DNA Skeletons in Your Closet – Read the Fine Print

Recently a close friend of mine who is adopted did a DNA test to discover her ethnic ancestry. I have to admit to being intrigued and I encouraged her to take the test. It was exciting to think of the discoveries she could make into her background this way, and how she could feel more connected to some ethnic traditions in her background.

With her results came a big surprise. And it wasn’t about her DNA showing she was over half Irish. Within a week of her results she got a note from a potential close relative who was interested in exchanging information. And she didn’t quite know what to do.

A while back I wrote about the good and bad of DNA testing from my perspective as one doing it for ancestral research. But I never, ever thought about it from the perspective of someone who was adopted or orphaned. Someone who had no contact with their biological family. Someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know.

But now I’m thinking about it…all the time. Because I also realized you don’t have to be adopted to discover a secret in your tree.

Recently there have been many stories about adopted people who have discovered long-lost relatives through DNA testing. Their reunions are reported as good news in the media. Who wouldn’t love to discover the long-lost family you’ve been searching for? It seems like a win-win situation.

This type of result is not something that the DNA testing services are proudly advertising. They emphasize the unexpected “ethnic background” discovery, or the long lost dead famous ancestor angle. Sure, if you find out you’re 25 percent Lithuanian who wouldn’t want to learn more about the country and the culture?

Now I’ve noticed lately that many of the DNA testing companies have added more prominent verbiage around the potential to discovering connections in your tree you weren’t aware of, or possibly things you don’t want to know. This is probably due to the fact that as more people take these tests, more connections will made. And, even if you are SURE you know your family, surprises can happen.

Anyone can have that proverbial DNA skeleton in their closet.

Over the years I’ve discovered a lot of cousins I like, and those I’d like to not know about. (I have to laugh here because I’m sure a few of them would probably like to not know about me either.) Over the years I’ve stopped trying to make these kinds of connections into more than a source of information.  I’ve learned that shared DNA does not mean shared experiences or similar personalities.

But I’ve never thought about discovering a lost close branch of the family. As someone who lived with biological parents and family surrounding me, it never even occurred to me that this could happen. And it simply could. Adopted or not, secrets exist in every family, and this is one more way a secret could come to light.

Genealogy has always lead to unexpected branches, and this is just another tool to lead to this kind of discovery. You have to go into these tests with open eyes. Adopted or not, you may discover something you weren’t expecting.  Are you ready to discover that secret your family has tried so hard to hide?

My friend is still deciding whether or not she’ll answer the note she received. We talked a bit about it, and she has tabled it for now. She has every right to ignore it, or answer it. Ultimately it’s up to her if she decides to open up a new chapter of her life.

What would you do if you got that unexpected message? Think about it.

 

Ancestry – White, Black or Shades of Grey?

Let’s talk about Ancestry a bit. For many genealogists, especially amateurs like me, Ancestry is the place to create and research your family tree. Ever since the demise of Family Tree Maker, which was taken over by Ancestry and then mothballed after the trend towards online storage and sharing of family trees became apparent, Ancestry has become the premier place to create and investigate your…well, ancestry.

Or is it?

Yes, I use Ancestry, and I pay THROUGH THE NOSE to use it. Every now and again I let my subscription lapse in hopes that eventually Ancestry will send me an “offer” of a lower rate on a subscription. Sometimes I make it that long and sometimes I don’t. Usually what happens is I have a new tree I want to create as part of my profession or I have found a clue to my own tree that leads me back to using Ancestry to investigate it.

I have a like/dislike relationship with this site.

Let’s start with what I like about it.

I like that I don’t have to travel as much to investigate a family member. More and more records are being posted online such a birth, marriage and death records. Often these along with census records (in the US at least) are all that I need to fill in the basic details of a person’s existence on this planet. My days of trips to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and other little towns across the country, are over for the most part. And I no longer have to plan a trip to Europe to continue my family history investigation. At least in theory I don’t.

