01 September 2017

Delving Deep into Your Genealogy with DNA

All my life I've called myself a purebred because my heritage is only Italian.

going back hundreds of years, we're all Italian
I'm Italian alright.
I grew up with friends who were German-Irish-Italian or English-Irish or Polish-Italian. But I was all Italian. And that's totally true if you look back only several hundred years.

To prove that point, my family tree—excluding my many in-law tangents—has only Italian names.

DNA makes our ancestry research an entirely new ball game. What's imprinted on our chromosomes dates back to the origins of man. We can trace our ethnic makeup back thousands of years with an inexpensive DNA test.

All the corners of the earth were not populated on Day One. Those who became native Italians had to come from somewhere else.

Testing both of my parents helps me see which one contributed what to my DNA makeup. Here are the specifics. If you test any set of parents and their child, you can do a similar comparison.

comparing my DNA results to those of my parents
Side-by-side comparison of Dad, me, Mom.
  • My ethnicity estimate includes 13% West Asian split between the Caucasus and the Middle East. It also includes 10% European Jewish. The rest is almost entirely Italian, or technically "Italy/Greece".
  • My dad's ethnicity estimate has less West Asian than I do and more European Jewish than I do.
  • My mom's ethnicity estimate has much more West Asian than I do and a lot less European Jewish than I do.

Since my dad's West Asian parts are classified as a "Low Confidence Region", I'm statistically more likely to have gotten those parts from my mom. And since his European Jewish parts are three times higher than my mom's, I'm statistically more likely to have gotten those parts from him.

The part that tickles me the most is that I have a higher percentage of Italy/Greece than either of my parents! That's one of the fascinating things about DNA. You inherit a completely random 50% of your DNA from each parent.

Since I didn't inherit all of their smaller-percentage ethnicities, I am more Italian than they are.

Now take a look at my husband's DNA. One of us is truly a purebred, and it most certainly is not me.
Another website goes further than Ancestry. My husband is 100% Japanese.
Another website goes further than Ancestry. My husband is 100% Japanese.

29 August 2017

Share Your Family Tree Names in a Word Cloud

So you think you know the main ancestral last names in your family tree, right?

You may be way off! There is a way you can visualize which family names are making up the majority of your family tree.

Recently I've seen a word cloud floating around that shows the most common last names in each of the regions of Italy. It's plain to see that Russo and Rossi are the most common Italian names throughout the country.

What about your family tree?

you can create a word cloud from your family tree
A word cloud shows the frequency of names in your family tree.

I created this tree-shaped word cloud using only names from my grandfather's hometown of Baselice, Italy. My Baselice Family Tree Maker file has more than 16,000 people, and this required a lot of manual editing. To save a few days, I'm showing only the last names of people whose first name begins with A. That's 3,355 people!

Ironically, the biggest names I see are not closely related to me.

You should know that because of intermarrying, I am related to roughly 13,000 of the 16,000 people in my file.

Even more surprising is that I can spot the names of in-laws, like Pallotta at the base of the tree and Borrillo at the base of the leaves.

Oh! And there's a tiny Pilla in the center. That's a name from my other grandfather's family!

To create your word cloud, you need a text file of just the last names. I exported a GEDCOM file, pasted it into a spreadsheet, and kept whittling it down with search and replace. Then go to https://www.wordclouds.com:
  • Click the "Word list" button.
  • Click the "Paste/Type text" link near the top.
  • Copy and paste your list of names and click the "Apply" button.
When your word cloud is created, use the different buttons to change the shape, colors, spacing, and font.

When you're happy with your results, click the "File" button and choose how you'd like to save your family tree word cloud. Then share yours on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #familytreenames.

27 August 2017

Are You Overlooking Your Family Tree Discoveries?

What if the you from several years ago could talk genealogy with the you of today? Do you think the two of you could help each other out?

You're probably thinking that you've got so much more experience in family history now. You could teach so much to the past you. You could set her on the right course. You could tell her everywhere she's making genealogical mistakes.

But guess what? Past you has a lot to offer today's you, too. Past you holds some keys to your family tree that today's you has completely forgotten.

Today, past me and present me had a surprising collaboration. Here's what happened.

it's important to digitize your notes as well as your family tree documents
Digitizing death and marriage records is one thing. But notes are just as important.
When I went to Italy in 2005, I brought a notebook. It contained useful Italian phrases and facts I'd gathered about my closest ancestors.

My family tree was very small at that time, and I didn't have many documented facts. My plan was to use the few facts I had to explain who I was to the cousins I was about to meet.

In the same notebook, I jotted down details from three cemeteries I visited in my ancestral hometowns. My husband took photos of graves, and I wrote the facts in my notebook. When I was able to visit with cousins, I wrote down a few details they were able to share.

How I wish I'd taken better notes! But I was afraid of looking rude by paying more attention to my notebook than to my cousins.

Take Time to Collaborate With Yourself

This morning I read that old travel notebook and compared it to my family tree and the cemetery photos.

Past me, who'd scribbled all those notes, wound up providing present me with clues I didn't know I had! For example, my cousin Gennaro said his sister Maria had moved to New York City with her husband and four sons. I'd written down phone numbers for two of the sons, but I never called them.

Using the names of Maria and her sons, I found documentation for them on Ancestry.com. Maria and at least two of her sons became U.S. citizens. I knew I had the right people because they all had the same address between 1967 and 1971.

I learned that Maria and two of her sons died not long ago. And I had never contacted them because past me forgot to tell present me that their phone numbers were in that notebook. I missed my chance.

your scribbled notes should be typed and stored on your computer so you can use them in your genealogy research
My Italian cheatsheet alongside cemetery notes.

This is a strong argument for digitizing everything you gather in your family tree research. Scan your official documents. Enter their facts into your family tree.

This is true for notebooks, loose notes, and recorded conversations, too. Preserve the information and make it searchable by typing it into your word processing software.

I don't want to throw out my 2005 travel notebook, even though my dog chewed it as a puppy. But it would be a terrible mistake to leave it in paper form only.

What Should You Re-read Today?

Next, past me is going to share old immigration notes with present me. When I took those notes, I didn't know if the people were related to me or not. I only knew that they had the right last names, so I wrote their facts down in a notebook.

We'll see if present me can make a breakthrough with that old, forgotten information.

To paraphase a TV ad campaign, "What's in your closet"?