10 November 2017

Appreciate the Veterans in Your Family Tree

My dad was a USAF jet pilot who did not see combat.
My dad wanted to fight, but missed the war.
"But for him, I wouldn't be here."

That's what producer and writer Tonya Lewis-Lee said after learning about one of her ancestors on PBS's "Finding Your Roots".

It's a heavy concept. Think about all the direct-line ancestors you've added to your family tree. If you've traced your family back several generations, you should have the names of lots of individual people who led directly to you.

Have you ever thought about the many ways things might have gone differently? And how many of your ancestors could easily have taken a slightly different path?

It's like the "butterfly effect"—the idea that some small change in the past could cause a big change in today's world.

If just one pair of your direct-line ancestors hadn't had children, you would not exist!

My mother's brother Johnny died in an airplane crash in World War II. His tragic death left no one to carry on the family name of Leone. If Johnny had come home from the war, he probably would have had a wife and children—children who would be my first cousins.

My grandfather was a soldier in the Italian army in World War I.
My grandfather, standing,
before he was captured.
His father, my grandfather Adamo, was an Italian prisoner of war in World War I. He faced brutal conditions in captivity. Many men imprisoned with him died of starvation and disease. He sometimes ate rats to stay alive. If he had died, I wouldn't be here.

My great grandparents, Giovanni and Maria Rosa, stayed in Italy when the rest of Maria Rosa's family came to settle in America. Fifteen months later, after the death of their first-born child, my great grandparents followed the family to America.

What if their son hadn't died? Would they have stayed in Italy? If they had stayed, their daughter Mary would never have married my grandfather Adamo. My mother wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be here.

This Veterans Day, I encourage you to think of your ancestors who served their country in the military. You should be proud and thankful for their service, of course. But you should also be very grateful that they lived to carry on the line that led to you.

In a college film class years ago I saw the 1974 Vietnam War documentary, "Heart and Minds". The film brought me to tears when I realized my father, a United States Air Force jet pilot, could have been dropping napalm on villages if he'd been in that war.

He wasn't in that war, and the Korean War ended immediately after he graduated flight school. But maybe, in that moment, I saw how fragile our lives are. If my dad had gone to war, he could have died.

And I wouldn't be here to trace his ancestors back to the late 1600s. "But for him, I wouldn't be here."

Here are some FamilySearch.org links that may help you find out more about your military ancestors.

07 November 2017

Trade Up to Better Family History Sources

Check your list of sources. Which ones aren't certified reliable?
Reliable sources make a reliable family tree.
No offense to my third cousin once removed, but I can do better. If my family tree has facts whose only source is my cousin, that's not good enough.

Hearsay—even if it's someone's first-hand knowledge—is not a reliable, reproducible source for your family research.

That's why I'm on a mission to verify every fact in my tree that has a person or someone's online tree as my source. They're good leads, and I appreciate them tremendously. But without evidence, they are only leads. I need to find proof.

Clean-Up Makes Your Family Tree More Reliable

I've been scrubbing my family tree in a bunch of ways lately.
  • For every census form in my tree, I added complete details and a link to where to find it online. (Ship manifests are next!)
  • I cleaned up every address in my family tree to have a consistent format and take advantage of Family Tree Maker's address verification.
  • I attached every census form or ship manifest in my tree to each person named in the document.
  • I beefed up my source citations with more information and weeded out duplicates.
Now I'm going after imperfect sources. I started by picking two sources that are far from bulletproof. I'm not happy at all with one large branch from Virginia that relies on (a) someone else's tree and (b) "One World Tree" as its sources.

Two collections on Ancestry.com have a lot to offer this branch. I found Virginia marriage listings and death certificates for several people. I added the two Virginia source citations to the facts and removed the sources I don't find as valuable.

Now It's Your Turn to Trade Up

Some sources carry much more weight than others.
My reliable sources.

You, too, can fortify your family tree by using the most reliable sources. First, see if your family tree software can show you a list of all the sources you've created or attached to people in your tree.

Family Tree Maker lets me view my sources in a few ways, including by repository. The repository tells others where you found this fact.

I added the Repository (ancestry.com, familysearch.org, etc.) to each source citation that's from a website. I added the New York City Municipal Archives as a repository, too. That's where I went to see lots of birth, death, and marriage records for myself.

