News and a Genealogy Birthdate Story

18-kjel0139of89-copyOn August 23rd, our family welcomed our second child, our first daughter, into the world! From now on, this date will have special significance to our family. For years to come on this date, we will celebrate her and reminisce about the day she was born.

It is interesting how this specific date is the one we will celebrate. I was certain she would arrive much earlier and all indicators supported this hunch. Yet, because of certain risks, my doctors insisted on scheduling the date of her “eviction” should she decide not to come on her own. August 23 was suggested and we agreed. Even though the number 23 carries positive connotations for any true Chicago sports fan, at the time I didn’t consider too carefully how I really felt about the date, because surely, I reasoned, she would come before then. Yet, as my due date came and went and this date loomed closer and closer, I began googling “This day in history” and famous birthdays on this date. Of course, once she arrived, I realized just how little these things truly matter and how the end goal is to have a healthy baby, which, thankfully, we do. Nevertheless, my genealogy research tells me I am not the first parent to care about the date on which her child is born.

My grandmother was born on December 18, 1919 – or so we always thought and so we always celebrated. This “fact” was supported by pretty air tight evidence. My mom said this was my Grammy’s birthday and my Grammy herself claimed this as her birthday. I found a copy of Grammy’s birth certificate at the FHL and indeed, the document said she was born on December 18th.[1] The only even remotely interesting thing about the document was that it was a delayed birth certificate, meaning it was written after the fact. My grandmother was born at home, at a time when Illinois vital statistics were regulated, but not always complied with[2], so it would seem that no official birth certificate was created at the time of her birth.

Then one day, when I am back home in Chicagoland, visiting family, the conversation turned to genealogy. My mom told me that she has a copy of my Grammy’s birth certificate if I wanted it. I explained how I already possessed a copy, but the topic prompted my mother to remember something:

“You know how sometimes Grammy misremembers things?” My mom asked. “Well, that’s another thing she got wrong. She once told me she was actually born on a different date, but her parents changed it because they didn’t like the date or something.”

“Wait, what?!” I replied.

“Yeah, she said they changed it, but they couldn’t have. Her birth certificate says she was born on December 18th.”

“Mom. . .” I explained, “Her birth certificate was a delayed certificate! — Meaning it was created after the fact and her father reported the date on which she was born. She was born at home, so no official certificate was created at a hospital or anything. It’s very possible they changed the date!”

In no time, we retrieved the birth certificate and I showed Mom how we know that the information was reported by my great grandfather in 1935, more than 15 years after my grandmother was born.

So, if the story my grandmother told is true, why would my great grandparents have changed my grandmother’s birthday?

While of course, I couldn’t swear to it, and knew I would likely never be able to prove my theory, I then and there developed my own beliefs about my grandmother’s true birthdate. I believe my Sicilian great grandparents, like most Sicilians of their time and place were fairly superstitious people. In their culture, 17 was considered an unlucky number.[3] So what do you do when your child is born on a day marked by this auspicious number? You simply say your child was born then next day! In this case, December 18.

Fast forward some weeks after this conversation with my mom when I find my Sicilian great-grandfather’s naturalization papers. On the 1924 document, he gave the names of his children and their birthdates. There, at the top, his firstborn child (my grandmother) is listed along with her birthdate: 17 December 1919!!![4]

Now, this may not be 100% proof that my theory was correct, but I’d say it’s looking pretty good!

The fact of the matter is that good genealogy research necessitates that we always take our ancestors’ birthdates with a grain of salt. Our modern idea of birthdays and how they are remembered and celebrated is often very different from those of our ancestors. The research ramifications of this truth are significant. I hope to expound on this idea in a future post.

But for now, I must go, since my two week old is about to wake up from her nap!

[1] Privately held by author

[2] Illinois Vital Records, “FamilySearch”, (https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Illinois_Vital_Records#References : accessed 6 August 2016)

[3] Ethel Alec-Tweedie, Sunny Sicily, (London: Hutchinson, 1904), 125; downloaded from Google Books.

Also, Tweedie, Sunny Sicily, 198.

Also, Wikipedia Contributors, “17 (number),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:CiteThisPage&page=17_%28number%29&id=726870460 : accessed 8 September 2016).

[4] Privately held by author

7 Reasons to LOVE Italian Records

For a long time, I regret to say, I avoided Italian records in my genealogy research. This, even though I proudly claim 50% Italian heritage and my husband, 100%. I had successfully found passenger records for my great-grandparents and his, naming their towns of origin, but I stopped there. You see, I made some pretty big assumptions about Italian records, which to my pleasant surprise, turned out to be absolutely false.

Giachino Scialabba atto di nascita
Example of Italian birth records in “template” form

First, I assumed that even if I could find Italian records pertaining to my ancestors, I wouldn’t be able to understand them. At the time, I didn’t speak Italian. However, when I finally started looking at Italian records, I realized that they generally follow a template, sort of like a form letter, where the recorder would “fill in the blanks” so to speak. So once you understand what the template says (which you can learn through any good Italian genealogy book, the FamilySearch Wiki or even Google Translate), you really only need to be familiar with a few words and symbols . . . and maybe a few nuances of Italian script. Ironically, not too long after I began delving into Italian records, we received orders to Vicenza. I gained a much firmer grasp of the language and furthered my Italian genealogical education while living there for three years.

