This week in Elevenses with Lisa episode 73 we are talking obituaries and the important role they can play in your genealogy. Obituaries can reveal a lot of really interesting and helpful information about your ancestors! My guest is Shannon Combs-Bennett, the author of the article A Genealogist’s Guide to Finding and Using Historical Obituaries published in Family Tree Magazine.
In Elevenses with Lisa episode 73 Lisa Louise Cooke and Shannon Combs-Bennett will discuss:
The backstory on obituaries (which is vital to understand about any genealogical record)
what they can tell you about your ancestors
where you can find them both online and offline
and strategies you can use when they aren’t where you expected to find them.
Episode 73 Show Notes
(Please note: This interview transcription has been minimally altered for ease of reading and clarity.)
Lisa: I think of obituaries as being such a cornerstone of the work that we do. It’s often one of the first places people start, right?
Shannon: Yeah, it is, they’re pretty accessible for most people. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper, though the further back in time you go. But they seem to be one of the basic, I guess you could call staples, bread and butter type documents that genealogists try to find.
Type of Death Records Found in Newspapers
(01:28) Lisa: Exactly. And we typically find them in newspapers. So, I’d love to start there. Because obituaries are not the only kind of death record we’re finding in newspapers, right?
Shannon: There are actually several different types of death records published in a newspaper.
Obituaries Of course the obituaries, which are the most common.
Funeral Announcements You can also have funeral announcements. So, you might not get the obituary, but maybe you can find the announcement that this funeral home is servicing this family or that this wake will occur at such and such place, or the religious ceremony will occur at this church with graveside services.
Card of Thanks In addition to that, you sometimes can find what were called for a long time card of thanks where families would put articles in the newspaper, essentially, in the advertisement and personal sections, thanking people for coming and participating in the service of their loved one.
So, there’s a wide variety of different types of information. And if you don’t know it’s there, you don’t know to go look for it.
Lisa: Exactly. I remember I was doing some newspaper research in the British Newspaper Archives, from my husband’s family. I didn’t find a death notice, but there was an entire coroner’s inquest published in the newspaper! And I didn’t realize that we could find something like that. So, it’s wonderful to see the depth of the kinds of information that surround the death of a person that could be found in newspapers.
Shannon: And those aren’t as common here in the United States. But if your loved one died in a larger city, you can sometimes find (coroner inquests) in the newspapers. I was doing some research and found in from San Francisco, and they have published books of coroner’s inquests, so they’re not in newspapers, but the announcement was in the newspaper that there was an inquest. Then I was able to go to the library and thankfully they were all digitized. I found them online where I would find all sorts of information about the person, their family, the circumstances of their death. And if you’re doing family medical histories, sometimes those can be real gold mines.
The History of Obituaries
(4:03) Lisa: So, let’s take a moment and talk about the history of obituaries. Because, as you know, when we understand the history of any kind of genealogical record, then we do a lot better job of utilizing it. Please give us a little bit of a background story on obituaries. How long have they been around?
Colonial Times Shannon: You can find obituaries in even some of the earliest colonial newspapers here in the United States. Sometimes they were passing through an area and died. Or you might see information that someone had died abroad and there might be a little note in the newspaper.
Early 19th Century In the early 1800s you can see themes developing around newspaper obituaries. (And sometimes if it was a very important person to the community you’ll be more than likely to find it.) These early newspaper obituaries don’t always have a lot of family information, but you’ll find all sorts of virtuous prose written about them where they were talking about how godly and worthy they were and those types of things.
Then the obituary started to morph and actually became a part of the personal and advertisement section of the newspaper. So, one reason you may not find information in an obituary for your ancestor is because your family didn’t have the money to pay for the obituary to put be put in. And then if they weren’t a real prominent person, they wouldn’t get the prime real estate in the actual reading sections. So, yeah, if your family were on the poor side, you might not find anything about them, unfortunately.
20th Century (06:06) And then, as the 20th century came in these started to evolve from a celebration of death to a celebration of people’s accomplishments. You start finding late 1800s into the early 20th century is how the obituary as we know it today started to evolve. It went from maybe one or two lines about a person dying to three and four paragraphs about them, their families, especially if they had, you been a pensioner or veteran, or a pioneer of a town, the early 20th century saw a lot of those people who had really struck it out west for their fame and fortune start passing away in those towns. Sometimes you would even find the obituary, not only in the place where they died, but in their hometowns back further to the east. You might find obituaries, especially for those pioneering folk you could call them, back where they came from.
Lisa: That’s a great point. And that’s really kind of a nice newspaper research tip that expands beyond obituaries. It’s that idea that people often started back east, but then relocated out west, and particularly with the telegraph coming into play, they could send that article back to where they came from and get it to all those people who would be interested to know whatever happened to that person.
21st Century Now in the 21st century we’re moving more and more away from print newspapers for the obituaries. We’re going to almost completely digital newspapers for the obituaries and digital obituary sites. I’ve had several of my close family members in the last 10 years who have passed away, and the funeral homes are offering to put obituaries on their websites. And when my mother passed away, I was speaking with the funeral home director, and they had kept records. This was in Texas. And they had records going back several decades with written obituaries that, if you called the funeral home, you could see if they had one written up. It was not even necessary published in the paper, because the family couldn’t afford it. But the funeral home had it.
Lisa: How interesting!
It really drives home the point that you’ve got to know what kind of timeframe you’re looking at right to see what you can find and where you’d expect to find it.
Obituaries in Small vs. Large Cities
(08:48) I would imagine it’s true that in small towns, you might be more likely to find obituaries then perhaps let’s say in Chicago.
Shannon: Yeah, because you know, everybody knows everybody, in a small hometown. Those would be more likely to have the longer, more in depth information written about a person talking about their family, and where they came from, what they did, if they were the pillar of a community, or even just a local farmer.
