27 June 2023

Do Your DNA Ethnicity Results Make No Sense?

Two people contacted me lately about an odd ethnicity in their DNA results. The three of us share ancestry in my grandfather's hometown, so they wondered if I'm seeing what they're seeing. I'm not, but I have a few curious results, too.

That's why I was excited to join another Diahan Southard webinar titled "DNA Ethnicity Estimates: How to Actually Use Them!" One of the most important things I learned was, basically:

If your results show less than 5% of an unexpected ethnicity, it's probably not reliable.

Here's how to get a better idea of its reliability. I'll use AncestryDNA as an example, but most DNA websites have similar tools.

  • Click on the unexpected ethnicity in your results. I chose my mother's unexpected 2% Portugal.
  • This opens a panel that tells you a bit more, such as "Primarily located in Portugal; Also found in Spain." Their map tells me this ethnicity may cover Spain's whole west side.
  • Now look at your percentage. In this case, it says 2% Portugal, but beneath that it says it "can range from 0% to 5%." That's right. It's as low as 0%.

I've documented my mother's ancestors in a small area of Southern Italy going back to the very early 1700s. Could someone have come from Spain or Portugal before that? Sure. And since FamilytreeDNA tells me I have 6% Iberian Peninsula, there probably is some ancient connection.

But that doesn't matter to my family tree, does it? I'll never make a documented connection to a centuries-old ancestor from Spain or Portugal.

My father's results have a laughable result of less than 1% Norway. Less than 1%! When I click it I see that his estimate is 0%, but it can range from 0% to 1%. That sounds like we can disregard it, don't you think? He has no Norway on MyHeritage.

In fact, all Mom and Dad's ethnicities but Southern Italy and Northern Italy could be as low as 0%. The same is true for me, with one exception. Even my Northern Italy could be as low as 0%.

Dig deeper into tiny, unexpected ethnicity results.
Dig deeper into tiny, unexpected ethnicity results.

AncestryDNA says the DNA samples they test you against "divide the world into 84 overlapping regions and groups." I can see that what they're calling Southern Italy and Northern Italy overlap close to the area we come from. Taken together, this makes me confident we are Southern Italy, going back at least as far as the paper records go.

But, if you *don't* know where all your people came from for the last 300+ years, pay attention to your unexpected results. They may be the clue you need.

A Range of Ethnicity Results

Why would AncestryDNA tell me my Northern Italy is 8% but it may range from 0 to 39%? This is from their website:

"We compare your DNA to a reference panel made up of DNA from groups of people who have deep roots in one region. We look at 1,001 sections of your DNA and assign each section to the ethnicity region it looks most like."

They look at 1,001 different sections of your DNA! Your DNA isn't one homogeneous strand. Each section can show a different percentage of an ethnicity. That means that my 1,001 test results for Northern Italian DNA ranged from none to a high of 39%. The average of all the tests was 8%.

Where the Action Is

For a long time my AncestryDNA results didn't show any of what they call Communities. Now I have three that either touch or overlap one another. And they are 100% true to my documented, massive family tree.

From Mom's side:

  • Avellino & Southwest Foggia Provinces
  • South Benevento & North Avellino Provinces

From Dad's side:

  • Campobasso & East Isernia Provinces

I can prove that our documented ancestors are from the Benevento & Avellino Provinces. AncestryDNA bases these communities on the family trees of DNA matches. And they're very accurate, according to DNA expert Diahan Southard.

My husband's AncestryDNA test has a disappointingly low number of DNA matches. But I love his community! It fits everything we know about his ancestors: "Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Fukuoka, Olta & Kumamoto." Here's what Ancestry says about how they determined this as his community:

"You, and all the members of this community, are linked through shared ancestors. You probably have family who lived in this area for years—and maybe still do."

I'll leave you with another great tip from Southard. Say you're trying to trace a close ancestor—a 2nd great grandparent or closer. And you have no idea where on earth they came from.

