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What Our Ancestors’ Deaths Can Teach Us About Their Lives

What Our Ancestors’ Deaths Can Teach Us About Their LivesLynn Serafinn explains the importance and challenges of including death information in your family tree, and discusses 10 causes of death in 19th century.

When I was a child, my Trentino-born father frequently used to say,

‘Never forget, Lynn: our ancestors were survivors. You come from a long line of survivors. We ARE survivors.’

He said this so often, and with such conviction that, now in my 60s, I can still hear his voice and see his face as he is saying it. The idea of our family surviving against all odds was a powerful, driving force for him – one that was fundamental to his identity. He saw his heritage as a part of the choreography of the ‘natural order’ of life, where only those who are strongest will survive and thrive. Certainly, his worldview played a role in shaping my own way of seeing the world – and myself – as I grew up.

While, I admit, there is something seductively romantic about the idea that I have inherited the strength of my ‘survivor’ ancestors, my work in genealogy has caused me to reformulate my ideas on what exactly ‘survival’ means.  We might imagine it means being able to withstand disease, overcome hardships, raise lots of children, and live to a ripe old age amongst our grandchildren or even great-grandchildren. But the reality of ‘survival’ of our Trentini ancestors often meant that they made it to adulthood at all. While it’s natural to imagine our great-great-great-grandparents as being wise, elderly people, the truth is, I am probably older right now than 95% of my ancestors were when they died. In fact, many of them died when they were younger than my 33-year-old daughter.

How does this information reshape the way we see our ancestors – and ourselves? Moreover, what else can death and dying tell us about who we are, as a people? Those are some of the questions I hope to address in this article, where we’ll be taking a short tour of DEATH as part of LIFE in Trentino in the past.

We’ll look at:

  • The importance of including death information in your family tree, and how it brings depth to our understanding.
  • The challenges of using death records for information, and how to glean information from other sources if death records are unavailable or incomplete.
  • Some common causes of death in 19th century parish records, and translations of some of the Italian terminology you might encounter.

The Importance of ‘Killing Off’ Your Ancestors

A couple of years ago, I was reading a book called Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records by Celia Heritage (http://amzn.to/2hb1HJm), when a particularly memorable quote leapt out from the page:

‘If you are serious about your family history, then ‘killing off’ your ancestors is mandatory.’

When we research our personal genealogy, it can be all too tempting (if not ‘addictive’) to go for quantity over quality. We love the feeling of discovering one more person to add to our tree. Perhaps we’ve finally found the marriage record revealing the name of our great-great-great-grandmother, or we’ve unexpectedly come face-to-face with our 12x great-grandfather in a 16th century land agreement. It’s exciting – even emotionally stirring – when we make such wonderful discoveries.

But Celia Heritage’s point is this: while birth and marriage information is certainly fundamental to our genealogical research, until we know something about our ancestors’ deaths, we cannot get a truly accurate picture of their lives. If we really want to know where we come from, it is crucial for us to get into the practice of ‘killing off’ our ancestors, by discovering as much as possible about when, where and (hopefully) how they died.

Learning about our ancestors’ deaths can often tell us more about them than anything else. After all, when we are born, we are simply a name and a hope for the future. But when we die, our lives have already happened. All that we have done and experienced precedes us. We have left an imprint upon our families and communities, and they upon us. We have formed relationships, and we have left people behind who are affected by our lives – and by our deaths.

I would also add that it is just as important to research the deaths of ALL the members of your ancestors’ families, not merely those of your direct ancestors. Every death – even that of a new-born infant – has a physical, emotional and sometimes financial impact on a family. A single death can be the trigger that causes people to marry, remarry or even move locations. I doubt, for example, my Serafini ancestors would have moved from the parish of Ragoli to Bleggio in 1658, had not the older brother of my 6x great-grandmother Pasqua died, leaving her the only child to inherit.

The Challenges of Researching Death Information

Many of us from America and Britain are accustomed to looking for death information amongst the civil records. But in Trentino, civil registration only began in 1820. Prior to that, the primary record-keepers were Catholic priests in the local parish churches.

As mentioned in a previous article on this site, while the keeping of parish records was first mandated by Catholic Church at the Council of Trento in 1563, it took a while for it to become regular practice throughout the Church. Moreover, the practice of recording deaths tended to show up significantly later than the keeping of records of births and marriages. In my father’s home parish, for example, birth and marriage records begin in 1565, but death records begin more than 80 years later, in 1638. Some Trentino parishes did not start keeping death records until the middle of the 18th century.

Even when death records are available for a specific parish, the system for recording information is often erratic, until the middle of the 19th century, when it becomes more codified. While some records will tell you the age of people when they died, and some details about their familial lineage (e.g. ‘Giovanni Malacarne, son of Antonio of Sesto’ or ‘Marianna, born Gusmerotti, widow of Valentino Martini’), others will simply list the name and date of death.