And then in the cities, unless you were a prominent citizen, that’s where you’re more than likely to find a paragraph or less, maybe only even a few sentences: first and last name, age, died on this date, and maybe that’s all you get, unfortunately.
Where to Find Obituaries in Old Newspapers
(09:39) Lisa: Let’s talk about where to find these Historical Newspapers. Where do we start?
Shannon: Okay. Well, there are a lot of different newspapers online.
Chronicling America at the Library of Congress Of course, the Library of Congress Chronicling America is a great start. See if they have one of the local newspapers for the place that you’re researching for the timeframe your ancestors were there. Start there because it’s free – you got to start with the free resources first.
FamilySearch Family search also has a free obituary, historical obituary site that you can search. (Ed. Note: this link will take you to a resource page at the FamilySearch Wiki which includes many links to sources for obituaries.)
And then you can move into the paid / subscription websites such as:
(Disclosure: Thank you for using these affiliate links. We will be compensated if you make a purchase and that helps support this content which we make available for free.)
(Ed. Note: Of course there are many other websites featuring obituaries, and some are niche websites unique to their location. Google searching can help you locate these resources. Learn more about my strategies for strategic googling here.)
Obituaries at Libraries
(10:36) Sometimes you can also contact the local library for the place the person had died. I’m originally from Indiana, and I’ve had good luck calling around to the various county libraries. Unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of the newspapers digitized. But for a small fee, they were willing to send me a photocopy. And in some cases, now I can get email PDFs for a few dollars. I like to support the local library, so I’m okay with doing that. Because our local libraries need a lot of support.
Don’t give up if you can’t find it digitized, is what I’m trying to say. There’s a lot of information to be found, and there are a lot of places out there, especially for older newspapers. Be resourceful I guess you could say.
(11:29) Lisa: You talked about online indexes. So sometimes we don’t get the actual obit but we could get enough information out of the index that we could then go track it down in person.
Shannon: Yeah, that’s very true. I’ve used those several times. One of the links that is in the article is to the Dayton, Ohio index. And you can put in as much information as you know. Sometimes I find it’s easier to start with a little bit of information, and then sort through and add details to weed through the large number. But all it will give you is the person’s name and the date of publication, so not even the date of death (so you know it’s somewhere in that timeframe) and then the page, issue, column number so that you can contact the Dayton Public Library, and they can help get you the paper. And a lot of the libraries are like that.
Obituary Search Strategies
(12:29) Lisa: When you do online searches for obituaries, do you tend to just go straight in and do a search on the name? Or do you go into the card catalog and find newspaper and obituary collections first and then try to search? Do you have any special tactics that you use to try to make sure you’re successful?
Shannon: That’s actually a really great question. It depends. If I have a really unique name and I am pretty sure of the location, maybe timeframe of the death, sometimes I’ll just start looking for that person. Especially like I said, if it’s a really unique name.
Unique Names I had an ancestor named Bathsheba Kelly. I’m thinking there’s not many people named Bathsheba. So I was pretty confident maybe if I just started looking for her by name and the timeframe she died in Ohio, we’d be good to go.
Other times, yeah, I first want to narrow it down by collection because you don’t want to just go searching willy nilly, right? That’s going to waste a lot of time. Try to find like a five year, maybe a 10 year span. If you’re not quite sure, having a timeframe will help weed them down.
Common Names If it’s a common name, you need to add in a lot more. Maybe those advanced searches. It may take you going town by town, or year by year as you go wading through all the names.
Indexes If there is an index for the database I do like to use those first because that can help weed out a lot of information right off the bat.
Printing Print it out, write it down, keep it on a separate browser tab or whatever you need to do so that you can methodically keep track of your search. That can really help. Don’t give up!
Obituary Publishing Timeframes
(14:54) Lisa: I know I had an experience once where I was searching a weekly newspaper in California on microfilm, and I knew that obituaries were always on page seven, because I’ve just had been through so many issues of this particular newspaper. I looked at the obituary column in the next issue following the death of my great grandfather, and he wasn’t there. And I was like, What? I looked at the next week and he wasn’t there, and I went back a week. I wondered if maybe I got the date wrong. It turned out his obituary was on the front page! And that goes back to us saying that some people were kind of considered the pioneer of their town, even though in the family, he wasn’t Mr. Celebrity or anything, but he was revered for that. And they had him on the front page.
I’d love to have you touch on when you don’t see them where you think you’re going to see them. And what’s the timing of when we could expect to see their obituary published? And do you have any other tips on when they’re not where you think they’ll be? What are the kinds of places within the paper where you tend to find these kinds of articles?
Shannon: Yeah, that’s actually a really good question. Again, it depends. Like you said, even if you don’t think that your family member was someone famous, if you’re not finding the obituary where you expect to find it, try going through the newspaper cover to cover.
Sometimes if your ancestor died in mysterious circumstances, there might not be an obituary, but there might be an article about a court case. So that’s always a good thing to know. Because those death records, especially if it was salacious gossip, is going to turn up somewhere.
Lisa: It’s newsworthy.
Shannon: That’s right. If it’s newsworthy, it’s going to be in there.
Where Obituaries are Located in a Newspaper
(16:46) I was recently doing some research on professional genealogists. I wanted to find out when genealogists became a profession here in the United States. I figured if an obituary of a professional genealogist told me they were 80 years old and when they died, then I can kind of backtrack to when, they started became a professional. I did not find these obituaries in the late 1800s where I thought they should be. Sometimes they were in the Personal section. Sometimes they were in the miscellaneous advertisement section. But then once again, it goes back to somebody had to pay the newspaper to put this in it. So, they wouldn’t be in these larger newspapers. I was looking at like the New York Times, The Hartford newspaper, the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. I wasn’t finding these obituary pages for them. I was finding obituaries in the Personal section, which kind of threw me for a loop a little bit.
