09 April 2019

Use Every Tool to Solve a Family History Mystery

The clock is ticking for me to solve a DNA match. Let's open the toolbox.

I want to show them their connection.
I want to show them their connection.
It's been about 2 years since I discovered my parents share some DNA. I want to figure out their connection while they're still able to get a laugh out of it.

Here's what I do know.
  • Every branch of my family tree came from one region in Southern Italy.
  • Each family came from a small town of no more than 2,000 people.
  • All their towns were pretty close to one another.
  • Endogamy was the name of the game. That means nearly everyone in town married someone else from their little town. Or maybe the next town.
Those intermarriages are the main reason this puzzle is still a puzzle.

Hoping for a Needle in a Haystack

My family tree has more than 20,000 people. At least 17,000 are 17th–19th century Italian countrymen and women. I hoped to find a marriage between someone from one of my dad's hometowns and someone from one of my mom's hometowns.

But there are too many people. And my parents aren't getting any younger. I needed to use some tools.

DNA Matches

My parents have both tested. I've got their results on AncestryDNA and GEDmatch.

On Ancestry I can see that my parents share a few DNA matches, not counting me. Two of those matches have family trees with a couple of familiar last names. I know these names come from my paternal grandparents' hometown in Italy.

I spent a few days working on both of the DNA match's trees until I connected them to my tree. The key last names are:
  • Zeolla
  • Pozzuto
  • Zerrillo
  • Piacquadio
They're in my tree now, but there's no known connection to my mom.

The Leeds Method

I used Dana Leeds' color-clustering method last November. I bent the rules a bit and added color blocks for the matches of my matches.

Doing this, I found 3 DNA matches who seemed to have a link to each of my parents. The key last names from this experiment are:
  • Zeolla (again)
  • Pozzuto (again)
  • Basile
DNA Painter shows where my mom and others intersect on my dad's chromosomes.
DNA Painter shows where my mom and others intersect on my dad's chromosomes.

DNA Painter

The first time I used DNA Painter, I hadn't done my homework. I painted 92% of my chromosomes, but I didn't have anything there to answer my key question. Where do my parents intersect?

Then I realized I should be painting my dad's DNA, not mine. Most of the DNA matches I see are from his side of the family. So what if I paint my mom's DNA onto my dad's chromosomes and see what that looks like.

Instead of painting every DNA match, I chose 3 people with the last name Zeolla. Two of them are almost a dead-on match for my mom! The 2 Zeollas and my mom share the same segment of my dad's 6th chromosome.

That can't be a coincidence. Now I've got 3 methods hitting me over the head with one last name:
  • Zeolla
There is one other fascinating match on my dad's 9th chromosome. There's an overlap between my mom and the brother-in-law of my dad's aunt. He's my cousins' uncle. It's too funny.

That match adds 2 more key last names to the list, but probably on a different branch of the family tree than the other names:
  • Paolucci
  • Polcini
DNA Painter also helps me estimate my parents' relationship.
DNA Painter also helps me estimate my parents' relationship.

The Zeolla Factor

I haven't found my parents' shared ancestors yet. But I didn't have to go too far to find the intersection of the names Zeolla and Pozzuto. My 4th great grandparents on my dad's side are Nicolangelo Zeolla and Giovannangela Pozzuto.

My mom is actually a pretty decent DNA match for my dad. They share 37 cM (centiMorgans) across 4 segments. AncestryDNA estimates they are 4th–6th cousins.

DNA Painter also has a tool to show me what type of relationship 2 people sharing 37 cM may have. Some of the higher probabilities are:
  • 3rd cousins once removed
  • 3rd cousins twice removed
  • Half 3rd cousins once removed
  • Half 3rd cousins twice removed
Third cousins share 2nd great grandparents. So my dad's 2nd great grandfather, Teofilo Zeolla, may be the key. He had 2 wives. What if he had a child with his 2nd wife who somehow connects to my mom?

Everything seems to point to my 3rd great grandfather, Teofilo Zeolla.
Everything seems to point to my 3rd great grandfather, Teofilo Zeolla.

After trying all these tools, I've got my big assignment. I have to find all Teofilo's children. Then I have to find out who they married and who their kids were.

Please, please, please let one of the kids marry someone from one of my mom's hometowns!

If you've got an important DNA puzzle to solve, use every tool you can. They can steer you in the right direction.

05 April 2019

4 Steps to Break Through Your Brick Wall

To paraphrase "The Matrix", only try to realize the truth. There is no wall.