Besides doubting my ability to understand the records, I also doubted the records themselves. I assumed Italian records would be, well, a mess. Listen, I love Italy. Like I seriously LOVE it. But, as Rick Steve’s describes it, it can sometimes feel a little “intense” to outsiders (especially in the South, where all my ancestors originated)[1]: Helmet-less people on scooters weaving in and out of traffic, roadways that seem to be patterned after a bowl of spaghetti, less than dependable train schedules and a reputation for government corruption and bloated bureaucracy. I could attest to some of these things as a former tourist, so I assumed that Italian records could only be equally “chaotic.” Well, nothing could be further from the truth. As it turns out, Italian records are, generally speaking, WAY clearer than American records. Now, I both love the Italian culture for its chaotic vivacity and Italian records for their organization and clarity.

Here are just a few things I love about Italian Records:

1. They go back really far. . . I mean really, really far!

Just this week, I conducted some microfilm searches for a client in Italy (hence, the inspiration for this post). I was looking at Tuscan records that dated back to 1750! How cool is it that I get to investigate something THAT old from a part of the world  so dear to my heart? But you know what? In terms of Italian records, 1750 that isn’t that old. Trafford R. Cole wrote in his book, Italian Genealogical Records, “Each town in Italy has civil records dating back to at least 1870, some dating back to 1809. The Catholic parishes situated in every village and town have records from much earlier periods. Most parishes have records dating back to 1595 or at least to the beginning of the parish. . . . Other sources exist also: university records can date back to the 1200s. . . .” [2] See what I mean?

2. Civil records were standardized in the Napoleonic Era.

With Napoleon’s unification of Italy in the early 1800s the government hierarchy became organized into local, provincial and regional units. The local unit shouldered the responsibility of recording vital statistics. Napoleon specifically mandated exactly what information should be recorded and how. He even supplied local governments with standardized books (what I referred to earlier as a “template”) to aid in the record keeping. Even after Napoleon’s defeat, many local municipalities continued to follow the method he implemented [3].

alfonso alfano death record (1)

3. Italian records share a lot of detail.

For example, the death record above names the age, occupation, birthplace, town of residence and address of the deceased. It names his parents (indicating his mother is deceased), his father’s occupation and residence, and his wife’s name. It also gives the informants’ names and occupations. With details like these, you can take your family tree back generations in no time (of course, always do a reasonably exhaustive before taking any record at face value).

4. Italian women don’t change their surname.

Any genealogist who has ever lost track of a female ancestor thanks to an unknown marriage/name change knows what a big deal this is. If you haven’t, I am telling you, genealogy is SO much easier when married women keep their maiden name.

5. The people in Italian Records tended to stay put for generations.

One thing many Americans (myself included before I moved to Italy) do not understand about Italy is that the country is very regionally oriented. Most Italians consider themselves of their region before they consider themselves Italian. The food, dialect and culture varies greatly from region to region. This is in part thanks to the geography and topography of Italy which lends itself to regional autonomy. Along with the majority population’s dependence on agricultural livelihood, this means that many families lived on the same plot of land, or at least in the same general area, for generations and generations [4] .

Example of an Italian records set's corresponding index
Example of an Italian records set’s corresponding index

6. Many Italian Records are indexed, by the same people who kept them.

It is easy to think of record indexing as a modern-day product of Ancestry or FamilySearch which allows me to search for my ancestor by name in a database. Well, Italian records often have very clear, easy to follow indexes within the records themselves. So even if Ancestry or FamilySearch hasn’t gotten around to indexing the record set you are looking through, you don’t have to look at each record individually. You can start by consulting the index (usually at the very beginning or end of the record set), saving tons of time and energy.

7. Dates are often written out in word form.

Though it may not seem like a big deal, dates written in word form save a lot of confusion and second-guessing. There is no wondering if that 6 was actually a 5 or forgetting that in Europe the numeric date comes before the month, etc.

So, do you have Italian ancestry? If yes, don’t be afraid of Italian records! Find the town from which your ancestor originated and begin searching. FamilySearch has many Italian records available online and many more available on microfilm.
If you are unsure of the exact locale your ancestor called home, there are many reliable ways to find out more. I am tempted to get into some of those methods now, but I think I will save them for another post.

Thanks for reading!

[1] “Naples and Pompeii,” Rick Steves Europe Website, Video Script, bullet 3, (RickSteves.com : Accessed 5 Nov 2015).

[2] Trafford R. Cole, Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, 1995), 7-8.

[3] Lynn Nelson, A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage (Blue Ash, Ohio: F W Media, 1997), 11

[4] Cole, Italian Genealogical Records, 6.