I do like the hints provided. Now, to be clear, NOT EVERY HINT IS A GOOD SOURCE. (Oops, I delved into the “dislike” category. Let’s return to “likes”.) But there are a lot of good sources that do come your way through the hint algorithm, such as US and State census, birth, marriage and death records. More recently Ancestry has started to publish primary source records from Europe as well. And the occasional city directory, newspaper obituary, draft register and immigration/travel records are helpful as well. As long as you’re careful and do your due diligence the hints can be great resources to push your research forward.

Now…dislikes.

I dislike not having to travel to find a source! I miss my days of the open road, driving to small towns to spend an afternoon in a basement archive searching for that one elusive relative’s marriage record. I miss the feeling of discovery and the real feel of holding the actual record with my ancestor’s signature on the bottom. I miss the adventure and mystery of being a genealogist.

I dislike the hints! Now, to be clear, NOT EVERY HINT IS A BAD SOURCE. (See where I’m going with this?) But there are is a lot of bad information on Ancestry, thanks in part to the LDS Libraries’ habit of taking someone’s word for it that so-in-so was his ancestor back in the day before the internet. (Don’t get me started on my “Steele” family connection to the English Royal family…) Ancestry perpetuates this misinformation by allowing you to accept hints from family trees, LDS records, DAR/SAR records, etc. Now, you may argue with me that some of these sources are perfectly fine to accept. I will argue right back that if you cannot find a primary source to back up the information from any of these bad hints, the hint is not worth the proverbial digital paper it’s printed on. Unless I can see the actual record it’s not real.

Let’s take a moment to talk about what a primary source is in genealogical terms, from my point of view anyway. According to the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources), “Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.” So, a birth certificate is a primary source, since it was created at the time the event happened (in most cases) and by people who were witness to the birth, such as the parents, doctor or clergy. A secondary source for a birth would be a death certificate. While the date, time, cause of death are primary sources, any birth information included on the death certificate is NOT primary because the people recording the event information are removed by time and place from the actual event.

Does that make sense? Of course you can use the birth information to help you locate the actual primary source. But until you locate the actual primary birth record it cannot be considered solid primary information.

And, as with every other primary source, there are exceptions to these rules. A primary source can be falsified. I think especially when a mother was not married and the family would either make up a father, or the child would be assigned at birth to another family member as the official parent.

But, I’m getting a little off topic. The trouble with Ancestry is that it presents too much information that seems to be official or trustworthy, but simply is not either. And people who use Ancestry to trace their family trees end up going down the rabbit hole unintentionally. Sure, I could blame the user here for not doing their due diligence. But since I’ve unfortunately gone down that rabbit hole a few times myself, and I should flat out know better, I go back to the way Ancestry presents it’s information to the public. It’s presented as trustworthy, as OK to copy, as OK to perpetuate. And that is simply NOT good for good family research.

I’ve been doing genealogy long enough to remember the days before the internet, when I visited relatives who were as obsessed as I was with family history. They had rooms full of filing cabinets stuffed with copies of information they had gathered about the family through years of hard research and hard travel. It used to mean something to do this work.

And today it still means something to do the work! DO THE WORK! Don’t assume anything. Hunt down that original source! That diary in that dusty archive, that monument in that tiny town in the middle of nowhere, that grave marker on the prairie. Ancestry can start you down a good path of discovery if you understand what is being presented, and understand how to sort the good from the bad. But you must take it a step further. And then when you share your well-researched tree on Ancestry you can feel good about your work and know that anyone who copies your tree will have an accurate source of information only you can provide.

 

Wow…

First, I want to thank Bob for commenting on my article about the three John Gibbs to remind me that yes, I do have a blog! So I’m back to give you an update about what’s been happening during my two year hiatus and hope to continue to write more going forward. Famous last words perhaps, but I do have lots of topics I could post here if I just get disciplined about my writing.