Every genealogy fan has at least one brick wall that drives them crazy. And we all want to know the secret: How do I break through my brick wall?

Since everyone's brick wall is different, we've got to take a few steps before we can start to break through.

1. Define a Specific Problem

The first step in breaking through a brick wall is clearly defining one specific problem.

When I was starting to build my family tree, I got pretty far on my dad's side. But his mother's mother—Maria Rosa Caruso—quickly became my brick wall. I couldn't get anywhere on her line.

Is that when we decide something is a brick wall? When we can't move beyond this one person?

Not long ago, I couldn't even find her parents' names. Look at her branch now.
Not long ago, I couldn't even find her parents' names. Look at her branch now.

You can define the problem by stating one key fact you're missing. What is it that's holding you back?

My Brick Wall Definition: I can't find Maria Rosa Caruso on a ship manifest because I don't know her hometown in Italy.

My definition isn't "I can't fill out her branch of my family tree". It's smaller. It's the next step I need to take but can't. I need to find her coming to America, but I can't positively identify her without her hometown.

2. Build on What You Can Find

Many years ago, a cousin-in-law found me on an Italian genealogy message board. Her husband is also the great grandchild of Maria Rosa Caruso. But he had the advantage of growing up with her and the Ohio part of my family.

My new-found relatives told me the name of Maria Rosa's hometown: Pescolamazza. (See what to do when your hometown isn't on the map.)

Now I could find her on a ship manifest. And I learned that she came to America—4 months before marrying my great grandfather—to join her brother Giuseppe. So I searched for Giuseppe, too.

I began to piece together several Caruso siblings and the places where they lived. Some of the siblings' ship manifests told me their father's name. My great great grandfather was Francesco Saverio Caruso.

3. Compare Available Documents

It was Maria Rosa's brothers' documents that gave me clues to my great great grandmother's name.

One record transcribed their mother's name as Maria L. Gilardo. Another record transcribed her last name as Girandiu. My great uncle Giuseppe Caruso's death certificate Americanized his mother's name as Marie Gerard. (See This Expanded Resource Provided an Elusive Maiden Name.)

When I compared the 3 versions of the name—Gilardo, Girandiu, Gerard—I had a hunch her name was Girardi.

That felt like a victory, but I still didn't know for sure.

4. Seek Out New Documents

Then a glorious day arrived. The Italian genealogy archives website (Antenati) posted the vital records from Pescolamazza. I found my great grandmother Maria Rosa's 1880 birth record, and the surprise birth record of her twin brother.

This revelation came about 14 years after my search began.

Her birth record confirmed, finally, my great great grandmother's name: Maria Luigia Girardi. I admit, I got lucky when those Italian vital records from the town went online.

Her hometown was the one brick that brought down the wall.
Her hometown was the one brick that brought down the wall.

You can chip away at your brick wall by breaking it into smaller problems.

"I can't get beyond this one relative," you say.

What clues can you find about where they came from? Can you discover more about their relatives whose names you do know? Which documents might hold a clue? Immigration records, death records, wills, applications, pension forms?

If you can knock out enough individual bricks, your brick wall can collapse. And what a wonderful mess that will be.

02 April 2019

Ask One Question for Better Genealogy Results

I followed this basic research advice and made an absolute genealogy killing.

Last week I watched YouTube videos by Crista Cowan, a chief genealogist at Ancestry.com. Crista recommends you start each genealogy research session with a question.

What do you want to know? Form a question, then figure out which documents might hold the answer. As you search:
  • keep that question in mind
  • think about what other documents might help.
Yesterday I realized I was doing exactly what Crista described. I'd heard from a new DNA match whose paternal grandparents' last names were familiar to me. Her grandmother's name seemed like a misspelling of my grandmother's name, Sarracino.

Here's what my thought process looked like.

My 1st Question: Was Concetta Saraceno really Concetta Sarracino?
Documents to search: U.S. and New York censuses

I needed to find Concetta and her husband in the U.S. census. All I had were their names and approximate birth years. A census can tell you an immigration year. An immigration record can tell you a hometown.

On the 1915 New York census, Concetta and her husband and kids live with her parents. Their names are Mike and Antonia Sarracino. Mike Sarracino was born in 1858. I needed to check other census years.

I found Concetta's father's name as Angelo more than Mike. And there's always a different misspelling of Sarracino. On the 1900 census he's Angelo M Sarracino. He's married, but alone.

