30 July 2017

Why I Recorded More Than 30,000 Documents

In 2007 I started ordering Italian vital records on microfilm from FamilySearch.org. The films were from the hometown of one of my grandfathers.

My first goal was to find birth records for my great grandparents to find out their parents' names. But so many people in the town had similar names it was comical. I wasn't sure I was looking at the right family.

There was only one solution. Record every single fact and plug them into my family tree software.

I did this for five years. Once or twice a week I spent a handful of hours with a computer open on my lap beneath the microfilm viewer. I developed my own shorthand: b, d, wed, bap, and Italian words like di and fu. I became incredibly fast at typing names like Mariantonia, Angelamaria, Francesco Saverio, Giuseppe, Giovanni.

More than 90% of the town is related to me!
More than 90% of the town is related to me!

Oh, did I mention I'm Italian?

This work was invaluable. I shared it online with anyone who may have ancestors from my grandfather's town of Basélice. I documented about 16,000 people, and about 15,000 of them are relatives by blood or marriage. Yeah.

Today Italian descendants are gleefully finding their ancestor's documents on FamilySearch.org or the Antenati website. Maybe you've been lucky and found your grandfather's birth record. Maybe you found your great grandparents' marriage record. But are you overlooking entire generations?

This year I used a simple app to download every document available from my ancestral hometowns. Now the organized images are on my computer (and a backup drive) awaiting my analysis.

I'm focusing on my mother's mother's branch first. Despite having grown up with cousins from this branch, I have the least information about them. I cannot get beyond my third great grandparents.

My first visit to Pastene, Sant'Angelo a Cupolo, Italy.
My first visit to Pastene, Sant'Angelo a Cupolo, Italy.

So here's the dilemma. The hometown of the families in this branch is Sant'Angelo a Cupolo, and specifically the smaller frazione within that town called Pastene. Only a limited amount of documents is available to me from the town. And one set of my great great grandparents was born in another town whose documents are not online.

The solution is going to be extensive, possibly exhaustive documentation of each birth, marriage and death record.

I've begun by finding every child born to my great great grandparents. I'm also documenting the children of my great great grandfather's brother.

The holy grail is that one magical document. The one that includes a baby's grandfather's name. The one that has a baby's maternal uncle as a witness. The one that names the father of a baby's grandmother who is reporting the birth.

I've got to look at each marriage record, too. There may be a marriage between a man and woman whose names I don't recognize. But maybe one is the grandchild of my ancestor. And maybe my ancestor's death record will be included.

Hopefully you enjoy the hunt as much as I do. Perusal of all available documents is the bare minimum.

Complete documentation…priceless.

29 July 2017

Finding the Story Behind an Intriguing Family Photo

UPDATE: Publishing this story drew the attention of several of my relatives. We're now feeling a bit confident that my Uncle Army was in the Army Air Corps. His nickname had nothing to do with this. "Ame", which sounded like "aah may", is what my grandmother called him. It was short for Amelio (aah MAY lee oh). We kids thought it sounded like army.

My "Uncle Army" the family photographer.
My "Uncle Army", the photographer.

My earliest memory of my grandmother's brother—who we kids called Uncle Army—is posing for his camera. It was a large format camera that used glass plate negatives. It had a drape under which the photographer hid himself and his lens from the light.

I sat on a long upholstered bench in my great grandmother's home with my two siblings and my three first cousins. He took our portrait.

Uncle Army was a professional photographer in the Bronx. He took our communion photos, our confirmation photos, and our wedding photos.

He was a portrait photographer par excellence. Everyone acknowledged him as a true artist.

Serafina and Amelio Sarracino.
Serafina & Amelio Sarracino

So I was surprised to learn that Uncle Army, born Amelio Sarracino, enlisted in the army in 1943 at the age of 38. He was a married man with a gorgeous young wife, but he may have had a bit of wanderlust.

Due to his age, Uncle Army (that nickname is so ironic now) didn't fight for the military. He took photographs during his two-year stint.

None of my living relatives knows where Uncle Army was deployed or what he saw and photographed.

I found a book about the Signal Corps called "Getting the Message Through—A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps," by Rebecca Robbins Raines.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Chief Signal Officer felt he needed "a variety of specialized companies to meet the needs of radio intelligence, operations, photographic duties, repair, depot storage, construction, and so forth."

I hope someday to find evidence of my uncle's World War II photography. Meanwhile, Uncle Army will always be the standard by which all other photographers are judged.

This story didn't give you any concrete family tree tips, but maybe you'll feel inspired. My inspiration was a genealogist's tweet about the stories our family photos can tell us.

Go take a look at your family photos.

25 July 2017

How the Scientific Method Can Help You With Your Family Tree

Biology. Anthropology. Archaeology. They're all sciences, and lots of sciences end in -ology: "the study of". Genealogy is the study of lines of decent or development. Another science.

So it makes sense to use the well known Scientific Method in genealogy.

But how would that work? Well, the Scientific Method—principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge—includes these steps:

1. Ask a Question. When were my great great grandparents married?

2. Construct a Hypothesis. Get very specific by looking at the genealogy facts you have. Do you know what year your great grandmother was born? Do you know when her parents were born? Were they old enough to have an earlier baby?

3. Test Your Hypothesis. When it comes to family trees, your research is your experiment. You can search available records for the answer to your question. I know my great grandmother was born in 1856. I know her parents' names and ages. My test is to search for other babies in 1855, 1854, 1853, etc., until the couple was too young to have children.

4. Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion. Let's say you found more babies and then they stopped. You may conclude that your great great grandparents married at least nine months before the birth of their first child.

Let's see the Scientific Method in action on my family tree.

My first clues led to my question and hypothesis.
My first clues led to my question and hypothesis.

Ten years ago a friend in Italy went to the town hall in my ancestral hometown on my behalf. He requested a few birth, marriage and death records for me.

The town hall typed some of the important facts onto new forms. My friend sent copies of these forms to me.

I learned that my great grandmother, Marianna Iammucci, was born on January 1, 1856. Her parents names were not included.

A few years later I spent an extraordinary amount of time in a Family History Center poring over microfilmed vital records from this town. I went to the 1856 birth records and found Marianna Iammucci. I learned her parents were Antonio Iammucci born in 1814 and Annamaria Bozza born in 1815.

My question was, "How many brothers and sisters might she have had, and when was the first one born?"

Her parents were ages 41 and 40 in 1856. I hypothesized that there could be several more children born before my great grandmother. Since women in Italy at that time went well into their 40s bearing children, there might be some brothers or sisters after her, too.

Time to test my hypothesis. I checked the indexes of each year before 1856. While looking for babies born to Antonio Iammucci and Annamaria Bozza, I found:
  • Luigi Maria born in November 1852
  • Giovannangelo born in July 1849
  • Leonardo Antonio born in December 1846
  • Leonardo Antonio born in August 1845 (who died in February 1846)
  • Mariangela born in March 1843

The babies seemed to stop there.

Analyzing these births, I concluded that Leonardo and Annamaria could have gotten married as late as June 1842.

Now we've come full circle! My conclusion about their June 1842 marriage became my next hypothesis. I went straight to the 1842 marriage index.

I found them. They were married on June 12, 1842. Success!

I've spent many a weekend jumping from person to person in my tree. It's unstructured fun. But it's the Scientific Method that gets me focused and produces excellent results.

Start thinking of your genealogy research as the science that it is. My hypothesis is you'll be very pleased you did. (And my conclusion is that sentence was horribly corny.)