14 May 2024

Follow Up on Genealogy Clues and Leads

I love when someone contacts me about my family tree. Some tell me they're getting tons of hints from my family tree. Others say their ancestor is in my tree and they're wondering how we're related.

Each contact, DNA match, and hint from another family tree is worth investigation. Find out what they have to offer to your family tree.

When a Possible Cousin Writes to You

Whenever I get these messages, I drop everything to get them the answers they're looking for. Last weekend a man in Australia contacted me, and in no time I figured out I'm related to his wife in 3 different ways. Then he mentioned he couldn't get far on his own Italian ancestors. So I sent him links to documents for his grandparents and great grandparents. I also gave him a link to my published index of all the vital records from his wife's and my ancestral hometown.

You owe it to yourself to follow up on genealogy leads. Any one could be the key to growing your family tree.
You owe it to yourself to follow up on genealogy leads. Any one could be the key to growing your family tree.

One DNA match wrote to me about the family name Capozza. I knew that name came from my 2nd great grandmother's hometown in Italy. So I began building out my match's tree within my own. With enough research, her big branch connected to me and beefed up my tree in the process. It was a worthwhile exercise. See "Let a DNA Match Guide Your Research for a While."

When You Make First Contact

I don't always wait for people to contact me. It can be a lot of fun to choose a DNA match, build their branch out, and present it to them. Plus it benefits your family tree. Of course you can do this work and still have them ghost you. That was the case with my 4th cousin once removed. I did the work and presented him his branch, but I don't know what he did with that information. He never wrote back to me.

Still another DNA match led me to dig into my 2nd great grandmother's Girardi ancestors. This match has since passed away, but she was grateful for the branch I gave her. She was going to share it with her sister-in-law, the family researcher. (See "Help Your DNA Match Expand their Family Tree.") In the end, the research helped my family tree. It had taken me a while to discover the Girardi name in my family tree. I was happy to chase down this match's family because it helped me flesh out my own.

Another time I figured out that a DNA match was my 3rd cousin. We share a set of 2nd great grandparents. I built out her family tree and sent her a link to it. She was very grateful and excited to learn more. See "Attracting a New DNA Match."

A 15% discount for readers of Fortify Your Family Tree!
A 15% discount for readers of Fortify Your Family Tree!

Other Types of Leads

Three years ago 3 different genealogy challenges fell into my lap at once. You should always think of these challenges as a way to expand your family tree. (See "Genealogy Challenge Accepted!") First, my dad noticed an Ohio obituary for a man with our last name. He asked me to figure out if this Iamarino was our relative. He was! My research shows that the man was my dad's 7th cousin. The 2 of them were born 2 years apart and had once lived in the same town. It was fun to find the answer to such a random question.

The 2nd challenge was to help an adoptee figure out her family tree. She came to me through a friend. With access to her DNA matches, I was able to identify some close cousins for her contact. The 3rd challenge was my own. Someone posted a photo on Facebook of a man who died in my grandfather's hometown back in 1974. People were saying such lovely things about this man that I wanted to find a connection to him. In the end, I placed him in my family tree as my 1st cousin 3 times removed.

Whichever DNA test you took, check out any matches with a family tree. (Not all DNA websites include people's family trees.) See what each one's tree has to offer you. Do more research than they've done, and you'll fortify your family tree.

07 May 2024

4 Practical Methods for Identifying a DNA Match

It's important to have a handful of DNA tools available so can you choose the best one for each situation. Here are 4 methods for identifying a DNA match that you may not have tried yet. I recommend you consider each one and put them to good use.

1. DNA Painter

You can "paint" your DNA matches onto your chromosome map to see how they may relate to one another. To do this, you can use a free DNA Painter account, but you must also have an account with one of the following:

  • GEDmatch
  • ftDNA
  • 23andme
  • MyHeritage

I used DNA Painter's chromosome map to visualize the fact that my parents share some DNA. I discovered that another match overlaps my Mom's position on Dad's 9th chromosome. That makes the other match worth investigating, and I learned that only because of this tool.

Learn how to use the chromosome map painter in your DNA research: "How to Find Your Strongest DNA Matches."

Use 1 or more of these 4 genealogy methods to crack your DNA matches and fit them into your family tree.
Use 1 or more of these 4 genealogy methods to crack your DNA matches and fit them into your family tree.

2. Use a Spreadsheet to Identify the Right Branch

This spreadsheet is perfect if your family tree has pedigree collapse or endogamy. I have pedigree collapse because my paternal grandparents were 3rd cousins. My 4th great grandparents are direct ancestors of both Grandpa and Grandma. It's pedigree collapse because you could say I'm missing a pair of 4th great grandparents.

I also have endogamy in my family tree. My ancestors all came from small, somewhat isolated neighboring towns. Almost everyone married a neighbor, generation after generation. (See "The DNA Problem We Aren't Talking About.") As a result, I'm related to people in my tree in many ways.

This spreadsheet helps root out DNA matches who match me only because we have roots in the same town. We're not related. The idea for this spreadsheet comes from DNA expert Kelli Bergheimer.

Be sure to see the section titled Are Your Matches Really in Your Family Tree? when you read "This Spreadsheet Sorts DNA Matches By Branch."

3. The Leeds Method

I discovered back in 2018 that my parents share a little DNA. All these years later, it seems they must be no closer than 5th to 7th cousins. There are no vital records that can take my family tree back that far. If the right towns' church records ever become available, I may be able to make progress. But chances are, I'll never find my parents' common ancestor.

