Intro to genealogy, Part I

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Starting Feb. 25, I began a series of monthly presentations at Casa Italia to give people the easiest way to get started with creating their ancestor family tree. A lot of people know a lot of disorganized information, some of it accurate, some of it not. My goal is to help you organize the info you have, and confirm the accuracy of what you know, or what you thought you knew.

The types of information you can find is endless, but the traditional accepted way of comparing your family tree with others is to know seven essential facts about yourself and as many ancestors as you can find:

Obviously you, if you are reading this, are not dead. That’s two off the list right there! If you’re not married, that’s two more. Look, we’re down to three!

I don’t usually assign homework, but today I would like you to fill in an ancestor chart with what you know. Perhaps you should use a pencil to fill it in, because you might have to make changes.

Get a blank genealogy chart that looks like the right half of an empty World Cup bracket. Start with you as the champion! Print two copies of the blank chart. You can start with a four-generation chart, but I put a five-generation chart here to prove a point about how much we don’t know.

Fill in what you already know. Your father is above and to your right, and your mother is below and to your right. Fill in their date of birth, city of birth, date of marriage, city of marriage, date of death, city of death, if applicable, for your father, then your mother.

Now try to fill in the same information for your father’s parents, again Poppa is above your dad and to the right. Nonna is below your dad and to the right. It is ok to not have these dates and places memorized. That’s what genealogy is for.

Now try to fill in the same information for your mother’s parents.

You’re probably missing some information. That’s ok.

Next, we have to list the same information for your great-grandparents; that is, your father’s father’s parents, your father’s mother’s parents, your mother’s father’s parents, and your mother’s mother’s parents.

You may not even know some of their names. That’s ok.

If you really feel confident, you can try to fill in the names and dates and places for your great-great-grandparents, all 16 of them.

Now, you can do another entire chart for your spouse!!! Same process, but use the other blank chart.

By now, you know that you do not know everything. You may have listed some large cities on this chart. “My grandfather was born in Naples” Maybe he was, but more than likely he was born in a small town near Naples. It doesn’t matter if they say they were from Palermo, Bari, Calabria, etc. Most of the time they were really from a small town nearby.

To be a successful genealogist, we need to find a document to confirm each piece of information on your chart. These are known as “vital records.”

  • Birth certificate (Not everyone has one. They weren’t required in Chicago until 1916 and not everyone filled one out even after that law was passed)
  • Marriage license (If applicable. Not every set of parents got married, but most did.)
  • Death certificate (If applicable. You may have ancestors that are very much alive)

Your ancestors may have been born in the US, or Italy, or somewhere else. To get a copy of these three basic records, you need to know which city or county, if in the USA, and specifically which town in Italy. Each country has its own system of who keeps these records and how we need to request them. In Italy, the records are cataloged by town most of the time.

To know where the event occurred, you might need to find one document that tells you where to find the other document that you need.

Where do I find these records?

Not every record can be found just by asking. There are privacy laws that limit what you can request, based on how recently the event took place, and what kind of event it is. More to the point, it is based on how much damage someone could possibly do if they had an official copy of a document about your life.

You can find the records either at the government office where the records are kept, and pay money for each document, OR you can try to find them on genealogy web sites for free, or nearly free. We should only pay the government office for copies if we cannot find them for free on genealogy web sites.

So since we are working on Italian families who settled in Chicago, we will focus on finding Chicago records and records in Italy. Some of you may have been born in Italy, or your family moved to Chicago from somewhere else in America. To find the records from the places your family came from, we need to focus on that specific area. It will have its own specifics that we can’t cover for the entire group.

How do I get copies of Chicago area records?

There is no way to cover all of Illinois, even if your relatives were born, married or died in other counties. You have to know which county, and then contact that county clerk. Find the county clerk web site for Lake, McHenry, Kane, DuPage, Will and other counties in Illinois. (Search google for “Lake County Illinois vital records, for example) If your relative was born, married or died outside of Illinois, you will need to know which county it happened in some other state.

Chicago records are kept at Cook County Clerk’s office, but due to covid and staff shortages, the web site was taken down and remains down.

So, with all that, what are we looking for?

You should focus on one piece of information at a time, and then try to find the document that will back up that piece of information.

Let’s start by finding the answer to the question, “Where was my mother born?”

  • Ask your mother, if she is still living and able to answer this question
  • Ask your father, if mother has passed away and he is able to answer
  • Do your older siblings know? Younger siblings? Do you have grandparents still living who can answer this question?
  • Is asking them sufficient? Not necessarily. Maybe Mom says “I was born in Chicago” but was actually born in Oak Lawn. Asking them is a starting point so you don’t have to search Chicago, then Naples, then Buenos Aries …

Where else can you try to find this out, especially if both of your parents passed away without telling you where they were born?

  • US Census records – these are available on a number of web sites including familysearch, and can confirm the US state or the foreign country of birth of anyone in the US before 1950. (Census records are only available starting 72 years after they were created, and they are only created every ten years.) So census records can be very helpful if your parent was born, and living in the USA, before 1950. They can also help if your grandparents/great-grandparents were still living, and in the USA, as of 1950. However, census records do not list U.S. city of birth, nor do they list Italian region of birth much less the small town. You will either get “Illinois,” “Italy” or a similar vague location. But it’s a start.
    Where else can we find a parent/grandparent’s birth city?
  • Their death certificate may list the birth place. But it was filled out many years after the birth took place, and the person who filled it out was grieving at the time so they might not be as accurate as we would hope.
  • Their citizenship papers should list the city of birth in Italy or another country.

Let’s talk about these for a minute. Not every person born in Italy or elsewhere became a US citizen. It was not a requirement. But many chose to become American citizens, and this means they left a paper trail we can use. It all depends on where they filed the paperwork to become citizens. I will focus on Chicagoland. There are two indexes of citizenship records for “Northern Illinois”. One index is 1840-1950, and the other overlapping index is 1926-1980. You may find your ancestor in both of these but the record is the same one. Each person who became a US citizen filed a Declaration of Intention, and then had to wait a few years to establish residency, and then they filed a Petition for Naturalization. These papers contain birthdate and birthplace, spouse’s name, birthdate and birthplace, and names of their surviving children, birthdates and birthplaces. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the person telling the government employee what to type on the form usually had limited English language skills and poor spelling. So the information might be there but might need to be reviewed to see how accurate it is.

There are a lot of different types of records. Which ones are the best to use?

The record that was written as close to the date of the event as possible is usually the best one. It depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for the death date and place, you want a death certificate, because it was written within a day or two after the death occurred. However, if you want the birth date and place, the death certificate may not be the best choice. It was written possibly many years after the birth, and the person filling it out may not know. However, if you find the birth certificate, you have your best source for the birth date and place because usually it was written within a day or two of the birth.

So where can we find Cook County births, marriages, and deaths; census records and citizenship papers; Atti di Nati, Matrimoni and Morti?

Next month we will find some of these records!


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.

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