Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families


Without Prejudice. Honouring All the Heroes in Our Families

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn shares a story from her own Trentino family history, and proposes we shed a different light on what it means to be a ‘hero’.

In honour of Memorial Day in the US, I wanted to share some photos and the story of a member of my family who fell during World War I: LUIGI GIUSEPPE PARISI (1866-1917), the beloved younger brother of my great-grandmother Europa Parisi (she was the mother of my grandfather, Luigi Pietro Serafini).

1910 - Luigi Parisi of Duvredo, Bleggio, Trentino
Circa 1910 – Luigi Parisi of Duvredo, Bleggio, Trentino. Photo taken in Pennsylvania, when he was working in the coal mines.

But here’s the catch: Luigi Giuseppe died while fighting with the Austro-Hungarian army – the proclaimed ‘enemy’ of the US during that war. And Luigi’s story is even more complicated than that, as you’ll see as you read this article.

Luigi the Trailblazer

Luigi Parisi was born on 27 February 1866 in Duvredo, a small frazione (hamlet) in the rural parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio in Val Giudicarie in Trentino. My father was born in the same frazione. Although he was not my ancestor, I feel a strong debt to Luigi, as he played a huge role in the destiny of our family, as well as the Trentini community.

He was the first in our family to travel to America in search of a better life, after devastatingly hard economic times had fallen on his ancestral homelands, leaving his life as an Alpine farmer to work in the coal mines of Brockwayville (now Brockway) and Brandy Camp Pennsylvania. Regarding Brandy Camp, on page 231 of the book A Courageous People from the Dolomites (1981), author Father Bonifacio Bolognani says:

‘The first settler in Brandy Camp as a Parisi from Santa Croce del Bleggio. He is also the father of the present pastor of Santa Croce, Father Leone Parisi.’

Although he does not give the first name of said ‘Parisi’, the author is referring to Luigi, whose son Leone served as pastor of Santa Croce del Bleggio for many years. The presence of the Bleggiani in Brandy Camp had a permanent affect on the local culture. The clearest example is in the choice to call their local church ‘Holy Cross’ (which is what ‘Santa Croce’ means), to honour the memory of their home parish.

Families Separated By An Ocean

Many people mistakenly assume our ancestors never went back once they had left the ‘old country’, but many (if not most) of the early Trentini immigrants had no intention of staying permanently in the US. Luigi was no exception to this. Gleaning what I can from immigration records, Luigi seems to have gone back and forth to America four times, crossing the ocean eight times between 1890 and 1911.  (His young nephew Emmanuele Giuseppe would eventually make the trip 12 times before he ‘retired’ with his Trentino family at the age of 51).

During those years, Luigi managed to father 10 children (only six of whom survived to adulthood), with two wives in between his stays in the US. The mother of his first five children was Emma Bleggi, who died in 1898 at the young age of 34 from tuberculosis – a disease that claimed the lives of so many young adults in their 20s and 30s. After Emma passed away, Luigi married Emma’s younger sister, Ottavia. He and Ottavia called their first daughter ‘Emma’ to honour the memory of their late wife/sister. Aside from Emma, they had four other children, one of whom died in infancy.

Mentor and Guardian of the Next Generation

In 1906, my grandfather, Luigi Pietro Serafini, who was then 18 years old, followed in his uncle’s footsteps and joined him to work in the mines. Later, his younger brother Angelo Serafini would join them, along with an equally young cousin named Emmanuele Giuseppe Serafini. Their uncle Luigi was both their mentor and their guardian as they adapted to this strange new land and dangerous new occupation.

ca. 1907, Luigi Pietro Serafini of Duvredo. Photo taken in Shawmut, Pennsylvania.
ca. 1907, My grandfather Luigi Pietro Serafini, around age 19. He was born in Duvredo in Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trentino, but this photo was taken in Shawmut, Pennsylvania, when he was working in the coal mines.

Around 1910, leaving my grandfather in charge of the younger boys, Luigi made a short trip back home to Duvredo. He made his fourth (and what would be his final) trip to the US in November 1911, a few months after the birth of his last child.

According to Aldo, the 98-year-old son of my grandfather’s brother Angelo, my grandfather and the other younger men were enjoying the ‘freedom’ of their young bachelor lives in Pennsylvania. But Luigi was no longer a young man, and was surely tiring of his trans-Atlantic journeys and harsh existence in the mines. He also felt a sense of responsibility for the younger men. So, early in 1914, Luigi, who was now nearing 50 years old, told his nephews that he missed his wife and children and wanted to return to Trentino.

He also advised that it was about time my grandfather, now 26 years old, went home to find a bride.

The young men did as their uncle bid, and returned with him to Trentino, albeit half-heartedly. That April of 1914, my grandfather did indeed get married to my grandmother Maria Onorati. His brother Angelo and cousin Emmanuele Giuseppe, being a several years younger, decided to wait a few years before settling down.

The Great War Arrives

But as we all know, later in 1914, the world was shaken up when the Great War – which we now call World War 1 – began that summer. In those days, Trentino was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; for many centuries before it fell under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, which was essentially by Germanic/Austrian. However, most Trentini (including most of my own family) had Italian names and spoke Italianate dialects.

When the war first broke out, Italy wanted to remain neutral. But later, they joined the Allies in 1915. One of their main reasons for doing so was because the Allies promised to give Italy the Austrian ruled provinces of Trentino and Alto-Adige if they won the war.

The Great Political Divide

All of these factors meant that there were many varying loyalties in the region: many Trentini wanted to become part of Italy, while many others wanted to remain part of Austria. Sometimes divided loyalties could even be found within the same family. For example, my great-uncle Luigi Parisi is reported to have been pro-Italy, while both of my grandparents were very much pro-Austria.

While none of us can possibly know what he truly felt, Luigi’s purported political leanings are mentioned on page 100 of the book Ricordando by Luigi Bailo, who says Luigi Parisi was reputed to be a friend and political sympathiser of the priest don Giovanni Battisti Lenzi. 

Don Lenzi was labelled an ‘irridentista’ (an advocate for the unification of Italy) by the Austrian government and was exiled from Trentino by the Austrian government during the war. So, if Bailo is correct and Luigi Parisi was also pro-unification, does it mean his being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army compelled him to fight on ‘the wrong side’ from his perspective?

Sadly, although pardoned in 1917, don Lenzi died in Innsbruck before he could return to his homeland. His remains were later returned to Santa Croce, where there is a memorial to him outside the parish church.

Memorial to don Giovanni Battista Lenzi, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trentino
Memorial to don Giovanni Battista Lenzi, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trentino. He died in exile in 1917.

Trentini Soldiers in Russia

Because Trentino was so split in loyalty, the Austrian government feared that if they sent Trentini soldiers to fight on the Western front, they would ‘turn coat’ and defect to the Italian army. So, instead, most of the Trentini men – including my grandfather, his brother Angelo and his uncle Luigi Parisi – were sent to the Eastern front to fight in Russia. The battles there were notoriously brutal, as was the bitter weather and harsh living conditions.

My grandfather and his brother spent a significant period of time in Siberia as prisoners of war (1915-1917), along with an astonishing 2.3 million other Austro-Hungarian troops, most of whom were captured after the battle of Galicia. The majority of those who managed to survive ended up WALKING home across Europe, after the Russian revolution caused their entire infrastructure to collapse, resulting in the release of the POWs.

Luigi Parisi: ‘Missing in Russia’

But their uncle Luigi Parisi was still fighting on the Eastern front in 1917. Then, one day he and his regiment were crossing a river under fire. When they took roll call on the other side, Luigi never replied.

At age 51, Luigi Parisi had vanished and was never seen again. His military record says ‘disperso in Russia’ (missing in Russia). He is listed in the Tyrolean ‘honour roll’ in Innsbruck as having fallen in battle, as he was presumed dead.

A photo of his memorial card appears on page 100 of Ricordando:

Memorial card for Luigi Parisi, cited as 'lost in Russia' in 1917.
Memorial Card (santina) for Luigi Parisi. MY TRANSLATION: ‘In loving memory of Luigi Parisi, born 27 Feb 1866, died in war. Beloved Lord Jesus, give him rest. His children (ask) all those who knew him to remember him in their prayers.’

The Family Left Behind

As mentioned earlier, one of Luigi Parisi’s six children, a boy named Leone (who was only 7 years old when his father fell in the war), grew up to become the parish priest of Santa Croce, known to all as ‘don Leone’.

Until his death in 1986, don Leone was highly influential and widely loved in the community and played a role in the lives of many people in the parish. Below is a photo of don Leone as a young priest, with many members of his extended Parisi-Bleggi family. His mother, the widowed Ottavia Bleggio, is the elderly lady seated behind and to his right.

Circa 1931, Duvredo, Trentino. Extended Parisi-Bleggi family.
Circa 1931, Duvredo, Trentino. Extended Parisi-Bleggi family. Don Leone Parisi, son of Luigi Parisi, is the young priest seated in the middle. His widowed mother, Ottavia Bleggi, is the elderly lady seated behind to his right.

After the war, my grandfather and his brother returned to America. A few years later, they were followed by their wives and children, including my late father Romeo Fedele Serafini (Ralph Raymond Serafinn). Between them, these two brothers went on to have 8 children and dozens of grandchildren (and now a new generation of great-grandchildren), who all grew up in America.

I truly doubt these young men and their families could have settled as quickly and successfully as they did had they not been mentored by their late uncle Luigi before the war. I doubt I would even be alive had he not blazed the trail for the rest of us back in the late 19th Century.

What Do We Mean By ‘Hero’?

While his country has dubbed him ‘hero’ because he fell in battle, I see my great-grand uncle Luigi Parisi through a different lens.

Politics do not define him to me. It doesn’t matter to me that he fought for the ‘enemy’ of the US, or that he might have secretly been ‘an enemy’ of the Austrian empire, or that he might have been ‘pro’ Italy. None of that matters to me.

To me, he is a hero because he was a guiding light for his family and his community – on BOTH side of the Atlantic. His story and photos reveal an intensity of character that was demonstrated by his actions throughout life. I know I owe my life to him, although I never met him.

My personal belief is:

If everyone could embrace their ancestors and family members from the past as ‘heroes’ in this way – without any prejudice or political bias – the world will become a much more loving and forgiving place.

I encourage and invite you to remember and celebrate all of your family heroes, whatever ‘side’ they might have been on. We owe so much to all of them.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Please feel free to share your own ‘family hero stories’ in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
27 May 2019

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming up from June 29th to July 27th 2019. My client roster is currently FULL for that trip. But if you would like to ask me to do some research for you on one of my future trips, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: I am still working on the edits for the PDF eBook on DNA tests, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. I will send you a link to download it when it is done. Please be patient, as it will take a month or so to edit the articles and put them into the eBook format. If you are not yet subscribed, you can do so using the subscription form at the top-right of your screen

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View my Santa Croce family tree on Ancestry:  https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/110809816/family

References

BAILO, Luigi. 2000. Ricordando… Dedicato ai Caduti della Prima Guerra Mondiale dell Giudicarie Esteriore.

NOTE: Ricordando is also out of print, but you can sometimes find it in Italian bookshops. The book is about all the soldiers from Val Giudicarie who perished in World War 1. While a goldmine on some levels, I have found many errors in it. Men frequently had the wrong birth date or the wrong age at time of death listed. In at least one case, the author had listed the grandparents of the man, instead of the parents. I ended up noting all the errors I found and writing to the archdiocese to double check whether the error was in the book or with my own data. In every case it was an error in the book. Unfortunately, the author is now deceased and an updated printing of the book is almost surely never to happen. Still, even with the errors, the anecdotal information he had gathered via postcards and letters he had gathered from the families made it a rich and invaluable resource.

BOLOGNANI, Bonifacio. 1981. A Courageous People from the Dolomites: The Immigrants from Trentino on U.S.A. Trails. 

NOTE: This book is out of print and is VERY expensive when you find it used. There are a few sites that offer a downloadable PDF version of the book for free, but you do have to give them your email address. One such site can be found at:  https://www.e-bookdownload.net/search/a-courageous-people-from-the-dolomites . I cannot vouch for its quality, as I haven’t downloaded it myself from them.

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DNA Ethnicity Reports. Who You Are Vs. What They SAY You Are

DNA Ethnicity Reports. Who You Are Vs. Who They SAY You Are
My impressionist rendering of the sometimes mythological world of ethnicity estimates.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn tackles DNA test ethnicity estimates, showing how and why they might contradict each other and genealogical research. Article 4 of 4.

Today’s article is actually the only one I had planned to write when I first decided to tackle the subject of DNA tests. My original intention was to look at my own ethnicity reports from various companies and show you how their ethnicity estimates stacked up against my own genealogical research.

But as I began writing earlier this year, I  realised there were so many underlying factors that needed to be explained before my original ideas would make any sense. Thus, I decided to turn this into a 4-part series, this being the final segment.

If you haven’t yet read articles 1-3 (or you wish to refresh your memory on any of the topics), you can find them at these links:

  1. ARTICLE 1: In which we examined (TOPIC 1) the different kinds of DNA tests and (TOPIC 2) some basics about autosomal DNA.
    MORE READING:   DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity
  2. ARTICLE 2: In which we discussed (TOPIC 3) how DNA tests can often point us in a direction, but (usually) cannot give us specific answers about our ancestry or blood relations.
    MORE READING:   Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research
  3. ARTICLE 3: In which we discussed (TOPIC 4) cultural identity and how it shapes who we believe ourselves to be and (TOPIC 5) what history can tell us about northern Italian ethnicity.
    MORE READING:   Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

About Today’s Article

In this final article of the series, we’ll at last come to TOPIC 6, which is all about ‘ethnicity reports’ or ‘ethnicity estimates’, i.e. what DNA testing companies like AncestryDNA, 23AndMe, etc. say you ‘are’ in terms of ethnic makeup, primarily based on autosomal DNA testing (if you don’t know what this means, I explain it in Article 1).

It is my observation that DNA ethnicity reports are often a source of confusion – and even emotional upset – for many users, as they are often at odds at what they know or have been told about their own ethnicity. It is my hope this article can help explain why your ethnicity report might contain information that makes no sense to you and share my own thoughts on how we can try to improve the ‘system’ to make these reports more accurate in the future.

TIP: I will be compiling all four articles from this series (editing out the repetition) into a PDF eBook, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. If you would like to receive this free eBook, simply subscribe to this blog using the form at the top of this page. If you are reading this on a mobile phone, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Advertising and the Truth About ‘Reference Panels’

I believe there are two primary causes for the confusion many people experience when they get their ethnicity estimate back from their DNA testing company.

One, which I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, is misleading advertising wherein companies explicitly say these tests will tell you who you ARE. As I have previously expressed, people who are descended from immigrant families are especially desirous to know ‘who they are’ because they have been cut off from their ancestral past and feel a strong desire to reconnect.

But misleading advertising gets compounded by a second cause for confusion: a general lack of understanding on the part of consumers about how DNA testing companies create their ethnicity estimates. The truth is:

Ethnicity reports from DNA testing companies do not – and CANNOT – tell you ‘who you ARE’, but only who you are most similar to in COMPARISON to other test takers in their system.

To generate your ethnicity report, DNA testing companies compare your DNA to data gathered from ‘test groups’ of living people (Ancestry calls them a ‘reference panel’) who have known, documented ethnicities. The members of these reference panels are grouped according to ‘ethnicity’ or, in 23AndMe jargon, ‘populations’.

These reference sets provide DNA testing companies with the comparative foundation for their data. And this is the crucial detail that many people don’t seem to understand. The ethnicity reports you receive from DNA tests are not based on some ‘ethnic gene’ sitting in a vault with the name of an ethnic group neatly labelled on it. The reports you receive are COMPARATIVE, not ‘absolute’.

Journalist Ruth Padawer, in her revealingly entitled article in the New York Times,  ‘Sigrid Johnson Was Black. A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t’, commented on this topic, saying:

‘Each testing company builds its own reference data set, drawn primarily from its own customers, and each company also creates its own algorithm for assigning heritage. In other words, customers’ results are based on inferences and are merely an estimate, often a very rough one — something many test takers don’t realize and testing companies play down.’ (my emphasis added)

In the same article, Padawer adds:

[The DNA from the test group] ‘becomes the company’s reference data set for that geographic area. When a segment of your DNA closely matches the data for that location, the company assigns you that ancestry. The more segments on your genome that match that genetic pattern, the larger your estimated percentage will be for that ancestry….’

In other words, the DNA companies are comparing your DNA to the information they have in their ‘pool’. Theoretically, the bigger and more ethnically diverse the group, the more accurate the results would be. The smaller the pool, and the fewer ethnic groups represented, the less accurate the results would be.

However, while larger numbers in the sample group ‘theoretically’ mean a better change at accuracy and precision, in practice, it isn’t exactly that simple.

Competition and Lack of Uniformity Between DNA Testing Companies

One reason for this lack of simplicity is the inconsistency with which DNA testing companies label their ethnic populations. The crucial thing to remember is that, despite how they are marketing themselves to us, DNA testing companies are NOT scientific organisations, but commercial competitors. Some of the implications of this are:

  • No two companies have the same test people in their reference panels.
  • No two companies have the same number of ‘populations’/ethic groups.
  • No two companies label their ‘populations’ with the same names.
  • No two companies define these populations with the same geographic boundaries.

Thus, the accuracy of your ethnicity report depends COMPLETELY upon who the test company is comparing you to. This means:

Because ethnicity reports are comparative, the results you will receive from one DNA testing company is likely to be different (sometimes radically) from what you receive from another.

Ethnic Populations Represented in DNA Test Groups

In their 2018 white paper on ethnicity estimates, AncestryDNA explained how they chose the people who formulated their DNA reference panels, which (in 2018) contained 16,638 samples, broken into 43 overlapping global regions a big leap up from their previous DNA test group, which had 3,000 samples, and represented only 26 global regions.

While they say they drew upon samples from the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) and the 1000 Genomes Project, they clarified, ‘it was not possible to confirm family trees’ for people from these groups. I take this to mean the ethnic groupings were not based on ‘documented’ (i.e. genealogical) evidence.

They then explained that they ‘examined samples from a proprietary AncestryDNA reference collection as well as AncestryDNA samples from customers’, most of whom were selected because their online trees ‘confirmed that they had a long family history in a particular region or within a particular group.’ They said their aim was to use only ‘single-origin individuals’ for their reference panel, i.e. people who are known to be ‘100% of a single ethnicity’, based upon documentation (again, genealogical evidence).

As a genealogist, this in itself is interesting to me, as I believe many people have the mistaken impression that DNA exists as a science independent of genealogy (something I discussed in Article 2). These statements by AncestryDNA confirm they can only work when used hand-in-hand.

How Far Back in Time Do Ethnicity Reports Reflect?

But what exactly do AncestryDNA mean by ‘long family history’?

In that same white paper, AncestryDNA express the challenges of finding suitable candidates with well-documented ancestry. They explain:

‘When asked to trace familial origins, most people can only reliably go back one to five generations, making it difficult to find individuals with knowledge about more distant ancestry. This is because as we go back in time, historical records become sparse, and the number of ancestors we have to follow doubles with each generation.’

‘Five generations back’ is great-great-great-grandparents (3X GGP). My 3X GGPs were born in the late 1700s, less than 250 years ago.

Well, I don’t know who they mean by ‘most people’, but most people I know who are serious about genealogy can trace their roots back further than that. A span of five generations isn’t exactly what I would call ‘deep history’.

But, alarmingly (to me, anyway), they go on to say:

 ‘Ideally, we’d use people with all of their grandparents from the same country, but due to low numbers for some countries we sometimes use parents or even the customer’s birth location.’ (my emphasis added)

Seriously? These are their criteria for their reference groups?

I myself have traced my own Trentino ancestry back to the early 1400s (and some lines beyond that, via additional historical references), and my Cimbri/Veneto ancestry to the mid-1600s. Moreover, I’ve traced the lineages of many of my Trentino clients back to the 1500s, as we Trentini are fortunate enough to have access to our parish records in digital format at the Diocesan Archives of Trento, plus a wealth of other archives throughout the province.

Given the disparity between the genealogical evidence and what Ancestry DNA (and presumably other companies) are currently using as criteria for comparison, how could their ethnicity estimates possibly represent an accurate ethnic profile of anyone who has traced his/her ancestry back several hundred years?

Again, the facts hardly reflect the promises made in their marketing campaigns.

Under-Represented Ethnicity Groups

AncestryDNA admit that some ethnic groups are less well represented in the database, and that these can cause anomalies in their reporting. They say:

‘For example, individuals from Spain might get some assignments to France and Portugal, while individuals from Norway and Sweden might get some level of assignment to each other.’

I might add to this that a large number of people whose ancestors came from Trentino and other parts of northern Italy are now being labelled ‘French’ (as we’ll look at in a few minutes).

But apart from under-represented ethnic groups, the BIG issue for me is that geography on its own – and especially the name of a COUNTRY – does not define ethnicity. ‘Nations’ have little to do with ethnicity. The Americas and Australia surely give testament to that. And the fluctuating boundaries throughout the history of the Italian peninsula – including Trentino – also demonstrate this. Any given geographic region can also contain a rich blend of ethnic groups. For example, the Cimbri people (who are of Germanic descent) have lived in many communities in northern Italy for hundreds of years. But what are the chances someone of Cimbri descent will be labelled as such in a DNA test?

Until such ethnic groups are adequately represented in DNA test groups, the answer is ‘virtually nil’.

Sadly…

Ethnicity reports from autosomal DNA tests will frequently CONTRADICT what you know about your own ancestry via genealogical research – especially if your ethnic population is not represented (or under-represented) in their reference panels.

If an ‘ethnic population’ is absent, under-represented, or defined too broadly within a given reference panel, it is unlikely that DNA test will identify these groups with precision (if at all).

In fairness to Ancestry, on page 33 of their white paper, they add some notes about what they call their ‘Ethnicity Improvement Cycle’:

‘Currently, we are working to further expand our global reference panel for future ethnicity updates. We have already begun genotyping and analyzing samples for a future update which we expect will provide even better estimates. We have also begun a new diversity initiative to gather DNA samples from underrepresented regions around the world in order to expand the number of regions we can report back to customers.’

CASE STUDY: My Ethnicity Reports

So how does someone like me show up in commercial DNA ethnicity reports? First, I need to explain what I KNOW about my own ancestry, so you can see the reports in context:

  • My mother was (to the best of my knowledge) of 100% Irish background, with ancestors primarily from County Cork and Kerry. I have documented evidence for most of her family only back to the early 1800s, as many records for their towns/parishes are missing.
  • My father and both of his parents came from Trentino, and I have traced nearly all his ancestry there (hundreds of ancestral lines) back to the 1400s.
  • HOWEVER, my father’s mother’s mother (one of my great-grandmothers) came from Badia Calavena near Verona in Veneto, known to be an ancient Cimbri community. I have traced nearly all her ancestry there back the early 1600s.

Knowing this about me, you would EXPECT my ethnicity report to look something like this:

  • 50% Irish
  • 50% Northern Italian OR some other combination of ethnicities (central and northern Europe, for example), depending on how they divide and label things.

Let’s see how the DNA reports reflect the genealogical data (or not).

EXAMPLE 1: AncestryDNA

As AncestryDNA recently undated their algorithm, I’d like to show a ‘before and after’ comparing their old report to their revised one.

AncestryDNA’s OLD Ethnicity Report

Here is a snapshot of my estimated overall ethnicity, taken from the ethnicity report I received from AncestryDNA a few years ago:

AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimate from 2015
Click on image to see it larger

This report shows 49% Irish, which is close enough to the 50% I would have expected for my mother’s side. I assumed the 1% Great Britain probably made up the remainder.

So, if that was the case, it meant the other mishmash of ethnicities represented my dad. Back then, I tried to make sense of these baffling figures.

Let’s look at the reference to Scandinavia, for example. If I actually DID have 4% Scandinavian ancestry, and that percentage referred to a single ancestor, it would have to mean that ancestor was no further back than one of my 3X GGPs. This is because, unlike mitochondrial or Y-DNA, autosomal DNA gets cut by AT LEAST half with each generation. I say ‘by at least half’ because, while we inherit 50% of our DNA from each of our parents, the percentage of DNA we inherit from earlier ancestors becomes less mathematically predictable with every passing generation.

But the thing is, I happen to know my Trentino-born father’s ancestry, and I have traced ALL of his lines hundreds of years past the point of 3X GGPs. In fact, I have been transcribing ALL the parish records for my father’s parish of origin and connected all the families onto one tree. After tracing over 23,000 people so far, every single one of these people WITHOUT EXCEPTION came from Trentino or adjacent regions/provinces like Veneto, Verona, Lombardia or Alto-Adige/Bolzano – for the past five to eight centuries.  

Nope. Not a Viking in sight.

So, Am I Really Scandinavian?

So, if I knew for SURE I don’t have any (recent) Scandinavian ancestors, the question was still how that figure of 4% Swedish got into my ethnicity report.