But that's my story, not yours. For you, Dana Leeds' "Leeds Method" may be exactly what you need to see where each DNA match belongs in your family tree. That is, which of your 4 grandparents is your connection to a DNA match. I recommend you give it a try. To find out how, read "The Leeds Method May Have Solved a Big Family Puzzle."

A 15% discount for readers of Fortify Your Family Tree!
A 15% discount for readers of Fortify Your Family Tree!

4. Good Old-Fashioned Family Tree Building

Last weekend I decided to do some genealogy research to fit a celebrity into my family tree. When Tony Danza was on an episode of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s "Finding Your Roots," I was watching closely. When I found out he was the guest, I wondered if his name was originally Iadanza. That's a name I have in my family tree.

It turns out Iadanza is his ancestors' name and they came from a town I know. Pietrelcina (hometown of the famed Padre Pio) borders my 2nd great grandmother's hometown. Many people from Pietrelcina married people from a few of my ancestral hometowns.

A TV screenshot helped me find the birth records of Tony Danza's grandparents. I worked my way through the Pietrelcina vital records to build out their family tree. After a while, I saw that the parents of Danza's 4th great grandfather were already in my family tree!

So is Tony Danza my cousin? Nah. He and I have 18 different relationships at this point, but each one is by marriage.

I had fun with this exercise and it illustrates an important point. Digging through records and doing the research, you can place that DNA match in your family tree. See how in "Don't Rely on Your DNA Match to Do the Work" and "Don't Give Up When Your DNA Match Has a Puny Little Family Tree."

Piecing together families through vital records is what I live for! It's fun, challenging, and leads to tangible results in my family tree. Don't expect quick answers because you bought a DNA test. Your DNA matches are another tool to use in building your family tree. See if these 4 DNA methods can help you crack more of your DNA matches.

30 April 2024

2 Free Websites Compare Photos to See Who's Who

How many times have you wondered if the person in two different photos is the same person? Let's say you have a photo of your great grandfather as an old man. Then you find a photo that may or may not be him as a young man. How can you be reasonably sure the 2 photos show the same person?

I've seen people post photos like this on Facebook and let strangers weigh in. Are the eyebrows the same shape? Is the jawline dramatically different? Logic may help you figure out who the person is, but now we can do better.

Why not let a bit of artificial intelligence give you a scientific analysis of the 2 faces? I found 2 free websites that can help you decide who it is you're looking at. (If the photo is in bad shape, consider doing some photo restoration techniques before you use the comparison tool.)

2 free tools compare faces in different photos for similarities. Find out if that old photo really belongs in your family tree with these helpful genealogy tools.
2 free tools compare faces in different photos for similarities. Find out if that old photo really belongs in your family tree with these helpful genealogy tools.

Face Comparison

Go to https://facecomparison.toolpie.com to upload 2 photos from your collection. A message on the page says, "The model will delete the photo after the comparison is completed, so it is safe and reliable to use."

I uploaded 2 photos of my Grandma Lucy, taken several years apart, to see what would happen. Face Comparison says the 2 images of Lucy are 80% similar, so it's the same person. In fact, 80% is the threshold the site uses. Anything less than 80% is not considered to be the same person.

When I uploaded 2 photos of myself from 1986 and 2019, it was 100% sure they were the same person. So it's true when an old friend says you haven't changed a bit!

Then I threw it a curve ball. I uploaded college graduation photos of my 2 sons. Face Comparison says the boys are 78% similar, and they're not the same person. I'm sure they would agree.


Go to https://www.faceshape.com/face-compare to try the FaceShape comparison tool. FaceShape warns that it may keep your photos for machine-learning purposes. I imagine some people won't like that idea and would prefer not to submit their photos.

FaceShape says the 2 photos of my grandmother are 100% similar, so they are the same person. Since they are both, in fact, Grandma Lucy, I'm liking FaceShape better than Face Comparison.

It's also 100% sure the 2 photos of me are the same person. In one photo, I'm young with brown hair and firm skin, and in the other, I have white hair and not-so-firm skin. When it compares the 2 photos of my sons, it says they are 98.45% similar. I really got a kick out of that because when son #2 was born, he was identical to newborn son #1.

One odd feature about this site is that it identifies each photo as male or female and gives an approximate age. That's great in theory, but it thought Grandma was a man, and that I was 62 years old when I was actually 27! It identified my sons, both 21 at the time, as male, 43, and female, 40. Both boys had very long hair, but the one with the thin beard and mustache got the female label. It's best to ignore that aspect of the tool.

On FaceShape, if you upload a photo with more than one face, you can choose which face to compare. That doesn't work with Face Comparison. FaceShape also shows you both photos while Face Comparison never displays your photos.

For more fun, be sure to click the "Explore more tools" button. You'll find a host of other facial recognition tools. These include celebrity lookalike, face morph, face editor, and more.

Can you recognize your old grandmother in her childhood photo? These 2 free tools can do it scientifically.
Can you recognize your old grandmother in her childhood photo? These 2 free tools can do it scientifically.

Giving Them Both a Real Test

I'm lucky to have my late aunt's photo collection, many of which were actually my Grandma Lucy's photos. (See My Aunt's Photos Tell the Other Side of the Story.) I have some photos I assume are Grandpa, but what do these face comparison tools think?

