25 October 2022

Why Care About Your DNA Matches?

I haven't tried to contact a DNA match in quite a while. If they're 5th cousins or closer and have a family tree online, I've identified them. I'm good.

For more distant cousins, I like to take a look at their family trees. These matches are too distant to want to hear from me. But I can reap the benefits of their personal knowledge of their close ancestors.

Your DNA matches may be the only way to learn what became of your grand aunts, grand uncles, and cousins.

No matter where your people come from, you don't have access to all the vital records. People will slip through the cracks of those missing records. That's when you should turn to your DNA matches.

Finding that Lost Relative

Let's say you have no idea what became of your great grandmother's sister, Maria. Your great grandmother emigrated, leaving her sister behind. You don't know if Maria married, who she married, or where she died.

All it takes is a recognizable name or two, and you can tap into the family tree of your distant DNA match.
All it takes is a familiar name or two, and you can tap into the family tree of your distant DNA match.

That's where a DNA match can save the day. It's frustrating that so many DNA test-takers don't post a robust family tree. But if they name their grandparents, you can get some traction.

Start by searching for last names you know in a match's tree. AncestryDNA makes this very easy with their "Surname in matches' trees" box. Do any of your matches include that long-lost great grand aunt Maria's last name?

Use your DNA match's family tree to learn about their ancestors. Then do your own research:

  • Get their immigration or naturalization papers.
  • Follow them in the census or directories.
  • Is there a connection to your family?
  • Dig until you find the proof you need.

Piecing Together Extended Families

Growing up, I never heard anything about my great grandmother Maria Caruso's brothers. And I never knew that her husband, my great grandfather Pasquale Iamarino, had a sister. Thanks to DNA matches, I can name the extended families of those grand aunts/uncles. My DNA matches' small family trees helped me fill in lots of blanks.

Those missing vital records can drive you crazy! But to your distant DNA match, they're just Grandma and Grandpa.
Those missing vital records can drive you crazy! But to your distant DNA match, they're just Grandma and Grandpa.

Why not be the solution to someone else's brick wall? Be sure to include at least your great grandparents in your DNA family tree. And make it public!

As you view your DNA matches, know that a match with as little as a 5–7 person family tree can help you. But you are the researcher; your match is only a clue. Be a genealogy detective and use your matches to find the answers.

18 October 2022

How to Crunch the Numbers on Your Family's Names

How many different last names did I find while doing my One Place Study of Colle Sannita, Italy? That's what one blog reader wanted to know. I had no idea.

Create the List of Names

Let's launch Family Tree Analyzer and open a GEDCOM file. My latest GEDCOM file has 57,620 people, mostly from Italy.

With Grandpa's entire town in my family tree, what can I learn about all those last names?
With Grandpa's entire town in my family tree, what can I learn about all those last names?

After trying a few options, I decided to export the list of all individuals to a spreadsheet. First I sorted the individuals by place of birth. Then I deleted all the rows for people born outside of my 7 ancestral hometowns. My Italian hometowns are:

  • Apice
  • Baselice
  • Circello
  • Colle Sannita
  • Pesco Sannita
  • Sant'Angelo a Cupolo
  • Santa Paolina

Divide the Names by Town

I added 7 tabs to my Excel file, one for each town. As I sifted through the places of birth, I moved people from my 7 towns onto the appropriate spreadsheet tab.

There are tons of people in my family tree without a known birthplace. These are generally people born before their town kept vital records. If I know their place of death, and their last name comes from the town, I moved them to that town's tab.

I wound up tossing more than 11,000 people because I have no proof of their place of birth or death.

By the way, if someone has an easier way to tally the last names in your family tree by town, let me know!

Analyze the Data

Next, I sorted the names on the 7 town tabs alphabetically and deleted all the columns except Surname. Then I clicked "Analyze Data" on the right side of Excel's Home tab. Excel offered different ways to see the data and display the results.

This gave me exactly the results I wanted. My family tree contains 260 distinct last names from Colle Sannita. Also, there are more people named Martuccio than any other name. That's ironic since only 5 of my direct ancestors are Martuccios.

Excel comes through like a champ, offering analysis of your family tree.
Excel comes through like a champ, offering analysis of your family tree.

If it's hard to believe I found 260 last names in one small town, and 310 in another, there's a reason for that. According to an article by Silvia Donati on ItalyMagazine.com, Italy has more last names than any other country in Europe. (See https://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/interesting-history-italian-last-names.)

In my ancestral hometowns, people with the same last name are most likely related somehow. This is especially true when families lived in the same town for many centuries.