Lisa: You kind of have to follow the money, right?
Lisa: It’s so interesting that you’re talking about the history of genealogists, because I remember, quite a few years ago, I went to the census records. I started searching on genealogist as an occupation or the industry. That’s really interesting too to see who was doing it 100 years ago.
Obituaries were not always published the very next week after a person’s death, right?
Shannon: Right. A lot of people think that they are. I guess 1) it depends on the religion and the culture that you’re looking at – what was done in that time frame. Or 2) it depends on the place. This might sound kind of odd to some of us who don’t live in really cold places, but when the ground freezes in our northern most states sometimes you wouldn’t be able to bury somebody until the next spring. And, and you may have a death notice when they died, but then a full obituary for when the service and the burial took place. So sometimes you may have several months gap in between when they died, and when information was published about them in the newspaper.
The other thing maybe, especially if they were in business, or if they traveled, or if they were in the military, they could have died abroad. So, you’re only going to hear the information see the death notice or the obituary when the ship lands.
Information Found in Obituaries
(20:00) Lisa: Before I let you go, I’d love to have you talk about the Obituary Fast Facts section in your article. What are some of the interesting facts and little bits that you want to share with us?
Shannon: Sure! Well, some of the things that you can find in an obituary can be surprising. As genealogists, we want to find all the family information we can. We want to know when they were born, who their parents were, if possible, family members, that type of thing. But other things that you can find in obituaries are :
Employment Information employment information, which can then give you clues as to where else they might have been.
Migration Information If they were a migrant, to that area, it can give you information, you know, where they originated from. If they immigrated to the Untied States, sometimes they list that they landed at the port of Philadelphia, or New York, or New Orleans, or wherever. And that can help lead information for passenger lists and future information.
Associated People But most importantly, people who are listed in the obituary have to be somebody known to the deceased person, either a friend or a family, or a close acquaintance. I want to encourage people to not forget those associate people and collateral lines, because you might be able to find information about your ancestor while researching them.
Lisa: Great point!
About Shannon Combs-Bennett
(21:30) Shannon, tell folks a little bit more about yourself and what you do.
Shannon: I’m an author, lecturer, and an educator, full time student – a perpetual student is what my father would call me. You can find me at my blog, which is Trials and Tribulations of a Self-Taught Family Historian. You can also find me on Facebook and LinkedIn and on Twitter, I’m not I’m not on Twitter as much as I used to be. I’ve spoken all across the United States. I’ve even spoken internationally in Scotland and in France for the Heraldic and Genealogical Congress. But I think that’s because I come from a background of teachers. I love educating, writing, lecturing and helping people learn more information about their pasts and about who they are and who their families were. It doesn’t hurt that my undergraduate degree was in human genetics. So sometimes I can throw a little bit of that DNA in there.
In this video on Italian genealogy and family history research Lisa Louise Cooke and her guest professional genealogist Sarah Gutmann of Legacy Tree Genealogists will discuss:
How to get started in Italian Genealogy
The best websites for Italian Genealogy
Italian genealogical records
Language tips and resources
Sarah Gutmann began her obsession with family history when she was 13-years-old. She now has almost three decades of experience helping others climb their family tree. She is a professional genealogist with Legacy Tree Genealogists where she specializes in United States and Italian research. As a veteran classroom teacher, Sarah enjoys teaching various genealogy programs to libraries, historical societies, and lineage organizations across America.
Exclusive Offer: Save $100 on full-service genealogy research projects with code GGP100 at Legacy Tree Genealogists. Or schedule a Genealogist-on-Demand™ 45-minute genealogy consultation HERE. (By using our affiliate links we will be compensated. Thank you for supporting our free genealogy content.)
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It’s all about Italian ancestry here at Genealogy Gems today, and I’ve got the perfect person to talk to us about it and help you find a lot more out about your Italian roots. Sarah Guttman is a professional genealogist with Legacy Tree Genealogists. She specializes in US research, but also Italian research. She’s going to help us find out how to find our Italian roots. Welcome to the show, Sarah!
Sarah: Thanks so much, Lisa. I’m a big fan of the show. And it’s so nice to be able to get to meet you in person and to be able to talk to your listeners and hopefully share some information to help them find their Italian ancestry.
Americans with Italian Ancestry
(01:04) Lisa: Do you have some idea of how many people in the U.S. have Italian roots?
Sarah: Well, thanks to the magic of Google, it looks like about 5% of all Americans can trace their ancestors back to some Italian roots. But I like to think that it’s a lot higher, especially in New York you can’t go down the street without seeing a few pizza places. And I’m sure other parts of America have a heavier population than others. But for me, it seems like everybody has some Italian in them.
Lisa: I was we were thinking about this. You just need one ancestor who comes from a particular country and all of a sudden your genealogy research and breaks into a whole other area. And that’s the fun of genealogy, isn’t it? It’s different depending on which ancestor your work on.
Sarah: It’s really fun! About four years ago, the Italian archives really took off online, and we’ll talk about that today. The Italian archives is a free website, and it is based in Italy. I remember, I was on vacation in New Jersey with my family on a beach vacation and I got a call from my friend at around midnight. And she said, “Sarah, you have to get on this website! I think your brick walls are just going to come right down. The Italian town that your family is from is on there.”
So, I spent the rest of this beach vacation, locked in a room. And I had the best time looking at my family. I was getting records from people who lived in the late 1790s. It is just amazing the stuff you can find if you can kind of crack the code, and I’ll hopefully show people how to do that. You can really expand upon your Italian ancestry and have a lot of fun with that. And really, once you just get one ancestor, all of a sudden, you’re just going back several generations, and you just feel so great about yourself and just makes these wonderful connections. It’s just a great experience.
Lisa: I totally agree. I think I probably have done that on a vacation or two! And I’m excited because I have some new friends here in our neighborhood and the husband is half Italian. He’s like, “I don’t know anything about it!” So even if you’re not Italian, we’re going to be able to help our friends who are. So, let’s jump into it!