The old photo in question is from the 1920s and Grandpa was born in 1902. I decided to compare that young face to Grandpa at age 86. FaceShape finds an 82.30% similarity between the two. Face Comparison has to have only one person in the photo, so I cropped my photos and tried again. Unfortunately, this tool sees only a 58% similarity between the young man and Grandpa.

To make things easier, I compared the 1920s face to a photo I know is Grandpa in his 30s. Face Comparison found only a 78% similarity, but FaceShape says they're 100% similar. One hundred percent!

Based on my 4 tests, I prefer the FaceShape tool. I can overlook the fact that almost all of its gender and age labels were laughably wrong.

Take a look through your photo collection. Then use these 2 AI tools to confirm that someone is who you suspect they are. Or see just how much you take after your ancestor.

23 April 2024

2 Free Tools Can Read Document Images for You

Genealogist Lisa Alzo uses a website called Transkribus for recognizing text within images. It's a process that's been around for decades: Optical Character Recognition or OCR. I looked into Transkribus, but it isn’t free. So I searched for free OCR options we can all use.

It turns out a tool you may already be using has this capability. It’s OneNote!

I can think of 2 key reasons to use OCR in genealogy research:

  1. To pull text from images so you don't have to re-type it.
  2. To translate a large amount of text from another language.

Last June I wrote about a book that tells the history of one of my ancestral hometowns. (See "How to Use a Foreign-Language Book for Family Tree Research.") A distant cousin sent me the Italian-language book years ago. I began using Google translate and saving the results in a Word document. It’s tedious work, though. I have to type the Italian into Google Translate so it can generate the English translation.

You're probably already using 2 free tools that can do more for your family tree than you know. They can extract text from a genealogy document image.
You're probably already using 2 free tools that can do more for your family tree than you know. They can extract text from a genealogy document image.

Extract Text from a Photo and Translate

Using OneNote, you can:

  • Photograph (or scan) the pages of the book.
  • Drop the images into a OneNote file.
  • Extract the text by right-clicking an image and choosing Copy Text from Picture. This puts the text in memory.
  • Paste what's in memory either below the image or in a new section.
  • Translate that text by choosing Translate > Translate Page.

The translated text appears in a new section of your OneNote document. It's ready for you to format and look over for any errors. It’s hard to find OCR software that will format your text nicely, so there's always a little work to do. OneNote keeps the line breaks from the original, so you have to do some editing to make it more readable.

The translation uses British English even though U.S. English is set as my preferred language. I'll have to change words like favour, colour, and analysed for myself. And I have to look out for footnote numbers. You know how books use a small, raised number to point you to a footnote? They don't get extracted as a superscript number, so they tend to blend into the text.

I can imagine spending a day putting that book on my scanner, and capturing two pages at a time in an image file. Then I can drop a bunch of images into OneNote, extract and translate.

Turn Handwriting into Text

I did three tests with handwritten Italian documents. OneNote failed to extract the text from them. One of my tests was a 1942 death record with a fill-in-the-blanks format. OneNote extracted the typewritten parts of the form, and skipped over the handwriting!

Then I wrote a simple note in the nicest print I can manage. OneNote couldn't extract any text. If it could, that would be handy for capturing what's written on the back of a family photo.

Then I learned that Google Docs can extract text for you, too. The steps are as follows:

  • Log into your free Google Drive account using a web browser or the app.
  • Upload an image of the text you want to capture.
  • Right-click that image and choose to "Open with" > "Google Docs."

The Doc file will contain the image and its extracted text.

This is an easy way to turn handwriting into text. I tested it on the note I printed, and it worked perfectly. I tested it on an old Italian death record and it didn't recognize anything. But it should be great for the backs of photos or old letters written by your ancestors.

I encourage you to give them both a try.

16 April 2024

Why Are You Doing Genealogy Research?

When I was a kid, Dad bought me two big jigsaw puzzles. He taught me how to find the edges and look for the right shapes, then he let me figure out my own method. We glued the finished puzzles, framed them, and hung them on the wall. Decades later I bought more puzzles and hung them up. When I graduated to better wall art, I turned my love of puzzles to crossword puzzles.

Then I discovered the biggest, farthest-reaching, never-ending puzzle of all. Genealogy! I like to think of my insanely big family tree as a jigsaw puzzle that has no edges. I can keep fitting people together for the rest of my life.

Does Your Family Tree Have a Greater Purpose?

Think about your own family tree. What's the purpose behind your research? Is it to find and preserve relationships? If you're doing good work, you can make a contribution to lots of other genealogy researchers, too. (If you're not publishing your family tree anywhere, you really should!)

That's why I enjoy my genealogy purpose so much. I'm working to fit together everyone born in my handful of ancestral hometowns. The families I added to my tree this past weekend have no real relationship to me. But we are all connected through a network of marriages. See "Genealogy is the Joy of Names."

I've identified all 16 of my 2nd great grandparents using vital records. I can also name all but one of my 32 3rd great grandparents. I'm missing the names of:

  • 9 of my 64 4th great grandparents
  • 42 of my 128 5th great grandparents
  • 146 of my 256 6th great grandparents
  • 433 of my 512 7th great grandparents

I've ID'd 31 of my 8th great grandparents and 9 of my 9th great grandparents, and that's as far as it goes. I've milked everything I can out of the available vital records. (See "Genealogy Obsession Pays an Unexpected Dividend.") The only way I'll ever find those missing ancestors is if I can access church records in the future.