Based on census records, I do think Concetta Saraceno is Concetta Sarracino. They even lived on the same Bronx street as my grandmother and her family. But it's only circumstantial evidence.

Each document you find will hold some sort of clue.
Each document you find will hold some sort of clue.

My 2nd Question: Where did Concetta and her father come from in Italy?
Documents to search: Immigration and naturalization papers

I searched for Angelo Sarracino's immigration and naturalization papers. I found his U.S. passport application.

Was he from the same little hamlet as my Sarracino ancestors? They were from Pastene ending in an E. There's a different town of Pastena ending in an A.

In fact, there are a few towns named Pastena ending in an A. But none of them are in my family's Benevento province.

He signed his passport application as Angelo Michele Sarracino. The document states the following:
  • Angelo Michele Sarracino was born on 29 Sep 1858 in Pastena, Benevento. If it didn't say "Benevento" I would think it was the wrong town.
  • His wife is Mariantonia Bianchini. She is Antonia on the 1915 census, but that's very common.
  • He has a daughter Concetta who was born on 5 Feb 1886 in Pastena, Benevento.
  • He has a daughter Rosaria who was born on 22 Sep 1888 in Pastena, Benevento.
The document also has some immigration dates I can research. But what made me light up was his witness. The signature is a name I know well. It's a name from my family's town. He signed the paper:

Pastore Carmine

...ending in an E.

With Concetta and Rosaria's birth dates, I can check my collection of Pastene vital records.

Of course, they're not there.

My 3rd Question: Did Angelo Michele Sarracino return to Italy to bring back his wife and daughters?
Documents to search: Ship manifests

Angelo's passport application says he was in the U.S. continuously from 1890 to May 1904.

He went home to Italy on 31 May 1904. Now, in June 1904, he's preparing to return to New York.

I searched passengers lists for Angelo Michele Sarracino in 1904. No luck. I searched for Concetta Sarracino, his daughter. No luck. I searched for Mariantonia Bianchini, his wife. And I found the whole family.

Who else is with your people when you find them?
Who else is with your people when you find them?

The ship manifest says Angelo was in America from 1894–1904, but his wife and children were not. Because Angelo was a U.S. citizen, the whole family gets discharged on the pier.

Their hometown is still infuriatingly written as Pastena. But there's a welcome surprise on the next line. It's Angelo Muollo and his family from just outside Pastene. This is my family. My great grandfather Giovanni Sarracino's mother was a Muollo.

The ship manifest doesn't list a family member in Italy. So I can't connect Angelo—and my DNA match—to other Sarracino family members. The birth records for Pastene are not available before 1861.

My 4th Question: How can I connect Angelo to my family?
Documents to search: Vital records

I couldn't find Concetta and Rosaria's birth records. But then I remembered what happened with my great grandfather. He was born in Pastene in 1876. But his father didn't officially declare the birth until 1898. He had to do it so Giovanni could legally marry.

Maybe Concetta and Rosaria's births were filed late, too. Maybe they were registered just in time to sail to America.

I searched the town's birth records year-by-year, starting in 1904 and going backward. I found 3 other Sarracino's whose birth were reported years late. What was up with my family?

Finally I found the goods. On his 1904 passport application, Angelo got his daughter Rosaria's birth date wrong. I found her exactly one year later. She was born on 22 Sep 1889, not 1888. And I learned that Angelo's father-in-law was Giovanni.

Gasp! Does that mean I might find Concetta's birth record in the wrong year, too? Yes it does! Concetta Maria Domenica Sarracino was born one year later than it says on her father's passport.

This is why I keep all the vital records on my computer!
This is why I keep all the vital records on my computer!

Now I'm sure my new DNA match is a Sarracino from Pastene like me and my mom. I still don't know who Angelo's father was, so I don't know the exact relationship.

My 5th Question: How can I find the names of Angelo's parents?
Documents to search: More vital records

An Ancestry search tells me Angelo died in New York on 7 Feb 1931. His Manhattan death certificate is number 4251. But I can only see it by visiting the New York City Municipal Archives. I'm not able to do that.

My last resort is to go through all the vital records I have from Pastene. I may be able to piece together Angelo and his wife's families. Only then will I know my exact relationship to my DNA match.

I didn't even mention how I tracked down my match's grandfather with only his name and birth year. Census forms and ship manifests led me to a town called San Nicola Manfredi. Would you believe it's the town next door to Pastene?

So, to make your genealogy research more productive, follow Crista Cowan's advice. Ask the question and figure out which records can get you the answer.