How to Find the Italian Village of Origin
(03:51) Sarah: The first thing we have to do is identify where the family is from over in Italy. Once you figure out what village your family is coming from, you can then jump into the Italian records.
One thing I think that we take for granted in America is that if we know that one of our ancestors was born in New York, there’s a pretty good chance that we’re going to be able to find that person. But a lot of times when we’re dealing with European countries, especially with Italy, unless you know the exact village that your family is from you’re going to have a really tough time.
Now, if you’ve ever gone on FamilySearch you probably know that if you put in an Italian last name you’re probably going to get some matches. That’s really exciting, and that’s great. But the problem is a lot of the records right now on FamilySearch are available in the catalog but they haven’t been indexed. So, you might not be getting your actual family member who’s in your family tree.
I want to share a way of really going into the actual Italian records from the State Archives for Italy and going into the village records and taking a peek and looking through them.
The first question that we always want to figure out when we’re dealing with Italy, and really anywhere, we want to find out what village our ancestors are coming from. That’s going to be really important. And that’s going to be the reason we’re either going to have a hard time or we’re really going to be successful on this.
A couple of things that we want to do before we hop over the pond is we want to check out and exhaust American records to see what is possibly available. So of course, we want to be looking at:
birth, marriage and death records,
family Bibles (and I’m always so jealous if anybody has a family Bible because they are just a treasure trove of information),
old letters and envelopes (maybe your ancestors might have saved some old letters from their family over in Italy and you might be able to gain some of that from the address on the envelope, or maybe from the letter itself),
old photos, (flip them over. It might say where the family was coming from in Italy, or maybe your Italian ancestors had some visitors that were going to go back to Italy. They may have written that on the back of their photo),
probate records (maybe somebody’s leaving something to a family member over in Italy),
Also check out the records for spouses and siblings. Check out your family’s “FAN Club” (Friends, Associates and Neighbors) and see if you can spot where that village is for your family
So, don’t give up. For one of my ancestors, I was having a really hard time finding what village they were from. But I noticed everywhere that my family went, there was this guy, Vincent Fiola who moved with them. Vincent never had any children. He was never married. But I was able to find his draft record. And on Vincent’s draft record he mentioned the town in Italy that he was from. So, I went and I looked at the records from that town. Sure enough, with Vincent Fiola in that same year was my great, great grandfather! So that’s how I found out my great, great grandfather’s town of origin by using one of his neighbors who just kept moving with him. So, it is possible to find the town. Just exhaust everything you can possibly find. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find that village so you can start looking for your ancestors.
Overcoming the Language Barrier with Italian Records
(07:41) One of the big things that I think people get really scared of with Italian research is that the records are in Italian. I’m a little bit guilty of this myself with some other languages of my ancestors. I see these languages that I am completely unfamiliar with and I think this is something I’ll just get to on another day. But I want to tell you that if you want to, you can totally do it. You can do it.
There are different ways to be successful at this. And there are some key topics that you can google for yourself to kind of figure out what some of the words mean. So, I just want to share some different phrases that are going to help you because you’re going to see the same things over and over again in your Italian records.
One of the first things that you want to be familiar with is the numbers. That’s going to be really important to you because a lot of our documents that we’re looking at in Italy, they are spelling out the numbers. They spell the entire year, the day street addresses, so we want to be able to identify those.
I will be honest, I am learning Italian myself. I am certainly not fluent in it. But I look at these records all day long. Sometimes I feel like I’m fluent in Italian because you’re looking at the same phrases over and over again. So, what I like to do when I’m doing my research is have a chart next to me with some of these helpful phrases on it. One of them is the Italian numbers.
Another thing is to know your months that you’re looking for in Italian. Keep in mind too, that these months are not capitalized because I think sometimes in our brain when we’re looking at these Italian records we might be trying to identify a month and looking for a capital letter. But that’s not what they’re doing in Italy. They are lowercase and we have to be aware of that when we’re looking for things.
Another thing is common words that we want to be able to pick out when we’re looking at the Italian records. So, for child we’re looking for bambino, bambina, and infante. Father, mother, Padre, Madre. The names for parents, genitori. The different types of records that we’re going to be looking at nata, matrimono. These are all going to really help you. It’s surprising that once you get just a hang of several of these phrases and words, you’re going to really be able to dive into those records and get the most out of them.
Common Italian Occupations
(10:26) Another thing that is often listed in the Italian records is our ancestors occupation. This is a really fun thing to find out, I think. With the birth, marriage and death records that we come across they’re going to usually tell not only that individual’s occupation, but also the names of their parents, and their spouses, even in death records, things like that.
These are some of the very common occupations that you will see over and over again in these Italian records. Bracciole is a day laborer, and a Contadino is a farmer. That’s something that you will likely see I’ve come to find in about 80% of the records. Sometimes they have fun ones that you can find on there such as rich person. That’s something that my occupation would never say, but they have it listed as somebody is a landowner. So, when you see something like that you might also be clued into maybe this person was a person of prominence in the village that people came to or people worked for.
The Italian Archives
(11:40) Now let’s jump into how to use the Italian archive website now that we have a little bit of backing with it. The first thing you’re going to go to is the Antenati website. You can even Google Antenati and it should come up.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is change the language into English. Let’s make it a little bit easier for ourselves! When you go to the website you’ll notice that there is an Italian flag. Click on the Italian flag and you’ll see a drop-down menu. Click on the English flag. Then magically, everything turns into English!
