Getting past the proverbial brick wall

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Last month we had the proverbial “brick wall”. To recap, I was helping my friend’s sister to trace her lineage beyond the grandparents who were all born in Italy. None of the records in Chicago listed the town of birth of any of them, and the family could not remember the names of the towns. All she knew was that her father’s parents were from Naples and the mother’s parents were from Sicily. None of the four grandparents became citizens so there was no naturalization petition to work with.

So where do I go to find the birth towns if the death certificates, birth certificates of the kids, and the naturalizations all fail me? It’s a long shot but you can always try the Draft Registrations for World War I and World War II. Depends on how old the person was at the time. Unfortunately, there were three different forms that were filled out, depending on what age the person was. Only one of those forms required the name of the birth town. The other forms were satisfied with just the country of birth. Of course, both grandfathers were old enough to fill out the form that just asked for the country, and both grandmothers were lucky enough to not have to fill out draft cards!! If you need to search these, they are available on Ancestry and Familysearch. They have a lot of interesting data but they don’t always have the town of birth.

So I’m really stuck and since my friend is, well, my friend, he has given a little too much praise to my genealogical abilities. Now I have to find these towns! What’s next?

I now need to search for the surnames in the passenger lists, and hope that most people with those two surnames came from the same town. Then I will start with that town and hope for the best. Instead of using the Ellis Island web site, I usually try first. The website was developed by Stephen Morse, one of the developers of the 8086 computer chip, and an avid genealogist. I used his site to search the Ellis Island data for each of the two surnames. One of many good things about passenger lists is that they were written in the old country, so there are fewer misspellings of the town names. However, there are many mis-transcribed names, which does not help.

I have to be thankful that this family was not Russo and Esposito! When I searched the passenger lists, I did find someone who could have been the grandfather. However, since the only age I had for him was from his death certificate, I could not be sure. But the only person with his name was in his 20s which made him the ideal candidate, and they spelled his town correctly, AND indeed it was from Napoli! Then I searched for the mother’s father, and once again I found one name that was about the right age, and his town in Sicily matched up with the Familysearch catalog!

It is too early to get excited. First of all, there was no guarantee that these folks were the grandfathers. Also, if the grandmothers were from other towns, I am not able to search for their passenger lists because I do not know their maiden names (yet). And I do not know the parents of the grandparents, so even if I find one of them, how can I be sure it is THEM?

My next step is to look for the name of the town in Naples in the Familysearch catalog. Do they have microfilm for this town? Are the records on line? Do I have to view them at a family history center, or can I view them from home?

We’re in luck! They are filmed, and online and I can search them from home! Keep in mind that not every record on Familysearch can be viewed from home. In many cases, one must travel to the nearest family history center to view these records there, due to legal and contractual agreements. But in this case, the records can be viewed from home.

So now I need to search these records, but there is no online index. I have to browse the records and hope I find him in the microfilm index. Should I search the births? Well, I am not 100% sure of the birth year. I might have to search several years of births to track him down, and since I don’t know his parents’ names, I might find a cousin of his. One trick I have learned is to find out who is the eldest son and daughter in his family, and we can be pretty sure that those are the names of HIS father and mother. However, we should try to find his marriage first. We know his wife’s first name, so we can find a marriage record by starting at the year of the birth of their eldest child, and working backward. There are a lot fewer marriages than births to search through. If we find our grandfather with the correct first names for the spouse, and both parents, we probably found the right one.

So I started searching the marriages backward and looking in the index on microfilm, and I found the right groom name but the wrong bride name. I kept looking and the next year backward, I did find the right groom with the right bride and correct parents!

This marriage record established that this family was indeed from this town, and the passenger list was indeed for this grandfather. The marriage also lists his parents, including his mother’s maiden name, the bride’s maiden name and HER parents!! AND it has the correct ages for both bride and groom, so we can now find their birth records. (Most Italian marriage records have the exact age because they ask for copies of the birth records as part of documenting the marriage itself.) So I browsed the birth records and found births for both the bride and groom, since I now had the correct years of birth and parents for both.

I will now save a lot of space by saying that after all this work, I had to do the exact same procedure for the mother’s father from Sicily. I found him in the passenger list, found the town records on familysearch, found his marriage by using Nonna’s first name and the names of his first son and daughter to guess who his parents were. The marriage gave me the exact ages of bride and groom and all four of their parents, and I went back and found both births.

And after all that, I found the marriage records of all four sets of great-grandparents which gave me sixteen more ancestors!!

Don’t you all love a happy ending??

Write to me with your success story at and please put Fra Noi in the subject.

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

Check Also

A short but powerful film resurrects Magnani

Known for her striking resemblance to Anna Magnani, Neapolitan actress Lucianna De Falco has ignited …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Want More?

Subscribe to our print magazine
or give it as a gift.

Click here for details