Visualize the Data

As a companion to the Excel data, I created a word cloud of Colle Sannita last names. I simply pasted my list of names into wordclouds.com, choosing the map of Italy as a shape. But as you can see, it didn't make Martuccio bigger than the other names.

How many names from your ancestral hometown are in your family tree?

11 October 2022

A Random Search Led to a Detailed Life Story

While figuring out a new DNA match, I found her great grandfather's 1903 ship manifest. His last name told me he came from my grandfather's town of Colle Sannita. I even have a copy of his 1884 Italian birth record in my family tree.

But his immigration record itself was an amazing find. Of the 30 lines on the page, 25 are men from the same town. Now that I've finished my One Place Study of Colle Sannita, I'm perfectly positioned to ID these 25 men. My colossal family tree should contain each one of them.

The beauty of following through on this one ship manifest is that it will add data points to 25 cold trails.

Let's examine one of the more fruitful searches to see how much we can learn from this random find.

Your person is likely to have travelled with others from their hometown. Don't overlook other members of your family tree.
Your person is likely to have traveled with others from their hometown. Don't overlook other members of your family tree.

Subject: Onofrio Zeolla

The clues from the 1903 ship manifest include:

  • He is 33 years old
  • He is married
  • He is joining his brother-in-law Nicola Palmiero in Adamsburg, Pennsylvania

When I looked for him in my family tree, there was only one good choice. Onofrio, born in 1870, is my 2nd cousin 3 times removed. Since his wife's last name was Callara, I checked his sisters to see if one had married a Nicola Palmiero.

Yes. His sister Maddalena married Nicola Palmiero. They had 2 children before he left for Pennsylvania.

I know Onofrio and his wife had at least 7 children between 1896 and 1914. I noticed I'd left a standard note on the 1903 birth of his daughter. It says, "Her father was in America when she was born." This fact comes from a note on the daughter's birth record.

Knowing that I'd found the right Onofrio Zeolla, I searched for any other U.S. records he may have left behind.

I found another ship manifest from March 1909. Onofrio went to join his cousin Giorgio Zeolla in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. Sure enough, a note on the September 1909 birth record of his son Angelo says his father was in America when he was born.

I found Onofrio's name listed on his eldest son Michele's U.S. World War I draft registration card. (Michele is Italian for Michael.) He was born in Colle Sannita in 1896. In 1918 Michele was working at the U.S. Cast Iron Foundry in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. His draft card has a unique note written in the center. It says, "Wants to go soon." So Michele was not planning to stay in America. Like his father, he came here only to earn some money to keep his family afloat.

Searching for one man, I wound up constructing the lives of his eldest son and grandson.
Searching for one man, I wound up constructing the lives of his eldest son and grandson.

But did Michele ever go home? I found his 1952 Pennsylvania death certificate. He was 55 years old, married, and still working at a foundry in Scottdale.

Clearly Michele needed more research. I found:

  • His 1913 arrival in the U.S. at age 17. He was joining his uncle Giorgio Zeolla in Connellsville, Pennsylvania.
  • His 1918 U.S. Army service card. He was a Private, honorably discharged on 13 Dec 1918. I guess he wanted to go home but never did.
  • His 1934 application for veteran's compensation. This wonderful find lists his wife's maiden name, and their son Nicholas. He was the informant on Michele's death certificate, but it didn't say his relationship. This document has both his parents' names; his mother is missing from his death certificate.
  • His 1942 U.S. World War II draft registration card. He and his wife Edith live in Scottdale.
  • His 1952 veterans burial card. A photo of his gravemarker lists his military rank and unit proudly.
  • His 1930, 1940, and 1950 censuses. Michele, his wife and son are living with his wife's parents in Scottdale each time.

I searched for more about Michele's son Nicholas. He graduated Scottdale High School in 1944 where he played in the band. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force, signing up immediately after graduation. He's buried in a military cemetery. He and his wife Margaret married in Nevada and honeymooned in Mexico.

I began with nothing but birth records for my Italian townspeople. Then a single ship manifest took me on a journey through their lives in America. And there are 24 other townsmen on that ship manifest!

04 October 2022

Lessons Learned from My One Place Study

Last week I finished the biggest genealogy project I've ever imagined. My blog posts tell me I began this One Place Study 2 years ago.

The idea was to work every available vital record from Grandpa's hometown into my family tree:

  • Births, marriages, and deaths from 1809–1860
  • Births from 1861–1915 (with 6 years missing), and
  • Marriages and deaths from 1931–1942.

That adds up to more than 38,300 documents!