If you have been on this website in the past, be aware that they have changed the entire look of this website in the last few months. Unfortunately, they have also changed the website links. I was really disappointed because of course you always want to source everything, and on my Ancestry tree I had the actual links that were going to be connected to it. I wrote down where my family was from. And then all of a sudden, they totally changed this website, and those links that I had saved, don’t work anymore. So, I had to go back in and switch everything again, and actually put the images in just to make sure I had all the right information. So, keep that in mind when you’re looking at this website. Don’t save the links because it might not be there the next time you go on.
Lisa: Gosh, Sara, that’s a great reminder. I always encourage people to download the documents, and that’s a perfect reason why, because the links could change tomorrow.
Sarah: Absolutely, and there was no warning with this website. So that was very upsetting to a lot of people. So save, save, save!
When you go to the archive’s homepage it will ask you what location you are looking for? This is very temperamental, because sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I like to bypass this screen because sometimes I’ll put in a town that I know is there and then it comes back and says “no, this town is not listed right now.” That’s really frustrating, especially if you’re using it for the first time. I like to go right up to the Browse the Archive button and click that. It’s going to show you a map. From the map you could scroll in and you can see what state archives you’re looking at. Click the State Archive where your family is from. If you don’t know, run a simple Google search. You’ll typically find a Wikipedia article on it. It will tell you what Providence, the state, and the region in Italy. So, it’s not too hard to do.
Click the State Archive. For my family I use Salerno because that’s where a lot of my family comes from. It’s brings me to the State Archive of Salerno. You’re going to see a flag on the archive page. This flag is going to be either green, yellow, or red. If it’s green, or yellow, green is the best means everything’s on the website, it’s complete. If it’s yellow, it means it’s still in the works. You can check back later and they might have some new stuff. Red means it’s not ready yet, and that’s indefinite.
So, if you see a yellow or green flag, go up to where it says Search the Registries and click on that. Then I want you to pay attention to the left-hand margin. You can either click Series or Location. I find that you could click either one of these and it’s going to bring you to the same spot where you’re going to go to click on the village that your family is from. And then it’s going to give you a whole big list of all the villages that are in the State Archive.
For me, I’m going to click on the village of Postiglione. And that brings me into the village or the communes territory of the website, and then I click on the year. I can also click on what type of record I want to look at. Do I want to look at marriage, birth, or death? Marriage, birth and death are the ones that most of these state archives are currently showing.
You can also look at military records at the State Archives website. All males of a certain age were conscripted into the military, and they have really good military records.
Italian Famiglia Folios
(17:46) I also found out that some of these towns have a famiglia folio. This is where it was required of certain families to keep a family group sheet, if you will. One of our onsite researchers recently found one of these and showed it to me and it was 20 pages of wonderful genealogy sources going back and tracing the siblings, where people went in America or other parts of Italy, birth, marriage and death information, and a lot of great things. So, these are some things that hopefully should be coming down the pike for these state archives that you could be hopefully looking for in the near future.
But for right now, most of the State Archives are going to have your birth marriage and death records.
Italian Marriage Banns
(18:44) Again, once you click on the type of record, you click the year, and it’s going to show you what is available for that year. Sometimes you can find marriage banns. And those are really fun group of records because that is kind of like our marriage licenses nowadays.
Marriage Banns are several pages long. They would have be posted on the church door about the upcoming union. People could object to the wedding if there was a blood relationship between the husband and wife, if they just did not agree with the marriage, or if somebody was under age. You can find these marriage bands online.
Italian Birth Records Online
(19:27) When you click on a birth record at the State Archives you’re going to probably get a lot of images. That can be very intimidating because you’re thinking to yourself, well, I don’t want to have to go through this entire book of records of a language that I don’t know. But there is help and there is hope.
You will see a button, what looks like an open book icon with an underline on it. Click on that and will give you the Gallery view. On the next page, sometimes the thumbnail images don’t load properly. If it does show you an icon of the page, you can’t actually tell what’s written on it, so you kind of have to guess. But don’t worry. With these Italian records, and this is very important, most of the time, they’re going to have an index. That index is going to be at the back of the book. Click on either the last page or the next to the last page and hopefully you’re going to find an index.
The index is by last name, first name, and the numbers coordinate with the entry number. You can then go into the book and find that entry number. Ideally, our ancestors information will be staring us right back in the face.
I don’t want you to get intimidated, and there is a method to this madness. Each type of Italian record, just like with our American records, follows a particular format. So with birth records you’re going to see, and it’s usually in this order, the name, date and entry number in the margin. Again, that date is going to be spelled out. So it’s going to be helpful to be familiar with your numbers.
It’s also going to tell you the officiating agent and locality. I think a lot of times people can get thrown off by this. But if you look at these record collections, you’re going to keep seeing the same name over and over again. It is not one person having a child over and over again. It’s the clerk. The clerk is the first person usually who is mentioned.
It’s going to tell you the gender of the child. And then it’s going to tell you the occupation and parentage of the civil agent. So again, we’re getting some more information about that person recording the record. So, it’s going to tell you who the recordkeepers parents are. So again, not who you’re looking for. Then it’s going to tell you the name of the child’s father. And a good indication that you’re dealing with the child’s father is that they’re going to have the same last name. So that is one of your keywords that you’re looking for – that same surname – the child’s father. It’s going to tell you the age, their occupation, hopefully the father’s name, and the place of birth. They’re then going to say the legitimacy of birth, which is usually my wife. Or they might say that they’re not married. And then they’re going to tell you the child’s mother. The name, the occupation, or father’s name, and her place of birth, and maybe her parents place of birth. They’re then going to tell you the child’s birth date, and place.
What’s really fun is you can sometimes, and especially in later records, see the actual house that the child was born in, and that house would be your family’s house. In most cases, they’re going to give you an actual house and street address. And Lisa I know you love to do this, you can then plug that in to Google Earth. And you could take a trip right to your family’s house.
Sarah: It’s really cool! That just gets me away from my laundry all the time! I just go right down a rabbit hole.
