month apart.
  • By 1920, her 2nd husband and youngest daughter are gone.

Filomena was alive, at the age of 76, for the 1950 census. My cousin is in that census. He remembers his grandmother being sick in bed for a long time, and his mother taking care of her.

My cousin's family never knew this story. They'd heard that their grandmother married twice. They knew there were 2 boys who looked like twins. But when I pulled the whole story together, it was completely shocking to us all.

Always keep your mind open to what might have happened.

  • If I hadn't thought, "what if Filomena went back to Italy?" I wouldn't have learned about Bartolomeo, Carmine, and Tommasina.
  • If I hadn't wondered, "did the boys stay in Italy?" I wouldn't have discovered their shocking deaths.

As you can see, it's well worth checking someone's hometown when they're missing from their new town. If you have a hunch, follow it!

10 May 2022

Simple Tips for Understanding Italian Marriage Records

This is the third in a series of articles to help you understand Italian vital records without speaking Italian. If you missed the other two, please check out:

As you try to go back another generation in your family tree, marriage records can be crucial. How can you find your great grandfather's birth record if you don't know his parents' names?

When your ancestors married in Italy, they had to provide a copy of their birth record. That means you can have a good deal of confidence in the age recorded on the marriage record. If their parents weren't alive to consent to the marriage, they had to provide death records. And guess what? If their late father's father was dead, they had to provide his death record, too.

Depending on the year, and what's available online, you may see:

  • copies of these records (jackpot!)
  • the birth and death dates written on the marriage record (a good runner-up)
  • a list of the documents produced (disappointing).

If your ancestors' Italian marriage records are online, there are 3 types to see:

  1. Matrimoni—The actual marriage record. It may include:
    • the civil marriage date
    • the church marriage date (yes, they can be different)
    • the 1st, and possibly 2nd marriage banns, when the couple posted their intention to marry.
  2. Matrimoni Pubblicazioni—A record of the couple posting their intention to marry. It's like today's "speak now or forever hold your peace."
  3. Matrimoni Processetti/Allegati—This is the goldmine. This can include the couple's birth records and any parents/grandfathers' death records.
When available, this set of Italian marriage documents is a positively priceless addition to your family tree.
When available, this set of Italian marriage documents is a positively priceless addition to your family tree.

Be sure to search for all 3 types of records on the Italian Antenati website or FamilySearch.org.

Let's look at examples of these documents and how to find the genealogy facts you need. I chose an 1831 marriage from my maternal grandfather's hometown, Baselice in Benevento.

The 1st banns are very brief, but you will learn the names of the bride and groom's parents. Here is the format:

  • The date of the document, written in longhand. You must memorize the Italian numbers or keep your link to FamilySearch's Italian Genealogical Word List handy.
  • Look for the words "promessa di matrimonio tra." This means promise of marriage between, so we can expect to see the couple's names. Remember that in Italian documents the male is always listed before the female.
  • Look for the groom's name followed by his father's and mother's names. Then find the bride's name followed by her father's and mother's names.
Top, the simpler 1st marriage banns. Bottom, the more detailed 2nd marriage banns, filled with facts for your family tree.
Top, the simpler 1st marriage banns. Bottom, the more detailed 2nd marriage banns, filled with facts for your family tree.

The 2nd banns have the same information plus more details about ages and occupations. In this example we have:

  • The date of the document and the name of the town.
  • The groom's name and age ("di anni ventidue" = age 22), where he lives ("domiciliato a" = living in)
  • His parents' names, his father's occupation, and where they live. In this case, the word "fu" before each name tells us the groom's parents are both dead. So we see their names and nothing else.
  • The bride's name and age ("di anni quaranta" = age 40; there's a big age difference in this couple).
  • Her parents' names (both are dead), and a blank occupation and home for her deceased father.
  • Below the town official's signature it says this completes the process. Without opposition, the couple may marry.