My ancestors were peasants in poor Italian towns, so there's little I can learn about them. I have one distant cousin who was a rebel fighting against Italian unification. He's a rare relative who's had accounts written about him. Stateside, I'm 3rd cousins with Josh Saviano ("The Wonder Years") and 5th cousins with Gwen Stefani. But I'm more intrigued by my beloved dead Italians.

Find a higher purpose for your genealogy research and no task seems too great.
Find a higher purpose for your genealogy research and no task seems too great.

Spread the Wealth

Since I love the research, I'm building my family tree to benefit others.

People often write to me because they found their ancestors in my family tree online. Most of the time I have to tell them we're not related, but yeah, I've documented your whole family. I love when this happens because my never-ending puzzle is helping other people. And it'll continue to help people long after I'm gone.

Currently I'm finding birth records for out-of-towners who married someone from my ancestral towns. The inspiration for this project came from my Feb. 27th article, "5 Ways to Find Loose Ends in Your Family Tree."

Each day I sort the people in my tree by birth date. Then I follow clues that lead me to missing birth records. I've had so many successes! And each time I add more people, I know I may be helping another researcher out there.

I began this project with people born in 1870, and I've gotten through those born in 1901. Italian birth records are not available after 1915, so once I get there, I'll go backwards from 1869. My family tree has 80,000 people, and almost all come from a very small geographical area. It amazes me every day.

Find Your Genealogy Purpose

Many of you are lucky enough to have actual written accounts of your ancestors. If that's your situation, and you're busy compiling those accounts, I urge you to share your work. When I researched my son's fiancée's family, I found published documentation about them. Her family had been in one county for centuries, and there's a wealth of information about them. (See "Stay True to Your Genealogy Discipline.")

Wouldn't it feel good to be the key resource for someone else's genealogy research?

Maybe your purpose is to find every descendant of a particular ancestral couple. Think how valuable that research could be to another descendant.

Perhaps you're trying to figure out who your unknown parent or grandparent is. Building trees for potential ancestors can be the key to connecting with a DNA match.

Whatever your purpose, don't confine yourself to sticking within those jigsaw-puzzle edges. Branch out as you feel like it. Enjoy the little victories of finding that one missing birth record. Put your research skills to work and help others at the same time.

09 April 2024

4 Reasons to Implement a Genealogy Backup Plan

It's been a while since I had a digital family tree disaster, but they do happen. I'm committed to preventing the loss of any of my genealogy research. And I have to believe you want to avoid losing your work, too.

That's why I have a multi-step backup plan that I follow carefully. See "Quick and Easy Family Tree Backup Routine."

Here are 4 reasons you need to choose and follow a genealogy file backup plan.

Are you committed to preventing the loss of any of your genealogy research?
Are you committed to preventing the loss of any of your genealogy research?

1. Natural Disasters Can Happen

I live in New York and on April 5th I experienced my 2nd east-coast earthquake. It came as a complete surprise to everyone. I thought either a dump truck was rolling up my street or a helicopter was flying right over my house. People mentioned seeing their computer monitors bouncing around.

What if an earthquake, wildfire, tornado, or hurricane destroyed your genealogy files? Are you prepared to pick up where you left off without losing any work? If you're not 100% confident, read:

2. Your Computer Can Die

Sometimes your computer lets you know things are about to go bad. Other times, it's a complete shock. I had this adorable tablet computer that I would bring when traveling. On one trip, I opened it up, intending to help my friend Lucy research her ancestors. But the tablet was dead. Just dead.

You need to have a plan in place so a dying or dead computer won't destroy all you've done. It's easy enough to create and follow this plan. See "Prepare Your Family Tree for Your Computer's Demise" and "Moving Your Family Tree to a New Computer."

3. Websites Can Crash

A big company's website doesn't often have such a disaster that data gets destroyed. But there are bad actors out there, and sites can get hacked. (I may be watching too many "Jack Ryan" episodes.) If you build your family tree online only, download a GEDCOM of your tree every day you make edits to it. And follow these "3 Top Safety Tips for Your Family Tree Data."

4. You Can Get Carried Away

How many times have you made a discovery that led to hours of adding new facts to your family tree? It's such a rush! But in our excitement, we may forget to follow good genealogy protocols. Like, did you add a big family to your tree without including source citations?

The thrill of the hunt can easily carry you away. That's why we need "A Safety Net for Reckless Family Tree Building." Be sure to also read "This 3-Step Backup Routine Protects Your Family Tree."

You don't have to be a control freak to take extraordinary care of your genealogy research. But you know what? It doesn't hurt.

02 April 2024

3 Spring Cleaning Tasks for Your Family Tree

Two months ago I presented 5 cleanup projects, but there are always more ways to scrub your family tree.

Most days I forge ahead with my project to connect everyone from my ancestral hometowns. When working on that, I can add 100–200 people to my tree in a day. With my family tree approaching 79,000 people, it's important to keep up with my cleanup tasks.

Here are 3 areas every family tree needs some cleanup: Names, Dates, and Places.

These are the 3 most basic things you need to get right in your family tree.
These are the 3 most basic things you need to get right in your family tree.

Note: If you build your family tree online rather than desktop software, download a GEDCOM to your computer. Then open that GEDCOM in Family Tree Analyzer so you can see everything in one place.

1. Use Real Names

As I've said many times, your family tree is your legacy. Even if you aren't sharing it online, I'll bet you're sharing it with your family. And you must want it to live on after you've gone.

