29 December 2020

Harvesting Clues from Your DNA Matches

My DNA matches continue to disappoint me. After ignoring them for a while, I decided to browse through my new matches. I filtered my Ancestry DNA results to show only unviewed matches with a family tree.

I quickly viewed and dismissed about a dozen of them. What good is your tree if it has 3 people? Or if you include only living, unnamed people?

At last I found someone I could latch onto and research. His family tree contains only 6 people including himself. But I knew I was looking at ancestors with ties to my mother's side. That set my expectations on what to look for.

This is why I always say you've got to learn the last names from your ancestral hometowns. I looked at this skimpy tree and saw only 2 last names: d'Onofrio and Ferro. I knew from experience that those names come from my maternal grandfather's hometown.

I searched the vital records I have on my computer for the town of Baselice. I was looking for Leonardo d'Onofrio born in 1913 and Maria Addolorata Ferro born in 1912. I found both their birth records! I felt lucky because the birth records end in 1915, and some years are missing.

If you can find one or two of your DNA match's ancestors, you're in! Do the #genealogy research your DNA match can't seem to do.
If you can find one or two of your DNA match's ancestors, you're in! Do the genealogy research your DNA match can't seem to do.

These are, without a doubt, the right people. Each one's birth record has a note in the margin saying they married the other in 1937. I have their marriage records, too.

With their documents open on one monitor, I launched Family Tree Maker on another. Would I be able to place them in my family tree? My DNA match is a 4th to 6th cousin. It may take some work to make the connection.

My first step was to check my family tree for the bride and groom—my DNA match's parents. They are not in my tree, but I can search the town's vital records for their parents. Hopefully I'll find a place where they fit.

I started with the groom's mother, Maria Teresa Pettorossi. I found her birth record in 1870. It named her parents and each of their fathers. That helped me positively ID her parents, who were already in my tree. Now I had a relationship to these people. But it wasn't a blood relationship.

I continued searching for each parent and seeing if they fit into my family tree. Because I spent 5 years piecing together the families of the town of Baselice, these new people all have a place. Unfortunately, their relationships to me are all through marriage. There was a lot of intermarrying in this somewhat isolated hill town. I'll bet I'm a 4th to 6th cousin of everyone from Baselice.

The best part of this exercise is how it's filling in missing marriages. There are tens of thousands of vital records available for this town. But the marriage records end in 1860 and pick up again in 1931. If I follow the children and grandchildren of the 1850s babies in my tree, I can figure out who they married.

I always intended to figure out missing marriages this way. This new DNA match is a good reason to start.

Because this is "my" town, i added several generations in a heartbeat.
Because this is "my" town, I added several generations in a heartbeat.

There is one person in this family group I can't positively identify. I need an Angelamaria Petruccelli born in about 1851. There were 2 babies with that name born a few months apart, and I can't be sure which is the right one.

Because of that uncertainty, I can't go any further. As of now, this DNA match has at least 6 different relationships to me. But each one involves a marriage somewhere up the line.

Don't be too disappointed if you can't find a meaningful relationship to a distant DNA match. Focus on your closer matches. Then use the more distant ones to fill in some gaps in your own family tree. Take the facts they know from oral history, and back them up with documents.

22 December 2020

Your Ancestor's Location is Critically Important

Q: What's a top reason why people mistakenly put OUR relatives in THEIR family trees?

A: They're not looking at a map.

The first time I saw this happen, someone put my grandfather in her family tree. She took him and gave him different parents, different siblings, and a different wife. MY grandfather! It's not as if his last name was so uncommon that he must belong in her tree. You can find the name Leone in every part of Italy.

You owe it to your genealogy research to learn about:

  • the place where your ancestors lived, and
  • what was happening when they lived there.

Take a look at Germany, Poland, and Prussia in the first half of the 20th century. The borders kept moving. Which country was it when your ancestor was born?

Carefully consider the location when reviewing a promising family tree search result.
Carefully consider the location when reviewing a promising family tree search result.

Research shows that my Italian ancestors barely moved an inch until the 1890s. Remember that woman who stole my grandfather? If she had looked at a map, she would have seen that he was born hours away from his incorrect parents and siblings.

He's not your man, my friend.

Now, I have seen some people from my ancestral hometowns move—to the next town. If a young man met and agreed to marry a young woman from a town or two away, one of them had to move.

It was common for the couple to marry in the bride's town. That's where you should look for the marriage records. But they often lived and raised a family in the groom's town. That's because he was more likely to inherit land and a home.

Check to see if your ancestral town's marriage records include marriage banns. Those are a public notice of the intention to marry. If so, look at the banns in the groom's town. These documents may tell you where the bride comes from, if you don't know. In all the Italian marriage records I've seen, the banns do not have their own index, so you have to page through them. Only the actual marriage records have an index.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. In 1840 when my 3rd great grandfather married my 3rd great grandmother, he moved to her town. But check the map! His town borders her town. They may have lived a short walk apart.

Don't expect your early ancestors to move hours away for the birth of one baby, then go home for the birth of the next. Keep in mind that transportation at the time may have been a mule and a cart. And great grandpa wasn't getting a corporate job transfer.

