26 September 2023

How to Use DNA Matches to Go Beyond Vital Records

As I've explained to death, I'm fitting every vital record from my hometowns into one huge family tree. (See "Why Your Half 4th Cousin Once Removed Matters.") But the vital records have limitations. In my towns, there are no civil records before 1809, deaths and marriages end in 1860, and births end in 1915. Then there's a brief hurrah from 1931–1942 with death and marriage records only.

That means I have tons of people who become a loose end. If they married from 1861–1930, and it isn't written on their birth record, I don't know who they married. I don't know what became of them.

That's where DNA matches come in. Because of my obsessive research, I've never found a DNA match who can help me get back further in my family tree. But they can bring me forward! They know who their grandparent married.

Today I'm going to seek out a DNA match who can tie up loose ends for me. I'm looking through my dad's DNA matches for anyone with a decent-sized family tree.

This simple technique can lead you to research that ties up loose ends in your family tree.
This simple technique can lead you to research that ties up loose ends in your family tree.

I look at a match's direct ancestors in the tree preview Ancestry shows on the match page. Which last names do I recognize? I found a match where I recognize a few names on her maternal side. On this branch I see 4 last names I know, and they're all from the town my maiden name comes from—Colle Sannita:

  • Finelli
  • Mascia
  • Basilone
  • Galasso

I found both of this DNA match's maternal grandparents in my family tree already. But I had no way of knowing they married one another. Her grandfather Angelo is my 5C2R (5th cousin twice removed). Her grandmother Maria Grazia is my 4C3R. The combination of my 5C2R marrying my 4C3R may be making this match look like a closer relative than she is.

She's categorized in my dad's 4th–6th cousin range because they share 36cM. But those 36cM come from 4 different segments. Their longest segment is only 10cM. They may be as distant as 7th cousins. (Now that this DNA match is in my family tree, I can see she's my dad's 6th cousin. That relationship is not among the possibilities listed on Ancestry. It's far more distant.)

Her family tree says Angelo married Maria Grazia and they had a child in New York. With that hint, I can research the couple in America for proof of their relationship. Here's what I found:

  • Angelo's draft registration card confirms his birth date (I have the Italian birth record). It says his wife is Grace (an Anglicized Grazia).
  • Grace's U.S. naturalization record confirms her maiden name and town of birth. Her birthday is the same as on her Italian birth record, but the year is off by one. The document lists her 5 children with their birth dates. I love when that happens. One of the kids is the DNA match's mother.
  • The 1920 U.S. census shows Angelo and Grace living with their children and Angelo's parents. Angelo's birth record confirms his parents' names.
  • The NYC Municipal Archives website has their 1908 marriage certificate. (How cool is it that they lived a few doors away from my grandmother?) Their parents' names are on the certificate, removing any possible remaining doubt.

It bothers me so much that the vital records for my towns have so many limitations. What became of all those 1880s babies? Who did they marry? When did they die?

Now that I've shown how a match's family tree can provide the right clues, I know I can tie up more and more loose ends.

Set Yourself Up for Success

To tie up loose ends in your family tree using your DNA matches:

  • Filter your DNA match list to those with a linked public family tree. Make sure the tree has more than 10 people in it.
  • Choose a match and scan their direct ancestors for familiar last names.
  • Check to see if one of their people is in, or can fit into, your family tree.
Choose the best candidates among your DNA matches to find the answers that were out of your reach.
Choose the best candidates among your DNA matches to find the answers that were out of your reach.

Don't stop there. Unless your match has sources and documents in their family tree, treat their data as hints. Do the research yourself and find the proof you need. In the end, you'll know exactly how you're related to your DNA match.

But better than that, you'll start tying up those loose ends.

19 September 2023

Why Your Half 4th Cousin Once Removed Matters

I've just finished the second of my most ambitious genealogy research projects. I created inventories of available vital records from my ancestral hometowns. Then I reviewed each document, placing about 95% of the people into my family tree.