Do you have a DNA ethnicity that doesn't match what you know about your ancestry? Check your mystery DNA matches' ethnicities. (On AncestryDNA, Ethnicity is a tab, like Shared Matches.) Do any of these matches have a decent amount of that one unexpected ethnicity? Check their family tree and Shared Matches to see if their information that can help you.

Also, take a look at which ethnicities you actually share with your decent DNA matches. If they don't have small amounts of something you have, then that ethnicity has no bearing on your connection.

What's the bottom line with all these ethnicities?

  • Be sure to check out the range of percentages. If it says it's as low as zero, it's may be too little to matter.
  • If the average is below 5%, don't expect to find a documented ancestor from that part of the world.
  • Check to see how your DNA matches' ethnic percentages compare to yours.

If some of your DNA ethnicity results simply don't make sense, give them a closer look. If you can see they're not worth pursuing, don't worry about them.

Here's a good way to look at it in mathematical terms:

  • Each of your parents gave you 50% of your DNA.
  • Each of your grandparents gave you 25% of your DNA.
  • Each of your great grandparents gave you 12½% of your DNA.
  • Each of your 2nd great grandparents gave you 6¼% of your DNA.
A tiny percentage is either a statistical error or a very distant ancestor.
A tiny percentage is either a statistical error or a very distant ancestor.

I know exactly where all my 3rd great grandparents came from, as well as 55 of my 64 4th great grandparents. It's crazy to imagine that one of my nine missing 4th great grandparents walked to Southern Italy from Norway or Portugal! That gives me the confidence to ignore those trace ethnicities.

How about you?

Don't lose any sleep over tiny, unexpected DNA ethnicities.
Don't lose any sleep over tiny, unexpected DNA ethnicities.

20 June 2023

How to Use a Foreign-Language Book for Family Tree Research

Last week I mentioned that I own the definitive book on the history of one of my ancestral hometowns. It's called "Storia di Pesco Sannita," by Mario D'Agostino, and of course it's written in Italian.

I have plans to translate parts of it using the Google Translate app on my phone, but it's a lot of pages. So first, I'll pick out facts that add interesting details about the lives of some people in my family tree.

I often see people saying they can't make any use of documents or books in another language. If I could, I'd grab every one of those people by the shoulders and shake them really hard.

You don't have to read or translate every single word to get meaning out of foreign text. All you have to do is:

  • Look for names. The language doesn't matter if you know some of the names you're looking for.
  • Pay attention to dates. If they aren't written in numerals, like 1852, they'll be in longhand. The FamilySearch Research Wiki has all kinds of help for this. Go to their website, choose your country of interest, and look for the Genealogical Word List. You'll find numbers, months, and common words on vital records.
  • Use a translator app for context. If you're translating a neatly printed text, like in book, get the Google Translate app for your phone. You can select the camera within the app, point it at a page, and you'll see it change to English. Pretty amazing.
If the one and only book about your ancestral hometown is in another language, there's so much you can learn from it!
If the one and only book about your ancestral hometown is in another language, there's so much you can learn from it!

Here's a sample of the details I'm finding in my Pesco Sannita book that aren't in the vital records:

  • The town had 461 inhabitants in 1697, rising steadily to 2,460 inhabitants in 1857. (There were only 1,925 in 2020.)
  • Lorenzo Maria Pennucci, born in 1763, was the town mayor in 1811. I confirmed this by opening a few 1811 birth records to see his signature at the bottom. It isn't something I would have noticed otherwise.
  • Town doctor Paolo Emilio Pennucci, 1800–1846, was too sick to help his patients during an 1846 epidemic of typhus. He likely died of the disease himself.
  • The town made Benito Mussolini an honorary citizen in 1924. Uh oh.
You can harvest the goods from a foreign-language book.
You can harvest the goods from a foreign-language book.

I discovered these tidbits by:

  • skimming the text for names
  • locating the person in my family tree, and
  • using the translation app for context.

Before this book, I bought another Italian language book about the town of Colle Sannita. My friend, Doctor Fabio Paolucci, compiled this book from the 1742 tax census of the town. It lists more than 560 households with names, ages, and relationships.

