27 September 2019

What Was Happening When Your Ancestor Died?

If a lot of townspeople died at the same time, something big happened.

When we research our relatives from centuries past, we find lots of tragedies. Mothers who die in childbirth. Babies born shortly after their father died. Two or 3 siblings dying within hours of one another. Stillborn babies.

If you find family members dying at about the same time, that may point to an historical event.

Did something happen to cause many people to die? An epidemic? A natural disaster?

The 1805 Earthquake

Many years ago an historian from my grandfather's hometown gave me a piece of history. It's a list of 40 townspeople who died in the earthquake of 26 July 1805. To put this in context, that's the same year Napoleon declared himself the Italian Emperor.

The info in the list is as good as an Italian death record. It includes:
  • the deceased's name and age
  • their parents names
  • their spouse's name if they had one.
One by one, I'm checking the victims' names against my family tree. On line 23 I find someone. Everything I knew about Maria I learned from her son Giovanni's 1829 death record. I knew her husband died in 1805, but it wasn't clear if Maria was alive at that time.

What can history's tragedies tell you about your ancestor's death?
What can history's tragedies tell you about your ancestor's death?

Now, thanks to this list of earthquake victims in 1805, I've got more facts:
  • She was born in 1749. By coincidence, that was the estimated birth year I was using already. I have a rule I follow. If I don't know when someone was born, I subtract 25 from their oldest child's birth year. I had Maria's birth year as "about 1749" because I know her son Giovanni was born in 1774.
  • Her parents were Mattia Pizzella and Libera Polcino. I can estimate that they were born "about 1724".
  • Her husband was Giorgio Pozzuto. That's a key fact. That and her age helped me match this earthquake victim to the woman already in my family tree.
  • Her approximate date of death. My list of victims doesn't say whether these 40 people died immediately. In Family Tree Maker, I'll give them a death date of "about 26 Jul 1805". I'll add "Victim of the 26 July 1805 earthquake" as the description. My source for these facts is my friend the historian. He has given me lots of facts over the years. He has access to the original documents.
Three of the victims were my 6th great aunt Libera and her 2 little girls Grazia and Anna Maria. Libera's husband Giovanni Palmiero must have remarried after their deaths. Can you imagine his sorrow, having his family wiped out? There is another Giovanni Palmiero in my family tree. He's about the right age and married a younger woman. This could be him, but without church records for his marriage, I can't be sure.

A list of the victims of the 1805 earthquake gave me the missing information I needed.
A list of the victims of the 1805 earthquake gave me the missing information I needed.

Finding Disasters

Search online for epidemics, pandemics, earthquakes, and floods in your ancestors' part of the world.

One of the first things I found was that the 26 July 1805 earthquake killed 44 people in Grandpa's town. An estimated 5,573 people died from this event and its aftershocks in all.

My cousins in Italy showed me the stone threshold where my grandfather's house once stood. They said they had to demolish the house after a 1960s earthquake. An Italian earthquake list on Wikipedia makes it clear. The 21 August 1962 earthquake ruined Grandpa's home. It was a 6.1 on the Richter scale. Its epicenter was nearby in Irpinia, Avellino. That's the neighboring province.

Irpinia had an earlier, bigger earthquake on 23 July 1930. I was hoping to see if anyone had died in Grandpa's town on that date, but the available death records start in 1931.

Still, you can see where I'm going. If you can find a list of disasters near your ancestor's hometown, you may find the most likely cause of death for your relatives.

In 1918 a flu pandemic killed 20 to 50 million people. The cholera pandemic of 1910–1911 took more than 800,000 lives. For more on this topic, see "Why Did They Die?"

It's disappointing when old death records don't show a cause of death. Spend a little time investigating the major killers of the time: waves of sickness and natural disasters. You may find your family member's probable cause of death.

24 September 2019

Don't Ignore a Genealogy Hunch

If you don't have enough info to go on, imagine what that info ought to be.

I spent all day yesterday piecing together a family for Barbara. We began with a few basic facts. I knew her parents' names and her grandparents' names. I didn't have any dates, but I knew Barbara's approximate age.

Let me walk you through how I built out as many facts as possible from those basic facts.

Census Records Lead to One Another

First I wanted to find Barbara in a census or two. With only "New York City" as a location, I found her in the 1940 census. From that I learned the names and ages of her siblings.

Their names helped me be sure I had the right family when I found them in the 1915 and 1920 censuses. As the children grew up, I found that the parents were no longer together. At first I thought Barbara's father had died, but her mother was in one place and her father was in another. They had divorced.

Next I searched for earlier censuses when Barbara's parents were children.

Knowing when Barbara's grandparents were born, I found their marriage records. And some of their death records, which also provided their exact birth dates.

Searching for the Immigrant Ancestors

I'm the luckiest Italian American alive. My 2 grandfathers often told me the names of their hometowns in Italy. My ancestors came to America late enough for their ship manifests to be very detailed.

My 2 grandmothers were born in New York. But their parents arrived here in 1899 and 1906. Their ship manifests tell me their hometowns.

If your people came to the new country before the late 1890s, you may get no help from their ship manifest. That's when naturalization papers can fill in the gaps.

Ship manifests are not created equal. The late 1890s to 1920s are full of great information.
Ship manifests are not created equal. The late 1890s to 1920s are full of great information.

