28 September 2018

How to Find Official Sources for Family Facts You Just Know

Imagine your grandchild inherits your family tree. How reliable will the information be for your generation?

I don't need a document to tell me I was born in Mother Cabrini Hospital in New York City. Or that I was baptized in Our Lady of Pity Church in the Bronx. (Both gone now, by the way.)

But years from now, if my grandchild wants to carry on my genealogy work, what proof will they have for facts about me, my siblings and my cousins?

Marriage registers, yearbooks, newspaper clippings...these are official sources for your living relatives.
Marriage registers, yearbooks, newspaper
clippings…these are official sources for your
living relatives.

Everyone says to start your tree with yourself and the facts you know. Then you move on. Finding census forms, draft registration cards, death records and so much more. But have you returned to yourself and your generation to find proof for your facts?

Your Own Documents

You should have your own birth certificate in your possession. I even have my baptismal certificate, along with two marriage certificates.

I need to scan those documents and put them in my family tree. (For the worriers: You can mark individual images as private in Family Tree Maker. Hopefully in your software, too.)

Of course, I'm not going to ask my brother and my cousins to let me scan their birth certificates. So what do you do?

Public Records Index

On Ancestry.com you can access volumes 1 and 2 of the U.S. Public Records Index, 1950–1993. The information in these databases comes from a combination of:
  • telephone books
  • post office change-of-address forms
  • other public documents.
In my experience, the birth dates given in these collections are often wrong. For me, an entry might say I was born on the 1st of the month instead of the 24th. But it generally has the right year.

So, when all else fails, a public records source proves the person in your tree existed:
  • by their name
  • in a specific place
  • in a specific range of time.
Newly Released Indexes

It pays to watch social media for genealogy news. That's where you can learn about groups like Reclaim the Records. They're on a mission to get access to the genealogical and archival data we genealogists want so much.

They've scored tremendous wins, particularly for New York and New Jersey documents. But they're also working to release data from many U.S. states.

Thanks to them, I've found documentation for several events, including:
  • my parents' marriage license
  • my grandfather's 2nd marriage license
  • my and my close cousins' births
  • my grandmother Lucy's birth
Seeing the index of New York births, I finally found my grandmother's birth certificate number.
Seeing the index of New York births, I finally found my grandmother's birth certificate number.

Lucy's birth record has eluded me for years. Now I know her New York State birth certificate number is 60968. On the index she has no first name and a badly misspelled last name. No wonder I couldn't find her certificate! It's definitely her because my father has always known she was born on 10 Dec 1908 in Hornell, New York.


I haven't found much historical information on my family in the newspapers. But I'm constantly finding references to my brother in newspapers. His career has always had a big public relations aspect to it. So any search for Iamarino brings up my brother. I found his North Carolina marriage announcement that way.

Proof of a modern-day marriage may be found in the bride's hometown paper.
Proof of a modern-day marriage may be found in the bride's hometown paper.

You may have more luck searching for your family. Think about all the events you could search for when it comes to your contemporary relatives:
  • birth, marriage and death announcements
  • public relations announcements for various professionals
  • graduating class lists
Your facts and your closest, living relatives' facts may not be your top priority. But documenting these things you've known all your life:
  • your mom's birth date
  • your brother's middle name
  • your aunt's home address
…will go a long way toward strengthening your legacy.

Set aside some time to find documents or public sources for your own nuclear family. Some day your grandchild may thank you from the bottom of their heart.

25 September 2018

This Genealogy Policy Takes the Guesswork Out of Names

My in-law policy is working so well, I've created a naming policy for my family tree.

In my last article, I wrote about how freeing it can be to set policies for building your family tree. My new policy for handling the in-laws of distant relatives has been incredibly helpful.

This past weekend I found 29 more people who were in my family tree simply because they were an easy get. For instance, a man named Giovanni married one of my distant relatives in New York City long ago. I do want him and his parents in my tree. But I no longer want his 8 siblings—or any of their spouses and children—in my family tree.

So I removed them. And if I ever wanted them back, the census sheets where I found their names are still part of my tree. I'm keeping the documents because they contain Giovanni and his parents.