And of course, we’re going to see the child’s name. Sometimes you get some really crazy long names. One of my ancestors has six. My guess is that one was the first name and five were middle names. So you see the whole line up there.
Then you get the witnesses, which were often the midwife and anybody else, and their occupation which is also really cool. You’ll get to see the signature of the father. So that might be a nice connection. You get to see that and you’ll see a lot of these block letters. Just seeing that and having that connection!
Now that I told you this, I’m going to show you a copy of a birth record here. This is for my great great grandfather Lorenzo Fragetta who later changed his name to Fragetti. He was born September 8, in 1869.
Birth record of Lorenzo Fragetta
Now, this does look rather intimidating, especially because with these earlier records, there’s no typeface on here. It’s all handwritten. But in the world of Italian records, this is actually really good writing. I’m very glad because I have a grandmother, she just passed in December, she was 90 years old, and she would write me these greeting cards and send me beautiful letters. And this was like her handwriting. So, for me, this is second nature to just pick this up.
On the margin you’re going to get the entry number, and that entry number is spelled out, and it’s the same entry that’s going to be in that index.
You also get the individuals name. In a closer look at the record some key things are going to jump out at us. Here we have the town he was born in, and we have his father’s name, Vincenzo Fragetta, and it says figli, that he is the son of Antonio. So right there, we get another generation. So we have Lorenzo we have his father and we have his grandfather on here. We then have his father’s age and profession. They also have the names of his spouse on one of the other pages. And when we get the age of our individual, we can use that information to go back into some of the other records and try to find them.
Lisa: It’s really interesting to see that they split those names. So this would be something when we’re first working with a foreign language like this to be aware that they split the name Antonio between two lines. There’s no hyphen. So that is not two different words. That’s a really good thing to know.
Sarah: Right, and that is a great point that you brought up. I was dealing with a client’s record recently and they do not split it up by syllables, and there’s no indication that they’re splitting it up. And I’m looking at this person’s last name and thinking, oh my gosh, like this is so different, they really Americanized this! And then I kind of put two and two together, and I was like, oh, wait a minute, this is being split up here. So yes, absolutely. Be aware of that if something’s not making sense. I’m so glad you brought that up.
Italian Naming Patterns in Records
(27:47) On this record we’re also seeing the name of the mother’s father. The mother’s father is Lorenzo and Lorenzo is the name of the son. By knowing this, the name of the Son in relationship to where they are is the parents, you can also maybe figure out that this child is the second born male based on the Italian naming pattern because you could see that he’s named after his maternal grandfather. So that’s also a fun thing to play around with, the Italian naming pattern.
This record also includes Vincenzo Fragetta’s signature. You think, okay, this person actually touched this document, and was a witness. I just get chills!
I type up an extraction of the information from the record like this:
Lorenzo Fragetta born 11 September 1869 on Via S. Maria, Postiglione
Father: Vincenzo Fragetta, son of Antonio. Vincenzo is a 25-year-old landowner who lives in Postiglione.
Mother: Carmella Paolino, daughter of Carmine. Wife of Vincenzo Fragetta
Italian Women’s Maiden and Married Names
(29:11) The one thing to remember when you’re dealing with Italian records is that women never change their last name. And that is something to remember, especially when you’re looking at passenger lists for your family.
When I first started, I used to look at some of these records and think oh my gosh, these kids are coming over to America all by themselves. These nine year-olds and 10 year-olds are being unattended on this ship. But the mother never changed the name. When a woman marries, she keeps her father’s surname. So, she may still be in the record collection right there with them but with a different last name. So be on the lookout for that. Look for this with death records with marriage records too.
Lisa: What a great introduction to Italian genealogy research There are many things to be aware of that are unique to Italy. It reminds me that when I research in any other country there are important things to look for such as patterns and the names and just knowing something as simple as they may not be capitalizing the month. Don’t overlook a date just because you’re looking for a capitalized letter that’s not there. It’s very simple, but could really snag you up.
Sarah: Sure! And sometimes with these records, one of the really fun finds is on the margin. The civil recorder will go in and he’ll write when the person was married, who they married and when they died. So sometimes you can almost get like three records in one in these.
Using the FAN Principle in Italian Genealogy
(30:51) Lisa: I wanted to touch on one of the things that you mentioned early on as you were talking that I think is important, and something that new genealogists may not be familiar with, and that’s the FAN principle. Please tell folks what that means and the role it plays in all this.
Sarah: Sure. The FAN club is your Friends, Associates, and Neighbors of the person you are researching. We don’t want to just be sticking to an actual ancestor and kind of closing off our vision. We want to look at who else is around them in their community, check out who’s signing off on their marriage licenses, or naturalization records, etc. Those people are probably important to that person. And in lots of cases, these individuals who are in their FAN club possibly came over with them to America. If you can’t find information on your ancestors, take some time and do some research on these other individuals whose names are appearing over and over again, and see if you can identify where that person is coming from because that just might lead you right to your village of origin.
How to Get Help with Italian Research from a Professional Genealogist
(32:06) Lisa: What if somebody needs some help? I know that you are a professional genealogist. Tell folks, how they can reach you and what kinds of ways that you can help them if they do get stuck.
Sarah: If you get stuck, I work for Legacy Tree Genealogists and we have people well-versed in genealogy all over the world. I specialize in Italian records. We do lots of things. We can help you get records from communes over in Italy that are otherwise unresponsive, because it is very hard to get some responses. Sometimes when you’re dealing with local records or parish priests, we have people who are actually on site in Italy and will physically go to a church and sit with the priest and get these records that are just not available online.
Here’s another really cool thing that we offer. The records that are on the Antenati archive site only go back to 1806. That’s when they start. But some of these church records have been around for hundreds of years before that. So, we can have researchers on the ground that can go into these churches and even go further back for your family and see if there’s any baptismal records, any of those sacramental records, and really get that connection. We take that information and we write a little story about it. So it really makes it everything come to life and you have a piece of your ancestor. We’ll give you all the documents so that you can see that handwriting and will translate and give you a little translation for it so that you actually know what it says. So there’s lots of ways that we can help you in different areas not just Italian, but with anything, any ancestry that you have.