How times have changed! My parents are from the Bronx, New York, but my dad was born in Ohio. Their first 2 kids were born in Virginia. Then I was born in New York City but spent no more than 6 months of my life there, and not all at once. My family's many moves would shock and dismay our ancestors.

My ancestors stayed close to home. How close to home? Everyone from my 1st to my 8th great grandparents lived and died in neighboring towns. My roots are all from the "Sannio" area of the Campania region of Italy. Many of my family names are still found in the same towns.

Which of these tools will work best for finding your ancestors on the map?
Which of these tools will work best for finding your ancestors on the map?

That brings me to a set of tools I want to share with you. I consult the Cognomix website all the time. I enter an Italian last name in the search box, and I can see every region, province, and town where that name is found. Not only that—it tells how many families with that name you can find in each region, province, and town.

Here are a handful of tools that show last name distribution in different countries:

If you find a search result that looks promising, look up that person's town on Google Maps or whatever you use. Is the town anywhere near the place where your ancestors lived? Was anything happening at that time in history that might have caused your family to move? Was there an earthquake or epidemic?

If your family stayed put for generations, and this search result lived hours away, keep searching. He's not your man.

15 December 2020

How to Break Through to New Generations

I spent the last 2 weekends building a family tree for a woman who was stuck at the 1st great grandparent level.

I identified the names of EIGHTEEN of her 5th great grandparents. What a rush! It was all thanks to a ton of available vital records for her ancestral Italian hometowns.

Each time I found a new generation, I thought about what I could do to find their parents' names. It struck me that you could make a flowchart of the process—a series of Yes or No questions to tell you where to look next.

Let's see what that would look like. Say you know your immigrant great grandparents' names. You believe you know their birth dates, and you have an idea which town at least one of them came from. (This was the case for my client.)

What do you do next? Start by trying to prove your ancestor's birth date and hometown.

Nothing makes me happier than a set of marriage documents for my 2nd, 3rd, or 4th great grandparents.
Nothing makes me happier than a set of marriage documents for my 2nd, 3rd, or 4th great grandparents.

Can you find their immigration record? If they arrived at the right time, their ship manifest may have their hometown and a parent's name.

Can you find their naturalization papers? These may include their exact date of birth, their hometown, and their father's name.

Can you find their marriage record in their new country? This may include both sets of parents' names.

Can you find their official birth record from their hometown? This may include:

  • their father's name and age at the time
  • their father's father's name
  • the street where they lived
  • their mother's name and age at the time
  • their mother's father's name

They included a father's name to distinguish a person from someone else in town with the same name.

If you found this record, you get to level up! You've reached the 2nd great grandparent level, and you may have a name or 2 from the 3rd great grandparent level.

How can you discover all your 3rd great grandparents on this branch?

Can you find the marriage record of your 2nd great grandparents? This will name all your 3rd great grandparents. It may tell you their ages at the time. It may include the names of their fathers, or their dates of death.

Can you find the death record for a deceased 3rd great grandparent from the marriage record? That should tell you the names of their parents—your 4th great grandparents.

Can you find the marriage record of your 3rd great grandparents? This should name your 4th great grandparents, and may give you a name or 2 of your 5th great grandparents.

If the records are available, you can climb generation after generation of your family tree.
If the records are available, you can climb generation after generation of your family tree.

Don't Climb Too Fast

Beware of jumping from one ancestor's vital record to their parent's birth record. Let's say you find a birth record with a name that matches your 3rd great grandfather. How can you be sure he's your ancestor? Maybe someone else in town had the same name. That's all too common.

If that birth record doesn't say he later married the name you know for your 3rd great grandmother—you can't be sure you have the right person. You don't want to climb a stranger's family tree, do you?

The logical progression for climbing the tree when you have one ancestor's birth record is to:

  • Find their parents' marriage record. These provide solid information about the earlier generation. You may have to scour several years before you find their marriage.
  • Or find their death records. These will name their spouse (so you know it's the right person) and their parents.

Beware of errors, misspellings, and slightly wrong ages. Keep your mind open to name variations. "Teresa" on someone's death record may be "Maria Teresa" on her own vital records.

Don't overlook the awesome extras that may come with marriage records, at least in Italy. The associated documents may include:

  • the bride and groom's birth records
  • any of their parents' death records
  • their paternal grandfather's death records

The reason for the death records is to prove that a parent is unavailable to consent to the marriage. And if your father was dead, they would want his father to provide consent. So you needed to prove everyone had died.

What a joy it is for us to find their death records. I love it when a marriage is in the sweet spot: Late enough to include the extra records, but early enough to have death records from the 1700s.

Proceed carefully:

  • Rely heavily on marriage records for fuller information.
  • Use death records only when they include the name you already know for the deceased's spouse.
  • Turn to birth records if you already know both their parents' names, or you see their marriage written in the column.

Make no assumptions. Those lead to the types of errors we all hate to find on other people's online family trees.

One final note on marriage records: Pay attention to the town of birth. A bride and groom may come from different towns. In this case, the couple may marry in the bride's town, but live and raise a family in the groom's town. Why? Because the groom is more likely to inherit land and a home.

One birth record said the baby's father was born in this town, but its mother was born in another town. That told me to search the mother's town for this couple's marriage. And that's exactly where I found it.

With care, and the availability of records, you can build up a branch of your family tree several generations in one weekend. I did!