So, to catch all of you up on my life, I’ve been working in the non-profit history museum world for about the past two years. It’s been a huge adventure for me, including creating my own company and taking on contract work for various history organizations. Plus I now have a “real” job in development for a local county historical society so my leap of faith from the corporate world a few years ago has really paid off!

As far as research into my own family mysteries, some of that has (obviously) taken a back seat to scrambling to make ends meet and finding clients. But I have had a couple of interesting things happen when I did have time to do research, including finding a new baby in my Natoli family, who unfortunately didn’t live very long after birth. Funny thing is my grandmother, in all the conversations we’ve had about her husband’s family, never mentioned it until I found the birth certificate. And then she said…well yes, it was a boy, I knew about that. So maybe an entry about the things we forget to mention is coming up.

Finally, coming up at my museum we have a Valentine’s dinner that is being catered by the Piazza family, who were connected to my Natoli family from waaaay back in the day when my Grandpa was a kid in North Minneapolis. Think 1920s and 30s. I’m really hoping that I can make a connection again to this family to spend some time with the folks that knew my grandpa who may have some tidbits from his past, or his family’s past, that I’ve not heard yet. Plus I get to eat the famous Piazza food once more, and since Piazza’s Ristaurante and Di Napoli in Minneapolis are now closed, this will be a real treat!

So, thanks for everything and let’s keep this conversation going! If you have any family mysteries or breakthroughs you’d like to share, please post in the comments! I would love to hear what you’ve been doing for the past two years.

When life takes an unexpected, and welcome, turn of direction!

I’m on the verge of a very exciting opportunity, to live the dream of being a historian and being PAID for it!  After the previous post about not being able to do genealogy or history for almost a year, I’m looking forward to a major career change that will help me focus on what is important to me, and maybe even have some fun at the same time!

I’m hoping that it will get me back on track and maybe teach me some new lessons about researching and writing history.  And I’m hoping to pick up where I left off on this blog, because I have many more stories to tell.

I’m off to “take risks and blow up my life a little to see where I come out in the end” (to quote a friend)!  Wish me luck!

In Memory of Tucker, the cat who loved us

Since my last post way back in April, so much has gone on in my life that I have simply NOT been working, thinking, or even dreaming about genealogy. Which is sad because for the past 20 years of my life it has been such a huge part of who I am and what I enjoy. But sometimes life kind of takes over and you have to set things aside for awhile.

The worst part about the past six months is I had to make the painful decision to put my faithful cat Tucker to sleep after he was diagnosed with cancer. He lived with me for almost 14 years and was my dance partner, cuddly kitty, and generally a sweet loving companion. When I first brought him home he thought the wall to wall carpet was heaven and he would lie down anywhere and nap. He learned how to ring a bell to be let out to have an adventure in the backyard. He used to catch my enthusiasm when a good song came on the radio and would jump into my arms to dance with me. He never learned to meow but would walk around the house saying “Uh Huh?” He could sit on command. He was a black cat with long fangs that would show especially when he was happy. He loved everyone and was unafraid of people. He was my Monkey Boy, my Tucky-Wucker the Lucky F’er, my love. He has gone on to the big backyard in the sky, where I hope his friends Blackjack, Harry, and Uncle Scooter have welcomed him with open paws. Perhaps he’s even met my childhood companions Spooky and Peppy the Poodle.

His life-long companion Violet, and his new friend Cece, miss him. Each cat is different and neither of these cats will replace Tucker, but then again Tucker would never replace either of them either. I know Violet misses him especially because she has made a point to cuddle with me when in the past she usually been a very independent cat.

Winter approaches and I’ll be back to my research and dreaming about my ancestors lives and experiences. But for now I choose to honor the memory of my Tucker by a few more weeks of silence.

Tucker got one last stroll in the backyard the day before he passed and I still think his spirit is within the catnip patch he loved so much. I hold onto that memory and I will miss him for the rest of my days.

