26 December 2023

3 Projects Make Your Genealogy Document Images Perfect

My 74,000-person family tree has one major difference from most family trees. It connects everyone who lived in three of my ancestral hometowns during a long span of time. These small towns had so much inter-marriage that everyone in town had a connection.

I'm able to build this family tree, and continue to do so, because the towns' vital record images are online. (Grazie mille, Portale Antenati!) These vital record images are the puzzle pieces that connect everyone in town.

Because it's such a huge project, I needed to enforce certain standards. These standards add value to every document image in my family tree. Deciding on, and sticking to your own set of standards will save you any doubt or confusion. And it all turns your genealogy research into a true legacy.

Here are 3 projects to help you perfect the way you handle your genealogy document images.

Find the best rules and tips for naming and annotating the document images in your family tree.
Find the best rules and tips for naming and annotating the document images in your family tree.

Project One: 3 Rules for Naming Digital Genealogy Documents

Most of us seem to run into the same problem when we first get into genealogy. How do I organize all these files? I hadn't gotten too far in my document gathering before I realized I needed a system of organization.

Years later, these 3 rules for naming genealogy document images still work like a charm. Click the link above to see which methods you'd like to adopt for your own family tree research.

Project Two: Add Proof and a Breadcrumb to Family Tree Documents

Sometimes you need to return to the online version of a document you downloaded. You may realize there's a potential relative on the next page who you need to see. You may discover you forgot to download the second page of a ship manifest.

Each time I download a document image for my family tree, I follow these rules to show exactly where it came from. I also went back and filled in the missing information for every document already in my family tree. Now it's a habit, and it makes my family tree much better.

Project Three: 6 Steps to Make Your Family Tree 10 Times Better

My goal for this blog is to encourage more professional family tree building. I do this by applying business skills to genealogy. This article helps you follow a step-by-step process for handling your document images.

Imagine if every family tree you found online used a detailed, thorough process like this!

As I write this, I'm finishing up another document image project. It uncovers valuable hidden clues in a vital record collection. I was lucky enough to be able to mass-download several towns' worth of vital records some time ago. Currently I'm renaming all the marriage records for the Italian town of Circello.

Italian marriage documents can include:

  • birth records for the bride and groom
  • death records (if appropriate) for their mothers
  • death records (if appropriate) for their fathers and grandfathers

These extra records are not in an index. You must view the files. And lots of them are not covered in the vital records that began around 1809.

As I rename the images, I discover the names and parents' names of men who died in the mid-1700s. That's amazing hidden information!

If you're serious about genealogy, I hope you'll do the most perfect job you can with your family tree. Here's to a productive year of genealogy in 2024!

19 December 2023

5 Free, Easy-to-Use Family Tree Charts

With the holiday season upon us, I know you don't have a lot of time to devote to genealogy. But I wanted to put these charts in your hands. Here are 5 free family tree charts/templates you can come back to when you're ready to dive in.

1. A Color-Coded Ahnentafel Chart

Look in this article for the revised Ahnentafel spreadsheet: "How to Visualize Your Ancestor-Finding Progress." The colors and pre-filled numbers will help you instantly see which branches of your family tree need more research.

2. A Multi-Generation Relationship Calculator

Understanding your relationship to a distant cousin (maybe a DNA match) can make your head spin. Here's a spreadsheet that makes it clear what to call your relationship based on your common ancestor. Look for the link that says, "You can download my chart for yourself" in this article: "This Chart Finds Hidden Relationships in Your Family Tree."

These 5 free family tree charts belong in your genealogy toolbox!
These 5 free family tree charts belong in your genealogy toolbox!

3. A Five-Generation Fill-in-the-Blanks PDF Chart

I never write anything by hand that I can type instead. That's why I created this Acrobat PDF file that lets you type in the names to create a five-generation family tree chart. Click the link that says, "Download the Direct Ancestor Chart PDF" in this article: "Free 5-Generation Fill-in-the-Blanks Form."

4. An Easy Family Tree Template from Microsoft Excel

I use Excel in my family tree research every day and in lots of ways. Did you know Microsoft Excel includes a free family tree template? Take a look at how you can make quick work of a custom family tree in this article: "Free and Easy-to-Use 4-Generation Family Tree Chart."

5. Five-Generation Template Keeps New Research on Track

I made this Excel template to use when I'm researching families that don't belong in my own family tree. At first I was keeping running lists of what I'd found and where I searched. Then I made this template and saved myself a ton of trouble. Find the link at the bottom of this article: "This New Template Charts 5 Generations."

I'll give you another great collection next week to wrap up the 7th year (holy cow!) of this blog. Happy holidays!

12 December 2023

How to Batch Process Your Genealogy Documents

I spent 24 years coding websites before I retired. Now I apply those job skills to genealogy. I was faster than my colleagues because I found ways to be more efficient.

This past weekend I added 114 military records to my family tree. I would have doubled that number, but the website they come from dies every day at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. (Do they unplug the router when they go home?)

These records include a ton of facts about each soldier, but the key facts I'm after are when, where, and how he died. Adding each of these invaluable records to my family tree has many steps:

  1. Search for the soldier on the website (in this case, it's the website of the Benevento State Archives in Italy).
  2. View his page of details and download a PDF with the record image.
  3. Extract the image from the PDF. (This is a function of Adobe Acrobat.)
  4. Edit the image in Photoshop for top quality and a consistent image size (1500 pixels wide).
  5. Create a source citation from a template I created.
  6. Add the citation and a title to the image's document properties and drag it into Family Tree Maker.
  7. Create the death fact for the soldier, add the same source citation, and attach the image to it.
  8. Add the date of death and a category (Military) to the image.

Now do that 113 more times.

At first, I didn't realize the site was crashing at 2:00 each day, so I was working as if it might crash at any moment. To borrow a computer programming term, I started batch-processing the military records.

You'll be faster, more efficient, and more professional with this genealogy document-handling method.
You'll be faster, more efficient, and more professional with this genealogy document-handling method.