Moreover, before it became standard practice to include the deceased date of birth in the record, the cited age at the time of death is often just an estimate. Priests often rounded the number up or down to the nearest decade. Alternatively, a member of the family of the deceased may simply have guessed their loved one’s age when the priest asked them. When such vagaries arise in the absence of any other information, you might be able to go back to the birth or marriage records and confirm you’re matching the right record to the right person. But sometimes, you’re not so lucky, and the scanty and conflicting information on the death record will simply leave you scratching your head.

Gleaning Death Information from Baptismal and Marriage Records

If death records are missing altogether for the ancestor or period you are researching, there are other ways you can at least narrow down the range of dates before/ after/ between which your ancestors died. The best way to do this is to look for clues in baptismal and marriage records.

When a child is born, his parents (especially the father) are typically cited in the baptismal record by referring to the child as ‘Giovanni, son of Paolo’, or ‘Cattarina, daughter of Giuseppe and Maria’ or something along those lines. Thus, in many records prior to the mid-19th century, we will see at least the paternal grandfather’s name in addition to the father’s (and, hopefully, the mother’s). As we progress towards the second half of the 19th century, we will start to see not only both grandfathers, but both grandmothers as well. The same is true for marriage records.

To find clues about a person’s death, we reading any parish record, look carefully and take note of any of these notations before any of the parents’ names, as they are all indications that a person (or persons) is deceased:

  • qm or f.q.
  • gm or f.g.
  • fu
  • furono

The first two are Latin abbreviations. The first is shorthand for ‘figlio (or figlia) quondam’, which means son (or daughter) of the ‘once’ so-and-so (e.g. ‘Antonio, son of the once Giovanni who is no longer with us’). The second is shorthand for ‘figlio/figlia gigantum’, meaning ‘son/daughter of the deceased’ so-and-so. Occasionally you will also see words like obit or defuntus, but these are less common in birth records.

The last two are Italian, and appear more commonly from the 19th century onwards. Fu is the third-person, singular, past tense of the verb essere, which means ‘to be’. Thus, fu means ‘he/she was’ (in other words, this person’s ‘being’ is now in the past). Furono is from the same verb, but in plural form; in other words, it indicates the record referring to more than one deceased person. For example:

  • Giovanni di Antonio e fu Domenica, would mean Giovanni’s father Antonio was still alive, but his mother Domenica had passed away.
  • Giovanni di fu Antonio e Domenica (or ‘vivente Domenica’), would mean his father was deceased, but his mother was still alive.
  • Giovanni di furono Antonio e Domenica, would mean that both of Giovanni’s parents were deceased.

TIP: When reading baptismal and marriage records, don’t forget to check the godparents and witnesses, as these will also often have references to deceased fathers and husbands. If you look diligently enough, you will probably find some unexpected clues about an ancestor’s death date.

The Importance of Keeping Track of Estimated Deaths

I believe it’s important to keep a log of ANY clues you might discover for a person’s death, even if you don’t know precisely when it occurred. For example:

  • If I am looking at a marriage dated 5 May 1742, and the husband is cited as ‘Giovanni di fu Antonio’, I will go to the death date for Antonio, and enter the words ‘Before 5 May 1742’.
  • Then, in the description field or notes for his death (I use Family Tree Maker for this), I put something like: ‘Cited as deceased in the marriage record of his son Giovanni on 5 May 1742’.
  • Finally, I cite the SOURCE of the record. For example: ‘Santa Croce parish records, marriages. LDS film 1448051, part 9, page 108’. As I get many of my digital images directly from the Archdiocese of Trento, I also enter the number of the file in the Trento system.
  • Suppose, a few months later, I happen to stumble across a baptismal record dated 10 April 1737, where Antonio is cited as being the godfather of one of his neighbour’s children. This new information gives me a lower boundary for Antonio’s death (i.e., he had to have died after 10 April 1737). Now, I can go back to my record for him, and alter the estimated death date to ‘Between 10 April 1737 and 5 May 1742’, narrowing it to a 6-year window.

Keeping a careful log of all the clues you stumble upon in your research helps make finding death records easier later, and helps fill in the gaps if the original death records happen to be missing.

The Case of the Posthumous Father

Sometimes, a man will have died shortly before the birth of one of his children. In this case, his name is often prefixed by the word ‘posthumous’ rather than fu in his child’s baptismal record. Here is the birth record (7 May 1750) for my 4x great-grandfather, Giovanni Antonio Caresani, whose father Antonio Felice is cited as ‘posthumous’:

(Click the image to see it larger)

1750 baptismal record for Giovanni Antonio Caresani
1750 baptismal record for Giovanni Antonio Caresani, whose deceased father Antonio is referred to as ‘posthumous’. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Knowing Antonio had to have died no more than 9 months prior to the birth of his son Giovanni Antonio, I could now narrow down his date of death to somewhere between September 1749 and May 1750. This enabled me locate his death record within a few minutes when I was in Trento. The actual date was 21 Feb 1750:

(Click the image to see it larger)

1750 death record of Antonio Caresani of Madice
1750 death record of Antonio Caresani of Madice, who died at the age of 33. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Note the death record says Antonio Caresani died at the age of 30. In this case, I already had Antonio’s birth information, but if I hadn’t, this information could have helped me locate his baptismal record. As I mentioned earlier, however, the given age on death records is OFTEN imprecise. In this case, the priest is off by three years, as Antonio was actually 33 years old, not 30, when he passed away.