I've seen online trees use nicknames (e.g., Uncle Curly) and women's married names instead of given names. You're doing the research. You know their real names. Use them!

My whole family called my grandmother's brother Uncle Army. As a kid, I never questioned why. Then I found his given name on his birth certificate. Amelio, pronounced ah-may-lee-oh. I can remember hearing my grandmother call him ah-may—short for his full name. It was ah-may that my generation and my mom's generation heard as Army.

Am I going to record his name in my tree as Uncle Army or Army Sarracino? Hell no. Any relative seeing Amelio Sarracino's spot in the family tree can see he's Uncle Army. Likewise, I'm not going to record his wife (my Aunt Sophie) as Sophie Sarracino. I've recorded her by her birth name—the beautiful name I had to do a lot of research to discover—Serafina Eufemia.

For more tips on recording names and preserving those nicknames, see "4 Rules for the Names in Your Family Tree."

2. Use the Universal Date Format

In the 1990s I found out my business colleagues in Europe don't write dates the way we do in the USA. Today is April 2, 2024 in the USA, or 4/2/2024. But in Europe (and so much of the world) 4/2/2024 is February 4—actually it's 4 February. I adopted their style because I worked for an international company.

I never use the date style I grew up with (4/2/2024) anymore. I use the much more universal DD Mon YYYY. That's 2 digits for the day, 3 letters for the month (the first 3 letters), and 4 digits for the year: 02 Apr 2024. There's no misunderstanding that date. It's the standard for genealogists.

If your family tree has dates that aren't in the preferred DD Mon YYYY format, you're not doing anyone any favors. My son's birthday is 5/6. Will you send him a card on May 6 or June 5?

Check your dates and use the preferred format to avoid any misunderstandings.

And don't forget to use estimated dates when you don't know someone's birth date. See "When to Use Estimates in Your Family Tree."

3. Make Addresses Consistent and Accurate

When I'm entering a marriage in my family tree, I like to use the exact name and address of the church where the couple wed. I noticed I had used 2 different address variations for the church in San Marco dei Cavoti, Italy. I corrected any instances of the wrong address, and now they all match exactly.

If your addresses aren't consistent, you can't get a correct view of everyone in your tree who was there. As you scan your alphabetical list of addresses, you may find typos or slight differences.

In Family Tree Maker, you can check to see if an address is pinned properly on the map. I spotted one street address, Via la Costa, linked to one fact. When I zoomed in on the map within FTM, I saw that the street is actually Via Costa. To be fair, it was Via la Costa in 1812, but it isn't now. I want to use the current address whenever I can. If I'm visiting the town, I want to be able to go to any ancestor's address I choose. I updated Via la Costa to Via Costa to match today's map.

Take a look at your alphabetical list of addresses. Check for outliers, typos, or two seemingly identical entries listed separately. With up-to-date addresses, you can "Visit Your Ancestral Hometown at Your Desk."

Congratulations! You've made a tremendous step forward.

26 March 2024

6 Ways to Get Beyond Missing Vital Records

Blog reader Steve asked how to find people who were born after available vital records end. Like me, he's dealing with Italian records that aren't online. My towns' birth records end in 1915. His town's online vital records end in 1899. The answer to his question is true for any ancestor's missing vital record.

My grandmother was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1899. She had one sibling born before her in Italy. I have his 15 Dec 1898 Italian birth record, but his death record isn't available. I only know he died before his parents boarded a ship for New York on 3 July 1899.

Grandma's October 1899 birth record is available online from the NYC Municipal Archives. Their website has birth records for her siblings Alfredo (1903), Amelio (1905), and Stella (1908). But I can't get their youngest sister Aida's 1911 birth record. The available Bronx birth records end in 1909. I know Aunt Aida's exact birth date only because her daughter told it to me. I found no U.S. documents that include her birth date. (Find out which certificates are available for each NYC borough.)

Missing vital records don't have to bring your family tree research to a halt.
Missing vital records don't have to bring your family tree research to a halt.

If the records you need are not online, here are 6 places to look so you can extend your family tree.

1. Marriage Documents

The marriage records I've seen from England include only the name of the bride and groom's fathers. How disappointing! Italian marriage records include both sets of parents' names. As a bonus, Italian women keep their maiden name for life. Other countries will vary, but some may contain the detail you're missing.

My 2nd great uncle married in the Bronx in 1902. His marriage record names the towns in Italy where the bride and groom were born. And they're both correct! It also includes all 4 parents' names and addresses for the bride and groom. As for their ages, we get only 21 years and 25 years. Actually, a clerk wrote that part in Italian as "21 anni" and "25 anni."

Sometimes Italian marriage records include a document I call a request to marry. It's actually a request for a couple to publish their intention to marry. In Italian: richiesta di pubblicazione da farsi alla casa comunale. I love this one-page record because it includes:

  • all the parents' names, and
  • the exact date and town of birth for both bride and groom.

A marriage record may not have the detail you seek, but it can hold enough clues to extend your research. My great grandparents' 1906 New York State marriage record helped me solve a mystery. It lists the bride's mother as Maria Luigia. I used clues from her brother's death record to figure out her full name, Maria Luigia Girardi. To find out how I made this discovery, see "This Expanded Resource Provided an Elusive Maiden Name."