But Barbara's grandfather's certificate of naturalization doesn't say where he came from. The dates on his papers helped me find his ship manifest, but there was a problem. He was the only one onboard from his town, and the town name was so generic.

Barbara said he was from southernmost Italy. There was no town with this name down south. I thought the town might have a longer name. I found a good possibility, but its 1880s birth and marriage records were destroyed! I've sent an email to the town asking for help. We'll see what they say.

But there was another immigrant to find. Barbara's paternal grandfather was born in New York in the 1890s. I didn't know who his immigrant father was. How could I go back another generation in Barbara's family tree?

That's when my big hunch came into play.

When the paper trail is out of your reach, make your best educated guess.
When the paper trail is out of your reach, make your best educated guess.

Barbara's father was John and his father was Sylvester. His father should be Giovanni, right? And based on Sylvester's age, I thought "Giovanni" should have been born about 1865. That was my hunch.

But Giovanni and Cristina had come to America before 1889. Their ship manifests won't tell me their hometowns. I did find Giovanni's naturalization record from 1894. Now I had his exact birth date and a ship arrival date in 1881 (too early). Unfortunately, that date was an estimate, and there's no ship arriving on that date from Italy.

I may be stuck on finding the family's hometowns, but I was able to build out Barbara's family and make her very happy.

Have you been doing this genealogy thing for a while? I'll bet you know more than you give yourself credit for. If you've got a hunch, follow it through. It may lead you to a new generation.

20 September 2019

How to Benefit from a Cousin's Mistaken Family Tree

It drives us crazy when someone takes parts of our tree and messes things up.

Each time I go to Ancestry.com I see a list of the latest documents someone borrowed from my tree and put into theirs. I don't mind that.

But it's upsetting when you go to their tree and see mistakes. Maybe that document they took doesn't belong in their tree. Or maybe that person doesn't belong in their tree.

Again, I don't really mind because it isn't going to change anything about our lives. I'd rather look for something good that can come from this experience.

What can we learn when someone messes up the family tree?

I'm happy to share my research, but I want it used correctly.
I'm happy to share my research, but I want it used correctly.

What Do They Know That You Don't?

We all start building our family tree with what we know. We enter facts about our immediate family and some of their ancestors. Then we turn to research and lots of documents.

If we look at our borrower's tree, we can learn the names of people they know and we don't. For instance, say you're my distant relative. You learned the names of my great grandfather's children from a census form. But you don't know who those children married. If you came to my tree, you would learn their names.

When I looked at this borrower's tree, I saw a handful of familiar last names. I knew they came from my maternal grandfather's hometown of Baselice, Italy.

Use Your Superior Skills and Learn More

To see if my borrower knew more than I did, I first went to the document she borrowed from me. It was an 1809 birth record for the wife of my 3rd great uncle. One of this couple's sons, Giovannangelo, was in my tree. But I have him married to a different woman that my borrower does.

And Giovannangelo is critical to her tree. He's her 3rd great grandfather. She has an Anglicized version of his last name. Consulting my handy relationship chart, my borrower is my 6th cousin twice removed. Our shared ancestors were born around 1718 in Baselice. (I sorted this out after I solved the problem with her family tree.)

Since her Giovannangelo born on 3 Jan 1849, has a different wife than my Giovannangelo born on 3 Jan 1849, who's right? Was it the same man who married twice and had 2 sets of children?

I have about 15,000 people from the town of Baselice in my family tree. They came directly from the town's 1809–1860 vital records. I looked in my tree for the woman my borrower shows as Giovannangelo's wife—Serafina. There was only one choice. And guess what? Her husband is Giovanni, not Giovannangelo, but he has the same last name. The same name they Anglicized in America.

My borrower didn't do the exhaustive research I've done on Baselice. (Who else would?) So she assumed that Giovannangelo, born the same year as Serafina, was her direct ancestor. She didn't know about Giovanni.

With a clue from my borrower's tree, I found where she went wrong.
With a clue from my borrower's tree, I found where she went wrong.

For proof, I looked up the birth records of the children my borrower gave to Giovannangelo and Serafina. The first baby told me all I needed to know. The Giovanni who married Serafina and had this baby had a father named Giuseppe. Those facts match my tree. My borrower chose the wrong man and his ancestors and put them in her family tree.

Giovannangelo's ancestors—the whole bunch in my borrower's tree—came from my tree. From my research. She thinks they're her direct ancestors. I guess I'm obligated to set her straight.

Bring the Old Country Folks to the New Country

I can get a lot of new information from her tree about the generations in America. And I can learn who the children of Giovanni and Serafina married. My first interest is in Annamaria who married one of Giovanni and Serafina's sons. Her last name is prevalent in Baselice. Her father is in my tree, but I didn't know who he married. He is my 2nd cousin 4 times removed.

This Italian family is the 2nd in my tree that adopted a very English name in America. Why? Because it's easier for an American mouth to say. Or maybe just to fit in. That loss of identity makes me sad. I'm glad my family kept their names.

Is someone mistakenly borrowing people from your family tree? See if their tree has any information you can use. Then, if you want to, you can show them their error. While my borrower grabbed the wrong branch of my family, she is absolutely my relative. Her tree gives me a lot of leads I can use.

Is this what they mean by "don't get mad; get even"?