Sadly, as is often the case with pre-19th century records, the record provides us with no cause of death. We can only wonder why a young man in the prime of his life died, leaving behind a young wife and at least two living children, who would later become my direct ancestors.

Infant Mortality and Early Childhood Deaths

In an earlier article on this blog I wrote about using the Nati in Trentino website for genealogical research. That site contains a searchable database of Trentini births/baptismal by the Catholic church between the years of 1815 and 1923.

While it contains a wealth of information, Nati in Trentino has many significant limitations, as this next example will demonstrate. Here’s a snapshot of the birth dates as they appear on Nati in Trentino for the children of a man named Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, who goes by the name ‘Domenico’. For now, I only want to show you the left side of the screen (you’ll see why in a minute):

(Click the image to see it larger)

Births of the 10 children of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei
Births of the 10 children of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, between 1861 and 1875.

The first two children are via Domenico’s first wife, Angela, who died from tuberculosis in 1863, less than 3 months after the birth of her daughter, Ernesta. The other 8 children are via Domenico’s second wife, Filomena, whom you’ll meet in a minute.

Have a look at the twin girls Neonata1 and Neonata2 born in 1866, and the boy Neonato born in 1875. The terms neonato (for a boy) and neonata (for a girl) are NOT names; they simply mean ‘new-born’, and are used to indicate an unnamed, stillborn child, or one that died before it could be baptised (which was often on the same day). Another frequently appearing term in the parish records is innominato or innominata (‘unnamed male’ or ‘unnamed female’, respectively), which conveys the same meaning.

Based on Nati in Trentino’s information alone, we would be led to believe that three of Vincenzo’s 10 children died, and the other seven survived. But a direct examination of the baptismal records themselves will tell a different story altogether:

(Click the image to see it larger)

Family of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, including births and deaths of his children
Family of Vincenzo Domenico Maffei, including births and deaths of his children

Have a look at the right-hand column underneath the word ‘death’. I obtained the death dates for ALL these children (except Alfonso’s) from their baptismal records. Many 19th century priests (at least in Santa Croce) would make notations about a persons’ death – and sometimes marriage – into that person’s baptismal record, even if it occurred years after the fact. Although death dates rarely appear in baptismal records before the 19th century, priests will often infer that a child died young, by putting a cross (+) next to the infant’s name in the record. While inconsistently used, you can find evidence of this practice even in very early records.

Shockingly, the notations in the baptismal records reveal that all but one of Domenico’s 10 children died under the age of 4. One little boy, Maradio born in 1867, managed to be baptised, but died later the same day. The only child to survive to adulthood is Alfonso, born 1870 – who ended up becoming the great-grandfather of one of my 9th cousins, who lives in the US.

The REAL story of this family is:

  • Within a span of 14 years, Domenico saw the death of NINE children and a wife.
  • Within the span of a decade Filomena gave birth to 8 children, only one of whom outlived her.
  • Alfonso lost his father Domenico when he is 15 years old, leaving him to care for his widowed mother.

It simply boggles the mind, and changes our perspective of this family completely.

10 Causes of Death in 19th Century Italian Parish Records

Bearing in mind that it was not the standard practice to cite the cause of death until printed columns were introduced into the parish records around 1815, I’d like to round off this article by sharing some of the terminology you might see cited as ’cause of death’ in the mid-to-late 19th century.

I have two reasons for including this topic in this article:

  1. A few of my readers ASKED me to do it. 😉
  2. I believe seeing all these maladies lined up one after the other can really make the weight of our ancestors’ lives sink in. In fact, it kind of hits you like a brick.

It would be impossible to talk about all the possible causes of death in a single blog article. Really, it would take a book (and a LOT of research). So for now, I’m going to limit my discussion to 10 terms that might be more cryptic or less familiar to English speakers in the 21st century. The reason why they may be less familiar is partially because some of these diseases are not as common today as they were in the past, and partially because the terms themselves have changed over the past two centuries.

I’ve broken these 10 common causes into two categories: those that mostly affect infants and young children, and those that mostly affect adults, including the elderly.

I’ll warn you in advance, you may feel like crying.