The Can of Worms: Part One

In a previous blog post I wrote about Francesca Sancetta’s journey back to Sicily when her mother passed away in Brooklyn.  Since I wrote that post, I’ve managed to dig up some more details about the family, especially the other children, and perhaps some maternal cousins as well.  And as you will see, the can of worms has officially been opened.

Rosa Tarantola, my g-g-grandmother, was born in 1867 to Vincenzo Tarantola and Francesca Calmana.  I believe she was most likely from the area around Salaparuta in Trapani Province on the western end of Sicily.  She immigrated to Brooklyn, NY, sometime around 1893, most likely bringing a child or two with her when she came.  There is some evidence that her husband, Guiseppe Sancetta, may already have been in Brooklyn, but since I have yet to find any immigration or US census records for the family, it’s a bit of a guess either way.

They settled in Brooklyn and had at least 4 more children before Rosa’s untimely death in 1905 from “consumption”, or more likely TB.  Amazingly, I have a copy of her hand-written death certificate, which states that she was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn.  And I also had a copy of a birth record for her daughter Jennie that comes from St. John’s the Evangelist in Brooklyn, so I had a couple of places to start searching.

After my extensive searches online were proving fruitless, I knew that I would need to employ some more old-fashioned techniques to kick start the research on this family.  So I got on the phone and called St. John’s.  I gave them the information I had on the family, including Rosa’s maiden name.  A few days later I received a rather excited  phone message from the woman at the church saying not only had she found four birth records for the children of Giuseppe and Rosa, but she had also found a bunch of Tarantola birth records as well from the same time frame.  Would I like her to send those as well?  Well OF COURSE I would!

I soon had a fat little envelope in my hands with a bunch of hand-copied records.  Included were the Sancetta birth records of:

  1. Francesca in 1892 (check)
  2. Vincenzo in 1894 (check)
  3. Rosalie in 1901 (who?)
  4. Carmelo in 1903 (who now?)

I sat there and sort of stared at these records for a bit.  Then I grabbed my records and started to take look.  The children’s names I know for Sancetta family are:

  1. Giovanni (John)
  2. Maria (Mary)
  3. Francesca (Frances)
  4. Vincenzo (James)
  5. Jennie
  6. Tom

So my suspicions were already that some of the children were not born in America, it seems to be confirmed by the lack of records for John and Mary, the two eldest children.  I had a suspicion already that John was not a US Citizen because I knew that he was made to serve in the Italian Army, while the other two brothers were not, perhaps due to their citizenship status?  A question for the future.  And Mary, who stayed in the US and was potentially married already when her mother died, is still a bit of a mystery but it would make sense that she also was not born here, and was able to stay because of her marriage.  So that’s another question for the future.

So, moving on: right away I suspected that Carmelo must be our Tom as the year of the birth on the certificate matched my record for Tom.  Perhaps Tom was his baptismal name or a name he chose for himself after he came back to America?  When I plugged in Carmelo instead of Tom on his Ancestry entry, up popped that little hint leaf and bam!  I had the 1930 and 1940 census records appear and I knew it had to be him.  Plus, I remembered I had a picture of a young man that was sent to my g-grandmother “with love from your brother” in Sicily.  The name signed on the picture was “Carmelo”.  Bingo.  Carmelo is who we knew as Tom.

But now I’ll get to the can of worms: Who was Rosalie?  Is she my g-grandmother?  Is it possible that the random stories I had heard over the years were all coming together now to point out the truth?  Were Rosalie and Jennie the same person?  My heart skipped a beat with excitement and…dread.

The reason I had a feeling of dread is that if Rosalie and Jennie are the same person, then the date of her birth, 1901, does not compute for me.  Jennie married her husband, Frank Natole, in 1909.  And their first child, Angeline, was born in 1910.  If Rosalie and Jennie are the same person, then the first child would have been born before she 10 years old!  While this is possible, it is (I sure hope) likely NOT the case.  I do know that Jennie was much younger than her husband, but this seems extreme.

