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 (, “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.



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…

Given and Chosen Names: The Kornbergs

As some of you may have guessed, I live in the Frozen North.  And up here we have something called “January” which is usually a mix of freezing temperatures, low humidity, and lots and lots of snow.  I prefer at this time of the year to think of my homeland as a “White Desert”.  And this January has more than lived up to the reputation.

Even though it’s now halfway through February, the White Desert still persists, and I find that I have little to no motivation to do any genealogy work.  But, even in this lull, I did find out some interesting things about my Scandinavian great-great-grandparents.  And I’ve discovered that just because you think you know someone’s name in your family tree, you may still come across a surprise or two when you’re doing research.

The Kornbergs

My great-great-grandparents are known to me as Hannah Olsdotter and Gunder Kornberg.  Now, if you know anything about the Swedes and Norwegians, you know that they had very different naming conventions than we do today.  Hannah’s last name is a combination of the first name of her father, Ole, and the Swedish word for “daughter”.  Now, I’m not exactly sure how to spell her last name, Olsdotter comes from a sign I saw in the American Swedish Institute.  But maybe she spelled it “Olesdatter”, “Olesdottir”, “Olsdatter”…you can see why this becomes a problem.  I have yet to find any record of her before she was married because of her strange last name, a name that up here is rather common, and spelled various ways.

Gunder Kornberg is an entirely different matter along the same vein.  We know that his last name in Norway was not Kornberg.  But I have no idea what his name really was!  Kornberg may have come from a farm, his profession, some random change made when he came to America, perhaps through Ellis Island or Boston.  I have yet to find his immigration record.  This may be because the name on the ship manifest and the name he took in America could be completely different.  Top that by the census records I’ve found that state that his date of immigration was anything between 1879 and 1890.  Well, you can bet I’ll keep looking but so far he’s been another dead end.

Now, I do some faith that year of their marriage is accurate since almost all the census records point to the year as 1887.  But I’m not sure where they were married.  My grandmother thinks they were married here, but I have yet to find a record that corresponds.  I’m not sure if they were married in Minnesota, in Wisconsin, or somewhere else in the US.  I’m hoping that perhaps the record is just not yet digitized and it will magically appear one day in my Ancestry account, or on the Minnesota History Center website.

Another thing I do know is that, after they were married and had two children, they took the family back to Norway for a “visit”.  Gunder apparently wanted to stay there, but Hannah put her foot down and they did eventually come back here (good thing they did or I would not exist!).  While they were away, their third child, Howard, was born in 1892 either on the ship to Norway, or in Norway itself.  Ever the comedian, my grandmother says Howard used to love to say how he “remembered Norway so clearly” even though he was just an infant when he was there.  Since I know that the next child, Alma Florence, was born in Minnesota in 1894, so they must have come back here between 1892 and 1894.  But…can I find a record?  Not yet.  Very, very frustrating indeed.

Which takes me to the next item (or back to it): Census records.  In Minnesota there were Territorial Censuses taken in 1895 and 1905, along with regular US census records.  So far I have not been able to spot them on the 1895 census.  In the 1900 census they show up under the name “Cornberg”.  In 1905, the same spelling.  And in 1910 they switch over to the “Kornberg” spelling.


So, what do I do now?  Start searching for variations of Cornberg!  Cornberg, Cronberg, Cornberger, Corn.  And what do I find?  Nothing more.  *sigh*

BUT, and here’s where everything starts to get even more strange, I do start getting hits on birth records for the family.  Do they have the same names as they do on the censuses?  NO.  Edward, it turns out, was born “Einer Oliver Kornberg” on 11 Jun 1888 in Minnesota, with parents named as Gunster and Hanna.  And Alma Florence?  Was born as “Emily Vendla Cornberg” on 8 Sept 1894 in Minnesota, parents are listed as Gunder and Hanna Cornberg.  Why didn’t the family continue to call these two children Einer and Emily?  No clue!  Census records show them as Edward and Alma going forward.  This may be a mystery I never solve.

I haven’t yet found the other children.  I’m dying to see what their names were though!  Was my g-grandmother Edith really “Edna”?  Was Leonard really “Lars”?  Well, that remains to be seen.

OK, but I digress.  I write about this today to demonstrate how strange genealogical research can be, and how you absolutely have to keep your eyes open for things that do not seem to fit at first.  And also be ready to hit dead ends with grace.  While I have been frustrated for years by this family, I’ve also been rewarded by being patient and waiting for the right record to come along.  Gunder and Hannah, Einer/Edward and Emily/Alma were real people who lived real lives, regardless of their names.  They live in my grandmother’s memory, as well as in mine because she told me about them.  And I know someday I will finally discover their origins and know where my family came from in Norway and Sweden.  I just need to have a little patience.  And luck.  And patience.