I started hypothesising that it might reflect very ANCIENT Scandinavian ancestry via the LONGOBARDS (whom I discuss in Article 3), whom I knew inhabited my father’s homeland of Val Giudicarie in the Middle Ages.

My hypothesis expanded as I started to study how autosomal DNA is transmitted throughout the centuries. While our inherited autosomal DNA from each individual ancestor decreases by half every generation, something peculiar – and quite interesting – can happen to our autosomal DNA over long periods of time.

Back in Article 1, I talked about ‘pedigree collapses’ and ‘endogamy’, wherein one ancestor (or a pair of ancestors) is related to us via more than one line. Just as this phenomenon can create ‘false positives’ for close living DNA matches, it can ALSO show up as a possibly misleading finding in our ethnicity report. Why? Because the further back you go in time, there is an ever-increasing chance that EVERYONE (especially those living within a given radius) is your ancestor, and probably in multiple ways. This means that, when you get to, say, 1,200 years or more, that probability of being related to ANYONE alive at the time  increases to pretty much 100% certainty.

TIP: This idea is more fully explained in an excellent article called: ‘Autosomal DNA, Ancient Ancestors, Ethnicity and the Dandelion’, which you can find at https://dna-explained.com/2013/08/05/autosomal-dna-ancient-ancestors-ethnicity-and-the-dandelion/.

With enthusiasm, I spent a lot of time and energy developing this ‘hypothesis’ of my ancient Longobard ancestry. But then, it all came to a crashing halt in September 2018.

Bye Bye Scandinavia

Well, apparently, all my theories about ancient Longobard roots were simply a waste of time because, when AncestryDNA revealed their new ethnicity reports late last year, and every drop of my Scandinavian ancestry vanished without explanation.

‘Word on the street’ was that Ancestry had realised they had gotten it just plain wrong. In fact, after their new algorithm was announced, I did a bit of digging and found more than one blog article from 2012-13 in which AncestryDNA was criticised for the fact that almost everyone’s DNA results showed Scandinavian heritage!

OK, admittedly they did say that part of the report was ‘low confidence’, but surely this quirk was downplayed to their customers.

AncestryDNA’s NEW Ethnicity Report

So, aside from my vanishing Vikings, what is different in my new, ‘improved’ ethnicity report? Below is a screenshot of what currently greets me on my AncestryDNA landing page. Imagine my bewilderment when I first saw this:

AncestryDNA Ethicity Estimate 2018
Click on image to see it larger

70% Irish? How is that even possible? That would attribute at least 20% of my paternal ancestry to Ireland – meaning my dad was about half Irish, which 500+ years of documented evidence demonstrates he was certainly NOT.

And 30% FRENCH? That would mean my father was more than half French (and the other half presumably Irish).

I took a closer look at the ‘updated estimate’ and saw this map of their ethnicity regions:

AncestryDNA ethnicity map 2018
Click on image to see it larger

Ironically, the detailed breakdown for Ireland, is much MORE accurate and detailed than my earlier report, showing my Irish ancestors were primarily from Munster (which is indeed correct).

But 70% Irish and 30% French? Seriously?

Frankly, when I saw this, I found myself pretty riled. I couldn’t understand how any company could advertise so aggressively, make so many promises (and so much money) and deliver product that was just so…ODD.

What Does Ancestry DNA Mean By ‘French’?  

Trying to make sense of their new ‘labels’, I wanted to understand just what Ancestry meant by ‘French’. So, I expanded their report to see this more detailed map:

AncestryDNA 2018 - What is French?
Click on image to see it larger

We can see that Ancestry’s ‘French’ designation actually encompasses many other countries, including Spain, parts of Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria – and northern Italy.

That’s a lot of different countries, and only two of them (apart from France itself) even speak French. Moreover, if you read it carefully, it indicates the actual country of ‘France’, comprises less than 1/3 of the total area of the region being labelled as ‘France’.

So, I’ve got to ask: whose bright idea was it to label all these DIVERSE ethnicities as ‘French’?

The ‘French’ (DNA) Revolution

AncestryDNA might see ‘French’ as an arbitrary designation to label the place (not the people) where THEY have found the highest concentration of this genetic data, but the fact is, this label is anything but arbitrary to their customers.

The public reaction to these new labels became abundantly clear when I visited some of my genealogy groups on Facebook, and read dozens (if not hundreds) of impassioned comments. In fact, people are STILL commenting about them. Here are a few representative highlights:

  • READER 1: I just realized that I received 37% French in the new update, where none existed before. This would account for 2/3 of my mother’s admix, a first-generation northern Italian American, genetic makeup. Even if there was a previously unknown French ancestor in the mix and the paper trail indicates none, for my mother to be 75% French is ridiculous. (My father is of 100% German heritage, a mix of regions, which is accounted for). #BonjourNo
  • READER 2: Something is definitely not right. My dad is half northern Italian and half Polish, yet the “updated results” show that he’s 93% Eastern European/Russian and 7% Western European. That cannot be right especially when my updated results show 2% Sardinian and my mother’s side is all German.
  • READER 3: I just updated! I’m French??? My mother’s family is from Filecchio near Barga near Lucca. My cousin traced them back to 1400-1500. This is northern Italy, not France. If anything, it is more Celtic. My father was 1/2 Irish, 1/2 English (OK, maybe some Scot) My Irish increased, English vastly increased, and Greece popped in the picture. Italy was down (Ancestry assume “Italy” means SOUTHERN Italy). No longer Middle Eastern or other traces. Sure, I took French in high school and I like France, but I know my Italian heritage, and it is not French. Makes me doubt the whole Ancestry DNA analysis…

Clearly, AncestryDNA are upsetting many of their customers. By using a ‘blanket label’ of ‘French’ for northern Italians and other European ethnic groups (even when they have a map explaining what they mean by it):

AncestryDNA are challenging (if not invalidating) the cultural identities of many of their users.

When ‘The French Revolution’ hit the Facebook groups, many people who have purchased these tests in good faith seemed to want to find a reason to believe the new label, despite the fact it went against the grain of what they believed (or KNEW) about their own ethnic origins. Seemingly desperate to make sense of it all, some even suggested our ‘Frenchness’ may have been due to the Napoleonic era. To such musings, I pointed out that, as Napoleon was around only 200 years ago, for 18th century France to change our ethnic identity to such a degree, every one of our Trentino female ancestors would have to have been impregnated by a French soldier roughly between 1805-1815 (which I assure you didn’t happen). This is how much people wanted to trust Ancestry, and to give them the benefit of the doubt.

And when people TRUST you that much, you have an immense MORAL RESPONSIBILTY. But, from my angle, AncestryDNA’s new labelling seems is definitely insensitive, and verging on morally irresponsible.

I do not believe AncestryDNA truly understand the EMOTIONAL impact of their decision, nor the underlying desires of their users. I would be willing to bet a high percentage of their customers are American descendants of European immigrants, who are trying to reconnect to a lost part of themselves. And, as I expressed in Article 3, ‘Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?’, many such people are ALREADY unsure – and often confused – about their own ethnic identity. For them, labels are far from arbitrary; they are VERY important.

Perhaps had AncestryDNA called this group something like ‘Alpine European’, it would probably have been more emotionally acceptable (and respectful) to all those who fall into this category.

Perhaps they’ll read this and reflect on what they’ve actually taken upon themselves.

EXAMPLE 2: 23AndMe Ethnicity Report

Looking at 23AndMe, here is what they told me back when I first bought their test in 2015:

23AndMe ethnicity stats from 2015
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Once again, the Irish side of my ethnicity is pretty accurate, and my dad’s ancestry is a hotchpotch of ethnicities, including a rather intriguing ‘low confidence’ referent to what they said was Yakut in Siberia (‘East Asian’ in chart above).

Their new 2019 stats are interesting, as they SEEM to be trying to ‘fine tune’ different regions at a more granular level:

23AndMe - Ethnicity estimate 2019
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As you see, they’ve assigned subregions for their ‘British & Irish’ and ‘Italian’ categories. They haven’t yet defined the regions include under ‘French & German’ (they say they’re working on it), and the ‘Broadly’ northwestern and southern European are indeed ‘broad’ designations.

Here’s a look at the Irish subregions, reflecting my mom’s Irish ancestry:

23AndMe - Irish subgroups 2019
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The darker areas (especially Kerry, Cork and Limerick), they say, are those which my ancestors ‘may have lived’ in the last 200 years. In this case, their estimate CONFIRMS what I already know about my mother’s family.

Now, here’s the map of the regions they’ve mapped out for my ‘Italian’ ancestry, which, they say, comprises 4.5% of my DNA:

23AndMe - Italy subgroups - 2019
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What is interesting is it shows the strongest ‘likelihood’ of my ancestors coming from Veneto. This, I would ASSUME comes via my great-grandmother, who came from Verona area, and whose ancestry I have traced back about 400 years in that area. My own genealogical research has shown me that Abruzzo and Lazio are definitely not in the picture (at least not in the last 500 years). While a great-grandparent can contribute as much as 12.5% of your total DNA, it isn’t necessarily going to show up that high, so it’s not completely contrary to my genealogical research to see a lower percentage. Besides, I know her family came from a Cimbri community, which means some of her DNA could get flagged up as ‘German’ rather than ‘Italian’.

But if we accept this ‘Italian’ percentage as belonging to my Veronese great-grandmother, and the Irish as belonging to my Irish mother, what about my dad’s Trentino ancestry? What’s THAT mess about?

According to their estimates, 43.2% of ‘me’ is so broad a to be practically useless, except to say I am some sort of ‘European’.

What can I possibly learn from such ambiguity?

I’ll tell you what it tells me. It tells me they have a LOT of people of Irish descent in the 23AndMe database. That’s why the information about my mother’s side is getting more accurate.

It also tells me they have a growing pool of Italians in their database, but possibly NOBODY from Trentino. That is why the ethnicity reports for my father’s side is still a long way from showing anything useful.

So, for now, I can only take from 23AndMe what it gives me, rather than trying to make sense of what it cannot. I feel encouraged by they increased ‘granularity’, and hope to see more detail in the future. And, for now, I’m not going to speculate what their ‘French & German’ category means, as they say they are still expanding it.

EXAMPLE 3: MyHeritageDNA

I haven’t taken a DNA test directly from MyHeritage; rather, I uploaded my ‘raw’ DNA from 23AndMe to their website, when they offered this as a free option a few years ago. Here is their ethnicity breakdown:

MyHeritageDNA - ethnicity estimate 2019
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As you can see, my mom’s DNA is still showing up as 50% Irish (this time lumped in with Scottish and Welsh), and my dad’s side shows yet another odd potpourri of ethnicities, albeit this time with more emphasis on ‘Italy’.

I won’t say more about this particular report, but I thought you might find it interesting to compare it to the others.

EXAMPLE 4: CRI Genetics

And finally, here are the results of my tests from a company called CRI Genetics, who tout themselves as being ‘genetic scientists’ rather than big business. I ordered both an autosomal AND mitochondrial DNA test from them, with high hopes these ‘scientists’ would reveal more accurate results than their competitors. On a lark, I also bought their ‘Famous People Analysis’, which allegedly identifies some famous people who share your DNA.

But then I got the results. And let me tell you, I think they are the most bizarre I’ve received to date. Here are the results from their autosomal test:

CRI Genetics Ethnicity Report - 2019
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According to them, not only is my father ‘French’, but so is my Irish mother! In fact, according to them, I’m 75% French.

Their mitochondrial test (for which I paid an additional fee) was certifiably underwhelming. If fact, it was less informative than what was included in 23AndMe’s autosomal test, where they identified my maternal haplogroup.

And their ‘Famous People Analysis’? A complete joke. While claiming I am related to modern-day people like actors Meryl Streep and Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, they also claim I am related to the 5000-year-old mummy knowns as ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ via my mother’s mtDNA:

CRI Genetics says I am related to Otzi
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There’s just ONE teensy problem with this:

Ötzi’s maternal haplogroup is currently believed to have DIED OUT a long time ago. His mitochondrial DNA does not fit into any known subclades from modern Europe.

Now, the thing about Ötzi is that just about anyone of European descent IS most likely related to him (but not necessarily a descendant), by simple statistics. But actually saying I am related to him via mitochondrial DNA is just plan LYING. 

To rub salt into an already festering DNA wound, CRI Genetics has something they call an ‘Advanced Ancestry Timeline’. According to them, one of my ancestors from around the year 1850 was from Sri Lanka, another from Peru around 1625, and yet another from Gujarat, India in 750 A.D.! Of these claims, they say ‘Statistically we determined this to be 99% accurate.’

Science? More like mythology. And definitely a huge rip-off.

How We Can Improve the Future of DNA Testing

I think you might have deduced by now, that I feel it is important NOT to put too much stock in – or get too hung up about – an ethnicity report from ANY company, including those I have not mentioned in this article. Always remember that the results you are getting are all COMPARATIVE based solely on the size of their database, and the picture they paint of your ethnicity is on an ever-expanding canvas.

But please don’t leave with the impression I am suggesting you should NOT do a DNA test, or that I have given up hope on ‘big’ companies like AncestryDNA. Actually, I believe those of us who are passionate about our family history can do much to help IMPROVE the accuracy and precision of ethnicity profiles in these larger companies.

How?

By providing DNA testing companies with more data from currently under-represented ethnic regions.

In other words, TAKE a DNA test, not so much to discover information, but to provide information that can (hopefully) improve the accuracy and precision of genetic science.

Surely Trentino is one such under-represented region, but I am sure many of you reading this can identify hundreds of others. As a genealogist, I would love to present a ‘Trentino contingency’ to both AncestryDNA and 23AndMe, so we are finally represented in their test groups.

Despite my extensive genealogical research into my own ancestry, I might not be the ideal test subject, due to having a ‘mixed’ ethnicity within recent generations. But those of you who are Trentino on both your paternal and maternal sides, and who have well documented family history, would be excellent candidates. If you fall into this category, I would love to hear from you.

Of course, if you are of Trentino descent but you have not yet researched your family very far, you might consider hiring me to help you in this regard (more information about this is below).

In either case, I invite you to connect with via the Contact form on this site.

Closing Thoughts

I hope this series on DNA testing has helped you better understand what DNA tests are, how genealogy works in tandem with DNA testing, and how ‘ethnicity estimates’ are generated.

Equally, I hope these articles have encouraged you to look more deeply into your own cultural identity, and increased your confidence as you try to make sense of your DNA test results — even when they seem to make NO sense at all.

Many thanks to all of you who have read this entire series, especially those who have left comments on this site. It is truly encouraging to me when I hear your feedback and learn from your experiences.

Now that the series is complete, I will be compiling the articles (editing out the repetition) into a PDF eBook, which I will be offering for FREE to my blog subscribers. If you would like to receive this free eBook, all you have to do is subscribe to this blog using the form at the top of this page. If you are reading this on a mobile phone, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Please be patient, as it will take a month or so to edit the articles and put them into the eBook format.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming up from June 29th to July 27th 2019.

If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from
Trentino Genealogy!

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If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form,
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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

View my family tree on Ancestry:  https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/110809816/family

References

AncestryDNA Science team. 2018. ‘Ethnicity Estimate 2018 White Paper’. Accessed 13 May 2019 from  https://www.ancestrycdn.com/dna/static/pdf/whitepapers/WhitePaper_2018_1130_update.pdf

Estes, Roberta. 2013. ‘Ancient Ancestors, Ethnicity and the Dandelion’. Accessed 13 May 2019 from the DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy blog at https://dna-explained.com/2013/08/05/autosomal-dna-ancient-ancestors-ethnicity-and-the-dandelion/.

Genovate Laboraties. 2016. ‘Compare Your DNA to Ötzi the Iceman – a 5000-year-old mummy’. Accessed 13 May from  https://www.dnainthenews.com/human-history/otzi-iceman/

Padawer, Ruth. 2018 (19 Nov). ‘Sigrid Johnson Was Black. A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t’. New York Times online. Accessed 13 May 2019 from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/magazine/dna-test-black-family.html

Wikipedia. 2019. Ötzi the Iceman. Accessed 13 May from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_haplogroups_of_historic_people#Ötzi_the_Iceman

Join the dialogue!

Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?


Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses cultural labels and personal identity, and explores the ethnic history of northern Italy. Article 3 of 4 on DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity’.

In the first two articles in this 4-article series on DNA tests, we focussed on the more technical aspects of genetics, and how it relates to genealogy. If you missed those articles, you can catch up by clicking on the links below.

ARTICLE 1: In which we examined (TOPIC 1) the different kinds of DNA tests and (TOPIC 2) some basics about autosomal DNA.

MORE READING:   DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

ARTICLE 2: In which we discussed (TOPIC 3) how DNA tests can often point us in a direction, but (usually) cannot give us specific answers about our ancestry or blood relations.

MORE READING:   Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

In today’s article, we’ll be shifting focus slightly as we explore:

  • TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World
  • TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

While the subject of cultural identity might at first seem a bit off the topic of DNA tests, I believe we cannot clearly understand the findings of any DNA test without first examining who we BELIEVE we are. And, as what we think we are and can sometimes conflict with what other people think we are, knowing more about our historic and ethnic background is also crucial to being able to make sense of what we might receive from DNA testing companies.

In today’s article, I will also address the moral responsibility DNA testing companies have in putting ‘labels’ on different ethnic groups. Just HOW those DNA companies decide what to ‘label’ us will be the subject of the fourth and final article in this series.

TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

Nationality vs. Local Identity

For anyone of northern Italian descent, the whole notion of what it means to be ‘Italian’ is challenging, from both a cultural and historical perspective.

‘Italy’ as we know it today was comprised of independent pockets of cultures, republics and city-states for a lot longer than it was ever called ‘Italy’. The regions of Liguria, Lombardia, Veneto and Piemonte were not integrated into the emerging nation called ‘Italy’ until the second half of the 19th century. And the region of Trentino-Alto Adige – comprised of the two provinces of Trentino (AKA Trento) and Alto-Adige (AKA Bolzano or Bozen) was not officially integrated into Italy until 1919*, at the end of World War 1. The people of Trentino, the southern province of that region, are predominantly Italian-speaking (albeit there are many regional dialects), while the people in the province of Alto Adige are predominantly German-speaking (although most will also speak Italian today).

* Emperor Charles I of Austria relinquished his control on 11 November 1918 (what we English speakers refer to as ‘Armistice Day’), upon which Italian forces moved into Trentino-Alto Adige, but the official treaty of Saint-Germain was signed on 10 September 1919.

While independent from one another, most of these northern states were under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire for about 1,000 years, since the time of Charlemagne (ca. 800 AD). Then, after a very brief period roughly between 1790-1814 when Napoleon was busy stirring things up, these states came back under the control of the Austrian and (later) Austro-Hungarian Empires. These empires, by whatever label, were dominated by the royal Hapsburg family for many centuries.

All the regions of modern Italy have rich cultural histories that long predate the idea of a unified nation. Pick up any book on European history and you will read about the power, importance and influence of northern Italian cities – all independent – such as Genova (Genoa), Milano (Milan), Mantova (Mantua), Venezia (Venice), Verona and Padova (Padua). Even Shakespeare used many of these northern cities as the settings for his plays.

But amongst the northern provinces, Trentino, Bolzano and parts of Lombardia were somewhat different. These provinces were known as a ‘bishoprics’ (vescovile), and each was ruled by a ‘Prince Bishop’ (Principe Vescovo) until the Napoleonic era when the government was secularised. During the reign of Prince Bishop Cristoforo Madruzzo, the famous ‘Council of Trent’ (Concilio di Trento) took place in the city of Trento in the mid-1500s.

The office of the Prince Bishop was exactly what it sounds like: he was BOTH royalty AND an ordained bishop of the Catholic church. As a priest, the Bishop could not pass on his property and title to his children (as he was supposed to be celibate and childless), but we frequently see power passing from an uncle to one of his nephews, thus creating dynasties of bishops throughout history. As royalty, the Prince-Bishop was – just as the Emperor was – able to confer titles of nobility to outstanding citizens in his bishopric. Many of my own Trentino ancestors were ennobled by Prince Bishops. Such titles helped strengthen ties of loyalty between the state, the church and its people. It also helped to forge a sense of pride in – and identification with – the greater area known as ‘Trento’.

In addition, the people of Trentino (especially in rural areas) have always had their own localised cultural identities. For example, people typically think of themselves as belonging to a particular valley (Val di Non, Val di Sole, Val Giudicarie, etc.). These valleys, delineated by the glacial mountains, lakes and rivers of Trentino’s breath-taking natural terrain, embraced pockets of rural communities who spoke local dialects and had surnames often specific to a relatively tiny geographic area. In other words, it wasn’t just the bishopric creating a sense of cultural identity, but the land itself.

Given such history and geography, it is unsurprising that the people of Trentino and other provinces in northern Italy did NOT unilaterally adopt a new cultural identity of ‘being Italian’ when national boundaries and governments changed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, many still think reject the ‘label’. Others accept it, but nearly all still tend to identify more strongly with their local culture than with their ‘nationality’. You cannot simply wipe out millennia of local, cultural identity by slapping a new label on it. This is not just true of Italy, but of ALL modern countries, everywhere on the planet.

Unfortunately, the ‘labels’ people receive from DNA tests don’t make things any easier; we’ll come back to this point later in Article 4 of this series.

The Fragile Identity of Youth

When I was 14 (now 50 years ago!), I was invited to a birthday party for one of my male classmates. Now this boy (let’s just call him ‘B’) was arguably the handsomest in our class, and I had had the fiercest crush on him for more than a year. And to be honest, I am pretty sure B had felt some puppy love for me too.

The party was in the basement at B’s house (on Long Island, where I grew up, nearly all of us had finished basements, and these were perfect party places). When the party was over, I was coming up the stairs to go home, and was greeted by B’s father.

Being the 1960s, I always dressed in the ‘mod’ fashion of the times, which meant mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, go-go boots and love beads. And, I had a head of very long, straight, dark brown hair.

As I got to the top of the stairs, B’s father decided to tease me, asking, ‘How do you get that long hair of yours so shiny, Lynn?’

My heart fluttered a bit, because B’s father obviously knew who I was, and I suspected his son had mentioned me as someone he liked.

I replied, ‘Easy. I rinse it with vinegar after I wash it.’ (Believe it or not, that was a common practice back then, especially for dark hair).

He laughed and countered, ‘Ha! Leave it to a nice Italian girl to wash her hair with salad dressing!’

Then, without even a moment’s hesitation, I replied, ‘Oh, I’m not Italian. I’m Austrian.’

He looked at me with perplexity. ‘But your name is Serafinn.’

Again, without even thinking, I said, ‘It’s an Austrian name. My father was born in Austria, but it was taken over by Italy.’

(Side note: When I was 14, I didn’t know that Trentino had already become part of Italy when my dad was born there in 1919).

B’s father looked at me oddly. At the time, I thought it was just confusion over what I had just said. But years later, I realise I was probably insulting him. You see, B’s father was a first-generation Italian-American (their surname was most likely Calabrian).

I hadn’t intended to insult him. I was making no judgment or political statement about Italy. I was simply parroting what my father and my grandparents had programmed me to say since I was a child.

But now, half a century later, I realise that in replying to him the way I did, I was actually distancing myself from him. Not only was a drawing a line of distinction between us, I was probably sending out a subtle vibe that I was rejecting Italy and the idea of being Italian.

B’s father made no reply to me after that, but my words had definitely made some sort of impact on him. After that, his son no longer seemed to be interested in me, and I soon learned he had found a ‘nice Italian girl’ as his girlfriend.

My first case of teenage puppy love ended in heartbreak over a case of cultural identity.

Fuzzy Labels. Fuzzy Sense of Self.

Most of us of Trentino descent who were raised in America referred to ourselves as ‘Tyroleans’. I never even HEARD the word ‘Trentino’ until decades later.

I’m pretty sure my dad had originally told me I was ‘Austrian’ when I was little because it was easier for ‘outside’ people to understand than the more perplexing label of ‘Tyrolean’. Other Americans really had no idea what we meant by ‘Tyrolean’, and it always required some explaining – a skill I learned only as I got older.

Even after I started referring to myself this way, I wasn’t really quite sure what the heck I meant by ‘Tyrolean’. Although my dad had been born in the ‘old country’ and spoke dialect fluently, he had come to America when he was very young and didn’t remember much about his homeland.

When I asked him where he came from, he merely said, ‘Near Trento’.  When I asked him if he could be more specific, he said the village he came from was so small, you wouldn’t even find it on a map (perhaps true back then, but that was before Google maps!).

Despite such fuzziness, when I was growing up, my father’s culture was unavoidable. I constantly heard my father speaking dialect with members of his family, as he called them on the phone just about every night after work. And whenever we visited my grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone spoke dialect. I got used to sitting in a roomful of adults speaking a language I couldn’t speak myself, while somehow following the gist of what was being said.

When I asked my dad the name of the language he spoke, he said ‘Tyrolean’. In my teens, I was a classical musician and an opera singer, so I had become familiar with many Italian words. Eventually, I realised the dialect my father spoke (which I now know was Giudicaresi) had a lot of similarities with Italian. But I was told unequivocally it had nothing to do with Italian. It’s Tyrolean. Period.

