26 October 2021

Build a Rock-Solid Family Tree Foundation

A family tree needs a well-made foundation. But unlike other construction projects, your tree needs a solid base at the top.

With a solid foundation, you can add distant relatives like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Imagine if you knew the names of all your 6th great grandparents. Plus all their siblings. And everyone's spouses. Then you could attach younger generations to the right branch as you discover them.

That's what I'm doing with my pet project. I'm piecing together everyone from my grandfather's hometown of Colle Sannita, Italy. I'm lucky. All my ancestors came from a handful of neighboring towns where they lived for centuries. The towns were a bit isolated, so the number of intermarriages is astonishing.

Researching the earliest birth records can take you back several generations.
Researching the earliest birth records can take you back several generations.

A Foundational Database

In 2017 I downloaded the town's vital records from the Italian website, Antenati. I have more than 38,000 document images arranged in separate folders. There's a unique birth, marriage, and death folder for each year. The years range from 1809–1942 with several gaps. It's a total of 225 folders. (Note that civil record keeping began in 1809 in most Italian towns.)

Next, I made the files easy to use. I renamed each one to include the name(s) of the document's subject(s). Along the way, I realized it'd be helpful to include the name of the subject's father in the file name.

For instance, "007853904_01008 Damiano d'Emilia di Teofilo.jpg" is more useful than "007853904_01008 Damiano d'Emilia.jpg." Why? Because now I can search my computer for every child born to Teofilo d'Emilia.

Two Reasons for This Naming Convention

Reason #1: Keeping the number (007853904_01008) in the file name makes it easy to cite the image's URL. To do this, I keep a special text file in each of the 225 folders. The file contains a template for each image's URL. The template for the folder of 1852 death records says this:

http://dl.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/v/Archivio+di+Stato+di+Benevento/Stato+civile+della+restaurazione/Colleoggi+Colle+Sannita/Morti/1852/636/007853904_00000.jpg.html (01006-01067)

To reconstruct the URL for this exact file, I change the 00000 in the template URL to 01008. Why keep the whole number when I need only the last 5 digits? Because the marriage files, and some other records, come from more than one location. There can be different sets of numbers within a year. The template for 1852 marriages looks like this:

http://dl.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/v/Archivio+di+Stato+di+Benevento/Stato+civile+della+restaurazione/Colleoggi+Colle+Sannita/Matrimoni+pubblicazioni/1852/636/007853904_00000.jpg.html (01086-01147) [These are the marriage banns.]

http://dl.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/v/Archivio+di+Stato+di+Benevento/Stato+civile+della+restaurazione/Colleoggi+Colle+Sannita/Matrimoni+processetti/1852/636/007853904_00000.jpg.html (01148-01502) [These are the birth and death records required for the marriage.]

http://dl.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/v/Archivio+di+Stato+di+Benevento/Stato+civile+della+restaurazione/Colleoggi+Colle+Sannita/Matrimoni/1852/636/007853904_00000.jpg.html (01503-01536) [These are the marriage documents, often with a separate notation for civil and church wedding.]

The beginning of the file number (i.e., 007853904) plus the last 5 digits helps form the exact URL.

Reason #2: I use the Italian word "di" before the father's name in each file name (i.e., Damiano d'Emilia di Teofilo, or Maria Rosa Pilla di Nicola). "Di" means of, and it's a common way to show that someone is the son or daughter of a particular man. Italian records may use the word "fu" (meaning late or deceased). But to simplify my record searching, I use "di" in the file name even if the father is dead.

Understanding the Antenati URL structure helps you write the source citation.
Understanding the Antenati URL structure helps you write the source citation.

Placing the Babies

The renamed vital records are easy to search on my computer. I use a Windows program called Everything, and it's a godsend. My plan is to fit as many babies from the town as possible into my published family tree. What an awesome resource my tree will be for anyone with Colle Sannita ancestry.

Here's the process:

  1. View the document to find the baby's name, the father's name and age, and the mother's name and age. (Ages are not always included, but you can estimate.)
  2. Check Family Tree Maker to see if the baby is already in there. If so, prepare the image (crop, enhance, add meta data) and add it to their profile with a source citation for each fact.
  3. If the baby is not in the family tree, look for the father and mother. See if they're in the tree as husband and wife. If so, add this baby and the document.
  4. If the baby and parents are not in the tree, search for:
    • The marriage of the grown-up baby. If there's a place for their spouse in the family tree, there's now a connection to this baby and their document.
    • The death of the mother or father. Their death records should include their parents' names. Check if they are already in the family tree.
    • The remarriage of one of the widowed parents. Does their new spouse fit into the tree?
    • Siblings for the original baby. One of them may have married someone who's already in the family tree.

That last idea was a game-changer. I revisited a dozen 1809 babies that I couldn't place in my family tree on the first try. Once I tracked down their siblings, I found the connection I needed and worked the whole family into my tree.

Reaching Higher Than the Foundation

The earliest documented babies have parents born around the 1780s or earlier. If I find their death records, I learn the names of their parents, born around the 1750s or earlier. And if I'm lucky enough to find that generation's parents' names, I can check my ultimate reference book. My friend from Colle Sannita, Dr. Fabio Paolucci, published a book detailing every family in Colle Sannita in the year 1742. When I connect someone from the book to my family tree, I can wind up with ancestors born in the 1600s!