Infants and Young Children

Tosse, pertosse, canine pertosse

These are all Italian terms for ‘pertussis’, more commonly known today as whooping cough. Whooping cough is a highly contagious, airborne, bacterial disease causing violent coughing fits, often leading to fatal complications. New-borns and babies under the age of one year are most at risk. Although doctors today use vaccines and antibiotics to prevent/treat the disease, it still claims the lives of many infants every year, even in ‘developed’ countries.

In one record, I also saw the term catarro soffocato. As ‘catarrh’ (catarro) refers to thick phlegm in the respiratory tract, this term means the baby suffocated on his/her own phlegm. My guess is that this might also indicate the child had whooping cough.

Grippe

This is the old Italian term for influenza or flu. The same term was used in English in the past, and the word grippe still means influenza in modern French. Historically, flu epidemics have claimed the lives of millions of people over the centuries, as the virus continually mutates as humans adapt to it. While adults often succumb to more virulent forms of influenza, babies and infants are often cited to have died from the more common winter strain of it throughout the 19th century.

For further reading, an interesting book on the so-called ‘Spanish Influenza’ of 1918 is Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata (http://amzn.to/2haAUge). While not about Trentino, it gives terrific insight into the nature of epidemic diseases, and the challenges of protecting ourselves from them.

Disenteria

The literal translation is ‘dysentery’, which, technically, refers to an aggressive attack of parasites in the digestive track. Dysentery can cause high fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. In the case of infants (especially those still being breast-fed), I feel the term disenteria may more likely indicate they were suffering from chronic diarrhoea rather than actual parasites, eventually dying from dehydration.

Today, few of us think of diarrhoea as a lethal threat, but back then many babies and children died from it, all over the world.

Vermazione

Worms! I had never heard this term before working with the Trentini death records, but apparently, the term ‘vermination’ was also used in 19th century English medical texts. Vermination is any kind of worm infestation in the intestinal tract. In babies, vermination can also cause painful convulsions.

Believe it or not, I found a book from 1836 on Google Books with the somewhat catchy title of Medical commentaries on puerperal fever, vermination, and water in the head by a medical doctor named John Alexander. Dr. Alexander confesses that (at least at that time) doctors simply didn’t KNOW what causes babies to get worms.

Incompleto sviluppo

Literally ‘incomplete development’, this refers to a premature baby. Back then, if a baby was born prematurely, there was little hope for survival. We I first started working with death records, I was shocked to see how many infant deaths in the 19th century were actually due to premature births. My only guess for these high numbers is that perhaps a great many pregnancies failed to go full-term due to poor nutrition and lack of pre-natal care.

Adults and Elderly

Pellagra

Called the same in English, pellagra is an insidious lethal disease caused by a chronic deficiency of niacin (vitamin B6) in the diet. It is most commonly seen in populations where their diet consists mainly of corn (as in polenta), with few other sources of nutrition. This is because corn that has not been cured with lime can leech niacin from the body, unless there is ample supply of the nutrient from other food sources. During the 19th century, when many contadini in Trentino suffered economic hardship, diversity of diet was difficult. Although often fatal, pellagra is easily curable in all but the most advanced cases through dietary and nutritional changes. But unfortunately for many of our ancestors, niacin and its role in the disease was not discovered until the 1930s.

If you are interested in reading more about pellagra, I highly recommend the book A Plague Of Corn: A Social History Of Pellagra by Daphne Roe (http://amzn.to/2hk0HW9). Extremely well-written and insightful, she also includes one chapter where she talks about how the ‘polenta eaters’ in places like Trentino were impacted by this horrible disease.

Tisi, tisi polmonare; consunzione polmonare

These are all terms for pulmonary tuberculosis, commonly called ‘consumption’ in the 19th century. Tuberculosis was so endemic in Europe in the 19th century (and even to the early decades of the 20th century), that it forms the backdrop for many novels, plays and operas of those times. Attacking the lungs, it frequently struck down young adults in the prime of their lives. Some pages in the death records will have many tisi deaths, one after the other, all people in their 20s and 30s.

Tifo (tiffo)

Typhus, a bacterial disease often equated with wartime, it can be transmitted by lice, ticks, mites or fleas when people live in cramped quarters, and have insufficient hygienic facilities. Once it takes hold in a community, it can spread virulently. Thus, if you see one case of tifo, you’re bound to see many others within a short time span.

Apoplessia

The literal translation is ‘apoplexy’, an English which today refers to a stroke. However, in the past, the word apoplexy was used to refer to any kind of sudden death (often preceded by unconsciousness), including stroke, heart attack and aneurysms.

Marasma

Literally ‘decay’, this term was used to refer to dying of ‘old age’ rather than any specified disease or condition. You will only see it used with people of advanced age (usually 70 or older), and refers to the decline in bodily functions, muscle mass, bones, etc.  Occasionally, you will see the term marasma senile, which is used where there is extreme wasting/weight-loss. Most of the sources I have read do not necessarily tie it to the word ‘senility’ or dementia, but it is possible these ailments would also fall under this ‘catch-all’ term.