Real batch processing means one computer program automates a series of tasks over and over. In this case, I suppose I'm the computer, running the 8 steps above on soldier after soldier. Doing it this way ensures that:

  • All my military record document images have consistent quality.
  • All the source citations for these records follow the same format.
  • None of the 8 steps are skipped.

For this project, I have one more ace in the hole. The website has these documents for every man from the Benevento Province who died in World War I. First I made a list of every document for each of my ancestral hometowns. From these lists I created one spreadsheet of 274 soldiers. That tells me exactly who I'm searching for each time. I added a column where I can mark which documents are now in my family tree.

I came up with a way to cram in as many documents as possible before the site crashes each day. I search for and open the summary pages of 6 soldiers in different tabs. I immediately download each man's PDF file and label them consistently. For example, AutoreGiuseppe1875MilitaryRecord.pdf. That's last name, first name, year of birth, military record.

Next, with the 6 tabs still open, I open each PDF file one at a time and extract the images. I use an old version of Abobe Acrobat Pro where the command for this is File > Export > Image > JPEG. Then I drag and drop all the images into Photoshop. For each one, the process is this:

  • Image > Auto Color. For some reason, the documents all look very yellow. Auto Color makes the paper white, the ink black, and the rubber stamps blue. That's how they looked when I saw several of them in person.
  • Image > Auto Contrast. This makes the ink a bit darker and the paper a bit whiter.
  • Export As. Here I can reduce the file size by entering a consistent image width of 1500 pixels.

Now I have 6 document images waiting for their source citations. The details for the citations are on the 6 open tabs in my web browser. Here's the format I'm using:

From the Benevento State Archives, military records, fallen soldiers; register #75, record #4292, class #1893
http://archiviodistatobenevento.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/209/ricerca-caduti/caduti/2183
http://archiviodistatobenevento.beniculturali.it/ImgDb/Riproduzioni/ASBnRm075_04292.pdf

When I went to the archives to see my grandfather's record, all I needed was the register number, record number, and class number. These are the critical facts.

The first URL in the citation is the page that's open in those 6 tabs. The second URL (found on that page) is for the PDF itself. The register and record number are on the page, and they're also part of the PDF's URL. The class # is the soldier's year of birth.

One at a time for the 6 open tabs, I:

  • Find the soldier in my tree and add his death fact.
  • Create the source citation and put it in the image's file properties.
  • Drag the image into Family Tree Maker and make it his profile picture unless he has a better one.
  • Add the source citation to the death fact and attach the image to it.
  • Add the date of death and a category to the image.

When you batch process any type of document in this way, you achieve a level of professionalism. As you're doing it, you'll find yourself getting into a groove that lets you move faster through the steps. Once those steps become familiar, you can process a group of documents faster than you ever imagined.

My master spreadsheet contains 105 men who probably aren't in my family tree. Yet. They came from towns I haven't completely documented. (To see what I mean, read "How to Create and Share Your Ancestral Town Database.") That means I should have 55 more military records to add using this batch process. I'm sure I can get that done in one or two more sessions using this method. (In fact, I finished in one session!)

Keep batch processing in mind when you're tracking down any type of document. When the NYC Municipal Archives put their vital records online, I downloaded so many documents. I created a citation template and fixed each image's color, contrast, and size. This added a ton of value to my New York City ancestors. Here's another look at the idea: "Step-by-Step Source Citations for Your Family Tree."

Imagine the consistency you can achieve if you handle all your census records this way. Or ship manifests. Or newspaper clippings. Think through your process for each document type, including what to add to your family tree. Go through it step by step, then repeat for all the same types of documents. Now you've done some truly professional genealogy work.

05 December 2023

4 Keys to Italian Genealogy

I've learned so much by spending countless hours immersed in Italian vital records. If you're new to Italian genealogy research, I can save you those countless hours.

Here are the 4 keys to help you build your Italian family tree.

1. Location and Mobility

To find Italian vital records, you must know where your people came from. Not all records are searchable in one convenient form. And without the town name, you can't be sure you've found your person or someone with the same name. Records are stored by town name and held in the provincial capital's archives. The town name is your first hurdle. Read "4 Key Places to Discover Your Ancestor's Hometown."

Until the 1890s, most Italians stayed in or near their hometown for generations. It isn't as if a man could meet a woman who lived hours away and marry her. You must expect that your ancestral couples lived in the same town or neighboring towns. There were no highways and travel wasn't easy.

When a couple from different towns married, they were likely to marry in the woman's town but live in the man's town. A man could inherit property, so they lived in the man's home—which may include other members of his family.

Tip: If your couple married in Italy, expect them to have been born in the same town or neighboring towns.

Here's your crash course in Italian genealogy documents. Use these 4 keys to build your family tree.
Here's your crash course in Italian genealogy documents. Use these 4 keys to build your family tree.

2. Language Is NOT a Barrier

There's no reason on earth to let the Italian language stop you from reading a vital record. The documents follow standard patterns. And you don't need to translate every single word. What you want to find are:

  1. Names don't need translation. They are exactly what you see in the document. There's no reason you can't spot the name you're looking for in a document.
    • If a last name is hard to decipher, type what you think you see into the Cognome box on the Cognomix website. As you type, you'll see suggestions of actual names. Once you click Cerca (Search), you'll see where you can find that name in Italy. https://www.cognomix.it/mappe-dei-cognomi-italiani
    • Another option: Type a last name into Ancestry and FamilySearch to see suggestions.
  2. Place names (both town names and street names) don't need translation.
    • If you found your document on a genealogy website, the website should tell you the town name.
    • If you received the document another way, the town name is on the document. Look close to the top of the document, often after the words Comune di (town of).
    • If the comune name is hard to read, use this alphabetical list of Italian towns and try to match what you see. http://en.comuni-italiani.it/alfa
    • Street names may no longer exist in your ancestral town. But if you want to have a look, use Bing Maps rather than Google Maps. It has more street names than Google in Italian towns. https://www.bing.com/maps
    • Some street names begin with the word Contrada. A contrada is more of a neighborhood name. It can be a large area with only one road running through it. That road name will usually be the Contrada name. These are easiest to find on the map because they're well outside the town center.
  3. Dates do need translation, but there is one terrific resource to help you out. The FamilySearch Wiki has month names, numbers, and other key genealogical word translations. https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Italian_Genealogical_Word_List
    • On most Italian vital records, you'll see numbers written out in longhand, not numerals. That includes years. With practice, seeing mille ottocento ventiquattro instead of 1824 is no problem.
    • Vital records begin with the date someone wrote the document. That means the event may have happened earlier. On a birth record, look further down for the (often pre-printed) words nel giorno (on the day) and del mese di (of the month of). If you see nel giorno sette del mese di Gennaro, you'll know the person was born/died on the 7th day of January. (Check the FamilySearch Wiki linked above for numbers and months.)
    • Birth records often have a separate column for the baptism. This may include a church or parish name. You can look up a church name by location using this website: https://italia.indettaglio.it/eng/parrocchie/parrocchie.html. You may get the street address of the church, too.
      • The baptism column can be confusing because it can have up to 3 dates. Look for the earliest date, and that's the baptism. The format: On this date(1) the church notes that on this date(2) we recorded that on this date(3) we baptized this baby. Wacky, yes, but look for the earliest date.
    • Marriage records often have a separate column, too. In the smaller column you'll find the date and place of the church wedding. It's often later than the date at the top of the main column. I record the main column's date as the marriage license. On this date, the couple was married in the civil sense. Afterward, they married in the church.

3. Where to Find the Facts

We've just explored the different types of names, dates, and places you'll find on vital records. Now let's dive deeper so you know exactly what to expect to find. The standard forms used in your ancestral towns will change over time, but the basics are the same. (In my towns, the 1866–1873 documents are all in longhand. That's why it's important to know what to expect.)

  • Birth records. The basic format is:
    • On this date, before the mayor (look for the word Sindaco) of this town, appeared (look for the word comparso) FATHER of baby (and maybe his father's name), age, profession, residence (look for the word domiciliato) to present a baby (bambino is a boy, bambina is a girl).
    • Next, sometimes written entirely in longhand, you'll see MOTHER of baby, age, profession. The word moglie (wife) tells you that the father and mother are legally married.
    • Next is the date of birth (nel giorno _____ del mese di _____), followed by the baby's name.
    • Look for a baptism date in a separate column or sometimes written briefly in the margin.
  • Marriage records. These begin the same way as a birth record, with the date, mayor, and town. Then comes the important stuff:
    • After the word comparsi, look for GROOM's name, age, place of birth (nato in), profession, and residence.
    • The groom's parents come after the words figlio di (son of). You'll find his father's name, occupation, and residence, and if he's dead, you'll see the word fu (was) before his name. Then you'll find his mother's name, sometimes her profession, and her residence. If you're very lucky, you'll get the parents ages and maybe their dates of death.
    • Next comes the BRIDE whose name comes after the word e (and). Look for her age, place of birth, and residence.
    • After the words figlia di (daughter of), look for her parents in the same format as the groom's parents above.
    • Look for the date and place of the church wedding in a separate column.
  • Death records. After the date of the document, the mayor's name, and the town name, death records usually list 2 witnesses. You can look for familiar last names or relationship words (avo=grandfather, zio=uncle), but there may be no relationship. The important facts begin after the witness information.
    • Look for the words che nel giorno (that on the day). What follows is the day and month of death.
    • If it says é morto(a) nel(la) casa propria, you know this person died in their own home (casa propria). Use these words as a clue to the person's gender if you're unsure. Morto nel casa propria means it's a male. Morta nella casa propria means it's a female.
    • If you don't see the words casa propria, they died somewhere else—like in someone else's house. Don't let that extra name of the homeowner confuse you. If it starts with nel casa di (in the house of) then the following name should be the homeowner, followed by the deceased's name.
    • Look for the deceased's name written in longhand. It may also say they were the husband (marito) or wife (moglie) of the following name.
    • Next look for the deceased's age (di anni _____), place of birth (nato di _____), profession, residence, and their father and mother's names, professions, and residence.

For diagrams showing where to find the facts on Italian vital records, see:

Unless there's a handwritten paragraph after that, then you've found the facts you need. Sometimes an extra paragraph will explain important facts such as:

  • The father didn't report the birth because he was ill, out of the country, or he died on this date.
  • The child in this birth record married this person on this date. This is a treasure written in some empty space on a birth record.
  • The baby's birth was legitimized by the marriage of its parents on this later date.
  • This man died leaving several minor children, and here are their names and ages.

If you see a long handwritten paragraph on your document, look for keywords like:

  • matrimonio (marriage)
  • morto (death)
  • figli minori (minor children)
  • ammalato (ill)
  • lontano dal paese (far from the country)

Use the FamilySearch Italian Genealogical Word List and Google Translate to see if you've found useful information or standard boilerplate.

4. Naming Conventions

Different cultures have different standards for what to name the baby. Keep in mind, these could be more guidelines than rules. Many of my own ancestors completely ignored the naming conventions. In general:

  • The first male is named after his paternal grandfather.
  • The second male is named after his maternal grandfather.
  • The first female is named after her paternal grandmother.
  • The second female is named after her maternal grandmother.

But here are more naming conventions to look for:

  • If a baby is born after their father dies, the baby is named after the father. A baby girl may receive a female version of her father's name, such as Francesca if her father was Francesco.
  • Say a person becomes a widow and then remarries. Their next child is named after the deceased spouse. This is a good way to confirm that you've found the remarriage of a particular man or woman.
  • When a child dies, the parents usually give the next child of the same sex the same name as the deceased child. You may find birth records for 2, 3, or 4 siblings with the same exact name. If you do, then you can assume each one died before the same-named sibling was born. This comes in handy if death records are not available.