When I asked him to teach my how to speak ‘Tyrolean’, he refused, saying he only spoke it, but didn’t know how to explain it. Besides, he argued, why would I need it? He wanted me to ‘be American’. Better to speak English.

So, while I inherited a strong sense of being ‘Tyrolean’, I was also being discouraged from trying to ‘go backwards’ to my ancestral roots. The ‘old country’ was in the past. It was almost like those things were ‘dead’ and gone, and I wasn’t allowed to touch them. I strongly feel this kind of mixed message was one of the strongest factors in my DELAYING my ancestral journey or visiting my father’s homeland until after he passed away.

But what my grandparents and father did not (and probably could not) understand at the time was how this severing of ties with the past would leave me with a very hazy and tenuous sense of self.

Much as they wanted me to feel ‘American’, I didn’t.

Much as I wanted to feel ‘Tyrolean’, it was too vague for me to understand in any satisfactory way.

And ‘Italian’? Are you kidding? Just the idea of such a notion seemed completely taboo.

And now, after working with dozens of genealogy clients over the years – all descended from immigrant families – and have seen this same sense of haziness over and over. It’s heart-breaking to watch.

Losing A Surname – The Cruellest Cut of All

Perhaps the biggest vagary in my cultural upbringing – which, sadly, I now realise was a deliberate lie – had to do with our surname.

Back at the birthday party, I had told B’s father that my surname ‘Serafinn’ was Austrian. This belief was forged by my father, who told me the surname ‘Serafinn’ with two ‘ns’ was specifically a ‘Tyrolean’ name. I remember him telling me, ‘If you ever meet anyone with that name, they are related to you.’

Well, he was partially right. If I ever meet anyone with the surname ‘Serafinn’ with two ‘ns’ they ARE indeed related to me. But it’s not because it’s a Tyrolean name. It’s because my grandfather made it up. Historically, there IS no such surname as ‘Serafinn’. The only people called ‘Serafinn’ were my grandparents, my father, his siblings and their children. Other than us, the surname doesn’t exist.

I found out decades later – well after my father and all his siblings had died – that my father’s surname was ‘Serafini’, not ‘Serafinn’. At first, I rejected the idea my father might have deliberately misled me. I theorised that perhaps he hadn’t known Serafini was the family surname, and that he had grown up thinking ‘Serafinn’ was his real name, just as I had. But then, when I started to dig more deeply, I discovered documents listing my dad as ‘Serafini’ through his teens. While I am not sure of the precise date, the official change seems to have been made sometime in the late 1930s, not long before my dad enlisted in the US Army.

Thus, there was no way my dad and his siblings could have been unaware of our original surname. Yet, all of us kids – me, my sister and my cousins – were never told this when we were growing up. Obviously, it had been a family decision to ‘break’ us from the past.

And because the change of surname was one of those proverbial ‘family secrets’ that died along with my father’s family, the actual reasons for the change can only be hypothesised. Was it simply a matter of simplifying the name for Americans, without changing it altogether? Was it an attempt to make the surname look less Italian and more ‘Austrian’ (which, as we saw in the story with B’s father, didn’t exactly work)? Perhaps it was a bit of both, but we’ll never know for sure.

I must confess, when I first discovered my grandfather had changed our surname, I felt a combination of anger and grief. I was angry for being lied to. But I was also deeply aggrieved for having LOST my ‘true’ surname. Even today, I still find myself having to explain my surname to people, especially when I am in Trentino. Sometimes I just say my name is ‘Serafini’ to make it clearer.

Similarly, I have worked with many genealogy clients whose families changed their surnames after emigrating to the Americas. Sometimes the changes are minor – like a change in spelling to make it easier for people in their adopted country to pronounce the name. But the surnames of many of my clients have been radically changed, sometimes with no rhyme or reason as to how they are connected to the original name. Naturally, they ask many of the same questions and go through the same roller coaster of emotions as I did when I discovered my father’s original surname.

For any of us who have experienced a ‘loss’ of name, finding out about our ancestors is often an integral part of healing that wound. Now, after many years of ‘speaking to my ancestors’ through genealogy, I have finally embraced this change of surname to ‘Serafinn’ as a crucial part of my own cultural identity. It is a poignant and important chapter in our family’s history – the story of what happened to us after we left our ancestral homeland.

Austrian, Tyrolean, Italian?

Something I found remarkable when I started digging into my father’s US documentation after he died was his own sense of confusion about what to call himself.

In many documents he says he was born in Austria. However, technically, this isn’t true. He was born in Trentino in October 1919, after the province had become part of Italy. In one US census, it says he was born in Italy and that his elder sister was born in Austria. Now, technically, this IS true; however, the fact is they were actually born in the same HOUSE (my cousins still own it) in Val Giudicarie. What I found even odder, though, was that in his military registration, he cites his place of birth as ‘Tyrol’ – which isn’t a country at all. In fact, trying to define ‘Tyrol’ is kind of like trying to define the molecules of water in a flowing stream.

If my father, who was BORN in Trentino, had so much difficulty deciding how to describe where he came from, what chance did I have of being any clearer about my ethnicity when I was growing up? And what chance of clarity can there be for grandchildren or great-grandchildren of Trentini emigrants who were not exposed to their ancestral culture in childhood as I had been?

I want to address this label ‘Tyrolean’ because I believe it’s crucial to this whole topic of cultural identity when we are talking about people who came from Trentino-Alto Adige. Tyrol (Tirol or Tirolo) was originally a county, headed by the ‘Counts of Tirol’. When the original dynasty of counts died out in 1363, control of the Tyrol was taken over by the royal Habsburgs. In fact, from that point, the title of the ‘Count of Tirol’ was sometimes assumed by the Holy Roman Emperor himself.

Over time, ‘Tyrol’ no longer referred to a single county, but to a much wider collective, whose connection was often more ideological than administrative. On one of my recent trips to Trento, my friend and colleague Daiana Boller – an historian and local politician – showed me this beautiful painting  entitled ‘Aquila Tirolensis’ by 17th-century Austrian historian and cartographer, Matthias Burglechner. First printed in 1609, this version is dated 1620 in the lower right-hand corner. A highly stylised map, it contains the ‘Aquila’ (eagle) of Tyrol – its stemma, or coat-of-armsand all the key places considered part of it at that time:
1620 painting of Aquila Tirolesi and the provinces of Tyrol in the 17th century.

If you look closely at the borders of this picture, you can see ‘Trient’ (Trento) and ‘Bozen’ (Bolzano), as well as many other familiar places such as ‘Brixen’ (Bressanone), ‘Arch’ (Arco), ‘Clauzen’ (Chiusa), ‘Meran’ (Merano), ‘Rofriet’ (Rovereto), as well as parts of present-day Austria, such as ‘Insbrugg’ (Innsbruck).

This stunning image gives us an historical snapshot not only of the official designation of ‘Tyrol’ during this era, but also of the diverse cultural identity of the people who thought of themselves as ‘Tirolesi’.

However, let us bear in mind that this painting is 400 years old, and what it depicts is not necessarily what people meant by ‘Tirol’ when our ancestors left the province, nor indeed what most people mean by the term today.

The fact is, the ‘official’ boundaries of Tirol were constantly changing. Frankly, if I try to figure it all out, it just makes my head spin. Rather than attempt to explain it, I refer you to this website with maps showing how these designations shifted after this painting was make, between 1766 and the present day: http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/germany/tyroladm.html.

But while official boundaries of any administrative entity come and go like tides, the cultural identity of the people from these entities are far more resistant to change.

How Cultural Identities Get ‘Frozen’ in Time

Most descendants of Trentino ancestors know that their ancestral homeland was once under Austrian rule and was incorporated into Italy after World War 1. But, in my observation, fewer of them seem to know that, while the province of Bolzano is still known as ‘South Tyrol’ (Sud Tirol), the province of Trentino hasn’t been known by the term ‘Tirol’ for the past 100 years.

These days, if you say ‘Tyrolean’ to anyone living anywhere in Europe, they always take it to mean Bolzano and/or Austria. And this INCLUDES the Trentini themselves. I have yet to meet a living native Trentino who refers to him/herself as ‘Tirolesi’. In fact, the first time I visited the province and used the word ‘Tyrolean’, people looked at me with bewilderment, if not a bit of amusement.

‘No, Trentino is not Tirol,’ they said. ‘You are confusing it with Bolzano’.

One person who had family abroad said to me, ‘No, we do not call ourselves Tirolesi. But I’ve heard there are some Americans who think like that.’

So, at the risk of ruffling a few of my readers’ feathers, I have to say that all my experiences and observations have led me to conclude that:

The ONLY people today who use the term ‘Tyrolean’ to describe someone from Trentino are descendants of 19th and 20th century emigrants.

In fact, in 1923, an organisation called the ‘Legione Trentina’ actually made it ILLEGAL to use the word like ‘Tirol’ and its variants (Tyrol, Tyrol, Tiroler, Südtirol etc.) to refer to the land now known as Trentino and its people. One leaflet says that by 1931, fines were issued of ‘up to 2,000 lire (about three average monthly salaries) and three months in prison’ for anyone who used these terms. 

After all, when most of our ancestors came from Trentino, the  province was either still under Austrian rule, or had only just become part of Italy. When they migrated to their new, adopted homelands, the culture – and cultural identity – they brought with them was from THAT era. We, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, inherited all those things.

BUT the thing is:

When cultures become displaced, the old traditions and ways of thinking do not evolve the same way they would have if they had stayed in their native homeland.

In fact, if anything, they tend to get ‘frozen’ in time. I believe this happens because people who live in places far removed from their ancestral homelands desperately need to feel a connection to their past. And, as they don’t always have any living, breathing connection to those homelands, they will hold onto whatever they’ve got like a life raft.

Moreover, to relinquish that label or change the way of thinking brought across the sea by their emigrant ancestors is seen as a kind of disloyalty – or even betrayal. For this reason, thousands of descendants of Trentino emigrants around the world staunchly retain the a ‘Tyrolean’ (if not ‘Austrian’) cultural identity, despite the fact the label is no longer used by most present-day Trentini.

And no ‘official’ change in nomenclature is going to nullify those powerful feelings.

So, does that mean it’s ‘wrong’ to think of yourself as ‘Tyrolean’? Of course not. Just as my surname ‘Serafinn’ has its own cultural significance, the label ‘Tyrolean’ has its OWN meaning and cultural significance. It doesn’t need to mean what it means in Trentino today or even what it used to mean to our ancestors. It stands on its own as what it is.

For myself, I prefer to use the label ‘Trentina’. And that doesn’t make me ‘wrong’ either. I prefer this term because I have lived in Europe for 20 years, and I go to Trentino frequently. People understand what I MEAN when I use it. So, that designation makes more sense in my situation. But for me, it also carries great meaning. To me, the word represents the thing that makes me feel most connected to my ancestors – the land itself. When I say I am ‘Trentina’, I become part of those glacial mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Through that word, I feel connected to every ancestor and blood relation whose very existence was owed to that majestic land.

But that is simply MY cultural label. It has meaning for me, but perhaps not for you. Never EVER in my life would I ever suggest that someone should reject or change the word they use to identify themselves if that word fills them with joy and makes them feel alive.

Schisms Triggered by Cultural Identity

Challenging another person’s chosen cultural designation is, in fact, a sure-fire way to get yourself into an argument.

One such argument within my own family sticks clearly in my mind even after nearly half a century. I was in my teens visiting at the home of one of my father’s sisters, when an argument broke out between my aunt and her cousin (son of my grandmother’s brother, with the surname Onorati).

Our cousin was complaining that he was tired of having to explain to people that he was ‘Tyrolean’, and that now he just told people he was ‘Italian’.

He argued, ‘I look Italian. I have an Italian name. I’m Italian. What’s the big deal?’

At this point, my aunt entirely lost it. She flew into a rage and shoved our cousin against the wall. She started pounding her fists on his chest and screaming, ‘How could you possibly betray our family by saying such things?’

In hindsight, what is most interesting to me about this incident is the fact that this aunt (my dad’s youngest sister) was actually born in America (in Brandy Camp, Pennsylvania) after my grandparents had emigrated with my dad and two other sisters. At the time of this incident, she was in her mid-40s, and had never even been to her parents’ homeland. In fact, she was apparently confused about where they actually came from, as evidenced by a story she wrote about her parents’ mythical home in Merano (in the province of Bolzano) – a place where they never lived.

I bring this up not to criticise my late aunt (I actually adored her), but to underscore how cultural identity has nothing whatsoever to do with cultural awareness. It lives and breathes in complete independence from historical or geographical accuracy.

One of my father’s 1st cousins (whom, unfortunately, I never met) was the late author Marion Benasutti, who wrote a book called No Steady Job for Papa. Marketed as a ‘novel’, it really is a memoire of her experiences growing up in a Trentini immigrant family in the early 20th century (the family emigrated before World War 1). A strong, recurring theme in that book is the ‘Austrian/Tyrolean’ versus ‘Italian’ cultural identity, and how her father used to argue with friends and family members over their chosen designations.

Lest you think these schisms were limited to first-generation Americans, this ideological divide is still very much alive amongst Trentini descendants today. For example, I recently received this message from a prospective member of my Trentino Genealogy Facebook group:

‘I am 100% Tirolean-American. I am interested in tracing our roots back to the days before the Fascist Italianization of our land when it was Austria-Hungary, of which my grandparents were citizens.’

While Austria-Hungary died 100 years ago, and Mussolini died over 60 years ago, the passion contained within these words is still palpable. You can certainly feel how this person would find it challenging – if not impossible – to think of himself as ‘Italian’. To expect (or force) him to do so would not only be highly insensitive, but utterly futile.

Arguably one of the strongest spokespeople for ‘Tyrolean’ cultural identity is Lou Brunelli, founder and editor of Filò: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans. In his editor’s introduction to volume 20 of that magazine (January 2019) he says just as ‘the one and only Tyrol… was ‘usurped’ and ‘annexed to Italy’, the magazine therefore:

‘…usurps the authentic right and privilege to ignore the line and draw a circle embracing, engaging and uniting us to what we were as affirmed by our emigrants who, over and over, declared themselves Tirolesi, Tyroleans and, for us, Tyrolean Americans.’

As you can see, the debate over the cultural identity of Trentino is far from ‘settled’ even after a century has passed.

An Unaddressed Moral Responsibility

I’ve taken this time to talk about cultural identity because I think it has tremendous implications for companies who offer DNA tests.

Whether or not we choose a specific cultural ‘label’, we cannot simply dismiss or ignore them. In my work as a genealogist, most of my clients come from the US, with a handful from South American, Australia and New Zealand. Many of them come to me with a feeling of longing or even emptiness. They are searching for a missing piece of themselves and are often (quite understandably) confused about where their ancestors came from.

Most of the people I know who have taken a DNA test did not embark on their genetic journey just for ‘fun’, but to find answers to deeply personal questions that have been challenging their happiness and/or sense of belonging – sometimes for their entire lifetime.

And, as we’ve just seen, cultural ‘labels’ can often have a powerful – if not EXPLOSIVE – impact on people. You cannot just call people something and expect them to embrace it (or even accept it).

This is something I believe the big companies who handle DNA tests have yet to understand. Knowing how delicate and emotionally charged cultural identities can be, companies who provide DNA ethnicity reports have a HUGE moral responsibility. You cannot play with people’s sense of self – especially not for profit. The labels these companies choose to put on people in their ethnicity reports can sometimes only INTENSIFY the confusion people had that led them to take the DNA test in the first place. 

I will be returning to this point in the final article in this series, but for now I want to suggest three crucial shifts that need to occur if we are to increase the value – an minimise the damage – of ethnicity reports offered by DNA testing companies:

  1. Testing companies need to become more educated about cultural identities around the world, so they can create profiles that are more sensitive and relevant to their customers.
  2. There need to be greater numbers of DNA test-takers in under-represented cultural groups.
  3. DNA  test-takers need to be more educated about the  wider story of the ethnic history of their ancestral homelands.

Only when all three of these things are met can DNA testing truly serve the purpose for which so many people turn to them.

PART 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

Building upon what we’ve discussed so far, the next crucial question we need to ask is:

Does our CULTURAL IDENTITY as ‘northern Italians’, ‘Trentini’ or ‘Tyroleans’ (or whatever) have any foundation in GENETICS?

In other words, are the people from northern Italy genetically ‘different’ from other people, including those from the more southern regions of the Italian peninsula? Or are all these designations simply things we’ve ‘made up’ in order to feel a sense of belonging? Do the DNA tests currently on the market support what northern and southern Italians believe about themselves? Moreover, are their findings consistent from company to company?

We’ll look at the last of those questions in Article 4, when we look at DNA ethnicity reports. But in order to understand what we’ll discuss in that article, let’s first consider northern Italian ethnicity through an historical lens.

Just who were the people who populated Trentino and other parts of northern Italy over the centuries? Below is a short, whistle-stop tour through the millennia.

The Rhaeti and the Celts

About 2,600 years ago, and through the first centuries of the Common Era (A.D.), much of northern Italy was inhabited by Rhaetian and central European Celtic tribes.

Once hypothesised to be related to the Etruscans (ancient people of present-day Tuscany), many scholars today believe the Rhaeti were indigenous Alpine tribes (‘indigenous’ itself being an admittedly vague term). The precise origins of the Celts is much less clear to historians, and many preconceptions about who they were and where they came from are being challenged (although they are most widely believed to have from somewhere in central Europe).

Languages in Iron Age Italy, ca. 6th c. BC
Languages in Iron Age Italy, ca. 6th c. BC By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3336779

Above is a map showing which languages were spoken around the Italian peninsula circa 600 B.C.

Notice ‘Raetic’ in the orange area at the top, which overlaps with the modern provinces of Trentino and Veneto. The term ‘Gaulish’ in the upper left is another term for Celtic languages. Later, some Rhaeti in south Tyrol (Alto-Adige), Trentino and Veneto, as said to have adopted the Celtic language, at least in part.

Some scholars say that the Alpine language Ladin (NOT the same as ‘Latin’) which is still spoken by an estimated 30,000-60,000 people today (mostly in South Tyrol, Trentino, Belluno and Friuli) is has roots in both Rhaeti and Celtic.

The Romans

Between around 100 B.C. and 400 A.D., Romans were certainly present in places like the city of Trento. There are, in fact, the remains of the old Roman city beneath Trento, but some historians suggest Trento was kind of a ‘holiday spot’ for the Romans rather than a true settlement. Thus, some historians believe the Romans may not have played a huge part on changing the ethnicity of the area, although others dispute this theory.

What is indisputable, however, is that they brought the Latin language, permanently changing the linguistic landscape of northern Italy. The majority of Trentini speak dialects and have names based on Latin roots.

The Longobards (Lombards)

After the fall of Roman (ca. 400 A.D.), we start to see invasions (and settlement) from Germanic and/or Scandinavian tribes. The most notable of these were the Longobards (called ‘Lombards’ in English), from which the northern region of ‘Lombardia’ (or ‘Lombardy’, in English), gets its name. Today, most scholars believe they originated from somewhere in Scandinavia.

circa 700 AD, the Longobards (Lombards) in Italy
Aistulf’s Italy-it.svg: Castagnaderivative work: InvaderCito [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Above is a map showing the Longobard Kingdom (in blue) when it was at its peak in the mid-700s. Although defeated as a political force by Charlemagne around 800 A.D., their nobles lasted in some parts of southern Italy until the 11th century.

A formidable political force, they also influenced many other Germanic tribes – including the Saxons – to settle in Italian lands during their reign. Note: Many people associate the word ‘Saxon’ with England, but they originally came from central Europe; the Germany state of Saxony was once their settlement, before they were defeated by Charlemagne.

The Cimbri and Other Germanic Tribes

During the middle ages (1,000-1,200 A.D.), new waves of Germanic tribes, such as the Cimbri people, migrated and created communities in various parts of Trentino and Veneto. My great-grandmother’s parish of Badia Calavena in the province of Verona is a known Cimbri settlement and, until recently, the people there spoke Cimbro, which, while a distinctly Germanic dialect, also sounds like ENGLISH to my ears. One Veronesi historian I know says he believes this is because Cimbro is related to Old English as spoken by the Saxons. Linguistic connections do not always indicate a genetic connection, but sometimes they might.

What I find so interesting about my great-grandmother’s ancestry, however, is that so many of their surnames – even back to the 1500s – are of Latin/Italian origin, despite their being German speakers. I suppose this is evidence of how long they had lived in that valley, and how thoroughly they had become assimilated into the local culture over the centuries, but again this is pure speculation.

Later Germanic Migrations

Much later, when under Austrian rule in the 1700s-1800s, you will see other scattered Germanic surnames appearing in the church records of the northern provinces, but in a more organic (and less invasive) fashion. As these migrations are relatively recent, you can more easily identify Germanic ‘blood’ through these lines through genealogy alone.

The Ethnic ‘Soup’ of Northern Italy

So, based on what we know about the history of northern Italy, what conclusions can we draw about northern Italian ethnicity?

The truth is, nobody seems to agree.

For example, some historians believe the Longobards, (who comprised an estimated 10% of the population of northern Italy at their peak) had minimal impact the genetic profile of northern Italy because they chose to breed amongst themselves without mixing with other ethnic groups present in the region at the time.

But I’m not so sure. I don’t see how any culture can be in a region for half a millennium and create no impact on the genetic landscape. The Longobards were known to have adopted Roman customs and dress and, although they were always at loggerheads with the Pope, the did actually convert to Christianity.

Given that the Longobards had assimilated, at least in part, to local culture, it seems implausible to me that there was NO inter-breeding between cultures over all that time. My logical brain says at least SOME of that Scandinavian Longobard DNA (and that of all the other ‘imported’ peoples) surely must have mingled – at least to some degree – with that in other ethnic groups in the region.

Moreover, while Charlemagne conquered the Longobard leaders in northern Italy, I cannot imagine they simply ‘vanished’ as an ethnic group. I have seen dozens of Longobard artefacts in many churches and museums in in Trentino. Even the church of my father’s parish in Santa Croce del Bleggio (Val Giudicarie) was built upon the ruins of an old Longobard church.

Even after a political coup, if people have lived in an area for a long time, they tend to stay put, unless they are forced to leave by economic, environmental or political circumstances. And while Charlemagne ousted the Longobard leaders, I have read nothing about any kind of wholesale exodus of the Longobard people from Italy.

At this point, it seems to me the next logical question must surely be:

Can DNA testing shed light on how – or IF – these medieval tribes intermingled?

And if it can…

Will our that DNA profile look different from those of other Italians?

And finally…

What kind of ‘labels’ will DNA testing companies like Ancestry DNA slap on people like us in their ethnicity reports?

Coming Up Next Time…

Those are the questions we’ll address in fourth and final article in the series on DNA tests.

In that article, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research.

I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is coming SOON 18 February 2019 through 14 March 2019). If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research


Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains why DNA tests alone cannot tell us everything about our ancestry. Article 2 of 4 of ‘DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity’.

This article series has been written in response to the hundreds of questions and comments I have personally received or read on social media around the matter of DNA tests. More specifically, it is a response to the many discussions – often impassioned and angry – about recent changes in AncestryDNA’s algorithms, which caused many people to receive ethnicity reports that made no sense to them, and were at odds with what they knew and/or believed about themselves.

As this is a complex subject, I decided to break it into FOUR articles (I originally thought I could do it in three, but in writing this instalment, I realised four were necessary). 

Last time, in Article 1, we covered:

  • TOPIC 1: Our Unrealistic Expectations About DNA Testing, in which we discussed how and why people often develop misunderstandings about the purpose and value of DNA tests due to misleading presentations in the media, and

  • TOPIC 2: Entry Level Genetics for Genealogists and Family Historians, in which we looked at the different kinds of DNA tests and why it is essential to know what you want to gain before deciding to do one. We also examined how autosomal DNA is passed down through the generations and introduced the concepts of ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapses’.

If you missed Article 1, or you would like to re-read it, you can catch up by clicking the link below:

MORE READING:   DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

Today, Article 2, our topic will be: 

  • TOPIC 3: Why DNA Testing is NOT a Substitute for Genealogical Research

In this article, we will examine some of the misconceptions people have about DNA tests, how relationship estimates are formed to identify ‘DNA Matches’, and the many the challenges around identifying your connections with DNA matches. We’ll also look at the technique of ‘triangulation’, as well as how ‘endogamy’ can sometimes blur relationship estimates.

NOTE: Be sure to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog using the subscription form at the right so you can receive Articles 3 and 4 in the special series on DNA testing. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

DISCLAIMER. Once again, as you read this article series, I ask you to remember that I am a genealogist, not a scientist or academic historian. All opinions and observations are based on my own research both personally and within the context of my professional experience in genealogy.