If you have Italian ancestors, see if a similar book is available for your town. You won't regret the investment. Use the search box on https://abenapoli.it to look for your ancestral hometown. The book I bought is called "Colle Sannita nel 1742" ("nel" means in the). The book for another of my towns is called "Apice nel 1753." A search for "nel 17" brings up a long list of books detailing the residents of many towns in the 1700s.

This rock-solid foundation will help me place more and more townspeople in my family tree.

I connected all the 1809 babies, and I've already got 31,000+ people in my family tree. Thank goodness I retired last month, because this obsession is an absolute blast!

19 October 2021

This New Template Charts 5 Generations

Even after finding the Family Tree Generator Excel template, I needed another template. You see, the Excel template works best when you already know the names of the eldest generation. But while researching, you often know only the youngest generation.

When I research someone else's family, I create an Excel chart to keep track of their ancestors as I find them.

It was confusing—and a hassle—to build that chart from scratch each time. So I made my own Ancestor Chart template in Excel. It starts with the main person at the bottom, center. (The center is way over in column AH.) It has "father" and "mother" placeholders for five generations of ancestors. It goes all the way back to the main person's 3rd great grandparents.

This new template is perfect for use while researching an unrelated family tree.
This new template is perfect for use while researching an unrelated family tree.

Each generation is color-coded. Plus, the first column always tells you which generation is which. As you're researching, replace "father" or "mother" with the full name of the ancestor you've found.

I do more than keep track of my research in a spreadsheet like this. I give the finished chart to my client so they can visualize their ancestry. It's so helpful when they're reviewing the documents, translations, and explanations I provide.

This template is very wide, but you can print it if you like. Set your printer to landscape mode and this tree will span six pages.

Imagine using this template to work up from your DNA match until you reach your own ancestor.
Imagine using this template to work up from your DNA match until you reach your own ancestor.

Keep in mind that the main person doesn't have to be living. Often it's my client's grandparent or great grandparent. You can use this template to visualize any particular branch of a family. You can duplicate the chart to make separate trees for a husband and wife.

Download your copy of the file from Dropbox and let me know how you've used it. If you don't have spreadsheet software, you can copy and use this Google Sheets version of the same template.

12 October 2021

What You're Losing With Your Private Family Tree

My family tree software almost gave me a heart attack. I routinely make a backup of my Family Tree Maker file after working on it for a while. It's not uncommon for me to make 3 or 4 backups in a long day of research. Then I close and compact my file before I synchronize any changes with Ancestry.com.

Still, there's a feeling of dread when my file takes to long to respond. Last week the FTM program stopped dead. I'd opened my family tree file to make one change and output an updated family tree chart. I began clicking my way up the generations, trying to get to the eldest Ohama in my husband's family tree.

But I couldn't click anything! Nothing was responding. I decided to leave it alone and do something else for a while. But the program was still stuck. After an hour, I held my breath and killed it.

When I relaunched Family Tree Maker, I saw the expected error message. I clicked Continue. I was confident I'd made only one edit that day, so I restored my tree from the full backup I made the day before.

Everything was fine! I repeated the change I made earlier and output that family tree chart I wanted.

Why do I stick with Family Tree Maker when it can cause me so much worry? Because I can share my up-to-date, uneditable family tree with every member of Ancestry.com. I want people to find my research, but I don't want them to change it. The shared trees of Family Search, Geni, and elsewhere are horrifying to a control freak like me. Plus, Ancestry has the best interface for viewing a family tree.

Share your family tree on a big stage for your own benefit.
Share your family tree on a big stage for your own benefit.

I've been building two other family trees lately that I'm not sharing online. One is for my son's girlfriend and one is for my college roommate. These trees don't belong online because I wasn't asked to share this information.

But my enormous family tree is another story. When the Italian government started posting vital records online in 2017, my genealogy goal changed.

I'm not satisfied with documenting my direct ancestors and cousins. I want to connect everyone from my ancestral hometowns. I don't care if someone is the mother-in-law of the 2nd husband of my 1st cousin 5 times removed. She's from one of my towns and has a connection to me. She belongs in my tree.

Strangers often thank me for the people, facts, and documents I've put together for their family. Sometimes they turn out to be a DNA match to my parents or me.

When all goes well, I can build onto my new contact's branch of the family. I can follow their ancestors to America, picking up what might otherwise have been a dead end. Sharing your family tree is the surest way to open up those dead ends.

The latest person to write and thank me for his ancestors turns out to be my 5th cousin once removed. Just knowing who my mom's 5th cousin is blows my mind. Thank you, internet.

This week I'm gathering vital records for his ancestors, adding them to my family tree, and sharing them with him on Ancestry. To me, this is the ideal collaboration. Don't touch my work. But let's work together. We can benefit one another.

You can talk to me all day long about your preferred family tree software. But nothing compares to the combination of Family Tree Maker on my desktop and Ancestry.com.