Brooklyn to Sicily: A Case of Reverse Immigration

Sometimes you run across a document that not only fills in dates and names, but also is a snapshot into a person’s life at a specific moment.  The Passport Application of my great-great aunt, Francesca Sancetta, is a perfect example of such a document.

Francesca was born in the New York in 1892.  When her mother, Rosa, died in 1905, her father made the decision to travel back to Sicily.  I knew through family stories that his oldest child, John, traveled back with him, and I suspected more of the six children went as well.  Two of them, my g-grandmother, Jennie, and her married sister, Mary, did not return to Sicily (and that’s why I’m here today!).  It was a mystery to me what happened to the other children from the years between about 1905 to the 1930s.  Did they go back to Sicily and then return to the States?  Or did they stay here?  It just wasn’t clear.  Especially because ship logs going from the U.S. back to the “old country” are so scarce!

Because I already knew that three of the remaining four mystery children, Jim, Tom and Francesca, were in MN or NY in the 1930s, I started searching for clues online for the missing years.  For years I searched for the family in Sicily with no luck.  Then one day that little “hint” leaf appeared next to Francesca’s name on  While sometimes these hints amount to nothing, when I clicked on the link, I discovered it was Francesca Sancetta’s application for a U.S. Passport…from Salaparuta, Sicily in 1920!  I started jumping up and down and had to chill myself out before I could read the document.  Finally had something to work with!

Francesca Top


This document is a gold mine of information about what happened to Francesca and her family.  First, she states that her father Joseph Sancetta lived in the U.S. for 16 years, from 1890 to 1906.  She states that she left the U.S. in April of 1906 and lives in Salaparuta “temporarily” with her parents.  She affirms that was born in the U.S. in 1892 and she is a U.S. Citizen.

The reason she gave as to why she resides in Salaparuta, she stated, “My oldest brother was in the Italian Army and due to the fact that he remained in the Army for ten years it was impossible for me to return to the U.S. unaccompanied.  So I remained in Italy waiting for my brother.”  She goes on to state that she maintained ties with a sister and uncle in the U.S.  Then on the “Opinion of Officer Taking Affidavit” section of the application, the officer wrote, “…she was brought to Italy by her parents.  She adds that domestic troubles arose in her family and that the parents have no intention of going to the United States…”

Francesca's Affidavit, 1920

Francesca’s Affidavit, 1920

With this one document I learned so much, and now have so many more questions!

1. Francesca states she is waiting for her “oldest” brother.  An assumption can be made that this would be John.  Jim and Tom were younger, but where were they in 1920?

2. Francesca states that she is living with her “parents”.  We know that Rosa is dead, so is there a new step-mother?

3. If there is a new step-mother, did Joseph marry here in America or Sicily?  Are there half-siblings to discover yet?

4. What were the “domestic troubles” that were causing a rift in her family?

5. The oldest brother (most likely John) had to serve in the Italian Army from 1909 – 1919, the years covering WWI.  Are there records of his service somewhere?

6. We know her older sister and younger sister were already in the U.S.  Who is the “uncle” she mentions?

7. Is Salaparuta the original point of origin for the family in 1890?

8. If Francesca returned, did John come with her and stay in the U.S.?  What happened to John?

9. It seems that Joseph is still alive in 1902.  What happens to him after this?

10. Looking at this from a 21st Century point of view, Francesca would have been about 28 years old when she applied for this passport.  What social norms were in place that a grown woman could not travel unaccompanied in 1920?

These are the next questions I hope to answer.  The road won’t be easy though.  Salaparuta was destroyed in 1968 by the Belice Earthquake and the entire town moved to a nearby location.  (see;jsessionid=4AA7C520FCB8B341AA29DE85BE270976)  I haven’t yet tried to get in touch with anyone there, but I’m hoping that some parish records survived, and perhaps city records as well.  The good news is the name Sancetta does not seem to be very common, so hopefully I’ll have some luck doing research.

For those of you who lost track, rest assured Francesca did make it back to the U.S. at some point, where she lived in Minnesota until her death in 1989 (she was 97!).  I doubt Francesca would even guess that someday her g-g-niece would be fascinated by the story she told the consulate officer in Palermo on that September day in 1920.  I’d like to think that by doing this research, I honor her unique experience and thank her for being so honest in her passport application all those years ago.

Francesca Pic

Francesca Sancetta, 1920

One more mystery remains from Francesca’s life, one that someday I’ll tell if I can get some facts straight.  Apparently the sons of Francesca and her husband, Peter DiGiovanni, were caught up in a plot to assassinate Benito Mussolini sometime around the years of WWII.  There is come confusion as to where Francesca was at this time, here or in Italy again. Somehow the boys or the family made it to Morocco where they were evacuated with the help of another Sicilian family here in MN, the Piazzas.  I think Francesca’s life might be worth exploring further!