You'd better believe I wasn't going to let language slow me down. I knew I had some very early ancestors waiting for me in those pages. All I had to translate (until I memorized them) were the words for each household's belongs: sheep, oxen, pigs, mules, vineyards, vegetable gardens, houses, etc.

With so much technology at your fingertips, how can you pass up a foreign-language book about your ancestors?
With so much technology at your fingertips, how can you pass up a foreign-language book about your ancestors?

If you have the chance to get your hands on a book about your ancestral hometown, take the book! You can pull facts out of it pretty easily. And there will be goodies in there you can't get anywhere else.

13 June 2023

Discovering Life and Death Trends in Your Ancestral Hometown

As I looked at my past article about how to use the Italian Ancestry website, one reader comment stood out. She wanted to know why on earth anyone should download all the vital records from their town. Her thought was, "Why spend all that effort when I only need my grandfather's birth record?"

This past week I've been using my downloaded records from one town to add more than 1,300 people to my family tree. In the past, I had only gathered my great grandmother's closest family. Now it's time to connect everyone—as I've done with my two grandfathers' towns.

For at least several hundred years, my ancestors lived in a few rural Southern Italian towns. Being there for so long, there was a lot of intermarrying. As a result, entire towns have a connection through blood or marriage.

The mission of my family tree (current population: 58,553) is to find all the connections.

While working on the town of Pesco Sannita (formerly Pescolamazza), I spotted a terrible trend. This is something I would never have known without reviewing *all* the vital records.

Not only is this infant mortality rate horrifying, but the 1st man's 1st wife had 2 stillborn babies before she died at age 29.
Not only is this infant mortality rate horrifying, but the 1st man's 1st wife had 2 stillborn babies before she died at age 29.

Pesco Sannita had a horrifying infant mortality rate in the first half of the 1800s. It was so shocking that a typical woman was giving birth to 10 babies, and only one or two lived long enough to marry.

The alarming death rate made me realize what a miracle it was for my ancestors to have lived to adulthood.

Here are some examples of what I discovered going through the vital records:

  • My 3rd great grandparents, Giuseppe Caruso and Maria Luigia Pennucci, had 7 children between 1829 and 1848. Only 3 lived to marry.
  • My 4th great uncle Francesco Saverio Pennucci and his wife Antonia had 8 children between 1824 and 1844. Only 4 made it past infancy.
  • Distant relatives Filippo Girardi and Caterina Gentile had 9 children between 1827 and 1844. Only 2 grew up.
  • My 5th great aunt Maria Luigia Girardi and her husband had 6 children between 1816 and 1827. Only 1 made it into her 20s before dying.

Because I've studied the neighboring towns, I know this infant mortality rate is unique. My goodness—what was going on in this town at the time? The town's website says Pescolamazza fought for independence from its feudal lord in 1817. The legal proceedings dragged into into the 1850s.

There is one definitive book on the subject that isn't online. It's called "Storia di [History of] Pesco Sannita" by Mario d'Agostino. Suddenly I remembered that a distant cousin gave me a book about the town years ago. When I found it on my bookshelf, I saw it is the very book I couldn't find online! And it mentions a lot of names that I can tie to vital records. I started translating the book years ago, but I didn't get far. Uh oh. Another genealogy project for me.

A much appreciated genealogy gift from a cousin I met online is helping me understand the sad, deadly history of my great grandmother's town.
A much appreciated genealogy gift from a cousin I met online is helping me understand the sad, deadly history of my great grandmother's town.

I used the Google Translate app on my phone for a quick-and-dirty translation of a few pages. It seems as if the town became isolated once they severed ties to their feudal lord. They were unable to take their goods to market. They had a real problem to overcome.

They needed to build a new bridge, at great cost to many, including the townspeople. By today's standards, it took an eternity to build that bridge and restore financial security to the townspeople. This happened in about 1861.

The mortality rate was much better in the second half of the 1800s. In an 1892 newspaper advertisement, the town is looking to hire a doctor. The ad ran several times in the Corriere Sanitario—the Healthcare Courier—way up north in Milano. I suspect the high infant mortality rate was due to poverty, malnutrition, and a lack of medical care.