Tip: A set of marriage documents may use the birth record of a same-named deceased sibling. This is just human error.

In my towns, I've seen families wait until baby-boy #4 before using the paternal grandfather's name. And many families never get to the 4th grandparent's name. This may be a regional practice since all my ancestors came from neighboring towns. Maybe the naming rules were less strict there. Keep an open mind and don't rule someone out because they don't have the name you'd expect.

When you find a marriage record and the groom came from another town, search that town for their kids. Any time you learn your person's parents' names, you can expand your search. You can search for the previous generation's birth, marriage, and death records, if the years are available. Read "How I Tracked Down My 4th Great Grandmother's Parents."

That's the beauty of Italian vital records. Each one you find for someone in your family tree can lead to more and more generations. You now have the keys. As long as records are available for your towns, there's no stopping you.

28 November 2023

4 Rules for the Names in Your Family Tree

I've been on a rampage this year, adding thousands of people to my family tree. Once I discovered that everyone in my ancestral hometowns had a connection, I set out to prove it. Each town's vital records (1809–1942 with gaps) added at least 20,000 documented people to my family tree. (Discover the Lessons Learned from My One Place Study.)

The documents come from Italy's Antenati website. Thank you, Italy! Find out how to harvest the Antenati website for your Italian family tree.

During this journey I've learned a lot about the first and last names in my towns. I realized that I've developed 4 rules that make it easier to manage my 23,073 families. (That number comes from the powerful and free Family Tree Analyzer and my latest GEDCOM file.)

Here's a look at 4 naming rules to use in your own family tree.

Follow these simple naming rules to avoid errors and confusion.
Follow these simple naming rules to avoid errors and confusion.

1. Use Birth Names

The best way to record any person in your family tree is by their birth name. If you have their birth or baptism record, then you know what name their parents chose. We all knew my grandmother as Mary Leone, but Leone is her husband's name, not hers. And Mary is an Americanization of her given name—which is different than the name she claimed was hers! Her birth record calls her Maria Carmina Sarracino, so that is the name I recorded in my family tree.

Why record a woman in your family tree with her husband's last name when you know her father's last name? When you view her, it's plain to see who she married.

It's important to use original last names so all the siblings in a family unit show the same name. Anything else looks like a research blunder.

2. Use Original Spelling

I have examples from my ancestral hometowns where the spelling of a last name changed over time. The name:

  • Esci became Iesce
  • diRuccia became Ruccia
  • Cifaldi became Gifaldi
  • Italian names ending in an o later ended in an i.

Since my family tree covers many generations, I use the original last name for continuity. Then, since the name may change over time, I note this in an easy-to-find place. In Family Tree Maker, I use the description field for a person's birth fact to note alternative spellings. (Don't overlook this important feature to leave research breadcrumbs in your family tree.)

Many times a person will use a first name variation during their life. That causes problems when you're searching for the children of a particular couple. If the father was born Domenico but goes by Giandomenico as an adult, you may overlook his children.

In these cases I make 2 kinds of notes in that birth fact description field:

  1. For the father, Domenico, I'll type "aka Giandomenico"
  2. For their child, I'll type that their "father is called Giandomenico on their birth record"

These notes have bailed me out time and again when I find a vital record that doesn't seem to fit.

Because I researched all the town's records that I know people named Gifaldi were the descendants of people named Cifaldi. To make sure I found every family member, I changed my inventory to show only the original spelling.

3. Record But Don't Use Name Variations

On a similar note, if someone's vital record uses a different spelling of their name, I'll note that fact, too. I record the Esci children whose vital records say Esce, Iesce, or Iesci as Esci. But I add a note to the description field saying, "Her last name is Iesce on her birth record."

This happens with first names, too. A woman born as Concetta is Maria Concetta on her death record. During review, that may look like I made a mistake. So I put a note in the description field of the death fact saying, "She is called Maria Concetta on her death record." This assures me that I did my careful research, and there is a discrepancy in the documents.

I leave her name as Concetta, but understand that she may be Maria Concetta on the birth records of her children. And I'll note that for each child.

4. Expand Searches to Include Name Variations

You must take all the name variations into account when you're searching for records. I've created my own extraordinary database of the vital records of my ancestral hometowns. I've named each record image with the subject's name and their father's first name. That way, I can easily search for all the children of a particular man.

But what happens when that man's first name has variations? It's simple. You have to search for all the logical variations. A man named Giambattista at birth may be listed on his children's birth records as:

  • Giambattista
  • Gianbattista
  • Giovambattista
  • Giovanbattista
  • Giovanni Battista
  • Giovanni
  • Battista

When a father has a compound name that has variations, I search for all possibilities. In this case, I can search for children with the right last name and a father whose first name begins with "Gi." (I'll search for Battista alone as a second search.) Then I can view the results, checking for Giambattista's wife's name, their ages, etc.

Remember these 4 key points.

One huge benefit to my quest to get entire towns into my family tree is name familiarity. I can:

  • spot a spelling variation
  • decipher the worst handwriting, and
  • identify an out-of-towner in an instant.

That's because I know all the names in my towns. I know their original spellings and their common variations.

How familiar are you with the names from your ancestral hometowns? Are your naming styles causing confusion?

21 November 2023

4 Best Ways to Learn from Your DNA Matches

I've had tons of success identifying and learning important facts from my DNA matches. Here are 4 articles featuring the most successful methods to use.

I left one article off this list: "Use Color-Coding to Solve Mystery DNA Matches." This otherwise powerful technique doesn't work with endogamous families like mine. But it's well worth a look if your tree is not endogamous.

Endogamy is the practice of marrying within your own culture, ethnic group, town, etc., for centuries. This "muddies" your results. Different branches of your family tree will have very similar DNA.

These 4 articles represent the best ways to work with your DNA matches to fortify your family tree.

Are you getting all you can from your DNA matches? These 4 methods can really help.
Are you getting all you can from your DNA matches? These 4 methods can really help.

