Dreams of Lipari: DNA and the “Old Country”

Here’s some fun news from the world of DNA testing: sometimes you make a connection that takes you back to the “Old Country” and connects you with relatives that have been searching for you for decades, just as you’ve been searching for them! AWESOME!

Recently I was contacted by a cousin who was descended from my great-grandfather’s sister in my Natoli family. The Natoli’s originated in Lipari, a small island north of Sicily. (If you’re interested in ancient and more modern history, Lipari is a very interesting story in itself. Perhaps that’s another blog post in the making.) A few years ago I did find out that my great-grandfather Francesco had at least one sister, Maria, and possibly another sister named Angelina. But I was not able to find any evidence of what happened to Maria other than her birth and baptismal records, and that she was married to a man with the last name Famularo.  The family line was a mystery.

Then I opened up my email  a couple of months ago and there was an email from one of Maria’s descendants who had found me through Ancestry DNA! It turns out Maria and her husband briefly came to the US, but never got farther west than New Jersey, where two of their children were born. After a few years in the US they decided to return the family to Lipari, where they remained. Maria always wondered what happened to her brother in the US and, probably due to them both being functionally illiterate, they sadly lost touch with each other. But, much like my other Sicilian family, the Sancetta’s, when Maria’s two children who were born here were adults, they returned to New Jersey and stayed! And now I’ve re-connected with my Natoli cousins and it’s seriously very exciting!

Then…and this is where it gets even more exciting…I received another email from another descendant of Maria’s, this time from one of the children born in Lipari. She lives in Sicily but still has a weekend home in Lipari where her father lives as well! Even more exciting for me is her son attends university here in the US, not very far from me, and she visits him often. So we’re hoping to meet in person someday! These new connections bring me that much closer to my family from Lipari, which helps me understand my place in this world that much more clearly.

I know there has been some controversy around DNA testing of late, but I personally don’t regret doing it. It has opened up branches of my family that would have been almost impossible to find through the paper records, including an adopted cousin and now this family who briefly were in the US and were almost untraceable the old fashioned way. So if you’re thinking about doing DNA testing make sure to research each test and make an informed decision. But if you’ve got those mystery branches that seem to evaporate into the mists of time, DNA testing is a great way to discover your missing family.



Hanna, wherefore art thou?

Hello all! It’s been awhile since I last posted, but rest assured I am still here and still researching when time permits!

First, thanks to those of you who recently followed my blog from the Barnett and Gibbs families. I’m working on some new research and have a couple of leads that I will share when the news is more solid. I can say that I had a very interesting conversation with a representative from the Colonial Dames about the Gibbs, Gibbs, Gibbes dilemma, and apparently there are quite a few members who trace their lineage back to The Lieutenant, which means maybe he didn’t die before having children after all. (See my blog post about the issues with three men named John Gibbs in Jamestown.)

But now on to the most recent breakthroughs, and the issue with family lore.

In a past post I talked about the issue of the way Scandinavians and other cultures who used a patronymic naming system, which combines the father’s first name with a prefix or suffix, such as Johnson or MacDonald. I bet many of you haven’t thought about it much, as after a certain point most countries required their citizens to choose a last name and stick with it. But in Scandinavia the naming convention persisted well into the 1800s. Which was causing me a lot of issues when I was researching my ancestor Hanna Olsdotter.

I finally had a breakthrough, and in the process met a distant cousin in Sweden. Both through DNA and via Ancestry, which had just uploaded a lot of birth records from Sweden, I finally found the information I needed to make it back one more generation.

(Drumroll please)

Hanna was born in Norra Finnskoga, Varmland, Sweden. And her parents were Olof Andersson and Ingegard Eskilsdotter!