If your ancestor changed their name, are you recording both names?
If your ancestor changed their name,
are you recording both names?

This in-law policy makes me happy because it's always there to guide me. It'll keep me from reaching out too far. It'll put an end to those awkward messages I get from people wondering why their grandfather is in my family tree.

It makes me so happy, I want to consider other genealogy policies.

I didn't have to think too hard about it before I realized—I already have another genealogy policy.

What I'm about to describe is not an established, official genealogy rule. There's a good amount of personal preference.

So think about your own personal preferences as you read on.

Naming Conventions in Your Family Tree

I'm putting my naming convention policy in writing. But it's based on practices I already follow. This is the style I've developed over the years.

Now, with a policy in place, I'll be sure to be consistent.

#1 Birth Names

If your ancestors emigrated to a country with a different language, they probably went by a different name. Giovanni became John. Anton became Anthony. Pablo became Paul.

I record my ancestors using the name on their birth record. If I haven't seen their birth record, I check each census. If they were born in another country, and on some censuses they use an ethnic name, then I believe that's their given name.

In Family Tree Maker, I use their birth name as their Name fact.

Record multiple names for your ancestor if they unofficially changed their name.
Record multiple names for your ancestor if they unofficially changed their name.

#2 Common Names

In their new home in a new country, many of our ancestors tried to fit in. They identified themselves by a non-ethnic name, like Mary instead of Maria Rosa.

We don't want to lose track of those new names. The new name is likely to be what's on their death record.

In Family Tree Maker, I record their common, or assumed name, as a second name fact. The software lets me add multiple names and set one as the preferred fact. Their birth name is that preferred fact.

Last names are important, too! If your ancestor changed their last name in their new country, you need to record that. You can make it their alternate name—their non-preferred name. For example, I have ancestors named Muollo. That's so hard for an American mouth to say, that one Muollo man changed his name legally to Williams.

That may seem like an odd choice. But you pronounce Muollo as mwoe-low. That could sound as if you're mumbling Williams. I need to record the Williams name because that's the legal last name of this man's children.

#3 Nicknames

Everyone in my parents' Bronx neighborhood in the old days had a nickname. In my family there were men called Baldy and Blondie. People in the family never called them anything else. So I need to preserve those colorful nicknames in the family tree, too.

In Family Tree Maker, I record a nickname with the AKA (Also Known As) data fact. Having spelled out this policy, now I'll be sure to fill in what I'm missing.

#4 Reference Words

I've been working on my document tracker a lot lately. This is a spreadsheet where I log each document I've found for the people in my tree. Everyone who has a document image gets a line in the document tracker.

A simple shorthand highlights my closer ancestors, and their father's name.
A simple shorthand highlights my
closer ancestors, and their father's name.

Filling it out helps me realize which documents I'm missing for each person. It encourages me to do more. Lots of times I'll enter something in the "Need to find" field, like "1902 immigration record". Then I think, "Why not search for it right now?" And I know I'm doing good work.

Here's where I'm using a naming convention in my spreadsheet.

I have tons of people in my tree with the same name. Don't we all? In the small towns where my ancestors were born, many men had the same name. On the town's birth records, the mayor would sometimes write the new father's name as, for example, "Giovanni, son of Giuseppe".

So I'm doing that in my spreadsheet. After a person's name, I add, in parentheses, (son of Giuseppe), or whatever the father's name is. That helps me when I need to locate the person in my family tree.

I also like to identify certain close relatives in the spreadsheet. I use this shorthand: 2G is a 2nd great grandparent, 2GA is a 2nd great aunt, 2GU is a 2nd great uncle.

What naming conventions are you using? Are you being consistent?

Spend a little time thinking about the names in your tree. What policies can you set to make your family tree make more sense?

21 September 2018

How to Keep from Going Too Far with Your Family Tree

How do you know when to stop gathering documents and facts for the in-laws in your family tree?

My full collection of documents for a distant cousin's wife.
For certain types of distant relatives, I'm collecting
the basic documents and stopping right there.

I've been thinking about this ever since I decided to delete the in-laws of distant relatives from my tree.