What Many People Imagine About DNA Tests

Earlier this week I was in a computer repair shop returning a refurbished unit that was defective (I ended up having to buy a new computer, which I am using now). During my conversation with the shop owner – who was of southern Italian descent (Puglia) – I described some of the genealogy software programs I use, so I could illustrate why the computer wasn’t working properly.

Suddenly, he shifted the topic from computers to genealogy and blurted out, ‘I’m thinking of getting my DNA done. What’s the best one out there?’

‘It’s interesting you asked me that,’ I replied. ‘I’m writing an article series about this very topic. But to answer your question, it all depends on what you want from it. What is it you want to find out?’

‘I just want to know my ancestry,’ he said.

‘OK. But what do you mean by that?’ I queried. ‘Do you want to know your ethnicity, meet living relatives or find out who your great-grandfather was?’

‘Yes. I want to know ALL of that.’

I explained to him that these are all very different objectives, and that DNA testing might shed light on some of them, but not all – and not consistently from company to company.

After making a few more enquiries, I learned he knew little about his own Puglian ancestors and had never done any kind of research to find them. Based on what he had seen in the media, he had formed a belief that DNA testing was the key to unlocking all these mysteries.

But he is not alone in thinking this. In my experience, most people who are new to the idea of DNA testing seem to have developed similar misconceptions, largely based on misleading suggestions (which verge on promises) in advertising and television programmes. 

In fact, many people I meet also have the impression that ‘science’ (i.e. DNA testing) can give them answers to genealogical questions, i.e. names and details about specific ancestors.

But barring a few exceptions, which we’ll look at shortly, this simply isn’t true.

Finding Close Relations Through DNA Tests

One group of people for whom DNA testing has proven to be a godsend is adoptees. We see many heart-warming success stories in the media where DNA testing has helped to adopted children, parents and/or siblings to find each other. And for these kinds of close biological relationships, DNA testing can be extremely effective.

As we discussed in Article 1, parents and their children share 50% of their DNA, and full siblings can also share up to 50% of their DNA. Half-siblings share roughly half the amount of DNA as full siblings, i.e. up to 25%. When it comes to DNA, these percentages are extremely high and there would be no mistaking such a relationship if it popped up in a database (unless the family were severely inbred, such as in the case of the royal Hapsburg family*, wherein the inherited DNA of Charles II was actually MORE ‘collapsed’ than if his parents had been brother and sister).

All these close relationships – probably up to 2nd cousins – are fairly easy to identify using DNA tests. But there is one important condition without which none of this would be possible: BOTH parties need to have done a DNA test through the SAME testing provider.

And therein lies the fly in the ointment. When we are seeking to connect (or reconnect) with close family, no DNA test can help us unless the other party (or someone closely related to that person) has their DNA in the same database as ours.

And if that isn’t the case, the only alternative we have is to use traditional ‘paper trail’ genealogical research.  

* The genetic history of the Hapsburgs is discussed in detail in Chapter 3 of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford.

DNA Relationship Estimates

When we take an autosomal DNA test from one of the big companies, our results will be added to their database and compared with other test takers. From these comparisons, we will receive a list of ‘DNA Matches’ or ‘DNA Relatives’, depending on which company you use. Next to each person on the list you will see an estimated relationship, derived from the number of ‘centimorgans’ (cM) shared between you.

I’m not qualified (nor am I going to attempt) to explain centimorgans, but on the AncestryDNA site, you can find tables showing the ranges of cMs of different relationships:

AncestryDNA, table of centimorgans

Click on image to see it larger in a new window

What is most striking about this table is how the variability in cMs increases as your relationships get more distant. A parents/child relationship is a fixed number while full siblings have a slight variability of about 7-8%. But once you get to grandparents, uncles, aunts and half-siblings that variability LEAPS up to 30-40%. And then, when you get to 2nd cousins and beyond, the statistical variability is actually greater than the number of cMs they are likely to share. Ancestry has even put a disclaimer at the bottom of the table saying the exact amount of shared DNA can go beyond the ranges shown in the table.

The primary reason for these variables is that siblings (except identical twins) do not inherit exactly the same genes from their parents (as we explored in Article 1). Thus, specifying how much genetic information blood relatives will share becomes less predictable and more ‘mixed’ as you move through the generations.

But another reason for these inevitable variables is ‘pedigree collapse’ (also discussed in Article 1); I’ll come back to this point in a few minutes.

DNA Relatives – And THEN What?

Knowing these variables, you can probably get an idea of the challenges of trying to piece together your family through DNA alone. If your DNA results are like mine, the majority of these ‘matches’ will be distant relatives, i.e. 4th to 6th cousins or sometimes more distant, depending on which company you use.

I have hundreds of ‘DNA matches’ on the four sites where my data appears. Every now and then, someone amongst them ‘pops out’ on the list to me, and I feel pretty confident I can connect them to my already extensive tree. Just this morning, in fact, I was able to confirm two new DNA matches as 4th cousins by comparing their genealogical info to my own. The whole process took me only a few minutes, as I already had their ancestors in my personal database. This could never have been possible but for the fact that my research extends well beyond my own pedigree, as I have been transcribing the records for an entire parish for the past few years.

Unfortunately, discovering the link between yourself and a DNA match is rarely a quick or easy process. I cannot COUNT the number of times one of my matches contacted me because I have a large family tree and expected me to be able to tell them about their ancestry, when they have done little (or NO) research of their own. Many of these people have no family tree, or one that is so minimal as to be of no practical help to finding a connection.

While, of course, I feel for these people, it is also frustrating for me to have to explain to them that DNA cannot fill in the blanks without at least having tried to construct a tree – or hiring a genealogist to do the research for them. And even if I do manage to figure out how that person is related to me by blood, DNA is not the tool that will help me solve that puzzle – genealogy is.

Again, I feel this kind of expectation is down to misleading advertising and media representation, wherein DNA is touted as ‘the answer’ to our ancestral mysteries. And given the number of times a year I have to explain this to my DNA matches, I think it’s a BIG ethical issue.

The bottom line is this:

DNA testing can point you in a DIRECTION.
But if you REALLY want to ‘meet your ancestors’,
GENEALOGY is the ONLY way.

SIDE NOTE: AncestryDNA used to show ‘distant cousins’, such as those predicted at 5th to 8th cousin level, but they discontinued this deeming these relationships to be ‘not useful’ and too uncertain. Ironically, I have ‘lost’ some DNA connections to some Trentino 6th and 7th cousins I KNOW personally because we are all avid genealogical researchers. I feel Ancestry should have allowed its users to choose whether they wished to retain all that old information, rather than just wiping the slate clean for us.

How Endogamy Can Blur Relationship Predictions

I’d like to return to the idea of ‘endogamy’ and ‘pedigree collapses’, in which some of our ancestors may be  related to us via more than one line (refer back to Article 1 for a detailed explanation of these concepts).

Let’s say you’ve received a DNA match for someone predicted to be a 4th cousin:

  • If you were indeed 4th cousins, it means you share 3X great-grandparents.

  • Each of you has a possible 32 great-great-great-grandparents – 64 between you – and only one pair (or possibly only one PERSON) of these is common to you both.

  • If both of you have done enough genealogical research to trace ancestry back to those 3X great-grandparents, finding the link between you will be relatively straightforward.

But what if endogamy is blurring the estimate? In other words, what if there were many pedigree collapses in both of your trees? Pedigree collapses are common to all of us, but when they occur repeatedly in subsequent generations, your DNA becomes less varied than if it were ‘new’ every generation. This can sometimes cause predicted relationships to be estimated as being closer than they really are.

For example, back when Ancestry used to show more distant DNA relations, it predicted one of my matches was likely to be my 5th cousin. But when we did the genealogical research to find our connection, we discovered we were actually 6th and 7th cousins – via multiple lines. This was all down to pedigree collapses in both of our trees.

So, let’s suppose you and a DNA match are – unbeknownst to either of you – actually 7th cousins as in my example above:

  • This would mean you share a pair of 5X great-grandparents (or at least one 5X great-grandparent, if a husband/wife died and the widower/widow remarried). 

  • Each of you has a maximum of 128 5X great-grandparents – as many as 256 between you (128 pairs). I say ‘a maximum’ because there could (and most likely ARE) fewer, due to pedigree collapses.

  • Possibly only ONE of these 128 pairs – or possibly only one PERSON – is common to you both.

  • Depending on your age and the ages at which your ancestors had children, your 5X great-grandparents may have been born any time between 1670-1750.

Now, the question is this: have BOTH you and your DNA match traced your pedigree back that far through genealogical research? If not, unless one of you has traced your ancestors FORWARD in time (i.e. traces all of their descendants, even if they are not their own direct family), you are unlikely to make anything more than an educated guess as to how you are connected.

Again, DNA testing can make predictions, but even these predictions can be OFF. They cannot tell you how many times your pedigree has collapsed and at what points in your ancestry they occurred. The only methodology that can tell you these things is genealogy.

Comparing Genes – Triangulation

One method many DNA enthusiasts use to try to establish connections between them is ‘triangulation’. This is where you compare cMs that are shared by three or more people, to see if you can discover the common ancestor. If you wish to try out triangulation, 23AndMe has a DNA comparison tool that allows you to compare a group of up to five DNA matches; GEDMatch also has a tool where you can compare the data from multiple DNA kits.

To demonstrate, here’s a screenshot from the comparison tool on my 23AndMe account, showing how I share the same segment on ‘Chromosome 16’ with four of my DNA Matches:

DNA Triangulation on Chromosome 16, 4 people.

NOTE: Before I continue, I will tell you that I am 50% Trentini/Veronesi via my dad and 50% Irish via my mom. The reason why this is important to know will become apparent in a minute.

About five years ago, when I was new to DNA testing, all of us in this ‘Chromosome 16 group’ were trying to figure out what this triangulation could tell us. Many of us had Irish surnames in our recent history (i.e. great-grandparents), so we assumed our connection was probably via Ireland. Unfortunately, at that time, few of us in the group had done enough research on our Irish sides to find the common ancestor, who was probably born around 1800 or slightly earlier. Again, the answer to the riddle of how we are related lay in genealogy, but none of us had yet found the documentation to prove anything.

The Trouble with Triangles

I kind of ‘parked’ that whole ‘Chromosome 16’ experiment for some time. But then, one day, I decided to run the test again, adding someone ELSE to the test group: one of my 1st cousins on my TRENTINO side.

Imagine my surprise when this image came up on my screen:


DNA triangulation, chromosome 16 - 5 people with 1st cousin
My 1st cousin (represented by the big green segment above) appears to share the same segment of Chromosome 16 as our Ch16 group.  

I was baffled. Could we have gotten it wrong all these years? Were we NOT related by Irish ancestry after all, but rather by a common Trentino ancestor? It seemed really unlikely, but the image seemed to imply it.

I say ‘seemed’ because it turns out I was completely WRONG.

What I hadn’t actually DONE was create a ‘triangle’. Yes, I compared how all these people were related to me; but I hadn’t examined if or how these people might be related to each other. That is the crux of what ‘triangulation’ is.

I already knew all the people in the Ch16 group had been triangulated against each other, and that they were all DNA Matches. But when I compared my Trentino cousin with each individual in the Ch16 group, he shared ZERO DNA with them.

There’s Two Sides to Every Chromosome

So how can it be that my cousin shares nearly all of my 16th chromosome with me, but shares no definable DNA with anyone in the Ch16 group?

What the chart from 23AndMe above does not show is that every chromosome in your bodies has TWO strands. That’s why you sometimes hear of DNA referred to as ‘the double helix’. We inherit one strand from our father and one from our mother.

If my Trentino cousin and I share nearly all of the same DNA on Chromosome 16, and all the other DNA Matches share Ch16 with me but NOT with him, it means my Trentino cousin and the Ch16 group are on different halves of the same chromosome.

In other words, the DNA I share with my Trentino cousin comes from a DIFFERENT parent from the DNA I share with the Ch16 group. And as I know my Trentino cousin is not a blood relation of my Irish mother, this became (to me anyway) ironclad proof that those of us in the Ch16 group WERE connected via a common Irish ancestor after all. So, actually, adding my Trentino cousin to the mix was a way to exclude any alternative theories. 

As of this writing, our Ch16 group has not made any big breakthroughs in discovering WHO our common Irish ancestor is, although one of the members is trying to find a birth record for one of my Irish 3X great-grandmothers. 

In other words…

It’s back to GENEALOGY.

Maybe we’ll break through that brick wall this time.

How DNA Tests Can MISS Known Blood Relations

There is one last, important point I wish to make on this topic of DNA Matches:

You can be related to someone and NOT show up as DNA Matches in DNA test websites.

NOTE: I’m not implying my 1st cousin is related to my Ch16 group; there is nothing to indicate he is. I am talking about people who share a known genealogical connection, but who do not show up as matches on DNA testing databases.

The randomness with which we all inherit DNA from our ancestors does NOT mean we will all inherit the same genetic material, even if we KNOW we are related. Of course, the more closely we are related, the more likely common cMs will show up in our test results. Conversely, the more distantly we are related, the more likely DNA tests will either miss or filter out shared DNA we inherited from our common ancestors.

I have had this happen with numerous known relatives – mostly at the level of 6th cousins (also bearing in mind that AncestryDNA no longer delivers matches at this level). I know of at least three people to whom I am related as 6th cousins – many of them connected to me in more way than one – and we don’t show up as DNA matches.

Whether we don’t actually share any DNA, or the DNA we do share is beyond the current abilities of DNA testing technology, I cannot say. All I know is that we have all done exhaustive, well-documented genealogical research (we often help each other, in fact), and we are 100% certain of our blood connections.

Yes, it would be nice to see a DNA test confirming this, but I am really not concerned. We know we are cousins, and that is all that matters.

Patience vs. Our ‘I Want It Now’ Culture

A few days ago, one of my clients sent me this nice message while he was on holiday in Bora Bora (!):

‘I am very excited, looking at the documents you use to do this is amazing… I don’t know how you do it. You must have incredible patience and be incredibly detailed, and I bet you are a wiz solving puzzles.’

Of course, I smiled a LOT when I received this. But apart from being very kind words, they also contain some important insight into the nature of genealogy, and how it challenges our modern way of thinking.

Genealogy DOES require incredible patience. It DOES require fine attention to detail, and an obsessive passion for solving puzzles. It requires you to be able to hold a great deal of information in your head, and to make connections between those pieces of information – sometimes years after you’ve recorded it.

This kind of thinking truly is in sharp contrast to our modern ‘I want it now’ mentality, where 80% of people click away from a website if it takes more than a few seconds to load. DNA testing companies KNOW THIS about us. They KNOW we are impatient. They KNOW we ‘want it all – now’. They KNOW we want to get stuff, make money, lose weight or whatever with the least effort possible.

And they also KNOW our society, especially those who have lost connection with their blood relations and/or ancestral homelands, suffers from an endemic identity crisis and are searching for ways to heal it – NOW.

And that is how they reel so many of us in.

Coming Up Next Time…

In Article 3 in this 4-part series, we will look at this issue around this delicate issue of ‘identity’. It’s available NOW at the link below:

MORE READING:   Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?

In that article, we’ll move away from the technical side of DNA testing and shift our attention to more ideological questions about who we all are as people. In that article, entitled ‘Ethnicity Vs. Cultural Identity. Trentino, Tyrolean, Italian?’ we will explore: 

  • TOPIC 4: Cultural Identity in a New World

  • TOPIC 5: What Does History Tell Us About Northern Italian Ethnicity?

While much of that article will give special attention to people of Trentino and/or northern Italian ancestry, I invite you to read it even if you have no such ancestry in your own tree, as it might give you some ideas about your own beliefs and approaches to ethnicity.

Finally, in Article 4, we will finally look in depth at ethnicity reports – how they come up with their data, what the data means, and how we genealogists – from ALL ethnic backgrounds – can help improve the future of DNA research. In that article, I will also share examples from my own reports, so you can see how data can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in context.

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all these articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online, you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in February and March 2019. 
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

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Join the dialogue!

DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

DNA Tests, Genealogy, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity
Ca. 1913. Anna Corona Onorati and her elder sister Maria Giuseppa Onorati, of Bono in Bleggio, Val Giudicarie, Trentino. Maria was my paternal grandmother.

Article 1 of 4. Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses fundamentals of genetics, Y-chromosome, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA tests and pedigree collapses.

Over the past few months on social media (especially on Facebook), I have been watching with interest a marked increase in conversations about DNA testing and its relevance to genealogy. This has been especially noticeable in groups exploring their northern Italian and/or Trentino ancestry. Amongst those of northern Italian descent, the ‘heated debates’ were mostly in response to AncestryDNA’s new algorithms for their ethnicity reports, which have suddenly – and seemingly inexplicable – relabelled many of us (including me) ‘French’.

As I watch people’s reactions to their DNA test results and ethnicity reports (from ANY DNA testing service, not just Ancestry) I see they are frequently confused, sometimes disappointed, and occasionally upset. I have often added my own opinions and insights when I see these online conversations, but the nature of social media is that the impact of any kind of complex discussion is often fragmented. 

For that reason, I decided to write this series of articles, where I will do my best to address what I believe are the most common causes of these understandable emotions amongst DNA testers:

  1. Unrealistic expectations about DNA testing (largely due to misleading media hype and advertising).

  2. Minimal or insufficient understanding of genetics in general.  

  3. Insufficient genealogical research of their own ancestry.

  4. Misunderstanding the difference between ethnicity, nationality and cultural identity.

  5. Lack of knowledge of the history of their ancestral homelands.

  6. Lack of understanding of how ethnicity reports are created, and what the information actually MEANS.

My purpose in writing this series is to help you become better informed on the subject, and not to discredit any of the DNA tests currently on the marketer or put readers off the idea of taking a DNA test. Quite the opposite, in fact: I believe that the more people of specific ancestries get tested, the more accurate and USEFUL the results will gradually become. I also believe we can make an impact on the future of research, when we combine DNA with meticulously-documented, traditional genealogy.

How the articles are organised:

NOTE: Be sure to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog using the subscription form at the right so you can receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling the articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a scientist or a geneticist. Nor am I an historian in the academic sense of the word. I am a genealogist and author specialising in the people of Trentino. I was a college teacher for many years, and I still teach workshops in Italian genealogy to various groups. Many years ago, I did post graduate work in social anthropology and world music. I have read a lot, observed a lot and researched a lot within the parameters of my work and my lifelong passion for social and cultural history. Genetics has always been a fascination of mine, as it plays a huge role in our understanding of our family histories, and our personal identities. I have done autosomal DNA testing through both AncestryDNA and 23AndMe, and I have also uploaded my raw data files to both GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA. Just this week, I also ordered autosomal and mtDNA tests from CRI Genetics (so I cannot comment on them in this article). Please bear my ‘mixed bag’ background in mind as you read this series. I would not wish to create yet more ‘unrealistic expectations’ for you by posing myself as an expert in genetics. I really am just like most people – learning as I go along.

PART 1: Our Unrealistic Expectations About DNA Testing

As a professional genealogist, I have subscriptions to just about every relevant genealogy website on the Internet. And when you have a lot of web subscriptions, you are also on a lot of mailing lists. So, it came as no surprise to me over the recent Christmas season that I received dozens of marketing emails from every genealogy site to which I subscribe, suggesting I buy their products as Christmas presents for friends and family members. And one of the number one ‘gifts’ being flogged this year by all the major sites this year was DNA testing kits.

Unfortunately, many of these marketing campaigns can create unrealistic expectations in their customers. With regards to ancestry (I’m not considering health reports or those for genetic traits), you will see two main promises:

  1. ETHNICITY: Marked by catch phrases like ‘discover your ancestors’ origins’ or ‘uncover your ethnic mix’.

  2. CONNECTION: Marked by catch phrases like ‘connect with relatives’, ‘discover long-lost family’ or ‘meet a distant cousin’.

The trouble is, NEITHER of these promises is 100% honest, and both are somewhat misleading.

Later in Article 3, when we look at ethnicity reports, we’ll see how and why ethnicity and ancestral origin reports are usually very ‘woolly’, imprecise, and often downright WRONG.

And while the media (and marketing campaigns) love to focus on success stories of people who were reunited with parents, siblings and other close relations after doing a DNA test, for most people, the reality of connecting with blood relations through DNA testing is much more challenging, as we will also see later.

Three Types of DNA Tests

Before you decide to spend your money on any DNA test, I strongly advise getting clear about what you wish to gain from being tested. Knowing what you want will determine which of the tree main types of DNA tests is best for you:

  1. Y-DNA – This test is specifically to trace your patrilineal ancestry (your father, his father, his father’s father, etc.). It is only available to men (as women don’t have a Y chromosome), but a female can explore this by asking her father, brother or a male cousin (he MUST be a son of her father’s brother) to get a Y-DNA test. This test is good if you are interested in tracing the history of a surname, for example. I have one client who is using Y-DNA testing to reconstruct the history of a specific Trentino family throughout the centuries.

  2. Mitochondrial (mtDNA) – This test is for tracing your matrilineal ancestry (your mother, her mother, her mother’s mother, etc.). Both men and women can take an mtDNA test, as we all inherit this from our mothers. Be aware that it does NOT tell you about all your female ancestors (i.e. it cannot tell you about your paternal grandmother, the mother of your maternal grandfather, etc.), but only the direct line of females from your mother back in time.

Both Y-DNA and Mitochondrial DNA change very slowly over time, which means these kinds of tests can reveal more about your ancient ethnicity/ancestry than autosomal testing. If you are interested to see how some scientists have used these tests to trace the ancient ancestry of one man, I highly recommend checking out the 2-part BBC television series ‘Meet the Izzards’. You can find it on YouTube at these links:

Meet the Izzards Part 1 – ‘Mother’: https://youtu.be/DIp_xtQelWA

Meet the Izzards Part 2 – ‘Father’: https://youtu.be/vMHQA2nS7tA

  1. Autosomal – This is the most commonly chosen and widely available DNA test, and only one currently offered by companies like AncestryDNA and 23AndMe. You would choose this kind of DNA test you if you are interested in your more recent ethnicity (the last few hundred years) and/or connecting with living people who are biologically related to you. Autosomal tests are also used by companies (23AndMe is an example) to create health profiles, showing which genes you have that may indicate a higher risk of developing certain diseases or conditions, or sensitivity to certain medications. Autosomal tests can also be used for discovering inherited traits, such as eye colour, the ability to roll your tongue, etc. Autosomal DNA tests are available to both men and women.

*** NOTE: I will ONLY be discussing AUTOSOMAL testing in this article series. ***

Choosing the Right Company

Aside from choosing the right test, your reasons for choosing one company over another should ideally have more to do with what they offer (and how that relates to what you want) than with price:

  • If your primary aim is to trace your patrilineal or matrilineal ancestry, there are currently only a few companies offering Y-DNA and/or mtDNA testing. FamilyTree DNA, National Geographic, CRI Genetics are the ones I know of, but there may be others.

  • If your primary aim is to get a health profile, then you might look into 23AndMe. CRI Genetics also has a health report, but I haven’t had it done, so I cannot say how detailed it is.

  • If your primary aim is to connect with living relatives (bearing in mind the caveats we’ll discuss later in this series), you would do best to go with the company with the biggest database of DNA testers, which is currently AncestryDNA.

  • If you’re really serious about finding living relatives, you would do better to get tested through multiple companies. The bigger the ‘net’ the more likely to ‘make a catch’.

  • If your primary aim is to get an ethnicity profile of your recent ancestry, pretty much all the testing companies will give this to you via autosomal DNA testing. However, as we’ll see later in this series, the results you will get are not always as precise as you might like. Also, as we will see, autosomal DNA (or at least our current understanding of it), by its very nature, cannot show details extending much further back than around 250 years (NOTE: that is an arbitrary figure I am gleaning from AncestryDNA’s ethnicity reports). Based on reviews, companies like FamilyTreeDNA and CRI Genetics seem to have a better reputation for accuracy and precision than Ancestry does, but I cannot yet vouch for either personally.

Rather than trying to review all the tests themselves (and they are bound to change over time anyway), I refer you to two good articles that compare a range of DNA tests available as of this date (albeit the one on the Family DNA site is predisposed towards their own product):

PART 2: Entry Level Genetics for Genealogists and Family Historians

Before dipping your toes into your chromosomes, I think it is important to understand a few basics about genetics in general. I don’t mean the scientific side so much as how it ‘works’ in our ancestral inheritance. To that end, I want to explain a little bit about autosomal DNA and how it is transmitted over time, as autosomal tests are the basis for the ethnicity reports people receive from most DNA testing services.

Autosomal DNA – Understanding the Basics

The following illustration gives us an idea of how autosomal DNA is passed on from parents to a child. It looks very simple; each parent gives 50% of his/her DNA to the child:

Autosomal DNA - 2 Generations

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

While, in principle, this seems simple, in reality, it is more complex than it looks.

Why? Because Father and Mother are not just ‘all red’ or ‘all blue’. Each of them has inherited 50% of their genes from their OWN parents.