First I did my Grandpa Iamarino's town of Colle Sannita. Now I've wrapped up my Grandpa Leone's neighboring town of Baselice. I've shared 5 inventory spreadsheets on my www.forthecousins.com website. And I'll have another town ready soon (Circello).

The reason 95% of the people from the documents can fit in my family tree is that the towns are remote. They were even more isolated before automobiles. Everyone in town was likely to marry a neighbor. The 5% of people I can't fit into my tree are:

  • out-of-towners or
  • members of noble families who married other aristocrats.

Why Spend All That Time?

The benefits of this time-consuming project include:

  • Gaining familiarity with all the last names in town.
  • Overcoming bad handwriting because of that familiarity.
  • Finding connections to DNA matches because their people are in your tree.
  • Knowing exactly who everyone in town was and their relationship to you.

The first step in such a project is making your inventory. View the town's documents online (find Italian vital records on Antenati or FamilySearch). Then make a brief entry in a spreadsheet for each image. My preferred format is: document number name of subject "di" father's name. ("Di" is Italian for of, and that's how these documents denote the father's name: di Giovanni, di Antonio, etc.)

An example is: 82 Adamo Leone di Giovanni & 83 Antonia Maria Colucci di Leonardo. That's a single document image showing 2 birth records. Document #82 is my grandfather's 1891 birth record. He is the subject of the document and his father is Giovanni. Also in the image is document #83 for Antonia Maria Colucci, daughter of Leonardo.

No matter how distant the relationship, there's value to every connection in your ancestral hometown.
No matter how distant the relationship, there's value to every connection in your ancestral hometown.

The towns of Colle Sannita and Baselice each had under 3,000 inhabitants in he 1800s. The vital records have added at least 30,000 people to my family tree. I have a complete inventory for the town of Pesco Sannita ready and waiting for my review. I'll go through the same process with Pesco as I did for Colle and Baselice:

  • View each vital record to see if the subject, their parents, or their spouse are already in my family tree.
  • When I can find where this person fits, add the facts from the document, including dates, places, and the names of family members.
  • If I can't find a place for this person in my tree, I highlight that line in the spreadsheet in yellow. It's very possible that their connection will show up after I review more documents. I'll make a second pass through the spreadsheet later to see if they can fit.

I've listed the benefits of this project and explained my process. But you may still be wondering why it's worth such a huge commitment of time. Three reasons spring to mind:

  1. Connection. Familiarity with the people from my hometowns gives me a strong connection to these places. They aren't merely the quaint and beautiful towns I've visited a few times. They are me! I love knowing how deep my roots go in each town.
  2. Knowledge. Often I see people on Facebook asking how they can learn more about their ancestors' day-to-day lives. If you come from a remote town and you're not descended from nobility, you're not going to find their journal tucked away in some archive. They were likely illiterate and living a life of hard work. You may find some general writings about life in that area at a certain time. A history of your ancestral town may provide those types of clues. Otherwise, all you can learn about your ancestor is that they came from this family, married this person, had this job, had these children, and died. Those family names and dates are what you can discover in the town's vital records.
  3. DNA Matches. Because I've studied my ancestral hometowns' documents, I can quickly recognize my entry point into a DNA match's family tree. If you're only looking at a match's tree for your last name, you're missing out on that entry point.

The title of this article mentions a half 4th cousin once removed. I chose someone from my family tree randomly. This cousin is a descendant of my 4th great grandfather Gennaro Pilla and his second wife. Gennaro had 2 children with my 4th great grandmother, and 5 children with his 2nd wife. That's 5 threads I'd have missed if I paid attention only to my direct line. And this particular half 4C1R led me to his son, my half 5th cousin John, who introduced me to a ton of relatives in Canada. I met lots of people with my maiden name on that trip to Canada. That's a rarity.

I love being able to encompass entire towns with my family tree. If you're staying on the straight-and-narrow, gathering information about your direct ancestors only, you're missing out on so many connections!