Which doesn’t get me much farther, as I can’t infer the surname from these two parents, only the first name of of their fathers. *sigh*

But, now, through the DNA connection to a cousin, we’ve been exchanging information, and he has informed me that:

  • Hanna was one of 8 siblings (!)
  • Her father was listed on a record as a “settler” which means he moved to Norra Finnskoga from somewhere else, possibly Norway or far north Sweden.
  • He confirmed that the story of a Hanna ferrying a teacher over the Klarälven river to school is in theory correct, and the teacher lived on the farm next door to her family.

But, it is truly nice to finally meet Olof and Ingegard! I have had their picture in my possession for years…and as soon as I can I will take a photo of it to add to this post.

In other news I also attended a local Swedish Genealogy conference and brought a letter that was written to my great-grandmother from Sweden…in Swedish of course! I was lucky enough to meet a native speaker who read the letter to me, and another attendee took photos of the letter and sent them to her friend in Sweden, and soon I had a written translation as well! THANK YOU to both, you know who you are.

The letter only revealed a few cousins’ first names, along with an address. But perhaps someday those names will match up with their owners.

Until next time, please enjoy this rendition of Ack Värmeland, Du Sköna (Oh Värmeland, You Fair)



Oh Värmeland, you fair

Oh, Värmland, you fair, you lovely land,
you crown amongst the countries in Svea rike!*
And if I where to end up in the middle of the Promised land,
I still return to Värmland.
Yeah, there I want to live, yeah, there I want to die.
If I from Värmland once take a maiden,
then I know I will never regret it.
In Värmland it’s quaint to live and reside,
That country I gladly praise
There hearts beat with honour and with faith
So firm like the core of the mountains
And every single Swede in the countries of Svea rike
That come to visit the shore of Klarälven
he will only find brothers and sisters
In Värmland– yeah, there I want to build and live,
content with the simplest joy.
It’s valleys and forest give me the peace of silence,
and the air is fresh on it’s hills.
And the streams sing their lovely song —
by it I want to fall asleep so tranquil one time
and rest in the earth of Värmland.


DNA skeletons in my own (extended) closet!

A New Cousin!

After writing my last post about DNA skeletons, I actually found one in my own closet! I was contacted by a woman who is my Dad’s third cousin, and she was adopted as a baby. She has no idea who her family is, but through DNA she made the connection to our family.

I’m more than happy to help her however I can, but my own records of that branch of the family end in the 1950s, and there is a gap between her birth date and the end of my records. Using the logic of location and family connections, we’ve narrowed it down to two family lines, and hope to help her make that final connection someday.

While this doesn’t directly make a dent in my own sense of security of who my family is, it reminds me that we never truly know who we’re related to, or who may show up in our tree as we do good genealogy research. DNA adds one more level to that. I truly wish my new cousin the best in her search!

New Feature in 23 And Me

Additionally, I must report on a new feature in 23 And Me, which shows how recent you may have had an ancestor with a specific DNA profile. For example, I have a tiny percentages of North and West African, Ashkenazi Jewish, Mongolian and Southeast Asian (less than 1%). These results are pretty strong though as they show up in my parents’ and some in my grandmother’s DNA as well (a good example of one teeny part of your DNA being passed along generation after generation, probably because it’s something good to have). Ever since my tests found these small pieces of DNA in my family tree, I’ve always wondered what exactly time-wise this means.


Kristin DNA Background

23 And Me’s new DNA timeline. When you mouse over the different DNA profiles, it tells you how long ago your ancestor lived and what generation they most likely would be.

Now 23 And Me has a timeline that shows you when those ancestors most likely lived, those who have 100% of the regional DNA, and it’s MUCH CLOSER than I expected. All of these ancestors lived sometime in the 1700s and would be 4th great-grandparents or earlier. That means these people could be as close as 7 generations back.

And because I’ve had luck on a few lines, tracing them back more than 10 generations and into the 1600s, I’m hoping I can trace one or more of these lines further to find the actual people I inherited these genes from, and discover their actual names and home towns. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

If I ever make a breakthrough on any of these lines, you’ll be the first to know.

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.


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.



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!