Again, in principle, that sounds like it would be simple. Logically, it would mean the child inherits 25% of their genetic material from each of their grandparents. But, in practice, this is not exactly what happens. We can understand this better if we look at two children from the same couple:


Autosomal DNA, 3 Generations. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.com
Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

(Forgive any slight imprecision in the diagram; I did it by hand in Photoshop, and I’m not a graphic designer).

In the diagram above, we see three generations of autosomal DNA. Now, we see Father has inherited 50% of his DNA from his parents (red and yellow), and Mother has inherited 50% of her DNA from her parents (blue and purple).

But look, now, at the children. Each child has inherited 50% of their DNA from each of their parents. HOWEVER, the percentage of DNA from each ‘colour’ (i.e. each grandparent) is NOT an exact 25%. They receive more from one grandparent, and less from the other, until it adds up to the full 50% from that parent.

Note how Child 1 has a lot more yellow and blue DNA than Child 2, and Child 2 has a lot more red and purple DNA than Child 1. This is what makes siblings unique (except for identical twins, whose DNA are identical).

But it gets even more complicated, the more we work through the generations. Here’s a diagram of the same family with their great-grandparents added into the mix:Autosomal DNA, 4 Generations. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.com

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

From this diagram, we can see yet more diversity entering the ‘gene pool’. At each generation, children have inherited 50% of their DNA from their parents, but now (at least from Father and Mother down) we see how they continue to inherit DNA from their grandparents and the ancestors who came before in varying proportions.

Now, when we look at the two children, we see even greater diversity between them. Child 2, for example, carries a lot more DNA from their father’s paternal grandmother (green) than his/her sibling does.

But the OTHER thing we start to notice is how the slices of DNA are getting smaller, as they combine and recombine to fill in the 50% from each parent. This is an important point:

The AMOUNT of autosomal DNA
we inherit from specific ancestors
DECREASES over time.

Try to imagine, now, if I added another generation to this diagram…and then another, and another, ad infinitum. Not only would some of those colours become so narrow they would be hard to detect (and I would certainly have a rough time drawing them in Photoshop), but SOME of those colours might not appear in DNA tests at all.

This is why:

  • Siblings can sometimes receive slightly different ethnicity reports from the autosomal tests. It doesn’t mean they HAVE different ethnicities. It just means that one of them has genes that appear more in one ‘test group’ than the other (we’ll discuss test groups in the final part of this series).

  • One sibling might have a DNA match on Ancestry, etc. which the other sibling does not share. It doesn’t mean they are NOT both related to the DNA match. It just means that the specific genes they inherited matched the specific genes the ‘match’ inherited. In fact, one sibling could inherit the DNA from an ancestor whose DNA is completely absent in their siblings’ DNA.

  • Autosomal testing CANNOT really tell us our ‘ancient’ or ‘deep’ ancestry. Autosomal DNA is changing EVERY generation, whereas Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA (which CAN tell us our ancient ancestry) are not. So, don’t go into autosomal testing expecting to discover very ancient ancestral roots.

The Mysterious Case of ‘Faded Genes’

Scientists tell us we could indeed be a direct descendant of someone without having inherited ANY of that person’s DNA. The more distant our relation to an ancestor, the more likely this becomes.

While that is the ‘official’ belief amongst scientists, I personally believe we carry DNA of each and EVERY one of our ancestors inside of us, from the beginning of time – even if only in an infinitesimally small quantity.

I confess this is an utterly UN-scientific belief. But having researched so many ancestors for myself and so many others, I have come to believe it to be true, at what I might call a ‘spiritual’ level.

If science cannot yet ‘detect’ the presences of all those ancestors in our genes, I believe it is more a measurement of the current technological limitations than an indication that ancient DNA simply ‘fades away’ over time.

Again, this is simply my personal belief. But I suspect many others (especially genealogists) feel similarly.

Endogamy and Pedigree Collapses

To finish our discussion on autosomal DNA, I feel it is important to touch upon the subject of ‘endogamy’, and how this related to both DNA testing and genealogy.

‘Endogamy’ refers to the practice of small, insular groups intermarrying over many generations – often over many centuries. Intermarriage within one’s own social group occurred amongst ALL human societies, pretty much until the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of mass transportation. Having researched tens of thousands of families over the years, I would say that around 95% of the time, couples tended to marry within their own parish – and often within their own village/hamlet. Moreover, you will often see them intermarrying with the same families over the generations.

Continual intermarriage within a closed community will ALWAYS lead to the inevitability of some couples marrying who were related by blood. The technical term for a blood relationship is ‘consanguinity’ (literally ‘with blood’).

Many of us have heard stories about royal families intermarrying ‘too much’ (I’ll get to that in a minute), but the truth is consanguineous relationships between spouses occurs in ALL family trees, in all parts of the world, from the simple farmer up to kings and queens.

And the further you go back in time, the more of these ‘consanguineous’ ancestors you will find in your tree. In fact, when you start to plot out all the families in a parish over a long period of time (as I am doing for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio), you will start to see that pretty much EVERYONE alive today who is descended from someone in that parish is related to pretty much everyone else – whether they realise it or not. Moreover, if you look back in time to, say, around 500 years ago, you will see that pretty much everyone who was alive THEN in that parish is your ancestor.

It’s a bit mind-bending.

There isn’t a person on earth who, does not have at least some ancestors who married someone who was related to them by blood. It doesn’t mean they were closely related. 4th cousins, for example, were not considered ‘close’ in terms of canonical (Church) law. And more distant relations than that, people didn’t even CONSIDER were ‘related’ to them at all.

But while the Church and its parishioners might not consider 5th cousins and beyond to be ‘relatives’, from a genealogical perspective – and in terms of DNA – they most certainly are.

Every time you have a pair of consanguineous ancestors, it creates something called a ‘pedigree collapse’. Normally, we expect the number of our ancestors to multiply by two at each generation, as we move back in time. But when there is a consanguineous relationship between a husband and wife, it means they share a common ancestor (or, more frequently, a pair of common ancestors). Thus, when we move backwards in time to the generation at which their common ancestors occur, there will be FEWER than double then number of ancestors (minus two, to be precise).

Here are a couple of diagrams to illustrate what I mean:Autosomal DNA, 2nd grade consanguinity. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.com

Click on image to see it larger in a new window.

In this diagram, Father’s mother and Mother’s father were brother and sister. This means that Father and Mother above are actually 1st cousins (In reality, most consanguineous marriages are more distant than 1st cousins, but this was the simplest diagram I could draw to illustrate a pedigree collapse). The Catholic church calls this ‘2nd grade consanguinity’ because the blood connections is found  two generations back from the couple who are marrying (i.e. Father and Mother’s grandparents).

Look all the way at the top of the diagram, you will see that Father’s maternal grandparents are the SAME colours as mother’s paternal grandparents (yellow and brown). This is because they are the SAME couple.

Thus, a more accurate diagram to show what is going on is this:
Autosomal DNA, 2nd grade consanguinity, pedigree collapse. Diagram by Lynn Serafinn, http://trentinogenealogy.comClick on image to see it larger in a new window.

Instead of the expected eight grandparents for Mother and Father, we have only SIX. This is why we call it a ‘collapse’: instead of the number of your ancestors multiplying by two at every generation, whenever there is a consanguineous marriage, there will be fewer than the expected number of ancestors – two fewer if both ancestors are shared, and one fewer if only one of them is shared (e.g. if Father’s mother and Mother’s father we step-siblings instead of full siblings).

Really, pedigree collapses are a simple matter of statistics: If we look back at the human population of the planet over the millennia, doubling our ancestors at every generation is mathematical impossibility. There simply weren’t enough people living on the planet for us to have two completely unrelated ancestors for every generation in our history.

SIDE NOTE: In the future I will be publishing an article on this site discussing how to recognise consanguineous marriages and pedigree collapses in your family tree, and also how to USE these as clues to piecing together genealogical riddles in earlier generations.

Collapsing the ‘Gene Pool’

Have a look now at the two CHILDREN of the consanguineous couple in the diagram above. Do you notice anything different compared to the earlier diagram were there were eight great-grandparents?

I’ve deliberately exaggerated the results for purpose of demonstration, but if you look closely at Child 1, you might notice he/she has TWO sets of yellow DNA. In fact, the amount of yellow in the diagram (and remember, it’s just my own drawing, and isn’t scientific) is close to 50% of the child’s DNA. This is because Child 1 just happened to get a double whammy of ‘yellow’ from both Mother and Father, via their shared ancestor.

Let’s consider some of the implications for the children in this diagram:

  • Child 1 and 2 are not just siblings; they are also 1st cousins, 1st removed.

  • If Child 1 were to grow up and marry yet another close descendant (another 1st cousin, for example) of the ‘yellow’ great-grandfather, there is a strong chance that their children would inherit and even higher percentage of ‘yellow’ DNA, for the simple reason that there is that much less diversity in the genes to pass on to their descendants. If that DNA happened to contain genes associated for certain health conditions that were normally ‘recessive’, it would make that child more susceptible to developing those conditions. This is what happened to many of the European royal families, including Queen Victoria’s family and the Hapsburgs.

  • Child 2’s genes appear to be a bit more evenly spread out, but there is always a chance that he/she has also inherited the recessive gene for a disease or serious health condition. So if this child marries another closely related descendant of the ‘yellow’ grandfather, there may be a higher risk that the condition will get ‘switched on’ in the next generation.

Even though you might discover many pedigree collapses in your family tree, a marriage between cousins does not automatically mean their children will inherit health risks. Moreover, marriages between more distant cousins (3rd and 4th cousin marriages were fairly common in the past) still allowed for a fairly diverse ‘gene pool’, especially if cousins from the SAME lineage did not intermarry at the next generation. Consanguinity between marital partners only becomes a genetic risk when close cousins intermarry repeatedly throughout the generations, without ever (or hardly ever) introducing ‘fresh blood’ into the gene pool. This was not the case for most of our ancestors

How Pedigree Collapses Affect Your DNA Test Results

Many people do DNA testing to find and connect with living relatives. Sites like Ancestry can sometimes give you lists of hundreds of ‘cousins’, with whom you share at least SOME DNA according to their tests. Sometimes these DNA matches show up as ‘probable’ 2nd, 3rd or 4th cousins. But others might show up as ‘3rd to distant cousins’ or something equally vague.

One of the reasons for such vagueness is the presence of (possibly many) pedigree collapses.

Because endogamy can cause your genes to become more ‘saturated’ (for lack of a better word) with the genes of certain ancestral lines, a cousin might show up who shares enough common genetic material to be your 3rd cousin in theory, but in fact is your 6th (or even more distant) cousin. Thus, if the two of you try to find your common ancestors at the 3rd cousin level (great-great-grandparents), you simply won’t find them, and are likely to become confused (and possibly doubtful about your own family tree) if you try to.

Moreover, the more pedigree collapses each of you has in your ancestry, the more ‘off’ these estimates will be.

The only way to SEE how you are connected is for both of you to have traced your family history – through genealogy, not DNA.

My gut tells me (although this is just a HUNCH based on logic, and not any scientific evidence) that endogamy can also skew our ethnicity reports. In other words, if the genes for one ancestral line are disproportionately pronounced in our DNA due to pedigree collapses, would it not give the ‘appearance’ of us being ‘more’ of something than we actually are? For example, if we had inherited a lot of ‘yellow’, and ‘yellow’ was associated with a particular ethnic or geographic group in a tester’s DNA database, wouldn’t our ethnicity reports show us as being a high percentage of whatever that ethnicity happened to be – even if it weren’t the ethnic group to which we believed we belong?

To get into the heart of such a ‘loaded’ question, we first need to get clear about what exactly ethnicity is – and what it is not – as well as how DNA testing sites ARRIVE at their ‘ethnicity estimates’.

Coming Up Next Time…

This seems like the perfect place to end the first instalment of this article series, as next time, in Article 2, we will be addressing the next topic on our list, namely:

  • PART 3: Why DNA Testing is NOT a Substitute for Genealogical Research

In that article, we will examine some of the misconceptions people have about DNA tests, how relationship estimates are formed to identify ‘DNA Matches’, and the many the challenges around identifying your connections with DNA matches. We’ll also look at the technique of ‘triangulation’, as well as how ‘endogamy’ can sometimes blur relationship estimates.

YOU CAN READ IT NOW AT:

MORE READING:   Why DNA Tests Are NO Substitute for Genealogical Research

I invite you to subscribe to the Trentino Genealogy blog, to make sure you receive all the articles in the special series on DNA testing, as well as all our future articles. After the series is complete, I will also be compiling all the articles into a FREE downloadable PDF available for a limited time to all subscribers. If you are viewing online you will find the subscription form on the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

(Closing thought: If you are interested to go more deeply into the fascinating world of genetics, I highly recommend checking out the beautifully written book called A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: the stories of our genes by Adam Rutherford. I assure you it is NOT overly scientific; rather it’s extremely engaging and often funny. I think it’s a terrific book title too.)

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento will be in February and March 2019. 
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

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How Cemeteries Can Help Grow Your Family Tree

How Cemeteries Can Help Grow Your Family Tree
Panoramic view of a section of Trento Monumental Cemetery (Cimitero Monumentale di Trento), Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.

Trentino Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses cemeteries in Italy, and shares tips on how gravestones can help you discover more about your ancestors.

Like so many other genealogists and family historians, I love walking through cemeteries. I don’t see them as morbid or spooky, as so much of our popular culture portrays them. I see them as profound expressions of love, admiration, community and social values.

But cemeteries can also be rich sources of historical information, and catalysts that can help us discover many things we might not have known about our families. Sometimes, a random gravestone can turn out to belong to an ancestor, a distant cousin, or a family member of someone else you may not have met yet.

In this article, I want to give you a taste for how cemeteries can help you in your quest for constructing your family history, so you can start to discover and unlock the treasures they may hold. We will look at:

  • The Pros and Cons of Working with ‘Virtual’ Cemeteries
  • The Limitations and Inaccuracies on Gravestones of Immigrants
  • Why There Are No Ancient Graves in Italian Cemeteries
  • Parish Cemeteries vs. Frazioni Cemeteries
  • How Women Are Recorded on Trentino Gravestones
  • Gleaning Information and Identifying People You Don’t Know
  • Family Groups on Trentino Gravestones
  • How Gravestones Can Reveal More Than Just Dates
  • Expanding Your Research and Leaving a Legacy

The Pros and Cons of Working with ‘Virtual’ Cemeteries

I’ve observed that descendants of Italian immigrants often want to jump right into finding their ancestors in Italy before taking ample time to gather as much documentation as they can in their ‘adopted’ country. When we talk about Trentini descendants, those countries are typically either the US or somewhere in South America. I recently had a client who lived in England but, like me, had moved here from the US about 20 years ago. This client’s ancestors were not actually from Trentino, but from Genova. Since moving away from her birth place of Chicago, and since the passing away of her parents and other elders of the family, she had lost her connection to the family lore and had little information that could help us get to the point where we could start researching her family’s ancestor in the Italian records.

When I took on the project, the first thing I wanted to do was fill in the blanks of her family AFTER they had emigrated from Italy. For that, one of the most valuable resources was Find-A-Grave, a website containing millions of memorials from cemeteries around the world, all submitted by volunteers. It is, if you will, a collection of ‘virtual’ cemeteries viewable to anyone with Internet access.

Using Find-A-Grave immediately opened a floodgate of information for my client’s family tree. Not only did I find death dates, but many people are linked together, showing connections between spouses, children, siblings, etc. This information enabled me to construct entire families, which I later cross-checked with other online sources like Ancestry and Family Search.

Additionally, some of the memorials contained obituaries from local newspapers, which gave me even more information – including information about when my client’s ancestors first came over from Genova. This led me to find immigration documents. Using what I found in these virtual cemeteries, I was able to glean enough information about her family’s Italian origins to make me confident I could start tackling the Italian records. From there, things became much easier for me, and I quickly managed to take her family tree back to the mid-1700s with a day’s work.

*** FREE RESOURCE ***

Click HERE to download a PDF list of cemeteries in North and South America known to have the graves of many Trentini (aka Tyrolean) immigrants, with links to their pages on Find-A-Grave. No sign-up or email address is required.

But while using Find-A-Grave was a great success on this project, the site does have its limitations.

  • All content on the site is provided solely by its users, so the data is as accurate or inaccurate as the people who enter it. TIP: If you see a mistake on a memorial in Find-A-Grave, you can (and should) send a suggested correction to the moderator of that page.
  • Not all cemeteries are listed. TIP: You CAN add a cemetery if it is missing (and I encourage you to do so), but be sure to check it isn’t already listed under a slightly different name.
  • Most cemeteries listed are in the United States. In fact, there are only a handful of cemeteries listed on Find-A-Grave from the province of Trento (CLICK HERE to see what they are). TIP: Again, I encourage you to add cemeteries you know in Trentino, but if you do, it is wise to enter them under their Italian name. Also, you MUST put ‘Provincia di Trento’ after the name of the comune, as that is how Find-A-Grave refers to and recognises locations in the province.

Limitations and Inaccuracies on Gravestones of Immigrants

While cemeteries can provide us with vital pieces of our ancestral puzzle, my observation of gravestones in our ancestors’ adopted countries (especially the US) is that:

  • They often lack detail. Frequently they only have the death date (sometimes only the year), without a date of birth (or at least the year). Even more rarely do they contain much information about who the person was in life, or about his/her relationship within the family.
  • They are full of mistakes. Information on gravestones is supplied by a surviving member of the family. Family members – especially children of immigrants – can be inaccurate about dates, names, etc. Back in their ‘old country’, the family would have had access to the original documents via their local parish priest. But without that historic connection to their place of birth, the family has no such stream of information. People who emigrated at a young age (or were BORN in their adopted country) will often mishear, misunderstand, mix up or COMBINE two places, names or events. This results in a muddle of mis-information and false beliefs that will always be some variation on the truth. My cousins, aunts, uncles – even my own parents – were all prone to these kinds of false beliefs. I had to do a LOT of unlearning, relearning and re-educating when I embarked on this genealogical journey.

Equally (and possibly MORE) prone to errors are the obituaries that may have been published in local newspapers. The original information is provided to the newspaper by the surviving family who, as I’ve already said, can frequently get things wrong. Then the newspapers themselves can (and often DO) compound the errors, especially when it comes to the spelling of names and places unfamiliar to them. Birth, marriage and arrival dates will often be wrong, as well. Hopefully they at least get the death date right!

Why There Are No Ancient Graves in Italian Cemeteries

Now, let’s cross the ocean and go back to the patria to have a look at cemeteries in Trentino (or anywhere in Italy).

One of the first things people comment on when they visit an Italian cemetery for the first time is the practice of putting photographs of the deceased on the gravestones. This can be an exciting discovery for the family historian, as they can finally put faces to some of the names they have been researching.

But once they get over that novelty, the next thing they notice – often with some amount of confusion and disappointment – is the ABSENCE of old gravestones. I mean, some of these parish churches go back over 700 years or more; surely we are going to find plenty of fascinating, ancient gravestones in their cemeteries, right?

Well…no.

Yes, you are likely to find old tombs of priests and patron families inside the church dating back many centuries, and you might also find a few older headstones for priests or patrons (perhaps from the 18th century) affixed to the outer walls of the church or perimeter wall of the cemetery. But other than these:

most gravestones are likely to be no older than about 80 years.

This is because, in many European countries, a coffin is exhumed at some point after burial and the skeletal remains are removed from the grave and placed in an ossuary – typically a box, building, well or wall. Then, the same grave is used to bury someone more recently deceased.

This removal of bones has nothing to do with religious practice, but with practical necessity: if everyone who ever died in the parish were put into a coffin and buried under their headstone forever, the space required for the dead would soon take over the land needed for the living.

Just what ‘at some point’ means seems vary in different parts of Italy. I recently read an account where a person’s grandfather’s remains were exhumed only 10 years after he died (the writer expressed some understandable distress). In my father’s parish, however, they appear to wait a couple generations before transferring the bones. That way, the spouse and children of the deceased (and probably most of the people who once knew the deceased in life) are also likely to have passed away. Certainly, this is a more sensitive arrangement.

SIDE STORY: Once when I was showing the underground crypt in Santa Croce to some American cousins, the lady who had unlocked the church for us found a small piece of (very old-looking) jawbone that had fallen out of the wall in a small alcove. She sheepishly whispered a request for us not to say anything about it to anyone, and she respectfully put the bone back into the wall. At the time, I thought she might have been worried teams of archaeologists would descend upon the church and tear it apart. Later, I realised this was probably the site of an ancient ossuary, and she may have wished to avoid upsetting anyone. The crypt itself is at least 1,000 years old, and it was built on the site of an older, Longobard (Lombard) church.

Parish Cemeteries vs. Frazioni Cemeteries

In larger parishes with many frazioni (hamlets) spread out over a wide area, you will often find small satellite churches serving these communities, some of which might have cemeteries of their own. In these cemeteries, you might get lucky and find a few older graves, especially if the family was prominent in that frazione.

For example, when I first went to the main parish cemetery for Santa Croce del Bleggio, I was disappointed not to find the graves of my Serafini great-grandparents, who died in the 1930s.  But when I visited the cemetery adjacent the little church of San Felice in the frazione of Bono, where my grandmother’s Onorati family had lived for many centuries, I found the graves of my Onorati great-grandparents who had died earlier, in the 1920s. I believe the reason may be partially due to the Onoratis’ historical prominence in Bono; but the frazione is also tiny, and the cemetery is not nearly as crowded as the main parish cemetery. Some frazioni cemeteries are even larger than the main parish cemetery.

Remember also that married women are most likely buried in the parish (or frazione) in which they lived with their husband. Unmarried women will most likely be buried in the parish (or frazione) in which they were raised. So, when you make your trip to Trentino, be sure to ask whether there is more than one cemetery in the parish. You might discover your ancestors in a place different from where you had expected.

How Women’s Names Are Recorded on Trentino Gravestones

Identifying women on gravestones can often be more challenging than identifying men, as the way they appear will vary according to culture.

For example, because women in the US, Britain and many other countries take the surname of their husband when they marry, they are nearly always referred to by their married names on their headstones when they die in their adopted homeland. In such a scenario, a woman’s gravestone might not be very useful for research, as it doesn’t offer much information about her origins.

In contrast, Italian women retain their maiden names throughout life, even if they have been married for decades. Thus, MOST of the time, a gravestone will give some sort of reference to both her maiden and married name.

There are three common conventions for recording a woman’s name on a headstone. Let’s look at each in turn.

‘Nata’ or ‘N.’ (indicating birth name)

Typically, if a woman is buried in the same plot as her married husband and/or children, she will be referred to by her married name, BUT it will usually have the word nata’ (or its abbreviation ‘N.’), which means ‘born’ (feminine gender).

Here is an example from the frazione of Balbido in Santa Croce del Bleggio. The family name is Riccadonna, and you can tell from the photo and the layout of the stone that we are looking at the grave of a husband (Cesare), wife (Colomba) and one of their children (a son named Danielle, born in 1926, although the date is hard to see behind the flowers). Below Colomba’s name it says ‘N. Brunelli’ (nata Brunelli); thus, her birth name is Colomba Brunelli.

Gravestone of Cesare Riccadonna and his wife Colomba Brunelli, Balbido cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy
Gravestone of Cesare Riccadonna and his wife Colomba Brunelli, Balbido cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy

Below is another clear example of ‘N.’, from the frazione cemetery in Tignerone in Santa Croce del Bleggio. This is the grave of Ersilia Bleggi, who was born Ersilia Gusmerotti in 1879:

1952: Grave of Ersilia Gusmerotti (married name Bleggi), Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy
1952: Grave of Ersilia Gusmerotti (married name Bleggi), Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino, Italy

Lastly, here is another example of ‘N.’ on an older, more weather-worn stone from the parish of Saone. On this stone, they have written the surname before the personal name, i.e. ‘Bondi, Catterina, nata Buganza,’ who ‘died on 20 February 1903 at the age of 60’:

1903 grave of Catterina Buganza (married name Bondi), Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1903 grave of Catterina Buganza (married name Bondi), Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

‘In’ (indicating married name)

Sometimes a woman’s birth name is given first, followed by her married surname prefixed by the word ‘in’. I have noticed this is most frequently used if the woman happened to be buried in the grave or tomb of her birth family (which could be in a different parish or frazione from her husband’s).

For example, the BIRTH name of the woman in the gravestone below is ‘Giustina Parisi’. But if you look beneath her name, it says ‘in Gasperini’. It’s a little worn, so the ‘I’ is a bit hard to see, but it is definitely ‘in’, not ‘n’. The surname is also partially worn off, but it is definitely Gasperini:

1974 grave of Giustina Parisi (born 1894), married name Gasperini, Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1974 grave of Giustina Parisi (born 1894), married name Gasperini, Tignerone cemetery, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

Here is a clearer example of ‘in’ from an ossuary in the Cimitero Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery) in the City of Trento:

1958 Gravestone for Maria Parisi (born 1920), married name Pisetta, Trento Municipal (aka Monumental) Cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1958 Gravestone for Maria Parisi (born 1920), married name Pisetta, Trento Municipal (aka Monumental) Cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

VIDEO: See a video I took at the Cimitero Monumentale di Trento when I visited it in July 2018 (second on page).