Closing Thoughts

There is so much more we could discuss when it comes to talking about how our ancestors died. We could talk about ‘La Peste’ of 1630, which wiped entire villages off the map. We could talk about the world-wide cholera epidemic of 1855, which took its toll on Trentino. We could talk about the thousands of men and women who died between 1914 and 1918, during the First World War. Throughout history, the Trentini people have experienced it all – famines and floods, plagues and epidemics, war and economic hardships.

And while these things certainly took their toll on individuals and families, we – as a people – have survived. We identify with our culture; we recognise it as fundamental to who we are. Even those of us who are the children (or grandchildren) of those who emigrated to other lands, are still Trentini.

As my father said:

‘We are survivors.’

I hope this article has inspired you to become as curious about learning about your ancestors’ deaths, as you are about their births, marriages, and other life events. I also hope it has given you some useful tips and information to help you in your research. 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 January 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!

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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.

Guide to Genealogical Research at the Archdiocese of Trento

Guide to Genealogical Research at the Archdiocese of Trento
Image: Title page of 17th-century baptismal record book from the parish of Drò (Trentino, Italy) drawn by the parish priest, Francesco Giuliani.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn tells what you can find at the Church Archives in Trento, Italy, and shares crucial tips for how to prepare BEFORE you make the trip.

For me, one of the most beautiful places on early is the city of Trento, a hidden gem in the Dolomites (part of the Alps) in northern Italy. Apart from Rome, the city of Trento is arguably the most important place in the history of Christianity, especially as the venue of the Concilio di Trento aka Concilio Tridentino (Council of Trent) in the mid-1500s.

But Trento is also a vital place for modern historians, as it is home to a wealth of archival repositories, including the State Archives, the Archives at the Castello di Buonconsiglio, and the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Trento. It is the last of these – the diocesan archives – that we’ll be looking at today.

In this article, we’ll be looking at what you can find in these archives, how to communicate before you make the trip, and how to prepare for your research so you can make the most of your time there. If you are fairly new to Trentino family history research, you might wish to read these previously published articles before reading this one:

SIDE NOTE: ‘Trento’ is sometimes referred to as ‘Tridentino’, and things to do with Trento are sometimes called ‘Tridentine’. In English, you will frequently see it written simply as ‘Trent’, undoubtedly due to the influence of Austria and the Germanic influence of the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled the area for many centuries.

Genealogical Resources at the Archives

The Tridentine Diocesan Archives preserves, stores and makes available to the public many original historical writings of the bishops of Trento and many other individuals and institutions. But what is of most interest to genealogists is that they have an excellent on-site facility for viewing digitised images of all the baptisms, marriages and deaths of ALL the parishes within the Diocese of Trento, starting from the mid-16th century (when parish records began) until 31 December 1923. These digital images are NOT available online or at any other facility in the world.

In the parish record room, there are five viewing stations, with each high-resolution computer screen measuring 70 cm x 40 cm (27.5 inches wide x 15.75 inches high), which is just about as large as you could ask for in a personal workstation. You have instant access to ALL the parishes of Trentino at your fingertips. Each parish is in its own folder, and then further divided into births, marriages and deaths. You’d have to pay a small fortune to have the microfilms of all of these parishes sent to your local Family History Centre.

While the images themselves are identical to the ones you will find on the LDS microfilms, the fact that they are in digital format makes research a radically different experience. For one thing, the viewing facilities at the archives are state of the art, with extra-large computer monitor screens. This gives you many advantages over microfilm viewing:

  • Computer displays are much brighter and crisper than most microfilm readers.
  • You can quickly zoom in and out to enlarge the images.
  • You can simply ‘click’ to the image you want, without the need to scroll through a whole film.
  • As each image has a unique file number, you can quickly find it again later.
  • You can have several windows open at one time, making it easier to compare records, or work on baptisms, marriages and/or deaths, or even different parishes at the same time.

However, to be able to reap the full benefits of these features, it is important to know the ‘house rules’ at the Archives, as well as how to prepare before you make the trip.

House Rules When Working at the Archives

When working at the archdiocese, there are two crucial ‘house rules’ you will need to know and adhere to:

  • You cannot download the digital files yourself.
  • You cannot take photos of the images off the screen using your phone or camera.

However, for a very reasonable fee (30 cents per image, when I was last there), you can ask the VERY helpful archivists who work there to download specific files onto your USB memory stick for you, OR even upload them to your DropBox folder. When you enter the research room, you will find a tray with forms where you can make a list of all the files you’d like to order. Here’s a scan of one of the many dozens of forms I filled in when I was there earlier this year (please excuse my horribly messy handwriting!). To see it larger, just click on the image and it will open in a new window:

Example of order form for digital filesIf you look at the penultimate column on the right of the form, there is a space to write the file number you require. To ensure the archivists get the correct file for you, you will need to enter the parish, the type of record (baptism, marriage or death), the name of the person whose record you’re particularly interested in, the date of that specific record and the file number. Some archivists will give you the entire page, while others will crop the image and give you only the record you list, so be sure to be very clear when filling in the information.