1. 3 Key Steps to Identify a DNA Match

This article explains how to figure out your mystery DNA match by:

  • Looking at your shared DNA matches.
  • Searching their trees for familiar last names. (Notice I said familiar names, not your name.)
  • Doing their research for them (but it's actually for you).

It's a method you can repeat over and over with positive results.

2. Digging Into a DNA Match's Family Tree

This article is a practical case study that expands on the article above. Don't waste your time on matches with no family tree or a useless family tree. Find matches with at least a couple of generations to their trees and search for a solid entry point. Find out how you can do this with your DNA matches.

3. Why Care About Your DNA Matches?

Your very distant DNA matches can still add value to your family tree. You may not know what became of your 2nd great grandfather's brother, but your distant cousin may. Here's how you can use your DNA matches to find lost relatives and missing families.

4. How to Use DNA Matches to Go Beyond Vital Records

I have a completely insane family tree—and not for the reason you may be thinking. My ancestors came from isolated towns, intermarrying like crazy. That means I can find some connection to everyone from each town. I'm using the Antenati website to piece together my connection to everyone from my towns. I have 72,000 people right now, and I'm far from done.

The only problem is, lots of documents are not available. In my towns, there are no death or marriage records from 1861–1930, births end in 1915, and there's nothing after 1942. The great value of DNA matches is that their personal knowledge can bridge that document gap. I especially love it when their trees can prove that two people already in my tree married one another. I had no way to know that, but now I do!

Follow this simple method and harvest the relationships you never knew existed.

I've had so much success with the Antenati website that it'd take pre-1809 church records for me to go any further. Now and then I choose a few more DNA matches to explore. The hope is that someday I'll find a distant cousin who has already seen those old church records!

14 November 2023

Top 5 Favorite Genealogy Projects

The Fortify Your Family Tree blog focuses on constructive ways to improve your family tree. These 5 genealogy projects have gotten the most attention from you, the readers.

Take a fresh look at these 5 genealogy projects and see which ones are right for you at this point in your research.

Take another look at the 5 most popular genealogy projects from Fortify Your Family Tree.
Take another look at the 5 most popular genealogy projects from Fortify Your Family Tree.

1. 3 Things to Do with Ahnentafel Numbers

The Ahnentafel numbering system is an excellent way to see which ancestors you've found and which ones you're missing. This article contains a free downloadable chart that I use for tracking my ancestors. I can see, for instance, that I'm missing one of my 3rd great grandparents, and I've found 5 of my 9th great grandparents.

2. How to Create a 'Book of Life' for Your Relatives

I have a cousin who's very interested in our family history. So, for an milestone birthday, I made her a 'Book of Life' like the ones you see on the PBS program "Finding Your Roots." It's easy to do and gets a tremendous reaction. This article shows you exactly how you can create a book of life.

3. How to Share Your Family Tree Research with Relatives

I was reluctant to share my family tree with all the cousins because it wasn't fully researched yet. But one cousin convinced me to do so. I distributed 40 large posters to the heads of all the families, and everyone loved it. This article offers a few creative ways to share your research with your family.

4. 7 Days to a Better Family Tree

Here's an explanation of 7 different ways you can greatly improve your family tree. I suggest you spend a nice long session on each item. You may not complete them in 7 consecutive days, but that's fine. In the end, your research will be more complete and your family tree will have more consistency.

5. 5 Steps to Writing Your Ancestor's Life Story

Sometimes we don't try to tackle certain projects because we expect they'll be too tough. This article breaks down the process of writing your ancestor's life story into 5 steps. Taken one at a time, they're not the least bit overwhelming. Give it a try!

Thank you for visiting this blog and spending your valuable time. I reap the benefits of applying skills I learned at work to my family tree. And now that I'm retired, this weekly blog *is* my job.

07 November 2023

How to Get Useful Answers to Your Genealogy Questions

I'm a long-time user of the Microsoft Bing search engine rather than Google. Bing is promoting its AI Chat feature to give you an easy-to-read summary of your search results.

I decided to enter some genealogy questions into the chatbot. It summarizes it answers from several sources, which it cites so you can dive deeper into the answers.

Question 1

First I asked a question that I know is a mystery to many researchers of Italian family history. I asked, "How long are bodies kept buried in an Italian cemetery?" Many people expect to go to Italy and find all their ancestors in the cemetery of their hometown. They're disappointed when they get there.

The chatbot answered:

In Italy, the length of time a body is kept buried in a cemetery depends on the type of burial. If the deceased is buried in an individual tomb, the plot can be leased for between 10 and 50 years, after which the lease can be renewed. If the deceased is buried in a communal burial ground, the remains are exhumed after only ten years. If the municipality needs space, after 20 years from the burial, the corpse can be exhumed, and the remains are put in a smaller box and then into a recess in the wall or in the family tomb, if some member of the family requests it; otherwise, the remains are put in the ossuary.

Follow-up question: "What is an ossuary?"

Answer: An ossuary is a container or room in which the bones of dead people are placed. They are frequently used where burial space is scarce. A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary. The word “ossuary” comes from the Latin word “ossuarium,” which means “a container for bones”.

I learned about this on my trips to my ancestral hometowns. The cemetery keeps a small footprint because they continually reduce each body's space. And the ossuary room in my maternal grandfather's hometown is quite a sight to see!

Ask detailed genealogy questions, and a chatbot gives you the results in a conversational style.
Ask detailed genealogy questions, and a chatbot gives you the results in a conversational style.

Question 2

Next I asked, "What are the child-naming customs in different countries?" The answer was long and didn't cover any countries I can use. It's better to make your question more specific. I'm curious, "What are the child-naming customs in Latin countries?"