2. Death Records

There will be times when you can find a death record even if you can't find a birth record. In my experience, U.S. death records often get some facts wrong. My 2nd great grandfather Antonio died in New York City in 1925. His eldest son provided the information for the death certificate. The certificate says Antonio's father was Raffaele, and that's right. But it gets his mother's name 100% wrong. The certificate calls his mother Mary Piseo. This led me on a wild goose chase for quite some time.

It was only when I hired a pair of genealogy researchers from Naples that I discovered the truth. I now have an image of Antonio's parents' marriage record. A few months before Antonio was born, his father Raffaele married Grazia Ucci. Who on earth is Mary Piseo? Apparently nobody.

To find out about my experience with hiring Italian researchers, see "Results! Hiring a Professional Genealogist."

Even if the death record you find gets some details wrong, it will get some right. My great grandfather's 1969 Ohio death record includes:

  • his correct date of birth
  • his wife's correct maiden name
  • his father's Anglicized first name (but otherwise correct).

For his mother, they got the first name right, but the informant didn't know her maiden name.

See which clues you can turn into productive research. If nothing else, that death record tells me that Michele Iamarino married a woman named Lucia.

3. Records in their Adopted Country

Vital records don't usually say if someone from Italy went to another country. (Find out what it looks like when a document does tell you they left the country.) When a trail goes cold in the in-country records, it's worth a broad search to see if they emigrated.

If you get lucky and find them on a ship manifest, you may find out their destination. Then you can track down their records in their new country. Even if you don't learn their date of birth, you can discover what happened to them next.

4. DNA Matches and Online Family Trees

One of my cousins bought a DNA kit for her adopted daughter. She got some pretty close matches who pointed us straight to the correct families. Some of her matches had built decent family trees. One in particular has an enormous family tree. This is someone who's clearly interested in documenting her family history. We should all be lucky enough to find a match like her.

If you find the person you need in a family tree, remember everyone else's family tree is nothing but a set of clues. Continue the research for yourself.

Today I found my Aunt Aida, mentioned above, in a stranger's family tree. The tree belongs to a distant cousin of Aida's husband, but they:

  • borrowed facts from my tree, and
  • managed to bungle Aida's last name.

You have to prove or disprove what their family tree says.

The closest direct ancestor I can't name is one of my 3rd great grandmothers. Her hometown has no records before the 1861 unification of Italy. Even those Italian researchers I hired found practically nothing to document my family. That's why I don't think any other descendant can tell me her name. But if you're looking to ID a 2nd great grandparent or closer, you have a much better chance of finding the clues you need among your DNA matches and their family trees.

5. Archive Records

I wish every genealogy document could be online. I hit the jackpot when FamilySearch digitized their microfilm and the Antenati site came online. The only way I'll ever go further back in my family tree is if all the parish records come online, too. As it is, the earliest direct ancestors I can name were born in the early 1600s. That's amazing for an Italian family with zero nobility in their line.

If the records you need aren't online, you may need to visit or send someone to the archives. I wanted to see my grandfather's military record, and it isn't online. So I visited the Archivio di Stato di Benevento during one of my trips to Italy.

I went there prepared with an Italian sentence or two. I had the register number and the document number I wanted to see along with his name and hometown. This made it easy for the staff to bring me the book, and they gave me permission to photograph the page. They were also kind enough to bring me the book with my grandfather's birth record, and I hadn't asked for it. Even though I'd seen it online, it was exciting to see the original and realize how large these books are. To read about this incredible experience, see "Taking a Do-It-Yourself Genealogy Vacation, Part 1."

If you want to visit the archives in another country, do your homework first. Know the location, their holdings, their hours, and any demands they will make of you. When I went to the New York State Archives in Albany, there was one room where they didn't allow you to bring in a pen. It was pencils only, and a notebook, but no backpacks. The more you prepare, the more productive your visit will be. And if you can't go in person, seek out a reputable researcher in the area. Or, if you're lucky, a cousin may be able to help.

I spend a lot of time getting around missing records. For instance, a birth record may tell me that the baby's grandfather has already died*. If the death record isn't available, at least I know he died before such-and-such a date. I make note of that date so I don't give him any facts that happened after he died.

*On Italian records, a person's name is sometimes followed by their father's name. This helps distinguish between two people with the same name. If the person is Giuseppe Caruso di Francesco, the di means his father Francesco is still alive. But if his name is Giuseppe Caruso fu Francesco, then Francesco has died. Certain birth records from about 1866–1874 tell you the name of the maternal grandfather, too. What a tremendous help that can be!

6. Military Records

I really love U.S. draft registration cards for World War I and II. Sometimes they're your only documentation of a man's date of birth. And if they include a town of birth, it's usually right.

One draft card led me to discover the hometown of my 2nd great grandmother. Another gave me a birth date for one cousin when the vital records for that year were missing. Yet another helped me realize we'd always been wrong about Grandpa's birthday. To see why this is such an important document, read "Why You Need Your Ancestor's Draft Registration Cards."

Be creative. Clues may exist in unexpected places. I found out my 2nd great grandmother was still alive at age 60 in an unusual way. She reported the births of two of her grandchildren in 1901 and 1902. These were completely unexpected discoveries. Remember to leave no stone unturned.

19 March 2024

5 Tips for Success with Italian Vital Records

In 2009 I began a long process of viewing 1809–1860 vital records from my grandfather's hometown. I had to pay to view the microfilmed records at a Family History Center on crummy old equipment once or twice a week. In 2017 the same documents came online in pristine high resolution.

I didn't begin this journey with any knowledge of Italian vital records. I figured it out with experience. And so can you—especially with these 5 tips for success.