IMPORTANT TIP for Americans: For dates, Europeans put the DAY first, and the MONTH second. In other words:

12.04.1604 = April 12th 1604

(NOT December 4th)

Contact the Archives BEFORE You Book Your Trip

I highly recommend that you contact the archivists BEFORE you book your trip, and make sure:

  • That they will be open the week/days you want to come. The centre is always closed for a couple of weeks in August, and also on national holidays. They might also occasionally need to close if some construction or a conference is taking place.
  • That they can reserve a work station for you on the days you intend to be there.
  • That someone who speaks English will be on site that day, if you do not speak Italian.

The best way to communicate is via email at archivio@diocesitn.it. You can write in English if you need to, but if you can write in Italian (or find someone to write it for you), that would be best. The official website for Archives of the Archdiocese of Trento can be found by clicking here.

Staff at the Archives of the Archdiocese of Trento, Italy
At the Archives of the Archdiocese of Trento. Left to right: Dr. Katia Pizzini (Assistant Director), Lynn Serafinn (genealogist), Dr. Claudio Andreolli (archivist), Dr. Renato Giacomelli (archivist).

ALWAYS Confirm the Opening Hours

So you can plan your research, it’s a good idea to confirm their opening hours before you go, so you don’t end up disappointed. The ‘official’ hours of the centre are:

  • Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: 9 am – 12 pm, and 2 pm – 5 pm (closed between 12 pm and 2 pm)
  • Thursday: 9 am – 5 pm (no closure for lunch, as on the other days)
  • Friday: 9 am – 12 pm only (closed in the afternoon)

Although these are the ‘official’ hours, I still recommend you confirm them before your trip, as sometimes the centre needs to close early, and sometimes you might even get a ‘surprise’ bonus day where they are unexpectedly open when they would otherwise have been closed.

Preparing for Research

Going to Trento can be a major trip for many researchers, especially if they are coming from a great distance. Thus, it is crucial that you make a detailed plan for what you want to achieve while you are there. Otherwise, you are likely to drift around the records (much as people surf the Internet) and go home without much to show for the time you’ve spent there.

STEP 1: Calculate your time

The first thing you should do before you create your plan is to take a look at how many HOURS you will be spending at the Archives. There is a huge difference between what you can accomplish in a single day versus a couple of weeks. Assuming the Archives will be operating according to normal opening hours, you can calculate the maximum number of hours you will have for research:

  • 6 hours a day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays
  • 8 hours on Thursdays
  • 3 hours on Fridays

Thus, you will have a maximum of 29 hours for research per week (especially if you’re neurotic like me, and your backside stays glued to the chair for the entire day once you’ve sat down).

STEP 2: Make a detailed research plan

The next thing to do is to create a research plan that will keep you on track during your time at the Archives. Before I go on any trip to Trento, I might spend a full week – or even longer – working on my research plan. That might sound like a LOT of time to invest in planning, but doing so has enabled me to make the most of every moment I was there. Here’s the method I use and recommend:

  1. IDENTIFY MISSING DATA: First, I systematically go through all the branches of the tree I am working on, and write down EVERY piece of vital information that is still missing (e.g. unknown marriage dates, incomplete names, etc.). One way to see this clearly is to generate a ‘pedigree chart’ using a genealogy programme like Family Tree Maker. That way, I can quickly see which ancestors are missing or incomplete.
  2. CREATE GROUPS: I then take this list and group all the missing/incomplete people according to parish, then their frazioni (villages) within the parish and then into surnames. The main reason I break them into frazioni is that some parish priest would group the records according to frazione, rather than mix them altogether in chronological order. You may or may not need to be as detailed, if your particular parish does not categorise its records according to frazione.
  3. MAKE A REVERSE CHRONOLOGY: I then organise each group in reverse chronological order, so I can weave my way backwards when I do my research. There is little point in starting from the earliest records until I know how they connect with later generations.
  4. CREATE ‘BATCHES’: The next step is to take these groups, and bundle them into ‘batches’ of about 10 to 15 records etc. Each batch should have something in common. For example, they could be baptismal records of people who all have the same surname or live in the same frazione between a specific set of years (one or two generations). Or, I might chunk together all the marriages within a certain span of years. The reason I suggest 10 to 15 records in each batch is that this is the number you might expect to work through on a half-day session (3 to 4 hours).
  5. ORGANISE YOUR BATCHES IN ORDER OF PRIORITY: Once I’ve made my batches, I then sequence them in order of priority. Of all this information, what are the things I most want to find out on this research trip? Which things would be the most difficult to find at home, if I don’t try to find them in Trento? Which things could I leave to the end of my trip, and look for them only if I end up having extra time?
  6. ASSIGN RESEARCH SESSIONS TO EACH BATCH: Finally, I made a day-by-day plan by assigning each batch to a specific morning/afternoon session on a specific day on the trip. This enables me to pace myself each day, and shift gears if I feel like I’m getting nowhere.
  7. TWEAK AND REFINE: I look through my plan, and tweak it to ensure I have some ‘buffer’ time. Is there some area where I am being overly ambitious and trying to cram too much into one session? How can I lighten the load, in case some things take longer than others to find?
  8. PAGINATE, PRINT AND KEEP IT SAFE: When I am satisfied my plan is doable, I put the plan for each date onto a SEPARATE page in Word. In other words, 10 days of research means I have a 10-page plan. Then, I print it out, staple it together, put it in a plastic sleeve and then store it in a document wallet where I will keep all my notes for the trip. You might prefer not to print your plan, but I find it easier to have it sitting next to me on my workstation. That way I can keep my tablet available with my family tree software open, and not need to switch back and forth between screens.