The chatbot answered:

Naming a child is a special moment for parents, and it can be influenced by various factors such as religion, culture, and family traditions. Here are some examples of child-naming customs from Latin countries:

  • Argentina: In Argentina, it is common for children to take their father’s surname as their last name. However, it is not uncommon for children to have both their mother’s and father’s surnames.
  • Brazil: In Brazil, it is common for children to have two given names, with the first name being the most important. The second name is often the mother’s maiden name or the father’s surname.
  • Chile: In Chile, children are given two surnames, the father’s surname followed by the mother’s surname. It is also common for children to have two given names.
  • Colombia: In Colombia, children are given two surnames, the father’s surname followed by the mother’s surname. It is also common for children to have two given names.
  • Mexico: In Mexico, children are given two surnames, the father’s surname followed by the mother’s surname. It is also common for children to have two given names.
  • Peru: In Peru, children are given two surnames, the father’s surname followed by the mother’s surname. It is also common for children to have two given names.

The part I wanted to confirm, because I was never sure, is that double last names from these countries are typically the father's last name then the mother's last name.

Question 3

A friend mentioned that a woman in her family tree became a widow, and then married her father-in-law. I wondered if that made their child the man's daughter and granddaughter, but not by blood, of course.

So I asked the chatbot a related question, "Are first cousins allowed to marry?"

In the United States, 19 states say, "Sure! Go ahead," while a few make it a criminal offense. Since I deal in Italian research, I was more interested in the second part of the chatbot's answer:

In general, the Catholic Church does not allow first cousins to marry. According to canon 1091.2, marriages are invalid up to and including the fourth degree. First cousins, therefore, cannot marry in the Church.

Digging a little deeper, I found that "the fourth degree" refers to first cousins. Now I'm wondering if I have anyone in my tree who somehow got around that rule.

Then, for the sake of this article, I asked, "Is chat bot one word or two?" It's one: chatbot.

Your Turn

I intend to keep this method in mind for future genealogy questions. What questions would you like to ask the chatbot? Do you have cultural questions about your ancestors' countries? Do you suspect an illness swept through their town during certain years? Are you curious about their marriage customs?

Leave a comment with questions you found helpful to your understanding of the people in your family tree.

31 October 2023

Tour Your Ancestral Hometowns with YouTube

I haven't visited my ancestral hometowns since 2018, and I'm really starting to miss them. I'd love to walk the streets again, linger longer, and talk to more of the villagers.

Then a great idea fell into my lap. I wanted to find some information about a town I haven't visited yet. My 3rd great grandmother Rufina's hometown is Apice, and it's now a ghost town. An earthquake in the 1980s made the whole town too dangerous to live in. They call the deserted part of town Apice Vecchio (vecchio means old). Today everyone lives nearby in the very modern-looking Apice Nuovo (nuovo means new).

Among my search results were articles and videos about the ghost town. I saw a suggested video posted by another of my ancestral hometowns: Pesco Sannita.

What's this? My great grandmother's town has a YouTube channel? I watched an English-subtitled video about agriculture in my great grandmother's hometown. I'll be sure to look for the vineyards and olive tree groves on my next visit.

I watched another video about the Fiume Tammaro. I found this river (fiume) mentioned on 6 Pesco Sannita death records from the 1840s and 1850s. Young boys kept drowning there. Seeing the video, it seems too shallow and slow-moving to have taken the boys' lives. Even more surprising is that some women still wash their laundry in the river.

The town's YouTube videos include:

  • beautiful fly-overs filmed by drones
  • cultural events
  • demonstrations by a local chef
  • a look inside their restaurants, and more.

What else can I find from my ancestral hometowns? Searching for my grandfather's town of Baselice, I found:

  • more drone fly-overs
  • promotional videos for the town
  • a description of a public works beautification project.

I'm a big fan of the drone fly-over videos (many created by Raffaele Pilla). I spotted my grandfather's house in one of them!

You can fly over, walk through, and learn the culture of your ancestral hometowns right on YouTube.
You can fly over, walk through, and learn the culture of your ancestral hometowns right on YouTube.

For my other grandfather's town, Colle Sannita, I found messages from the mayor and town council meetings. For my great grandparents hometown of Sant'Angelo a Cupolo, I found a fly-over video and a first-person view of a foot race through town. Even the real estate videos are great because they give me a view inside the homes. That's something I can't see while walking through my towns.

I also watched video tours of the city of Benevento. It's the center of all my ancestral hometowns, and I have 2 cousins who own restaurants there. I've been to Benevento 3 times and still haven't seen all the sights.

Search for videos from your ancestral hometowns by typing the name of the town in the YouTube search box. Be sure to use the correct in-country spelling of the town name. Pay attention to who is posting the videos you like. They may have more videos for you in their collections.

Be sure to hover over the video and click CC (closed captioning) to see subtitles. If they aren't in English, click the gear next to CC, click Subtitles, Auto-Generate, and choose your language. The translations may not have the best quality, so keep an open mind. If you can't click the CC, the video may have no spoken words.

While I was at it, I searched YouTube for my current hometown in New York. I found some interesting videos about the town's railroad history. Then I found videos about the little town of Hornellsville, NY, where my grandmother was born. If you haven't used YouTube to give your genealogy research some context, you should give it a try.

24 October 2023

Make an Easy Ancestral Map for the Cousins

I love when I'm at a family gathering and I hear one of my cousins say, "Ask DiAnn. She knows all about our family history." At a recent get-together, 2 cousins approached me separately, asking for the same basic thing.

"We need a visual," my 1st cousin said. "Give us a map that shows which ancestors were born where."

That sent my mind racing. This sounds like a great gift idea for any genealogist to make. I'd already plotted my direct ancestors on a map. The result was a highly concentrated cluster of pinpoints in a very small section of Southern Italy. My homogeneity is like having all your ancestors come from one county in America…at least as far back as the 1600s.

It's easy to create this highly customized map to show all your cousins their ancestral roots.
It's easy to create this highly customized map to show all your cousins their ancestral roots.

While my ancestral map is exactly the same as my brother's, it's only partly the same as any of my cousins'. However, I do know that most of the aunts, uncles, and cousins who aren't my blood relatives came from the same general area. "They stayed within their tribe," as my godmother Rae put it.