These 5 tips will make you an Italian vital record expert.
These 5 tips will make you an Italian vital record expert.

1. You Need to Know the Name of the Town

Before you can find a vital record for your Italian ancestor, you must know their hometown. Why? Because they keep vital records in a book. One book per year, one type of record (birth, marriage, or death) per book. And each book is for ONE TOWN only.

I'm lucky my grandfathers were vocal about the names of their hometowns. My grandmothers were another story. On one side, we had my great grandmother's obsolete town name in her heavy accent. It took some sleuthing to figure that one out, but I did (read how in "Case Study on 'What If There's No There There?'"). On the other side, we had one generalization and one misunderstood town name.

As recently as 2002, my grandmother's sister said what I'd always heard about her side of the family. They came from Pastina (like the tiny star-shaped pasta, but accent on the PAS) and Avellino. There are a few towns in Italy named Pastina, plus the similar Pastena and Pastene. It was my family's 1898 ship manifest that pinpointed the location. It's Pastene, a hamlet of the town on their ship manifest: Sant'Angelo a Cupolo.

As for Avellino, it's both a city and a province filled with about 118 towns. I used an unlikely resource to find out which town in Avellino is my ancestral hometown. My great grandmother's brother's World War II draft registration card said he was born in Tofo, Avellino. There is no Tofo, but there's a Tufo, and that's where I found his birth record. (See "Case Study on 'Where Did Grandpa Come From?'") But his parents, my 2nd great grandparents, did not marry there. The Tufo vital records led me to the neighboring town of Santa Paolina, Avellino. That's where I found their 1871 marriage record.

So, before you search for any Italian vital records, figure out that town name. See "6 Places to Discover Your Ancestor's Town of Birth."

2. Learn a Few Basic Words

I didn't know how to read Italian vital records when I began. But I dove right in and learned how. The most important thing you can do is learn:

  • Numbers. Years are rarely written out in digits. You won't see 1836. You'll see milleottocento trentasei. A person's age is also written in longhand most of the time.
  • Months. The Italian word for each month is not so different than the English word. Once you run through the list (linked below), febbraio, settembre, novembre, etc., should not slow you down.
  • Relationship words. Make note of the most common relationship words found on vital records and you'll soon get used to them. Padre and madre should come as no surprise, but you need to know:
    • vedovo/vedova (widower/widow)
    • marito (husband)
    • moglie (wife)
    • avo/ava (grandfather/grandmother)
    • zio/zia (uncle/aunt)
    • padre ignoto (father unknown), madre ignoto (mother unknown), genitori ignoti (parents unknown)
    • levatrice or ostetrica (midwife)
    • projetto/a or proietto/a (foundling)

For all these words and more, go to the Italian Genealogical Word List on FamilySearch.org.

As you go along, you'll see that different types of records have their own format. On birth records, you'll first find the name, occupation, and age of the person reporting the birth. It's usually the father of the baby, but it can be the midwife or a grandparent of the baby. Then you'll see the mother's name, occupation, and age, and finally the actual date of birth and the baby's name.

Death records begin with a couple of witnesses. They do not have to be relatives, and usually aren't. Then comes the name of the deceased and their father and mother's names.

Marriage records tell you the groom's name and details, including his parents' names. Then comes the same information about the bride.

Practice picking out the key words, and don't get bogged down in all the boilerplate language. Remember: Any word or name is a shape. You can recognize that the shape of my name, DiAnn, is different than the shape of my aunt's name, Stella. Your job is to scan a vital record for the shape you're looking to find.

Remember, too, that a lot of people in any given town may have the same name. When this happens, a person's name is followed by their father's name. Samuele Consolazio is listed as Samuele Consolazio di Florentino. If Florentino were dead at the time, it would say Samuele Consolazio fu Florentino. This can be a very valuable clue.

3. Find the Index Pages

Whether you're looking on the essential Antenati, FamilySearch, or elsewhere, a search-by-name is never enough. The reason is simple. Not every document is searchable by name. You're going to have to put your eyes on the pages.

Most often you'll find a name index at the back of each vital records book. Sometimes, though, the index comes first or it's near (not at) the end. Keep in mind:

  • The index may list the names:
    • Chronologically by date of birth, marriage, or death.
    • Alphabetically by first name.
    • Alphabetically by last name.
  • If it's a list of marriages, the man's name always comes first. Sometimes the index omits the bride altogether.
  • The best indexes will name the person and their parents (or at least their father). That way, if you're looking for Giuseppe Bianco who was the son of Giovanni, you don't have to waste time paging through to see a record for Giuseppe Bianco who was the son of Nicola.

Do not for a moment think you can't find what you want in an index because you don't read Italian. You can read Italian names! Giuseppe, Giovanni, Pietro, Annamaria, Mariangela, Liberantonia. Do you need to understand Italian to read those names? Scour the index for the name you're seeking. Then see if the index gives you either a record number or a date to go to in the book.

4. Don't Believe Their Age

If a marriage record states the bride and groom's ages, they're pretty reliable. Why? Because a couple marrying in Italy had to provide their birth record. People didn't have their birth certificates at home like we do. But a clerk would locate the original record and write out a copy.

In my experience, the stated ages on death records in the 1930s and 1940s are also reliable. I've never found one that was more than a year off.