‘Vedova’ ‘ved’ or ‘v.’ (indicating she was widowed)

If a woman’s husband predeceased her, she will be referred to as his widow (vedova in Italian) in records and on her headstone. In this case, the stone will give her birth name, followed by the word ‘vedova’, ‘ved.’ or simply ‘v.’, which is then followed by her late husband’s surname.

For example, this placard for Libera Bondi, widow of (someone named) Marchiori, was attached to the top of the family headstone in the parish of Saone in Val Giudicarie (I took this shot in 2016; it may have since been engraved):

2012 grave of Libera Bondi (born 1919), widow of Marchiori, Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
2012 grave of Libera Bondi (born 1919), widow of Marchiori, Saone cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

The question, of course, is WHO is the late Mr. Marchiori? We’ll come back to that question in a moment.

This next stone is from Cimitero Monumentale in the City of Trento. In this case, the woman’s birth name was Anna Pegoretti and she was married to Giovanni Casotti, whose name is right above hers. You can see he predeceased her by more than three decades. The fact that Anna is cited as his widow indicates she never remarried (and was already almost 60 when her husband passed away):

1995 grave of Anna Pegoretti, widow of Giovanni Casotti, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1995 grave of Anna Pegoretti, widow of Giovanni Casotti, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

Gleaning Information and Identifying People You Don’t Know

None of the people whose gravestones I shared above are ancestors of mine. In fact, I took those photos out of a sense of curiosity rather than any specific investigative motive.

But as a genealogist, my natural curiosity often leads me to seek out details about a person I find on a gravestone, even if I don’t know them. When I do, I often discover I am connected to them in some unexpected way.

Let’s take Colomba Riccadonna, born Brunelli, from the first gravestone I showed you above. The stone says she was born in 1893.

As she was born between 1815 and 1923, I used the online database created by the Archivio di Trento called Nati in Trentino to find out who Colomba was. All I had to do is plug in her name and year of birth. Luckily, there was only one Colomba Brunelli born that year:

1893 baptismal record listing for Colomba Maria Brunelli, from Nati in Trentino online database.
1893 baptismal record listing for Colomba Maria Brunelli, from Nati in Trentino online database.

I also used Nati in Trentino to try to identify Cesare, but there were actually two Cesares born in 1887, so I needed to find their marriage record to learn which one he was. I also searched for additional children for the couple and found a daughter born in 1923. They probably had other children, but the online database doesn’t go past 1923.

When I entered Colomba into my tree, I discovered she was a distant cousin (7th cousin 1X removed). Not exactly a close relation, but you never know what such a connection might lead to later.

I used the same process to discover the birth information for Ersilia Gusmerotti, Giustina Parisi and Catterina Buganza, and discovered:

  • ERSILIA was my 7th cousin 2X removed.
  • GIUSTINA was my 3rd cousin 2X removed.
  • CATTERINA was the great-grandmother of one of my clients. I hadn’t planned it that way; I just happened to have taken the photo when I was in Saone on a previous trip. Las month, when I was working on that client’s tree, I looked through my photo archive and discovered I had a picture of her great-grandmother’s grave.

You never really know who or what you will discover when you start taking photos of random gravestones. I could never have predicted a photo I took a couple of years ago would end up being the great-grandmother of one of my future clients. But my client was thrilled to see the photo, as she’s never been to Saone, and this took her closer to her roots.

Family Groups on Trentino Gravestones

Many gravestones in Trentino will contain names from an entire family group. To demonstrate this, let’s go back to the widowed Libera Bondi and look at the full image of the stone on which she appears:

Grave for the family of Modesto Marchiori and Elisabetta Bondi, Saone, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
Grave for the family of Modesto Marchiori and Elisabetta Bondi, Saone, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

The primary surname on this stone is MARCHIORI, and the patriarch is Modesto, on the left. To his right, we see ‘Elisabetta Marchiori, born Bondi’. Looking at the dates, we can ASSUME Elisabetta was Modesto’s wife. Of course, we would need to verify that with documentation (I already have, and they were indeed husband and wife).

Moving down the stone, we come to Giuseppe (born 1910) and Antonio (born 1912), with no surname mentioned. The omission of a surname implies they share the same family surname, i.e. Marchiori. Again, looking at the dates, we might guess that Giuseppe and Antonio were the sons of Modesto and Elisabetta. To verify this theory, I looked them up on Nati in Trentino. Sure enough, I found them listed amongst Modesto’s and Elisabetta’s children, along with several other siblings.

But now we have the question of the two women: Emilia (born Biancotto) and Libera (born Bondi). We can assume they were probably married to these two sons. But who was married to whom?

While there is no online resource to answer this question, I was fortunate enough to have access to the family anagraphs for Saone for this era when I was doing research in Trento recently, where I found this entry for Modesto’s family:

Anagraph for the family of Modesto Marchiori (born 1867), Saone parish records, Archivio Diocesano di Trento, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.
Anagraph for the family of Modesto Marchiori (born 1867), Saone parish records, Archivio Diocesano di Trento, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy.

Anagraphs (called ‘Stato delle Anime’, or ‘State of Souls’ when they appear in the parish records) are records of family groups and contain a wealth of information, including dates of birth, confirmation, marriage and death. They can also include the names of the spouses in the annotations column at the right. In most places, anagraphs were started in the mid to late 19th century. The various comuni also started recording them in the 19th century, maintaining them at the registry of anagraphs; but so far, I have only dealt with those kept by the church.

In the ‘Annotazioni’ (annotations) column in the anagraph above, the priest has recorded that Giuseppe was married to Libera Bondi and Antonio was married to Emilia Biancotto, with dates of their respective marriages (I know it’s difficult to read here, but I have a larger, full-colour image on my computer that shows it more clearly).

So, while the gravestone didn’t give us all the information we needed, it certainly pointed us in the right direction, giving us clues about what we should look for next. Thus, it was a crucial part of our research.

As it turns out, this family group are ALSO related to my afore-mentioned client, as Elisabetta (Elisa) Bondi was the daughter of her great-grandmother Catterina Buganza, and sister of her grandfather. In other words, Elisa was her great-aunt. Tracing this family helped me identify many of her close cousins.

How Gravestones Can Reveal More Than Just Dates

If you analyse every aspect of a gravestone, you will often find it contains a lot more information than dates alone. Sometimes you can discover a person’s occupation, gain insight into their personal character, or get a feeling for their relationship with their family and community.

On a recent visit to Cimitero Monumentale in the City of Trento, I took dozens of photos of graves, many of which contained clues about the kinds of people who had been laid to rest. Here are two highlights:

1933 ossuary gravestone for Secondo Bertoldi, pharmacist, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
1933 ossuary gravestone for Secondo Bertoldi, pharmacist, Trento Monumental cemetery, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

This photo is of the ossuary memorial for a man named Secondo Bertoldi. The stone tells us he was born in Lavarone on 20 Aug 1872 and died in Trento on 20 Feb 1933 (Roman numerals are used for the months). But it also tells us he was a chemist/pharmacist (here in England, pharmacists are also called chemists, but the term is not generally used in the US). Additionally, it says he was a ‘fervent patriot’, and that he lived his life in a loving way and by doing good. It also says that his wife, Anna Maria Bosetti, arranged for this stone to be laid as a ‘loving and tearful memory’ of Secondo. All these words give us a much richer picture of who Secondo was than what we might have learned from documents alone.

Sometimes even the most minimal of headstones can lead to a potentially interesting story. Here’s another photo I took in the ossuary at the Trento cemetery:

Ossuary gravestone for sisters Maria and Giuseppina Vitti of Trento, who died in 1968 and 1974. Cimitero Monumentale di Trento, Trento, Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy
Ossuary gravestone for sisters Maria and Giuseppina Vitti of Trento, who died in 1968 and 1974. Cimitero Monumentale di Trento, Trento, Trentino Alto-Adige, Italy

The stone merely says ‘Vitti Sisters’, and then gives their first names and years of birth/death. A quick search on Nati in Trentino told me that Giuseppina (born 27 Aug 1888) and her sister Maria (born 15 Oct 1890) were both born in the city of Trento in the parish of Santi Pietro e Paolo (Saints Peter and Paul), and were the only two daughters of Andrea Vitti and Santa Tommasi. The sisters also had two brothers, but I don’t know anything other than their dates of birth.

Apart from this, I know nothing at all about this family. But the fact that these two sisters – both of advanced age (78 and 86) – were laid to rest in the same grave AND they were referred to by their birth names leads me to theorise that neither sister married. It also leads me to think they were probably very close throughout their lives. While these are just my own guesses based solely on what I am seeing in the stone, these guesses might help point me in the right direction if I were to research this family in depth.

Expanding Your Research and Leaving a Legacy

Whether you are planning a visit to a local cemetery, or you are hoping to visit some cemeteries when you are in Trentino, be sure to bring a camera and photograph as many graves as you can, even if you have no clue WHO the people are. If the cemetery is very large – or if the thought of dealing with all those photos is a bit overwhelming – focus on photographing stones containing one or two specific surnames.

And remember, when in Trentino, don’t just visit the main parish cemetery; ask if there are other cemeteries in the frazioni where your ancestors may have lived.

Don’t worry about trying to make sense of who is who when you are taking your photos. That will only slow you down and make it less enjoyable. Look at your trip as a kind of ‘treasure hunt’ where your mission is to get as many good photos as you can. Be sure to get the WHOLE stone in your photo, so you can see all the words in context. They may not mean anything to you now, but they may mean something important later.

And don’t forget that graves in Italy don’t stay around forever. A few years from now…

your photo might end up being the only tangible evidence of a person’s grave,
as the remains and headstone for that person may soon be moved – or removed altogether.

Consider SHARING your images on your tree on Ancestry, as well as on Find-A-Grave. That way, you are not only helping yourself, but also making it easier for OTHER Trentini descendants to find the graves of their own family members. Your photo might mean the world to a complete stranger many years from now.

BRIGHT IDEA: Perhaps we could create a ‘virtual party’ for the purpose of creating all the Trentini cemeteries on Find-A-Grave and entering our family’s memorials on there. We could use our Trentino Genealogy Facebook group to coordinate it. What do you think?

I hope this article has helped you understand more about interpreting gravestones in Trentino, and has also inspired you to go out and start recording as many Trentino graves as you can – as soon as possible, before they disappear.

I look forward to your comments. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S. My next trip to Trento is from 21 Oct 2018 to 15 Nov 2018.
If are considering asking me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.
Then, can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

P.P.S.: Whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy!
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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View my family tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/110809816/family

Lynn Serafinn
Lynn Serafinn

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author, online marketing consultant and genealogist specialising in the families of the Giudicarie, where her father was born. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

Through extensive research, she has already linked together thousands of Trentini in an extended family tree.  Her current research project is called ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity,’ the goal of which is create a genealogical ‘map’ of everyone either born in Bleggio, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1400s to the current era, to serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

CLICK HERE to read about Lynn’s genealogical research project:
“One Tree. One Family. One Humanity”.

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES
currently being researched in the “One Tree” project.

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Was One of Your Trentino Ancestors a Notary?

Was One of Your Trentino Ancestors a Notary?
1521 legal document drafted and signed by notary Sebastiano Genetti, son of Giovanni, of Castelfondo in Trentino.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn explains role of the notary in Trentino society, and how discover exciting details about your notary ancestors in church and civil documents.

One afternoon in 2014, I was sitting a kitchen in the tiny frazione of Bono, in the parish of Santa del Croce. I had just had the thrill of being reconnected with my long-lost 2nd cousins, the grandchildren of the elder brother (Erminio Onorati) of my paternal grandmother (Maria Giuseppa Onorati). Located in the Giudicarie Valley, Bono has been the home of the Onorati family for at least the past 600 years – probably centuries longer. And this grand, multi-storied mountain house in which we were sitting – although beautifully remodelled and modernised – had been the home of our Onorati ancestors for unknown generations.

As my cousins shared precious old photos of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ families with me, we also shared stories about our childhood families – on both sides of the Atlantic – As we shared our filò, my cousins mentioned that the Onorati were renowned in the Giudicarie because they had been ‘notaries’ for many centuries.

At first, I didn’t understand the significance of being a notary (notaio), as my past experiences with notaries hadn’t made particularly lasting impressions on me.  When I was a teen in the US, I went to a notary at the post office to get an application endorsed for my first passport. Many years later, after I had moved to the UK, I went to a notary who endorsed some legal documents for me. To be honest, I don’t even remember what those papers were anymore! In short, a ‘notary’ was someone so much on the periphery of my daily life that I kind of gave them no thought at all. So, naturally, when my cousins inferred that being a notaio was some really big deal, I realised they were probably talking about something with which I wasn’t actually familiar.

Since then, I have studied and learned a great deal about notai (plural of notaio) and discovered many notaio families in both my clients’ ancestries and my own. Identifying notai in our family trees can be an exciting discovery, as it brings depth to our understanding of their lives, education, social status and even marital customs.

That why I thought it would be a great idea to write an introductory article just about notaries in Trentino. So today, we’ll explore who the notai were in Trentino society, how to find out more about our notary ancestors, and how their presence on our family trees can enrich our understanding of our Trentino heritage.

The Profession of the Notaio

While most of us in English-speaking countries think of a notary simply as someone who endorses signatures on official documents, in Italy they served (and still serve) a much more significant role in government and daily life.

A notaio is a legal professional whose title is granted either by a sovereign or by a local authority. In the past, those appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor (or the Austrian Emperor, after the HRE collapsed) were called notaries with imperial authority.

Performing his duties within an assigned territory/jurisdiction, a notary served the public by giving legal certainty to deeds, contracts, wills, trade agreements, legalization of signatures, etc. for his clients.

From what I have seen, notaries were often a varied mix of scribe, contract lawyer, registrar and (occasionally) tax collector.

The Education of the Notaio

A notaio was a highly-educated man. He was literate in both his native tongue as well as Latin. He was also fully educated in law, contracts and legal requirements. He also had to have very clear handwriting (unlike some of the priests who maintained parish records!) to ensure his contracts were legible. That said, some notaries used special scribes to draft the document, and which they then signed and authorised with their own official mark.

In a time of wide-spread illiteracy, their high degree of education, endorsements from legal authorities, and the vital role they played within their communities meant the notai were especially elevated in social status.

The Notaio in Society

Some the more renowned and experienced notai would work at the regional castles, or as personal assistants to specific government or church officials. I have also seen a few go on to become court judges and law makers.

But the majority of notai worked within their own local communities. This meant that they knew the families for which they performed their duties. Every official document, every official bill of sale or land agreement, every legal dispute, Will, dowry or inheritance settlement would have been drafted and handwritten by a local notary, who would sign the document with his official hand-drawn mark, used only by him.

Our contadini (farmer) ancestors didn’t go to some distant, impersonal government office to get these documents made and signed. Their local notaio would typically meet with them (along with the required witnesses) in a neighbour’s sitting room or courtyard, or sometimes in the rectory of the church (often in the presence of the parish priest). We know this because the notary always records the place in which the document was written and signed.

How Can You Know If Your Ancestor Was a Notary?

If your ancestor was a notaio, there will be obvious indications in any parish records in which he is named.

First of all, a parish record will very often SAY notaio (if the record is in Italian) or notarius (if the record is in Latin). This is especially the case if the person is serving in some official capacity at an event, (such as a witness at a wedding), but it would generally be mentioned even if it is talking about the father of a baptised child, the father of someone who is getting married, etc.

Secondly, the name of a notary is almost always preceded with some sort of honourific term, the most common of which are ‘spectacularus’ (often abbreviated as ‘spec’), egregio and excellentia. Any of these terms would convey a similar meaning to ‘the illustrious’, ‘the honourable’, ‘his excellency’, etc. Be aware, however, that these honourifics may also be used with rural nobility (and sometimes doctors), who may or may not be notaries.

Discovering More About Your Notary Ancestor

If you see such indications in the parish records, you might then wish to see if that person is mentioned in a book called Notai Che Operano Nel Trentino dell’Anno 845 by P. Remo Stenico. This book is widely considered to be the most comprehensive list of Trentino notaries throughout the centuries, although I must confess that I have found several people who are cited as being notaries in the parish records who are not listed in the book.

The names of the notaries are listed in alphabetical order, using Latin spellings. In most cases, Stenico provides the earliest and latest dates he has be able to find during which the notary was actively in practice. This can often help you estimate birth and death dates, if you do not have access to them in the original parish records. SOMETIMES Stenico also mentions the name of the father or other family members of the notary, which can be a real find. Once I even learned the name of my 8X great-grandmother from Stenico’s list, as she was cited as both the wife and the daughter of prominent notaries.

Stenico’s book is a ‘must have’ for anyone researching their Trentino ancestry. You can download the PDF version of this book for free by http://www.db.ofmtn.pcn.net/ofmtn/files/biblioteca/Notai.pdf

Pergamene – Parish and Municipal Parchments

While most of us tend to think of baptismal, marriage and death records as the cornerstones of genealogy, one of the greatest treasures in the archives held both by parishes and comuni are their ‘pergamene’ or parchments.

These libraries of documents – some going back over 1,000 years – contain everything from government decrees, land sales, legal disputes, and even local histories. Whenever these documents were official in nature, you can be sure a notary wrote and signed it. Occasionally, if a document became damaged with time, another notary may have rewritten it; but it is amazing how many of these documents still exist in their original form, with the original notary’s signature and mark.

The Provincial Archives for the province of Trento have been very active in working to digitise pergamene of the parishes and comuni throughout Trentino. If you search for a specific parish, comune or surname in their online catalogue, you might discover pergamene written by your notary ancestor. While most of the digital images are NOT yet available online, you can obtain copies of those of interest if you personally the Provincial Archives in Trento. You can search their inventory at https://www.cultura.trentino.it/archivistorici/sistema/semplice.

You might also find some ORIGINAL notary records at ‘Sala Trentina’ at the Trento Municipal Library (Biblioteca Comunale di Trento). On my last trip, I found a legal dispute from 1618 over an unpaid dowry between one of my Onorati ancestors and his wife’s brothers. Apparently, their father died shortly after the wedding, and the brothers didn’t bother to make good on their late father’s agreement! I had originally discovered the existence of document in the catalogue at the Provincial Archives, but then learned it was actually kept at the library. It was wonderful to be able to hold the original document in my hands, and for a nominal fee the librarians made a PDF scan of it for me so I could take it home and study it.

The Mark of a Notaio

Finding an original document written by your notary ancestor is especially exciting for a family historian; not only will be able to see your ancestor’s handwriting and his signature, but also his unique notary mark.

A notary mark is a combination of signature and artistic flair. This mark was handwritten, not a stamp, as it would be today. Each mark was as individual as the person using it, making it difficult (if not impossible) to be imitated or forged.

On a recent trip to the Provincial Archives in Trento, I obtained digital images of several interesting notary marks made by my own ancestors, as well as a few of my clients’ ancestors. Personally, I get a thrill when I look at these little works of art, some of which were drawn half a millennium ago.

Notary Mark 11521 notary mark of Sebastiano Genetti of CastelfondoClick on image to see it in full size.

This notary mark is from a document written in 1521 by Sebastiano Genetti, son of Giovanni, of Castelfondo in Val di Non. If you look at the end of the first line of his signature, he specifies he is authorised by the a ‘sacra imperiali’, i.e. he was a notary with imperial authority. In fact, later in his life, Sebastiano was ennobled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Massimiliano II. Sebastiano was my 11X great-grandfather.

Notary Mark 21631 - Notary Mark Marco Campi of Gallio, Santa Croce del BleggioClick on image to see it in full size.

This notary mark is from 1631 and was written by Marco Campi, son of Antonio Campi, of Gallio in Santa Croce del Bleggio in Val Giudicarie. Marco also came from a noble family. Notice Marco’s notary mark is a castle. This is because their family name was originally ‘Castello Campo’, and simply ‘Campo’ or ‘Da Campo’ before that. The Da Campo family built the medieval castles Castello Campo and Castel Toblino in the 13th century. This and other notary documents written by Marco have enabled me to narrow down his death date to within three months (between Feb and April 1636), as his the last document I can find with his signature is dated 28 Jan 1626, and he is cited as deceased in the marriage record of one of his daughters on May 3rd of the same year. This is especially helpful as there are no death records for Santa Croce before the year 1638. It was also very helpful because prior to finding these notary records, I had wondered if Marco had died during the great plague of 1630, but apparently he survived. He was 66 when he died.

Notary Mark 3 1636 Notary mark of Lorenzo Levri of FiavèClick on image to see it in full size.

Signed on 14 July 1636, this notary mark is from Lorenzo Levri of Fiavè, also in Val Giudicarie. The mark looks like a baptismal font to me, but I am not if that is what it is supposed to be. Notice  Lorenzo’s initial (L.L.) in the centre of the mark. Working under the Giudizio di Stenico, Lorenzo operated at least between the years of 1635-1669, (possibly longer), so this was relatively early in his career. The Levri family had many notaries throughout the centuries, at least from 1521 through the early 1800s. In older Latin records you will usually see their surname written as ‘Lepori-‘ (with various endings, depending on the grammar of the sentence).

While not a blood relation of mine (he was distantly connected via marriage), the document from which this came was land sale agreement involving my 9X great-grandfather Sebastiano Sebastiani of Comighello.

Notary Mark 4

1642 Felice Onorati notary mark

Click on image to see it in full size.

This last image is from September 1642, and is an example of one of the dozens of notaries from the Onorati family of Bono, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this article. This notary mark is for Felice, son of ‘the living’ Giovanni Onorati (spelled ‘Honorati’ in Latin). Notice his initials ‘F-H’ (linked together) in the centre of the mark.

Felice was a distant cousin, but was in the same family as many of Onorati notary ancestors. I thought his notary mark was so lovely I had to share it. The record from which this comes is a debt resolution agreement for a man named Bartolomeo Giovanna, who was a distant uncle of mine, and the 8X great-grandfather of a friend/cousin of mine living in California.

Closing Thoughts

I hope this article has given you some information, ideas and inspiration to investigate whether any of your own ancestors were notaries, and to find out more about their lives and their work. Please feel free to share your own research discoveries in the comments box below. 

For those of you who may be seeking some help in researching your Trentino ancestors — notaries or not — I am going back to Trento from 26 June to 10 July 2018. If you would like me to do some research for you while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site.

And finally, whether you are a beginner or an advanced researcher, if you have Trentino ancestry, I invite you to come join the conversation in our Trentino Genealogy group on Facebook.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy!
Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen.
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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View family tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/110809816/family

Lynn Serafinn
Lynn Serafinn

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author, online marketing consultant and genealogist specialising in the families of the Giudicarie, where her father was born. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

Through extensive research, she has already linked together thousands of Trentini in an extended family tree.  Her current research project is called ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity,’ the goal of which is create a genealogical ‘map’ of everyone either born in Bleggio, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1400s to the current era, to serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

CLICK HERE to read about Lynn’s genealogical research project:
“One Tree. One Family. One Humanity”.

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES
currently being researched in the “One Tree” project.

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Keeping Our Ancestors Alive: Reflections on the Day of the Dead

Keeping Our Ancestors Alive – Reflections on the Day of the DeadGenealogist Lynn Serafinn and her grandson, Percy, celebrate Il Giorno di Morti (The Day of the Dead), and discover the power of filò family storytelling.

Like many, if not most, people of Trentini descent, I was raised Roman Catholic (although, in my case, I probably owe my religious education more to my Irish mother than my Trentino-born father). For Catholics, the first two days of November are special holy days.

November 1st is ‘All Saints Day’, the purpose of which is to honour the memory of all the saints in Heaven, even those about whom we might never have heard. The name of our modern holiday ‘Halloween’, which falls on October 31st, was derived from the term ‘All Hallows Eve’, i.e. the evening before the day on which all ‘hallowed’ spirits are honoured.

November 2nd is ‘All Souls Day’, the purpose of which is to pray for the souls of all those who have left this world. In Italy, it is called Il Giorno di Morti – the Day of the Dead. While English-speaking people may not be familiar with the Italian term, many may have heard of Dia de los Muertos, which is the celebration of the Day of the Dead amongst Mexican Catholics.

As I write this article, it is November 2nd – the Day of the Dead. As a genealogist, sometimes it seems like every day is the Day of the Dead, as I am constantly researching and thinking about those who walked this planet before us. But for me, the transition from the month of October to November always has special significance, because my father (who passed away in 2001) was born on Halloween – October 31st, 1919 – in the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio, in Trentino. His birth name was ‘Romeo Fedele Serafini’, but it he changed it to ‘Ralph Serafinn’ in the 1930s, after the family emigrated to the United States.

This year, on my dad’s birthday, I thought about posting some photos or stories about my dad on Facebook, but work got in the way and it felt like I had lost the moment. But then, last night, something unexpected happened: my 11-year-old grandson, Percy, called me on the phone. His mom (my daughter, Vrinda) had come up with the idea to celebrate Dia de los Muertos by remembering the family Percy never got the chance to meet. As part of this, she told him to call me and ask me to tell him some stories about my parents.