12 September 2023

Finding and Fixing an Awkward Typo in Your Family Tree

I spent too many months fixing errors in my family tree to tolerate any more. I knew my previous lemon of a computer was the main source of the errors. Tons of duplicate source citations were born of failed syncs between Family Tree Maker and Ancestry.com. (See "Take the Time to Improve the Sources in Your Family Tree.")

Recently, I keep seeing another type of error. I'll notice a person with a male name marked as a female. I wondered if it was a typo I kept making. When I add a new name, my fingers are so fast on the keyboard that I sometimes press F for female before I realize it. I've caught myself doing it, and then I can fix it before moving on.

How many of these typos are in my huge family tree? How many men did I mark female? How many women did I mark male? How can I find them all?

Don't read anything snarky or political into this subject matter because it isn't there. There's one very important reason to make sure you've used the right gender. If you wind up with a wife labeled male, the couple's children will get her last name. Is that how names work in your culture?

The less important reason for fixing this error is you don't want to look like you don't know what you're doing. If you're recording history, you've got to strive for accuracy. I record each person by the name on their birth certificate, even if they went by another name in life. So I'm going to record their sex, too.

Looking for an Easy Way to Spot the Error

Since I use Family Tree Maker to build my tree, I wondered if a filter might help. I created a filter of all people in the tree with a sex of female. That cut my 66,000-person family tree list of names about in half. But that's too many names to scroll through and spot the out-of-place names.

I thought of Family Tree Analyzer because I knew I could sort the data like a spreadsheet. I opened my latest GEDCOM file and went to the Main Lists / Individuals tab. I sorted the Forenames column from A to Z (an important first step). Then I filtered the Sex column to display only F for female.

Is this type of error hiding in your family tree?
Is this type of error hiding in your family tree?

If you only keep your family tree online and do your work there, download a GEDCOM from the website. Open the file on your computer with Family Tree Analyzer, and make all the corrections one by one.

My list was still long, of course, but it didn't take too long to scan. With the first names in alphabetical order, I could scroll quickly past everyone named Maria, for instance. I acted on 4 types of first names:

  1. Clearly male names. If you have lots of names based in another language, understand the rules of that language. Most of my Italian first names ending in the letter a will be female, but there are exceptions. Nicola, Mattia, Andrea, Giambattista, Zaccaria, etc.
  2. Possibly male names. Among my Italian ancestors, the first name Felice could belong to either a male or a female. In English, think of a name like Dana.
  3. Typos that stood out in the alphabetical list. I saw Antona instead of Antonia.
  4. A last name as a first name. A name like Viola may be a first name, but in my tree it's also a last name. I need to see this person's full name. Italian names are often written last-name-first on vital records, so I may have absentmindedly entered a name backwards.

Of all the females, there were 92 I needed to review in my family tree and a much smaller number to change to male. When I finished, I changed my filter in Family Tree Analyzer to display only people with an M in the sex column. I scanned the long list for any female names, questionable names, or typos. I didn't count them, but there were at least 10 I changed to male.

If you're working on your family tree, a wrong-sex error is very visible when you find one. The person's name may be in a field of pink instead of blue, or they're on the left side when you expected them to be on the right.

I don't know how each of these errors happened. Now that it's top-of-mind, I'm hopeful I won't keep making the wrong choice out of muscle memory.

05 September 2023

This Number is Crucial to Your DNA Match Research

Another day, another look at my mom's DNA match list. This time I wanted to find the first still-unknown person in her list worth researching. A video by DNA expert Diahan Southard encouraged me to research a match who shared a long segment of DNA with Mom. That means looking past the total number of shared cM to see the longest "segment" of shared cM.

You can find the longest segment length by clicking the amount of shared cM to see more details. This is true on most if not all DNA websites.

Increase Your Odds of Success

I began this exercise by looking only at matches who showed a family tree. A quick look at a few trees told me who they were. "Oh, that's my 3rd cousin through Immacolata Leone. Noted."

The match I chose to research has my great grandmother's maiden name in her family tree. Saviano. I'm always interested in finding another Saviano. And they've been hard to find.