The rest of the time, do not take the stated age as gospel. Many people honestly didn't know how old they were! In my ancestral hometowns, nearly everyone was illiterate. They were hard-working farmers or tradespeople. It's not like today where every visit to the doctor or drug store requires you to give your date of birth. They could easily forget how old they were. Even I have to do the math if you ask me how old my husband is.

Here's a good rule to follow: The earlier a clerk records someone's age, the more reliable it is. Let's say a baby is born in 1822 and the birth record says both parents are 40 years old. That would mean they were born in 1782. Then you find a much earlier baby, born to the same couple in 1810. The record says both parents are 22 years old. That means they were born in 1788.

The 1810 record is more reliable because the couple has had less time to forget when they were born. If you're only 22 years old, you're more like to be correct when stating your age than you are 12 years later.

It's very common to find a person's age misstated on their death record (outside of the 1930s and 1940s). So, believe the earlier record. If their child's birth record says they were born in 1788, but their death record says 1782, believe the earlier document.

5. Go Through All the Marriage Documents

Depending on the year and the town, you may find a jackpot of records associated with the marriages. These are called the matrimoni allegati or the matrimoni processetti. They're not kept with the marriage record or the banns (the matrimoni pubblicazioni).

This valuable packet of documents can include:

  • The bride and groom's birth/baptism records.
  • The death record of either mother, giving you her parents' names.
  • The death record of either father, as well as their fathers' death records. Now you know the names of the bride and/or groom's paternal great grandparents!
  • The death record of a previous spouse. If there were 2 previous spouses, you'll see only the more recent one's death record.

One of my ancestral hometowns in Benevento has matrimoni processetti online for 1817–1860. My ancestral hometown in Avellino has no processetti at all! But most of that town's marriage records include all the pertinent dates of birth and death.

I recently discovered that one of my great uncles married a woman from a neighboring town. That town's matrimoni processetti gave me the names of a pair of my missing 5th great grandparents!

I see people asking for an Italian vital record translation every single day on Facebook. I'm happy to help them, but I believe they're not really trying. If you do only one thing from this list, it should be #2: Learn a Few Basic Words. Don't let another language frighten you—especially a language that uses your alphabet. Train yourself to scan for familiar shapes: names, numbers, months, relationship words. If you can do that, you'll be able to handle almost every document all by yourself. And think how far you'll get!

12 March 2024

3 Important Tips for Great Genealogy Source Citations

Two weeks ago I wrote about "5 Ways to Find Loose Ends in Your Family Tree." Since then I've been having fun doing just that. I sorted the people in my family tree by birth date and focused on anyone with an incomplete birth date. (For example, 1870 instead of 12 Mar 1870.) Then I searched for the missing birth record for each person.

Many of these people were not born in my ancestral hometowns, which explains the missing date. Luckily, I often had evidence to suggest which town they came from. A marriage record or banns can include the hometown of the other spouse. In other cases, I used the Cognomix website to see which nearby town this person's last name may have come from.

To my joy and amazement, I've been having fantastic luck tracking these people down! While it would be easy to get carried away and forget about source citations, I know better. The very first thing I do when I find one of these birth records is capture the URL. In my case, they all come from the Italian Antenati website. The date, town, and URL are all I need to create a source citation.

So let's talk about source citations. You don't want to get into a situation where you have to re-create your search in order to get the details for a citation. It's far more efficient to make sure you do it in the moment.

Here are your 3 important tips for great source citations:

Your family tree source citations don't have to be a dreaded chore. Follow these 3 tips to firm up your genealogy research.
Your family tree source citations don't have to be a dreaded chore. Follow these 3 tips to firm up your genealogy research.

1. Follow a Document-Handling Routine

I know what it's like to find a set of documents that will add so many details to your family tree. You're so excited that you want to jump ahead and find the next document. But slow down! Follow a process for each new document you find—when you find it—and you will reap the benefits.

When you read through my 6-step document-handling routine, you may feel overwhelmed. But once it becomes second nature, you won't give it another thought. The benefits outweigh the burden, and this will be clear to you, too.

Take a look at "Step-by-Step Source Citations for Your Family Tree," follow the process, and you'll never have any regrets.

2. Develop a Format and Stick to It

A long time ago I wrote about my super-simple format for source citations. But the minute I needed to locate a document online that I downloaded long ago, I saw the problem with this format. I knew my citations needed more detail.

Then my Family Tree Maker file became corrupted, wrecking my existing citations. So I began the process of building improved source citations. To see what goes into this process, please read "Take the Time to Improve the Sources in Your Family Tree."

I believe consistency is crucial to a high-quality family tree. To see what I mean, read "Add Consistency to Your Source Citations." And when you read it, know that my family tree just topped 78,000 people.

3. Seek Out More Reliable Sources

Many times I find that family trees built on Ancestry.com have a fact that I could use in my tree. But when I look at their source, it's the generic "Ancestry Family Trees." This isn't a reliable source. And neither are the details given to me by my cousin Joseph, despite his incredible memory.

I wanted to improve upon word-of-mouth or second-hand sources.

It's important to your family tree that you:

An image of Grandpa's death certificate is more reliable than my memory of that day. The middle name on an image of Grandma's birth record is more reliable than what she claimed was her middle name. Sometimes all it takes to get better sources is a new search.

I hope you'll take these processes to heart and create source citations that will stand the test of time. Your family tree is your legacy. It will be out there after you're gone. Sure, some URLs may not work in the future. But the details you've recorded will point future genealogists to the source. Let's all do our best genealogy work.