Other than one town in Sicily and another up north, I can cover all my own and my cousins' ancestors in one thin horizontal slice of Italy. It begins south of Rome and ends south of Naples.

How to Create Your Family's Ancestral Map

Part One of Two: Create a list of immigrant ancestors and their hometowns. If you've already researched the immediate families of your closest cousins, you should have all these names and places handy in your family tree. Here's how to start:

  • Make a list with yourself and your siblings on line 1.
  • Add a line for each set of 1st cousin siblings.
  • Add a line for each set of 2nd cousin siblings.

I could include some of my 3rd cousins, but the map would get very busy.

Let me explain that the people I call "the cousins" fall into 2 main groups, both somewhat small:

  1. On Dad's side, I have only a brother-sister pair of 1st cousins. We've had a close relationship our whole lives. There are 2nd cousins, but since they're in Ohio, I've never known them.
  2. On Mom's side, we all descend from 5 Bronx-born siblings whose parents came from Italy. It's this clan that has been a constant presence throughout my life. I have three 1st cousins and 14 2nd cousins in my generation. We're compact because no one had more than 4 kids and some had only one.

For my list, I started with myself, then listed the kids of each of Mom's 1st cousins as a group. (Trust me, this is an efficient way to do it.) I added a last line for my paternal 1st cousins. Then I spelled out the immigrant ancestors' names and towns.

Here's my list of the whole family's immigrant ancestors and their hometowns. (I shrunk the text because it's a long list.)

  • Me:
    • Adamo Leone from Baselice
    • Giovanni Sarracino and Maria Rosa Saviano from Pastene
    • Pietro Iamarino from Colle Sannita
    • Maria Rosa Caruso from Pesco Sannita
    • Pasquale Iamarino from Colle Sannita
  • S's kids:
    • shared Adamo Leone from Baselice
    • shared Giovanni Sarracino and Maria Rosa Saviano from Pastene
    • Nicola Petriella from Circello
    • Raffaele Cocca from Colle Sannita
    • Nicolina Barone from Circello
  • E's kids:
    • shared Giovanni Sarracino and Maria Rosa Saviano from Pastene
    • Arturo Vallone from Esperia
    • Salvatore Mollica from Floridia in Sicily
    • Domenico Velotto from Barra in Naples
    • Filomena Carmina Picciocchi from Baiano
  • L's kids:
    • shared Giovanni Sarracino and Maria Rosa Saviano from Pastene
    • shared Arturo Vallone from Esperia
    • Lorenzo Avallone and Maria Cristina Romagnano from Postiglione
  • A's kids:
    • shared Giovanni Sarracino and Maria Rosa Saviano from Pastene
    • Egidio Eufemio and Antoinette Trevignia from Castelmezzano
  • R's kids:
    • shared Giovanni Sarracino and Maria Rosa Saviano from Pastene
    • Carmine Sarracino and Maria Rosa dell'Aquila from Pastene
    • father's side from Germany and Ireland. Not in scope for this project.
  • J's kids:
    • shared Giovanni Sarracino and Maria Rosa Saviano from Pastene
    • Matteo Rignanese and Angela Maria Frattaruolo from Monte Sant'Angelo
  • B's kids:
    • shared Giovanni Sarracino and Maria Rosa Saviano from Pastene
    • Mario Maleri and Ida Mattioli from Pesaro
  • My paternal 1st cousins:
    • shared Pietro Iamarino from Colle Sannita
    • shared Maria Rosa Caruso from Pesco Sannita
    • shared Pasquale Iamarino from Colle Sannita
    • Silvio Tagliamonte from Ponza

Whew! That's what years of research can do for you.

Part Two of Two. Begin plotting your map. You can use Google Maps for this project, but you'll probably need to have or create a free Google account to save it.

  • Go to google.com/maps and clicked Saved in the left column. This should work even if you've never saved anything.
  • Click Maps near the top-right, then click CREATE MAP at the bottom.
  • To give your map a name, like Cousins' Roots Map, click the words Untitled Map. I also renamed the Untitled Layer to Ancestors. You could choose to create different layers for different sets of cousins.
  • Consulting your list, search for an immigrant ancestor's hometown on the map.
  • When you find a town, hover over its name in the left-side control panel and click the + sign that appears. This opens up a detail box. At the bottom of the box, look for and click the pencil so you can make an edit. I'm changing my saved places from just the place name to Ancestor's Name, Place Name. For instance, Pietro Iamarino, Colle Sannita. Click Save when you're done.
Go through these 4 steps to begin creating your unique ancestral family tree map.
Go through these 4 steps to begin creating your unique ancestral family tree map.

Open up the Base map section at the bottom of the control panel. Try out different map styles to see which you like best. I chose the Light Landmass map to help my map pins and labels stand out. But I switched back to the first option when I needed to see street names or more detail.

Now click the words Uniform style in the control panel. Change Set labels from description to name. This puts your Ancestor Name, Place Name labels on the map.

When I clicked Uniform style again, I chose to Group place by name. Suddenly all my map pins had different colors, which is very nice.

Since I have multiple people from the same town, I couldn't see some of their names. Only the last one I entered in a town showed. To get around this problem, I chose different locations in town for my people who came from one town. I can click a different part of town for each person and add them there. It took me a couple of tries to make sure the names were far enough apart not to overlap one another. I also combined married couples from the same small town into one pin.

When you're happy with your map, click Share in the control panel. Be sure to click Anyone with this link can view. At the bottom you'll find a link you can copy and give to your cousins.

Click around to find different options to customize your ancestral family tree map.
Click around to find different options to customize your ancestral family tree map.

See what your cousins think, but you can make the map labels simpler by using the person's name only—not their town. The map itself will tell you their town. Also, if it works for you, you could use only a last name as the label.

I like that this map is interactive. You can zoom in and out and get a good idea how close or far apart your ancestors lived. My cousins want us to take a group trip to the places where our map pins are so densely clustered.