Visiting Southern Italy today, it's hard to imagine the extreme poverty and lack of opportunity our ancestors faced. All we see is the sublime landscape and ancient architecture.

It took a deep dive into the town's vital records to realize the daily threat to my ancestors' lives. The next time you wonder why I'm piecing together my ancestral towns, remember that's what it took to notice a deadly pattern.

06 June 2023

Inspiration Leads to a Family Tree Growth Spurt

When your family tree is always on your mind, inspiration waits around every corner. This week I found 3 sources of inspiration while going about my usual activities. That led to a whirlwind of activity, and I added 339 people to my family tree. In one day!

Inspiration Source #1

I spent years working as a corporate website manager. I've brought those skills to this blog and my personal website, forthecousins.com. While looking at my sites' statistics, I started scrolling through a page on my personal site. It has cemetery photos I took in one of my ancestral hometowns.

My great grandmother Maria Rosa Caruso came from a small town called Pescolamazza. Today it's called Pesco Sannita. On my two visits there, I took photographs in the cemetery, mostly of graves with the names Caruso and Girardi. But I never added the people from these photos to my family tree.

Your own family tree notes and photos can be the inspiration you need now.
Your own family tree notes and photos can be the inspiration you need now.

I had very few Carusos in my tree—only my closest relatives. I need a lot more generations of cousins to figure out where the people from the cemetery belong.

I have thousands of Italian vital records on my computer that I renamed to make them searchable. That makes it easy to find people and piece their families together. (See "How to Make the Best of the New Antenati Website.") The 339 new people I added are the tip of the iceberg. I know I can fit everyone from my little towns together through blood or marriage. It's all a matter of time.

I'm eager to add Pesco Sannita relatives to my tree, but I stumbled across another discovery.

Inspiration Source #2

Once in a while I upload a new copy of my family tree's GEDCOM file to Geneanet.org, updating my tree there. I happened to notice, for the first time, that I can upload my DNA results there, too. It's another free resource for international DNA matches. (See "These DNA Sites Expand Your Tree in New Directions.")

I looked through my 95 new DNA matches, viewing the family tree of those who had one. Many of my matches are French. That makes sense, since Geneanet's headquarters are in Paris. But I have no French roots and my French-named matches have no Italian names in their trees.

Still, I did find one terrific match. I recognized his last name, and all the last names in his tree, as coming from one of my ancestral hometowns: Circello.

Keep your eyes open for genealogy research inspiration. It could be anywhere!
Keep your eyes open for genealogy research inspiration. It could be anywhere!

I have a 3rd great grandfather named Francesco Saverio Liguori from Circello. It's another beautiful little town that I enjoyed visiting. That gives me a definite interest in the town. In fact, I've downloaded all the available vital records for Circello. When I get a little bored with one of my other genealogy projects, I always turn to Circello. I've been renaming the town's records to make them searchable. I have 26 years' worth of document images to go.

On Geneanet, I'm looking at a distant cousin's very impressive Circello family tree. We share very little DNA, but to be honest, I'm more excited by his family tree than by him. His tree will be helpful in showing me the big picture as I comb through individual documents.

I see at least one couple from my family tree in his tree. (The wife in this couple has my maiden name of Iamarino.) His information takes these people back an extra generation to the late 1600s. This guy has done his homework. A kindred spirit.

Inspiration Source #3

I belong to Facebook groups for a few of my ancestral Italian hometowns. Sometimes I see posts from people trying to research their roots in that town. The other day I helped out 2 such people with roots in Baselice. I gave them names and dates from the town's vital records. Then I made sure those names are also in my family tree.

There are still tons of people from the post-1860 vital records of Baselice who need to be fit into my tree. One of my ongoing projects is to make sure everyone from the town finds their place in my tree. These online encounters inspired me to do some more of that work.

With so much inspiration all around, how can anyone get tired of their family tree research? Instead of getting frustrated by a brick wall, follow through on that inspiration. Expand your family and expand your history. I try to offer fun and unusual projects to you through this blog. Why not try one of these popular ones?