Ralph Serafinn – Inventor of the First Telephone for the Deaf

1965 - Ralph Serafinn and the 'Sensicall'
1965 – Newspaper advert showing Ralph Serafinn with his invention, the ‘Sensicall’, the first telephone device for the deaf.

I asked Percy what kind of stories he wanted to hear. At first, he said, ‘Anything,’ but then he said his mom had told him my dad had invented the first telephone device for the deaf, and he wanted me to tell him more. I told him how my father was an electrical engineer for the New York Bell phone company. In 1965, the company gave him the assignment to come up with a device that would enable the deaf and deaf-blind to use the telephone. I told Percy how my dad worked in our basement for many months, experimenting with different ideas. He created two different devices – one using a small, red flashing light to communicate in Morse code (for deaf people who could see), and another that used a sensitive, hand-held buzzer that could transmit the code through vibrations (for the deaf-blind). I explained that there was no such thing as home computers in those days, so these were actually cutting-edge technologies even though they might look very primitive to us today.

I told Percy how my dad used to invite me – then 10 years old – to help him with his experiments. He would send me into another room with one of his beta models, and I would report back to him how many lights I saw or buzzes I felt. As the devices became more precise, I had to tell him whether the signals were long or short (as in Morse code). I explained how my father also invented a system that made the lights in the house flash on and off when a call came in, so the deaf and hard-of-hearing knew they had a phone call.

I told Percy how a newspaper came and took photos of my dad working, and even took one of me working alongside him (sadly, those photos have been lost with time). I told him how the story of my dad’s invention – dubbed the ‘Sensicall’ – was covered in newspapers all over the United States, and how we received letters from people all over the world (I remember one very beautiful one from South America) profusely thanking my father for inventing this device. Those days are some of my fondest memories of my dad, and it was such a privilege to share the story with my grandson.

Then Percy made a very astute – and beautiful – comment. He said, ‘You know how you said they didn’t have home computers back then? Well, you might say that without my great-grandfather’s invention, there might not BE any home computers today. It’s like, his invention is the thing that made everything else happen.’

‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘It’s like building a staircase to go from one level to another. Each step is important. You can’t just leap from the ground floor to the second floor. There’s no telling how different the world would be if you took out even one step.’

From this, Percy asked questions about my dad during World War 2. I told him how my dad had fought in Japan, and was on a ship on the Pacific, less than 100 miles from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the US dropped the atomic bomb on those cities. We talked about how my father died at the age of 81 from a rare blood disorder called myelodysplasia, which has been linked to exposure to high amounts of radiation. We even talked about my father’s (sometimes wacky) OCD – a condition both my daughter and Percy inherited (at least in part) from my dad.

Escape from Siberia in World War 1

1915 - Luigi Pietro Serafini, in Austro-Hungarian army uniform during World War 1
1915 – Luigi Pietro Serafini, in Austro-Hungarian army uniform during World War 1

Percy then asked me to tell him stories about my grandfather – Luigi Pietro Serafini, who was born in the same village of Duvredo in 1888.

Percy remember hearing that Luigi had fought in World War 1, but didn’t know much else. I didn’t want to go into all the politics of Trentino being part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (I’ll save that for another discussion), as I thought it would take us off the track of talking about my grandfather. So, I told Percy how my grandfather was sent to fight in Russia, and how he and thousands of others were captured by the Russian army and sent to Siberia, where they were prisoners of war for about two years.

Percy was curious to know what it was like in the prison. He asked me, ‘Did they feed the prisoners? Was it like prison food?’ I told him, yes, they fed them, but it was probably not very nutritious food. I explained that many men died from illness, lack of nutrition and poor sanitation.

‘Didn’t you tell me once that he escaped from the prison camp?’ Percy asked.

I acknowledged this was true. Percy then asked how my grandfather managed to get out.

I told him, ‘Well, actually, there are three different versions of that story, and I’m not sure which is true.’

‘Why not?’ he queried.

‘Because people tend to elaborate when they tell family stories. They’re not necessarily lying, but they will often make up things to fill in forgotten details, or just to make the story more exciting. Would you like to hear all the different versions, so you can decide?’ I asked him.

‘Yes, please!’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘story number one, which my father told me, is that my grandfather was so ill with some disease, he fell unconscious. The Russians thought he was dead (or as good as), so they tossed him into a mass grave with a lot of other dead bodies. Then, something happened (my father never said what), which caused the Russians to leave in a hurry. When my grandfather regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by dead bodies! At first, he felt panic; but eventually he realised his captors were gone, and he was free to go. Then, he got up and walked home – many hundreds of miles, in tattered clothes and in poor health – all the away from Siberia to Trentino.

‘Story number two is one I heard from my (male) cousins, who said they had also heard it from my father. It’s similar to the first story, except in this version, my grandfather supposedly “faked his own death” so the Russians would toss him outside the camp into the place where they kept the dead bodies. He lay there until dark, and when the guards weren’t looking, he got up and ran as fast as he could until he knew he wasn’t being followed. Then, he walked home.

‘Story number three is less dramatic, but is possibly closer to the truth,’ I said. ‘It’s something I read in a book specifically about the prisoners of war in Siberia in World War 1. In 1917 there was a big revolution in Russia. When that happened, the whole Russian government collapsed, including the army. There was no more money to feed the prisoners, or to pay the soldiers who guarded the prisons. So, the prison guards opened the gates and basically told the prisoners they were on their own now. Many thousands left and made their way home on foot. Some, who were either too ill or too afraid to leave, stayed behind and didn’t go home until the Red Cross came to help almost a year later. My grandfather was one of the men who left.’

Percy asked me, ‘If you were in that situation, would you have left, or would you have waited for the Red Cross to come?’

‘Oh, I would have left and taken my chances,’ I said.

‘Really?’

‘Definitely. After spending so much time in prison, I’d just want to get out of there, and I’d worry about the details later.’

Percy seemed to like my reply.

‘Which story do you think is true?’ I asked him.

‘I like the one about faking his own death!’ he chimed enthusiastically.

That figures, I thought to myself. That’s the version my dad told my male cousins, when the eldest was about Percy’s age. I guess it’s the kind of story boys would like.

‘Yes, it’s very dramatic,’ I acknowledged. ‘But somehow I don’t think the Russian soldiers would have been so easily fooled.’

Percy quickly agreed, and immediately adopted version number 1 as his own.

‘I’m going to tell my friends that my great-great-grandfather escaped from prison because he was tossed into a stack of dead bodies by the Russians,’ he said with great satisfaction.

A FOURTH VERSION: Something I only remembered after my call with Percy is that my father’s sister, Fiorina, wrote a story about her father’s escape from Siberia, in which she says the Russian guards simply opened the gates one day and let them all go. She doesn’t offer an explanation for why, but I am certain it is linked to the timing of the Russian revolution. Fiorina also describes how the Russians used to pile the corpses onto a flat-bed train car. This image is not so unbelievable when you consider that harsh Siberian winters made the frozen ground too hard to dig graves except in the warmest months of the year. I assume Fiorina heard these details directly from her father, but my experience with my father’s stories makes me suspect that Trentini men might sometimes tell ‘softer’ versions of the same story to their daughters than to their sons. After hearing all the family stories, and reading various historical accounts, my own belief is that my grandfather may well have been left for dead by the Russians when they were getting ready to abandon the camp after the 1917 revolution (and was possibly dumped amidst the many unburied dead bodies), but his escape entailed no deliberate trickery on his part.

Percy and I went on to talk about my grandfather’s homecoming, and how my grandmother – after she got over the shock of seeing him alive – made him burn his clothes and scrub down his hair and body with kerosene (Percy thought I had said KETCHUP when he heard this story on a previous occasion!) to kill off all the germs, fleas or whatever else had made its home on him over the past two to three years. When he was finally free of vermin (but probably stinking of kerosene), my grandmother welcomed him into the house, where my grandfather finally got to meet his baby daughter, Luigina (whom I knew as Aunt Jean), who had been born while he was in Russia.

Ancestry and the ‘Butterfly Effect’

1910 - Luigi Parisi of Duvredo, Bleggio, Trentino
Circa 1910 – Luigi Parisi of Duvredo, Bleggio, Trentino. Photo taken in Pennsylvania, where he was working in the coal mines.

After we spoke about my grandfather, I said, ‘There’s someone else I’d like to tell you about – my grandfather’s uncle. His name was also Luigi, but his last name was Parisi. The reason I want to tell you about him is that if he had never lived, you and I would probably never have been born, and we wouldn’t be talking about all these stories today.’

I explained how Luigi Parisi – the younger brother of my grandfather’s mother – had gone back and forth from Trentino to America four times. Each time he went to America, he worked in the coal mines, earning money that he sent back to his wife and children back in Duvredo in the parish of Bleggio. While he was away on one journey, his wife Emma died, leaving their children without anyone to care for them. Luigi came back to Bleggio and married Emma’s sister, Ottavia. Together they had four more children (one died young), and named their first daughter after Emma. I told Percy how Luigi had come home to see his family in 1914, but was sent to war, where he died. I recounted a story I had read in a book where one of his comrades said Luigi simply disappeared when they were crossing a river together somewhere in Russia. One minute he was there, and the next he was gone. Nobody knows whether he was shot, or the current of the river got hold of him and he drowned. To this day – 100 years later – his official status is still ‘missing’.

‘Now, shall I tell you why I said you and I would probably never have been born if it weren’t for Luigi?’ I asked.

‘Go on, then,’ Percy replied.

‘Well, according to a book I have, my great-great uncle Luigi Parisi was the first person from my father’s parish (perhaps even from all of Trentino) to settle in the mining town of Brandy Camp in Pennsylvania. He went there first as a young man, around the time my grandfather was born. Each time he went back to Trentino, he brought more men from his village with him, and helped them to settle into their new surroundings. Over time, almost all the Trentini settlers in Brandy Camp came from Santa Croce del Bleggio. That’s why they named their new church ‘Holy Cross’ (which is what Santa Croce means). When my grandfather was a teenager, his uncle Luigi brought him and his younger brother, Angelo, with him to Brandy Camp. There, my grandfather worked in the mines for several years.

‘Finally, when 1914 rolled around, Luigi told my grandfather that he wanted to go back to visit his wife and children. By this time Uncle Luigi was getting close to 50 years old, so he was probably hoping to settle down and spend his later years in his native homeland. But (or so I heard from my cousin Aldo, the son of Angelo), Luigi also thought it was time for my grandfather, now 25 years old, to go home and find himself a wife. Aldo told me that my grandfather didn’t really want to go back to Bleggio, as he had become accustomed to his life in America. But he respected his mother’s brother, and eventually agreed to go back with him in the spring of that year.

‘My grandfather married my grandmother in May 1914. By August, World War 1 had broken out, and most of the local men – including my grandfather, my great-great-uncle Luigi and my grandfather’s brother Angelo – were sent to fight in Russia. As I told you, Luigi Parisi died, but my grandfather and his brother both survived. After the war, my grandfather spent some time recuperating from the trauma of the war and imprisonment. That’s when my father and his younger sister, Pierina (whom I knew as aunt Ann), were born.

‘After a few years, my grandfather went back to America, to the same place his uncle Luigi had brought him – Brandy Camp. After he got settled in, my grandmother, my father and my dad’s sisters followed. My aunt Fiorina was born during their stay in Brandy Camp. Later, they moved to New York where another child – my uncle Raymond – was born. My mother (who wasn’t from Trentino) lived in New York. She became best friends with my father’s sister, Pierina. Later, she and my father fell in love and got married, and started their own family.

‘So you see, Percy, if Luigi Parisi had never lived, he wouldn’t have gone to Brandy Camp and started a community there. He would never have brought my grandfather to America when he was a teenager, or insisted my grandfather get married in 1914. If that had never happened, my father might never have been born, or the family would never have gone to America. If they had never gone to America, my parents would never have met. If they hadn’t met, I wouldn’t have been born, or your mother, or you. And if neither of us had been born, we wouldn’t be talking on the phone right now!’

Percy became excited. ‘Well, you can also say that if Luigi’s FATHER had never been born, then HE wouldn’t have been born, and we wouldn’t be here either. I mean, you can keep going backwards….’

‘Exactly!’ I said. ‘Every single person in our ancestry has played a part in making us who we are, even if we don’t know them, or we’ve never heard of them.’

I didn’t say this to Percy at the time, but it’s just like that science-fiction concept, the ‘butterfly effect’, where everything in the future changes when you change even one, seemingly disconnected event in the past.

Filò – How Stories Keep Our Ancestors Alive

Mural in Favrio, in the town of Ragoli, depicting the ancient tradition of filò - family storytelling.
Mural in Favrio, in the town of Ragoli, depicting the ancient tradition of filò – family storytelling.

When I first reconnected with my long-lost family in Trentino in the summer of 2014, I visited the hamlet of Favrio in the town of Ragoli, where my Serafini ancestors lived before they moved to the parish of Santa Croce. In the historic quarter of that town, you’ll find many fascinating murals illustrating the history of our Alpine people. One of these murals (see image above) depicts the ancient practice of filò – family storytelling.

Filò was the time – between dinner and bedtime – when families came together to tell and listen to stories. Families would gather, either around a hearth or in the stable (typically on the first floor of their mountain house), where they could benefit from the body heat radiating from their livestock. Traditionally, the storyteller was the head of the household, who wove tales from local legends, family history or his own imagination.

Literally, the word filò means ‘spinning’. Many people say that filò is so-named because women used this time to spin their yarn while listening to the stories. While that may be tree, I also believe it refers to the ‘spinning’ and weaving of the tales themselves.

Filò served as entertainment in an age before radios, televisions and computers. In fact, when I asked my cousins when the tradition stopped, they said it phased out pretty much when radio became popular. It was also simply a time for families to bond and spend time together after a hard day’s work. It was a way of enjoying humour, passing down traditions and instilling cultural values. But, most relevant to what I’ve been talking about today, it was a way bring back to life those who lived before us.

My grandson Percy had no idea that last night – almost instinctively – he and I were sharing filò.

I guess it’s in our blood.

What is ‘true’ in history is only partially made up of facts, dates and evidence. The rest is down to us – our stories, our imaginations, our memories.

We are our stories.

Our ancestors continue to live through our stories. We will continue to live through the stories our grandchildren tell THEIR grandchildren.

Keep telling stories. And don’t wait for the next Giorno di Morti to come for your storytelling hour. Share a story with someone in your family today.

I invite your reflections about family storytelling, or any other topic to do with Trentino Genealogy. Please feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment in the box below, or drop me a line using the contact form on this site.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S.: I am going back to Trento to do research in March, 2018. If you would like me to try to look for something while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

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Lynn Serafinn
Lynn Serafinn

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author, online marketing consultant and genealogist specialising in the families of the Giudicarie, where her father was born. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

Through extensive research, she has already linked together thousands of Trentini in an extended family tree.  Her current research project is called ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity,’ the goal of which is create a genealogical ‘map’ of everyone either born in Bleggio, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1400s to the current era, to serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

CLICK HERE to read about Lynn’s genealogical research project:
“One Tree. One Family. One Humanity”.

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES
currently being researched in the “One Tree” project.

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Genealogical Breadcrumbs: Notes, Sources & Reviewing Research

Genealogical Breadcrumbs: Notes, Sources & Reviewing ResearchGenealogist Lynn Serafinn explains how and why to cite genealogy sources, and how good research habits can help you fill in the gaps when records do not exist.

In my last article, I talked about the many ways we can make mistakes in genealogy and put the wrong information in our family tree. I also said the two most important habits of GOOD genealogists are:

  1. They always CITE their sources.
  2. They regularly REVIEW their work.

In writing today’s article, I realised I needed to add a third habit to the list:

  1. They KEEP NOTES of their research.

In fact, keeping good notes is so fundamental to research, I’m going to bump it up to #1 on the list of essential habits of a good genealogist: 3 Essential Habits of a Good GenealogistClick on image to see it larger.

Please SHARE this meme with your family history friends on social media.

Today, I want to talk about how these three habits work together in genealogy, and how they can help you create a trail of clues I like to call ‘genealogical breadcrumbs’, which can help lead you to the truth about your ancestors’ lives.

As always, while some elements of this article will be specific to Trentini genealogy, most of the concepts are equally applicable to ANY family history research, regardless of origin.

Keeping Notes of Your Research – Even When You’ve Found NOTHING

You might think ‘keeping notes’ means keeping track of what you discovered. However, I find it is just as important to keep a record of what I DID NOT find, and where/why I didn’t find it. For example, say you tried to find the marriage record of your great-great-grandparents in the parish records where your great-great-grandfather lived, but your search was unsuccessful. In such a case, you should write a NOTE in the description field for the marriage (Ancestry, Family Tree Maker, etc. will all have a description field) to the effect of:

‘I checked the marriage records for X parish between 1800 and 1820, but could not find it.’

I also find it useful to make a note of how thoroughly you’ve checked; after all, there is a big difference between doing a ‘quick check’ or scouring through the records three times. Make notes of ANYTHING of which you are uncertain, as well as any possible conflicts of information you might have found (e.g. two children for a couple appear to have been born too closely together).

What do you do if the original records for a parish/era no longer exist? Make a note saying something like:

‘There are no surviving marriage records for X parish between 1800 and 1820.’

Keeping such notes saves you time, as it helps ensure you don’t keep looking for the same records over and over (trust me, I’ve been there!).

What Are ‘Sources’?

A ‘source’ is a document (vital record, census, etc.), publication (book, website, blog article, etc.) or person (dictated verbally, in a letter, in an email, etc.) from which/whom you obtained your information. For example:

  • If you find a birth date of your ancestor Giuseppe in an official birth certificate, the birth certificate is the source.
  • If you find an estimated birth year for Giuseppe via a census record, the census record is the source.
  • If your Aunt Matilda told you Giuseppe’s birth date, Aunt Matilda is the source.
  • If you have obtained Giuseppe’s birth date from all three of the above, then ALL THREE are your sources – even if they give you conflicting information.

There are two types of sources:

  • Primary sources are original documents of an event or person, such as a birth/baptismal record, marriage record, death record or military record.
  • Secondary sources are quotes, opinions or other third-party accounts of an event or person, such as a book, article, letter or personal discussion.

In my opinion, certain records – such as census records – can be both primary and secondary sources. For example, it is a primary source for a person’s address on a specific date, but a secondary source of a person’s name or estimated year of birth (and they are often WRONG).

What Are ‘Source Citations’ and What Do You Put in Them?

A ‘source citation’ is a notation in your family tree of where you obtained your information. Most family tree programmes (Ancestry, Family Tree Maker, etc.) enable you to add and attach source citations to specific facts. A good source citation provides information about the source, such as the title, author, publisher, volume, year and page number of the source. If you are citing a parish record, for example, don’t just say ‘parish records’; rather, be sure to provide the name of the parish, the volume/book/part in which the record is located, and the page number (if there is one). It is also important to cite where/how the record was accessed, i.e. original record, digital image, microfilm, etc. Here’s an example of how I cite sources when working with digital images of the parish records at the Archives at the Archdiocese of Trento:

Santa Croce del Bleggio Parish Records (Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy).

Repository: Archdiocese of Trento Archives

Trento file 4256260_00985; Santa Croce parish records, marriages. LDS film 1448051, part 5, no page numbers.

(After the citation, I typically transcribe/translate the document as well, but that’s a whole different topic.)

If that looks like a lot of writing, the first two lines are a template I set up in Family Tree Maker. I set one up for every parish I research. That way, I can pull down the template and insert the information about the specific reference, which you see on line 3. Even that is a ‘template’ I’ve made up, to enable me (or others) to locate the records where I obtained the information. In this case, ‘Trento file’ refers to the number of the digital image I obtained in Trento, and it really is only relevant to people who do research there, as these files are not available outside the archives.

The reference to the ‘LDS microfilm’ is so that people who might be doing research at their local Family History Centre can find the exact page where the record is located. Of course, the FHC are retiring their microfilm service at the end of August 2017, so this information will become less relevant as they move over to digital images in the next few years.

Even if your source is a word-of-mouth account, you can (and should) cite the person’s name, and possibly the year in which he/she provided the information. You might also wish to say whether they gave you the information from memory or if they had any documentation.

Don’t forget to cite YOURSELF as a source if providing information from first-hand knowledge, e.g. your own birth date, the birth dates of your immediate family members, etc.

There is no ‘set in stone’ method for citing sources, and yours don’t need to be as detailed as mine. But once you understand the reasons why it’s important to cite your genealogical sources (which we’ll look at next), you too might wish to be more thorough in your citations.

Why Are Source Citations Essential in Genealogy?

While citing sources might seem like the less exciting side of genealogy, most experienced genealogists will tell you that genealogy without proof, sources and/or documentation is simply MYTHOLOGY (just Google the words ‘genealogy sources and mythology’ and you’ll see how often this topic has been discussed). In ANY kind of research – but especially genealogy – source citations have a threefold purpose:

  1. CREDIBILITY. As I said in my earlier article, ‘The Science of Finding Your Female Ancestors from Trentino’, genealogy is all about formulating hypotheses and then finding evidence to support or dispute it. Without at least one reliable source, our ‘facts’ are meaningless. The more reliable sources you have to back up a claim, the more likely it is that our ‘facts’ are true. Generally, primary sources are considered more ‘reliable’ than secondary sources such as word-of-mouth, books or other people’s family trees (see my additional comments about this below*).
  2. ATTRIBUTION. There isn’t a researcher on the planet who hasn’t found information from someplace else. While sometimes that information is a primary source (like a parish record), other times it has come from someone else’s research. Regardless of whether you are using primary or secondary sources, you MUST give proper attribution. Otherwise, you are plagiarising someone else’s work and/or intellectual property. Proper attribution will also provide evidence of the reliability of the original source.
  3. CROSS-CHECKING. Genealogy is a continually unfolding process. In other words, you (and others) will continually unravel new mysteries, even after you have found evidence for a specific person. Sometimes, the information you have found for one person is crucial in helping solve the mystery of another. OR, sometimes the information you have put on the tree was entered incorrectly or was incomplete. Incorrect/incomplete information is especially common when you are just starting out and you don’t understand how to interpret the records properly. If you have carefully cited your sources, you can return to the original document, reassess it, and fix the incorrect or incomplete information. Citing your sources also enables OTHER researchers – either family members or people you may not even know yet – to cross-check and/or expand upon your information.

* SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO CONSIDER: Ancestry dot com gives you the ability to cite another person’s tree as a source. That’s all well and good, but if that person’s tree has no reliable (preferably primary) sources to back up their information, such a ‘source’ is no proof at all. I know it can be tempting to build your family tree as quickly as possible, but piecing together your ancestry using other people’s unsubstantiated information is likely to lead you WAY off track, and you will end up disappointed when you find out much of your family history is simply untrue.

Creating a Breadcrumb Trail – Recording and Citing ‘Implied’ Information

As suggested at the start of this article, good genealogical practice helps you create a trail of ‘genealogical breadcrumbs’, which can narrow down information, even when documentation for that information does not exist. When you work with original records or images of the same (such as microfilm or digital image libraries), you can find a great deal more information than you would in indexed records or (most) online databases. For example, priests often use the Italian word fu, or the Latin word quondam (often abbreviated as ‘q.’), to indicate someone is deceased. Typically, these designations will appear:

  • IN MARRIAGE RECORDS: Before the name of a deceased father and/or grandfather of the bride or groom. In the latter part of the 19th century, you will also start to see it used to refer to a deceased mother of a bride/groom.
  • IN BAPTISMAL RECORDS: Before the name of a deceased paternal grandfather.
  • IN BAPTISMAL RECORDS: Before the name of a deceased father of an unmarried woman, or the deceased husband of a widowed woman, when she is the godmother of the child being baptised.

While such inferred information isn’t precise, it can help you create an estimated date of death for the person cited as deceased, as you know they died sometime before that event. Thus, you can enter an estimated date of death for that person, putting something like ‘Before March 1692’ in the date field on your tree. Less commonly, the word posthumous may appear before the name of the father in a baptismal record. This means the father died sometime between the date of conception and the birth of the child. This helps you narrow down the date of death to roughly a 9-month window. In this case, you can put something like ‘Between Jan – Aug 1709’ in your date field.

But here’s where good genealogical practice is especially important. When you estimate dates:

Be sure to cite the SOURCE(s) from which you INFERRED the estimate.

Why should you cite your sources when you’re just estimating a date? Two equally important reasons:

  1. Because you are likely to forget why you made that estimate in the first place. This could lead you to CHANGE the estimate to a date that is less precise or altogether incorrect.
  2. Because you may have made a mistake when you interpreted the record. Unless you know how to find your way back to the original record, you won’t be able to locate the source of the error. Without being able to check the original record, you might continue to conduct your research based on incorrect assumptions.