Lisa: Absolutely, I’ve had Kate at Legacy help me with some Irish research that we did in a video. That was amazing.
Show Notes: The 1931 Canadian Census was released by the Library and Archives Canada on June 1 of 2023. These digitized images can (as of now) be browsed by general location. The challenge with this census, like with other census records when they first come online, is that there is no index. Creating the index that makes the census searchable by name and other identifying factors takes a while. So right now, the digitized images are available online to browse. Ancestry.com is partnering with the Library and Archives Canada and using its artificial intelligence technology to generate the index. Until that happens, I have four strategies for you that are going to help you find your ancestors right now. And you’ll be able to find them much faster than if you just browsed the images one by one. Once the index comes out, it’s not necessarily going to be perfect. They never are. So, these strategies can help you if you run into trouble finding someone in the 1931 Canadian census. And they’ll also help you better understand the information that you do see in the images.
My first strategy for finding your ancestors in the 1931 census of Canada is to check the earlier census records. Our goal is to identify the enumeration sub-district and the municipality where they lived. If we can find it in an earlier census, we can use that information to find them more quickly in the 1931 Canadian Census.
In my case, the person I’m looking for in the 1931 Canadian census is my husband’s great-grandfather, Harry Cooke. He emigrated to Canada in 1912, along with his second wife, Martha. I started my search for them by seeing if I could find them in a census record sometime after 1912, but prior to 1931.
Harry lived in Regina, Saskatchewan. So, I was able to use the Census of Prairie Provinces that was taken in 1926 in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. You can use the Census Search Tool at the Library and Archives Canada website to search those census records.
If your ancestors lived in other provinces, again, that Census Search Tool is going to help you find the most recent census records available for them.
In 1926 Harry Cooke was in sub-district number 8 and the municipality was Sherwood, so I made note of that. Also, while looking at that 1926 census, I found there is an area where it talks about where each household is located. They list the Township, Range and Meridian. So, I also made note of the township number listed, which in this case was 17. If your ancestors happen to live in a city, there may be a street address listed. Though many people came to Canada to work the land, so you may not be fortunate and find that information. But make note of the street address if it’s listed. Sometimes it’s written right across the Township, Range and Meridian columns.
Strategy #2 Check City Directories for Addresses
I really easy way to look for city directories is just to google it. I found the 1931 city directory for Regina by going to Google.com and typing in 1931, Regina city directory. The very first result was the city directory for Regina in 1931 at Internet Archive. I happen to have heard that there was a directory for 1931, so that’s why I searched for it specifically. If you don’t happen to know the year you can run a Google search for a time frame. Do this by entering the name of the town or the closest big city to where your ancestors lived in the search field. Add the phrase city directory, and then enter a number range. Google calls this search operator a numrange. Here’s an example:
Regina city directory 1912..1931
This type of search brings up links to web pages that mention Regina, the words city directory, and also a four-digit number that falls within the specified range, which for us would be the year that the city directory was published!
The Internet Archive has thousands of digitized and searchable city directories. Many genealogy record websites use The Internet Archive as their cloud hosting service for their records. They digitize everything and upload it to Internet Archive where they can host it, and then link to it on their website. So that is a great place to look.
However, it’s a good idea to run a Google search because that way you are going across the internet, and hopefully you’ll find the city directories that you need.
In my case, in 1931 Harry and Martha are still at 520 Osler Street. So that reinforces what I had found in the 1926 census.
Strategy #3 Search at the Library and Archives Canada website
At the time of this writing, without an actual index, we’re going to enter the province name, the city / district if you have it, and the sub-district.
In the case of Harry and Martha Cooke, I found them in 1926 in sub-district #8, so that was the first place I searched. However, in 1931 sub-district #8 was not associated with the municipality of Sherwood. In fact, it didn’t mention township 17 either, so it was very suspicious.
It is possible that enumeration sub-districts can change over time. This can happen because as a country grows, the population grows. District lines must be redrawn in a way that allows a single census taker (enumerator) to cover the area within a certain given amount of time. In a more populated city, that can mean that the sub-district actually shrinks a little bit, and there are more sub-districts added. However, the previous sub-district does give you a great starting point. It’s very possible that the person you are looking for is in a sub-district close to the original. So, you’ll just have to browse a little further. And that takes us to strategy number four.
Strategy #4 Browse the Records Faster Using Clues
You could go through each digitized page of the 1931 Canadian census one by one looking for your relatives. That took an especially long time when the records were first released on June 1 of 2023. On my computer each image took at least two hours to load…it was crazy! But it’s not surprising, because I’m sure everybody and their brother wanted to look at these records.
Thankfully, now it’s running much faster. But it could still take quite a long time to look page by page. There are a few more things that you can do to make the process much faster.
First, as you pull up each sub-district, keep track of your search with a research log. After checking the sub-districts before and after the one Harry Cooke was in in 1926, I went back to the beginning and started with sub-district #1. The very first image in each sub-district is going to be a title card that will include the township number, and the municipality covered in that sub-district. So, since you already located that in the earlier census record, you are going to be able to immediately tell if that group of images is worth going through.
If it doesn’t match, go on to the next sub-district. This is why a research log is important. Genealogy Gems Premium Members can download the worksheet in the Resources section at the bottom of these Show Notes. It’s just a really simple way to keep track of everything that you’re finding and make sure that you’re not covering the same base twice.
You might come across a title card that has the right municipality but not the right township number, or vice versa. I found that in one case while looking for the Cookes. Just make note of it on your worksheet, and keep moving, looking for an exact match.