Why did I start such a big project? I believed I could connect 95% of the people in those Colle Sannita records by blood or marriage. And I did! My ancestors came from small hill towns. Before modern roads, people stayed put and married their neighbors. That connected everyone.

The moment I finished my project, I felt adrift at sea. I tackled a small project, then I jumped right into the same project for my other Grandpa's town of Baselice.

With the Colle Sannita records behind me, I reflected on lessons learned from the project. These will help me as I work on my other ancestral hometowns.

Have a Broad Foundation

Before starting a One Place Study like this, 3 things are essential:

  1. Access to vital records from the town.
  2. A broad family tree of your relatives from the town.
  3. Lists. It's a tremendous help to create lists to work from. Page through the birth records for a year (or the index) and make a list of the names. I like to do this in one big spreadsheet.

Tons of my ancestral hometowns' vital records are available on the Antenati website. And I'm eternally grateful.

Set yourself up for One Place Study success with lists of available vital records.
Set yourself up for One Place Study success with lists of available vital records.

Lessons Learned

Before I began, my family tree already spread far beyond my cousins. While gathering cousins from the Italian vital records, I routinely added:

  • Who each cousin married
  • Each cousin's spouse's family
  • The spouses and children of everyone I added to my family tree.

That gave me the broad foundation I needed for this One Place Study. Here's what I learned over the course of the project:

See Who You Already Have

Before working through the records, sort your family tree by birth date, marriage date, or death date. Consult your list of names for that year (see "Lists" above), and tick off any who are already in your tree.

Do a Reasonably Exhaustive Search

If you can't place someone in your tree at first, expand your search. Was one of the parents listed by a nickname? If you still can't place them, mark that on your list, too.

Go through the List a Second Time

After you've reviewed all the records, you may find that some problems are now solved. Go through those unplaced records again. I was able to place about 25% of the people I skipped over the first time.

Some Documents Contain Errors

Sometimes the clerk will write down a wrong name. Or a parent may change the name they use. My great grandmother was born Marianna, but she's called Mariangela on later records.

Another Italian researcher told me that sometimes they refer to a woman by her mother's maiden name. I have no idea why, but I have seen this happen. Now I know to look for it when something doesn't add up.

When I'm sure I know who someone is, but there's an error on their vital record, I note it prominently in my family tree.

Leave Yourself Breadcrumbs

I had a lot of fun following the documents wherever they led me. Let's say I'm adding a child to a couple in my tree. While I'm there, I look for all the kids from that family. If some have a marriage notation on their birth record, I find the spouse. Then I add the spouse's family. This can go on for quite some time, and you can get lost.

Leave breadcrumbs so you can make your way back where you started. I did this by keeping the documents open until I finished with them. If a birth record contains a marriage note, I leave it open until I finish adding the spouse and their family. When all documents are closed, I can go back to where I left off in my list.

Highly visible notes in my family tree explain discrepancies found in vital records.
Highly visible notes in my family tree explain discrepancies found in vital records.

Keep a Map Website Open

There will be place names you can't read. Maybe someone who died in your town was born in another. But what does it say? Or maybe there's a street address, but it's very unclear to you.

Try to find the correct spelling by looking at Google Maps or Bing Maps. Bing Maps does a much better job of naming every little street in my ancestral hometowns. When I'm unsure of spelling, I crawl the map until I find it.

Enjoy the Journey

There will be times when you're not in the mood for a big project. And times when you feel driven to complete a year before calling it quits for the day. Do what makes you happy at that moment.

If I start to feel like this is tedious, I switch to a related project. For instance, in the 1900s, many people from my town married people from the next town—Circello. If I needed a break, I'd go work on my list of Circello vital records for a while.

Final thoughts. I was able to mass-download the vital records from my towns a long time ago. Since then, Antenati and FamilySearch have worked to prevent mass downloads.

But I started this type of project before anything was online. I was viewing bad quality microfilm at a local Family History Center a couple of days a week. I sat there with a laptop in my lap and typed the basics for each record. My shorthand looked like this:

-Pasquale Maria Cernese b 1 apr 1809 to Giovanni di Saverio 35 (bracciale) and Battista di Giovanni Colucci

That means a baby named Pasquale Maria Cernese was born on 1 Apr 1809 to 35-year-old laborer (that's bracciale) Giovanni Cernese, the son of Saverio, and Battista Colucci, the daughter of Giovanni. That information was all I needed to build a 10,000-person family tree of that town. So you can do this project by accessing the vital records on Antenati or FamilySearch.

If you do this, share your work! I share my lists of vital records from my towns on my website. Plus, my gigantic family tree is public on Ancestry. Share the genealogy wealth!