Wouldn't it be nice to print this map to a PDF file and give it to your cousins? You can! Here's how:

  • Zoom in or out on the map to make all your pins visible.
  • Click the 3 vertical dots to the right of your map name in the control panel and choose Print map.
  • Select PDF and click Print. Play around with how much of a zoom gives you the best results.

The resulting PDF includes all the map pins you created in a list on the left, and the map on the right. If you create a separate layer for each group of cousins, you can easily print a unique gift for each set of cousins. Have fun!

Bonus! At the last second, I discovered you're a click away from exploring your map in the intensity of Google Earth. Click the 3 vertical dots to the right of your map name in the control panel and choose View in Google Earth.

17 October 2023

4 Must-Have Resources for Your Italian Family Tree

Once in a while you'll find a document for your family tree with a new last name or place name you can't quite read. When that happens to me, I know exactly which free websites to go to.

Here are the 4 Italian genealogy bookmarks I use to solve a mysterious last name or place name. Two can help you decipher a last name and two can help you find a place on the map.

One quick note about using these websites. You'll usually see a pop-up ad before you can proceed. To dismiss the ad, click the button that says "Chiudi" (Close).

1. Map of Italian Last Names

Use the "Cognomix" website at https://www.cognomix.it/mappe-dei-cognomi-italiani to confirm the spelling of a last name. The site's main purpose is to show you all the places in Italy where you'll find any given last name.

That's very handy when you want to see if a last name is still found in a certain town. But another important use of the site is to check the spelling of a last name. I have one ancestor who came from a different town, but raised her family and died in one of my ancestral hometowns. Her last name was hard to decipher. I found it on more than one document, but that didn't help me. It looked a little different each time.

To figure out the right spelling, I went to the Cognomix site to try out different spellings. To use the site, scroll down a bit until you see a black bar that says "Mappe dei cognomi italiani." Beneath the bar is a blank box with the heading "Cognome," Italian for surname or last name. Type a name in the box and click the "Cerca" (Search) button.

First you'll see a map of Italy showing you how many families have that name and in which regions. Click any region to see how many families have that name in different provinces. Click any province to see the number of families with that name in different towns.

But—before you click the Cerca button, see if any suggested names pop up below the box where you're typing. If there are no suggestions, you're likely to find no results when you click Cerca. And you may find a better suggestion.

Can't read that Italian last name? Bookmark these free websites and solve the problem.
Can't read that Italian last name? Bookmark these free websites and solve the problem.

I used Cognomix to figure out the ancestor whose name was new to me. The first writing of her name looked like Gajdia. (Note that sometimes in Italian words you'll see a j instead of an i.) When I type Gajdia in the Cognomix box, there are no suggestions. When I change it to Gaidia, there are still no suggestions. But one time, her name looked like Gasdia. When I type that into the box, Gasdia comes up as a suggestion. Now I can click Cerca to see where the name Gasdia comes from. I expect her to come from a town very close to where she lived after her marriage.

I discovered this uncommon name comes mostly from the Campania and Campobasso regions. That works for my family. By clicking a region and then a province, I can narrow down her likely place of birth. There's a good chance she came from either the city of Campobasso or the town of Fragneto Monforte.

My ancestor was born too early to find in vital records. If she'd been born later, I could try to track her records down in one of these two towns.

2. The Italian White Pages

The Pagine Bianche at https://www.paginebianche.it shows you exactly where to find a last name in Italy today. Look for a search area front and center on the website. Click the "Privati" button to search for a person by name (the default is to search for businesses). Then put the last name you want in the box that says "Nome, Cognome." In the second box, you can enter the town or province you want or make it blank (the default seems to be Roma).

If you get no results for a name, you may be spelling it wrong. When I put in Gasdia, I get 16 listings. One is in Campobasso and one is in Fragneto l'Abate, which borders Fragneto Monforte.

You can use the Italian White Pages to see if anyone with your last name still lives in your ancestral hometown. I find 3 people with my maiden name still living in my grandfather's hometown. I know exactly who they are. But there's another man with my maiden name in a neighboring town who I'd like to meet.

3. List of Italian Cities

The website at http://en.comuni-italiani.it/alfa is very important to my family tree research. Let's say I'm looking at marriage records from one of my ancestral hometowns. I see that the groom comes from another town, but I can't quite read the name of it. I think it starts with Mont and ends in an o.

The List of Italian Cities page divides all the country's towns into 98 groups (if I counted right). You do need to make an educated guess about the first letter of the town name. Then you can click the right group to get started.

I'll click the MONT–MONZ group to look for towns that begin with Mont and end in o. Once you click the group, scan the alphabetical list of town names to see if any seem like a possibility. You can click each possibility to see where it is on the map. That may help you rule out some towns because they're too far away.

Can't understand that Italian town name? Bookmark these free websites and find that place on the map.
Can't understand that Italian town name? Bookmark these free websites and find that place on the map.

When you find a town that seems like the right one, compare its spelling to the original handwriting. Do you feel confident in your choice?

This website has come through for me time and time again.

4. The Parishes in Italy

If I have a baptism record for someone from another town, I like to add the address of the church to my family tree. But what if I can't quite read the church name?

That's when you need the list of Italian parishes at https://italia.indettaglio.it/eng/parrocchie/parrocchie.html. The main page of the website divides the country into regions. Click a region to find a search form with 3 categories:

  • Province
  • Town
  • Village

Use the most specific of the 3 that you can. For instance, I'd like to find the parish name for a town in the Avellino province called Santa Paolina. I can choose Santa Paolina from the Town list and click the Search button.

The results page tells me that Santa Paolina Vergine is the parish for this town. It evens tells me how many people belong to the parish. And it gives me the address, Piazza Novembre IV, that I can use in my family tree for baptisms and marriages. If I enter that address in Bing Maps or Google Maps, I can see the church for myself!

You may want to create a folder of bookmarks just for Italian genealogy, as I've done. That way they're handy when you need them. As you work on your family tree, turn to these 4 tools to help you figure out a hard-to-read last name or place name.