This match shares with Mom a longest segment of 27 cM. Diahan Southard didn't specify a longest-segment range worth researching, but her example showed 32 cM. So 27 cM is pretty close.

Do the Research Yourself

First I had to figure out my connection to her ancestor, Giuseppe Saviano. This match supplied an exact birth and death date for him in her family tree, but no locations. I knew the dates would be a big help.

A search on Ancestry told me Giuseppe came to America and lived in Cleveland, Ohio. I know lots of relatives who wound up in Cleveland, including my father. I found Giuseppe in someone else's Ancestry tree. He had the right dates, Cleveland as his place of death, and San Nicola, Salerno, Italy, as his place of birth.

My absolute first thought was, "I wonder if he was really born in San Nicola Manfredi." (That's in Benevento, not Salerno.) Why would I think that? Because that town borders the town where my Saviano ancestors were born. I know there was a decent cross-over between the two towns. And I have all the San Nicola Manfredi vital records at my disposal. I've found many familiar last names in the San Nicola Manfredi vital records.

So, was Giuseppe Saviano actually born in San Nicola Manfredi on 1 Jan 1889? Check the documents—yes! Here he is. And Giuseppe's U.S. World War II draft registration card confirms he was born in San Nicola Manfredi on 1 Jan 1889.

Researching a DNA match led me to 5 more children of my 3rd great uncle. They were born in another town.
Researching a DNA match led me to 5 more children of my 3rd great uncle. They were born in another town.

But the true brick-wall busting moment came from the other facts on that birth record. Giuseppe's parents were Giovanni Saviano and Giuseppa Sarracino. I know that couple! They're in my family tree!

In my tree I saw Giovanni was my 3rd great uncle. He's one of only two siblings I've found for my 2nd great grandfather, Antonio Saviano. They come from a hamlet called Pastene in a town called Sant'Angelo a Cupolo. The town was part of the Papal States, so they didn't keep civil records before 1861. Don't get me started on that. I could cry at the dead ends that causes me.

I'd already found 6 children for Giovanni and Giuseppa. They were all born in Pastene or in greater Sant'Angelo a Cupolo. One of their daughters came to America in 1898 with my 2GG Antonio Saviano and his family. She died in 1901. But I don't know anything else about the other children.

Expand Your Search Area

Thanks to this DNA match and a hunch, I now know Giovanni Saviano and Giuseppa Sarracino moved to neighboring San Nicola Manfredi. Or maybe the borderline moved and they stayed put. Either way, they had 2 more sons in San Nicola Manfredi in 1889 and 1890. I went through the birth records year-by-year looking for more. What I found tells me that Giuseppa died and Giovanni remarried and had 3 more children.

I wish the last 3 were born at the same address as the previous 2, but they weren't. I do know this Giovanni Saviano is the only one around who's having children during these years. And, like his brother (my 2GG), his occupation changes all the time:

  • 1875–1880: farmer
  • 1882–1885: merchant
  • 1889: shopkeeper
  • 1890–1896: industrialist
  • 1898: farmer again
  • 1901: shopkeeper again

The best thing about this discovery is that I've found Saviano cousins with roots in Ohio.

Lessons Learned

What lessons have I learned from this research?

  1. Don't frustrate yourself with DNA matches who show no family tree. Unless their shared matches have a story to tell, you may get nowhere.
  2. You may not find your connection to a DNA match with a short "longest segment." I don't know where the cutoff is, but you've got a better chance of success if their longest segment is about 30 cM or more.
  3. When your DNA match's family tree has sparse details, research their ancestor yourself. You may be more interested in genealogy research than they are. Or they may prefer to limit how much information they put out there.
  4. Spend time with online maps. Know the names of the towns surrounding your ancestor's town. Take a peek at records for neighboring towns to see if any last names are familiar to you.

I'm thrilled to make some kind of progress on my mother's dead-end branch. While I can't see vital records from their town before 1861, I may find traces of my family in neighboring towns.