I like to record the date of both marriage banns in my family tree software.

Next is the marriage record, which may contain 3 different dates. In the example shown here, there's a wide column and a narrow column. The narrow column is a statement from the local parish that tells us when a priest married the couple.

Don't let the format fool you. It begins with one date, but that's the date someone wrote this note. A little further down is another date. That's the marriage date. This one says:

"…la celebrazione del matrimonio é seguita nel giorno dieci del mese di Dicembre anno suddetto"

That translates to:

the celebration of the wedding took place on the 10th day of the month of December the aforementioned year

This is the marriage date I will record in my family tree. This document mentions the specific church name (San Leonardo Abate). I'll enter the full street address of this church—which I visited in 2018.

You don't need to understand everything on an Italian marriage record. Find these keywords and you'll see the info you want for your family tree.
You don't need to understand everything on an Italian marriage record. Find these keywords and you'll see the info you want for your family tree.

In the wide column of the page we see another date, which may be a few days earlier than the church date. On this date, the town official:

  • saw the couple in the town hall
  • determined there were no impediments to their marriage
  • pronounced them legally married.

It's an odd concept for us to relate to, having a civil ceremony and then a church ceremony. I've chosen to put my own spin on the dates. I record the earlier date in my family tree as the marriage license. I don't know how it was for 19th century Italians in a Church-centered society. Did they wait for the church marriage before they lived together?

The format of the wide column of this marriage record is as follows:

  • The date the couple appeared in town hall to be married.
  • Find the word "comparsi" (appeared). After that is the groom's name (Donato diLuca), age ("di anni ventidue" = age 22), place of birth ("nato in" = born in).
  • Next is the groom's father (and potentially his occupation and where he lives) and his mother (and potentially where she lives).
  • Then we see the same information for the bride. We may not see her occupation, but sometimes we do. This bride's parents are both dead, but there's an extra bit of very important information. It says "vedova di Leonardo Cocca." Bride Angelamaria Cece, who is 18 years older than the groom, is the widow of Leonardo Cocca ("vedovo/a" = widow). If you find the matrimoni processetti, you should see the late spouse's death record.
  • The next handwritten date you see is the date of the 1st marriage banns.
  • The long handwritten section is a list of the documents that the couple had to provide:
    • the groom's birth record
    • the groom's parents' death records and his paternal grandfather's death record
    • the bride's birth record
    • the bride's parents' death records and her paternal grandfather's death record
    • the bride's 1st husband's death record
    • their marriage banns with no impediments to their marriage
  • The final section includes that names, ages, and occupations of 4 male witnesses. Many times you'll see only 2 witnesses. Take a look at the names to see if there is a stated relationship to the married couple. You may find that a witness is a "cugino" (cousin), "zio" (uncle), or "avo" (grandfather).

The marriage facts you need for your family tree are not hard to find. Even if the town runs out of marriage forms late in the year and has to hand write the whole thing, don't worry. You can find those keywords and see what follows. With practice, you can memorize number and month words, and the important keywords.

You'll focus in and find what you need:

  • the handwritten date, fully spelling out the year, day, and month
  • comparsi, alerting you to the name of the groom
  • di anni—the next number is their age
  • professione, which is obviously profession
  • domiciliato, which looks like the word domiciled, or living in
  • nato, telling you where they were born
  • figlio/a di, meaning son/daughter of, which leads into the parents' names
  • vedovo/a di, which, if you see it, tells you one of the two has been married before

There's no reason on earth for you to see a big block of foreign words and call for help. You know exactly which words to look for. You know what you'll find right after those words. Any words you can't make out are probably on FamilySearch's Italian Genealogical Word List.

With a bit of practice, you'll see the pattern to the documents. You'll recognize the keywords—even when the handwriting is the worst. Are your ancestral hometown's documents available online? Then nothing should stop you from using these images to build your Italian family tree.

