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.

05 March 2024

8 Tips for Researching Your Immigrant Ancestor

When my son's fiancé lost her father in 2021, I offered to research her family tree. It's become something of a tradition for me. I did the same for my brother's wife, my 1st cousins, and last week for my 2nd cousins when their father died.

For my son's fiancé, you have to go back to generation 12 in her ancestors report to learn that her last name is French. In generation 13, we see she's a descendant of the Dutch/German family Rittenhouse. That's a very famous family in Philadelphia. My sister-in-law's German/Jewish origin shows up in her 2nd great grandfather, born in 1853.

But for my all-Italian cousins, the immigrant experience is much closer:

  • My 1st cousins' father immigrated as an infant in 1929.
  • My 2nd cousins' grandfather immigrated in 1920.
  • My grandfathers immigrated in 1914 and 1920.
An immigrant ancestor may be the key to your family tree. These 8 tips help you find them.
An immigrant ancestor may be the key to your family tree. These 8 tips help you find them.

While researching your immigrant ancestors, it's important to:

  1. Understand the local immigration laws when your ancestor arrived. If your ancestors came to America, take a look at how easy it was, as long as you weren't Chinese. See "How Did Immigration Laws Guide Your Ancestors?"
  2. Pull every available fact from the ship manifest. I love the Ellis Island ship manifests because they contain a ton of details. To make sure you don't overlook any, see "6 Key Genealogy Facts on a Ship Manifest." If your ancestors came earlier than 1892, you'll find far fewer details.
  3. Read about the immigrant processing experience. At Ellis Island, doctors spent an average of 6 seconds inspecting each immigrant. They deported only 2% of immigrants back to their country of origin. Two percent! These people were ill, likely to become a public charge, or had stowed away aboard the ship. To find out more about the experience, see "5 Ellis Island Videos Dispel Immigration Myths."
  4. Learn about the history of your ancestor's country at the time they left. Something was going on at home that compelled your ancestor to leave. No one leaves home when conditions are fine. Read "Why Did Your Ancestor Leave Home?"
  5. Look for more than one voyage. My maternal 2nd great grandfather Antonio was my first immigrant ancestor. He came to New York in 1890, 1892, and 1895 before going back to Italy to retrieve his family in 1898. My paternal great grandfather Francesco came to America in 1903, 1909, 1913, and 1929. He never stayed long. He earned some money and went back home to his family in Italy. His immigration records showed me that his final trip was to visit my grandfather and aunt in Ohio. Read "Great Grandpa Was a Bird of Passage" for a look at serial immigrants like Francesco.
  6. Check for more than a ship manifest. When my mom's 1st cousin's husband died, I researched his family. His naturalization papers provided a wealth of information. If you can't find their ship manifest, look for naturalization papers. They can tell you the name of the ship and date of its arrival, and tons more about the family. Find out what you can learn by reading "Here's Why Genealogists Love Immigrants." And don't forget passport applications. It's amazing when you get your first look at a photograph of your relative on their application.
  7. See who sailed with your relatives. I discovered a "lost" branch of my family when I looked into the people sailing with my family. One had my family name of Saviano, and the other had a name I knew was from the same town. See how I used clues to finally explain our relationship to our cousin Rita. Read "Why You Should Track Down the Extra Cousin."
  8. Take a look at other countries. Immigration restrictions may have led your ancestor's brother to sail to another country. I have cousins who went to Canada when they couldn't get into America. Others went to Brazil and Argentina. To find those who went to South America, see:

Ship manifests and naturalization papers are priceless to your family history research. Your immigrant ancestor connects you to your ancestral homeland. For some people, like my son's fiancé, finding that immigrant is their first clue to their origins. She had no idea she was French, German, and Dutch. My brother's wife didn't know her ancestors were Jewish because her father wasn't.

Remember these 8 tips for researching your immigrant ancestor. Don't leave any facts on the table!