If you find a sub-district that looks really promising, perhaps it includes the township or the municipality you need, take a quick look at image number two. This is the first page that shows people in the neighborhood. There are a couple of things to look for.
If you know that your ancestors were British, like Harry and Martha were, then you might expect them to be in a neighborhood with predominantly British people. That was really common. When our ancestors left their homeland and came to a new country, they oftentimes emigrated with other people from the country that they knew. They may have heard about the opportunity from those people. And once they arrived, they tended to congregate together. They lived together in communities and neighborhoods because they shared a culture and language. They could support each other and help each other.
One of the things that tipped me off that sub-district #8 wasn’t the right place to be searching for the Cookes was that it was comprised primarily of Russians, Austrians, Romanians, and Hungarians. Harry and Martha didn’t speak those languages, so I would not expect them to be there. Also, when I looked at the 1926 census, I made note of who his neighbors were. And indeed, it was a very predominantly British neighborhood. So that was a clue to me that even though I might have had the right township number, it didn’t mention the right municipality, and it certainly had a completely different makeup when it came to the neighborhood.
Also, as you’re reviewing the surnames and going down the list on the image, take a look at the township column. As you’ll recall, we made note of the township number and / or the address that we found in the earlier census. As you scan the surnames on the page, also check if the correct township number or address is showing up.
In my search, I saw a lot of different street names (not Osler St.). I don’t know Regina very well, so in another browser tab, I opened up Google Maps. I did a search for 520 Osler St., and then I selected “Directions” and entered one of the street names that I was seeing on the census. And sure enough, they were miles and miles apart. That’s another clue you’re not in the right area for browsing.
Our goal is to find our relatives as quickly as possible without spending hours reviewing pages that are not likely to include them. So, again, if you don’t find that exact match of Township and Municipality on the sub-district index card, look at these other factors to see if you’re in the right ballpark.
In the end, I am happy to say I found Harry and Marth Cooke pretty quickly. They were in sub-district number 11. The title card showed that it covered township 17 and the municipality of Sherwood. It was an exact match! They were on image number 18 residing in a very predominantly British neighborhood on Osler St., exactly where I would expect them to be.
1931 Canadian Census Search Wrap Up
The 1931 Canadian Census is full of valuable information about your Canadian relatives. While it take a little more time to search without an index, these strategies can help you do so faster. You can also apply (and tweak) these techniques to other types of searches where an index is unavailable, or your relatives aren’t showing up in the search results. And remember, if you find an address, look up the location in Google Maps to see it for yourself.
Thinking about attending RootsTech in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2014? Then I’m guessing a trip to the Family History Library (FHL) is part of your plan. Here’s a great tip: bring your iPad or tablet computer and don’t make a single photocopy while you’re there!
Last year, I spent two days researching at the FHL before RootsTech got going. I was up and down a lot between floors, looking at all kinds of books, microfilmed and microfiched materials and even big old maps. On a previous trip, I would have spent a LOT of money on photocopying, even though the copy services there are very low priced. I would have wanted color copies of the maps, so that would have cost more. I would have wasted a lot of time in line to use the copiers–time I would have wanted to spend researching.
But I didn’t waste any time or money. I used my iPad. I have a generation 4 with the rear-facing, 5 megapixel camera, and I used it practically nonstop…
1. Copying material from books. Whenever I found a book page (or a few pages) I wanted to copy, I first imaged the cover pages with the source citation info. Then I imaged the inside pages, making sure the image captured the page number. When I needed to record that a book didn’t have anything on my ancestors, I put a sticky note on the inside front cover saying “checked for Johnsons, didn’t find” (or whatever), then imaged the page with the sticky note on it. This was easy and fast. I sometimes imaged books while standing right in the library stacks! I didn’t have a scanning app on my iPad at the time, but remember you can also use an app like Scanner Pro to scan multipage documents, convert them to PDFs and straighten out and enhance the images.
2. Copying material from microfilm. Okay, it’s not perfect quality, but you can take decent digital images of microfilmed material right from the microfilm reader. First, image the microfilmed page at the beginning saying what the source is (or a note with the source description or even the box with the microfilm number on it). Then stand just in front of the microfilm reader with the iPad. Point the camera down to the displayed image, taking care not to block the projection of the image from the reader above. Here’s an example of what it looks like. Like I said, it’s not perfect because of the angle and lighting. Glare can be a problem so you may want to take a few shots. But you can read these images and most of the time, you don’t need keepsake quality out of microfilm. You just need to capture data. I followed up with some cropping and enhancement editing right on my iPad.
3. Copying material from a map or other folio items. The same general idea applies to imaging maps and other oversized materials. First, image the source citation information, often found on a label at the bottom of the page or on the back. Image the map key, including which way is north, scale, and other details. Then image as much of the map as possible to get an “establishing shot.” Finally, zoom in to the areas of greatest importance to you. Again, it’s not perfect. Laminated items may have glare issues as you can see by the shot shown here. But you may get what you need out of your digital image, especially if you move around so the glare isn’t covering the important areas on the map.
Remember to organize all your images when you get back to your hotel room or home while your memory of the visit is still fresh. Keep source citation shots together with the images you took. Load them into Evernote, if you use it. Organize them as you would other computerized research materials: in surname files, etc.
Finally, remember that fair use and copyright laws still apply to all images you take, whether on a photocopier or your personal digitizing equipment. The Family History Library does allow people to take their own digital images, but not all libraries and archives do. Some repositories rely on the income from copying to fund their facilities. ASK before using your iPad at other libraries! But as you can see, you can save yourself time and money–and have all your research notes and copies already digitized and ready for use on-the-go.
This post was written by Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton. (Just so you know, I’m not a longtime iPad pro. I learned everything I know about using an iPad for genealogy from reading Turn Your iPad into a Genealogy Powerhouse. Then I adapted what Lisa taught me for the way I research.)