Here’s an image of my plan for one of my own research days. You can click the image to see it larger:

Sample page of genealogy research plan by Lynn SerafinnIf you prefer, you can download a Word docx of this sample page by clicking here.

Getting Oriented on Day 1

Before you start working through your plan, I strongly recommend that you spend the first session (or perhaps the entire first day) creating a ‘map’ for yourself, showing where different records are located within the parish you are researching. Once you create this map, you won’t need to do it again, unless you start working with records from a different parish.

What I mean by ‘map’ is a spreadsheet (or whatever system you prefer) where you list the range of file numbers that contain specific information. For example, as I said earlier, some parish records are organised according to frazioni. Thus, you might see records for a span of years ALL from a single frazione, and then all of a sudden the records leap back in time to the starting point, showing all the records for that time period for a different frazione. Sometimes (if you’re lucky) the priests will have put indices at the beginning of each book saying where these divisions occur, but this isn’t particularly useful if you’re searching for the records via file number. Thus, I might sit for a morning and go through, say, all the records for the 1600s, and write down the numbers of the first and last file within each sequence.

Here’s an example for how I mapped one frazione called ‘Larido’ in the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (I did the same for all the frazioni in the parish). Note that there was one file (01111) that contained two out-of-sequence entries for the year 1612, so I made a special note about this in the right-hand column:

Example of how to create a map your genealogy recordsClick on the image to see it larger.

How is this map useful to me? Well, let’s say that later in the week I am trying to find the birth record for a person born around 1660 in the village of Larido. From my map I can see that the records for 1646 – 1686 are spread across 21 files (01516 – 01536). Knowing that, I can probably guess that the file I’m looking for is probably just a bit before the mid-point of this span, say file 01522. I can go directly to that file, and probably locate the document I am looking for in 5 minutes or less. Without such a map, I’d be likely to spend hours – maybe all afternoon – trying to find it.

Having a map like this also enables you to decide quickly whether a particular file is missing or (more likely) that the person was actually from a different frazione. Remember, when it comes to research, NOT finding a file is often just as informative as finding it.

Working with Your Plan

Once you create your map, you should work methodically through your plan, trying to stick to it as best you can. If you get ‘stuck’ trying to find a particular record, or you think you are spending too long on one thing, make some notes about what you already tried, and then move on to the next item in your plan. Maintaining some sort of momentum can help keep you from becoming bogged down and discouraged.

When I go to Trento (or anywhere else), I like to use Family Tree Maker to enter all the new data I find, making sure to include the number of the file where I found the information. Rather than try to transcribe records while I’m researching, I use the order form to request the digital file of the records I want, so I can study them in greater detail later, when I am not under a time limitation.

At the end of my research day, whenever I close Family Tree Maker, I created a ‘change log’ (which you can generate via the ‘sync’ button) and save it as a PDF file, so I can see exactly what I added, deleted or changed throughout the day. Only later do I sync the data to the online version of the tree, if I have one.

To prevent myself from getting side-tracked, if I happen to stumble upon some interesting discoveries that are NOT included in my plan, I write down the file number, and order the digital file from the Archives, so I can look at it in more detail when I get home. This method is especially useful if I happen to find records on someone whose connection to my tree is not immediately apparent, but whom I suspect could turn out to be relevant later.

Setting Goals and Expectations

Something you are probably asking yourself is how you should set your own research goals. How many records can you expect to find every day? Your individual research expectations will depend on four things:

  1. Your preparation, i. e. whether or not you’ve made a plan
  2. Your orientation, i.e. whether or not you’ve made a ‘map’
  3. Your experience, i.e. how much time you have previously spent working with parish records using LDS microfilms at your local Family History Centre
  4. Your familiarity with the parish, i.e. how well you know the frazioni, the local surnames, common sopranomi of certain families, etc.