How do you cite a source when you are making an estimate? The SAME WAY you would cite your source for a baptism, marriage, etc. However, in this case, you would include NOTES about how you arrived at the estimate. For example, here is how I created a note for an ancestor of mine named Gaspare Genetti (later spelled Zanetti):

Estmated date of death for Gaspare Genetti of Castelfondo
Estmated date of death for Gaspare Genetti of Castelfondo

Click on image to see it larger.

The problem in finding the exact date of death for Gaspare is that, apart from a few death records for some of the parish priests, there are no death records for the parish of Bleggio before the mid-1660s. As I know Gaspare died before 1660, all I can do is formulate an estimate, based on available evidence. However, by carefully examining records of his family members, I managed to get a pretty good idea of when he died:

  • In this case, I have estimated his death as, ‘Between March and July 1637.’
  • Next, I explained how I deduced that estimate, saying that Gaspare was alive when his daughter Cattarina was born in February 1637, and that I ‘think’ he is cited as deceased in marriage record of his older daughter Margarita in July 1637. I say, ‘I think’ in this case, because I didn’t feel the handwriting on Margarita’s marriage record was 100% clear.
  • I go on to say that I KNOW he was deceased by the time his other daughter Vittoria marries in 1657, as it is clearly written in that document.
  • I then refer to five supporting source citations, which I linked to this estimated date. Each citation gives the Trento file, parish, page number, etc. as shown earlier.
  • I also uploaded a couple of images for these sources, which helps the readers assess the evidence themselves. It also enables ME to go back and reread the documents, to see if I made any errors.
  • Later, if I find other documents that give me an earlier or more precise date, I can change it, citing another source.

In this way – even if there are no existing records – it is often possible to formulate a narrow range of dates during which an event took place.

Creating estimates supported by source citations can also help speed up your searches through existing records. Let’s say you want to know the death date of your 5x great-grandfather, Giovanni. If you were to trawl through all the death records for his parish without having a rough idea of when he died, you’d probably end up searching aimlessly through hundreds of records, unsure whether ANY of them referred to your Giovanni. But if you have already formulated an estimate for his death, gleaned from information found in the marriage records of his children, or baptismal records of his grandchildren, you can limit the range of years in which you need to look. This will significantly decrease the amount of time you need to spend searching for a record, and increase the likelihood of finding the correct document.

The Importance of Reviewing Your Work

In genealogy, it is often all too tempting to go for quantity at the expense of quality. We want to go back one more generation, rather than dig more deeply, verify or refine the information already gathered. But I know from experience that, while it might seem like a dull proposition, going back to review your work can often breathe new life into your tree:

  • A cryptic word on a record you looked at ten times in the past might suddenly leap out and you and make sense.
  • Your language skills might have improved since the last time you studied a set of records.
  • You may have become more skilled at deciphering messy handwriting.
  • You might have recently discovered that your family used a soprannome during a certain period, which means you may have missed them in the records when you looked last time.
  • You might look at your tree and suddenly realise two people are the SAME person.
  • You might suddenly realise someone you thought was related only by marriage is actually the father of your 10x great-grandfather.

OR… You might realise an underlined word in a baptismal record is not the person’s surname (as it usually is), but their village. This happened to me JUST last night. I was reviewing some transcriptions made a few months ago, and noticed I had made a note that there was one record where I didn’t understand the surname. I took out the record and within a second I could see that the surname was missing from the record, and the priest had only given the first name and the frazione. Immediately, I realised I had found the 1566 baptismal record of one of my 9x great-grandfathers, Antonio Domenico Frieri (son of Filippo) of Marazzone. It seems so obvious to me now, but I must have looked at this record a dozen times before, without making the connection:

1566 Baptismal record for Antonio Domenico Frieri of Marazzone.
1566 Baptismal record for Antonio Domenico Frieri of Marazzone.

Click on image to see it larger.

There is no way ANY of us get it right – or complete – the first time around. Without regular review of our work, we may feel like we have hit a brick wall, while the information is staring us in the face and we simply haven’t yet noticed it.

Closing Thoughts

I hope you found this article useful and informative, and that it has inspired you to become a ‘master’ in our craft. Most of us who do genealogy are not only driven by a desire to find out about ourselves, but also by the wish to leave a valuable and lasting legacy for our children, grandchildren and extended family. To ensure that happens, we family historians must aspire to maintain the highest standards in every aspect of our research. As I said, while keeping notes, citing sources and reviewing one’s work might seem like the less ‘glamourous’ side of genealogy, they are the activities that will help your visions become reality.

So, be sure to post this reminder over your desk:

3 Essential Habits of a Good GenealogistClick on image to see it larger.

Please SHARE this meme with your family history friends on social media.

I would welcome any comments or questions on this, or any other topic to do with Trentino Genealogy. Please feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment in the box below, or drop me a line using the contact form on this site.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S.: I am going back to Trento to do research on August 16th, 2017. If you would like me to try to look for something while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy!
Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen.
If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View family tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/110809816/family

Lynn Serafinn
Lynn Serafinn

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author, online marketing consultant and genealogist specialising in the families of the Giudicarie, where her father was born. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

Through extensive research, she has already linked together thousands of Trentini in an extended family tree.  Her current research project is called ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity,’ the goal of which is create a genealogical ‘map’ of everyone either born in Bleggio, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1400s to the current era, to serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

CLICK HERE to read about Lynn’s genealogical research project:
“One Tree. One Family. One Humanity”.

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES
currently being researched in the “One Tree” project.

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How the WRONG Information Ends Up in Your Family Tree

How the WRONG Information Ends Up in Your Family Tree
Baptismal record from 1567 where priest has omitted the father’s surname, Onorati.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn discusses 15 common ways we make mistakes in genealogy, and offers tips on how to separate fact from fiction in your family history.

It’s easy to get hooked on the act of discovery when researching our family histories. We love finding new people and adding them to our tree, and can often feel disappointed if our tree hasn’t grown after a hard day of research. But sometimes, our desire for growth can make us careless. Lack of rigour in our research can bring many errors into our precious family trees – from incorrect dates to the wrong people. This is especially the case when we are just starting out and less experienced, both in the subject matter (our ancestors) and the process of research itself.

Even when we are experienced, genealogy can be an informational nightmare. It’s bad enough trying to make sense of foreign, inaccurate or missing primary sources, but we must also contend with imperfect personal memories and simple human error. Then – with our trees and the trees of millions of others being freely available online – one mistake can become multiplied thousands of times over.

That’s why I wanted to write an article about how we family historians can get it very WRONG, if we’re not as meticulous as possible in our work. While some of this article will cover things specific to Trentini genealogy, most of the concepts I will share are applicable to ANY family history research, regardless of origin.

15 Ways We Make Mistakes in Genealogy

Mistakes are inevitable in genealogy, but they DO need to be addressed. The first step in dealing with them is to know where and how they most commonly happen. Here are some of the most common ways mistakes enter our family trees:

1.      Relying solely upon people’s memories or family hearsay.

When we first start doing our family history, we typically begin with what we (and other family members) already know. The problem is, what we THINK we know may not actually be true, especially if we are talking about the past. Some examples:

  • One of my father’s sisters wrote a very sweet love story about her parents’ early marital life (many years before she was born). In the story, she said they lived in Merano. The problem is, this is pure fiction. My grandparents never lived anywhere near Merano. My aunt made it up (probably because she had been born in the US, and had never actually visited Trentino). This colourful myth is still in circulation within the family, and it’s really difficult to get people to ‘unbelieve’ something after they’ve believed it so long.
  • One of my clients gave me a death date for her great-granduncle. But the more I researched him, I could find no evidence to back up this date. When I asked where she had gotten this date, she told me someone in her family had given it to her, but she had no documentation for it. So, assuming this date was incorrect, I started my search from scratch. Eventually, I found the correct record – a good 20 years earlier than the date her relative had told her! To this day, we have no idea how the fictitious date was even conjured.

2.      Copying or merging information from someone else’s tree.

Websites like Ancestry and MyHeritage are very enthusiastic about giving you ‘hints’ for your ancestors. Often these hints come from information in other members’ trees. The problem is, unless you know the person who made the tree, and have complete faith in their competence as a researcher, it’s a REALLY (really, really!) bad idea to copy that information onto your tree – especially if they have not cited any sources or provided any images of original documents. Furthermore, even if the information they have is 100% correct for THEIR ancestor, it doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘hint’ you’ve received is for YOUR ancestor. Merging people into your tree via these online hints is one of the fastest ways to compromise the quality of your work and turn your tree into a complete fiction. If you believe you’ve found the right person, manually copy the information into your tree, with accurate notes about who you got the information from, so you can verify it later.

3.      Typos.

Research is always a case of taking information from one source and writing it down in another place. For example, if you find a birth date, you have to enter it into your tree. It’s easy for a slip of the finger to result in a misspelled name or incorrect date, so careful proofreading before uploading your information is always the best policy. Reviewing your work regularly (an idea we’ll come back to in the next article) is another good habit to develop, as you’re bound to find typos lurking in places you may not have checked.

4.      Lack of familiarity with the language.

If you’re unfamiliar with the language in which a record is written, it’s easy to get it wrong when you are trying to translate it. In Trentino, virtually all official documents before the mid-19th century (whether church or secular) are written in Latin. Later, they start to shift into Italian. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Latin scholar or be fluent in Italian to make sense of most of the relevant details, but you do need at least some understanding of the language.

5.      Lack of familiarity with the date conventions.

I’m not sure about the rest of Italy, but Trentino priests (especially in the 17th and 18th centuries) had a quirky method of writing dates that can confuse those who are unfamiliar. Have a look at these two baptismal records from 1669 and 1670, respectively, and try to make out the MONTHS in which they occurred:

Baptismal record from 1669, Santa Croce del Bleggio, Trentino
Figure 1: Baptismal record from 1669 – CLICK IMAGE to see it larger.

CLICK IMAGE to see it larger.

1670 baptismal record of Giovanni Parisi of Bono, Santa Croce del Bleggio, diocese of Trento.
Figure 2: 1670 baptismal record of Giovanni Parisi of Bono, Santa Croce del Bleggio, diocese of Trento.

CLICK IMAGE to see it larger.

In Figure 1, you’ll see the priest wrote ‘Xbre’ for the name of the month. If you remember Roman numerals, ‘X’ represents the number 10. So, you MIGHT assume ‘Xbre’ means October, the 10th month, yes? Well, you’d be wrong. ‘Xbre’ stands for DECEMBER, the 12th month. Why? Because the Italian word for ‘10’ is dieci. Although dieci MEANS ‘10’, it SOUNDS like the Italian word for December – dicembre. So, when you see ‘Xbre’ it is shorthand for December.

Figure 2 gives a similar example. The month is written ‘7bre’. This time the priest did not use a Roman numeral, but the regular (Arabic) number ‘7’. Again, you might thing this refers to the 7th month, i.e. July, but it doesn’t. In Italian, ‘7’ is pronounced sette, so ‘7bre’ is shorthand for the month of SEPTEMBER.

The last four months of the year are frequently abbreviated in this way (October is ‘8bre’ and November is ‘9bre’). The reason might have something to do with the fact that these months were originally the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months of the year; but given the fact that the current calendar was introduced much before the 17th century, I think it’s just the way the priests heard the words in their heads. But, if you’re looking at the words as numbers rather than hearing them as sounds, you could easily record the wrong month for your ancestor’s birthday.

6.      Lack of familiarity with toponymy/geography.

Knowing the names of local parishes and villages (frazioni), as well as the names of contingent and more distance places in the region, is also an essential skill if we are to avoid mistakes in our family trees. I once saw a tree in which every child in the family was born in a different village, some of which were hundreds of miles from each other. While we in the 21st century may be accustomed to moving around frequently, this was less common in the past. This error happened because the man who made the tree was unfamiliar with Trentino and had no idea where places were on the map. Using an online database, he entered all the names he believed matched his search, but it was almost entirely incorrect. Good genealogists don’t just look up names and dates; they also take the time to learn about the places they are researching.

7.      Lack of familiarity with the local surnames (and how they evolved over time).

When we start our research, we tend to look for information solely about our own family. This can cause us to develop ‘tunnel-vision’: we might find a record with something that somewhat resembles our family’s surname and assume it is our surname because we don’t know of any other surname like it. Here are some examples from my own research into a branch of my family with the surname ‘Gusmerotti’:

  1. The name ‘Gusmerotti’ was originally derived from the first name ‘Gosmero’ (the suffix ‘-otti’ meaning ‘big’). Thus, some very early records that say ‘Gosmero’ or ‘Gosmeri’ are typically predecessors of those who later called themselves Gusmerotti. When I first started my research, I failed to notice many of my early Gusmerotti ancestors’ records because the surname didn’t have the ‘-otti’ ending.
  2. Several years ago, when I knew little about surnames in my father’s parish, I found a record written in very small, tight handwriting, in which the surname started with a ‘G’, had ‘u’, ‘m’ and ‘t’ in the middle, and ended in a vowel (but I wasn’t sure if it was an ‘i’ or an ‘a’). At the time, the only name I knew that fit these parameters was Gusmerotti, and I thusly assumed it to be so. Later, I realised it actually said ‘Giumenta’ (which means ‘mare’), a surname that became obsolete sometime in 17th century, having evolved into the name ‘Martinelli’, and then ‘Martini’. In fact, Martinelli is more than likely a soprannome that ‘stuck’ over time (we’ll look at soprannomi next).

8.      Not recognising a soprannome when you see it.

I’ve mentioned the use of soprannomi in other articles on this site. Soprannomi (plural of soprannome), are specific to Italian genealogy, including Trentino, and unless you get a handle on them, you can sometimes fail to recognise an entire branch of your family. A soprannome is used as a kind of ‘bolt on’ to a surname, to distinguish one branch of the family from another. Here’s a sample of a few soprannomi from my father’s parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio during the 16th-18th centuries, and the surnames of the families to which I have seen them attached:

SOPRANNOME RELATED SURNAME(S)
Ballina, Balini Fusari
Bella Caresani, Duchi
Bellotti (var. of Bella) Caresani
Berlingoni Duchi
Bertagnini Crosina
Blasiola Farina
Bleggi Duchi
Bondi, Bont Devilli
Cimador Devilli
Ferrari, Fabriferrari, Frerotti Briosi
Jakobi Gusmerotti
Martini, Martinelli Giumenta
Ottolini Panada
Rizza Devilli
Solandri Beltrami
Tosi Crosina
Trentini Devilli

While soprannomi can tell us a lot about who is related to whom, they can also cause many inexperienced researchers to make mistakes. This is because:

  • Rarely do soprannomi bear ANY resemblance to the surnames.
  • Soprannomi change frequently, typically lasting only one to three generations before they morph into something else.
  • A priest will often use a person’s soprannome INSTEAD of the surname, when he records an event.
  • Sometimes a soprannome will permanently replace the surname, which can make it seem like a family has fallen off the face of the earth.
  • Many soprannomi are also surnames – but of OTHER families!

All these idiosyncrasies can cause you to miss one of your ancestors, attach someone to the wrong family, or assume you are looking at completely unrelated families. Unfortunately, the ONLY way to master the changes of soprannomi is to study the images of the original records of your family’s parish METICULOUSLY. There simply is no other way.

9.      Misreading the handwriting.

Trying to understand handwritten documents can be a challenge even for the experienced genealogist, but it is especially difficult when you are new to research. Aside from the unpredictable spelling of names and places, and the frequent use of short-hand, sometimes the handwriting in the document is just plain MESSY! The only way to minimise mistakes caused by misreading handwriting is continual practice with images of original documents.

10.  Overlooking the details.

Parish records often contain a lot of subtle information, which can be easy to miss if you read too quickly or not carefully enough. You might fail to notice ONE word indicating the fact that someone’s father was deceased, or that someone was a widow/widower when they married. A single word might indicate someone was NOT originally from the place they later lived, or that a godfather at a baptism was the brother of the mother of the child. Sometimes that single word is the only piece of information that will save you from months of fruitless – or inaccurate – research. Squeeze every bit of evidence out of your documents, and record every minute detail that tells the story of your family.

11.  Drawing conclusions based on only ONE source.

Major mistakes can creep into our tree if we base our assumptions on information we’ve gathered from only one source (i.e. a baptismal, marriage or death record) without cross-referencing it to anything else. This happened to me when I was just starting out. I stumbled upon the death record for one of my 2X great-grandfathers, Bernardino Luigi Onorati. The record listed his date of marriage to my 2X great-grandmother, Margarita Elisabetta Gusmerotti. I knew from the baptismal record of my great-grandfather (their son) that Margarita’s father’s name was Lorenzo. I looked on the Nati in Trentino website and quickly found a Margarita Elisabetta Gusmerotti, daughter of Lorenzo, born in 1818. Happy I had found the right woman, and knowing the date of their marriage, I proceeded to research my new Gusmerotti line, spending many weeks on microfilm at my local Family History Centre. A few years later, I was in Trento and I suddenly realised I had never actually looked for the original marriage record of my Onorati 2X great-grandparents. As I now had access to digital images and my research abilities were vastly improved, I found the marriage record within minutes, rather than weeks. But when I read the document, my jaw dropped and I got a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. The name of Margarita’s MOTHER was not what I had on my tree. Evidently, there were TWO different Margarita Elisabetta Gusmerottis, daughters of two different Lorenzos, and two different mothers, born around the same times. I had spent weeks (if not months) researching the WRONG families.

After I stopped kicking myself for not having checked earlier, I went to work. I found my TRUE 2X great-grandmother – Margarita Elisabetta Rosa Gusmerotti, born four years earlier in 1814. Then, I got to work building her lineage – with the new Lorenzo and my newly-found 3X great-grandmother. Happily, however, as I have been researching the entire parish for the past several years, I was able to link her lines to many other people I already had on the tree, and I quickly traced many of her lines back to the early 1600s.

12.  Searching solely for your ancestor, instead of your ancestor’s FAMILY.

Have you ever taken a good look at your family tree, and think something along these lines?

‘Maria got married at 45 and her last child was born when she was 65 years old…hmmm…that doesn’t seem quite right….’

If not, you’re either really GOOD at catching mistakes, or you haven’t been careful ENOUGH in your research. Mistakes like these commonly happen when we find a record we believe to be our ancestor’s, and then STOP looking for anything else. Often, after we dig a little deeper, we might discover that the record we found was actually that of an older sibling who died when he/she was very young, for example. But because we want to feel like we’ve accomplished something after a day of research, it’s often tempting to tick off items on our ‘to do’ lists and move on to something else.

Fastidious researchers don’t just look for their ancestors – they look for their ancestors’ families. I think of it as ‘building families’ – births, marriages and deaths of everyone in the nuclear family of my ancestor. This gives me a much more accurate picture of who everyone is, and the relationships between them. It also minimises the chances that I will connect someone to the wrong spouse at another generational level.

13.  Not recognising when the PRIEST has made a mistake.

It’s natural to want to believe parish records are 100% accurate, but unfortunately that is NOT the case. Parish priests may be dedicated to their spiritual duties, but they are also human. And like any other human being, they are prone to errors. Perhaps they miswrote a name because they heard it incorrectly, or they came from outside the parish and were unfamiliar with the local families. Maybe they didn’t have time to write it down carefully. Or, perhaps they felt it was unnecessary to specify every detail, as they assumed anyone reading the document would know who they were talking about. An example of this can be seen in the image of the baptismal record I used in title of this article, where the priest wrote ‘Matteo of Bono, notary’, omitting the surname ‘Onorati’. To him, it was obvious he was talking about Matteo Onorati; but to someone in the 21st century, it may not be immediately apparent, unless you are intimately acquainted with the records for that era.

Or (and this might surprise you), perhaps they simply couldn’t be bothered. While most priests are fastidious record-keepers, I get the distinct impression that some of them really couldn’t stand the obligation of having to write everything down. That’s when they got messy, took short cuts, left out information – and made mistakes. The only way to evaluate documents you suspect contain errors is to complete the architecture for a family as thoroughly as possible (as discussed in the previous point). That way, you can recognise inconsistencies and anomalies more easily, and make sure one person’s error doesn’t steer you off course.

14.  Depending too much on transcriptions.

While parish priests might make their share of errors, it’s nothing compared to errors made when documents are transcribed by someone completely unfamiliar with the culture of the person whose information they are recording. Some perfect examples are US census records, ship manifests and Ellis Island immigration documents. In these, you have TWO levels of possible transcription error:

  • First, when the government official writes the information into the document
  • Then, when the website transcribes/indexes the document

For example, the Ellis Island immigration documentation for my grandfather lists his village of origin as ‘Dunendo’. One of my cousins put ‘Dunendo’ on his tree, and wrote to me asking where it was because he couldn’t find it on the map. The problem is, ‘Dunendo’ doesn’t exist; the name of the village is Duvredo. The transcriber misread the handwriting, and the mistake then became ‘fact’.

Census records are also notorious for incorrectly spelled names and incorrect ages. If you are depending upon these kinds of ‘official’ documents for information, use them with a pinch of salt, and NEVER assume transcriptions are accurate.

15.  Depending too much on ‘Nati in Trentino’ or other online databases.

In this digital era, we are used to ‘Googling’ everything. We want to do quick searches and find information right away. The problem is, to make things searchable, they must first be transcribed from other sources, and then filtered to respond to specific search parameters.

We’ve already looked at the problems transcriptions can bring with them. Fortunately, the database on the Nati in Trentino website (see my previous article ‘Searching Online for 19th & 20th Century Trentini Ancestors’ about this site) is very WELL transcribed, making it fairly reliable for 19th century searches. However, you still have the limitations of what it DOESN’T show because it’s not included in its search parameters. For example, you cannot see the names of grandparents or godparents. You cannot see if a priest has made a notation that the child died shortly after baptism. Many people use Nati in Trentino when they first get started researching their Trentini ancestors, but it is a mistake to rely upon it as your sole source of information, because it will likely create errors in your tree.

Errors are also likely to occur if you depend too much on the Family Search website. There, many Italian parish records have been transcribed by volunteers. These volunteers can only choose which parishes Family Search happens to be currently working on. Thus, it is highly likely the volunteers will be unfamiliar with the parishes whose records they are transcribing. There are many rules on how Family Search want the documents transcribed, which I found frustrating when I gave it a shot a few years ago. I stopped volunteering because I strongly felt these limitations create problems for the people using the database.

Closing Thoughts

The main difference between a good genealogist and a mediocre one is not how many mistakes they make, but how rigorously they stay on top of them. A good genealogist develops a research routine and standards that help ensure mistakes get FIXED quickly, and that all information can be verified by some form of documentation. To do this, you need to cultivate two essential habits:

  1. CONTINUOUSLY REVIEW YOUR WORK. No matter how long you have been doing genealogy, it’s unwise to take anything for granted. Your earlier work may contain errors you never noticed, or never addressed. Over the years, you may have inadvertently compounded these by assuming one thing to be true that wasn’t. Look for gaps, inconsistencies and conflicting information. Check, check and triple check. Next year, check it all again.
  • ALWAYS CITE YOUR SOURCES. Source citations are like genealogical ‘breadcrumbs’. They enable you to trace back to where you found information and verify whether your conclusions are true. They also give other people confidence that your information is correct. Lastly, they give clues that point you in the right direction to find records or other family members. Even if your only source is a specific titbit is family hearsay, a phone call or a personal letter, always cite who gave you the information, and how/when you received it.

In my next article, we’ll look specifically at citing sources – how to do it, why to do it, and how to use citations to back up HYPOTHESES you can formulate, even when the precise information may be missing. I hope you’ll subscribe to Trentino Genealogy to receive that and all upcoming articles. You can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing the site on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

I hope this article has given you some useful information that can help bring more accuracy into your work, and more confidence as a researcher. I would welcome any comments or questions on this, or any other topic to do with Trentino Genealogy. Please feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment in the box below, or drop me a line using the contact form on this site.

Until next time, enjoy the journey.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

P.S.: I am going back to Trento to do research in August 2017. If you would like me to try to look for something while I am there, please first read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. I look forward to hearing from you!

Subscribe to receive all upcoming articles from Trentino Genealogy! Desktop viewers can subscribe using the form at the right side at the top of your screen. If you are viewing on a mobile device and cannot see the form, you can subscribe by sending a blank email to trentinogenealogy@getresponse.net.

Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

View family tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/110809816/family

 


Lynn Serafinn
Lynn Serafinn

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author, online marketing consultant and genealogist specialising in the families of the Giudicarie, where her father was born. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

Through extensive research, she has already linked together thousands of Trentini in an extended family tree.  Her current research project is called ‘One Tree, One Family, One Humanity,’ the goal of which is create a genealogical ‘map’ of everyone either born in Bleggio, or whose ancestors came from there, from the 1400s to the current era, to serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

CLICK HERE to read about Lynn’s genealogical research project:
“One Tree. One Family. One Humanity”.

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES
currently being researched in the “One Tree” project.

Save

Save

Save

 

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Ancestry, family trees, research, translations, genealogy advice for those with ancestors from the province of Trento, Italy (formerly Tyrol, Austria)