I can also view the complete alphabetical list of source titles in use in my family tree. That list shows me which sources I want to replace with something better. When I select a questionable source, like One World Tree, I can see exactly which facts are using it as their source.

If you have FTM, or your family tree software acts in a similar way, look for sources that come from another person's tree or a name. (When the source is a cousin, I name it to make that clear, e.g., "Joseph Collins, my cousin".) While you may believe your cousin, other genealogists have no reason to!

Start working through those facts. Search for a recognized, reliable source to back up your cousin's information. You can keep your cousin's name there if you want to, or put their name in your notes.

An online tree is not a good source. It's just a lead for you to investigate.
Zero in on sources that don't carry much weight and trade up to better ones.

The goal is to make every fact in your family tree provable.

Trade up to more reliable sources and you will fortify your family tree.

03 November 2017

Using All Your Tools to Build a Better Family Tree

If you've been enjoying this genealogy hobby for a while, you may have more tools, skills, and knowledge at your fingertips than you realize.

The other day my cousin asked me to track down his grandfather's uncle Pietro who died in World War I.

Suddenly I realized how many online resources I have. I went straight to an Italian website that lists fallen World War I soldiers.

An Italian website lists the fallen soldiers of World War I. This one happens to be an American soldier born in Italy.
Was this the fallen soldier I was looking for?

My cousin's grandfather confirmed that the record I found was the right soldier. Now I had the all-important name of his hometown in Italy (Riace) and Pietro's father's first name (Cosimo).

Until now, I knew this family's province, but not their town of origin.
Finding out your ancestor's hometown
is critical.
I jumped over to the Antenati website of vital records from Italian towns. Hurray! The town of Riace is there.

I felt as if my years of research, my knowledge of Italian, and my long list of genealogy website bookmarks had a greater purpose now. They had the power to help others.

It can be tough to research a family when you don't have first-hand knowledge of them. I'd tried before to build this family's tree, but I'd made a mistake and hit a dead-end. I needed my cousin's grandfather to tell me, "yes, that is my uncle".

What do professional genealogists do? How do they go on if they don't have a relative available to confirm important facts?

Here's what I could have done, and what you can do, too.

Work With What You Have

I could have started with that brief record of the fallen soldier. At first, I assumed he was not our man because I thought Pietro's father's name was Ilario, not Cosimo. But it's a good idea to work with the record you have. See if you can prove or disprove any of it.

Based on that record, I could have looked in the archives of the town of Riace for his birth. Ironically, the fallen-soldier record shows the wrong birthdate for him. But he is in the 1891 index of births. He was born on 9 January 1891.

Compare Your Findings to What You Do Know

Using his birth record, I could have looked for evidence that lined up with what I knew about this family. And his birth record does have what I needed.

Pietro's mother's maiden name was Niceforo. That's a fact I had all along. It was part of the scanty information I'd been told before. If Pietro's birth record showed a mother with any other last name, I would have no confidence that he was the right man.

But there she was. Anna Maria Niceforo was this soldier's mother. With both parents' names confirmed, I could search for all of their babies and see if they had any of the names I knew. And they did!

Build on Your Newly Found Facts

My new list of sibling names helped me find the ship manifest for my cousin's grandfather's mother, Teresa. I learned she'd been held in detention, kept briefly in the hospital because of "tremor of hands". She'd left behind her father Cosimo in Riace, and was to be released to her brother Domenico in Brooklyn.

That's the proof I needed. I had the birth record for her brother Domenico. Later I found Pietro's military record card on Ancestry.com. It said that Domenico in Brooklyn was the person informed of the soldier Pietro's death on 5 October 1918.

Don't Rule Out Less-than-Perfect Search Results

This brief military record holds a clue to this soldier's final battle.
His date of death also tells us which battle he died in.

You might overlook a search result because it isn't a perfect match to your family member. I was ready to toss aside that soldier's record because I didn't recognize his town name or his father's name. But he was the right man.

And Teresa's ship manifest was a bear to find. Ancestry's search only brought me to the page listing detainees. That didn't tell me her age, hometown, or her father's name. I had to comb through the 901-image collection to find the rest of her information.

I had to have her main ship manifest entry to know that I had the right person. And it was worth the trouble.

Now go out there and use your family research super powers for good!