If you can give yourself high marks on all three of these things, you can comfortably expect to find at least four records per hour. I have often located more than 10 records within a single hour, because I knew exactly what I was looking for, and exactly where to find them.

If you have had NO experience with the microfilms at all and/or you know next to nothing about your family or their parish, it does not mean you should not make the trip to the Archives. However, in this case, I suggest writing to them in advance asking whether someone who speaks English there can help you with your research. Try to bring as much concrete information about your ancestors as you can, such as birth names, birth/marriage years, parish, etc.

OF COURSE, I am also available for hire as a genealogist, specialising in the family history of Trentino. I could mentor you through your research OR you could hire me to do the research for you. As an experienced author, I can also help construct your family history in writing. If you would like to discuss how we might work together, I invite you to write to me via the contact from on this website, and request a (free) 30-minute Skype chat, so we can get to know each other.

The Really Important Work Starts AFTER Your Trip

One thing that can REALLY slow you down in your research is if you try to process all the information mentally while you are in the ‘discovery’ phase. Thus, my best advice to you would be to use your trip simply to FIND the files you need, and not to analyse them or transcribe them (unless you want to do that in the evening). Be sure you keep a good record of what you managed to find, and what you TRIED to find but could not.

Then, assuming that you’ve obtained all the digital files you discovered, when you return home you can sit and spend as much time as you want studying, translating and ‘connecting the dots’ with your discoveries. Remember, hidden within a baptismal record for one of your ancestors could be the names of that child’s grandparents. Or, you might discover that a child’s godfather/godmother, or the witnesses at your ancestors’ wedding are yet OTHER ancestors of yours. You might see clues indicating they originally came from another parish. You might see hand-written notes indicating death dates, marriage dates, occupations or many other gems. There is no way to take it all in when you are on the hunt for the records themselves; what’s more, you shouldn’t try to.

I am STILL working methodically through the 300+ pages of records I located and retrieved during my 5 weeks in Trento earlier this year. I have a special spreadsheet where I write down the number of each file, which village(s) it covers, the earliest and latest date in the file, and how many records it contains. I also make notes if there were some records I couldn’t read or understand in the file. This way, I always know which files I have already analysed, sparing me from accidentally repeating work I have already done. It also helps me identify which files I might still need to locate at a later date.

Using this method, my primary tree has blossomed from about 1,000 people in December 2015 to (as of this writing) over 8,700 people, supported by nearly 1,500 digital images (old photos, civil documents, census records, parish records, and my transcriptions of the same).

Don’t Fear the Learning Curve

I am sure some of you are feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point. I’d like to quell your feelings by telling you about the very first time I went to the Trento Archives. Back then, I couldn’t yet speak Italian, and I had a very sparse tree through the 19th century with no actual images of the records. Bringing my Italian friend Vanessa with me as a translator, I went to see an archivist there named Claudio Andreolli (who speaks almost no English). Claudio knew I was coming, and I had given him all the information I had gathered so far. When I arrived, I was thrilled to discover that he had ALREADY traced my father’s Serafini line back to the late 1500s! While this was just the male line – about seven generations of Serafini grandfathers, with the names of some of their wives – this really kick-started my research, and everything I have done since blossomed from that point. Over the next year, I actually found a couple of errors in Claudio’s original research, which I corrected. However, when I did that, I discovered that Claudio himself was actually my 4th cousin. What an exciting discovery!

I tell this story for two reasons. First, please remember that EVERYONE starts out as a beginner in genealogy. Second, don’t worry about MAKING MISTAKES. Every single researcher, no matter how learned or experienced, will make mistakes. The important thing is to check, double-check, and triple-check your work over time, as you gain experience and expertise. Sometimes the answers to things you didn’t know or corrections to mistakes you made in the past just sort of POP out at you, and you can’t figure out why you hadn’t seen them before.

Stay Connected

Coming soon on the Trentino Genealogy blog, we’ll be looking at:

  • Reading and interpreting parish records from Trentino
  • Notaries and noble families
  • Using church parchments to understand more about your ancestors’ daily lives

I hope you’ll subscribe to this blog so you can follow along on this genealogical journey, and read all future articles on this site. 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.

I’ve also recently set up a ‘Trentino Genealogy’ Facebook Group, open to ANYONE interested in discussing genealogy, and meeting others who are researching their family history. Who knows? You might meet a long-lost cousin there!

I also invite you to visit my own extended family tree, with currently over 8,700 people (that’s 1,600 more than last month), mostly from the Giudicarie valley. You can see that tree on Ancestry at http://trees.ancestry.co.uk/tree/71279369/family. You will need to sign into your Ancestry account to see it. If you do not have an account, you can create one for free (you only need to pay if you want to access their search records).

Lastly, if you have any questions or comments about this article, or if you’d like to talk to me about researching your family history, please feel free to drop me a line via the contact form on this site, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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

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

View family tree on Ancestry: http://trees.ancestry.co.uk/tree/71279369/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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