I want to stop here and say one thing:  I am not going to sugar coat what I find to be true.  This entire situation warrants more investigation, but I realize that it can be painful to some if we find out that she was as young as the birth certificate says she may be.  I am personally hoping to find strong proof that she was older, but I know that times were different then and, however unsavory for our modern day morals to accept, this kind of thing did happen.

So, here is some of the evidence I have for both sides.  First, and scarily enough, there was a story that when my grandparents called “back East” to tell the Sancetta family of the death of Jennie in 1959, the family did not know her as Jennie, but rather as “Rose”.  It could be that someone has a story confused here, but that is what I have been told.  If, going by the Carmelo/Tom example, the family knew her as Rose perhaps it was because Rose was her middle, or confirmation, name.  Vincenza would be a legit family name and can be Anglicised to “Jennifer” or Jennie.  However, it can go the other way too and perhaps her real name was Rose Vinzenza (Jennie).

Second, Jennie herself never knew when her birthday was.  For some legal reason, she needed to get a birth record for herself from St. John’s, but she never was sent the correct record.  They kept sending her her brother Vincenzo’s certificate with the name changed to “Vincenza”, perhaps because she was telling them her name in Italian was Vincenza.  And I had the same exact trouble when I attempted to find a birth certificate for her as well.  Additionally, my grandmother tells me that my grandfather used to say Jennie’s children teased her for “getting married when she was 10”.  Which does not bode well for Rosalie being a different person.

Third, the wedding photo.  I was told that Frank and Jennie married in 1909 and I have a wedding photo that shows them as a young couple.  Jennie looks young here, there is no doubt.  But to me at least she looks to at least be a young teenager.  She was always a tiny woman, just 4’9″ tall when my grandmother knew her.  Her husband was much taller.  If she was as young as is possible, then they did an excellent job of making her look more like a young adult than a child.  Judge for yourself:

Frank Natole and Jennie Sancetta

Frank Natole and Jennie Sancetta

 

Now there are a couple of possibilities here that I’ve thought of, which of course I will need to research further.  One idea is this photo was taken later than I think, and perhaps they did not marry as early as I have been told.  This does not solve the problem of the first child being born in 1910 though.  Another idea is perhaps Jennie married Frank later and the first two children were from a previous relationship.  Or, perhaps they were married after some of the children had already been born?  Protocol of those days would probably frown heavily on that.  And to be honest I cannot see that being the case.  The trouble is this: I still do not have a marriage record for them, and I do not have clear proof of Jennie’s age at marriage.  And until I do I cannot possibly know what happened more than 100 years ago.

What’s next?  Well, besides the marriage record, I need to see if I can find any record of a confirmation for Jennie.  I actually didn’t mention something that is important: Jennie moved in with her sister Mary Sancetta Iacono when the rest of her family departed for Sicily.  I am unsure if the family moved to Minnesota right away or stayed in Brooklyn for a time.  I do know that the photo above was taken in Minneapolis, so it seems that they had moved here by at least 1909.  So if there was a chance that Jennie was confirmed it would most likely have been in Minnesota.  That’s a big “if” of course.  Also, I still have to find the birth certificates for all of Frank and Jennie’s children to confirm their birth dates and parents.  Feelings aside, what is important to me is that I knew all but one of Jennie’s children, and when asked they all said they loved their mother to no end and she was a loving and wonderful person.  And as I dig through that can of worms, that is what I will keep close to my heart.

Next time: What did I discover in the Tarantola records I received, what did I find at the cemetery and what new can of worms was opened?  To be continued…

I’m Still Here

Just wanted to say a quick hello and let you all know I have some exciting and frustrating news to share soon!  As a teaser, the stories involve a gravestone, a birth certificate, and a case of mistaken identity, sort of.  Stay tuned.