Here's an example. When I was new at family history research, "easy" families were impossible to resist. So, when I saw my Great Uncle Mike's granddaughter-in-law had a tree with 7 generations of Uncle Mike's wife's family, I "adopted" them all.

I added this big branch to my tree with little or no documentation. I found documents for some of the people, but I didn't care enough about this branch to see it through. They weren't mine.

My new policy is simple. Unless I have a reason to go further, I will stop at the parents of a relative's spouse. I kept Uncle Mike's wife's parents, but the rest of her many ancestors are gone.

The 2 main reasons I would break this policy are:
  1. An in-law asked me to research their family.
  2. The in-law family is from the same town as mine and may be related.
With this new policy fresh on my mind, I found myself looking at documents for a relative's wife today. I downloaded Emily's naturalization papers from FindMyPast.com 2 weeks ago. They were offering free access for a few days.

The site had indexed Emily by her married name—my family name—which is why I found her. I recognized who she was immediately and downloaded the 2 pages. Then they sat on my desktop for a while.

When I finally examined the naturalization papers, I realized I had Emily's:
  • date and place of birth in Italy
  • immigration date with the name of the ship
The pages also confirm the birth dates I had for her husband and son, so they're well worth having.

Before I found her naturalization papers, all I had for Emily was:
  • Her 1927 marriage certificate—but not a copy of it. I saw and transcribed it at the New York City Municipal Archives years ago. Her parents' names were on that marriage certificate, so I already had them in my tree.
  • The 1940 U.S. Federal Census.
  • The Social Security Death Index record of her death in 1991.
Knowing that I have no plans to add anyone else from her family, what other documents should I try to find and add to my tree?

Her naturalization papers say she was born on 2 Dec 1907 in Savignano, Italy. So I've got to look for that document. Vital records for Savignano are available online, so I drilled down to the year 1907 and found it.

This document gives me her mother's original name and her father's age and occupation. I don't need any more details about Emily's parents.

In 1907 Emily's town was called Savignano di Puglia. She was born on Via San Giovanni.
In 1907 Emily's town was called Savignano di Puglia. She was born on Via San Giovanni.

Oh, by the way, her name isn't Emily. I always thought it might be Emilia, but now I have her birth record. She was born Ermilinda Franceschina Concettina D'Apice. She signed her marriage certificate as Emily, and her naturalization papers say Emily. But those papers also include the name "Ermelinda".

Now I have Emily's:
  • 1907 birth in Italy
  • 1927 marriage in New York
  • 1940 census in New York
  • 1944 naturalization in New York
  • 1991 death in New York
What's the most important piece of documentation missing from that list? She was born in Italy and married in New York. How did she come to America, and with whom?

Emily and her sister Giuseppa came to New York in 1919 to join their sister Elvira in the Bronx.
Emily and her sister Giuseppa came to New York in 1919 to join their sister Elvira in the Bronx.

Her naturalization papers include an immigration date of 19 Dec 1919 aboard the S.S. Duca D'Aosta.

When I found her ship manifest, she was single and sailing with her much older, unmarried sister, Giuseppa. They listed their father Angelo, so I knew they were the right family from Savignano. They were joining their other sister, Elvira, at 628 Morris Avenue in the Bronx.

Emily's street in Savignano still exists. It's always nice to get an idea of where the people in your family tree came from.
Emily's street in Savignano still exists. It's always nice to get an idea of where the people in your family tree came from.

I had to laugh when I saw that address, because if you were going there, you were bound to meet my relatives.

So now I've learned the names of 2 of Emily's sisters, the age of one of them and the address of the other. But I have a policy now. No unnecessary siblings of the spouse of a distant relative.

That's why Giuseppa and Elvira D'Apice will live in my tree only in Emily's immigration notes. Having a policy makes it much easier to deal with questionable situations like this. What I will add, because her husband and son belong to my family, is her 1930 census. And maybe I'll find her and her sisters in the 1920 census. But no more than that!

If you're a fan of Mel Brooks' movie "The Producers," you may recognize the phrase I will repeat when I'm tempted to add a wildly distant in-law to my family tree. "Be brutal! Be brutal!"