03 May 2022

Tying Up Loose Ends with Naturalization Papers

My new friend is trying to identify her birth father. My mother and I are on her DNA match list, and she decided to contact me after reading my blog.

She gave me the names of some of her other matches. Almost all the DNA matches had one Italian town in common. It's the town of my maternal grandfather's birth—Baselice.

She showed me a page from a man's U.S. naturalization papers. This man's daughter is one of her DNA matches. I quickly researched the man (Pasquale) and found his birth record in Baselice. Years ago I added nearly every name from Baselice's vital records (1809–1860) to my family tree. I was able to find some sort of connection to them all.

Now I have access to records after 1860 on the Antenati website (see How to Use the Online Italian Genealogy Archives). Using these documents, I was able to place Pasquale and his parents in my family tree. His wife is my 4th cousin once removed. Her 3rd great grandparents are my 4th great grandparents.

Pasquale's U.S. naturalization papers had a lot to offer to my family tree—even if some facts were a little bit wrong (see What to Find on Your Ancestor's Naturalization Papers).

Here are the key points to focus on when you find someone's U.S. naturalization papers.

Declaration of Intention

In this first step of the process, a person declares their intention to become a United States citizen.

Look for these facts on their form:

  • current name and address
  • occupation
  • age
  • physical description (and maybe a photo)
  • place and date of birth
  • spouse's name, birth date and place
  • marriage date
  • spouse's arrival in the U.S.
  • names and birth dates/places of all children
  • applicant's arrival in the U.S.—date and ship name
Your ancestor's declaration of intention can be a treasure trove of genealogy facts.
Your ancestor's declaration of intention can be a treasure trove of genealogy facts.

That's a ton of valuable data! I'll admit I was skeptical at first that this man was from my grandfather's town. Three important facts were wrong on the declaration page:

  • Pasquale's hometown (Bazeline instead of Baselice)
  • Pasquale's birth date (8 Oct instead of 3 Dec)
  • his first child's birth date (1913 instead of 1912)

Luckily, the next step in the citizenship process put my doubts to rest.

Petition for Citizenship

Two years after submitting his declaration of intention, Pasquale filed his petition for citizenship. This document correctly spells the name of Pasquale's hometown, Baselice.

The petition repeats all the information from the declaration except the physical description. This accounting of the facts may clarify errors on the first document.

If possible, find the full set of documents, as I did in the Massachusetts State and Federal Naturalization Records. You may find an authenticated Certificate of Arrival before the first page. Be sure to back up a page or two and take a look.

This little document verifies the applicant's arrival in the U.S. Now you can go to the immigration records to find that ship on that date and locate your person.

If you find your person's naturalization papers, back up a page and look for this little document.
If you find your person's naturalization papers, back up a page and look for this little document.

Oath of Allegiance

The final step in the citizenship process is the applicant's oath of allegiance. This is a very short document. The applicant renounces their loyalty to their former country and swears allegiance to the United States.

You'll find their signature, the date, a clerk's signature, and one or more certificate numbers.

I like to record all the dates in my family tree. Pasquale declared his intention on 15 Sep 1931, filed his petition on 22 Nov 1933, and became a citizen on 5 Mar 1934. He had arrived in Boston on 27 Jul 1913, and his wife and eldest child arrived on 30 Sep 1920.

The arrival dates explained the 9-year gap between children (1912–1921). Pasquale had been away for years, leaving his wife in Baselice with two infants (I found both birth records). One child died before making the voyage to America.

Naturalization papers are priceless for helping you find otherwise undocumented facts. For instance, I didn't know that Pasquale's parents, born in 1851 and 1845, had married one another. I didn't know that Pasquale had married my 4th cousin once removed. The marriage records for those years are not available. Now I can follow Pasquale and his family in the U.S. census, Social Security records, obituaries, and more.

Isn't it wonderful how one set of records can fit together so many pieces of the puzzle? Sometimes the missing pieces seem to fall right into our laps.